World Bank’s business-lending arm backed palm oil producer amid deadly land war

ICIJ and the Huffington Post report: Glenda Chávez walks between the orange trees of her family’s grove, approaching a low wire fence that divides her property from Corporación Dinant’s Paso Aguán plantation. On Dinant’s side of the fence, rows of spiky palm oil trees stretch for miles across the green landscape of northern Honduras.

“Here,” she says in a soft, determined voice, pointing to a spot on her side of the fence where a search party found the last traces of her father’s life.

Gregorio Chávez, a preacher and farmer, disappeared in July 2012. Hours later, men from their peasant community found the machete he’d taken with him to tend to his vegetables. The men also found drag marks in the dirt leading toward Dinant’s property, Glenda says.

Four days after Gregorio Chávez disappeared, searchers discovered the preacher’s body on the Paso Aguán plantation, buried under a pile of palm fronds. He had been killed by blows to his head, and his body showed signs that he may have been tortured, according to a government special prosecutor investigating his death. Glenda and the other villagers immediately suspected he had been killed for speaking out from the pulpit against Dinant, their adversary in a battle over ownership of land that the company long ago incorporated into its vast palm oil operations.

“These plantations are bathed in blood,” Glenda Chávez says. “Not only has my father died, but more than 100 peasants have died in defense of the land.”

Special prosecutor Javier Guzmán says security guards employed by Dinant are “the leading suspects” in Gregorio Chávez’s killing, but no one has been charged in the case. The company vigorously denies it had anything to do with his death.

The preacher’s death was one of 133 killings that have been linked to the land conflicts in Honduras’ Bajo Aguán valley, according to Guzmán, who was appointed by the federal government to investigate the wave of violence that has ripped through the area in recent years. The circumstances of these deaths remain fiercely disputed in a struggle that has pitted Dinant and other large corporate landholders against peasant collectives, with both sides involved in violence that has at times turned gruesome.

The conflict has drawn international scrutiny in part because Dinant, one of its central protagonists, has been financed by the World Bank Group.

Dinant was backed by the International Finance Corporation, an arm of the World Bank conglomerate that lends to private companies. The IFC supported Dinant, one of Central America’s biggest palm oil and food producers, throughout the recent land conflicts. It provided $15 million directly to Dinant in 2009 and later channelled $70 million in 2011 to a Honduran bank that was one of Dinant’s largest financiers.

In doing so, the IFC aligned itself with one of the key players in a deadly civil conflict, staking its money and reputation on a powerful corporation with a questionable history. The IFC ignored easily obtainable evidence that should have warned it away from doing business with Dinant, the lender’s internal ombudsman later found. [Continue reading…]

Last December, Jeff Conant reported: As one of the fastest growing global commodities, palm oil has recently earned a reputation as a major contributor to tropical deforestation and, therefore, to climate change as well.

About 50 million metric tons of palm oil is produced per year – more than double the amount produced a decade ago – and this growth appears likely to continue for the foreseeable future. Because oil palm trees, native to West Africa, require the same conditions as tropical rainforests, nearly every drop of palm oil that hits the global market comes at the expense of natural forests that have been, or will be, burned, bulldozed and replaced with plantations.

With deforestation garnering headlines due to forests’ crucial role in regulating the climate, global commodity producers, from Nestle and Unilever in Europe, to Cargill in the United States to Wilmar International in Indonesia, are recognizing the need to provide products that are “deforestation-free.” Other corporate-led initiatives like the public-private Tropical Forest Alliance that promises to reduce the deforestation associated with palm oil, soy, beef, paper and pulp, and the recent New York Declaration on Forests signed at the UN Climate Summit in New York, suggest that saving the world’s forests is now squarely on the corporate sustainability agenda.

But what is being left behind is the other significant impact of palm oil and other agro-industrial commodities – namely human rights. Commitments to protect forests and conservation areas can, if well implemented, address environmental concerns by delimiting the areas of land available for conversion to palm oil. But natural resource exploitation is inextricably linked to human exploitation, and such commitments do little to address this.

A case in point is Grupo Dinant, a Honduran palm oil company that declared last month that it has been awarded international environmental certifications for its achievements in environmental management and occupational health and safety. Dinant has also been making overtures toward joining the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), including hosting the RSPO’s 4th Latin American conference in Honduras in 2013. But, Dinant, which produces about 60 percent of the palm oil in Honduras, is at the center of what has been called “the most serious situation in terms of violence against peasants in Central America in the last 15 years.” [Continue reading…]

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How a corporate cult captures and destroys our best graduates

George Monbiot writes: To seek enlightenment, intellectual or spiritual; to do good; to love and be loved; to create and to teach: these are the highest purposes of humankind. If there is meaning in life, it lies here.

Those who graduate from the leading universities have more opportunity than most to find such purpose. So why do so many end up in pointless and destructive jobs? Finance, management consultancy, advertising, public relations, lobbying: these and other useless occupations consume thousands of the brightest students. To take such jobs at graduation, as many will in the next few weeks, is to amputate life close to its base.

I watched it happen to my peers. People who had spent the preceding years laying out exultant visions of a better world, of the grand creative projects they planned, of adventure and discovery, were suddenly sucked into the mouths of corporations dangling money like angler fish.

