You should actually blame America for everything you hate about internet culture

November 21

The tastes of American Internet-users are both well-known and much-derided: Cat videos. Personality quizzes. Lists of things that only people from your generation/alma mater/exact geographic area “understand.”

But in France, it turns out, even viral-content fiends are a bit more … sophistiqués.

“In France, articles about cats do not work,” Buzzfeed’s Scott Lamb told Le Figaro, a leading Parisian paper. Instead, he explained, Buzzfeed’s first year in the country has shown it that “the French love sharing news and politics on social networks – in short, pretty serious stuff.”

This is interesting for two reasons: first, as conclusive proof that the French are irredeemable snobs; second, as a crack in the glossy, understudied facade of what we commonly call “Internet culture.”

When the New York Times’s David Pogue tried to define the term in 2009, he ended up with a series of memes: the “Star Wars” kid, the dancing baby, rickrolling, the exploding whale. Likewise, if you look to anyone who claims to cover the Internet culture space — not only Buzzfeed, but Mashable, Gawker and, yeah, yours truly — their coverage frequently plays on what Lamb calls the “cute and positive” theme. They’re boys who work at Target and have swoopy hair, videos of babies acting like “tiny drunk adults,” hamsters eating burritos and birthday cakes.

That is the meaning we’ve assigned to “Internet culture,” itself an ambiguous term: It’s the fluff and the froth of the global Web.

But Lamb’s observations on Buzzfeed’s international growth would actually seem to suggest something different. Cat memes and other frivolities aren’t the work of an Internet culture. They’re the work of an American one.

American audiences love animals and “light content,” Lamb said, but readers in other countries have reacted differently. Germans were skeptical of the site’s feel-good frivolity, he said, and some Australians were outright “hostile.” Meanwhile, in France — land of la mode and le Michelin — critics immediately complained, right at Buzzfeed’s French launch, that the articles were too fluffy and poorly translated. Instead, Buzzfeed quickly found that readers were more likely to share articles about news, politics and regional identity, particularly in relation to the loved/hated Paris, than they were to share the site’s other fare.

A glance at Buzzfeed’s French page would appear to bear that out. Right now, its top stories “Ça fait le buzz” — that’s making the buzz, for you Americaines — are “21 photos that will make you laugh every time” and “26 images that will make you rethink your whole life.” They’re not making much buzz, though. Neither has earned more than 40,000 clicks — a pittance for the reigning king of virality, particularly in comparison to Buzzfeed’s versions on the English site.

All this goes to show that the things we term “Internet culture” are not necessarily born of the Internet, itself — the Internet is everywhere, but the insatiable thirst for cat videos is not. If you want to complain about dumb memes or clickbait or other apparent instances of socially sanctioned vapidity, blame America: We started it, not the Internet.

Appelons un chat un chat.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2014/11/21/you-should-actually-blame-america-for-everything-you-hate-about-internet-culture/

“An injury to all”: the class struggle is back in Italy

by Alfredo Mazzamauro on November 24, 2014

Post image for “An injury to all”: the class struggle is back in Italy

As Renzi’s center-left government intensifies the project of neoliberal restructuring, a wave of self-organized class struggle takes off across Italy.

Back in 2006, Warren Buffet, the notorious billionaire speculator, confessed during an interview that: “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” Since then, that class warfare has been ever tougher in Italy. Since 2000, real wages have been decreasing, registering an even sharper downturn since the beginning of the crisis in 2007-’08. In real terms, wages nowadays are as high as in 1990.

At the same time, unemployment has skyrocketed. The number of unemployed people was registered at 3.23 million in September 2014. Italy’s jobless rate increased to 12.6 percent in the same month, while its youth unemployment rate (aged 15-24) was 42.9 percent. In September 1983, the two rates were respectively 7.5 and 25.9 percent, respectively. The Gini coefficient, the most common measure of economic inequality, has gone back to the same levels of the 1970s. In 2012 it averaged out at 34.9 per cent, a level as high as in 1979.

But probably, since the beginning of the last economic crisis (2007-08), the most evident indicator of the ongoing class war in Italy has been the increasing disposal income of the bourgeoisie and the steadily decreasing income of the working class, which shows to what extent the crisis has been an opportunity for the rich to privatize profits and socialize losses.

A Clear Political Project

The ongoing class war in Italy is not a byproduct of “natural” global economic developments. On the contrary, it is a clear political project carried out by the center-right and center-left governments that have ruled Italy for the last thirty years. The aim of this project has been to consistently deteriorate the improvements in the living and working conditions that the working-class movement obtained during the revolutionary wave of the 1970s, with the goal recreating the bosses’ mirage of cheap and disciplined labor that could attract international capital to Italy.

Particularly, since the beginning of the last economic crisis, the neoliberal project set up by the Italian bourgeoisie along with its European partners in the 2011 memorandum has become the political agenda of the last three governments, led respectively by Monti, Letta and Renzi (none of whom, incidentally, were elected by the Italian people).

The first of the three sections which composed the memorandum has been the enforcement of austerity measures meant to drastically reduce the state’s expenses for local administrations, infrastructure, welfare, schools and healthcare. These measures triggered the fierce resistance of the student movement back in 2008-’11 against the Gelmini school reform, and the outburst of the anti-austerity protests more recently focused on the housing problem.

The second section has consisted in a wave of privatization, which has involved mainly the transport, telecommunication, and post services against which, last winter, tough protests were organized by workers and users — protests that are likely to rise up again very soon.

The third and final section of the memorandum deals with the labor market and aims to entirely deregulate it. At the moment the current government is trying to enforce this labor policy through a package of laws called the Jobs Act. This agenda constitutes the political manifesto of the Italian bourgeoisie — to the extent that the President of the Italian Industrialists Association (Confindustria), Giorgio Squinzi, recently referred to Renzi’s labor policy as “a dream come true.”

