The Flint water crisis and the criminality of American capitalism


20 January 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jerry White

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


By James Brewer
15 January 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We now have threat scores to match our credit scores

“Minority Report” is coming true: 

“Beware” analyzes arrest reports, property records and commercial databases to calculate our potential for violence

"Minority Report" is coming true: We now have threat scores to match our credit scores
(Credit: Dreamworks)
This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

Police have found a new way to legally incorporate surveillance and profiling into everyday life. Just when you thought we were making progress raising awareness surrounding police brutality, we have something new to contend with. The Police Threat Score isn’t calculated by a racist police officer or a barrel-rolling cop who thinks he’s on a TV drama; it’s a computer algorithm that steals your data and calculates your likelihood of risk and threat for the fuzz.

Beware is the new stats-bank that helps officers analyze “billions of data points, including arrest reports, property records, commercial databases, deep Web searches and…social-media postings” to ultimately come up with a score that indicates a person’s potential for violence, according to a Washington Post story. No word yet on whether this meta data includes photos and facial recognition software. For example would an ordinary person, yet to commit a crime, be flagged when seen wearing a hoodie in a gated Florida community?

The company tries to paint itself as a savior to first responders, claiming they want to help them “understand the nature of the environment they may encounter during the window of a 911 event.” Think of it like someone pulling your credit score when you apply for a job. Except, in this instance you never applied for the job and they’re pulling your credit score anyway because they knew you might apply. It’s that level of creepiness.

Remember the 2002 Tom Cruise movie Minority Report? It’s set in 2054, a futuristic world where the “pre-crime” unit arrests people based on a group of psychics who can see crimes before they happen. Only, it’s 2016 and we’re not using psychics, we’re using computers that mine data. According to the Post piece, law enforcement in Oregon are under federal investigation for using software to monitor Black Lives Matter hashtags after uprisings in Baltimore and Ferguson. How is this new software any different? In fact, this is the same kind of technology the NSA has been using since 9/11 to monitor online activities of suspected terrorists—they’re just bringing it down to the local level.

According to, a site that tracks deaths by cop, there were only 14 days in 2015 in which a law enforcement officer did not kill someone. So, leaving judgment up to the individual hasn’t been all that effective in policing. But is letting a machine do it any better? Using these factors to calculate a color-coded threat level doesn’t seem entirely practical. Suppose a person doesn’t use social media or own a house but was once arrested when he was 17 for possession of marijuana. The absence of data might lend itself to a high threat level. The same can be said for online meta data that might filter in extracurricular interests. Could a person who is interested in kinky activity in the bedroom be tagged as having a tendency toward violence?

The Fresno, Calif. police department is taking on the daunting task of being the first to test the software in the field. Understandably, the city council and citizens voiced their skepticism at a meeting. “One council member referred to a local media report saying that a woman’s threat level was elevated because she was tweeting about a card game titled ‘Rage,’ which could be a keyword in Beware’s assessment of social media,” the Post reported.

While you might now be rethinking playing that Mafia game on Facebook, it isn’t just your personal name that can raise a flag. Fresno Councilman Clinton Olivier, a libertarian-leaning Republican, asked for his name to be run through the system. He came up as a “green” which indicates he’s safe. When they ran his address, however, it popped up as “yellow” meaning the officer should beware and be prepared for a potentially dangerous situation. How could this be? Well, the councilman didn’t always live in this house; someone else lived there before him and that person was likely responsible for raising the threat score.

Think what a disastrous situation that could be. A mother of a toddler could move into a new home with her family, not knowing that the house was once the location of an abusive patriarch. The American Medical Association has calculated that as many as 1 in 3 women will be impacted by domestic violence in their lifetimes, so it isn’t an unreasonable hypothetical. One day the child eats one of those detergent pods and suddenly the toddler isn’t breathing. Hysterial, the mother calls 911, screaming. She can’t articulate what has happened, only that her baby is hurt. Dispatch sends an ambulance, but the address is flagged as “red” for its prior decade of domestic violence calls. First responders don’t know someone new has moved in. The woman is giving CPR while her husband waits at the door for the ambulance. What happens when the police arrive?

