JARED BALL, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome, everyone, back to the Real News Network. I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore.
While leading Democratic party politicians are now hawking new plans for a debt-free college experience, which of course sounds great to what are now the most indebted college graduates in world history, there are still some concerned about the kind of education even those not having to pay at all would receive. In a recent article for Harper’s magazine William Deresiewicz describes a situation where, as he says, colleges have sold their soul to the market.
To discuss this is Larry Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Colin Powell and a professor at the College of William and Mary. We welcome back Col. Wilkerson to the Real News. Welcome back.
LARRY WILKERSON, FMR. CHIEF OF STAFF TO COLIN POWELL: Thanks, Jared. Good to be with you.BALL: So tell us what you think about this article. It suggests that neoliberalism has taken hold, and the designs of the corporate world are all that most universities are being encouraged, at least, to be concerned about. What do you see is the problem here with this trend?
WILKERSON: This is an age-old problem, as you probably know. It goes way back in the life of universities, certainly argued majorly in or on campuses like Oxford University, Cambridge University in England, and other, older schools. It is typified by on the one side the humanists, the exponents of liberal arts, of teaching young men and young women how to think critically as opposed to skills enhancement and training, and those on the other side of the argument exemplified at that time by the Huxley brothers, scientists, by those who reflect what we’re talking about today when we say STEM, science, technology, engineering and so forth.
And what is increasingly becoming the case, and I think is the real object of the article in Harper’s and others who are talking about this in great detail today, and that is the predatory capitalist state, which is what we have become in addition to being a national security state. That predatory capitalist state wants, one, workers who are not going to question things. That is to say, they can’t think critically. And it wants people who are more or less inured to what they produce, do, and mean in daily existence. That is to say, they want workers who are compliant with the structure that we’ve created in this country, the structure that works for minimum wages, that does things that need to be done for the corporate good, and so forth.
It’s a meaner argument, if you will, today. I can give the Huxley brothers their due, as they argued for example with John Henry Cardinal Newman about whether a liberal arts education or a science-based education was the best. And like Plato and Aristotle I would probably argue that somewhere in between is probably the best kind of education. That is to say, you need scientists who can think critically too, and therefore be good voters and so forth, and you need humanists that know something, liberal arts people who know something about science, engineering, math, and so forth. That’s the ideal world.
What you do not need is colleges and universities that are focused on getting jobs for people, and getting jobs in a society that is increasingly plutocratic, that is to say, the only people with the really good jobs are at the very top, and everybody else is a worker bee for those people. That’s what these colleges and universities are tending towards now, and that’s what the advertisements, that’s what the brouhaha in U.S. News and World Report and other places like that is all about. Oh, you’re spending $200,000 for Jane’s education. Then Jane needs to get a job, and she doesn’t need an education. What she needs is training and skills enhancement. Well, that’s not the purpose of a university.
BALL: But this sounds like, to me at least, that this is an expansion, as you said, of a much longer existing problem. That is, that for many, that is for working whites, for poor working whites in this country and certainly for African-descended people and indigenous people, there has long been a history of teaching those communities only to be part of the workforce. That is, with Native American residential schools, with the industrial schools of the 19th century for African-Americans, for the establishment of a public school system in this country in general that was designed specifically to prepare white working people for their roles in society, that this has long been an issue.
So how is this discussion, other than upping it, so to speak, into the upper echelons of society, how is this a change in terms of the history of this country’s education, generally speaking?
WILKERSON: It’s not a change in the sense that you just expressed it, that it has all this complexity, all this nuance and all these different parts to it. For example, there is the part of minority education, the part of minorities being shorted for 400 years, still being shorted. I worked in the DC public school system, for example, for Colin Powell for ten years. It is for all intents and purposes I was segregated when I worked in it as it was in 1850, if it existed at that time. I mean this is no, nothing news to people who’ve worked in inner city schools, that minorities get short shrift when it comes to education.
But this is a bigger argument. It’s a huge argument at the very top of what you might call the sophistication of education argument. And it is first of all, should everyone get a university education, well, I for one, I’m talking about. The answer to that question is no. no matter how egalitarian you may be, everyone in the world does not need to be a philosopher, does not need to be a Ph.D in nuclear physics, and so forth. They don’t have the intellectual capacity, and frankly–and this is more important–they don’t have the inclination.