A Wave of Mobilization

The effort to pass the Jobs Act in Parliament has triggered a wave of mobilization in the working class all over the country. Even the until-recently innocuous trade union CGIL was forced to step in and call for a huge demonstration in Rome at the end of October and a general strike on December 5. In the meantime, workers are striking and protesting as they have not done for many years, against the Jobs Act and in defense of their jobs.

This violent attack against workers is rightly understood as the next step of a political project aimed to impose precarity as the standard living condition for all the lower classes — “all those who produce and reproduce urban life.” That is why it was possible to unify the struggles which cross society against the school reform and the austerity measures, particularly the right to housing, on November 14.

On that date, along with the general strike called by most of the main rank-and-file unions and by the biggest metalworker union, FIOM, thousands and thousands of people took the streets with the goal of blocking the circulation of goods and people in the main Italian cities. The day of mobilization started early in the morning with blockades at the entrance of several warehouses and working places.

In Pisa, the workers of AVR blocked the entrance to the offices of the subcontracted cleaning company which is seeking to worsen the working conditions and reduce the wages. Later on, the same workers along with local activists joined the workers of GB at the local airport where they had to clash with cops to win the right to protest against the working conditions imposed by a company which is gaining millions of euros out of the management of the airport.

As for the students, lessons were interrupted in many universities, including the Federico II University in Naples. In Rome, the housing action movement occupied the offices of the local water provider, ACEA, to protest against the interruption of water service for users who are insolvent, while other activists along with many families in need of housing squatted a huge empty building, the former headquarters of a big Italian banking group, BNL.

At the same time, in Naples the registry offices were occupied against the Lupi plan which refuses to grant legal residence to those living in squatted houses. The Florentine housing action movement occupied a central junction paralyzing all traffic in the north of the city, the area with the highest percentage of squatted spaces.

In the middle of the morning, rallies and marches took place all over the country. Turin, Milan, Bergamo, Brescia, Genoa, Padua, Verona, Treviso, Venice, Bologna, Rimini, Florence, Pisa, Massa, Rome, Naples, Palermo, Olbia are only some of the many cities which were crossed by thousands of students, workers and activists throughout the country. All the demonstrations marched through the main roads to block the circulation of goods and workers over urban space as much as possible.

Clashes with riot police occurred in many cities, the harshest in Milan, Pisa and Padua. In several cases, such as Naples and Florence, the demonstrations ended or passed by the offices of the Industrialist Association, which was targeted by the demonstrators. This association has been rightly understood by the class movement as the real enemy which, along with Renzi’s government, is responsible for the current labor policy and precarity in every aspect of the life of the lower classes.

Resistance, Unity, Organization

Three words capture the political agenda that the working class and the social movements are currently trying to put into practice. The first one is resistance. Resistance against the political project that the Italian and European ruling class is enforcing over our lives. The laboring classes need to be faithful in their means of opposition, and not to think that the battle is already lost.

The second one is unity. Unity among those “whose only possession of significant material value is their labor-power.” This is the strong message which comes up from the November 14 day of mobilization, as the decision of the main rank-and-file union of the logistic sector, SiCobas, to march along with the metalworkers in a huge demonstration in Milan clearly shows.

The third is organization. The current enthusiasm cannot be enough to win the battle against Renzi’s government and its policy of enforced precarity. There is a need to organize the action of the subaltern classes in the long run and take advantage of different forms of direct action.

A concrete example of this political counter-project was put in place in Livorno where the recently formed Coordination of Workers of Livorno has been able to mobilize the whole city in support of their struggle against the loss of more than 2.000 jobs in the wider urban area. Last Saturday, notwithstanding the heavy rain, more than 3.000 workers, students, football supporters, housing-action activists and common people took to the street in an outstanding march which crossed the city, while most of the small retailers were closed in solidarity with the workers.

The Coordination in Livorno is a self-organized initiative which brings together hundreds of workers, mostly rank-and-file union representatives, from all over the urban area of Livorno. The concept behind this project is as simple as it is powerful: workers have common interests and their struggles are stronger when they are united regardless of who their employer is and which economic sector they are employed in. Despite the fact that the Coordination is only a few months old, it has already been able to put the labor issue at the forefront of the political agenda of the city.

The Livorno experience has proven that grassroots movements of workers, students and common people can be effective and can become the voice of the majority of the population. However, obstacles and enemies are opposing this possible development. A growing racist anger, which tends to divide migrants from the rest of the class, is growing in the suburbs of the Italian metropolises promoted by fascist groups, such as Casa Pound, and xenophobic parties, such us the Lega Nord, all over Italy, as the recent cases of Bologna and Rome demonstrate.

Nonetheless, the days of mobilization of November 14 and 15 open a path to be followed in the “everyday gray labor” in the working places and in the neighborhoods, and at a national level in the coming days of countrywide struggle — such as the general strike called by the CGIL on December 12. The class struggle is back in Italy and will shake our country for some time to come.

Alfredo Mazzamauro is a PhD researcher in History at the European University Institute in Florence.

http://roarmag.org/2014/11/class-struggle-protests-italy-crisis/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+roarmag+%28ROAR+Magazine%29

Obama announces right-wing immigration “reform” in national address

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By Patrick Martin
21 November 2014

US President Barack Obama delivered a nationally televised address on Thursday night, giving a preview of an executive order on immigration to be signed and made public on Friday.

As with most speeches by Obama, Thursday’s remarks exuded hypocrisy and cynicism. The proposal that Obama is implementing is thoroughly right-wing. His comments combined empty homilies describing the United States as a “nation of immigrants” with proclamations that the estimated 11-12 million undocumented immigrant workers must “play by the rules” and be held “accountable.”

The program outlined by Obama would cover less than half of the 11-12 million undocumented immigrant workers and children now in the US, with the remainder subject to immediate detention and deportation as “illegals.” In its six years in office, the Obama administration has already deported more immigrants than any government in US history.

Despite the howls of “amnesty” from sections of the Republican Party, and praise for the White House from its media backers and Democratic Party-affiliated Latino groups, Obama’s executive order is anything but a green light for immigrant workers seeking legal status, economic security and recognition of their human rights.

