Thom Hartmann: The America I Knew Has Almost Disappeared

HUMAN RIGHTS
What’s left of our democratic institutions are under siege.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com / kasha_malasha

Like an alcoholic family that won’t discuss alcoholism (proving Don Quixote’s warning never to mention rope in the home of a man who’s been hanged), far too many Americans are unwilling to acknowledge or even discuss the ongoing collapse of democracy in the United States.

President Jimmy Carter took it head on when he told me on my radio program that the Citizen’s United decision:

“[V]iolates the essence of what made America a great country in its political system. Now it’s just an oligarchy, with unlimited political bribery being the essence of getting the nominations for president or to elect the president. And the same thing applies to governors and U.S. senators and congress members. So now we’ve just seen a complete subversion of our political system as a payoff to major contributors, who want and expect and sometimes get favors for themselves after the election’s over.”

This “complete subversion of our political system” grew, in large part, out of Richard Nixon’s 1972 appointment of Lewis Powell to the Supreme Court.  Powell, in 1971, had authored the infamous Powell Memo to the US Chamber of Commerce, strongly suggesting that corporate leaders needed to get politically involved and, essentially, take over everything from academia to our court system to our political system.

In 1976, in the Buckley case, Powell began the final destruction of American democracy by declaring that when rich people or corporations own politicians, all that money that got transferred to the politicians wasn’t bribery but, instead, was Constitutionally-protected First Amendment-defined “Free Speech.”  The Court radically expanded that in 2010 with Citizens United.

As a result, there’s really very little democracy left in our democracy.  Our votes are handled in secret by private, unaccountable for-profit corporations.  Our laws are written, more often than not, by corporate lawyers/lobbyists or representatives of billionaire-level wealth.  And our media is owned by the same class of investors/stockholders, so it’s a stretch to expect them to do much critical reporting on the situation.

In his book The Decline of the West, first published in German in 1918 and then in English in 1926, Oswald Spengler suggested that what we call Western civilization was then beginning to enter a “hardening” or “classical” phase in which all the nurturing and supportive structures of culture would become, instead, instruments of the exploitation of a growing peasant class to feed the wealth of a new and strengthening aristocracy.

Culture would become a parody of itself, average people’s expectations would decline while their wants would grow, and a new peasantry would emerge, which would cause the culture to stabilize in a “classic form” that, while Spengler doesn’t use the term, seems very much like feudalism—the medieval system in which the lord owned the land and everyone else was a vassal (a tenant who owed loyalty to the landlord).

Or its more modern incarnation: fascism.

Spengler, considering himself an aristocrat, didn’t see this as a bad thing. In 1926 he prophesied that once the boom of the Roaring Twenties was over, a great bust would wash over the Western world. While this bust had the potential to create chaos, its most likely outcome would be a return to the classic, stable form of social organization, what Spengler calls “high culture” and I call neofeudalism and/or fascism.

He wrote:

In all high Cultures, therefore, there is a peasantry, which is breed stock, in the broad sense (and thus to a certain extent nature herself), and a society which is assertively and emphatically “in form.” It is a set of classes or Estates, and no doubt artificial and transitory. But the history of these classes and estates is world history at highest potential.

Twentieth and 21st century cultural observers, ranging from billionaire George Soros in his book The Crisis of Global Capitalism, to professor Noreena Hertz in The Silent Takeover: Global Capitalism and the Death of Democracy, have pointed to deep cracks in the foundational structure of Western civilization, traceable in part to the current legal status of corporations versus humans.

Most recently, Jane Mayer has laid out in painful detail how the Koch Network and a few other political-minded billionaires have essentially taken over the entire Republican Party in her book Dark Money as has Nancy MacLean with her new book Democracy in Chains.  The extent of the problems within our political and economic structures are laid bare with startling and sometimes frightening clarity.

As a result, Princeton scholars Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page famously foundthat the odds of average Americans’ political desires being translated into policy are about the same as random noise, whereas what they referred to as “economic elites” frequently get everything they want from the political class.

They wrote that we still have the “features” of democracy like elections, but ended their paper with this cautionary note: “[W]e believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.”

It seems that America has arrived at the point Spengler saw in early 20th century Europe, and, indeed, there are some concerning parallels, particularly with the late 1920s and early 1930s.  Italy, Germany, and Spain all lost their democracies and moved to fascism, while many of Spengler’s acolytes cheered.

And, indeed, it was one of FDR’s biggest challenges in the early 1930s – steering America through a “middle course” between communism (which was then growingly popular) and fascism (also growingly popular).  He pulled it off with small (compared to Europe) nods to democratic socialism, instituting programs like Social Security, the minimum wage, and establishing the right to unionize (among other things).

Mark Twain is often quoted as saying that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.  Many look at the all-out war being waged against American government right now by the hard right, from Trump and his cronies to the billionaire networks funding right-wing propaganda and lobbying outlets, and think “it can’t happen here.”

They’re wrong.  It can happen here.

We now have police intervening in electionsprivatized corporate votingsystems, and a massive voter suppression campaign to prevent elderly, young, and non-white Americans from being able to vote.

Meanwhile, as Lee Fong reported, Republican politicians and the billionaires who own them are now dropping any pretense at all to caring about the fate and future of our country’s fiscal health, so long as they get their tax cuts NOW.

In summary, what’s left of our democratic institutions are under siege.

Add to that a largely billionaire-funded/owned right-wing media machine that’s willing to regularly and openly deceive American voters (documented daily by Media Matters and Newshounds), and you have the perfect setup for a neofeudalist/fascist takeover of our government.

Or, as President Carter so correctly called it, oligarchy.

 

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Following Trump executive orders, Democrats offer Obamacare “fix”

A new stage in the bipartisan health care counterrevolution

14 October 2017

The last 10 days have marked an escalation of the bipartisan conspiracy against the health care rights of working class Americans. After Congressional Republicans’ numerous failed attempts in recent months to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the Trump administration has issued a series of executive orders aimed at undercutting the legislation popularly known as Obamacare.

The president’s first order expanded exemptions for employers who claim moral or religious objections from requirements under the ACA to provide their workers with no-cost birth control.

