Stephen Hawking: Automation and AI is going to decimate middle class jobs

stephen hawking scientist science physics

British scientist Prof. Stephen Hawking gives his ‘The Origin of the Universe’ lecture to a packed hall December 14, 2006 at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel. Hawking suffers from ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis or Lou Gehrigs disease), which has rendered him quadriplegic, and is able to speak only via a computerized voice synthesizer which is operated by batting his eyelids. David Silverman/Getty Images

Artificial intelligence and increasing automation is going to decimate middle class jobs, worsening inequality and risking significant political upheaval, Stephen Hawking has warned.

In a column in The Guardian, the world-famous physicist wrote that“the automation of factories has already decimated jobs in traditional manufacturing, and the rise of artificial intelligence is likely to extend this job destruction deep into the middle classes, with only the most caring, creative or supervisory roles remaining.”

He adds his voice to a growing chorus of experts concerned about the effects that technology will have on workforce in the coming years and decades. The fear is that while artificial intelligence will bring radical increases in efficiency in industry, for ordinary people this will translate into unemployment and uncertainty, as their human jobs are replaced by machines.

Technology has already gutted many traditional manufacturing and working class jobs — but now it may be poised to wreak similar havoc with the middle classes.

A report put out in February 2016 by Citibank in partnership with the University of Oxford predicted that 47% of US jobs are at risk of automation. In the UK, 35% are. In China, it’s a whopping 77% — while across the OECD it’s an average of 57%.

And three of the world’s 10 largest employers are now replacing their workers with robots.

Automation will, “in turn will accelerate the already widening economic inequality around the world,” Hawking wrote. “The internet and the platforms that it makes possible allow very small groups of individuals to make enormous profits while employing very few people. This is inevitable, it is progress, but it is also socially destructive.”

He frames this economic anxiety as a reason for the rise in right-wing, populist politics in the West: “We are living in a world of widening, not diminishing, financial inequality, in which many people can see not just their standard of living, but their ability to earn a living at all, disappearing. It is no wonder then that they are searching for a new deal, which Trump and Brexit might have appeared to represent.”

Combined with other issues — overpopulation, climate change, disease — we are, Hawking warns ominously, at “the most dangerous moment in the development of humanity.” Humanity must come together if we are to overcome these challenges, he says.

Stephen Hawking has previously expressed concerns about artificial intelligence for a different reason — that it might overtake and replace humans. “The development of artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race,” he said in late 2014. “It would take off on its own, and redesign itself at an ever increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.”

 

 

http://www.businessinsider.com/stephen-hawking-ai-automation-middle-class-jobs-most-dangerous-moment-humanity-2016-12?r=UK&IR=T

Aldous Huxley, Dying of Cancer, Left This World Tripping on LSD (1963)

Aldous Huxley put himself forever on the intellectual map when he wrote the dystopian sci-fi novel Brave New World in 1931. (Listen to Huxley narrating a dramatized version here.) The British-born writer was living in Italy at the time, a continental intellectual par excellence.

Then, six years later, Huxley turned all of this upside down. He headed West, to Hollywood, the newest of the New World, where he took a stab at writing screenplays (with not much luck) and started experimenting with mysticism and psychedelics — first mescaline in 1953, then LSD in 1955. This put Huxley at the forefront of the counterculture’s experimentation with psychedelic drugs, something he documented in his 1954 book, The Doors of Perception.

Huxley’s experimentation continued right through his death in November 1963. When cancer brought him to his death bed, he asked his wife to inject him with “LSD, 100 µg, intramuscular.” He died later that day, just hours after Kennedy’s assassination. Three years later, LSD was officially banned in California.

By way of footnote, it’s worth mentioning that the American medical establishment is now giving hallucinogens a second look, conducting controlled studies of how psilocybin and other psychedelics can help treat patients dealing with cancer, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, drug/alcohol addiction and end-of-life anxiety. The New York Times has more on this story.

For a look at the history of LSD, we recommend the 2002 film Hofmann’s Potion(2002) by Canadian filmmaker Connie Littlefield. You can watch it here, or find it listed in our collection of Free Movies Online.

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The political legacy of Fidel Castro

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28 November 2016

The announcement Friday night of the death of Fidel Castro, one of the major figures of the 20th century, has provoked a broad range of public reactions reflecting the bitter controversies over his contradictory historical legacy.

His death at 90 came nearly a decade after he surrendered the reins of unchallenged power he exercised over Cuba’s political life. For nearly half a century he was “president for life,” first secretary of the ruling Communist Party and commander-in-chief of the Cuban military, with much of this authority passing dynastically into the hands of his younger brother, Raul, who is now 85.

His rule outlasted that of ten US presidents, from Eisenhower to George W. Bush, all of whom were committed to the overthrow of his regime, including by means of the abortive CIA-organized Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961, literally hundreds of assassination attempts, and the longest economic blockade in world history.

