Saturday, August 17, 2013

Editorial: Bust the Privatizers

Attorney General Eric Holder is on the right track with his order for federal prosecutors to stop seeking draconian sentences on run-of-the-mill drug cases, but efforts in Congress to permanently relax the sentencing rules may run up against the special interests of businessmen who see profits in prisons.

The federal mandatory sentencing laws were passed in 1986 following a media and political frenzy around crack cocaine, which is a derivative of powder cocaine, but the new laws made the penalties for possession and distribution of crack much harsher than powder, and 80% of the people charged with crack cocaine offenses were African Americans, while powder cocaine users were more likely to be white or Latino.

Judges complained that they were forced by the sentencing guidelines to send non-violent offenders to prison for five or 10 years or even life without parole if they are repeat offenders. The number of federal inmates has grown tenfold since 1980 and now surpasses 218,000. (That’s about 10% of the 2.2 million prisoners in the US, most of whom are held in state prisons or county jails)

A 2010 law mitigated the racial disparity between crack and cocaine sentences but many remain imprisoned under the old law. A new bill would make the change retroactive and allow early release of low-level offenders least likely to re-offend.

The private prison industry now has over 200,000 inmates behind their bars as a result of contracts with the federal government and many states. That’s up from 11,000 private corrections beds in 1990. The growth in private prisons provides economic incentives to expand imprisonment, particularly in job-starved rural areas. Looking to increase their share of the estimated $70 billion corrections “market,” Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) has floated a proposal to prison officials in 48 states, offering to buy and manage public prisons at a substantial cost savings to the states. In exchange, the states would agree to maintain a 90% occupancy rate in the privately run prisons for at least 20 years.

For a state concerned with budget issues, “renting” prison cells rather than having to allocate massive sums to build new prisons may be an attractive feature. But there is little evidence that the private prisons really offer savings. Private prisons can cut costs by employing non-union guards at lower pay, with less training and fewer benefits than their public counterparts, but private prisons also generally take minimum- or medium-security prisoners, leaving more high-risk prisoners to the state-run facilities.

Roger Werholtz, former Kansas secretary of corrections, told USA Today some states may be tempted by the “quick infusion of cash,” but he would recommend against such a deal. “My concern would be that our state would be obligated to maintain these (occupancy) rates and subtle pressure would be applied to make sentencing laws more severe with a clear intent to drive up the population,” Werholtz said.

As prison growth has slowed in recent years, the private prison industry is increasingly looking to immigration detention as a source of enhanced profits. In Arizona, for example, the notorious anti-immigration legislation passed in 2010 was drafted in large part though the efforts of private prison companies working in concert with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

Jim Hightower notes on page 3 that now we need to worry about the Border-Industrial Complex lobby that will be promoting the $46 billion stuffed into the immigration reform bill to militarize the 2,000-mile border with Mexico. Once the privateers get a hook into the border war profits, we’ll never see the end of it.

When George W. Bush and Dick Cheney invaded Iraq, the US government ended up sending more private contractors than actual troops. In 2007, the US had 160,000 troops in Iraq, supported by more than 180,000 civilians, including Americans, foreigners and Iraqis.

The Department of Defense spent at least $138 billion on private contractors for services rendered during the Iraq war, and the biggest windfall went to Houston-based KBR Inc., Dick Cheney’s old firm, which got $39.5 billion in Iraq-related contracts over the past decade.

As Jonathan Turley said, “For $40 billion, a single company may be willing to do a lot to keep a war alive. In the very least, it may not be eager to see it end.”

Corruption also ballooned with the expansion of private contractors. According to the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan, corruption by defense contractors as of 2011 was at least $31 billion and maybe as high as $60 billion.

If you include the money spent on defense contractors outside war zones, the Department of Defense spent $174 billion on contractors in fiscal 2012, the General Accounting Office reported in May. And KBR, which got $2.27 billion in defense contracts in 2011 but only $978.9 million in 2012, is a piker compared with Lockheed Martin, which got $37 billion in US government contracts in 2012, and Boeing, which got $29.4 billion.

In 2008, candidate Barack Obama railed against no-bid contracting, accusing private contractors of wasting taxpayer dollars. He promised to rein in such spending. The following year, President Obama ordered a broad overhaul of government contracting, including limits to sole-source and non-competitive contracting. But data reviewed by the Center for Public Integrity in 2010 showed that defense dollars flowing into non-competitive contracts had almost tripled since the terrorist attacks of 9/11. According to an analysis the Center’s iWatch News, the value of Pentagon contracts awarded without competition topped $140 billion in 2010, up from $50 billion in 2001.