It’s a scenario that can be applied to just about any family and any situation. Moving into an apartment that previously was a marijuana grow-house; buying a house that once belonged to a woman who shot her husband when she found him with his mistress in the pool. Domestic violence calls are among the most dangerous for police officers. Giving police additional suspicion that may not be entirely accurate probably won’t reduce the incidents of of accidental shootings or police brutality.

The worst part, however, is that none of these questions and concerns can be answered, because Intrado, the company that makes Beware, doesn’t reveal how its algorithm works. Chances are slim that they ever will, since it would also be revealed to its competitors. There’s no way of knowing the accuracy level of the data set given in the search. Police are given red, yellow or green to help them make a life-changing or life-ending decision. It seems a little primitive, not to mention intrusive.

“It is deeply disturbing that local law enforcement agencies are unleashing the sophisticated tools of a surveillance state on the public with little, if any, oversight or accountability,” Ryan Kiesel of the Oklahoma ACLU told me. “We are in the middle of a consequential moment in which the government is unilaterally changing the power dynamic between themselves and the people they serve. If we are going to preserve the fundamental right of privacy, it is imperative that we demand these decisions are made as the result of a transparent and informed public debate.”

While mass shootings are on the rise, violent crime and homicides have fallen to historic lows. You wouldn’t know that watching the evening news, however. Is now really the time to increase the chances of violent actions at the hands of the police, all while intruding on our civil liberties under the guise of safety?

Concussion: Highlighting the perils of American football

By Alan Gilman
14 January 2016

Concussion, written and directed by Peter Landesman, is a dramatized account of the discovery and revelation that repeated head blows sustained by American football players can result in serious and lethal brain damage.

The film takes place in Pittsburgh, and is based on the 2009 GQ article “Game Brain” by Jeanne Marie Laskas. In that article, Laskas detailed Dr. Bennet Omalu’s discovery of a connection between playing football and brain damage. This same article was also the subject of the 2013 PBS Frontline documentary,League of Denial.


Dr. Omalu, played effectively by Will Smith, is a Nigerian-American pathologist who, while working in the Allegheny County coroner’s office in 2002, performed an autopsy on Mike Webster, a former National Football League (NFL) center for the Pittsburgh Steelers and a member of the Hall of Fame. Webster, who died at age 50, had been living in his car, suffering from dementia-like symptoms, and had taken to using Super Glue on his rotting teeth and to stunning himself into unconsciousness with a Taser gun to relieve his back pain.

Puzzled by Webster’s disturbing behavior and the seemingly inexplicable cause of his death, Dr. Omalu begins studying Webster’s brain in the hopes of finding an answer. What he finds is that Webster had suffered from progressive degenerative brain disease. He ultimately determines that Webster died as a result of the long-term effects of repeated blows to the head—a disorder called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

Omalu calculates based upon the years Webster played, and how as a center he had head contact on almost every play, that he had sustained over 70,000 blows to his head. With the help of former Steelers team doctor Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin), and County Coroner Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks), Omalu publishes a paper on his findings, which is initially dismissed and ridiculed by the NFL.

Over the next few years, Omalu discovers that two other former Steelers players, Terry Long and Justin Strzelczyk, who both committed suicide, as well as Andre Waters, a former Philadelphia Eagle, who also committed suicide, all had all experienced symptoms very similar to Webster’s and all had CTE. These findings were then used to further support and confirm the relationship between repeated head trauma experienced by football players and CTE.

Aside from a stereotypical Hollywood love story between Omalu and his soon to be wife, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, the remainder of Concussion focuses on the efforts of the NFL to discredit and intimidate Omalu and his supporters, particularly his boss, County Coroner Cyril Wecht.

