Big business, military tighten their grip on Washington

One week after Charlottesville

21 August 2017

It is often the case that the outcome of events reveals the essential issues underlying political developments. This is true of the conflicts that erupted within the ruling class over the Nazi rampage in Charlottesville, which culminated in the dismissal Friday of Trump’s chief strategist Stephen Bannon.

The corporate-controlled media has sought to portray the sequence of events entirely in racial terms, with Bannon and other advocates of “white nationalism” now purged, leaving political control of the White House and the Trump administration in steadier and more “moderate” political hands: a group of generals and ex-generals, headed by White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, together with Wall Street financiers such as Gary Cohn, Trump’s chief economic adviser, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

The New York Times has led the way, with an editorial Sunday declaring that “Americans accustomed constitutionally and politically to civilian leadership now find themselves relying on three current and former generals—John Kelly, the new White House chief of staff; H. R. McMaster, the national security adviser; and Jim Mattis, the secretary of defense—to stop Mr. Trump from going completely off the rails. Experienced and educated, well-versed in the terrible costs of global confrontation and driven by an impulse toward public service that Mr. Trump doesn’t possess, these three, it is hoped, can counter his worst instincts.”

In the same edition of the Times, a news analysis celebrates what its headline calls “The Moral Voice of Corporate America.” In this account, “a chorus of business leaders rose up this past week to condemn hate groups and espouse tolerance and inclusion.”

Among those named as part of this “chorus” of “moral” leaders are such corporate criminals as Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase, one of those responsible for the 2008 financial collapse; Mary Barra of General Motors, who oversaw the cover-up of an ignition-switch defect that killed hundreds of people; and WalMart CEO Doug McMillon, whose company is a synonym for low-wage exploitation.

The ruling elite saw Trump’s incautious remarks defending the neo-Nazis who rioted in Charlottesville as a serious threat to the interests of American imperialism abroad as well as the maintenance of social and political stability at home. Powerful corporate interests feared the implications for Trump’s agenda of corporate tax cuts, the removal of business regulations, a profit windfall in the guise of infrastructure reform and the gutting of Medicaid and other social programs.

Trump’s self-exposure of his efforts to build an extra-parliamentary fascistic base increased the nervousness in financial circles over the danger of a collapse of the speculative bubble that has been built up since the 2008 Wall Street crash.

The response, laid out most clearly by the Times, has been to increase the grip of the military and corporate America over the government to an extent unprecedented in US history. It is 56 years since President Dwight D. Eisenhower, in his 1961 farewell address, warned of the dangers to democracy posed by the rise of the “military-industrial complex.” He could have no conception of the size, power and degree of dominance exercised by the vast military/intelligence/corporate complex of today.

The first result of this consolidation was the announcement that Trump will deliver a nationwide address tonight, unveiling plans for an expansion of the war in Afghanistan.

What the ruling elite fears above all is the growth of working-class opposition to the Trump administration and the entire political system. Thus, excised from the official narrative promoted by the media is any reference to the reality of social life in America—a country in which 20 individuals control as much wealth as the poorest half of the population—as well as the reactionary agenda of the Trump administration itself. Nor is there any discussion of war and the crimes carried out by “responsible” leaders such as Mattis, who won his appellation “Mad Dog” for his role in destroying the Iraqi city of Fallujah.

This is replaced with a series of diversionary issues, centered on a grossly distorted presentation of the United States as a country seething with racial intolerance and an exaggerated picture of the strength and influence of neo-Nazi and racist forces. Hence one has the apparently contradictory but in fact compatible phenomena, ubiquitous in the Democratic Party-aligned media, of the promotion of identity politics alongside respectful and even admiring portrayals of the white supremacist thugs who demonstrated in Charlottesville.

Typical was a newsletter released Sunday by the New Yorker under the headline, “White Supremacy in America.” In an introduction, David Remnick, author of the hagiographic biography of Obama, The Bridge, proclaims, “Make no mistake: neo-Nazis and white supremacists are now at the forefront of American politics.”

Among the featured articles is one by author Toni Morrison titled “Making America White Again,” which insists that “Unlike any nation in Europe, the United States holds whiteness as the unifying force.” In line with the Democratic Party and its various appendages among the pseudo-left organizations of the privileged middle class, Morrison explains the election of Trump as the product of the racism of “white America”:

On Election Day, how eagerly so many white voters—both the poorly educated and the well educated—embraced the shame and fear sowed by Donald Trump. The candidate whose company has been sued by the Justice Department for not renting apartments to black people. The candidate who questioned whether Barack Obama was born in the United States, and who seemed to condone the beating of a Black Lives Matter protester at a campaign rally. The candidate who kept black workers off the floors of his casinos. The candidate who is beloved by David Duke and endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan.

This effort to portray all whites, and particularly white men, as secret supporters of the KKK is a political fraud. Racism does exist. However, the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville are a tiny minority who are regarded with deep revulsion by the vast majority of working people. A nationwide mobilization could dredge up only a few hundred proponents of this barbaric ideology. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of all races have marched to denounce both Trump and the fascists he defends.

Trump is president today, not because of a mass vote for racism, but because he more successfully appealed to social discontent than the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton, the personification of the alliance between Wall Street and the military-intelligence apparatus, who did not attempt to conceal her complacent contempt for the plight of tens of millions of working people struggling to survive.

The racialist narrative is being used to demonize large sections of the population, buttress the identity politics of privileged layers of the middle class, provide political cover for a massive transfer of wealth to the rich, rally support for a virtual palace coup by the generals and corporate billionaires, and, above all, divert and suppress an independent movement of the working class.

The overriding threat to democratic rights comes not from a handful of fascist thugs, but from the very alliance of Wall Street and the Pentagon that is being touted as the antidote to the racists in the streets.

