Democracy Gone Astray

Democracy, being a human construct, needs to be thought of as directionality rather than an object. As such, to understand it requires not so much a description of existing structures and/or other related phenomena but a declaration of intentionality.
This blog aims at creating labeled lists of published infringements of such intentionality, of points in time where democracy strays from its intended directionality. In addition to outright infringements, this blog also collects important contemporary information and/or discussions that impact our socio-political landscape.

All the posts here were published in the electronic media – main-stream as well as fringe, and maintain links to the original texts.

[NOTE: Due to changes I haven't caught on time in the blogging software, all of the 'Original Article' links were nullified between September 11, 2012 and December 11, 2012. My apologies.]

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Canadian government demanded user data, Google reveals

The Canadian government asked Google to hand over user data 38 times between July and December of 2010, according to a new report.

The Internet search giant’s 2011 Transparency Report reveals to what extent the world’s governments have been snooping on their citizens.

In the case of Canada, 55 per cent of the country’s requests for user data were fully or partially complied by the company.

The Canadian government would not comment to the Toronto Star on which agencies or departments had made the requests or why the 38 user’s data had been targeted.

Launched in September 2010, Google hopes its transparency tool “will shine some light on the appropriate scope and authority of government requests to obtain user data around the globe,” according to a statement on the Transparency Report website.

While the report is divided into regional governments, the data requests made are not necessarily for users living in the same country. It is possible, for example, that Canadians could be included in the U.S. government’s requests for data.

“These numbers reflect government requests for data about the users of our services and products. The statistics are collected and organized by jurisdiction of the requesting government entity, not by the location of the user,” Wendy Rozeluk, a Google Canada representative wrote in an email to the Star.

The U.S. topped the list of 26 countries asking for user data with 4,601 requests over the six month period followed by Brazil’s 1,804 requests then India’s 1,699.

The transparency report also sheds light on the number of content removal requests made by governments. Over the last six months of 2010, Google was asked to remove 12 web searches, eight YouTube videos and three blogs through Canadian court orders. The company complied with 86 per cent of the requests. All of the court orders cited defamation as the reason the content was flagged.

Full Article
Source: Toronto Star 

Orrin Hatch: The 'Poor' Should Do More To Shrink Debt, Not The Rich

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) voted against beginning debate on a measure that would have the Senate declare the rich should share the pain of debt reduction Thursday, a day after arguing that it's the poor and middle class who need to do more.

"I hear how they're so caring for the poor and so forth," Hatch said in remarks on the Senate floor Wednesday, in reference to Democrats. "The poor need jobs! And they also need to share some of the responsibility."

Hatch's comments were aimed at a motion that passed 74 to 22 to start debating a non-binding resolution that says millionaires and billionaires should play a more meaningful role in reducing the nation's debt.

Just one Democrat, Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), voted against having the debate. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who had previously called the resolution "rather pathetic," nevertheless voted to move ahead on it.

But it was Hatch whose remarks Wednesday raised the idea that the wealthy are already doing too much, even as the nation's effective tax rates are at modern lows since the Bush administration slashed rates in 2001 and 2003. In his view, it seems, the middle class and poor should be picking up the slack.

"The top 1 percent of the so-called wealthy pay 38 percent of all income tax. The top 10 percent are paying 70 percent of all income tax," Hatch said. "The top 50 percent pay somewhere near 98 percent of all income taxes. 51 percent don't pay anything," Hatch said, suggesting the payroll taxes that the poor and middle classes pay towards Social Security yields them an especially generous benefit.

Full Article
Source: Huffington 

The Tea Party and Goldman Sachs: A Love Story

Face it. We live in two nations, sharply divided by an enormous economic chasm between the super-rich and everyone else. This should be an obvious fact of life for most Americans. Just read the story in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal headlined “Profits Thrive in Weak Recovery.” Or the recent New York Times story pointing out “that the median pay for top executives at 200 big companies last year was $10.8 million,” a 23 percent gain over the year before.

In the midst of a jobless recovery, those same corporations are sitting on more than $2 trillion in reserves, refusing to invest in this country, as increasing percentages of their profits are garnered in tax-sheltered operations abroad. And the bankers who caused the economic meltdown have turned against President Barack Obama, who saved them; instead they favor a Tea Party–dominated Republican Party that seeks to limit any restraint on corporate greed while destroying the ability of state and federal governments to bring some measure of relief to ordinary folk.

The whole point of the tea party is to focus concern over our stagnant economy on something called “big government” while ignoring the big corporations that have bought the government as an accessory to their marketing strategies. Big government is big precisely because it now exists primarily to make the world safe for multinational capitalism, whether through a bloated defense budget, trade pacts like the North American Free Trade Agreement or monetary policies that serve the interests of the largest companies.

It was their lobbyists who got Congress to end sensible regulations of financial shenanigans, and now, with the new Tea Party members of Congress as their most stalwart allies, they are yanking the teeth from the very mild regulations that Obama got through the last Congress. As the Associated Press reported: “Congressional Republicans are greeting the one-year anniversary of President Barack Obama’s financial overhaul law by trying to weaken it, nibble by nibble.”