As Obama explained in his speech, the bulk of the 5 million or so immigrants who qualify for non-deportation and work permits must have lived in the United States more than five years and have children who are American citizens or legal residents. They must register with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), pass a criminal background check, and pay any back taxes. In return, they will “be able to stay temporarily,” Obama said.

Obama’s speech was entirely within the right-wing framework of official American politics, in which workers who come to the United States fleeing poverty and dictatorship—for which American imperialism is principally responsible—and take the hardest and worst-paid jobs are demonized as criminals who must be “held accountable.” Meanwhile, the true criminal class in America, the financial aristocracy that controls both the Democratic and Republican parties, amasses untold and unearned wealth.

Referring to immigrant workers, Obama said, “All of us take offense at anyone who reaps the rewards of living in America without taking on the responsibilities of living in America.” Who is he talking about? Who is reaping rewards without taking responsibility?

Such terms apply with much greater justice to the parasitic ruling elite that Obama and the congressional Republicans and Democrats represent. These gentlemen were bailed out to the tune of trillions following the 2008 financial crash. But no banker or hedge fund mogul has had to repay these infusions of taxpayers’ money or been held accountable for the financial manipulations and fraud that wiped out the jobs and living standards of tens of millions of working people.

“Undocumented workers broke our immigration laws, and I believe that they must be held accountable,” Obama declared. The Obama administration has refused to apply this standard to bankers and speculators who broke laws against swindling, or CIA agents who broke laws against torture, or top officials of the Bush administration who waged illegal wars and lied to the American people. And, of course, the Obama administration itself operates outside the law, trampling on the US constitution in its assertion of unlimited presidential powers to spy on, arrest, detain and even assassinate American citizens.

Under the Obama plan, the majority of workers who have entered the country without legal documents will still be treated as criminals, to be expelled from the country as soon as they are discovered. The four million to five million covered by the executive order will become a federally regimented cheap labor force. Those who register with the DHS will gain only temporary security, subject to the decisions of the next president—or Obama himself if circumstances change in the next two years—in which case the DHS database will become an invaluable resource for the resumption of mass roundups, detentions and deportations.

Obama hailed as a model the reactionary immigration bill passed last year by a bipartisan majority in the US Senate, while complaining that the Republican-controlled House of Representatives had refused to bring it to a vote. This bill placed its main emphasis on border security while establishing a draconian 17-year-long process through which some undocumented workers could gain citizenship.

The administration has already implemented many of the Senate bill’s border security measures. Obama boasted of the record number of federal agents, sensors and drones mobilized on the US-Mexico border and announced, as the first part of his executive order, even further militarization: “We’ll build on our progress at the border with additional resources for our law enforcement personnel so that they can stem the flow of illegal crossings, and speed the return of those who do cross over.”

White House officials said that some provisions of the Senate bill, such as the citizenship process and special provisions for temporary agricultural workers, were beyond the president’s legal authority to enact in an executive order. The immigration measure was drafted under the rubric of “prosecutorial discretion,” in which the president, as chief executive, can decide to prioritize enforcement of immigration laws against particular categories of immigrants, given that the federal government lacks the resources to immediately round up 12 million people.

Obama spent a considerable portion of his speech defining how narrow the executive order would be, including denying Medicaid, food stamps or other benefits to immigrants given work permits.

“This deal does not apply to anyone who has come to this country recently,” he said. “It does not apply to anyone who might come to America illegally in the future. It does not grant citizenship, or the right to stay here permanently, or offer the same benefits that citizens receive—only Congress can do that. All we’re saying is we’re not going to deport you.”

As in many of his policy statements, Obama sought to present his immigration order as a happy medium between two extremes. “Mass amnesty would be unfair,” he claimed. “Mass deportation would be both impossible and contrary to our character. What I’m describing is accountability—a commonsense, middle ground approach: If you meet the criteria, you can come out of the shadows and get right with the law.”

“Mass amnesty” is, in fact, the only policy compatible with democratic principles. All workers should have the right to live in whatever country they choose with full citizenship rights. But under the capitalist system, capital is globally mobile while the working class is imprisoned within the borders of the nation-state.

Obama’s claim that mass deportation is “contrary to our character” conceals a contradiction. Certainly, for the vast majority of working people, the police state measures that would be required to round up and deport 12 million people, ripping apart millions of families, would be abhorrent. (By one estimate, 13 percent of all school children in California and Texas have at least one undocumented parent).

But for the US ruling elite, and for the Obama administration in particular, “rounding up millions” is perfectly conceivable. In its six years in office, the Obama administration has rounded up nearly three million immigrants already. Large sections of the Republican Party advocate detention and expulsion of millions more.

The dispute between the parties, insofar as it exists, reflects divisions within the ruling elite over how politically explosive such an operation would be and how disruptive of the functioning of large sections of the US economy that depend on superexploited immigrant labor.

Sections of the Republican Party, particularly those linked to the ultra-right Tea Party groups, have long used demagogic attacks on immigrants as a political weapon. Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma suggested that any action by Obama perceived as pro-immigrant could touch off vigilante-style actions.

“The country’s going to go nuts, because they’re going to see it as a move outside the authority of the president, and it’s going to be a very serious situation,” he told USA Today. “You’re going to see—hopefully not—but you could see instances of anarchy. You could see violence.”

Obama made repeated appeals to ultra-right sentiment in the course of his television speech, pleading with Republicans that disagreement over immigration should not prevent collaboration in other policy areas once they take full control of Congress in January.

There is particular concern in Corporate America that the immigration issue could disrupt passage of a federal budget for the remainder of the current fiscal year, which began October 1. A continuing resolution to fund the government expires December 11, and House and Senate Republican leaders have been at pains to reassure Wall Street that there will be no repetition of the 2013 temporary shutdown of the government and no default on federal debt payments.

The Los Angeles Times, in one of the few press commentaries that cut through the pretense of huge disagreements between the two parties, noted Thursday that “the strong reaction by Republican leaders has less to do with opposition to the nuts and bolts of the president’s immigration policy and more to do with fear and anger that the issue will derail the agenda of the new Republican majority before the next Congress even convenes.” This includes making deals with Obama over pro-business measures on taxes, trade and energy policy.

