Astronomers detect gravitational waves predicted by Einstein

By Will Morrow
12 February 2016

Astronomers from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) Collaboration have published the first detection of gravitational waves, ripples in the fabric of space and time. The announcement comes almost exactly a century after Albert Einstein, in mid-1916, predicted the existence of the waves on the basis of his Theory of General Relativity.

The findings were announced at a press conference at the National Science Foundation in Washington, D.C. on Thursday morning. They open up a new era in humanity’s efforts to investigate the universal laws of the motion of matter. Until now, there has been no way to directly detect the subtle gravitational vibrations which pass continuously through Earth as they do throughout the Universe. Now, however, a new spectrum of gravitational wave astronomy has begun, allowing scientists to examine regions of the cosmos previously excluded from study.

The detected wave was generated by the merger of two black holes more than one billion light years from Earth. Today’s announcement, therefore, contains two separate discoveries: the detection of gravitational waves and the first-ever observation of a black-hole binary merger, an event which had been theoretically predicted, but never seen. Black holes are so gravitationally strong that even light cannot escape their pull, which has prevented us from directly observing them until now.

The three stages of the collision of two black holes – inspiral, merger and ringdown – illustrated above. The signal detected by the two LIGO instruments is superimposed across the bottom. Credit: LIGO, NSF, Aurore Simonnet (Sonoma State U.)

The paper published today in the journal Physical Review Letters is titled, “Observation of Gravitational Waves from a Binary Black Hole Merger.” It is jointly authored by the LIGO Scientific Collaboration and another gravitational wave detector team, the VIRGO Collaboration. A second paper has also been published outlining the astrophysical implications of the discovery. In total, twelve publications have resulted from this discovery with many more to come.

According to the first paper, the wave passed through Earth on September 14, 2015, at 09:50:45 UTC. This was just two days into the first three-month run by the LIGO detectors after they had received a major upgrade over the previous five years. The two detectors are located in Livingston, Louisiana and Hanford, Washington, both in the United States. The wave was observed at both detectors, with a seven millisecond delay between the two.

The most intense part of the wave passed in a fleeting quarter of a second. In this time, the wave frequency increased from 35 to 150 Hz, as the relative velocity of the black holes sped up to half the speed of light. Just before merging, they were orbiting each other seventy five times per second and separated by just 350 kilometres. Nothing other than black holes would be compact enough to reach such speeds at this proximity.

The two black holes weighed approximately 29 and 36 times the mass of our Sun before the merger. But the final black hole weighs just 62 solar masses—three less than the sum of its constituents. The missing three solar masses were radiated away as energy in gravitational waves, distorting and bending the surrounding spacetime.

Put another way, in the last moments of the collision, the power radiated away by gravitational waves peaked at more than fifty times greater than the combined visible radiation of every star and gas cloud in the Universe. It is the most energetic event ever detected.

A computer simulation of the collision of two black holes. Time has been slowed down one hundred times to more clearly observe the inspiral, merger and ringdown. Credit: SXS Project

When speaking about gravitational waves, the obvious question is: what is “waving?”

The existence of these waves flowed from the new equations of gravity which Einstein developed in 1915. The classical theory of gravity, which had been established by Isaac Newton, described it as a force acting instantaneously at a distance between any two objects with mass. Moreover, gravitational interactions were seen to take place against a completely fixed backdrop of space and time, itself completely independent from the motion of matter.

With Einstein’s theory, space and time were seen as a unified, dynamic entity. Gravity is the result of the warping of spacetime by the local presence of mass and energy. Moreover, while mass/energy warps spacetime, the curvature of spacetime itself tells matter how to move. (A more comprehensive review of the development and theory of General Relativity can be read here.)

A classic analogy is to consider the four-dimensional spacetime as a two-dimensional flat elastic sheet. Placing a mass on the sheet causes it to bend, and alters the motion of other nearby bodies. Gravitational waves can also be understood with this analogy. Wiggling a very heavy mass very quickly on the sheet will generate ripples, as the membrane seeks to overcome the local build-up of stress by releasing tension outwards. In the case of gravitational waves, what is “wiggling” is the lengths of spacetime.

Albert Einstein in 1921

Before yesterday’s announcement, there had already been strong indirect evidence for gravity waves. Two orbiting neutron stars, discovered in 1974 by Russell Hulse and Joseph Taylor, were seen to slowly approach one another at the rate predicted by their expected gravitational wave emission.

Direct detection of gravitational waves is far more challenging. Gravity is by far the weakest force, and only enormous masses changing their orientation rapidly can make appreciable waves in spacetime. Why gravity is much weaker than the other fundamental forces in nature remains a central question in physics.