Omalu finds it incomprehensible that the NFL would deny what is clearly uncontroverted science. Wecht has to explain to the football naïve Omalu that he is going to war with a corporation that owns a day of the week. “Sundays once were the province of the church, but now belong to the NFL.”

Wecht, who refuses to denounce or fire Omalu, is soon subjected to a politically motivated Federal criminal indictment charging him with 84 counts of public corruption and has to resign.

Meanwhile Omalu and his wife, who are subjected to repeated insults and harassment, anonymous threats, and being followed in cars by mysterious men, are forced to leave their dream home outside Pittsburgh and move to Lodi, California where Omalu assumes a similar position with the local Coroner’s Office.

Omalu is vindicated a few years later, however, when retired player and former NFL Players Association (NFLPA) executive Dave Duerson, who had opposed Omalu’s findings, and who had denied the aforementioned Andre Waters’ disability claim, commits suicide as a consequence of his own growing cognitive problems. In his suicide note Duerson admits that Omalu was right and requests that his brain be examined. The subsequent examination confirms that he too suffered from CTE.

Omalu is thereafter invited to address an NFLPA conference on concussions and CTE. Amid growing scrutiny from Congress, the NFL is forced to take the concussion issue more seriously and take steps to make the game safer.

In September 2015, a few months before the film’s Christmas release, news reports appeared regarding dozens of hacked Sony Studio emails. These emails purported to show how Sony executives; director Peter Landesman; and representatives of Will Smith, discussed how the studio which produced the film could avoid antagonizing the NFL by altering the script and marketing the film more as a whistle-blower story, rather than a condemnation of football or the league.

The most damaging email was from Dwight Caines, the president of domestic marketing at Sony Pictures, who declared, “We’ll develop messaging with the help of N.F.L. consultant to ensure that we are telling a dramatic story and not kicking the hornet’s nest.”

In response Landesman stated, “We don’t want to give the N.F.L. a toehold to say, ‘They are making it up,’ and damage the credibility of the movie…. There were things that might have been creatively fun to have actors say that might not have been accurate in the heads of the N.F.L. or doctors. We might have gotten away with it legally, but it might have damaged our integrity as filmmakers. We didn’t have a need to make up anything because it was powerful and revelatory on its own. There was never an instance where we compromised the storytelling to protect ourselves from the N.F.L.”

The NFL has had a number of run-ins with Hollywood over the years. In 2003 the ESPN drama “Playmakers” lasted just one season before former league commissioner Paul Tagliabue contacted Disney head Michael Eisner to complain of the subject matter depicted in the fictional league (drugs, domestic violence, paralysis, homosexuality, to name a few), according to the New York Times. Tagliabue deemed the show “one-dimensional and traded in racial stereotypes, and I didn’t think that was either appropriate for ESPN or right for our players.”

Disney is the parent company of ESPN, which has several broadcasting contracts with the NFL. Eisner decided against green lighting the series for a second season. “How would (Disney be) like it if Minnie Mouse were portrayed as Pablo Escobar and the Magic Kingdom as a drug cartel?” Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie told the Philadelphia Inquirer, referring to the infamous Colombian drug lord.

It must be said that in viewing the film, the NFL is depicted as being cold, ruthless, and manipulative, and it assumes the role of a “Big Tobacco” like entity.

Moreover, Landesman’s connection of the political prosecution of Wecht as a product of NFL intimidation was likely untrue. Wecht’s indictment actually came before Omalu’s most important findings were published. It is widely believed that the indictment was motivated instead by a number of controversial statements and rulings that Wecht had made during his years as coroner, including his findings that the cause of death of several people killed by the police were homicides, which meant the police should have been prosecuted, something that the District Attorney refused to do. Eventually all charges against Wecht were dismissed.