At first they said they would do it for a year or two, “until I pay off my debts”. Soon afterwards they added: “and my mortgage”. Then it became, “I just want to make enough not to worry any more”. A few years later, “I’m doing it for my family”. Now, in middle age, they reply, “What, that? That was just a student fantasy.” [Continue reading…]

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How to save jobs and destroy the planet

If I was invested with the powers of a dictator, I’d be especially ruthless in one particular way: I’d show no mercy to those guilty of crimes against language.

No, I wouldn’t be another Bryan Henderson — the Wikipedia editor who has a vendetta against the phrase “comprised of.”

The guilty, in my book, are not those who fail to bow in obeisance to the mythical gods of grammar. What I view as an inexcusable abuse of language is to regard it as nothing more than a tool of deception.

The people who specialize in this corrupt art, work in advertising, public relations, and politics, and they create things like this:

The American Progressive Bag Alliance.

Plastic bags — fluttering down windswept streets, getting caught in branches, blocking drains, choking animals, poisoning groundwater, and colonizing oceans — might seem to have a life of their own. Apparently they are now also demanding political rights and claim they are progressive.

It turns out, however, that APBA is not an alliance of bags, but instead (predictably) it represents the transnational corporate power and interests of the plastics industry:

  • Advance Polybag, Inc. – bag manufacturer
  • The Dow Chemical Company – resin maker
  • ExxonMobil Corporation – HDPE resin maker
  • Hilex Poly Co., LLC. – bag manufacturer, co-founder
  • Inteplast – bag manufacturer
  • NOVA Chemicals, Inc. – polyethylene manufacturer
  • Superbag Corporation – bag manufacturer
  • Total Petrochemicals USA – polyethylene manufacture
  • Unistar Plastics, LLC – bag manufacturer

I imagine that those came up with the name American Progressive Bag Alliance, have to drug themselves to sleep — and probably drug themselves at work, too. Either that, or through a self-administered lobotomization which cuts out principles for the sake of career, the conscience they were born with, withered away a long time ago.

If, like me, you’ve never heard of this alliance before, Bill Raden explains what they have done:

Just when Californians were getting used to the idea of living without getting free, single-use grocery bags at the supermarket checkout, Secretary of State Alex Padilla recently announced that a referendum effort aimed at rescinding the plastic bag ban signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown in September had qualified for the 2016 ballot. Pending the results of next year’s vote, the announcement effectively suspends the July 1 implementation of the measure, Senate Bill 270, which would have been the first statewide bag ban in the nation. (Citywide bans, such as those passed in Los Angeles and San Francisco, will remain in place.)

Padilla’s office says that a random sampling found that the measure’s supporters collected at least 555,236 valid signatures — more than the 504,706 needed. Ironically, Padilla had been a key force behind the passage of SB 270, when he was in the State Senate.

Californians currently use about 11 billion disposable plastic shopping bags annually with a market value that the plastic bag industry estimates at between $100 million to $150 million. Those sales will now be secure for an additional 15 months.

The effort to put the so-called “people’s veto” onto the ballot was mounted by the American Progressive Bag Alliance, the same industry consortium that bitterly fought passage of the ban.

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The East India Company: The original corporate raiders

William Dalrymple writes: One of the very first Indian words to enter the English language was the Hindustani slang for plunder: “loot”. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this word was rarely heard outside the plains of north India until the late 18th century, when it suddenly became a common term across Britain. To understand how and why it took root and flourished in so distant a landscape, one need only visit Powis Castle.

The last hereditary Welsh prince, Owain Gruffydd ap Gwenwynwyn, built Powis castle as a craggy fort in the 13th century; the estate was his reward for abandoning Wales to the rule of the English monarchy. But its most spectacular treasures date from a much later period of English conquest and appropriation: Powis is simply awash with loot from India, room after room of imperial plunder, extracted by the East India Company in the 18th century.

There are more Mughal artefacts stacked in this private house in the Welsh countryside than are on display at any one place in India – even the National Museum in Delhi. The riches include hookahs of burnished gold inlaid with empurpled ebony; superbly inscribed spinels and jewelled daggers; gleaming rubies the colour of pigeon’s blood and scatterings of lizard-green emeralds. There are talwars set with yellow topaz, ornaments of jade and ivory; silken hangings, statues of Hindu gods and coats of elephant armour.

Such is the dazzle of these treasures that, as a visitor last summer, I nearly missed the huge framed canvas that explains how they came to be here. The picture hangs in the shadows at the top of a dark, oak-panelled staircase. It is not a masterpiece, but it does repay close study. An effete Indian prince, wearing cloth of gold, sits high on his throne under a silken canopy. On his left stand scimitar and spear carrying officers from his own army; to his right, a group of powdered and periwigged Georgian gentlemen. The prince is eagerly thrusting a scroll into the hands of a statesmanlike, slightly overweight Englishman in a red frock coat.

The painting shows a scene from August 1765, when the young Mughal emperor Shah Alam, exiled from Delhi and defeated by East India Company troops, was forced into what we would now call an act of involuntary privatisation. The scroll is an order to dismiss his own Mughal revenue officials in Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, and replace them with a set of English traders appointed by Robert Clive – the new governor of Bengal – and the directors of the EIC, who the document describes as “the high and mighty, the noblest of exalted nobles, the chief of illustrious warriors, our faithful servants and sincere well-wishers, worthy of our royal favours, the English Company”. The collecting of Mughal taxes was henceforth subcontracted to a powerful multinational corporation – whose revenue-collecting operations were protected by its own private army.