Next, Trump finalized an executive order to allow “association health plans” an exemption from the ACA’s requirements to provide 10 essential services in their insurance coverage.

Finally, the administration announced that, beginning next Wednesday, it would be scrapping cost-sharing reduction payments (CSRs) to private insurers that help low-income Americans purchase health coverage.

Trump made clear that he is seeking to reach out to congressional Democrats to make a deal on health care “reform,” that is, changes to Obamacare to further reduce health care coverage. In a post on Twitter Friday morning, he said, “The Democrats[’] ObamaCare is imploding. Massive subsidy payments to their pet insurance companies has stopped. Dems should call me to fix!” He went on to call the law “a broken mess.”

All of Trump’s orders will have the effect of raising insurance premiums, particularly for older, poorer and unhealthy people, and denying access to basic medical services for millions. But this is not what concerns the Democrats in Congress.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer issued a demagogic statement Friday night scolding Trump for stopping the CSRs, stating in part: “[I]t seems President Trump will single-handedly hike Americans’ health premiums. It is a spiteful act of vast, pointless sabotage leveled at working families and the middle class in every corner of America.”

But the Democratic leaders concluded with their real point, which was to chastise the president if his actions meant he “is walking away from the good faith, bipartisan Alexander-Murray negotiations and risking the health care of millions of Americans.”

Earlier this month, following the Republicans’ failed repeal and replace attempts, Trump tweeted, “I called Chuck Schumer yesterday to see if the Dems want to do a great HealthCare Bill.” Schumer responded: “If he wants to work together to improve the existing health care system, we Democrats are open to his suggestions. A good place to start might be the Alexander-Murray negotiations that would stabilize the system and lower costs.”

Schumer is referring to the health care talks being led by Senators Lamar Alexander (Republican of Tennessee) and Patty Murray (Democrat of Washington). These bipartisan negotiations have nothing to do with expanding medical coverage to the 28 million Americans who remain uninsured, improving the already hopelessly inadequate benefits of many, or in any way reining in the profiteering and power of the insurance and pharmaceutical monopolies.

Instead, their “fixing” of Obamacare involves shoring up the insurance industry by means of various payouts. The Democrats have also agreed to a “compromise” allowing insurers to skirt the Obamacare regulations requiring insurance companies to offer a set of essential benefits by offering “skinny” plans, as well as to dodge ACA protections for individuals with preexisting conditions.

Any “compromise” between the Democrats and Republicans on health care reform is by its very nature a conspiracy against the working class. It is entirely premised on the subordination of the need for health care to the profits of the corporations and the functioning of the capitalist market.

Ohio Governor John Kasich was more transparent on what a bipartisan deal on health care would look like, stating this summer, “After two failed [Republican] attempts at reform, the next step is clear: Congress should first focus on fixing the Obamacare exchanges before it takes on Medicaid. … Once we see these repairs taking hold, Congress should then take up needed improvements to Medicaid as part of comprehensive entitlement reform.”

All of the failed Republican versions of Obamacare repeal and replace cut hundreds of billions of dollars from Medicaid, the government health insurance program for the poor, elderly, the disabled and pregnant women. They posed the virtual end of the program as a guaranteed entitlement program, by imposing block-granting and per-capita caps to the states, which would force states to deny benefits to people who qualify.

Through these measures, Medicaid would be starved of funds on the road to privatizing and ultimately dismantling the program. There have been no clear statements from leading Democrats opposing in principle the termination of Medicaid, which everyone in the political and media establishment knows is the first step to dismantling and privatizing Medicare, the government insurance program for the elderly, and Social Security, the government pension system.

The bipartisan plans to “fix” Obamacare in the interests of the insurance companies—further slashing benefits and raising premiums for working families, while cutting costs for the government and corporations—are not at odds with the spirit of Obamacare. In fact, they reflect its essence and objective: that workers are living too long into retirement, receiving costly and “unnecessary treatments,” and that something must be done to curb costs in the interest of corporate profit.

As early as 2009, the year before the ACA was signed into law, the World Socialist Web Site wrote:

“[Barack Obama’s] drive for an overhaul of the health care system, far from representing a reform designed to provide universal coverage and increased access to quality care, marks an unprecedented attack on health care for the working population. …

“Obama’s health care counterrevolution is of a piece with his entire domestic agenda. It parallels the multi-trillion-dollar bailout of the banks, the imposition of mass layoffs and wage and benefits cuts in the auto industry, and a stepped-up attack on public education and on teachers.”

The Democrats’ policies on health care reform are no alternative to Trump’s. Both will lead to untold suffering, misery and preventable deaths. The defense of basic social needs such as health care requires a fight against capitalism, which in its advanced stage of crisis is incompatible with basic democratic and social rights.

A fight in defense of health care requires a fight for socialism. The health care industry must be removed from private hands and placed under public ownership and the democratic control of the working class. This is not an unrealistic pipe dream but the only rational solution to a health care system dominated by profit and defended by an outmoded ruling elite.

Kate Randall

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/10/14/pers-o14.html

Abolish the debt that is drowning Puerto Rico

We need to organize for immediate disaster relief for Puerto Rico–but we can also expose and oppose the debt disaster that came before the hurricanes.

Families begin to rebuild after the hurricane in Patillas, Puerto Rico (Andrea Booher | Wikimedia Commons)

Families begin to rebuild after the hurricane in Patillas, Puerto Rico (Andrea Booher | Wikimedia Commons)

SOCIALIST WORKER supports President Trump in his call to cancel Puerto Rico’s punishing debt.

We can pretty much guarantee you’ll never see the first five words of that sentence here ever again–and the supervisors of the “adult day care center” at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue are obviously trying like hell to make sure we never have reason to.

But it says a lot about the Wall Street-made catastrophe that has plagued Puerto Rico for years before Hurricane Maria that even a reactionary fanatic like Trump didn’t think twice before stating the obvious.

“They owe a lot of money to your friends on Wall Street, and we’re going to have to wipe that out,” Trump said in an interview last week with Geraldo Rivera of Fox News. “I don’t know if it’s Goldman Sachs, but whoever it is, you can wave goodbye to that.”