 

 

US government, corporations preparing new offensive against workers’ pensions

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By Jerry White
20 November 2014

The release of the annual report of the US Pension Benefits Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) is being seized upon by the media and politicians of both parties to press for a new round of devastating cuts to pension benefits for tens of millions of retired industrial and other private-sector workers.

The PBGC is the government insurer for 24,000 defined benefit pension plans, which cover more than 41 million workers, retirees and their dependents. On Monday, the government-backed corporation released a report showing that the long-term projected deficit of its multiemployer program rose by $34 billion in fiscal year 2014 to a record $42 billion. This was largely due to potential losses from shoring up two large pension funds that could become insolvent in the next decade.

Although they were not named in the report, the two funds are reportedly the Teamsters Central States fund and the United Mine Workers fund, which together cover some 10 million current and retired workers. The precarious position of the funds, which are jointly administered by the two unions and trucking and mining companies, is due to the wiping out of hundreds of thousands of jobs, which has left many companies with more retirees than active workers. The pension funds were also hit by stock market losses.

The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal zeroed in on a single paragraph in the report warning that the PBGC could go broke over the next eight years if the current rate of premium payments from corporations continues. The “risk of insolvency” would rise over time, the report said, “exceeding 50 percent in 2022 and reaching 90 percent by 2025.” It added, “When the program becomes insolvent, PBGC will be unable to provide financial assistance to pay guaranteed benefits in insolvent plans.”

Nowhere in the media or political commentary on the report was there any suggestion that the government should carry out a Wall Street-style bailout of the pension insurer. The Post noted that that such a bailout was a “political non-starter” in Washington.

Nor was there any suggestion that Congress should mandate a major increase in contributions from the big corporations, which have extracted billions from the labor of workers while deliberately diverting funds from their pension plans and keeping them chronically underfunded.

Instead, in the name of “saving” the pensions, the capitalist media is demanding savage cuts in the workers’ benefits.

The Wall Street Journal wrote Tuesday that any solution to the agency’s “long-running problems” would likely include “sharp benefit cuts for the plans.” The Post concurred on the same day, saying, “Unless Congress makes changes, which could include raising insurance premiums for multiemployer plans or the controversial move of allowing for preemptive pension cuts in struggling plans,” the PBGC will go bankrupt.

One proposal, cited approvingly by the Wall Street Journal, came from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. A 30 percent benefit cut on average for current retirees, the report said, would allow the Teamsters plan “to remain solvent indefinitely and increase the aggregate welfare of plan participants.”

Leading Democrats and Republicans added their voices to the choir demanding action.

The annual report was “a sober reminder that time is running out” said Congressman John Kline (Republican from Minnesota), chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. The multiemployer pension system “is a ticking time bomb that will inflict a lot of pain on workers, employers, taxpayers and retirees if Congress fails to act,” he added.

Senate Finance Committee leaders Ron Wyden (Democrat from Oregon) and Orrin Hatch (Republican from Utah) issued a joint statement saying they remained “very concerned” about the multiemployer system.

As usual, the trade unions are willing accomplices in the crime being prepared against the working class. According to the Washington Post, “A coalition of unions and businesses has been pushing for reforms, including more flexible coverage structures and pension cuts in financially struggling plans.”

Last year, “a commission made up of representatives from employer and labor organizations,” the Wall Street Journal reported, issued a proposal “that would include the extreme step of cutting pension benefits for some current retirees in the most troubled plans.”

One such joint labor-management body is the National Coordinating Committee for Multiemployer Plans, which includes the presidents of the Teamsters, the AFL-CIO’s construction trades, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). It has called for congressional action, warning that employers planned to exit the system and “leave retirees behind.”

The union executives could care less about their retired members. These unions have spent decades collaborating in gutting pension benefits in order to boost the corporations’ profits. The threatened liquidation of multibillion-dollar pension investment funds, however, threatens the income and portfolios of the aspiring capitalists who control the unions.

There is an element of deliberate crisis mongering in the PBGC report. The shaky position of the agency has long been known and nothing has been done about it.

Over the last three decades, more and more corporations have jettisoned their employer-paid plans—one of the most important gains won by the working class in the mass industrial battles of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. All but a few have forced current workers onto employee-paid 401(K) plans subject to the vagaries of the stock market.

Earlier this year, aerospace and defense giant Boeing worked in tandem with the International Association of Machinists (IAM) to force 33,000 IAM workers onto 401 (K) plans. The company’s top executive, Jim McNerney, has a special retirement plan valued at $42 million, which will provide him with over $270,000 per month after he quits.

It has long been a standard business practice for American corporations to dump their pension obligations onto the PBGC through bankruptcy. Since Congress established the PBGC as part of the 1975 Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), the government-backed corporation has paid out billions to cover pension plans terminated by giant corporations, particularly in the steel and airline industries.

As millions of workers know through painful, first-hand experience, when the PBGC takes over an insolvent fund, the workers are hit with brutal benefit cuts. Congress limits the amount the agency can pay to retirees to less than $13,000 a year, effectively condemning the workers to poverty. A worker with a very modest annual pension of $20,000 after 30 years of labor stands to lose more than $7,000 a year—a cut of over 35 percent.

The decks are being cleared for the next stage in the relentless, bipartisan assault on the working class. Private-sector pensions will be targeted along with other supposed “ticking bombs” such as Social Security, Medicare and public-sector pensions.

The nationwide offensive against the pensions of state and municipal workers has already been launched with precedent-setting rulings by federal bankruptcy judges in Detroit and Stockton, California declaring null and void provisions of state constitutions guaranteeing the pension benefits of public employees.

Last week, a federal bankruptcy judge gave final approval to the Detroit bankruptcy settlement, which imposes huge cuts in the pensions and health benefits of retired city workers and imposes 401(k) plans on active workers. This week, the PBGC report has signaled the widening of the attack to include the private sector.

