Report: Low-income households are low priority in US budget

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By Brad Dixon
6 February 2016

According to a January 27 report by the Center on Budget Policy Priorities (CBPP), the 2016 appropriations legislation enacted by Congress in December includes funding increases for non-defense programs, but the increases for social programs that benefit low or moderate income households are substantially smaller than in other areas.

Eleven subcommittees are in charge of allocating funding to non-defense programs. Two subcommittees handle the appropriations: (1) the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services (HHS), and Education; and (2) the Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

These two subcommittees handle more than 80 percent of the appropriations for programs that benefit low-income groups, but saw a mere 3.6 percent growth in funding, less than seven of the other subcommittees.

By contrast, the nine other subcommittees saw increases averaging 6.9 percent.

As a result, social programs benefiting low-income households continue to lack adequate funding in the midst of growing economic inequality, high rates of unemployment and stagnant or declining wages.

For example, due to cuts to HUD funding, only about 25 percent of eligible families receive low-income rental assistance. As a result of the sequestration budgetary measures implemented in 2011, state and local housing agencies cut the number of families receiving housing vouchers by about 100,000. While roughly a third of these were restored between 2014 and 2015, the final appropriations package only managed to restore a further 8,000 vouchers (earmarked for homeless veterans).

And while the president requested $295 million to fund 25,000 new housing units for people with disabilities, the final bill only included $38 million aimed at reducing youth homelessness.

The low levels of funding appropriated to the Departments of Labor, Education and HHS means that funding for education for disadvantaged students was increased by only 3.1 percent (leaving the program at 10 percent below its funding level in 2010), while grants for job training grew by a mere 3.3 percent (18 percent below the 2010 figure).

Dramatic budget cuts were imposed by the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011, which has governed appropriations for the past five years and placed caps on funding through 2021. It also imposed a “sequestration” mechanism that substantially lowered caps in the event that legislators failed to agree on deficit-reduction measures.

The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015, enacted by Congress in December, raised the appropriation caps set by the BCA for 2016 and 2017. The 2015 Act also increased appropriations for Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO), which is used to pay for the wars and occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan and is funded outside of the BCA caps.

The structure and priorities of the latest budget reflect the irrationality of the capitalist system. While social infrastructure crumbles in the US—seen most vividly in the widespread lead toxicity in the drinking water of Flint and other American cities—and vast sections of the population face poverty, homelessness and unemployment, the ruling class spends astounding sums on weapons and other means of destruction to support its endless wars abroad, maintain the unchallenged superiority of its armed forces, and conduct military provocations that threaten the outbreak of nuclear war.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/02/06/budg-f06.html

American capitalism has failed us

We’re overworked, underemployed and more powerless than ever before

Denmark, Norway and Sweden are all thriving under democratic socialism. Why is it so difficult for us to embrace?

American capitalism has failed us: We're overworked, underemployed and more powerless than ever before
(Credit: Kim Seidl via Shutterstock/samdiesel via iStock/Salon)

[This is a joint TomDispatch/Nation article and appears in print in slightly shortened form in the new issue of the Nation magazine.]

Some years ago, I faced up to the futility of reporting true things about America’s disastrous wars and so I left Afghanistan for another remote mountainous country far away. It was the polar opposite of Afghanistan: a peaceful, prosperous land where nearly everybody seemed to enjoy a good life, on the job and in the family.

It’s true that they didn’t work much, not by American standards anyway. In the U.S., full-time salaried workers supposedly laboring 40 hours a week actually average 49, with almost 20% clocking more than 60. These people, on the other hand, workedonly about 37 hours a week, when they weren’t away on long paid vacations. At the end of the work day, about four in the afternoon (perhaps three in the summer), they had time to enjoy a hike in the forest or a swim with the kids or a beer with friends — which helps explain why, unlike so many Americans, they are pleased with their jobs.

Often I was invited to go along. I found it refreshing to hike and ski in a country with no land mines, and to hang out in cafés unlikely to be bombed. Gradually, I lost my warzone jitters and settled into the slow, calm, pleasantly uneventful stream of life there.

Four years on, thinking I should settle down, I returned to the United States. It felt quite a lot like stepping back into that other violent, impoverished world, where anxiety runs high and people are quarrelsome. I had, in fact, come back to the flip side of Afghanistan and Iraq: to what America’s wars have done to America. Where I live now, in the Homeland, there are not enough shelters for the homeless. Most people are either overworked or hurting for jobs; housing is overpriced; hospitals, crowded and understaffed; schools, largely segregated and not so good. Opioid or heroin overdose is a popular form of death; and men in the street threaten women wearing hijab. Did the American soldiers I covered in Afghanistan know they were fighting for this?

Ducking the Subject

One night I tuned in to the Democrats’ presidential debate to see if they had any plans to restore the America I used to know. To my amazement, I heard the name of my peaceful mountain hideaway: Norway. Bernie Sanders was denouncing America’s crooked version of “casino capitalism” that floats the already rich ever higher and flushes the working class. He said that we ought to “look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway, and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people.”

He believes, he added, in “a society where all people do well. Not just a handful of billionaires.” That certainly sounds like Norway. For ages they’ve worked at producing things for the use of everyone — not the profit of a few — so I was all ears, waiting for Sanders to spell it out for Americans.

But Hillary Clinton quickly countered, “We are not Denmark.” Smiling, she said, “I love Denmark,” and then delivered a patriotic punch line: “We are the United States of America.” Well, there’s no denying that. She praised capitalism and “all the small businesses that were started because we have the opportunity and the freedom in our country for people to do that and to make a good living for themselves and their families.” She didn’t seem to know that Danes, Swedes, and Norwegians do that, too, and with much higher rates of success.

