Obama adviser Samantha Power calls for crackdown on social media

Internet censorship and government war plans

21 September 2017

The meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in New York is taking place under the shadow of the accelerating drive of the major powers, spearheaded by the United States, toward World War III. This found its most noxious expression in the fascistic speech delivered to the assembly on Tuesday by Donald Trump, in which the US president threatened to “destroy North Korea” and attack Iran and Venezuela.

Trump devoted a significant portion of his tirade to a denunciation of socialism and communism, reflecting the fear within the US ruling elite of the growth of social opposition and rise of anti-capitalist and socialist sentiment in the working class.

Another major focus of the assembly is the mounting campaign of the US and European governments to crack down on the exchange of information and views on the Internet. British Prime Minister Theresa May, French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni all used the pretext of fighting terrorism and “fake news” to call for more drastic measures by the major technology firms to censor the Internet, which Gentiloni called a “battlefield for hearts and minds.”

This attack on free speech is a central part of the response of the crisis-ridden capitalist ruling elites to the growth of global geo-political tensions and economic instability, and the political radicalization of broad masses of workers and youth.

In the US, the drive for Internet censorship has been spearheaded by the so-called “liberal” wing of the political establishment, concentrated in the Democratic Party, whose chief media organ is the New York Times. On the eve of the UN assembly, the Times published an unambiguous brief for censorship of the Internet in the form of an op-ed column by the ambassador to the UN under Barack Obama, Samantha Power.

Under the headline “Why Foreign Propaganda Is More Dangerous Now,” and on the pretext of combating Russian disinformation and subversion, Power calls for the use of “professional gatekeepers” to police public discourse on the Internet.

Power, a leading proponent of “human rights” imperialism, looks back nostalgically at the Cold War as a golden age of news dissemination, when “most Americans received their news and information via mediated platforms.” She continues: “Reporters and editors serving in the role of professional gatekeepers had almost full control over what appeared in the media. A foreign adversary seeking to reach American audiences did not have great options for bypassing these umpires, and Russian disinformation rarely penetrated.”

It is worth considering who is writing these lines. First as a key policy advisor to Obama, then as Washington’s representative to the United Nations, Power was a leading architect of the disastrous US-led destabilization operation in Libya that shattered that country’s society. She is a key propagandist of the American-instigated civil war in Syria, which has led to hundreds of thousands of deaths and the greatest refugee crisis since the Second World War.

Power longs for the time when, as was the case during the Korean War and the earlier part of the Vietnam War, the monopoly of the major broadcasters over public discourse could be used to keep the criminal policies of US imperialism under wraps.

She is bitter and resentful over the fact that, despite the best efforts of the corporate-controlled media to sell US operations in the Middle East to the public as anti-terrorist and humanitarian efforts, organizations such as Wikileaks and journalists such as Seymour Hersh have exposed the fact that the United States has cultivated alliances with forces linked to Al Qaeda and ISIS to pursue regime-change in Libya and Syria, totally undercutting the narrative of the “war on terror” that has been used to justify US imperialist policy since 2001.

If Power had her way, Chelsea Manning’s exposure of the murder of journalists and Iraqi civilians by the US military and Edward Snowden’s exposure illegal dragnet surveillance by the NSA would be branded as “fake news” and blocked by technology giants such as Google, Apple and Facebook.

In her Times column, she mourns the passing of the overarching—and thoroughly repressive—anti-communist ideological framework of the Cold War period, writing: “During the Cold War, the larger struggle against communism created a mainstream consensus about what America stood for and against. Today, our society appears to be defined by a particularly vicious form of ‘partyism’ affecting Democrats and Republicans alike.”

Power presents the rise of the Internet, and consequent weakening of control over the flow of information and opinion by state-sanctioned and allied corporate media outlets such as the Times, as an altogether dangerous and negative development. Under conditions where the establishment media is increasingly discredited—“60 percent believe news stories today are ‘often inaccurate,’ according to Gallup”—Power notes, the fact that “two thirds of Americans are getting at least some of their news through social media” is a matter of the gravest concern.

The “growing reliance on new media—and the absence of real umpires,” she writes, have opened up the US to disinformation and subversion at the hands of a demonic Russia, with its all-powerful media outlets RT and Sputnik, and its “trolls, bots and thousands of fake Twitter and Facebook accounts that amplified damaging stories on Hillary Clinton.”

Here we see the coming together of the hysterical, neo-McCarthyite campaign against Russia that has been used by the intelligence agencies, the Democratic Party and their media allies to attempt to whip up a war fever and pressure Trump to take a more bellicose posture toward Moscow with a growing attack on public access to anti-war, progressive and socialist web sites.

Power’s demands for state-sponsored censorship have already been put into practice by Internet giant Google. In the name of combating “fake news” and promoting “authoritative content” over “alternative viewpoints,” Google has implemented changes to its search engine that have slashed traffic to leading left-wing and alternative news web sites by 55 percent. The central target of this attack is the World Socialist Web Site, whose Google referrals have fallen by 75 percent.

By “gatekeepers,” Power means the thoroughly vetted and subservient editorial boards of newspapers such as the Times, which dutifully hide from the American people whatever the CIA and State Department do not want them to know, while dispensing state lies and propaganda in the guise of “news.”

