AMERICAblog NewsLucas Ropek – AMERICAblog News http://americablog.com A great nation deserves the truth // One of America's top progressive sites for news and opinion Tue, 18 Sep 2018 19:01:55 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.8 Accusations of 9/11 government cover-up trouble U.S.-Saudi relations http://americablog.com/2016/04/accusations-911-government-cover-trouble-u-s-saudi-relations.html http://americablog.com/2016/04/accusations-911-government-cover-trouble-u-s-saudi-relations.html#comments Mon, 25 Apr 2016 14:13:27 +0000 http://americablog.com/?p=136788 The two parties don't often agree, but they agree that 9/11 victims' families shouldn't be able to sue the Saudis.

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A recent 60 Minutes expose entitled “28 Pages” is making waves, reigniting accusations that the Bush administration covered up ties between the 9/11 hijackers and high-ranking Saudi officials to protect the U.S.’s delicate relationship with Saudi Arabia.

The title of the piece refers to the 838-page joint congressional investigative report that was commissioned in the days following the attacks – 28 pages of which were “sealed” by the Bush administration for “security purposes” and have yet to be made public. The pages are locked in an underground vault in the Capitol.

Several top ranking U.S. officials who have seen the pages have come forward and stated the missing pages imply Saudi officials may have had a role in funding and orchestrating the attacks.

To complicate matters further, family members of 9/11 victims are currently attempting to sue the Saudi government for its alleged role in the attacks. The recently-introduced Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (or JASTA) is a bill that would allow “Saudi Arabia to be held responsible in American courts for any role in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks,” according to the New York Times.

The Obama's meet with Saudi leaders, via Wikimedia Commons

The Obama’s meet with Saudi leaders, via Wikimedia Commons

bipartisan effort has been made to stymie the lawsuit – with President Obama denouncing the bill and Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan saying he would not support it. The White House says that if the bill becomes law, it would invite similar legislation from other countries, and their legislation may not be so narrowly tailored to one country and one attack.

That hasn’t stopped the lawsuit and media accusations from causing a real conflict between the U.S. and its long-time ally in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia recently threatened to sell off billions of dollars of U.S. assets if Congress allowed the bill to go through.

President Obama flew to Saudi Arabia and met with King Salman on Wednesday amidst rising tensions between the two countries.

The Kingdom has been an important ally to the U.S. for decades, but many Saudis reportedly view America quite ambivalently, as both a political entity and an oppressive presence in the Middle East. The fact that Osama bin Laden, the well-known architect of the attacks, was the son of a wealthy and well-connected Saudi family has been seen by many to point to the fact that high-ranking Saudis played an active role in orchestrating 9/11.

While the 9/11 attacks have been the subject of conspiracy theories for many years, these recent reports seem to indicate that if there’s no fire clearly visible yet, there’s certainly a lot of smoke.

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Hillary Clinton has foreign policy experience, but that doesn’t mean it’s good http://americablog.com/2016/04/clinton-foreign-policy-experience.html http://americablog.com/2016/04/clinton-foreign-policy-experience.html#comments Mon, 04 Apr 2016 17:26:04 +0000 http://americablog.com/?p=133871 Hillary Clinton has tons of foreign policy experience, but that experience was largely disastrous.

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Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy experience supposedly makes her a superior presidential candidate to her opponent Bernie Sanders in the 2016 race for the Democratic nomination. Commentators note that Clinton has increasingly used her “foreign policy and national security [experience] as a weapon against” her competitor.

Yet the actual content of this foreign policy experience is rarely mentioned. We are simply told it exists — that by having held the position of Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton is prepared to lead the free world. We are seldom told, explicitly, what exactly Clinton did as Secretary of State that demonstrates her competency in international affairs.

To be clear, Republican opponents have done their best to politicize Hillary’s foreign policy failures — though their efforts have often fallen comically flat. The 2015 “investigation” into Clinton’s alleged, though vaguely-articulated, wrongdoing in the Benghazi attacks turned up exactly nothing, and Democrats and progressives were quick to point to how absurd the whole media circus surrounding the issue was — in both the 2012 and 2016 election cycles.

Yet the liberal defense of Hillary has obscured the significantly more disturbing moral questions surrounding the U.S.’s intervention in Libya in the first place. By framing Benghazi as a “partisan witch hunt aimed at hurting the 2016 White House contender,” liberals totally ignore the fact that — regardless as to whether Hillary is responsible for the deaths of four Americans — she is definitely responsible for the deaths of countless Libyan civilians.

The war in Libya is, for all intents and purposes, a good rubric for everything paradoxical and absurd about American “interventionism”: a war conducted for mysterious reasons, with seemingly little forethought for what the consequences would be, which resulted in more chaos and death than would have resulted had the U.S. simply left everything alone. Discounting the pat “murderous dictator” line that is universally deployed in these situations, actual motivations for the intervention range from suspicions that Muammar el-Qaddafi planned to nationalize Libyan oil supplies, to the notion that he planned to transition the country’s currency system to something outside the bounds of U.S. control.

Hillary Clinton, via Brett Weinstein / Flickr

Hillary Clinton, via Brett Weinstein / Flickr

But though the reasoning behind the conflict is murky, what is readily apparent is Clinton’s involvement. Newly released emails from her classified cache reveal the presidential candidate’s extensive role in the Libyan conflict, or what has been dubbed “Hillary’s war.” Reports suggest that the Pentagon, the Obama administration and other U.S. agencies had serious doubts about the necessity of the intervention, while Hillary had “developed tunnel vision” and wanted America to help forcibly install a Western liberal democracy in the country.

Her vision won out in Washington.

In March of 2011, NATO descended upon the tiny African country and let loose a veritable blitzkrieg of airstrikes against its military units. The intervention resulted in the deaths of an estimated 72 civilians — including many children. Additionally, hundreds of civilians were killed by the rebels that America pitted against Qaddafi’s regime.

Following Qaddafi’s death, with the war officially “won” within less than eight months of the initial bombings, the fallout from the U.S.’s intervention has been predictably drawn-out and problematic. Libya is still qualitatively worse off than it was before 2011: Centralized government has largely collapsed; roving bands of militias and racketeers imprison, brutalize and execute people en masse, then burn villages to the ground. ISIS, the Frankenstein that emerged from the U.S.’s intervention in Iraq, has entered the country and set up shop. 

Feminist activist Medea Benjamin has given a good summation of the contrast between pre and post-intervention Libya:

Before Libya’s “liberation” by Western forces in the form of NATO, it was the richest country in Africa. Libyans had free healthcare and education. Today Libyans have almost no functioning public services, with daily blackouts and water shortages…[and Libya] is considered a “failed state” run by extremist militias and two opposing governments vying for power.

Before Western intervention, Libya was a stable, albeit dictatorial nation — one which had high levels of unemployment, but which provided free education and healthcare to its citizens. Libya also reportedly had “the lowest infant mortality and the highest life expectancy in all of Africa” and also saw women’s rights lurch forward by leaps and bounds. According to the New York Times, “[Qaddafi] expanded women’s education, sharply reduced illiteracy among women, enabled women to enter new professions, and conspicuously included uniformed women in both the army and the police.”

Now, after the country has split “into a patchwork of city-states dominated by various regional, ideological or criminal armed” factions, the fates of women are being left to the various “strict religious or extremist groups,” many of which adhere to traditionalist, deeply patriarchal views of women that treat them as second class citizens. The brutal murder of activist Salwa Bugaighis in the spring of 2014 has been hailed by many as symbolic of the larger backslides for women across the country.

Clearly lionizing a dictator is not the goal here. But pointing out the difference between the stable society that Qaddafi crafted and the chaotic, Hobbesian realities that now plague Libyans is an important distinction to make if we’re going to weigh the worth of this “intervention.”

Clinton has defended her actions in Libya using the same jingoistic phraseologies that are always used when attempting to justify American foreign policy debacles: She reminds us that Qaddafi was a “murderous dictator” who had “American blood on his hands,” and the intervention eventually lead to Libya’s first “free election.” As Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic notes, these ridiculous, decontextualized defenses offer little in the way of rational justification or explanation. To the contrary, “A strong case can be made that the [Libyan] war made Americans less safe.”

Americans voting for Hillary over Sanders based on “foreign policy experience” have to admit that they’re committing to a leader who has all the tell-tale signs of being a hawk. Her self-proclaimed tutelage by Henry Kissinger — a key architect of some of the Vietnam War’s worst carnage (as well as a firm believer in the virtues of U.S. imperialism) — is unsettling at best, and frightening at worst.

At the end of the day, Clinton’s foreign policy credentials are the kind of doublethink that is a serious blind spot for liberals: what they actively decried in Bush, they’ve tacitly accepted from Obama, and are apt to support under Hillary. It’s not as if the bombings and invasions have drastically changed since 2007; it’s merely the parties doing the bombings and invasions. If progressives are going to continue to tolerate these brands of unilateral, interminable “intervention” from Democratic presidents, they have no right to complain when the next conservative does it. There’s every reason to be concerned, not enthused, about the kind of foreign policy “experience” that Clinton will bring to the world stage if elected president.

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Nestlé’s plan to bottle water in Oregon just hit a major snag http://americablog.com/2015/11/nestles-plan-to-bottle-water-in-oregon-just-hit-a-major-snag.html http://americablog.com/2015/11/nestles-plan-to-bottle-water-in-oregon-just-hit-a-major-snag.html#comments Mon, 09 Nov 2015 14:42:48 +0000 http://americablog.com/?p=132206 Native American tribes and other local residents are doing what they can to block Nestlé's plan.

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Nestlé, creative innovator behind “Quicky” the Nesquik Bunny, and also (some deem) an evil international corporation, has been waging a slow-motion battle against the people of Oregon for the better part of a decade. At least that’s how a lot of residents of the Columbia River Gorge see it. In the water privatization deal that’s made national headlines, protests have intensified asNestlé closes in on its goal to extract hundreds of millions of gallons of water from Oxbow Springs in a swap between the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) and Cascade Locks. As I’ve written before, nobody really wants this deal to go through except Nestlé and the Cascade Locks City Council (the bulk of whom see the money from water sales as a necessity for their economically depressed community). Nevertheless, the deal has marched on towards materialization, largely unimpeded by state officials.

That is, until last week.

Last Friday, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown sent a letter to the ODFW, asking that it withdraw its application for the water-rights transfer. As The Oregonian reports, this will force the ODFW to “scrap its latest strategy to free up water for a Nestlé bottled water plant in Cascade Locks, in favor of an approach that lets regulators consider the public impacts of relinquishing water in the midst of a drought.” The water rights transfer was seen by many as a way for Nestlé and the Cascade Locks city council to circumvent public review. Without it, there will now be a more open forum, by which ecological review and public comment will be given more consideration.

Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs: Using historical precedent  

Brown’s decision didn’t happen in a vacuum; it came as the result of prolonged pressure from activist groups throughout Oregon–many of which have fought tooth-and-nail to obstruct the deal since its inception way back in 2007.

One of the major activist forces has been the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and Umatilla, which met with Brown last week to express concern for the ecological effects that the Nestlé deal would have when combined with Oregon’s current drought.

The Tribes became a more vocal opponent of the deal earlier this year when they invoked an 150 year old treaty between the U.S. government and their Native communities that stipulates Cascade Locks is technically located on “aboriginal lands.” The old legal loophole essentially says that the resources of the land go with priority to the native population, and any outside agent’s extraction of said resources must be reviewed to certify that their business will not impede the needs of the local communities. In layman’s terms, this means that the water in the Columbia River Gorge is essentially first-come, first-serve, and the Tribe members have a legally mandated “first dibs” on it because they’ve been around the longest.

The conversation surrounding the treaty has mobilized members of the Tribe to enact various forms of protest. Anna Mae Leonard, a 57 year old tribe member, fasted without food for five days in front of the Cascade Locks city council building, begging the Cascade Locks legislators to “let go of Nestlé, and explore different options for economic development.” In another instance, nearly one hundred tribe members protested outside the Oregon state capitol, decrying what they felt was the monetization of one of their “sacred” resources.

Whether the quasi-ancient treaty has enough legal precedent to stop Nestlé is questionable; yet the activism and events by the Tribes has helped to add kindling to the PR-fire that has been building against the Nestlé deal for some time.

The Local Water Alliance’s Protection measure

Nestle, via Creative Commons

Nestle, via Creative Commons

The other power player in the fight against Nestlé has been the Local Water Alliance, a grass-roots activist group which has staged sit-ins and protests throughout the Gorge. Many of the group’s events have been spearheaded by Deanna Busdieker–the sole dissenting member of the Cascade City council, who joined the group after feeling she was getting nowhere with the other legislators.

The Alliance’s most important action so far has been to introduce the Hood River County Water Protection Measure. The measure would ban “any business from producing 1,000 or more gallons of bottled water per day for commercial sale” in Hood River county, and would effectively put the kibosh on Nestlé’s proposed plan (which would extract somewhere around 324,000 gallons per day).

