Thursday, October 16, 2014

WikiLeaks: US pushes to extend drug monopolies in secret proposed trade deal


Excerpts from a proposed international trade agreement leaked to the web this week suggest that the United States is pushing for changes that would make it more difficult to get life-saving drugs overseas.

On Thursday, transparency group WikiLeaks published a draft chapter from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement which 12 countries, including the US, have been negotiating in near total privacy for years.

According to the secret-spilling organization, the latest leaked chapter — an excerpt from May 2014 detailing proposed intellectual property, or IP, rules — indicates that American trade reps want to maintain a monopoly on life-saving drugs and stifle efforts from foreign nations to obtain such products affordably and with ease.

A portion of the chapter backed by the US, WikiLeaks wrote in a statement that accompanied Thursday's unauthorized disclosure of the draft document, would "force Parties to enact an automatic monopoly period (marketing exclusivity) for life-saving drugs, with a choice for the groups to decide for definitive inclusion within the treaty of 0, 5, 8 or 12 years."

"Experts state that the United States is pushing for the maximum 12 years, with the countries' Ministers to decide as the IP negotiators cannot agree on this controversial issue," WikiLeaks reported. According to their analysis, achieving as much if and when the TPP is finally approved could have catastrophic results and run counter to exactly what the White House has said in the past.

"Administration will have gone back on its promise to make cancer drugs affordable, having previously pledged to reduce the monopoly period on biotech drugs from 12 to 7 years. This will mean patients needing these drugs will remain with hugely expensive medical bills for years to come. These costs are also generally unattainable for citizens in the developing countries in the TPP," WikiLeaks said.

Julian Assange, the editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, said in a statement that: "The lack of movement within the TPP IP Chapter shows that this only stands to harm people, and no one is satisfied. This clearly demonstrates that such an all-encompassing and divisive trade agreement is too damaging to be brought into force. The TPP should stop now."

Indeed, analysts at the Washington, DC-based Public Citizen consumer rights advocacy group raised concerns of their own about the draft this week.

"The text includes US-backed measures that would expand pharmaceutical monopoly power and compromise access to medicines in Pacific Rim countries," the group said. "Deep resistance to these measures from many negotiating countries has endured for years. The US has dropped some harmful proposals, but continues to insist on many others."

Providing longer-term monopolies for the companies that produce life-saving drugs, Public Citizen agreed, "contradicts the policies included in recent White House budgets and if adopted would undermine key cost savings touted by the administration." Nevertheless, passage of the TPP in this form would allow little room for change, the group said, because "Congress would be unable to reduce monopoly periods without risking significant penalties and investor-state arbitration."

"With billions at stake, Big Pharma wants the TPP to be a road map for rules that will govern Pacific Rim economies for the next several decades," Public Citizen said.

"The leak shows our government demanding rules that would lead to preventable suffering and death in Pacific Rim countries, while eliminating opportunities to ease financial hardship on American families and our health programs at home," Peter Maybarduk, the director of that group's Global Access to Medicines Program, said in a statement.

Representatives from 12 nations in all — the US, Japan, Mexico, Canada, Australia, Malaysia, Chile, Singapore, Peru, Vietnam, New Zealand and Brunei — have been involved so far in TPP negotiations, and are scheduled to meet later this month in Canberra, then Sydney, to further discuss the proposal.

Much to the chagrin of WikiLeaks and other transparency advocates, the TPP has been negotiated almost entirely in secrecy since the start of discussions.

"No wonder they kept it secret," online entrepreneur Kim Dotcom of New Zealand previously told RT's Andrew Blake when WikiLeaks published a chapter of the TPP late last year. "What a malicious piece of US corporate lobbying. TPP is about world domination for US corporations. Nothing else. We will stop this madness in New Zealand."

According to WikiLeaks, the group's decision to publish a TPP excerpt last November may have forced some trade reps in the months since to reconsider certain aspects.

"Since that point, some controversial and damaging areas have had little change; issues surrounding digital rights have moved little. However, there are significant industry-favouring additions within the areas of pharmaceuticals and patents. These additions are likely to affect access to important medicines such as cancer drugs and will also weaken the requirements needed to patent genes in plants, which will impact small farmers and boost the dominance of large agricultural corporations like Monsanto," WikiLeaks said. "Nevertheless, some areas that were highlighted after WikiLeaks' last IP Chapter release have seen alterations that reflect the controversy; surgical method patents have been removed from the text. Doctors' groups said this was vitally important for allowing doctors to engage in medical procedures without fear of a lawsuit for providing the best care for their patients. Opposition is increasing to remove the provision proposed by the US and Japan that would require granting of patents for new drugs that are slightly altered from a previous patented one (evergreening), a technique by the pharmaceutical industry to prolong market monopoly."

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Thursday, September 25, 2014

G.O.P. Error Reveals Donors and the Price of Access


The documents, many of which the Republican officials have since removed from their website, showed that many of America's most prominent companies, from Aetna to Walmart, had poured millions of dollars into the campaigns of Republican governors since 2008. One document listed 17 corporate "members" of the governors association's secretive 501(c)(4), the Republican Governors Public Policy Committee, which is allowed to shield its supporters from the public.

Continue reading the main story

Document: The Price of Political Influence

"This is a classic example of how corporations are trying to use secret money, hidden from the American people, to buy influence, and how the governors association is selling it," said Fred Wertheimer, the president of Democracy 21, a nonpartisan group that advocates more transparency and controls over political money.