The longevity of his political career is in many ways astonishing. No doubt, there were elements of the Latin American caudillo in his rule and he could be ruthless in relation to those seen as political rivals and opponents. At the same time, he possessed an undeniable personal charisma and a degree of humanism that attracted support from both the oppressed masses of Cuba and wider layers of intellectuals and radicalized youth internationally.

The reaction of the US media to Castro’s death has been predictable. Editorial denunciations of the “brutal dictator” have been accompanied by revolting coverage giving greater air time to a few hundred right-wing Cuban exiles dancing in the streets of Miami’s Little Havana than to the somber and very real mourning among broad layers of the population in Cuba itself.

On the island, ten years after relinquishing power, Castro has maintained a significant, albeit diminished, popular base, reflecting support for the undeniable improvements in social conditions for the country’s most impoverished layers that were wrought by the revolution he led in 1959.

The indices of these changes come into clear focus when one compares conditions in Cuba to those prevailing in the neighboring Dominican Republic, which has roughly the same size population and gross domestic product. The murder rate in Cuba is less than one quarter that in the Dominican Republic; life expectancy is six years higher (79 vs. 73), and the Cuban infant mortality rate is roughly one-sixth the Dominican. Cuba’s literacy levels and infant mortality rates, it should be added, are also superior to those in the United States.

The commentary in the US media centering on denunciations of Castro for political repression deserves to be placed in historical context. After all, the United States has over the course of a century supported countless dictatorships responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in Latin America alone. Castro and Castroism were ultimately the product of this bitter and bloody history.

Castro’s own political evolution was shaped by US imperialism’s decades-long plunder and oppression following the island’s transformation as a result of the 1898 Spanish-American war from a colony of Spain into a semi-colony of Washington. Under the so-called Platt Amendment, the United States guaranteed itself the “right” to intervene in Cuban affairs as it saw fit, and seized Guantanamo Bay to serve as its military base.

The US-backed Batista dictatorship

Before the revolution, Washington’s man in Havana was Fulgencio Batista, who headed a ferocious dictatorship that ruled in the interests of foreign corporations, the country’s native oligarchy and the mafia, which turned the country into a center of gambling and prostitution. Torture was routine and John F. Kennedy himself commented that the regime was responsible for the political murders of at least 20,000 Cubans.

As vicious as this regime was, it was by no means unique in the region. During the same period, Washington supported similar mass crimes carried out by Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, Duvalier in Haiti and Somoza in Nicaragua.

Those who attempted to alter the existing order by democratic means were disposed of with violence, as seen in the CIA-organized overthrow of the Arbenz government in Guatemala in 1954. The result was a growth of seething popular hatred for the United States throughout the hemisphere.

Born into a Spanish landowning family, Castro developed politically within the hothouse environment of student nationalist politics at Havana University. Reportedly, as a youth he was an admirer of Spanish fascist Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera and the Italian duce Benito Mussolini.

Among his politically formative experiences was a 1948 trip as a student to Bogota, Colombia, where the US had convened an inter-American congress that was to found the Organization of American States to assert US hegemony over the region. During the visit, the assassination of Liberal Party candidate Jorge Gaitan led to the mass uprising known as the Bogotazo, in which much of the Colombian capital was destroyed and up to 3,000 were killed.

Castro himself acknowledged that he was also significantly influenced by the politics of Juan Peron, the military officer who came to power in Argentina, admiring him for his populism, anti-Americanism and social assistance programs for the poor.

Still in his twenties, Castro began his struggle against the US-backed dictatorship of Batista as a member of the Ortodoxo Party, a nationalist and anti-communist political tendency rooted in the Cuban petty-bourgeoisie. After running as an Ortodoxo candidate for the Cuban legislature in 1952, Castro turned to armed action a year later, leading an ill-fated assault on the Moncada army barracks in which all 200 insurgents were either killed or captured.

Following a brief jail sentence and exile, he returned to Cuba at the end of 1956 with a relative handful of armed supporters who suffered overwhelming losses in initial engagements with government troops. Yet within barely two years, power fell into the hands of his guerrilla July 26 Movement, under conditions where both the Cuban bourgeoisie and Washington had lost confidence in Batista’s ability to rule the country.

There existed broad international sympathy for Castro, whose uprising was seen as a struggle for democracy. Among those expressing support for the new regime was American author Ernest Hemingway, who described himself as “delighted” with the overthrow of Batista.

Initially, Castro denied he had any sympathy for communism, insisted that his government would protect foreign capital and welcome new private investment, and sought to reach an accommodation with US imperialism.