There are plenty of people that ought to run automotive repair shops, ought to be tradesmen and craftsmen and so forth. And we’ve sort of lost that in this culture today because what we are is a finance giant. We service people, we finance things. We don’t do any real making of anything anymore. But there is a niche, a huge niche in our society for artisans. For craftsmen. For people who by their own wishes don’t want what I’m talking about when I say a university education. And in many cases, aren’t intellectually equipped for it.
So that’s the first division you have to make, and you do have to make that division. We’ve been very [inaud.] by allowing the market to make that division, which is why we get so many idiots who are billionaires, and so many bright people who are not making any money at all. It’s a hypocritical stance in this country that we take on merit and education, and so forth.
But back to the argument, the university takes in people who are intellectually, mentally predisposed to and want to be critical thinkers. That’s not everybody in society. I daresay if a study were done, and it were done over time, you’d probably find 30-40 percent of any given society that really ought to have a university education of the type I’m talking about. Other types of education that mostly community colleges can offer, that are in fact sort of a combination of what I mean by education and what I mean by skills enhancement that are aimed at particular niches in society for example, computer training being the latest example of that on a broad base, ought to be done also. But this is a sort of combination of the university and the artisan segments of society.
The Germans do this really well. They have trade schools and they have universities. And they know everyone’s not going to university, by inclination or by capability. So they identify those people and send those people to university. Those who want trades and good jobs in trades, like working at Mercedes or BMW or whatever, they then send to trade school. Because they want to go to trade school, and because they have intellectual and other capacity to do that. This is the way education should be divided in this country. But hypocrites that we are, hypocrites that we’ve always been, we say everyone should have a $250,000 or more university education. That’s pure poppycock.
BALL: Larry Wilkerson, thanks again for joining us here at the Real News.
WILKERSON: Thanks for having me on, Jared.
BALL: And thank you for joining us here at the Real News. For everyone involved, again, I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore. And as always, as Fred Hampton used to say, to you we say peace if you’re willing to fight for it. So peace everybody, and we’ll catch you in the whirlwind.
Photo by Alvin J. Báez
On August 1, Puerto Rico defaulted on part of its enormous $72 billion debt, paying back only $628,000 on a $58 million loan that was due at the start of the month. The default, which marks the most serious credit event in US state and municipal bond markets since the city of Detroit filed for bankruptcy in 2013, has led many to draw obvious comparisons to Greece – and understandably so.
Like Greece, Puerto Rico has been mired in a protracted recession that has seen unemployment rise, living standards fall and countless people leave their homeland in search of better life opportunities abroad. Like Greece, Puerto Rico is buckling under an unsustainable debt load that its leaders claim “cannot be paid.” And like Greece, Puerto Rico is effectively a ward of the larger union of which it is a part: Greece of the Eurozone and Puerto Rico of the United States.
But for all these obvious similarities, there is one puzzling difference: while Puerto Rico was allowed to default on its debts without drawing much ire – or interest – from the US government, Greece has not been able to do the same. Why was Puerto Rico allowed to default while Greece was not? The answer is simple: first follow the rules, then follow the money – and you will see.
When it comes to the rules, part of the answer surely lies in the peculiar institutional arrangement Puerto Rico finds itself in. As a commonwealth – or ade facto colony – of the United States, Puerto Rico and its public corporations can neither turn to the IMF for a bailout loan, as nominally “sovereign” nations like Greece and Portugal have done in recent years, nor file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy in the US, as state municipalities like Detroit and Stockton, CA. have.
The result is to leave the country in a sort of legal and financial limbo from which the only possible escape is either a bailout from the federal government or a unilateral suspension of payments on the debt. Since the former does not appear to be forthcoming (at least not for now), the latter has become all but inevitable. Experts widely believe further missed payments are still ahead.
When it comes to the money, however, we encounter the real reason why the US creditors have been so reluctant to intervene: because Puerto Rico basically just defaulted on its own people. The non-payment of August 1 was strictly limited to bonds held by the Public Finance Corporation, in which almost 900,000 poor and mostly rural Puerto Ricans – powerless pensioners and small savers – have invested their life savings through their local not-for-profit credit unions.
As one of them just toldThe New York Times, “they told me this was safe, that the legal protections were strong. They told me this was the best place to put my money, and I trusted them.”
But the bonds were not safe and those who sold them were not to be trusted. What most Puerto Rican savers and pensioners did not know was that their island’s awkward legal status under US law had allowed the big players on Wall Street to effectively turn their homeland into a casino. Because Puerto Rico’s government was in dire need of external financing, and because its public bonds are governed by a so-called “triple-exemption rule” that makes interest paid on them free of all city, state and federal taxes in the mainland United States, the banks saw a potential boom market.
