Saturday, March 23, 2013

HJR 7&11 and SJR 22 “forever guarantees”

From the Heartland, Margot McMillen writes: We have a fight on our hands. Missouri Citizens v. Missouri lawmakers. It’s truly appalling how these Missouri legislators and senators, elected on platforms of local control, have fallen for the corporate factory farm lines. We have to phone, e-mail, fax them and stand up to this kind of misrepresentation! HJR 7 & 11 and SJR 22 are marching through the halls, as far as I can tell the lawmakers haven’t read them and the lobbyists are saying the bills do what the citizens want! That means they promote “No regulation!” But even the most cursory read reveals that these take away property rights and turn our freedoms over to the corporations. They will result in constitutional amendments that change rather than protect the constitution! These vaguely worded constitutional amendments could strip Local Control from Missouri counties (both urban and rural), taking away their power to protect constituents, family farmers and Missouri citizens from the negative impacts of corporate controlled agriculture through Local Control. HJR 7&11 and SJR 22 “forever guarantees” “modern farming practices” under the constitution. Neither current, nor future “modern farming practices” are defined in these bills. So, these “future” undefined practices could be anything (from robot tractors to unhealthy chemicals to corporate controlled CAFOs, to cloned animals, to complete control of the seed supply…). “Forever” protecting future unknown and undefined “modern” ag and food practices is completely irresponsible and should not be in our constitution. HJR 7&11 and SJR 22 could give corporate agri-business the complete and unbridled right over Missouri counties to exploit any future “agricultural technologies” simply to increase their profits, even if it comes at the expense of family farmers, our food system, property rights and rural economies.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Industrial fishing and the Maldives

From the Heartland, Margot McMillen writes: Shauna Aminath was on campus yesterday, talking about global warming and the situation in her homeland, the Maldives. The Maldives are a circle of small islands just off the coast of India, protected by coral reefs, and they are being swamped by sea water that is rising because the ice caps are melting. The ice caps are melting because carbon dioxide is building up in the atmosphere, trapping the heat of the sun and making earth’s temperature rise. Shauna’s challenge is about the ecosystem, yes, but it’s also about politics. The democratically-elected government, led by an elected President, was ousted by a military-backed dictator. She had worked hard for the President and is working toward a new election to reinstate him. As soon as I understand that politics is the problem, I begin to look for the financial backers. Shauna guesses that the petroleum companies have something to do with it, but there are no resources in the Maldives they’d want at this time. After our brief conversation, I realized that I know her story. It’s the same one we have here on the prairie. Our resources are democracy and socially-just family-raised products. In her case it’s fish and in our case it’s crops and livestock but the corporate forces want to own them both. One of the members of the National Family Farm Coalition is NAMI, a North Atlantic fishing cooperative. Their story is that industrial-size fishing trawlers are taking over the waters of family-run fishing boats. To the industrial fishers, those islands are just nuisances. The industry just wants to get rid of all of us, humans in the way of their industrial harvesters. That’s all for today. March 22, 2013.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Wes Shoemyer and the Threats of Bad Policy