It is nothing short of demagogic for the Republicans to be complaining about the debt when it was the radical deregulatory policies that they pursued which caused all that governmental red ink in the first place. What a hoax to pretend that teachers’ pensions or environmental protections are responsible for a debt that increased by 50 percent as a direct consequence of the banking collapse. Yet they want to gut even the tepid regulations that became law under the Obama administration, foaming at the mouth about sensible regulation as job killing when it is the uncontrolled greed of Wall Street that is at the root of our high unemployment.

Congressional Republicans are cutting funding for the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission as if those already underfunded agencies are centers of anti-business radicalism. The CFTC is run by former Goldman Sachs partner Gary Gensler, who, back when he was in the Clinton Treasury Department serving under another onetime Goldman leader, Robert Rubin, teamed up with Republicans in Congress to gut financial regulation. He is one of the Obama regulators who has managed to delay even the minor controls that the Dodd-Frank law requires for the still wildly out-of-control $600 trillion derivatives market.

What a joke that the tea party assertion that radicals have taken over the Obama government is embraced even by lobbyists for Goldman Sachs, whose former executives have populated the Obama administration as widely as they did the two previous administrations. All they are missing this time around is that they didn’t get to have one of their own named as Treasury secretary, as was the case in both the Clinton and Bush cabinets.

This week, the Los Angeles Times reported on Goldman’s renewed lobbying efforts in Washington aimed at watering down what remains of the promise of Dodd-Frank. True to Washington tradition, Goldman has hired Michael Paese, a former top staffer for the “liberal” Representative Barney Frank to head its Washington operation, which last year spent $4.6 million lobbying Congress to soften the bill, a task now made far easier with Goldman’s tea party allies in the new Republican-dominated House. As the Times noted, “Goldman has spent much of its money on hired guns from major Washington lobbying firms, including former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and former House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.).”

Between the faux populism of the Tea Party and the army of sellout ex-Congressional staffers and politicians from both parties, the Washington fix is in. Short of hitting it big on a lottery ticket, the vast majority of Americans are sentenced to a future of lowered expectations, insurmountable personal debt and dismal job prospects.

They may not know it, however, thanks to the constant propaganda from a corporate culture dominated by images of a classless nation in which all consume the delights of the American dream, from the perfect smartphone to the perfect pill for bladder control, while merrily hacking away on the perfectly manicured golf course of one’s fantasies.

Source: The Nation 

Humberto Leal Execution In Texas Would Violate International Law, White House Warns

HUNTSVILLE, Texas -- The planned execution Thursday of a Mexican national has prompted a flurry of appeals on his behalf, including a rare plea from the White House, because of what it could mean for other foreigners arrested in the U.S. and for Americans detained in other countries.

Humberto Leal, 38, is awaiting a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court on whether to block his lethal injection in Huntsville. He was sentenced to die for the 1994 rape and murder of 16-year-old Adria Sauceda of San Antonio.

The appeal contends that authorities never told Leal after his arrest that he could seek legal assistance from the Mexican government under an international treaty, and that such assistance would have aided his defense. Leal moved to the U.S. as a toddler.

Leal's attorneys have support from the White House, the Mexican government and other diplomats who believe the execution should be delayed so his case can be thoroughly reviewed.

"There can be little doubt that if the government of Mexico had been allowed access to Mr. Leal in a timely manner, he would not now be facing execution for a capital murder he did not commit," Leal's attorneys told the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles in a clemency request rejected Tuesday. "Unfortunately, Mexico's assistance came too late to affect the result of Mr. Leal's capital murder prosecution."

President Barack Obama's administration took the unusual step of intervening in a state murder case when it asked the Supreme Court last week to delay Leal's execution for up to six months. The U.S. solicitor general told the court that Congress needed time to consider legislation that would allow federal courts to review cases of condemned foreign nationals to determine if the lack of consular help made a significant difference in the outcome of their cases.

The legislation, backed by the U.S. State Department and the United Nations, would bring the U.S. into compliance with the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations provision regarding the arrest of foreign nationals.

Full Article
Source: Huffington 

Combating Religious Intolerance When Freedom of Speech Enables Hate Speech

Religious pluralism, versus the defamation of religion and freedom of speech have become an increasing source of conflict in international politics and interreligious relations. Preachers of hate and activists in America, Europe, and many Muslim countries are engaged in a culture war. Far right anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim political leaders and parties warn of the Islamization of America and Europe to garner votes. The acquittal on June 22, 2011 of Dutch politician Geert Wilders on charges of "inciting hatred and discrimination against Muslims," is a political victory for Wilders but also a sign of the times, growing normalization of anti-Islam bashing in the West.

The OIC (Organization of the Islamic Conference which represents some 57 countries) lobbied the United Nations for more than a decade to address this issue. Initially targeting Islamophobia, it broadened its request to a resolution on "defamation of religions" that would criminalize words and actions perceived as attacks against religion.

Opponents, in particular the U.S. and E.U., maintained that the resolution could also be used to restrict religious freedom and free speech, and foster religious intolerance and violence against religious minorities Indeed, in recent years attacks against Christians and other religious minorities have risen in Egypt, Malaysia, Sudan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Pakistan. These conflicts have varied from acts of discrimination to the bombing and burning of churches and murder.