As Eric Draitser wrote for teleSUR on the day before the default:
Barclays, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, Bank of America-Merrill Lynch, and many others rushed to underwrite massive loans in the form of bond purchases in order to then turn around and sell those bonds to hedge funds and other investors in the US and around the world, thereby raking in tremendous profits on the underwriting fees. Essentially, Wall Street banks came in with enormous capital, then transferred the risk on to other speculators, while making handsome profits as middlemen.
Hedge fund managers clearly got drunk on the high yields, zero-taxes, steep discounts and strong constitutional protections that these Puerto Rican bonds offered. As late as 2014, Jeffrey Gundlach of DoubleLine Capital referred to investing in Puerto Rico as his “best idea,” while John Paulson – who gained notoriety for his speculative bets in Greece in recent years – even praised the economically moribund US debt colony as “the Singapore of the Caribbean.”
Now, what has largely gone unmentioned in the media since the default is that the Puerto Rican government did, on the same day, repay most of its nearly $500 million in other obligations to the big hedge funds and other institutional investors. The default, in other words, was a strategic decision by the Puerto Rican government – presumably undertaken under the pressure of the hedge funds themselves – to avoid losing access to future credit.
As a journalist for The Independent summarized the situation: “Some have called the $58 million default a calculated effort, as Puerto Rico paid ‘the big guys’ with the legal power to sue, while it shortchanged the low-risk creditors in its own backyard.” Or, as James Henry, an investment scholar at Columbia University, put it:
They have selectively defaulted. They are defaulting on publicly-traded stuff and trying to negotiate private agreements with hedge funds. Hedge funds have a lot of clout in governments and are likely going behind the scenes to help influence who gets paid back. If Puerto Rico ever wants to borrow again they have to pay back these guys. That’s the vulture approach.
Meanwhile, even though it cannot apply for an IMF bailout, the Puerto Rican government has already called in the help of three ex-IMF officials, including the Fund’s former deputy chief economist Anne Krueger, for advise on how to proceed. In a report published at the end of June, the three advisors called on the government to fire thousands of teachers, close schools, increase property taxes, suspend the minimum wage and slash the amount of paid holidays in half.
Perhaps, then, Puerto Rico’s default is not all that different from Greece’s non-default after all. Barely a month after Eurozone officials incorporated Greece as a de facto economic protectorate, US investors appear to be adamant to exact the same kind of discipline from their own long-standing debt colony. Default, it seems, is fine – as long as the bankers and the vultures are repaid.
America’s next president could be eased into office not just by TV ads or speeches, but by Google’s secret decisions, and no one—except for me and perhaps a few other obscure researchers—would know how this was accomplished.
Research I have been directing in recent years suggests that Google, Inc., has amassed far more power to control elections—indeed, to control a wide variety of opinions and beliefs—than any company in history has ever had. Google’s search algorithm can easily shift the voting preferences of undecided voters by 20 percent or more—up to 80 percent in some demographic groups—with virtually no one knowing they are being manipulated, according to experiments I conducted recently with Ronald E. Robertson.
Given that many elections are won by small margins, this gives Google the power, right now, to flip upwards of 25 percent of the national elections worldwide. In the United States, half of our presidential elections have been won by margins under 7.6 percent, and the 2012 election was won by a margin of only 3.9 percent—well within Google’s control.
What we call in our research the Search Engine Manipulation Effect (SEME) turns out to be one of the largest behavioral effects ever discovered. Our comprehensive new study, just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), includes the results of five experiments we conducted with more than 4,500 participants in two countries. Because SEME is virtually invisible as a form of social influence, because the effect is so large and because there are currently no specific regulations anywhere in the world that would prevent Google from using and abusing this technique, we believe SEME is a serious threat to the democratic system of government.
According to Google Trends, at this writing Donald Trump is currently trouncing all other candidates in search activity in 47 of 50 states. Could this activity push him higher in search rankings, and could higher rankings in turn bring him more support? Most definitely—depending, that is, on how Google employees choose to adjust numeric weightings in the search algorithm. Google acknowledges adjusting the algorithm 600 times a year, but the process is secret, so what effect Mr. Trump’s success will have on how he shows up in Google searches is presumably out of his hands.
Our new research leaves little doubt about whether Google has the ability to control voters. In laboratory and online experiments conducted in the United States, we were able to boost the proportion of people who favored any candidate by between 37 and 63 percent after just one search session. The impact of viewing biased rankings repeatedly over a period of weeks or months would undoubtedly be larger.
