Monday, August 24, 2015

217.2 - More on the three secret trade deals

More on the three secret trade deals

I told you last week that this week I would tell you what we know about two still-mostly-secret trade deals, trade deal which if you hadn't heard about, don't feel bad, you weren't supposed to.

The Terrible Trio of trade deals now being negotiated in secret include the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP, and the Trade in Services Agreement, or TiSA. I've mentioned the TPP several times; it's the latter two I said I tell you more about this week.

Taking the TTIP first, this is a proposed deal that has been negotiated in secret between the US and the trade office of the European Union since June 2013. In essence, it seeks to do to the Atlantic side of the world what the TPP seeks to do to the Pacific side. Or, to be more exact, I should say the North Atlantic part of the world, as no African nation is part of this negotiation.

What we know about the TTIP has come through leaks and the occasional self-serving release by one or more of the parties involved and it is more than enough to get any sane person who is not a corporate executive, flak, lobbyist, or toady to be deeply worried.

One group called the agreement a "corporate lobbying paradise" because in 2012, during the run-up to the start of the negotiations, the European Commission’s trade department had 597 behind-closed-door meetings with lobbyists to discuss the plan. 528 of those meetings (88%) were with business lobbyists while only 53 (9%) were with public interest groups. The remainder were with other actors such as public institutions and academics. So, for every meeting with a trade union or consumer group, there were 10 with companies and industry federations.

What's more, there is clear evidence that during that time the trade department actively sought the involvement of corporate lobbyists, while holding trade unionists and other public interest groups at arm's length.

Not just before, but also during the negotiations, corporations are playing a shaping role. Some formulations in draft texts which have been leaked are identical to proposals of company lobbyists.

Then there is what is in the deal. Now, in fairness I have to say that the deal is not finalized so some of this may change, but considering the history of how such secret agreements go, any changes are at least as likely to make it worse than to make it better.

A big and important issue is the inclusion of what's called Investor-State Dispute Settlement. What that means is that foreign investors and corporations would have the right to sue for damages if they believe that they have suffered losses because of laws or measures of the targeted country. This would include environmental and consumer protection laws and other such measures; the fact that they were beneficial to the society as a whole would not matter.

So, for example, Barack Obama wants to reduce our carbon output to deter the threat of global climate change. Doing so would of necessity mean reducing the use of fossil fuels such as coal. Under this provision, if it was in effect, a foreign corporation with investments in US coal mines could claim that environmental program hurt the value of that investment and sue to "recover" its "loss."

Next, under something called "regulatory cooperation," corporate groups are to be included in the drafting of any new regulations or laws which might affect their trade interests. Public interest groups and workers are not invited.

Employee rights are coming under pressure, and jobs in numerous industries are endangered. The UN's International Labor Organization has established eight core standards for labor protection and rights. In the US, only two out of the either are recognized. The TTIP provides no protection for those other rights.

Privatization and so-called "liberalization" - and I hate that word, because "liberalization" should mean making something better, improving something, but here it means giving corporations a freer hand to do what they place - but they will become one-way streets. Once some asset or service has been handed over to private industry, turning it back into a public asset would be made almost impossible by TTIP. It is a blueprint for over time turning more and more of government services provided for the benefit of the public into profit centers for the benefit of corporations and their investors,as has already happened in part of Latin America, with the predictable result of skyrocketing prices for water.

Through a process called "regulatory convergence," standards of food safety and for consumer protection for cosmetics, medical products, pesticides, and other commodities are threatened with being set at whatever are the lowest standards now in force. In many cases, that would be the US standards, because US standards are often weaker than those in Europe. For example, in Europe a company has to prove a substance is safe before it can be used, while in the US, it's the other way around: a substance can be used until it is proven unsafe. So instead of us being able to improve or toughen our consumer protections, the nations of the European Union would have to weaken theirs.

Oh, but it doesn't all go one way: The financial rules, the controls on banks, are tougher in the US than in the EU. Under the rubric "regulatory convergence," European banks are pressing the TTIP to require the US to loosen its regulations. The already weak and already wounded Dodd-Frank bill could become worth less than the paper its printed on.

That's obviously not the whole agreement, but it should be more than enough to show you why so many environmental, public interest, consumer, and labor groups - particularly in Europe, when it has gotten more attention than here - are against it.

Which leads us to the last leg of this three-headed beast of corporate wet dreams.

It's called the Trade in Services Agreement, or TiSA, and in a nutshell it seeks to create the same kind of international corporate playground in services that the TTP and the TTIP aim to do for goods. Negotiations have been taking place - in secret, of course - since early 2013.

A year ago, WikiLeaks published the secret "core text" being used in the negotiations, which today involve over 50 nations making up two-thirds of global GDP, including the US, the EU, and nations such as Turkey, Mexico, Australia, Pakistan and Israel - nations which, by the way, do not include what are called the BRICS nations, Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, which have been excluded from the TiSA negotiations, even though those negotiations purport to benefit the global economy. Apparently, some nations are not supposed to be part of that economy.

According to analysts, that core text actually looks to undermine the governments involved in the treaty in favor of multinational corporations. One way is that it would require signatories to give up their right to choose local service providers in areas like broadcasting, education, electricity, and sanitation. "Buy local" would for governments become illegal.

The text looks to limit governments’ ability to regulate national services while giving unprecedented freedom to foreign corporations. This would apply to all services, including banking, financial services, e-commerce, health, transport, and consulting. The reforms would touch all levels of government from local to national.

The draft treaty also proposes restricting the ability of governments to set size and growth limits on various economic activities, as well as institutions such as banks. The expression "too big to fail," which not only suggest that is an unfortunate condition but carries the implication that smaller institutions can be controlled and even broken up, would become as passe as poodle skirts and rotary telephones.

The rules not only apply to internal matters: Another major element is a rule restricting governments from putting controls on cross-border movements of capital, including anything related to services or inflows of capital. Options to enforce capital controls are very limited, with the result that a small nation could be potentially bankrupted if a major international investor corporation or bank just decided to pull its capital out of the country.