In 2010, then-New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller spelled out the policy of such “mediated” news outlets with unusual bluntness when he declared that “transparency is not an absolute good.” He added, “Freedom of the press includes freedom not to publish, and that is a freedom we exercise with some regularity.”

More than a quarter century after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, all factions of the US ruling elite are haunted by the realization that socialist politics are, as Hillary Clinton put it in her recently published book, tapping “into powerful emotional currents” within the population. The fact that in the 2016 Democratic primaries, 12 million Americans, mostly young people and workers, voted for a candidate, Bernie Sanders, who called himself a socialist, shocked and unnerved the ruling class.

Unable to advance any policies to address the social grievances of working people or turn away from its foreign agenda of militarism and war, the ruling elite responds to the growth of opposition by recourse to police methods. The escalating corporate-state attack on freedom of speech on the Internet makes all the more urgent the campaign of the World Socialist Web Site against Google censorship. We call on all of our readers and supporters to sign our petition demanding an end to the censorship, send statements of support for our campaign, and actively work to distribute WSWS articles as widely as possible via Facebook and other social media outlets.

Andre Damon

WSWS

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Google intensifies censorship of left-wing websites

By Andre Damon
19 September 2017

Google has intensified its censorship of left-wing, progressive and anti-war websites, cutting the search traffic of 13 leading news outlets by 55 percent since April.

On August 2, the World Socialist Web Site reported that changes to Google’s search algorithm had led the search traffic of these sites to drop by 45 percent, according to figures by the search analysis service SEMRush.

In the ensuing six weeks, the search traffic of every one of these sites, without exception, has plunged further, leading the total search traffic for the sites to fall by an additional nine percentage points.

The World Socialist Web Site, whose search traffic had fallen by 67 percent between April and July, has now experienced a total drop in search traffic of 74 percent.

By other measures, the WSWS’s performance in search results has been impacted even more substantially. On September 16, the latest date available, articles from the WSWS were shown in search results 68,000 times, down from over 450,000 in April. This constitutes a decline of some 85 percent.

As a result of Google’s censorship, the WSWS’s global page rank has fallen from 31,000 to 41,000, according to Amazon’s Alexa traffic ranking software.

Other sites affected include:

Alternet, one of the top 3,000 sites in the US, has seen its Google search traffic fall by 71 percent between April and September, up from 63 percent in the period through July.

Democracy Now, one of the top 5,000 sites in the US, had its search traffic fall 50 percent between April and September, up from 36 percent in the period through July.

Common Dreams, ranked in the top 8,000 US sites, had its Google search traffic fall by 50 percent between April and September, up from 37 percent in the period through July.

Global Research, one of the top 14,000 sites in the US, had its traffic fall slightly from its massive 62 percent decline between April and July.

Truth-out.org, ranked in the top 12,000 sites in the US, had its search traffic fall by 49 percent, up from 25 percent in the period through July.

The information uncovered by the WSWS has been prominently reported on a number of alternative news websites, including Consortium NewsGlobal ResearchCounterpunchTruthdigRussia TodayTruepublica and others.

In an article on Truthdig, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges pointed to the censorship of the WSWS and other left-wing websites: “The ruling elites, who grasp that the reigning ideology of global corporate capitalism and imperial expansion no longer has moral or intellectual credibility, have mounted a campaign to shut down the platforms given to their critics…

“This is a war of ideas. The corporate state cannot compete honestly in this contest. It will do what all despotic regimes do—govern through wholesale surveillance, lies, blacklists, false accusations of treason, heavy-handed censorship and, eventually, violence.”

Despite the broad support for the WSWS’s calls for an end to Google’s Internet censorship, the company has refused to reply either to the WSWS’s petition opposing its censorship or repeated attempts to contact it for comment.

While Google’s censorship has substantially reduced traffic to the WSWS, its effect has been partially counteracted by readers sharing articles through email and social media. One widely shared article published on September 9, titled “Why aren’t trains evacuating people from the path of Hurricane Irma?”, has been viewed over 90,000 times.

While only about 300 people reached the article through Google, tens of thousands accessed it through links from other websites and social media platforms.

In April, Google’s vice president of engineering, Ben Gomes, announced in a blog post that the search giant would be implementing changes to its search algorithm to “surface more authoritative content.” Google’s guidelines for human search evaluators, issued around the same time, stressed that “authoritative” content should appear ahead of “alternative viewpoints.”

On August 25, World Socialist Web Site Editorial Board Chairman David North issued an open letter to Google demanding that it stop censoring the Internet and end its political blacklisting of the WSWS.

An online petition calling for Google to end its censorship has received over 3,800 signatures from dozens of countries.

Google, however, has not replied to North’s letter.

Recent weeks have seen a drastic escalation in calls for Internet censorship. The campaign to censor the Internet—usually justified in the name of “fighting terrorism” and blacking out “fake news”—has assumed international dimensions and is promoted at the highest levels of government. On ABC’s This Week program on Sunday, the first three people interviewed, including British Prime Minister Theresa May, US National Security Adviser Gen. H.R. McMaster, and Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, called for stricter control of the Internet.

President Donald Trump responded to last week’s terror attack in London with a tweet declaring that “we must cut off” the Internet.