The activists are in the process of petitioning for signatures so that the measure can be considered for the May 17, 2016, primary election ballot. The deadline for the signatures is March 15th.

Kate Brown’s Breakthrough

The fact that Kate Brown put the brakes on the water-rights transfer is pretty good news, though many see her announcement as long overdue. Brown held off for a quite a while, and would’ve probably been content to let the Nestlé deal go through, had it not been for the insistence by Oregonian groups that the water-rights swap was a repressive and undemocratic move. While the battle’s not over yet, it’s certainly a significant victory for the activists who have been resisting Nestlé’s plans from day one. The level of mobilization by Oregon’s grass-roots groups is encouraging. Though it’s taken years, these small constituencies seem to have shown their ability to impact the decisions being made in the highest of political offices.

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Who is responsible for the collapse of the two-state solution? http://americablog.com/2015/11/who-is-responsible-for-the-collapse-of-the-two-state-solution.html http://americablog.com/2015/11/who-is-responsible-for-the-collapse-of-the-two-state-solution.html#comments Tue, 03 Nov 2015 15:27:53 +0000 http://americablog.com/?p=132231 One would think that peace would be possible, if only a few dishonest brokers weren't standing in the way.

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As I wrote about last week, violence is once again exploding between Israelis and Palestinians. Over the last several weeks, tensions have risen and outbreaks of violence have rocked the occupied territories. So what ever happened to the two-state solution?

The much talked about but never carried out plan is as old as the conflict itself, yet reports over the last few years have suggested diminishing hopes for its implementation. In July, the Middle East Envoy addressed the Security Council at the UN, saying that steady violence and division — or what they termed “a thousand cuts” — were destroying the possibility of a two-state solution. Nickolay Mladenov stressed “the need to end unilateral activities in the West Bank.”

The lack of literally any progress on this is pretty astounding, given how much support it’s had over the years. Since the beginning of the Arab-Israeli conflict, international consensus has leaned overwhelmingly towards the creation of a Palestinian state and the UN has annually attempted to pass resolutions in favor of it. Despite the recent violence, majorities of both Israelis and Palestinians support a deal that results in the creation of a Palestinian state alongside the current Jewish one.

Yet out of the nearly 200 countries in the UN charter, there have always been a small coalition of nations that routinely reject the establishment of a Palestinian state. 

So who are they? 

It’s all Nauru’s fault

This may come as a surprise, but most of them are tiny islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

One is the Republic of Nauru — an island subsidiary of Micronesia (affectionately titled “the Pleasant Island”) with an estimated population of 9,000 people and an area of just 8.1 square miles (about the size of Washington, D.C.). There’s also the Marshall Islands — a constellation of islands to the North of Australia with a four-digit population. And another is the scenic island of Palau: an excellent destination for sport fishing, favored tourist spot and firm two-state solution rejecter. 

By now I’m sure you’re wondering why in God’s name these paradisical, pipsqueak islands in the middle of the Pacific give the slightest of bothers about whether the Palestinians have their own country (especially given most of them can hardly be construed as countries themselves). It’s a good question, and the answer demands a small digression.  

Nauru, Palau and the Marshall Islands, are all members of a special club that used to be called the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands. These lucky little nations were fortunate enough to get “conquered” by the U.S. during the aftermath of WWII. During the war, the islands had been taken by Japan as strategic vantage points, and the inhabitants were tortured and executed en masse. Under the U.S., they didn’t fare much better: the decade after the war they were used primarily for nuclear testing — a process that has likely been responsible for the islands’ record-high cancer rates. The Trust Territory lasted until 1986, at which time they entered into a Compact of Free Association (COFA). Under COFA, they are basically still conquered territories (though the U.S. refers to them as “sovereign nations”), and are used primarily for geopolitical advantage and resource mining. At present, none of the islands have any armed forces. The U.S. is fully responsible for them militarily and economically. Their economies are largely sustained via a grant-based program, which means the U.S. pours millions of dollars into these tiny islands annually just to help them with basics like education, healthcare and infrastructure.  

The Honest Obstructor 

This is all to say the majority of the “countries” you’ll see rejecting the two-state solution aren’t really doing so of their own volition: they’re legally mandated to follow the United States’ lead in international affairs. By dictating the foreign policy of these tiny islands, the United States becomes the biggest obstructor of the two-state solution. We’ve voted against (with the occasional abstention) every single draft resolution to establish a Palestinian state, despite our stated support for the two-state solution, and we’ve brought along a cadre of nations legally required to agree with us on every vote. Out of the other countries in the UN charter, Canada and Australia are the only other ones that routinely reject a two-state compromise. The reasoning behind the opposition from these larger nations is based, predominantly, in their economically and politically entwined histories with Israel. Yet neither of them (nor any country in the world) has had the same gung-ho, full-thrusters, not-a-chance-in-hell style of obstructionism as we have.

Benjamin Netanyahu and John Boehner, via Creative Commons

Benjamin Netanyahu and John Boehner, via Creative Commons

Not that all other countries in the UN charter are totally innocent of obstruction. A number of countries often abstain from voting on the conflict — which is essentially a way of Pontius Pilate-ing the whole thing, washing their hands of the affair and saying “it’s on you guys” to the rest of the world. The reasoning behind these occasional abstentions are clearly political to the nation in question on a case by case basis.

But again, nothing holds up to our level of obstruction. In February, I wrote a piece on the U.S.’s role in fueling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through its massive subsidization of Israeli military initiatives. The myth that we are somehow “The Honest Broker” — an impartial mediator simply trying to coax both sides into getting along — is consistently pushed by the national media, but it doesn’t hold up after just 10 minutes of reading through America’s security council veto history. Yet it’s not just that the U.S. is not impartial; it’s that we’re literally the ringleader of a hobnob gang of superpowers and pipsqueak island subsidiaries who stand in total defiance of international consensus on one of the bloodiest conflicts in modern history.

How does the U.S. explain all these “no” votes to the U.N. while still maintaining that its official stance is in favor of a two state solution? Usually through the most unconvincing and lazy of platitudinal excuses. For decades, we have engaged in various blather about how “now is not the right time” or “to do so would endanger the peace process” (for some recent examples check out this Security Council rejection last year from U.S. Ambassador Samantha Powers). Yet the thing is there really has to be a peace process for you to endanger one; and as of now, America has kept it in a state of perpetual stagnation.

Why is the two-state solution dying? Mostly because America wants it to.

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The thing you should be most afraid of this Halloween is Paul Ryan’s new job http://americablog.com/2015/10/halloween-paul-ryan.html http://americablog.com/2015/10/halloween-paul-ryan.html#comments Sat, 31 Oct 2015 20:42:36 +0000 http://americablog.com/?p=133231 There are few things you could go as for Halloween that are scarier than Paul Ryan's agenda.

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It’s that time of the year when scary things are happening: Monster movies in theaters, costumes in store windows and your local coffee shop usually trying something stupid (sorry, no one wants to try your “Witch’s Brew” green latte). For the truly terrifying things, however, you need look no further than our very own United States Congress, where things terrible and strange are afoot.

John Boehner’s resignation as Speaker of the House in September left an immediate power vacuum and raised the question as to what kind of new leadership would fill it. Boehner was essentially forced out by an insurgent faction of the Republican Party, which had been agitating against Speaker Boehner on and off for quite a while. The rebellion stemmed from these radicals’ desire that Boehner be “more ferocious with Democrats during the upcoming fiscal showdowns.” In other words, a radically more corporatist budget with massive cuts to social welfare programs, the relaxing of corporate taxes and a plunge backward on social issues. This has been referred to as a kind of coup of the crazies — a takeover by a new breed of conservative so reckless that they’re even drawing the ire of traditional neoliberal commentators.

In the new Speaker, these hyper-Republicans seem to be seeking someone who will be even more dysfunctionally obstructionist  than Boehner, and who can push an ever more radically conservative agenda.

The funny thing about all this is that Obama already is fairly conservative. Despite the liberal mania surrounding him, many critics have commented that Obama is essentially what would have been a “centrist Republican” back in the day. He’s extended and expanded many of the fiscal and foreign policy initiatives begun by Bush, and shown, in general, little interest in passing what would have historically been considered “progressive” legislation, sans the Affordable Care Act.

Yet these conservatives are not sensible; and because we live in a time where politics is drifting ever rightward, Obama can be smeared by the mutant-cons as a whacko Marxist Muslim dictator, Boehner as a weepy softie and Paul Ryan as the steely eyed casanova of Ayn Randian libertarianism — the only one to save the country from liberal excess.

Hell, for a second there they were even holding out on the notion that Ryan was himself a liberal in disguise.

Despite the fact that Ryan’s policies are infamously radical, the corporate media has basically been giving him a congratulatory hand for his new appointment, and has expressed close to zero concern for the fact that his political positions (on basically everything) seem to run counter to what the majority of the American people want. Forget the fact that Ryan hates gay marriage, abortion and science — it’s his economic positions that are the most radical facet of his political personality, and which are likely to be the bulk of what he pushes under his new title.

The list of Ryan’s controversial legislative pushes is too long to list here, but there are a couple that are important to remember. In the past, he’s said he’d like to:

Vampire Paul Ryan, via Flickr

Vampire Paul Ryan, via Flickr

  • Destroy Obamacare: At a press conference, Ryan literally said out loud “We are not going to give up on destroying the healthcare system,” in reference to the Affordable Care Act. It was as much a freudian slip as a gaffe, and referred to the fact that one of Ryan’s primary goals for the past several years has been to burn any not-private, not-corporate healthcare to the ground.
  • Eradicate Medicare: Despite the fact that the vast majority of American people have no interest in changing what is a fully functioning, cost-effective safety net, Ryan and the other Republicans are somewhat determined to eradicate Medicare for seniors. What does Ryan want to replace it with? A privatized voucher system, which Obama had some choice words for during the 2012 campaign: “Gov. Romney and his running mate…wants to turn Medicare into a voucher system. That means seniors would no longer have the guarantee of Medicare — they’d get a voucher to buy private insurance. And if it doesn’t keep up with costs, well, that’s the seniors’ problem. It was estimated that Gov. Romney’s running mate, his original plan would force seniors to pay an extra $6,400 a year.”
  • Gut the welfare state: By now, Ryan’s 2011 budget is infamous for its outlandish proposals for restructuring the economic hierarchy. Robert Greenstein, MacArthur Fellowship recipient and founder of The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said of Ryan’s proposed 2011 budget that its “reverse Robin Hood approach” would leach most of its money from “low income Americans” and would “produce the largest redistribution of income from the bottom to the top in modern U.S. history, while increasing poverty and inequality more than any measure in recent times and possibly in the nation’s history.” The plan proposed making 4.5 trillion dollars in budget cuts over a 10 year period–almost all of which would’ve come from social welfare programs, as well as investments in education, infrastructure, and research programs.  
  • Lower Taxes for the Wealthy, Not So Much for Everybody Else: In addition to making life harder for America’s least privileged, Ryan’s 2011 budget also proposed slashing taxes on the wealthiest Americans. This includes making permanent the Bush tax cuts and repealing the estate tax, which would reportedly cost America 269 billion dollars and would affect only a tiny fraction of the 1% in America. Matt Taibbi gave a pretty good summation of what Ryan’s tax-the-poor-to-fund-the-rich proposals amounted to: “No matter what, Ryan’s gambit, ultimately, is all about trying to get middle-class voters to swallow paying for tax cuts for rich people.”

Ryan has shown nothing if not his ability to tenaciously stick to his quasi-fascist corporatist principles throughout his career — never mind the rampant criticism they’ve drawn from well respected economists and public officials.

The philosophy that supports this radical plan to reshape America has been the subject of considerable media attention: Ryan’s big, gross crush on Ayn Rand and her utopian social theory of Objectivism. Ryan has gone back and forth on whether he is truly a diehard fan of Rand’s; nonetheless, the general philosophy that he has consistently pushed (and which he claims was inspired by Rand) is compatible with his budgetary desires: Ryan has characterized the country as being made up of “makers and takers” and said in 2009 that “Ayn Rand, more than anyone else, did a fantastic job of explaining the morality of capitalism, the morality of individualism, and this, to me, is what is [sic] matters most.”

What is this interpretation of Randian philosophy but a medievally classist social darwinism? The reason that poor people are poor is because they lack proper moral fiber; the reason the rich are rich is they possess a kind of inner virtue that makes them capitalist ubermensches and masters of the universe. In this moral system, the rich should act as hawks, preying upon the poor and the weak because that’s what the cold, pure essence of the “free” market dictates. It’s positively arcane thinking that should’ve gone the way of phrenology and the bowler cap.

Yet it’s a philosophy that may have progressively more and more influence on American politics. Jonathan Alter from The Daily Beast has nicely summed up the effect this ideology would have on public policy:

The budgets he wrote in recent years as chairman of the House Budget Committee envision turning back the clock 80 years to a pre-New Deal America, with a sharply different social contract and a harsh attitude toward Americans unable to take care of themselves.