The trove of documents, discovered by watchdogs at the Democrat-aligned Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW, sheds light on the secretive world of 501(c)(4) political groups, just as the battle over their future intensifies. Unlike the Republican Governors Association, the tax-exempt Republican Governors Public Policy Committee is not required to disclose anything, even as donors hit the links, rub shoulders and trade policy talk with governors and their top staff members.

At a policy committee symposium last year at the Omni La Costa Resort and Spa in Carlsbad, Calif., committee members included the health insurers Aetna and WellPoint, the insurance lobby America's Health Insurance Plans, the utility giant Southern Company, and the lobbying firms Dutko Grayling (now known as Grayling), BGR Group and Leavitt Partners.

With Congress producing so little legislation, governors' offices have become attractive targets, Mr. Wertheimer said. Last year, the Republican Governors Public Policy Committee allowed corporate donors to make their cases on how to carry out the Affordable Care Act; discuss hydraulic fracturing, an oil- and gas-exploration method regulated at the state level; and hash over state budgets just as coffers began to loosen.

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Friday, July 18, 2014

Detroit elites declare: “Water is not a social right”


The shut off of water service for tens of thousands of Detroit residents has generated national and international attention. The scenes of young mothers, children, the elderly, the sick and low-income workers deprived of water for drinking, cleaning and cooking—in what is supposed to be the richest country of the world—have provoked astonishment and revulsion.

This barbaric policy has become a major political question in Detroit. Earlier this week a federal judge overseeing the city's bankruptcy case complained that the shutoffs were producing "a lot of anger" and giving Detroit "a reputation not only in this country but around the world." Opposition generated by the shutoffs, he warned, could threaten the city's plan to impose deeply unpopular cuts to city worker pensions and health care benefits.

The near universal condemnation, which included charges by the UN that the shutoffs were a violation of international human rights, has not led to any shift in policy. In an interview published in the Detroit News Thursday, the city's unelected emergency manager Kevyn Orr, defended the shutoffs.

"I'm very supportive of the water department's and the Board of Water Commissioners' decision to do what every other regulated utility does in the United States, which is, if you use water you've got to pay for it," Orr told the Detroit News .

Orr scoffed at the "hysteria out there that we are cutting off water to tens of thousands of people" and insisted "less than five percent" of those being shut off "had legitimate needs." He slandered the majority of the victims of this inhumane policy as "drug addicts, illegal squatters, scofflaws and the people gaming the system." These people, he insisted, should not be "provided with a free service."

Orr repeated the lie that the "scofflaws" were causing rates to go up for paying customers. In fact, the water department has admitted that rising rates—which have shot up 120 percent in the last decade—are chiefly due to the disappearance of federal funding to repair the antiquated water system and the high cost of debt servicing. Fifty cents of every dollar in revenue goes directly to the Wall Street banks and wealthy bondholders who have used the municipally owned water system as a cash cow.

Behind all the lies and cynicism, the message was clear: people do not have the right to water any more than they do for food, shelter, health care or any other vital necessity. In capitalist America if you do not pay for something, even something as essential as water, you will have to do without it.

This brutal outlook of the American ruling class was made explicit by Nolan Finley, the right-wing columnist for the Detroit News, whose opinion piece Thursday was headlined: "There is no right to free water."

Finley has long been a shameless mouthpiece for the corporate and financial interests that dominate Detroit. He has previously called for the destruction of the "entitlement mentality" in the city—that is, the view that workers should expect decent wages, pensions and health care. Two years ago, he declared that "democracy has failed" in Detroit and called for a "short-term dictator" (later arriving in the person of Kevyn Orr) to "create a sustainable operating model."

Looking for a higher authority to justify the inhumane shutoff policy, Finley turns to the Old Testament in his more recent column, writing, "Ever since Adam and Eve got booted out of Eden, people have devoted most of their energy and labor to meeting the basic needs of food, water, clothing and shelter. It's the origin of work—you're hungry, you're thirsty, you need some decent threads and a roof over your head, you have to get up in the morning and do something constructive."

With unabashed arrogance and contempt for the population, Finley accuses residents of squandering money on cable television and cell phones. Once the shutoffs began, he asserts, many households paid up their bills, "suggesting that they could have been paying all along." What existed in Detroit, he declared, "is not a humanitarian crisis" but a "forced reordering of priorities."

There is little doubt many residents stopped paying for food, medicine and other daily necessities to get their water turned back on. Thousands of others, however, continue to live without water or are hauling buckets from their neighbor's homes and fire hydrants or relying on bottled water from volunteers.

According to the corporate and financial elite and their political and media henchmen like Orr and Finley, workers have no social rights. Pensions, health care, public education, access to culture will only be available to those who can afford it. If the capitalists could privatize the air people breath, it would not be a right either.

The shutting off of water in Detroit is part of a national and international process in which the gains won in over a century of struggle by the working class are being destroyed as part of a vast transfer of wealth into the hands of the super-rich. Whether it is in Detroit, Athens or Madrid, hundreds of thousands of teachers, firefighters, transit and other public workers are losing their jobs and having their pensions stolen to pay off the banks responsible for the financial crash of 2008.

The Detroit bankruptcy is being used to spearhead this assault in the US. The financial dictator, Orr, and the federal bankruptcy court are setting a precedent for the gutting of constitutionally protected retirement benefits, while selling off and privatizing water, street lighting, art museums, parks and other publicly owned treasures.

Low-income residents are being kicked out of the city, as Orr implements a plan to essentially shut down whole areas of Detroit, which are deemed too poor for investment. Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies are being handed over to real estate developers who have snatched up land and skyscrapers for pennies. This is the "restructuring of priorities" that Finley advocates.