In her newly released book, What Happened?, Hillary Clinton again attributes her defeat to “fake news.” She writes approvingly that “Companies such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google have already begun taking steps—adjusting algorithms, deactivating bot networks, and partnering with fact-checkers”—to fight the “torrent of misinformation” supposedly responsible for the outcome of the election.

Google’s actions against the World Socialist Web Site and other left and progressive sites are making clear the real targets of Internet censorship: news outlets and political organizations opposing war, social inequality and the domination of society by the financial oligarchy.

The Silencing of Dissent

Mr. Fish

 

The ruling elites, who grasp that the reigning ideology of global corporate capitalism and imperial expansion no longer has moral or intellectual credibility, have mounted a campaign to shut down the platforms given to their critics. The attacks within this campaign include blacklisting, censorship and slandering dissidents as foreign agents for Russia and purveyors of “fake news.”

No dominant class can long retain control when the credibility of the ideas that justify its existence evaporates. It is forced, at that point, to resort to crude forms of coercion, intimidation and censorship. This ideological collapse in the United States has transformed those of us who attack the corporate state into a potent threat, not because we reach large numbers of people, and certainly not because we spread Russian propaganda, but because the elites no longer have a plausible counterargument.

The elites face an unpleasant choice. They could impose harsh controls to protect the status quo or veer leftward toward socialism to ameliorate the mounting economic and political injustices endured by most of the population. But a move leftward, essentially reinstating and expanding the New Deal programs they have destroyed, would impede corporate power and corporate profits. So instead the elites, including the Democratic Party leadership, have decided to quash public debate. The tactic they are using is as old as the nation-state—smearing critics as traitors who are in the service of a hostile foreign power. Tens of thousands of people of conscience were blacklisted in this way during the Red Scares of the 1920s and 1950s. The current hyperbolic and relentless focus on Russia, embraced with gusto by “liberal” media outlets such as The New York Times and MSNBC, has unleashed what some have called a virulent “New McCarthyism.”

The corporate elites do not fear Russia. There is no publicly disclosed evidence that Russia swung the election to Donald Trump. Nor does Russia appear to be intent on a military confrontation with the United States. I am certain Russia tries to meddle in U.S. affairs to its advantage, as we do and did in Russia—including our clandestine bankrolling of Boris Yeltsin, whose successful 1996 campaign for re-election as president is estimated to have cost up to $2.5 billion, much of that money coming indirectly from the American government. In today’s media environment Russia is the foil. The corporate state is unnerved by the media outlets that give a voice to critics of corporate capitalism, the security and surveillance state and imperialism, including the network RT America.

My show on RT America, “On Contact,” like my columns at Truthdig, amplifies the voices of these dissidents—Tariq Ali, Kshama Sawant, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Medea Benjamin, Ajamu Baraka, Noam Chomsky, Dr. Margaret Flowers, Rania Khalek, Amira Hass, Miko Peled, Abby Martin, Glen Ford, Max Blumenthal, Pam Africa, Linh Dinh, Ben Norton, Eugene Puryear, Allan Nairn, Jill Stein, Kevin Zeese and others. These dissidents, if we had a functioning public broadcasting system or a commercial press free of corporate control, would be included in the mainstream discourse. They are not bought and paid for. They have integrity, courage and often brilliance. They are honest. For these reasons, in the eyes of the corporate state, they are very dangerous.

The first and deadliest salvo in the war on dissent came in 1971 when Lewis Powell, a corporate attorney and later a Supreme Court justice, wrote and circulated a memo among business leaders called “Attack on American Free Enterprise System.” It became the blueprint for the corporate coup d’état. Corporations, as Powell recommended in the document, poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the assault, financing pro-business political candidates, mounting campaigns against the liberal wing of the Democratic Party and the press and creating institutions such as the Business Roundtable, The Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute, the Cato Institute, Citizens for a Sound Economy, the Federalist Society and Accuracy in Academia. The memo argued that corporations had to fund sustained campaigns to marginalize or silence those who in “the college campus, the pulpit, the media, and the intellectual and literary journals” were hostile to corporate interests.

Powell attacked Ralph Nader by name. Lobbyists flooded Washington and state capitals. Regulatory controls were abolished. Massive tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy were implemented, culminating in a de facto tax boycott. Trade barriers were lifted and the country’s manufacturing base was destroyed. Social programs were slashed and funds for infrastructure, from roads and bridges to public libraries and schools, were cut. Protections for workers were gutted. Wages declined or stagnated. The military budget, along with the organs of internal security, became ever more bloated. A de facto blacklist, especially in universities and the press, was used to discredit intellectuals, radicals and activists who decried the idea of the nation prostrating itself before the dictates of the marketplace and condemned the crimes of imperialism, some of the best known being Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Sheldon Wolin, Ward Churchill, Nader, Angela Davis and Edward Said. These critics were permitted to exist only on the margins of society, often outside of institutions, and many had trouble making a living.

The financial meltdown of 2008 not only devastated the global economy, it exposed the lies propagated by those advocating globalization. Among these lies: that salaries of workers would rise, democracy would spread across the globe, the tech industry would replace manufacturing as a source of worker income, the middle class would flourish, and global communities would prosper. After 2008 it became clear that the “free market” is a scam, a zombie ideology by which workers and communities are ravaged by predatory capitalists and assets are funneled upward into the hands of the global 1 percent. The endless wars, fought largely to enrich the arms industry and swell the power of the military, are futile and counterproductive to national interests. Deindustrialization and austerity programs have impoverished the working class and fatally damaged the economy.