The fact that Ryan was born with a silver spoon jammed up one or another of his orifices is not the problem in itself; it is, rather, that he’s used that privilege to build a teflon-tough neoliberal ideology that sees the social safety net that FDR and LBJ created (and which millions of Americans rely on) as an institutional cancer to be eradicated. He wants to take away social security, medicaid, retirement, education, anti-poverty programs, infrastructure, and pretty much everything else that we’ve agreed should be provided to American citizens as a right–and deliver those institutions back into the hands of elite private ownership and the markets, returning us, in effect, to the economic model supported during the Gilded Age. From a liberal perspective, this is a plunge backwards into the dark ages. 

So maybe your best option for costume parties this year is our new speaker of the House? I certainly can’t think of anything scarier.

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Israel’s strategy for de-escalating violence isn’t working http://americablog.com/2015/10/israel-strategy-reducing-violence-isnt-working.html http://americablog.com/2015/10/israel-strategy-reducing-violence-isnt-working.html#comments Fri, 23 Oct 2015 15:15:11 +0000 http://americablog.com/?p=132660 Amid another round of violence in Israel, the question of who started it is less important than how it will end.

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Violence between Israelis and Palestinians is once again intensifying. With stabbings, shootings, and riots piling up in the occupied territories, hostilities have been pushed to a boiling point. The death toll in October alone has now climbed to 52 Palestinians and 8 Israelis (39 of these deaths have occurred in the last two weeks), making this one of the bloodiest months of the conflict for 2015.

The recent explosion of violence re-escalated in September, when Israel announced its decision to ban two Muslim protest groups — Morabitun and Morabitut — from the Temple Mount, one of the holiest sites in both Jewish and Islamic cultures, announcing that “anyone participating in the organizations’ activities, organizing them or funding them is subject to punishment by law.” Israel has claimed that the banned groups are dedicated to a program of harassment, and worry that they are violent, though Haaretz has noted that the protesters are generally elderly men and women.

On September 13th, Israeli forces raided the Mount and clashed with Palestinian youths, who threw rocks and flares at them. From September 14th through 18th, clashes continued between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters. During this time, a large number of Palestinians were injured, along with several Israeli soldiers.

On September 17th, as the violence continued, Prime Minister Netanyahu ordered the Attorney General to allow the use of deadly force against stone-throwers in East Jerusalem. The next day, following still more violence, Israel announced a ban against Muslim men under the age of 40 on the Mount.

If that was supposed to somehow stymie tensions between the two groups, well, it didn’t. The next day, the violence escalated. On September 19th, rockets were fired at Israel from the Gaza strip, and landed in the South of the country with no casualties. Though thought to have been launched by associates of the Islamic State, there is no clear consensus on who the perpetrators were. Israel announced that regardless of whether “those doing the shooting are rogue gangs from global jihadi groups,” it would be Hamas who would be held responsible. Israel then responded by carrying out several bombing raids against Gaza, targeting a number of Hamas military encampments.

Israeli flag

Israel via Shutterstock

Throughout the remainder of September, clashes between Israeli police and Palestinians continued in the Old City and near the Temple Mount. During October, escalating episodes of stabbings and stone-throwing attacks culminated in Israel announcing an increase in the penalties for stone-throwing–making the minimum penalty for such attacks four years in prison. 

The international community has made small attempts to play peacemaker. On October 16th, the UN Security Council held a meeting to discuss the growing tensions in the conflict. Much of the criticism at the meeting was directed at Israel, whose increasingly heightened restrictions on Palestinians has fueled anger. In particular, critics faulted Israel’s intensified program of establishing checkpoints throughout occupied Palestinian villages, which have noticeably agitated the indigent population and blocked off important resources like hospitals and routes to and from places of employment.

Taye-Brook Zerihoun, Assistant General for Political Affairs at the UN Department of Political Affairs, pointed an additional finger at the ongoing Israeli occupation, and was quoted as alleging that:

The occupation and diminishing prospects for achieving Palestinian Statehood had transformed simmering Palestinian anger into outright rage…a reality that had been compounded by dire economic circumstances and expanding settlement activities.

Yet after the violence over the past few weeks, Israel has only intensified restrictions on Palestinian activity. According to the Associated Press:

Palestinians in Jerusalem, more than a third of the city’s population, have awoken to a new reality: Israeli troops are encircling Arab neighborhoods, blocking roads with concrete cubes the size of washing machines and ordering some of those leaving on foot to lift their shirts to show they are not carrying knives.

Israel has also responded to attackers by bulldozing their homes,part of a new policy established by Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Like most moments in the 70+ year conflict, Palestinian casualties greatly outweigh Israeli casualties. Most attacks against Israeli soldiers have come in the form of rock-throwing; Israeli retaliation tends to be with gunfire. Here, it’s easy to ask who’s to blame, and that question inevitably dovetails into a sounding chamber of limitless debate. Yet putting blame aside for a minute and focusing instead on that oft-talked about diplomatic ideal known as the “peace process,” there seems to be one thing that’s clear: Israel’s timeless strategy “for peace,” (applied here like it’s been applied so many times before) — of subduing the Palestinians by further and further tightening the screws of subjugation and authoritarian punishment — does not appear to be working.

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California activists are suing the Forest Service for letting Nestle illegally extract water http://americablog.com/2015/10/california-activists-are-suing-the-forest-service-for-letting-nestle-illegally-extract-water.html http://americablog.com/2015/10/california-activists-are-suing-the-forest-service-for-letting-nestle-illegally-extract-water.html#comments Tue, 20 Oct 2015 12:35:02 +0000 http://americablog.com/?p=132645 Nestle's permit to extract water in California expired in 1988.

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Activists are suing the U.S. Forest Service for allowing Nestle to extract millions of gallons of water from drought-parched California using a permit that expired in 1988.

The permit violation was discovered earlier this year by The Desert Sun — a newspaper based out of Palm Springs and Coachella Valley. On its face, the non-renewal isn’t a huge anomaly, since there is already an immense backlog of outdated permits that are awaiting renewal by the CA Forest Service. Yet this particular non-renewal represents a missed — some would say purposefully derailed — chance to analyze Nestle’s ecological impact on the surrounding forest area and communities.

That’s because these kinds of permit renewals are supposed to come with evaluations from the state that determine how companies like Nestle have affected the local ecosystem. Yet the corporation is almost three decades overdue for a new evaluation.

Now activist groups are taking the minor illegality as an opportunity to call out the giant corporation for the perceived larger ecological and economic crime of draining massive amounts of California’s water while the state suffers through one of the worst droughts anybody has ever seen.

Nestle, via Creative Commons

Nestle, via Creative Commons

Last week, The Center for Biological Diversity, The Courage Campaign Institute and The Story of Stuff Project filed their lawsuit against the National Forest Service, essentially accusing the federal branch of negligence. More specifically, the lawsuit expresses concern for Nestle’s well at Strawberry Creek in the San Bernardino National Forest, and alleges that the corporation’s continued use of the well water is negatively affecting the local ecosystem. As their lawsuit reads, “Removal of large amounts of water at the highest elevations of the watershed is having an environmental impact…throughout the entire downstream watershed.” In addition to expressing concern for the “Scenic values and recreational values” of the surrounding area, the lawsuit also mentions concern for “many of the imperiled species of plants and animals in the watershed” that will be affected by Nestle’s “excessive removal of water from the Strawberry Creek Watershed.” The groups argue that until the government can “properly review” Nestle’s impact on the environment, they should “turn off the spigot” for the corporation.

In essence, the lawsuit is a 12-page document that tells the local government to “Do your jobs, jerks.” As reported in TIME:

“Nestlé’s actions aren’t just morally bankrupt, they are illegal,” said Eddie Kurtz, executive director of the Courage Campaign Institute, in a statement. “Our government won’t stand up to them, so we’re taking matters into our own hands.”

As Michael O’Heaney, executive director of the Story of Stuff Project, told the L.A. Times,“We Californians have dramatically reduced our water use over the past year in the face of an historic drought, but Nestle has refused to step up and do its part.”

O’Heaney makes a pretty good point: California recently criminalized certain types of water waste — meaning that the average person will be smacked with a $500 fine, “similar to a speeding violation,” if they do relatively mundane things like use water to “wash sidewalks and driveways” or wash “a motor vehicle using a hose without a shut-off nozzle.” This seems to stand in stark contrast to Nestle, which is technically in breach of state law by operating without a permit, and extracts hundreds of millions of gallons of water per year nonetheless. If the state is going to hold individuals responsible for their water consumption, it stands to reason that giant institutions like Nestle should be treated the same.

The impact that the lawsuit will have remains to be seen, but the clear intent seems to be to put pressure on Nestle — and to force into the public spotlight the supposed ecological threat that the corporation poses to the local ecosystem. 

While Nestle has yet to make a statement about the lawsuit, CEO of Nestle Waters North America Tim Brown took to the San Bernardino Sun in April to deny any wrongdoing with respect to the permit, and to defend his company’s rampant pillaging of the Golden State’s most precious resource. Trying to contextualize things, he offered the following:

Nestlé Waters operates five California bottling facilities, using a total of 705 million gallons of water per year. To put that amount in perspective, this is roughly equal to the annual average watering needs of two California golf courses.

This isn’t as much a justification for Nestle’s behavior as it is a deflection of blame. It’s also completely wrong. Your average 18-hole California golf course uses a lot of water, yes (somewhere around 90 million gallons annually), but nowhere near as much as Nestle. Also, golf courses in California have taken measures to “go green” since the state has entered its state of emergency over drought conditions.

Nestle has extended no such olive branch. When asked if Nestle would reduce its extraction given the drought conditions, Brown gave a pretty clear answer: “Absolutely not…In fact, if I could increase it, I would.”  

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As America’s infrastructure crumbles, water privatization becomes more likely http://americablog.com/2015/09/america-infrastructure-crumbles-water-privatization-more-likely.html http://americablog.com/2015/09/america-infrastructure-crumbles-water-privatization-more-likely.html#comments Wed, 30 Sep 2015 17:59:24 +0000 http://americablog.com/?p=128662 Why manage our own natural resources when corporations are willing to do it for us (for insane profits)?

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America is literally falling apart. Our bridges and roads are crumbling; our airports, railroads, and ports are disintegrating. Things aren’t looking good. And by far the most troubled area of U.S. infrastructure is also probably the most indispensable: water. All across the country, states are struggling to fund, manage, and repair their ancient, disintegrating systems–many of which hemorrhage ungodly amounts of water on an annual basis.

The raw data for water loss is really quite shocking:

  • In most cities, infrastructure is in such a state of disrepair that breakdowns occur daily. Houston, TX, for instance, saw an estimated 700 water main breaks every single day in 2011.
  • Those leaking pipes lose untold billions of gallons of water annually. In the city of San Jose alone, it’s estimated that the city’s systems lose 23 billion gallons of water every year.
  • To put these figures into perspective, Next City reports that national water leakage is enough to drown both Manhattan and Chicago on an annual basis.

Clearly that’s a lot of precious cargo lost. Yet if everybody agrees this is a huge problem, critics remain divided on how best to remedy the situation. The trending solution also tends to be the most contentious, and (many agree) dangerous: privatization.

The Push for Privatization 

For many years there has been an organized effort by private actors to move America’s water systems towards privatization.

Some of the biggest players advocating for water privatization in the U.S. are corporate advocacy groups.

Other cheerleaders for the initiative include the poster-boys for the 1%, the billionaire Koch Brothers — who, in 1980, called for “the privatization of the inland waterways, and of the distribution system that brings water to industry, agriculture and households,” along with practically every other major infrastructural element of American society.

Over the years, a plurality of Koch-related organizations have pushed water privatization as part of a wider agenda of supposedly “libertarian” policies.

In 2012, the Competitive Enterprise Institutea think tank backed by the Kochs, wrote a long report arguing that “competitive bidding” offers a “way out” for American infrastructural decline. “As decay takes hold of one water network after another, it becomes clear that the old ways of doing things are inadequate to the task at hand,” proclaims the report. “By opening up the bidding process…municipalities can let competition decide the future of their underground water networks.”

In 2013, another Koch backed think tank, the Cato Instituteoffered a summary of why private ownership is superior to public ownership:

Federal agencies don’t have the strong incentives that businesses do to ensure that infrastructure projects are constructed and operated efficiently…when Washington makes mistakes it replicates them across the nation…federal infrastructure…usually comes part and parcel with piles of regulations…

This is the standard frame used time and again as the rationale for privatization: government is inept, wasteful and incapable of properly managing public resources, while private industry is competent, efficient and responsible.

Why, exactly? In the logic of capital, the profit-motive is often touted as the indispensable carrot that fuels corporate efficiency, which is sorely lacking in state and federal governments. Private industry (so argues private industry) is better than government because public officials have no proper motivation (i.e., money) to efficiently manage public resources.

