Separating fact from fake news

Danny Katch, author of Socialism…Seriously: A Brief Guide to Human Liberation, considers how the left can analyze the world in the Trumpian era of “alternative facts.”

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer

ALL GOVERNMENTS lie, as the independent journalist I.F. Stone once said. But not all governments lie as proudly as those led by Donald Trump.

This guy started his presidency issuing an easily disprovable falsehood about the size of the crowd at his inauguration, a typically Trumpish blend of silly and creepy, like a dictator declaring that from this day forward the sky is officially orange (or climate change is a hoax). He lies so often that a whole category of his lies are denials of previous lies.

Corporate-owned media outlets generally obey the unwritten rule that the spokespeople for government sources should be treated as credible–regardless of how many times they’ve been caught lying–but the new president’s obvious disdain for the truth pushed many of them to adopt a more Stone-like stance of skepticism.

But Trump only needed to lob some missiles and bombs in enemy lands to restore the press back to its natural state of blind trust in authority. The Pentagon announced that it dropped the “Mother of All Bombs” in eastern Afghanistan, and there was little mainstream questioning of the government’s claim that this monstrosity with a mile-wide blast radius managed to only kill bad guys.

Clearly the left has to take a different approach, and treat the word of the U.S. government as we would that of any individual with a similarly long history of murder and mendacity.

But if we don’t trust the government–and, by extension, many of the mainstream news reports that simply repeat government talking points–then how do we get our information?

The left doesn’t have the resources to replicate all of the bureaus and investigative reporting of media corporations. Progressive media like Democracy Now! and Truthout (or even your humble correspondents at SocialistWorker.org) can sometimes deliver important scoops, but radicals have no choice but to rely on larger outlets for much of our information.

The defining difference between the left and the corporate media is not that we have different facts–because we often don’t–but that we have different frameworks for interpreting and drawing conclusions from those facts. That’s important to keep in mind at a time when “alternative facts” are becoming a growing problem on the left as well as the right.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

OUR STARTING point at SocialistWorker.org is that, as mentioned, we don’t trust “our” government.

But we should be consistent like I.F. Stone and be suspicious of all governments–especially those like the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, which has tortured and murdered hundreds of thousands of people and lied about its crimes with a boldness that would make Sean Spicer bow down in admiration.

This is unfortunately not a universal method across the left. Like the closed circuit of right-wing websites passing the same fabrications back and forth about disease-spreading immigrants and “black-on-black crime,” there are a growing number of websites recycling dubious speculations about “false flag” operations in Syria designed to discredit the Assad government.

These conspiracy theories not only suck a few people down the “truther” rabbit hole, but they also create a deliberately muddled atmosphere on the left that can make new activists think they need to read detailed studies of the property of sarin gas just to have an opinion on something that couldn’t be more clear: the Assad government is monstrous.

SocialistWorker.org has drawn that conclusion not because the U.S. government says so, but because millions of Syrians have said so–including those who have been killed, jailed and exiled in the process.

That gets to the next element of our framework for evaluating facts and understanding the world. We may not trust governments, but we listen closely to ordinary people, particularly when they are organized in large-scale protest movements.

Protesters can lie, of course, and protest movements are subject to manipulation, whether by foreign agents or homegrown opportunists. But our starting assumption when hundreds of thousands or millions of people take to the streets is that they are not mere puppets of a foreign power.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

HERE’S THE thing about government lies: They’re usually not very effective–and in reality, they don’t need to be.

When the cops kill another unarmed African American and claim he was charging at all five of them with a pair of scissors, they don’t get away with it because we all believe them–certainly not those of us who live in the neighborhood. They get away with it because cops are allowed to murder unarmed Black people. The lie is just a formality.

Or take the lies that the Bush administration told about Iraq having “weapons of mass destruction,” which some now cite as “precedent” for the U.S. lying about Assad using chemical weapons.

There are two false assumptions that have developed in recent years about the big WMD lie.

The first is that most people were tricked by the lie into supporting the war. In fact, the U.S. population was pretty much split down the middle, and the protests against the Iraq invasion before it happened were some of the largest in U.S. history. Like killer cops, the Bush administration went to war with Iraq not because they were able to fool us, but because they had the power to disregard popular will.

The second myth is that the WMD lie was essential for the war. In fact, it wasn’t necessarily the belief in WMDs that led people to support the invasion, but the other way around. Just as people who want to drill for more oil find a way to not believe in climate change, people who wanted the invasion to happen convinced themselves that Saddam Hussein had his finger on the button of an arsenal of WMDs.

As for our side, while we certainly didn’t believe the Bush’s lies–especially when they were contradicted by the person charged with inspecting Iraq for WMDs–many of us wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that Iraq did indeed hide chemical or biological weapons. After all, the U.S. had considered Saddam Hussein an ally until he became an enemy.

Our opposition to the war wasn’t based on believing that Iraq didn’t have WMDs, but on the anti-imperialist understanding that the United States isn’t a force that would protect the world from those weapons.

Similarly today, opposing the U.S. waging war on the Syrian government doesn’t require us to believe the Assad regime didn’t carry out the recent poison gas attack (which it almost certainly did)–any more than protesting the Ferguson police murder of Mike Brown required us to know that Brown hadn’t first robbed cigarillos from a convenience store (which he almost certainly didn’t.)

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

THE LEFT that needs to grow into a force that can challenge Donald Trump has to be one that doesn’t create its own alternative facts to fit into our alternative politics. On the contrary, we have to do our best to gather and interpret new information from all available sources in order to keep up our understanding of a constantly changing world.

This dynamism is another element of our political framework, and it’s admittedly more complicated than simply trusting what the leaders of protest movements say more than governments. Assessing the changes in inter-imperial rivalries and the competing political tendencies inside opposition movements is not an exact science, and it requires a willingness to debate and change one’s mind.

But there’s a basic outline for understanding the U.S. role in the Middle East that’s clear. For years after the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. goal was regime change to install puppet governments across the region. Those plans were laid to waste, first by the failed occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan and then by the 2011 Arab Spring rebellions, which turned “regime change” into a revolutionary demand that the U.S. government instinctively opposed.

That’s why the Obama administration was very cautious about backing rebels in Syria even as Assad turned the country into a killing field that sprouted both ISIS and a mass exodus of refugees to the surrounding region and some to Europe. And it’s why Trump came into office talking even more openly about working with and not against the Syrian regime.

Yes, the U.S. government has lied to go to war, and it will undoubtedly do so in the future. But we can assume that it isn’t lying about Assad’s sarin attack, not because Trump of all people is a trustworthy president, but because he didn’t want to go to war against Syria.

(Of course, reports like this New York Times article make it unclear if the Trump administration is even competent enough to know whether or not it’s lying.)

Fifteen years ago, the 9/11 conspiracy cult did damage, not good, to the antiwar cause, and more than a few decent leftists were sucked into the abyss of all-night Internet sleuthing and “you must be in on it, too” paranoia.