However, as the masses of Cuban workers and peasants were demanding results from the Castro revolution, Washington made it clear that it would tolerate not even the most modest social reforms in the territory 90 miles from US shores. The expectations within US ruling circles was that after brief celebrations of the fall of Batista, the new government would get back to business as usual. They were horrified that Castro was actually serious about changing social conditions on the island and raising the living standard of its impoverished masses. They met any attempt at altering the existing order with intransigence.

In response to limited land reform, Washington sought to strangle the Cuban economy, cutting Cuba’s sugar export quota and then denying the island nation oil.

Castro responded with nationalizations, first of US property, then of Cuban-owned enterprises, and turned to the Soviet bureaucracy for assistance. He simultaneously turned to the discredited Cuban Stalinist Popular Socialist Party, which had supported Batista and opposed Castro’s guerrilla movement. The Stalinists provided him with the political apparatus that he lacked.

Castro was representative of a broader bourgeois-nationalist and anti-imperialist movement that swept the colonial and oppressed countries in the post-World War II period, giving rise to figures like Ben Bella in Algeria, Nasser in Egypt, Nkrumah in Ghana and Lumumba in the Congo, among others. Like Castro, many of them attempted to exploit the Cold War conflict between Washington and Moscow to secure their own interests.

No doubt, there was an opportunistic element in Castro’s self-proclamation as a “Marxist-Leninist” and his turn to the Soviet Union. However, it is also the case that in 1960, the October Revolution that had transformed Russia 43 years earlier exerted a massive influence internationally, even though the Soviet bureaucracy had long since exterminated the revolution’s leaders and severed all ties to genuine Marxism.

While the rising expectations of the Cuban masses and the obstinate reaction of US imperialism served to push Castro to the left, he was in no sense a Marxist. While sincere in his original intentions to implement significant reforms of Cuban society, his political orientation was always of a pragmatic character.

Ultimately, Castro went the furthest in striking a Faustian bargain with Soviet Stalinism, which provided massive aid and subsidized trade in return for exploiting Cuba as a bargaining chip in its quest for “peaceful coexistence” with US imperialism.

With the Stalinist bureaucracy’s final betrayal, the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, Cuba was thrown into a desperate economic and social crisis which the Castro government was able to offset only through an ever-widening opening to foreign capitalist investment, as well as major subsidies from Venezuela, whose own economic crisis is now closing off that source of aid as well.

Rapprochement with Washington

These are the conditions that laid the groundwork for a rapprochement between Washington and Cuba, with the reopening of the US embassy in Havana and Obama’s visit to the country last March. For its part, US capitalism is determined to exploit Cuban cheap labor and potentially lucrative markets and ward off the growing influence in the country of its Chinese and European rivals.

The ruling strata in Cuba see the influx of US capital as a means of salvaging their rule while pursuing a course similar to that of China. The Cuban elite hopes to secure its own privileges and power at the expense of the Cuban working class under conditions where social inequality on the island is rapidly deepening.

No doubt all of this troubled Castro in the last decade of his life. During this period, he continued to comment regularly in the Cuban media through a column known as “Reflections.” These writings provided little in the way of theoretical insight and reflected the thinking of a sincere petty-bourgeois radical.

To his credit, until his death he continued to despise everything that US imperialism stood for. He vigorously attacked the hypocrisy of Barack Obama and his combination of “human rights” rhetoric and imperialist wars and drone assassination programs.

In the aftermath of Obama’s visit to Cuba, Castro wrote one of his last columns, bitterly denouncing the US president’s speech in Havana. He declared: “… we are capable of producing the food and material riches we need with the efforts and intelligence of our people. We do not need the empire to give us anything.”

The reality, however, is that the Obama visit and the move to “normalize” relations with US imperialism signaled that Castro’s revolution, like every other bourgeois nationalist movement and national liberation struggle led by middle-class forces, had reached its ultimate dead end, having failed to resolve the historic problems stemming from imperialist oppression of Cuba and moving toward a restoration of the neocolonialist relations that it had previously opposed.

Only a cynic could deny the elements of heroism and tragedy in the life of Castro and, above all, the protracted struggle of the Cuban people.

However, Castro’s legacy cannot be evaluated solely through the prism of Cuba, but must take into account the impact of his politics internationally and, above all, in Latin America.

Here, the most catastrophic role was played by left nationalists in Latin America as well as petty-bourgeois radicals in Europe and North America in promoting Castro’s coming to power at the head of a small guerrilla army as the opening of a new path to socialism, requiring neither the conscious and independent political intervention of the working class nor the building of revolutionary Marxist parties. The myths surrounding Castro’s revolution, and, in particular, the retrograde theories of guerrillaism propagated by his erstwhile political ally Che Guevara, were promoted as the model for revolutions throughout the hemisphere.