As for the Times and the various affiliates of the Democratic Party, they see the real threat coming not from neo-Nazis, but from a socialist movement of the working class.

The promotion of racialist politics and the tightening of military-corporate control over the government go hand-in-hand with the suppression of oppositional views, above all the World Socialist Web Site. Thus the decision taken by Google, in close coordination with the state, to censor and blacklistthe WSWS through the manipulation of search results. This is the prelude to more aggressive actions to target socialist opposition to the policies of the corporate and financial elite.

Patrick Martin and Joseph Kishore

WSWS

 

 

 

 

Can Police Prevent the Next Charlottesville?

“We saw it coming,” said a Virginia officer, but they couldn’t stop it. Still, law enforcement experts say measures can be taken — even when protesters are armed.

Police in riot gear stand in front of the controversial statue of Robert E. Lee in Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Aug. 12, 2017. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Even before the demonstration in Virginia began last weekend, the police there knew they weren’t going to be able to handle what was coming.

Charlottesville police officers, including Sgt. Jake Via of the investigations bureau, had been contacting organizers and scanning social media to figure out how many demonstrators were headed their way and whether they would be armed.

“The number each group was saying was just building and building,” Via said. “We saw it coming. … Looking at this, I said, ‘This is going to be bad.’”

The protesters’ numbers were too large and the downtown park too small. City officials tried to get the demonstration moved to another, more spacious location, but lost in court after the rally’s organizer, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, alleged his freedom of speech was being infringed.

The protests, of course, ended tragically. Local law enforcement was widely blamed for losing control of the event and standing back even as people were attacked.

Via maintains that nothing the police did could have stopped the violence between the two sides. “No hours and hours and hours or even months of planning is going to stop the radicals from both sides wanting to go at it,” he said.

With more demonstrations planned in cities across the country, ProPublica interviewed law enforcement experts in the United States and Europe to ask what more can be done to prevent bloodshed at protests where people are spoiling for a fight. The consensus was that additional steps can be taken.

But many of the tactics come at a price. Some could be viewed as impinging on civil liberties and the constitutionally enshrined rights to free assembly and protest. Others require funding and coordination that is difficult to achieve within the fragmented framework of American policing. A few are as simple as strategically placed blockades that keep the two sides separate. Here are some of the top approaches and how they might — or might not — be deployed in the U.S.

Drones, Anti-Mask Laws and Open-Carry Restrictions

Local police forces will increasingly institutionalize the use of drones at mass demonstrations. That’s the prediction of Brian Levin, a criminal justice professor at California State University, San Bernardino. Cameras in the air with real-time feeds transmitted to officers on the ground would allow police to cover more terrain and in some cases, identify potential conflicts before they erupt.

“Demonstrations spread, and these violent confrontations can take place in disparate areas,” said Levin. “It’s like when a hammer hits mercury.”

Drones can also be safer than helicopters. In Charlottesville, a helicopter monitoring the demonstration went down, killing two state troopers aboard.

But police drone use has been met with opposition from civil liberties groups. Drones donated to the Los Angeles Police Department have gone unused for years amid privacy concerns. Activists have argued that access to the devices, which make surveillance cheaper and more efficient, will lead police to more routinely surveil private citizens.

Earlier this month, LA’s police commission gathered to discuss relaunching the program only to be met by chanting activists who shut down the conversation twice. Similar stories have played out in Seattle and elsewhere.

Another tool cities and states (including Virginia) have used is anti-mask laws, which bar groups of people from disguising themselves in public. Violent demonstrators will sometimes arrive in ski masks or scarves wrapped around their faces. New York City has a ban, with exceptions including for Halloween. So does Alabama, a rule it instituted in 1949 to unmask the Ku Klux Klan. A similar restriction in California, though, was struck down after Iranian Americans hoping to safely (and non-violently) protest the post-revolutionary regime back home sued on First Amendment grounds.

Police Stood By As Mayhem Mounted in Charlottesville

State police and National Guardsmen watched passively for hours as self-proclaimed Nazis engaged in street battles with counter-protesters. Read the story.

Another challenge in Charlottesville was the number of demonstrators who came with guns, and were allowed to do so lawfully, because of Virginia’s open-carry laws.

Even in states with such statutes, the authorities have some options. Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California, Berkeley’s law school, said the Supreme Court has upheld the right to have guns at home, but not necessarily in public. “Think of curfews. The government has the ability to take steps to protect public safety,” Chemerinsky said. “The more evidence there is that it’s a threat to public safety, the more sympathetic the courts would be.”

The evidence could consist of past rallies that broke out into violence, or intelligence that an armed group is planning to employ force in the future.

Still, attempts to temporarily restrict gun rights have floundered in the past. Before the most recent Republican National Convention in Cleveland, the head of Cleveland’s largest police union and others called for the state’s open-carry laws to be tightened during the convention. Gov. John Kasich refused, saying “Ohio governors do not have the power to arbitrarily suspend federal and state constitutional rights.”

A more radical approach comes from Philip Zelikow, a history professor at the University of Virginia and former executive director of the 9/11 Commission. In 1981, he worked with the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights nonprofit, to ask a federal judge to shut down a group called the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, which was showing up armed and in Army-style clothing on the Texas Gulf Coast to harass Vietnamese fishermen.

With the support of the Texas attorney general, Zelikow and his team invoked a 19th-century law that forbids “military companies” not authorized by the governor. They argued that the Klan qualified because it was not government-regulated but had “command structure, training and discipline so as to function as a combat or combat support unit.” The lawyers prevailed, and the Klan was forced to leave its weapons at home.