That's not the end of it. In June of this year, two months ago, WikiLeaks released another set of secret documents leaked by some whistleblower, showing that the intention to, as described by the group, "deregulate global financial services markets" and "assist the expansion of financial multi-nationals" is as strong as ever.

I found two revelations in this new set of documents particularly disturbing. One is that "the leaked draft also shows that the US is particularly keen on boosting cross-border data flow, which would allow uninhibited exchange of personal and financial data" and privacy of personal information can go the way of the dodo. Who knew that when the Amazing Mr. O promised "the most transparent administration ever" he meant that we must be transparent to the corporations?

Oh, but wait, the draft does have a chapter on transparency. It mandates that regulators must tell transnational investors ahead of time what they are doing.

The other particularly disturbing revelation is that amendments proposed by the US would end publicly provided services like public pension funds, which are referred to as "monopolies" and limit public regulation of all financial services, freezing regulation at existing levels, so that when another 2008 happens, we won't be able to do anything about it. Except, of course, to bail out the banks again.

Heard enough? No, you haven't, not until you've heard one more thing.

- Negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership began in 2008 and continued to the present.
- Those on the Trade in Services Agreement began in February 2103.
- Those on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership began in June 2013.

So the administration of what US president has been pushing for these deals?

The administration of what US president wants US consumer protection, environmental, and other such regulations reduced to the lowest common denominator?

The administration of what US president wants to slash away at our privacy rights and calls public pension plans "monopolies?"

I don't know how many times I will have to say it: These people are not on your side!

Sources cited in links:

217.1 - Refuting the lies about Social Security

Refuting the lies about Social Security

Well, a couple of weeks ago I had some anniversaries to note: The 50th birthdays of Medicare, Medicaid, and the Voting Rights Act, and the 70th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

And now I have another birthday to mark. On August 14, Social Security turned 80. And in what should have come as a surprise to no one, the date was met with a spate of widely-distributed articles claiming that the system either is or soon will be on its death bed.

Make no mistake: The claims you no doubt have seen that Social Security is "running out of money" or needs an "overhaul" which invariably involves cutting benefits or "will go belly up" in less than 20 years or, this one addressed to younger workers, "won't be there" when you get to retirement age, are all lies. Flat out lies.

I refuse even to call them misunderstandings or inaccuracies. They are lies, lies intended to undermine support for a program that the right wing has tried to bring down from the get-go, a program which they hated at first because it was government support for those in need and have come to hate even more because it has worked so damn well.

Oh, and I do mean from the get-go.

When Social Security originally was being considered in Congress, opponents claimed it would bring an end to American freedom. Seriously. For example, one member of Congress warned that the people would feel "the lash of the dictator" while another said Social Security "opens the door to a power so vast, so powerful as to threaten to pull the pillars of the temple down upon the heads of our descendants" and a third insisted it would "end the progress of a great country."

They haven't stopped trying to undermine it, they've just changed tactics to regular waves of fear-mongering about how "unaffordable" and "unsustainable" the system is.

And, again, it's all lies.

One widely-circulated article was from Stephen Ohlemacher of Associated Press, headlined with some version or another of "Social Security at 80: Is it time for an overhaul?" Because it was from Associated Press, it appeared in newspapers major and minor all across the country.

It is hard to imagine that this article would have been more biased against Social Security if it had been written by some far right-wing think tank. But for that same reason, plus its wide publication, it provides a template to rebut the lies.

It starts with the boiler-plate fear mongering:
Social Security’s disability fund is projected to run dry next year. The retirement fund has enough money to pay full benefits until 2035. But once the fund is depleted, the shortfalls are projected to be enormous.
Okay, let's deal with the disability issue first because it's a bit subtle. Social Security actually has two funds: the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund, which is what we usually think of when we think of Social Security, and Social Security Disability Insurance. The money that comes in from payroll taxes is distributed between those two funds, with most going to the former.

Eleven times over the years, the trustees of the funds have adjusted what percentage of the monies coming in goes to each fund, depending on which one needed an extra little boost at the moment. Such shifts have been routine and uncontroversial. The last time one of these re-allocations of tax income was done was in 1994 and it was predicted at that time that the Disability Insurance fund would need to be replenished - guess when - in 2016. The need for replenishment is exactly what has been expected for the past 20-plus years.

The reason, the only reason, this presents the possibility of a crisis is that on the first day of the new Congress in January, the GOPper leaders of the House of Representatives adopted a rule which said that it would be out of order for Congress to reduce the actuarial balance of the Social Security retirement account. But obviously there is no way to reallocate any money to the Disability Insurance fund without affecting the balance of the retirement account. The effect would be small, but it would not be zero. Put bluntly, the "crisis" in the Disability Insurance fund was deliberately created by the right-wing in the House.

But the article mentions this rule only in passing, never explains its effect, but does describe it falsely as related to "improv[ing] the overall financial health" of the system, and allows the disability program to be called "plagued by waste and abuse" without challenge or evidence.

Next up, saying "the fund will be depleted" in 2035 is total and complete garbage. Starting back in 1977, payroll taxes were increased to build up a surplus to deal with the baby-boomer demographic bulge in retirees everyone knew would be hitting around 2010. The trustees' latest report says that the Social Security Trust fund now has $2.8 trillion in assets and that amount is expected to grow until 2019.

At that point, payments will exceed income and the system will have to dip into that surplus to pay full benefits. That is what will be "depleted" in, its now predicted, 20 years from now: the surplus. The surplus that was deliberately created to deal with the increasing demands on the system. The surplus that was deliberately created so it could be drawn upon. At that point, the system would be back on the pay-as-you-go basis on which it has existed for almost it's entire life.

More scare tactics:
In 1960, there were more than five workers for every person receiving Social Security. Today there are fewer than three. In 20 years, there will be about two workers for every person getting benefits.
Omigosh, how will we ever afford it?

Except that "workers versus retirees" is a useless and deceptive statistic. Workers don't just support retired people, they support all non-workers, including their children and their spouse or partner if they don't work. Even as the number of retirees is growing, family size is shrinking. So over those next few decades, even as the ratio of workers to retirees is expected to go down, the ratio of workers to non-workers is expected to go up: more workers per non-worker. The burden on workers will be much that same, it's just that in effect, some portion of that burden will have shifted from supporting their children to supporting their parents.