The National Security Agency also has compromised its operations with overuse of private contractors. Of 4.9 million people with clearance to “confidential and secret” government information, 1.1 million, or 21% work for outside contractors. Until a few weeks ago that included Edward Snowden, an information analyst for Booz Allen Hamilton, one of the largest and most trusted NSA contractors with 25,000 employees. It is believed that 70% of the NSA’s estimated budget of $8 billion — or $6 billion — goes to hundreds of companies. That is a big incentive for businessmen to think of new ways to snoop on US citizens and/or their foreign correspondents.

Keep Fannie and Freddie

Democrats should be wary of joining Republican efforts to reform the mortgage business by doing away with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Fannie Mae — the Federal National Mortgage Association — was created in 1938 as a New Deal agency to providing local banks with federal money to finance home mortgages and revive the housing industry. In 1968, Fannie Mae was converted to a privately held corporation and in 1970, Freddie Mac — the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp. — was created to expand the secondary market for mortgages. It succeeded until Freddie jumped into the subprime market in 2006.

When the housing bubble collapsed in 2008, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac owned or guaranteed half of all home mortgages in the US. But they didn’t originate the bad loans. Since then, they have sustained the housing market and they have bought more than 90% of the mortgages issued since the onset of the crisis.

“Given that both are now covering their costs and making profits, which are arguably even too large, it’s difficult to see what the problem is. But President Obama wants to wind down them down and replace them with a new and ostensibly improved public-private system,” Dean Baker recently noted.

It appears that in the new system, private banks such as Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and Bank of America will again issue mortgage-backed securities. But this time the securities will be carefully regulated (really!) and will carry an explicit government guarantee for at least part of the value of the securities.

Fannie and Freddie should continue to operate as government-sponsored agencies to promote home ownership. We can’t trust the sharks on Wall Street to do that job. — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, September 1, 2013
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Selections from the September 1, 2013 issue

Forget student loans — make higher ed free; Here comes the border-industrial complex; Get radio-active; Corporate greed is making us sick; Monsanto’s Wizard of Oz website

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Controlling the electorate in Egypt and the United States

By Marc Jampole

The powers that be in Egypt seem to have the same view of democracy as those in the United States have: it’s fine as long as we get our way. 

In the United States, they pass laws that make it harder for people to vote in hopes of offloading minorities, the poor and students from voter rolls to give future elections to right-wing conservatives.  In Egypt they are taking a more violent approach, first with a coup d’état that no one wants to call a coup d’état, and then violently uprooting thousands of protesters, leading to the deaths of 525 and counting.  The only coup d’état we’ve had in the United States was in 2000, when the Supreme Court used dubious law to declare George Bush (the Younger) the winner even though he lost the popular vote by millions and probably also lost the electoral college before voter manipulation.

Of course in the bad old days of southern overt resistance to civil rights, those who wished to limit voting to Caucasians often resorted to violence.  We’ve come a long way, baby!

All facetiousness aside, the United States is looking pretty foolish today for not having immediately cut all aid to Egypt when the military overturned the democratically elected government of the Muslim Brotherhood.  There was certainly a lot of incompetence displayed by the Brotherhood in running the country, but if incompetence was a justifiable excuse for overthrowing a legally elected government, then we would have endured a number of coups in the United States over the years, including to overthrow Bush II.

Our attitude towards democracy overseas has always been ambivalent, because despite the flowery language about democracy our leaders have spouted from Wilson to Obama, the main concern of American foreign policy has always been to protect the interests of large American companies doing business abroad, secure a cheap source of raw materials, specifically oil, and open markets for American goods, including huge supplies of weapons. Democracy is fine—as long as the democratically-elected government supports those goals.

The Egyptian military is dependent on U.S. aid, as is the Egyptian economy, which was invoked as a reason for the coup. Would the generals have produced a replay of Tiananmen Square if we had withheld all aid until new elections had occurred?

More to the point, why aren’t we halting aid now? The pleas of President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry for an end to violence on both sides sound hollow in the wake of the slaughter of the protesters. Of course, democracy plays little if no part in the equation for U.S. foreign policy makers. It’s a beautiful word we like to throw around, but since we became actively involved in world affairs sometime at the end of the 19th century, we’ve been more concerned with creating stable governments. Military governments are certainly more stable than democracies.  

It’s time to freeze all aid to Egypt and organize our allies to put pressure on the Egyptian government for immediate elections.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Neoteny suggest we’d be better off if we didn’t take our childhood habits into adulthood

By Marc Jampole

Everywhere we turn nowadays we see mass culture infantilizing adults.