To detect these waves, LIGO uses two lasers shooting down two four-kilometre tracks that are at right angles to each other. As a gravitational wave passes across the tracks, one track lengthens and one track contracts. This is revealed in the interference of the two lasers when they meet at the base of the tracks. But the change is exceedingly small: the detected gravitational wave made each four-kilometre track change in length by less than one thousandth of the width of a proton.

This means the apparatus effectively had to measure the distance between Earth and the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, to the accuracy of the width of a human hair. The experiment is the most precise humans have ever conducted.

The gravitational waves of the inspiraling black holes converted to sound. The lower pitched ‘chirps’ exactly match the frequencies of the gravitational waves. The higher pitched chirps have been generated to better fit human hearing. Credit: LIGO Collaboration

To reach the sensitivity required, the scientists had to develop novel means of suppressing “noise” caused by vibrations of the mirrors from other sources. The detector is sensitive to the crashing of waves on the shore hundreds of kilometres away, wind outside the facility, and thermal vibrations due to heating of the mirrors by the laser itself. As well as using a complicated system of pulleys and magnetic vibrational suppressors, and placing the detectors in a vacuum, the LIGO team also requires that any signal on one detector is seen on the other, to rule out the possibility of a local event being falsely reported as a gravitational wave originating in deep space.

The success of this experiment is the product of more than two decades of scientific collaboration involving researchers from all over the world. The LIGO Scientific Collaboration includes more than 1,000 scientists, including contributors from Japan, Germany, India, Italy, Russia, China and Australia, as well as the United States.

The recently upgraded “Advanced” LIGO detector is the most sophisticated of a new generation of gravity interferometers. The original LIGO was first proposed in 1989 and gained funding in 1992, with the aim of demonstrating the feasibility of the experiment. New upgrades, based on technologies that would be developed later, were planned from the outset.

Over the same period, increased computational power and techniques have opened up the field of numerical relativity, which was not previously possible due to the enormous computational complexity of Einstein’s equations. These simulations allowed the LIGO team to compare their detection with the theoretically predicted signal from a black hole binary merger.

The binary black hole merger that created GW150914 happened in Earth’s southern hemisphere approximately 1.3 billion light years away. The colored lines are regions where the signal likely originated. The exact location cannot be determined with the data of only two detectors. A third will enter service later this year. Credit: LIGO Collaboration

Other detectors already exist, and are being upgraded or built. These include the VIRGO detector in Italy and the KAGRA detector in Japan. There are also plans for another LIGO detector in India. Earlier this year, the LISA Pathfinder mission was launched into space, with the aim of testing the technologies for a space-based gravitational wave detector. Having an array of detectors will allow astronomers to triangulate the wave signal and pinpoint the source location, meaning astronomers using conventional electromagnetic telescopes can be notified of where to point their detectors.

The opening up of gravitational wave astronomy has vast implications. It will provide for tests of the validity of Einstein’s theory of General Relativity in the domain of very strong fields and high speeds, such as around black holes. It also allows us to look into the interior of neutron stars, whose incredible densities offer a physical laboratory that could not be replicated on Earth. Moreover, while dust and other matter obscure our observation of the distant universe using light, gravitational waves—because they interact so weakly with matter—reach us relatively unimpeded.

But as well as providing some answers, the introduction of an entirely new, gravitational spectrum will undoubtedly raise new, and entirely unexpected, questions. As Kip Thorne, a LIGO co-founder and a world expert in relativity theory, commented to Physics World: “LIGO has opened a new window on the universe—a gravitational-wave window. Each time a new window has opened up there have been big surprises—LIGO is just the beginning. Until now, we as scientists have only seen warped space-time, when it’s very calm. It’s as though we’d only seen the surface of the ocean on a very calm day when it’s quite glassy. We had never seen the ocean in a storm, with crashing waves. All of that changed on 14 September 2015. The colliding black holes that produced these gravitational waves created a violent storm in the fabric of space and time. A storm in which time speeded up and slowed down, speeded up again.”

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/02/12/ligo-f12.html

Obama budget proposes increases in military, security spending

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By Patrick Martin
10 February 2016

The Obama administration sent its final annual budget proposal to Congress Tuesday, beginning a process that is entirely overshadowed by the ongoing escalation of US military operations around the world.

The bulk of the $4.1 trillion budget is consumed by ongoing mandatory expenditures like Social Security, Medicare and interest on the federal debt, but fully half of the $1.2 trillion in discretionary spending goes to the Pentagon and related military and intelligence operations.

Overall spending would rise 4.9 percent, largely because of automatic increases in the mandatory programs. Discretionary spending, under terms of a bipartisan agreement reached last fall between the White House and Congress, is to rise barely one percent.

While media coverage focused on the election-year wrangling between the Democrat in the White House and the Republican-controlled Congress, comparatively little attention was paid to the real significance of the budget, which lies in its unstinting funding of ongoing US military operations in the Middle East, Afghanistan, Eastern Europe, the Pacific and in cyberspace.