The role of Pabloite revisionism

Among the most prominent proponents of this false perspective was the Pabloite revisionist tendency that emerged within the Fourth International under the leadership of Ernest Mandel in Europe and Joseph Hansen in the US, subsequently joined by Nahuel Moreno in Argentina. They insisted that Castro’s coming to power had proven that armed guerrillas led by the petty-bourgeoisie and based on the peasantry could become “natural Marxists,” compelled by objective events to carry out the socialist revolution, with the working class reduced to the role of a passive bystander.

They further concluded that Castro’s nationalizations created a “workers state” in Cuba, despite the absence of any organs of workers’ power.

Long before the Cuban Revolution, Leon Trotsky had explicitly rejected the facile identification of nationalizations undertaken by petty-bourgeois forces with the socialist revolution. The Transitional Program, the founding document of the Fourth International, written in 1938, declared that “one cannot categorically deny in advance the theoretical possibility that, under the influence of completely exceptional circumstances (war, defeat, financial crash, mass revolutionary pressure, etc.) the petty-bourgeois parties including the Stalinists may go further than they themselves wish along the road to a break with the bourgeoisie.” It distinguished such an episode, however, from a genuine dictatorship of the proletariat.

In response to the expropriations carried out by the Kremlin regime in the course of its invasion of Poland (in alliance with Hitler) in 1939, Trotsky wrote: “The primary political criterion for us is not the transformation of property in this or another area, however important these may be in themselves, but rather the change in the consciousness and organization of the world proletariat, the raising of their capacity for defending former conquests and accomplishing new ones.”

The International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI) fought intransigently against the Pabloite perspective, insisting that Castroism represented not some new road to socialism, but rather only one of the more radical variants of the bourgeois nationalist movements that had come to power through much of the former colonial world. It warned that the Pabloite glorification of Castroism represented a repudiation of the entire historical and theoretical conception of the socialist revolution going back to Marx, and laid the basis for the liquidation of the revolutionary cadre assembled by the Trotskyist movement internationally into the camp of bourgeois nationalism and Stalinism.

While waging a principled defense of Cuba against imperialist aggression, the ICFI rooted its analysis of Castroism within a broader assessment on the role of bourgeois nationalism in the epoch of imperialism.

Defending Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, it wrote in 1961: “It is not the job of Trotskyists to boost the role of such nationalist leaders. They can command the support of the masses only because of the betrayal of leadership by Social-Democracy and particularly Stalinism, and in this way they become buffers between imperialism and the mass of workers and peasants. The possibility of economic aid from the Soviet Union often enables them to strike a harder bargain with the imperialists, even enables more radical elements among the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois leaders to attack imperialist holdings and gain further support from the masses. But, for us, in every case the vital question is one of the working class in these countries gaining political independence through a Marxist party, leading the poor peasantry to the building of Soviets, and recognizing the necessary connections with the international socialist revolution. In no case, in our opinion, should Trotskyists substitute for that the hope that the nationalist leadership should become socialists. The emancipation of the working class is the task of the workers themselves.”

These warnings were tragically vindicated in Latin America where the theories promoted by the Pabloites helped divert a whole layer of radicalized youth and young workers away from the struggle to mobilize the working class against capitalism and into suicidal armed struggles that claimed thousands of lives, served to disorient the workers’ movement and helped pave the way to fascist-military dictatorships.

In the first instance, these theories claimed the life of Guevara himself in Bolivia. Ignoring the militant struggles of the miners and the rest of the Bolivian working class, he vainly sought to recruit a guerrilla army from among the most backward and oppressed sections of the peasantry, ending up isolated and starving before being hunted down and executed by the CIA and the Bolivian military in October 1967.

Guevara’s fate was a tragic anticipation of the disastrous consequences Castroism and Pabloite revisionism would have throughout the hemisphere. Similarly, in Argentina, the cult of guerrillaism served to blunt and disorient the revolutionary working class movement that had erupted with the mass strikes of the Cordobazo of 1969.

Castro himself, acting both as a client of the Soviet bloc and a practitioner of realpolitik in the attempt to secure the stability of his own regime, sought to forge ties to the same Latin American bourgeois governments that those who emulated him were attempting to overthrow. Thus, in 1971 he toured Chile, extolling the “parliamentary road to socialism” in that country, even as the fascists and the military were preparing to crush the working class. He hailed military regimes in Peru and Ecuador as anti-imperialist and even embraced the corrupt apparatus of the ruling PRI in Mexico after it had overseen the massacre of students in 1968.

The overall impact of Castro’s policies as well as those of the political tendencies who glorified him was to hold back the socialist revolution throughout the hemisphere.

Now, the imperialist powers in general, and the US in particular, are evaluating to what extent the death of Castro can be used to advance their interests in Cuba and beyond.

President Barack Obama issued a hypocritical statement declaring, “History will record and judge the enormous impact of this singular figure on the people and world around him,” and assuring that ”the Cuban people must know that they have a friend and partner in the United States of America.”