The truth is that almost a quarter of American startups are not founded on brilliant new ideas, but on the desperation of men or women who can’t get a decent job. The majority of all American enterprises are solo ventures having zero payrolls, employing no one but the entrepreneur, and often quickly wasting away. Sanders said that he was all for small business, too, but that meant nothing “if all of the new income and wealth is going to the top 1 percent.” (As George Carlin said, “The reason they call it the American Dream is because you have to be asleep to believe it.”)

In that debate, no more was heard of Denmark, Sweden, or Norway. The audience was left in the dark. Later, in a speech at Georgetown University, Sanders tried to clarify his identity as a Democratic socialist. He said he’s not the kind of Socialist (with a capital S) who favors state ownership of anything like the means of production. The Norwegian government, on the other hand, owns the means of producing lots of public assets and is the major stockholder in many a vital private enterprise.

I was dumbfounded. Norway, Denmark, and Sweden practice variations of a system that works much better than ours, yet even the Democratic presidential candidates, who say they love or want to learn from those countries, don’t seem to know how they actually work.

Why We’re Not Denmark

Proof that they do work is delivered every year in data-rich evaluations by the U.N. and other international bodies. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s annual report on international well-being, for example, measures 11 factors, ranging from material conditions like affordable housing and employment to quality of life matters like education, health, life expectancy, voter participation, and overall citizen satisfaction. Year after year, all the Nordic countries cluster at the top, while the United States lags far behind. In addition, Norway ranked first on the U.N. Development Program’s Human Development Index for 12 of the last 15 years, and it consistently tops international comparisons of such matters as democracy, civil and political rights, and freedom of expression and the press.

What is it, though, that makes the Scandinavians so different?  Since the Democrats can’t tell you and the Republicans wouldn’t want you to know, let me offer you a quick introduction. What Scandinavians call the Nordic Model is a smart and simple system that starts with a deep commitment to equality and democracy. That’s two concepts combined in a single goal because, as far as they are concerned, you can’t have one without the other.

Right there they part company with capitalist America, now the most unequal of all the developed nations, and consequently a democracy no more. Political scientists say it has become an oligarchy — a country run at the expense of its citizenry by and for the super rich. Perhaps you noticed that.

In the last century, Scandinavians, aiming for their egalitarian goal, refused to settle solely for any of the ideologies competing for power — not capitalism or fascism, not Marxist socialism or communism. Geographically stuck between powerful nations waging hot and cold wars for such doctrines, Scandinavians set out to find a path in between. That path was contested — by socialist-inspired workers on the one hand and capitalist owners and their elite cronies on the other — but it led in the end to a mixed economy. Thanks largely to the solidarity and savvy of organized labor and the political parties it backed, the long struggle produced a system that makes capitalism more or less cooperative, and then redistributes equitably the wealth it helps to produce. Struggles like this took place around the world in the twentieth century, but the Scandinavians alone managed to combine the best ideas of both camps, while chucking out the worst.

In 1936, the popular U.S. journalist Marquis Childs first described the result to Americans in the book Sweden: The Middle Way. Since then, all the Scandinavian countries and their Nordic neighbors Finland and Iceland have been improving upon that hybrid system. Today in Norway, negotiations between the Confederation of Trade Unions and the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise determine the wages and working conditions of most capitalist enterprises, public and private, that create wealth, while high but fair progressive income taxes fund the state’s universal welfare system, benefitting everyone. In addition, those confederations work together to minimize the disparity between high-wage and lower-wage jobs. As a result, Norway ranks with Sweden, Denmark, and Finland among the most income-equal countries in the world, and its standard of living tops the charts.

So here’s the big difference: in Norway, capitalism serves the people. The government, elected by the people, sees to that. All eight of the parties that won parliamentary seats in the last national election, including the conservative Høyre party now leading the government, are committed to maintaining the welfare state. In the U.S., however, neoliberal politics put the foxes in charge of the henhouse, and capitalists have used the wealth generated by their enterprises (as well as financial and political manipulations) to capture the state and pluck the chickens. They’ve done a masterful job of chewing up organized labor. Today, only 11% of American workers belong to a union. In Norway, that number is 52%; in Denmark, 67%; in Sweden, 70%.

In the U.S., oligarchs maximize their wealth and keep it, using the “democratically elected” government to shape policies and laws favorable to the interests of their foxy class. They bamboozle the people by insisting, as Hillary Clinton did at that debate, that all of us have the “freedom” to create a business in the “free” marketplace, which implies that being hard up is our own fault.

In the Nordic countries, on the other hand, democratically elected governments give their populations freedom from the market by using capitalism as a tool to benefit everyone. That liberates their people from the tyranny of the mighty profit motive that warps so many American lives, leaving them freer to follow their own dreams — to become poets or philosophers, bartenders or business owners, as they please.

Family Matters

Maybe our politicians don’t want to talk about the Nordic Model because it shows so clearly that capitalism can be put to work for the many, not just the few.

Consider the Norwegian welfare state. It’s universal. In other words, aid to the sick or the elderly is not charity, grudgingly donated by elites to those in need. It is the right of every individual citizen. That includes every woman, whether or not she is somebody’s wife, and every child, no matter its parentage. Treating every person as a citizen affirms the individuality of each and the equality of all. It frees every person from being legally possessed by another — a husband, for example, or a tyrannical father.

Which brings us to the heart of Scandinavian democracy: the equality of women and men. In the 1970s, Norwegian feminists marched into politics and picked up the pace of democratic change. Norway needed a larger labor force, and women were the answer. Housewives moved into paid work on an equal footing with men, nearly doubling the tax base. That has, in fact, meant more to Norwegian prosperity than the coincidental discovery of North Atlantic oil reserves. The Ministry of Finance recently calculated that those additional working mothers add to Norway’s net national wealth a value equivalent to the country’s “total petroleum wealth” — currently held in the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, worth more than $873 billion. By 1981, women were sitting in parliament, in the prime minister’s chair, and in her cabinet.