Most players who have seen the film have been supportive of the film and disturbed by its conclusions. Keith McCants, the fourth overall pick in the 1990 draft who played six years in the NFL said,“…. I watch this movie and I know we were paid to hurt people. We were paid to give concussions. If we knew that we were killing people, I would have never put on the jersey.”

In a Federal Court class action suit brought by former players, the NFL admitted in 2014 that it expects nearly a third of retired players to develop long-term cognitive problems and that these conditions are likely to emerge at “notably younger ages” than in the general population.

Despite its limitations, Concussion serves to bring before a mass audience the grave risks inherent in playing America’s most popular sport, as well as exposing the NFL as a multi-billion industry that promotes and profits from these risks, and its efforts to conceal or minimize the catastrophic and deadly consequences that occurs to many of those who play it.

One in four US adults burdened by medical debt


By Kate Randall
8 January 2016

A new survey shows that 26 percent of US adults ages 18-64 say they or someone in their household had problems paying their medical bills in the past 12 months. The Kaiser Family Foundation/New York Times Medical Bills Survey shows that those from all walks of life are saddled with medical debt, with the uninsured and low-income households carrying the heaviest burden.

The survey is based on interviews with a sample of 2,575 respondents conducted August 28 through September 28, 2015. Its findings are an indictment of the for-profit health care system in America, which strains many family budgets to the breaking point, forcing significant numbers of people to go without other basic household necessities to pay medical bills or to forgo medical care when they cannot pay.

Being uninsured has a strong correlation with medical bill difficulties, with 53 percent of the uninsured reporting problems paying household medical bills in the past year. However, as the survey’s findings point out, “insurance is not a panacea against these problems.” About one in five of those with insurance—either through an employer, Medicaid or purchased on their own—also report problems paying medical bills.

Among those with private insurance, the prevalence of high-deductible health coverage significantly impacts the financial burden on households, with 26 percent of those with high-deductible coverage reporting difficulties paying their medical bills. Although the survey does not indicate which of those interviewed purchased their coverage through the Affordable Care Act (ACA), it is clear that the high deductible plans dominating the ACA marketplace are becoming increasingly common among plans sold by private insurance companies.

Not surprisingly, households with lower or moderate incomes are more likely to report problems paying their medical bills. Nearly four in 10 (37 percent) of those with household incomes below $50,000 report these problems, compared with 26 percent of those with incomes between $50,000 and $100,000, and 14 percent of those with household incomes greater than $100,000.

Women are slightly more likely than men to experience problems paying medical bills (29 percent versus 23 percent), as are adults under age 30 compared with those ages 30-64 (31 percent versus 24 percent). Residents in the South reported the highest share of medical bill problems (32 percent), while those in the Northeast reported the lowest (18 percent). At 24 percent, whites reported slightly less difficulty pay their bills than blacks (31 percent) and Hispanics (32 percent).

People with the greatest medical needs are also more likely to face problems paying their medical bills. Of those who say they have a disability that prevents them from participating fully in daily activities, 47 percent report medical bill problems. Among those who rate their own heath as fair or poor, 45 percent report these problems, while 34 percent of those who say they receive regular treatment for a chronic condition report problems.

The medical bills burdening households are for a wide variety of medical services, both one-time events and chronic conditions. Of those surveyed, bills incurred included those for doctor visits (65 percent), diagnostic tests (65 percent), lab fees (64 percent) and emergency room visits (61 percent). About half say they had problems paying for prescription drugs, hospitalizations or dental care.

Those surveyed were asked to briefly describe the illness or injury that led to their medical bills. Respondents describe the nightmare scenario in which they face the double impact of serious medical conditions and the inability to pay the bills incurred to treat them. Following are some of their accounts:

“A heart attack (MI) requiring 4 stents being placed. Also an appendectomy. Ongoing: diabetes and heart disease that require monthly visits and prescriptions. My son also has epilepsy which has impacted our medical expenses.”