Yet based on the track record of companies like American Water and Nestle shamelessly screwing over their customers in the pursuit of higher returns, one might argue that that same profit-motive is the very element that makes private ownership a terribly inefficient alternative to government — especially when it comes to managing a resource with perfectly inelastic demand, like water.

The Many Failures of Private Water Stewardship 

In Crumbling Infrastructure, Crumbling Democracy, academic Ellen Dannin lays out her argument for how privatization contracts are endangering democratic institutions:

  • Privatization allows companies to assume the power of local government, while avoiding all of the transparency. Dannin notes that key provisions in privatization contracts give “private contractors power over decisions that affect the public interest and are normally made by public officials and subject to oversight, disclosure, and accountability—none of which apply to private contractors.”
  • Privatization deals often make government “the insurer of the private contractor’s financial success,” meaning that if the company experiences unforeseen financial losses, it can hold the local community accountable for these losses. So called “compensation events” are written into most privatization contracts, and are exactly what they sound like: guarantees of a certain amount of income for the company investing in the community in question. This essentially makes communities indentured to the corporation for its own resources.
  • Cost-Benefit Analysis doesn’t really factor into most decisions to privatize. Dannin notes that most legislators decisions to privatize don’t consider the long-term. Due to compensation events, or other unforeseen externalities, the decision to privatize may, and often does, come with unforeseen financial costs.

Despite warnings like these from academics and public advocacy groups, the overwhelming push seen in the U.S. is to trend water management towards private power. Support for these initiatives comes from the highest levels of government.

The WRRDA: Saving U.S. Water or Ushering in a New Age of Privatization? 

In 2014, a federal bill, The Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA), seemed to offer the beginnings of a solution to the U.S. water predicament. Hailed as the “first step” towards repairing infrastructure, the bill promised to reform unnecessary government bureaucracy and mainline new water projects. The bill was pushed hard by Republicans in the senate, but also garnered enough Democratic support to be billed as strongly bipartisan legislation. President Obama signed the bill into law on June 10th, 2014, saying that the WRRDA would “put Americans to work modernizing our water infrastructure and restoring some of our most vital ecosystems.”

Yet advocacy groups have protested certain clauses within the bill that they say further legitimize public-private agreements, which they warn effectively “opens the door for privatization” on a national scale. Following the bill’s passage, Corporate Accountability International’s Public Water Works! issued a statement, saying “We are alarmed by the implications of this bill, which would open the doors to an increase in water public-private partnerships in the U.S. and effectively subsidize water privatization.”

Public-private relationships have been flagged by many progressives as a means of paving the road to full privatization of public institutions. Reportedly, the bill:

…seeks to encourage public private partnerships, under the idea that public funding alone can’t fill the gap. A project carried out by a private entity is eligible for WIFIA financing, but the project must be publicly sponsored, and the local public agency must support the project.

Additionally, the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA), the amendment that allows for this, allows private actors to put their own money into public infrastructure projects, which means they get partial legal claim to public domains.

David Vitter, via Wikimedia Commons

David Vitter, via Wikimedia Commons

While the idea of the public and private sectors working together to solve problems sounds great on its face, there’s every reason to believe that the politicians who crafted WRRDA had less noble goals in mind. Many of the congressional leaders who pushed it through not only are going to be given the boon of local district projects (Republicans overwhelmingly benefited), but also have strong ties to industries that stand to benefit from further privatization. Republican David Vitterwho said that the bill is “a jobs bill that is very much needed in our weak economy,” has large ties to industrial construction corporations that will likely see business in conjunction with new private infrastructure projects. Vitter, who has accosted Obama in the past for attempting to pass climate change reform (a look at his healthy campaign subsidies from the oil and gas industries shows why), isn’t exactly the type of person you’d hope would be shepherding legislation related to natural resources and the public interest.

Yet the WRRDA essentially conforms to his worldview — the kind of worldview that sees Nestle selling your own water back to you at $5 a gallon and chalks it up to the invisible hand of the market. The bill enables companies and private actors to cash in on public infrastructure in a big way, subjecting taxpayers to the whims of corporate power instead of local government. And if there’s some promise of more expedience and efficiency than the lumbering groups like the Army Corps of Engineers, then we’re yet to see whether those promises will be kept.

Clearly America’s water systems are in dire need of a fix-up. Yet given all the evidence of the potential dangers of privatized water, it bears some consideration whether the public-private friendliness of bills like WRRDA are the right path to take.

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Barack Obama is the new Ronald Reagan http://americablog.com/2015/07/barack-obama-is-the-new-ronald-reagan.html http://americablog.com/2015/07/barack-obama-is-the-new-ronald-reagan.html#comments Mon, 06 Jul 2015 16:00:10 +0000 http://americablog.com/?p=129834 Uncomfortable parallels between Obama and the Gipper.

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Ronald Reagan was always a popular president. When he took office in 1981, he promised change — an historic shift away from the policies that had left America subject to the upheaval of the 60s and 70s. More importantly, his charismatic personality naturally endeared him to Americans. He looked great on camera. His speeches were touching sermons on God, nationalism, and America’s “destiny.” He was often referred to as the “Teflon” president due to his ability to seemingly deflect any blame or bad press by sunny disposition alone.

Of course, while Reagan was blitzing the American people with PR stunts, his administration was rolling out some of the most devastating legislation of the era — from the counterproductive escalation of the War on Drugs to the trickle down economic policies that continue to hollow out the American middle class. Yet for whatever reason, this never really seemed to matter. His persona had already wedged him firmly into the hearts of conservatives forever.

Today, Reagan has become more legend than man in conservative circles. He is credited with the economic booms of the ’90s, absolved of his negotiations with terrorists and generally held up as an icon of all things good on the Right. Asked which living president is their favorite, current Republican candidates struggle not to say Reagan, who has been dead for eleven years. If Reagan and Jesus ran in a Republican primary, they’d both lose to Ted Cruz, who would be considered the most Reaganesque.

Ronald Reagan, via Wikimedia Commons

Ronald Reagan, via Wikimedia Commons

There are a number of striking, worrisome parallels between Reagan and our current president, Barack Obama. If Obama has — in theory — been on the opposite ideological side of the fence of his predecessor, his model of political leadership seems quite similar. That is, he’s quite good at the press-kits and the rhetoric; he’s maybe not so great at actually fulfilling the ideals he so often preaches. When first elected, Obama (like Reagan) proffered the carrot of radical change — promising to end the belligerent warmongering and corruption of the Bush administration, and to transform American society for the better. These promises, of course, were never fulfilled.  

Yet progressives and liberals love him just the same. And much of that adoration comes, I suspect, from his skillful manipulation of the media, and his practiced public relations campaigns. Indeed, it makes me a little sad to see how many millennials seem to blindly champion the president because they saw him on Between Two Ferns, or because he did that cute “Thanks, Obama” video on Buzzfeed, or because he merely mentioned that he “supports gay marriage.” In the business, they call that propaganda — a means of engendering your goodwill without actually doing the work. And our president is quite good at it. So good, in fact, that in 2008 he even won the Marketer of the Year award from PR industry giant Advertising Age, beating out Apple.

Yet if we look past the president’s speeches and printed opinions, Obama’s actions rarely match his rhetoric — and they certainly don’t conform to any rubric of progressivism. Let’s take his human-rights policies, for example. On Human Rights Day, Obama made a statement about how America “was founded on the idea that all people are endowed with inalienable rights, and that principle has allowed us to work to perfect our union at home while standing as a beacon of hope to the world.” Yet contrary to this idea, many of Obama’s foreign policy decisions have exacerbated human rights atrocities, not curbed them. As of 2014, his ever-expanding drone program is responsible for the deaths of somewhere between “168 to 200” children, to say nothing of the hundreds of other civilians killed during the current presidency. Similarly, Obama’s unyielding support for Israel has allowed for untold atrocities in Gaza to go unpunished. He’s been credited with exacerbating tensions with Russia and pushing us into a new Cold War. Other critics claim Obama’s foreign policy helped aid the rise of ISIS in Syria. Somewhere deep down, the President must find it deeply ironic that he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize before taking office, only to become the hawkish pioneer in a new brand of warfare where the line between the bad guys and civilians is vague and the attacks are indiscriminate.

Similarly, Obama has often paid lip-service to the needs of the middle-class while twisting the knife in their backs at every turn. The 2008 bank bailout, which he endorsed, has made the very criminal organizations that crashed the national economy more powerful than ever before. What little of the subsequent Dodd-Frank reform bill that has been implemented has proven ineffective. In 2010, he personally extended the Bush tax-cuts, which awarded “a quarter of the tax savings…to the wealthiest one percent of the population” while “the only group that..[saw] its taxes increase are the nation’s lowest-paid workers” (at the time, Obama said the tax cuts were “a substantial victory for middle-class families across the country”). In 2012, he shoved through his JOBs bill — which criminologist and former fraud prevention expert William K. Black said was essentially ghost written by Wall Street as a means of weakening market regulations. And now Obama’s secrecy-shrouded Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement has many progressive activists saying that the deal will kill jobs in America while empowering a small plutocratic elite, whose sovereignty will be protected from U.S. law by secretive international tribunals.

Of course, it hasn’t been all bad with Barack (the Affordable Care Act, as flawed, and as poorly rolled out as it was, is sure to be a significant help for millions of Americans); but it wasn’t all bad with Reagan either. Just mostly bad.

It is important to acknowledge that Obama–like Reagan–has often earned the adoration of the public while playing to the interests of the private elite. This criticism isn’t about simply being anti-Obama; it’s about having clarity on what we really want from the leader of the free world. It’s about understanding that when we vote with our feelings instead of our critical faculties, we surely leave ourselves open to manipulation. We voted for Obama because he was a symbol of change — not because he had a long track record of actually achieving it.

Now we have another presidential election on our hands and, yet again, another symbol of change. Hillary Clinton could very well be the first woman president. Historic, yes. Yet once we get beyond this awe-evincing fact, we’ll be faced with the reality that she’s just another politician tasked with leading our country. The president we need right now is going to be supportive of the 99% in this time of economic inequality at home and wayward foreign policy abroad. It’s not very hard to see that Hillary isn’t that leader. She may tell us what we want to hear; she may be a historic president, even. But any minor perusal of OpenSecrets will show you who her real friends are when the cameras are off and the reporters have all gone home.

I’ll give you a hint: it isn’t us.

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National Intelligence Council: Water wars are coming http://americablog.com/2015/07/national-intelligence-council-water-wars-coming.html http://americablog.com/2015/07/national-intelligence-council-water-wars-coming.html#comments Thu, 02 Jul 2015 18:00:06 +0000 http://americablog.com/?p=128184 Wars are fought over resources, and the world is running low on its most basic one.

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In 2012, the U.S. Intelligence Council issued a report warning that in the next few decades, the fragile ecosystem of international trade and political partnership that America relies on will be threatened as countries that are “important to US interests” come to blows over a single invaluable resource: water. Not oil. “Water is the new oil,” so say economists, business executives and political scientists. Yes, while the majority of the wars of the 20th century were fought over terrain bubbling over with crude, the wars of tomorrow will likely be fought over countries with access to aquifers, canals and fresh water springs.

People, people everywhere, and not a drop to drink

As the U.S’s drought this year has proven, water scarcity is coming for all of us. California has become a kind of national symbol of bad times to come; their current predicament presents all kinds of water-related conundrums that Americans seem to have little response to but bafflement. 

Yet if idea that fresh water is disappearing is a truly horrifying prospect for commodity-coddled Americans, these harsh conditions have been a reality for millions of people all over the world for quite some time. As it stands now, nearly “1 billion people in the developing world don’t have access to” clean drinking water. With this lack of clean water comes rampant disease, sickness and death; it’s estimated that a child dies from water-related illnesses every five minutes.  

The bad news is that as horrible as this is, things are actually about to get a whole lot worse, as our population is growing and our water supplies are shrinking. We’re currently speeding towards a global population of 8 billion people by 2025. A National Intelligence Council report predicts that: “The developing world, with its rapidly expanding urban centers, will see the biggest increases in water demand, as its population grows larger and more affluent.” Put simply, there’s a whole lot of demand and very little supply. The report continues:

Between now and 2040, global demand for fresh water will increase, but the supply of fresh water will not keep pace with demand…annual global water requirements will reach 6,900 billion cubic meters (bcm) in 2030, 40 percent above current sustainable water supplies.

That’s right: we’re looking at a global water shortfall of roughly 40 percent, which will leave billions of people without adequate water. With that kind of scarcity, it doesn’t take wild stretches of the imagination to see how things are ripe for conflict — which the report warns could happen within years.

Weaponizing water

The report predicts that, over the next decade, water will increasingly become a political asset as well as a weapon — something that countries with the abilities to “to construct and support major water projects,” will use as leverage against those that don’t. In this way, water will become a means by which nations “obtain regional influence” and dominance over others. Those with the means to do so will find themselves in a race to buy up as much water — and therefore, as much political power — as possible. 

