The vendetta against Bowe Bergdahl

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30 March 2015

The decision by the Pentagon to bring charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy against former Afghanistan prisoner of war Bowe Bergdahl is vindictive and politically reactionary. Its purpose is to intimidate rank-and-file soldiers who, like Bergdahl, turn against the savagery of the wars American imperialism is waging in the Middle East and Central Asia, or who oppose future American wars around the world.

Bergdahl, a private first class near the beginning of a yearlong tour of duty in Afghanistan, walked away from his unit in Paktika province in June 2009. He was captured by the Taliban and held as a prisoner, often under barbaric conditions, and forced to participate in propaganda videos. The Obama administration negotiated his release last May as part of a prisoner exchange in which five long-held Taliban prisoners were allowed to leave Guantanamo Bay.

While the American media and the ultra-right have long peddled myths about Vietnam War-era POWs in an effort to retrospectively justify that imperialist bloodbath, these same elements immediately launched a campaign of vilification against the sole Afghan War POW upon his return home from captivity. Former members of Bergdahl’s unit played a prominent role in these efforts.

There were claims—all later proven false—that Bergdahl had left his unit in order to join the Taliban and fight on their side, and that as many as a dozen American soldiers had been killed in the course of fruitless efforts to find and rescue him in the months after his disappearance. At the height of this campaign, the Wall Street Journal published a commentary suggesting that Bergdahl should face the death penalty for desertion under fire in wartime.

The real reason for the ferocity of the attack on Bergdahl was his public disaffection from the war in Afghanistan and, in particular, his caustic criticism of the conduct of the American military in that devastated country. In 2012,Rolling Stone magazine had published excerpts of emails from Bergdahl to his parents in Idaho in which he declared, “I am ashamed to even be American. The horror of the self-righteous arrogance that they thrive in. It is all revolting.”

“I am sorry for everything here,” he continued. “These people need help, yet what they get is the most conceited country in the world telling them that they are nothing and that they are stupid, that they have no idea how to live.” Referring to a particularly gruesome incident he had witnessed, he added, “We don’t even care when we hear each other talk about running their children down in the dirt streets with our armored trucks.”

In response to the right-wing campaign against Bergdahl, the machinery of the Pentagon began to grind out the mockery that passes for “military justice.” Lt. Gen. Kenneth Dahl interviewed Bergdahl and other members of his unit and filed a report with the top brass. Last week, Gen. Mark Milley, head of the Army Forces Command at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, authorized charges against Bergdahl. A preliminary hearing is set for April 22 to determine whether to order a court-martial, accept a negotiated plea, or dismiss the charges.

Eugene Fidell, one of Bergdahl’s attorneys, said the Army report contains evidence that Bergdahl left his post not to desert, but to go to another military outpost to report on the conditions in his own unit. In a memorandum that he made public, Fidell wrote: “[T]he report basically concludes that Sgt. Bergdahl did not intend to remain away from the Army permanently, as classic ‘long’ desertion requires… It also concludes that his specific intent was to bring what he thought were disturbing circumstances to the attention of the nearest general officer.” This might have been a violation of military discipline, but it hardly warrants the charge of desertion.

Two military officials confirmed Fidell’s account of the secret report in interviews with CNN. “This was a kid who had leadership concerns on his mind,” one of the officials said. “He wasn’t fed up, he wasn’t planning to desert.”

The vendetta against Bergdahl reveals two interconnected political facts. First, the military brass is determined to make an example of the former POW because, in addition to popular opposition to the wars in the Middle East and Central Asia, there is increasing turmoil within the ranks of the military itself, as the Afghanistan War approaches its fifteenth year and the war in Iraq is resumed twelve years after the US invasion of that country.

Second, the Obama administration, which initially hailed Bergdahl’s safe return as a diplomatic triumph, to be celebrated with photo ops with the POW’s parents in the White House Rose Garden, takes its lead from the Pentagon chiefs. It is the military-intelligence apparatus, not its nominal civilian “commander,” that calls the shots in Washington.

Behind the vendetta against Bergdahl is the fear of a Vietnam War-like growth of demoralization and opposition within the ranks, under conditions of a continuous escalation of US military operations, not only in the Middle East, but directed increasingly against major powers such as Russia and China.

Patrick Martin

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/03/30/pers-m30.html

The social and political context of the Germanwings disaster

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By Peter Schwarz
28 March 2015

The crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 in France, which sent 150 people to their deaths, was, according to investigators, the result of the deliberate actions of the co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz.

Following an evaluation of evidence from the voice recorder, specialists from the French Civil Aviation Authority (BEA) and the Marseille public prosecutor, Brice Robin, have come to the conclusion that after the pilot left the cockpit, the 27-year-old co-pilot manually reset the Airbus A320’s autopilot to take the plane from 38,000 feet to 96 feet, the lowest possible setting. Lubitz then refused to allow the pilot back into the cockpit and quietly remained at the controls until the plane crashed into the side of a mountain.

Investigators say this could not have been an accident. From the quiet breathing of the co-pilot, who can be heard on the recording, they conclude that he was fully conscious until the impact.