American feminists also marched for such goals in the 1970s, but the Big Boys, busy with their own White House intrigues, initiated a war on women that set the country back and still rages today in brutal attacks on women’s basic civil rights, health care, and reproductive freedom. In 1971, thanks to the hard work of organized feminists, Congress passed the bipartisanComprehensive Child Development Bill to establish a multi-billion dollar national day care system for the children of working parents. In 1972, President Richard Nixon vetoed it, and that was that. In 1972, Congress also passed a bill (first proposed in 1923) to amend the Constitution to grant equal rights of citizenship to women.  Ratified by only 35 states, three short of the required 38, that Equal Rights Amendment, or ERA, was declared dead in 1982, leaving American women in legal limbo.

In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, obliterating six decades of federal social welfare policy “as we know it,” ending federal cash payments to the nation’s poor, and consigning millions of female heads of household and their children to poverty, where many still dwell 20 years later. Today, nearly half a century after Nixon trashed national child care, even privileged women, torn between their underpaid work and their kids, are overwhelmed.

Things happened very differently in Norway.  There, feminists and sociologists pushed hard against the biggest obstacle still standing in the path to full democracy: the nuclear family. In the 1950s, the world-famous American sociologist Talcott Parsons had pronounced that arrangement — with hubby at work and the little wife at home — the ideal setup in which to socialize children. But in the 1970s, the Norwegian state began to deconstruct that undemocratic ideal by taking upon itself the traditional unpaid household duties of women.  Caring for the children, the elderly, the sick, and the disabled became the basic responsibilities of the universal welfare state, freeing women in the workforce to enjoy both their jobs and their families. That’s another thing American politicians — still, boringly, mostly odiously boastful men — surely don’t want you to think about: that patriarchy can be demolished and everyone be the better for it.

Paradoxically, setting women free made family life more genuine. Many in Norway say it has made both men and women more themselves and more alike: more understanding and happier. It also helped kids slip from the shadow of helicopter parents. In Norway, mother and father in turn take paid parental leave from work to see a newborn through its first year or more. At age one, however, children start attending a neighborhood barnehage (kindergarten) for schooling spent largelyoutdoors. By the time kids enter free primary school at age six, they are remarkably self-sufficient, confident, and good-natured. They know their way around town, and if caught in a snowstorm in the forest, how to build a fire and find the makings of a meal.  (One kindergarten teacher explained, “We teach them early to use an axe so they understand it’s a tool, not a weapon.”)

To Americans, the notion of a school “taking away” your child to make her an axe wielder is monstrous.  In fact, Norwegian kids, who are well acquainted in early childhood with many different adults and children, know how to get along with grown ups and look after one another.  More to the point, though it’s hard to measure, it’s likely that Scandinavian children spend more quality time with their work-isn’t-everything parents than does a typical middle-class American child being driven by a stressed-out mother from music lessons to karate practice.  For all these reasons and more, the international organization Save the Children cites Norway as the best country on Earth in which to raise kids, while the U.S. finishes far down the list in 33rd place.

Don’t Take My Word For It

This little summary just scratches the surface of Scandinavia, so I urge curious readers to Google away.  But be forewarned. You’ll find much criticism of all the Nordic Model countries. The structural matters I’ve described — of governance and family — are not the sort of things visible to tourists or visiting journalists, so their comments are often obtuse. Take the American tourist/blogger who complained that he hadn’t been shown the “slums” of Oslo. (There are none.) Or the British journalist who wrote that Norwegian petrol is too expensive. (Though not for Norwegians, who are, in any case, leading the world in switching to electric cars.)

Neoliberal pundits, especially the Brits, are always beating up on the Scandinavians in books, magazines, newspapers, and blogs, predicting the imminent demise of their social democracies and bullying them to forsake the best political economy on the planet. Self-styled experts still in thrall to Margaret Thatcher tell Norwegians they must liberalize their economy and privatize everything short of the royal palace. Mostly, the Norwegian government does the opposite, or nothing at all, and social democracy keeps on ticking.

It’s not perfect, of course. It has always been a carefully considered work in progress. Governance by consensus takes time and effort.  You might think of it as slow democracy.  But it’s light years ahead of us.

Ann Jones has a new book published today: They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars — the Untold Story, a Dispatch Books project in cooperation with Haymarket Books. Andrew Bacevich has already had this to say about it: “Read this unsparing, scathingly direct, and gut-wrenching account — the war Washington doesn’t want you to see. Then see if you still believe that Americans ‘support the troops.’” Jones, who has reported from Afghanistan since 2002, is also the author of two books about the impact of war on civilians: Kabul in Winter and War Is Not Over When It’s Over.

More than 1 million in US face food stamps cutoff

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By Kate Randall
2 February 2016

More than 1 million low-income people across the United States could soon lose their government food stamp benefits if they fail to meet work requirements. The threatened mass cutoff of the government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits constitutes a vindictive bipartisan attack on some of the nation’s poorest and most vulnerable residents.

A Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) report last month predicted 500,000 to 1 million people would be cut off of SNAP benefits in 2016 due to the return in many areas of a three-month limit on benefits for unemployed adults aged 18-49 who are not disabled or raising minor children.

The SNAP cutoffs loom as hunger and food insecurity continue to rise sharply. According to the most recent statistics from Feeding America, a food bank network, a staggering 48.1 million Americans lived in food insecure households in 2014, including 32.8 million adults and 15.3 million children.

US food banks gave away about 4 billion pounds of food last year, double the amount a decade earlier. Social service providers and food pantries are bracing for an influx of hungry people in response to the SNAP rule change.

