Greatest Transfer of Wealth to the Super-Rich in Modern American History

Published on
by

“If we are going to stop Republicans from taking healthcare from millions and slashing Medicare to give tax cuts to the wealthy and large corporations, now is the time to stand up and fight back.”

The tax plan passed today by the House of Representatives is a flat giveaway to America’s richest households and corporations,” argued Josh Bivens of the Economic Policy Institute in a statement. (Photo: Tax March/Twitter)

With their passage of a deeply unpopular $1.5 trillion tax cut bill on Thursday, House Republicans did their part in “paving the way for the greatest transfer of wealth from regular people to the super-rich in modern American history,”—a move that sparked a flood of outrage from progressive activists and lawmakers who vowed to mobilize and do everything in their power to “kill the bill.”

“If we are going to stop Republicans from taking healthcare from millions and slashing Medicare to give tax cuts to the wealthy and large corporations, now is the time to stand up and fight back,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in a call to action that was echoed by many of the progressive groups that played a significant role in the fight against Trumpcare.

Now that the House bill has passed, “the fight now turns to the Senate, where the Trump tax scam has always faced much tougher odds,” noted CREDO political director Murshed Zaheed said in a statement.

As Common Dreams reported on Tuesday, Senate Republicans crammed a provision into their own tax bill that would strip healthcare from 13 million Americans—a fact opposition groups have used in recent days in an effort to galvanize grassroots forces.

“It is no surprise that Trump’s lapdogs in the Senate want to use the Trump tax scam to try to gut healthcare for millions of Americans,” Zaheed said, “but the grassroots resistance they’re about to experience will be just as intense as the tidal wave of opposition that repeatedly stopped the zombie Trumpcare bill. If the Senate manages to pass the Trump tax scam despite massive public opposition, we suspect many senators will come to regret it next year.”

Just ahead of the House vote on Thursday, the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) released an analysis that dealt yet another blow to the GOP’s insistence that their plan is primarily focused on providing relief to middle- and working-class Americans.

The Senate GOP plan—expected to hit the floor for a vote before Thanksgiving next week—will raise taxes on low-income Americans beginning in 2021, JCT found. More broadly, the Senate plan would sharply hike taxes on millions of families that earn less than $75,000 a year beginning in 2027.

Citing these numbers, the Washington Post‘s Paul Waldman wrote, “If you’re one of those white working-class voters who propelled Donald Trump into the presidency and gave Republicans total control of Washington, the GOP has a message for you: Sucker!”

By contrast, the wealthiest Americans—including President Donald Trump and his family—stand to gain massively from both the House and Senate plans. According to an NBCanalysis published Thursday, Trump and his heirs would save more than a billion dollars if the House measure became law.

The tax plan passed today by the House of Representatives is a flat giveaway to America’s richest households and corporations,” argued Josh Bivens of the Economic Policy Institute in a statement. “Most of the same people who cast this vote to deprive the government of tax revenue will now cynically pivot and start wringing their hands about the federal budget deficit, arguing that vital programs like Medicare and Medicaid must be slashed.”

“Disgusting,” concluded Fight for $15 on Twitter, “but the fight isn’t over. This is one of the worst pieces of legislation in history. Call your Senators and tell them to vote NO!”

Advertisements

Nearly 4,000 US communities have higher rates of lead poisoning than Flint

By Jerry White
16 November 2017

In an updated study, Reuters news agency has identified 3,810 neighborhoods where recently recorded child lead poisoning rates are at least double those found in Flint, Michigan during the height of that city’s water crisis in 2014 and 2015. In some 1,300 of these “hotspot” communities, the percentage of children six and under with elevated lead levels was at least four times the percentage in Flint during the peak of the crisis.

In pockets of Baltimore, Cleveland and Philadelphia, where lead poisoning has spanned generations, Reuters reported that the rate of elevated tests over the last decade was 50 percent or higher. An interactive map released with the study shows one census tract in Buffalo, New York—a former steel and auto center that, like Flint, has suffered decades of deindustrialization—where 68 percent of the children had high levels of lead.

Map of lead concentrations in the United States

The ingestion of any amount of the heavy metal, whether through tainted water, lead-based paint, contaminated soil or fumes and dust, can do irreparable harm to children. This includes impeding the development of the brain and nervous system, lowered IQ, memory loss, hearing and speech problems, and behavioral and attention-related problems. The toxin, which remains in the body and can be passed on for generations, is also responsible for a host of adult health problems, including decreased kidney function, high blood pressure, tremors and infertility.

In the year following the switchover of Flint to water from the polluted Flint River, which caused leaching from the city’s antiquated lead pipe system, five percent of the children who had their blood tested showed lead levels in excess of five micrograms per deciliter. This is the threshold requiring immediate public health intervention, according to the US government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which acknowledges that there is no safe level of exposure to lead.

Reuters used data collected by the CDC based on neighborhood-level blood testing results for 34 states and the District of Columbia. As devastating as the results are, they do not provide a full picture. The CDC funds 35 state and local health departments for lead surveillance. Reporting is voluntary in the remaining states, many of which do not have staff to collect data. Despite the well-known public health hazard, the US government does not require reporting and does not oversee the systematic collection and analysis of data on lead poisoning.

Dr. Kim Cecil of the Cincinnati Lead Study shows how the brain isdamaged by lead poisoning

Reuters says this is the first look at data broken down by census tracts, which are small county subdivisions averaging 4,000 citizens, or by zip codes, with average populations of 7,500. In December, Reuters noted that far from being the exception, Flint did not even rank among the most toxic cities in America. It pointed to Warren, Pennsylvania, a town on the Allegheny River, where 36 percent of the children tested had high lead levels, to a zip code on Goat Island, Texas, where a quarter of tests showed poisoning.

The newest map includes additional data collected this year by Reuters from Kansas, Georgia, Tennessee, Vermont, North Carolina, New York City and Washington, D.C. The newly identified areas with high levels of child lead poisoning include a historic district in Savannah, Georgia, areas in Rutland, Vermont near a popular skiing area, and a largely Hasidic Jewish area in Brooklyn, New York.

