Shock and horror has boiled over into raw anger and fury. Thousands protested in London Friday to demand justice and the punishment of those responsible for mass murder in the worst housing fire in modern British history.
Hundreds chanting “We want justice” for the victims of the Grenfell Tower inferno surrounded Kensington Town Hall, London to demand answers from council officials who had barricaded themselves in the building.
Prime Minister Theresa May while visiting Kensington was forced to remain in a church and was then chased away—surrounded by a heavy security detail—with protesters booing and shouting “shame on you” and “coward.”
This sentiment finds its echo throughout Britain and worldwide.
Millions are horrified by the loss of at least 100 and as many as 150 lives of working class residents in Wednesday’s fire.
Most shocking of all, this took place in Kensington and Chelsea, Britain’s richest borough in one of the richest cities in the world. But like so many other areas of the capital, extreme wealth exists side-by-side with extreme deprivation.
Kensington and Chelsea is one of the most socially divided areas of London, with those living on the Lancaster West Estate, where Grenfell Tower is located, in clear view of the homes of multi-millionaires and billionaires. The most expensive street in the country, Victoria Road in Kensington, has an average house price of £8 million.
This imparts a politically explosive dynamic to unfolding events—which is why, incredibly, the police and council officials have stonewalled the appeals of resident’s families and friends and have still refused to admit the real death toll.
Grenfell is not only an appalling tragedy. It is a crime. Those whose lives were taken were murdered just as surely as if a torch had been applied to the building.
Ruthless cost-cutting with no concern for public safety laid the basis for the Grenfell deaths and ensured the devastating, rapid spread of the fire from its initial source in just a single apartment.
The fire spread so rapidly due to the cladding on the building bursting into flames. It was added last year in a “refurbishment.” On Friday, what many already suspected was confirmed when it was revealed that the insulating material used was combustible. It was chosen because it was £2 per square metre cheaper than a “fire resistant” alternative. The saving made amounted to just £5,000.
This and other equally life-threatening decisions were taken or authorised by the Conservative-run Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation, who ran Grenfell Tower on its behalf. The tower block had no central fire alarm system, no sprinklers in place and just one exit stairwell. The authorities ignored repeated warnings from a tenants group and residents over many years who insisted that Grenfell was unsafe and a “death trap.”
Such flagrant criminality has deeper causes. The essential fact is that the Grenfell deaths are the product of class society and the “normal” workings of the capitalist system.
London is a world centre of speculation and financial parasitism. And the property market is a vital element of this global web of corruption. Land and housing in the capital have become one of the most lucrative commodities in the world. It is not only that London is home to 80 billionaires, but the fact that fully 60 percent of its skyscrapers and vast numbers of luxury houses and flats are owned by overseas companies or wealthy residents who rarely or never set foot in them.
Catering to this market demands the social cleansing of council estates of their poor residents, especially when they are located in a desirable area. This has become so routine that residents of the Lancaster West Estate are correct to insist that the failure to invest in Grenfell Tower was a deliberate effort to drive them out.
Similar equally anti-social decisions are made every single day by the money-mad oligarchy and their political flunkeys who determine every aspect of people’s lives to ruinous effect. Homes and schools are rendered unsafe. Hospitals closed, beds lost, vital social services withdrawn because someone, somewhere decides they are an unacceptable drain on profit—which must be maintained at whatever cost.
Forty years after Margaret Thatcher declared, “There is no such thing as society,” in order to justify the gutting of social services, privatisation and deregulation, the social conditions facing the working class have been reduced to levels once associated with the so called “third world.” This testifies to the immense class divide and social inequality that now exist in all capitalist countries.
On Thursday in the face of mounting public anger, May ordered a public inquiry into the Grenfell fire. This is aimed at ensuring a cover-up and the protection of those responsible—above all within her own government.
Those responsible for these deaths must be arrested and face criminal proceedings with the truth to come out in trials. Among these should be the former London mayor Boris Johnson, who is responsible for the slashing of London’s fire service and mass deregulation, and Kensington and Chelsea council leader Nick Paget-Brown.
But while leading Tory figures such as Johnson were responsible for the last wave of ultra-gentrification in the service of the super-rich, all the bourgeois parties, including Labour, which runs many of London’s councils, are equally culpable. Mayor of London Sadiq Khan must answer for his role in allowing this situation to continue unchallenged since he took office promising to remedy London’s housing crisis.
It should be stressed that the death toll from Grenfell is expected to exceed the combined total resulting from every terrorist attack in the UK since the beginning of the so-called war on terror in 2001.
Whenever a terrorist attack has taken place in Britain over the last decade, the full force of the state has been brought to bear. Police have carried out raids on every person who is linked, even in the most innocuous way, to the individual terrorist. They have been immediately arrested and hauled off to be detained and grilled for days on end. In response to the Grenfell fire, not a single person in any responsible position has yet been arrested, let alone charged.
Instead we are promised a toothless inquiry!
Whatever the outcome of ongoing police investigations and public inquiry, neither will uncover the essential cause of the corporate mass murder at Grenfell because it is rooted in the failed capitalist system, which is reaping untold misery, and death and destruction against the vast majority of the planet’s population.