There are several eye-popping increases for high-profile military programs:

  •  Quadrupling of funding for US military preparedness in Eastern Europe, labeled “countering Russian aggression and supporting European allies,” up from just over $1 billion to $4.3 billion;
  •  A 50 percent rise in funding for US military operations in Iraq and Syria, to fight the Islamic State group as well as undermine the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad. A total of $7.5 billion is earmarked for that purpose, including $1.8 billion to pay for 45,000 GPS-guided smart bombs;
  •  An increase of 35 percent for cybersecurity, from $14 billion to a whopping $19 billion, much of which goes to the National Security Agency and Pentagon cyberwarfare programs, as well as to revamping the entire federal computer network to make it more impervious to hackers.

Overall military spending will continue to escalate, with the total proposed Pentagon budget set at $582.7 billion. Each of the three main military departments will have larger budgets than any other country on Earth will spend on war preparations: $166.9 billion for the Air Force, $148 billion for the Army and $164.9 billion for the Navy (including the Marine Corps).

In the course of the past week, the Obama administration has announced a series of concessions to demands from the Pentagon or congressional Republicans on specific weapons systems. The Air Force abandoned plans to retire the A-10 Warthog attack plane, extending it for another two years. The Pentagon will also continue buying F-18 Super Hornet jet fighters and Tomahawk cruise missiles.

The State Department budget was set at $50 billion and funding for the Department of Homeland Security at just over $40 billion, while the overall spending for the intelligence apparatus is believed to be higher than either of those figures, although the number is officially classified. The State Department and DHS budgets include billions in funding for programs to block immigrants leaving Central America or arrest and deport them once they arrive in the US.

When the spending is added up for all the programs involved in military operations, intelligence, homeland security and other repressive purposes, either foreign or domestic—including funding for the FBI, Bureau of Prisons and other Justice Department programs, and grants to state and local police agencies—the total comes to at least two-thirds of all federal discretionary spending.

There is a stark contrast between the lavish spending on war and repression, and the stinginess in the face of acute human need. Humanitarian aid, largely for the refugees fleeing US wars (or US-instigated civil wars), is pegged at $6.2 billion, about one percent of the total being spent on the military. A proposed increase of $158 million for the Environmental Protection Agency, to deal with the crisis in drinking water in Flint, Michigan and other cities, will cost about as much as a single new F-35 jet fighter.

The new domestic social spending proposed by the White House is entirely cosmetic, for electoral purposes, and not taken seriously by anyone either in the Obama administration or in Congress. The Republican leadership was so openly contemptuous that they announced, for the first time since the present budget process was established in the 1970s, that the House and Senate budget committees would not even bother to take testimony from the head of the Office of Management and Budget, Shaun Donovan.

The White House proposed nearly $1 trillion in tax increases on the wealthy to fund about an equivalent amount of new social spending on education, the environment, health care and programs for the poor, knowing full well that the Republican majorities in the House and Senate will dismiss both the new taxes and the new spending out of hand.

The sole purpose of this part of the budget is to provide some raw material for the presidential and congressional campaigns of Democratic candidates in the November elections. It is a brazen attempt to bolster illusions in the Democratic Party as a defender of the poor, the sick and the elderly against the Republicans, when the two parties actually work in tandem to serve the needs of corporate America and the super-rich.

The overall budget numbers do give a glimpse of the precarious state of American capitalism as a whole. Even assuming a 2.6 percent annual growth rate—far beyond what is likely given the ongoing financial shocks and the sharp slowdown in China and Europe—the Obama administration projects large and rising federal deficits.

The deficit for the current fiscal year, ending September 30, 2016, is projected to rise sharply from $438 billion last year to $616 billion, mainly because of tax cuts for business that were enacted as part of last December’s bipartisan deal. The federal deficit as a percentage of GDP will jump from 2.8 percent to 3.5 percent, above the 3 percent level regarded as the desired ceiling by the International Monetary Fund and debt-rating agencies.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/02/10/budg-f10.html

Uber cuts protested by New York City drivers

By Steve Light and Isaac Finn
2 February 2016

In response to a 15 percent fare cut announced by the company over the weekend, hundreds of Uber and other taxi drivers protested Monday at the Uber headquarters near Queens Plaza in New York City. They expressed anger that their already meager incomes would be reduced even further by the company’s action, forcing them to work even longer hours.

Uber driver rally against rate cuts

Uber is an international “ride share” service, whose drivers are treated as independent contractors rather than as employees. As of last summer, the company was valued at $17 billion. The rate cut was reportedly undertaken to increase the company’s market share, in competition with Lyft, another ride-share service, as well as regular taxis and car services.