Following the financial crisis in 2008, virtually every US state qualified for waivers from the three-month limit due to high unemployment rates. On the basis of the supposedly improving economy, these waivers expired in 21 US states in January. The cutoffs are being implemented a month after the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that more than a quarter of the 7.9 million US unemployed have been jobless for more than six months.

Based on experience in other states where waivers expired last year, the Associated Press now predicts most people will not meet the work requirements and that the number kicked off benefits could top 1 million. Individuals facing cutoff include about 300,000 in Florida, 150,000 in Tennessee and 110,000 in North Carolina. Some of the 21 states, including these three, could have applied for partial waivers for counties with high unemployment rates but chose not to do so.

“The people affected by this are very poor,” Elizabeth Lower-Basch of the Washington DC-based Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) told the WSWS. “These are by definition people who aren’t working more than about 20 hours a week.”

According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), which administers SNAP, about 4.7 million SNAP recipients are deemed able-bodied without dependents, and only 1 in 4 of these has any income from a job. Data from the USDA shows these individuals have gross income averages of 17 percent of the official poverty line, or about $2,000 per year for a household of one in 2015. Beneficiaries receive an average paltry benefit of $164 a month.

The harsh “work for food” requirements were first introduced for SNAP under the 1996 welfare reform bill signed into law by President Clinton and sponsored by then-US Rep. John Kasich, who is now Ohio’s governor and a Republican candidate for president. In 2014, President Obama signed a bill that included $8.6 billion in cuts to SNAP. The temporary 14 percent increase in SNAP benefits passed by Congress in 2009 ended completely in November 2013.

The provision applies to “able-bodied” adults, ages 18-49, who have no children or other dependents in their homes. Such individuals must work, volunteer or attend education or job-training courses at least 80 hours a month. If they don’t, their benefits are cut off after three months.

Looking for work does not qualify as an exemption from the three-month cutoff. “Another major concern is that states are not required to offer people an opportunity to participate, to keep their benefits,” Lower-Basch said. “It’s one thing to say you’re going to have a work requirement to keep your benefits, but we’re going to offer you an opportunity to participate, and if you don’t you’re going to lose your benefits. But people can be cut off without being offered the opportunity.”

In the states that have already imposed the work requirements, a majority of people have been cut off benefits. In Wisconsin, which began phasing in the work provision last spring, two-thirds of the 22,500 adults subject to the change were dropped from the rolls three months later for failing to meet the requirements.

North Carolina, led by Republican Governor Pat McCrory, enacted a law last fall accelerating the work requirements. The bill further barred the state from seeking any waivers in the future unless there is a natural disaster.

State Sen. Ralph Hise claims that providing SNAP benefits beyond three months diminishes people’s job prospects. “People are developing gaps on their resumes, and it’s actually making it harder for individuals to ultimately find employment,” he said. Such preposterous statements fly in the face of the reality faced by those standing to lose their SNAP benefits.

According to the CBPP report, SNAP beneficiaries subject to the three-month cutoff are more likely than other SNAP recipients to lack basic job skills like reading, writing and basic mathematics. And people without a high school diploma, who make up about a quarter of non-disabled childless adults on SNAP, have double the unemployment rate of those with at least a high school diploma.

While the state and federal governments paint SNAP recipients as lazy and unnecessarily reliant on government handouts, many in the group facing benefit expiration have serious physical and mental health problems despite being identified as able to work.

The Ohio Association of Foodbanks found that 30 percent of those participating in the Work Experience Program in Franklin County to maintain their SNAP benefits reported a physical or mental health limitation, despite being classified as an able-bodied adult without dependents (ABAWD). The most common mental health limitations reported by clients included depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and addiction.

CLASP’s Lower-Basch said that due to state government underfunding and bureaucracy, many people who should qualify for an exemption from the cutoff don’t receive one. “One of the big concerns is that people who may have disabilities or work limitations, if they’re not receiving Social Security disability benefits, may not know that they have a disability,” she said.

She added that because many people now apply for benefits online it means that “many clients are never sitting across the table from a caseworker, who might look at them and say we should figure out what exemption you meet because you’re clearly not able to participate.”

The Ohio Association of Foodbanks asked those who lost benefits: “How are you providing food for yourself in the absence of food benefits?” In response, 80 percent said that they depended on food pantries and family support. Others said they relied on soup kitchens, homeless shelters and churches.

A sizeable proportion, 18 percent, responded that they got food by asking strangers, panhandling and dumpster diving. Only 21.3 percent of those studied reported being under a doctor’s care, and many clients explicitly reported not being able to afford the medication they have been prescribed.

While the US expends $609.9 billion a year on the military, prosecuting an endless series of wars around the globe, Obama’s fiscal year 2016 budget proposal included a mere $83.692 billion for SNAP, which presently serves an average caseload of 45.7 million Americans, almost 15 percent of the population.

The growing and unbridgeable gulf between the rich and poor in 21st century America finds one of its most noxious expressions in the drive by the ruling elite to slash minimal food assistance to some of the nation’s poorest and most vulnerable. While the presidential candidates in both big business parties trip over themselves to support the “war on terror” and the drive to war, the potential cutoff of 1.1 million people from food stamps receives no mention.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/02/02/snap-j01.html

A modern Antigone: Son of Saul by László Nemes

By Dorota Niemitz
28 January 2016

Directed by László Nemes; written by Nemes and Clara Royer, based on the book The Scrolls of Auschwitz and various prisoners’ memoirs

Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes’s debut feature film, Son of Saul, treats almost unimaginable horror: a day and a half in the life of a member of the Sonderkommando [special unit], made up of prisoners who staffed the gas chambers, at the Auschwitz II-Birkenau concentration camp. More than one million people were murdered at Auschwitz from 1942 to 1944, 90 percent of them Jews, transported from all over German-occupied Europe.