Pakistan's blasphemy law exemplifies the issue. In 2009 Asia Bibi, a Christian and 45-year-old mother of four was sentenced to death on charges of insulting Islam, a charge she strongly denied. The case sparked international outrage that was heightened in 2011 by the brutal assassination of Salman Taseer -- the governor of Punjab and an outspoken critic of the blasphemy law, and the assassination of Pakistani Chief Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian and outspoken opponent of Pakistan's blasphemy law.

The United Nations Human Rights Council recently ostensibly resolved the conflict over "Defamation of Religions." After close discussions with the U.S. and E.U., Pakistan introduced a compromise resolution on behalf of the OIC, which addressed the concerns of both the OIC and those of member states and human rights organizations, including the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

The "Combating Discrimination and Violence" compromise resolution affirms individual rights, including the freedoms of expression and religion that are part-and-parcel of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At the same time, the 47-member state body also called for strengthened international efforts to foster a global dialogue and the promotion of a culture of human rights, tolerance and mutual respect.

But will this U.N. resolution prove to be an effective tool in combating the rise of Islamophobia? A clear sign of the limits of the resolution can be seen in the stunning verdict in Geert Wilder's acquittal. Wilders' track record includes the charges that "Islam is a fascist ideology," "Mohammed was a pedophile," and "Islam and freedom, Islam and democracy are not compatible" and warnings of a "tsunami" of Muslim immigrants. Wilders' "missionary" efforts have extended other parts of Europe to the US where his admirers refer to him as a "freedom fighter." Plaintiffs had charged that Mr Wilders' comments had incited hatred and led to a rise in discrimination and violence against Muslims. But Judge van Oosten ruled that although he found Wilders remarks "gross and denigrating", they had not given rise to hatred. Spiegel Online's headline of the acquittal read "Wilder's Acquittal a 'Slap in the Face for Muslims.'"

Full Article
Source: Huffington 

Minnesota Government Shutdown 2011 Costing State Millions Of Dollars

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- While Minnesota's political leaders haggle over how much the state should spend in the next two years, state coffers are bleeding millions of dollars as a result of the state's week-old government shutdown.

"It's going to be a slow force on the economy," said Tom Stinson, a University of Minnesota professor who is laid off from his job as state economist.

Minnesota stands to lose tens of millions of dollars in the nation's only state government shutdown, as lottery tickets go un-purchased, tax cheats go un-pursued and 22,000 laid-off state workers collect unemployment and health benefits.

The government interruption also threatens to slow an already sluggish economic recovery as the state employees in limbo and others who lose state-dependent jobs – including construction workers and nonprofit staffers – tighten their spending.

Stinson said the shutdown isn't likely to cause a recession – but "it's clearly not good the longer that it goes on."

The political dispute that has closed state government centers on how to erase a $5 billion deficit. Republicans who run the Legislature want to cut projected spending to match the amount of revenue the state will collect over the next two years. Gov. Mark Dayton hopes to avoid some of those cuts by raising income taxes on the highest earners; he has also said he's willing to consider other ways to bring in new revenue.

Full Article
Source: Huffington 

The Paradoxical, Dangerous Balanced Budget Amendment

This week, as the federal debt ceiling battle churns closer to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner’s August 2 deadline, there’s increasing talk about an amendment to the Constitution that would require balanced budgets. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, a key negotiator in the debt ceiling talks, spoke this weekend about the need to “save our entitlements and our country from bankruptcy by requiring the nation to balance its budget.” Senator Rand Paul now insists a balanced budget amendment must be part of any debt ceiling deal, and said Sunday that he will filibuster any agreement that doesn’t include it. Leading presidential candidate Mitt Romney also said recently that the United States should default on its debt unless Congress passes a balanced budget amendment.

Several media outlets dutifully noted the new turn in negotiations but few actually describe the fundamental, radical shifts in American government required by the proposed balanced budget amendment. It’s crucially important to understand what the new GOP demand actually requires.

The most important thing to know is that if enacted, the balanced budget amendment would actually make a balanced budget impossible. Both the House and Senate versions of the legislation not only mandate a balanced budget starting in 2018 but also mandate how it must be done. Federal spending cannot exceed 18 percent of the national Gross Domestic Product, and there would be a super-majority requirement for any new revenue: in other words, two-thirds of Congress would have to vote to approve any tax increase.

It is not hard to imagine that under a sixty-seven-vote threshold, Congress will simply never raise taxes again. Republicans have made it clear they will not support tax increases in virtually any situation, and most GOP Senators have signed Grover Norquist’s no-new-taxes pledge. So if the government permanently handicaps revenue, how can it possibly achieve a balanced budget, especially as healthcare costs are certain to increase as baby boomers become senior citizens?

It simply might not be possible, which then raises basic questions of enforceability. Say the amendment was enacted, but one year Congress passes a budget where spending exceeds revenues. Would the federal courts rule the budget unconstitutional? And if they did, what then? As Bruce Bartlett wonders, would Americans have to send back their Medicare checks or federal salaries? (Bartlett, a former official in George W. Bush’s Treasury Department, has called the BBA idea “idiocy” and “especially dimwitted.”)