Like Flint, which has acres of land polluted by General Motors and other industrial firms, impoverished homes with peeling paint, and underground lead water mains and service lines, the areas throughout the US with the worst lead poisoning are invariably working class and poor.

There has been a sharp decline in poisoning since lead was removed from paint in 1976 and gasoline in 1995, the latter after more than a decade of resistance by the oil industry. The elimination of lead poisoning, however, is not possible due to lead pipes, residual lead paint in poor urban and rural areas, and former or current industrial sites polluted with lead.

T
he Flint River

“The dramatic decline in blood lead over the last several decades in the US is a public health triumph, resulting from control of lead in gasoline, paint, food, water, soil, consumer products and other sources,” said Marc Edwards, a professor of environmental and water resources engineering at Virginia Tech University, who was instrumental in exposing the lies of state and local officials who claimed that Flint’s water was safe.

He continued: “Before the increased use of lead in paint and gasoline, lead in water was once the dominant source of human lead exposure in the United States, and it was generally acknowledged to cause widespread lead poisoning, fatalities and adverse pregnancy outcomes. Flint is yet another reminder that we must remain vigilant to harm caused by all lead sources, especially lead pipes, which are out of sight and out of mind. It is also the only government-owned source of lead, which directly affects potable water, a product intended for human consumption. Flint is just the most recent example of how this inherent conflict has harmed people.”

The poisoning of Flint was brought into the national and international spotlight only due to the courageous efforts of the city’s working class residents and science professionals like Edwards and pediatrician and public health advocate Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha. She was denounced by Governor Rick Snyder’s office for “slicing and dicing” the results of blood samples.

Flint became a symbol of everything that was wrong in America: corporate and political criminality and the indifference of both the Democrats and Republicans to the plight of working people. The media, celebrities and politicians from Barack Obama to Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders poured into the town and legal proceedings were initiated against several lesser figures involved in the crime and cover-up. More than three years since the switch to the Flint River, however, nothing has been done to make the residents whole.

The new report from Reuters has been largely ignored by the rest of the corporate-controlled media, which originally presented the Flint crisis as an anomaly, until it was unable to deny the massive and nationwide scale of the problem. Far from committing the necessary resources, including an estimated $500 billion to $1 trillion to replace the nation’s lead pipes, the Obama and Trump administrations have failed to provide any significant funding to address this public health care threat, even as they have squandered trillions on bank bailouts, military spending and tax cuts for the wealthy.

Trump’s 2018 budget request includes a $1.2 billion, or 17 percent, cut to the CDC and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/11/16/lead-n16.html

Tens of thousands being dropped from US student loan relief program

By J. Cooper
15 November 2017

October marked 10 years since the George W. Bush administration enacted the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program as an incentive to young college graduates to pursue careers as teachers, in government, or at non-profit institutions. The program was advertised as a way for some recent graduates to see an exit sign on their student loan debt.

In 2006, average student loan debt for undergraduates was just under $20,000. For graduate students it was nearly $40,000. For the class of 2016, average undergraduate debt had climbed to $37,172. For graduate students, the average is considerably higher. In that same period, college tuition has increased 63 percent.

Over the past 10 years over half a million graduates have signed up for PSLF. However, according to a recent article in Rolling Stone, more than half of those have been disqualified for myriad bureaucratic reasons. Last month a total of only 137 individuals were deemed eligible to have the balance of their student loans wiped clean. Thousands are just finding out that their years of paying on time won’t count under the federal forgiveness plan because they took out the wrong type of loan, their employer has been disqualified, or their original lender sold the loan to an unqualified institution. President Trump’s budget proposes eliminating the program entirely for borrowers after July 2018.

As many of these borrowers are now discovering, if your employer hasn’t provided the correct proof of employment in a qualifying position, if the loan you are carrying is not through the sole federal direct-loan program, if you have missed even one of the 120 payments required within the 10-year span, or if you paid extra in one payment and skipped the next, you can be disqualified.

New York Times article from October 27 profiles a 46-year-old teacher who enrolled in the PSLF plan the year it was announced, thinking he had done everything according to the rules, only to discover in 2015 that he had been enrolled in a “particular type of ineligible payment plan and would need to start his decade of payments all over again.” One of the online comments from November 5 announces that several class action suits have been launched on behalf of borrowers who were not informed their loans were out of compliance.

Another commenter says: “By the time I’d learned that [one of the loans did not qualify], my loans had ballooned to $90k because I was only paying interest on them with 8.5 percent. … that nonsense impacted my career choices (deciding to stay in nonprofits to secure the forgiveness), my retirement funds, and my sanity. I will end up paying more than $55K in interest on my $60k loan. Truly criminal.”

Among the thousands disqualified or affected are teachers, doctors, lawyers, even police. A lawsuit by the American Bar Association was filed earlier this year after the Department of Education (DoE) announced it had “rescinded without explanation the association’s status as a qualified employer under PSLF and notified ABA employees and others who had previously been approved for participation in the program that they no longer qualified,” according to the DoE website.

Most of those applying for the PSLF program are those with postgraduate degrees. Currently there is no limit on the amount a graduate student can borrow, and it is not uncommon for a graduate student to embark on their first job out of school with $100,000 in debt. To discover, after 10 years working at a public service job, known for low salaries, that you don’t qualify for the program after all, not only impacts the financial wellbeing of the individual, but can have serious psychological effects.

Jason Delisle, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, revealed that when the PSLF program was first created, it was intended to be small and unattractive. “Washington policymakers did not foresee the program growing to its current size. After all, 10 years is a long time to work in a qualifying job, so many experts thought people wouldn’t sign up,” he wrote in Politico in July. “They also thought borrowers were averse to making loan payments linked to their incomes, as hardly anyone enrolled in an earlier version of the government’s income-based repayment plan.”

In fact, Delisle speaks for that section of the ruling elite who are determined that not even a small segment of students in debt will get any relief. Delisle argues that the PSLF program should be eliminated because it encourages graduate students to maximize their debt load, since the larger amount will be forgiven after 10 years. It’s easy for him to ignore the dire consequences for those who get the reality check that they don’t qualify after they have made their regular payments and then face decades of additional payments when they thought they might be able to buy a house or start a family.