The appalling loss of life in London demonstrates the urgent necessity for the mobilisation of the working class behind a socialist programme and putting an end to the subordination of every aspect of social policy to the interests of the financial swindlers and parasites.
The US Senate is moving forward with its drafting of legislation to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA) behind closed doors. Little information has been revealed about the contents of the bill being drawn up by the Senate’s 13-member “working group,” aside from several leaks to the media.
Senate Republicans plan to bring the legislation to a floor vote without a single committee hearing, and without a formal, open drafting session. They hope to pass the bill by an expedited reconciliation procedure, which requires only a simple majority and avoids the possibility of a filibuster by Senate Democrats.
Only a small group of senators know what is in the bill. Those being kept in the dark include not only Democrats, but Republicans who are not in the working group. An aide to one of those senators in the group told Axios that no draft would released because “we aren’t stupid,” an apparent allusion to the draconian features contained within it, including the gutting of Medicaid and its attack on the health care of millions of poor, older and sick Americans.
The apparent plan is to send the finalized Senate bill to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) for scoring before it is then released to the press and the public, with a goal of a vote on the Senate floor before July 4.
The House Republicans’ bill, the American Health Care Act (AHCA), is deeply unpopular. Recent Public Policy Polling shows that only 24 percent of voters support the AHCA and 55 percent oppose it. Senate Republicans are well aware that a bill that bears any resemblance to the AHCA will face similar public opposition.
The secrecy surrounding the bill has been bolstered by a significant curtailing of on-camera interviews within the Capitol. According to the Washington Post, the prohibition of televised interviews was issued Tuesday at the point when senators were reportedly going to be informed about some of the features of the bill at a luncheon on Capitol Hill. The prohibition apparently came from the Senate Rules Committee.
At a closed-door White House lunch Tuesday with 15 Republican senators, President Trump reportedly referred to the House plan as “mean,” and according to sources said he wants the Senate version to be “more generous.” This seemingly bizarre statement by Trump—after praising the AHCA as “a great plan” at a White House Rose Garden celebration last month—is an indication of the perceived unpopularity of the Republicans’ planned “repeal and replace” of the bill popularly known as Obamacare.
The ACHA builds on the free-market foundations of the ACA, which gives the for-profit health care industry free rein to charge as they see fit for premiums and to pull out of markets that they find unprofitable. As a former Medicare administrator in the Obama administrator admitted recently about the ACA, “We elected to have a system that is completely market-based so companies get to make individual decisions.”
The Senate plan, like the Republican, takes its cue from the central features of Obamacare, which cuts costs for the government and corporations while rationing and degrading health care for the vast majority of Americans.
The gutting of Medicaid
The biggest change in the AHCA is the gutting of Medicaid, the health care program jointly administered by the federal government and the states. The CBO estimates that the AHCA would cause 23 million people to lose health insurance by 2026, mainly because the House bill would effectively end the ACA’s Medicaid expansion for low-income adults.
The Senate plan reportedly maintains the AHCA’s per capita cap or block granting of federal Medicaid funds, which would effectively end Medicaid as a guaranteed program based on need. It would also put an end to the expansion of Medicaid under the ACA, but would allow a longer phase-out of the expansion, possibly up to seven years, i.e., prescribing a slow death as opposed to the House plan’s quicker demise.
According to a new report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), coverage losses under the AHCA would affect people of all ages and income levels, including families with children, seniors, and people with disabilities. It would also sharply cut government subsidies for individual market coverage, and allow insurers to charge sharply higher premiums to people with preexisting conditions.
About 3 million children would lose coverage, CBPP says, increasing the uninsured rate for children by about 50 percent. Another 6.4 million young adults (age 19-29) would lose coverage, or about one in eight people in this age group. This runs counter to claims that the House bill would favor younger, healthy people.
More than 8 million people, age 30-40, would lose coverage, increasing their uninsured rate by a staggering 84 percent. About one in five of this age group would be uninsured, compared to one in 10 under current law, according to CBPP.
The uninsured rate for older adults (age 50-64) would more than double under the AHCA, reflecting the fact that the bill would allow individual market insurers to charge older people premiums five times higher than for younger people. While the Senate plan reportedly will offer some additional premium assistance to this age group, it will be inadequate to make a significant difference.
The majority of those losing coverage under the AHCA would have low incomes. Some 14.7 million adults with incomes below 200 percent of the poverty level (about $50,000 for a family of four) would become uninsured. But 5.1 million adults with incomes above 200 percent of the poverty level would also lose coverage.
While Trump has claimed that people with preexisting conditions would be “taken care of” under any final Republican health care bill, this is not the case. The Senate bill, unlike the AHCA, would not allow states to obtain waivers to deny coverage to people with preexisting conditions. However, it would maintain the AHCA provision allowing states to waive coverage of essential health benefits.
Topher Spiro, vice president for health policy at the Center for American Progress, writes in the Washington Post that maintaining the waivers for essential benefits will have the effect of denying coverage for people with preexisting conditions.