“Wall Street promptly freaked out,” Politico reported the next day. That was an understatement. Heavy trading on the normally stable bond market pushed the value of Puerto Rico’s general obligation bonds–already devalued to 56 cents on the dollar after the island effectively declared bankruptcy earlier this year–down to 37 cents on the dollar.

The White House then “move[d] swiftly to clean up Trump’s seemingly offhand remarks,” Politico continued. Again an understatement. Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney was rushed in front of a television camera to tell CNN: “I wouldn’t take it word for word with that.”

Just to make sure Wall Street got the message that no one in the Trump administration had any intention of doing what the head of the Trump administration had just said, Mulvaney was more explicit–and more contemptuous of the Puerto Rican people–in a second interview with Bloomberg: “We are not going to bail them out. We are not going to pay off those debts.”

Anyone want to bet that Trump doesn’t talk about “saying goodbye” to Puerto Rico’s debt again?

But the simple fact is that justice demands exactly that: The cancelation of all of Puerto Rico’s debt repayments, by the action of the U.S. government, taking responsibility for the Wall Street loan sharks who inflicted the damage in the first place.

Puerto Rico is caught in the same kind of debt trap that has ensnared poor countries in hock to the International Monetary Fund and World Bank–or more advanced economies like Greece, at the hands of European bankers and bureaucrats. The aim is to force vulnerable societies to knuckle under to the will of the ruling class.

And now, the devastation of neoliberal policies has made Puerto Rico’s crisis following Hurricanes Irma and Maria much, much worse.

People who want to show solidarity with Puerto Rico today will rightly focus on ways to provide immediate relief to communities desperate for food, water and critical supplies. SW hopes its readers will raise what money they can to donate to grassroots efforts–see the What You Can Do box with this article.

But we have another job to do now, while Puerto Rico lingers in the media spotlight: expose the debt trap that made the island more vulnerable when Maria struck and demand that it end.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

IN MAY of this year, Puerto Rico’s government went to federal court to file for the equivalent of bankruptcy on a debt that includes over $74 billion in repayments on government bonds and $49 billion in pension obligations. But in return for immediate relief, Puerto Rico will have to abide by even harsher austerity dictates.

The debt burden–which is larger than the annual economic output of the island when pension obligations are added in–is one consequence of a recession that has lasted for more than a decade.

The economic slump began when Corporate America–after many years of making super-profits off operations in Puerto Rico, particularly pharmaceutical production–abandoned the island after favorable tax incentives for investment were phased out starting in the early 2000s. Annual corporate investment in Puerto Rico peaked at 20.7 percent of gross domestic product in 1999–it has fallen to under 7.9 percent as of 2016.

Successive governments–whether led by New Progressive Party, which is aligned with the U.S. Republicans, or the Popular Democratic Party, tied to the Democrats–imposed policies that were guaranteed to make the crisis worse: neoliberal austerity.

Social spending was cut drastically–reductions in the island’s education budget led to hundreds of schools being closed, for example. Public-sector workers have been under intense pressure, with tens of thousands of layoffs and attacks on their unions. Regressive taxes have been hiked, making the sales tax of 11.5 percent higher than any U.S. state.

A succession of state assets were privatized on terms guaranteed to benefit the private purchasers: Back in the 1990s, conservative Gov. Pedro Rosselló González sold off hospitals that were part of a public health care system that was once fairly accessible and affordable at around half their market value.

Austerity measures propelled the vicious circle: Continuing economic decline made shortfalls in government revenues worse, leading to more spending cuts and regressive taxes that caused further economic contraction, and on and on.

The consequences even before Hurricane Maria were dire: Official unemployment is 11.7 percent, well over double the rate in the U.S. as a whole. Just under half of people on the island live in poverty, including three in five children.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

THROUGH IT all, debt was the straitjacket to make sure Puerto Rico didn’t stray from austerity.

Faced with declining revenues as a result of the contracting economy, various branches and agencies of the Puerto Rican government issued bonds to raise money–but these came not only with the usual obligation to repay the cash with interest, but increasing pressure to intensify neoliberal measures.

The vultures of Wall Street were eager to set up the increasingly complex bond issues. They paid better than most municipal issues, and interest on income from Puerto Rico bonds is exempt from city, state and federal taxes.

But the biggest gamblers on Wall Street see more than a tax loophole in the suffering of the people of Puerto Rico. A 2015 report from the Hedgeclippers.org website paints an ugly picture:

Several groups of hedge funds have bought up large chunks of Puerto Rican debt at discounts and have also pushed the island to borrow at extremely favorable terms for creditors. Hedge fund managers are also recommending the implementation of austerity measures.

Known as “vulture funds,” these investors have followed a similar game plan in other debt crises, in countries such as Greece and Argentina. The spoils they ultimately seek are not just bond payments, but structural reforms and privatization schemes that give them extraordinary wealth and power–at the expense of everyone else.

It’s been obvious for several years that Puerto Rico’s debt burden is unpayable, but the hedge-fund vultures are counting on enforcers in the form of the U.S. government.

A law pushed through Congress last year by Barack Obama and the Democrats established a seven-person Fiscal Control Board with broad powers to direct government agencies on the island and dictate laws and policies. It has ordered, for example, exemptions to federal standards on the minimum wage, Medicaid and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families.

To top it off, the seven members of the board include some of the same financiers who imposed neoliberal policies and arranged the deals that caused the debt burden.

Bondholders may still be forced to take a “haircut”–that is, accept less than what they are owed on Puerto Rico’s bonds. But the mission of the Fiscal Control Board is to make sure working people on the island, not investors, pay as much of the price as possible.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

ALL THIS “reads like the 21st century equivalent of the metropolitan looting of wealth from the colonies,” as Lance Selfa wrote for SocialistWorker.org after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico head on.

And we know who the looters and their accomplices are.

The hedge-fund parasites who are trying to inflict more suffering on Puerto Rico rather than lose a penny from their investment gambles should face pickets outside their offices. Members of Congress–Republican and Democrat alike–should be greeted at public events by solidarity activists demanding that they remove the noose that is strangling the island.