It was at this moment that the East India Company (EIC) ceased to be a conventional corporation, trading and silks and spices, and became something much more unusual. Within a few years, 250 company clerks backed by the military force of 20,000 locally recruited Indian soldiers had become the effective rulers of Bengal. An international corporation was transforming itself into an aggressive colonial power. [Continue reading…]

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How the American opiate epidemic was started by one pharmaceutical company

Mike Mariani writes: The state of Kentucky may finally get its deliverance. After more than seven years of battling the evasive legal tactics of Purdue Pharma, 2015 may be the year that Kentucky and its attorney general, Jack Conway, are able to move forward with a civil lawsuit alleging that the drugmaker misled doctors and patients about their blockbuster pain pill OxyContin, leading to a vicious addiction epidemic across large swaths of the state.

A pernicious distinction of the first decade of the 21st century was the rise in painkiller abuse, which ultimately led to a catastrophic increase in addicts, fatal overdoses, and blighted communities. But the story of the painkiller epidemic can really be reduced to the story of one powerful, highly addictive drug and its small but ruthlessly enterprising manufacturer.

On December 12, 1995, the Food and Drug Administration approved the opioid analgesic OxyContin. It hit the market in 1996. In its first year, OxyContin accounted for $45 million in sales for its manufacturer, Stamford, Connecticut-based pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma. By 2000 that number would balloon to $1.1 billion, an increase of well over 2,000 percent in a span of just four years. Ten years later, the profits would inflate still further, to $3.1 billion. By then the potent opioid accounted for about 30 percent of the painkiller market. What’s more, Purdue Pharma’s patent for the original OxyContin formula didn’t expire until 2013. This meant that a single private, family-owned pharmaceutical company with non-descript headquarters in the Northeast controlled nearly a third of the entire United States market for pain pills.

OxyContin’s ball-of-lightning emergence in the health care marketplace was close to unprecedented for a new painkiller in an age where synthetic opiates like Vicodin, Percocet, and Fentanyl had already been competing for decades in doctors’ offices and pharmacies for their piece of the market share of pain-relieving drugs. In retrospect, it almost didn’t make sense. Why was OxyContin so much more popular? Had it been approved for a wider range of ailments than its opioid cousins? Did doctors prefer prescribing it to their patients?

During its rise in popularity, there was a suspicious undercurrent to the drug’s spectrum of approved uses and Purdue Pharma’s relationship to the physicians that were suddenly privileging OxyContin over other meds to combat everything from back pain to arthritis to post-operative discomfort. It would take years to discover that there was much more to the story than the benign introduction of a new, highly effective painkiller. [Continue reading…]

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Too big to jail — when justice deferred is justice denied

Jed S. Rakoff writes: So-called “deferred prosecutions” were developed in the 1930s as a way of helping juvenile offenders. A juvenile who had been charged with a crime would agree with the prosecutor to have his prosecution deferred while he entered a program designed to rehabilitate such offenders. If he successfully completed the program and committed no other crime over the course of a year, the charge would then be dropped.


The analogy of a Fortune 500 company to a juvenile delinquent is, perhaps, less than obvious. Nonetheless, beginning in the early 1990s and with increasing frequency thereafter, federal prosecutors began entering into “deferred prosecution” agreements with major corporations and large financial institutions. In the typical arrangement, the government agreed to defer prosecuting the company for various federal felonies if the company, in addition to paying a financial penalty, agreed to introduce various “prophylactic” measures designed to prevent future such crimes and to “rehabilitate” the company’s “culture.” The crimes for which prosecution was thus deferred included felony violations of the securities laws, banking laws, antitrust laws, anti-money-laundering laws, food and drug laws, foreign corrupt practices laws, and numerous provisions of the general federal criminal code.

The intellectual origins of this approach to corporate crime can be traced back at least to the 1980s, when various academics suggested that the best way to deter “crime in the suites” was to foster a culture within companies of acting ethically and responsibly. In practice, this meant encouraging companies not only to provide in-house ethical training but also to enlarge their internal compliance programs, so that responsible behavior would be praised and misconduct policed. The approach found favor not just with some corporations (notably General Electric under the guidance of its then general counsel, Ben Heineman), but also with the US Sentencing Commission, which, in promulgating the Corporate Sentencing Guidelines in 1991, made the overall adequacy of a company’s prior internal compliance programs the most important factor in reducing (by as much as 60 percent) the size of the fine to be imposed on a company found guilty of a federal criminal violation. [Continue reading…]

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EU Parliament, in nonbinding measure, calls for breaking up Google

The New York Times reports: The European Parliament on Thursday approved a nonbinding resolution for Google to be broken up into separate companies.

There is no immediate threat to Google from the vote, which amounts to little more than political posturing because the Parliament has no formal power over antitrust policy in the 28-member trade bloc.

But the vote signifies the increasing trans-Atlantic tensions over the dominant role that Google, an American technology titan, plays in Europe. The vote followed a separate move on Wednesday to rein in the company by a European regulatory body that aims to protect the electronic privacy of European citizens.