Allowing states to ditch coverage of essential services such as hospitalization, and emergency care, maternity care, substance abuse treatment, mental health care and prescriptions drugs would also allow waivers of the ACA’s ban on lifetime and annual limits on coverage related to the essential health benefits.
Also, Spiro notes, if insurers cannot markup premiums for people with preexisting conditions, they could alter their benefits packages to screen out sick people by excluding the benefits they need. The list of possible benefits they could drop from coverage is vast, including treatments for cancer, diabetes and heart conditions. Simply being a woman puts a person at a disadvantage, as prenatal and maternity care, contraception and abortion services could be excluded.
According to the CBO, about 19 million people are enrolled in the individual market nationwide, and about half of them live in states that would seek essential benefits waivers. As about 55 percent of individual market enrollees have a preexisting condition, this means about 5.3 million people with preexisting conditions could see their coverage severely deteriorate and their premiums skyrocket.
While congressional Democrats have made some noise about the secrecy surrounding the Senate deliberations on the health care bill, there has been virtually no comment on the reactionary content of the legislation.
As their attention is focused on the Trump-Russia connection and investigation of the president on obstruction of justice, there is general disinterest by politicians of both big business parties in legislation that will eviscerate Medicaid and leave 23 million more people uninsured and at the mercy of the health care giants and their profits, leading to unnecessary suffering and increased deaths.
Jacob Leibenluft of CBPP commented in an interview in the Post on the lack of congressional hearings and coverage in the media on the Senate bill, “I hate to think that looking back on this period, we’ll realize that the most regressive piece of social legislation in modern American history was passed, and no one was paying attention.”
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and her department have pushed for an expansion of privatized school choice programs in the proposed budget for fiscal year 2018, particularly in the form of private school vouchers. Now a propagandistic three-part documentary series called School Inc. will help DeVos in her efforts to gain public support for expanded private school choice options. The series has alreadyaired on PBS stations in some markets and will be shown on more this month.
This program is paid propaganda. It does not search for the truth. It does not present opposing points of view. It is an advertisement for the demolition of public education and for an unregulated free market in education. PBS might have aired a program that debates these issues, but “School Inc.” does not.
Why would a public broadcast channel air a documentary that is produced by a right-wing think tank and funded by ultra-conservative donors, and that presents a single point of view without meaningful critique, all the while denigrating public education? PBS responded in part with a statement to the Post, saying, “PBS and local member stations aim to offer programs that reflect diverse viewpoints and promote civic dialogue on important topics affecting local communities.”
However, as Ravitch notes, when a documentary fails to objectively present information about a topic that may not be well understood by the general public, the result is unlikely to “promote civic dialogue.” And when major media outlets uncritically provide a platform to right-wing ideologues, they further misinform and polarize the debate around important issues such as public education.
Jump into your time machine and let me transport you back to another age.
It’s May 2001 and The Atlantic has just arrived in the mail. I’m tantalized by the cover article. “Russia is finished,” the magazine announces. The subtitle minces no words: “The unstoppable descent into social catastrophe and strategic irrelevance.” Could it be that the country I had worried most about as a military officer during all those grim years of the Cold War, the famed “Evil Empire” that had threatened us with annihilation, was truly kaput, even in its Russian rather than Soviet guise?
Sixteen years later, the article’s message seems just a tad premature. Today’s Russia surely has its problems — from poverty to pollution to prostitution to a rickety petro-economy — but on the geopolitical world stage it is “finished” no longer. Vladimir Putin’s Russia has recently been enjoying heightened influence, largely at the expense of a divided and disputatious superpower that now itself seems to be on an “unstoppable descent.”
More than a generation after defeating the Soviet Union in the Cold War, the United States of 2017 seems to be doing its level best to emulate some of the worst aspects of its former foe and once rival superpower.
Sixteen years after Russia was declared irrelevant, a catastrophe, finito, it is once again a colossus — at least on the American political scene, if nowhere else. And that should disturb you far less than this: more than a generation after defeating the Soviet Union in the Cold War, the United States of 2017 seems to be doing its level best to emulate some of the worst aspects of its former foe and once rival superpower.
Yes, the US has a Soviet problem, and I’m not referring to the allegations of the moment in Washington: that the Trump campaign and Russian officials colluded, that money may have flowed into that campaign via Russian oligarchs tied to Putin, that the Russians hacked the US election to aid Donald Trump, that those close to the president-elect dreamed of setting up a secret back channel to Moscow and suggested to the Russian ambassador that it be done through the Russian embassy or even that Putin has a genuine hold of some sort on Donald Trump. All of this is, of course, generating attention galore, as well as outrage, in the mainstream media and among the chattering classes, leading some to talk of a new “red scare” in America. All of it is also being investigated, whether by congressional intelligence committees or by former FBI director — now special counsel — Robert Mueller.