There is much work to be done to organize for immediate relief in Puerto Rico after the hurricane catastrophe. But the left has an opportunity to also expose and oppose the unnatural disaster that came before Irma and Maria.

We may not hear any more about canceling the debt from Donald Trump, but we can raise our own voices to demand that this crushing burden be lifted off the people of Puerto Rico.

https://socialistworker.org/2017/10/11/abolish-the-debt-that-is-drowning-puerto-rico

Spain prepares military crackdown in Catalonia

By Alex Lantier
6 October 2017

With Spanish military and police units already being deployed, Madrid has signaled that it is preparing a brutal crackdown in Catalonia.

Spain’s Constitutional Court yesterday said that Monday’s planned session of the Catalan regional parliament, at which it was expected that the separatist parties would make a unilateral declaration of independence, must not take place. Coming after failing in a brutal attempt to halt the October 1 Catalan independence referendum, and with Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy rejecting calls for mediation led by the Podemos party and the union bureaucracy, the move lays the basis for bringing in the army against what is now declared an unconstitutional meeting.

The Constitutional Court acted based on a complaint brought by the Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSC)—the Catalan wing of the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE), which is now working openly with the PP to prepare a military clampdown. Calling the PSC’s complaint “relevant and of general social and economic interest,” the Court ruled that any act decided by the Catalan parliament would infringe the rights of PSC MPs and be “totally void, without the least value or effect. It warned that defying this order could mean arrests and criminal prosecutions.

On Sunday, the world was shocked and stunned as videos filled the Internet of 16,000 police assaulting polling places and peaceful voters, including women and the elderly, across Catalonia. Furious that its initial crackdown failed, Madrid is now preparing an even bloodier assault, using the military. As the Spanish press debates imposing a state of emergency, as in neighboring France, it is clear that this is bound up with well-advanced plans for military rule and the abrogation of basic democratic rights across Europe.

Rajoy’s minority Popular Party (PP) government is relying on the support of the major European imperialist powers. After official German, UK, and French sources signaled their support for Madrid following Sunday’s crackdown, the European Union (EU) again formally endorsed the Spanish crackdown on Wednesday.

Opening debate on the Catalan crisis at the European Parliament, Frans Timmermans, the first vice president of the EU Commission, unequivocally endorsed Madrid’s use of force against the population of Catalonia. “The regional government of Catalonia has chosen to ignore the law in organizing the referendum of last Sunday,” Timmermans declared, adding: “it is the duty for any government to uphold the law, and this sometimes does require the proportionate use of force.”

Yesterday, Spanish Defense Minister María Dolores de Cospedal made clear that Madrid views an army intervention to be a legitimate response in Catalonia. At a meeting at the School for Higher Defense Studies, she insisted that Spain’s army is tasked with “defending its territorial integrity and constitutional order.” After King Felipe VI declared in a bellicose speech Tuesday that Catalan nationalists had placed themselves outside the law and democracy, Cospedal added, “Everything that is located outside of democracy is a threat to our nation.”

Spanish army units are already providing logistical support to police deployed in Catalonia. And after Catalan regional premier Carles Puigdemont indicated after Sunday’s crackdown that he could declare independence on Monday, a measure that Madrid has stated for months is illegal, political maneuvers by Madrid to seize the Catalan government are underway.

There are also moves underway by the Spanish judiciary to prosecute Catalan judges and Catalan police, the Mossos dEsquadra, for failing to crack down on voters and demonstrating sympathy for separatists. The head of the Mossos, Josep Lluis Trapero, is to appear today before a court on the unprecedented charge of sedition, facing a 15-year prison sentence.

The courts are also removing legal restrictions to decisions by banks and corporations to move their headquarters away from Catalonia, amid reports that CaixaBank could soon move to Mallorca.

On Thursday, Rajoy also rejected appeals for mediation from Podemos General Secretary Pablo Iglesias and Puigdemont, supported by the Stalinist Workers Commissions (CCOO) and social-democratic General Union of Labor (UGT) union bureaucracies. When Iglesias phoned Rajoy to discuss the plan, Rajoy thanked Iglesias but declared he had no intention of negotiating with anyone who “is blackmailing the state so brutally.”

This was a direct repudiation of the Podemos leader’s comments the previous evening. Iglesias had told reporters, “A group of trusted people should sit down at a table to discuss as a team for dialog. This is what I told the premier of Catalonia and the prime minister of Spain. I spoke to Puigdemont and Rajoy, and they didn’t say no.” Iglesias added that his conversation with Rajoy had been “cordial,” and that Rajoy had “taken note” of the proposal.

While the leader of Podemos held “cordial” talks with Spain’s right-wing prime minister, far-right forces are organizing anti-Catalan protests across Spain and singing hymns of the 1939-1978 fascist regime of Generalissimo Francisco Franco.

Well aware that a new crackdown could provoke explosive social opposition among workers in the entire country, the Spanish press is agitating for moving to a police-state dictatorship. They are discussing the application not only of Article 155 of Spain’s Constitution, a so-called “nuclear option” that suspends Catalan self-government, but Article 116. This suspends basic democratic rights—including freedom of thought and expression, the right to strike, and elections—and allows for press censorship.

After a quarter century of imperialist war and EU austerity since the Stalinist bureaucracy’s dissolution of the Soviet Union, European democracy is at the breaking point. A decade of deep austerity since the 2008 Wall Street crash, which brought Spanish unemployment to 20 percent, has shattered Spain’s economy and discredited its ruling elite. Amid a deep crisis of the post-Francoite regime in Spain, and as the ruling class savagely attacks democratic rights across Europe, the Spanish bourgeoisie is using the Catalan crisis to return to an authoritarian regime.

Madrid’s plans for a bloodbath in Catalonia must be opposed. The critical question is the politically independent, revolutionary mobilization of the working class, not only in Catalonia but in all of Spain and across Europe, in struggle against the threat of civil war and police-state dictatorship and for socialism.