In our basic experiment, participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups in which search rankings favored either Candidate A, Candidate B or neither candidate. Participants were given brief descriptions of each candidate and then asked how much they liked and trusted each candidate and whom they would vote for. Then they were allowed up to 15 minutes to conduct online research on the candidates using a Google-like search engine we created called Kadoodle.
Each group had access to the same 30 search results—all real search results linking to real web pages from a past election. Only the ordering of the results differed in the three groups. People could click freely on any result or shift between any of five different results pages, just as one can on Google’s search engine.
When our participants were done searching, we asked them those questions again, and, voilà: On all measures, opinions shifted in the direction of the candidate who was favored in the rankings. Trust, liking and voting preferences all shifted predictably.
More alarmingly, we also demonstrated this shift with real voters during an actual electoral campaign—in an experiment conducted with more than 2,000 eligible, undecided voters throughout India during the 2014 Lok Sabha election there—the largest democratic election in history, with more than 800 million eligible voters and 480 million votes ultimately cast. Even here, with real voters who were highly familiar with the candidates and who were being bombarded with campaign rhetoric every day, we showed that search rankings could boost the proportion of people favoring any candidate by more than 20 percent—more than 60 percent in some demographic groups.
Given how powerful this effect is, it’s possible that Google decided the winner of the Indian election. Google’s own daily data on election-related search activity (subsequently removed from the Internet, but not before my colleagues and I downloaded the pages) showed that Narendra Modi, the ultimate winner, outscored his rivals in search activity by more than 25 percent for sixty-one consecutive days before the final votes were cast. That high volume of search activity could easily have been generated by higher search rankings for Modi.
Google’s official comment on SEME research is always the same: “Providing relevant answers has been the cornerstone of Google’s approach to search from the very beginning. It would undermine the people’s trust in our results and company if we were to change course.”
Could any comment be more meaningless? How does providing “relevant answers” to election-related questions rule out the possibility of favoring one candidate over another in search rankings? Google’s statement seems far short of a blanket denial that it ever puts its finger on the scales.
There are three credible scenarios under which Google could easily be flipping elections worldwide as you read this:
First, there is the Western Union Scenario: Google’s executives decide which candidate is best for us—and for the company, of course—and they fiddle with search rankings accordingly. There is precedent in the United States for this kind of backroom king-making. Rutherford B. Hayes, the 19th president of the United States, was put into office in part because of strong support by Western Union. In the late 1800s, Western Union had a monopoly on communications in America, and just before the election of 1876, the company did its best to assure that only positive news stories about Hayes appeared in newspapers nationwide. It also shared all the telegrams sent by his opponent’s campaign staff with Hayes’s staff. Perhaps the most effective way to wield political influence in today’s high-tech world is to donate money to a candidate and then to use technology to make sure he or she wins. The technology guarantees the win, and the donation guarantees allegiance, which Google has certainly tapped in recent years with the Obama administration.
Given Google’s strong ties to Democrats, there is reason to suspect that if Google or its employees intervene to favor their candidates, it will be to adjust the search algorithm to favor Hillary Clinton. In 2012, Google and its top executives donated more than $800,000 to Obama but only $37,000 to Romney. At least six top tech officials in the Obama administration, including Megan Smith, the country’s chief technology officer, are former Google employees. According to a recent report by the Wall Street Journal, since Obama took office, Google representatives have visited the White House ten times as frequently as representatives from comparable companies—once a week, on average.
Hillary Clinton clearly has Google’s support and is well aware of Google’s value in elections. In April of this year, she hired a top Google executive, Stephanie Hannon, to serve as her chief technology officer. I don’t have any reason to suspect Hannon would use her old connections to aid her candidate, but the fact that she—or any other individual with sufficient clout at Google—has the power to decide elections threatens to undermine the legitimacy of our electoral system, particularly in close elections.
This is, in any case, the most implausible scenario. What company would risk the public outrage and corporate punishment that would follow from being caught manipulating an election?
Second, there is the Marius Milner Scenario: A rogue employee at Google who has sufficient password authority or hacking skills makes a few tweaks in the rankings (perhaps after receiving a text message from some old friend who now works on a campaign), and the deed is done. In 2010, when Google got caught sweeping up personal information from unprotected Wi-Fi networks in more than 30 countries using its Street View vehicles, the entire operation was blamed on one Google employee: software engineer Marius Milner. So they fired him, right? Nope. He’s still there, and on LinkedIn he currently identifies his profession as “hacker.” If, somehow, you have gotten the impression that at least a few of Google’s 37,000 employees are every bit as smart as Milner and possess a certain mischievousness—well, you are probably right, which is why the rogue employee scenario isn’t as far-fetched as it might seem.
