Potentially Earth-like planet found in habitable zone of nearest star

By Don Barrett
27 August 2016

A team of 31 astronomers from 13 institutions around the globe have announced the discovery of a planet slightly more massive than Earth orbiting in the habitable zone of the nearest star to our Solar System. The results were published in Nature on 25 August.

The planet, Proxima b, was discovered by ground-based observations using what is known as the radial velocity method. This method takes advantage of the fact that starlight is a composite of a whole spectrum of colors and that the gravitational tug of a planet on a parent star produces distinct fingerprints in the emitted light that can be observed from Earth. Essentially, one can watch how the motion of a star is influenced by an orbiting planet. (See: Earth-sized planet in a star’s habitable zone confirmed)

Proxima Centauri in the sky of the Southern hemisphere. Credit: European Southern Observatory

This method is different from how the Kepler spacecraft discovers exoplanets, which instead looks at periodic drops in the intensity of light coming from a star to infer the existence of a planet, which passes between the star and the observer in its orbit, blocking some of the light. However, the two techniques are complementary. While Kepler indicates roughly an exoplanet’s size, a study of the changing spectrum of a star tells us the lower limit of an exoplanet’s mass.

As a result of this, the astronomers calculated that Proxima b is at least 1.3 times the Earth’s mass, though we have no knowledge yet of its size, its composition or the nature of its atmosphere (if any). Our limited knowledge of solar systems suggests that such a planet would be of rocky composition and retain some sort of atmosphere.

What makes this system most unlike the Earth and Sun is the parent star. Proxima Centauri is a star only 12 percent the mass of the Sun, a “red dwarf”, and this low mass is reflected in vastly different physical characteristics. The star is about 12 percent the Sun’s size, half its temperature and a fraction of its brightness. Despite the fact that it is the nearest star to our Solar System, Proxima Centauri is 100 times too faint to see with the naked eye.

Since Proxima Centauri is so dim, its habitable zone, the orbit where liquid water could exist on a planet’s surface, is much closer to the star than the Sun’s. Proxima b, which orbits its star at 5 percent the distance between the Earth and Sun, about 4.6 million miles, falls within that zone. It receives about 60 percent of the radiation that Earth does.

Such a close world would find its rotation locked to its orbit over a timescale short compared to the life of the system—just as Mercury is locked to our Sun and the Moon to the Earth. Depending on the nature of the lock, it could be that only one hemisphere is illuminated, the other remaining in perpetual darkness, just as the Moon shows only one face to the Earth.

A comparison of the Proxima Centauri system to our own Solar System. Credit: European Southern Observatory

Another possibility is that the orbit and rotation are intertwined such that the same face of the planet is aligned to the star during the planet’s closest approach. This would mean that if liquid water exists, it may occur only near the Equator or towards the center of a perpetually sunlit hemisphere.

The close orbit produces another challenge to potential habitability: while the star, even so near, provides less heat than the Sun, it can irradiate the planet’s surface irregularly with ultraviolet and x-ray bursts 400 times that delivered by the Sun to Earth. The impact on the planet’s atmosphere over the long term is unknown.

If human beings set foot on Proxima b, they will find the view of the sky considerably different from that on Earth. Proxima would appear three times the Sun’s size in the sky. The nearby binary components of Alpha Centauri A and B would outshine our own Venus by a factor of 10, and appear to the eye as a barely resolvable star-like pair. Other stars would be invisible from the star-lit side of the planet.

The discovery of Proxima b comes 21 years after the first detection of a planet around another ordinary star. In that time, over 3,500 such planets have been found. Nearly 1 billion stars have now been cataloged, but detection of the smaller, lighter and immensely fainter planets around them represents a considerable technical challenge. This is true for all methods of finding exoplanets.

The nearness of Proxima b means it stands as a sterling target for further inquiry toward an understanding of Earth-like worlds. It has also ignited the imagination of millions of people around the world as they wonder at a planet potentially like Earth that is, with some esoteric but feasible ideas for space travel, not so far away.

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/08/27/prox-a27.html

The Obamacare counterrevolution six years on

obamacare

By Kate Randall
22 August 2016

More than six years after it was signed into law, and nearly four years after it began operation, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is increasingly acknowledged to be a disaster. The viability of the scheme it authorized is openly being called into question, even by its proponents. The Obama administration’s signature domestic “achievement” stands exposed as a plan concocted by and for the insurance companies and corporate America to slash their costs and increase their profits.

As the WSWS explained as early as 2009, the health care “reform” that is popularly known as Obamacare establishes 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.

This was always the aim of the legislation. The gutting of benefits and increase in costs for working people are not the unfortunate outcomes of a well-meaning but misguided effort to provide “near-universal, quality health care,” as President Obama claimed at its inception. As the New York Times, an early, fervent and continuing supporter of Obamacare, recently acknowledged, referring to the barebones government health program for the poor, “[T]he reality is that a typical Obamacare plan looks more like Medicaid, only with a high deductible.”

Under the ACA’s “individual mandate,” anyone without employer-sponsored coverage who is not covered by Medicare or Medicaid is required under threat of a significant tax penalty to purchase private insurance. Today, large numbers of people are struggling or unable to pay the exorbitant premiums demanded by the private insurers for their shoddy plans, while those who do are forced to self-ration care for their families under the weight of sky-high out-of-pocket costs.