But wait! Come 2035, when we're back to pay-as-you-go, Social Security would collect enough in taxes to pay only 79 percent of scheduled benefits. A 21% benefit cut! Horrors! We have to cut benefits now to avoid that big hit later!

Well, yes, the 79% figure is true - if you also assume that nothing is done in those 20 years. The system has been tweaked and adjusted numerous times over its life and it will probably have to be tweaked again, but presenting it as a choice between "cut benefits now" and "cut benefits more later" is a false choice.

And here's an interesting thing I bet no one has told you: Note the reference to "scheduled" benefits. The trustees make calculations of future costs and benefits based on various scenarios of how the economy might play out over the years. Initial benefits for a new retiree are calculated on a wage base. The thing is, over time, wages tend to rise a bit faster than inflation. Which means projected - that is, "scheduled" - initial benefits also rise a bit faster than inflation. The bottom line is that 79% of scheduled benefits in 2035 will provide about the same standard of living as current benefits do today.

Oh, and one other little tidbit to add in here: Three years ago, instead of predicting being able to pay 79% of scheduled benefits in 2035, the prediction was being able to pay 75% of scheduled benefits in 2033. Which means, of course, that projections are somewhat better than three years ago.

Finally, there is of course the "scare with big numbers" gambit.
Over the next 75 years, Social Security is projected to pay out $159 trillion more in benefits than it will collect in taxes. That is not a typo.
Wow. Scary. Except: The US GDP is now $17.5 trillion a year, so even if you assume no expansion of the economy at all, over the same 75 years the economy will generate over $1.3 quadrillion in goods and services.

You want really big numbers? We'll give you big numbers. Between 1933 and early 2015, the mean annual real (i.e., non-inflated) growth in the US GDP has been 4.4%.

If that average was maintained, in that 75th year, when the accumulated payments beyond income of Social Security would be $159 trillion, the US GDP, in that single year, would be over $440 trillion. The magic of compound interest.

And if it seems silly to try to calculate out how big the US economy will be in 75 years, it should seem even sillier to talk about cutting benefits to present and future retirees based on projections every bit as tenuous.

Finally, what would I do about Social Security? I would remove the cap on wages subject to Social Security taxes, which is now $118,500 a year. Don't give me any bull about that's going after "the middle class." $120,000 a year is more than about 92-93% of US income-earners. That is not middle class.

Sources cited in links:

Left Side of the Aisle #217

Left Side of the Aisle
for the week of August 20-26, 2015

Refuting the lies about Social Security

More on the three secret trade deals

Sunday, August 16, 2015

216.10 - The Trans-Pacific Partnership is not the only massive trade deal being negotiated in secret

The Trans-Pacific Partnership is not the only massive trade deal being negotiated in secret

Here's another example of the failure of our news media, perhaps an almost ideal one because this does affect us directly and we still don't hear about it.

We start by referring to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, this huge trade deal being negotiated in secret among 12 Pacific-rim countries which has been described as the biggest such deal in history. I have talked about this before; in fact the first time was nearly three years ago and I brought it up several times during the Amazing Mr. O's ultimately-successful push for renewed fast-track authority. (For example, here and here.)

The news on this front is that the announcement of the deal has been put off because the partners wrapped up their most recent round of talks in Hawaii without reaching an agreement on key sticking points, with different nations demanding either greater access to other countries for its exports or limits on imports from other countries. (So much for the "free and open trade" we're being told is the goal.)

All 12 nations this weekend vowed to continue the talks, but didn't set a date for their next round of negotiations.

Meanwhile, Obama is starting to be under some time pressure. He wants the deal to go into effect before he leaves office in January 2017 but needs to allow for months of both congressional review and text scrubbing and language translations that are inevitable before a vote in Congress, a vote Congress might not be happy taking up if the issue drags into the 2016 campaign season.

But here's another thing, the thing I particularly wanted to bring up, one you probably are unaware of: The TPP is only one of three massive trade deals now being negotiated, all in secret.

The others are the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), largely between the US and the European Union,which would do for much of the Atlantic side of the world what the TPP seeks to do to the Pacific side, and the Trade in Services Agreement, or TiSA, which involves more than 50 countries and looks to establish the same sort of transnational corporation-dominated "free market" in services that the other agreements seek to establish for goods.

And about the only way we know what's going on with any of these negotiations is due to leaks and whistleblowers who provide materials to WikiLeaks, which then publishes them to the almost complete indifference of the US media. With the result that you very possibly have never heard of them.

I'll tell you more about what we know about the TTIP and the TiSA next week.

Sources cited in links:

216.9 - Outrage of the Week: Sloppy, lazy media leaves us ignorant of the wider world

Outrage of the Week: Sloppy, lazy media leaves us ignorant of the wider world

Now for the Outrage of the Week. This is a somewhat different one, as it is not driven by some particular event or cause but rather is the result of a continual frustration.

I have undoubtedly made it clear by now that I am not impressed with our mainstream news media. It is, overall, lazy, too focused on trivialities and personalities rather than substance, more concerned with entertaining than informing, overly enamored of the technology of how the news is presented rather than the content of it, so committed to a false notion of "balance" that it equates neutrality with never reaching a conclusion, and so devoted to audience-generating usefulness of "conflict" that it claims scientific or scholarly "controversy" where none exists - think evolution and global climate change. The result is to leave us as a people uninformed, malinformed, and misinformed.

One aspect of that is that we are an incredibly parochial people, uniformed about and largely uninterested in the world around us except as it directly affects us, often enough leaving us gazing at some world event with dull eyes empty of understanding.

Harsh words, I know, but let me give you a sense of what I mean. I'm going to give you some headlines - just headlines, except where I may add a sentence or two to give necessary context. As I go through this list, all of which came from a single source on a single day a few days ago, ask yourself how many of these things you have even heard about and of those you have, what if anything you know about them beyond the headline.

Here's the list:

"Car bomb kills seven in eastern Libya"
(Did you know there has been civil war in Libya ever since we helped kick out Muammar Qaddafi?)