The establishment politicians in the two leading parties, each in service to corporate power and responsible for the assault on civil liberties and impoverishment of the country, are no longer able to use identity politics and the culture wars to whip up support. This led in the last presidential campaign to an insurgency by Bernie Sanders, which the Democratic Party crushed, and the election of Donald Trump.

Barack Obama rode a wave of bipartisan resentment into office in 2008, then spent eight years betraying the public. Obama’s assault on civil liberties, including his use of the Espionage Act to prosecute whistleblowers, was worse than those carried out by George W. Bush. He accelerated the war on public education by privatizing schools, expanded the wars in the Middle East, including the use of militarized drone attacks, provided little meaningful environmental reform, ignored the plight of the working class, deported more undocumented people than any other president, imposed a corporate-sponsored health care program that was the brainchild of the right-wing Heritage Foundation, and prohibited the Justice Department from prosecuting the bankers and financial firms that carried out derivatives scams and inflated the housing and real estate market, a condition that led to the 2008 financial meltdown. He epitomized, like Bill Clinton, the bankruptcy of the Democratic Party. Clinton, outdoing Obama’s later actions, gave us the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the dismantling of the welfare system, the deregulation of the financial services industry and the huge expansion of mass incarceration. Clinton also oversaw deregulation of the Federal Communications Commission, a change that allowed a handful of corporations to buy up the airwaves.

The corporate state was in crisis at the end of the Obama presidency. It was widely hated. It became vulnerable to attacks by the critics it had pushed to the fringes. Most vulnerable was the Democratic Party establishment, which claims to defend the rights of working men and women and protect civil liberties. This is why the Democratic Party is so zealous in its efforts to discredit its critics as stooges for Moscow and to charge that Russian interference caused its election defeat.

In January there was a report on Russia by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The report devoted seven of its 25 pages to RT America and its influence on the presidential election. It claimed “Russian media made increasingly favorable comments about President-elect Trump as the 2016 US general and primary election campaigns progressed while consistently offering negative coverage of Secretary [Hillary] Clinton.” This might seem true if you did not watch my RT broadcasts, which relentlessly attacked Trump as well as Clinton, or watch Ed Schultz, who now has a program on RT after having been the host of an MSNBC commentary program. The report also attempted to present RT America as having a vast media footprint and influence it does not possess.

“In an effort to highlight the alleged ‘lack of democracy’ in the United States, RT broadcast, hosted, and advertised third party candidate debates and ran reporting supportive of the political agenda of these candidates,” the report read, correctly summing up themes on my show. “The RT hosts asserted that the US two-party system does not represent the views of at least one-third of the population and is a ‘sham.’ ”

It went on:

RT’s reports often characterize the United States as a ‘surveillance state’ and allege widespread infringements of civil liberties, police brutality, and drone use.

RT has also focused on criticism of the US economic system, US currency policy, alleged Wall Street greed, and the US national debt. Some of RT’s hosts have compared the United States to Imperial Rome and have predicted that government corruption and “corporate greed” will lead to US financial collapse.

Is the corporate state so obtuse it thinks the American public has not, on its own, reached these conclusions about the condition of the nation? Is this what it defines as “fake news”? But most important, isn’t this the truth that the courtiers in the mainstream press and public broadcasting, dependent on their funding from sources such as the Koch brothers, refuse to present? And isn’t it, in the end, the truth that frightens them the most? Abby Martin and Ben Norton ripped apart the mendacity of the report and the complicity of the corporate media in my “On Contact” show titled “Real purpose of intel report on Russian hacking with Abby Martin & Ben Norton.”

In November 2016, The Washington Post reported on a blacklist published by the shadowy and anonymous site PropOrNot. The blacklist was composed of 199 sites PropOrNot alleged, with no evidence, “reliably echo Russian propaganda.” More than half of those sites were far-right, conspiracy-driven ones. But about 20 of the sites were major left-wing outlets including AlterNet, Black Agenda Report, Democracy Now!, Naked Capitalism, Truthdig, Truthout, CounterPunch and the World Socialist Web Site. The blacklist and the spurious accusations that these sites disseminated “fake news” on behalf of Russia were given prominent play in the Post in a story headlined “Russian propaganda effort helped spread ‘fake news’ during the election, experts say.” The reporter, Craig Timberg, wrote that the goal of the Russian propaganda effort, according to “independent researchers who have tracked the operation,” was “punishing Democrat Hillary Clinton, helping Republican Donald Trump and undermining faith in American democracy.” Last December, Truthdig columnist Bill Boyarsky wrote a good piece about PropOrNot, which to this day remains essentially a secret organization.

The owner of The Washington Post, Jeff Bezos, also the founder and CEO of Amazon, has a $600 million contract with the CIA. Google, likewise, is deeply embedded within the security and surveillance state and aligned with the ruling elites. Amazon recently purged over 1,000 negative reviews of Hillary Clinton’s new book, “What Happened.” The effect was that the book’s Amazon rating jumped from 2 1/2 stars to five stars. Do corporations such as Google and Amazon carry out such censorship on behalf of the U.S. government? Or is this censorship their independent contribution to protect the corporate state?