The official justification is the claim that society simply cannot afford to keep the “overgenerous promises” made to workers in an earlier, more prosperous period. The situation is supposedly made worse by the problem of workers living too long after retirement and imposing an unsustainable burden on the rest of the population.

These are self-serving lies pumped out by the ruling class through its political servants and media apologists. Since the financial crash of 2008, the Obama administration’s pro-business policies of bank bailouts, virtually free money for the banks from the Federal Reserve, wage and benefit cuts for auto workers, corporate tax cuts and deregulation have transferred trillions from the working class to the super-rich.

The share of the gross domestic product going to corporate profits is at the highest level since World War II, while the share going to workers’ wages is at the lowest. American corporations are sitting on an estimated cash hoard of $1.5 trillion and using it for stock buybacks, executive bonuses and mergers and acquisitions that are occurring at their most frenzied pace since 2007.

The total $60 billion deficit of the PGBC could be wiped out overnight by using only a portion of the $360 billion being hoarded by tech giants Google, Apple, Cisco and Microsoft, or employing one-tenth of the annual Pentagon budget.

Instead, the financial oligarchy that controls the economy and both big-business parties is determined to steal the pensions that tens of millions need to survive and return workers to the dark days when they labored without end until they died.

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2014/11/20/pbgc-n20.html

DIGITAL MUSIC NEWS

Federal Judge Rejects Sirius XM’s Call

For Summary Judgment In Pre-1972 Case

 

     The Turtles keep on rolling to copyright victory, as a federal judge in New York has ruled against Sirius XM in the ongoing battle to collect royalties on recordings made before 1972. Last Friday (Nov. 14) Judge Colleen McMahon of United States District Court in Manhattan rejected Sirius XM’s motion for summary judgment, saying the Turtles have performing rights to their recordings under New York State law. She gave Sirius XM until Dec. 5 to dispute the remaining facts in the case; otherwise Sirius XM will be ruled liable for infringement.

“General principles of common copyright law dictate that public performance rights in pre-1972 sound recordings do exist,” Judge McMahon wrote in her decision. The ruling comes after a separate win for the Turtles in September, when a federal judge in California found Sirius XM liable for infringement under state laws there. According to The New York Times, that decision was viewed as a major victory for artists and record companies, although its wider impact was unclear because it applied only to that state.

Judge McMahon’s decision strengthened the music industry’s position that pre-1972 recordings are covered under state laws. Still, recording and broadcast industry executives say the potential for widespread confusion over music licensing – for example, it may mean that thousands of AM-FM radio stations, as well as restaurants or sports arenas where music is performed, may have been infringing on recording rights for decades - likely will require clarification from Congress. 

YouTube Launches Music Key In

Already-Crowded Streaming Field

 

     After years of false starts and seemingly endless label negotiations, YouTube’s Music Key launched earlier this week to the ultimate question: will users actually pay $9.99 for something  they previously received free of charge? That’s the monthly rate Google set for its ad-free service that also offers offline functionality, with a company spokesperson telling Billboard, “The goal is more ways to play music on YouTube, giving artists more ways to reach fans and make money.”

So why create a subscription service, especially given the competitive landscape? As Billboard notes, Apple is certain to grow its share of the streaming market, Amazon is going after middle-of-the-road listeners with Music Prime, and Spotify has a head start of 12.5 million U.S. subscribers (28 million worldwide in 2013, according to IFPI).

Still, many industry executives hope Music Key will help YouTube clean up the metadata that often gets lost in uploads of master recordings and drives users to the original composer and purchase links. This has been a core asset of YouTube’s Content ID system, which has disbursed more than $1 billion in revenue to labels and content creators since 2007. 

YouTube Refuses To Remove Songs

By Artists Represented By Azoff’s GMR

 

     YouTube apparently has refused to remove songs composed by artists represented by Irving Azoff’s Global Music Rights (GMR), forcing a showdown between the 42 artists the music icon represents and the Google-owned video site. The dispute stems from YouTube’s claim that it has licensing deals in place with the record labels, while Azoff contends that in order to publicly perform those 42 artists’ songs, the company also has to pay the songwriters, which Azoff says are “massively underpaid” when it comes to digital services.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, the primary question here is whether YouTube has a right to perform these songs until proven otherwise. GMR thinks the burden of proving a valid license is on YouTube, which reportedly says it has a multiyear license for the public performance of works represented by GMR. The licensors aren’t identified, but it’s possible that YouTube believes its covered by prior deals made with ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, or a foreign performing rights organization.

Howard King, an attorney representing GMR, says YouTube has failed to comply with demands to stop performing those 20,000 songs. “Obviously, if YouTube contends it has properly licensed any of the songs for public broadcast, a contention we believe to be untrue, demand is hereby made that we be furnished with documentation of such licenses,” he says.

By contrast, a spokesperson for YouTube told THR, “We’ve done deals with labels, publishers, collection societies, and more to bring artists’ music into YouTube Music Key. To achieve our goal of enabling this service’s features on all the music on YouTube, we’ll keep working with both the music community and with the music fans invited to our beta phase.” 

Music Key Could Thwart Apple’s Move

To Reduce Monthly Subscription Fee

 

     It’s no secret that Apple has been engaged in heated discussions with the major record labels to lower the price of on-demand music to $5 per month from the standard $9.99 currently charged by such subscription services as Spotify, Rhapsody, Google, Rdio, and its own Beats Music. According to Forbes, Apple is telling record labels that $5/month for all-you-can-hear on-demand music is the right price because the best iTunes customers spend about $60 per year on music downloads. The obvious thinking here is that this $60 annual revenue per user (ARPU) could be the best record companies can hope to get from those consumers who still actually pay for music.

This may be a convenient talking point for Apple’s negotiators, but – as Forbes points out – two important factors strongly counter that argument. First, for all the talk about monthly subscription fees (and Taylor Swift, below), the vast majority of users of on-demand music services don’t pay for them at all. Second, in 2011 Google introduced

a technology called Content ID that enables copyright owners to make money, if they choose, when users upload content to YouTube. The system detects users’ uploads of copyrighted works and gives copyright owners several options, including to block the uploads or monetize them through ad revenue sharing. By 2011, the major labels had opted to allow many user uploads of their content for monetization, and they also supply their own “official” music videos.