Then there’s the 18 percent spending cap. First of all, given that taxes are basically frozen by the supermajority provision, it’s quite possible that the government won’t even be able to raise revenue equal to 18 percent of GDP, meaning that Congress would have to spend even less than that in order to have a balanced budget. But putting that aside, even spending at 18 percent of GDP would be practically impossible and would require unimaginable reductions in government services.

As Ezra Klein notes, federal spending exceeded 18 percent of GDP every single year of Reagan’s presidency, every single year of George W. Bush’s presidency, and all but two years under Bill Clinton. Not only would the BBA have made Ronald Reagan’s entire economic stewardship unconstitutional, it also would make Paul Ryan’s budget illegal—his plan still forecasts federal spending of 20.75 percent of GDP in 2030.

Full Article
Source: The Nation 

With Entitlements on the Table, Obama Plans to Go Big on a Budget Deal

Last night, several news outlets broke stories saying the same thing: President Obama is willing to make a deal on Social Security. Contrary to liberal hopes, this isn’t a deal to raise Social Security benefits or lower the eligibility age—a reasonable idea when unemployment is high and growth is sluggish. Instead, Obama has reportedly offered to expand the scope of spending cuts, including major changes to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, in return for $1 trillion in new revenue and an increase in the debt limit.

At the moment, it’s far too early to say anything about the viability of this deal. Neither John Boehner nor Eric Cantor or Mitch McConnell are on the record as accepting the terms of this proposal, and it’s hard to imagine that Congressional Democrats would want to sacrifice parts of Social Security and Medicare for deficit reduction, particularly those running for re-election next year.

In light of the size of the White House proposal and its limited palpability to members of both parties, it’s hard to see it as anything but political theater; an attempt to demonstrate President Obama’s willingness to go “big” on deficit reduction. Even still, it’s extremely disheartening; it demonstrates that, as always, Obama is willing to cater to the center-right in a huge way (entitlement cuts) for the sake of a small political advantage.

Moreover, this proposal is further evidence that the debt ceiling negotiations were an intentional decision on Obama’s part. The president genuinely believes in deficit reduction, and chose to use the debt ceiling as an opportunity to cut spending with significant bipartisan cover. Obama hasn’t been fooled into these negotiations, nor is he playing rope-a-dope or a complex game of eleven-dimensional chess. This is what he wants.

What does this mean for liberals? Well, they can complain and attack Obama—they’ve already begun—but criticism from the left has yet to budge the president, and it’s doubtful that this time will be any different. Demonstrations sound great, but they don’t actually carry a high chance for success; if your only option for changing the political calculations of a president is protest, then you’re probably too late to the game. Likewise, a primary campaign against Obama sounds like it might work, but outside of activist circles, there is little appetite for a challenge. The Democratic establishment is satisfied with President Obama, and will work to ensure his reelection.

Indeed, given the importance of presidential elections, Obama will be able to count on organization and support from every member of the Democratic coalition. Moreover, if a deal comes through, it will probably help him with independents, who support modest reductions in entitlement spending.

Simply put, liberals don’t have much leverage over the Obama administration, which, unfortunately, makes our concerns—and our anger—a second-order consideration at best.

Source: The Nation 

The Trials of Julian Assange: A View From Sweden

On July 12 Julian Assange’s new legal team is scheduled to appeal before a London court his extradition to Sweden, where he faces questioning in a sexual assault case brought by two Swedish women. Solicitor Gareth Peirce and barrister Ben Emmerson are respected human rights attorneys replacing a previous team described by Guardian investigations executive editor David Leigh as “high-priced Fleet Street lawyers.”

If Assange loses his July appeal, he can continue protesting his extradition to Sweden, ordered by a London court last February, by appealing to the United Kingdom’s supreme court and the European Court of Human Rights.

Assange’s previous legal team had argued that London is a better sanctuary than Sweden, where he worries he will be extradited to the United States on WikiLeaks conspiracy charges now being explored by a federal grand jury in Alexandria, Virginia. In their legal submissions, Assange’s first set of attorneys argued that if Sweden ever extradited him to the United States, he could be detained at Guantánamo.

Referring to articles by this writer in The Nation, Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! asked Assange in a public forum in England on July 2 whether his legal strategy was changing with the appointment of Gareth Peirce. “Possibly,” he replied, but he denied any suggestion that his legal team had questioned the integrity of the two Swedish women charging him with sexual assault. “We have to be considerate,” he said, while continuing to question the Swedish system, including the fact that so far he has not been charged with a crime there. He renewed his criticism of the federal grand jury in Virginia, calling it a “star chamber” and a “political witch hunt.”

Peirce, an extradition expert, may be ultimately preparing for a US extradition demand, whether from London or Stockholm. In a lengthy 2010 London Review of Books essay, she argued that America’s legal approach regarding extradition procedure is contrary to European norms and in violation of the Convention on Torture: “practice after practice is accepted as standard in America which, in Europe, could risk the prohibition of a trial, or subsequently cause its nullification, or bring an end to the conditions of imprisonment it stipulated.”