Finley directs his immediate complaints to a demonstration planned by Netroots on Friday. The demonstration is part of a conference organized this weekend in Detroit by a coalition of Democratic Party officials, unions, publications like the Nation magazine and other organizations oriented to the Democrats. Netroots is seeking to divert attention from the responsibility of the Democrats who run Detroit, including Orr himself. The water shutoffs are in fact a bipartisan policy, and the restructuring of Detroit enjoys the full backing of Obama and both big business parties.

Significantly, however, the actual target of Finley's column is a position that no section of the political establishment, including the groups organizing Friday's rally, raise: that water should be a social right, freely available to all. What Finley and the ruling class as a whole fear is that the demand for these rights will become a rallying cry of a mass movement, and that workers will come to understand that these rights are incompatible with the capitalist system.

Concluding his editorial, the newspaper columnist writes: "Charitable minded citizens have never objected to helping care for neighbors who are unable to care for themselves. But they understandably don't have much appetite for carrying on their backs those who choose to indulge their wants before their needs."

Here Finley says perhaps more than he intends. The true "scofflaws" are not the workers of Detroit, but the financial parasites that Finley speaks for. It is this social layer that workers can no longer afford to "carry on their backs." The outrageous, inhumane and barbaric policy dictated by Orr, Finley and their political co-conspirators is only making this fact all the more clear.

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Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Rachel Maddow Explains Why The Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby Ruling Is Such A Major Blow


Rachel Maddow was dismayed by the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision on Monday.

The court ruled that Hobby Lobby and other "closely held" corporations cannot be required to cover contraception for their employees if doing so would contradict religious beliefs. Maddow pointed to two cases where organizations cited religion as the basis of their business practices in the past, but the courts did strike those practices down.

One was the case of restaurant owner Maurice Bessinger, who believed that segregation was justified by the Bible. In 1968, the Supreme Court ruled that he had to desegregate his Piggie Park restaurant chain. Years later, a federal appeals court also ruled that the Fremont Christian School in California could not withhold health benefits to their married female employees.

The Supreme Court's ruling on Monday was "very, very different" from those two other decisions, Maddow lamented Monday.

"The five members of the conservative majority voted that the religious beliefs, or lack thereof, of a company's employees — those are effectively overruled by the religious beliefs of the boss," she said. "The boss' religion determines what laws apply to his or her employees and his or her business, at least on this issue."

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Congress Quietly Deletes a Key Disclosure of Free Trips Lawmakers Take


It's going to be a little more difficult to ferret out which members of Congress are lavished with all-expenses-paid trips around the world after the House has quietly stripped away the requirement that such privately sponsored travel be included on lawmakers' annual financial-disclosure forms.

The move, made behind closed doors and without a public announcement by the House Ethics Committee, reverses more than three decades of precedent. Gifts of free travel to lawmakers have appeared on the yearly financial form dating back its creation in the late 1970s, after the Watergate scandal. National Journal uncovered the deleted disclosure requirement when analyzing the most recent batch of yearly filings.

"This is such an obvious effort to avoid accountability," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "There's no legitimate reason. There's no good reason for it."


Free trips paid for by private groups must still be reported separately to the House's Office of the Clerk and disclosed there. But they will now be absent from the chief document that reporters, watchdogs, and members of the public have used for decades to scrutinize lawmakers' finances.

Related: Nancy Pelosi Says Decision to Delete Reporting Requirement for Free Trips 'Must Be Reversed'

"The more you can hide, the less accountable you can be," Sloan said of lawmakers. "It's clear these forms are useful for reporters and watchdogs, and obviously a little too useful."

House Ethics Committee Chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas, did not return a call for comment; ranking member Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., referred questions to committee staff. The committee declined to comment.

The change occurs as free travel, which critics have criticized as thinly veiled junkets, has come back into vogue. Last year, members of Congress and their aides took more free trips than in any year since the influence-peddling scandal that sent lobbyist Jack Abramoff to prison. There were nearly 1,900 trips at a cost of more than $6 million last year, according to Legistorm, which compiles travel records.

Now none of those trips must be included on the annual disclosures of lawmakers or their aides.

The tabs for these international excursions can run into the tens of thousands of dollars. One trip to Australia earlier this year cost nearly $50,000. Lawmakers are often invited to bring along their husbands or wives, fly in business class, and stay in plush four-star hotels. In the wake of the Abramoff scandal, lobbyists were banned from organizing or paying for these travels. But some of the nonprofits underwriting them today have extremely close ties to lobbying groups, including sharing staff, money, and offices.

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Mexican ‘germ invasion’ is “the right’s latest anti-immigration myth.”


One hundred years ago, the KKK accused migrants of spreading disease. Fox News picked up where they left off

fox news diseases border 'Measles and chickenpox and leprosy?!' To which Fox's medical correspondent responded: 'Absolutely.'

Late last week, before President Obama gave up on pressuring Congress on comprehensive immigration reform in favor of his familiar executive actions, media outlets began pressing a familiar non-news item.

The local CBS station in Dallas/Fort Worth reported that "four or five [US Border Patrol] agents have tested positive" for illnesses such as chicken pox or tuberculosis, ostensibly contracted at their border posts. With over 18,500 agents stationed along the Mexican border, the headline probably should have been something like "Border Patrol Agents Unusually Healthy Among Americans". Matt Drudge preferred, as usual, a more pernicious threat: BORDER PATROL AGENTS TEST POSITIVE FOR DISEASE CARRIED BY IMMIGRANTS.