USS Annapolis, via Wikimedia Commons

USS Annapolis, via Wikimedia Commons

Yet the report also warns that, after the next decade, conflicts over water may not stop at political squabbling. It says that “as water shortages become more acute beyond the next 10 years…future water shortages and a well-established pattern of water problems…[will aggravate] regional tensions” between nations, leading to “political conflict and even war.”

Even more concerning, the report suggests that water-centered terrorism may become a trend. Considering that “the fear of massive floods or loss of water resources would alarm the public,” radical groups will be motivated to target infrastructure such as dams, desalinization facilities and water pipelines. As water-related infrastructure projects become “high-publicity targets,” terrorists will use them to garner media attention and damage important public resources.

The biggest threat 

Maybe the biggest threat to peace, however, isn’t exploding dams but rather the threat of state failure, with countries collapsing from within due to lack of water. The report suggests that water scarcity will destabilize key political and economic systems, which may cause countries already under considerable strain to buckle and implode. Factors that may contribute to this level of instability include:

  • Risks to national and global food markets: Approximately 70 percent of the world’s water supply is devoted to agriculture, which makes a water crisis a huge threat to agricultural output and food markets. Due to the global population boom of recent years, many nations have “over-pumped their groundwater to satisfy growing food demand.” The report warns that, without mitigation, nations risk exhausting their current water supplies. This would result in a decline in food production, causing market failure and mass starvation.
  • Risk to energy resources: Because hydropower is still an incredibly important means of generating electricity, water shortages pose a huge threat to developing countries and their infrastructure. Without sufficient hydropower, developing nations will need to switch to an alternative source of energy, or face mass destabilization.  

Water shortages exacerbate any underlying political or economic issues. In this sense…

…when combined with poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership, and weak political institutions— [water shortages contribute] to social disruptions that can result in state failure.

Given that the U.S. controls the largest reservoirs of fresh water in the world, it is unlikely that America will face state failure. But states that America considers vital to its interests are not so lucky, and destabilization amongst the countries we dominate for resources could have a significant effect on the U.S. economy, as well as its political and military reach in the world.

Potential solutions

So how do we curb the likelihood for chaos and war? The report offers several tentative solutions, such as water sharing agreements and improved water management technology. Yet the report warns against what is perhaps the most common solution suggested in America and around the globe: water privatization. As I’ve written about before, water privatization is favored by many powerful political and corporate actors, including the World Bank. The report warns that: 

Privatization…can threaten established use patterns by increasing the costs of water or transferring ownership of water sources to private companies without proper local governance structures. Privatization also makes water supply vulnerable to market forces which…can lead to instability, as people become unable to afford water and/or become restive as they perceive their right to water being threatened.

Instead of privatizing water supplies, the report suggests that properly run government water utilities can both produce enough revenue to finance infrastructure, and can adequately provide for low-income as well as high-income communities. For America, this is the only logical solution. Profits for shareholders should never be a motivating factor in the management of our most precious resource. The best we can hope for is that grass-roots initiatives in the U.S. will help keep public water in the hands of well-funded and responsible local government. This is the only way of ensuring that our water will continue to be considered a right — not a “product” for the likes of Nestle and Citibank.

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When corporations co-opt social justice, who pays? http://americablog.com/2015/06/corporations-co-opt-social-justice.html http://americablog.com/2015/06/corporations-co-opt-social-justice.html#comments Wed, 03 Jun 2015 16:00:53 +0000 http://americablog.com/?p=127488 Whatever values are assigned to corporate behavior, the motive is always profit.

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Can corporations be purveyors of social justice? They’re certainly trying hard.

Reddit CEO Ellen Pao announced recently that she had found a simple solution to “eliminate the gender pay gap”: do away with new-hire pay negotiations altogether. Wow. Forget the fact that her rationale implicitly undercuts the idea of gender equality (Pao reasoned that because women are “naturally less aggressive” than men, they are less likely to ask for higher starting salaries). The real head-scratcher is her attempt to sell economic injustice in the name of social justice. 

Even more troubling is the fact that she’s not alone: Across the country, corporations regularly use social justice issues as a platform to justify their market decisions.

Nestle Chair and former CEO, Peter Brabeck, recently told The Guardian that he thinks “the way we think about water needs to change.” Brabeck says he has become a “convert to the cause of water stewardship” and believes that water scarcity is “the biggest threat facing humanity.” That, apparently, is why he wants to continue making deals with state governments to get private access to public water. Nevermind that he gets to sell the water at 99% markup; it’s all in the name of “conscientiousness.”

And then there’s the unfortunate Starbucks’s #RaceTogether hashtag, an idea that probably sounded great in the boardroom but was destined to be a massive flop in practice. The exercise proved to be an exercise in social awareness that demonstrated just how socially unaware massive corporations tend to be.

All of these ham-handed attempts to capitalize on our desire to purchase our justice leads one to wonder: What’s next? McDonald’s rainbow-colored, Gay Marriage Fries? Taco Bell issuing Immigration Reform Chalupas?

This is the height of offensiveness: appealing to populist frustration over real issues — things that people actually care about and want to change — in order to sell bad food and bottled water. After all, these campaigns are nothing more than earned media for the corporations running them. They are meant to engender good will from the public, and therefore, to sell lattes and hamburgers — not spark discourse or inspire activism.

Of course, big businesses only engage in these sorts of gimmicks because they work, which makes them as much the American consumer’s fault as anyone else’s. As Slavoj Zizek points out, we are given chances to meld our values with our materials through what he terms “cultural capitalism:”

Note how Starbucks is one of Zizek’s biggest foils: “You are buying more than a cup of coffee; you’re buying a coffee ethics.” We choose to buy our coffee at Starbucks because we share Starbucks’s values (and they’re freaking everywhere); we’re a better person for having chosen Starbucks over Dunkin Donuts.

Meanwhile, as corporations trot out these media ploys to convince average Americans that they “care,” most of them are engaging in untold damage to the economic and ecological infrastructures in America and the world. Starbucks, the king of predatory expansionist practices, has a legacy of undercutting competitors and crushing small business. Nestle is implicated in some of the worst environmental scandals in the world. And Ellen Pao’s cynical “wage gap” ploy is merely a means of justifying the reduction of worker rights.

Public Relations, via PR / Flickr

Public Relations, via PR / Flickr

What I find most disturbing, however, is that the consumer is now beset not only by the frenetic advertising bombardments that structure our every waking hour, but also by weird PSAs about treating each other better and being kind. It has all of the weird dystopian corporate paternalism that one might expect to find in a Philip K. Dick novel, or a Paul Verhoeven film. This paternalism is creepy not only because it represents a shift in the relationship between big business and the public, but because it shows a significant merging of big business, government and public discourse. The dissolving boundaries between corporate, political and media organizations in the U.S. have given ample opportunity for corporations to assume postures and activities that government used to be solely responsible for. They do the job of “reaching out” to the masses through public relations campaigns in attempts to participate and, in some senses, shape the national political and cultural discourse. Of course, beneath these campaigns there lies nothing but self-interest and marketing strategies.

All this is to say that when we outsource our social justice to the private sector, we tacitly endorse all of the massive injustices that those same companies are engaging in to serve the same motive that sparked their interest in making value based appeals: profit.

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Mad Max’s reboot: Feminism and environmentalism as told through explosions http://americablog.com/2015/05/mad-max-feminism-environmentalism-revisionist-eplosions.html http://americablog.com/2015/05/mad-max-feminism-environmentalism-revisionist-eplosions.html#comments Tue, 19 May 2015 16:00:30 +0000 http://americablog.com/?p=128186 The dystopian action franchise rights the wrongs of its previous films.

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By now you’ve most likely heard that Mad Max: Fury Road is one of the best science-fiction films of the past half-decade. I am here to tell you that the rumors are true. George Miller’s new post-apocalyptic epic both addresses key ecological issues of our doomsday-ridden age — particularly the global water crisis — while also going to great lengths to revise much of the chauvinism of the original franchise. Careful: spoilers ahead. 

Rebooting a politically problematic franchise  

The original Mad Max franchise takes place in a not-too-distant future, where a nuclear holocaust has ravaged the planet and states have more or less collapsed. Life is reduced to little more than a Hobbesian struggle for resources, with biker gangs waging brutal wars over the most important resource in the world: oil. When Max’s wife and baby are murdered by a band of the bloodthirsty bikers, it drives him over the edge and he becomes the titular “mad” man — a hollow “shell of a man…a burnt-out, desolate man, a man haunted by the demons of his past:”

Despite being some of the best action films ever made, the original Mad Max trilogy exhibits a lot of awkward politics.

For starters, the “villains” of the original franchise all have an uncomfortable common denominator: a love of assless chaps and nipple rings. Yep, they’re gay. Gangs of marauding, leather-clad, boy-kissing thugs (sorta like a queer The Wild One) roam the countrysides searching for sex, violence and fuel. They go at it with one another, but they also won’t resist the opportunity to rape and brutalize women. In the breakdown of traditional sexuality — of supposed “natural” relations — Miller means to show the deterioration of organized culture. In this sense, homosexuality is equated with barbarianism, with individuals who have completely let go of “traditional” social definitions and structure, and are given over to polymorphous carnality; to chaos, violence, and the satisfaction of any and all sexual desires. A sign on a broken down truck in The Road Warrior reads: “THE VERMIN HAVE INHERITED THE EARTH.” Gays are “vermin,” or “parasites,” symbols of the world’s decline.

At the same time, the films romanticize “traditional” masculinity and the tough-guy ethos. After all, the 1970s was the decade of the vigilante, and the silver screen was filled with good men gone bad: avengers like Charles Bronson’s Paul Kersey in Death Wish, or Travis Bickle in Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece Taxi Driver. Other Bad Cops like Dirty Harry or Sherriff Pusser in the original Walking Tall also set a precedent for men who lived above the law they were sworn to uphold. In this way, Mad Max fit into a larger trend of super-masculine anti-heroes; men of violence and strength, with little regard for due process. That was his appeal. 

And while the original Mad Max demonized gays and championed its violent hetero-masculine protagonist, it left very little room for women in its tales of brutality and warfare. Jessie, Max’s wife, is little more than a narrative catalyst for Max’s transformation into the titular anti-hero. Similarly, in The Road Warrior, there are basically no female characters who aren’t raped or killed. Beyond Thunderdome made some headway by casting Tina Turner as a co-star with Mel Gibson; yet on the whole, the original world of Max is a world of men. Female characters are few and far between. 

Old franchise, new themes: Male power and patriarchy 

With Mad Max: Fury Road, the filmmakers have clearly taken steps to “revise” the politics of the originals. In fact, George Miller’s new film goes to great lengths not only to avoid any of its yesteryear chauvinism, but to craft a narrative that involves and empowers those it ignored and demonized. To get off on the right foot, Miller hired The Vagina Monologues writer Eve Ensler as a consultant to bring feminist ideas into the film’s narrative. In an interview with TIME, Ensler discussed how historical examples of oppression inspired many of the situations in the film, and what the film says about the feminine experience in countries dominated by patriarchal systems:

We spoke about the Comfort Women, who were kept as slaves by the Japanese, and about rape and violence in places I have spent a lot of time like Bosnia to Congo to Afghanistan to Haiti. We spoke about sex trafficking in America, which is rampant…It’s this powerful question: how do women survive in a patriarchal, violent culture? How do they keep their souls intact in a war zone?

In its exploration of patriarchy and male power the film is truly revolutionary; not only for the franchise, but for the action movie genre as a whole. The American action film has traditionally been the last filmic bastion of unadulterated sexism, both in the narratives it pedals and through the way it abuses its actresses (consider, for example, how Megan Fox was treated both onscreen and onset in the Transformers franchise). Action films also uniformly fail the Bechdel Test, which is a good way to get women to not buy tickets to your movie.

Mad Max, via Wikimedia Commons

Mad Max, via Wikimedia Commons

In Fury Road, things are different. Women drive the narrative. The film’s plot revolves around the plight of Imperator Furiosa (played by Charlize Theron), and her attempt to free “the Wives,” a band of royal concubines to “King Immortan Joe,” the depraved leader of the Citadel. Max agrees to help the Furiosa and “the Wives” escape, and off they go on a series of car chases. As Ensler has observed, the narrative affects a kind of “sneaky” guerrilla-feminism: By luring dudes to the theater with the bait of car-chases and explosions, Miller’s film leads the unwitting male spectator into a narrative that interrogates the idea of female objectification, sexual slavery and the tyranny of misogynistic belief systems. Here, the popcorn fodder comes with an aftertaste of social justice.

Fury Road illuminates the horror of patriarchal ideas by taking them to their most grotesque and nightmarish extremes. It does this largely through King Joe, an amazing monster whom the filmmakers manage to make both politically relevant and timelessly horrifying. Looking like some kind of cross between late-era Mickey Rourke and Grendel from Beowulf, Joe is a truly grotesque creature. In Joe’s world, women are reduced to farm animals and whores: functionaries of produce, procreation and male pleasure. Old women are milked like cows. Young women become prostitutes and child-bearers. It’s a truly horrifying world, and one that, sadly, is not all that different from many parts of our own.  