No sooner had this highly troubling analysis been made known than the media, assorted politicians and the Lufthansa management sought to present the disaster as an incomprehensible event without deeper social significance.

The crash was a tragic fluke that the best security procedures and psychological safeguards could not have prevented, said Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr. In his “worst nightmare” he could “not have imagined that such a thing could happen one day.”

On the web site of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, editor Mathias Müller von Blumencron wrote, “This accident has to be explained, as that is the only way we can come to terms with it.” But he sought the explanation exclusively in the individual psyche of the culprit, declaring: “At the heart of the explanation is one person, more precisely, his head, his possibly misguided brain… It is the psyche of Andreas Lubitz that caused the incomprehensible. On the basis of the present state of things, the solution can be found only in the person of the co-pilot.”

Really?

Of course, one has to establish what motives, personal issues or psychological problems drove Lubitz to do this terrible deed. But the psychological background alone cannot explain a disaster of this magnitude. Lubitz acted within a particular social environment. To understand his actions, one must understand not only his individual malady, but also the society in which he lived.

What immense social pressures are required to drive a young man—described by all of his acquaintances as unobtrusive, quiet, pleasant and easy to deal with—to murder 149 people? Why had no one seen the warning signs of the coming disaster?

To probe these questions inevitably necessitates going beyond the “possibly misguided brain” of the culprit and considering a social context that is characterized by increasing occupational stress, economic insecurity, public anxiety, social tensions, state violence and militarism.

The Düsseldorf Public Prosecutor’s Office raided Lubitz’s apartments in Montabaur and in Düsseldorf but found neither a letter of confession nor evidence of a political or religious motive. But they discovered evidence of possible mental distress. They found a torn doctor’s note recommending time off from work, including the day of the crash, and concluded that “the deceased had concealed his illness from his employer and professional colleagues.”

Why did Lubitz go to work despite having a sick note? Did he fear losing his job, which was apparently his dream job? He had joined the local glider club as a 15-year-old and was trained by Lufthansa as a pilot after leaving high school in Bremen. However, he interrupted his training for six months due, according to unconfirmed reports, to depression.

Was Lubitz unable to cope with the increasing work pressure, which is constantly growing, especially at Lufthansa and its low-cost subsidiary Eurowings? This issue has been the source of a year-long industrial dispute by pilots.

Work-related stress and associated mental disorders have increased tremendously, not only in the aviation industry, but throughout society. According to a study by the World Health Organization, 5 percent of the German population of working age, or 3.1 million people, suffer from a major depressive illness. The number of days of sick leave due to mental illness has increased in recent years—18-fold, according to health insurance companies. In 2012 alone it increased by 10 percent.

Lubitz must have felt himself under enormous pressure to commit such a monstrous act. Even experienced psychologists cannot recall a similarly extreme case.

While there is the phenomenon of extended suicide, where a suicide victim kills others in addition to himself, the other victims are usually relatives or people with whom the perpetrator has a personal relationship. Lubitz’s actions can only partially be compared to killing sprees such as the Columbine High School massacre in America or the bloodletting at Erfurt Gutenberg Gymnasium in Germany.

In such events, the victims usually come from the perpetrator’s social milieu and are targeted because of some perceived offence. In the Germanwings disaster, however, 149 people whom Lubitz in all probability did not know were randomly sent to their deaths simply because they happened to be aboard the airplane.

One would expect that even a mentally ill and depressed person would have inhibitions against committing such a massacre. That these were apparently not present should be seen against the backdrop of a general devaluing of human life.

Andreas Lubitz was 11 years old when the Bundeswehr went into Yugoslavia in the first foreign operation of the post-World War II German military. Thereafter, he lived through one war after another in which American and German troops killed thousands and officials publicly boasted of the number of alleged terrorists “taken out.”

In the Mediterranean, thousands of refugees drown each year while the European Union erects new barriers to prevent them from reaching the continent. The austerity cuts demanded by the German government push millions into poverty in Greece and drive unknown numbers of people to suicide.

The explanation for the Germanwings disaster cannot be found simply in the mind and psyche of Andreas Lubitz. Rather, one must place his sickness within its real context—that of a dysfunctional and diseased social order.

At the same time, the wave of sympathy, human solidarity and eagerness to help with which the population reacted in the crash area, throughout France and in the home countries of the victims brought something different to light—a deep yearning for a truly humane society.

The politicians who commemorate the victims will not fulfil this need. They return from the memorial ceremonies to pursue their policies of welfare cuts, labour market “reforms,” ever expanding police powers at home and increasingly bloody wars abroad.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/03/28/wing-m28.html

US layoffs mount amid signs of economic slowdown

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By Andre Damon

28 March 2015

US corporations announced thousands of layoffs this week amid a series of plant closures, mergers and consolidations and signs of declining economic growth.

On Wednesday, US Steel announced 2,080 layoffs at its Granite City Works in Illinois. The Pittsburgh-based steelmaker plans to lay off over 4,500 employees nationwide, including over 1,800 workers in Alabama. Job cuts are also planned in Minnesota and Texas.

The same day, steelmaker Worthington Industries of Columbus, Ohio announced plans to lay off 555 employees nationwide. Of these, 310 are to lose their jobs as a result of the closure of a plant in Florence, South Carolina.