Son of Saul

Henryk Mandelbaum, the last survivor of the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz, who died in 2008, called the unit members living corpses. Their average life expectancy in the position was two to four months. Under threat of death, the Nazis used them to conduct people to the gas chambers and burn their bodies in the crematoriums.

Most of the death camp Sonderkommando members were Jews. An aspect of the Nazis’ diabolical plan was to make the victims partially responsible for the Holocaust. To other camp inmates they were traitors. Only about 200 of them survived the war.

The unit members had to extract gold teeth, remove jewelry and other valuables, cut hair and disinfect the chambers. After reducing the burnt corpses to ash, they had to throw them into the nearby river. Isolated for fear of spreading panic, they received more food than other prisoners, but had little time for sleep or rest. The work was constant, the tempo brutal. Many, of course, could not cope and experienced nervous breakdowns, some committed suicide. After being forced to cover traces of the Nazi crimes, the “bearers of secrets” themselves were shot.

Nemes’s Son of Saul depicts the events of October 7, 1944, when one of the biggest Sonderkommando uprisings took place. Some 450 out of 663 special unit prisoners took part in the revolt. Learning that they were slated for extermination, the prisoners attacked the SS and Kapos with two machine guns, axes, knives and grenades, killing three and wounding 12 German soldiers, as well as blowing up Crematorium IV. The rebellion was quickly crushed by the SS.

All the insurgents were killed. Those who managed to escape and reach the nearby village, Rajsko, were surrounded in a barn and blown up with hand grenades. Five young Jewish women who worked for the Weichsel-Union-Metallwerke, a munitions plant within the Auschwitz complex, and who had smuggled small amounts of gunpowder to aid the uprising, were later hanged.

Unlike previous portrayals of the Sonderkommando, such as the one in Tim Blake Nelson’s The Grey Zone, which treated the conduct of the individual members as “shameful,” Son of Saul is a sincere attempt to depict the complex reality of the concentration camp and the multiplicity of connections between victims and their oppressors.

Son of Saul

Saul (Géza Röhrig) is a Hungarian Jew who––humiliated and paralyzed in the face of the enormous scale of the hellish mass murder––numbly collaborates with the Nazis to stay alive. After witnessing the murder of a teenage boy who has just arrived in a transport from Hungary, and believing the youth might be his son born out of wedlock, Saul decides to steal the body to ensure the boy’s proper burial.

The recreated reality of the movie is brutally precise and historically accurate. Cinematographer Mátyás Erdély uses a technique similar to that of the Dardenne brothers, following his main character very closely, providing a deliberately narrow field of vision, to immerse the viewer in the immediate surroundings. We can almost smell the dirt on Saul’s body, feel his torment. Screams and moans in Yiddish, Hungarian, Polish, Russian and German substitute for a soundtrack and broaden the imagery’s realism.

Despite the blurry background, we are well aware of what is taking place at all times. It is precisely the lack of details that horrifies the most. Then there are the scenes in which terrible discoveries are subtly conveyed, such as the realization that the mountains of dust shoveled into the river are composed of human remains.

Judaism forbids cremation of the body and treats it as a sin. The corpse needs to be wrapped in a tallit, a special fringed garment, and buried as quickly after death as possible.

Like Sophocles’ Antigone, who defies the tyrant Creon’s edict forbidding the burial of her rebel brother, Polynices, Saul revolts against the brutal laws of the Nazi totalitarian state in defense of human and, to him, divine principles. He knows beforehand the rules and the consequences––his “crime” is conscious and deliberate. Until the very end Saul remains untouched by and indifferent toward the authority that will crush him. Suffering beyond endurance, he accepts his fate: He can do nothing but die.

Saul dies, but all is not lost for humanity. We know the Nazi regime ultimately collapsed, like that of the of the King of Thebes in Greek mythology.

In Son of Saul Nemes accomplishes something rare for a modern artist, skillfully reviving the principles and themes of an ancient drama, sculpting the essence of a human tragedy. The viewer might question the uncompromising religious values Saul stands for. But it is undeniable that his clash with the camp authorities is of immense importance to human beings today who sense the vast gap between their innate sense of “what is right” and the doings of the global rulers.

Son of Saul

Saul is defending an old and annihilated order, now only an unreal shadow. By desperately searching for a rabbi in a world where such an individual’s functions have been obliterated, he seeks to link the nonexistent with the existent. The respect paid to the body of what might be his offspring becomes a symbol of universal honor paid to all those slaughtered and then burnt in defiance of their religion in the inferno of crematoriums. Stealing the boy’s body becomes an act of retribution: the extermination of the Jews will not be completed because something will be left of them, even if in a grave.

In Nemes’s film, there is little room for subjectivity nor much interest in Saul’s individual personality: the man is a universal “self” and represents the community of people caught up by forces bigger and independent of themselves. He is an actor confronted on the stage not only with his oppressors, but with the chorus of camp resistance members who accuse him of “failing the living for the sake of the dead.” One of the chorus members, a Soviet soldier, even kicks him in the gut.

There is something fixated and even psychotic in Saul’s determination. It makes him endanger his own life––and the lives of other––to fulfill his “duty.” Had he not lost the gunpowder due to his obsession with the dead body, would the uprising have been successful?

It is perhaps difficult to identify with the cold, robot-like, half-dead Saul. But it is also difficult to condemn him. His face, although at times it resembles a predator’s, should invoke some compassion. Saul’s condition speaks to something broader than his own individual fate: the wretchedness of all those forced against their will to toil for a system they did not create, merely to survive.