“In 2002 I had a pancreatic attack, a tumor in my pancreas removed and my spleen removed, and I broke 2 arms at the same time, partial hysterectomy. And hepatitis.”

“Cancer. Current treatment not FDA approved for certain cancers, so eventhough the treatment is working, it is no longer covered by insurance and costs approximately $11,000 per month.”

“I had a tooth that went bad and had to have it pulled. I now need another tooth in its place. The dentist wants all the money for the procedure up front. I do not have thousands of dollars to give.”

“I have been diagnosed with osteoarthritis throughout my body, as well as degenerative disc disease. I have had to have at least 6 MRI’s in past 5 years, 3 back injections, 5 foot surgeries, 2 knee surgeries, wrist surgery, torn tendon repair, several joint replacement surgeries, etc.”

“I was pregnant and miscarried when I was 10.5 weeks a long. Prior to losing the baby, I had an ultrasound which cost $636 and I don’t have insurance. I was eligible for pregnancy-related Medicaid, but it wasn’t billed right and a year and a half later I got the bill. I am still trying to get it straightened out.”

“Insurance not paying for wellness care of any kind, blood work, labs, physical and only 8o% of a mammogram.

(Kaiser Family Foundations/New York Times Medical Bills Survey)

When asked to describe their financial situation, 43 percent of those who have experienced problems paying medical bills say they just scrape by covering their basic household expenses, while 18 percent say they don’t have the financial resources to cover them. The survey also shows that compared to those without medical debt, those with medical bill problems are less likely to have a credit card or a retirement savings account.

Of those with difficulties paying bills, the total amount owed ranged from 10 percent owing $500 or less, to 24 percent owing $2,500 to less than $5,000, to 13 percent owing in excess of $10,000. For an individual or family living paycheck to paycheck, or facing unemployment, even a $500 unpaid medical bill—accompanied by calls from health providers’ offices or their bill collectors—can become an overwhelming burden.

In a further cruel twist, those facing medical bill problems also often face the complicating factor of income loss due to an illness. Three in 10 respondents say someone in their household had to take a cut in pay or hours as a result of the illness that led to the medical bills, either due to the illness itself or in order to care for the person who was sick.

The ACA is contributing to and compounding these devastating financial conditions for millions of Americans. The program, popularly known as Obamacare, forces uninsured individuals to purchase coverage from for-profit insurers under threat of penalty, offering only modest subsidies to those who qualify. The most affordable of these plans come with deductibles in excess of $5,000 and other high out-of-pocket costs and there are no meaningful restraints on the premiums insurance companies can charge.

These Obamacare plans are serving as a model for employer-sponsored coverage, where high-deductible plans are becoming more and more the norm. Architects of the ACA further predict that employer-sponsored coverage will largely be done away with by 2025.

The solution to the financial crisis ordinary Americans face paying their medical bills—along with the other scourges of the US for-profit medical system—lies in putting an end to the privately owned insurance companies, pharmaceuticals and giant health care chains and establishing socialized medicine.

America and China may not have a planet left to rule

Twilight of the imperial age: 

Mankind still controls its destiny. But if we want to escape catastrophe, climate talks can only be the beginning

Twilight of the imperial age: America and China may not have a planet left to rule
This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch.

For six centuries or more, history was, above all, the story of the great game of empires. From the time the first wooden ships mounted with cannons left Europe’s shores, they began to compete for global power and control. Three, four, even five empires, rising and falling, on an increasingly commandeered and colonized planet. The story, as usually told, is a tale of concentration and of destruction until, in the wake of the second great bloodletting of the twentieth century, there were just two imperial powers left standing: the United States and the Soviet Union. Where the other empires, European and Japanese, had been, little remained but the dead, rubble, refugees, and scenes that today would be associated only with a place like Syria.