Channel 11 in Dallas also reported that one of the children among the 52,000 who have crossed US borders in the last few months has been diagnosed with H1N1 virus (also known as "swine flu"). Congressman Henry Cuellar blamed the potential problem on "some of these countries where they don't have great health care systems." Perhaps he was talking about the United States: Now that H1N1 is the predominant flu strain in the US and Canada, the Centers for Disease Control reports that 2,008 of the 2,815 reported cases of the flu in the US this season have been identified as H1N1. That means that if you had the flu in the US in the past nine months, it is more than 70% likely that you were infected with the swine flu, just like the sick child trapped in Texas.

A little informed comparison can be helpful: a study of mortality among US school teachers suggests that they contract autoimmune illnesses at a rate disproportionate with the general population. Also: the subway is a major conduit for the spread of influenza, including swine flu.

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Hobby Lobby Funded Disgraced Fundamentalist Christian Leader Accused of Harassing Dozens of Women


"The crafts store chain and its owners gave millions in backing to controversial evangelical Bill Gothard and his Institute in Basic Life Principles.

For a decade or so, Hobby Lobby and its owners, the Green family, have been generous benefactors of a Christian ministry that until recently was run by Bill Gothard, a controversial religious leader who has long promoted a strict and authoritarian version of Christianity. Gothard, a prominent champion of Christian home-schooling, has decried the evils of dating, rock music, and Cabbage Patch dolls; claimed public education teaches children "how to commit suicide" and undermines spirituality; contended that mental illness is merely "varying degrees of irresponsibility"; and urged wives to "submit to the leadership" of their husbands. Critics of Gothard have associated him with Christian Reconstructionism, an ultrafundamentalist movement that yearns for a theocracy, and accused him of running a cultlike organization. In March, he was pressured to resign from his ministry, the Institute in Basic Life Principles, after being accused by more than 30 women of sexual harassment and molestation—a charge Gothard denies.

The Institute traces it origins to 1964, when Gothard designed a college seminar based on biblical principles to help teenagers. The ministry says it was established "for the purpose of introducing people to the Lord Jesus Christ" and to give individuals, families, businesses, and governments "clear instruction and training on how to find success by following God's principles found in Scripture." The group, which operates what it calls "training centers" across the United States and abroad, says more than 2.5 million people have attended its paid events, which have brought in tens of millions of dollars in revenue. Gothard and the Institute have drawn support from conservative politicians, including Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, and former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue. The Duggar family, the stars of the reality show 19 Kids and Counting, have been high-profile advocates of Gothard's home-schooling curriculum and seminars. (One of Gothard's alleged victims has called on the Duggars to break with Gothard and the Institute.) Don Venoit, a conservative evangelical who has long been a critic of Gothard, contends that Gothard's approach to Christian theology emphasizing obedience to authority creates a "culture of fear." In 1984, Ronald Allen, now a professor of Bible exposition at Dallas Theological Seminary, observed that Gothard's teachings were "a parody of patriarchalism" and "the basest form of male chauvinism I have ever heard in a Christian context." He added, "Gothard has lost the biblical balance of the relationship between women and men as equals in relationship. His view is basically anti-woman."

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5 myths about the Hobby Lobby case, debunked #hobbylobby


In the wake of the Supreme Court's decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, which said for-profit businesses can get religious exemptions to insurance coverage of contraception, you're probably hearing a lot of dubious assertions about contraceptive access. Here are some facts.

1. "What's the big deal? Contraceptives are cheap." Not many of the most effective ones, which save money over time but have high up-front costs. For example, the IUD, to which Hobby Lobby objects, can cost between $500 and $1,000, including the care surrounding its insertion. The monthly cost of the hormonal pill can be low, but doesn't make sense for all kinds of women, including those who experience side effects. Under the regulations Hobby Lobby objects to, the out-of-pocket cost for any FDA-approved contraceptive should be zero.  

According to the brief from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, "Lack of insurance coverage deters many women from choosing a high-cost contraceptive, even if that method is best for her health and lifestyle, and may result in her resorting to a method that places her more at risk for medical complications or improper or inconsistent use."

Women are already saving money under the contraceptive coverage requirement, which began going into effect in August 2012; an average of $269 per woman, according to a recent report by the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics, or $483 million total in 2013.

2. "But Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood only object to four forms of contraception." That is true. (As the Guttmacher Institute's Adam Sonfield points out, in their formal complaints, they also object to counseling for those forms for contraception. No one knows what that will mean in practice.) But there are dozens of other plaintiffs in cases pending before federal courts who object to all birth control. For example, the owners of Freshway Foods object to all forms of birth control coverage. They already got a preliminary injunction at the D.C. Circuit, where Judge Janice Rogers Brown described the coverage requirement as "the compelled subsidization of a woman's procreative practices."

Here's a list of the 149 for-profit companies whose cases are already pending, including several that object to all forms of contraception. Now that the Supreme Court has sanctioned their standing to make those claims and classified the coverage requirement as a substantial burden, they only have to show the sincerity of their beliefs to win. 

3. "Anyway, those forms of contraception are actually abortifacient." The baseline question here is whether potentially and intentionally preventing the implantation of a fertilized egg constitutes abortion. That's not the medical definition of abortion, which is ending a pregnancy. But let's say your sincerely held belief is that interfering with the implantation of a fertilized egg is tantamount to abortion, as it is for the Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood owners. There is very little evidence showing that the objected-to methods – two forms of intrauterine devices and two forms of emergency contraception – even work that way, with the exception of the copper IUD. 

There are two kinds of emergency contraception on the market: an over-the-counter one generally known as Plan B and a prescription-only one known as Ella. According to the amicus brief filed by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and several other medical associations, "there is no scientiļ¬c evidence that emergency contraceptives available in the United States and approved by the FDA affect an existing pregnancy." Instead, they prevent ovulation, so there is no egg to fertilize. That includes the longer-acting Ella: "There is no evidence that [Ella] affects implantation."