A similar argument also succeeded soon after in North Carolina, and Zelikow said groups like those in Charlottesville that are mixing weaponry and political activism could be subject to similar legal challenges. “These problems haven’t come up much in recent decades,” Zelikow said. “The issue subsided and memory fades but here we are again.”

Most states have restrictions on private military-like groups. Zelikow was contacted by lawyers from Oklahoma this week, asking if their state had such a law on the books. “It took me about five minutes to find,” he said. Zelikow is now trying to form a team of lawyers to bring a case in Virginia.

Looking Abroad

Thousands of people, divided into two opposing sides, squaring off in public. Some come armed, looking to damage property and wreak havoc. Many filter in from out of town, complicating efforts by police to negotiate peace in advance.

It’s a scenario European authorities know well, though with a different kind of group: soccer hooligans.

Maria Haberfeld, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and a former supervisor in the Israel National Police, said cops in the Netherlands use a “situation-oriented” model to keep violent rival soccer fans under control.

That framework trains officers in perceptual skills, helping them develop the emotional intelligence to read members of crowds and make sound judgments about which situations are truly dangerous. Officers are put through simulations in which they can achieve positive, nonfatal outcomes. Trainings are handled in groups, not individually, so that in the field, officers are less likely to misinterpret any of their colleagues’ motions or actions.

“European police forces are light years ahead of us in terms of training.” Haberfeld said. “It’s not something you can train police officers to do in half an hour. It’s a serious commitment.”

Reaching that level of training may not be feasible in the U.S., where local municipalities set their own academy protocols. (And demonstrations are less frequent than soccer matches.) The training in the U.S. typically lasts just a few months, compared to the couple of years that European police cadets get.

In Germany, police forces commonly have specialized units assigned to each side of a potentially violent protest. Officers meet with the groups’ leaders in advance and discuss plans for the protest in detail, including symbols that are forbidden for display by the government.

Protest leaders can be denied permits to demonstrate because of criminal records, forcing them to turn leadership of the event over to another member of the group. They’re also asked to assign deputies from within their organization who can help the group’s leader keep things under control. Those assistants also have their records vetted by the police before being approved.

Once at the event, the specialized police units show up in distinctive yellow vests, and without riot gear, so they can mix in with the demonstrators less threateningly. When officers see someone with a banned weapon, they sometimes will only film the demonstrator and make an arrest later.

“It is important for us, is not to have a negative solidarity spillover effect. … If we disarm a person or act against a small group of potentially violent protestors, other people around solidarize with them against the police,” said Elke Heilig, head of the anti-conflict team in Pforzheim, Germany. “This leads towards escalation.”

Keeping Peaceful Protesters Away

Social media gives hate groups a new megaphone for getting the word out about their rallies, opening up communication with many previously fragmented niche groups and helping lead to larger gatherings, experts said. A big crowd is inherently harder to police, but what makes the scenario even more vexing for law enforcement is that they’re now dealing with not just one or two groups, but many, along with unaffiliated individuals.

“People are coming in from disparate places and disparate groups who don’t answer to any single authority. A Klan leader can tell his folks to stand down,” said Levin, a former NYPD officer. “Social media has been a magnet not only for haters but for unstable haters.”

Some municipalities are responding by using social media tools to dissuade some activists from showing up. City officials in Berkeley, California, have experimented with discouraging peaceful protesters from attending demonstrations they expect to be violent.

In March, fights broke out between supporters and opponents of the president at a demonstration near the Berkeley campus. Some of the unruly counter-protesters were believed to be affiliated with black bloc, an anarchist group whose members are known to wear black and mask their faces. Mayhem ensued. In one case, a man wearing a “Trump is My President” shirt had his face bloodied.

“There are people who come intent on committing violence and they look for ways to subvert whatever you set up,” said city spokesman Matthai Chakko. “There are people who use peaceful protesters as shields. They blend into crowds after they commit their acts.”

In April, before another planned demonstration, the city launched a messaging campaign suggesting peaceful protesters keep their distance. “Consider whether the approach others advertise is the style and venue for you,” one alert read, warning of violent protesters. “Reaching out to organizations or individuals in need is an alternative to conflict. When people at an event act in a way that compromises your values and goals, separate yourself.”

The number of peaceful protesters dropped significantly, Chakko said, and the city is taking a similar approach with an unpermitted, white nationalist demonstration expected later this month. The alert the city sent out Wednesday was direct: “The best response for those seeking to safeguard our community is to stay away.”

Barriers and Chain-Link Fences

Miriam Krinsky, a former federal prosecutor who has worked on police reform efforts in Los Angeles, said the most fundamental strategy for dueling demonstrations is keeping the two sides separate, with physical obstacles and police in between. “Create a human barrier so the flash points are reduced as quickly as possible,” she said.

Law enforcement will sometimes quarantine protesting hate groups inside concentric chain link fences, creating a large empty space between opposing groups. Those entering the inner ring are sent through metal detectors.

A New Generation of White Supremacists Emerges in Charlottesville

A group that included many people who were college-educated or ex-military displayed effective planning. “White people are pretty good at getting organized,” said one. Read the story.

At an anti-Sharia protest in San Bernardino, California earlier this year, the two groups were kept on opposite sides of the street, with horse-mounted cops there to prevent protesters from crossing over.

The lack of space to separate the factions was a widely noted problem in Charlottesville. The massive demonstration was allowed to take place inside a small downtown park, making it more difficult for police to insert themselves and separate the two sides. “The two groups are both trying to occupy the same area and this doesn’t give police a lot of maneuverability,” said John Kleinig, professor emeritus at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Demonstrators ended up spilling out beyond the park, and one counter-protester was killed when an Ohio man allegedly plowed his car into a crowd a few blocks away from the park.