As of July this year, the interest rates for Direct Loans increased to 7 percent for graduate students, and 4.45 percent for undergraduates. Trump’s budget proposal includes a provision to eliminate entirely the federal Subsidized Stafford Loan, which has traditionally allowed students to defer payment while enrolled in a college or university, and had a somewhat lower interest rate upon graduation. Another provision proposed in the House version of the next budget would require that all tuition waived, either through a federal program, employer benefit or university tuition waiver, be counted as taxable income.

The overwhelming burden of student debt for borrowers at all levels is becoming worse every year. This past spring, total student loan debt surpassed $1.45 trillion, about $620 billion more than all US credit card debt. Among the 44 million borrowers, the average monthly payment is $351. Trump is proposing to abolish subsidized federal loans and institute a single program for all federal student lending as a single income-based repayment plan at 12.5 percent of adjusted gross income. Today’s recent graduate can look forward to at least half a lifetime of penury as the cost of an undergraduate degree. And for those who can’t afford more than the interest every month, it’s a lifetime.

Currently, 11.2 percent of student loan dollars are in default and another 11 percent are in forbearance (a temporary payment suspension granted at the discretion of the lender while interest continues to accrue). According to the September 28 Washington Post, “millions of people had not made a payment on about $144 billion in federal student loans for at least nine months as of June, a 12 percent increase in defaults from a year earlier.”

Although the default rate has declined slightly from its 14.7 percent peak in fiscal year 2010, it is still well above rates prior to the 2007-2008 mortgage collapse and Wall Street crash—from 8.8 percent in 2009 and 7 percent in 2007. The total number of borrowers in default is at an all-time high, with 1.1 million new borrowers defaulting in 2016.

According to the Department of Education’s latest figures, the third quarter of 2017 saw a major increase in loans going into default for at least a second time. Thirty-thousand borrowers defaulted on $64 million. This was a jump of 7,100 unique loans in just three months. The previous record was set in the first quarter of 2016, with 24,500 borrowers re-defaulting on $57 million.

College graduates face an increasingly bleak future, despite being told that a college education is a necessity to get a “decent” job today. As has been widely reported, Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 are more likely to be living with their parents, rather than a spouse or partner. Employer-paid health care and pension plans are a relic of the past, forcing millions of college graduates to foot the bill for thousands of dollars in expenses in addition to the student loans. The average net worth of the 2016 college graduate is a negative $33,984.

This crushing debt provides fertile hunting grounds for rapacious debt collectors. For the fiscal quarter ending in March 2017, more than $2 billion had been “successfully” recouped for the lenders by 30 national collection agencies. Of this, $182 million was the result of wage garnishment. It should come as no surprise that feelings of despair and suicidal thoughts are so prevalent today.

As the teacher interviewed by Rolling Stone explained, the debt collectors “called day and night.” Calculating his “rehabilitated” debt at over $100,000, he said, “Not one dollar goes toward principal. I will never be able to pay it off. My only hope to escape from this crushing debt is to die.”

Significantly, a recent report by Experian, the consumer credit reporting agency, notes that of the generation of borrowers now making payments, aside from students currently enrolled and thus just beginning to accrue loans, millennials have the highest percentage of past due amounts on loans in repayment (not deferred). Millennials also have the highest number of loans, 4.4 on average. This is also the generation that indicated, by a majority (51 percent) in a recent poll, that they would rather live in a socialist or communist society than under capitalism.

The legacy of Obamacare: A five percent increase in heart patient deaths

15 November 2017

When one individual inflicts bodily injury upon another such that death results, we call the deed manslaughter; when the assailant knew in advance that the injury would be fatal, we call his deed murder. But when society places hundreds of proletarians in such a position that they inevitably meet a too early and an unnatural death, one which is quite as much a death by violence as that by the sword or bullet  murder it remains. (Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England, 1845)

* * *

A US government program supposedly devised both to improve medical care and cut costs has, predictably, succeeded in the latter while undermining the former. Research published Sunday in JAMA Cardiology (Journal of the American Medical Association) shows that an initiative introduced five years ago under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) to induce hospitals to reduce Medicare readmissions for heart patients has resulted in an increase in mortality rates among those studied.

Under the ACA’s Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program (HRRP), hospitals were penalized financially when heart failure patients were readmitted within a month. While the program has succeeded in reducing the number of 30-day readmissions, the number of patients who died within a year rose by 5 percentage points. According to one of the study’s senior authors, these findings could account for an additional 5,000 to 10,000 deaths annually across the US due directly to the program.

For the American ruling elite, HRRP and other schemes devised by bureaucrats at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) are part of an agenda that is as deliberate as it is ruthless: Men and women in the US are living too long into old age and measures must be taken to cut costs associated with their medical care and shorten their life expectancy. This is the deadly price that must be paid to prop up a society that is one of the most socially unequal both in terms of income and the delivery of health care.

The statistics do not lie. Study researchers analyzed 115,245 patients at 416 hospitals in the American Heart Association’s Get With the Guidelines-Heart Failure registry from January 2006 to December 2014. They examined readmission and death rates before and after the program began in 2012.

* Readmission rates within one month fell from 20 percent before HRRP penalties to 18.4 percent after HRRP (down 1.6 percent). Mortality rates, however, rose by almost the same rate, from 7.2 percent before HRRP to 8.6 percent after (up 1.4 percent).

* Statistics for readmission and mortality within one year were even more damning. Readmission within one year fell by only about 1 percent, from 57.2 percent before HRRP to 56.3 percent after. But the mortality rate within one year rose from 31.3 percent before HRRP to 36.3 percent after—a shocking 5 percent increase. These figures show that there is a direct correlation between implementation of the Obamacare policy and preventable deaths.

HRRP penalizes hospitals up to 3 percent of every Medicare dollar for “excessive” repeat hospital stays. That is 15 times more than the 0.2 percent penalty levied against hospitals with high mortality rates. In other words, while hospitals with higher rates of mortality face a minimal fine, hospitals are being substantially penalized for failure to comply with a program that is resulting in increased deaths.