Their problem wasn’t that they were wrong that the U.S. government was probably hiding details about 9/11–like the involvement of Saudi Arabia. The problem was the illusion that if only they could uncover the “truth” and bring the conspiracy to light, we could get back to the normal decency of American capitalism and empire.

Today, it’s critical that the left exposes Trump’s lies, rather than counter them with our own. Otherwise, instead of winning millions of new people to our side, we’ll just add to the general cynicism that you can’t trust anything you read anywhere.

http://socialistworker.org/2017/04/20/separating-fact-from-fake-news

Obama lives it up in the lap of luxury

By Niles Niemuth
18 April 2017

Photographs published over the weekend show former US President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama in the lap of luxury, frolicking in Tahiti on holiday with rock musician Bruce Springsteen, Hollywood star Tom Hanks and media tycoon Oprah Winfrey on the Rising Sun, a super-yacht owned by billionaire entertainment magnate David Geffen.

The response from the entertainment press to the brief glimpse into the Obama’s lavish getaway was unabashedly glowing: “American Royalty Gathered in the South Pacific” gushed Vanity Fair, “Barack and Michelle Obama Are Hanging Out With Oprah, Tom Hanks, and Bruce Springsteen on a Yacht,” squealed New York Magazine.

Geffen’s superyacht The Rising Sun in 2006

All of those among the aristocratic coterie who gathered around Obama on the world’s sixth largest motor yacht are either multi-millionaires or billionaires. Oprah has an estimated net worth of $3.1 billion; Hanks has a net worth of $350 million; Springsteen, with a net worth of $345 million, had an income of $60.5 million in 2016.

Geffen, an early backer of then Senator Obama’s campaign for the presidency in 2007, is among the richest people in the world, with an estimated net worth of $6.5 billion, placing him in the highest echelons of the top 0.01 percent.

The former president has spent much of the first three months since he left office in January hobnobbing with the elite of the elite. In February the Obamas traveled with an entourage of 100 secret service agents and aides to British billionaire Richard Branson’s private Caribbean island.

While the Obamas’ combined net worth, estimated at a measly $24 million, pales in comparison to their travel companions, the 44th president and his wife have wasted no time in cashing in on his eight years in the White House, which saw a stock market boom and record corporate profits, making the already fabulously wealthy even richer.

A $65 million deal announced in February for two books from the couple is only an initial down payment for services rendered. It is expected that they could earn nearly $300 million off of book deals, speeches and pensions.

This is not the end of the former president’s earning potential. He will have help from his wealthy friends in his efforts to become one of the wealthiest ex-presidents in American history. Billionaire director Steven Spielberg has been working with Obama to develop a “narrative” for his life post-presidency.

Those overseeing the construction and operation of the Obama presidential library and foundation have set a fundraising floor of $800 million for the center, which will be built on Chicago’s Southside.

In the waning days of his presidency, Obama openly fantasized about the possibility of joining the highly profitable world of professional sports and taking part ownership of a professional basketball team, something well within the realm of possibility given his wealth and connections. If he decides to go this route, Obama would join other celebrity NBA team owners like Michael Jordan and Mark Cuban, both billionaires. One should not be surprised to someday see an Obama-branded Nike high-top shoe.

While there never was a golden age—many presidents, including George Washington, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR and JFK were quite wealthy—things have come a long way. Thomas Jefferson had to sell his personal library to pay off his creditors. Visitors could walk up to the door of Harry S. Truman’s home in Independence, Missouri and share tea with the former president and his wife, Bess.

Today, the former president vacations at exclusive $3,000-a-night Tahitian resorts and travels the world on the yachts and private jets of billionaires. The Obamas are paying $22,000 a month to rent a “quasi-mansion” in the exclusive Kalorama neighborhood of Washington, DC. They will share a neighborhood with billionaire President Donald Trump’s multi-millionaire daughter and son-in-law and chief advisers, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, as well as billionaire Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

While always a bastion of corruption, there is a new and distinctive odor emanating from the White House and the halls of Congress. Extreme wealth is not only the outcome of holding public office, it has in fact become the rule for holding office; most Congressmen are now millionaires.

Those who hold office, and the corporate executives at whose pleasure they serve, live in a separate world from the vast majority of Americans. They have access to the best medical care the world has to offer; can skip humiliating security screenings at the airport and fly first class or in private jets without fear of being dragged off the plane; eat the best food; and drive or get driven in the most expensive cars.

The presidency and a spot in the administration are seen as tickets to even greater wealth. Filled with billionaires and multi-millionaires from the outset, the Trump administration has taken this process to its logical conclusion. Trump and his associates no doubt see their time in the White House as a shrewd business maneuver and expect to follow in the footsteps of the Obamas.

WSWS

How Trump and Obama are Exactly Alike

Not until faithfulness turns to betrayal
And betrayal into trust
Can any human being become part of the truth.

— Rumi

Trump won the 2016 nomination and election largely because he was able to pose as a populist and anti-interventionist “America Firster”.

Similarly, Obama won the 2008 election in good part because he promised “hope and change” and because he had given a speech years earlier against the then-impending invasion of Iraq.

Short of disclosure of diaries or other documents from these politicians, we can’t know for certain if they planned on reversing much of what they promised or if the political establishment compelled them to change, but they both eventually perpetrated a massive fraud.

What is perhaps most striking is actually how quickly each of them backtracked on their alleged purpose. Particular since they were both proclaimed as representing “movements”.

Even before he took office, Obama stacked his administration with pro-war people: He incredibly kept Bush’s head of the Pentagon, Robert Gates; nominated Hillary Clinton for Secretary of State, who he beat largely because she voted for giving Bush authorization to invade Iraq. Other prominent Iraq War backers atop the administration included VP Joe Biden, Susan Rice and Richard Holbrooke. Before he was sworn in, Obama backed the 2008 Israeli slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza. See from 2008: “Anti-War Candidate, Pro-War Cabinet?

Predictably, the Obama years saw a dramatic escalation of the U.S. global assassination program using drones. Obama intentionally bombed more countries than any other president since World War II: Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan. Obama talked about a nuclear weapons free world, but geared up to spent $1 trillion in upgrading the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal. At the end of his administration, attempts at the UN to work toward banning nuclear weapons were sabotaged, efforts that the Trump administration continues. At his first news conference as president, Helen Thomas asked Obama if he know of any country in the Mideast that had nuclear weapons. Obama passed on the opportunity to start unraveling the mountain of deceits that constitutes U.S. foreign policy by simply saying “Israel” and instead said that he didn’t want to “speculate” about the matter.

As many have noted recently, Trump seemingly reversed himself on Syria and launched a barrage of cruise missiles targeting the Assad regime. It’s part of a whole host of what’s called “flip-flops” — Ex-Im Bank, NATO, China, Russia, Federal Reserve — but which are in fact the unraveling of campaign deceits.

Fundamentally, Obama and Trump ran against the establishment and then helped rebrand it — further entrenching it.