And third—and this is the scariest possibility—there is the Algorithm Scenario: Under this scenario, all of Google’s employees are innocent little lambs, but the software is evil. Google’s search algorithm is pushing one candidate to the top of rankings because of what the company coyly dismisses as “organic” search activity by users; it’s harmless, you see, because it’s all natural. Under this scenario, a computer program is picking our elected officials.
To put this another way, our research suggests that no matter how innocent or disinterested Google’s employees may be, Google’s search algorithm, propelled by user activity, has been determining the outcomes of close elections worldwide for years, with increasing impact every year because of increasing Internet penetration.
SEME is powerful precisely because Google is so good at what it does; its search results are generally superb. Having learned that fact over time, we have come to trust those results to a high degree. We have also learned that higher rankings mean better material, which is why 50 percent of our clicks go to the first two items, with more than 90 percent of all clicks going to that precious first search page. Unfortunately, when it comes to elections, that extreme trust we have developed makes us vulnerable to manipulation.
In the final days of a campaign, fortunes are spent on media blitzes directed at a handful of counties where swing voters will determine the winners in the all-important swing states. What a waste of resources! The right person at Google could influence those key voters more than any stump speech could; there is no cheaper, more efficient or subtler way to turn swing voters than SEME. SEME also has one eerie advantage over billboards: when people are unaware of a source of influence, they believe they weren’t being influenced at all; they believe they made up their own minds.
Republicans, take note: A manipulation on Hillary Clinton’s behalf would be particularly easy for Google to carry out, because of all the demographic groups we have looked at so far, no group has been more vulnerable to SEME—in other words, so blindly trusting of search rankings—than moderate Republicans. In a national experiment we conducted in the United States, we were able to shift a whopping 80 percent of moderate Republicans in any direction we chose just by varying search rankings.
There are many ways to influence voters—more ways than ever these days, thanks to cable television, mobile devices and the Internet. Why be so afraid of Google’s search engine? If rankings are so influential, won’t all the candidates be using the latest SEO techniques to make sure they rank high?
SEO is competitive, as are billboards and TV commercials. No problem there. The problem is that for all practical purposes, there is just one search engine. More than 75 percent of online search in the United States is conducted on Google, and in most other countries that proportion is 90 percent. That means that if Google’s CEO, a rogue employee or even just the search algorithm itself favors one candidate, there is no way to counteract that influence. It would be as if Fox News were the only television channel in the country. As Internet penetration grows and more people get their information about candidates online, SEME will become an increasingly powerful form of influence, which means that the programmers and executives who control search engines will also become more powerful.
Worse still, our research shows that even when people do notice they are seeing biased search rankings, their voting preferences still shift in the desired directions—even more than the preferences of people who are oblivious to the bias. In our national study in the United States, 36 percent of people who were unaware of the rankings bias shifted toward the candidate we chose for them, but 45 percent of those who were aware of the bias also shifted. It’s as if the bias was serving as a form of social proof; the search engine clearly prefers one candidate, so that candidate must be the best. (Search results are supposed to be biased, after all; they’re supposed to show us what’s best, second best, and so on.)
Biased rankings are hard for individuals to detect, but what about regulators or election watchdogs? Unfortunately, SEME is easy to hide. The best way to wield this type of influence is to do what Google is becoming better at doing every day: send out customized search results. If search results favoring one candidate were sent only to vulnerable individuals, regulators and watchdogs would be especially hard pressed to find them.
For the record, by the way, our experiments meet the gold standards of research in the behavioral sciences: They are randomized (which means people are randomly assigned to different groups), controlled (which means they include groups in which interventions are either present or absent), counterbalanced (which means critical details, such as names, are presented to half the participants in one order and to half in the opposite order) and double-blind (which means that neither the subjects nor anyone who interacts with them has any idea what the hypotheses are or what groups people are assigned to). Our subject pools are diverse, matched as closely as possible to characteristics of a country’s electorate. Finally, our recent report in PNAS included four replications; in other words, we showed repeatedly—under different conditions and with different groups—that SEME is real.