From the Heartland, Margot McMillen writes: Hannah and I interviewed Wes Shoemyer on Farm and Fiddle last night. Wes was a Missouri state rep until he termed out and then a state senator until 2012 when he returned to the Monroe County farm where he farms with family members including his dad and his son. Pretty great to hear from a guy who’s still farming the land his dad grew up on. We talked about that—the wisdom of the elders—and agreed that the years of experience give them a special insight into the land, their ecosystem. And, as Wes pointed out, whatever a youngster comes up with, the elders have probably tried at some time, so you can benefit from their experience as you tinker with your system. We spent most of our hour talking about the effects of policy on farmers. Wes was speaking particularly about genetically modified crops (GMOs) and confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Both these strategies have received plenty of backing from corporations and the government. For GMOs, there’s a whole body of U.S. patent law that prevents farmers from saving seeds. So that when they need to plant soybeans, they’re paying $65 a bag this season. Just a decade ago, when they saved seeds, they could clean out the weed seeds and plant for free. Our wheat farmers still benefit from cleaned seeds, free ones from last year’s crop, because no GMO wheats have been approved. But all the soybeans, corn, canola, cotton and sugar beets have the GMO gene now. If the GMO protection act sneaks through congress as a rider on one bill or another, our wheat crops will be in a similar predicament. Wes also pointed out that when it comes to Confined Animal Feeding Operations, which are known as single-use buildings, there’s a U.S. guaranteed loan that the boys can get. To a banker, it’s a no-brainer to lend to a CAFO instead of a diversified farmer. If they both go belly-up, the banker gets taxpayer dollars to cover the loan. Clearly, these policies have changed rural America and the generations that kept the land are being moved off. We need to get rid of these policies, or change them, so the land and the American food system can be restored. That’s it for today. March 21, 2012. Happy Equinox, ya’all!

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Could putting religion in public schools to quell violence be like pouring gas on a fire?

By Marc Jampole

A new Mississippi law requires public schools to develop policies to allow students to pray over school intercoms and at assemblies and sporting events. The law permits students to pray publicly with a disclaimer from school administration. I imagine the disclaimer will be read at super warp speed as at the end of commercials for financial planners and prescription drugs.

In supporting the new law, the New York Times reports that Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant said: “We are about making sure that we protect the religious freedoms of all students and adults whenever we can.”
What Bryant means to protect is not the freedom to practice one’s own religion, but the freedom to practice it in public. He forgets that much like tobacco smoking, overtly public religious expressions create a kind of second-hand smoke that bother others, especially when those praying use AV systems and especially in public schools.

Mississippi is just the latest of the southern states to try to get around the basic constitutional separation of religion and state. The Times notes that last year Florida approved a bill to allow students to read inspirational messages at assemblies and sporting events. Also last year, Missouri voters approved a constitutional amendment that gives residents the right to “pray and acknowledge God voluntarily in their schools,” and a similar amendment was introduced in Virginia this year.  South Carolina legislators introduced a bill last year that would allow for prayer during a mandatory minute of silence at the start of the school day, provided that students who do not want to hear the prayer can leave the classroom.  

For more than 30 years, we have seen a concerted encroachment on public spaces. The first wave—starting with Reagan and continuing today—consisted of reducing funding for public spaces, facilities and institutions, be it parks, schools, public universities, libraries or mass transit. In trying to assert the right of religious expression in a public place, proponents of bringing prayer into schools represent a second wave, in which conservatives seek to put public space to private use.

Most frightening to me is the rationale that former Arkansas Governor and religious right-wing nut Mike Huckabee gives for prayer in schools: “We ask why there is violence in our schools, but we have systematically removed God from our schools. Should we be surprised that schools would become places of carnage?”

When Huckabee says that putting religion in schools will make schools less prone to violence, he is ignoring the violent histories of many religions, including Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Hinduism. He forgets the countless religious wars and the countless other wars in which religion was a thin veil for an economic, dynastic or national struggle.  In fact for most of recorded history, rulers and generals have firmly stated that “god is on our side in our war against the unbeliever.” They’ve done it in Europe and in Asia, they’ve done it in the United States and Russia. Even the defenders of the foul institution of slavery in the Confederate States of America claimed that god was on their side.

I would assert that bringing more religion into schools might actually increase violence. It’s not the fact that religion so often advocates violence that concerns me. It’s the permission that religion gives people to engage in violent acts. Those who believe in a life after death must by definition be more prone to engage in violence because they think they will survive into another life and therefore are more willing to take the risks associated with violent behavior. No atheist believes in a life after death. Only those who believe in a personal god believe that a conscious part of us survives this life Instead of risking life, believers in life after death think they are risking only this life. Thus believing in a religion makes one more likely to be ready to commit a violent act. That religion also gives people a motive—god wants me to kill the enemy—also feeds the psychology of violence. 
Now inciting people to violence is appropriate in certain contexts—the military for example.  So it’s not surprising that soldiers tend to be more religious than the general public.  For example, the most recent Pew Foundation study on religious affiliation found that 39.2% of all Americans are either atheist, agnostic or have no affiliation.  By contrast, the most recent poll of military personnel by The Military Times finds that only 28.68% of our fighting men and women are atheist, agnostic or have no affiliation.