This requires a conscious break with Podemos and the Catalan nationalists, who have worked over the entire past period to confuse and disarm working class opposition, despite explosive social discontent. While masses of youth and workers participated in a one-day protest strike on Tuesday in Catalonia, the CCOO and UGT, close to Podemos and the PSOE respectively, were careful not to mobilize any Spanish workers outside of Catalonia.

The Catalan crisis has in particular exposed the bankruptcy of Podemos. It ceaselessly promoted illusions in the PSOE, which is rapidly moving to endorse a crackdown in Catalonia since the king’s speech, calling on the PSOE to form a joint government to oust Rajoy. Faced with the PSOE’s capitulation to Rajoy, Podemos is now stimulating illusions in the PP itself—even as a bloody military crackdown looms, and Rajoy indicates that he has no intention of negotiating with Barcelona.

As for the Catalan nationalists, who have run a series of austerity governments in Catalonia that smashed several strikes of transit and airport workers, their reactionary plans to develop ties with the EU and negotiate with Madrid the formation of a Catalan capitalist state are in ruins.

Faced with the prospect of a military crackdown, panic is reportedly spreading among Puigdemont’s supporters. Among Catalan nationalists in Barcelona, the city’s daily La Vanguardia wrote, “A strong feeling of vertigo runs through everyone—undermining militant enthusiasms, revolutionary visions, indignation in capital letters, patriotic ardors.” It added that King Felipe VI’s speech “has accentuated this feeling of vertigo. There is fear that the current escalation will end in catastrophe.”

Incapable of and hostile to mobilizing broader opposition to Madrid’s crackdown in the Spanish working class, the Catalan nationalists’ pro-capitalist politics only serves to divide the workers while a bloody onslaught from Madrid looms.

WSWS

More than 52 million Americans live in economically distressed communities

By Sandy English
28 September 2017

A new analysis of Census data shows that the so-called economic recovery under the Obama administration was an unmitigated catastrophe for the 20 percent of the American population that live in the poorest areas of the United States and that gains of jobs and income have gone overwhelming to the top 20 percent richest areas.

The 2017 Distressed Communities Report,” published by the Economic Innovation Group (EIG), analyzes the census data for 2011-2015 for people living in each of the nearly 7,500 American zip codes according to several criteria.

The EIG’s Distressed Communities Index (DCI) considers the percentage of the population without a high school diploma, the percentage of housing vacancies, the percentage of adults working, the percentage of the population in poverty, the median income ratio (the percentage of median income that a zip code has for its state), the change in employment from 2011 to 2015, and the change in the number of businesses in the same period.

The report divides the findings for zip codes into five quintiles based on these indicators, rated from worst- to best-performing: distressed, at risk, mid-tier, comfortable, and prosperous.

The results show that distressed communities—52.3 million people or 17 percent of the American population—experienced an average 6 percent drop in the number of adults working and a 6.3 percent average drop in the number of business establishments.

“Far from achieving even anemic growth from 2011 to 2015,” the report notes, “distressed communities instead experienced what amounts to a deep ongoing recession.”

Further, “fully one third of the approximately 44 million Americans receiving SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or food stamps) and other cash public assistance benefits (such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)) live in distressed communities.” The report notes that most distressed communities have seen zero net job growth since 2000.

Residents in these zip codes are five times more likely to die than those in prosperous zip codes. Deaths from cancer, pregnancy complications, suicide, and violence are even higher. “Mental and substance abuse disorders are 64 percent higher in distressed counties than prosperous ones, with major clusters in Appalachia and Native American communities where rates exceed four or five times the national average,” the report continues.

One other important and alarming fact which the report highlights is that over a third of the distressed zip codes contain so-called “brownfield” sites—areas which are polluted or contaminated in some way. Not only do these have impacts on real estate and business development, they present a whole array of health hazards to the very poorest Americans.

Distressed communities can be found all over the United States but are concentrated in the South: 43 percent of Mississippi’s zip codes are distressed, followed by Alabama, West Virginia, Arkansas and Louisiana. According to the report, [the South] “is home to a staggering 52 percent of all Americans living in distressed zip codes—far above its 37.5 percent share of the country’s total population.”

After this, the Southwest and Great Lakes region have the largest share. In the Northeast, most distressed communities tend to be found in urban areas and in the South, primarily in rural areas.

The biggest cities with the largest numbers of distressed zip codes are Cleveland, Ohio, Newark, New Jersey, Buffalo, New York, Detroit, Michigan and Toledo, Ohio. Mid-sized cities with the highest number of distressed zip codes include Youngstown, Ohio, Trenton, New Jersey, Camden, New Jersey, Gary, Indiana, Hartford, Connecticut and Flint, Michigan.

Urban counties with the highest number of distressed zip codes include Cook County in Illinois, with Chicago at its center, Los Angeles County in California, Harris County in Texas, with Houston at its center, and Wayne County in Michigan, encompassing Detroit. Most of these urban areas were once industrial centers and home to the industrial working class.

Zip codes that have a majority of minorities living in them are more than twice as likely to be distressed as zip codes that are majority white. “In total,” the report notes, “45 percent of the country’s majority-minority zip codes are distressed and only 7 percent of them are prosperous.” At the same time there are numerous distressed communities that are almost completely white. A quarter of the total distressed population is under 18.

The report found that the economic benefits of the recovery after the 2008 recessions have gone to the top quintile of zip codes, where the wealthier layers of the population live, including not only the very rich but also the upper middle class.

These areas, which the DCI terms prosperous, and make up roughly 85 million Americans or 27 percent of the US population, have for the most part the economic wherewithal to finance higher levels of education, have the lowest housing vacancy, highest percentage of working adults, and have had the lion’s share of job and business expansion.

“The job growth rate in the top quintile was 2.6 times higher than nationally from 2011 to 2015, and business establishments proliferated three times faster than they did at the national level,” the report notes. “Prosperous zip codes stand worlds apart from their distressed counterparts, seemingly insulated from many of the challenges with which other communities must grapple. The poverty rate is more than 20 points lower in the average prosperous community than it is in the average distressed one.”