On Thursday, Ohio-based Republic Steel announced 200 layoffs at its Lorain, Ohio plant.

The steel companies said the layoffs were a response to a fall in demand stemming from the drop in oil prices and appreciation of the dollar, which have led to a reduction in international orders.

Also on Wednesday, HJ Heinz announced plans to buy Kraft Foods Group in a $36.6 billion deal that, according to one analyst, could lead to 5,000 job cuts, affecting nearly one quarter of Kraft’s North American work force.

The fate of tens of thousands of RadioShack workers and their families hung in the balance Friday as lenders and hedge funds wrangled at auction over the remains of the bankrupt consumer electronics chain, which presently employs 27,000 people at more than 4,000 locations nationwide.

Salus Capital Partners said Friday that it had outbid its nearest competitor, hedge fund Standard General, offering $271 million in cash as part of a plan that would completely dismantle the company, laying off all employees and selling off inventory and fixtures. Standard General had offered $16 million in a plan that would have kept 1,740 stores open, saving 7,500 jobs, but still laying off nearly 20,000 workers.

Office supply retailer Staples, which announced plans to merge with Office Depot in February, filed documents with the Securities and Exchange Commission showing that it intends to pay CEO Roland Smith $46.78 million for 16 months of work if the deal goes through. The merger would entail the closure of up to 1,000 stores and the potential layoff of tens of thousands of workers.

The plant closures and layoffs came as figures from the Commerce Department confirmed that the US economy slowed significantly in the fourth quarter of last year. The economy grew at an annual rate of 2.2 percent in the final three months of 2014, down from an initial estimate of 2.6 percent released in January.

The fourth quarter marked a significant slowdown compared with the second quarter, in which the economy grew at a 5 percent rate, and the third quarter, which had a growth rate of 4.6 percent. Analysts had expected the economy to grow at a 2.4 percent annual rate in the final quarter of last year.

Business investment on equipment in the fourth quarter was revised downward to show a 0.6 percent increase, down from a previously reported 0.9 percent. Reuters reported that the slowdown in investment likely reflected “the impact of the strong dollar and lower crude oil prices, which have caused a drop in drilling and exploration activity.”

Government spending contracted at a rate of 1.9 percent, led by cuts to federal spending.

Even the anemic pace of economic growth in the last quarter of 2014 was significantly higher than what is expected in the first quarter of this year, which ends next week. Economists from JPMorgan Chase, Macroeconomic Advisers and Goldman Sachs recently cut their estimates for first-quarter economic growth, all of them forecasting a rate of 1.4 percent to 1.5 percent. The Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta is predicting even worse results, with a first-quarter GDP growth rate of just 0.2 percent.

A number of recently released economic figures underscore this gloomy outlook. The Commerce Department said Wednesday that orders for durable goods fell by 1.4 percent in February compared with a month earlier. The report also showed that non-defense capital goods orders fell for the sixth straight week.

The University of Michigan’s survey of consumer sentiment fell to 93.0 in March, down from 95.4 in February. Richard Curtin, chief economist at the University of Michigan’s Surveys of Consumers, told the Wall Street Journalthat, “most of the recent variation was among lower-income households, whose budgets are more sensitive to higher utility costs and disruptions in work hours.”

The significant appreciation of the dollar, which hit 0.95 euros earlier this month, up from 0.75 euros a year ago, has had a negative impact on the US trade balance and US corporate earnings.

Corporate profits fell 1.4 percent in the previous quarter, according to figures released by the Commerce Department on Friday. For the whole of 2014, corporate profits were down by 0.8 percent, the first annual fall in US corporate profits since 2008.

US corporations have responded to the appreciation of the dollar and falling profits with the demand that the Federal Reserve delay its plans to begin raising interest rates this year. Last week, Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen hinted that the US central bank might begin raising rates later than it had previously indicated, and the Fed issued interest rate projections for 2015 and beyond showing a slower pace of rate hikes than previously predicted once the increases begin.

Yellen reinforced this message in remarks at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco on Friday, declaring that she expected the “level of the federal funds rate to be normalized only gradually” and warning of raising rates “too quickly.”

The continued influx of cash from the Federal Reserve has led the Dow Jones Industrial Average to nearly triple over the course of the past six years, while allowing Wall Street bonuses to hit the highest levels since 2008. Average CEO pay in the US is higher than ever.

The response of the corporate-financial aristocracy to the renewed slowdown in the US economy will no doubt be an intensification of the policies that have characterized official economic policy since the 2008 crash: virtually unlimited amounts of cash for the financial markets coupled with a relentless offensive against the jobs, wages and living standards of working people.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/03/28/econ-m28.html

New discoveries show that Mars may have once been habitable

By Bryan Dyne
28 March 2015

A recent study using data from NASA’s Curiosity rover and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences present data showing the presence of nitrates on Mars. This molecule, composed of one nitrogen and three oxygen atoms, may indicate that there was once a nitrogen cycle on ancient Mars, one of the necessary mechanisms on a planet to sustain terrestrial-like life.