If American authorities eventually indict Assange and demand his extradition, the proceedings could raise a firestorm of protest. But any extradition from Sweden would have to be approved by both Stockholm and London—under extradition law, an individual may not be extradited on one charge from nation A to nation B, and then extradited to nation C on a different charge. The prosecutors will be faced with strong opposition from the United States, the United Kingdom and Sweden.

Why did Assange’s first set of lawyers argue that he’s safer from US extradition in Britain, the closest US ally in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the secret “war on terror”? They never explained. “It’s much easier for him to be snatched from here,” says Leigh from London. “The extradition treaty with the UK is controversial because it makes it easier.” There is more mass media in London and a more vibrant antiwar movement, but little to suggest that the British system is a model of human rights protection compared with Sweden. Even so, “the worry was that Sweden would be more under the thumb of the US than England, and appeals could take up years before an extradition to the US,” said to an American lawyer close to the Assange defense. “The theory always was that it was harder to get him out of the UK than out of Sweden.”

Full Article
Source: The Nation 

The Tea Party's Murder-Suicide Pact

Congress cut short its July 4th recess and returned to Washington this week to try and reach a deal to raise the debt ceiling. Or, rather, some of its members are trying - a growing number of Republicans responsive to the Tea Party movement seem dead set again this. They not only claim that the United States won't suffer any negative consequences if it doesn't raise the ceiling, but that refusing will have the salutary effect of forcing the government to live within its means.

A lot is at stake here. Just about everyone besides these Republicans believes that a debt default would be catastrophic. And most of them, including President Obama, would accept trillions of dollars in spending cuts to avoid finding out.
We'll know soon enough. The Treasury reports that as of Aug. 2 the government will no longer be able to meet its obligations. Among the many things that will be revealed on the way is whether the Tea Party can plausibly claim to be a constructive force imposing a new regime of fiscal probity or whether it will bring about the political equivalent of a murder-suicide, wrecking the economy and taking the Republican Party over a cliff.

Both scenarios are entirely plausible - a situation few could have envisioned when the Tea Party first rose up in the wake of the bailouts of Wall Street and the automotive industry in 2008. The movement's influence has turned out to be almost the opposite of what most people expected. Initially, the Tea Party was regarded as a powerful grass-roots electoral force, but probably not one that was going to change the bipartisan culture of Washington profligacy.

That view reflected the widespread expectation that most of its members would go native upon arrival in Washington and rapidly come to resemble those who they had replaced.

But for the most part, this hasn't happened. While the Tea Party movement helped Republicans carry the House last November, the limits of its electoral capacity were clear. Its candidates probably cost Republicans a number of key Senate races.

Where the Tea Party has been much more successful is in the profound effect it has had on Washington. At a time when the Democrats control most of the government and voters are obsessed with the weak economy - the latest Gallup poll shows 55 percent identifying the economy or jobs as their top issue, against only 13 percent who name the federal deficit - the singular focus in Washington is the Tea Party's prime concern: cutting the federal budget.

What's more, they are on the cusp of an almost unimaginable triumph. Until about a week ago, a grand bargain with Democrats and the White House seemed very near at hand in which spending would be cut by as much as $4 trillion over the next decade or so. These cuts included hundreds of billions from cherished entitlement programs like Medicare and Medicaid that conservatives have longed to confront for years, but from which they have always flinched for fear of the backlash that would inevitably ensue. Democrats have extended them a once-in-a-generation free pass, and ask remarkably little in return. In fact, the opening bid from the White House met the demands laid down in March (.pdf) by House Speaker John Boehner that any deal comprise 85 percent spending cuts and 15 percent revenue increases.

But key Republicans have decided they cannot abide any such deal, no matter how favorable to their own cause, a stunning reversal of position brought about by the Tea Party's refusal to consider any tax increase and mainstream Republicans' fear of getting crosswise with them. Crazy as this sounds, a number of Republicans from gerrymandered conservative districts appear more frightened of Tea Party wrath than the prospect of bringing about economic calamity (which would hurt those activists along with everyone else).

It's not too late. On Tuesday, the president reiterated his desire to cut trillions in spending and to do what politicians rarely do: forgo a smaller deal for something very much harder but of historic magnitude, which by the Tea Party's own professed standard, would represent a tremendous victory and establish it as one of the most successful forces in recent political history. But for the time being, its legacy seems to be approaching an ominously different outcome.

Source: The Atlantic 

As Exxon Crude Oil Spills Into Yellowstone River, Obama Mulls New Pipeline From Canada to Texas

Oil giant ExxonMobil faces mounting criticism of its clean-up efforts after one of its oil pipelines ruptured on Friday and leaked 42,000 gallons of crude oil into Montana’s Yellowstone River. The company initially downplayed the incident by saying it would only effect 10 miles of the river but state officials say the oil has already stretched over 240 miles to near the North Dakota border. The spill comes as the Obama administration considers a massive new oil pipeline called the Keystone XL that would carry corrosive tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. The pipeline would cross the Yellowstone River as well as the Ogallala aquifer — the largest fresh-water aquifer in the U.S. We speak with Alexis Bonogofsky, a family farmer who lives along the Yellowstone River and was briefly hospitalized after suffering from what doctors diagnosed as acute hydrocarbon exposure. We’re also joined by Anthony Swift of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Source: Democracy Now! 