The report makes much less of an analysis of the other three, middle quintiles, the at risk, mid-tier, and comfortable categories, but it does note some factors that address the overall trends nation-wide. “A remarkably small proportion of places fuel national increases in jobs and businesses in today’s economy. High growth in these local economic powerhouses buoys national numbers while obscuring stagnant or declining economic activity in other parts of the country.”

One of the more telling aspects of the report is that extreme poverty in the US is presided over by both capitalist parties: Democratic and Republic politicians have equal numbers of distressed communities in their constituencies. Democrats, in fact, “represent six of the 10 most distressed congressional districts.”

Another observation from the voting data, and one of the few that looks at conditions beyond the bottom and top quintiles, is worth quoting in full:

“President Trump accumulated a 3.5 million vote lead in counties that fell into the bottom three quintiles of well-being (equivalent to 9.4 percent of all votes cast in these counties). A vast array of factors determined voting patterns in the 2016 election, but it stands that the ‘continuity’ candidate performed better in the places benefiting most from the status quo, while the ‘change’ candidate performed better in the places one would expect to find more dissatisfaction.”

Broader figures and the historical view of wealth distribution in the US—that one percent of the population control 40 percent of the wealth or the decades-long decline in the percentage of the national income that goes to the working class—are not brought out in the report but the data add to a complete picture of social conditions across the United States, the character and geographical distribution of social and economic conditions in a country of more than 320 million.

The portrait provided by the EIG report is not simply one of increasing misery and poverty for the bottom 20 percent, and not only one in which only a minority of Americans are achieving anything like “prosperity,” but of growing and explosive dissent among tens of millions.

It exposes as a bare-faced lie the claim that President Obama made at the end of his second term, that “things have never been better” in America.

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/09/28/pove-s28.html

What’s the next step toward Medicare for All?

Sean Petty, a registered nurse in New York City and member of the board of directors of the New York State Nurses Association, makes the case that single-payer health care advocates can advance the struggle politically and organizationally.

Taking to the streets for single-payer health care in Los Angeles (Molly Adams | flickr)

Taking to the streets for single-payer health care in Los Angeles (Molly Adams | flickr)

THE PRESS conference earlier this month where Bernie Sanders announced his “Medicare for All” legislation shows both the massive opening and the serious challenges facing the struggle for truly universal health care in the U.S.

Sanders’ legislation comes after a summer of successful struggle to stop Trumpcare. The Senate Republicans’ latest attempt to “repeal and replace” Obamacare collapsed this week after a handful of both hard-right and more “moderate” Republican senators came out against it.

Donald Trump tweeted angrily about John McCain, but a very important reason for the defeat of the various Trumpcare proposals was the upsurge of protest organized by liberal organizations, unions and other health care advocates.

The angry demonstrations at events held by Republican lawmakers throughout the year, as well as actions in Washington, helped expose how the GOP plans for “repeal and replace” would have worsened an already ailing system governed by Obamacare–particularly by dismantling Medicaid and Medicare. Beyond the protests, popular opinion ran heavily against Trumpcare.

This opposition went far beyond single-payer advocates, but it helped our movement by reminding millions of people how critical federally funded health care is–and getting them to more seriously consider Medicare for All as an alternative to both Trumpcare and Obamacare.

The effect of this on Sanders’ proposal has been telling. For almost three decades, the mainstream of the Democratic Party has systematically undermined and marginalized proposals for single-payer health care. But this month, 16 Democratic senators, including most of the known hopefuls for the 2020 presidential nomination, lined up in support of Sanders’ legislation.

Of course, it’s easy for liberal Democrats to support Sanders’ bill when it has no chance in becoming law under a majority Republican Congress, with Donald Trump in the White House. The Democrats can appeal to millions of people persuaded by the case for Medicare for All, without having to face the fury of the for-profit health care industry.

But even at the level of purely rhetorical support, Sanders’ legislation is a big deal. It is a crack in the political edifice on the issue of single-payer health care, which opens up opportunities to mobilize greater pressure from outside Washington. Whether the crack gets widened or sealed up is a critical question facing our re-energized movement.

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THIS IS a useful moment to pull the lens back and look at what it will take to make Medicare For All a reality.

The first dynamic to understand is that we haven’t seen anything close to the opposition that will cohere among the health care industry and the ruling class as a whole when a Medicare for All proposal like Sanders’ gets closer to being enacted.

Health care accounts for as much as one-fifth of all economic activity in the U.S., according to estimates. There is a considerable amount of wealth at stake in the profits of the prescription drug industry, from medical supply and equipment sales, and, of course, for private insurance.

Medicare for All would allow the government to bargain with health care companies with an unprecedented leverage and economic scale–and it would be a huge blow to private insurers, even if it doesn’t totally eliminate them. Moreover, Sanders’ bill is filled with taxes on the rich and powerful–higher taxes on business, wealth taxes, a more progressive income tax structure, and even a one-time tax on offshore financial holdings.

The opposition to single-payer will manifest itself in two general ways.

The most blatant will be an extremely well-funded propaganda campaign that claims Medicare For All would produce “death panels” and financial ruin to every household in America.

The resounding defeat last year of a Colorado ballot initiative that would have changed the state constitution to permit universal coverage for every resident gives a taste of how the economic and political powers–including plenty of Democrats who claimed to oppose Trumpcare this year–would line up against single-payer.

Likewise, in California and New York, it was Democrats who did the dirty work of the insurance industry in blocking legislation to move toward a statewide Medicare for All system.

The second, less obvious way opposition will take shape is the “Trojan Horse” effect.

Right now, powerful mainstream Democrats like Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker and Kristen Gillibrand have nothing but nice things to say publicly about Sanders’ bill. But there has been and will be intense pressure to water down single-payer legislation.

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NONE OF this means the fight for Medicare for All is unwinnable.

In fact, Sanders’ introduction of this legislation–at this political moment and with support beyond himself, at least for now–shows how easily a government-run system that guarantees universal coverage could be embraced by the majority of people.

Right now, Sanders is probably the most popular politician in the country. Certainly, he is at the federal level, where his favorability rating being higher than his unfavorability is unique. Sanders stands for a progressive political agenda that has partially filled a massive void in mainstream politics.