For his part, President-elect Trump issued a statement celebrating “the passing of a brutal dictator who oppressed his own people for nearly six decades.” There is growing speculation over whether Trump will carry through on his threats to rescind measures enacted by Obama meant to facilitate the penetration of Cuba by US banks and corporations.

While the representatives of imperialism seek to exploit Castro’s death to advance the cause of reaction, for a new generation of workers and youth the study of the historical experience of Castroism and the far-sighted critique developed by the International Committee of the Fourth International remains a vital task in preparing the working class for coming mass revolutionary struggles and building the parties that will lead them.

Bill Van Auken

Now Trump gets the Supreme Court — and the damage may be irreversible

Conservatives cared about the court this year, while many liberals didn’t. The damage will last for generations

Now Trump gets the Supreme Court — and the damage may be irreversible
(Credit: Getty/Dominick Reuter/Reuters/Larry Downing/Salon)

Seth Masket, a political science professor at the University of Denver, published a piece for Pacific Standard arguing that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was smart to organize an unprecedented blockade of any hearings for Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court, because the choice likely helped give Donald Trump the presidential election.

“McConnell’s move made the Supreme Court seat an issue for the presidential election,” Masket wrote. “It motivated conservatives to stay on board with the Republican presidential nominee no matter who it was.”

A lot of conservatives, especially evangelical Christians, had their doubts about a glib, insincere libertine like Trump, especially someone who had a history of donating to Democratic politicians and no record of Republican loyalty. But that empty seat on the Supreme Court, Masket argued, tipped the scales.

“The balance of the Court, particularly on such issues as abortion, was in play,” he wrote. “Abandon the nominee, and Hillary Clinton gets to pick the next one, two, or three justices. Stand by the nominee, no matter how repellent, and you get to.”

My inclination is to agree with Masket. One of the most interesting things that I found, talking to attendees at both the Republican and Democratic conventions over the summer, was that Republicans often spoke about the Supreme Court and Democrats almost never did. The tendency to cite control of the court was particularly pronounced among Trump-skeptical Republicans I spoke with. Very few of them talked about the economy but the court came up over and over again. The opposite was true when I spoke with Democratic voters.

Trump understood that as long as he promised an anti-choice, anti-labor, anti-environmentalist philosophy when appointing judges, the Republican voter base would squelch its concerns about putting such a thoroughly unqualified man in charge of the nuclear codes and fall in line. Over the summer Trump took the highly unusual step of releasing a short list of judges he would consider, heavily advertising that the list was basically handed to him by the Federalist Society and the Heritage Foundation, two far-right think tanks.

The move was brilliant precisely because Trump clearly doesn’t give two hoots about the Supreme Court or the judiciary in general, despite the fact that he’s been involved in a mind-boggling 3,500 lawsuits over the course of his career and had 75 ongoing when he was elected to office. Letting the Federalist Society pick judges for him clears up his schedule to focus on issues that really matter to him, such as the weight of Miss Universe pageant winners and demanding that black Broadway actors apologize for talking back to powerful white men like Vice President-elect Mike Pence.

For the past week and a half, I’ve been covering what it means for Trump to have the power to fill the Supreme Court seat that was left open after the death of former justice Antonin Scalia in March — and the even more dire possibility that he’ll be able to replace one of the aging liberals on the court in the next four years. (Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 83 years old and Stephen Breyer is 78; Anthony Kennedy, the most moderate of the court’s conservative justices, is 80.)

It’s difficult to deny the conclusion that, in the end, Republican voters are more organized and focused on the long game than Democratic voters, and that ability to focus will pay off. Trump will likely be out in four years — possibly less, if the quickly mounting scandals result in enough legal troubles — but the damage he’s likely to do with his court appointments will last years and in some cases generations.

Using the courts to dismantle the right of workers to unionize, for instance, will pay off dividends for Republicans long after Trump leaves the White House in the inevitable cloud of shame and disgrace. Unions can organize and educate voters and represent the only real hope that Democrats have of convincing some of those longed-for white working-class voters to stop voting racial resentments and begin voting their economic self-interest. Republicans get this, which is why they have focused heavily on creative litigation aimed at destroying unions, and now they are on the cusp of dealing some wounding blows.

It’s the same story with conservative lawyers’ chipping away at campaign-finance laws. Trump will do plenty of damage to both parties, but the free flow of money in politics means that the Republicans will be able to rebuild more easily than the Democrats, who have a much less wealthy donor base. Just as important, elevating the power and voice of the wealthy over everyone else will help Republicans continue to capture more state legislatures and congressional seats, reinforcing the horrific situation we have now, whereby a Republican minority is ruling over a Democratic majority.