What's Happening With the Debt Ceiling Explained

The Basics: On August 2 (or maybe a few weeks later), the US government will reach the legal limit on how much money it can borrow—a.k.a., the "debt ceiling." It's currently set at $14.3 trillion. The government borrows money to pay for everything from tax refunds to wars and veterans' benefits, not to mention repaying our creditors, which include China, Japan, the United Kingdom, state and local governments, pension funds, and investors in America and around the world.

A debt ceiling has existed since 1917. Before that, Congress had to provide its stamp of approval each time the Treasury Department wanted to sell US debt to raise money. (Here's a wonky history of the debt ceiling [PDF], courtesy of the Congressional Research Service.) Putting a borrowing limit in place gave the federal government more flexibility to fill its coffers without going to Congress over and over. Lawmakers in Congress have raised the debt ceiling on many occasions, including eight times in the past decade, and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner has said that failing to raise it and allowing the US default "would shake the basic foundation of the entire global financial system."

What Happens If Congress Doesn't Raise the Debt Limit? In a word: Catastrophe.

At least that's what Geithner told Congress in January. In an ominous letter, he wrote that a US default would wreak havoc on the domestic economy and essentially result in a hefty tax on all Americans.
That's economics 101. If you default on, say, your mortgage or car payment, creditors consider you a bigger risk and as a result, it'll cost more for you to take out loans in the future. The same idea applies here, too, except that everyone—consumers, cities, states, corporations, and the government—will pay higher borrowing costs if the federal government defaults, Geithner says. Not to mention that the government would run out of cash to pay the salaries of federal employees and members of the military, veterans benefits, Social Security and Medicare, unemployment benefits to states, individual and corporate tax refunds, Medicaid payments, and on and on.

What's Happening Now? Congressional Republicans are refusing to raise the debt ceiling without drastic spending cuts. They see the federal government as a reckless spendthrift, running up out-of-control deficits and undermining the integrity of the country. "We are in a debt crisis," said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). "The American people are expecting us to deliver on our commitment that we are going to change the spending crisis in Washington." With a majority in the House, Republicans can block a debt-ceiling vote until they get what they want—which is a deficit reduction deal heavy on cuts to government spending and light on everything else.

Democrats see the GOP's obstruction as political grandstanding, a dangerous game of chicken that could lead to the US defaulting on its obligations. For months, a bipartisan group of lawmakers and Obama administration officials, led by Vice President Joe Biden, have been working on a deal to shrink the federal deficit, now at roughly $930 billion, in exchange for Republican support to increase the debt ceiling. But those talks broke down in late June over a key element of the negotiations: tax increases. Democrats want new revenue of some kind in the deal, and have floated slashing oil corporation subsidies, worth $21 billion, over ten years; Republicans won't consider any tax increases at all. On June 23, Cantor and Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), the number two GOPer in the Senate, abandoned the negotiations because Democrats hadn't taken tax increases off the table.

As a result, the debt ceiling negotiations fell into the lap of President Obama. On June 27, Obama invited Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to the White House to work on a debt ceiling deal.

Full Article
Source: Mother Jones 

Rape in the Ranks

Yesterday, Mother Jones' Tumblr posted a link to a jarring GOOD magazine infographic with the title "Female soldiers more likely to be raped by their own troops than killed by enemy fire." The response was huge: 800 people reblogged the link in less than 24 hours. "No one can tell me that feminism has reached its goal and is now obsolete," wrote one reblogger.

Yet few Americans seem interested in the armed forces' gender issues. To the extent that military affairs get any attention from networks or big news sites lately, the headlines are dominated by debates over the defense budget. (We've reported our share of such stories, too.) Beyond that, the occasional story about Afghanistan, Iraq, or killer drones gets through. And beyond that, when journalists do cover social problems in the uniformed services, Don't Ask Don't Tell gets the lion's share of the attention.

Beneath the surface, gender conflicts are roiling the ranks, and few commentators are taking notice.

GOOD's infographics hint at greater problems. "When you look at the entire universe of female veterans," writes Time's Nancy Gibbs, "close to a third say they were victims of rape or assault while they were serving—twice the rate in the civilian population." Despite the military's outsize share of sexual assaults, it only prosecutes about one-fifth of the cases that civilian authorities do. And the Pentagon estimates that 80 to 90 percent of rapes and other attacks on women in the ranks go unreported.

Army Sgt. Andrea Neutzling is one of the women who chose not to report her rape, in Iraq in 2005. She told her story to the Christian Science Monitor earlier this year:

    After Neutzling discovered that the two men who had raped her had videotaped the attack—and were showing the tape to friends—she told a colleague she "wanted to maim them," Neutzling recalls. The colleague reported this news to a chaplain, who told her that she "didn't act like a rape victim," and then took away her M-16, Neutzling says.