The super-exploitation of Uber and other taxi workers is just one aspect of the ever-widening economic inequality in the city that is the financial capital of the world. With astronomically high living expenses, millions of low-wage workers are barely eking by in a city where are workers, according to a recent report, need to earn an hourly wage of least $38.80, roughly four times the current minimum wage, in order to afford the city’s 2015 median asking rent of $2,690.

A significant proportion of the rally was composed of drivers from countries such as Nepal, China, Russia, and the Caucasus region, reflecting the super-exploitation of immigrant workers. Signs expressed anger at wage cuts by billionaire owners. Trucks, cars, and taxis rolling by the rally blew their horns in support and were met with cheers from the drivers.

Many Uber drivers are part-timers, and net an average $300 per week for 25 hours worked, from which they still have to pay for gasoline, insurance, vehicle expenses, and self-employment taxes. Recent reports show drivers making $2.89 an hour, less than half the official minimum wage.

The development of Internet-based service using cell phone apps has greatly intensified competition, forcing drivers to work longer hours to try make sufficient income and pay off their investments for cars. The technology-based changes in the taxi industry have led to protests against Uber in at least nine countries in Latin America, Europe, Canada and the Far East.

Uber and other drivers at the rally spoke to reporters from the WSWS .

Victor, an immigrant from Russiam with two years experience, stated, “Even before they dropped the price we were working with very low margins. We already have to pay for inspections and insurance. We are always risking getting a ticket, and if we do we have to pay it.

“One of the guys did the math, and if you work about 57 hours, under the new rate, after expenses you are making about $9.50 an hour. Why not work in a warehouse, if they are only going to pay that much?

The protest at Uber headquarters

“When I joined Uber two years ago, I knew the rates and then the company changed the rules. I have already bought the car, the dealer doesn’t change the cost because of this, and my insurance is the same. I know in other states things are different and a lot of the drivers just work part-time, but we already paid out thousands of dollars for these cars.

“They say we are ‘partners’ but they didn’t ask us anything before making these changes. I think a lot of people will leave Uber, and then there will be less drivers. We might be really busy, but eventually the market will adjust and this will hit us hard.”

Pemba Sherpa, an immigrant from Nepal, who has worked for Uber for five months, decried the rate cuts, “They are trying to kill us. We have to pay rent, plus the cost of a car, which is between $60,000 and $65,000, and they are asking us to work for just over $4 an hour.

“When I started working for Uber, I asked them, ‘should I get the black car?’ and they told me to get it. Then they told me I had to pick up UberX clients for less money, or do pulls, which means I have to pick up multiple clients at the same time. If you are doing pulls, I could be picking up six people and they are all paying $2 each that is less than a subway ride. It is like I am a bus driver, but I did not sign up to be a bus driver.

“We are entrapped because we already bought the cars, and they just keep changing the rules. They send us our times and conditions every night, and we have to accept them or we won’t be able to work.”

Another Uber driver, added, “They want us to work for $4.89 an hour, and you can’t take care of your family for that. We will be working longer hours for the same amount of money, and that is an insult.

“We already have to pay for the cars, for insurance. We have to pay for dry cleaning for our shirts, and we are getting less money than if we worked at McDonalds.”

Parminder Singh, an Uber driver and former taxi driver, explained “Uber just keeps adding cars, and making things worse for us. New York taxi companies can’t add more cars, because that increases congestion on the roads and makes things worse.

“We just want to raise our kids, but you can’t do that on this much money. I work from noon until 1 or 2AM. My son is nine years old, and I never see him. He wants to see me, but I can’t because I am at work.”

Asked about the political issues raised by his working conditions, Singh added, “The city should be responsible for taking care of the people that live here. When I was in Yellow Cab we had protested in front of the Governor’s office, to make things better for all the drivers, but the politicians still have not done anything.

“My feeling is that the city should be providing jobs to people with qualifications. We should not have people becoming drivers, when they are trained for something else.”

“Uber is 1,500 drivers, and they will make us homeless” Bahkyti Yori asserted. “What happens when we cannot cover our insurance, financial costs? We will lose our cars, everything.”

Pasand Sherpa told the WSWS, “Uber lowered the rate 15 percent but Uber takes a high percentage, 30 to 35 percent, but there is no percentage increase for us. It was $8 at the start for riders but now it is $7. Every trip they charge us 35 percent. They discount from the customer’s side but not from the driver’s side. Wages are going down but we are working harder. It was better but now we would have to drive 500 miles. We don’t have a union. The Taxi Workers Alliance organized this.”

Medallion (yellow cab) taxi drivers joined the rally in support of the Uber drivers. Iqbal Singh, a yellow cab driver for 25 years, was there in support of the Uber drivers. “We came out to fight with them. Uber made $62 billion. If they are cutting back the fare, so they make less, then yellow cabs also make less money. They can then cut the fare again and make it even worse. We want Uber to have a set price.”