His Medicare for All bill isn’t perfect. Members of Physicians for a National Health Program are critical of the legislation for allowing co-payments for some medical necessities, including drugs and biologics. There are questions about how far-reaching and systematic its funding mechanisms are, and whether four years is too long of a rollout.

But supporters of Medicare for All have shaped the bill in important ways. It bars deductibles and most co-pays, fully funds abortions and covers undocumented immigrants. The pressure to reverse these important provisions will be relentless. The larger the movement–and the larger the Left within that movement–the more people we will have a bill worth fighting for.

With Medicare for All, Sanders–in stark contrast to Democratic Party leaders–is offering something concrete and popular that would change most everyone’s life for the better.

But Sanders’ popularity obviously isn’t enough. The most important factor that will determine whether we see such a program in our lifetime is whether the widespread popularity and unprecedented momentum is organized so that it becomes an active force, felt in workplaces, communities and the media.

There are many ideas about how to build from the grassroots. Do we need a national march? Do we need to focus on “base-building”? Do we need different forms of coalitions and activist organizations? The answer is all of the above–but the question of strategy and timing will take some time to figure out.

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ACTIVISTS AROUND this issue need to recognize that we won’t win this battle by continuing to do what we currently are doing, just on a grander scale. Whatever organizing we do, we need to be clear on some things.

First, this isn’t an inside game. Medicare for All won’t be won by concentrating on how many members of Congress we persuade, but on how many tens of thousands of people are convinced to take action in various forms for single-payer.

Our organizing needs to be focused on this fact. We need to figure out how to build networks and organizations that can bring in larger numbers of activists, who can then make collective decisions about how to reach the next layer of people.

One step in this direction would be to broaden our approach to the issue–which needs to center both how transformative a future Medicare for All system would be, but to highlight the suffering that goes on in the health care status quo as the price we pay for not having single-payer.

In the public mind, the health insurance industry should be no different than the tobacco industry. We need to create a climate where health insurance industry profits are seen for what they are–blood money–and any politician unwilling to do something about it is treated accordingly.

Second, health care has to become a central issue of a re-inspired labor movement. Many people currently think of health care as related to their job, so there’s a natural connection.

Unions already played a role in mobilizing opposition to Trump’s health care disaster–though not in the numbers they could have. But Medicare for All could become a main issue for labor.

One possibility would be to organize workplace committees in support of Medicare For All. This has already taken shape in National Nurses United and New York State Nurses Association, and could be built on and serve as a model for other unions.

For health care unions, in particular, the question of workplace issues and how to make the health care system accessible come together, creating the basis for a stronger struggle.

We need to think in unprecedented ways about how to use union power to win this struggle. In this context, I could see an argument for a national day of strike action for Medicare For All.

Striking for political reasons–or really striking in general–isn’t something the labor movement is very familiar with in recent decades. But the tradition does exist. Also, the unions that are strongest on Medicare for All are also unions with more experience of going on strike recently.

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THERE ARE many other initiatives being discussed to build wider and active support for Medicare for All.

One that has been discussed this year is a proposal from some members of the Democratic Socialists of America for a national march for single-payer in Washington, D.C.

If such a mobilization gave expression to the wide support for Medicare for All that has developed especially through the course of this year, it would be a major step forward in projecting the importance of this issue. But that also raises the question of organization: What forces would be involved in planning and carrying out such a march?

National initiatives like a march or a day of action in support of Medicare for All can be focus for local organizing to win wider numbers of people to activism on this issue. There will also be more statewide initiatives, as in California and New York. And possibilities for local organizing around health care develop all the time–including workplace action backed by unions, up to the level of strikes.

One opportunity for organizing will arise soon–Sanders is supposed to tour the country to build support for his legislation. Our organizations need to find ways to meet people inspired by Sanders’ proposal and bring them into organizing.

There’s a long way to go before we’ll have built organization that can express the widespread sentiment for Medicare for All. But activists can use the opportunities as they arise to build in that direction.

https://socialistworker.org/2017/09/28/whats-the-next-step-toward-medicare-for-all

Why We Need a Universal Basic Income

ECONOMY
America is in desperate need of both a universal basic income and a federal jobs guarantee.

WASHINGTON D.C. – OCTOBER 8: Protesters march through the Nations capitol during the 2011 Occupy movement on October 8, 2011 in Washington D.C. 
Photo Credit: Evan McCaffrey/Shutterstock

As Labor Day approached this year, I awaited the lip service of Republicans praising “job creators” and business owners. I knew full well there was no chance they’d honor the common laborer – the people who feed, house, and transport them; the workers who keep their cities clean and their towns sanitary; the men and women who have raised their children and taken care of their aging and dying parents.

I didn’t have to wait long to be proven right. Long devoid of any meaning to most American laborers, the holiday now serves as little more than a day for our current politicians to shamelessly adulate their donors – while people in the service industry are forced to work longer hours.

Yet as disheartening as the desecration of Labor Day is, the policies of the current administration are worse.

As Noam Scheiber recently wrote at The New York Times, amidst all the loud, sensationalist stories, the current administration quietly has worked to dismantle the few rights and protections the common American laborer once had. The Trump White House has “proposed a 40 percent cut for the government agency that conducts research into workplace hazards, undone Obama-era guidances on enforcement of employment laws and sought to eliminate a roughly $10.5 million program that helps some unions and nonprofit organizations…to educate workers on how to avoid injury and illness.”1

This assault on worker’s rights is only the beginning.

Wage theft has become one of the most widespread worker violations of our times. This illegal but ubiquitous practice includes making laborers work off the clock, whether through breaks or before or after shifts. It also includes not paying workers a higher overtime wage, and misclassifying laborers as contractors who are then unable to qualify for benefits or employee protections. Wage theft even encompasses the simple violation of minimum wage laws.

Like so many other labor problems, wage theft affects women and minority workers most severely. What’s more, enforcing wage and hours laws is largely left to the individual worker because the Department of Labor, especially under the current administration, has no interest in being proactive. Therefore, violations are prevalent as jaywalking and don’t get policed.