"Temperatures soar in deadly Egypt heatwave"

"Heat wave hits some European countries, more wildfires reported"

"3 security men injured in Heliopolis bomb explosion"
(Heliopolis is a suburb of Cairo, Egypt.)

"Germany gets tough on Balkan migration"

"Turkish security forces reel from wave of attacks"

"US Consulate Targeted Amid Turkey Attacks"

"Greece closes in on third bailout deal"

"7 injured in suicide blast near Kabul airport"
(You remember there is still a war in Afghanistan, yes?)

"More Than 1.3 Million Acres of Paddy Fields in Burma Destroyed by Floods"
(Which means the lose of 1.3 million acres of food production.)

"Burkina Faso calls for aid as floods set to worsen"
(Burkina Faso is a nation in western Africa.)

"Iraq PM rolls out sweeping reforms"
(You do remember Iraq, right? A war and stuff?)

El Salvador is now the world's most dangerous country outside a war zone.

"Militants again firing from multiple rocket launchers at Ukrainian army positions near Starohnativka"

"Seoul blames North Korea for mine blast, vows response"
(Bombs had been planted in mines near the border; South Korea accuses North Korea of doing it.)

There have been gun battles between police and rebels in Kashmir, a province on the India-Pakistan border claimed by both and which has been the cause of two wars.

"Yemen's loyalist forces push Houthi rebels from Aden"
(Remember the civil war in Yemen? The one the US has been involved in, doing done drone strikes?)

Haiti voted in elections marred by disorder and delays, elections that had been stalled for four years.

And finally for this list, twenty-one people have died and 185,000 have been forced from their homes from a typhoon that hit China this week after it had pelted Taiwan with 40 inches of rain in two days, leaving three dead, 185 injured, and three-quarters of a million without electricity.

Okay, again ask yourself how many of those events you had even heard of and of those, how many you knew anything about beyond the headline itself, how many you could put in a broader context.

The fact that you likely knew of few of them and little beyond the handful of words is not an indictment of you. It is an indictment of our national mainstream news media. It is an outrage.

Sources cited in links:
Headlines obtained from one day's listing at ( plus one update on the typhoon and one on the Haitian elections.

216.8 - Clown Award: Bic Pen company

Clown Award: Bic Pen company

And now a regular feature, the Clown Award, given as always for some act of meritorious stupidity.

This week the Big Red Nose this week goes to the Bic pen corporation for what only be described as a truly epic fail.

The company put out an ad in South Africa supposedly intended to celebrate Women’s Day there.

The picture shows the ad.

In case you can't see it, the text reads "Look like a girl, act like a lady, think like a man, work like a boss. #HappyWomensDay."


Forgetting the advice "when you're in a hole, stop digging," the company responded two days later by taking down the ad with a post with the classic non-apology saying it apologizes to "all our fans who took offense" (not "we're sorry we did something offensive," but "we're sorry you took it that way") and saying the text was meant "in the most empowering way possible."

The company then tried again, taking down that post and replacing it with one saying "we're incredibly sorry for offending everybody," which is at least closer to a genuine apology, one that acknowledges that you did something wrong, and thanking people for their "feedback" which will "help us ensure that something like this will never happen again."

Which would be more convincing if it hadn't happened before, back in 2012, when the company brought out "Bic for Her," pens in pink and purple "designed to fit a woman's hand."

The Bic pen company. Didn't get it then, probably doesn't get it now. Bic. What a bunch of clowns.

Sources cited in links:

216.7 - Hero Award: Speaking up for fast-food workers seeking a living wage

Hero Award: Speaking up for fast-food workers seeking a living wage

Now, another of our occasional features, this one being called The Hero Award, which is given out from time to time to someone who deserves recognition for having just done the right thing on a matter big or small.

I've several times brought news of the movement sometimes known as "Fight for 15" that is, for a $15 an hour minimum wage. This movement has mostly involved fast-food and other service workers, leading some voices to dismiss the call on grounds along the lines of something like "I’m a licensed electrician, I make $13/hr. Those burger flippers think they deserve more than me? Screw that.”

So we bring to the discussion the voice of Jens Rushing, an EMT in Arlington, Texas, reacting to the fact that the state of New York plans to raise the minimum wage for employees of fast-food chain restaurants to $15 an hour over the next few years. He wrote on Facebook that:
I’m a paramedic. My job requires a broad set of skills: interpersonal, medical, and technical skills, as well as the crucial skill of performing under pressure. I often make decisions on my own, in seconds, under chaotic circumstances, that impact people’s health and lives. I make $15/hr. And these burger flippers think they deserve as much as me? Good for them.
“Look," he want on, "if any job is going to take up someone’s life, it deserves a living wage. If a job exists and you have to hire someone to do it, they deserve a living wage."

Jens Rushing
"Why," he wrote, "are you angry about fast food workers making two bucks more an hour when your CEO makes four hundred TIMES what you do?"

Directing your anger at other workers who, like you, are just trying to get by, he said, is "exactly what the bosses want!" They want us fighting over who has more crumbs while they take off with "almost the whole cake." (And parenthetically, I want to note my pleasure at seeing the very useful phrase "the bosses" re-enter our vocabulary.)

Okay, so it wasn't some grand gesture, it wasn't something that echoed from the hilltops, it was just a Facebook post. But it was, absolutely, the right thing to say and at the right time. It was the right thing to do.

Doing the right thing, especially when there is no particular gain in it for you, is what makes for a hero around here. Jens Rushing, you are a hero.

Sources cited in links:

216.6 - The little Thing: A judge orders a man to get married; does the woman have a say?

The little Thing: A judge orders a man to get married; does the woman have a say?

Now for a segment of our occasional feature we call "The little Thing." This is where some aspect of a news story which has not gotten much notice or not spurred much comment is the thing about it which really get me. That is, the little thing.

You may have heard about this case, it generated a certain amount of buzz.

An East Texas judge named Randall Rogers heard a young guy named Josten Bundy admit to assaulting the ex-boyfriend of his significant other, Elizabeth Jaynes, after the ex-boyfriend said "disrespectful things" about Jaynes.