In the name of combating Russia-inspired “fake news,” Google, Facebook, Twitter, The New York Times, The Washington Post, BuzzFeed News, Agence France-Presse and CNN in April imposed algorithms or filters, overseen by “evaluators,” that hunt for key words such as “U.S. military,” “inequality” and “socialism,” along with personal names such as Julian Assange and Laura Poitras, the filmmaker. Ben Gomes, Google’s vice president for search engineering, says Google has amassed some 10,000 “evaluators” to determine the “quality” and veracity of websites. Internet users doing searches on Google, since the algorithms were put in place, are diverted from sites such as Truthdig and directed to mainstream publications such as The New York Times. The news organizations and corporations that are imposing this censorship have strong links to the Democratic Party. They are cheerleaders for American imperial projects and global capitalism. Because they are struggling in the new media environment for profitability, they have an economic incentive to be part of the witch hunt.

The World Socialist Web Site reported in July that its aggregate volume, or “impressions”—links displayed by Google in response to search requests—fell dramatically over a short period after the new algorithms were imposed. It also wrote that a number of sites “declared to be ‘fake news’ by the Washington Post’s discredited [PropOrNot] blacklist … had their global ranking fall. The average decline of the global reach of all of these sites is 25 percent. …”

Another article, “Google rigs searches to block access to World Socialist Web Site,” by the same website that month said:

During the month of May, Google searches including the word “war” produced 61,795 WSWS impressions. In July, WSWS impressions fell by approximately 90 percent, to 6,613.

Searches for the term “Korean war” produced 20,392 impressions in May. In July, searches using the same words produced zero WSWS impressions. Searches for “North Korea war” produced 4,626 impressions in May. In July, the result of the same search produced zero WSWS impressions. “India Pakistan war” produced 4,394 impressions in May. In July, the result, again, was zero. And “Nuclear war 2017” produced 2,319 impressions in May, and zero in July.

To cite some other searches: “WikiLeaks,” fell from 6,576 impressions to zero, “Julian Assange” fell from 3,701 impressions to zero, and “Laura Poitras” fell from 4,499 impressions to zero. A search for “Michael Hastings”—the reporter who died in 2013 under suspicious circumstances—produced 33,464 impressions in May, but only 5,227 impressions in July.

In addition to geopolitics, the WSWS regularly covers a broad range of social issues, many of which have seen precipitous drops in search results. Searches for “food stamps,” “Ford layoffs,” “Amazon warehouse,” and “secretary of education” all went down from more than 5,000 impressions in May to zero impressions in July.

The accusation that left-wing sites collude with Russia has made them theoretically subject, along with those who write for them, to the Espionage Act and the Foreign Agent Registration Act, which requires Americans who work on behalf of a foreign party to register as foreign agents.

The latest salvo came last week. It is the most ominous. The Department of Justice called on RT America and its “associates”—which may mean people like me—to register under the Foreign Agent Registration Act. No doubt, the corporate state knows that most of us will not register as foreign agents, meaning we will be banished from the airwaves. This, I expect, is the intent. The government will not stop with RT. The FBI has been handed the authority to determine who is a “legitimate” journalist and who is not. It will use this authority to decimate the left.

This is a war of ideas. The corporate state cannot compete honestly in this contest. It will do what all despotic regimes do—govern through wholesale surveillance, lies, blacklists, false accusations of treason, heavy-handed censorship and, eventually, violence.

Chris Hedges
Columnist
Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, New York Times best selling author, former professor at Princeton University, activist and ordained Presbyterian minister. He has written 11 books,…

US Census report shows increasing social inequality

Small median income gain offset by debt and living costs

By Eric London
15 September 2017

US Census data from 2016 released on Tuesday shows increasing social inequality amid a small gain in household income that is offset by a massive growth of personal debt and rising living costs.

The data tracks the ongoing redistribution of wealth from the working class to the wealthy as a result of the pro-Wall Street policies of both the Republican and Democratic parties. It substantiates the oligarchic character of the United States.

Social inequality

The Gini index, used to measure social inequality, with higher figures indicating a wider economic divide, rose slightly from 2015 (.479) to 2016 (.481). The 2016 figure, according to rankings in the CIA World Factbook, makes the US slightly more equal than Madagascar and less equal than Mexico.

In terms of aggregate income share, the shift from 2015 to 2016 is as follows:

Income share from 2015-2016. *Census data reported to one significant figure, meaning percent decline is not reflected in 2015 and 2016 share columns.

The growth in inequality is even starker when traced from 2007, the year before the Wall Street crisis.

The data reflects income and not wealth, thereby providing an incomplete and conservative indication of the scale of inequality. Even within the highest quintile, the income share increased only for the top 10 percent, and, in particular, the top 5 percent.

Income share from 2007-2016

Household income

The corporate media has portrayed the report as a sign of positive income growth, since it shows a slight rise in median income of 3.2 percent from 2015 to 2016.