When it comes to what I’m talking about, though, you don’t need a committee or a counsel or a back channel or a leaker from some intelligence agency to ferret it out. Whatever Trump campaign officials, Russian oligarchs or Vladimir Putin himself did or didn’t do, America’s Soviet problem is all around us: a creeping (and creepy) version of authoritarianism that anyone who lived through the Cold War years should recognize. It involves an erosion of democratic values; the ever-expanding powers exercised by a national security state operating as a shadow government and defined by militarism, surveillance, secrecy, prisons and other structures of dominance and control; ever-widening gaps between the richest few and the impoverished many; and, of course, ever more weapons, along with ever more wars.
That’s a real red scare, America, and it’s right here in the homeland.
In February, if you remember — and given the deluge of news, half news, rumor and innuendo, who can remember anything these days? — Donald Trump memorably compared the US to Russia. When Bill O’Reilly called Vladimir Putin “a killer” in an interview with the new president, he responded that there was little difference between us and them, for — as he put it — we had our killers, too, and weren’t exactly innocents abroad when it came to world affairs. (“There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?”) The president has said a lot of outlandish things in his first months in office, but here he was on to something.
My Secret Briefing on the Soviet Union
When I was a young lieutenant in the Air Force, in 1986 if memory serves, I attended a secret briefing on the Soviet Union. Ronald Reagan was president, and we had no clue that we were living through the waning years of the Cold War. Back then, believing that I should know my enemy, I was reading a lot about the Soviets in “open sources”; you know, books, magazines and newspapers. The “secret” briefing I attended revealed little that was new to me. (Classified information is often overhyped.) I certainly heard no audacious predictions of a Soviet collapse in five years (though the Soviet Union would indeed implode in 1991). Like nearly everyone at the time, the briefers assumed the USSR would be our archenemy for decades to come and it went without saying that the Berlin Wall was a permanent fixture in a divided Europe, a forever symbol of ruthless Communist oppression.
Little did we know that, three years later, the Soviet military would stand aside as East Germans tore down that wall. And who then would have believed that a man might be elected president of the United States a generation later on the promise of building a “big, fat, beautiful wall” on our shared border with Mexico?
I wasn’t allowed to take notes during that briefing, but I remember the impression I was left with: that the USSR was deeply authoritarian, a grim surveillance state with an economy dependent on global weapons sales; that it was intent on nuclear domination; that it was imperialist and expansionist; that it persecuted its critics and dissidents; and that it had serious internal problems carefully suppressed in the cause of world mastery, including rampant alcohol and drug abuse, bad health care and declining longevity (notably for men), a poisoned environment and an extensive prison system featuring gulags. All of this was exacerbated by festering sores overseas, especially a costly and stalemated war in Afghanistan and client-states that absorbed its resources (think: Cuba) while offering little in return.
This list of Soviet problems, vintage 1986, should have a familiar ring to it, since it sounds uncannily like a description of what’s wrong with the United States today.
This list of Soviet problems, vintage 1986, should have a familiar ring to it, since it sounds uncannily like a description of what’s wrong with the United States today.
In case you think that’s an over-the-top statement, let’s take that list from the briefing — eight points in all — one item at a time.
1. An authoritarian, surveillance state: The last time the US Congress formally declared war was in 1941. Since then, American presidents have embarked on foreign wars and interventions ever more often with ever less oversight from Congress. Power continues to grow and coalesce in the executive branch, strengthening an imperial presidency enhanced by staggering technologies of surveillance, greatly expanded in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Indeed, America now has 17 intelligence agencies with a combined yearly budget of $80 billion. Unsurprisingly, Americans are surveilled more than ever, allegedly for our safety even if such a system breeds meekness and stifles dissent.
2. An economy dependent on global weapons sales: The US continues to dominate the global arms trade in a striking fashion. It was no mistake that a centerpiece of President Trump’s recent trip was a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia. On the same trip, he told the Emir of Qatar that he was in the Middle East to facilitate “the purchase of lots of beautiful military equipment.” Now more than ever, beautiful weaponry made in the USA is a significant driver of domestic economic growth as well as of the country’s foreign policy.
3. Bent on nuclear domination: Continuing the policies of President Obama, the Trump administration envisions a massive modernization of America’s nuclear arsenal, to the tune of at least a trillion dollars over the next generation. Much like an old-guard Soviet premier, Trump has boasted that America will always remain at “the top of the pack” when it comes to nuclear weapons.
4. Imperialist and expansionist: Historians speak of America’s “informal” empire, by which they mean the US is less hands-on than past imperial powers like the Romans and the British. But there’s nothing informal or hands-off about America’s 800 overseas military bases or the fact that its Special Operations forces are being deployed in 130 or more countries yearly. When the US military speaks of global reach, global power and full-spectrum dominance, this is traditional imperialism cloaked in banal catchphrases. Put differently, Soviet imperialism, which American leaders always professed to fear, never had a reach of this sort.