Rogers sentenced Bundy to fifteen days in prison unless he accepted probation with some very strange conditions. Bundy was prepared to accept the 15 days until the judge told him he wouldn't have to chance to call his workplace to tell them what was going on. "That's not how this works," said Judge Rogers.

Fearing that meant he would be bundled off without any chance to tell anyone what was going on and it would mean the loss of his job, Bundy agreed to the probation. And this is where it gets weird. The conditions included getting counseling, writing Bible verses, and marrying Jaynes within 30 days. This was after having asked Bundy if Jaynes was "worth it."

A number of people have commented on how these conditions were so far beyond the judge's lawful authority as to boggle the imagination. Jaynes's father said that when he tried to get legal advice for the couple, lawyers laughed at him, refusing to believe the case was real. There have been calls for Judge Rogers to be kicked off the bench and even disbarred.

And all that is true and good.

But here's the thing, the little thing that you only find mentioned if you dig deep into comments on the story: Judge Randall Rogers required that Joston Bundy marry Eizabeth Jaynes within 30 days.

Okay. Doesn't Elizabeth Jaynes have any say in this getting married business? Doesn't she have any say in when or even if she gets married and to who? Apparently not, in the mind of Judge Rogers. She is just a commodity for exchange.

So not only is Judge Randall Rogers a constitutional ignoramus with a grossly-inflated sense of his own power and importance and, it seems, a Bible-thumping fundamentalist, he's also a raging sexist who would have to jump forward a few centuries to make it just to the 20th.

Disbarment is too good for him.

Sources cited in links:

216.5 - Good News: New vaccine highly effective against Ebola

Good News: New vaccine highly effective against Ebola

One last bit of good news for this week:

According to the World Health Organization, a vaccine against Ebola has proved to be 100 percent effective during trials conducted in Guinea and might be highly effective in protecting people against the virus. It could be, the WHO said, a "game-changer".

It's a single-dose vaccine called VSV-EBOV. It combined a fragment of the Ebola virus with another safer virus in order to train the immune system to beat Ebola. And it apparently works.

Trials began in March in Guinea, one of three West African nations hit by the Ebola outbreak; the others are Liberia and Sierra Leone. Over 4,000 people who had just recently been exposed to Ebola were vaccinated. After 10 days, not one of them was sick, a result called "remarkable" by medical experts, not only for the effectiveness of the result but for the fact that the entire process of developing the vaccine took less than a year.

So we may - and for the moment have to emphasize may - have beaten Ebola. And isn't that good news.

As a footnote, it's also a measure of what governments and yes, corporations - the vaccine was developed by Merck - can accomplish when they really want to.

Sources cited in links:

216.4 - Good News: Advisory panel tells judge in Ohio he can't refuse to perform same-sex marriages

Good News: Advisory panel tells judge in Ohio he can't refuse to perform same-sex marriages

We have yet some more good news, this time on an area we have talked about before, in fact talked about a lot: same-sex marriage.

Once the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have the right to get married on the same basis as opposite-sex couples, a rational person could be forgiven for thinking okay, that's done, let's move on.

But of course we can't, because the reactionary homophobic bigots continue to look for ways to block or at a minimum limit the ability of same-sex couples to actually exercise that right. County clerks have simply refused to issue marriage licenses to them. Judges and other civil officers have simply refused to marry such couples.

Well, rack one up for the good folks. A judge in Toledo, Ohio, had asked for an accommodation to refuse to marry same-sex couples because of his claimed sincerely-held religious beliefs. On August 10, the Board of Professional Conduct of the Ohio state supreme court issued an advisory opinion stating that
a  judge should be mindful of the requirement to perform administrative duties without bias or prejudice despite the judge’s personal, moral, and religious beliefs.
And if a judge did perform opposite-sex marriages while refusing to perform same-sex ones, that judge "acts contrary to the judicial oath."

That is, the court said, you as a judge have a responsibility, even more than others, to follow the law as it is, not as you wish the law was.

The only way around this, the court said, was for a judge to decline to perform any marriages at all - but it added that if you do that to avoid having to do same-sex marriages, that "may be interpreted as an improper bias or prejudice against a particular class" and "raise reasonable questions about his or her impartiality in proceedings where sexual orientation is at issue."

Now, this was an advisory opinion, not a binding one, but still the meaning is clear: When you put on the robe, you have to leave your bigotry aside. If you can't do that, you shouldn't be a judge.

Sources cited in links:

216.3 - Footnote: Planned Parenthood rated more favorably than any presidential candidate

Footnote: Planned Parenthood rated more favorably than any presidential candidate

Two quick footnotes to that:

Wheaton College, an evangelical college in Illinois which lost in the 7th circuit on its attempt to deny access to birth control by being exempted from even having to say it is exempt, has declared that because it didn't get its way, it's going to take its ball and go home: The school is terminating all health insurance plans it had been offering to its students.

Which is, clearly, the very most Christian response possible.

Meanwhile, a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll on favorability ratings has an interesting pleasant surprise.

A "favorability" poll is where people are asked if they have a favorable or unfavorable opinion about some person, group, or whatever. The pollsters then subtract the percentages for the negative ratings from those for the positive ratings to get a "net favorability rating." So if 35% rated you favorably and 55% unfavorably, you have a favorability rating of -20. If 60% rate you favorably and 30% rate you unfavorably, you have a favorability rating of +30.

Here's the pleasant surprise: According to this poll, Planned Parenthood of America has a higher net favorability rating than any GOPper presidential candidate. In fact, it had a net +15, higher than any presidential candidate of either major party, higher than either major party, higher than Barack Obama, higher than Chief Justice John Roberts, higher than the Supreme Court itself, and higher than the NRA.

In fact, it had the highest net favorability rating of anything covered in the poll.

The lies, slander, and general crap that have been thrown at PPoA don't seem to be sticking. And that is still more good news.

Sources cited in links:

216.2 - Good News: Second Circuit Court of Appeals turns away attempt by religious nonprofits to block employee access to birth control

Good News: Second Circuit Court of Appeals turns away attempt by religious nonprofits to block employee access to birth control

Speaking of birth control, we have good news on a related front but first I have to do a little back-fill.