But according to the Census data, the earnings of “full-time, year-round workers” remained stagnant. For men in this category, a total of 63.9 million people, earnings declined by 0.4 percent, from $51,859 in 2015 to $51,640 in 2016. For women in this category, 47.2 million people, there was a minor increase, 0.7 percent, from $41,257 in 2015 to $41,554 in 2016. In other words, families with 2 adults working full-time saw a paltry $78 increase in their yearly earnings from 2015 to 2016.

Claims of rising incomes mask the growth of inequality. The Census data shows that the household income of the 90th percentile (the 100th being the highest) was 12.53 times higher than the household income of the 10th percentile in 2016, up from 12.23 times higher in 2015 and 11.18 times higher in 2007. The degree to which income is concentrated in the richest 10 percent of the population is exemplified by the fact that the 5th percentile boasted a household income 3.82 times higher than the 50th percentile in 2016, up from 3.79 times in 2015 and 3.52 in 2007.

As Bloomberg News reported Wednesday, “Since 2007, average inflation-adjusted income has climbed more than 10 percent for households in the highest fifth of the earnings distribution, and it’s fallen 3.2 percent for the bottom quintile. Incomes of the top 5 percent jumped 12.8 percent over the period.”

For the working class, any income increase was transferred to the corporate elite in the form of rising debt payments and increasing living expenses, especially for health care.

According to figures from eHealth, a large private health exchange, average deductibles for families rose 5 percent from 2016 to 2017 (a year after the period covered by the Census report) and average individual premiums rose 22 percent over the same period.

The rising cost of student debt alone largely erases income increases seen by some young people. According to the Census, those aged 15 to 24 saw an income increase of 13.9 percent, from $36,564 in 2015 to $41,655 in 2016, while incomes for young people aged 25 to 34 rose 4.9 percent, from $58,091 to $60,932, nearly double the percentage increase for older age groups.

However, in 2016, student debt rose to an average of $30,000 per young person, up 4 percent from 2015, eliminating over 80 percent of the income rise for 25-34 year olds. For 15 to 24 year olds, the $4,000 increase in median income would hardly cover one sixth of the average debt payment, let alone make up for the fact that young people face a future in which they are unlikely to receive a pension, Social Security or Medicare.

Rising debt levels are not a phenomenon limited to young people. A Bloomberg report from August 10 notes that credit card defaults increased from the beginning of 2015—when roughly 2.5 percent of debt holders defaulted—to the end of 2016, when the total hit 3 percent. This figure subsequently climbed in 2017 to reach 3.49 percent.

Bloomberg notes: “After deleveraging in the aftermath of the last US recession, Americans have once again taken on record debt loads that risk holding back the world’s largest economy… Household debt outstanding–everything from mortgages to credit cards to car loans–reached $12.7 trillion in the first quarter [2017], surpassing the previous peak in 2008 before the effect of the housing market collapse took its toll, Federal Reserve Bank of New York data show.”

“For most Americans,” the report continues, “whose median household income, adjusted for inflation, is lower than it was at its peak in 1999, borrowing has been the answer to maintaining their standard of living. The increase in debt helps explain why the economy’s main source of fuel is providing less of a boost than in the past. Personal spending growth has averaged 2.4 percent since the recession ended in 2009, less than the 3 percent of the previous expansion and 4.3 percent from 1982-90.”

The Bloomberg report explains that income from wages minus household debt trended downward in 2015, meaning that debt is rising faster than wages, causing a loss of roughly $500 billion across the US economy in the space of just one year.

Poverty rate

Though the Census report shows that the poverty rate declined from 13.5 percent of households in 2015 to 12.7 percent in 2016, this figure is substantially higher than the 11.3 percent level that prevailed in 2000. In reality, individuals and families must make 2.5 to 3 times the official poverty rate of $12,000 for an individual, $15,500 for a married couple and $25,000 for a family of four just to make ends meet.

What the data really shows is that the poorest half of the country–over 150 million people–is in a desperate financial position, with the next poorest 40 percent facing constant financial strain and a declining share of the national income. In regard to poverty, the Census Bureau maintains figures that go up only to 200 percent of the official poverty level. The latest report shows that 95 million people—29.8 percent of the population—fall into this category. The share of those under the age of 18 in this category is much higher–39.1 percent.

This is the context for the drive by the Trump administration and both big business parties to slash corporate taxes, impose a health care “reform” that will increase costs for millions of people, and accelerate the transfer of wealth from the working class to the financial aristocracy.

WSWS

 

 

 

What are journalists for in the age of Trump?

From the Uncharted Festival of Ideas in Berkeley, Jay Rosen in conversation with Kathy Kiely

 What are journalists for in the age of Trump?

(Credit: Getty/Drew Angerer)

The shortcomings of traditional political journalism have been visible for some time. But the unprecedented presidency of Donald Trump has graphically exposed journalism’s weaknesses. In 2016, before the November election, Jay Rosen, Professor of Journalism at New York University, sat down with journalist Kathy Kiely at the Uncharted Festival of Ideas in Berkeley to talk about the right frame for interpreting press coverage of the presidential campaign. Their conclusions hold just as true for journalists after the election, when the stakes have proven so much higher.