An Uber driver for two years, Shamsu Uddin said, “The jobs came online before for $3 per mile, then $2.15, and now again forty cents less. We can’t even make $100 to $150 an hour. How can we make the mortgage payments or pay for the new car or take care of our family. I drive twelve hours a day. Everything goes up in price, every bill, but not us. We built the billionaire boss. There are many competing companies–Yellow, Green, LYFT, Uber, Gate, Bayer, and now Juno is coming in April. [Mayor] De Blasio said it is not good for the driver but he set this up.”

Tenzin Wangyal assessed the situation, “I think there is a decent amount that can be made by drivers but the company takes 30 percent and the driver is left not making much. They structure the system to get people to fight against each other. It needs to be structured to bring people together. This should not only be including taxi but all people should support this fight. It is about fairness and justice. People just keep talking. No one is doing anything. That is why we are here, for our voice to be heard. They make the same speech, but it is the same old reality. It is time to act now and do the right thing. It is for democracy and justice.”

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/02/02/uber-f02.html

Cheap cab ride? You must have missed Uber’s true cost

When tech giants such as Google and Uber hide their wealth from taxation, they make it harder for us to use technology to improve services

A striking French taxi driver protests against Uber in Paris.
A striking French taxi driver protests against Uber in Paris. Photograph: Charles Platiau/Reuters

To understand why we see so few genuine alternatives to US technology giants, it’s instructive to compare the fate of a company like Uber – valued at more than $62.5bn (£44bn) – and that of Kutsuplus, an innovative Finnish startup forced to shut down late last year.

Kutsuplus’s aspiration was to be the Uber of public transport: it operated a network of minibuses that would pick up and drop passengers anywhere in Helsinki, with smartphones, algorithms and the cloud deployed to maximise efficiency, cut costs and provide a slick public service. Being a spinoff of a local university that operated on a shoestring budget, Kutsuplus did not have rich venture capitalists behind it. This, perhaps, is what contributed to its demise: the local transport authority found it too expensive, despite impressive year-on-year growth of 60%.

On the other hand, “expensive” is everything that Uber is not. While you might be tempted to ascribe the low costs of the service to its ingenuity and global scale – is it the Walmart of transport? – its affordability has a more banal provenance: sitting on tons of investor cash, Uber can afford to burn billions in order to knock out any competitors, be they old-school taxi companies or startups like Kutsuplus.

A recent article in The Information, a tech news site, suggests that during the first three quarters of 2015 Uber lost $1.7bn while booking $1.2bn in revenue. The company has so much money that, in at least some North American locations, it has been offering rides at rates so low that they didn’t even cover the combined cost of fuel and vehicle depreciation.

Uber’s game plan is simple: it wants to drive the rates so low as to increase demand – by luring some of the customers who would otherwise have used their own car or public transport. And to do that, it is willing to burn a lot of cash, while rapidly expanding into adjacent industries, from food to package delivery.

An obvious but rarely asked question is: whose cash is Uber burning? With investors like Google, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Goldman Sachs behind it, Uber is a perfect example of a company whose global expansion has been facilitated by the inability of governments to tax profits made by hi-tech and financial giants.

To put it bluntly: the reason why Uber has so much cash is because, well, governments no longer do. Instead, this money is parked in the offshore accounts of Silicon Valley and Wall Street firms. Look at Apple, which has recently announced that it sits on $200bn of potentially taxable overseas cash, or Facebook, which has just posted record profits of $3.69bn for 2015.

Some of these firms do choose to share their largesse with governments – both Apple and Google have agreed to pay tax bills far smaller than what they owe, in Italy and the UK respectively – but such moves aim at legitimising the questionable tax arrangements they have been using rather than paying their fair share.

Compare this with the dire state of affairs in which most governments and city administrations find themselves today. Starved of tax revenue, they often make things worse by committing themselves to the worst of austerity politics, shrinking the budgets dedicated to infrastructure, innovation, or creating alternatives to the rapacious “platform capitalism” of Silicon Valley.

Under these conditions, it’s no wonder that promising services like Kutsuplus have to shut down: cut from the seemingly endless cash supply of Google and Goldman Sachs, Uber would have gone under as well. It is, perhaps, no coincidence that Finland is one of the more religious advocates of austerity in Europe; having let Nokia go under, the country has now missed another chance.

Let us not be naive: Wall Street and Silicon Valley won’t subsidise transport for ever. While the prospect of using advertising to underwrite the costs of an Uber trip is still very remote, the only way for these firms to recoup their investments is by squeezing even more cash or productivity out of Uber drivers or by eventually – once all their competitors are out – raising the costs of the trip.