The least expensive plans come with deductibles in excess of $5,000. Networks are increasingly shrinking, forcing enrollees to choose between a dwindling range of doctors and hospitals. Drug formularies are denying access to life-saving drugs. Insurers are requesting and receiving approval for double-digit premium hikes for their wretchedly inadequate insurance policies.

The recent exit of No. 3 health insurer Aetna from a majority of the private Obamacare exchanges across the country where it previously offered plans is certain to exacerbate this trend. Coming on the heels of the pullback of insurers UnitedHealth and Humana from the Obamacare market, conditions have been created where 17 percent of those eligible for an ACA plan next year will have only one insurer from which to choose. This will be the case in five entire states.

In a recent opinion piece in the Times, economist Paul Krugman bemoaned the fact that insurers are “finding themselves losing money, because previously uninsured Americans who are signing up turn out to have been sicker and more in need of costly care than we realized.” He advocated a “reinforced effort to ensure that healthy Americans buy insurance, as the law requires, rather than them waiting until they get sick”—i.e., hiking the already hefty tax penalties for those who fail to buy policies.

The “magic” of the Obamacare market has demonstrated the degree to which the ACA is subordinated to the profit interests of the multibillion-dollar insurance companies—to the detriment of the lives and well being of the vast majority of the population. They are the ones calling the shots. There is no meaningful oversight on what they can charge for their plans, so they jack up the premiums. If they are still not making what they consider an adequate profit on the ACA exchanges, they simply pull out.

While there is a legal requirement for individual workers, students, etc., to fork over money to the insurance firms, the corporate CEOs and their bankers are free to do as they please.

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton unequivocally defends Obamacare and pledges to “build on its success to bring the promise of affordable health care to more people.” Her cynical claims that she “will not stand for unjustified premium increases” and will “limit excessive out-of-pocket costs for families” are as believable as her lies about her emails.

The entire edifice of Obama’s health care overhaul is built on the for-profit health system in America, which includes not only the insurers, but also the giant hospitals, health care chains and pharmaceutical companies. To the extent that Trump and the Republicans oppose the ACA, they propose to junk the Obamacare charade in favor of more open support for the free-market, for-profit health care industry.

In the end, these are tactical differences between the two big business parties. Whichever candidate occupies the White House comes January, he or she will be committed to an intensified attack on health care for ordinary Americans. This sweeping assault on the quality of life for working people will continue as part of the ruling class offensive against all basic social rights, including the right to a decent-paying job, education and housing.

As the WSWS wrote in July 2009, more than six months before the ACA became law, 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. It is an effort to roll back social gains associated with the enactment of Medicare in 1965.

“It is a counterrevolution in health care, being carried out in the profit interests of the giant pharmaceutical companies, insurance conglomerates and hospital chains, as well as the corporations, which will be encouraged to terminate health care for their employees and force them to buy insurance plans providing less coverage at greater-out-of-pocket expense.”

Fast forward seven years and we can draw a balance sheet proving the correctness of these assertions.

Taking their cue from Obamacare, growing numbers of employers are increasing co-pays and deductibles. Some are shifting their employees to individual markets modeled on the ACA marketplace, while others, including some employing public workers, are dumping them onto the Obamacare exchanges.

A study in 2014 predicted that the ACA would save US businesses $3.5 trillion through 2025, largely by ending employer-sponsored coverage and shifting health insurance costs to employees.

In January 2015, Obama’s Department of Health and Human Services announced that payments to hospitals and doctors for a large percentage of health care provided under Medicare, the government-run health insurance program for the elderly, would be shifted from the traditional “fee for service” model to methods that reward health care providers for cutting costs and rationing care.

Half of direct payments to Medicare providers are to be moved to this model by 2018. The sacrifices being demanded of Medicare recipients—supposedly in the interest “quality” and “value”—will translate into the withholding of medical treatments and procedures, resulting in untold suffering and untimely deaths of seniors.

Moreover, the ACA essentially establishes a voucher system, whereby minimal government subsidies are given to individuals to purchase private health insurance. It thereby serves as a model for the future privatization of the key government programs, Medicare and Medicaid, wrenched from the ruling class through bitter working class struggles in the last century.

As we correctly noted in 2009, “Obama’s health care counterrevolution is of a piece with his entire domestic agenda. It parallels the multitrillion-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. … All that remains of the social reforms from the 1930s and 1960s, and the gains won by previous generations of workers in bitter struggle, is to be wiped out.”

The claims by pseudo-left and nominally liberal forces that Obamacare contained at least some kernel of progressive content have been exposed as apologias for these reactionary policies. A progressive and democratic overhaul of the health care system in America must take 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, to provide free, high-quality health care for all.

WSWS

Russian Threat Is Good for Business, U.S. Defense Contractors Tell Investors

Posted on Aug 19, 2016

As the media and politicians work to cast Russia as a great threat to Americans, the arms industry is pressuring NATO member states to spend at least 2 percent of their gross domestic products on weapons and defense systems.

