Saturday, May 30, 2015

Editorial: Stop TPP in the House

President Obama finally got the bipartisan deal of the sort he has been pursuing for over six years on May 22 when the Republican Senate approved a “fast-track” process to review the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Unfortunately, Obama’s push to grease the skids for the TPP sells out his longtime supporters among environmental groups and organized labor. Obama finds himself allied with Republicans who have been working to sabotage every progressive initiative that he has come up with heretofore.

The blue-green alliance is understandably suspicious of the TPP negotiations that have been going on behind closed doors with representatives of a dozen Pacific Rim countries and multinational corporations with financial interests there, while labor and environmentalists have had little input.

Opponents of the trade pact were encouraged on May 12 when all the Democrats except one stood against the “fast-track” trade promotion authority. In that early vote, 52 senators — mainly Republicans — voted to take up the bill, short of the 60 needed to overcome the Democratic filibuster.

McConnell revived the bill by promising Democrats votes on some controversial amendments. He also swung Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, both of Washington, and several other pro-trade Democrats to vote yes by promising them a vote in June on an amendment reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank, whose charter expires on June 30. Obama also got on the phone to cajole reluctant Democrats.

That one-two lobbying combination brought in a 61-38 vote on May 21 to shut down debate and let the Senate move on to pass the Trade Promotion Authority, which grants expedited review of trade agreements for up to six more years, which could empower the next president to negotiate new trade deals in secret.

Thirteen Democrats sided with 48 Republicans to clear the way for the fast-track bill. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) voted against cloture but ended up voting for the bill, which passed 62-37 on May 22. (See the breakdown in Dispatches item 3.)

Sen. Ron Wyden D-Ore.), the main Democratic co-author of fast-track, said the legislation would set a higher standard for trade deals. But he and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) beat back several amendments that could have strengthened those standards.

The closest vote was on an amendment sponsored by Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) to require that future trade agreements include enforceable provisions to stop currency manipulation by foreign partners to give them an advantage over US manufacturers. It failed 48-51, after President Obama reportedly worked the phones to urge Democrats not to support the amendment.

Hatch, Wyden and McConnell also defeated an amendment sponsored by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), 39-60, that would bar corporations from using an arbitration process to settle disputes with foreign governments and multinational corporations. Warren argued the so-called Investor State Dispute Settlement process would unfairly shield corporations from state and federal laws.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), also lost a 47-52 vote on his amendment to require prior congressional approval of negotiations to expand the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, noted that under the Hatch-Wyden-Ryan Fast Track bill, the trade pact, whose details are being finalized after six years of negotiations, would remain secret from the public until 30 days after its text is locked. The text would be made public 60 days before the formal signing ceremony, but that is irrelevant, because it would be too late to fight for needed changes.

“Thanks to WikiLeaks, we know the TPP includes an expanded version of the investment provisions found in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that incentivize the offshoring of high-wage American jobs and the investor-state dispute settlement system that exposes US policies to attack in foreign tribunals.

“The administration chose to use the weak labor and environmental standards that President George W. Bush included in his last trade deals. It was the 2007 Peru Free Trade Agreement, not the TPP, that was the first US trade agreement to have labor and environmental standards in core text enforceable by the same terms as the commercial provisions. A 2014 Government Accountability Office investigation found these labor and environmental standards now also used for the TPP failed to improve working conditions.

“What has leaked out already is deeply troubling. Many members of Congress who – unlike the public – are allowed to read the TPP are warning us that this is a bad deal.”

Speaking at the Nike headquarters, of all places, President Obama said that those concerned about the TPP rolling back food safety, environmental or financial regulation “are making stuff up” and no trade agreement can do that.

In fact, these rollbacks have happened repeatedly under past pacts. The “sovereignty” provisions found in Section 8 of the Hatch-Wyden-Ryan Fast Track bill are nothing new and appear in implementing legislation for past US trade agreements under which US food safety and environmental policies have been rolled back already. Examples of rollbacks due to trade deals include:

• Gutting rules about importing only food that “meets or exceeds” US safety standards, so we now import food that does not meet US standards; and

• Rolling back environmental laws and regulations – from Clean Air Act regulations to US labeling of dolphin-safe tuna and more.