Compounding the misery, financial penalties from HRRP have been shown to fall disproportionately on academic medical centers and “safety-net” hospitals where “higher readmission rates are associated with the higher case-mix complexity and lower socioeconomic status,” according to the study, i.e., those treating poorer and sicker patients. In such settings, hospitals are incentivized to “game” the system by delaying admissions, increasing observation stays or shifting inpatient-type care to emergency departments, to the detriment of patient welfare.

The US mortality rate rose in 2015 in the first year-over-year increase since 2005, with life expectancy falling between 2014 and 2015 from 85.8 years to 85.6 years for men, and from 87.8 years to 87.6 years for women. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this decline was due to an increase in eight of the 10 leading causes of death in the US, including heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease and suicide.

With heart disease rising, there is no other way to interpret the penalties imposed by the ACA for early readmission of heart patients than a deliberate effort to see more men and women die. US corporations are already reaping a grim dividend from this downward trend, with at least 12 major corporations reporting this summer that they have reduced their estimates for how much they could owe in pension and other retirement obligations by a combined $9.7 billion due to shorter life spans.

It is fitting that the health care overhaul known as Obamacare was the instigator of HRRP, an irrefutable demonstration that the ACA was the first major volley in the bipartisan drive to restrict access to affordable health care and sharply reduce the length of workers’ lives.

As the World Socialist Web Site explained as early at 2009, the Obama administration’s health care “reform” established a framework for the insurers, the corporations and the government to drastically reduce the health benefits available to low- and middle-income individuals and families. The aim is to limit the amount that the government must pay out for health care and Social Security payments, as well as what corporations must pay in pensions and other retirement benefits.

Health care in the Obamacare era has nothing in common with quality, near-universal health care, as Obama initially pledged. It is based entirely on the for-profit health care system in America, including the insurance companies, giant hospitals, health care chains and pharmaceutical companies. Any repeal of the ACA—and its replacement with “Trumpcare” or any other legislation—will maintain the class-based delivery of health care and undoubtedly worsen it for the majority of Americans.

The empirical proof provided by research published in JAMA Cardiology that an ACA program has predictably caused increased deaths should serve as a stark warning to the working class. This Obamacare program is of a piece with the bipartisan attack on jobs and living standards, the attack on immigrants and democratic rights, and the drive to war.

This assault will inevitably provoke enormous social opposition among workers and young people. This opposition must be channeled into the fight for a progressive overhaul of the health care system that takes as its starting point an end to privately owned health care corporations and medicine-for-profit and the establishment of socialized medicine, democratically administered by a workers’ government, providing free, high-quality health care for all.

Kate Randall

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/11/15/pers-n15.html

Genetic study demonstrates that racial classification by skin color has no scientific basis

By Philip Guelpa
9 November 2017

A new study, published in the journal Science (“Loci associated with skin pigmentation identified in African populations,” 12 October 2017), elucidates the genetic mechanisms controlling human skin color and demonstrates that racial conceptions regarding skin color and its supposed marking of distinct groupings of human beings have no scientific foundation.

The traditional view has been that early humans had dark skin as an evolutionary adaptation to protect themselves from the dangerous ultraviolet radiation of the harsh African sun. As humans spread to other continents and higher latitudes, where solar input was less intense, lighter skin developed to permit greater production of vitamin D, an essential nutrient, which is produced in the skin using sunlight. However, the actual geographic distribution of populations with varying skin tones does not neatly fit this simple scenario. The new research, while not denying this mechanism, reveals a much more complicated picture.

Until recently, while the basic factor leading to variation in skin tone due to differing concentrations and kinds of the pigment melanin was known, there was very little understanding of the biological basis of how an individual’s skin color was determined, and most of that was based on studies of European populations, providing only a very narrow view of the total range of variation. As the birthplace of humanity, Africa has the most diverse human gene pool (populations there having had the longest time for genetic variation to develop) and is, therefore, likely to provide useful data on genetic variation, including that influencing skin color.

The data used in the new research, conducted by a team of nearly 50 co-authors from more than a dozen different institutions in the US and several African countries, was derived from a study of 2,092 volunteers in Tanzania, Ethiopia and Botswana, of diverse ethnic and genetic backgrounds. Their skin color was measured and the genomes of 1,570 people were analyzed in detail. This resulted in the identification of six genetic regions (genes) that are, in combination, significantly associated with determination of an individual’s skin color, collectively accounting for 29 percent of the observed variation. Each of the gene loci has variants (alleles) associated with different skin tones, ranging from relatively lighter to darker. The results were then compared with existing genetic data from West African, Eurasian, and Australo-Melanesian populations.

The fact that 71 percent of the variation is unaccounted for by the genes identified so far strongly suggests that the genetic determination of skin color is even more complicated than the current research has disclosed. Significantly, most of the variants, for both light and dark skin, were found to have originated in Africa. It is also important to note that the identified genes are located on several different chromosomes, indicating that their transmission is not closely linked in reproduction.

The actions of the various genes were tested by introducing them into lab mice and zebrafish, and observing the results.

The finding that skin color is controlled by multiple genes, each with a range of variants, demonstrates conclusively that any individual’s coloration is the result of a complex mix of multiple factors, dialectically interacting with each other. Each person’s exterior appearance (phenotype) is the expression of a balance resulting from the combination of this genetic color palate (genotype). Furthermore, this may not simply be an additive process. As with so many other biological characteristics, some gene variants, singly or in combination, may be dominant in their expression over others, known as recessive, making the outcome even more complex.

In addition to clarifying the genetic mechanisms controlling skin color, the analysis also provides insights into the evolutionary history of these mechanisms. According to the study, at least some of the variants are quite old, having evolved hundreds of thousands of years ago. With regard to variants associated with lighter skin color, seven are at least 270,000 years old and four are over 900,000 years old. One of the latter is found both in Europeans and San hunter-gathers of Botswana.

Among the significant implications of this finding is that these variants either coincide with or substantially predate the appearance of modern humans, which occurred 200,000 to 300,000 years ago. In other words, a complex variation in skin color has been part of human evolution for a very long time.