And of course it’s not just foreign policy. Obama brought in pro-Wall Street apparatchiks Tim Geithner and others around Robert Rubin, like Larry Summers. Some were connected to Goldman Sachs, including Rahm Emanuel, Gary Gensler and Elena Kagan and Obama would back the Wall Street bailout. Trump campaigned as a populist and brought in a litany of Goldman Sachs tools, most prominently Steven Mnuchin at Treasury Secretary and Gary Cohn as chief economic advisor.

The nature of their deception is different. Obama is lawyerly and, like jello, hard to pin to the wall. Many of his broken promises are actually violations of the spirit of what he said, not the letter. He can promise to withdraw “all combat troops” from Iraq — but doesn’t inform voters that “combat troops” in his parlance is not the same as “troops”. And most certainly many of his backers were utterly infatuated with him and seemed incapable of parsing out his deceitful misimpressions. Obama did however outright violate some promises, most obviously to close the the gulag at Guantanamo Bay in his first 100 days.

Trump triangulates by being an electron. He can say X and not-X in the span of a minute. Like an electron, he can be in two places at the same time. Trump is just an extreme example of what should be evident: It’s largely meaningless if a politician declares a position, especially during a campaign. The question is: What have they done? How have they demonstrated their commitment to, say, ending perpetual wars or taking on Wall Street?

These people are largely salesmen.

Nor are these patterns totally new. George W. Bush campaigned against “nation building” (sic: nation destroying); Bill Clinton campaigned as the “man from Hope” for the little guy; George H. W. Bush claimed he was a compassionate conservative. All backed corporate power and finance. All waged aggressive war.

In both the cases of Obama and Trump, the “opposition” party put forward a ridiculous critique that pushed them to be more militaristic. Obama as a “secret Muslim” — which gave him more licence to bomb more Muslim countries while still having a ridiculous image of being some sort of pacifist. Much of the “liberal” and “progressive” critique of Trump has been focusing on Russia, in effect pushing Trump to be more militaristic against the other major nuclear state on the planet.

One thing that’s needed is citizens aided by media that adroitly and accessibly pierce through the substantial deceptions in real time.

Another thing that’s needed is that people from what we call the “left” and “right” need to join together and pursue polices that undermine the grip of Wall Street and the war makers. They should not be draw into loving or hating personalities or take satisfaction from principleless partisan barbs.

Only when there’s adherence to real values and when solidarity is acted upon will the cycles of betrayal be broken.

Sam Husseini is founder of the website VotePact.org

COUNTERPUNCH

How Did America’s Wealth Inequality Reach This Level of Toxic?

BOOKS
We are just beginning to understand one further dimension of toxic inequality: a devastating emotional and physiological phenomenon we might call “toxic inequality syndrome.”

Photo Credit: nuvolanevicata / Shutterstock

The following is an adapted excerpt from the new book Toxic Inequality: How America’s Wealth Gap Destroys Mobility, Deepens the Racial Divide, and Threatens Our Future by Thomas M. Shapiro. Copyright © 2017. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.:

In recent years, as living standards for many families have declined and productivity, income, and wealth gains have flowed to the very top, a new conversation about inequality has emerged in the United States. The Occupy Wall Street movement, which began in the fall of 2011, splashed inequality across the front pages and provided space for discussions about historically high income and wealth disparities and their causes. The movement pitted the wealthiest and most powerful 1 percent against 99 percent of Americans. Thomas Piketty’s best-selling 2014 book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, brought attention to a different kind of inequality with a focus on capital. Yet many popular and academic accounts of inequality, spurred by media coverage and the emerging national discourse, continued to focus on income disparities, economic class, and the mega-rich. A pre-occupation with income led to an insufficient understanding of the new inequality that left wealth out of the picture. President Barack Obama provided perhaps the crowning moment in this new public attention to economic inequality when he proclaimed in a December 2014 speech that inequality “is the defining challenge of our time.” But the president’s speech referenced income inequality eleven times and wealth inequality once. Leaving wealth out of the conversation is a crucial mistake, giving fodder to those who would make personal poverty the result of personal failings.

Wealth inequality in the United States is uncommonly high. The wealthiest 1 percent owned 42 percent of all wealth in 2012 and took in 18 percent of all income. Each year the Allianz Group, the world’s largest financial service company, calculates each country’s Gini coefficient—a measure of inequality in which zero indicates perfect equality and one hundred perfect inequality, or one person owning all the wealth. In 2015, the United States had the highest wealth inequality among industrialized nations, with a score of 80.56. Allianz dubbed the USA the “Unequal States of America.”

Wealth concentration has followed a U-shaped pattern over the last hundred years. It was high in the beginning of the twentieth century, with wealth inequality reaching its previous peak during the Depression, in 1929. It fell from 1929 to 1978 and has continuously increased since then. By 2012, the share of wealth owned by the top 0.1 percent was three times higher than in the late 1970s, growing from 7 percent in 1979 to 22 percent in 2012. The bottom 90 percent’s wealth share has steadily declined since the mid-1980s.

The rise of wealth inequality is almost entirely due to the increase in the top 0.1 percent’s wealth share. The steady decline in the bottom 90 percent’s wealth share has struck middle-class families in particular. Half the population has less than $500 in savings.

Wealth is not just a matter of money. Wealth is also about power, status, opportunity, identity, and self-image. Wealth confers transformative advantages, while lack of it brings tremendous disadvantages. A family’s income reflects educational and occupational achievements, but wealth is needed to solidify these achievements to build a solid foundation of economic security. Wealth is a fundamental pillar of economic security, and without it, hard-won gains are easily lost.

The explanations for economic inequality are many. One prominent line holds that individual values and characteristics either promote or hinder achievement and prosperity. Inequality, in this view, results from poor people’s laziness and lack of work ethic, the decline of traditional marriage, an influx of unskilled, uneducated immigrants, and dependence on welfare. Our interviews contradict such arguments—the people we spoke with, rich and poor, had broadly similar values and aspirations—and reveal instead the importance of policy and institutional factors. Other theories focus on such factors as market forces in a globalizing economy, technological change, policies, and politics.

To take a different tack, we must understand wealth and income inequality together with racial inequality. Despite recent attention to racial disparities in policing, mass deportation, persistent residential segregation, attacks on voting rights, and other manifestations of racial injustice, the conversation about widening economic inequality largely leaves out race, as if that gap’s causes, its harshest consequences, and its potential solutions are race neutral. Whether they focus on the widening gulf between the very top and various segments further down the distribution ladder, on the fortunes of the bottom 40 percent, on the dwindling of the middle class, or simply on the growing share garnered by the best-off, traditional accounts emphasize class and economics as the central (and sometimes only) explanation. As a result, much of our national discourse about inequality sees disparities as universals that impact all groups in the same ways, and many of the policy ideas proposed to address it fail to recognize the racially disparate distributional impact of universal-sounding solutions. Recent movements such as the Color of Change, the Dreamers, and Black Lives Matter are vigorously trying to recenter the inequality conversation to include race, ethnicity, and immigration. I have been inspired and heartened by the new public conversation about inequality. At the same time, I am frustrated that once again it looks like attention to class is trumping a reckoning with race.