Lee Fang reports at The Intercept:

Retired Army Gen. Richard Cody, a vice president at L-3 Communications, the seventh largest U.S. defense contractor, explained to shareholders in December that the industry was faced with a historic opportunity. Following the end of the Cold War, Cody said, peace had “pretty much broken out all over the world,” with Russia in decline and NATO nations celebrating. “The Wall came down,” he said, and “all defense budgets went south.”

Now, Cody argued, Russia “is resurgent” around the world, putting pressure on U.S. allies. “Nations that belong to NATO are supposed to spend 2 percent of their GDP on defense,” he said, according to a transcript of his remarks. “We know that uptick is coming and so we postured ourselves for it.”

Speaking to investors at a conference hosted by Credit Suisse in June, Stuart Bradie, the chief executive of KBR, a military contractor, discussed “opportunities in Europe,” highlighting the increase in defense spending by NATO countries in response to “what’s happening with Russia and the Ukraine.”

The National Defense Industrial Association, a lobby group for the industry, has called on Congress to make it easier for U.S. contractors to sell arms abroad to allies in response to the threat from Russia. Recent articles in National Defense, NDIA’s magazine, discuss the need for NATO allies to boost maritime military spending, spending on Arctic systems, and missile defense, to counter Russia.

Many experts are unconvinced that Russia poses a direct military threat. The Soviet Union’s military once stood at over 4 million soldiers, but today Russia has less than 1 million. NATO’s combined military budget vastly outranks Russia’s — with the U.S. alone outspending Russia on its military by $609 billion to less than $85 billion.

And yet,  the Aerospace Industries Association, a lobby group for Lockheed Martin, Textron, Raytheon, and other defense contractors, argued in February that the Pentagon is not spending enough to counter “Russian aggression on NATO’s doorstep.”

Continue reading.

—Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.

http://www.truthdig.com/eartotheground/item/us_defense_contractors_tell_investors_russian_threat_is_good_for_20160819

How the War on Drugs Makes People Eat Other People’s Faces After Stabbing Them to Death

If we don’t want people using bizarre new synthetic drugs, maybe we should rethink drug prohibition.

Photo Credit: Brian A Jackson/shutterstock.com

The news that 19-year-old Florida State University student Austin Harrouff stabbed two strangers to death, and then proceeded to bite chunks of a deceased victim’s face off, seems too bizarre to believe – unless you’ve heard of the drug flakka.

When police arrived, “It was an impossible task to get him off of the victim.” A Taser had no effect, nor did a police dog. It took multiple cops and several minutes of fighting with “every bit of strength” to pry Harrouff, who was a football player and wrestler, from the face-eating bear hug he had on the dead man.

Harrouff was making “animal-like” noises when he was transported to the hospital, and could die of “sustained trauma” from officers or a drug overdose. Toxicology reports will confirm whether flakka was in his system, but Martin County Sheriff William Snyder says he would not be surprised.

“When you see a case like this where someone is biting off pieces of somebody’s face, could it be flakka?” Snyder said. “The answer is it absolutely could be a flakka case.”

Flakka, a synthetic drug similar to bath salts, has taken off in popularity in South Florida over the past few years. It causes delirium and the feeling of superhuman strength, and is known to cause extremely bizarre behavior – including a 17-year-old girl “running down a street naked, covered in blood and screaming, “I am God! I am Satan!”

YouTube videos abound showing people in the midst of dangerous, erratic flakka-induced behavior, and headlines appear regularly of bizarre crimes being committed on flakka.

Homeland Security Investigations in Miami said the area is “ground central” for flakka shipments, which often come from China. There is no known legitimate use for the substance. The DEA has put a temporary ban on flakka, but drug makers can just stick a “not for human consumption” label on it to get around the ban.

There are at least three flakka hospitalizations a day in Broward County, and the rate of overdose deaths and suicides continues to rise. It’s extremely difficult to know how much one is ingesting, and the synthetic drug can have devastating, permanent effects on the body.

Why the hell would anyone want to come near this stuff?

The War on Drugs.

Because psychoactive drugs that humans have used for centuries have been banned by most modern governments, people turn to synthetic attempts at mimicking the high. Just as Spice (synthetic marijuana) has emerged to supposedly mimic cannabis, flakka is sought after to mimic cocaine.

But the difference is, Spice and flakka cause psychotic symptoms, bodily damage and death, whereas cannabis has never caused an overdose and has well-recognized medicinal value. Cocaine sourced from the black market, which is laced with other unknown chemicals, can cause overdose death – but people aren’t stabbing and eating the faces of other people while on cocaine.

Flakka is far more dangerous than cocaine.

Much of the dangers associated with cocaine would diminish if the drug were legalized and people had the freedom to put what they want into their own bodies. In a legal market, this extract of the coca leaf – which has been used for thousands of years by South Americans – would be produced in exact dosages known to the consumer, free from harmful synthetic chemicals.

If people could go to the store and buy a bit of cocaine, as they can buy alcohol, we could expect the demand for flakka to be non-existent.

Prohibition does nothing to curb the supply or the demand of drugs, but it enriches the corporatocracy and gives the State immense power over our personal freedom. It creates void in the demands for drugs and those voids are filled with even more dangerous substances such as flakka.