Despite the film’s physical and intellectual constraints, which reduce the conflict largely to the ethical plane and omit any reference to the historical roots of the horrors it depicts, Son of Saul is a valuable artistic achievement. It is a matter of utmost importance that such a work reaches global cinemas. Fascist political tendencies are again on the rise and various European governments are adopting Nazi-style measures against refugees, including the confiscation of their money and valuables upon entry into miserable camps.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/01/28/saul-j28.html

War and the destruction of social infrastructure in America

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28 January 2016

As the water crisis in Flint, Michigan continues to occupy national headlines in the United States, scientists and environmental officials have revealed a dirty secret of American life: the poisoning of drinking water with toxic chemicals is not unique to Flint, Michigan, but takes place all over the country.

Counties in Louisiana and Texas, as well as the cities of Baltimore, Maryland; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Washington D.C. and Boston, Massachusetts all reported that substantial numbers of children have been exposed to elevated lead levels, largely through municipal drinking water.

This week, the head environmental regulator in the state of Ohio called national water regulations “broken,” saying that they dramatically understate the true scale of lead poisoning in American cities. As Virginia Tech researcher Marc Edwards put it, “Because of the smoke-and-mirrors testing, Flint is meeting the standard even as national guardsmen walk the street.”

Many water pipes in the United States are over 100 years old, and a large number of cities still have 100 percent lead plumbing.

The reasons are not hard to find. According to the Congressional Budget Office, public capital investment in transportation and water infrastructure, already underfunded for decades, has been slashed by 23 percent since its peak in 2003.

The year 2003 is significant as it coincides with the beginning of the illegal invasion of Iraq by the Bush administration. The “war on terror” has entailed a vast expansion of the military at the same time that spending on anything not directly related to the accumulation of wealth by the financial aristocracy has suffered from continual cutbacks.

The response of the political establishment to the poisoning of tens of thousands of people in Flint and potentially millions more throughout the United States has been characterized by indifference. The politicians responsible, from Michigan Governor Rick Snyder to local Democratic Party officials and the Obama administration, pull long faces, pretend to take responsibility or seek to shift blame, while doing nothing to address the issue.

Nowhere is there a single politician who has responded to the disaster by demanding what is clearly required: the immediate allocation of a relatively modest sum, $273 billion according to the Environmental Protection Agency, to replace all of the municipal lead pipes in the US. This is equivalent to the annual spending on the US Army, just one of the four branches of the US military. There is simply “no money” for such a proposal to be considered, much less approved.

While politicians pore over any allocation of resources for social spending with a fine tooth comb, almost unimaginable sums are made available to the military without a second thought. How many know that the US military is shelling out over a trillion dollars to defense contractor Lockheed Martin to fund its beleaguered F-35 program? Or that it is spending another trillion dollars to “modernize” its nuclear arsenal by making atomic bombs smaller and more maneuverable?

The US spends more on its military, as Obama boasted in his most recent State of the Union address, than the next eight countries combined. Yet more is continuously demanded.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) recently evaluated the Defense Department’s so-called pivot to Asia, in which military hardware has been either procured or restationed in the Western Pacific to counter the economic and military rise of China. Strikingly, the CSIS report gave the US military a failing grade. It called for the expansion and development of every aspect of US military capacity in the Pacific if it was to maintain superiority in the event of a shooting war with China.

Since the early 1990s, the US military has operated on the basis of a strategic doctrine that it will allow the existence of no other power that can challenge its military authority on even a regional level. That means that the US must be able to field such overwhelming military force that it would be able to defeat another major power, such as China, in a conventional war far away from the borders of the US.

This is a recipe for the bleeding white of American society in an insane attempt to maintain its military dominance, which can only end in catastrophe for the population of the US and the entire world.

Of course, it would be simplistic to say that war is the only cause of America’s social problems. The most conspicuous element of life in the US continues to be the vast chasm between the rich and the poor. However, the rise of war and militarism are interrelated and have a common root.

In response to the the longterm decline in the global position of American capitalism, the American ruling class responded on the one hand by promoting a wave of financial speculation, mergers and acquisitions, wage cuts, and the transfer of social wealth from the great majority of the population to its own pockets. On the other hand, it has sought to use its predominant military power to counteract the consequences of its economic decline by force.

In the insane and socially destructive priorities of the American ruling class, one sees in concentrated form the inextricable connection between war and capitalism, and at the same time the inextricable connection between the fight for all the social rights of the working class and the struggle against imperialism.

Andre Damon

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/01/28/pers-j28.html

The Flint water crisis and the criminality of American capitalism

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20 January 2015

In the midst of growing anger over the poisoning of residents of Flint, Michigan and the exposure of criminal actions by state and local authorities, Governor Rick Snyder gave a State of the State address Tuesday night in which he insisted that neither he nor any other top official should be held accountable.

The governor’s tone betrayed something of a siege mentality, as more than a thousand protesters marched outside the state capitol building in Lansing, many calling for his resignation and indictment.

After hailing record profits for the Michigan-based Big Three auto companies and touting the supposed “turnaround” of Detroit in a year the city emerged from bankruptcy, Snyder came to the subject of the Flint water crisis. The millionaire former corporate executive gave an empty apology to the people of Flint and asserted that it was “now time to tell the truth about what we have done,” promising to release his emails concerning Flint the next day.

After the obligatory “the buck stops here” declaration, he evaded any responsibility for decisions that have permanently disabled thousands of Flint residents, including infants and children, and will likely result in an unknown number of early deaths.

His effort at cover-up and damage control involved striking a pose of contrition (“The government has failed you”) and acknowledging that various officials had made “mistakes”—meaningless statements that were meant to evade any real accountability.

Snyder pled ignorance concerning the 17 months between April 2014, when his handpicked Flint emergency manager switched the city’s water supply to the highly polluted Flint River to cut costs, and September 2015, when he claims he first learned of the crisis. In the future, he admonished, such things “had to come to his desk immediately, with no excuses.”