The result was the ultimate imperial stand-off that we called the Cold War. The two great empires still in existence duked it out for supremacy on “the peripheries” of the planet and “in the shadows.” Because the conflicts being fought were distant indeed, at least from Washington, and because (despite threats) both powers refrained from using nuclear weapons, these were termed “limited wars.” They did not, however, seem limited to the Koreans or Vietnamese whose homes and lives were swept up in them, resulting as they did in more rubble, more refugees, and the deaths of millions.

Those two rivals, one a giant, land-based, contiguous imperial entity and the other a distinctly non-traditional empire of military bases, were so enormous and so unlike previous “great powers” — they were, after all, capable of what had once been left to the gods, quite literally destroying every habitable spot on the planet — that they were given a new moniker. They were “superpowers.”

And then, of course, that six-century process of rivalry and consolidation was over and there was only one: the “sole superpower.” That was 1991 when the Soviet Union suddenly imploded. At age 71, it disappeared from the face of the Earth, and history, at least as some then imagined it, was briefly said to be over.

The Shatter Effect

There was another story lurking beneath the tale of imperial concentration, and it was a tale of imperial fragmentation. It began, perhaps, with the American Revolution and the armed establishment of a new country free of its British king and colonial overlord. In the twentieth century, the movement to “decolonize” the planet gained remarkable strength. From the Dutch East Indies to French Indochina, the British Raj to European colonies across Africa and the Middle East, “independence” was in the air. Liberation movements were launched or strengthened, guerrillas took up arms, and insurgencies spread across what came to be called the Third World. Imperial power collapsed or ceded control, often after bloody struggles and, for a while, the results looked glorious indeed: the coming of freedom and national independence to nation after nation (even if many of those newly liberated peoples found themselves under the thumbs of autocrats, dictators, or repressive communist regimes).

That this was a tale of global fragmentation was not, at first, particularly apparent. It should be by now. After all, those insurgent armies, the tactics of guerrilla warfare, and the urge for “liberation” are today the property not of left-wing national liberation movements but of Islamic terror outfits. Think of them as the armed grandchildren of decolonization and who wouldn’t agree that theirs is a story of the fragmentation of whole regions. It seems, in fact, that they can only thrive in places that have, in some fashion, already been shattered and are failed states, or are on the verge of becoming so. (All of this, naturally, comes with a distinct helping hand from the planet’s last empire).

That their global brand is fragmentation should be evident enough now that, in Paris, Libya, Yemen, and other places yet to be named, they’re exporting that product in a big way. In a long-distance fashion, they may, for instance, be helping to turn Europe into a set of splinterlands, aborting the last great attempt at an epic tale of concentration, the turning of the European Union into a United States of Europe.

When it comes to fragmentation, the last empire and the first terror caliphate have much in common and may in some sense even be in league with each other. In the twenty-first century, both have proven to be machines for the fracturing of the Greater Middle East and increasingly Africa. And let’s never forget that, without the last empire, the first caliphate of terror would never have been born.

Both have extended their power to shake whole societies by wielding advanced technology in forward-looking ways. Two American administrations have employed remote-controlled drones to target terror leaders and their followers across the Greater Middle East and Africa, causing much “collateral damage” and creating a sense of constant fear and terror among those in the backlands of the planet whom drone pilots refer to as potential “bugsplat.” In its robotic manhunting efforts Washington continues to engage in a war on terror that functionally promotes both terror and terror outfits.

The Islamic State has similarly used remote-controlled technology — in their case, social media in its various forms — to promote terror and stoke fear in distant lands. And of course they have their own low-tech version of Washington’s drones: their suicide bombers and suicidal killers who can be directed at distant individual targets and are engines for collateral damage. In other words, while the U.S. is focused on remote-controlled counterinsurgency, the Islamic State has been promoting a remarkably effective version of remote-controlled insurgency. In tandem, the effect of the two has been devastating.