We should have learned the lesson that prohibition only causes greater harm during the miserable attempt at alcohol prohibition from 1920 to 1933. When government attempted to ban alcohol, its production and distribution shifted to the black market, and people suffered and died.

Reports of blindness and death were common as people attempted to make their own alcohol but failed to realize the dangerous by-products that can be produced. Bootleg alcohol fueled violent criminal gangs exploiting prohibition for financial gain. We are seeing the exact same scenario play out today.

There will always be demand for psychoactive drugs, and there will always be supply to meet this demand. If government attempts to ban substances, making it a little harder for some people to get things like cocaine, they will synthesize some other, more dangerous substance.

So now we have flakka, which emerged as a replacement for bath salts, which had emerged (now banned) as something you could buy at the store for a cocaine-like high.

The government keeps banning things, and people keep getting worse off. Synthetic drugs are killing people, especially our kids.

But government has a novel approach this time – it’s working on banning flakka, and they’re trying to get China to ban certain chemicals and stop their export. As the DEA admits, when they manage to ban one substance, producers will slightly alter the compound to make it a new substance free from the “controlled substances” ban.

There’s a saying about doing something over and over again and expecting different results being the mark of insanity. Prohibition is the perfect demonstration of this, and we are witnessing the physical manifestations in the crazed, murderous behaviors caused by flakka.

http://www.alternet.org/drugs/how-war-drugs-makes-people-eat-other-peoples-faces-stabbing-them-death?akid=14548.265072.0RgUC7&rd=1&src=newsletter1062183&t=20

How the hipster aesthetic is taking over the world

Same old, same old.

Industrial furniture, stripped floors and Edison bulbs: why must we aspire to such bland monotony?
The Fortitude Coffee shop in Edinburgh.
The Fortitude Coffee shop in Edinburgh. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod for the Observer

Go to Shoreditch Grind, near a roundabout in the middle of London’s hipster district. It’s a coffee shop with rough-hewn wooden tables, plentiful sunlight from wide windows, and austere pendant lighting. Then head to Takk in Manchester. It’s a coffee shop with a big glass storefront, reclaimed wood furniture, and hanging Edison bulbs. Compare the two: You might not even know you’re in different spaces.

It’s no accident that these places look similar. Though they’re not part of a chain and don’t have their interior design directed by a single corporate overlord, these coffee shops have a way of mimicking the same tired style, a hipster reduction obsessed with a superficial sense of history and the remnants of industrial machinery that once occupied the neighbourhoods they take over. And it’s not just London and Manchester – this style is spreading across the world, from Bangkok to Beijing, Seoul to San Francisco.

It’s not just coffee shops, either. Everywhere you go, seemingly hip, unique spaces have a way of looking the same, whether it’s bars or restaurants, fashion boutiques or shared office spaces. A coffee roaster resembles a WeWork office space. How can all that homogeneity possibly be cool?

In an essay for the American tech website The Verge, I called this style “AirSpace”. It’s marked by an easily recognisable mix of symbols – like reclaimed wood, Edison bulbs, and refurbished industrial lighting – that’s meant to provide familiar, comforting surroundings for a wealthy, mobile elite, who want to feel like they’re visiting somewhere “authentic” while they travel, but who actually just crave more of the same: more rustic interiors and sans-serif logos and splashes of cliche accent colours on rugs and walls.

Hence the replicability: if a hip creative travels to Berlin or Tallinn, they seek out a place that looks like AirSpace, perhaps recommending it on Foursquare or posting a photo of it to Instagram to gain the approval of culturally savvy friends. Gradually, an entire AirSpace geography grows, in which you can travel all the way around the world and never leave it.

You can hop from cookie-cutter bar to office space to apartment building, and be surrounded by those same AirSpace tropes I described above. You’ll be guaranteed fast internet, strong coffee, and a comfortable chair from which to do your telecommuting. What you won’t get is anything interesting or actually unique.

There are several causes of AirSpace. The first is that mobility is increasing: more people move more quickly around the world than ever before, mostly passing through the same urban hotspots (London, New York, Los Angeles, Hong Kong), and carrying their sense of style with them. It’s globalisation, but intensified, made more accessible to a wider economic spectrum of people, more of the time. Mobility is not just for the rich any more: working remotely is increasingly common; you can take a sabbatical to work from Bali and not miss a beat.

Taste is also becoming globalised, as more people around the world share their aesthetic aspirations on the same massive social media platforms, whether it’s Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest or Foursquare, with their hundreds of millions or billions of users. As algorithms shape which content we consume on our feeds, we all learn to desire the same things, which often happens to involve austere interiors, reclaimed wood, and Edison bulbs, like a metastasised real-life version of Kinfolk magazine or Monocle.

Startups are also growing to provide these experiences of sameness as a product, predicated on the fact that we now prefer consuming ready-made generic spaces to creating new ones of our own. We’ve been infantilised. The companies use technology to foster a sense of easy placelessness; Roam, for example, is an international chain of co-living and working spaces that offers the same lifestyle (and same furniture) in Madrid, Miami and Ubud, and residents can live anywhere for £1,500 per month. WeWork’s WeLive branch creates wan dormitories for mobile tech workers, each with its own raw-wood furniture and mandated techno-kitsch interior decorating.