He omitted the fact that immediately after the water was switched, Flint residents complained of its foul smell, color and taste and the spread of rashes and sickness. Even after a “boil only” warning had been issued by city officials, tests by the state’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) showed lead levels to be acceptable under the federal Environmental Protection Agency guidelines, Snyder maintained.

In May 2015, the governor continued, Dr. Mona Hannah-Attisha of Hurley Medical Center found alarming levels of lead in blood samples of city children, but “DEQ failed to reach the same conclusions.”

Again, Snyder neglected to note that his office targeted Dr. Hannah-Attisha with a slander campaign, saying she was “splicing and dicing” data and needlessly causing hysteria. With consummate cynicism, the governor asked the doctor to rise to the applause of state legislators.

While Snyder claimed that he was first briefed in September 2015, his chief of staff wrote a July 2015 email to the Department of Health and Human Services expressing concern over the stonewalling of Flint residents. “I really don’t think people are getting the benefit of the doubt,” he wrote. “Now they are concerned and rightfully so about the lead level studies they are receiving from the (DEQ) samples… These folks are scared and worried about the health impacts and they are basically getting blown off by us…”

In a transparent effort to protect himself from future prosecution, the Republican governor warned Democrats that they too were complicit. He noted that President Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency had also ignored resident complaints and remained silent even after tests showed dangerous levels of lead, and the Democratic-controlled Flint City Council had approved the change in the city’s water source.

There is certainly a case for putting local, state and federal Democrats in the dock along with Snyder. This includes former Flint Emergency Manager Darnell Earley, currently the emergency manager of the Detroit Public Schools.

The poisoning of Flint is linked to the 2013-14 Detroit bankruptcy, which was carried out with the backing of the Obama administration. The pensions and health benefits of city workers were slashed and public assets were sold off or privatized, including the treasures of the Detroit Institute of Arts and the city’s century-old public water system. This led to sharp increases in water prices in Detroit, Flint and other cities, and mass water shutoffs of working-class customers.

The modus operandi of the conspiracy of politicians and corporate holders of city bonds to plunder the incomes of city workers and seize public assets in Detroit has become a model for similar attacks across Michigan, in other US states and now in Puerto Rico. Municipalities and school districts have been starved of resources by federal, state and local authorities, forced to take on immense levels of debt, and then put under financial dictators who do the bidding of the banks.

Working-class youth are jailed for minor offenses, but those responsible for decisions that deprive families of water and electrical power and lead to fatal house fires and other tragedies essentially get away with murder.

Flint is a symbol of the criminal character of American capitalism. In 1960, the “Vehicle City” had one of the highest per capita incomes in America, the result of the sit-down strikes and mass struggles of autoworkers that forced the then-largest corporation in the world, General Motors, to recognize the United Auto Workers union. Over the last 35 years, the corporation, facing increasing international competition, has waged a relentless war against the workers, with the indispensable and unstinting assistance of the UAW.

GM has reduced employment in the city from 80,000 to 5,500. It has shut down and flattened the sit-down plants “Chevy in the Hole” and Buick City, which alone once employed 28,000 workers. Exacting huge tax cuts and polluting the Flint River with impunity, GM has left its birthplace in ruins.

During the 2009 restructuring of GM, the Obama administration worked with the UAW to shut more plants and halve the wages of all new-hires, while granting legal immunity to GM in any future lawsuits over pollution or defective vehicles. The company has taken in billions in profits and spent them, not on the people of Flint, but on stock buybacks and dividend payments to its biggest shareholders, which includes the UAW.

President Obama is coming to Detroit today, where he will speak at a UAW-GM facility and hail the “return” of the auto industry and the “rebirth” of Detroit. Meanwhile, young autoworkers cannot afford to buy the cars they build and Detroit teachers have organized sick-outs, independently of the unions, to protest rat-infested schools with no heat, overcrowded classrooms, and cuts in wages and benefits.

As for Flint, the president who has allocated trillions to bail out the Wall Street criminals and fund illegal wars has approved a derisory $5 million in federal aid for the city’s people. The government of “the most powerful country in the world” is no less indifferent to working people in Flint than its predecessor was to Hurricane Katrina-ravaged New Orleans.

These disasters arise from the failure and bankruptcy of the capitalist system, an outmoded and reactionary economic order that subordinates the most elemental needs of society to the enrichment of the corporate and financial aristocracy.

In the 21st Century, no one should go without water, or, for that matter, a well-paying job, health care, education and affordable housing. The fight for these elemental rights places the working class on a collision course with American capitalism and all of its political representatives.

Jerry White

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/01/20/pers-j20.html

New revelations expose federal cover-up in Flint, Michigan water crisis

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By James Brewer
15 January 2016

The highest level US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) official in the Midwest was aware as early as April 2015 that the water being piped into the homes of Flint, Michigan residents was not being treated for corrosion control, yet said nothing. This despite the fact that it is common knowledge among water professionals that the lack of such treatment, especially in highly corrosive water as that found in the Flint River, will cause lead to leach into tap water from pipes and fixtures.

The revelation of the federal government’s role in the cover-up of lead poisoning of Flint residents comes as reports show a dramatic increase in cases of Legionnaires disease and related deaths in Flint, likely a result of the Flint River water. Protests by Flint residents are continuing, with a demonstration Thursday in the state capitol of Lansing demanding the resignation of Michigan Governor Rick Snyder for his role in concealing the dangers confronting Flint residents.

EPA Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman made a decision not to use the authority of the agency to compel local water officials to apply a $100 a month phosphate treatment to protect the Flint water infrastructure from corrosion or even to alert the public of the health danger in drinking the water, she told theDetroit News this week.

According to the report, the EPA “battled” over corrosion control with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) behind the scenes starting in February.

It is worth looking back to a September 2015 posting on the Flint Water Study website of Professor Marc Edwards to understand the context of this “battle.”