Both of these options spell trouble. Uber is already taking higher percentages from its drivers’ fares (this number is reported to have gone up from 20% to 30%), while also trying to pass on more costs related to background checks and safety education directly to its drivers (through the so-called safe rides fee).

The only choice here is between more precarity for drivers and more precarity for passengers, who will have to accept higher rates, with or without controversial practices like surge pricing (prices go up when demand is high).

Moreover, the company is actively trying to solidify its status as a default platform for transport. During the recent squabbles in France – where taxi drivers have been rioting to get the government to notice their plight – Uber has offered to open up its platforms to any professional taxi drivers who would like a second job.

Needless to say, such platforms – with properly administered and transparent payment, reputation and pricing systems – ought to have been established by cities a long time ago. This, along with the encouragement and support of startups like Kutsuplus, would have been the right regulatory response to Uber.

Unfortunately, there’s very little policy innovation in this space and the main response to Uber so far has come from other Uber-like companies unhappy with its dominance. Thus, India’s Ola, China’s Didi Kuaidi, US-based Lyft and Malaysia’s GrabTaxi have formed an alliance, allowing customers to book cabs from each other’s apps in countries where they operate. This falls short of creating a viable support system where innovators like Kutsuplus can flourish; replacing Uber with Lyft won’t solve the problem, as it pursues the same aggressive model.

The broader lesson here is that a country’s technology policy is directly dependent on its economic policy; one cannot flourish without the active support of the other. Decades of a rather lax attitude on taxation combined with strict adherence to the austerity agenda have eaten up the public resources available for experimenting with different modes of providing services like transport.

This has left tax-shrinking companies and venture capitalists – who view everyday life as an ideal playing ground for predatory entrepreneurship – as the only viable sources of support for such projects. Not surprisingly, so many of them start like Kutsuplus only to end up like Uber: such are the structural constraints of working with investors who expect exorbitant returns on their investments.

Finding and funding projects that would not have such constraints would not in itself be so hard; what will be hard, especially given the current economic climate, is finding the cash to invest in them.

Taxation seems the only way forward – alas, many governments do not have the courage to ask what is due to them; the compromise between Google and HM Treasury is a case in point.

 

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jan/31/cheap-cab-ride-uber-true-cost-google-wealth-taxation?CMP=fb_gu

Europe joins the economic “gold rush” to Tehran

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By Peter Symonds
30 January 2016

Just two weeks after the lifting of punitive international sanctions on Iran, a scramble is underway to take advantage of trade and investment possibilities. A two-day visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Tehran last week was followed by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s trip this week to Italy and France, leading to a series of multi-billion dollar deals.

The international sanctions were lifted on January 16 only after Tehran implemented the onerous demands of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA) reached last July with the P-6 group—the US, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany—over its nuclear programs. Iran, which has repeatedly denied allegations that it planned to build a nuclear weapon, was compelled to ship out its low-enriched uranium, dismantle thousands of gas centrifuges and incapacitate its heavy-water reactor.

For the European powers, the opening up of Iran provides opportunities to boost their own depressed economies and to make up ground lost to China as a result of the US-led sanctions. For Iran, investment and trade is a dire necessity to boost its crippled economy as the government confronts mounting social tensions. As a result of falling oil prices, the economy grew last year by just 0.8 percent, compared to 4.3 percent in 2014. Iran is hoping to attract up to $50 billion in foreign investment annually.

Rouhani’s European tour was the first by an Iranian president in well over a decade. He was accompanied by a 100-strong trade delegation of ministers, senior officials and business representatives. He received red carpet treatment and met with top leaders in Italy and France, including both prime ministers, and French President Francois Hollande, as well as Pope Francis in the Vatican.

In Rome, Rouhani declared that the nuclear agreement had been a “win-win” for both sides. “We invite you to invest and we will provide stability and ensure that you can make adequate returns,” he promised. In Italy, agreements were signed worth an estimate $18 billion in industries ranging from natural gas to high-speed rail.

In Paris, Rouhani told business leaders that he wanted to “turn the page” on the old “bitterness” between Iran and France and “open a new relationship.” Pierre Gattaz, president of the French employer federation Medef, urged French companies to “rush” to Iran and “not waste any time.”

At Rouhani’s meeting with Hollande, a range of deals were formally signed, including the purchase of 118 Airbus aircraft and an oil contract with Total to buy 150,000–200,000 barrels of oil a day from Iran. PSA Peugeot Citroen sealed a joint venture with Iran Khodro to produce 200,000 cars a year and invest more than $280 million over the next five years.

Other major European powers are also lining up. On January 16, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond commented: “I hope British businesses seize the opportunities available to them through the phased lifting of sanctions on Iran.” Just days earlier, former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was part of a large German trade delegation to Iran, seeking to revive longstanding economic ties that were hard hit by sanctions.