This year’s election postmortems were tedious before they even began, of course, but please indulge me for a moment: The media’s unwillingness to cover the court issues, especially McConnell’s unprecedented and unconstitutional holdup of Obama’s court appointee, was a major act of malfeasance. Yes, it’s hard to keep a story in the news when there aren’t new developments to cover. But McConnell’s corrupt and anti-democratic behavior was a far more serious story than Hillary Clinton’s email management. It should have been extensively covered, and it was not.

This problem is made all the more serious when you consider the divergent media consumption of conservative Americans and everyone else. Most Americans, moderate or liberal, get their news through the mainstream media. Most conservatives turn to conservative media, like Fox News. Conservative media is better about covering the court issues and keeping them at the forefront of voter minds, and the result was that Republican voters had their votes moved on this issue. For more Democratic-leaning voters, it completely fell out of mind.

The result is that Republican voters treated this election as if it were an urgent one, and millions of voters who turned out for Obama in the previous two presidential cycles couldn’t be bothered to cast ballots this time around. Perhaps if they had really understood that this election would determine the direction of the federal courts for a generation, they would have reconsidered their decision to stay home rather than vote for Hillary Clinton.

 

Amanda Marcotte is a politics writer for Salon. She’s on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte

Republican Congress, Trump plan assault on Medicare

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By Kate Randall
26 November 2016

During his election campaign, Donald Trump declared that he had no plans to make “substantial” changes to Medicare, the government-run health insurance plan for the elderly and disabled that covers 55 million Americans. The president-elect’s web site now says his administration will work to “modernize Medicare” and allow more “flexibility” for Medicaid, the health care program for the poor jointly administered by the federal government and the states.

These are code words signaling the readiness of the incoming administration to work with the Republican-controlled Congress to shift Medicare from a guaranteed government program to a plan with fixed government contributions—or vouchers—and to pave the way for the program’s privatization and dismantlement. Medicaid is to suffer a similar fate.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (Republican of Wisconsin) has been explicit about plans to gut Medicare. Under his plan, the government would give those in traditional Medicare a fixed amount to buy insurance. This amount would be tracked to the country’s overall growth rate or another index, plus a percentage increase, but it would not keep pace with rising health care costs. Seniors would eventually pay a larger share of costs, while government costs would shrink.

In an earlier version proposed by Ryan, cost-sharing—where the government currently pays roughly 70 percent of Medicare costs and beneficiaries pay 30 percent—would flip, leaving seniors responsible for 70 percent of costs and the government only 30 percent.

Skimpy vouchers would replace the current government guarantee, leaving traditional Medicare with a sicker, more costly insurance pool, with higher premiums. The New York Times quotes John K. Gorman, a former Medicare official who is now an insurance consultant, who said, “Regular Medicare would become the province of affluent beneficiaries who can buy their way out of” private plans.

The vast majority of working-class and middle-income seniors would be squeezed out of Medicare and left with narrow network Medicare Advantage plans, which are run by private corporations. Such a shift would have catastrophic consequences for the millions of seniors who rely on Medicare. They would see their access to specialist doctors and hospitals, life-saving treatments and procedures sharply curtailed, resulting in unnecessary suffering and death.

The attack on Medicare is part of a frontal assault to be carried out by the Trump administration against all that remains of the social reforms wrested by the working class from the ruling elite over the last century. None of the social programs enacted in the 1930s and 1960s, including Social Security, the government retirement program, will be outside the scope of the social counterrevolution that is being prepared.

Trump is not the initiator of this class war against working people. It has been underway for decades, beginning in earnest with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and continuing under every succeeding administration, including the eight-year tenures of Democrats Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. The colossal redistribution of wealth and income from the bottom to the top of American society reached record proportions under Obama, whose legacy of falling living standards and worsening economic crisis for tens of millions of workers was a decisive factor in the victory of the fascistic demagogue and con artist Trump.

Trump’s victory, however, with its shift to “fortress America” nationalism, signals a sharp escalation of this class war policy.

No one should take for good coin claims by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and other congressional Democrats that they will wage a serious fight against measures to undermine Medicare. In the short period since the General Election, President Obama and the Democrats have fallen all over themselves to pledge support for the incoming administration, maintaining a cowardly silence over the fact that Trump lost the popular vote by millions of ballots. The trade union bureaucracy has likewise signaled its eagerness to work with Trump in pitting American workers against their class brothers and sisters in China, Mexico and the rest of the world.

Trump’s plans for “flexibility” in Medicaid include transforming funding for the program into block grants for the states, in which a fixed and likely reduced grant would be provided to states to administer the health program for the poor. In those states that have expanded Medicaid under the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act (ACA), including those run by Republican governors, block grants would mean deep cuts to already meager benefits.

While Trump and the Republicans rail against the ACA, commonly known as Obamacare, and vow to repeal many of its features if not the entire program, the Ryan plan for Medicare draws on some of the ACA’s most regressive features. Since Obama’s signature domestic program became law in 2010, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has worked at breakneck speed to transform Medicare’s fee-for-service payments into a system that rewards doctors and hospitals for cutting costs.