The Mars rover Curiosity. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The research was undertaken with an international team led by Jennifer Stern using Curiosity’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite. In earlier studies of Martian soils and rocks at Gale crater, nitrogen was detected in both scooped and drilled sediment samples. However, it was not clear whether the nitrogen detected was from the surrounding atmosphere, indicating molecular nitrogen, or from the rocks themselves, indicating nitrates. Using SAM and subtracting out the known sources of nitrogen within the instrument, Stern’s team was able to show that there were still up to 1100 parts per million (ppm) of nitrogen remaining, depending on the sample analyzed. From this, Stern’s team concluded that the nitrogen originated from the sediments and thus from nitrates.

Whether nitrogen is found in the atmosphere or in other forms plays an important role in biochemistry on Earth. While the majority of terrestrial nitrogen is in the atmosphere, making up 78 percent of the air we breath, it is in the inert form of molecular hydrogen (N2). To incorporate nitrogen into more complex molecules—such as nucleobases, amino acids, DNA, RNA and proteins—it must be in more accessible forms. The nitrate molecule (NO3) is one of the most prevalent and useful molecules seen on Earth for this purpose.

As such, the strong evidence of nitrates in a variety of different rocks and sediments on the Martian surface implies that, at a very early point in the planet’s history, there could have been large amounts of biologically useful nitrogen on the Red Planet.

Stern’s research complements a report released three weeks ago in Sciencewhich provides strong support for the existence of an ocean of liquid water on the surface of Mars during the planet’s early life. The ocean is estimated to have held more water than Earth’s Arctic Ocean. That is enough water to cover the entire surface of Mars in liquid 137 meters deep. More likely, the ocean covered almost half Mars’ northern hemisphere and reached depths greater than 1.6 kilometers.

This is much larger than previous estimates of a primordial Martian ocean, meaning that the planet’s surface could have been wetter for much longer than estimated, perhaps 900 million years. Combined with a thicker, warmer atmosphere, volcanism on the surface and the presence of nitrates, this likely led to rich reservoirs containing the diverse chemical elements needed for life.

Artist conception of the primitive ocean the NASA suspects once existed on Mars

This second discovery was made by a team led Geronimo Villanueva, working with the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile, and the W.M. Keck Observatory and NASA Infrared Telescope Facility in Hawaii. Using detailed maps of the Martian atmosphere, the scientists were able to distinguish the chemical signatures of two slightly different isotopes of water. The first is the familiar H2O. The second is the more exotic form HDO, in which one hydrogen atom is replaced by one its more massive forms, deuterium.

By taking the ratio of H2O and HDO in Mars’ atmosphere and comparing it to those values found in water trapped in a 4.5 billion-year-old Martian meteorite, Villanueva’s team was able to measure the atmospheric change in the intervening time span and determine how much water escaped to space. The forthcoming MAVEN probe will take similar measurements.

These maps were made over the course of three Martian years, amounting to six years on Earth. Beyond showing that Mars once housed a massive ocean, the research also revealed seasonal changes and local weather patterns across what was previously thought to be a mostly homogenous desert climate.

Mars’ polar ice caps were also studied, using the same H2O and HDO ratio, as they are suspected to contain a more direct record of water on Mars from 3.7 billion years ago to the present. The researchers found that Mars once had at least 6.5 times the amount of water currently contained in the ice caps, meaning a volume of water on ancient Mars of at least 20 million cubic kilometers. This is in general agreement with the atmospheric study.

Both the nitrogen amounts and water levels now thought to have existed on ancient Mars lead to the question: Where did this all go? Mars today is a barren world with an atmosphere that is 96 percent carbon dioxide and less than 1 percent as thick as Earth’s. There is no liquid water on its surface and one has to dig before finding any indication of biologically useable material.

It is suspected that Mars lost its atmosphere to space. The results gathered by the Curiosity rover as a whole are in agreement with in situ atmospheric measurements made by the Viking landers from 1976 to 1982, when this idea first gained traction. The three main mechanisms for losing atmosphere include interactions between the atmosphere and the solar wind, a massive impact by an asteroid or other body, and/or the atmosphere escaping as a result of thermal motion and the planet’s relatively low gravity. It is not clear which of these mechanisms (if any) is primary.

The loss of the ocean is somewhat more mysterious. Neither the solar wind nor low Martian gravity can account for the loss of liquid water. As the planet cooled and the water froze, one way for the ocean to have disappeared is for the frozen water to sublime into water vapor in the atmosphere and then into space. A more interesting hypothesis is that the ocean didn’t go anywhere at all, but was covered up by sediment and dirt as it froze. If so, this would mean that a great deal of water ice is under the northern lowlands of Mars, the Vastitas Borealis basin. It is unknown how far down a probe would need to drill in order to test this idea.

A further question is posed: What is the possibility that life developed on early Mars?

While a great deal more research needs to be done on this subject, these two results are further evidence that at the very least, the conditions once existed on Mars for a life cycle to begin.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/03/28/mars-m28.html

US House passes sweeping new bipartisan assault on Medicare

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By Kate Randall
27 March 2015

In a 392-37 vote, the US House on Thursday approved a bill that makes sweeping changes to the Medicare program that provides health insurance to more than 54 million seniors and the disabled. The Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act must be approved by the US Senate and signed into law by President Obama, who indicated his support for the measure earlier this week.