Another finding is that at least some skin color genes have changed significantly over time. Three of the variants that produce the darkest skin appear to have evolved from lighter color versions. Another variant, which originated relatively recently among people in Europe and the Middle East, has spread into Africa, possibly in association with migrations of early agriculturalists.

It is likely that the wide range of skin color variation originally evolved as small early human populations adapted to a myriad of local environments, influenced by many different selective factors. Subsequent population movements, spanning hundreds of thousands of years, including interbreeding between modern humans, Neanderthals and perhaps other local populations, mixed and remixed the genetic pool, creating an array of physical characters that often were only partly reflective of the environmental settings where they wound up.

As one of the study’s authors, Sarah Tishkoff, points out, chimpanzees, our closest living evolutionary relatives, are light-skinned below their body hair. So, it is likely that early hominins were similarly light-colored and that darker skin developed later, once they moved from forested areas onto the savannah.

The multiplicity of genetic controls over skin color means that there are no fixed categories based on this essentially superficial characteristic. The myriad array of skin tones that currently exists across the globe merely reflects a moment in the constantly changing variation that has typified human evolution over millions of years.

As with numerous other scientific studies, this latest research confirms, yet again, that the concept of race among humans is a social construct without any objective biological basis. Those who view skin color as a marker of distinct racial groupings, associated with other characteristics such as intelligence, choose, consciously or unconsciously, to ignore the vast range of variation that exists among contemporary humans. The study published in Sciencedemonstrates forcefully that the genetic control over the color of a person’s skin is extremely complex and, therefore, not susceptible to simplistic classification.

That is not to say, however, that racism has no objective basis, although it is social and not biological. In capitalist society, racial, ethnic, religious, and linguistic distinctions have been and continue to be a weapon in the hands of the ruling class to keep workers divided in the face of class-based oppression.

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/11/09/skin-n09.html

Survivors of Northern California fires face new ordeal of recovery

By Therese Leclerc
6 November 2017

The fires are out in Northern California. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has announced that all the wildfires that have ravaged the counties of Napa, Lake, Sonoma, Mendocino, Butte and Solano, north of San Francisco, since October 9 have been completely contained.

At the height of the blaze, 42 residents lost their lives as 10,000 firefighters, many of them volunteers, worked shifts of up to four days straight to battle the infernos. Crews were mobilized from throughout the state. Others came in from neighboring Nevada and Oregon and from as far away as Canada, Mexico and Australia.

With the extinguishing of the flames, however, the ordeal for the survivors has entered a new stage.

The fires are the most severe California has ever faced. Some 15,000 homes and 3,000 vehicles were destroyed or damaged.

Figures released by the state insurance commissioner’s office last week put the damage at over $3 billion. That figure is certain to rise.

For the first time, this year’s fires, driven by up-to-50-mph winds, engulfed urban areas, such as the city of Santa Rosa, where the Coffey Park neighborhood was reduced to ashes after the flames jumped six lanes of Highway 101.

Homeowners and renters, still in makeshift accommodation, are currently tackling the onerous task of cleaning up, attempting to retrieve any of their belongings that may have survived and applying for insurance and what federal assistance is available.

California has declared a public health emergency in the fire area. Mobile homes that were incinerated in Santa Rosa were found to have contained asbestos. Freon from air conditioners and heavy metals such as arsenic, copper and lead pose health risks throughout the area as well.

Recent rain—and the rainfall to come with the approach of winter—risks carrying the hazardous waste down into waterways, and even into water treatment plants, downstream of destroyed forests and charred neighborhoods.

Some homes have been designated toxic waste sites, further complicating the job for residents trying to salvage belongings.

There are residents who face even more obstacles to regaining their homes and jobs. These are the undocumented workers, who form the core workforce of the main industries in the region—hospitality, tourism and the wineries. It is estimated that some 28,000 undocumented adults and children lived in the region worst affected by the flames.

These workers do not qualify for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) aid. One of the many details required on the FEMA application forms is a social security number, denied to these residents, some of whom have lived in the area for up to 18 years. Children of these families who are American citizens do qualify for federal aid, but there is a fear that if the family seeks aid, other family members will be detained and deported.

This fear also kept many out of the shelters set up for residents who lost their homes or were ordered to evacuate endangered areas. Members of the National Guard were stationed at the shelters.

In the days following the outbreak of the fires, dozens of these families slept in cars and on beaches along the California coast.

Officials have said it will take years for the region to recover, socially and economically. Judging by the experience of residents in the wake of other recent disasters in the United States and its territories, that may be an understatement.

In Houston, recently flooded after the passage of Hurricane Harvey, the disaster is worsening the level of social inequality in the region.

NBC reported on October 23 that the poor in the Houston area are likely to fall further into poverty and homelessness while the wealthy are moving ahead with rebuilding.

Those who have been receiving temporary assistance from FEMA over the last two months now find themselves struggling to regain a foothold in their lives.

“Displaced renters have found themselves reliant on the whims of landlords or the generosity of friends,” the NBC report stated. “Homeowners without flood insurance are in a similar bind, while those who have it are waiting for their claims to go through. Some are maxing out their credit cards, or moving back into damaged houses.

“In some prosperous neighborhoods,” the report added, “certain homeowners aren’t bothering to wait for their insurance checks—if they had flood insurance at all—and are paying their contractors up front.”

An even more extreme situation exists in Puerto Rico, devastated by Hurricane Maria in late September. Most residents have been told they will be without power until January or February, with some of those in the outlying areas having to wait until spring or summer, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.

The hardship experienced by people in these situations can become permanent. In New Orleans, flooded in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, residents were temporarily removed to neighboring states, far from their homes and jobs. Twelve years later, many are still displaced. While some have managed to start again in their new location, those who would prefer to return face expenses most people cannot meet. There is a lack of affordable housing in the city and new safety standards for elevating homes. Some people will never be able to return.

In Northern California, those who manage to overcome all the obstacles to rebuilding may encounter a further problem: insurance rate hikes.