Jay Rosen is the author of PressThink, a blog about journalism’s ordeals in the age of the Web, which he launched in 2003. In 1999, Yale University Press published his book, “What Are Journalists For,” which was about the rise of the civic journalism movement. He was the co-publisher, with Arianna Huffington, of OfftheBus.Net, which allowed readers to participate in the Huffington Post’s election coverage in 2008. Rosen writes and speaks frequently about new media and the predicament of the press in a time of rapid transformation. He is also a frequent critic of the national press and its coverage of politics.

Kathy Kiely is a Washington-based journalist and journalism teacher with extensive experience in covering politics and in working across media platforms. She has served as an editor for Bloomberg Politics, the Sunlight Foundation, and at the National Journal, its website and for CBS News.

Listen to their conversation:

https://embed.radiopublic.com/e?if=berkeleyside-podcast-GMlael&ge=s1!b158ae3c1b7f1ad5769437d526433ac51c962f91

The Uncharted Festival is a production of Berkeleyside, Berkeley’s award-winning, independent news site. The annual two-day festival, launched in 2013, brings people together with some of the world’s great thinkers for two thrilling days of discussion, debate, and workshops designed to engage and inspire. Uncharted evolved out of the belief that the most intriguing ideas — and solutions to today’s big challenges — emerge from the collision of different visions and perspectives.

New York Times surveys the results of 35 years of affirmative action

By Fred Mazelis
13 September 2017

In a front-page lead article over a two-column headline a few weeks ago, the New York Times informed its readers that its own detailed analysis had shown that “Black and Hispanic students are more underrepresented at the national’s top colleges and universities than they were 35 years ago, despite decades of affirmative action efforts.”

What the Times presents as the somewhat unexpected result of longstanding social policy was illustrated by an unusually detailed full-page series of graphs for 100 institutions of higher education, broken down into five categories: The Ivy League, Flagship Public Universities, Other Top Universities, Top Liberal Arts Colleges, and the massive University of California system.

The graphs use percentages of white, Asian, Hispanic and black students at each of these schools, compared to their numbers in the college-age population, to depict the degree of “overrepresentation” or “underrepresentation” for each group.

Overall, the survey shows that white and Asian students are more “overrepresented” than ever, and blacks and Hispanics more “underrepresented” today than in 1980. Hispanic students made up 13 percent of the freshman class among these 100 schools, for instance, compared to 22 percent of the population. In 1980, with a far smaller Hispanic population, the “gap” was only 3 points.

Black freshmen were 5 percent of the enrollment in 1980 and 12 percent of the population. Thirty-five years later, the gap has grown to nearly 10 points: the percentage of African-Americans is 15 percent, but the college freshman enrollment is only 6 percent.

The rationale for affirmative action, which has its origins in policies initiated by the Nixon administration more than 45 years ago, was that it would level the playing field and enable broad layers of black and Hispanic youth to obtain enter colleges and universities for the first time.

The failure of affirmative action to meet these promises is not accidental, nor was it unforeseen—certainly not by socialists, who understood the real purpose of this program.

It is obvious that without providing tens of millions of good-paying jobs, without vastly improved educational opportunities for all youth from pre-kindergarten through high school, and without the provision of free universal health care and child care, there can be no serious expectation that the latest generation of black and Hispanic working class youth will fare any better than its predecessors in obtaining and in making use of a quality higher education.

The decades of affirmative action have coincided with the decades of social counterrevolution, of the shredding of the social safety net that increased under the presidency of Ronald Reagan and that has continued since then, under Democrats and Republicans. The political and corporate establishment demagogically used the suffering of minority workers and youth to promulgate programs that were never designed to help them in the first place.

This does not mean that some aims of affirmative action have not been achieved. They have—but they are for the most part unstated ones.

A small slice of the African-American population, largely from the middle class, has been selected and integrated into the ruling elite, including the corporate and political establishment. These are the men and women who have been elected to high office, who occupy a few more of the top rungs of the corporate ladder, and who are helping to set the agenda in higher education and other spheres of social life. They in turn are presented as role models and representatives for a small but significant upper middle class constituency, in that way serving as a new base of support for the capitalist system.

The image of “progressivism” and diversity is also used to burnish the image of American capitalism as it competes against its rivals internationally. The small layer that has benefited from affirmative action is utilized to showcase the supposed virtues of the market and the endless possibilities for success under the profit system.

At the same time, however, a political division of labor involved in affirmative action has also become ever clearer with the passing years. The program was first backed by Nixon, who saw no contradiction between affirmative action and his own racist views. For about a decade the programs were largely bipartisan policy, accepted by both major capitalist parties. This began to change, especially in the 1980s. While the Democrats became the program’s biggest boosters, the Republicans discovered that Nixon’s “Southern strategy” could be expanded throughout the country by utilizing resentment caused by racial preferences.

The two big business parties developed a reactionary and cynical means of magnifying and promoting racial division. Affirmative action was attacked from the right, and challenged up to the US Supreme Court. It continues today, as college administrators are for the most part allowed to take race into account in admissions policies, as long as they do not employ quotas.

Affirmative action was never the demand of the working class. It was the brainchild of the political establishment, of a faction of the ruling class, with the approval of sections of the middle class civil rights leadership. And it has been used for decades to encourage resentment among white workers and youth, among students passed over for college admission, all the while ignoring the conditions and needs of the vast majority of the youth—black, Hispanic and white.