5. Persecutes critics and dissidents: Whether it’s been the use of the Patriot Act under George W. Bush’s presidency, the persecution of whistleblowers using the World War I-era Espionage Act under the Obama administration or the vilification of the media by the new Trump administration, the US is far less tolerant of dissent today than it was prior to the Soviet collapse. As Homeland Security Secretary and retired four-star Marine Gen. John Kelly recently put it, speaking of news stories about the Trump administration based on anonymous intelligence sources, such leaks are “darn close to treason.” Add to such an atmosphere Trump’s attacks on the media as the “enemy” of the people and on critical news stories as “fake” and you have an environment ripe for the future suppression of dissent.
In the Soviet Union, political opponents were often threatened with jail or worse, and those threats were regularly enforced by men wearing military or secret police uniforms. In that context, let’s not forget the “Lock her up!” chants led by retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn at the Republican National Convention and aimed at Donald Trump’s political opponent of that moment, Hillary Clinton.
6. Internal problems like drug abuse, inadequate health care and a poisoned environment: Alcoholism is still rife in Russia and environmental damage widespread, but consider the US today. An opioid crisis is killing more than 30,000 people a year. Lead poisoning in places like Flint, Michigan, and New Orleans is causing irreparable harm to the young. The disposal of wastewater from fracking operations is generating earthquakes in Ohio and Oklahoma. Even as environmental hazards proliferate, the Trump administration is gutting the Environmental Protection Agency. As health crises grow more serious, the Trump administration, abetted by a Republican-led Congress, is attempting to cut health-care coverage and benefits, as well as the funding that might protect Americans from deadly pathogens. Disturbingly, as with the Soviet Union in the era of its collapse, life expectancy among white men is declining, mainly due to drug abuse, suicide and other despair-driven problems.
7. Extensive prison systems: As a percentage of its population, no countryimprisons more of its own people than the United States. While more than two million of their fellow citizens languish in prisons, Americans continue to see their nation as a beacon of freedom, ignoring Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. In addition, the country now has a president who believes in torture, who has called for the murder of terrorists’ families, and who wants to refill Guantánamo with prisoners. It also has an attorney general who wants to make prison terms for low-level drug offenders ever more draconian.
8. Stalemated wars: You have to hand it to the Soviets. They did at least exhibit a learning curve in their disastrous war in Afghanistan and so the Red Army finally left that country in 1989 after a decade of high casualties and frustration (even if its troops returned to a land on the verge of implosion). US forces, on the other hand, have been in Afghanistan for 16 years, with the Taliban growing ever stronger, yet its military’s response has once again been to call for investing more money and sending in more troops to reverse the “stalemate” there. Meanwhile, after 14 years, Iraq War 3.0 festers, bringing devastation to places like Mosul, even as its destabilizing results continue to manifest themselves in Syria and indeed throughout the greater Middle East. Despite or rather because of these disastrous results, US leaders continue to over-deploy US Special Operations forces, contributing to exhaustion and higher suicide rates in the ranks.
In light of these eight points, that lighthearted Beatles tune and relic of the Cold War, “Back in the USSR,” takes on a new, and far harsher, meaning.
What Is to Be Done?
Slowly, seemingly inexorably, the US is becoming more like the former Soviet Union.
Slowly, seemingly inexorably, the US is becoming more like the former Soviet Union. Just to begin the list of similarities: too many resources are being devoted to the military and the national security state; too many over-decorated generals are being given too much authority in government; bleeding-ulcer wars continue unstanched in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere; infrastructure (roads, bridges, pipelines, dams and so on) continues to crumble; restless “republics” grumble about separating from the union (Calexit!); rampant drug abuse and declining life expectancy are now American facts of life. Meanwhile, the latest US president is, in temperament, authoritarian, even as government “services” take on an increasingly nepotistic flavor at the top.
I’m worried, comrade! Echoing the cry of the great Lenin, what is to be done? Given the list of symptoms, here’s one obvious 10-step approach to the de-sovietization of America:
1. Decrease “defense” spending by 10 percent annually for the next five years. In the Soviet spirit, think of it as a five-year plan to restore our revolution (as in the American Revolution), which was, after all, directed against imperial policies exercised by a “bigly” king.
2. Cut the number of generals and admirals in the military by half, and get rid of all the meaningless ribbons, badges and medals they wear. In other words, don’t just cut down on the high command but on their tendency to look (and increasingly to act) like Soviet generals of old. And don’t allow them to serve in high governmental positions until they’ve been retired for at least 10 years.
3. Get our military out of Afghanistan, Iraq and other war-torn countries in the Greater Middle East and Africa. Reduce that imperial footprint overseas by closing costly military bases.
4. Work to eliminate nuclear weapons globally by, as a first step, cutting the vast US arsenal in half and forgetting about that trillion-dollar “modernization” program. Eliminate land-based ICBMs first; they are no longer needed for any meaningful deterrent purposes.
5. Take the money saved on “modernizing” nukes and invest it in updating America’s infrastructure.
6. Curtail state surveillance. Freedom needs privacy to flourish. As a nation, we need to remember that security is not the bedrock of democracy — the US Constitution is.
7. Work to curb drug abuse by cutting back on criminalization. Leave the war mentality behind, including the “war on drugs,” and focus instead on providing better treatment programs for addicts. Set a goal of cutting America’s prison population in half over the next decade.