But a public school is not the military. It’s only half-facetiously that I write that putting religion in public schools could be the equivalent of pouring gasoline on a fire.

Yet even if religion decreased violence, that would still be no reason to bring it into public schools.  In the United States, religion is supposed to be a private matter. Those wishing to turn our public spaces into celebrations of their own religious beliefs are about as un-American as one could possibly be.

Hey, U.S. Senate! Pass the Tester Amendments!

From the Heartland, Margot McMillen writes: The Senate Substitute Continuing Resolution Appropriations bill has still not passed. This means that the evil riders that remove restrictions against unapproved biotech plantings and livestock industry’s farmer abuse have still not passed. Senator Jon Tester has asked for the riders to be removed and his amendments are numbers 74 and 75. It’s easy to call our senators by dialing 877-757-6910 and asking for the senators by name. Mine are Claire McCaskill and Roy Blunt—one wimpy D and one raging R. So, this morning, I asked them to stand up for family farmers by helping pass the Tester amendments. Interestingly, I have no idea which of them will support or not support us. My organic farming friends and small farmers have the most at stake, but industry has the money to buy the votes of senators. How sad. That’s all for today, March 19, 2013.

The six major outcomes of Iraq War should make us wary of future wars

By Marc Jampole
As we approach the 10 year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq by U.S. forces we hear some calling for pursuing a war against Iran over its ostensible development of nuclear weapons.

Before we pull the trigger on another military action anywhere for any reason, we should consider what resulted from the Bush II’s Administration decision to ignore the evidence and invade Iraq under the false pretenses that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and was aiding Al Qaida.  I count six major outcomes of the Iraq War, all bad:

1.  The enormous loss of life
Estimates of casualties range from 100,000 to more than 600,000 deaths. Many people are starting to use the Brown University figures for deaths:
  • 4,488 U.S. soldiers
  • 3,400 U.S. mercenaries (AKA military contractors)
  • 319 soldiers from allied countries
  • 56,000 Iraqi military and security personnel
  • 134,000 Iraqi civilians
These numbers refer to deaths alone and do not include the number of people wounded.

2.  The destruction of Iraqi society and economy
Iraq has devolved from a totalitarian-authoritarian state to a fragmented and fractionalized mess that is impossible to govern. The economy is still in shambles. One estimate sets at over a million the number of displaced Iraqis. Displaced means they can’t live where they used to live anymore because of the destruction.

3.  The cost of the war, now trillions of dollars and still rising
Along with its twin folly in Afghanistan, the Bush II invasion of Iraq has bankrupted the United States. To the degree that the United States has a real deficit problem, it has not been caused by social spending or the bill for Baby Boomer Social Security. No, it’s the Iraq-Afghanistan war spending combined with the enormous tax cut given to the wealthy during the Bush II years.  If you wonder why there are fewer cops on the beat, why your brother-in-law was kicked out of a job training program, why there are more kids in your daughter’s fourth grade class or why you’re waiting at the airport longer, remember that you’re paying so that we could invade Iraq while the rich squirrel away the extra cash they have from lower taxes.

4.  The creation of the American torture gulag
The Iraq War served as the main staging ground for the Bush II Administration’s illegal, ineffective and immoral torture program.

5.  America’s loss of respect
The U.S. reputation and credibility plummeted around the world.  The world saw us lie, run a war incompetently, resort to torture and then lie some more. By invading Iraq we surrendered whatever sympathy we had gathered in the Arab world and elsewhere following 9/11.