But the king of AirSpace is Airbnb. The platform enables users to travel seamlessly between places, staying in locals’ apartments. Its slogan is “you can belong anywhere”. But all Airbnbs have a way of looking like AirSpace, too – consultants who work with Airbnb hosts as well as the company’s own architects told me that a certain sameness is spreading, as users come to demand convenience and frictionlessness in lieu of meaningful engagement with a different place. Heading to yet another copycat coffee shop with your laptop isn’t “local”. Why go anywhere if it just ends up looking the same as whatever global city you started from?

It’s not just boring aesthetics, however. AirSpace creates a division between those who belong in the slick, interchangeable places and those who don’t. The platforms that enable this geography are themselves biased: a Harvard Business School study showed that Airbnb hosts are less likely to accept guests with stereotypically African-American names.

There’s also the economic divide: access to AirSpace is expensive, whether it’s a £3 cortado or the rent on a WeLive or Roam apartment. If you can’t afford it, you are shut out.

AirSpace is convenient, yes. It helps its occupants feel comfortable wherever they are, settled in amid recognisable reminders that they are relevant, interesting, mobile and global. You can change places within it with a single click, the same anonymous seamlessness of an airport lounge but distributed everywhere, behind the facades of local buildings that don’t look like hotels, but act like them.

Yet the discontent of this phenomenon is a creeping anxiety. Is everywhere really starting to look just the same? Glance around and you might be surprised.

The next time you pick out a cafe or bar based on Yelp recommendations or Foursquare tips, or check into an Airbnb, each system driven by an audience of similar people, check if you see reclaimed wood furniture, industrial lighting, or a certain faux-Scandinavian minimalism. Welcome to AirSpace. It will be very hard to leave.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/aug/06/hipster-aesthetic-taking-over-world?CMP=share_btn_fb

Listen, your party is the “neo” kind of liberal

Why do the Democrats always disappoint their most loyal supporters? Thomas Frank’s excellent book helps explains the party’s betraying ways, says Lance Selfa.

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton at the Democratic convention

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton at the Democratic convention

THE NEW York Times headline on July 28 said it all: “After Lying Low, Deep-Pocketed Clinton Donors Return to the Fore.”

Nicholas Confessore and Amy Chozick’s article proceeded to document the myriad ways in which corporations, from the Wall Street firm Blackstone Group to for-profit college giant Apollo Education Group, peddled influence at fancy parties around Philadelphia during the Democratic National Convention.

Yes, that Democratic convention. The same one that featured dozens of speakers denouncing Wall Street and crushing student debt? Whose presidential nominee pledged to get big money out of elections?

Turns out that “it’s business as usual,” as Libby Watson of the Sunlight Foundation told the Times writers.

Author Thomas Frank wouldn’t be surprised by this latest glimpse of how the Democratic Party does business. His Listen, Liberal is an engaging and witty demolition of the party, especially its modern post-New Deal incarnation.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

THE DEMOCRATS don’t see it as a contradiction to issue election-year platitudes about supporting “working families” while courting millions from the “rocket scientist” financial engineers behind the Wall Street hedge funds or the self-styled “disrupters” who run for-profit educational corporations.

REVIEW: BOOKS

Thomas Frank, Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?, Henry Holt and Co., 2016. 320 pages, $12.99. Find out more at ListenLiberal.com.

As the GEICO TV ad might say, “It’s what they do.”

To Frank, this provides much of the explanation for why the Obama presidency has been such a disappointment for those who believed in candidate Obama’s message of “hope and change” in 2008.

In 2008, the economy was melting down, taking free-market orthodoxy with it. The Democrats swept to power in Congress and the White House. If there was ever a time that the conditions were ripe for a bold reformist program–which would have been massively popular–this was it.

Yet it didn’t happen. Two years later, the Tea Party Republicans took back the House in the midterm elections, and the administration deepened its commitment to austerity and the search for a “grand bargain” for bipartisan support to cut Social Security and Medicare.

Frank rehearses the standard liberal excuses for Obama’s failures, quoting the president himself about how hard it is to get things done (“It’s hard to turn an ocean liner”). Frank then proceeds to knock these down, one by one.

He shows convincingly how, using only executive action, Obama could have unwound the Bush administration bailouts for the Wall Street bankers and pressed bankruptcy judges to reduce or wipe out the mortgage holders’ debt. At the very least, he could have refused to allow executives from the insurance giant AIG to collect their multimillion-dollar bonuses from the taxpayers’ dime.

Instead, Obama and his Treasury team of Ivy Leaguers on leave from Wall Street reassured the banksters that he was on their side. Frank reprises the critical scene from Ron Suskind’s 2010 book Confidence Men: A description of a high-level meeting that began with Obama warning Wall Street that “my administration is the only thing between you and pitchforks”–and ended with a relieved CEO telling Suskind that Obama “could have ordered us to do just about anything, and we would have rolled over. But he didn’t–he mostly wanted to help us out, to quell the mob.”