The bipartisan bill, drafted by Republican House Speaker John Boehner and Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, ties future payments to doctors for Medicare services to “quality of care,” shifting away from traditional fee-for-service payments. And for the first time, the universal Medicare program will institute means testing for higher-income seniors, requiring higher premiums for these individuals to access benefits.

The bill constitutes a historic attack on the Medicare program. Boehner called it the “first real entitlement reform in nearly two decades”—a reference to the assault on welfare launched under the Clinton administration in 1996. “Today is about a problem much bigger than any doc-fix or deadline. It’s about solving our spending problem,” he said.

Pelosi echoed Boehner’s comments, declaring that it had been a “privilege” to work with the House leader, and that she hoped the agreement “will be a model of things to come.”

The coming together of the Republican and Democratic Party leadership behind the overhaul exposes the unanimity within the ruling class on the need for sharp cuts in “entitlement” programs—Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

It provides a permanent “fix” to a 1997 law that tied doctors’ Medicare fees to overall economic growth. As overall health care costs have risen sharply, that formula threatened deep reimbursement cuts to doctors, cuts that Congress has blocked with patchwork measures 17 times since 2002.

The House bill will do away with the scheduled payment cut, set to kick in April 1, and replace it with a 0.5 percent yearly raise in payments through 2019. After this, a new payment system based on “quality of care” will be implemented.

Such language has been adopted by Medicare in other frameworks, and is generally measured by readmission rates and similar statistics. In other words, doctors who see more of their patients readmitted will receive cuts in reimbursement. However, readmission is closely correlated with poverty and other social factors, thus cutting spending on health care in lower-income and working class areas.

By disconnecting reimbursements from services provided, doctors will also be incentivized to ration care and cut back on testing—the overarching aim of all the health care “reform” proposals backed by both Democrats and Republicans. The change will result in reduced services for Medicare patients overall and deep spending cuts by the government.

This shift has long been promoted in the private insurance sector. It is also a key goal of the Obama administration, which earlier this year set a goal to tie the vast majority of Medicare payments to programs promoting cost-cutting.

The second main feature of the bill would institute means testing for Medicare recipients, requiring higher-income seniors to pay more toward Medicare premiums for insurance and prescription drug coverage. Initial estimates are that this change would result in Medicare savings of around $30 billion over the next decade.

Congressional Republicans and Democrats alike are well aware that this fundamental change opens the floodgates for transforming a program that for the last half-century has provided health care insurance to those over the age of 65, regardless of income, into a poverty program available to only those poorest segments of society. This is seen as a first step in it being starved of funds and ultimately dismantled.

Boehner, salivating at these prospects, commented, “We know we’ve got more serious entitlement reform that’s needed. It shouldn’t take another two decades to do it.” He indicated that the Republicans would continue to push for funding cuts to other federal benefit programs.

Some Congressional Republicans balked at the overall cost of the measure, which the Congressional Budget Office estimates at $214 billion over the next decade. This would be paid for through $141 billion in new spending, with the balance divided between higher monthly premiums for higher-income Medicare recipients and payments by nursing homes and other health care providers.

Boehner and the Republicans see the implementation of means testing—and the subsequent savings for government—as a starting point for future overhauls to Medicare and other federal programs. This particularly applies to Social Security, the universal retirement program enacted in 1935 in the wake of the Great Depression.

Both Medicare and Social Security are not “gifts” by the government, but benefits based on the funds workers pay into these programs for their entire working lives through deductions from their paychecks.

As window dressing, the bill also provides two more years of funding to the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which serves 8 million low-income children, as well as to the nation’s 1,200 community health centers. While Pelosi and the White House had pushed for four-year extensions for both of these programs, the majority of Congressional Democrats willingly compromised on this issue in order to push through the changes to Medicare.

The bill also includes abortion funding restrictions at community health centers, incorporating components of the so-called Hyde Amendment, which forbids federal funding of abortion except in the cases of rape, incest, or the endangered life of the mother.

Leaders of the House “pro-choice” caucus assured skeptical Senate Democrats that the bill’s language provides no additional abortion restrictions beyond those that already apply. In fact, the Obama administration acceded to these reactionary and unconstitutional restrictions in language in the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Speaking Wednesday on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of his signing into law of what is popularly known as Obamacare, the president indicated his support for the new bipartisan Medicare bill. “I’ve got my pen ready to sign a good bipartisan bill,” he said.

The coinciding of the ACA’s anniversary and the current bipartisan bill is noteworthy. From the start, Obama’s health care overhaul has been aimed at a fundamental restructuring of the health care system, aimed at lowering costs for the government and corporations while slashing health care services for the vast majority of Americans.

Taking its cue from Obamacare, the change in Medicare represented by Pelosi and Boehner’s bill will set an example that can rapidly be extended throughout the health care system. Despite many Congressional Republicans’ vocal opposition to the ACA and vows to see it repealed, they are in agreement with its aim of rationing care and funneling more money to the health care industry.