6.  The tainting of our political process
By all rights, Bush, Cheney and their henchmen should have all been prosecuted for lying to the country about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and illegally establishing a world-wide program of torture.  Richard Nixon resigned before he could be impeached for one instance of domestic espionage against the opposing party. Bill Clinton was impeached for telling one lie about an affair. And yet not only has Congress not brought Bush II and Cheney to justice, the Obama Administration has sought to bury their crimes under the guise of “looking forward.”

Contemplating the ways that the Iraq War destroyed Iraq while harming Americans in so many direct and indirect ways, I am reminded of a Pete Seeger song about war in general that was made famous 50 years ago during another stupid war.  The song is “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”  Thinking of Iraq and the possibilities of an invasion of Iran, I close my eyes and I can almost hear the sweetly plaintive voices of Peter Yarrow, Paul Stockey and Mary Travers knit together harmoniously for the last line of each verse, “Oh, when will they ever learn, when will they ever learn?”

When will we ever learn?

Monday, March 18, 2013

Privatization of government services is nothing but a boondoggle for political cronies.

By Marc Jampole
I was pleased to read that 6 residents of Cincinnati are challenging the City Council’s plan to privatize parking. They want to put the plan on the ballot and let voters decide.

The City Council is giving the typical reason for outsourcing control of what amounts to about 11% of the parking spots in Cincinnati: they say they need the pre-payment of $92 million to close a budget gap and save 344 jobs.   That’s obviously a load of hooey. What will the city do next time it needs to balance a budget? Instead of keeping a steady stream of income from a community asset, the City Council is taking a one-time payment (plus an additional paltry $3 million a year for 30 years). It’s very short-term thinking.

The Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority is paying the money and will then contract with private operators.  The Authority and the private operators would not be involved if they couldn’t make a profit. Why can’t the city continue to operate the parking lots and spaces and make the profit itself? It won’t solve Cincinnati’s fiscal dilemma, but nor will selling off money-making assets.

Cincinnati faces the typical problems of most cities: People work there, but live and pay most of their taxes to the surrounding suburbs. Because Cincinnati is the center of the metropolitan area, it has virtually all of the public institutions such as universities and hospitals, all non-profits exempt from paying property taxes. In short, the tax base is too narrow and unfairly made narrower by the unwillingness of suburbanites to contribute to the municipalities that provide them with jobs, entertainment, tertiary health care and institutions of higher learning. Fixing the basic tax inequities would provide a permanent solution. Instead, the City Council wants to give away the store—probably to political cronies.

The idea of privatizing standard and long-time government functions such as parking, prisons, highways and schools is nothing more than an elaborate scheme to transfer wealth from the many to the few.  Just consider the money flow and you’ll see that I’m right:
  • Instead of the government making the profit, the owners of the privatized companies do. The few take the profit from the many.
  • The typical company providing privatized services is non-unionized with most employees making far less money than the government workers who previously did the jobs.  Executives in government services typically make far less than their counterparts on the outside. Again, the few take the profit from the many.
One of the most repeated myths in the marketplace of ideas is that the private sector always does it better than the public sector. All evidence indicates that it certainly isn’t true when it comes to prisons, the privatization of which has led to many scandals.

If we compare like populations, we see that privatization of schools hasn’t worked either.  Comparing private schools to public schools proves nothing, since the population of private schools is so much wealthier and well-connected. We have to compare public schools to their replacement in public school areas—the charter school.   Virtually all studies show that the charter school movement has yielded disappointing results in student performance in school and on standardized tests (which don’t test all skills, but do test a lot of skills such as reading and math that are needed to get through life and hold down a job).  But right-wing politicians like charter schools, because charter school teachers typically don’t have to belong to the union.  The teachers make less (and thereby put downward pressure on the pay of other teachers and job-holders) and the charter school operators make more.