A few weeks ago, I told you that the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a Catholic order of nuns called Little Sisters of the Poor, which runs about 30 nursing homes around the country, must comply with the Affordable Care Act.

That law, also called Obamacare, requires most employers other than houses of worship to cover the full range of contraception in their employee health plans at no out-of-pocket cost to the women. However, an exemption was included allowing religiously-based nonprofits to opt out of covering birth control if it is against their beliefs. All they have to do is file a form with the federal government saying so. In those cases, the government directs the third-party insurer to provide the contraception coverage.

The Little Sisters objected to even having to file the form as some great intrusion on their religious freedom. The result would be that not only would the Little Sisters not provide contraceptive coverage, they would actively interfere with their employees' ability to get such coverage by keeping the third-party option from kicking in. They sued. They lost.

The purpose of going over that again was to remind folks of the legal issue involved.

Okay, the good news here is that the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals has overturned a 2013 district court decision that exempted four Catholic church-affiliated nonprofits from having to file the form involved. In short, just like the Little Sister, they sued, they lost.

Those nonprofits together employ 25,000 people at two high schools, six hospitals, three nursing homes, and several nonprofits.

Just like in the case of the Little Sisters, the court found it necessary to state the obvious:
Through a modicum of paperwork, an eligible organization throws the entire administrative and financial burden of providing contraceptive coverage on its insurer or third-party administrator
we cannot conclude that the simple act of completing the notification form imposes a substantial burden on plaintiffs' religious exercise.
The even better news is that this is now the sixth US Circuit Court that has turned away attempts by church-affiliated organizations to not have to file the form, despite the undeniable impact that failure to file would have on their employees' own rights to act in accordance with their consciences. Four of those cases have been appealed to the Supreme Court, but clearly the trend of legal judgment is running against them. Which is good.

Sources cited in links:

216.1 - Washington Supreme Court says pharmacy can't refuse to fill prescription for birth control

Washington Supreme Court says pharmacy can't refuse to fill prescription for birth control

We start this week with some good news on what has become a rather unexpected front for good news of late: reproductive rights.

The state of Washington has rules which state that an individual pharmacist can refuse to fill a prescription for religious reasons so long as another pharmacist working at the same pharmacy provides timely delivery. The rules also say that a pharmacy, that is, the business, cannot refuse to fill a prescription even if the owner objects.

A suit arose involving a pharmacy known as Ralph's Thriftway. What was involved was the pharmacy's refusal to fill a prescription for a morning-after pill, an area where "timely" delivery of a filled prescription is particularly important.

The case resulted in the state trial court finding that the rules were an unconstitutional burden on First Amendment rights, meaning that not only individual pharmacists but the entire corporation could, without any consequences to itself, refuse to fill lawfully-issued prescriptions which it didn't like.

The good news here is that the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has overturned that decision, finding that the state's rules are constitutional. They do not, the court found, overly burden religious belief but they do rationally further the state's interest in patient safety and timely delivery of prescribed medications.

Margaret Sanger
This is unlikely to be the end of the matter as the corporation that owns Ralph's will likely appeal. But at least it is a strong statement on a woman's right to contraception.

People are still sometimes surprised to hear that when you walk into a pharmacy with a prescription, you could be told "I won't fill that" because "I object to birth control."

But they shouldn't be. Advocates of contraceptive care have been warning for years that the anti-choice crowd, the anti-woman's rights gang, the anti-freedom cabal, was not going to stop at abortion but was going to go after birth control. Heck, I was telling people that eleven years ago.

Which, I have to say, makes the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals' ruling even sweeter, a big, fat, "No so fast!" to those who would turn the clock back an entire century to a time when Margaret Sanger was being arrested just for distributing information on contraception.

Sources cited in links:;_ylt=AwrC0CYKUbFV0yQAK0.ZmolQ;_ylu=X3oDMTByOHZyb21tBGNvbG8DYmYxBHBvcwMxBHZ0aWQDBHNlYwNzcg--

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Left Side of the Aisle #216

Left Side of the Aisle
for the week of August 13-19, 2015

This week:
Good News: Washington Supreme Court says pharmacy can't refuse to fill prescription for birth control;_ylt=AwrC0CYKUbFV0yQAK0.ZmolQ;_ylu=X3oDMTByOHZyb21tBGNvbG8DYmYxBHBvcwMxBHZ0aWQDBHNlYwNzcg--

Good News: Second Circuit Court of Appeals turns away attempt by religious nonprofits to block employee access to birth control

Footnote: Planned Parenthood rated more favorably than any presidential candidate

Good News: Advisory panel tells judge in Ohio he can't refuse to perform same-sex marriages

Good News: New vaccine highly effective against Ebola

The little Thing: A judge orders a man to get married; does the woman have a say

Hero Award: Speaking  up for fast-food workers seeking a living wage

Clown Award: Bic Pen company

Outrage of the Week: Sloppy, lazy media leaves us ignorant of the wider world
Headlines obtained from one day's listing at ( plus one update on the typhoon.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership is not the only massive trade deal being negotiated in secret

Monday, August 10, 2015

215.7 - Footnote: Nuclear weapons are not things of the past

Footnote: Nuclear weapons are not things of the past

As a footnote, this is why all that talk about Hiroshima and Nagasaki is not just a history lesson.

According to the Arms Control Association, as of July 2015:

- The United States has 1,597 strategic nuclear warheads deployed plus another 2,800 in reserve along with a tactical (short-range) nuclear arsenal of about 500 warheads.

- Russia has 1,582 strategic warheads deployed and several thousand non-deployed strategic warheads. It also has approximately 2,000 tactical nuclear warheads.

- France has 290 deployed warheads.

- China has about 250 total warheads.

- United Kingdom has about 120 strategic warheads, of which 40 are deployed at sea at any given time. The total stockpile is up to 225 weapons.

- India has 90-110 nuclear warheads.

- Israel has somewhere between 80 and 100 nuclear warheads, with fissile material for up to 200.

- Pakistan holds between 100 and 120 nuclear warheads.

- North Korea is estimated to have 6-8 plutonium-based warheads.