As a result, YouTube is a de facto on-demand music service and, as noted by Forbes, possibly is the biggest one in the game. Market research from Edison Research and Triton Digital suggests that, strictly as a music service, YouTube has about four times the U.S. user base of Spotify, Rhapsody, and Google Play Music All Access combined. No one pays for YouTube, although some may pay for its Music Key service, which will hit that same $10 monthly price point when it comes out of beta. 

Big Machine’s Scott Borchetta: Spotify

Paid Less Than $500,000 To TS Last Year

 

     The verbal fisticuffs between Spotify and Taylor Swift have not let up, with the streaming music service’s Daniel Ek insisting the pop music icon was on track to earn over $6 million in royalties this year. This claim came after a Spotify spokesperson said Swift had been paid a total of $2 million over the last 12 months for the global streaming of her songs. But Scott Borchetta (above left), CEO of Swift’s label Big Machine Records, says that’s nowhere near the truth, maintaining Swift earned less than $500,000 from Spotify streams over the last 12 months.

“The facts show that the music industry was much better off before Spotify hit these shores,” Borchetta told The New York Times. Noting that the amount Spotify paid out over the last year was “the equivalent of less than 50,000 albums sold, he said Swift actually earns more from her videos on Vevo than she did from having her music on Spotify.

While half a million dollars will cause few people to weep, it should be noted that Swift’s most recent album, 1989, became the first this year to sell more than a million copies in a week – a feat only equaled by 18 albums in history. Unlike most performers, she can make millions of dollars from traditional album sales, but by keeping her music away from Spotify even as it begs for her to come back, she and Borchetta say they’re trying to make the larger point that the service doesn’t pay its artists a reasonable fee. “[Taylor Swift] is the most successful artist in music today,” Borchetta says. “What about the rest of the artists out there struggling to make a career?” 

Sony Music Wary Of Ad-Supported

Streaming After Taylor Swift Move

 

     Taylor Swift’s claim that subscription streaming services hurt music sales has caused Sony Music to reconsider its own digital music plans. PC World reports that, during a recent company briefing, Sony Music CFO Kevin Kelleher questioned whether or not the free, ad-supported services are taking away from how quickly, and to what extent, the company can grow those paid services. “That’s something we’re paying attention to… It’s an area that’s gotten everyone’s attention,” he observed.

This is important because, as CD sales and digital music downloads continue to shrink, streaming services offer a potential ray of sunshine for the recorded music industry. Such companies as Pandora and Spotify routinely lose money due to a combination of high royalty fees and low revenue, an imbalance that appears to be due to poor ROI on ad-supported tiers and not enough premium subscribers to sustain a business model.

While Sony says the move by Taylor Swift (not a Sony artist) to pull her music from Spotify made the company sit up and take notice, it isn’t enough to make anyone want to change the dynamics of the digital music business. In fact, Sony says it’s “very encouraged with the pay streaming model.” Approximately 27 million people worldwide pay for streaming subscriptions, Sony says, and the company is focused on helping that number grow.

 

A publication of Bunzel Media Resources © 2014

Russia and China Are Teaming Up as the World’s New Power Elite

 http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/thumb/1/12/APEC_Logo.svg/1280px-APEC_Logo.svg.png

If there were any remaining doubts about the unlimited stupidity Western corporate media is capable of dishing out, the highlight of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Beijing has been defined as Russian President Vladimir Putin supposedly “hitting” on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s wife – and the subsequent Chinese censoring of the moment when Putin draped a shawl over her shoulders in the cold air where the leaders were assembled. What next? Putin and Xi denounced as a gay couple?Let’s dump the clowns and get down to the serious business. Right at the start, President Xi urged APEC to “add firewood to the fire of the Asia-Pacific and world economy”. Two days later, China got what it wanted on all fronts.

1) Beijing had all 21 APEC member-nations endorsing the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP) – the Chinese vision of an “all inclusive, all-win” trade deal capable of advancing Asia-Pacific cooperation – see South China Morning Post (paywall). The loser was the US-driven, corporate-redacted, fiercely opposed (especially by Japan and Malaysia) 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). [See also here].

2) Beijing advanced its blueprint for “all-round connectivity” (in Xi’s words) across Asia-Pacific – which implies a multi-pronged strategy. One of its key features is the implementation of the Beijing-based US$50 billion Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. That’s China’s response to Washington refusing to give it a more representative voice at the International Monetary Fund than the current, paltry 3.8% of votes (a smaller percentage than the 4.5% held by stagnated France).

3) Beijing and Moscow committed to a second gas mega-deal – this one through the Altai pipeline in Western Siberia – after the initial “Power of Siberia” mega-deal clinched last May.

4) Beijing announced the funneling of no less than US$40 billion to start building the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road.

Predictably, once again, this vertiginous flurry of deals and investment had to converge towards the most spectacular, ambitious, wide-ranging plurinational infrastructure offensive ever attempted: the multiple New Silk Roads – that complex network of high-speed rail, pipelines, ports, fiber optic cables and state of the art telecom that China is already building across the Central Asian stans, linked to Russia, Iran, Turkey and the Indian Ocean, and branching out to Europe all the way to Venice, Rotterdam, Duisburg and Berlin.Now imagine the paralyzed terror of the Washington/Wall Street elites as they stare at Beijing interlinking Xi’s “Asia-Pacific Dream” way beyond East Asia towards all-out, pan-Eurasia trade – with the center being, what else, the Middle Kingdom; a near future Eurasia as a massive Chinese Silk Belt with, in selected latitudes, a sort of development condominium with Russia.Vlad doesn’t do stupid stuff

As for “Don Juan” Putin, everything one needs to know about Asia-Pacific as a Russian strategic/economic priority was distilled in his intervention at the APEC CEO summit.