It was in February that an EPA expert from Region 5, Miquel Del Toral recognized lead problems with Flint water. On February 26, a water sample from the home of one particular resident, Lee Ann Walters, was measured with extremely high lead content—over 100 parts per billion (ppb), while the EPA “action level” is 15 ppb.

Del Toral asked MDEQ the next day if Flint was using phosphates for corrosion control. MDEQ official Stephen Busch blatantly lied: “The City of Flint…Has an Optimized Corrosion Control Program [and] conducts quarterly Water Quality Parameter monitoring at 25 sites and has not had any unusual results.”

Just over two weeks later, Walters’ home was retested with even higher lead levels—397 ppb. When questioned, the MDEQ said they had investigated, finding that the source of the elevated lead was due to “lead sources in her plumbing.”

Walters knew this to be untrue, since all the plumbing in the house had been replaced with plastic pipes.

Walters’ young son was having health problems. On March 27, he was diagnosed with lead poisoning.

To check on the MDEQ claim the previous month that an “Optimized Corrosion Control Program” was in place, Walters called the City of Flint. She was told that there was, in fact, no program at all for corrosion control! She notified Del Toral, who in turn asked MDEQ again, in an email, what corrosion control program Flint was using. This time the response was the truth: Flint was using no corrosion control.

In an internal EPA Region 5 memo, Del Toral stated, “Flint has not been operating any corrosion control treatment, which is very concerning given the likelihood of LSLs [lead service lines] in the City.”

He became concerned that there would likely be widespread elevated levels of lead in Flint water without the treatment. He subsequently discovered that the sampling method being utilized by the MDEQ and Flint water authorities was obscuring the actual levels of lead in tap water, writing in a June 24 internal memo: “The practice of pre-flushing before collecting compliance samples has been shown to result in the minimization of lead capture and significant underestimation of lead levels in drinking water.”

Del Toral added that this method of sampling was a “serious concern” because it “could provide a false sense of security to the residents of Flint regarding lead levels in the water.”

In her interview with the Detroit News, EPA Region 5 Administrator Hedman defended her silence, saying that the role of the EPA was to provide treatment standards and monitoring techniques and that under the law, the state is the primary regulator of water operations.

Returning to the Flint Water Study chronology, the same day as Del Toral notified the EPA of the seriousness of the Flint water situation, he dropped off sampling bottles at Walters’ home and told her to contact noted water expert Marc Edwards at Virginia Tech University to help her to perform a proper sampling. After gathering tap water samples according to Edwards’ direction and returning them to VT, Edwards was stunned. The average lead level was 2,429 ppb, with a high sample of 13,200 ppb.

When Del Toral was informed of the results, he drove back to Flint from his home in Chicago just in time to see the city replacing the service line to Walters’ home, which he personally confirmed had been pure lead.

From February to June both the City of Flint and the MDEQ conducted the testing required by the federal Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) in a way that purposely obscured the high lead levels in the city. In the last five days before the June 30 deadline for collecting the required 100 samples, Adam Rosenthal of the MDEQ emailed Mike Glasgow at the City of Flint: “We hope you have 61 more lead/copper samples collected and sent to the lab by 6/30/15, and that they will be below the AL [action level] for lead. As of now with 39 results, Flint’s 90th percentile is over the AL for lead.”

This is what happened according to Edwards: “In the next five days the City collected 30 samples, all of which were below the action level, and did not reach the 100 sample target. If all 71 collected samples were counted, the City would have exceeded the 15 ppb action level. Federal law would then require that Flint residents be provided information about how to protect themselves and their children from lead in water .”

Del Toral’s concern with the sampling methods being used was a major problem for the MDEQ’s operation, which can only be described as criminal. On August 4, Walters and another Flint resident, Melissa Mays, described a meeting they had with MDEQ officials Liane Shekter-Smith (Chief of the Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance), Stephen Busch and Brad Wurfel. Like a mafioso, Shekter-Smith bragged that “Mr. Del Toral has been handled,” and that Flint residents would not be hearing from him again, adding that Del Toral’s interim memo on corrosion control “would never be finalized.”

Later, an NPR report stated, “MDEQ spokesman Brad Wurfel says the report was the work of a ‘rogue employee,’ and promised the final report—not yet released—would tell a much different story.”

Thus, an experienced and diligent EPA expert was vilified and effectively silenced.

In light of these facts, Hedman’s defense of her role as head of the EPA is vacuous. In an attempt to deflect responsibility she said, “It is important to understand the clear roles here. Communication about lead in drinking water and the health impacts associated with that, that’s the role of DHHS (Department of Health and Human Services), the county health department and the drinking water utility.”

The head of the MDHHS, Chief Medical Executive Eden Wells, in another recent revelation, admitted to NBC News on Wednesday that the state’s response to a July email from a state health worker warning of an increase in the blood lead levels of Flint children, was “a missed opportunity” to act on the poisoning of the water. The writer of the email, Cristin Larder, an epidemiologist, noticed the spike in blood levels in July, August and September of 2014, shortly after the April 2014 switch to Flint River water.

Since lead exposure is cumulative, continued exposure increases the deleterious effects on the body. So the longer the failure to act on such warnings, the greater the extent of the poisoning. To call inaction a “missed opportunity” would be laughable if it weren’t so serious. Flint residents had been actively warning officials for almost 21 months of the poor quality of Flint’s water. Now it is being revealed publicly that the callous response they received was an expression of a conspiracy at the highest levels.

In a recent interview, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician who uncovered the spike in levels of lead in Flint children’s blood last September, said, “This experience has really shattered my trust in government. It’s not that I was naive to start with, but you’d expect that utilities, states, federal agencies would take their jobs seriously and try to protect people rather than deliberately mislead, lie and make up excuses not to protect public health.”

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/01/15/flin-j15.html