Nuclear weapons are very real, continue to be very real, and the threat continues to be very real. We have been comforted some over the past years by the fact that the arsenals of the two biggest nuclear powers - the US and Russia - have been significantly reduced as the result of negotiations. But what we don't hear is how the present-day weapons are more efficient, more accurate, in every way "better" than those in those old massive arsenals of a few decades ago, how today's weapons, those designed and built since the 1980s, are, as one person put it, "more for use than deterrence."

What's more, the threat is not only that of a deliberate attack. A report from the Union of Concerned Scientists from April reports that "Erroneous or ambiguous warnings from U.S. or Russian early warning sensors of an incoming nuclear attack are relatively common" and there have been literally dozens of what the group calls "near misses" over the years.

Despite that, about half of US nuclear forces remain always on hair-trigger alert, capable of being launched within minutes of the decision to do so, the same high alert status they have been on since the height of the cold war.

And with the US having just sabotaged a conference on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in order to shield Israel from a call for a nuclear-weapons free zone in the Middle East, I will say that no, the issue of nuclear weapons is not passe, not something in the past, not something we can ignore, not something we can pretend is limited to our fantasies and paranoia about "the Iranian bomb."

Nuclear weapons are very real, continue to be very real, and the threat they present continues to be very real. And the anniversaries of the only times they have been used in warfare is a good time to be reminded of that.

Sources cited in links:

215.6 - The 70th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

The 70th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

This week marks the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. During the week there will be, if past experience is any guide, a few news stories recalling the events, a few photographs of paper cranes showered over the monument in Hiroshima's Peace Park, and a few "it must not happen again" editorials all expressing with appropriate regret the "necessity" of the bombings. It will, in short, be a week of comforting, reinforcing, oft-told tales - that is, of myths.

Leo Szilard
That is perhaps more fitting than we realize, because the nuclear weapons age was born in a myth: the myth of the Nazi bomb.

Albert Einstein
Most people date the start of the American nuclear arms effort to a famous 1939 letter composed by physicist Dr. Leo Szilard but sent to President Roosevelt over the signature of Albert Einstein because it was thought his name would be more impressive to Roosevelt and his advisors).

The letter noted the possibility of developing an atomic bomb. By the time of Pearl Harbor, the US already had a small nuclear bomb project going that had made real progress.

The political argument given for building the atomic bomb, for investing the enormous amounts of time, money, resources, and scientific talent in what became known at the Manhattan Project, was that some intelligence reports said that Nazi Germany may have been working on one. If so, we had to have one and we had to have it first. Although it must in fairness be noted that it may not have been known at the time, the fact is that although the Germans were indeed doing some experiments in that direction, they were going about it in an extremely inefficient way and it would've taken them decades to develop a bomb - if it was possible at all.

Some of late have tried to resuscitate that threat by claiming the Germans were "closer than we knew." The argument, however, is based on their progress in enriching uranium and relies on the supposition that in the 1940s scientists working on the project could have suddenly changed gears and adopted a different approach - that is, do exactly what they had decided against doing years before. At least one writer added the argument of a commando raid that destroyed an enrichment facility in occupied Norway, claiming that set back the German's bomb project significantly. That undoubtedly slowed production, but it didn't affect the problems with the process itself. That is, the "closer than we knew" assertion in based on a series of "what ifs," which makes for interesting speculation but not a persuasive argument.

But no matter what you think on that point, what's important here is that it was the claimed threat from Germany that supposedly provided the logic, the argument, the purpose of the Manhattan Project. And yet....

By late 1944 US intelligence knew that the German nuclear experiments had failed. The Manhattan Project didn't even slow down.

Trinity test
In fact, Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945 - 10 weeks before the first successful test explosion of an atomic bomb. (Code-named Trinity, it took place at Alamogordo Testing Range, 230 miles south of Los Alamos, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945.) With the surrender of Germany, the entire founding logic of the Manhattan Project evaporated, vanished, dissolved. But the project by then had too much momentum - it had become its own purpose, its own logic. So instead of stopping or even slowing down, the project accelerated, in part because some on the staff were afraid the war would end before they got the bomb built. We simply switched myths: from the myth of Nazi atomic bombs to the myth of the fanatical Japanese. The weapon that was supposedly designed for defense against Germany now "had" to be used on Japan.

And here is what's probably the most important myth of all, because it provided the logical (if you can call it that) underpinnings for actually carrying out the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for actually vaporizing tens of thousands of human beings in the flash of an instant and opening the door of the atomic age, a myth that gets replayed, reproduced, re-pronounced, re-proclaimed every time Hiroshima and Nagasaki are mentioned, a myth that people continue to believe today, as polls show that a clear majority of Americans approve of the bombings: the myth that the Japanese were so fanatical that the only possible alternative to the devastation of those cities was a bloody land invasion of Japan.

It's just not true. It's more than a myth, worse than a myth, it's a damned lie. A 70-year old damned lie.

To begin with, the yearly claims, sure to be heard again this week, that such an invasion would've cost 250,000 or 500,000 or 1,000,000 American lives (the numbers vary unpredictably) is utter nonsense. Even President Truman originally cited an estimate of 250,000 casualties (not deaths) - although in later years he doubled it, then doubled it again, each time for no discernible reason other than self-justification. More to the point, the War Planning Committee of the Joint Chiefs of Staff never expected more than 40,000 American deaths, and thought they might've been as low as 20,000 because they thought it a fair likelihood that Japan would surrender during the first part of such a campaign.

20,000 is a lot of people - then again, it's about 1/7 to 1/10 of the death which we inflicted on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Which in turn raises the more important question of whether such an invasion was necessary at all.

It wasn't.

By the spring of 1945 Japan was already a defeated nation. It no longer had any navy to speak of, its air force had been decimated, its army driven back to its own shores. It was incapable of mounting any offensive action or even of defending itself against US air raids. Critical materials and even food were in short supply.

The situation was so bad that even attempts to justify the bombings wind up confirming Japan's desperate condition: Several years ago I had an email debate with a man who tried to project the classic image of a well-defended Japan bristling with military forces. At one point, trying to show the determination of the Japanese to defend the homeland no matter what the cost, he said "Japan pulled some 500 loaded ships out of China and not one of them made it back to Japan," because of attacks by high-altitude bombers. In response, I noted that he had thereby agreed, if unintentionally, that Japan's air force was so thoroughly destroyed that it couldn't even provide air cover to get its own retreating troops back safely.