For it is crucial to understand that the trends toward greater income and wealth inequality are converging with a widening racial wealth gap. The typical African American family today has less than a dime of wealth for every dollar of wealth owned by a typical white family. The civil rights movement and the landmark legislation of the 1960s helped to open educational and professional opportunities and to produce an African American middle class. But despite these hard-won advances, as a study following the same set of families for twenty-nine years shows, the gap between white and black family wealth has widened at an alarming pace, increasing nearly threefold over the past generation (see Figure 1.1). Looking at a representative sample of Americans in 2013, the median net wealth of white families was $142,000, compared to $11,000 for African American families and $13,700 for Hispanic families. This racial wealth gap means that even black families with incomes comparable to those of white families have much less wealth to use to cushion unemployment or a personal crisis, to apply as a down payment on a home, to secure a place for their families in a strong, resource-rich neighborhood, to send their children to private schools, to start a business, or to plan for retirement.

In short, the basic pillars of economic security—wealth and income—are today distributed vastly inequitably along racial and ethnic lines. African Americans’ historical disadvantage has become baked into the American economy. African Americans are effectively stymied from generating and retaining wealth of their own not simply by continuing racial discrimination but also by senseless policies that protect existing wealth—wealth that often originated at times of even more intense racial discrimination, if not specifically from racial plunder. Race and wealth have intertwined throughout our nation’s history. Too often missing in today’s dialogue about inequality is this binding race and wealth linkage. Failure to tackle the nexus of race and wealth will lead, at best, to only small ameliorations at the worst edges of inequality.

Figure 1.1  Median Net Wealth by Race, 1984–2013

The phrase “toxic inequality” describes a powerful and unprecedented convergence: historic and rising levels of wealth and income inequality in an era of stalled mobility, intersecting with a widening racial wealth gap, all against the backdrop of changing racial and ethnic demographics.

I call this kind of inequality toxic because, over time and generations, it builds upon itself. Wealth and race map together to consolidate historic injustices, which now weave through neighborhoods and housing markets, educational institutions, and labor markets, creating an increasingly divided opportunity structure. So long as we have entrenched wealth inequality intertwined with racial inequality, we cannot even begin to bend the arc toward equity.

Toxic inequality is also noxious in that it makes these challenges harder to tackle. High levels of material inequality are inherently destabilizing, heightening social tensions. Janet Yellen, chair of the board of governors of the Federal Reserve System, has warned that economic inequality “can shape [and] determine the ability of different groups to participate equally in a democracy and have grave effects on social stability over time.” Thomas Piketty argues that extremely high levels of wealth inequality are “incompatible with the meritocratic values and principles of social justice fundamental to modern democratic societies” and warns that a drift toward oligarchy is a real danger. The new inequality is especially politically poisonous because most people of all races feel stuck in place, finding it harder to believe that hard work, sacrifice, and innovation are going to pay off and lead to a better life. People are apt to look for someone to blame, and America’s changing demographics encourage racial division, resentment of other groups, and prejudice. These forces have complicated economic policymaking throughout our history, but they are especially dangerous today, given the urgent need to address the particular economic disadvantages facing people of color.

We are just beginning to understand one further dimension of toxic inequality: a phenomenon we might call “toxic inequality syndrome.” Are there emotional and even physiological consequences for families and individuals exposed to repeated, persistent economic trauma, frustrated ambitions, and cumulative downward spirals? We know that there is a strong relationship between adversity and social outcomes throughout the life course, with greater frequency of adverse events leading to worse outcomes. One adverse event increases the likelihood of a cascade of other stressful and traumatic events. Research has documented the negative impact of a wide variety of stress-inducing events, including community violence, accidents, life-threatening illnesses, loss of economic status, and incidences of racism. We also know that financial resources shield families from economic and social trauma, lessen the impact of some trauma, enable more rapid recovery, and reduce the risk of subsequent adverse events. Yet many of the families we spoke to experienced multiple forms of adversity—foreclosure, violence, unsafe neighborhoods, incarceration, disability, sudden or chronic family illness, family breakup, unemployment or loss of wages, declining living standards—without adequate wealth resources and without the sorts of family, institutional, community, or policy support that can also foster family resiliency.

America’s response to toxic inequality will set our future course for generations. The current magnitude of inequality robs the nation of human potential and promise, sapping aspirations and distorting futures. Earned achievements have become uncoupled from financial rewards and personal well-being. Frustrated ambitions and stalled social mobility foment racial anxieties. Without bold changes, we will keep heading toward greater inequality and become even more polarized along class and racial lines. The tiny segments of the population that are doing well will continue to do so, and the vast majority will try even harder just to stay in place. The rich and powerful will continue to write rules that protect and expand their vast advantages at the expense of those struggling to keep pace, especially younger adults and families and communities of color. As differences magnify, those groups facing the brunt of inequality, stalled mobility, and lost status will more critically interrogate the legitimacy of governmental and economic systems. Such an interrogation of deep structures is necessary and productive as long as it uncovers drivers of inequality. However, an explanation that does nothing more than pander to racial, ethnic, and class fears will short-circuit solutions. To avoid this bleak future and bend current trends in the direction of shared prosperity, we must transform the deep structures that foster inequality. Policy solutions must be bold, transformative, and at a scale sufficient to reach the families and communities most affected by toxic inequality.

Adapted excerpt from TOXIC INEQUALITY: How America’s Wealth Gap Destroys Mobility, Deepens the Racial Divide, and Threatens Our Future by Thomas M. Shapiro. Copyright © 2017. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

Thomas M. Shapiro is the Pokross Professor of Law and Social Policy at the Heller School, Brandeis University, where he directs the Institute on Assets and Social Policy. He is the author of four books, including The Hidden Cost of Being African American and, with Melvin Oliver, Black Wealth/White Wealth. His most recent book is Toxic Inequality: How America’s Wealth Gap Destroys Mobility, Deepens the Racial Divide, and Threatens Our Future.

http://www.alternet.org/books/toxic-inequality-book-race-income-and-wealth?akid=15406.265072.GJAX2r&rd=1&src=newsletter1075360&t=26

Oligarchy in America

Naming the System

In democracies, the demos, the people, rule; not social or economic elites.  This was the understanding of philosophers in Athens twenty-five centuries ago, and it remained the consensus view well into the modern era.

The received wisdom was that, like anarchy, democracy is a theoretical possibility that can be instructive to reflect upon, but not an ideal that anyone of sound mind would actually endorse.

With the emergence of capitalist economic relations, however, and, along with it, the rise of the nation state, the traditionally marginalized demos became a factor in the politics of societies on the way to modernity.

In that context, democracy took on more positive connotations.  The transformation was well underway by the time of the French and American Revolutions.