Just a few days before the fast-track vote, a tribunal at the World Trade Organization ruled that the US cannot require meat producers to identify the country where their meat comes from.

Republicans also propose to pay for Trade Adjustment Assistance to retrain displaced workers with $700 million in cuts from doctor and hospital reimbursements under Medicare, starting in 2024.

Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, said the agreement “failed to address even one of our six criteria for creating a more democratic and transparent trade negotiating process, will undermine efforts to raise wages and create a fairer economy. If we want a different economy, one that levels the playing field and doesn’t just benefit those already at the top, we need new rules on trade, not the same failed policies with a ‘new and improved’ sticker on them.”

The fast-track bill now faces a tough slog in the House of Representatives, where a sizable group of Republicans and a majority of Democrats are believed to be opposed to the bill, but Obama and the lords of global trade will be working to close that gap. If your Congress member is a Democrat, tell him or her to stand against the fast track bill.

If the TPP ends up being a good agreement (we have no way of knowing because its contents are classified top secret), it should be able to stand up for review under the regular order of business. If your rep is a Republican, tell them they cannot in good conscience support “ObamaTrade” after Republicans have opposed Obama at every turn for the past six years. Refer Republicans to, a website run by conservative populists who are opposed to the trade giveaway. Ask them why they would trust Obama on this issue.

Then, after you have expressed your opinion to your Congress member, go ahead and contact your senators and either congratulate them for opposing fast track or ask them what the hell they were thinking in supporting fast track. Particularly needle the charlatans who are running for president on anti-Obama platforms, such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), as well as other prominent Obama bashers in the Senate and the House, about their newfound trust of Obama which fast-track approval implies. — JMC
From The Progressive Populist, June 15, 2015

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Selections from the June 15, 2015 issue

COVER/Richard Eskow
The left matters — now, more than ever

Stop TPP in the House


The bloodbath down the street

A fossil-fueled fantasy

Bernie’s proudly radical as Ike;
Hillary stuns journos by listening to people;
Repubs find new way to alienate Latinos;
Fossil fuel subsidies $5.3T a year;
Texas lacks flood infrastructure
Huge insurance company divests from coal;
Hillary would be most liberal nominee in 40 years ...

Can gay-friendly John Kasich run for president?

The Supreme Court fails a nation

Hillary Clinton: First impressions

Hillary is no progressive, Bernie is no pipe dream

Housing costs remain too high

Minimum wage grows in Emeryville

Protect land from fracking

HEALTH CARE/Joan Retsinas
Prisoners: The fiscal boomerang

Journalism exposed nail workers’ plight

The TPP blues

The agony of the Motor City

The governor in the tin foil hat

Little town on the prairie steps it up

and more ...

Friday, May 29, 2015

Foreign Affairs writer compares today’s Islamic wars to 17th century wars between Catholics & Protestants

By Marc Jampole

In the latest Foreign Affairs, political scientist John M. Owen IV starts to make the case that we can compare the current state of unrest in Islamic territories to the European wars of religion of about 450 years ago, in an article titled “From Calvin to the Caliphate.”  It’s a point that I’ve wanted to write about for some time now, but haven’t gotten around to yet. Reza Aslam has made a similar observation in the past.

Too bad Owen IV misconstrues what’s taking place today and so makes the wrong comparison and draws the wrong conclusions. Owen characterizes today’s wars in the Islamic world as a battle between secularism and Islamism, the idea that the original religious laws as laid down by Mohamed in the Koran should guide society and government. He compares this battle to the more than 100 years of almost constant warfare between Protestants and Catholics in the 16th and 17th century. The comparison, as we will see, is very apt, but the terms of comparison are incorrect. The contemporary element in the comparison is not a war between secularism and Islamism, but between two forms of Islam, Sunni and Shiite. In several nations we see a struggle between the secular and religious, just as in United States and Israel, but the major wars and the larger battle today are between two kinds of Islam.