This was in fact an economic update of his by now notorious speech at the Valdai Club meeting in Sochi in October, followed by a wide-ranging Q&A, which was also duly ignored by Western corporate media (or spun as yet more “aggression”).The Kremlin has conclusively established that Washington/Wall Street elites have absolutely no intention of allowing a minimum of multipolarity in international relations. What’s left is chaos.

There’s no question that Moscow pivoting away from the West and towards East Asia is a process directly influenced by President Barack Obama’s self-described “Don’t Do Stupid Stuff” foreign policy doctrine, a formula he came up with aboard Air Force One when coming back last April from a trip to – where else – Asia.

But the Russia-China symbiosis/strategic partnership is developing in multiple levels.

On energy, Russia is turning east because that’s where top demand is. On finance, Moscow ended the pegging of the rouble to the US dollar and euro; not surprisingly the US dollar instantly – if only briefly – dropped against the rouble. Russian bank VTB announced it may leave the London Stock Exchange for Shanghai’s – which is about to become directly linked to Hong Kong. And Hong Kong, for its part, is already  attracting Russian energy giants.

Now mix all these key developments with the massive yuan-rouble energy double deal, and the picture is clear; Russia is actively protecting itself from speculative/politically motivated Western attacks against its currency.

The Russia-China symbiosis/strategic partnership visibly expands on energy, finance and, also inevitably, on the military technology front. That includes, crucially, Moscow selling Beijing the S-400 air defense system and, in the future, the S-500 – against which the Americans are sitting ducks; and this while Beijing develops surface-to-ship missiles that can take out everything the US Navy can muster.

Anyway, at APEC, Xi and Obama at least agreed to establish a mutual reporting mechanism on major military operations. That might – and the operative word is “might” – prevent an East Asia replica of relentless NATO-style whining of the “Russia has invaded Ukraine!” kind.

Freak out, neo-cons

When Little Dubya Bush came to power in early 2001, the neo-cons were faced with a stark fact: it was just a matter of time before the US would irreversibly lose its global geopolitical and economic hegemony. So there were only two choices; either manage the decline, or bet the whole farm to consolidate global hegemony using – what else – war.We all know about the wishful thinking enveloping the “low-cost” war on Iraq – from Paul Wolfowitz’s “We are the new OPEC” to the fantasy of Washington being able to decisively intimidate all potential challengers, the EU, Russia and China.And we all know how it went spectacularly wrong. Even as that trillionaire adventure, as Minqi Li analyzed in The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World Economy, “has squandered US imperialism’s remaining space for strategic maneuver”, the humanitarian imperialists of the Obama administration still have not given up, refusing to admit the US has lost any ability to provide any meaningful solution to the current, as Immanuel Wallerstein would define it, world-system.

There are sporadic signs of intelligent geopolitical life in US academia, such as this at the Wilson Center website (although Russia and China are not a “challenge” to a supposed world “order”: their partnership is actually geared to create some order among the chaos.)

And yet this opinion piece at USNews is the kind of stuff passing for academic “analysis” in US media.

On top of it, Washington/Wall Street elites – through their myopic Think Tankland – still cling to mythical platitudes such as the “historical” US role as arbiter of modern Asia and key balancer of power.

So no wonder public opinion in the US – and Western Europe – cannot even imagine the earth-shattering impact the New Silk Roads will have in the geopolitics of the young 21st century.

Washington/Wall Street elites – talk about Cold War hubris – always took for granted that Beijing and Moscow would be totally apart. Now puzzlement prevails. Note how the Obama administration’s “pivoting to Asia” has been completely erased from the narrative – after Beijing identified it for what it is: a warlike provocation. The new meme is “rebalance”.

German businesses, for their part, are absolutely going bonkers with Xi’s New Silk Roads uniting Beijing to Berlin – crucially via Moscow. German politicians sooner rather than later will have to get the message.

All this will be discussed behind closed doors this weekend at key meetings on the sidelines of the Group of 20 in Australia. The Russia-China-Germany alliance-in-the-making will be there. The BRICS, crisis or no crisis, will be there. All the players in the G-20 actively working for a multipolar world will be there.

APEC once again has shown that the more geopolitics change, the more it won’t stay the same; as the exceptional dogs of war, inequality and divide and rule keep barking, the China-Russia pan-Eurasian caravan will keep going, going, going – further on down the (multipolar) road.

This essay originally appeared on Asia Times.

 

Pepe Escobar is the roving correspondent for Asia Times. His latest book is “Obama Does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009).” He may be reached at pepeasia@yahoo.com.

http://www.alternet.org/world/russia-and-china-are-teaming-worlds-new-power-elite?akid=12476.265072.cENggk&rd=1&src=newsletter1027278&t=27

Why America’s housing disaster is back and wreaking terror

“An ongoing criminal enterprise”:

Remember the housing nightmare that busted the economy? The crooks are back and here’s what they’re secretly up to

"An ongoing criminal enterprise": Why America's housing disaster is back and wreaking terror
(Credit: Reuters/Robert Galbraith)

According to housing analyst RealtyTrac, foreclosure filings shot up 15 percent last month, the largest increase in over four years. Almost 60,000 homes were newly scheduled for auction in October, a spike far beyond the usual seasonal rush to complete repossessions before the holidays. Auctions rose 53 percent in Nevada, 118 percent in New Jersey and an amazing 399 percent in Oregon.

Continued demand for foreclosed properties by institutional investors and increased sale prices finally make it cost-effective to sell these homes, after persistent delays. “Distressed properties that have been in a holding pattern for years are finally being cleared for landing at the foreclosure auction,” said Daren Blomquist, vice president at RealtyTrac.

If lenders have finally begun to finish their oldest foreclosure cases, you might assume that they have moved past their problems with processing foreclosures. After all, for years, mortgage servicing companies, who file foreclosures on behalf of the owners of the loans, presented millions of false documents to courts. They also engaged in “robo-signing,” where employees signed affidavits attesting to the validity of foreclosure actions, despite having no knowledge about the underlying cases. The five leading servicers agreed to a $25 billion settlement over these problems, vowing to reform their ways.