Thursday’s vote could also raise pressure on Margrethe Vestager, the bloc’s recently installed competition commissioner, to speed up a decision on whether to bring formal antitrust charges against Google in a long-running investigation. That inquiry, begun in 2010, involves Google’s dominant position in Europe’s Internet search business, and asks whether the company’s search results favor other Google-related services and whether Google impedes its competitors’ search-advertising platforms. [Continue reading…]

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Noam Chomsky: America’s real foreign policy

It goes without saying that the honchos of the national security state weren’t exactly happy with Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations.  Still, over the last year, the comments of such figures, politicians associated with them, and retirees from their world clearly channeling their feelings have had a striking quality: over-the-top vituperation.  About the nicest thing anyone in that crew has had to say about Snowden is that he’s a “traitor” or — shades of the Cold War era (and of absurdity, since the State Department trapped him in the transit lounge of a Moscow airport by taking his passport away) — a “Russian spy.”  And that’s the mild stuff.  Such figures have also regularly called for his execution, for quite literally stringing him up from the old oak tree and letting him dangle in the breeze.  Theirs has been a bloodcurdling collective performance that gives the word “visceral” new meaning.

Such a response to the way Snowden released batches of NSA documents to Glenn Greenwald, filmmaker Laura Poitras, and the Washington Post’s Barton Gellman calls for explanation.  Here’s mine: the NSA’s goal in creating a global surveillance state was either utopian or dystopian (depending on your point of view), but in either case, breathtakingly totalistic.  Its top officials meant to sweep up every electronic or online way one human being can communicate with others, and to develop the capability to surveil and track every inhabitant of the planet.  From German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff to peasants with cell phones in the backlands of Afghanistan (not to speak of American citizens anywhere), no one was to be off the hook.  Conceptually, there would be no exceptions.  And the remarkable thing is how close the agency came to achieving this.

Whether consciously or not, however, the officials of the U.S. Intelligence Community did imagine one giant exception: themselves.  No one outside the loop was supposed to know what they were doing.  They alone on the planet were supposed to be unheard, unspied upon, and unsurveilled.  The shock of Snowden’s revelations, I suspect, and the visceral reactions came, in part, from the discovery that such a system really did have no exceptions, not even them.  In releasing the blueprint of their world, Snowden endangered nothing in the normal sense of the term, but that made him no less of a traitor to their exceptional world as they imagined it.  What he ensured was that, as they surveil us, we can now in some sense track them.  His act, in other words, dumped them in with the hoi polloi — with us — which, under the circumstances, was the ultimate insult and they responded accordingly.

An allied explanation lurks in Noam Chomsky’s latest TomDispatch post.  If the “security” in national security means not the security of the American people but, as he suggests, of those who run the national security state, and if secrecy is the attribute of power, then Edward Snowden broke their code of secrecy and exposed power itself to the light in a devastating and deflating way.  No wonder the reaction to him was so bloodthirsty and vitriolic.  Chomsky himself has an unsettling way of exposing various worlds of power, especially American power, to the light with similarly deflating results.  He’s been doing it for half a century and only gets better. Tom Engelhardt

Whose security?
How Washington protects itself and the corporate sector
By Noam Chomsky

The question of how foreign policy is determined is a crucial one in world affairs.  In these comments, I can only provide a few hints as to how I think the subject can be productively explored, keeping to the United States for several reasons.  First, the U.S. is unmatched in its global significance and impact.  Second, it is an unusually open society, possibly uniquely so, which means we know more about it.  Finally, it is plainly the most important case for Americans, who are able to influence policy choices in the U.S. — and indeed for others, insofar as their actions can influence such choices.  The general principles, however, extend to the other major powers, and well beyond.

There is a “received standard version,” common to academic scholarship, government pronouncements, and public discourse.  It holds that the prime commitment of governments is to ensure security, and that the primary concern of the U.S. and its allies since 1945 was the Russian threat.

There are a number of ways to evaluate the doctrine.  One obvious question to ask is: What happened when the Russian threat disappeared in 1989?  Answer: everything continued much as before.

[Read more…]

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Who’s in control — nation states or global corporations?

Gary Younge writes: The night in 2002 when Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva won his landslide victory in Brazil’s presidential elections, he warned supporters: “So far, it has been easy. The hard part begins now.” He wasn’t wrong. As head of the leftwing Workers’ party he was elected on a platform of fighting poverty and redistributing wealth. A year earlier, the party had produced a document, Another Brazil is Possible, laying out its electoral programme. In a section entitled “The Necessary Rupture”, it argued: “Regarding the foreign debt, now predominantly private, it will be necessary to denounce the agreement with the IMF, in order to free the economic policy from the restrictions imposed on growth and on the defence of Brazilian commercial interests.”

But on the way to Lula’s inauguration the invisible hand of the market tore up his electoral promises and boxed the country around the ears for its reckless democratic choice. In the three months between his winning and being sworn in, the currency plummeted by 30%, $6bn in hot money left the country, and some agencies gave Brazil the highest debt-risk ratings in the world. “We are in government but not in power,” said Lula’s close aide, Dominican friar Frei Betto. “Power today is global power, the power of the big companies, the power of financial capital.”

The limited ability of national governments to pursue any agenda that has not first been endorsed by international capital and its proxies is no longer simply the cross they have to bear; it is the cross to which we have all been nailed. The nation state is the primary democratic entity that remains. But given the scale of neoliberal globalisation it is clearly no longer up to that task.

“By many measures, corporations are more central players in global affairs than nations,” writes Benjamin Barber in Jihad vs McWorld. “We call them multinational but they are more accurately understood as postnational, transnational or even anti-national. For they abjure the very idea of nations or any other parochialism that limits them in time or space.”

This contradiction is not new. Indeed, it is precisely because it has continued, challenged but virtually unchecked, for more than a generation, that political cynicism has intensified.