Here are some other examples of infantilization of American adults, by which I mean adults in late 20th century and early 21st century America behaving like children and enjoying the entertainments of their childhood:
  • Disney’s EPCOT Center, a theme park for adults, opened in 1982 and since then the growth in popularity of all theme parks among adults has skyrocketed.  It is absolutely amazing how many adults now go to theme parks for vacation.
  • Around the mid-70s, there began a wave of children’s movies for adults, starting with the “Star Wars” and the Indiana Jones series.  Other children’s movies for adults are the movie versions of situation comedies for children such as “The Brady Bunch.” (But I’m not talking about “The Simpsons,” which like “Gulliver’s Travels” and “Huckleberry Finn,” is an adult entertainment that children can also enjoy.)
  • The hundreds of computer games for adults.
  • Glorified fast-food chains serving alcohol with video and other games for adults, such as Dave & Busters.
Instead of graduating to something more sophisticated, adults seem to be keeping their childhood and childish entertainments and hobbies, such as video games, comic books and amusement parks. Mass media is spewing out ever more juvenile entertainment targeted for adults such as the recent wave of superhero movies. Adults are showing a much greater interest in juvenilia such as the Harry Potter and the Hunger Games novels. Campus recruiters compare their campuses to Harry Potter’s imaginary school.  Advertisers are also appealing to the child within all of us, as we can see from a recent Oreo Cookie commercial with Sesame Street graphics that appeared in the New York Times, a publication read almost exclusively by adults.

I would submit that from the hellish Little League parent to the helicopter parent, the greater intrusion of parents into the lives of their children nowadays is a related phenomenon—in a sense instead of adult pursuits, many parents relive their childhoods through their children.

One of the most subtle forms of infantilization of Americans is the “buy now, pay later” mentality that makes people use high-interest credit cards or take loans on their houses to buy something now instead of saving up the money and not having to pay interest later.  Let’s amend the phrase and call it what it really is: “buy now and pay more later” because of what are sometimes exorbitant interest charges.

Infants and children can’t wait.  One of the signs of adulthood is being able to delay gratification.  Buy now, pay more later is about instant gratification.  It’s about behaving just like a child.

I kept thinking about the infantilization of American adults while recently reading a popular book of natural history (AKA evolution) recently, titled Last Ape Standing by journalist Chip Walter. Walter uses the most recent scientific discoveries to trace the rise and fall of the 26 other versions of the human species who inhabited the Earth from about 7 million to about 100,000-10,000 years ago. Why did our species make it and the other 26, including the Neanderthals, did not?

Walter attributes the success of human beings to the fact that our birth canal is so small that we do not come out fully formed, so that we keep growing after birth long after any other species. This concept of slowing down development is called neoteny and it leads to the retention of juvenile characteristics. That’s why, for example, compared to apes and the 26 other human species, we have flatter, broader faces, a larger brain, hairless bodies and face, thin skull bones, legs longer than arms and larger eyes. These are juvenile or prenatal traits in our near relatives, but we retain them into adulthood.

In fact, humans are so undeveloped at birth that they are dependent on their parents far longer than any other species, a force that many believe naturally leads to the formation of societies of humans.

According to Walter, the big payoff of neoteny and the big key to the development of humans is, of course, the bigger brain. Humans are able to keep learning new things—new languages, games, bodies of knowledge—until pretty much the day they die. I’ve read elsewhere that we now recognize that the brain of male human beings keeps growing into his twenties.

On a superficial basis, one could claim that the concept of neoteny demonstrates that adult infantilization is a good thing for our species. After all, it’s retaining our youthfulness that gave us an advantage over our 26 closest competitors. 

But quite the contrary—neoteny explains why infantilization is a dangerous trend that threatens our survival. Neoteny offers the possibility of continued learning and continued expansion, constant adaptation to changing conditions. Infantilization means keeping the predilections of childhood. Staying the same is the very opposite of growth. It shows a rigidity of thought process that can be quite dangerous when faced with new and very complex dangers such as global warming and resource shortages. 

Infantilization thus takes away the edge that neoteny has given to human beings, because it sets our thought processes in stone at a young age. The infantilized adult is the adult stuck in his or her own past, the adult who has ceased to learn, and having ceased to learn, has less flexibility of mind and thought. Easier to manipulate, to be sure, easier to convince of the need to buy something. But much less adaptable to change.