From oil crisis to water wars

In addition to everything Fury Road has to say about gender, it also says a lot about ecology and economics–which are two themes more in line with the original franchise. The original Mad Max was inspired by historical conflicts over oil, and is concerned with a world that has run out of the resources. In an astute Wall Street Journal article, energy analyst Robert Rapier observes:

“Mad Max” portrays a society in which energy is scarce and society collapses as a result. The producers and writers of the film have said in interviews that they were heavily influenced by the 1973 oil crisis that took place when the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) announced an oil embargo against the U.S. and some of its allies in response to U.S. support of Israel.

That was then; this is now. Since water is largely considered to be “the new oil,” it is appropriate that this reboot should switch its focus from the oil crisis of the 70s to the international water crisis we’re currently experiencing. Whereas biker wars were waged in The Road Warrior over stockpiles of “the black fuel,” Fury Road sees a world starved for water. King Joe stockpiles it in his garden paradise on top of a mountain, while the inhabitants of the Citadel down below live in desperation and squalor, barely getting by on what little water he occasionally allows them to have. Here, resonances of income inequality also ring loudly. In its linking of economics and ecology, Fury Road shows how the rich stay powerful by monopolizing resources, using them as leverage against the populations they govern. 

By the same token, the film also has a lot to say about wastefulness and conservation and how corrupt systems of leadership contribute to destructive and wasteful behaviors and policies. The fact that King Joe is willing to risk the entirety of his regime’s assets to get back his stolen “property” makes him the epitome of wasteful and thoughtless governance. Call him a dystopian Mitch McConnell, if you will. Furthermore, the world of Fury Road, with its ramshackle vehicles and weaponry — broken down relics of a once-thriving capitalist society — evokes the consequences of consumption, of a world that has been strained and exhausted by too much extraction and production. Its raw visions of a dead and dying planet — of ecosystems rubbed raw by human activity — should resonate with all audiences. 

Mad Max: Fury Road works on multiple levels: as a feminist science fiction film, as a brilliant fever-dream of an action movie and as a economic and ecological parable. Most uniquely, however, as a film that attempts to and succeeds in righting some of the wrongs of its own franchise. It’s truly a stand alone picture. Go see it.

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Nestle is closing in on privatized water in Oregon http://americablog.com/2015/05/nestle-privatize-water-oregon.html http://americablog.com/2015/05/nestle-privatize-water-oregon.html#comments Wed, 13 May 2015 17:30:19 +0000 http://americablog.com/?p=127483 The company will make over 99% profit on the water it extracts from one rural community.

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Nestle is in the final stages of a deal that would allow them to purchase Oregon’s public water supplies from the Columbia River Gorge. Similar to Chris Christie’s recent fast-tracking of WIPA (a deal which allows NJ municipalities to sell their public water supplies to international corporations without public consent), the deal with Nestle is another water privatization plan that is bad for consumers and communities.

The proposal would allow the food conglomerate to extract over 118 million gallons of publicly owned water from the Columbia River Gorge on an annual basis, and then sell it for exponential profits. Nestle’s target — Oxbow Springs — is a public water supply that is currently being used to water an endangered salmon hatchery.

Nestle has had its eye on Oxbow since 2008, but its business plans have been largely held up by public interest groups and community protest. Now, after nearly 7 years of negotiations, Nestle is finally closing in on its goal.

Cascade Locks, the low-income community in which Oxbow is located, has been promised “approximately 50 jobs” in exchange for letting Nestle build their $50 million bottling plant in the city. Oxbow is owned by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), which is a state organization and not technically owned by the city. Thus, the deal allows for a “water rights transfer,” which means the Cascade Locks will trade its local well water for the Oxbow springs water–which will then be sold to Nestle and bottled at the plant. Again, after all this is done, Nestle will get to sell the water for dollars on the penny.

A bad deal for Oregon

Put simply, this is a terrible deal for Oregonians. In terms of financial gain, Nestle is basically stealing the water from Cascade Locks. Food and Water Watch reports that Nestle would only “be charged the standard municipal water rate…$2.25 per 1,000 gallons of water, or roughly $0.00225 per gallon.” The corporation will then resell the water for up to $2.63 per gallon. This means that Nestle will pay Cascade Locks roughly $18,000 a month for their water, only to turn around and sell it for $26 million in Oxbow-related revenue. Every month. In case you didn’t do the math already, that’s more than a 99 percent profit margin.

In addition to being charged nowhere near what the water is worth, Nestle also expects the infrastructure surrounding their water transfer project to be paid for by the public. In a 2009 economic report on the proposed water transfer, professors Kristen A. Sheeran Ph.D. and Feng Zhou projected that Nestle’s plant will require “200 semi-truck trips through town every day” on highways that can’t sustain that kind of wear and tear. Nestle has said in advance that they have no intention of paying for this upkeep, which will likely run into the millions of dollars.

The plant will also be a huge polluter. Sheeran and Zhou estimate that it will create “an additional 64-122 million kg of CO2 annually” in a state that has prided itself on its lowering of carbon emissions. Most troubling, however, Sheeran and Zhou fear that — given the increasingly unpredictable nature of the weather — the Columbia River Gorge’s water supply may not even last that long. Per their report [emphasis added]:

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) conducted a regional assessment of groundwater levels during spring 2009 based on an inventory of 1,752 wells in the Columbia Plateau of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. Results indicate trends toward water level declines in many areas since 1984. Of the wells measured in 1984 and 2009, water levels declined in 83 percent of the wells. Declines greater than 100 ft and as great as 300 ft were measured in many wells and the groundwater-level changes were greatest in the deeper hydrogeologic units. These declines are in areas known to rely heavily on groundwater for irrigation, pumping, and other uses. The uncertainty of how climate change may impact the hydrological cycle and groundwater supplies in the region adds additional risks to the city from Nestlé’s proposal. Water, though it seems plentiful in the Gorge, may not always be so plentiful.

In other words, given the recent accusations that Nestle’s water bottling plants have been exacerbating California’s drought, and considering the fact that the nation is undergoing a water crisis that will only get worse in the next decade, it doesn’t make any sense for Cascade Locks and ODFW to sell water worth hundreds of millions of dollars for 50 jobs and an insultingly low sum of money.

An unpopular deal for Oregon

The Nestle deal seems viable to a small number of legislators and state officials, but the vast majority of Oregonians hate the idea. The proposal has “generated more than 80,000 letters in opposition” over the course of negotiations. Recently, local groups and demonstrators have staged a number of sit-ins, protests and rallies objecting to the water transfer. Earlier this year, a petition against the resolution garnered over 15,000 signatures, and a similar page on Reddit exploded with complaints. Meanwhile, public interest groups such as Bark and Food and Water Watch have been fighting the plan for over five years. 

Says Bark spokesman Alex P. Brown:

We currently have five counties in the State of Oregon under a state of emergency for the upcoming drought and our neighbor California is in a state of emergency with major water restrictions being placed…Nestle would be setting a precedent in the State of Oregon to give away existing public water resources to support a bottling water facility in the state.

Numerous Oregonian legislators have also protested the deal, saying that it “gives the public’s water to a multinational corporation for free.” Several of those politicians also penned a letter to new Oregonian Governor Kate Brown, warning her that, “As water becomes increasingly scarce and sought-after in the West, we should not enter lightly into a deal to extract it.”

Nestle, via Creative Commons

Nestle, via Creative Commons

That doesn’t mean the deal is without supporters. As Kelly House of The Oregonian has pointed out, there are already over 31 water bottler companies in Oregon. Yet what House leaves out is that many of these bottler companies are small businesses whose profits are reinvested in the local economy. Nestle is different; it’s an international corporation, and profits from Oxbow will be taken out of Cascade Locks and spread throughout a network of shareholders around the world.

Furthermore, Nestle has a long history of bad behavior vis a vis small, rural communities. As Tara Lohan of Alternet noted in 2007, at the height of the initial “bottled water boom,” the company has made a habit of acquiring rights to small communities’ water supplies for peanuts and making out like bandits. From Michigan to Maine to California, the stories are pretty much the same: Nestle “takes water from U.S. communities for cheap, bottles and sells it — for billions of dollars in profit — and then dumps the environmental and other costs onto society.”

A Deal Worth Questioning 

Oregon’s decision to privatize water at Oxbow Springs is part of a growing trend. Water privatization is becoming more prevalent across the country, with large corporations getting far more than their money’s worth for the rights to rural communities’ most basic natural resource. Local governments, lured by the carrot of short term budgetary gain, will likely continue to sell regardless of the long term costs, or how badly they’re getting hosed.

If this trend is to continue, governments that wish to sell their communities’ resources should at least stop pretending they’re governments and conduct these deals like actual businesses. It’s both nonsensical and unfair for corporations to buy rights to natural resources at socialized rates and sell them at privatized ones.

If Oregon is going to act like a business instead of a government and sell its water, the state should at the very least demand to be paid market value for it.

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American Sniper, back in the crosshairs of controversy http://americablog.com/2015/05/american-sniper-back-in-the-crosshairs-of-controversy.html http://americablog.com/2015/05/american-sniper-back-in-the-crosshairs-of-controversy.html#comments Tue, 05 May 2015 16:00:30 +0000 http://americablog.com/?p=127525 Clint Eastwood's blockbuster reprises problems with the "Western" genre of moviemaking.

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American Sniper, Clint Eastwood’s 2014 biopic on marksman Chris Kyle, has once again become the center of national controversy. Last week, the Muslim Students Association (MSA) at the University of Maryland protested a showing of it on campus. Complaining that the film was racist, the student group issued a statement, saying:

American Sniper only perpetuates the spread of Islamophobia and is offensive to many Muslims around the world for good reason. This movie dehumanizes Muslim individuals, promotes the idea of senseless mass murder, and portrays negative and inaccurate stereotypes.

This is only the most recent of many other complaints. Though the filmmakers have claimed that the film isn’t political, American Sniper has become a Rorschach test for ideological loyalties — liberals decry its racism and conservatives champion its nationalism. Much discussion has been given to the question of if or how exactly the film is offensive to Muslims. From a cinematic perspective, however, it seems clear from where the issues originate: screenwriter Jason Hall’s decision to appropriate one of Hollywood’s most controversial and troubled genres: the Western.

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Problems with genre: A Middle Eastern “Western”

Before talking more directly about how Muslims are portrayed in American Sniper, it’s important to understand how the film fits into a larger pattern of “wild west” appropriation that’s colored much of the U.S.’s post-WWII history. In his book, The Western and U.S. History, film historian Stanley Corkin says that the Western has been a means by which Americans can contextualize their conflicts and history within a mythic framework. In particular, we can see this in the post-9/11 media discourse surrounding the Bush White House and America’s role in the global “War on Terror.” Many mainstream media outlets like The EconomistThe Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe  and The New York Times appropriated this trope at times, all referring to the chaotic, violent and lawless desert territories as a new kind of “wild west.” Common themes within the genre, specifically it’s Manichean good vs. evil framework, were liberally deployed as a means of “selling” the wars in the Middle East:

Academic Karen Dodwell describes President Bush’s public relations strategy as a portrayal of himself as John Wayne reincarnated:

Like a sheriff of the Old West who clearly delineates the difference between good and evil, Bush as a straight-shooting cowboy declared the aims of the U.S. were good and those of Iraq under Saddam Hussein were evil.

In American Sniper, it appears that we see the most recent iteration of this nationalist fairy tale. However, many critics and academics have defended Eastwood’s film, proffering that Sniper is actually some kind of bold “revisionist” Western, which silently critiques the character it appears to endorse. Leading the pack in this camp is academic Alex Trimble Young, who claims that:

American Sniper offers up its familiar western narrative not as a triumphalist myth but as a disturbing object for contemplation and critique.

Given Eastwood’s long track record of crafting thoughtful dramas, this would seem a compelling argument. Yet if Sniper is another one of Clint’s ruminations on the psychological effects of physical violence, it differs from the auteur’s better films in its two-dimensional depiction of the “enemy.” Its sloppy and stereotype-ridden portrayal of Muslims is the source of the film’s xenophobia, and the reason the film has caused such controversy.

Bad Guys v. Good Guys

In American Sniper there are no “good” Muslims. In the film’s 2 1/2 hour course, we never see an Iraqi who isn’t on a mission to murder Americans. Women, children, and friendly street vendors all jump on the jihad bandwagon. By vetting Iraqis of socio-political context, the filmmakers reduce them, by definition, to caricatures. There is no attempt to portray the vast sectarian and ethnic differences that people the territory, nor is any real attempt made to give voice to their culture, history, or motives. The film’s lead villain, “Mustafa,” might as well be Jafar from Aladdin for all the dimensionality he is allowed: a sneering, child-murdering, ex-Olympic acrobat Sheik with a power drill. He is nothing more than an amalgamation of old-fashioned orientalist stereotypes, mixed with a pinch of post-9/11 al-Qaeda villainism, and just a dash of action movie cliché.