Our newest research on SEME, conducted with nearly 4,000 people just before the national elections in the UK this past spring, is looking at ways we might be able to protect people from the manipulation. We found the monster; now we’re trying to figure out how to kill it. What we have learned so far is that the only way to protect people from biased search rankings is to break the trust Google has worked so hard to build. When we deliberately mix rankings up, or when we display various kinds of alerts that identify bias, we can suppress SEME to some extent.
It’s hard to imagine Google ever degrading its product and undermining its credibility in such ways, however. To protect the free and fair election, that might leave only one option, as unpalatable as it might seem: government regulation.
Obama’s Climate Action Plan reassured us he was tackling climate change. Then came the opening of the Arctic
President Obama’s historic Climate Action Plan, which was announced on Aug. 3, focuses on reducing carbon dioxide emissions from U.S. power plants 32 percent over the next 15 years, promising real leadership heading into the U.N.’s Climate Summit in Paris this December. And then on Aug. 17 the president permitted Shell Oil to begin exploratory drilling in the Arctic Ocean.
The contradiction between reducing greenhouse gas emissions while seeking new carbon energy offshore hasn’t gone unnoticed by the world’s other major greenhouse gas emitter, China. Four days after the president’s Aug. 3 announcement the deputy editor of the China Daily U.S. edition, which translates China’s official policy and news perspectives into English, wrote a biting column charging the U.S. with “hypocrisy” over carbon emissions, citing its planned new offshore drilling and insisting that if China commits to carbon reduction (in Paris) it won’t be because of U.S. leadership but because of its own air pollution.
A study based on the president’s EPA draft climate plan from last year indicates that while the regulations for coal-fired power plants would reduce greenhouse gases by some 2 billion tons a year, there could be upward of 60 billion tons of greenhouse gases released from the drilling and burning of all the industry-estimated offshore petroleum to be leased starting in 2017.
At the same time, a report in the journal Science states that the only way to avoid catastrophic climate impacts associated with projected warming above 2 degrees Celsius is to leave at least 80 percent of known coal reserves and 30 percent of known oil reserves in the ground and under the seabed. That’s what California has chosen to do since the first Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969. When I asked Secretary of Interior Sally Jewel why the administration was not going to offer federal leasing for already known reserves off California and the West Coast she more or less admitted the whole process was political, stating, “If the states don’t want it, it’s more likely you’ll concentrate where they do.”
At the 1992 U.N. Earth Summit in Rio, where initial plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions led to the failed Kyoto protocols, I witnessed a march by 30,000 local residents and global environmentalists behind a banner carried by Buddhist monks with cellphones that read: “When the people lead the leaders will follow.”
This movement should not be confused with NIMBYs or, more accurately, NOBOs (Not on My Bay or Ocean). While vehemently anti-oil pollution, the Sea Partiers are also pro-jobs and green power, advocating for the emerging clean energy sector including solar, hydro and on- and offshore wind where appropriately situated. After all, no wind spill ever destroyed a beach or a bayou or in any way damaged the blue in our red, white and blue.
David Helvarg is an author and executive director of Blue Frontier, an ocean conservation and policy group. His latest book is “Saved by the Sea – Hope, Heartbreak and Wonder in the Blue World.”
15 August 2015
The official death toll from the massive explosions that devastated a substantial area of the port of Tianjin on Thursday night has reached 57. The number of fatalities is expected to rise significantly, as hospitals try to save critically injured patients among the more than 700 being treated across the Chinese city of 14 million people.
The information filtering out as to the cause of the disaster has triggered open recriminations against the regime of the Stalinist Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Reports indicate that a warehouse operated by Rui Hai International Logistics, a company started in 2011, was storing up to 700 tonnes of highly dangerous sodium cyanide and unspecified quantities of calcium carbide. Containers holding these substances will explode when heated. The fire-fighting crews sent to combat a blaze at the warehouse were not told about the chemicals. At least 21 emergency workers died in the blasts that followed.
Hundreds of port workers were sleeping barely 600 metres away in overcrowded dormitories. Some 90,000 people live within a five kilometre radius of the warehouse. If the explosions had taken place during the day, when the streets and buildings surrounding the docks were bustling with human traffic, the carnage would have been far worse.
The CCP government in Beijing is nervous over the public reaction to the Tianjin explosions, which have demonstrated again the consequences of the unchecked capitalist development over which it has presided for more than 35 years. According to official reports, Rui Hai International Logistics was storing deadly chemicals without the knowledge of, or intervention by, any authorities. The company’s owners and management are being hunted down and arrested. They will more than likely face execution or draconian prison sentences after highly public trials, in an effort to deflect any scrutiny of the broader issues posed by the disaster.