HHS projects that nearly every fee-for-service payment to Medicare will be tied in some way to “value” by 2018. A recent estimate by the Congressional Budget Office anticipates a reduction in Medicare spending under Obamacare of $716 billion from 2013 to 2022.

The ferocity of the coming attacks on the basic social needs of the working class—health care, education, decent-paying jobs, pensions—is prefigured in the gang of billionaire parasites being assembled by Trump to staff his cabinet, virtually all of whom have made their fortunes by savaging workers’ living standards and attacking social programs.

Billionaire Betsy DeVos, Trump’s pick for secretary of education, is a leading proponent of charter schools and vouchers and vehement enemy of teachers and public education. Investor and former banker Wilbur Ross, Trump’s likely pick for secretary of commerce, made his fortune through leveraged buyouts of distressed steel and coal companies. He made billions by downsizing firms, slashing wages and pensions, and selling off what remained for a hefty profit.

The incoming administration has singled out the 2.7 million US federal employees for attacks on jobs, employment security and pensions.

Millions of workers are in for a huge shock when they see the reality behind Trump’s promise to “Make America Great Again.” The realization that they have once again been deceived by a capitalist con man will fuel the growth of social opposition.

Democratic Party politicians, on the other hand, who insisted during the election that Trump was “unfit” for the presidency, are now working to accommodate themselves to his agenda. It is not the wealthy upper-middle class that forms the Democrats’ main base of support, beyond Wall Street and the military/intelligence establishment, that will be hammered. Indeed, as the stock market surge since Trump’s election indicates, they stand to make themselves even richer off of the misery of working people and youth.

This party of big business, from Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, is a thousand times more fearful of a mass movement of the working class against capitalism than it is of Trump’s ultra-right agenda.

That can be halted only by a political movement of the working class consciously directed against the entire political order and the capitalist system it defends.

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/11/26/medi-n26.html

Thanksgiving 2016 and the social crisis in America

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November 2016

On October 3, 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln signed a proclamation authored by Secretary of State William H. Seward declaring the last Thursday of November “a day of thanksgiving.”

Despite a Civil War of “unequalled magnitude and severity,” the declaration stated, the conflict had not “arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship,” while “the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore.” The proclamation concluded, “The country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.”

The ravages of the Civil War would last another year and a half. Nevertheless, it was true that society was being transformed by railroads, steamboats and the telegraph, an expansion in productive capacity that would accelerate with the rapid industrialization fostered by the Second American Revolution. The Civil War would clear the way for capitalist progress—and the explosive growth of the class struggle—by abolishing slavery.

As families throughout the United States gather to share a meal this Thanksgiving, relatively few will agree with Seward’s assessment that the country can expect “years with large increase of freedom.” Rather, for many, Thanksgiving will serve only to underline the economic hardship and oppression they face.

More than one in eight households will have had difficulty putting food on the table the year before, and millions will have a Thanksgiving meal only by standing in line at a food pantry or soup kitchen.

Over a million-and-a-half people were homeless last year, including some 300,000 children and 450,000 disabled people. Millions more live in substandard housing, doubled up with other families, or in motels. Such conditions may affect only a minority of American families directly. But the great majority of the population is economically insecure.

Forty-six percent of adults are so financially strapped that “they either could not cover an emergency expense costing $400, or would cover it by selling something or borrowing money,” according to a survey released by the Federal Reserve this year.

Under these circumstances, the announcement that the average premium under the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), supposedly designed to insure lower-income people, will increase 25 percent next year means that millions will either lose their health coverage or face hundreds, or even thousands of dollars in additional expenses.

The terrific stress caused by living in households one accident or illness away from financial ruin, in which young people are burdened by debt and face narrowing prospects, while the elderly confront rising medical costs and decreasing retirement benefits, produces many signs of social distress.

The brutality of this society, compounded by militarism and police violence, falls hardest on the young. One study has found that the prevalence of serious depression among teenagers increased by 37 percent between 2005 and 2014. Another reported that children from 10 through 14 are for the first time more likely to die from suicide than from a car accident.

Perhaps the most devastating manifestation of the social malaise is America’s drug epidemic. This year, a shocking 28,000 people will die from opioid overdose, almost as many as the number killed in car accidents. For tens of thousands of families, Thanksgiving will be a time of mourning for those who have lost their lives to heroin, fentanyl or prescription painkillers.

Many of the states most affected by the drug epidemic are those worst hit by joblessness and deindustrialization. Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, the “rust belt” states that backed Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 but swung behind Donald Trump in the 2016 election, all saw their rates of opiate overdose increase by more than 10 percent between 2013 and 2014.