The comparison between two eras of warfare in which the antagonists represent two forms of the same religion resonates in many ways: Both the Reformation era wars and the current ones between Shiites and Sunnis in Syria, Iraq and Yemen came about 1,500 years after the original establishment of the religion. In both cases, the religious wars begin a short time after the war zone, once unified under a religious autocrat, broke apart; the Reformation Wars came a hundred or so years after the emergence of nation-states from the ruins of a Christian Europe led by the Papacy; today’s wars in Islamic territories come about a hundred years after the breakup of the Islam-based Ottoman Empire. In both cases, the major battles are in transitional territories in which neither form of the religion predominates: in the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe, it was the German territories; today, the worst battles are in a transitional zone between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran. In both cases, an influx of new military technology developed in another part of the world exacerbated the conflicts, making them more brutal and deadly: during the Reformation it was gunpowder, imported from China; today it’s primarily American military technology.

By asserting that the important battle today is between secularism and religion, Owen views the current state of unrest in the Islamic world completely from a Western perspective. Westerners of course identify with the secular over the religious, at least when applied to other cultures. Today’s secular world culture is, for better or worse, the American consumerist culture, and whenever new countries embrace our model, we are bound to make a lot of money out of it.

The opposition of the secular to Islamism enables Owen to imply a good and a bad side to the war, but in doing so, Owen insults the Moslem religion. Owen clearly prefers secularism, and subtly treats Islamism as inferior. He doesn’t take sides, however, when it comes to discussing the 17th century wars.

The illustrations that accompany the article visually communicate that while both sides of the Reformation Wars had their reasons, Islamists are nothing more than barbaric thugs. On the left side of the page we see a bearded white man dressed in Renaissance garb, clutching a large white cross to his side in one hand and raising his other hand as if to make a point. On the opposing page we see the Islamic soldier also with one hand pointing up, but the other hand contains an automatic weapon, and except for white sneakers, he is clothed entirely in an ominous one-piece black outfit that covers all of his face except his eyes. The look in the Christian’s eyes is one of fear. The look in the Moslem’s eyes is menacing and dangerous. This conflation of a pious scholar with a terrorist goon drains the blood from the extremely bloody Reformation wars, while subtly delegitimizing Islamism by reducing it to violence. Incidents of war-related barbarism were common in both the 17th century and today, but the imagery suggests that only Islamic wars have driven men to despicably inhumane acts.

Owen’s article is a piece of a propaganda machine that spews out justifications for American actions in the Middle East almost on a weekly basis. Framing Middle Eastern unrest in terms of the secular versus the religious provides our leaders and our country with the ideological rationale to intervene. It also allows us to take a side with which we are sympathetic, the forces of western modernity. By contrast, focusing on the fight between two forms of a religion which has few adherents in the United States might strike most as not our business.

The real reasons we are fighting a series of disastrous wars and actions in Islamic territories are economic and political: controlling sources of oil, developing markets for our weapons industry, supporting our Saudi and Israeli allies (who themselves are at odds), and the still unknown real reason the Bush Administration decided to take down Saddam Hussein and destabilize a country sewn together after World War I from three distinct regions and cultures.

Concealing political and economic motives behind idealism also characterized the Reformation wars, in which religion stood as a proxy for the various economic interests of the German principalities, France, Spain, Sweden and other countries. Behind the fight between Sunnis and Shiites stands the geopolitical elbowing of Saudi Arabia and Iran, and probably of Egypt and Turkey as well.

Owen ignores these points of comparison, which would help make the case for pulling out our troops and drones. His intent in “From Calvin to the Caliphate” is not to learn from the past, but to use a misreading of history to provide further justification for American imperialism.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Anyone interested in ideological foundation of contemporary culture should read R. Williams’ Keywords

By Marc Jampole

In 1976, British cultural philosopher and novelist Raymond Williams published Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, which analyzed the origins and uses of 110 words that are important to the way we organize concepts about society and politics. Forgotten now by most, Williams was once a key theoretician of the New Left. A random sampling of the words he analyzed suggests how deeply Williams dug into the thought structures that form how we look at a broad range of human phenomena: unemployment, revolution, underprivileged, consumer, alienation, technology, family, genetic, experience capitalism and cover the full range of human experience, including politics, economics, society, culture, the arts, science and religion. Williams focuses on British word uses, but also covers this side of the Atlantic.