Although the bill faces some opposition in the Senate, it is expected to pass, either before Congress leaves for spring recess today or on its return in two weeks. If it does not pass before the recess, Congress will likely pass a temporary fix to the Medicare payments to doctors.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/03/27/medi-m27.html

The California drought: Water-rationing plan leaves corporate interests untouched

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26 March 2015

The unprecedented drought gripping California has deepened for the fourth consecutive year, having already set new records for the lowest annual precipitation levels on record. 2014 brought the highest calendar-year temperature for the state, while this February was the hottest on record and this January the driest.

A recent study conducted by Daniel Griffin and Kevin J. Anchukaitis found that the current episode “is the most severe drought in the last 1200 years, with single year (2014) and accumulated moisture deficits worse than any previous continuous span of dry years.”

Last Thursday, California Governor Jerry Brown announced a new bill, which he claims will provide $1 billion in drought-related spending, mostly on flood protection. The bill merely expedites funds already approved by California voters, and will do nothing to resolve the state’s dire water crisis.

Last Tuesday, the California State Water Resources Control Board intensified emergency legislation targeting residential “water wasters,” initially implemented last summer. The law imposes a $500 fine for offenses including excessive lawn watering.

Both measures leave untouched the giant agribusinesses and oil corporations that account for a majority of the state’s water usage and dominate the political system.

On Sunday, Chuck Todd, host of NBC’s Meet the Press, asked Governor Brown whether “considering how much water…is used for fracking [hydraulic fracturing]…isn’t that alone enough reason to prohibit fracking or temporarily stop it?”

Brown sought to deflect the question, responding: “No, not at all. First of all, fracking in California has been going on for more than 50 years. It uses a fraction of the water of fracking on the East Coast for gas, particularly.”

Throughout his entire political career, dating back to the 1970s, Brown has been entirely beholden to Big Oil, while posturing as a defender of the environment. He has accepted at least $2 million in campaign contributions from oil corporations since 2006, including Chevron, Occidental Petroleum, Southern California Edison, Valero Energy, Tesoro Corp, Conoco Phillips and Aera Energy (owned jointly by Shell and ExxonMobil). Most of these companies donated the maximum amount possible to Brown’s reelection campaign last November.

Earlier this year, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that, for years, state regulators knowingly allowed oil companies, mostly in the impoverished Central Valley, to pump their wastewater into groundwater aquifers that contained drinkable water.

Every year, the oil industry in California produces roughly 130 billion gallons of wastewater, as the state is the third-largest oil producer in the US. Kern County, home to most of California’s oil and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) wells, has the worst air quality of any county in the US, along with some of the highest rates of cancer and respiratory illness.

Climate change, a byproduct of the oil corporations’ unrelenting drive to accumulate profit, has played the most significant role in determining the length and severity of the ongoing drought, as well as the likelihood for future droughts.

On March 12, the leading bourgeois press outlet in the state, the Los Angeles Times, prominently featured an op-ed penned by NASA’s senior water scientist, Jay Famiglietti, titled “California has about one year of water left. Will you ration now?”

Famiglietti begins the op-ed by stating that “Right now the state has only about one year of water supply left in its reservoirs, and our strategic backup supply, groundwater, is rapidly disappearing.” He proposes a water rationing scheme across “all of the state’s water sectors, from domestic and municipal through agricultural and industrial.”

Despite the calls by experts to place restrictions on business, last Tuesday the State Water Resources Control Board furthered emergency drought regulations that target solely consumers, leaving agribusiness untouched. Local water districts must restrict lawn watering to twice weekly, among other tepid reductions in consumers’ water usage.

The state will now place local water agencies under intense scrutiny, ensuring that they levy $500 daily fines against “water wasters” that were first enacted last summer. Over the past year, few fines were doled out locally, with one notable exception being Santa Cruz, which issued over $1.6 million in penalties against individual consumers. The cities of San Ramon and Dublin, both east of Oakland, issued $40,000 in combined fines.

Instead of adopting any sort of progressive policy to implement well-known, rational planning methods that would ensure the viability of California’s water supply for future generations, the existing political setup seeks to reduce the highly complex issue to merely punishing individual consumers.

The drought has already devastated thousands of working-class families, as an estimated 17,100 agricultural laborers lost their jobs during last year’s growing season alone, with that number expected to rise significantly this year. The brunt of these job losses occurred in the agricultural heart of the state, the Central Valley, a stretch of land roughly 450 miles long, from Bakersfield in the south to Redding in the north, and between the Sierra Nevada to the east and the Coast Ranges to the west.

Between the spring of 2013 and the spring of 2014, water levels in groundwater basins throughout the Central Valley fell by 50 feet or more, amid a race to drill ever-deeper and more expensive groundwater pumps. In one of the Central Valley’s most productive agricultural regions, Tulare County, 874 well permits were issued in the first six months of 2014 alone, 44 more than the county issued in all of 2013.

In the process, hundreds of private wells across Tulare County dried up, leaving thousands of East Porterville’s working-class residents without water. The state’s only response to this dire crisis has been to provide limited amounts of bottled water to inhabitants, with no plans implemented to develop water infrastructure for residents.