Demonstrations can in some ways be easier to control in concentrated urban areas, where police use tall buildings with little or no space in between them as barriers. And smaller city police forces generally have less training in large crowd control.

“I’m former NYPD,” Levin said. “We had grid patterns and streets we could block off, put a wedge in when we had an unruly crowds. … You have people hemmed in by structures and street grid patterns. In smaller places, people can spread out in all different directions.”

Since the weekend, amid criticism of their handling of the demonstration, Charlottesville Police Chief Al Thomas acknowledged that crowd’s spread led to problems.

“We had to actually send out forces to multiple locations to deal with a number of disturbances,” he said. “It was certainly a challenge. We were spread thin once the groups dispersed.”

Special correspondent Pia Dangelmayer in Germany contributed to this story.

 

 

ProPublica

 

Elon Musk may be a “visionary,” but his vision doesn’t seem to include unions

Tesla required employees to sign confidentiality agreements which prevent them from discussing workplace conditions

Elon Musk may be a “visionary,” but his vision doesn’t seem to include unions
(Credit: AP)
This article originally appeared in In These Times


Tesla CEO Elon Musk has been making more headlines than usual lately. Shortly after the business magnate claimed he had received governmental approval to build a hyperloop from New York to Washington, D.C., he got into a public argument with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg about the future of artificial intelligence. Musk also recently made comments regarding the production of Tesla’s new Model 3, a battery-electric sedan. “We’re going to go through at least six months of manufacturing hell,” he told journalists.

It’s hard to know exactly what constitutes “manufacturing hell,” but it might also be difficult to ever find out. That’s because, since last November, Tesla has required employees to sign confidentiality agreements which prevent them from discussing workplace conditions. This policy has faced increased criticism since February, as workers at Tesla’s Fremont, Calif. plant have expressed concern over wages, safety and their right to unionize. They have reached out to the United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW) union, which is now intervening.

Last week, some of those workers made specific demands. A group called Tesla Workers’ Organizing Committee sent a letter to the company’s board members seeking safety improvements and a clearer promotion policy. The letter cites 2015 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the last full year for which such information is available. “For that year, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that our injury rate was higher than that of sawmills and slaughter houses. Accidents happen every day,” reads the letter. The committee also addressed Tesla’s resistance to workplace organizing: “We should be free to speak out and to organize together to the benefit of Tesla and all of our workers. When we have raised this with management we have been met with anti-union rhetoric and action.”

Attention was originally drawn to the factory’s organizing fight after Tesla employee Jose Moran published a Medium post on February 9. Moran raises safety concerns, writing that, a few months ago, six of the eight people on his work team were on leave due to workplace injuries. He also breaks down problems with the factory’s wages. According to Moran, workers at the Tesla factory make between $17 and $21 in Alameda county, an area where the living wage is more than $28 an hour. Moran wrote that some of his coworkers make a two-hour commute to work because they can’t afford to live near the factory.

“Tesla’s Production Associates are building the future: They are doing the hard work to build the electric cars and battery packs that are necessary to reduce carbon emissions. But they are paid significantly below the living wage for one adult and one child in our community,” Maria Noel Fernandez, campaign director of the local worker advocacy group Silicon Valley Rising, told In These Times via email. “We believe that green jobs should be good jobs, and that they have a right to organize and advocate for themselves and their families.”

The day after Moran published his post, employees passed out literature containing the piece during a shift change at the factory. According to an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) made by workers, and obtained by Capital and Main, this prompted management to schedule a meeting where workers were told they couldn’t pass out information unless it was pre-approved by the employer. The same NLRB charge accuses Tesla of illegal surveillance and intimidation.

Moran’s piece, and the subsequent accusations, were taken seriously enough to be addressed by Elon Musk directly. In an email to employees, obtained by Buzzfeed, Musk declared that safety concerns ignored vast improvements established in 2017. Tesla also put out a statement echoing Musk’s claims. The company’s data points to a 52 percent reduction in lost time incidents and a 30 percent reduction in recordable incidents during the company’s first quarter.

Musk promised a “really amazing party” for workers after the Model 3 reached volume production. In addition to the party, the factory would eventually include free frozen yogurt stands and a roller coaster. “It’s going to get crazy good,” he wrote. As for Moran, Musk claimed he was a paid UAW plant and that he had looked into his claims and discovered they weren’t true. The UAW, he explained, “does not share our mission” and their “true allegiance is to the giant car companies, where the money they take from employees in dues is vastly more than they could ever make from Tesla.”

This wouldn’t be the last time Musk would use such language in regards to a union. Six months after Tesla acquired Germany’s Grohmann Engineering, Musk found himself clashing with the country’s dominant metalworkers’ union, IG Metall. The union intervened to insist that Tesla straighten out a wage discrepancy that had some workers claiming they were making 30 percent less than union rates. Musk sent a letter to Grohmann employees offering a one-time bonus — an extra 150 Euros a month — and Tesla shares instead of a pay increases that the employees desire. “I do not believe IG Metall shares our mission,” reads the letter.

“We’re a money-losing company,” Musk told The Guardian in May. “This is not some situation where, for example, we are just greedy capitalists who decided to skimp on safety in order to have more profits and dividends and that kind of thing.” Two months after that interview, Automotive News reported that Musk had been the highest paid auto executive of 2016, exercising stock options worth $1.34 billion. Musk’s incredible economic success hasn’t exactly been generated via an unfettered free market. According to data compiled by the Los Angeles Times in 2015, Musk’s companies have benefited from billions in government subsidies.

Whether or not Tesla’s board members are receptive to employee demands, it seems clear that the workers’ struggle is not going away anytime soon.