“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born,” argued the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. “In this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

The recent success of the far right in the European parliamentary elections revealed just how morbid those symptoms have become. [Continue reading…]

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Averting planetary disaster will mean forcing Big Oil to give up at least $10 trillion in wealth

Chris Hayes writes: In 2012, the writer and activist Bill McKibben published a heart-stopping essay in Rolling Stone titled “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.” I’ve read hundreds of thousands of words about climate change over the last decade, but that essay haunts me the most.

The piece walks through a fairly straightforward bit of arithmetic that goes as follows. The scientific consensus is that human civilization cannot survive in any recognizable form a temperature increase this century more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Given that we’ve already warmed the earth about 0.8 degrees Celsius, that means we have 1.2 degrees left — and some of that warming is already in motion. Given the relationship between carbon emissions and global average temperatures, that means we can release about 565 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere by mid-century. Total. That’s all we get to emit if we hope to keep inhabiting the planet in a manner that resembles current conditions.

Now here’s the terrifying part. The Carbon Tracker Initiative, a consortium of financial analysts and environmentalists, set out to tally the amount of carbon contained in the proven fossil fuel reserves of the world’s energy companies and major fossil fuel–producing countries. That is, the total amount of carbon we know is in the ground that we can, with present technology, extract, burn and put into the atmosphere. The number that the Carbon Tracker Initiative came up with is… 2,795 gigatons. Which means the total amount of known, proven extractable fossil fuel in the ground at this very moment is almost five times the amount we can safely burn.

Proceeding from this fact, McKibben leads us inexorably to the staggering conclusion that the work of the climate movement is to find a way to force the powers that be, from the government of Saudi Arabia to the board and shareholders of ExxonMobil, to leave 80 percent of the carbon they have claims on in the ground. That stuff you own, that property you’re counting on and pricing into your stocks? You can’t have it.

Given the fluctuations of fuel prices, it’s a bit tricky to put an exact price tag on how much money all that unexcavated carbon would be worth, but one financial analyst puts the price at somewhere in the ballpark of $20 trillion. So in order to preserve a roughly habitable planet, we somehow need to convince or coerce the world’s most profitable corporations and the nations that partner with them to walk away from $20 trillion of wealth. Since all of these numbers are fairly complex estimates, let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that we’ve overestimated the total amount of carbon and attendant cost by a factor of 2. Let’s say that it’s just $10 trillion.

The last time in American history that some powerful set of interests relinquished its claim on $10 trillion of wealth was in 1865 — and then only after four years and more than 600,000 lives lost in the bloodiest, most horrific war we’ve ever fought.

It is almost always foolish to compare a modern political issue to slavery, because there’s nothing in American history that is slavery’s proper analogue. So before anyone misunderstands my point, let me be clear and state the obvious: there is absolutely no conceivable moral comparison between the enslavement of Africans and African-Americans and the burning of carbon to power our devices. Humans are humans; molecules are molecules. The comparison I’m making is a comparison between the political economy of slavery and the political economy of fossil fuel.

More acutely, when you consider the math that McKibben, the Carbon Tracker Initiative and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) all lay out, you must confront the fact that the climate justice movement is demanding that an existing set of political and economic interests be forced to say goodbye to trillions of dollars of wealth. It is impossible to point to any precedent other than abolition. [Continue reading…]

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The overwhelming power of money in American politics

Al Jazeera reports: It’s not just your imagination: The influence of money in politics has indeed drowned out the voices of American voters, a new analysis shows, with runaway corporate lobbying and a lack of campaign finance reform to blame for giving much more political weight to the wealthy.

Researchers at Princeton University and Northwestern University compared the public’s influence on 1,779 policy issues between 1981 and 2002, finding that more often than not, the interests of wealthy groups and individuals won out over the demands of the general public. For instance, when 80 percent of the public asked for a change of some sort, they got their way only about 43 percent of the time.

The study, its authors say, points to the overwhelming power of wealthy lobbying groups and individuals backing certain interests in American politics, and the marginalization of voters and public advocacy groups.

“I expected to find that ordinary Americans had a modest degree of influence over government policy and that mass-based interest groups would serve to promote those interests,” Martin Gilens, a political scientist at Princeton and a co-author of the study, wrote in an email to Al Jazeera.

“What we found instead was that ordinary Americans have virtually no influence over government policy and that mass-based interest groups as a whole do not reliably side with the wishes of the average citizen.” [Continue reading…]

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Matt Taibbi — The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap

AMY GOODMAN: Who was tougher on corporate America, President Obama or President Bush?

MATT TAIBBI: Oh, Bush, hands down. And this is an important point to make, because if you go back to the early 2000s, think about all these high-profile cases: Adelphia, Enron, Tyco, WorldCom, Arthur Andersen. All of these companies were swept up by the Bush Justice Department. And what’s interesting about this is that you can see a progression. If you go back to the savings and loan crisis in the late ’80s, which was an enormous fraud problem, but it paled in comparison to the subprime mortgage crisis, we put about 800 people in jail during—in the aftermath of that crisis. You fast-forward 10 or 15 years to the accounting scandals, like Enron and Adelphia and Tyco, we went after the heads of some of those companies. It wasn’t as vigorous as the S&L prosecutions, but we at least did it. At least George Bush recognized the symbolic importance of showing ordinary Americans that justice is blind, right?