    Because she had not reported the rape or completed a rape kit, her superiors told her "it was a matter of 'he said, she said,' or in my case, 'they said, she said.'" Furthermore, because she was married, "since I admitted having sexual relations with them, I was told by command that I was committing adultery, and if I wanted to push it I would be brought up on adultery charges."

Last February, Neutzling joined 16 other vets in bringing a class action suit against former Defense Secretaries Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Gates, alleging that on their watch, the military fostered an environment that encouraged assaults and discouraged victims from stepping forward.

But how can servicewomen expect equitable treatment for sexual assaults when they're also relegated to second-class status by Congress? They're still officially barred from serving in the combat roles that typically carry the most cache among veterans—infantry, artillery, special forces—even though they're unofficially sharing in the burdens and dangers of frontline service as never before. "Really the only time it's an issue is when you're out on a three-day patrol, and you need to find a place to pee," one female Army lieutenant in Afghanistan told the New York Times last month.

There have been a few discrete advances. Despite an uproar from conservative groups, the Navy has successfully begun to open its submarine service to women. And an ongoing Feministing series recounts the generally positive experiences of a feminist civilian Berkeley grad working in the Pentagon. (The latest installment's euphoric tone, though, suggests that it's best read with a grain or two of salt.)

Nevertheless, mainstream discourse on the military still revolves around big-ticket boondoggles, foreign wars, and gays serving openly. It's unclear how to get mainstream media outlets to focus attention on women in the military—much less to move the needle on women serving in combat, without fear of harassment from their male counterparts. "The US military has come a long way in expanding opportunities for women," writes retired Navy Cmdr. Darlene Iskra, "but it must shuck this last vestige of paternalism."

Source: Mother Jones 

Life After the Death of Collective Bargaining

It's always something in Ohio. Last week, it became legal to bring concealed weapons into bars. A labor protest shut down a busy street in downtown Columbus. And the hotly contested, penny-pinching budget was signed into law by Gov. John Kasich.

For the friends I've been staying with, the impending budget has been wreaking havoc on domestic tranquility. First, Anthony got laid off because the budget was slated to cut so much from his employer, the Ohio Consumers' Counsel. Then, the family got the news that the OCC cut wasn't going to be quite as bad as anticipated. So now, though many of his coworkers are still out of a job, Anthony's is safe. The concern has shifted mostly onto Erin, a public school teacher.

Here's what's troublesome for her in the budget: a requirement that schools receiving federal Race to the Top grants ditch their longstanding experience- and education-based pay system in favor of an alternative, like merit-based pay. Erin's school is a Race to the Top school. While she signed on to her job with the impression that her future salary level would be guaranteed by a predetermined schedule, this provision means cash-strapped school administrators could decide that, based on some as-yet-to-be-determined criteria, her salary should be $10,000 or $20,000 less than it currently is. Normally, Erin's union could likely prevent any arbitrary salary changes or advocate on her behalf. But the Ohio legislature recently passed Senate Bill 5, a Wisconsin-y anti-collective-bargaining law that will render her union effectively powerless.

That was the subject of last week's protest. Almost as soon as SB 5 passed, opponents started gathering signatures to get a repeal measure on the November ballot. Last Wednesday, huge crowds gathered in downtown Columbus to march to the secretary of state's office and deliver those signatures. Shirts and flags identified them as firefighters, transit workers, teachers, electricians, bikers, state troopers; residents of Columbus, Cleveland, Findlay, Toledo; members of the SEIU, UAW, AFL-CIO. There was a professional drumline. There was the mayor, whom Erin nearly ran down with her unwieldy stroller when she veered toward him to shake his hand.

The organizers needed about 230,000 to get the SB 5 repeal on the ballot. They got 1,298,301. "We can't guarantee anything," said a spokeswoman for We Are Ohio, the campaign driving the effort, "but we're confident with the amount of signatures we've collected that we have a lot of support on our side."

Erin hopes they're right. She's nervous about it, though. So is Lindsey, another gal who lived in our dorm when we all went to Ohio State 10 years ago. Lindsey teaches middle-school English in rural Logan, about an hour outside Columbus. She stopped by for a visit the other day, bringing one of her kids, her two-month-old, to meet Erin's eleven-month-old. Most of the talk that wasn't about breast-feeding was about SB 5. Though Lindsey doesn't teach at a Race to the Top school, under the new legislation her district can opt out of its established pay schedule. And with union protections in jeopardy, she's not taking any chances.

"My husband wants to buy a new couch," she said. But—she cocked her head and winced hard—she doesn't want to take any money out of their savings until the repeal passes (or not) this fall. "We don't know what's gonna happen."

Source: Mother Jones 

Help is Not on the Way

Cuts to immigrant groups' funding are harming the effort to protect women.

The case of Rumana Manzar, a University of British Columbia grad student who was brutally attacked and blinded by her husband while visiting her native Bangladesh, brings the issue of domestic violence, once again, to the forefront. Manzar’s husband was arrested and charged with attempted murder after he blinded her, evidently in a rage over her desire to get an education. Manzar doubts she will ever see justice done in the case. Kripa Sekhar, the executive director of the South Asian Women’s Centre in Toronto, says funding cuts to immigrant groups will make it harder to prevent such incidents in the future.