A package of three bills signed last September by Brown will implement the first-ever groundwater regulations in the state, but will have no effect until 2040, and even then will not require businesses to report how much water they pump individually. Barring an end to the drought, which scientists have noted could become a decades-long “megadrought,” all remaining groundwater will have long disappeared by that time.

The legislation passed last Tuesday does nothing to curb groundwater usage by the agricultural giants, the only ones capable of shelling out upwards of $400,000 to drill the 2,000-foot (600-meter) pumps required to extract dwindling groundwater reserves.

Agriculture accounts for roughly 80 percent of California’s total water usage, while the remainder is used by urban industry and household consumers, with outdoor landscaping accounting for roughly half of total urban usage. Thus, at most the recent regulations will cause a 5 percent reduction in the state’s total water usage.

California produces over 99 percent of all almonds, pistachios, olives, walnuts, rice, plums, dates, figs, raisins, artichokes, kiwis, peaches and pomegranates grown in the US, and is also the leading producer of dozens of other food commodities. In recent decades, international demand has led to a large transition toward growing orchard and vineyard crops.

During the drought, many farmers have fallowed even more of their traditional vegetable crops, diverting water toward almond trees and other orchards, which take longer to mature and are thus a larger capital investment. California currently grows roughly 80 percent of the world’s almond supply, in addition to 43 percent of all pistachios and 28 percent of all walnuts, and these cash crops are indispensable to maintaining profitability.

The “almond empire” is centered in the San Joaquin Valley, home to the largest almond-growing monopoly in the world, Paramount Farming. Paramount’s owners, Stewart and Lynda Resnick, are closely connected to Governor Brown, as well as Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein and other state politicians, and have influenced water policy in the state for decades.

This couple is the modern-day reincarnation of the most corrupt aspects of former Los Angeles Mayor Frederick Eaton and his associate Joseph Lippincott, immortalized in the character of Noah Cross, played by John Huston in the 1974 Roman Polanski classic Chinatown. In addition to Paramount Farming, their holding company also owns Paramount Citrus and Paramount Farms, the world’s largest growers of citrus and pistachios.

Financial interests, including New York-based retirement and investment fund TIAA-CREF and Hancock Agricultural Investment Group, a subsidiary of the insurance and financial services giant Manulife Financial, have recently joined the bumper crop frenzy, becoming some of the largest nut growers in California.

Despite the proven efficiency of drip irrigation for orchard and vineyard crops, 20.3 percent of all vineyard and 13.4 percent of all almond and pistachio crops in the state continue to be grown using flood irrigation methods. Thus, almond trees alone presently account for 10 percent of California’s total annual water usage, more than the combined domestic usage of the state’s 38.8 million inhabitants.

There are immense efficiencies to be gained through the statewide adoption of crop-specific irrigation methods and other efficiency improvements. Yet any such rational reorganization is blocked by the interests of the US financial oligarchy, which, controlling the entire political system, will not abide any impingement on its profits.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/03/26/cali-m26.html

Juncker’s call for an EU army is an affront to democracy

By Joseph Lacey On March 24, 2015

Post image for Juncker’s call for an EU army is an affront to democracyThere is nothing constructive about the creeping manner in which EU integration proceeds. Juncker’s recent comments are an affront to democratic process.

Screaming from The Guardian’s front page recently was a headline about comments from European Commission President, Jean-Claude Junker, concerning the need for a European army. The Guardian was not just trying to sell papers by leading with this story — its editors clearly realize that these seemingly armchair remarks made to a German Sunday newspaper (Welt am Sonntag) should not be taken lightly.

Taking Junker seriously

Why is that? Largely forgotten now, but one of the many hot issues surrounding ratification of the Lisbon Treaty in 2007-’08 was the fact that its Preamble and Article 42 explicitly provides for the creation of a “common defense” at the member states’ will.

The prospect of a European army was already a strong possibility in post-war Europe, and would have likely become a reality had the French Parliament not narrowly rejected the proposal in 1954.

The Lisbon Treaty made the idea of a European military very much active once again. Junker, meanwhile, has signaled his intention to make advances on it both through his comments and the publication of his ten point 2014-’19 agendalast October.

Another reason to take these comments seriously is that Commission President is by no means a nominal position. Just as with any prominent leadership role, its incumbents are concerned about legacy and the legacy of a Commission President is measured by just how much integration he or she manages to achieve when in office.

Jacques Delors stands out as the shining ideal — his charismatic integration activism being seen as indispensable in putting together the Single European Act in 1986 (helping to complete the single market) and the 1992 Maastricht Treaty (setting out a rigorous plan for monetary union).

Part of Junker’s desired legacy is undoubtedly deeper military integration.

Integration by stealth

Remarkably, as is characteristic of European integration history, these Treaty-based feats of international coordination followed a methodology of “integration by stealth” against the background of a “permissive consensus”. In other words, national and European elites were generally happy to commit Europeans to a supranational project without much by way of public debates and the citizens of most member states were largely content to let these elites be at their work.