The social crisis in the United States is fueling an immense growth of oppositional sentiment, including significant signs of renewed class struggle and political radicalization that found only initial expression in the elections. This came first in the widespread support during the Democratic primaries for Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who called himself a socialist and denounced the “billionaire class” and social inequality.

Sanders’ “political revolution” concluded ignominiously with an endorsement of Hillary Clinton, who ran on the claim that, in the words of President Obama, America is doing “pretty darn great.” The implication of this delusional narrative was that those who disagreed and were swayed by Republican candidate Donald Trump’s demagogic appeals to social discontent were part of the “white racist working class,” seeking to defend their “privileged” status against blacks and other minorities. Basing her campaign on various forms of identity politics, Clinton pitched her appeal to the affluent and complacent. The result was a sharp decline in votes for the Democratic candidate within all sections of the working class.

Trump, who is being installed in the White House with the blessings of the outgoing president and both parties, will not “make America great again.” Neither he nor any section of the ruling class has a solution to the social crisis gripping America. His “America first” economic nationalism will exacerbate the global capitalist crisis and mean sharper attacks on workers within the United States. His program of tax cuts for the wealthy, the elimination of regulations on corporations, cuts in social programs and an immense increase in military spending will fuel social discontent and anger.

Trump’s election marks a turning point in the looming showdown between the financial parasites he personifies and the great mass of the population, the working class.

Andre Damon

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/11/24/pers-n24.html

Record-low sea ice as Arctic temperatures soar

By Daniel de Vries
22 November 2016

Never since satellite monitoring began in the late 1970s has such little ice covered the polar seas this time of year. In both the Arctic and the Antarctic, the extent of sea ice is tracking at the lowest levels on record.

The onset of polar night in the Arctic, in which the sun never rises above the horizon, typically triggers rapid ice growth as consistently bitter cold temperatures chill the warmer seas. However over the past two months, temperatures in the high Arctic have remained unusually warm. Temperatures last week rose to a startling 20 degrees Celsius (38 degrees Fahrenheit) above the historical average.

This extraordinary warmth is in part attributable to shrinking ice cover and may well drive further losses. And it is not just high air temperatures. Mark Serreze of the National Snow and Ice Data Center explained to the Washington Post, “There are some areas in the Arctic Ocean that are as much as 25 degrees Fahrenheit (14 degrees Celsius) above average now,” he said. “It’s pretty crazy.”

While it is too early to say whether this season’s winter ice maximum will set a new low, the long-term trends are unmistakable. The decline of ice, particularly in the Arctic, is recognized by climate scientists as an alarming indicator of a warming planet. The amount of ocean area covered by at least 15 percent ice reached a minimum in 2012, with the subsequent years all well below the long-term average.

It is not only the extent of the ice that concerns scientists, but its shrinking thickness and age. According to NASA, a comparison between September 2014 and September 1984 shows a decline of older ice, four years old or more, by a staggering 94 percent. Virtually all of the older, thicker ice has melted away or thinned, leaving the region more vulnerable to additional melting during relatively warm weather.

Sea ice extent this year compared to long term average

This vulnerability is not merely a theoretical possibility. At the end of 2015, for example, a storm and warm spell triggered the loss of ice over an area the size of Florida at a time when the ice pack would normally be growing, according to a recent analysis by NASA’s Goddard Institute. The “extremely warm” temperatures were 10 degrees Celsius above normal, half the magnitude of the current warm spell.

The current extraordinarily high temperature abnormalities in the Arctic are matched by equally cold deviations spanning almost the entirety of the vast region of Siberia. This month, nearly 140 low temperature records were set in Russia, from the Finland border to the Sea of Japan. Schools in central Russia shuttered as temperatures plunged to negative 36 Celsius (negative 33 Fahrenheit).

2016 daily mean Arctic Temperater (red) compared to long term mean (green)

The record heat in the Arctic and cold over the continents are linked. Jennifer Francis, a climatologist at Rutgers University, told the Post, “The Arctic warmth is the result of a combination of record-low sea-ice extent for this time of year, probably very thin ice, and plenty of warm/moist air from lower latitudes being driven northward by a very wavy jet stream.”

An increasing amount of research has tied changes in atmospheric circulation patterns to the loss of Arctic sea ice. The wintertime Arctic polar vortex, a circulating zone of low pressure extending several miles up in the atmosphere, has weakened over the past few decades, together with retreating sea ice. This weakened and perhaps shifting vortex allows colder weather, normally confined to the polar region, to escape farther south. The current weather patterns appear to be a prime example of this phenomenon.

Vast changes are afoot not only in the northern latitudes but in the Antarctic as well. In recent years, up through 2014, the region had seen growth in winter sea ice extending into the Southern Ocean. While these gains were far outweighed by the losses in the Arctic, this year has brought a stark reversal. Now, for the first time, sea ice extents near both poles are on course for record lows.

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/11/22/glob-n22.html