Even before the lifting of sanctions, Tehran had become a magnet for business delegations. The New Yorker commented: “The Great Race—for what a Western ambassador in Tehran described as ‘the last gold mine on Earth’—has begun. With 80 million people, Iran is the largest economy to return to the global marketplace since the Soviet Union’s demise, a quarter century ago. It urgently needs to refurbish its crumbling infrastructure. Unlike Eastern Europe, however, Iran is flush with cash, after gaining access to $100 billion in oil revenues that had been locked away in foreign banks during sanctions.”

Moreover, Rouhani’s pledge to “provide stability” and ensure profits is a guarantee to foreign investors that the reactionary clerical regime in Tehran will implement its pro-market agenda and use police-state measures to suppress any opposition in the working class. Last May, the government hiked up fuel prices by a massive 40 percent and ended the rationing system that provided cheap subsidised petrol.

Rouhani is part of a faction of the ruling elite that has repeatedly sought to establish a rapprochement with the US as a means of opening up the country to Western investment. The government is hoping for a much-needed economic boost to stem mounting social tensions. Some 60 percent of the population is under the age of 30 and the official youth unemployment rate is 25 percent.

The European “rush” to Iran has left the United States on the economic sidelines. While most international sanctions have been lifted, the US trade embargo will not be lifted for another eight years, with a few exceptions, including passenger aircraft. Having lost out in the initial round to Airbus, Boeing will no doubt be keen to bid for the next round of sales. Iran has indicated it wants to purchase a total of 400 aircraft.

Washington has previously used threats and provocations against Iran as a means of disrupting the plans of its rivals to secure close relations with the energy-rich state. In 2004–05, the so-called EU Three—France, Germany and Britain—attempted to negotiate an agreement with Iran over its nuclear programs, only to have the talks effectively sabotaged by the US. Having frozen its uranium enrichment program, Tehran reacted angrily to a US-EU deal, which, in the words of one Iranian negotiator, was “too ridiculous to be called an offer.”

The breakdown of talks led to escalating tensions as the US ratcheted up its threats of war against Iran. After Obama came to office, Washington pressured its allies and the UN to impose draconian sanctions that cut Iran off from the international financial system and dramatically reduced its exports of oil.

Last year’s nuclear deal is often hailed as a triumph for peace and stability. In reality, the US agreed to the JCPA in part because it feared a breakdown of the sanctions coalition. More fundamentally, however, it was a tactical shift aimed at preparing for confrontation and conflict with larger adversaries, China and Russia.

The United States cannot simply stand by and allow its European and Asian rivals to consolidate an economic base and political ties with Iran. The country is the second largest economy in the Middle East and has the fourth largest reserves of oil, and second largest of gas, in the world. US imperialism will either have to join in the scramble, or, as it has done before, use sanctions and military threats to undermine its rivals, and thus bring the region to the brink of another new war.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/01/30/iran-j30.html

Drone, a Norwegian-made documentary: “We just made orphans out of all these children”

By Joanne Laurier
29 January 2016

Directed by Tonje Hessen Schei

Drone, directed by Norwegian filmmaker Tonje Hessen Schei, about the illegal CIA drone program, has been screened at various documentary film festivals and played in certain theaters in North America.

The use of drones by the United States for purposes of assassinations has greatly increased over the past decade. Hessen Schei’s movie brings together opponents of this specialized killing tool, including authors, commentators, human rights attorneys and investigative journalists.

The real heart and strength of Drone lies in its interviews with two former drone operators from the US Air Force, Brandon Bryant and Michael Haas, both young men suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Brandon Bryant in Drone

Bryant and Haas served in time periods that straddled the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. One of Bryant’s entries in his diary: “On the battlefield there are no sides, just bloodshed. Total war. Every horror witnessed. I wish my eyes would rot.”

Hessen Schei presents images and stories focusing on the northwestern Pakistani province of Waziristan, a region that has been a particular target of homicidal American drone bombing.

Reprieve, the British human rights organization whose founder, Clive Stafford Smith, is interviewed in the film, points out: “To date, the United States has used drones to execute without trial some 4,700 people in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia—all countries against whom it has not declared war. The US’ drones programme is a covert war being carried out by the CIA.”

In the documentary, Chris Woods, author of Sudden Justice, further observes that “nowhere has been more bombed by the CIA than Waziristan. The first recorded CIA done strike in Pakistan took place in 2004. The number of those strikes has accelerated.” He calls it “an industrialized killing program.”

In Waziristan, a young drone strike survivor, Zubair Ur Rehman, shyly tells the camera that “the drones circulate 24 hours a day. Two or three at a time. Always two, but often three or four. When we hear the sound of the drones, we get scared. We can’t work, play or go to school. It is only when it’s cloudy that we don’t hear the drones.”