As Americans die younger, corporations to reap billions in pension costs

By Kate Randall
11 August 2017

Life expectancy for Americans has stalled and reversed in recent years, ending decades of improvement. According to a new Bloomberg study, this grim reality has an upside for US corporations, saving them billions in pension and other retirement obligations owed to workers who are dying at younger ages.

In 2015, the American death rate rose slightly for the first time since 1999, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Over the last two years, at least 12 large companies have reported that negative trends in mortality have led them to reduce their estimates for how much they could owe to retirees by a combined $9.7 billion, according to Bloomberg’s analysis of company filings.

It is highly unusual in modern times, except under epidemic or war conditions, for life expectancy in an industrial country to stop improving, let alone decline. Laudan Aron, a demographer at the Urban Institute, told Bloomberg that falling US life expectancy, especially when compared to other high-income countries, should be “as urgent a national issue as any other that’s on our national agenda.”

But this has not sounded alarm bells in Washington. In fact, shortened life expectancy in the 21st century is the result of deliberate government policy of both big business parties: to restrict access to affordable health care, resulting in increased disease, suffering and early death.

Those who stand to cash in on the shortened lifespans of workers include General Motors, Verizon and other giant corporations. Lockheed Martin, for instance, has reduced its estimated retirement obligations for 2015 and 2016 by a total of about $1.6 billion, according to a recent annual report.

Companies have reduced estimates of what they will owe future retirees. According to a Society of Actuaries (SOA) report, companies can expect to lower their pension obligations by about 1.5 to 2 percent, based on a 2016 update of mortality data.

Life expectancy for the US population was 78.8 in 2015, a decrease of 0.1 year from 2014, according to the CDC, with the age-adjusted death rate increasing 1.2 percent over the year. Since the introduction in 1965 of Medicare and Medicaid—the government insurance programs for the elderly, poor and disabled—US life expectancy has steadily increased.

Death rates for Americans over age 50 have improved by 1 percent on average each year since 1950, according the SOA. In 1970, a 65-year-old American could expect to live another 15.2 years, on average, until just past 80 years.

From 2000 to 2009, the death rates for Americans over age 50 decreased, with annual improvements of 1.5 to 2 percent. By 2010, a 65-year-old could expect to live to 84. But these increases have slowed in recent years, with life expectancy at 65 rising only about four months between 2010 and 2015.

The slowing in death rate improvements since 2010, and the actual lowering of life expectancy in 2015, have followed the global financial crash of 2007-2008. Despite the Obama administration’s declaration that the Great Recession ended mid-2009, millions of US workers and their families continue to suffer under the weight of unemployment, underemployment, and stagnant or falling wages.

Seven years after the Affordable Care Act was signed into law, a staggering 28 million Americans remain uninsured. Those who are insured have seen their premiums, deductibles and other out-of-pocket costs skyrocket. Families are saddled with billions of dollars in medical debt.

The lack of access to affordable health care is resulting in an unprecedented health crisis in the US. A 2015 study showed that mortality was rising for middle-aged white Americans, with deaths from suicides, drug overdoses and alcohol, collectively referred to as “ deaths of despair.” Both women and men have been affected by this phenomenon.

CDC data shows that more than 500,000 Americans have died of drug overdoses in the period between 2000 and 2015, now approaching an average of 60,000 a year.

The 10 leading causes of death in 2015 were heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory diseases, unintentional injuries, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, influenza and pneumonia, kidney disease, and suicide, according the CDC. Despite scientific advances in medical treatment and the development of new drugs to treat these diseases and conditions, they still accounted for 74.3 of all US deaths in 2015.

Moreover, from 2014 to 2015, age-adjusted death rates increased 0.9 percent for heart disease, 2.7 percent for chronic lower respiratory diseases, 6.7 percent for unintentional injuries, 3 percent for stroke, 15.7 percent for Alzheimer’s disease, 1.9 percent for diabetes, 1.5 percent for kidney disease, and 2.3 percent for suicide. Only cancer saw a reduction, of 1.7 percent.

It is on the backs of workers dying earlier from these diseases, alongside “deaths of despair,” that US corporations now stand to save billions, increasing their bottom lines by not paying out pensions and retirement benefits.

This is by design. Obamacare was the first significant effort to reduce the trend of increasing life expectancy by shifting the costs of medical care from the corporations and government to the working class. The ACA was drafted in close consultation with the insurance industry, requiring those without insurance to purchase coverage from private insurers under the threat of tax penalty.

The ACA set into motion the rationing of health care for ordinary Americans, making vitally needed treatments and medicines increasingly inaccessible for millions. This has now borne fruit in the first reduction in US life expectancy in more than half a century.

Following the Republicans’ failure to “repeal and replace” Obamacare, the Democrats have responded by offering to work with the Republicans to “repair” the ACA. But they do not mean reducing the number of uninsured or further expanding Medicaid.

Instead they have offered a five-point plan to shore up the insurance companies by setting up a “stability fund” for companies to insure high-risk enrollees, and guaranteeing they receive $8 billion in government cost-sharing payments to the insurance firms that the Trump administration has threatened to cut off.

Such measures, along with savings from unpaid retirement benefits, will further bloat corporate profits along with those of the private insurance companies and health care industry as a whole.

WSWS

Capitalism doesn’t give a flying fuck

Leela Yellesetty explains why the abysmal conditions endured by airline passengers and workers alike have everything to do with the bosses’ bottom line.

Airlines are cramming more and more passengers onto each flight

Airlines are cramming more and more passengers onto each flight

DURING HIS brief but memorable tenure as White House communications director, Anthony “The Mooch” Scaramucci attempted to explain Trump’s vision for health care reform:

What the president is trying to do is make the health care system freer. So why not disrupt and decentralize the system, make it more price competitive, increase competition for the insurance companies and trust the process of the free market, like in telecom, like in airlines?