American Sniper, via Creative Commons

American Sniper, via Creative Commons

Critics like Trimble Young would argue that we’re seeing the Iraqis from Kyle’s perspective, and that the film is consciously commenting on his bigotry. I think he’s wrong. I think that the film, through its total disinterest in humanizing the “enemy,” quite unintentionally drags itself into a quagmire of unfortunate cultural depictions.

This might not be such an issue had the filmmakers gone to some lengths to throw into question the character of the story’s “heroes,” but they don’t. No, the SEALs of Sniper are pretty much the finest Am-urican good ol’ boys you could find: fraternal, empathetic and jocular. Like a bunch of B-movie vaqueros, they’re all basically great guys whose only goal is to protect each other and their beloved country.

This dichotomy of American good guy versus Muslim bad guy has larger implications than simple racial stereotypes. When put within the broader context of the Western genre, the film’s portrayal of Muslims betrays a deeper and more longstanding trend of American chauvinism.

Savages on the “new” frontier

The appeal of the Western is its championing of mankind over nature. Important to this idea, is the notion of westward expansion: the process of imposing civilization on the chaos of the untamed frontier. In the frontier are the natives, who — as historian Richard Slotkin writes — were “the special demonic personification of the American wilderness” to the early U.S. settlers. Considered “savages” and “brutes,” their intractable violence and “animalism” was explained by a certain cultural logic, which prescribed that:

Savagery referred to a state of social development below civilization and, in some calculations, below an intermediate step, barbarism…[which would] vanish from the face of the earth as civilization, in accordance with the universal law of progress, displaced savagery.

The war between cowboys and Indians — in many ways the U.S.’s first and most brutal war — has become a template by which Americans view themselves in conflict with races that seem backward, underdeveloped and “savage.” Before the “Westernization” of the Middle East, for instance, Vietnam and its indigents were mythicized along similar lines. Film critic J. Hoberman says that “in the national dream life, Indochina was an extension of the western frontier and Americans were once again settlers…on a mission of protection and progress.” Academic David Espey, writing on the subtext of media rhetoric surrounding America’s pacification process, observes:

American soldiers in Vietnam routinely called enemy territory “Indian Country.” In her study of the Vietnam War, Fire in the Lake, Frances Fitzgerald argues that the term “Indian Country” was more than just a joke or a figure of speech: “It put the Vietnam War into a definite mythological and historical perspective: the Americans were once again embarked upon a heroic. . . conquest of an inferior race.”

Sniper clearly echoes this cultural logic in its portrayal of Muslims: like the natives to the settlers, and the Vietnamese in the Indochinese wars, they are reduced to props in a kind of cosmic battle between the forces of civilization and the forces of nature — what Stanley Corkin calls our “constant dramatization of the relationships between a definable national identity and contiguous unsettled lands.” Transforming the trope of westward expansion into western expansion, American Sniper romanticizes the destabilization and occupation of Middle Eastern nations and transforms it into a noble endeavor — a process by which America attempts to bring law and order to an otherwise wild and untenable third world.

If the filmmakers set out to faithfully depict Chris Kyle’s manner of thinking, I suppose they have succeeded. By his own admission, he ascribes to this outlook, as he has:

…described killing as “fun”, something he “loved”; he was unwavering in his belief that everyone he shot was a “bad guy”. “I hate the damn savages,” he wrote. “I couldn’t give a flying fuck about the Iraqis.”

It is undeniable that this racist and jingoistic attitude has resonated with many of the film’s viewers. Just look at some of these Twitter reactions by conservative audiences (redactions mine):

The Muslim Student’s Association at the University of Maryland were right to protest American Sniper. The movie is xenophobic, nationalistic and has clearly incited hatred against Muslim Americans. While I don’t believe in censoring art of any kind, it is important to acknowledge the embedded program of American chauvinism in Eastwood’s film. Tweets like the one below perfectly echo the tenets of this chauvinism, of the need to crush an inferior race plagued by quote-unquote “oppressive barbaric regression”:

These comments clearly recapitulate the tenets of the traditional “Western” narrative, a genre that has shown little love for “barbarians.”

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America is not an honest broker in the Israel-Palestine Conflict http://americablog.com/2015/04/america-is-not-an-honest-broker-in-the-israel-palestine-conflict.html http://americablog.com/2015/04/america-is-not-an-honest-broker-in-the-israel-palestine-conflict.html#comments Fri, 24 Apr 2015 16:00:18 +0000 http://americablog.com/?p=126970 Actions speak louder than words, and America's actions show few signs of commitment to a two-state solution.

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Throughout the varied and violent history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, American reporters have consistently characterized the US’s involvement by way of a kind of national superhero: he is…the Honest Broker!

Who is this Honest Broker, you ask? A real stand-up fella, that’s who! The Honest Broker is a measured, impartial mediator — simply helping the Israelis and the Palestinians get along, and very much dedicated to facilitating a swift, and efficient peace-process!

Back in March, The Honest Broker hit the headlines again, as a supposed confrontation between the U.S. and Israel reared its head. The source of the beef? Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “walk back” from his pre-reelection support of a two-state solution, which President Obama claimed was “unacceptable.” Esteemed outlets like The Atlantic, POLITICO and the New York Times wasted no time in penning articles chastising Bibi, while lauding the Obama Administration for rhetorically sticking it to the hypocritical politician.

The Honest Broker saves the day!

The only problem with The Honest Broker is that he’s a work of total fiction. The national media’s peddling of this absurd nationalist caricature horribly misrepresents our actual relationship to the conflict. In truth, the U.S. is probably the biggest force blocking the peace-process, not facilitating it:

America: An “Honest Broker” for Peace?  

Actions speak louder than words — or so we’re told. There’s no doubt that, in terms of rhetoric, the Obama Administration has been incredibly supportive of a two-state solution. On March 14th, 2015, Secretary of State John Kerry announced that Obama was “committed” to the creation of a sovereign Palestine. As quoted by the International Business Times:

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The position of the United States with respect to our long-expressed hope, [among] the Republicans and the Democrats alike [and] many presidents of the last 50 years or more, has always been for peace, and President Obama remains committed to a two-state solution.

While this sentiment was nothing new — past speeches made by Presidents Clinton and Bush, along with Obama, show concerted harmony on the issue — it was interesting given how little it reflected policy decisions.

For instance, approximately three months before Kerry said this, he was instrumental in the U.S.’s rejection of a proposal from the UN security council to recognize Palestine as its own state along the 1967 borders. The resolution would’ve ended Israeli occupation of the West Bank, and set a three-year timeline to establish a sovereign Palestinian state. At the time, in late December of 2014, the U.S. threatened it would veto any resolution with “unilateral moves.” These “moves” were described as any language that might indicate:

  • Setting a timeframe for an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank
  • Recognizing Palestine as a member state of the UN

This is not new behavior for the Obama administration. The president personally made a bid to block a two-state solution in 2011, and has — as a matter of general principle — perpetually sought to undermine the legitimacy of Palestinian nationhood. A report from CommonDreams on the veto record of Susan Rice gives a pretty clear account of the U.S.’s role in the peace process since early in Barrie’s presidency:

In December 2009, the U.N. General Assembly passed 18 resolutions on “The Question of Palestine” which, among other things: reaffirmed the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people over their natural resources, including land and water; reaffirmed the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination and their independent State of Palestine; reaffirmed that the Fourth Geneva Convention is applicable to the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem; and reaffirmed that Israel’s settlements in Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem, are illegal and an obstacle to peace and economic and social development. The United States under President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Ambassador Rice, voted against each of these resolutions. Overall, Obama, Clinton, and Rice, by voting with Israel, voted against 16 of 18 General Assembly resolutions in 2009, which were otherwise approved by an overwhelming majority of U.N. member states.

Since then, things haven’t changed much. In 2014, the U.S. voted against and/or abstained from action in 14 UN resolutions to give general assistance to Palestinian refugees, and to assist in the remedying of the human rights nightmare occurring in the occupied territories. The majority of the International Assembly urged the U.S. to aid in the fallout from:

…the conflict in and around the Gaza Strip in July and August 2014, and the civilian casualties caused, including the killing and injury of thousands of Palestinian civilians, including children, women and the elderly, as well as the widespread destruction of or damage to thousands of homes and civilian infrastructure, including schools, hospitals, water, sanitation and electricity networks, economic, industrial and agricultural properties, public institutions, religious sites…

Despite these pleas from over 160 countries, and despite the fact that 2014 was the most deadly year for Palestinians since 1967, the U.S. abstained from or voted against draft resolutions to send aid to Palestinian refugees, to decolonize the Syrian Golan and to allow displaced Palestinians to return to their homes.

Of course, in case you’re looking to blame this all on President Obama, it’s important to acknowledge that his position is not unique. Our efforts to undermine Palestine date back to the 1970s when our relations with Israel became especially friendly. If actions truly speak louder than words, then the U.S. has been pretty loud (albeit not at press conferences or in televised speeches) about what it actually wants. The full list of security council vetoes that the U.S. has cast over the decades is staggering for its consistency, the aim of which is simple: no two-state solution.

Unofficial U.S. Policy: Protecting Israel, Unconditionally

By contrast, the degree to which the U.S has supported Israel is truly mind blowing. We are, in many ways, solely responsible for its continued existence in the Middle East, in that we subsidize massive sectors of their tech industry, their infrastructure and economy; we bolster their population with immigration programs, and we are pretty much the only country that defends their breach of international law. We also quietly ignore Israel’s unofficial nuclear program.

Yet the most striking expression of our unbridled enthusiasm is the U.S.’s massive subsidization of Israeli defense systems. Analyst Jeremy Sharp reported that “U.S. military aid” over the decades has effectively turned Israel into a military state, and that we have “helped transform Israel’s armed forces into one of the most technologically sophisticated militaries in the world.” This massive financial assistance program is part of the U.S.’s agenda of giving Israel a “qualitative military edge” (QME) over “neighboring militaries.” QME is a concept unique to Israel, into which untold funding and legislation has gone. Some of this legislation and funding includes:

  • A mandate obligating the U.S. President to conduct an “empirical and qualitative assessment” of Israel’s QME, and to report the findings to the Israeli government every four years.
  • Laws prohibiting U.S. arms contractors to sell to any countries in the Middle East that may “adversely affect Israel’s qualitative military edge.” If you consider how absurdly powerful the U.S. arms industry is, this is a huge deal.
  • Hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies for various Israeli defense programs: these include state of the art anti-rocket systems like the Iron Dome, David’s Sling and the Arrow programs; a number of F-35 Joint Striker Fighters; batteries for homing Hawk and Patriot missiles; X-Band radar to detect airborne attacks; and much, much more.

Out of all of these subsidies, however, nothing is more symbolic of the U.S.’s unconditional support for Israel than the fact that Arabs are literally being killed with American bullets. Not only does the U.S. subsidize Israel’s defense systems, but it stockpiles $1.2 billion worth of its own military equipment in Israel for emergency use, and for Israel’s use in times of war. As Israel is perpetually in a state of war, it uses this equipment. A lot. During Israel’s 2006 conflict with Lebanon, for instance, it was American tanks, missile launchers and machine guns that were used in a conflict that left thousands of Lebanese civilians wounded and dead. The use of American firepower had to be, and was, specifically authorized by the United States.

Benjamin Netanyahu and John Boehner, via Creative Commons

Benjamin Netanyahu and John Boehner, via Creative Commons

This bolstering of Israeli military might is foreseeably endless. In 2007, the Bush administration agreed to sponsor “a 10-year, $30 billion military aid package for the 10-year period from FY2009 to FY2018” to Israel. Since then, we’ve shown no signs of slowing down. Obama agreed to continue Bush’s aid package, and his proposed aid to Israel for 2015 reportedly dwarfs all other foreign military funding (FMF) worldwide, accounting for a little over half of the U.S.’s total FMF for the year. As Sharp reported, “Annual FMF grants to Israel represent 23% to 25% of the overall Israeli defense budget,” making the U.S. the indispensable sponsor of Israel’s militant initiatives. Furthermore, this is just the the most recent stage of a subsidization process going back decades — one that makes Israel:

…the largest cumulative recipient of U.S. foreign assistance since World War II. To date, the United States has provided Israel $121 billion (current, or non-inflation-adjusted, dollars) in bilateral assistance. Almost all U.S. bilateral aid to Israel is in the form of military assistance, although in the past Israel also received significant economic assistance.

What We Get Out of It

That’s a lot of dough, and the U.S. doesn’t give away billions of dollars out of the goodness of its heart. We always want something in return. Benefits of our military assistance may seem obscure at first, but some consideration of the mutual goals of Israel and the U.S. provide answers. What do we get?