8. Life expectancy will increase with better health care. Provide health care coverage for all using a single-payer system. Every American should have the same coverage as a member of Congress. People shouldn’t be suffering and dying because they can’t afford to see a doctor or pay for their prescriptions.
9. Nothing is more fundamental to “national security” than clean air and water. It’s folly to risk poisoning the environment in the name of either economic productivity or building up the military. If you doubt this, ask citizens of Russia and the former Soviet Republics, who still struggle with the fallout from the poisonous environmental policies of Soviet days.
10. Congress needs to assert its constitutional authority over war and the budget, and begin to act like the “check and balance” it’s supposed to be when it comes to executive power.
There you have it. These 10 steps should go some way toward solving America’s real Russian problem — the Soviet one. Won’t you join me, comrade?
William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF), is a regular contributor to TomDispatch. He has taught at the Air Force Academy and the Naval Postgraduate School, and now teaches history at the Pennsylvania College of Technology.
If you live in any major city in the world, you probably know the type: they roam the clean parts of town, lattes in hand, wearing American Apparel hoodies emblazoned with logos of vowel-deficient startups. Somehow, in the past decade, a profession turned into a lifestyle and a culture, with its own customs, habits and even lingo. In film, television and literature, the techie archetype is mocked, recycled, reduced to a stereotype (as in Mike Judge’s sitcom “Silicon Valley”), a radical hero (as in “Mr. Robot”), or both (as in “The Circle”).
If, as many claim, the hipster died at the end of the 2000s, the techie seems to have taken its place in the 2010s — not quite an offshoot, but rather a mutation. Consider the similarities: Like hipsters, techies are privy to esoteric knowledge, though of obscure code rather than obscure bands. They both seem to love kale. They tend to rove in packs, are associated with gentrification, and are overwhelmingly male. There are some fashion similarities: the tight jeans, the hoodie fetish, the predilection for modernist Scandinavian furniture. And like “hipster,” the term “techie” is often considered a slur, a pejorative that you lob at someone you want to depict as out of touch, rarefied and elite — not a fellow prole, in other words.
Yet there are differences, too: The techie often brings with him or her a certain worldview and language that attempts to describe the world in computational terms; the transformation of the word “hack” into an everyday verb attests to this. Some techies view their own bodies as merely machines that require food the way computers need electricity, a belief system exemplified by the popularity of powdered foods like Soylent. This happens in exercise, too — the rush to gamify health and wellness by tracking steps, calories and heartbeats turns the body into a spreadsheet.
How does a profession mutate into a culture? David Golumbia, an associate professor of digital studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of “The Cultural Logic of Computation,” suggests that some of the cultural beliefs common to those in the tech industry about the utopian promise of computers trickle down into what we may think of as tech culture at large. Golumbia describes the basic idea, “computationalism,” as “the philosophical idea that the brain is a computer” as well as “a broader worldview according to which people or society are seen as computers, or that we might be living inside of a simulation.”
“You frequently find people who avoid formal education for some reason or another and then educate themselves through reading a variety of online resources that talk about this, and they subscribe to it as quasi-religious truth, that everything is a computer,” Golumbia said. “It’s appealing to people who find the messiness of the social and human world unappealing and difficult to manage. There’s frustration . . . expressed when parts of the world don’t appear to be computational, by which I mean, when their actions can’t be represented by algorithms that can be clearly defined.”
“It’s very reductive,” Golumbia added.
Mapping the social world onto the algorithmic world seems to be where tech culture goes astray. “This is part of my deep worry about it — we are heading in a direction where people who really identify with the computer are those who have a lot of trouble dealing with other people directly. People who find the social world difficult to manage often see the computer as the solution to their problems,” Golumbia said.
But tech culture isn’t confined to screen time anymore. It’s become part of everyday life, argues Jan English-Lueck, a professor of anthropology of San Jose State University and a distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future. English-Lueck wrote an ethnographic account of Silicon Valley culture, “Cultures@SiliconValley,” and studies the people and culture of the region.
“We start to see our civic life in a very technical way. My favorite example of that is people going to a picnic and looking at some food and asking if that’s ‘open source’ [available to all]. So people use those technological metaphors to think about everyday things in life,” she said.
English-Lueck says the rapid pace of the tech field trickles down into tech culture, too. “People are fascinated with speed and efficiency, they’re enthusiastic and optimistic about what technology can accomplish.”
Golumbia saw the aspects of tech culture firsthand: Prior to being a professor, he worked in information technology for a software company on Wall Street. His convictions about computationalism were borne out in his colleagues. “What I saw was that there were at least two kinds of employees — there was a programmer type, who was very rigid but able to do the tasks that you put in front of them, and there were the managerial types who were much more flexible in their thinking.”
“My intuition in talking to [the] programmer types [was that] they had this very black-and-white mindset, that everything was or should be a computer,” he said. “And the managers, who tended to have taken at least a few liberal arts classes in college, and were interested in history of thought, understood you can’t manage people the way you manage machines.”