THE MARK: What are your reactions to this case?

KRIPA SEKHAR: First of all, every time something like this happens and a woman is abused, our hearts go out, not just to the woman, but to her family as well. In this case, our hearts go out particularly to Manzar’s daughter [who witnessed the attack]. In this situation, you are not just abusing a woman; you are also abusing her daughter. This is another human being who does not deserve to be treated this way, whatever the reasons may be.

I think that Manzar has received a lot support from the community at UBC. However, in many instances you don’t know about the abuse of women [while it is happening]. In some cases, they are very badly abused and it’s only much later – [if it] becomes a murder case – that you hear and read about it.

THE MARK: The attack on Manzar occurred in Bangladesh. There are some people who might say that cases like that don’t happen here in North America. What would you say to that view?

SEKHAR: I think violence against women is violence against women. It doesn’t matter where it happens. It is something that we shouldn’t be finding excuses for. Every woman is important. The thing is, Manzar also lived in Canada. She happened to be back home [in Bangladesh when it happened]. When we say that this is “happening in another country,” we are minimizing and trivializing violence against women.

Full Article
Source: The Mark 

How monarchist or monarchist how?

JJ McCullough questions some of the gushing over our apparently monarchist Prime Minister.

Upon meeting Queen Elizabeth for the first time in 1999, Opposition Leader Harper said he enjoyed the experience, but nevertheless felt the need to preface his comments by warning that “I’m not a strong monarchist, I’m really not.” In his wonderfully cynical 1997 US speech on the Canadian system of government, all he could likewise muster about the role of the Crown was a dryly comic observation that “our executive is the Queen, who doesn’t live here.” At his first throne speech, Harper similarly ditched the longstanding practice of wearing a full Victorian “morning suit” with striped pants and vest, outraging some monarchists at the time for his sartorial casualness on a royal occasion.
As far as I can tell, dismissive gestures like these are every bit as relevant to Harper’s understanding of the monarchy as his other, more cloying noises of support. Like most members of the Canadian political class, Harper politely respects the monarchy to the extent he is supposed to. He has no desire to change the status quo, but is not unaware of its absurdities and ironies, either. This is a position of pragmatism and institutional conservatism, and the republican in me doesn’t care much for it. But robust monarchism it is certainly not.

That first quote from Mr. Harper is actually from a 2002 interview, in which the leader of the opposition pronounced his meeting with the Queen to be the highlight of his year.

“I’m not a strong monarchist, I’m really not, but it was a real enjoyable meeting,” Harper told Sun Media. ”It was really fun and it’s really something I’m going to remember.”
As the leader of the official opposition, Harper was invited to a private audience with Queen Elizabeth while she was in Ottawa over Thanksgiving. Harper said he spoke to the Queen for about 30 minutes and said they had a “very interesting” conversation. ”Afterwards, the significance of it kept growing on me … she’s very bright and very well informed, and actually, very easy to talk to.”

Six months after he became Prime Minister, Harper travelled to England and delivered what Graham Fraser called “one of the most monarchist speeches a Canadian prime minister has given since John Diefenbaker.” Fraser noted that the Prime Minister’s staff had rehung a picture of the Queen on a wall of the PMO and he linked the monarchist rhetoric to an appeal to Progressive Conservatives and traditional Toryism.

Two years ago there was the public correcting of Michaelle Jean after she suggested the Governor General was Canada’s head of state. You could, if perhaps indirectly, add the insistence of some within the Harper government to celebrate July 1 as “Dominion Day.” And Jason Kenney’s speech at last Friday’s citizenship ceremony is probably also of note.

In addition to McCullough’s theory that it’s much ado about nothing and Fraser’s theory that it’s an appeal to Toryism, it might be suggested that the monarchy fits with the “patriotic vocabulary” the Harper Conservatives have tried to associate themselves with. That rhetoric tends to appeal to classic symbols of Canadiana—the military, the Arctic, hockey—and the monarchy would seem to fit in among those.

Source: Maclean 

Key players in eHealth fiasco bid on new contract

CBC News has learned that key players in Ontario's eHealth spending controversy are now one step away from winning a new lucrative eHealth contract.

eHealth Ontario hand-picked the Courtyard Group for nearly $2 million in untendered contracts back in 2008.

Those contracts helped trigger one of the McGuinty government's biggest scandals.

This past February, TELUS Corporation bought Courtyard, taking on 30 of its staff. Two of them, Michael Guerriere and Dave Wattling, are now top executives with TELUS Health Solutions.

This week, eHealth Ontario announced that TELUS is one of only two companies qualified to build the province's drug information system. The government won't say how much the contract could be worth, but a similar system in Newfoundland and Labrador cost $25 million.

"It's an interesting set of circumstances that has led one group to now be in a position to make even more money from the same program that has been disgraced," said Conservative accountability critic Lisa MacLeod.

A TELUS spokesperson said Courtyard's past role in eHealth should not hinder the company's ability to win new contracts.

The only other firm short-listed for the drug-information-system contract is a B.C.-based company called Maximus.

The winner is due to be chosen later this year.

Source: CBC news