As Frank concludes:

Having put so much faith in his transformative potential, his followers need to come to terms with how non-transformative he has been. It wasn’t because the ocean liner would have been too hard to turn, or because those silly idealists were unrealistic; it was because [the administration] didn’t want to do those things.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

HOW DID the Democrats come to power amid the worst crisis since the Great Depression and basically operate according to the same-old-same-old model? In trying to explain this, Frank lands on an explanation that is inadequate–more on that below–despite the insights it offers.

To him, the Obama team, like Bill Clinton before him–and probably Hillary Clinton after–couldn’t conceive of a different course because they approached problems from their vantage point as wealthy, highly educated professionals.

Like the whiz kids on Wall Street or health care industry policy wonks, they appreciated complex solutions that balanced multiple interests while generally preserving the status quo. Think of Obamacare and the Dodd-Frank financial reform, whose enforcement regulations are still being written six years after its passage.

The roots of this worship of professional expertise and support for market-based policies, according to Frank, can be found in party operatives’ desire to build a new Democratic coalition to replace the New Deal coalition of the 1930s through the 1960s. From George McGovern’s early 1970s “new politics” to the Democratic Leadership Council’s “new Democrats” of the 1980s and 1990s, these figures sought to distance the party from organized labor in favor of the “new middle class” of credentialed professionals.

Voting statistics show that college graduates still tend to be Republican territory more than Democratic. But there’s little doubt that a middle-class ideology of “social liberalism and fiscal conservatism” reigns supreme in the Democratic Party today.

To show this in full bloom, Frank considers the state of Massachusetts and the city of Boston as exemplars. Both depend heavily on the “knowledge industries” of higher education, finance and health care. And both have been Democratic bastions for generations.

If the Democratic mayors of Boston and a Democratic-dominated statehouse hand out tax breaks to corporations, enact anti-labor pension “reforms,” and promote charter schools or amenities catering to middle-class professionals, it isn’t because Republicans forced them to. It’s because the Democrats actually believe this stuff, and profit from it.

In this “blue state model,” Frank writes:

Boston is the headquarters for two industries that are steadily bankrupting middle America: big learning and big medicine, both of them imposing costs that everyone else is basically required to pay and yet which increase at a pace far more rapid than wages or inflation. A thousand dollars a pill, thirty grand a semester: the debts that are gradually choking the life out of people where you live are what has made this city so very rich.

Left behind are places like Lynn, Massachusetts, a once thriving industrial town, now depopulated and deindustrialized–“engineered by Republicans and rationalized by Democrats,” Frank writes. Or Decatur, Illinois, which Frank revisits 20 years after he had reported on the “War Zone” labor battles that dramatized the death of the American dream for thousands of blue-collar unionized workers

In the mid-1990s, Frank writes:

Decatur was far away from Washington, and its problems made no impression that I could detect on Bill Clinton’s wise brain trust. The New Economy was dawning, creativity was triumphing, old industry was evaporating, and those fortunate enough to be among the ascendant were absolutely certain about the direction history was taking.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

AS WITH so much about the Democratic Party today, all this somehow works its way back to the Clintons.

Frank’s assessment of Bill Clinton’s two terms in office in the 1990s is a crucial antidote to the free-flowing Clinton nostalgia of 2016. Frank says that while he was writing the book:

I would periodically ask my liberal friends if they could recall the progressive laws he got passed, the high-minded policies he fought for–you know, the good things Bill Clinton got done while he was president. Why was it, I wondered, that we were supposed to think so highly of him– apart from his obvious personal affability, I mean? It proved difficult for my libs…

No one mentioned any great but hopeless Clintonian stands on principle; after all, this is the guy who once took a poll to decide where to go on vacation. His presidency was all about campaign donations, not personal bravery– he rented out the Lincoln Bedroom, for chrissake, and at the end of his time in office, he even appeared to sell a presidential pardon.

Frank concedes a few small positive efforts by Clinton: a small increase in taxes on the rich, a failed attempt at health care reform. But the biggest initiatives Clinton won were things that would have been considered Republican policies of an earlier era: the 1994 crime bill that put the “New Jim Crow” described by Michelle Alexander into overdrive; the destruction of the federal welfare system; free trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA); and various forms of financial deregulation.

Frank notes that Clinton was conducting backdoor negotiations with then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich on a scheme to privatize Social Security. That attempt collapsed during the impeachment battle connected to Clinton’s affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

Frank’s crucial point is this. It took a Democrat–one skilled in the double-talk of “feeling the pain” of ordinary people and bolstering those “who work hard and play by the rules”–to push through a wish list of conservative policies that not even Ronald Reagan could win. As Frank writes:

What distinguishes the political order we live under now is a consensus, at least in the political mainstream, on certain economic questions–and what made that consensus happen was the capitulation of the Democrats. Republicans could denounce big government all they wanted, but it took a Democrat to declare that “the era of big government is over” and to make it stick. This was Bill Clinton’s historic achievement. Under his direction, as I wrote back then, the opposition “ceased to oppose.”