Yet the former worldview — that everything is a computer — seems to have won out. “When I started, I thought it was this minor small subgroup of society” that believed that, he told Salon. “But nowadays I think many executives in Silicon Valley have some version of this belief.”
For evidence that the metaphor of the human body as a computer has gone mainstream, look no further than our gadgetry. Devices like the Fitbit and the Apple Watch monitor a the wearer’s movement and activity constantly, producing data that they can obsess over or study. “There is a small group of people who become obsessed with quantification,” Golumbia told Salon. “Not just about exercise, but like, about intimate details of their life — how much time spent with one’s kids, how many orgasms you have — most people aren’t like that; they do counting for a while [and] then they get tired of counting. The counting part seems oppressive.”
But this counting obsession, a trickle-down ideology from tech culture, is no longer optional: In many gadgets, it is now imposed from above. My iPhone counts my steps whether I like it or not. And other industries and agencies love the idea that we should willingly be tracked and monitored constantly, including the NSA and social media companies who profit off knowing the intimate details of our lives and selling ads to us based on it. “Insurers are trying to get us to do this all the time as part of wellness programs,” Golumbia said. “It’s a booming top-down control thing that’s being sold to us as the opposite.”
Golumbia marvels at a recent ad for the Apple Watch that features the Beyoncé song “Freedom” blaring in the background. “How did we get to this world where freedom means having a device on your that measures what you do at all times?”
Scientists have discovered a new branch of the Taurids meteor stream that could pose a major risk to Earth, with asteroids up to 1,000 feet wide flying past us every few years.
The Taurids meteor shower peaks every October and November, producing a relatively small display of shooting stars as the planet passes through its stream.
Meteor shower displays happen when tiny bits of cosmic debris enter Earth’s atmosphere and burn up in the sky. Because the Taurids are made up of branches and a core, activity levels increase and decrease depending on how much debris Earth passes through.
Mostly, the meteoroids are about the size of a grain of sand and pose no risk at all. However, if a large enough asteroid entered the atmosphere, instead of disintegrating it would pass through and hit the Earth’s surface.
A stark reminder of the risk posed by asteroids and meteors came in 2013, when the 66-foot-wide Chelyabinsk meteor fell over Russia’s southern Ural region.
A team of researchers from the Czech Academy of Sciences in the Czech Republic has now found evidence to suggest Earth is at greater risk of being hit by an asteroid than we previously thought.
In their study, which is to be published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics, the team analyzed data on 144 Taurid fireballs that had been filmed with new digital cameras over the 2015 shower—a year of enhanced activity. They were able to work out the orbits of these fireballs, and found 113 of them show “common characteristics and form together a well-defined orbital structure, which we call new branch.”
This branch was found to contain at least two asteroids with diameters of between 650 and 980 feet. An impact from an asteroid of this size would cause a huge amount of damage if it hit a populated area of the planet.
As well as the two large asteroids, the team also found the branch likely contains “numerous” undiscovered objects that are at least 30 feet wide. “Since asteroids of sizes of tens to hundreds of meters pose a threat to the ground, even if they are intrinsically weak, impact hazard increases significantly when the Earth encounters the Taurids new branch every few years,” the scientists wrote.
The branch is not new. It has been passing by Earth every few years, ever since it formed around 1,000 years ago. However, now that we know it exists, the researchers say we need to carry out further studies to better understand “this real source of potentially hazardous objects.”
In an email interview with Newsweek, study author Jiří Borovička says that at present they do not have enough data to quantify the risk the branch poses to Earth. “A systematic search for asteroids within the newly identified branch will be needed to find the size-frequency distribution of large bodies within the branch,” she says. “The impact risk increases during the encounters of the Earth with the branch.”
She describes the risk of Earth being hit by a large asteroid during one of these encounters as a “lottery”—or “to be hit by a bullet or not.”
Their findings come just weeks ahead of Asteroid Day, on June 30. This event, first held in 2015, is a global awareness campaign to highlight the risk asteroids pose to Earth. Scientists estimate we have only detected around one percent of the one million asteroids that have the potential to impact Earth. Launching the event in 2014, astrophysicist Brian May said, “The more we learn about asteroid impacts, the clearer it becomes that the human race has been living on borrowed time.”
Borovička says the latest findings should serve as a reminder of the importance of identifying asteroids that could impact, adding she hopes scientists will turn their attention to the Taurids meteor stream in the future.
“So far, the search for hazardous asteroids has been done over all the sky,” she says. “We have pointed out a well-defined region in the solar system with a larger concentration of meteoroids and asteroids, which periodically come close to Earth’s orbit. We hope that people with access to large telescopes will explore this region in detail.”
She also says their findings reinforce the hypothesis that the Taurids stream is a remnant of a giant comet that disintegrated. Some of the debris from this event is thought to have struck the Earth, and has been connected with at least one catastrophic event in Earth’s history.
“Our observation gives some weight to that hypothesis,” Borovička says. “Perhaps there was a series of comet/asteroid disruptions and one of the recent ones created the new branch. We believe that our detailed description of the new branch will enable other people to explore this hypothesis in more detail than was possible before.”