What’s funny is that the way to fix the flaws that critics find in public institutions such as schools and prisons is more money. More money for more teachers, better books, labs and computers. More money for more guards and more education programs for prisoners. But the profit reaped by the owners of companies that run outsourced government services results in society having less money to throw at the problems.

What the 20th century should have taught us is that mixed economies work best. There are lots of societal functions for which private businesses are in a position to deliver the best mix of price and benefits. But the services that government has run for ever, or at least since the 18th and 19th centuries, seem to have worked pretty well. At least they did until the Reaganites and their even more conservative political descendents decided to starve government by lowering taxes.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Women's Herstory

From the Heartland, Margot McMillen writes: It’s women’s history month, remember, so I’ve gotten lots of chances to talk about my book, The Golden Lane: How Missouri Women Gained the Vote and Changed History. Funny thing is that because I know a little history, interviewers ask me about the future. Stuff like, “When will we have a woman as governor? When will we have a woman president?” and “if we had more women in government, would we have a better health care system? Would we have same-sex marriage? And would abortion laws be secure?” Here’s the deal. Even if we had an all-woman government, we’d have differences of opinion, big ones. Women care more about social issues, but we don’t agree on much. That said, if we want laws that put relationships, families, women and children, in first place, it doesn’t matter if men or women are in charge. What matters is the way we think about government and ourselves. If people start to think that relationships are in first place, ahead of corporate greed, we’ll take better care of each other and make better policies, no matter who’s making them. It’s St. Patrick’s Day! Have a good one!

EDITORIAL: Too Timid to Nail?

Attorney General Eric Holder thinks the biggest banks on Wall Street are not only too big to fail, but also too big to jail, even when they are caught laundering illicit profits for Mexican drug cartels. So it is time for President Barack Obama to find a new attorney general who is willing to protect the public interest without fear or favor.

Holder told the Senate Judiciary Committee March 6 that the Justice Department may have to restrain its prosecutors in dealing with the big banks because it has to consider the possibility that a prosecution could lead to financial instability. He was explaining why the Justice Department brought no criminal charges against the British megabank HSBC last December after bank officials admitted laundering money for customers in Iran, Libya, Sudan, Burma and Cuba as well as Mexican drug lords. The Department of Justice settled for a $1.9 billion fine, or about five weeks’ profit for the bank, but the feds didn’t require any individual fines or jail time. Holder acknowledged that the sheer size of the big banks “has an inhibiting impact on our ability to bring resolutions that I think would be more appropriate. That is something you (members of Congress) all need to consider.”

Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone noted in February that for at least half a decade HSBC, a storied British colonial banking power, helped to wash hundreds of millions of dollars for drug mobs, including Mexico’s Sinaloa drug cartel, which is suspected in tens of thousands of murders in just the past 10 years. The bank moved money for organizations linked to al Qaeda and Hezbollah, for Russian gangsters, helped countries like Iran, Sudan and North Korea evade sanctions — and also aided countless common tax cheats in hiding their cash, Taibbi wrote.

That nobody from the bank went to jail or paid a dollar in individual fines is nothing new in this era of financial crisis, Taibbi noted. What was different about this settlement was that the Justice Department, for the first time, admitted why it decided to go soft on this particular kind of criminal. It was worried that if US authorities had decided to press criminal charges, HSBC would have lost its banking license in the US, the future of the institution would have been under threat and the entire banking system would have been destabilized.

Robert Borosage noted that Holder’s admission means that the big bankers know they operate above the law. “That renders all the argument about regulations and legal limits laughable. Bankers spend tens of millions lobbying to weaken regulations and starve regulators of authority and resources. But when the action gets hot, the bubble starts to inflate, the music keeps playing, they can trample the laws, mislead the regulators and defraud their customers, swathed in the confidence that the laws will not apply to them ...