Oxford University Press has now republished the updated edition of Keywords that came out in 1983, and it is a treasure for anyone interested in the ideological basis of contemporary culture. While Hip-Hop culture, blockbuster movies, text messaging, social media and digital technology have all contributed copious words and phrases to our cultural vocabulary since the mid-1980s, little has changed in the basic concepts by which we understand society and formulate actions. Far from obsolete, Keywords still lives and breathes the assumptions of capitalism and the consumer society.

Here are a few of the many insights I have culled from reading Keywords:
·         Many words with positive associations, like interesting and improve have their origin in financial matters. Interesting derives first from having an interest in land or a business operation and then getting interest on an investment; improve and improvement first applied to land and economics before people started using it generally to denote making something better. As Williams writes, about interesting: “It seems probable that this now central word for attention, attraction and concern is saturated with the experience of a society based on money relationships.” The language certainly underscores my theory that contemporary society reduces all human relations and experiences to buying and selling.
·         Consume and consumer originally had a negative connotation, meaning “to take up completely, devour, waste, spend.” A disease of the lungs was even named consumption. American advertising has now transformed consumer into a positive trait. Consumer still focuses on using up something, i.e., what manufacturers produce. We use it positively, as in consumer choice and negatively, as in consumer society. But—to quote Williams, “the predominance of the capitalist model ensured its widespread and often overwhelming extension to such fields as politics, education and health.” For the most part, to consume is now a very good and admirable thing.
·         Our current confusion about matters of class reflects the confused origins of the words we use to describe the various classes. Lower class originally referred to the lowest ranking in a hierarchical society in which those above were inherently better humans. Middle class, on the other hand, referred from the beginning of its usage only to economic matters and described those in society with middling incomes—not the wealthy and not the poor. Building on the original meaning of the lower classes as inferior beings, the rightwing constantly uses language that delegitimizes the poor, making them seem undeserving of aid and at fault for their condition. This constant undercutting of the claims for social and economic justice for the lower class helps to form a wedge between the middle and lower classes, and influences many in the middle class to align with the wealthy, who have been picking their pockets for centuries, and certainly during the past 35 years. As Williams shows, the centuries-old strategy of the ruling elite to divide and conquer is baked into the language.

Unfortunately, Keywords has gotten the kind of play in the news media reserved for academic studies that prove that public schools do a better job of educating students than private schools do or provide precise details on how wind energy could provide all of our energy needs. In other words, Williams’ masterpiece has been virtually ignored by the mainstream news media. I routinely read book reviews in the following publications: New York Review of Books, Nation, New Yorker, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Economist, Atlantic, Foreign Affairs and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The only one of these periodicals to review Keywords, and the only reason I know about the book, is Nation magazine. A Google News search revealed that Philosophy Now, The Guardian and Purple Revolver also reviewed Keywords, a paltry number compared to the hundreds of reviews of David McCullough’s latest inspirational biography (of the Wright Brothers) and of David Brooks’ right-wing sociology, The Road to Character to be found online.

Our mass media—controlled by a handful of companies which represent the ruling elite (another word Williams covers)—naturally censor thought that does not jibe with the beliefs of their owners. The mass media allows some dissent, but not much. The media does a lot to keep false notions such as creationism, low-tax policies and deregulation alive in everyone’s minds. Meanwhile, embedded in the structure of the language are the ideological assumptions that keep the ultra-wealthy in control. Keywords is an essential book for understanding the underlying or hidden ideology that dominates the English language and therefore our thought processes.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Implementing progressive agenda would do a lot to end inequality & grow the economy

By Marc Jampole

My thanks go out to Rich Kelley, a marketing consultant for Jewish Currents, who has shown me where to find the 13-point progressive plan for America that New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio was promoting in Washington. 