In a press conference on Tuesday, state insurance commissioner Dave Jones warned that in the wake of the disaster insurers were likely to reevaluate the risk that wildfires pose to structures previously considered low-risk to such threats.

“I am concerned the fire we just experienced is not an anomaly and may represent a new normal,” Jones said.

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/11/06/cali-n06.html

Chomsky: Imagine a World Without Neoliberals Privatizing Everything in Sight

NEWS & POLITICS
A proposal for a progressive social and economic order for the United States.

Noam Chomsky.
Photo Credit: screenshot via Democracy Now!

This is the first part of a wide-ranging interview with world-renowned public intellectuals Noam Chomsky and Robert Pollin. The next installment will appear on October 24.

Not long after taking office, it became evident that Donald Trump had engaged in fraudulent populism during his campaign. His promise to “Make America Great Again” has been exposed as a lie, as the Trump administration has been busy extending US military power, exacerbating inequality, reverting to the old era of unregulated banking practices, pushing for more fuel fossil drilling and stripping environmental regulations.

In the Trump era, what would an authentically populist, progressive political agenda look like? What would a progressive US look like with regard to jobs, the environment, finance capital and the standard of living? What would it look like in terms of education and health care, justice and equality? In an exclusive interview with C.J. Polychroniou for Truthout, world-renowned public intellectuals Noam Chomsky and Robert Pollin tackle these issues. Noam Chomsky is professor emeritus of linguistics at MIT and laureate professor in the department of linguistics at the University of Arizona. Robert Pollin is distinguished professor of economics and co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Their views lay the foundation for a visionary — yet eminently realistic — progressive social and economic order for the United States.

C.J. Polychroniou: Noam, the rise of Donald Trump has unleashed a rather unprecedented wave of social resistance in the US. Do you think the conditions are ripe for a mass progressive/socialist movement in this country that can begin to reframe the major policy issues affecting the majority of people, and perhaps even challenge and potentially change the fundamental structures of the US political economy?

Noam Chomsky: There is indeed a wave of social resistance, more significant than in the recent past — though I’d hesitate about calling it “unprecedented.” Nevertheless, we cannot overlook the fact that in the domain of policy formation and implementation, the right is ascendant, in fact some of its harshest and most destructive elements [are rising].

Nor should we overlook a crucial fact that has been evident for some time: The figure in charge, though often ridiculed, has succeeded brilliantly in his goal of occupying media and public attention while mobilizing a very loyal popular base — and one with sinister features, sometimes smacking of totalitarianism, including adoration of The Leader. That goes beyond the core of loyal Trump supporters…. [A majority of Republicans] favor shutting down or at least fining the press if it presents “biased” or “false news” — terms that mean information rejected by The Leader, so we learn from polls showing that by overwhelming margins, Republicans not only believe Trump far more than the hated mainstream media, but even far more than their own media organ, the extreme right Fox news. And half of Republicans would back postponing the 2020 election if Trump calls for it.

It is also worth bearing in mind that among a significant part of his worshipful base, Trump is regarded as a “wavering moderate” who cannot be fully trusted to hold fast to the true faith of fierce White Christian identity politics. A recent illustration is the primary victory of the incredible Roy Moore in Alabama despite Trump’s opposition. (“Mr. President, I love you but you are wrong,” as the banners read). The victory of this Bible-thumping fanatic has led senior party strategists to [conclude] “that the conservative base now loathes its leaders in Washington the same way it detested President Barack Obama” — referring to leaders who are already so far right that one needs a powerful telescope to locate them at the outer fringe of any tolerable political spectrum.

The potential power of the ultra-right attack on the far right is [illustrated] by the fact that Moore spent about $200,000, in contrast to his Trump-backed opponent, the merely far-right Luther Strange, who received more than $10 million from the national GOP and other far-right sources. The ultra-right is spearheaded by Steve Bannon, one of the most dangerous figures in the shiver-inducing array that has come to the fore in recent years. It has the huge financial support of the Mercer family, along with ample media outreach through Breitbart news, talk radio and the rest of the toxic bubble in which loyalists trap themselves.

In the most powerful state in history, the current Republican Party is ominous enough. What is not far on the horizon is even more menacing.

Much has been said about how Trump has pulled the cork out of the bottle and legitimized neo-Nazism, rabid white supremacy, misogyny and other pathologies that had been festering beneath the surface. But it goes much beyond even that.

I do not want to suggest that adoration of the Dear Leader is something new in American politics, or confined to the vulgar masses. The veneration of Reagan that has been diligently fostered has some of the same character, in intellectual circles as well. Thus, in publications of the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University, we learn that Reagan’s “spirit seems to stride the country, watching us like a warm and friendly ghost.” Lucky us, protected from harm by a demi-god.

Whether by design, or simply inertia, the Republican wrecking ball has been following a two-level strategy. Trump keeps the spotlight on himself with one act after another, assuming (correctly) that yesterday’s antics will be swept aside by today’s. And at the same time, often beneath the radar, the “respectable” Republican establishment chips away at government programs that might be of benefit to the general population, but not to their constituency of extreme wealth and corporate power. They are systematically pursuing what Financial Times economic correspondent Martin Wolf calls “pluto-populism,” a doctrine that imposes “policies that benefit plutocrats, justified by populist rhetoric.” An amalgam that has registered unpleasant successes in the past as well.

Meanwhile, the Democrats and centrist media help out by focusing their energy and attention on whether someone in the Trump team talked to Russians, or [whether] the Russians tried to influence our “pristine” elections — though at most in a way that is undetectable in comparison with the impact of campaign funding, let alone other inducements that are the prerogative of extreme wealth and corporate power and are hardly without impact.

The Russian saboteurs of democracy seem to be everywhere. There was great anxiety about Russian intervention in the recent German elections, perhaps contributing to the frightening surge of support for the right-wing nationalist, if not neo-fascist, “Alternative for Germany” [AfD]. AfD did indeed have outside help, it turns out, but not from the insidious Putin. “The Russian meddling that German state security had been anticipating apparently never materialized,” according to Bloomberg News. “Instead, the foreign influence came from America.” More specifically, from Harris Media, whose clients include Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France, Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, and our own Donald Trump. With the valuable assistance of the Berlin office of Facebook, which created a population model and provided the needed data, Harris’s experts micro-targeted Germans in categories deemed susceptible to AfD’s message — with some success, it appears. The firm is now planning to move on to coming European races, it has announced.