But you would be wrong to assume that anything has changed in our foreclosure courts.

New evidence over the last month shows that servicers employ virtually the same improper techniques when foreclosing. Instead of robo-signers, they use robo-witnesses, or robo-verifiers; more on them in a moment. Regardless, they are breaking laws and degrading the integrity of the courts to kick people out of their homes, a sad and enduring legacy of the destruction of the nation’s property system during the housing bubble years.

In 22 U.S. states, lenders must file foreclosure complaints with a court, and prove the facts of the case before a judge. But servicers have shown themselves largely unable to perform this seemingly simple task.



During the housing bubble, mortgages were traded so rapidly, with insufficient documentation, that true ownership has been confused on millions of loans. In addition, servicers operate with such thin profit margins and bare-bones staff that they don’t have the resources to retrace the steps of the mortgages, which may have gone through eight different companies or more. So they have resorted to a number of shortcuts to evict homeowners.

When servicers got caught robo-signing, they stopped. But they trained a new set of employees, best described as robo-witnesses. These low-level personnel work for the servicer’s litigation departments, and they fly around the country from courtroom to courtroom. Reading from a script, robo-witnesses claim to have personal knowledge of their employer’s practices, and that they can swear to the legitimacy of the foreclosures. “They’re trained to parrot a script, you could just bring a parrot in,” said Lisa Epstein, a foreclosure expert now working for a defense attorney.

But these robo-witnesses know pretty much nothing beyond the script; they have no insight into the individual cases in which they’re testifying. “They walk into court having read the documents of the case a moment before,” said Thomas Ice, a foreclosure defense attorney in Palm Beach, Florida. Ice argues that it’s no different than robo-signing, just moved into the courtroom. “They don’t give their signature now, they just perjure themselves in court.”

This has been a standard technique for several years; I first wrote about it in 2012. But now, defense attorneys have adjusted, cross-examining the robo-witnesses and appealing cases because of this mass perjury. And appeals courts in Florida have begun to agree.

In one case last month, the 1st District Court of Appeals reversed a case featuring robo-witness Andrew Benefield. The court found that Benefield “had no personal information” about the authenticity of the documents he testified about in the case.  In another case, the appeals court ruled that the robo-witness swore to the correct loan balance based only on the review of computer printouts, “and she had no information about how and when those records had been prepared or where the data came from.” Other appeals courts in Florida have ruled similarly, effectively making robo-witnesses a failed tactic.

Servicers have run into another problem in Florida, ground zero for the foreclosure crisis. Because of a series of state Supreme Court rulings after the robo-signing scandal, an employee affiliated with the servicer must sign a document that says, “Under penalty of perjury, I declare that I have read the foregoing, and the facts alleged therein are true and correct to the best of my knowledge and belief.”

Defense lawyer Evan Rosen of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, decided to depose one of the signers of these verification statements: Lona Hunt, foreclosure specialist for Seterus, servicer for the mortgage giant Fannie Mae. In the deposition, Hunt admitted twice that she never read the complaint at all before she signed the document swearing that the facts were correct.

Hunt testified that she only scanned the foreclosure complaint, checking that the defendant’s name and date of default matched what was on a computer screen.  She misidentified key documents in the case, did not know the meaning of basic legal terms in the complaint, and basically showed little expertise about anything related to mortgages and foreclosures. You can read the deposition here.

It’s impossible for someone with such a limited knowledge base about foreclosures to verify that the facts of an individual case are correct. And keep in mind that this verification process exists in Florida because servicers illegally robo-signed official documents and got caught. The courts decided to increase legal consequences by forcing servicers to verify the truthfulness of their claims. Yet they are robo-signing those verifications too.

So why is this important? If the verifiers cannot verify and the witnesses bear no witness to the facts, so what? Didn’t homeowners default on their loans? Why should they get a free pass? This is the familiar refrain of those who would minimize this misconduct. Some even blame the states for forcing the poor servicers to prove they own the homes they want to repossess.

Here’s the truth. False documents and mass perjury, both criminal violations, make a mockery of the judicial system. It means that the servicers have as much legal right to foreclose as I do. To say that the homeowner is guilty of not paying, so their lender can do whatever they want to force them out of the home, is like saying the murder suspect is obviously guilty, so the cops can plant false evidence. We have a system of law to defend the rights of everyone, and ensure equal treatment.

Moreover, as Jim Kowalski, executive director of Jacksonville Area Legal Aid and a longtime foreclosure attorney, told me, “when you have procedural defects in these cases, you will almost always have substantive defects.” Multiple reports and studies verify this. The inspector general for HUD, for example, took a sample of JPMorgan Chase loans and could not find documented proof for the amount owed on 35 out of 36 loans. This gets worse when servicing transfers between several companies; the amount owed becomes subject to a game of telephone, with dollar amounts effectively made up.

That means that the amounts servicers claim borrowers owe have no basis in fact. Multiply that by the tens of millions of outstanding mortgages, and you’re talking about tens if not hundreds of billions in questionable charges, from which nobody is safe. This makes defaults really educated guesses, often driven by the fake fees and incompetence. To compound this, servicers use bogus witnesses and perjured documents to “prove” the defaults are legitimate. The entire system is fraudulent and in need of overhaul.

This is where law enforcement should step in. The Justice Department settled with these same companies over robo-signing, and in the agreements demanded that they never do it again. Well, they’re doing it again; in fact, they never stopped. Bad documents have remained in the system, as Gretchen Morgenson explained over the weekend, being used to continue to punish borrowers. Nobody has rooted out this rot at the heart of our housing market. “It’s happening every day,” lawyer Tom Ice said. “And the world doesn’t care.”

Ninety-five percent of borrowers never show up to defend their foreclosures. Servicers get away with this because they can afford to lose one case if another 20 go through. The only way to fix this crisis on a thorough basis, instead of waiting for one-off judgments in individual cases, is for government officials to enforce the law. Otherwise, literally nobody is safe from the corrupt practices of a mortgage industry acting as an ongoing criminal enterprise.

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