The claim that “no-one knew” about the chemicals has been greeted with disbelief and anger. The popular outrage, expressed on social media and in comments to online news reports, has only been heightened by the fact that this flagrant and criminal indifference to public safety took place in Tianjin.
Tianjin’s port is the tenth largest in the world and the seventh largest in China. It receives the largest number of imported cars of any Chinese port, as well as massive quantities of iron ore, coal, oil and other natural resources needed to supply the industrial complexes and power plants of northern China.
The city itself is China’s fourth largest and, due to its strategic and economic importance as the transport, industrial and technical hub for the capital Beijing, is under the direct political administration of the Housing Ministry of the central CCP government.
In the regime’s propaganda, Tianjin, along with Beijing and the adjoining Heibei province, will be developed into the world’s greatest continuous “mega-city” by 2020, with a population of 130 million people who will purportedly be able to enjoy the best jobs and highest incomes in China.
Thursday’s explosions have sheeted home the social reality: whether in Tianjin or a remote village, the well-being of the Chinese working class is subordinated by the regime to the immediate requirements of transnational and national corporations, and the accumulation of profit for the capitalist elite who own them.
Since the CCP initiated the restoration of capitalist relations in 1979, it has utilised its military and police apparatus to brutally repress all opposition by workers to ruthless exploitation and facilitate China’s transformation into the centre of global low-wage manufacturing.
Substandard safety practices are the norm, not the exception. Andy Furlong, director of policy at the Institution Chemical Engineers in London, told theGuardian: “The view expressed to us very recently by Chinese experts was that in the field of chemical storage their technologies are outdated, some of the equipment they use is primitive, safety management is poor and employee training is not up to scratch.”
Similar comments could be made regarding every sector of the economy and the human cost is staggering.
In 2014, 68,061 Chinese workers were killed in workplace “accidents”—more than 185 per day—and hundreds of thousands more injured. In just the last 24 hours, a gas explosion in a coal mine in Guizhou province has killed 13 miners. In Shaanxi province, 64 miners and their families have been buried alive inside poorly built dormitories by a landslide triggered by a deluge of rain.
According to state media, some 1,600 people, mainly better paid professionals, die at their place of employment each day from the phenomenon known asguolaosi, or extreme overwork.
The air, soil and water systems are thoroughly contaminated in most urban centres due to unchecked industrial operations and development, to the extent that it is estimated that more than 4,400 people die each day—1.6 million per year—from the effects of pollution.
Scandals have wracked food safety, with contaminated milk powder sickening more than 300,000 people and killing six babies in 2008. The capsize of a ferry on the Yangtze River in June, killing more than 400 people, was only the most high profile of regular transport disasters that are generally linked to safety violations.
All the CCP’s promises that the Chinese masses would ultimately benefit from rampant capitalist development over the past 36 years are in tatters. The regime’s legitimacy is already under question, rocked by the slowing economy, a stock market collapse, a slump in property prices, environmental crises, endemic official corruption and ever widening social inequality. The CCP’s rule, along with the capitalist market itself, will be further discredited by the Tianjin disaster.
The political fall-out from the Tianjin explosions is being watched no less anxiously by transnational corporations and banks, as well as by governments around the world. Any disruption to the corporate profits extracted from the Chinese masses by the development of large-scale social unrest will deepen the economic slump internationally and potentially trigger panic in financial markets. For global capitalism, in other words, any effort to change the conditions in China that give rise to disasters such as the Tianjin explosions would be a catastrophe.
That fact underscores the historic bankruptcy of the profit system and the urgency of forging the unity of the Chinese and international working class, in the common political struggle to end capitalism and establish a world planned socialist economy.
By Kristina Betinis
14 August 2015
Chicago Public Schools (CPS) released its 2015-2016 budget Monday, including $200 million in spending cuts and 479 additional teacher layoffs. In June, the district announced 1,400 layoffs.
Despite the cuts and layoffs, the district still has a $480 million operating budget gap. Republican governor of Illinois Bruce Rauner has offered to advance $500 million to help fill the gap, dependent on additional CPS “reforms”, including an end to district contributions to teacher pensions. But these funds are by no means guaranteed. Based on the current operating deficit, it is likely additional cuts will be announced. A $676 million pension payment is due this school year.
In line with Rauner’s request, CPS announced the end of pension “pick up” August 4, telling teachers to shoulder their own pension contributions. This will create a significant cut to teacher take-home pay—an estimated 7 percent. The district had “picked up” 7 percent of teacher pension contributions, an agreement made in 1981, in exchange for lower pay raises in subsequent years.