Enlightenment thought played a role in fashioning those world historical events and in promoting understandings of their significance.  It was thanks to Enlightened thinkers that the idea took hold that nation states are comprised of citizens.  The idea is that, in principle, basic rights and liberties should be distributed equally; that, within the political sphere, equality reigns.

Because it demanded the rule of only a part of the citizenry, the demotic part, the old understanding of democracy eventually gave way.  In effect, the concept was scrubbed of its class content.

Needless to say, equal citizenship does not make social and economic inequalities go away.  It does, however, establish a kind of political equality – at least in theory.   In practice, self-described democracies have sometimes accommodated egregious political inequalities.   This was what the civil rights movement in the United States was mainly about; and it has been, and still is, a major concern of feminists in the United States and around the world.

The standard understanding of political equality is formal, not substantive.  Eligible citizens get one and only one vote, and are therefore formally or procedurally equal with respect to collective decision-making.  That some citizens may have more influence in determining outcomes than others – not because they are more persuasive in deliberations, but thanks to their economic and social power – is not thought to offend the idea of citizenship as such.

Thus the rule of the demos became the rule of an undifferentiated citizenry; and we nowadays deem states democratic if they institutionalize free, fair, and competitive elections.  Sometimes other practices associated with more traditional understandings of democratic theory are required as well — especially those that assure that the public is informed and that political choices are debated without fear or intimidation.  However, these protections have more to do with liberal restrictions on what states can rightfully do than with democracy as such.

Because, in the real world, facts on the ground make the idea of rule by an undifferentiated citizenry seem ludicrously hollow, and because contemporary and traditional understandings of democracy diverge so profoundly, it can be, and often is, misleading to use the word “democracy,” as we customarily do, to denote both classical and contemporary understandings.

But because the tables have turned, because the word “democracy” nowadays has positive connotations, defenders of the status quo are reluctant to give it up.

There have been theorists, however, who, being more concerned with getting concepts straight than with using them to justify the status quo, prefer not to contest the concept, but would rather reserve it for instances in which it plainly applies.

In practice, this means using “democracy” almost exclusively in normative contexts, and in discussing the work of the great democratic theorists of the past.   It means acknowledging the fact that, for descriptive political science, the concept is as useless as the ancients believed.

Thus the late Robert Dahl suggested that instead of calling regimes like the one in the United States “democracies,” we ought to use the term polyarchy instead.

Etymologically, that word connotes the rule of the many.  The “many” Dahl had in mind were overlapping elites.  They need not all be based on wealth.  In actually existing polyarchies – or “Western democracies,” as they are more familiarly known – organized labor and civil society groups of all sorts can and do figure in the political power structure too.

From the time of the Bolshevik Revolution to this day (in sectarian circles), hard Left political parties and unaffiliated leftwing intellectuals would distinguish themselves from one another by advancing competing views of the political economy and class nature of the former Soviet Union.

Maoists and some Trotskyists called the Soviet system “state capitalist.”  There were many, not always compatible, views of what that notion implies.  For Communists, the Soviet Union was a workers’ state.  Orthodox Trotskyists agreed – but with the caveat that it was “bureaucratically deformed” to such a degree that Soviet Communism betrayed the ideals of the Revolution that gave it birth.

Building on the foundations Dahl laid, it is tempting to describe the political regime in the United States in a similar fashion.    In that spirit, and at the risk of seeming facetious, I would venture that the United States is a polyarchy with plutocratic deformations.

In plutocracies, the rich rule.  America’s plutocratic deformations are “exceptional,” compared to those of most other polyarchies, but they are not qualitatively different.  In capitalist societies, capitalists are rich, and states in capitalist societies serve their interests.  If only in this sense, the rich rule.  In nearly all cases, however, they rule in more direct ways as well.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) insisted that a condition for the possibility of democratic governance is “that none should be so rich as to be able to buy another or so poor as to be forced to sell himself.”  Nearly everyone agrees; the incompatibility of democracy with grossly unequal distributions of income and wealth is a tenet of both classical and modern democratic theory.

Polyarchies are democratic enough to be undone by gross inequalities too.  All Western democracies are more polyarchic than democratic, and they all suffer, to some extent, from deformations brought on by income and wealth inequality.  Neoliberal economic policies have made the problem worse everywhere.

However, the American polyarchy has suffered more than most; in the United States, plutocracy is out of control.

Of the many reasons why, perhaps the most important is the inability of the American state to limit political spending.  The Supreme Court’s infamous Citizens’ United ruling nowadays gets all the attention, and it deserves all the blame it gets.   It should be remembered, however, that this is only the latest in a series of Supreme Court decisions, going back at least to Buckley v. Valeo in 1976, that effectively identify political spending – and therefore political corruption – with Constitutionally protected speech.

Democracy Tamed

Until well into the nineteenth century, the political class in the United States, and its counterparts in Great Britain and elsewhere, restricted the franchise to white male property owners.

For determining how many representatives in Congress states would be allotted, slaves counted for three-fifths of a citizen.  But they were not able to vote, of course; they were the property of their owners.  Freed blacks fared no better.

Native Americans couldn’t vote either; neither could many of the (mixed race) inhabitants of the lands the United States took from Mexico in the first half of the nineteenth century.

And although dissenting voices were raised from the earliest days of the republic, white women were denied the franchise too.   The consensus view among men, and among many women as well, was that the rightness of that arrangement was too obvious to require justification.

The exclusion of propertyless white males was more problematic.  There were plenty of extant justifications to draw upon, however.  Property holders in Great Britain and their Western European counterparts had been dealing with the issue for some time, and the arguments were well worked out.

The general strategy was to take on board and then adapt the old arguments against the rule of the demos – especially the idea that for collective deliberation and decision-making to work properly, decision-makers must be educated and informed, and must have ample time to devote to deliberative processes.  Propertyless white males, having neither the time nor the resources to develop the requisite capacities, fall short on this account.

This ostensibly high-minded rationale aside, the underlying reason why the franchise was restricted to persons of property was that the last thing property holders wanted was an electorate full of poor and desperate persons.  They feared that the propertyless would use the power of the state to seize and redistribute their wealth.

Their fears were reasonable.  In the aftermath of the French Revolution, wealth and income egalitarians did call for extending the franchise in order to advance their cause.  The Chartists in Britain were the most important example, but they were not alone.

However, as the nineteenth century wore on, it became increasingly clear that the well off had little to fear.  The rise of political parties that mediated between individuals and the state was an important part of the reason why.  The party system that emerged enabled elites to channel popular aspirations in ways that left private property secure.

With its potentially counter-systemic implications neutered, democracy could finally serve as an ideal that everyone could, at least in theory, endorse.

Thus property qualifications proved less robust than racial, nativist and patriarchal restrictions of voting rights.

Under military protection, blacks could and did vote and hold office in defeated Southern states during Reconstruction.  In short order, though, they were effectively disenfranchised for the next hundred years; and, to this day, in practice, if not in theory, their right to vote remains precarious.