Nevertheless, all is not bleak by any means. The most spectacular feature of the 2016 elections was not the election of a billionaire who spent almost as much as his lavishly-funded opponent and enjoyed fervent media backing. Far more striking was the remarkable success of the Sanders campaign, breaking with over a century of mostly bought elections. The campaign relied on small contributions and had no media support, to put it mildly. Though lacking any of the trappings that yield electoral success in our semi-plutocracy, Sanders probably would have won the Democratic Party nomination, perhaps the presidency, if it hadn’t been for the machinations of party managers. His popularity undimmed, he is now a leading voice for progressive measures and is amassing considerable support for his moderate social democratic proposals, reminiscent of the New Deal — proposals that would not have surprised President Eisenhower, but are considered practically revolutionary today as both parties have shifted well to the right [with] Republicans virtually off the spectrum of normal parliamentary politics.

Offshoots of the Sanders campaign are doing valuable work on many issues, including electoral politics at the local and state level, which had been pretty much abandoned to the Republican right, particularly during the Obama years, to very harmful effect. There is also extensive and effective mobilization against racist and white supremacist pathologies, often spearheaded by the dynamic Black Lives Matter movement. Defying Trumpian and general Republican denialism, a powerful popular environmental movement is working hard to address the existential crisis of global warming. These, along with significant efforts on other fronts, face very difficult barriers, which can and must be overcome.

Bob, it is clear by now that Trump has no plan for creating new jobs, and even his reckless stance toward the environment will have no effect on the creation of new jobs. What would a progressive policy for job creation look like that will also take into account concerns about the environment and climate change?

Robert Pollin: A centerpiece for any kind of progressive social and economic program needs to be full employment with decent wages and working conditions. The reasons are straightforward, starting with money. Does someone in your family have a job and, if so, how much does it pay? For the overwhelming majority of the world’s population, how one answers these two questions determines, more than anything else, what one’s living standard will be. But beyond just money, your job is also crucial for establishing your sense of security and self-worth, your health and safety, your ability to raise a family, and your chances to participate in the life of your community.

How do we get to full employment, and how do we stay there? For any economy, there are two basic factors determining how many jobs are available at any given time. The first is the overall level of activity — with GDP as a rough, if inadequate measure of overall activity — and the second is what share of GDP goes to hiring people into jobs. In terms of our current situation, after the Great Recession hit in full in 2008, US GDP has grown at an anemic average rate of 1.3 percent per year, as opposed to the historic average rate from 1950 until 2007 of 3.3 percent. If the economy had grown over the past decade at something even approaching the historic average rate, the economy would have produced more than enough jobs to employ all 13 million people who are currently either unemployed or underemployed by the official government statistics, plus the nearly 9 million people who have dropped out of the labor force since 2007.

In terms of focusing on activities where job creation is strong, let’s consider two important sets of economic sectors. First, spending $1 million on education will generate a total of about 26 jobs within the US economy, more than double the 11 jobs that would be created by spending the same $1 million on the US military. Similarly, spending $1 million on investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency will create over 16 jobs within the US, while spending the same $1 million on our existing fossil fuel infrastructure will generate about 5.3 jobs — i.e. building a green economy in the US generates roughly three times more jobs per dollar than maintaining our fossil fuel dependency. So full employment policies should focus on accelerating economic growth and on changing our priorities for growth — as two critical examples, to expand educational opportunities across the board and to build a green economy, while contracting both the military and the fossil fuel economy.

A full employment program also obviously needs to focus on the conditions of work, starting with wages. The most straightforward measure of what neoliberal capitalism has meant for the US working class is that the average wage for non-supervisory workers in 2016 was about 4 percent lower than in 1973. This is while average labor productivity — the amount each worker produces over the course of a year — has more than doubled over this same 43-year period. All of the gains from productivity doubling under neoliberalism have therefore been pocketed by either supervisory workers, or even more so, by business owners and corporate shareholders seeing their profits rise. The only solution here is to fight to increase worker bargaining power. We need stronger unions and worker protections, including a $15 federal minimum wage. Such initiatives need to be combined with policies to expand the overall number of job opportunities out there. A fundamental premise of neoliberalism from day one has been to dismantle labor protections. We are seeing an especially aggressive variant of this approach today under the so-called “centrist” policies of the new French President Emmanuel Macron.

What about climate change and jobs? A view that has long been touted, most vociferously by Trump over the last two years, is that policies to protect the environment and to fight climate change are bad for jobs and therefore need to be junked. But this claim is simply false. In fact, as the evidence I have cited above shows, building a green economy is good for jobs overall, much better than maintaining our existing fossil-fuel based energy infrastructure, which also happens to be the single most significant force driving the planet toward ecological disaster.

It is true that building a green economy will not be good for everyone’s jobs. Notably, people working in the fossil fuel industry will face major job losses. The communities in which these jobs are concentrated will also face significant losses. But the solution here is straightforward: Just Transition policies for the workers, families and communities who will be hurt as the coal, oil and natural gas industries necessarily contract to zero over roughly the next 30 years. Working with Jeannette Wicks-Lim, Heidi Garrett-Peltier and Brian Callaci at [the Political Economy Research Institute], and in conjunction with labor, environmental and community groups in both the states of New York and Washington, we have developed what I think are quite reasonable and workable Just Transition programs. They include solid pension protections, re-employment guarantees, as well as retraining and relocation support for individual workers, and community-support initiatives for impacted communities.

The single most important factor that makes all such initiatives workable is that the total number of affected workers is relatively small. For example, in the whole United States today, there are a total of about 65,000 people employed directly in the coal industry. This represents less than 0.05 percent of the 147 million people employed in the US. Considered within the context of the overall US economy, it would only require a minimum level of commitment to provide a just transition to these workers as well as their families and communities.