One form of the IUD, known on the market at the Mirena, includes hormones that prevent ovulation. The other, preferred by women who experience side effects from artificial hormones, doesn't. "When used as emergency contraception" – i.e., after unprotected sexual activity – "the [non-hormonal IUD] could also act to prevent implantation," according to the amicus.

If you're keeping count, that's one out of four that maybe does what the plaintiffs say it does, in the rare instances it's inserted after unprotected sex – and that's still not the medical definition of abortion.

4. "But the government can just pay." This one comes right from the majority, which said the Obama administration had failed the test of finding the least restrictive means to accomplish its goal. Justice Samuel Alito, writing the majority opinion, suggested "the most straightforward way" of filling the gaps would be for "the government to assume the cost." He doesn't have to care that this is, under current political realities, laughable. Senate Democrats have said they'll introduce a legislative fix to the gaps left by the Hobby Lobby decision, but no one seriously thinks such a bill would become law.

There is an existing family-planning funding program for low-income women, Title X, and nearly all House Republicans have already voted to gut it. In the 2012 campaign, Mitt Romney promised he would kill the program altogether.

Title X funding has gone down more than two-thirds since 1980, after adjusting for inflation," said the Guttmacher Institute's Adam Sonfield. "It is far less funded than it needs to be to fully meet the needs of low-income, uninsured people in this county," he added. "Adding all of these privately insured people would overload it even more and make it even more vulnerable to political attacks."

Some commentators have argued that contraception is cheaply available at Planned Parenthood. That would be largely due to the same federal funding that's under attack, or state administration of it. In numerous states, most notoriously Texas, access to contraception has been sharply curtailed by politicians looking to punish Planned Parenthood for separately provided abortion.

Alito also says the government can just add female employees of religious objectors to the same accommodation the objecting non-profits got, where coverage comes directly from the insurer. He is aware, of course, that 122 religiously-affiliated non-profits are already suing over that accommodation, with one of their attorneys calling the opt-out form a "permission slip for abortion." Mark Rienzi, the same attorney (who also represented Eleanor McCullen in her successful challenge to Massachusetts' buffer zone law), wrote yesterday that he believes the court's reasoning in Hobby Lobby paves the way for the nonprofits to win the same full exemption churches got – in other words, the employee gets no insurance coverage at all.

Even if private employers do agree to the nonprofit accommodation, it's based on an administrative regulation that can change when the occupant of the White House does.

5. "It's just contraception. It's not vital health care." This also comes straight from the majority opinion, though more implicitly. Alito holds at arms' length the government's claims that "public health" and "gender equality" are compelling interests, because, he says, they're too broad. Whether the law serves a "compelling government interest" is part of the test under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was the crucial law in the case. But it's sufficiently unclear that Alito believes contraceptive access matters at all that Justice Anthony Kennedy felt the need to write separately to "confirm" it.

Believing women's equality matters is a value – one that, clearly, not everyone holds. But contraceptives' public health benefits are inarguable. Just ask the leading group for obstetricians and gynecologists, who wrote in their brief, "Pregnancies that are too frequent and too closely spaced, which are more likely when those pregnancies are unintended, put women at significantly greater risk for permanent physical health damage … The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified family planning as one of the greatest public health achievements of the twentieth century, finding that smaller families and longer birth intervals contribute to the better health of infants, children, and women, as well as improving the social and economic roles of women." They added, "Contraception also helps to protect the health of those women for whom pregnancy can be hazardous, or even life-threatening," which Justice Kennedy does note in his concurrence.

There are also benefits unrelated to pregnancy, the ACOG amicus points out: Hormonal birth control "helps address several menstrual disorders, helps prevent menstrual migraines, treats pelvic pain from endometriosis, and treats bleeding from uterine fibroids."   

Is all of that "compelling"? Justice Alito declined to explicitly say. 

SCOTUS case: In 1968 Maurice’s Piggie Park BBQ In South Carolina claimed right to refuse service to blacks based on his religious beliefs


"Hobby Lobby represents another, less blatant generation of people who still want to shove their prejudices and ignorance down the throats of others behind the guise of "religious freedom." Fortunately, just as Mr. Bessinger and his racism shuffled off this mortal coil and into the dustbin history, so will the owners of Hobby Lobby and their religious bigotry."

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Friday, June 27, 2014

A damning exposure of the assault on public education in the US


eign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools by Diane Ravitch (Alfred A. Knopf, Borzoi Books, 2013, 396 pp.)

If the World Socialist Web Site had not already coined the term "social counterrevolution," it would be necessary to do so when surveying the fate of the American public school system.

A staggering change has swept over the United States.

The struggle for an equal and high quality educational system took center stage in American life for many decades. The historic Supreme Court ruling, Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the expansion of public education during the Great Society years and the dramatic increase in college accessibility after 1965 provided tremendous hope for the future in the minds of millions. The vast human potential to develop science, technology, art and culture was in the air.

While this phenomenon was bound up with a temporary retreat before the struggles of the working class and Cold War geopolitical considerations—and would soon face reversal alongside the US debacle in Vietnam—it was nevertheless a deeply felt aspiration throughout broad swathes of society.

Today, public education lies in tatters, an openly class-based system. Corporate vultures and their politicians are proceeding apace to cash in on the growing education marketplace. Sixty years after Brown, segregated schools have increasingly become the norm again, public school districts are being starved of funding and the costs of college have becoming an interminable nightmare for massively indebted students and their families.