About 21 percent of the $200 million budget cut is expected to negatively affect the more than 50,000 special education students in the district, through a change in the funding formula giving principals a lump sum for special needs students, rather than a guaranteed number of staff.
In recent days, the newly appointed Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool has made a series of public statements on what the city will demand from teachers in what is to be a multiyear contract negotiation. Claypool was appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel in July to head the district after the resignation of his predecessor, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who stepped down in the midst of a federal corruption investigation involving more than $20 million in CPS contracts. Before being appointed to head CPS, Claypool oversaw the Chicago Transit Authority and supervised the Chicago Park District, where he became known for cutting operating costs.
Claypool also announced the end of an informal agreement the district had with the Chicago Teachers Union to work on a one-year agreement. The length of the contract now under negotiation has not been disclosed.
Earlier this week, CPS also proposed to phase out contributions to the pensions of non-union office employees, other district employees and non-union support staff by 2018, and eliminate pension contributions for new hires. This cut is supposed to save about $21 million in those three years, affecting 2,100 workers, excluding principals and assistant principals.
CPS teachers have been without a contract since June 30 and the district still has more than 1,400 teaching vacancies to fill before the start of the school year in early September. The board of education is set to vote on the annual budget August 26.
As Republican Governor Bruce Rauner proceeds with his offensive against the public sector, the Chicago Teachers Union is seeking to more closely align itself with Democratic mayor of Chicago and former Obama administration official Rahm Emanuel.
CTU president Karen Lewis spoke to Chicago magazine August 4 to absolve Emanuel of responsibility for the education “reform” policies his administration—working together with the White House—has made notorious, including school closures and mass layoffs of teachers and staff.
In speaking of the 2012 teacher contract negotiations and the public education policies that led to the first teachers strike in the city in 25 years, Lewis fully accepted the official claim that there is no money to fund basic social services in order to cover for Emanuel and peddle the lie that there is no money:
“I think part of the problem we had last time is that Rahm had an agenda that was pushed by other people, including [Gov. Bruce] Rauner that I don’t know if Rahm even truly believed in. A lot of it was kind of like, ‘Put the union in their place and dah dah dah.’ The elephant in the room is the budget and not having any money. So then it becomes a matter of what your priorities are, what your vision is. And I think we have yet to see that, but I think [Rahm’s] thinking about it.”
In September 2012, 30,000 Chicago teachers went on strike to oppose school “reforms” that included closures and layoffs, expanded use of standardized tests to erode teacher seniority, and fewer restrictions on firing. The strike, which placed teachers in a political standoff with the education policies of the Obama administration just ahead of the 2012 presidential election, was shut down after only one week by the CTU, who conceded to all of Emanuel’s essential demands in a three-year contract, paving the way for the closure of 50 public schools and the layoffs of thousands in 2013.
As the WSWS reported when he was elected, Emanuel both campaigned on education “reform” and opened his first term with similar plans for schools and city operations. Lewis’s comments highlight the role of the CTU in preventing teachers and other workers from making a break from the Democrats, as they now work to advance the bipartisan assault on essential public services in the state.
Not only does money exist for schools, monopolized by Chicago’s many multimillionaires and billionaires, the financial aristocracy is taking windfall profits in the form of interest payments being made by the cash-strapped city on municipal bonds, including CPS bonds now at junk status.
Matt Fabian of Municipal Market Analytics told the Chicago Tribune in July, “The situation in the city will compromise the ability to keep quality schools, to keep the streets clean. But for investors who can stomach the ups and downs that are probably coming for Chicago, (the bonds) give an attractive amount of income.”
The series of city credit rating downgrades by Moody’s and Fitch signaled to investors higher bond yields and interest rates. Unlike distressed corporate debt, distressed municipal debt is guaranteed by the citizens who can be made to weather cuts and tax hikes in order to make payments. Relieving the debt burden usually takes place through debt restructuring or bankruptcy of one or more city agencies.
The Tribune also reported that the $347 million in tax-exempt bonds Chicago sold in July “offered investors yields of up to 5.69 percent—almost unheard of for tax-backed debt issued by a city.”
Those who invested in Chicago’s bonds earned up to 50 percent more than those who invested in Philadelphia bonds issued in July, the Tribune notes.
The credit downgrades mean Chicago will pay something like $150 million more in interest payments based on restructuring pensions or raising property taxes, or both.