Only in three countries holding referendums on Treaty ratification – Denmark and Ireland (Single European Act); Denmark, France, Ireland (Maastricht Treaty) – was there an engaged public debate on these Treaties that have shaped Europe’s collective future.

Since that time, the EU has become a somewhat more visible and contested actor. The politicisation that came with the failure of the Constitutional Treaty in 2004 and the controversial ratification of the Lisbon Treaty thereafter, along with the prominent role of European institutions during the Euro-crisis, has finally made clear to the popular imagination just how powerful and important the EU has become.

Despite this politicisation, through which many citizens appear no longer willing to grant the integration trajectory a permissive consensus, the methodology of integration by stealth does not seem to have been adjusted.

For some time the EU has had a Common Security and Defence policy, which received a shot in the arm by the Lisbon Treaty, not only by including provisions for the formation of a European army as above but also by creating an External Action Service and High Representative for Foreign affairs (also a member of the Commission).

As the Euro-crisis unfolded, consuming all EU-related media attention, these newly established actors have been quietly paving the way for deeper integration in defence and security.

A European army would differ from existing international military cooperation (e.g. NATO) in that it will form an integrated singular military force, not just coordination between national armies. This move would empower the Commission, the closest thing the EU has to an executive arm, responsible as it is for initiating legislation and coordinating policy areas among the many hands through which legislation passes and is implemented.

Democratic deficit

Whatever the merits and demerits of a European army, its very real prospect raises serious concerns for democracy and the future of Europe. The idea of a European military has not been debated by nor found support among the peoples of Europe. This is an especially black mark on the supposedly improved democratic credentials of the Commission.

Junker’s appointment to his present position in 2014 was the first time the office of Commission President was directly linked to the outcome of elections to the European Parliament. He was the nominated electoral candidate of the European People’s Party, which won the largest share of seats in the most recent elections.

Boldly, Junker claimed a mandate from the European people, despite the fact that most people had not even heard of him. In the European People’s Party electoral manifesto consisting of four pages we find some short paragraphs which, at a stretch, could be interpreted as gesturing towards a European army.

Vague language about an EU that “tackles the big issues together” and boosting Europe’s “Foreign, Security and Defense capabilities” is the most we get. That such a policy platform provides a mandate for anything specific, let alone the pursuit of such a massive integration step as a common military force, is unconvincing to say the least.

The fact that deeper integration is still very much at the forefront of elite EU minds indicates just how far out of touch (or unconcerned with) they are with popular attitudes that have developed in the last couple of years.

How the Eurozone debt crisis was managed, undermining national democratic and economic sovereignty in Greece, Italy and Ireland (among others), has provoked a number of resentments that should be enough to put any prospects of deeper integration on hold until the issues motivating this bad blood are resolved.

These resentments can be summed up as a) dissatisfaction with the technocratic nature of European democracy; b) the clear emergence of Germany as the real decision-maker in Europe; and c) the mutual resentment of debtor and creditor states towards one another, both feeling unsatisfied with what each expects of the other.

Legitimate questions arise from this situation. If Europeans do not have the solidarity to cope with crises arising from current levels of integration, on what basis can we say that integration on such a sensitive area as defense would fare much better?

Would a European military not just become an extension of the German will, at least in times of crisis, much like the European Central Bank and even the Commission itself appears to have become during the ongoing Euro crisis?

The disintegration of Europe

Ironically, Junker’s words about military integration run the risk of having disintegrative effects. Such talk only helps to fuel the rhetoric of political parties that may be seen as belonging to the darker side of democratic life. The right-wing populist United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), for example, have had a field day with Junker’s comments.

For a citizenry like we find in the UK — already sensitive to the loss of sovereignty necessitated by European integration and edging towards the exit door as its Prime Minister David Cameron tries to negotiate a less integrated Europe before a proposed “in/out” referendum in 2017 — the idea of a European military is a non-starter.

Standing against UK membership of the EU, UKIP have been able to consistently use the EU’s lack of democratic legitimacy as a narrative construction in pursuing an illiberal policy platform. As the narrative goes, “the unelected technocrats of Europe are opening the door to criminals and unwanted migrants from within and beyond the EU. And the only way of taking back our borders is to take back our democracy. This means Brexit.”

To this narrative add the idea of a prospective European military and the sympathies of any UK citizen even remotely responsive to UKIP rhetoric will surely deepen in this direction.

Abolishing the permissive consensus

There is nothing constructive about Junker’s comments and the silent manner in which European integration proceeds, in the area of defence and security and beyond, is an affront to any conception of good democratic practice.

The only legitimate way forward for the EU is its democratization. And it is this that should be the European peoples’ non-negotiable condition for the prospect of any further integration projects.

The permissive consensus, which has surely been damaged in recent times, has not been destroyed. What remains of it is not serving Europeans well and must be eliminated entirely.

It is not the outcome of a genuine international democratic debate that should concerns us for the moment — for/against a European army, for/against the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, and so on — but guaranteeing that such a debate is had in the first place.

As it stands, Europeans will not have a choice about these or many other subjects.

Joseph Lacey is a PhD researcher at the European University Institute.

 

http://roarmag.org/2015/03/juncker-european-army-democracy/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+roarmag+%28ROAR+Magazine%29