“Clearly, institutions that are above the law and beyond the discipline of the market cannot exist in their current form,” Borosage wrote. “Congress has only two choices. The big banks can be nationalized and treated as public utilities. The public would pocket their profits and cover their losses. Or the big banks can be broken up, and be accountable to both the law and the market.”

The six largest Wall Street banks have grown exponentially in recent decades and now hold assets worth more than 60% of the American economy, Travis Waldron noted at

The Dodd-Frank reform bill of 2010 was supposed to rein in the excesses of the big banks whose reckless gambles had brought the world financial markets to the brink of collapse in 2008. But bank lobbyists have fought the implementation of the regulations ever since.

Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) are leading the drive to break up the big banks but the Obama administration has opposed those efforts and Republicans in Congress have shamelessly offered themselves as Wall Street’s protectors in exchange for campaign money, Borosage noted, though Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) have joined in the criticism of the big banks.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has made an impact in her first few months on the Banking Committee as she challenged regulators on the lack of civil or criminal prosecutions. In a Feb. 26 committee hearing, she grilled Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke on whether Wall Street banks should have to pay back US taxpayers for the advantage they receive by virtue of being viewed as “too big to fail.”

Prosecution of financial fraud hit a 20-year low in 2011, even amid broad findings of fraud that took place at the biggest banks, the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University reported. The government has instead reached settlements over mortgage and foreclosure fraud, and other alleged crimes with a multitude of banks, and while those settlements are significant, they have also been plagued with problems. And as Warren noted, settling out of court has also prevented the public from hearing testimony from banking officials.

In a March 12 Banking Committee hearing on the nominations of Mary Jo White to chair the Securities and Exchange Commission and Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Warren blasted Senate Republicans who have blocked the confirmation of Cordray, the former Ohio attorney general who was nominated in July 2011 and got a recess appointment to head the bureau in January 2012.

“I think the delay in getting him confirmed is bad for consumers, it’s bad for small banks, bad for credit unions, for anyone trying to offer an honest product in an honest market,” said Warren, the Harvard law professor who advocated the creation of the bureau as part of the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill in 2010 but then was blocked from becoming its first director by Republican senators at the behest of the banks who didn’t want to answer to her. (Fooled them.) “The American people deserve a Congress that worries less about helping big banks,” she added, “and more about helping regular people who have been cheated on mortgages, on credit cards, on student loans and on credit reports.”

However, Republicans are expected to continue blocking Cordray’s confirmation, mainly because they think the bureau is too independent of congressional (and banking lobby) control.

The Banking Committee conducted a relatively perfunctory review of White, concluding after less than two hours of questioning. White earned a reputation as a tough prosecutor of Wall Street miscreants as US Attorney in Manhattan from 1993 through 2001. But for the past 11 years she has been a lawyer on Wall Street, defending banks and corporate interests, including JPMorgan Chase, News Corp. and former Bank of America CEO Ken Lewis on disputes over the bank’s takeover of Merrill Lynch.

White said her work for Wall Street firms and figures would not hinder her ability to lead the SEC. “If, in this instance, I’m confirmed, the people will be my client,” she said.

Borosage noted of White, “As a defense attorney for the big banks, she knows where the bodies are buried. Is she able and willing to use that information? Her husband [who is also a Wall Street lawyer] has been lobbying against the Dodd-Frank regulations. Is she willing to spurn his arguments? Or is her nomination a most perverse expression of the ‘regulatory capture’ that has rendered the SEC and other financial regulatory agencies toothless?”

Asked by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) about Holder’s comments that some banks were so big that prosecuting them could endanger the economy, White noted that the SEC can only take civil actions but she would “proceed quite vigorously against anyone.” She added, “At the SEC, there’s no institution too big to charge.”

She said her private work would not prevent her from voting on rules and other policies. And on enforcement issues, she said, the scope of the potential conflicts is “quite narrow” and she would recuse herself from cases involving her husband’s firm.

White might earn back our trust. Holder has lost it. —JMC

From The Progressive Populist, April 1, 2013
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