Fast-forward again to the next big crisis, and how many people have we got—have we actually put in jail? Zero. And this was a crisis that was much huger in scope than the S&L crisis or the accounting crisis. I mean, it wiped out 40 percent of the world’s wealth, and nobody went to jail, so that we’re now in a place where we don’t even recognize the importance of keeping up appearances when it comes to making things look equal.

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Anatomy of the Deep State

Rome lived upon its principal till ruin stared it in the face. Industry is the only true source of wealth, and there was no industry in Rome. By day the Ostia road was crowded with carts and muleteers, carrying to the great city the silks and spices of the East, the marble of Asia Minor, the timber of the Atlas, the grain of Africa and Egypt; and the carts brought out nothing but loads of dung. That was their return cargo.

– The Martyrdom of Man by Winwood Reade (1871)

f13-iconMike Lofgren writes: There is the visible government situated around the Mall in Washington, and then there is another, more shadowy, more indefinable government that is not explained in Civics 101 or observable to tourists at the White House or the Capitol. The former is traditional Washington partisan politics: the tip of the iceberg that a public watching C-SPAN sees daily and which is theoretically controllable via elections. The subsurface part of the iceberg I shall call the Deep State, which operates according to its own compass heading regardless of who is formally in power.

During the last five years, the news media has been flooded with pundits decrying the broken politics of Washington. The conventional wisdom has it that partisan gridlock and dysfunction have become the new normal. That is certainly the case, and I have been among the harshest critics of this development. But it is also imperative to acknowledge the limits of this critique as it applies to the American governmental system. On one level, the critique is self-evident: In the domain that the public can see, Congress is hopelessly deadlocked in the worst manner since the 1850s, the violently rancorous decade preceding the Civil War.

As I wrote in The Party is Over, the present objective of congressional Republicans is to render the executive branch powerless, at least until a Republican president is elected (a goal that voter suppression laws in GOP-controlled states are clearly intended to accomplish). President Obama cannot enact his domestic policies and budgets: Because of incessant GOP filibustering, not only could he not fill the large number of vacancies in the federal judiciary, he could not even get his most innocuous presidential appointees into office. Democrats controlling the Senate have responded by weakening the filibuster of nominations, but Republicans are sure to react with other parliamentary delaying tactics. This strategy amounts to congressional nullification of executive branch powers by a party that controls a majority in only one house of Congress.

Despite this apparent impotence, President Obama can liquidate American citizens without due processes, detain prisoners indefinitely without charge, conduct dragnet surveillance on the American people without judicial warrant and engage in unprecedented — at least since the McCarthy era — witch hunts against federal employees (the so-called “Insider Threat Program”). Within the United States, this power is characterized by massive displays of intimidating force by militarized federal, state and local law enforcement. Abroad, President Obama can start wars at will and engage in virtually any other activity whatsoever without so much as a by-your-leave from Congress, such as arranging the forced landing of a plane carrying a sovereign head of state over foreign territory. Despite the habitual cant of congressional Republicans about executive overreach by Obama, the would-be dictator, we have until recently heard very little from them about these actions — with the minor exception of comments from gadfly Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky. Democrats, save a few mavericks such as Ron Wyden of Oregon, are not unduly troubled, either — even to the extent of permitting seemingly perjured congressional testimony under oath by executive branch officials on the subject of illegal surveillance. [Continue reading…]

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It’s time to rethink our nightmares about surveillance

f13-iconThis is an excerpt from Zeynep Tufekci’s article at Matter — but don’t just read this, read her whole piece: I was in Philadelphia when the protests in Istanbul exploded, at a gathering called Data-Crunched Democracy, hosted by the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. It was supposed to be exciting, and a little contentious. But I’m also a scholar of social movements and new technologies. I’d visited Tahrir, the heart of the Egyptian uprising, and Zuccotti Square, the birthplace of the Occupy movement. And now new technology was helping to power protests in Istanbul, my hometown. The epicenter, Gezi Park, is just a few blocks from the hospital where I was born.

So there I was, at a conference I had been looking forward to for months, sitting in the back row, tweeting about tear gas in Istanbul.

A number of high-level staff from the data teams of the Obama and Romney campaigns were there, which meant that a lot of people who probably did not like me very much were in the room. A few months earlier, in an op-ed in the New York Times, I’d argued that richer data for the campaigns could mean poorer democracy for the rest of us. Political campaigns now know an awful lot about American voters, and they will use that to tailor the messages we see — to tell us the things we want to hear about their policies and politicians, while obscuring messages we may dislike.

Of course, these tactics are as old as politics. But the digital era has brought new ways of implementing them. Pointing this out had earned me little love from the campaigns. The former data director on the Obama campaign, writing later in the Times, caricatured and then dismissed my concerns. He claimed that people thought he was “sifting through their garbage for discarded pages from their diaries” — a notion he described as a “bunch of malarkey.” He’s right: Political campaigns don’t rummage through trashcans. They don’t have to. The information they want is online, and they most certainly sift through it.

What we do know about their use of “big data” — the common shorthand for the massive amounts of data now available on everyone — is worrisome. In 2012, again in the Times, reporter Charles Duhigg revealed that Target can often predict when a female customer is pregnant, often in the first 20 weeks of pregnancy, and sometimes even before she has told anyone. This is valuable information, because childbirth is a time of big change, including changes in consumption patterns. It’s an opportunity for brands to get a hook into you — a hook that may last decades, as over-worked parents tend to return to the same brands out of habit. Duhigg recounted how one outraged father, upset at the pregnancy- and baby-related coupons Target had mailed to his teenage daughter, visited his local store and demanded to see the manager. He got an apology, but later apologized himself: His daughter, it turned out, was pregnant. By analyzing changes in her shopping — which could be as subtle as changes in her choice in moisturizers, or the purchase of certain supplements — Target had learned that she was expecting before he did.