Really? Yes, the health care system is awful, but did the Mooch really think a good selling point for reform would be to make it more like Comcast, the most hated company in America? Or United Airlines, which wasn’t able to beat out Comcast even by dragging a bloodied man off a plane, so they decided to kill a bunny rabbit for good measure?

“No one wants health care to be like the airlines!” talk-show host Seth Meyers quipped in response, “‘How was the hospital?’ ‘Not great. My surgery was three hours late, my bed was double-booked so they dragged me out of the OR, and then they sent my appendix to Albuquerque!'”

What’s to blame for the awful treatment of passengers and airline workers alike? The problem isn’t bad business decisions, but the drive for sky-high profits.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

FOR THOSE of us who hate the elaborate torture that is U.S. air travel–that is, all of us who can’t afford first class–we have some tentative good news. A recent ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals directed the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to address “the Case of the Incredible Shrinking Airline Seat,” as one judge put it.

The ruling came in response to a petition filed by the consumer advocacy group Flyers Rights, which pointed out that the distance between seats, known as the “pitch,” has decreased from an average of 35 inches to 31, with some as low as 28, while seat widths have shrunk by an inch and half in the past decade–at the same time as the average passenger has grown larger.

The group argued that this posed a health and safety hazard by making it difficult to evacuate in an emergency and increasing the risk of passengers developing deep vein thrombosis (DVT), a potentially fatal condition caused by a blot clot as a result of prolonged sitting in cramped space.

The FAA rejected the petition, claiming–with “research” to back it up–that the issue of seat size was one of comfort and not safety. While the court agreed that the danger of DVT was not well established, on the safety claims, it blasted the FAA for a “vaporous record” of “off-point studies and undisclosed tests using unknown parameters.”

Indeed, the FAA refused to disclose most of the tests used to make its decision, claiming they were proprietary.

While the ruling simply directs the FAA to revisit the petition and doesn’t directly compel the agency to set minimum standards for seat size, it is certainly a positive development in the face of the ongoing airline assault on our safety and comfort, not to mention dignity.

Apparently not everyone is cheering this development, though.

In article sneeringly titled “Let Them Shrink: FAA Should Not Regulate Airline Seat Space,” Forbes‘ Omri Ben-Shahar argued that the airlines are actually giving consumers exactly what they asked for. That is, if we want cheaper flights, we should be prepared to suffer for them.

If you want better seats, just pay more–indeed, one reason our seats are shrinking is to make room for “premium” options for the lucky few.

William McGhee, author of the airline industry expose Attention All Passengerssummed up the attitude of Forbes writers and airline executives this way:

Things are just fine in business class and first class. I don’t think that’s coincidental. It reflects the larger issues we face as a society right now, the 99 Percent vs. the 1 Percent. I’ve talked to execs about deteriorating conditions in the back, and their response is basically, ‘You should pay for and sit up front,’ which is a bit of a ‘Let them eat cake’ response.

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AS EASY as it can be to dismiss an argument inspired by Marie Antoinette, it’s worth probing some of the claims that Ben-Shahar makes more closely.

For one thing, it’s true that airline travel is more affordable and accessible to the average person that it was in the glory days of free food and adequate legroom.

Back then, air travel was largely a preserve of the wealthy. For free-market enthusiasts like Ben-Shahar and the Mooch, therefore, the deregulation of the airline industry in 1978 was a victory for consumers, increasing competition and thereby lowering fares and improving service.

This sounds good, but it doesn’t remotely depict what has actually happened in the decades since deregulation. Instead, what’s played out is a sordid tale of rampant inefficiencies, corruption, bankruptcies, mergers and deteriorating conditions for both passengers and workers.

Right after deregulation, there were more than 400 certified carriers and 10 major airlines. Today, just four airlines control 80 percent of all domestic flights. Rather than encourage competition, deregulation removed antitrust provisions, allowing airlines to collude in raising fares while reducing service.

The 2013 merger of American and US Airways to create the world’s largest airline was accomplished by an army of corporate lobbyists, lawyers and economists, while executives and their Wall Street backers salivated at the profits to be made from the deal:

Indeed, government investigators had uncovered documents showing airline executives crowing about how mergers allow them to charge travelers more. “Three successful fare increases–[we were] able to pass along to customers because of consolidation,” wrote Scott Kirby, who became the president of the new American Airlines, in a 2010 internal company presentation…

A 2014 Goldman Sachs analysis about “dreams of oligopoly” used the American-US Airways merger as an example. Industry consolidation leads to “lower competitive intensity” and greater “pricing power with customers due to reduced choice,” the analysis said.

Another useful tool in the industry playbook is bankruptcy. All of the four remaining airlines filed for bankruptcy in the past decade–and they are now the four most profitable airlines in the world.

In fact, they were doing just fine before, but bankruptcy allowed them to slough off inconvenient costs of providing decent pay and benefits to their employees. As United Auto Workers activist Gregg Shotwell commented on American’s 2011 bankruptcy:

Capitalism isn’t above the law in the United States–it is the law. Peace and solidarity activists are hounded, harassed and arrested, but the forcible transfer of wealth from the working class to the investing class is protected concerted activity.

American Airlines’ debt doesn’t outweigh its cash and assets. In fact, American is financing its own bankruptcy. That’s not distress, it’s brass-knuckles union busting. The business press makes no bones about American Airlines’ plan to profit off the broken backs of labor contracts. In fact, they crow about it.

American Airlines ordered 460 new planes from Boeing and Airbus less than five months ago, at a cost of $38 billion. Those contracts will be honored even as American plans to dump pensions underfunded by about $10 billion for approximately 130,000 workers and retirees.