Diane Ravitch's latest best-seller, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools, takes a look at the terrible social retrogression in K-12 education. The volume updates her 2011 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, and traces the "transformation of a movement for testing and accountability" into a drive for outright privatization of education spearheaded by the Obama administration.

The book is worth reading. A historian of education and a research professor at New York University, Ravitch has spent a lifetime studying and writing about the history of education in the US.

Her political biography, moreover, gives her particular insight into the attack on education. In the 1990s, she was a corporate "reform" and "school choice" advocate, serving as assistant secretary of education under George H.W. Bush's federal push for national educational standards. She served another seven years in the Clinton administration as a member of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federal testing program. By the end of the decade, however, she famously rethought her views and repudiated the right-wing corporate "reform" outlook, vociferously denouncing her previous support to No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

As a political insider as well as an academic, the author knows her subject matter well. At the same time, she refuses to draw any conclusions that interfere with her support to the trade union apparatus and the Democratic Party—and, above all, the capitalist profit system. This leads her to advance conformist "solutions," which can go nowhere.

Reign of Error indicts the educational policies of every US president, Democrat and Republican, since Ronald Reagan and the 1983 publication of A Nation at Risk, the event associated with the launching of the corporate "reform" movement. She points to the perpetual renewal of a "narrative of crisis" in American schools and sees its most recent incarnation as a propaganda campaign by right-wing organizations such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), funded by major corporations, to destabilize and destroy public education in the interest of profit-making concerns.

Ravitch argues passionately, and corroborates with statistics, that the real problem in the American educational system is not test scores, teachers or curricula, but the terrible growth of poverty. Here she finds herself repeatedly attacking the political premises and politics of both the Republicans and Democrats, and specifically the Obama administration.

In the section "The Facts About the Achievement Gap," for example, Ravitch rejects the administration's claim that the "single most important" element in a child's learning is their teacher, pointing to the well-known role of family income and education. She cites a recent Stanford study showing that the income achievement gap has been growing for at least 50 years, with the current gap 30-40 percent larger for children born in 2001 than for those born 25 years earlier. The study found that income gap is now twice as large as the black-white achievement gap. These types of statistics are rarely, if ever, found in the American media reports on the crisis of schools.

She reviews in detail other au courant fads and fallacies including "value-added metrics" for education, merit pay, the parent-trigger, the role of big data and the ever-malleable "declining test scores."

The book is particularly pointed in detailing how the financial industry is cashing in on education. Not only does it not pull any punches when it comes to the Obama administration, she asserts that the opening up of the lucrative education market was the primary intention of Obama's educational policy.

Ravitch quotes Joanne Weiss, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's chief of staff, previously the chief operating officer at NewSchools Venture Fund. She states that Obama's signature education initiative Race to the Top (RTTT) "was designed to scale up entrepreneurial activity, to encourage the creation of new markets for both for-profit and nonprofit investors."

She says this trend is escalating dramatically as a result of the widespread implementation (in line with RTTT requirements) of Common Core State Standards (CCSS). This, she describes in a recent blog, amounted to "an educational coup" made possible by "the close relationship between the Gates Foundation and the Obama administration." The administration designed a special contest using economic stimulus funds to reward states that accepted the standards.

Reign of Error projects the cost of CCSS to cash-strapped states to be as much as a whopping $16 billion. Among the most well-heeled beneficiaries of the program are the mega-publishing/testing/curricula developer conglomerate Pearson and Wireless Generation, a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation. (See the recent Washington Post article detailing both Gates' bankrolling of the creation of CCSS and its marketing campaign, which cost $200 million alone. The article notes that the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association were major recipients of this funding).

Siphoning off taxpayer dollars for education alongside big business are, of course, the banks and hedge funds, which point to education as an "emerging market" worth an estimated $500 billion annually. Ravitch notes the existence of one such group, the Democrats for Education Reform. The organization is comprised of hedge fund managers who back the charter school movement and assorted "accountability" efforts. DFER's first meeting in 2005 was addressed, Ravitch points out, by Illinois Senator Barack Obama. Indicative of its influence, the DFER recommended Arne Duncan—then the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools—for US Secretary of Education in the incoming administration.

Wall Street's embrace of the charter school model is documented in Reign of Error, which examines the various ways that these unregulated entities create profit opportunities. Noting that the first federal government program to support charters was developed by President Bill Clinton, Ravitch points out they received $100 million in funding under George W. Bush, and expanded even further under Obama's RTTT, a competition offering $4.3 billion in aid only to those states that lifted their caps on charters.

In addition to direct funding of charters, the federal government also now provides tax breaks to encourage banks and individuals to invest in charter school construction. For example, the Community Renewal Tax Relief Act of 2000 includes a credit allowing investors in charter school construction to collect a "safe and reliable return of 39% over seven years." Real estate investment trusts have joined the bandwagon. Ravitch cites the statement of David Brain, head of the $3 billion Entertainment Properties Trust, pointing to the development of 500 charter schools a year as a "$2.5 billion opportunity."

Ravitch details the growth of the for-profit model of charter school, now most dominant in Michigan, and the use of education management organizations (EMOs) to skim off large portions of taxpayers' money even when the school is purportedly not-for-profit. At the time of writing the book there were about 200 different EMOs operating in 28 states. She emphasizes that charter schools are deregulated and free from most state laws other than those governing health and safety. In Louisiana, the author states, the deregulation is so extreme that even teacher certification is not required.

The chapter "Trouble in E-land" is a good look at the growth of virtual charter schools and the mushrooming of this, the most rapacious for-profit sector of education. She documents how "education technology companies, Wall Street equity funds, and school choice advocates combined to promote online schooling."