Personalized marketing is not new. But so much more can be done with the data now available to corporations and governments. In one recent study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers showed that mere knowledge of the things that a person has “liked” on Facebook can be used to build a highly accurate profile of the subject, including their “sexual orientation, ethnicity, religious and political views, personality traits, intelligence, happiness, use of addictive substances, parental separation, age, and gender.” In a separate study, another group of researchers were able to infer reasonably reliable scores on certain traits — psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism — from Facebook status updates. A third team showed that social media data, when analyzed the right way, contains evidence of the onset of depression.

Remember, these researchers did not ask the people they profiled a single question. It was all done by modeling. All they had to do was parse the crumbs of data that we drop during our online activities. And the studies that get published are likely the tip of the iceberg: The data is almost always proprietary, and the companies that hold it do not generally tell us what they do with it.

When the time for my panel arrived, I highlighted a recent study in Nature on voting behavior. By altering a message designed to encourage people to vote so that it came with affirmation from a person’s social network, rather than being impersonal, the researchers had shown that they could persuade more people to participate in an election. Combine such nudges with psychological profiles, drawn from our online data, and a political campaign could achieve a level of manipulation that exceeds that possible via blunt television adverts.

How might they do it in practice? Consider that some people are prone to voting conservative when confronted with fearful scenarios. If your psychological profile puts you in that group, a campaign could send you a message that ignites your fears in just the right way. And for your neighbor who gets mad at scaremongering? To her, they’ll present a commitment to a minor policy that the campaign knows she’s interested in — and make it sound like it’s a major commitment. It’s all individualized. It’s all opaque. You don’t see what she sees, and she doesn’t see what you see.

Given the small margins by which elections get decided — a fact well understood by the political operatives who filled the room — I argued that it was possible that minor adjustments to Facebook or Google’s algorithms could tilt an election. [Continue reading…]

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Michael Klare: In the carbon wars, Big Oil is winning

We now have an answer to why global temperatures have risen less quickly in recent years than predicted in climate change models. (It’s necessary to add immediately that the issue is only the rate of that rise, since the 10 hottest years on record have all occurred since 1998.)  Thanks to years of especially strong Pacific trade winds, according to a new study in the journal Nature Climate Change, much of the extra heat generated by global warming is being buried deep in ocean waters.  Though no one knows for sure, the increase in the power of those winds may itself have been set off by the warming of the Indian Ocean.  In other words, the full effects of the heating of the planet have been postponed, but are still building (and may also be affecting ocean ecology in unpredictable ways).  As Matthew England, the lead scientist in the study, points out, “Even if the [Pacific trade] winds accelerate… sooner or later the impact of greenhouse gases will overwhelm the effect.  And if the winds relax, the heat will come out quickly. As we go through the twenty-first century, we are less and less likely to have a cooler decade. Greenhouse gases will certainly win out in the end.”

Despite the slower rate of temperature rise, the effects of the global heating process are quite noticeable.  Yes, if you’re living somewhere in much of the lower forty-eight, you now know the phrase “polar vortex” the same way you do “Mom” and “apple pie,” and like me, you’re shivering every morning the moment you step outside, or sometimes even in your own house.  That southern shift in the vortex may itself be an artifact of changing global weather patterns caused at least in part by climate change.

In the meantime, in the far north, temperatures have been abnormally high in both Alaska and Greenland; Oslo had a Christmas to remember, and forest fires raged in the Norwegian Arctic this winter.  Then, of course, there is the devastating, worsening drought in California (and elsewhere in the West) now in its third year, and by some accounts the worst in half a millennium, which is bound to drive up global food prices.  There are the above-the-norm temperatures in Sochi that are creating problems keeping carefully stored snow on the ground for Olympic skiers and snowboarders.  And for good measure, toss in storm-battered Great Britain’s wettest December and January in more than a century.  Meanwhile, in the southern hemisphere, there’s heat to spare.  There was the devastating January heat wave in Australia, while in parts of Brazil experiencing the worst drought in half-a-century there has never been a hotter month on record than that same month.  If the rains don’t come relatively soon, the city of São Paulo is in danger of running out of water.

It’s clear enough that, with the effects of climate change only beginning to take hold, the planet is already in a state of weather disarray.  Yet, as TomDispatch regular Michael Klare points out today, the forces arrayed against dealing with climate change couldn’t be more powerful.  Given that we’ve built our global civilization on the continuing hit of energy that fossil fuels provide and given the interests arrayed around exploiting that hit, the gravitational pull of what Klare calls “Planet Carbon” is staggering.