In fact, the situation was so bad that before - before - the bombing of Hiroshima, Japan had already made secret overtures to the United States through Sweden and the Soviet Union stating that it was ready to surrender. All of this was known to the US military, all of this was known to Truman, who rejected the offer because it wasn't unconditional: Hirohito would've kept his throne as Emperor.

What was also known to Truman was the USSR's intent to declare war on Japan and its likely impact: In his journal about his meetings with Stalin at the Potsdam conference, Truman wrote on July 17, 1945, "He'll be in Japan War on August 15. Fini Japs when that comes about." (Sidebar: Truman stalled at the beginning of the conference because he wanted to know that the Trinity test had been a success before he dealt with Stalin.)

The atomic bombings were simply unnecessary. But we refused to accept the idea, refused even to accept surrender - because by then peace was not enough, even victory was not enough: It had to be utter, smashing, devastating, total victory.

So it was that early on the morning of August 6th, 1945, the B-29 Superfortress bomber nicknamed "Enola Gay" took off from Tinian Island in the Pacific, headed for Hiroshima, a city in Japan of about 250,000 people. It carried a single bomb, codenamed "Little Boy." At 8:15 AM local time, Little Boy was dropped.

I want to pause for a moment to give you a sense of the kind of power we're talking about here. The bomb contained 64 kilograms - about 141 pounds - of highly-enriched, fissionable uranium. Of that amount, only about .7 kilogram, or about 1.5 pounds, actually fissioned - that is, the atoms split - and only about 600 milligrams was actually converted into energy. That 600 milligrams equals six-tenths of a gram, or a little more than 1/50 ounce.

"Little Boy"
"Fat Man"
The energy released by that 1/50 of an ounce had the explosive force of 14,000 tons of dynamite. It was enough to devastate Hiroshima. Around 70,000 people died instantly; some of them were literally vaporized. Another 20,000 died shortly thereafter, some thousands more by 1950, due to injuries, radiation poisoning, and cancer.

Just three days later, another nuclear bomb, codenamed "Fat Man," did the same to Nagasaki, with tens of thousands more dead, thousands more condemned to die of injuries, radiation poisoning, and cancer, and another city destroyed.

So we destroyed Hiroshima and then we destroyed Nagasaki when Japan didn't surrender fast enough. We destroyed them even though many US officials and top military officers, including such as Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Adm. William Leahy as well as Gens. Dwight Eisenhower, "Hap" Arnold, and Douglas MacArthur, declared it unnecessary. That judgment was proved correct by US analysts sent to Japan in 1946 who concluded that nation would've surrendered before November 1, 1945 "even if atomic bombs hadn't been dropped, Russia hadn't entered the war, and no invasion was planned."

Bombing Hiroshima was unnecessary and the US government and military knew it was unnecessary. It was a crime, a war crime, one that we compounded, more than doubtled, by bombing Nagasaki before the impact of the first bomb had time to settle in. The Nagasaki bomb was made ready in a day-and-night effort and the city wasn't even the primary target. Kokura was. In fact, Nagasaki was not on the original list of the top three targets for the second bomb and wound up being devastated only because Kokura had too much cloud cover that day for a clean bomb run.

Which raises the question of if the second bombing was to force Japan to surrender - or to get it in before Japan had a chance to do so.

There is good reason to think the latter. Truman's note about "fini Japs" when the Soviets entered the war against Japan was not enthusiasm; it was a reflection of concern about Soviet influence in the post-war world and how we could try to prevent that.

James Byrnes (and Truman)
Before the bombings, some officials urged that we stage a "demonstration" blast on a deserted island or in an uninhabited area of Japan to show the Japanese the power of the weapon we had and to give them a chance to surrender before we actually used it. (Among those pushing such an idea was Leo Szilard, who, perhaps having second thoughts about his role in all this, pleaded with Secretary of State James Byrnes not to use the bomb on people and circulated a petition to Truman to rule out its use because it would open the "door to an era of devastation of an unimaginable scale.")

The idea of a "demonstration" blast was supposedly shelved. But, in fact, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were demonstration blasts. They were intended to show the awesome power we held in our arsenal - only the target of the demonstration wasn't Japan. It was the Soviet Union.

Bernard Baruch
US officials, including Secretary of State James Byrnes, presidential advisor Bernard Baruch, and top military leaders, had urged the use of atomic weapons on Japan as a means of warning the Soviet Union not to challenge American plans for a postwar world dominated by US interests, to, in Byrnes' words, allow the US "to dictate our own terms [with the USSR] at the end of the war" and "make Russia more manageable in Europe" by showing both our power and our willingness to use it.

Which means, ultimately, that hundreds of thousands of Japanese were destroyed, disintegrated, as sacrificial lambs at the start of a decades-long campaign to "contain" the Soviets if not to bully them into submission. From Nazi bomb scientists through wild-eyed Japanese fanatics to intractable Soviet deceivers, the mythmakers had constructed an image of the United States as appointed to protect and shape the world, with the atomic bomb, as President Truman put it, the weapon given us by God that we were to use "for His purposes and His ends." The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not the last shots of World War II, they were the first shots of the Cold War, and the Japanese the first of its many victims.

One other bitter note: Six after the bombing of Nagasaki, on August 15, Japan formally surrendered. Whether or not the atomic bombs actually ended the war can be argued: On August 8, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan and attacked Manchukuo, a Japanese puppet state on the mainland of Asia, leading some to claim that that, and not the atomic bombings, is what precipitated the Japanese surrender. (Again, recall Truman's prediction about the impact of Soviet involvement.)

If true, that would make the bombings even bigger crimes - but what I wanted to point out here is that the ultimate terms of surrender for Japan were almost exactly the same as those offered by Japan before the bombing of Hiroshima, including allowing Hirohito to keep his position role as Emperor - marking the last several weeks of World War II were a complete and utter waste of time, energy, resources, and most importantly, life.

That, too, is part of the world the Manhattan Project created.

Sources cited in links:
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