One study of low-wage workers in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York showed that two-thirds of laborers experienced wage theft at least once a week, averaging during the course of a year about $2600 per worker. If these three cities are representative of the rest of the country’s thirty million low-wage workers, wage theft effectively steals over $50 billion a year from hard-working men and women.2

But wage theft is only one of our many problems. As such scholars as Mark Paul and William Darity point out, while the government purports that unemployment is currently under 5 percent, broader measures of classifying unemployment – including “discouraged” and part-time laborers seeking full-time work – nearly double that number to 10 percent. Unemployment also is twice as high in the black community, where African American workers have never experienced rates below 7 percent.3

Still, the main reason for poverty in America is not necessarily the lack of jobs, but the lack of a living wage and a social safety net. According to the Economic Policy Institute, a full quarter of full-time workers still earn poverty-level wages. A living wage – the minimum pay needed for the basics of living – has become a rallying cry for workers all over America recently, as calls for an increase in the minimum wage, like Fight for Fifteen, have gained steam.

Full employment, therefore, is important: people need jobs that are year-round (as opposed to seasonal work), pay a living wage, and include benefits like health care, disability insurance and retirement funds.

Without these things, even people who work more than full time still can expect to spend years living below the poverty line. As technological innovation and the loss of American jobs overseas further threatens the plight of laborers, nothing short of drastic changes to the system will truly help alleviate hardship and suffering among the nation’s most impoverished.

In addition to standard social safety nets such as single-payer universal health care, America is in desperate need of both a universal basic income (UBI) and a federal and a federal jobs guarantee (FJG).

The UBI would be for those who truly needed it – those who could not endure traditional full-time employment, either because of age, illness, disability, care-taking or student-status. As baby boomers grow old and need care, as students struggle to earn an education without becoming hideously indebted, and as parents yearn to stay home with infants and very young children, a UBI would truly revolutionize society.

Proposals vary, with costs depending on whether or not UBI would be paired with other social programs, like universal health care. Karl Widerquist, a Georgetown professor of political philosophy, estimated that at $6000 per child and $12,000 per adult, the net cost of UBI would be $539 billion per year.

This number may sound astronomical, but to put it into perspective, Widerquist writes, a UBI would cost “less than 25 percent of the cost of current US entitlement spending, less than 15 percent of overall federal spending, and about 2.95 percent of Gross Domestic Product.” It would immediately lift more than 43 million people out of poverty, including 14.5 million children.4

But as basic income advocate Scott Santens points out, for the cost of UBI to truly be accurate, economists need to deduct the cost of all the social safety-net programs and tax credits that UBI would replace. Depending on the other choices that we, as a country, make, the total cost of UBI would be somewhere in the “hundreds of billions of dollars range.” The cost of not eliminating poverty? It’s over $3 trillion a year.5

UBI would work best if paired with a federal jobs guarantee. The vast majority of Americans want to work; they derive a sense of pride and fulfilment and identity from their jobs.

A FJG undoubtedly would transform the United States. Taking the best aspects of the New Deal (and learning lessons from the era about what not to do), a FJG would have the power to completely rebuild our nation’s infrastructure, modernizing the country and making it accessible to most non-car owners.

It would radicalize our choices in aging and end-of-life care, as more Americans could stay at home with loved ones and have medical professionals and caretakers come to them. Additionally, we might finally have enough qualified professionals to engage in mental health care, helping to alleviate some of the nation’s rampant drug and alcohol abuse.

A FJG would unquestionably help narrow the achievement gap in schools, as high-quality universal childcare could be offered from infancy. For many women with children, this fact alone would allow them to continue their own careers without worrying about earning less what their childcare costs.

Just as with UBI, costs associated with a FJG vary widely according to multiple factors. According to the Center for American Progress, a FJG could create 4 million jobs at $15 an hour plus benefits at a cost of “something like $158 billion a year,” a figure equaling only a quarter of the currently proposed tax cuts for the rich. On the higher end, Duke University economist William Darity estimates the cost at $750 billion a year, but this includes benefits and health insurance.6

Further, with at least one-third of workers in the private sector not getting paid sick leave, and a full quarter of Americans never enjoying paid vacation or holiday time, a federal jobs guarantee would offer benefits to every hard-working person who wants them.7

If private companies underpaid or abused their workers in other ways, laborers could always leave their jobs for government work. The FJG’s brilliance is perhaps most obvious here: it keeps private companies — who historically have shafted their workers at every turn to make a dime — as honest and humane as employers in a capitalist system can possibly be.

This fundamental restructuring of our society would also usher in a cultural and spiritual renaissance of sorts, as we connect labor – any kind of labor – back to dignity. No matter the job, we must learn to see the intrinsic value of our fellow human beings. We must learn to honor all work – not just work that turns a profit.

My lamentations for a Labor Day that honors laborers, I fear, have only just begun. Unless and until all non-elite American workers band together across racial and social and educational lines, our money-hungry politicians will continue to serve the interests of people just like themselves: the rich and already-powerful.

[1] Noam Scheiber, “Trump Shifts Labor Policy Focus From Worker to Entrepreneur,” The New York Times, Sept. 3, 2017.
[2] See UCLA Labor Center, “What is Wage Theft?,” online, http://www.labor.ucla.edu/wage-theft/; Brady Meixell and Ross Eisenbray, “An Epidemic of Wage Theft Is Costing Workers Hundreds of Millions of Dollars a Year,” Economic Policy Institute, Sept. 11, 2004.
[3] Mark Paul, “A Job for Everyone: A federal job guarantee is a good All-American policy,” US News and World Report, Oct. 7, 2016.
[4] Karl Widerquist, “How Much Does UBI Cost?,” Basic Income Network, May 26, 2017.
[5] Scott Santens, “The Cost of Universal Basic Income is the Net Transfer Amount, Not the Gross Price,” Huffington Post, July 10, 2017.
[6] Annie Lowrey, “Should the Government Guarantee Everyone a Job?,” The Atlantic, May 18, 2017; Paul, “A Job for Everyone.”
[7] Bryce Covert, “Back to Work,” New Republic, July 18, 2017.