The barbaric strikes, which have increased sharply under the Obama administration, are illegal under international and US law and amount to war crimes. In the Hessen Schei film, Pakistani photojournalist Noor Behram displays his dossier of devastating photographs of child victims of drone attacks: “Every time I sleep, I hear the cries of the children.”

Drone also deals with the attacks on the would-be rescuers of the victims of the drone strikes. This is what the American military refers to as a “double tap.” Missiles are launched, killing and injuring people. Moments later, when nearby residents race to the scene to help the wounded, another round of missiles is fired. As one analyst points out, the US government, in many cases, has no idea whom they are killing.

Aftermath of drone attack in Pakistan

Imran Khan, Chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, affirms that “when people gather round to save the injured [from a drone strike], there’s another drone attack! … You can hear the cries of the injured for hours because no one goes to help them.”

Another of the movie’s commentators emphasizes, “It’s never been easier for an American president to carry out killing operations at the ends of the earth … and when you define the world as a battlefield, it’s a very broad range of operations you can carry out.”

According to Woods: “You’ve got the president signing off on particular death lists; you have the US Air Force flying the drones; the Central Intelligence Agency responsible for the strikes; CENTCOM [United States Central Command] involved in launching and targeting of strikes; NSA [National Security Agency] providing intelligence for strikes … the entire apparatus of the United States government has been bent towards the process of targeted killings over the past decade.”

As a means of recruiting drone pilots, the military has developed “militainment”—war presented as entertainment. In the warped minds of the armed forces’ top brass, video gamers have skill sets that it values.

Former drone operator Bryant, who served as a sensor operator for the Predator program from 2007 to 2011, movingly explains that “I didn’t really understand what it meant to kill at first. … We sat in a box for nearly 12-hour shifts. … We’re the ultimate voyeurs. The ultimate Peeping Toms. No one is going to catch us. We’re getting orders to take these peoples’ lives. It was just a point and click.”

One of Drone’s interviewed experts argues the more distant the perpetrator is from the victim, the crueler the act of killing. The separation in space creates and encourages indifference. He refers to “the psychology of distance.”

Haas, who served in the US military from 2005 to 2011, participated in targeted killing runs from his computer at the Creech Air Force Base in Nevada that ended the lives of insurgents and others in Afghanistan some 8,000 miles away: “I joined when I was barely 20 years old. I did not know what I was in for. I thought it was the coolest damn thing in the world. Play video games all day and then the reality hits you that you may have to kill somebody.

“In our control room, they had a picture of the September 11 [2001] plane hitting the second [World Trade Center] building. They make you pissed off all over again just before you go do your job. ‘These guys have to die. These guys deserve to die.’ And you’ve got to make it happen.”

As opposed to the remorse felt by the former airmen, Andy Von Flotow, chairman of Insitu, which builds unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) in the state of Washington, was in on the ground floor in the development of drones. He boasts that “we started this unmanned aircraft business in the early 1990s, shortly after GPS made it possible.” His company built a small airplane with a camera on it in 1999 to help tuna fisherman. While the fishermen did not buy the planes, “George Bush took us into his adventures.” Flotow claims that “we have 25 percent of unmanned flight hours in Iraq and Afghanistan. … War is an opportunity to do business.”

One of the most intense moments in the film occurs when Bryant opens up to the filmmakers: “I didn’t really understand what it meant to kill at first. It was horrible. The first time was horrible. The second time was horrible. The third time was numbing. The fourth time was numbing. But of course the first time sticks with you the longest [he describes the procedure]. … Then I watched this man bleed out … and I imagined his last moments. I knew I had ended something I had no right to end. I swore an oath, I did what I was supposed to do. I followed through with it. … It was like an image of myself was cracking up and breaking apart.”

Earlier in the film, he says: “Over the last five and one half years, 1,626 people were killed in the operations I took part in. … When I looked at that number, I was ready to put a bullet in my brain.”

Fellow drone operator Haas discloses that “you never knew who you were killing because you never actually see a face—just silhouettes and it’s easy to have that detachment and that lack of sympathy for human life. And it’s easy just to think of them as something else. They’re not really people, they’re just terrorists.” His military superiors, he remarks, “don’t have to take that shot or bear the burden—I’m the one who has to bear that burden. They don’t have to do the actions or live with the repercussions … and we just made orphans out of all these children. They don’t have to live with that. I do.”

The CIA drones program is global assassination without trial. The operations of this state-run murder machine are kept shrouded in secrecy by the Obama administration. While the outlook of the creators of Drone is not strong—essentially consisting of appeals to the United Nations and the Pakistani government—the movie provides further insight into the lawless and ruthless character of US foreign policy.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/01/29/dron-j29.html

War and the destruction of social infrastructure in America

US_DeclineandFalloftheAmericanEmpire-400x256

28 January 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andre Damon

 

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