The challenges that black and Hispanic youth face are essentially no different than those facing millions of white working class families. The purpose of the Times study, even as it acknowledges part of the truth about affirmative action, is to cover this up so as to continue the effort to divide the working class on racial grounds.

The New York Times put its reporters and researchers to work for many hours, if not weeks, to document the racial breakdown of the student body all over the country. No one appears to have been assigned to analyze the class reality underlying the percentages, however. No one looked at the plight for the vast numbers of white working class youth for whom college has become increasingly unaffordable, and who are likewise “underrepresented” as compared to the upper middle class families, of all races. The category of “whiteness,” by combining the poor, the unemployed, the underemployed and the victims of deindustrialization and wage-cutting, together with the wealthy, is being used to obscure the reality of class relations.

Sixteen years ago, the World Socialist Web Site, in a statement on “Affirmative action and the right to education: a socialist response,” contrasted the demands of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, for greater social equality, with affirmative action, part of “the politics produced by [the capitalist] system, which is based on splitting working people along racial, ethnic religious and other lines to cover up the fundamental class divisions of society.”

For as long as it has been used, the WSWS explained, “affirmative action measures have benefited primarily a small section of middle and upper class minorities. … Affirmative action not only fails to overcome the problem of racism, its discriminatory character inevitably exacerbates racial divisions and pits white and minority workers and youth against each other in the struggle for a completely inadequate number of jobs and educational opportunities.”

In 2001, the average tuition at a public university was $3,500. Today it is $9,650 for state residents, and more than $24,000 for those out of state. For private schools, average tuition in 2001 was more than $15,000. The latest figure is $33,480, not including $10,000-$15,000 in room and board and other expenses. More than ever before, affirmative action has become a means of integrating a very small section of the upper middle class and grooming it for future roles presiding over increasing inequality and repression.

Growing sections of the working class, including African-American and Hispanic families, are coming to recognize that affirmative action is worth no more than any other promise made by any capitalist politician. This recognition must be translated into a complete break with the Democratic Party.

In opposition to the promise of a step up for a select few by trampling on the hopes and futures of the vast majority, the working class must fight for a socialist program of free quality higher education for all. This is part of the struggle to defend and extend the basic rights of the working class and eliminate the social inequality that is the product of the profit system. This fight is taken up only by the Socialist Equality Party.

WSWS

Houston’s public housing residents are the worst hit by toxic flooding

Levels of E. coli tested in one development are 135 times above the amount considered safe

Floodwaters in two Houston-area neighborhoods hit hard by Hurricane Harvey have been contaminated with bacteria and toxins — and the highest levels of contamination were found in a low-income neighborhood built next to a slow-moving river that is known to have been polluted for decades.

A New York Times investigation discovered E. coli levels at four times the amount considered safe in “water flowing down Briarhills Parkway in the Houston Energy Corridor.”

“There’s pretty clearly sewage contamination, and it’s more concentrated inside the home than outside the home,” Lauren Stadler, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University who participated in the Times’ research said. “It suggests to me that conditions inside the home are more ideal for bacteria to grow and concentrate. It’s warmer and the water has stagnated for days and days. I know some kids were playing in the floodwater outside those places. That’s concerning to me.”

Though the Environmental Protection Agency and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality have risen concerns about contaminated floodwaters, none of the results of samples they have taken have been made public so far, the Times reported.

The Times elaborated on medical warnings:

Dr. Beau Briese, an emergency room physician at Houston Methodist Hospital, said he had seen a doubling in the number of cases of cellulitis — reddened skin infections — since the storm. He said it was a more modest increase than he had expected, and that the infections had been successfully treated with antibiotics.

Dr. David Persse, the chief medical officer of Houston, said residents caring for children, the elderly and those with immune disorders should try to keep them out of homes until they have been cleaned.

In the Clayton Homes public housing development, which is alongside the Buffalo Bayou, levels of E. coli were measured at a shocking 135 times higher than what’s considered safe, the Times reported. The water also included elevated levels of “lead, arsenic and other heavy metals in sediment from the floodwaters in the kitchen.”

The Buffalo Bayou has been polluted for years, and it’s been reported that minority residents have suffered the most from the consequences.

“Here it’s normal to see industrial flares from front porches, and to wake up to paint particles from the nearby scrap metal shredding facility floating into homes,” Houston Public Media reported regarding neighborhoods along the bayou.

“I wanted you to come through here because you’re going to see one of the shredding facilities that shreds cars into tiny tiny little pieces of metal. It comes into this community here, and they don’t like it,” said Juan Parras, a community activist who led TEJAS, or Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, in 2011.

Parras said the facility should have never been built. The Ashby high rise was heavily protested in the more affluent parts of town, Houston Public Media reported.

“And there was a lot of complaints, you know, the citizens obviously didn’t want it. And at the same time they were building this,” Parras said. “And sometimes it gets real real high, you know, just a pile of cars here. And so we call it our Ashby high rise. But even though we protested, you know, we got it anyway.

In 2012, environmentalists called for strengthening the Clean Water Act, which helps regulate pollution control, the same law that President Donald Trump’s administration has already proposed rolling back.

 

Charlie May is a news writer at Salon. You can find him on Twitter at @charliejmay