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

MUCH OF what Frank writes will sound very familiar to regular readers of Socialist Worker. But for liberals who might know Frank from his What’s the Matter with Kansas? or The Wrecking Crew, Listen, Liberal might feel like a bucket of cold water. Especially for those who might be “ready for Hillary” in 2016.

For my money, the entire book is worth the price of the chapter “Liberal Gilt,” where Frank skewers the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation and, by extension, what he calls the “liberal class’s virtue quest.”

At the center of this chapter is, of course, Hillary Clinton, whose public persona of “doing good” for “women and children” dissolves against a backdrop of her support for ending welfare in the 1990s and pushing poor women in developing countries into debt through “microcredit.”

As Secretary of State, Clinton marketed global entrepreneurship and the endless “war on terror” as crusades on behalf of women. Through “partnering” on these initiatives with the Clinton Foundation or the State Department, the likes of Walmart and Goldman Sachs can win praise for their social consciousness–or what Frank brilliantly describes as their “purchasing liberalism offsets”:

This is modern liberalism in action: an unregulated virtue-exchange in which representatives of one class of humanity ritually forgive the sins of another class, all of it convened and facilitated by a vast army of well-graduated American professionals, their reassuring expertise propped up by bogus social science, while the unfortunate objects of their high and noble compassion sink slowly back into a preindustrial state.

Frank weaves this analysis around an unforgettable eyewitness account of a Clinton Foundation celebration–held on the socialist holiday of International Women’s Day, no less! The event, at midtown Manhattan’s Best Buy (now Playstation) Theater, touted entrepreneurship for women in the global South. The Clintons, Melinda Gates, Hollywood stars, fashion magazine editors and Fortune 500 leaders came together for an afternoon of self-congratulation.

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YET FOR all that is spot-on in Frank’s critique of the Democrats, the book’s analysis is flawed on two interrelated points.

First, its theory of the Democrats as a party of educated professionals suffers from what might be called a crude class analysis.

When Marxists argue that the Democrats and Republicans are “capitalist” parties, we don’t mean that a cabal of capitalists acts as their puppet masters from behind the scenes. We mean that through various means–from political contributions to expert advice to control of the media–various capitalist interests assure that the mainstream political parties implement policies that allow the capitalist system to thrive and reproduce itself.

Scholars such as Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers have documented why we should understand shifts in the mainstream capitalist parties as shifts in blocs of capital rather than shifts in voting bases. Ferguson has even demonstrated how Obama’s support from Silicon Valley is linked to the administration’s care and nurturance of the surveillance state.

Frank doesn’t cite any of this analysis. Thus, in arguing that the Democrats’ current embrace of Silicon Valley neoliberalism is somehow a product of “well-graduated” Democrats’ fascination with “complexity,” “innovation” and “disruptive” app-driven services like Uber and AirBnB, Frank misses the close integration of the Democratic Party with the capitalist class.

The Democrats may have been capitalism’s B-Team over the last generation, but they’re not the Washington Generals, forever bested by the Harlem Globetrotters.

Second, understanding the Democrats as a party of Ivy League professionals–and not as one of the two big business parties in the U.S.–implies that it can be reclaimed as the “party of the people” or the party of the “working class,” as Frank believes it was in its New Deal heyday.

This characterization forgets that, in many ways, the Democrats were capitalism’s A-Team during that period. And if the Trumpization of the Republicans continues, the Democrats may end up as the first-stringers again. The 2016 Clinton campaign certainly hopes so.

Listen, Liberal is a great read for this election season. While Frank concludes that the state of affairs that brought us to Clinton against Trump “cannot go on,” he’s not sure where to go. Charting that course is a challenge the left faces today.

https://socialistworker.org/2016/08/04/your-party-is-the-neo-kind-of-liberal

The anti-scientific character of “race” as a concept

ethnicity

By Philip Guelpa
3 August 2016

As the capitalist media and political establishment whip themselves into a frenzy to promote a racialist view of police violence and of social inequality more broadly, in order to obscure its class basis and divide workers along supposed racial lines, it is important to emphasize the distinction between race as a social construct and race as a biological category.

An article published earlier this year in the prestigious journal Science, titled “Taking race out of human genetics,” reviews the “century-long debate about the role of race in science” and demonstrates that the concept of race is not only invalid for the purposes of biological and medical research, but that its use has distinctly negative consequences in those fields, let alone in the larger social context.

To illustrate the evolution of the concept in biology, the authors cite the example of Theodosius Dobzansky, considered by many to be the founder of evolutionary genetics, who for years struggled to employ the category of race in his research only to finally conclude that it had no scientific validity.

In recent years, according to the authors, the scientific study of “race” has tended to move away from earlier, overtly racist attempts to define racial distinctions and, in some cases, “prove” the superiority of one group over another (though such efforts have certainly not ended). Rather, it is now largely focused on efforts to identify genetic variation that may have implications for the treatment of diseases, based on the assumption that different racial groups may have varying reactions to medications or differing risk factor for certain diseases. The persistent use of race as an analytical unit, they argue, tends to obscure more than it reveals.