A study released May 28 by University of California Berkeley economist Gabriel Zucman and two Scandinavian colleagues, “Tax Evasion and Inequality,” demonstrates that global wealth inequality is drastically underestimated in official statistics because of how successful the super-rich are at evading taxes.
According to the paper, the super-rich, that is the top .01 percent, hide some 25 percent or more of their wealth. This is primarily due to the exploitation of offshore tax havens that allow them to avoid paying taxes where their income is actually accrued, and where they actually live.
The study demonstrates, yet again, that the super-rich are a law onto themselves, living in a world completely separate from the vast majority of humanity. Earlier this year, Oxfam reported that only eight men control as much wealth as the bottom half of humanity. However, the findings of this new paper suggest that wealth concentration is even higher.
The authors of the paper write, “The many data sets used in this article all paint the same picture: the probability to hide assets rises very sharply with wealth, including within the very top groups. As a result, offshore wealth turns out to be extremely concentrated. By our estimate, the top 0.01% of the distribution owns about 50% of it [offshore wealth].”
They conclude, “this implies that the top 0.01% hides about 25% of its true wealth”
Zucman explained to the Los Angeles Times, “There’s a big industry providing wealth management services for the super-wealthy all over the world. … Once you cross a certain threshold of over $50 million, you get offered those services.”
The study’s authors, Anette Alstadsaeter, Niels Johannesen and Gabriel Zucman, rely on several sources to make their analysis. The first and most important is leaked data from HSBC Private Bank (Suisse), the Swiss arm of HSBC, the sixth-largest private bank in the world. The data from HSBC Private Bank (Suisse), which was exposed in 2015, shows how the bank hides billions of dollars of taxable money for corporations such as Google and Amazon, as well as a variety of extremely wealthy clientele. The dirty stream of money exposed in the leak went as high as former US President Bill Clinton, and involved several billionaires and public figures.
Another source they use is the data from the Panama Papers, the massive leak of files from the Panama-based law firm Mossack-Fonseca in 2016. Those files showed how the law firm made millions of dollars helping politicians and the super-rich stash their money and hide it to evade taxation.
A third source they use is data from Norwegian, Danish and Swedish tax authorities showing households who voluntarily disclosed previously hidden assets in exchange for tax amnesty. Zucman, et al. were able to match assets exposed by the 2015 HSBC leak and the Panama Papers with government data in the Scandinavian countries. This method allowed them to understand the average amount of wealth the super-rich said they had versus what they actually had in undisclosed accounts.
The paper showed that in Norway, when offshore assets are added, the Norwegian super-rich show a 30 percent rise in income and the increase is likely to be higher in other countries.
“Because most Latin American, and many Asian and European economies own much more wealth offshore than Norway, the results found in Norway are likely to be lower than for most of the world’s countries,” the authors noted.
Zucman told the Los Angeles Times, “There is good reason to believe that the very steep gradient [in tax evasion by the wealthy] is also the case in the US.”
According to the conservative figures of the Internal Revenue Service, which does not cover legal tax havens, $406 billion in taxes are unpaid every year. An investigation into the HSBC leak by the CBS News program “60 Minutes” showed that the Swiss bank run by HSBC had about 4,000 US taxpayers with wealth exceeding $13 billion.
The individual tax evasion highlighted in the report, however, is only part of a much broader phenomenon. Tax evasion in the US literally takes place on an industrial scale and is built into the business model of major US corporations.
It has been estimated that US firms hold about $2 trillion in cash on offshore holdings largely to escape paying US taxes—an amount roughly equivalent to 14 percent of American gross domestic product.
The most prominent example is Apple which holds $240 billion out of its $256 billion in cash reserves offshore in order to avoid paying taxes on this money if it repatriated it. At the same time, it borrows tens of billions of dollars in the US, much of it in order to finance share buybacks and dividend payments in order to boost its share value.
The operation of this seemingly perverse logic—borrowing money while having an ocean of cash on hand—is the outcome of policy decisions of the US Federal Reserve since the eruption of the financial crisis of 2008 aimed at boosting the wealth of the financial elite.
Its policy of quantitative easing, which has pumped around $4 trillion into the US financial system coupled with the maintenance of ultra-low interest rates, means that Apple only has to pay interest ranging between 1.6 and 4.3 percent to finance operations that boost the value of its shares—far less than the cost in taxes that it would have to pay if it repatriated its overseas holdings.
As a result of these and other financial machinations, Apple’s total market value passed $800 billion earlier this year and is well on the way to the $1 trillion mark while the social cost of these operations is borne by millions of working-class families who are deprived of vital services because it is claimed that government has no money to pay for them.
Apple, however, is only the biggest example of a process which extends across the corporate world. Among the other big holders of overseas cash reserves are: Microsoft, with $113 billion; Cisco Systems, with $62 billion; Oracle, with $52 billion and Google’s parent company, Alphabet, with $49 billion.
These figures underscore the fact that tax evasion and the gains secured by the “malefactors of great wealth” are not the result simply of their individual actions but are the product of an economic and political order of, by and for the rich.