He sent me links to two places: 1) C-SPAN’s rebroadcastof the speech, at the end of which you can see a scroll down of a chart on core board with all 13 points; and 2) the Progressive Agenda website, which proposes 14 points and includes an online petition to sign. De Blasio’s speech was definitely related to the website, as both used the same headline and logo to introduce the agenda. Moreover, the 13 points De Blasio makes are all on the Progressive Agenda list.

As I pointed out the day after De Blasio’s speech in Washington, D.C., the mainstream news media covered only extraneous aspects of the very good Mayor’s proposals: Did it piss off people in NYC who would prefer he stayed at home? Would it affect his relationship with Hillary Clinton? Was he stealing the center of attention from Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders? Not one media outlet followed by Google News published the 13 points.

That doesn’t exonerate De Blasio and the organizers of the Progressive Agenda website for not placing a news release with all 13 points on a website somewhere and for not connecting De Blasio’s speech with the broader initiative on the website. Not having the same number of points is sloppy, to be sure, but worse yet, it shows uncoordinated activity and thus diminishes a broad-based movement into a series of disparate actors and actions. Let’s hope, however, that mere sloppiness led to the fact that we learn nothing about the organizers or major funders of the Progressive Agenda anywhere on the website. Just because recent court decisions makes it legal to hide contributions, doesn’t mean it’s right. Progressives must not only proffer a program to help the 99% that 35 years of economic and taxation policies has left behind. We must make certain the progressive program also be based on facts and presented with the openness that facilitates democracy.

Those quibbles aside, I heartily endorse the Progressive Agenda, and urge OpEdge readers to sign its online petition.

Whoever created the agenda divides it into three sections, as follows:

Lift the Floor for Working People

1.       Raise the federal minimum wage, so that it reaches $15/hour, while indexing it to inflation.
2.       Reform the National Labor Relations Act, to enhance workers’ right to organize and rebuild the middle class.
3.       Pass comprehensive immigration reform to grow the economy and protect against exploitation of low-wage workers.
4.       Oppose trade deals that hand more power to corporations at the expense of American jobs, workers’ rights, and the environment.
5.       Invest in schools, not jails -- and give a second chance to those coming home from prison. This point is the one not on De Blasio’s list.

Support Working Families

6.       Pass national paid sick leave.
7.       Pass national paid family leave.
8.       Make Pre-K, after-school programs and childcare universal.
9.       Expand the Earned Income Tax Credit and protect and expand Social Security.
10.    Allow students to refinance student loan debt to take advantage of lower interest rates, and support debt-free college.

Tax Fairness

11.    Close the carried interest loophole.
12.    End tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas.
13.    Implement the “Buffett Rule” so millionaires pay their fair share.
14.    Close the CEO tax loophole that allows corporations to take advantage of “performance pay” write-offs.

The agenda is a good start, but it’s missing a few items:
·         Remove the ceiling on income assessed for the Social Security tax and make all income and bonuses subject to the tax.
·         Increase direct support of public schools and universities to decrease class size in elementary schools, increase resources for middle and senior high schools and lower the cost to attend college.
·         Expand cheap and free public vocational training.
·         Close down all charter schools that do not pay their teachers the same salary as the prevailing public school wage and whose employees are not represented by the same union representing the teachers in the public school.
·         Place a tariff on all goods and services from other countries equal to the difference in the cost of labor and environmental and safety costs between the United States and the exporter.
·         Fund a massive infrastructure program that repairs our existing roads, bridges and inter-city trains and expands mass transit within and between cities using the latest advances in alternative fuel technologies.

The organizers could also add a section on actions that would make our political system more small-d democratic and inclusive, including rolling back all the restrictive voting laws recently passed whenever Republicans have controlled both houses of a state legislature; passing laws that would lessen the importance of money and mitigate the impact of the Citizens United decision; and limiting the number of media outlets any company can own in any region and in total and making companies divest themselves of media properties to meet the new restriction.

But that doesn’t mean the Progressive Agenda is not a good plan. It’s a very good plan that we should all support by signing the petition and telling all candidates in writing that we won’t vote for them unless they support the Progressive Agenda.