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THIS UNION busting comes with real consequences for passenger safety as well. Abysmal pay and working conditions for pilots in budget regional carriers has resulted in an increase in crashes, to give just one example.

While cutting corners on workers’ rights has helped boost airline profits and executive compensation, the impact on fares for passengers is less than meets the eye. As Carl Finamore explained in a 2010 article republished at SocialistWorker.org:

Champions of the free market boast about upwards of a 20 percent reduction in fares since 1978 when airlines were freed to set their own prices without the nuisance of government regulators. But this is very misleading. There are several factors contributing to the decline in prices. For example, booking online has almost entirely eliminated the large commissions of travel agents. Experts state these fees normally accounted for a full 10 percent of ticket prices.

And while it is true that fares to large cities has benefited from increased competition, where it exists, smaller communities have, conversely, seen substantial fare increases as their airports have experienced reduced or lost service. Millions of travelers are also forced to purchase tickets to major hub airports they otherwise would have bypassed during the period of regulation where direct flights to and from smaller markets were offered.

The last major factor making the price of flights misleading is the explosion of fees for everything from luggage to meals to wifi to the ability to board early–coming soon: the surcharge if you would like to not be beaten and dragged off the plane. This has been the single largest source of profits for airlines in the last decade, with Delta alone pulling in $5.7 billion from such fees in 2013 alone.

As Tim Wu pointed out in the New Yorker, this pricing model sets up a perverse incentive:

Here’s the thing: in order for fees to work, there needs be something worth paying to avoid. That necessitates, at some level, a strategy that can be described as “calculated misery.” Basic service, without fees, must be sufficiently degraded in order to make people want to pay to escape it. And that’s where the suffering begins.

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IS THERE any way out of calculated misery?

The current trajectory we’re on doesn’t seem promising. While the past few years saw record profits for airlines in part due to lower fuel costs, as costs begin to rise, we should expect new rounds of crisis, bankruptcies and mergers, all of which will, of course, be apaid for by further attacks on worker and passenger dignity.

Ultimately, we would be wise to heed the words of former American Airlines CEO Bob Crandall that “market forces alone cannot and will not produce a satisfactory airline industry, which clearly needs some help to solve its pricing, cost and operating problems.”

Nationalizing and making the airlines a public utility would be a rational response to the anarchic yet calculated misery of deregulation. In a sane system, we would also look for ways to reduce the amount of air travel, given its carbon footprint, but this would require reorganizing corporate practice and providing affordable, sustainable travel alternatives, such as high-speed rail, as well as providing workers more vacation days to make slower forms of travel feasible.

Of course, we should expect none of these solutions to be forthcoming from the airline executives–least of all under a certain president who, within weeks of taking office, gleefully told a group of them: “You’re going to be so happy with Trump.”

Instead our salvation from the unfriendly skies lies, as an anonymous Delta employee put it recently, in passengers and airline workers joining forces in support of each other:

Instead of indicting each other (employees and passengers), we should focus on fostering solidarity. Many of our interests are the same.

Most obviously, a passenger’s flying conditions are also an airline employee’s working conditions…The declining emphasis put on passenger comfort and airline employee working conditions can be traced back to a common cause: the deregulation of the U.S. airline industry and the relentless pursuit of profit.

https://socialistworker.org/2017/08/10/capitalism-doesnt-give-a-flying-f–k

Should We Really Be Afraid of World War III?

What is War?

You’re afraid, I’m afraid. He’s going to start World War III. Is that a rational fear, or an irrational phobia? After all, there’s a world of difference between the two.

What is war? What was the last great war? Just seeing war as war is not to see it at all. War is a pattern that defies other patterns. It is an avalanche, not an equation. The pattern of stagnation, rage, hate, demagoguery, war, atrocity. That is what World War II really was. The causes were rooted in a German economy broken by a peace whose price was too high: it simply couldn’t repay Britain what was decided that it owed. The result was mass stagnation, that became rage, which metastasized, in the hands of a demagogue, into hate at scapegoated minorities, and then hurled, blitzkrieg, at neighbors and allies, in the forms of planes and tanks.

That pattern of what “war” is long precedes the planes and tanks that are all we often see and remember, and that is precisely the problem. Stagnation is like a river. Every river flows into the ocean. Stagnation flows into the great ocean of death. Beneath the strategies of generals and the feats of heroes, “war” is economic stagnation transforming, in a kind of devil’s magic, into bullets and bombs. People who should be productively employed, living gentle, happy lives, instead devote those very lives to making death. The instruments are just means — iron, steel, uniforms, rallies, raids, and so on. The product of stagnation is death.

Every great war in history has stagnation as its cause, by either omission or commission. Of course, like all good and clever people, you will rebel at my saying that. You want, maybe need, to be the smartest, so you will try to find an exception. Go ahead and try. There are no exceptions. Behind every great army, behind every rain of bullets, you will find the same pattern: a stagnant (or soon to be) economy, where people have been told, by a clever demagogue, that the path to prosperity is by taking it from those people.

“Those people”. Who are they? First they are the internal others. The Jews, Muslims, gypsies, gays. Then they are the external others. The aliens, the hated, the enemies. At last, they are friends and neighbours and allies. And when that point is reached, then there is war at last. The product of stagnation is death, and the great consumers of death are the desperate and broken people for whom the only salvation left is taking prosperity from the next village, town, city, country.