Finally, I think it is important to address one of the major positions on climate stabilization that has been advanced in recent years on the left, which is to oppose economic growth altogether, or to support “de-growth.” The concerns of de-growth proponents — that economic growth under neoliberal capitalism is both grossly unjust and ecologically unsustainable — are real. But de-growth is not a viable solution. Consider a very simple example — that under a de-growth program, global GDP contracts by 10 percent. This level of GDP contraction would be five times larger than what occurred at the lowest point of the 2007-09 Great Recession, when the unemployment rate more than doubled in the United States. But even still, this 10 percent contraction in global GDP would have the effect, on its own, of reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by precisely 10 percent. At a minimum, we would still need to cut emissions by another 30 percent within 15 years, and another 80 percent within 30 years to have even a fighting chance of stabilizing the climate. As such, the only viable climate stabilization program is to invest massively in clean renewable and high energy efficiency systems so that clean energy completely supplants our existing fossil-fuel dependent system within the next 30 years, and to enact comparable transformations in agricultural production processes.

The “masters of the universe” have made a huge comeback since the last financial crisis, and while Trump’s big-capital-friendly policies are going to make the rich get richer, they could also spark the next financial crisis. So, Bob, what type of progressive policies can and should be enforced to contain the destructive tendencies of finance capital?

Pollin: The classic book Manias, Panics, and Crashes by the late MIT economist Charles Kindleberger makes clear that, throughout the history of capitalism, unregulated financial markets have persistently produced instability and crises. The only deviation from this long-term pattern occurred in the first 30 years after World War II, roughly from 1946-1975. The reason US and global financial markets were much more stable over this 30-year period is that the markets were heavily regulated then, through the Glass-Steagall regulatory system in the US, and the Bretton Woods system globally. These regulatory systems were enacted only in response to the disastrous Great Depression of the 1930s, which began with the 1929 Wall Street crash and which then brought global capitalism to its knees.

Of course, the big Wall Street players always hated being regulated and fought persistently, first to evade the regulations and then to dismantle them. They were largely successful through the 1980s and 1990s. But the full, official demise of the 1930s regulatory system came only in 1999, under the Democratic President Bill Clinton. At the time, virtually all leading mainstream economists — including liberals, such as Larry Summers, who was Treasury Secretary when Glass-Steagall was repealed — argued that financial regulations were an unnecessary vestige of the bygone 1930s. All kinds of fancy papers were written “demonstrating” that the big players on Wall Street are very smart people who know what’s best for themselves and everyone else — and therefore, didn’t need government regulators telling them what they could or could not do. It then took less than eight years for hyper-speculation on Wall Street to once again bring global capitalism to its knees. The only thing that saved capitalism in 2008-09 from a repeat of the 1930s Great Depression was the unprecedented government interventions to prop up the system, and the equally massive bail out of Wall Street.

By 2010, the US Congress and President Obama enacted a new set of financial regulations, the Dodd-Frank system. Overall, Dodd-Frank amount to a fairly weak set of measures aiming to dampen hyper-speculation on Wall Street. A large part of the problem is that Dodd-Frank included many opportunities for Wall Street players to delay enactment of laws they didn’t like and for clever lawyers to figure out ways to evade the ones on the books. That said, the Trump administration, led on economic policy matters by two former Goldman Sachs executives, is committed to dismantling Dodd-Frank altogether, and allowing Wall Street to once again operate free of any significant regulatory constraints. I have little doubt that, free of regulations, the already ongoing trend of rising speculation — with, for example, the stock market already at a historic high — will once again accelerate.

What is needed to build something like a financial system that is both stable and supports a full-employment, ecologically sustainable growth framework? A major problem over time with the old Glass-Steagall system was that there were large differences in the degree to which, for example, commercial banks, investment banks, stock brokerages, insurance companies and mortgage lenders were regulated, thereby inviting clever financial engineers to invent ways to exploit these differences. An effective regulatory system today should therefore be guided by a few basic premises that can be applied flexibly but also universally. The regulations need to apply across the board, regardless of whether you call your business a bank, an insurance company, a hedge fund, a private equity fund, a vulture fund, or some other term that most of us haven’t yet heard about.

One measure for promoting both stability and fairness across financial market segments is a small sales tax on all financial transactions — what has come to be known as a Robin Hood Tax. This tax would raise the costs of short-term speculative trading and therefore discourage speculation. At the same time, the tax will not discourage “patient” investors who intend to hold their assets for longer time periods, since, unlike the speculators, they will be trading infrequently. A bill called the Inclusive Prosperity Act was first introduced into the House of Representatives by Rep. Keith Ellison in 2012 and then in the Senate by Bernie Sanders in 2015, [and] is exactly the type of measure that is needed here.

Another important initiative would be to implement what are called asset-based reserve requirements. These are regulations that require financial institutions to maintain a supply of cash as a reserve fund in proportion to the other, riskier assets they hold in their portfolios. Such requirements can serve both to discourage financial market investors from holding an excessive amount of risky assets, and as a cash cushion for the investors to draw upon when market downturns occur.

This policy instrument can also be used to push financial institutions to channel credit to projects that advance social welfare, for example, promoting investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency. The policy could stipulate that, say, at least 5 percent of banks’ loan portfolios should be channeled to into clean-energy investments. If the banks fail to reach this 5 percent quota of loans for clean energy, they would then be required to hold this same amount of their total assets in cash.

Finally, both in the US and throughout the world, there needs to be a growing presence of public development banks. These banks would make loans based on social welfare criteria — including advancing a full-employment, climate-stabilization agenda — as opposed to scouring the globe for the largest profit opportunities regardless of social costs…. Public development banks have always played a central role in supporting the successful economic development paths in the East Asian economies.

Editor’s note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Copyright, Truthout. Reprinted with permission.

 

 

C.J. Polychroniou is a regular contributor to Truthout as well as a member of Truthout’s Public Intellectual Project. He is the author of several books, and his articles have appeared in a variety of publications.

https://www.alternet.org/news-amp-politics/chomsky-imagine-world-without-neoliberals-privatizing-everything-sight?akid=16283.265072.yNcENf&rd=1&src=newsletter1084478&t=6