In the final decades of the nineteenth century, women did win the right to vote in a few Western territories and states, but it was not until 1920, after decades of struggle, that the women’s suffrage movement finally succeeded in forcing Congress and the states to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment.

These victories notwithstanding, white supremacy and patriarchy survived extensions of the franchise in much the way that private property had decades earlier.  It takes more than voting to dislodge entrenched power.

There is no doubt, however, that while progress has been uneven, the virulence of white supremacy and patriarchal domination has diminished over the past several decades.  The gains seem irreversible too; not even the malign forces behind Donald Trump can turn back the clock on this.  No doubt, voting is part of the reason why, though it is unclear how large a role it has played.

Ironically, though, over the same period, income and wealth inequality and other problems associated with plutocracy have gotten worse; voting hasn’t helped with that at all.   Indeed, many less well off voters nowadays vote for candidates and policies that make the problems associated with plutocratic rule worse.  So much for expropriating the expropriators through the ballot box!

There are many reasons why this has happened: false consciousness comes immediately to mind; it is surely part of the explanation.  For evangelicals and others with retrograde social views in the United States, so is “values voting.”

But the most important part of the explanation, in the American case, is the lack of a real opposition party that the system in place does not thoroughly marginalize.  The Democratic Party is useless for that.  To be sure, even Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have been known to mouth off about the evils of inequality.  But you don’t need a bullshit detector to see that they are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

The Trump phenomenon is both a symptom and a cause of this sorry state of affairs.  It seems anomalous, because Trump’s persona is so outrageous, and because it is plain that no one with his temperament should be anywhere near the seat of power, much less anyone as clueless as he.   It doesn’t help either that his cabinet is full of nincompoops and that his advisors are even worse; or that, for the time being, he is pursuing reactionary social and economic policies at home, and a reckless and basically incoherent agenda in foreign affairs.

But the fact is that were he now to disappear from the scene – say, by getting himself impeached or by quitting, as he has done before in his capacity as a casino tycoon and real estate mogul — it will seem, in retrospect, that while, during his tenure in office, he raised the profile of the polyarchy’s plutocratic deformations to new heights, he did not fundamentally alter the nature of the regime.

If, however, Trump somehow stays on – because his vanity demands it and because Democrats permit it – it may look instead, in retrospect, that, at this moment, we are indeed on the brink of a radical transformation; that our flawed polyarchy is about to become something America has never quite seen before, even in the robber baron days — a full-fledged oligarchy.

Oligarchy Trump Style

Oligarchy, the rule of the few, is the problem we are facing – not fascism.  Trump is no fascist, not even a “friendly fascist,” as Ronald Reagan was sometimes said to be.

For one thing, he has no coherent political vision, fascist or otherwise; for another, he lacks the stature of a true fascist leader.  Calling the Donald a fascist actually demeans fascism.  This might seem like a good thing to do.  But the description is anachronistic, and things are what they are.  It would be foolish to trade off clarity for a dubious rhetorical advantage.

It is true, though, that Trump is a magnet for the kinds of people who, in the right circumstances, become fascists; social psychologists call them “authoritarian personalities.”

The description applies, however, only to a subset of Trump voters.  Most of them were not so much voting for Trump as against Clinton and, insofar as they understood what she represented, against Clintonism – against the neoliberal turn, against liberal (“humanitarian”) imperialism, and against America’s perpetual war regime.

The great German Social Democrat August Bebel called anti-Semitism “the socialism of fools.”  In that spirit, we might say that “Trumpism is the anti-Clintonism of fools”; or rather that it would be, if saying that didn’t require dignifying Trump’s politics by putting an “ism” after his name.

Trump has unleashed the furies, the forces of darkness.  Plenty of people – Muslims, Hispanics, persons of color, women, and white workers too – are suffering on this account, and if he isn’t stopped, it will get much worse.  Even so, he will not leave America a fascist state.  The danger he poses to the political realm is of a different nature.

If he is able to ditch the largely beneficial rules and regulations he and his minions inveigh against, and if he can get Congress to enact the spending programs and tax cuts he says he favors, some very rich malefactors will do very well under his reign.  Plutocracy will flourish.

But even allowing that, as “dialecticians” would say, quality arises out of quantity, this will not change the fundamental nature of the regime.  America will still be a polyarchy — with large and growing plutocratic deformations.

It would be a regime changer, though, if Trump were to turn the rule of the many into the rule of the few.  This is what he seems to be doing, right before our eyes.

He is not just forming a “kitchen cabinet” and relying upon it inordinately.  He is relying upon people he thinks won’t betray him, and turning the reins of government over to them.

However, his is no ordinary oligarchy.  His oligarchs didn’t find him; he found them.  And, with one major exception, they aren’t even plutocrats who have grown too big – or too rich – for their britches.

“Oligarchy” has had unusually bad press in the United States of late– thanks mainly to the resurgent Russophobia that Americans of a certain age imbibed with their mother’s milk, and thanks to the fact that Democrats and their media flunkies are doing all they can to stir it up – not just to delegitimize Trump but also to deflect blame for the thrashing they took in the last election away from themselves and onto an enemy Republicans hate as much as they do.

Delegitimizing the Trump presidency is a worthwhile project, but there are less reckless ways of going about it than antagonizing a nuclear power.  Inasmuch as Trump is his own best delegitimizer, there are countless ways.

Were left-leaning pundits to go after Trump for moving the country in an oligarchic direction, they would actually be doing some good.  However, they prefer to go after him by linking him not to the homegrown oligarchs he is actually empowering, but to the oligarchs of Russia and the former Soviet republics, the evil “other.”  That way they can get Trump and get Russia too.

Russian oligarchs and their counterparts in other former Soviet republics are, for the most part, well-connected cronies of leading politicians – especially Vladimir Putin, the man Democrats and Republicans of the John McCain variety love to demonize.  The official line is that they reek of corruption; that our plutocrats are angels in comparison.

It is true that the Russian system is corrupt.  The corruption started when, with Western – especially American – help, Russia’s regression to capitalism got underway.  At first, the beneficiaries of that debacle were kleptocrats, connected to the old nomenklatura and, in some cases, to organized crime.

They made off like the bandits they are, setting the tone for what would follow as the system matured.  The corruption has never gone away.

We in the United States have our share of corruption too.  Trump fooled a lot of people campaigning against it; on the principle that it takes one to know one, he got them to think that, being on their side, he had the will and ability to “drain the swamp.” Where is Sarah Palin now that we need her to ask how that “swampy drainy thing” is going?

The way that it’s going is that he is bringing the swamp into the White House itself.  He is doing it by putting together a kind of ma and pa oligarchy that does nothing to diminish the level of corruption and that is manifestly less competent than anything Russophobic liberal pundits can find to complain about in Russia today.

Reduced to its core, the Trump oligarchy is comprised of a Trump, a Kushner, Steven Bannon and, scariest of all, Robert Mercer.