Thumbs up to Lavabit, Silent Circle for closing, not cooperating with NSA; down to Pres. for wimping out

By Marc Jampole

Two new American heroes have emerged in the fight for civil liberties and they’re both companies that do the same thing. The managements of Lavabit and Silent Circle, two secure email services, have decided to close their respective firms rather than hand over the emails of their users to the National Security Agency (NSA).

“I have been forced to make a difficult decision: to become complicit in crimes against the American people or walk away from nearly ten years of hard work by shutting down Lavabit. After significant soul searching, I have decided to suspend operations. I wish that I could legally share with you the events that led to my decision. I cannot. I feel you deserve to know what’s going on — the first amendment is supposed to guarantee me the freedom to speak out in situations like this. Unfortunately, Congress has passed laws that say otherwise.”

Bravo to all involved with both companies, who have put their livelihoods on the line to avoid participating in an evil activity—mass spying on the entirety of a nation.

Meanwhile, President Obama has been wimping out. He says that he wants to form a commission to consider scaling back the Patriot Act, yet he continues to have the NSA collect and analyze the personal telephone data of hundreds of millions of Americans.

He expresses concern for the use of drones, but keeps using them.  Why can’t he just say, No!

Just because the executive branch of government has the right to do something, doesn’t mean it has to do it. The Patriot Act does not order the NSA to spy on all Americans; it merely gives it the legal right to do so.

All the President has to do is tell the NSA to stop spying and tell the military to stop using drones. But he won’t do it.

Instead he closes more than a dozen diplomatic posts and intensifies the droning of Yemen based on the so-called intelligence the NSA culled from its vast information sifting machine.  But what was supposed to be a justification for all this spying turned out to be a petard upon which Al Qaeda hoisted the President, claiming that its campaign of terror was succeeding in its mission to terrorize the United States—we were certainly shivering in terror by closing those embassy offices!

Obama seems to be losing his moral compass when it comes to security the same way that all our Presidents since Truman seem to have done, except Ronald Reagan and Bush II. Under the sway of neo-Con and Nativist thinking, Reagan and especially Bush II fully embraced the idea of curtailing civil liberties and spying on citizens as part of their central political agenda from the very beginning.  It’s sad to see Barack Obama continue our drift to a police state.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

I have friends in important places. Citizens.

From the Heartland, Margot McMillen writes:
            It’s been a long time since I’ve sent out a blog, but I’ve been a little heartbroken lately. Today, however, I’m feeling stronger.
I should be ecstatically happy. The weather’s delightful, the family’s all fine, the critters are healthy as ever. None of the neighbors are sick and one of my best friends, who thought she might have to move, is staying.
            But the grapevines planted by Holly and DeLisa… and the redbud tree by the house, where Lushen the farm kid climbed when he was tiny… and that crappy maple that’s always sending seeds into the lettuce beds… they’re dying.
            The culprit is 2,4D. Sprayed by a neighbor on his corn field to kill the weeds that he can’t kill with glyphosate. It’s killing them and I know I shouldn’t get attached to plants, they’re mortals, but aren’t we all?
            When we first noticed the damage, the strangely cupped leaves, then the withering and the onion-skin leaves that you can see through, and it came first on the grapevines, I went into denial. I had seen the spray trucks on the neighbor’s field but I’ve seen them before and nothing died.
So, I thought, maybe we’ve acquired a fungus? Maybe it’s a bug? We scoured the internet and our garden books for answers. We looked for bugs and found nothing. We sprayed with vinegar solution, which discourages fungi and molds but nothing changed.
Last week, we had a potluck supper sponsored by Slow Foods, and one of the guests snapped a few pictures of the vines and sent them to me. So now I had to follow up. Called the extension agent, but our local agronomist retired so the question was deferred to another county, one with an agent that doesn’t seem too interested. He left a message on the answering machine, a bored voice that he was calIing to answer “something about grapes…” 
Next, I sent the pictures to the state grape board and the damage was confirmed as “classic”.
Through this all, I’ve been depressed but weirdly astonished by the power of the universe. Why me? After all, I was onto the ironies of biotech from the beginning, fighting and writing about it all along. When so many weeds have become resistant to Roundup, I started blogging about it and about the dangers of Big Ag, who are my neighbors after all, moving to 2,4D. A clear and present danger.
But, yesterday, I found allies and everything changed.  At the farmers’ market, where we took a little surplus produce, I found other farmers who had the same issues. One of them gave me a sign that says, “Sensitive Crop. Don’t let your pesticide drift…” produced by the Missouri Department of Agriculture. It’s one of those yellow metal signs, like you see in a school zone, and it means the world to me.

Somebody “gets it.” And I have allies. And I’m feeling strong again.