  • Geo-strategic Positioning. This is the big one. In a region of timeless political/economic significance, the U.S.’s relationship with Israel gives us an ally in one of the most important places in the world. Because of our unconditional support for them, we expect Israel to act as a client-state for U.S. interests and, more importantly, as an implicit threat to other Middle Eastern countries. Our relationship is a means of asserting regional dominance.
  • Israel/Iran via Shutterstock.

    Israel/Iran via Shutterstock.

    Mutually Assured Production. Our interest in the arms trade makes us natural partners. The U.S. is almost solely responsible for the creation of the Israeli arms industry, and has since the 1980s worked hard to make it rank “as one of the top 10 suppliers of arms worldwide.” This has conveniently opened the door to collusive trade partnerships between U.S. and Israeli contractors. Many of these deals also bear political value. Back in 2013, a 10 billion dollar arms sale to Israel, as well as Saudi Arabia and the UAE (United Arab Emirates) helped put pressure on Iran, which has been a longtime target of the U.S. for containment.

  • It’s always nice to have a friend. Aside from defense, many steps have been taken to strengthen ties between Israeli and U.S. corporate, scientific and academic communities. Add to this the rampant collusion between U.S. government officials and Israeli support groups like AIPAC, and you have yourself a true bromance — a perfect melding of financial and geopolitical interests.

Funding Palestine, Very Conditionally

It should be noted that the U.S. funds Palestine too. Since the 90s, we have given about 5 billion dollars of aid to the Palestinians. But don’t let that fool you: Our contributions to the Palestinian Authority (PA) bear a drastically different purpose than those given to Israel, and are subject “to a host of vetting and oversight requirements and legislative restrictions.” Some of the qualifiers to Palestine receiving aid are:

  • The aid to the PA must not go toward Palestine’s defense capabilities
  • The PA must not allow co-governance with Hamas
  • The PA must not make a bid for UN member status

If the U.S. is serious in its commitment to establishing a viable Palestinian state, then these conditions for aid make zero sense. They undercut basic tenets of statehood: secure territory, defense and membership in the international community. On the whole, the U.S. has shown a total disinterest in allowing Palestinians the freedom to self-defense and democratic self-determiniation.

In particular, the threat of an “armed” Palestinian state is immensely disconcerting to U.S. officials. So desperate has our government been to thwart any Palestinian administration with the capacity for self-defense that in 2007 the Bush administration went as far as to attempt a coup against the democratically elected Hamas-backed government in hopes of driving the country into an implosive civil war. The attempt failed, speaking both to the resilience of the Palestinian people and to the enduring goal of the U.S. to undermine and destroy their sovereignty.

Another profoundly consistent agenda of the U.S. has been to deny Palestine a voice in the international community. The right of UN member status, though pursued by Palestine for many years, and overwhelmingly supported by the International Assembly, has been kept from realization by the power of the U.S. security council veto. After many years of obstruction by the U.S., the PA recently switched tactics, and sought the status of “Non-Member Observer” — a position that would allow them to appeal to other international coalitions like the International Criminal Court (ICC) for support in their conflict with Israel. Though overwhelmingly supported by the international community, the U.S., again, deeply opposed the bid, and Congress threatened to cut PA funding if the status was pursued.

The continual refrain heard from the U.S. as rationalization for this perpetual process of subversion is that to do otherwise would “threaten the peace process.” A footnote in Jim Zanotti’s Palestinian financing report, however, gives a more apt description of what the U.S. might feel “threatened” by:

One possible reason that some Members of Congress have shown reluctance to continue funding the PA in light of Palestinian initiatives within the U.N. system is a possible perception of these Palestinian initiatives as an attempt to undermine the U.S. role as “honest broker” and guarantor of the peace process.

The next few lines of the footnote seems to clarify the broader implications of this “perception” [emphasis added]:

U.S. lawmakers and officials also may view Palestinian action in international fora as a sign that U.S. attempts to use aid for political leverage with the Palestinians are unproductive. However, in testimony offered to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, on May 8, 2014, Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies said, in addressing the possible consequences of a U.S. aid cutoff to the Palestinians, “You know, if we zero out Palestinian funding, then here is the big problem. You are going to have someone else come in and they are going to be worse. More than likely, you are going to see the Saudis, the Iranians, the Qataris, the Turks. They are all going to come in and they are not even going to hold the Palestinians to account at all. The important thing from my perspective, if we are going to keep the funding going, we need to make sure that we have tighter controls. We need to demand performance. And, in my opinion, we have just simply failed to do so.

Reading through the political euphemism here, it is clear that what U.S. politicians fear most is not the breakdown of peace negotiations, but that their work as The Honest Broker will be usurped. The U.S. aids Palestine, yes, but this aid isn’t meant to facilitate the peace process; it’s meant to control it. By vetoing resolutions of international aid, American politicians keep their power to broker and direct policy to the Palestinian Authority. By denying that this assistance go towards armed resistance, the U.S. bolsters Israel’s QME, and takes steps towards establishing a defense-vetted neighbor, whose territory is largely regulated and controlled by Israeli militia.

Where does this all leave legend of The Honest Broker? Firmly in BS-land, unfortunately. It would appear that, far from being the impartial mediator of a swift peace process, the U.S.’s real role is imperialist grand planner. Not only are we the single biggest impediment to the UN’s attempts to remedy the Palestinian situation, but we are using our self-created relationship with Israel to direct events in the Middle East to our advantage. Geostrategically, Israel is the U.S.’s greatest proxy: it’s our window to the Orient and our muscle in the Middle East. It provides a strong platform from which to direct operations in regions of great economic consequence; and, in this sense, our desire to craft a castrated and ineffectual Palestinian neighbor to our subsidy-laden warhorse Israel is — while morally bankrupt — a pretty slick move.

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New Jersey privatizes its water in the worst way possible http://americablog.com/2015/03/new-jersey-privatize-water.html http://americablog.com/2015/03/new-jersey-privatize-water.html#comments Tue, 24 Mar 2015 13:30:41 +0000 http://americablog.com/?p=126614 Many New Jerseyans will soon have private water with no public recourse.

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Last month, Chris Christie sold off New Jersey’s public water supply to a bunch of corporations.

The Water Infrastructure Protection Act (WIPA), approved on February 5th, allows municipalities to sell their water facilities to private companies without public referendum. As part of Christie’s privatization task force agenda, WIPA aims to balance Jersey’s current budget crisis, while also fixing the state’s water facilities that ail from “emergent conditions,” or what the bill calls “serious risks to the integrity of drinking water and the environment.” The Protection Act has alarmed New Jersey communities and watchdog groups, however, who claim, as activist Jim Walsh has said, the bill allows “multinational corporations to profit off increased water rates with virtually no recourse for New Jersey residents.’’

Though flatly ignored by the national media, WIPA is a painfully important piece of legislation that comes at a pivotal juncture in the national and global conversation about how exactly we should “define” water. It also opens up bigger questions about private institutions and their role in shaping the public sphere — the first of which being, can we really trust corporations to do something that government has been doing for a hundred years?

The people of New Jersey certainly seem to be suspect. Chief among the outraged over WIPA’s passage are public interest groups like Jersey’s Division of Rate Counsel (DRC), which has lambasted the bill. Stefanie Brand, the Counsel’s Director, expressed concerns in a statement to the NJ legislature, on Dec. 11th, saying she feared that:

  1. WIPA will raise the public’s rates. A lot: Because the bill strips authority from the Board of Public Utilities (BPU), the organization that has traditionally regulated rates in NJ, ratepayers run the risk of seeing drastic inflation. For Jersey’s low-income communities, this is a frightening prospect.
  2. WIPA will diminish public control: Not only does the new bill strike public referendum, but it delivers the people’s water into the hands of an organization with few of the protections currently offered by the BPU. Consumer protection agencies like the DRC — groups that give consumers a “voice in setting energy, water and telecommunications policy” — may have little influence under the new bill. As a result, the public will have less to do with the management of their own water.
  3. Socialized costs for privatized gains: Tradition holds that when water facilities are privatized, shareholders usually shoulder “acquisition-related costs,” as they are the ones who stand to profit most from the deal. However, under the new bill, facility construction and other acquisition costs will be “recoverable in rates” — meaning ratepayers will subsidize the operation.

Concerns surrounding WIPA fit into a larger argument occurring nationally about the dangers of water privatization. In “The New Economy of Water,” a comprehensive report released by The Pacific Institute, analysts posited a number of risks to democratic and political institutions implicit in privatization. Many of these concerns are identical to those expressed by Brand and the DRC. Among the concerns, the report warns that:

  • Privatization can worsen economic inequality
  • Privatization may circumvent public participation, public ownership, and contract monitoring
  • Privatization of water systems may be irreversible

An analysis done by watchdog non-profit Food and Water Watch seems to support fears of worsening economic iniquities. The report found that on average, where privatization had already occurred in Jersey, households paid 64 percent more for their water. In other states, cases are similar. In Felton, CA, for instance, American Water (AW) bought up state facilities, after which RWE — its parent corporation — proposed raising rates on payers by 78%. In Urbana, Illinois, too, AW bought the public’s water, then quickly proposed a 60% increase in rates. Not exactly a better deal for middle-class ratepayers.

Fears of “irreversibility” also hold some credibility. For state officials in desperate municipalities, water facility sales may appear a short-term financial solution to budgetary ailments. However, these solutions often come with a long-term price tag: water contracts can last decades (WIPA, for instance, allows companies to own public facilities for up to 40 years) — making protracted and expensive lawsuits the only viable means of public reclamation.

In the past, communities have waged legal battles with their legislatures when privatization deals did not work out to their advantage. Yet WIPA’s waving of public referendum effectively negates that ability.

These debates over the dangers of water privatization come at a time when the international community is also discussing how to head off the global water shortage. Inefficient state facilities have forced scientists and politicians to rethink the means by which water can be stored and distributed. A growing number of analysts have argued that the private model is a more effective means of preserving dwindling water supplies. Smelling the aroma of fresh greenbacks, a small coalition of international corporations — accompanied by The World Bank — are pushing for a global water privatization initiative.

The Polaris Institute reports that:

There are ten major corporate players now delivering fresh water services for profit. Between them, the three biggest — Suez and Vivendi [recently renamed Veolia Environment] of France and RWE-AG of Germany — deliver water and wastewater services to almost 300 million customers in over 100 countries, and are in a race, along with the others such as Bouygues SAUR, Thames Water (owned by RWE) and Bechtel-United Utilities, to expand to every corner of the globe. Their growth is exponential; a decade ago, they serviced around 51 million people in just 12 countries. And, although less than 10 percent of the world’s water systems are currently under private control, at the rate they are expanding, the top three alone will control over 70 percent of the water systems in Europe and North America in a decade.

Yet in many third world countries where water supplies have already been privatized, communities have encountered the same problems that plague U.S. towns like Felton and Urbana. Rates skyrocket, which drives inequality up. In some cases, health concerns have arisen, as well. Management and efficiency, too –the supposed areas in which private companies are supposed to outperform state governments — are spotty. Al Jazeera America reported that there was a “34% failure rate for all private water and sewerage contracts entered into [globally] between 2000 and 2010.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement for corporate competency.

Global water, via Shutterstock

Global water, via Shutterstock

Tough decisions are ahead. The debate over water privatization goes beyond issues of safety, efficiency and profit, to the question of what exactly an American citizen is entitled to. Analyst Karen J. Bakker has said that while water has historically been considered a “public good,” a universal right, and a “necessary precondition for participation in public life,” privatization makes it: “no longer a public good…but a tradable good,” subject to the fluctuations of the market.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the WIPA is the extent to which it fits into the larger privatization trend in the U.S., one in which middle-class rights are being declared as tradable goods. It’s a process that, in general, makes things less affordable to the average family: after school programs, universal child care and higher education — once state-subsidized programs — have become costly, privatized industries. Worker benefits such as retirement plans and pensions have evaporated. If the privatization enthusiasts had their way, we’d also be doing without the federal minimum wage and the weekend. In the private sector’s consumption of the public sector, boundaries between “natural rights” and “commodities” have dissolved and aspects of life that have traditionally been considered universal privileges have instead become privileges of wealth.

And now they’re coming for our water. Yikes.

Borders between government and big business are dissolving. Legislation like WIPA — fast-tracked and vetted of referendum as it was — is nothing more and nothing less than governments selling their people out to corporations. The communities both pay for the operation and forfeit their right to manage their own resources.

Doubts naturally persist over the ability of private entities to take on public responsibilities when their priorities remain profits, not people. In situations where government oversight has not sufficiently been included, the privatization of public institutions has lead not only to rising levels of inequality and circumvention of democratic process, but to severe abuses — with examples running the gamut from the current crisis over for-profit colleges like Corinthian, to the horrors of prison privatization, to Blackwater and the Nisour Square massacre.

The demand for water is perfectly inelastic: Regardless of price, people need to drink. This being the case, water would seem to be a product least-likely to be handled well by the private sector. Given the disastrous results in the places where it’s been tried, there’s no reason to be anything but skeptical at least and outraged at best over New Jersey’s plan to privatize their water supply.

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