The Trump is, of course, daughter Ivanka, purveyor of baubles and fashion.  The line on her is that she is an intelligent and savvy businesswoman.  In fact, she owes her success in business to the Trump name, and she knows as much about politics as the average thirty something who was born into the gilded world of the nouveau riche.

The Donald trusts her because she is family and because, as he would be the first to say, she is hot.  Also, he needs her to be his acting First Lady.

I have high hopes, by the way, for the actual First Lady.  Circumstantial evidence and common sense – supported by serious gossip – all suggest that she increasingly regrets the Faustian bargain she made with the Donald.

If she would do the right thing, Melania Trump could do more good for her (adopted) country than any woman with access to presidential genitals since Eleanor Roosevelt — more even than Monica Lewinsky or Nancy Reagan.

But for his dalliance with the former, Bill Clinton would have had a shot at ending Social Security “as we know it,” just as surely as he and Hillary ended Aid to Families with Dependent Children; and but for the latter’s faith in astrology and her and therefore her astrologer’s influence over the villainous old Gipper, all kinds of mischief would surely have resulted.

The Kushner is Jared, Ivanka’s husband.  It was a match made in capitalist heaven.  They both have sleaze ball dads who know how to work the system.  They both grew up with more money than God.

A difference is that the Kushners couldn’t capitalize on their name, even if they wanted to, whereas the Trumps are past masters at it.   Also Jared’s father, unlike Ivanka’s, has done time.

Another difference is that Ivanka’s dad could care less about religion, except when his marks are evangelical Christians, while Jared’s is an Orthodox Jew.  So is Jared, and therefore now Ivanka as well.  The Kushners are also rabid Zionists, ethnic cleansers whose “philanthropy” aids the settler movement in Occupied Palestine.

Two mediocrities; two chips off the old block.  With oligarchs like these, how could Trump not “make America great again?”

Having identified a vacuum there to fill, Bannon, an apostle of the formerly fringe, now mainstream, far Right has managed to make himself Trump’s guru.

He is the one largely responsible for bringing serviceable cartoon characters like Kellyanne Conway and Stephen Miller into the Trump fold.  Without them and others of their ilk, Trump would now be little more than a barely remembered figure from a nightmare, and he would be even less able to govern than he currently is.  Reince Priebus and Sean Spicer are just not enough.

Bannon can also be credited with bringing a semblance of ideological coherence to the Trump campaign by drawing on the thinking of pre-World War II clerical fascists and their intellectual descendants in Europe today.  Their ideas give a nationalistic and Islamophobic coloration to the retrograde social and economic policies that Republicans traditionally champion.

How odd for a guru coaching a billionaire pretending to be an American “populist” to draw on sources rooted on the wrong side of the Dreyfus Affair, and for God-fearing, down home American Protestants not to mind the foreign and Catholic inflections.  But there it is!

It was pointed out during the campaign that the adjective “loathsome” attached to Ted Cruz’s name in much the way that “fleet footed” attached to Achilles’.  Bannon picks up on the Cruz vibe too – especially when he echoes the old Reagan nonsense about how government is not the solution, but the problem.

To make his point, Bannon appropriated, and forever sullied, the word “deconstruction,” depriving obscurantist literary theorists of one of their most cherished concepts.  Bannon and therefore Trump say that they want to deconstruct the government by which they mean reduce it down to a vanishing point – all, that is, except those parts of it that advance the class interests of the Trump and Kushner families and their class brothers and sisters.

This would include its means of domestic repression and world domination.  They want to expand all that – indeed, to throw money at it — even at the cost of offending the deficit hawks in the House and Senate, and in the larger Republican fold.

To soften the blow, Bannon and the others saw to it that those government agencies which actually serve the public would be led and staffed as much as possible by nincompoops opposed viscerally to the agencies they lead.

Even if Trump goes, this will be an enduring part of his “legacy.”  With the Donald out of the picture, we would have Mike Pence, a bona fide reactionary, in charge.  How pathetic that this is something to look forward to!

Then there is Mercer.  If Jane Mayer’s scrupulously careful investigative reporting (“fake news” in the Trump lexicon) is even remotely on track, Mercer money has effectively bought the White House – not because the Donald is on the take, he doesn’t need to be, but because he is in way over his head and Mercer and his daughter Rebekah, are, under Bannon’s direction, helping him muddle through.

In his pre-Dick Cheney days, when he too would get in over his head, the man who is now only the second worst President in modern times would rely on Bush family fixers to get him through.  Mercer is currently doing much the same for the man who knocked George W. out of first place.

Mercer, it seems, is weird as they come; daughter Rebekah, not so much.  She reportedly relishes her power and influence as the First Lady of the alt-Right.

Her father, however, hardly ever speaks.  In recent years, limitless riches seem to have brought out the inner Gatsby in the man.  He has taken to indulging a taste for Long Island estates, luxurious yachts, and lavish parties.  But even now, in comparison, Clarence Thomas, in his capacity as a Supreme Court Justice, is positively loquacious.

Mercer is an extreme libertarian and also a devote not just of the usual conspiracy theories, but also of the idea that, for example, global warming is good for the planet and that nuclear accidents and even nuclear wars really aren’t that bad.

How could such a man become so rich and therefore powerful?  The answer seems to be that, for writing computer codes useful to the financial firms he runs, he is something of an idiot savant.

Idiots savants who, for example, multiply and divide very large numbers in their heads end up in freak shows.   What Mercer is uncannily good at is as socially useless.  But it also happens to be ridiculously lucrative in our twenty-first century capitalist world.

And so Mercer and his daughter find themselves in a position to turn their fantasies into state policies that, thanks to their zeal and Trump’s fecklessness, could do irreparable harm to the human race and the planet itself.

All oligarchies are bad.  The one that Trump is laying on us could make the others, even the Russian one that Democrats and their pundits rail constantly against, look good in comparison.

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

http://www.counterpunch.org/2017/03/31/oligarchy-in-america/

The Pentagon has never been audited. That’s astonishing

The president proposes a $52bn increase in military spending while reports of waste and abuse pile up. An investigation must scrutinise spending

A portion of President Donald Trump's first proposed budget, focusing on the Department of Defense
The gap between lawmakers’ calls to blindly increase spending at DoD versus those of internal auditors to curtail its waste isn’t a new problem.’ President Trump’s budget proposals focusing on the Department of Defense. Photograph: Jon Elswick/APMonday 20 March 2017 Last modified on Monday 20 March 2017
On Thursday, Donald Trump released a preliminary budget proposal that calls for a $52bn increase in military spending. But just last December, a Washington Post investigation found that the Pentagon had buried a report that outlines $125bn in waste at the Department of Defense. That gap between lawmakers’ calls to blindly increase spending at DoD versus those of internal auditors to curtail its waste isn’t a new problem, and it’s one that, without pressure, won’t be resolved any time soon.

That’s because although it’s required to by law, the DoD has never had an audit, something every American person, every company and every other government agency is subject to. The result is an astounding $10tn in taxpayer money that has gone unaccounted for since 1996.