In sum, Ravitch scathingly characterizes the net effect of NCLB and RTTT—of Bush and Obama—as a retrograde "redefinition" of the entire education landscape in the US. This is exactly on point. But what does she make of it?

Ravitch's history and experience provide her with a certain insight, but they are also the source of her fatal limitation as a critic. She speaks to the rise of poverty, social inequality and the predations of the moneyed elite as the fundamental source of the problem but refuses to ever consider the root cause of these phenomena—the capitalist profit system.

The author says Reign of Error was intended to address the criticism that her previous volume was "short on answers." To this point, she spends a significant amount of time making the case for such elemental necessities as prenatal care for every pregnant woman, universal high-quality preschool, universal immunizations, reduction of class sizes and ending poverty. But the clear message—despite her detailed enumeration of the bipartisan assault on education—is that "grassroots" pressure can bring forward the right bourgeois candidate to address these needs.

Such futile efforts have led her time and again to contradict the clear meaning of her own devastating exposures and to undermine their seriousness. Despite Obama's full-throated embrace of corporate "reform" and his obvious opposition to all the above policies, Ravitch pressed him repeatedly to "change course". She questioned "whether President Obama, Secretary Duncan, and Congress will hear their [teachers'] message" about equitable funding of public schools and an end to high-stakes testing, as if the answer weren't already clear. Reign of Error evinces her bitter disappointment that Obama "doubled down" on the now-infamous NCLB, enthusiastically validating vouchers, charters, privatization and CCSS. Yet she endorsed him for re-election in 2012—a fact conveniently omitted in the book .

The author's record amounts to not just one, but a string of endorsements for the liberal "flavor of the day" capitalist politician …yesterday Obama, today New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio or California Governor Jerry Brown. She never anticipates or takes responsibility for their inevitable attacks on education and the working class.

So why does Ravitch choose to wear political blinders? The author's allegiance to the legacy of former American Federation of Teachers President Albert Shanker—who she favorably mentions several times in Reign of Errorspeaks volumes about her politics. Shanker was a rabid anticommunist, notorious for his hardline support for the Vietnam War and CIA subversion campaigns around the world. His policies domestically, in line with the AFL-CIO in general, were just as pro-capitalist. In 1983, Shanker shocked teachers by endorsing A Nation at Risk.

Formerly a board member of the Albert Shanker Institute, Ravitch counts as her "good friend" AFT President Randi Weingarten, who recently travelled to Kiev, lending her support to the Western-backed fascist-led coup that installed an anti-Russian government in Ukraine. In the US, Weingarten, a fervent supporter of Obama and the Democrats, has collaborated with Gates and other enemies of public education while suppressing the struggles of teachers, parents and students against school closings and other attacks.

Far from opposing the corporate restructuring of public education Weingarten and the other highly paid executives who run the teachers unions only want to be included in the process. This is encapsulated in the AFT slogan, "School reform with us, not against us." 

Reign of Error whitewashes the betrayal of the Chicago teachers' strike in 2012, ignoring the fact that Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis called off the struggle right at the point when it threatened to expand into a wider political movement against Obama's war on public education. The betrayal paved the way for the shutting of scores of schools and the destruction of thousands of teachers' jobs in Chicago, inspiring Democratic mayors in Philadelphia, Washington DC and other cities to follow suit.

In other words, Ravitch is aligned with the very same forces that are aiding and abetting the corporate-political attack on public education. A fervent opponent of socialism, she advances a perspective that is nothing more than a political trap to keep teachers and other workers tied to the Democratic Party, the trade unions and the profit system they serve.

Reign of Error fails to answer why the destruction of public education has become the consensus policy over the last three decades, regardless of whether a Democrat or Republican occupies the White House.

The fact that this is the case—and moreover, that the attack on education is occurring around the globe—shows that the answer lies not simply in the decisions of this or that politician or political party but far more objective causes.

Under conditions of a decades-long economic decline and growth of unprecedented levels of social inequality, the corporate and financial elite sees the continued funding of public education—for a generation of young people who will be largely condemned to a future of unemployment, low-paying jobs and war—as an intolerable burden it will no longer bear.

The democratic and egalitarian principle embodied in public education—that every human being, regardless of socio-economic background, can learn and has the inalienable right to high-quality education—is incompatible with the staggering levels of social inequality produced by capitalism. The vast improvement of public education, the elimination of poverty and other social ills, will not be achieved by appealing to the powers-that-be but only through abolishing the profit system and freeing up the resources necessary to raise the material and cultural level of society as a whole.

That is the only logical conclusion to be drawn from the damning exposures contained in this book.

Chicago Public Schools lays off 1,150 workers


In the latest attack on public education in the city of Chicago, Illinois, the city's public school system is laying off more than one thousand workers, including teachers, teacher assistants and school staff.

Layoff notices were given to 550 teachers and 600 other workers Thursday. Chicago Public Schools (CPS) encouraged teachers to reapply for jobs elsewhere in the district, positions that typically receive lower pay.

The city has not revealed what schools or neighborhoods are affected by the latest round of layoffs. Most teachers were notified individually by phone that they have lost their positions. Additionally, three public schools have been slated for "turnaround" this year—a process in which all teachers and staff at a so-called "failing" school are laid off and the schools are turned over to a private management company. In 2014, 176 teachers and staff have lost jobs in "turnarounds."

Even according to official reports, only 60 percent of laid-off teachers get rehired at CPS. Many teachers leave CPS to seek work in the suburbs. Many more have left the profession entirely. Nationwide, 300,000 teaching positions were eliminated between 2008 and 2013, with 11,000 layoffs in December 2013 alone.