Planet of the Imperial Apocalypse

Between those epic tales of concentration and fragmentation lies history as we’ve known it in these last centuries. But it turns out that, unsuspected until relatively recently, a third tale lurked behind the other two, one not yet fully written that could prove to be the actual end of history. Everything else — the rise and fall of empires, the power to suppress and the urge to revolt, dictatorship and democracy — remains the normal stuff of history. Prospectively, this is the deal-breaker.

It promises a concentration of power of a sort never before imagined and fragmentation of a similarly inconceivable kind. At this moment when the leaders of just about all the nations on Earth have been in Paris working out a deal to rein in greenhouse gas emissions and slow the heating of the planet, what else could I be speaking of than Emperor Weather? Think of his future realm, should it ever come to be, as the planet of the imperial apocalypse.

In the last imperial age, the two superpowers made “end times” a human possession for the first time in history. The U.S. and then the USSR took the super power of the atom and built nuclear arsenals capable of destroying the planet several times over. (These days, even a relatively modest exchange of such weapons between India and Pakistan might plunge the world into a version of nuclear winter in which a billion people might die of hunger.) And yet while an instant apocalypse loomed, a slow-motion version of the same, also human-made, was approaching, unrecognized by anyone. That is, of course, what the Paris Summit is all about: what the exploitation of fossil fuels has been doing to this planet.

Keep in mind that since the industrial revolution we’ve already warmed the Earth by about 1 degree Celsius. Climate scientists have generally suggested that, if temperatures rise above 2 degrees Celsius, a potentially devastating set of changes could occur in our environment. Some climate scientists, however, believe that even a 2-degree rise would prove devastating to human life. In either case, even if the Paris pledges from 183 nations to cut back on greenhouse gas emissions are agreed upon and carried out, they would only limit the rise in global temperatures to between an estimated 2.7 and 3.7 degrees Celsius. If no agreement is reached or little of it is actually carried out, the rise could be in the 5-degree range, which would be devastating. Over the coming decades, this could indeed give Emperor Weather his global realm.

Of course, his air power — his bombers, jets, and drones — would be superstorms; his invading armies would be mega-droughts and mega-floods; and his navy, with the total or partial melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, would be the rising seas of the planet, which would rob humanity of its coastlines and many of its great cities. His forces would occupy not just one or two countries in the Greater Middle East or elsewhere, but the entire planet, lock, stock, and barrel.

Emperor Weather’s imperial realms would be global on an awe-inspiring scale and the assaults of his forces would fragment the present planet in ways that could make much of it, in human terms, look like Syria. Moreover, given how long it takes greenhouse gases to leave the atmosphere, his global rule would be guaranteed to last an inhumanly long period of time unchallenged.

Heat (think burning Australia today, only far worse) would be the coin of the realm. While humanity will undoubtedly survive in some fashion, whether human civilization as we now know it can similarly survive on a planet that is no longer the welcoming home that it has been these last thousands of years we have no way of knowing.

Keep in mind, though, that like history itself, this is a story we are still writing — even though Emperor Weather couldn’t care less about writing, history, or us. If he truly comes to power, history will certainly end in some sense. There will be no hope of democracy under his rule because he won’t care a whit about what we think or do or say, nor of revolt — that staple of our history — because (to adapt something Bill McKibben has long pointed out) you can’t revolt against physics.

This story is not yet engraved in… well, if not stone, then melting ice. Sooner or later, it may indeed be a tale unfolding in environmental feedback loops that can no longer be stopped or altered. But for the moment, it seems, humanity still has the chance to write its own history in a fashion that would allow for a perhaps less welcoming but still reasonably palatable world for our children and grandchildren to live in. And be glad of that.

For that to happen, however, successful negotiations in Paris can only be the start of something far more sweeping when it comes to the forms of energy we use and how we live on this planet. Fortunately, experiments are underway in the world of alternative energy, funding is beginning to appear, and a global environmental movement is expanding and could someday, on a planet growing ever less comfortable, put the heat on governments globally before Emperor Weather can turn up the heat on history.