“Over the last 20 years, the Pentagon has broken every promise to Congress about when an audit would be completed,” the director of the Audit the Pentagon coalition, Rafael DeGennaro, told the Guardian. “Meanwhile, Congress has more than doubled the Pentagon’s budget.”

Legislation in the early 1990s demanded that all government agencies had annual audits, but the Pentagon has exempted itself without consequence for 20 years now, telling the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that collecting and organizing the required information for a full audit is too costly and time-consuming.

In the meantime, the GAO and Office of the Inspector General (IG) have published an endless stream of reports documenting financial mismanagement: $500m in aid to Yemen lost here, $5.8bn in supplies lost there, $8,000 spent on helicopter gears that really cost $500.

As reports and news articles about waste and abuse at the Pentagon pile up, prominent voices from across the political spectrum – from Bernie Sanders to Ted Cruz to Grover Norquist – are expressing support for a full audit of DoD. In a 2013 video message to the whole of the defense department, then secretary of defense Chuck Hagel told employees that the department’s non-compliance was “unacceptable”. During this past election cycle, both the Democratic and Republican platforms called for the Pentagon’s audit.

But despite broad support, the issue has remained stagnant in Washington. “I really can’t figure it out,” Democratic party representative for California Barbara Lee told the Guardian. When legislators get around to tackling waste, they “go after domestic agencies and community organizations, but they never go after the Pentagon,” she said. Since 2013, she has introduced bipartisan legislation that would financially penalize DoD for not receiving a clean audit.

“Quite frankly, they should have been audit-ready decades ago, after Congress passed the initial audit law in the early 90s,” Republican representative for Texas Michael Burgess, co-sponsor of the Audit the Pentagon Act along with Lee, told the Guardian. People have “accepted that the Department of Defense is expensive and that that’s how business has to be done. But I don’t accept that.”

Others say the problem goes beyond bureaucracy. William Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, and he says private contractors have found a way to make use of the Pentagon’s struggle to get its books in order. Contractors, he says, will “periodically intervene to try to stop practices that would make them more accountable”.

Specifically, the defense industry has sought to weaken the office of the director, operational test and evaluation (DOT&E) at the Department of Defense, which evaluates weapons systems before they’re manufactured on a larger scale. “It’s one of the few places that’s revealed a lot of problems,” says Hartung. The DOT&E, for example, has uncovered flaws in Lockheed Martin’s F-35 fighter jet program among a slew of other contracts. “The concept is: benefit from a dysfunctional system because they can charge however much they want and there’s not a lot of quality control,” says Hartung.

Another issue is the proximity between DoD and the private sector, something that appears to touch even the department’s inspector general’s office. In 2014, the Pentagon celebrated the Marine Corps’s success at being the first military agency to pass an audit. But a year later it was found that the private accounting firm hired to carry out the audit, Grant Thornton, had not been thorough. The Marine Corps had desperately wanted to achieve a “clean” status, due to pressure from then defense secretary Leon Panetta to get its books in order.

In a scathing response to the debacle, Republican senator for Iowa Chuck Grassley said that the actions of the DoD IG showed a “lack of independence and flagrant disregard for audit ethics”, calling the deputy IG for auditing “a Grant Thornton lapdog”.

Washington’s revolving door also touches the agency, with a number of high-profile individuals moving to the private sector after leaving their jobs, something that is perfectly within the law and government regulations.

In the end, Hartung says that the military’s stature and almost holy status make focusing on accountability difficult. If lobbying doesn’t work, he says, they can always “wrap themselves in the flag and say this is necessary for defense. But if people don’t poke into the details,” they won’t “find out that, in fact, not every penny being spent is sacrosanct”.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/mar/20/pentagon-never-audited-astonishing-military-spending?CMP=fb_us

Trumpcare, Ryancare, Trashcare: While the GOP celebrates its found money, the poor will get sicker and die

With the AHCA, the Republicans have put a price tag on the lives of America’s working class: $300 billion

Trumpcare, Ryancare, Trashcare: While the GOP celebrates its found money, the poor will get sicker and die
(Credit: AP/Susan Walsh)

Trumpcare, Ryancare, Trashcare — whatever you want to call it, the American Health Care Act is nothing more than a cheap stab at Barack Obama, a petty attempt on the part of grudge-holding Republicans, including President Donald Trump, to try to diminish Obama’s legacy. They can try, but that will be impossible — Trump’s follow-up act has been so bad so far that he’s making George W. Bush look practically Lincoln-esque. But let’s set legacies and agendas aside for now and focus on health care.

“We have come up with a solution that’s really, really, I think, very good,” Donald Trump has said. “It’s an unbelievably complex subject. Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated.”

I’m not a president or a billionaire. I could never afford the kind of routine checkups that Trump has access to from award-winning physicians with platinum stethoscopes and solid gold scalpels — or even a state-of-the-art Viking fridge stocked with spare teenage hearts and kidneys, all plump and ready to be inserted when Trump’s conk out. He’ll probably live to be 360 years old as a result. Most of us don’t have that experience, and the president, just like the congresspeople and senators who are aimlessly playing with the lives of their constituents by threatening to kill Obamacare, is taken care of. They have amazing health care coverage that we, the taxpayers, fund. Strangely, that never makes it into the conversation.

Is Obamacare perfect? Absolutely not. But it has already saved the lives of millions of people. People who would have never voted for Obama are calling him a hero, even as some die-hard right-wingers praise the Affordable Care Act for saving their loved ones, not realizing that it’s the same as Obamacare.

Trump loves his catchphrase, “Make America great again.” Obviously he doesn’t understand that “great” is a process that we must constantly work toward. Greatness is edited, nurtured and achieved after recognizing what works and what doesn’t. Scrapping Obamacare and replacing it with a trash plan that will leave millions of people who were born without the luxury of being Trump-level rich uninsured is not making anything great. It’s evil. According to the CBO analysis, the AHCA would “reduce federal deficits by $337 billion over the coming decade and increase the number of people who are uninsured by 24 million in 2026 relative to current law.” And every Republican is running to the cable news networks, bragging about saving $300 billion. What does that mean to the person the Wall Street Journal described, a 62-year-old person who makes $18,000 a year who will now face premiums of up to $20,000?

Imagine a sickly elderly woman running home from work to her family to share with pride that the government just saved $300 billion. There is nothing more important than that to the government, even if it means that you’re broke, your granddaughter is pregnant because she couldn’t get birth control, and your grandson overdosed and died because he couldn’t be treated for his prescription drug addiction, which he developed to self-medicate his depression over the factory jobs that Trump promised never coming. We should all celebrate because the government saved $300 billion? That’s $300 billion that regular people will never touch.

People will not be treated for their illnesses. Many will suffer, and some will die. But at least the GOP beat Obama!

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a professor at the University of Baltimore and founder of the BMORE Writers Project. Watkins is the author of the New York Times best-sellers “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America” and “The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir.”