But death is death. And so war is unlike other human endeavours. Marriages and laws and even countries can be made and unmade. War, death, cannot be undone. It works on precisely the opposite logic: not that of a contract, but that of an avalanche. Slowly, slowly, the snow piles up atop the mountains. And then — silently, the most inconsequential thing in the world happens. One snowflake shifts. An archduke is killed. A treaty is broken. A messenger forgets his way. A tax is protested. And then the avalanche, years of hard packed snow, thunders down the mountain. War. Its logic is the precise opposite of it’s what produces it: collapse. War is the inverse of collapse: it is an eruption waiting to happen.

War is the eruption in collapse. So now that we understand what war is, let us answer the question: is it rational, or merely irrationally phobic, to fear World War III?

The next great World War is likely to be the eruption in American collapse. The pattern is exactly the same. Stagnation, rage, hate, demagoguery — then violence, atrocity, and so on. We are already halfway to world war, if you understand war as the sudden eruption of collapse’s volcano. This decade is a repeat of the 1930s. Or: the river of ruin has begun flowing down the mountain, into the ocean of death. American collapse is in danger of producing, just as German collapse did before it, and European collapse did before that, a World War. Just as Roman collapse, Greek collapse, Persian collapse, and so on did, right back to the end of time. This much is the tale of history, of men burning with greed, shackled by blood, with greatness shining in their eyes.

But there is another tale, too. It is the tale of a golden age of global peace and prosperity. The aftermath of the last great war, when people, at least some people, came together to build history truly greatest accomplishments. What are those accomplishments? Do I mean Teslas and YouTubes and profit margins and McMansions? No. I mean European Unions and National Healthcare Services and high speed railways that whisk me from once a war-torn Paris to Barcelona. These are the things that prevent wars. They are called public goods, and I mean that literally: the good in them, of and for the people, prevents and stays the human heart from becoming the cauldron of war. Now: America’s karma is sealed, precisely because it never built such public goods, which led to hate, greed, fear, as ways of life, being, seeing. Its collapse is already written. The only question is whether the eruption American collapse produces can somehow be contained. Can it? I don’t know. Here is what I do know.

America’s heart is cauldron. Mine was, too, once. And then I spent a long time dying. It erased every last speck of greed and hate and fear I once felt. Dying, I discovered, is the gift of making peace with one’s broken and wounded self. My river of ruin no longer flows into that ocean of death. It dried up, and in its place a garden grew. Maybe, then, dying in that way is the first and last way. Before the bullets fly and the bombs fall.

Umair
August 2017

View story at Medium.com

GOP launches counteroffensive against the media — to distract America from its massive failure

Republicans promised real accomplishments in Trump’s first 200 days. Now they must fall back on propaganda

Donald Trump’s base is shrinking, no matter what he tweets to the contrary. Two hundred days into his term, he has few legislative accomplishments to tout — despite Republicans controlling the White House and both chambers of Congress for the first time in a decade — and nobody to blame.

The president is increasingly frustrated that his raucous campaign-like crowds in friendly red states have not drowned out the Russia investigation or poll numbers that have him sinking to below 35 percent approval — and those poll numbers are starting to make congressional Republicans nervous.

Now Republicans have launched a counteroffensive.

It’s still 15 months until the midterm election, but in some ways the campaign is in full swing. House Republicans unveiled a new website on Monday meant to provide counterprogramming that depicts an alternative 200-day timeline highlighting GOP accomplishments and building up a favorite Republican boogeyman: the media.

“House Republicans aren’t distracted by the newest countdown clock on cable news or partisan sniping in Washington, D.C.,” the website, “Did You Know,“ reads. Republicans hope to blame the press for not writing more about their legislative achievements. Trump even took a break from his vacation to send off a barrage of tweets early Monday morning blasting the “Fake News” media.

But unlike the propaganda “real news” videos posted to Trump’s Facebook page in recent months — made to appear as “real” news segments hosted by Trump’s daughter-in-law Lara — House Republicans’ new venture more closely resembles the commercials put out by previous re-election campaigns.

“You don’t care about those things. You care about finding a good job, taking care of your family, and achieving the American Dream, and so do we,” the House GOP’s new ad announces.

Of course, some may recall that House Speaker Paul Ryan promised that “this will be the most productive presidency and Congress in our lifetimes” and initially pledgedto repeal and replace portions of Obamacare by spring and tackle tax reform before the August recess.

Ryan’s gamble on a glossy new campaign meant to distract from his failed policies is likely to pay off. Republican voters have long been primed to distrust the mainstream media. A poll released late last month found that nearly half of all Republicans are in favor of courts shutting down media outlets that publish biased information. A majority of Republicans also said they support fines for media outlets that put out biased or inaccurate news reports.

As mentioned earlier, Trump’s personal Facebook page — not the White House’s Facebook page — has recently taken to producing what it calls “real news” video clips that highlight positive stories ignored by the media as controversy further engulfs the administration. Last week, Lara Trump, the wife of Trump’s youngest adult son, Eric, informed more than 2 million viewers that Trump donated his presidential salary to the Department of Education.

A nearly identical video was posted Sunday by Trump supporter Kayleigh McEnany, a former CNN contributor who announced her departure from the network only hours before appearing in the pro-Trump propaganda video. On Monday, it was announced that McEnany would become the next spokesperson for the Republican National Committee.

“Thank you for joining us, everybody. I’m Kayleigh McEnany, and that is the real news,” the conservative television commentator said to end her “News of the Week” segment for Trump’s Facebook page.

McEnany’s seamless transition from CNN to “Trump TV” to the RNC is such a transparent circumvention of the fourth estate that even conservative commentator Erick Erickson complained on Twitter: “How very Soviet.”

In fairness, Republicans aren’t trying to hide their propaganda push. The Trump campaign said it plans to use its fledgling Facebook show to “continue to promote real news” and to “talk to Americans directly.”

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon’s Deputy Politics Editor and resides in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.