The authors draw a clear distinction between the genetic inheritance of individuals, on the one hand, and a priori “racial” categories, on the other. They describe the latter as “a pattern-based concept that has led scientists and laypersons alike to draw conclusions about hierarchical organization of humans, which connect an individual to a larger preconceived geographically circumscribed or socially constructed group.” After reviewing the evidence, they conclude that, “the use of biological concepts of race in human genetic research…is problematic at best and harmful at worst.”

Contrary to superficial and highly arbitrary distinctions drawn by those with a racialist perspective, they write, “racial assumptions are not the biological guideposts some believe them to be, as commonly defined racial groups are genetically heterogeneous and lack clear-cut genetic boundaries.”

Race-based conceptions can have serious medical consequences, as when certain diseases are thought to occur predominantly or exclusively in a certain “race,” such as sickle cell anemia or thalassemia, another blood disorder. When such diseases occur in a person of the “wrong” race, correct diagnosis can be delayed or missed altogether. This is not only a medical issue, but also indicative of the lack of scientific validity of the concept of race more generally.

As the authors point out, this is not a problem that can be solved by the development of better genetic testing technology to more accurately determine a person’s race. The “problem” is not in the lack of specificity of the assays, but in the fundamental “messiness” of human genetics.

Following the success of the human genome project in the early 2000s, the growing popularity of individual DNA tests to determine ancestry has resulted in many “surprise” discoveries of complicated genetic pedigrees that do not fit into neat racial categories. This complex reality may not be recognized by the person or family due to the shallow depth of memory or intentional “forgetting” of previous racial/ethnic affiliations in order to accommodate current realities.

Equally if not more important, research on the human genome has demonstrated that, despite apparent variability in such visible traits as skin color, modern humans have a remarkable overall genetic similarity (99.9 percent), as compared to many other species, pointing to the comparatively recent appearance of Homo sapiens. Indeed, all modern humans derive primarily from a relatively small population that existed, probably in Africa, about 200,000 years ago (a blink of an eye in evolutionary terms), with subsequent minor admixtures from Neanderthals and, perhaps, other early populations (see “The genetic legacy of the Neanderthals”).

One of the critically important results of the DNA sequencing of increasingly large numbers of people is to reinforce the understanding that a person’s genetic makeup is a hodgepodge of differing inheritances rather than a consistent package that retains a basic identity passed down from generation to generation.

Anthropology and archaeology clearly demonstrate that throughout the course of human evolution and, in particular, since the appearance and spread of modern Homo sapiens at sometime around 200,000 years ago, accelerating even more with the development of agriculture, beginning around the end of the last Ice Age, human populations have more or less constantly been on the move, resulting in an ever-changing mosaic of biology, language, and culture. This “churning,” if you will, makes a mockery of any conception of “racial purity” or, for that matter, unchanging cultural identity.

History abounds with examples of migrations and intermixing of peoples formerly living in disparate locations. These include (to name but a few):

· The dispersal of early agriculturalists from the Near East

· The “Back to Africa” migration

· The Bantu expansion in Africa

· The ancient Greek diaspora throughout the Mediterranean region and beyond

· The invasion of Europe by the Huns

· The Norman Conquest of England

· The Mongol invasion of China, then Central Asia and Russia

· The multiple waves of pre-Columbian immigration from Asia, and perhaps even Europe, into the Western Hemisphere

All these predate the emergence of a globalized world over the past two centuries, characterized by unprecedented mobility, mass immigration and intermarriage, a period during which the world’s human population has expanded from 1 billion to more than 7 billion.

Homo sapiens is a single species. All members of the species (i.e., all living humans), regardless of their apparent racial or ethnic backgrounds, are genetically fully compatible and can produce viable offspring with other members of the species, barring disease or deformity (or prejudice). From this perspective, the genetic variation within the species is, relatively speaking, “noise.” It is not entirely random noise, and much can be learned from detailed research. However, attempts to force that variation into monolithic, a priori categories is simply bad science.

Comprehensive reviews of the scientific invalidity and pernicious effects of racialist views have convincingly refuted the idea of racial differences in intelligence—for example, The Mismeasure of Man (Stephen Jay Gould, 1981, 1996). And yet, justifications of such conceptions, in various forms, continue to be put forth, as in, for example, A Troublesome InheritanceGenes, Race and Human History (Nicholas Wade, 2014).

The explanation of the persistence of race as a category in scientific research is not a problem of science, per se, but the product of larger social forces. It has, in recent years, been influenced by the injection of post-modernist philosophies into the sciences. Such conceptions are promoted by the upper middle class to give a scientific veneer to the continued division and exploitation of the working class. They follow in the tradition of previous racially based prejudice in countries such as England, where the Irish were long considered a separate race by the English ruling class in order to justify keeping Ireland as a colony.

The authors of the Science article seek, as the title states, to take the category of race out of the study of human genetics. They fall short, however, when they identify race as a result of semantics rather than as a social construct. The proposed remedy is for the scientific community to eschew the use of the term “race” and substitute such terms as geographic ancestry or population.

Science exists within an economic, social, and political context. While the interactions between scientific research and its larger context are complex, the idea that the influence of racism and racialist perspectives can be expunged from scientific research by a mere change in terminology is naive. Within science, as in society as a whole, discrimination of any sort can only be eliminated when its root cause—class division—is itself ended.

WSWS