Recently, I came across the following passage in Time of Illusion, Jonathan Schell’s 1976 classic about Nixon administration malfeasance.  Schell wrote it with the nuclear issue in mind, but today it has an eerie resonance when it comes to climate change: “In the United States, unprecedented wealth and ease came to coexist with unprecedented danger, and a sumptuous feast of consumable goods was spread out in the shadow of universal death.  Americans began to live as though on a luxuriously appointed death row, where one was free to enjoy every comfort but was uncertain from moment to moment when or if the death sentence might be carried out. The abundance was very much in the forefront of people’s attention, however, and the uncertainty very much in the background; and in the government as well as in the country at large the measureless questions posed by the new weapons were evaded.” Tom Engelhardt

The gravitational pull of Planet Carbon
Three signs of retreat in the global war on climate change
By Michael T. Klare

Listening to President Obama’s State of the Union address, it would have been easy to conclude that we were slowly but surely gaining in the war on climate change.  “Our energy policy is creating jobs and leading to a cleaner, safer planet,” the president said.  “Over the past eight years, the United States has reduced our total carbon pollution more than any other nation on Earth.”  Indeed, it’s true that in recent years, largely thanks to the dampening effects of the Great Recession, U.S. carbon emissions were in decline (though they grew by 2% in 2013).  Still, whatever the president may claim, we’re not heading toward a “cleaner, safer planet.”  If anything, we’re heading toward a dirtier, more dangerous world. 

A series of recent developments highlight the way we are losing ground in the epic struggle to slow global warming.  This has not been for lack of effort.  Around the world, dedicated organizations, communities, and citizens have been working day by day to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote the use of renewable sources of energy.  The struggle to prevent construction of the Keystone XL tar-sands pipeline is a case in point.  As noted in a recent New York Times article, the campaign against that pipeline has galvanized the environmental movement around the country and attracted thousands of activists to Washington, D.C., for protests and civil disobedience at the White House.  But efforts like these, heroic as they may be, are being overtaken by a more powerful force: the gravitational pull of cheap, accessible carbon-based fuels, notably oil, coal, and natural gas.

[Read more…]

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The structure of the Koch brothers’ political empire

a13-iconAndy Kroll and Daniel Schulman report: There’s one main rule at the conservative donor conclaves held twice a year by Charles and David Koch at luxury resorts: What happens there stays there.

The billionaire industrialists and their political operatives strive to ensure the anonymity of the wealthy conservatives who fund their sprawling political operation—which funneled more than $400 million into the 2012 elections—and to keep their plans private. Attendees of these summits are warned that the seminars, where the Kochs and their allies hatch strategies for electing Republicans and advancing conservative initiatives on the state and national levels, are strictly confidential; they are cautioned to keep a close eye on their meeting notes and materials. But last week, following the Kochs’ first donor gathering of 2014, one attendee left behind a sensitive document at the Renaissance Esmeralda resort outside of Palm Springs, California, where the Kochs and their comrades had spent three days focused on winning the 2014 midterm elections and more. The document lists VIP donors — including John Schnatter, the founder of the Papa John’s pizza chain — who were scheduled for one-on-one meetings with representatives of the political, corporate, and philanthropic wings of Kochworld. The one-page document, provided to Mother Jones by a hotel guest who discovered it, offers a fascinating glimpse into the Kochs’ political machine and shows how closely intertwined it is with Koch Industries, their $115 billion conglomerate. [Continue reading…]

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Video: The F-35 — how the military-industrial welfare system works in America

a13-iconThe F-35 is the most expensive weapons program in history, with a total cost of $1.5 trillion. Learn more here.

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Is Silicon Valley taking a stand in favor of surveillance reform or simply assuming a posture?

Jeff Jarvis writes: Whose side are you on? That is the question MP Keith Vaz asked Alan Rusbridger last week when he challenged the Guardian editor’s patriotism over publishing Edward Snowden’s NSA and GCHQ leaks.

And that is the question answered today by eight tech giants in their letter to the White House and Congress, seeking reform of government surveillance practices worldwide. The companies came down at last on the side of citizens over spies.

Of course, they are also acting in their own economic (albeit enlightened) self-interest, for mass spying via the internet is degrading the publics’, clients’, and other nations’ trust in the cloud and its frequently American proprietors. Spying is bad for the internet; what’s bad for the internet is bad for Silicon Valley; and — to reverse the old General Motors saw — what’s bad for Silicon Valley is bad for America.

But in their letter, the companies stand first and firmly on principle. They propose that government limit its own authority, ending bulk collection of our communication. They urge transparency and oversight of surveillance, which has obviously failed thus far. And they argue against the balkanization of the net and the notion that countries may insist that data respect national borders.

Bravo to all that. I have been waiting for Silicon Valley to establish whether it collectively is a victim or a collaborator in the NSA’s web. I have wondered whether government had commandeered these companies to its ends. I have hoped they would use their power to lobby for our rights. And now I hope government — from Silicon Valley’s senator, NSA fan Dianne Feinstein, to president Obama — will listen.

This is a critical step in sparking real debate over surveillance and civil rights. It was nice that technology companies banded together once before to battle against the overreaching copyright regime known as SOPA and for our ability to watch Batman online. Now they must fight for our fundamental — in America, our constitutional — rights of speech and assembly and against unreasonable search and seizure. ‘Tis a pity it takes eight companies with silly names to do that. [Continue reading…]

The makeup of the band of corporate reformists seems to have been dictated by PowerPoint, which is to say, everyone named on the slides leaked by Snowden wants to salvage their reputation. But the problem with this type of appeal for reform is that it’s no different from the kind that might be made by any toothless advocacy group. Indeed, if these companies just want to present a wish-list of the kind of reform they claim they would like to see, then it’s pretty obvious that if no such reform is forthcoming then it will be back to business as usual.

The only thing about which we can be absolutely confident is that now, as always, corporations will act in accordance with what they determine are their own interests.

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