CPS officially attributed the layoffs to declining school enrollments. The district uses the highest student-teacher ratio in the United States, at 31 students per classroom. One year ago, Chicago closed 50 schools, affecting the jobs of some 3,000 teachers, citing declining enrollment.

Overcrowding continues to be a problem. Far more than the 50 closed schools were impacted by the consolidation process, which contributed to serious classroom overcrowding problems and teacher overwork, in addition to forcing students to travel greater distances, some through dangerous neighborhoods, in order to get to school.

The Obama administration's aggressive privatization of public schools, led in Chicago by former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, is extremely unpopular. At the same time, Democratic and Republican politicians have moved to slash city and state workers' pensions as part of an overall attack on the working class.

The bipartisan plan to gut public education could not have moved forward in Chicago without the assistance of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). The CTU cleared the path for a wave of school closings and teacher firings when it shut down the 2012 teachers' strike, attempting to prevent a political fight with its allies in the Democratic Party and the Obama administration.

As in other cities throughout the country, the institution of public education is under sustained attack, with teacher and staff layoffs accompanied by the shutting down of public schools and the opening up of charters. A legislative report this week noted that since 2011, the district has opened 33 new charter schools with seats for more than 23,000 students as it was closing publicly run schools for "underutilization." The city has approved the development of seven new charters in 2014.

The layoffs announced yesterday are the fourth time in the past five years where more than 1,000 CPS employees lost their jobs in the summer. More layoffs may come before the fall as CPS principals finalize budgets for individual schools.

Detroit water shutoffs violate human rights


An agency of the United Nations issued a statement Wednesday condemning the shutoff of water to thousands of residents of the city of Detroit.

"Disconnection of water services because of failure to pay due to lack of means constitutes a violation of the human right to water and other international human rights," the statement read. It was signed by three representatives of the UN's Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights: an anti-poverty advocate from Canada, and law professors from Colombia and the United States.

The OCHCR concerns itself with gross violations of human rights, including torture, capital punishment, racial oppression and the abuse of women and children, as well as mass starvation, epidemics and the social consequences of flood, drought and other natural disasters. Most of its reports and statements deal with the impoverished countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America. It is rare for this agency to issue a statement about conditions of daily life in one of the wealthiest countries in the world.

That the social conditions in Detroit have become the subject of a declaration by a UN human rights panel, made in response to an appeal from various local organizations, is an expression of the staggering decay of social conditions in the city, once the center of American manufacturing.

The moves to shut off thousands of people from water is part of the bankruptcy and restructuring of Detroit, under the leadership of Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr. The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department began mass disconnection of water services from households more than two months behind on their bills—owing as little as $150.

More than 7,500 homes have been disconnected so far, and DWSD has set a goal of increasing the rate of disconnection to 3,000 customers per week. Ultimately, this could affect 150,000 customers, nearly half the households in the city, who have fallen behind on water bills under conditions of widespread poverty, unemployment, and cutbacks in food stamps, unemployment compensation and other forms of aid.

According to the water department, two-thirds of those cut off service pay their bills within 48 hours. This does not mean, as city officials claim, that these are people who would not, rather than could not, pay their bills. It only means that under threat of shutoff, money that would have gone to pay rent or utilities, buy food, or keep a car running to get to a low-paid job, went instead to keep the water on.

And that still leaves one-third of those shut off, unable even with a gun at their heads to get the money to restore their water service. What does it mean to live without running water in a modern society? You can't take a shower, cook a meal, wash your hands or use the toilet. These conditions are extraordinarily dangerous from a public health standpoint, particularly for children, the elderly and the sick or disabled. Yet so acute is the economic and social crisis of American capitalism that tens of thousands of people in a major city now face such degrading conditions.

From a historical standpoint, the mass water shutoffs represent an unprecedented retrogression. Water and sewage service as a public utility was essential in the development of urban life in the 19th century and throughout the 20th century, banishing such diseases as cholera and dysentery, which once took thousands of lives every year.

Detroit symbolizes the long-term decline of American capitalism—and the ruthless avarice of the financial aristocracy that runs society. In the 1950s, workers in the Motor City had the highest standard of living of any in the world.

Today the city is in bankruptcy, ruled by a state-appointed financial overseer and a federal judge, with the public schools largely dismantled, pensions and health benefits for city workers gutted, and the assets of the city—from the paintings in the Detroit Institute of Arts, to the sewage plant on the Detroit River, to the water department itself—being primed to be auctioned off to the highest bidder.

As in Detroit, so in the rest of the country. Since the 2008 crisis, the ruling class, under the leadership of the Obama administration, has orchestrated a massive transfer of wealth—a policy mirrored in all the major capitalist countries. Every remaining social right of the working class is being eliminated—health care, public education, pensions, transportation and water. Mass unemployment and poverty are the norm.

The banks and financial institutions live a parasitic existence, amassing wealth on the basis of social misery. Just this week, the Commerce Department reported that the economic output fell at a 2.9 percent annual rate in the first quarter of this year—a sign of continuing, and indeed deepening, economic slump.

Yet the stock markets have continued their upward march, confident that the government will keep open the supply of cheap cash. Ever greater sums of wealth are simply funneled back into new speculative ventures, combined with an intensification of the wrecking operation targeting basic social infrastructure.

The consequences of these conditions are not hard to calculate. The ruling class has thoroughly discredited its own political rule, while exposing the historical bankruptcy of the social system, capitalism, upon which it rests.

Patrick Martin

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

John Boehner’s Lawsuit Is The First Step In A Republican Plot to Impeach Obama


"Capehart writes what everyone knows about the Republican plan to crush President Obama, "The plan all along has been to crash the Obama agenda and then climb on top of the wreckage and seize power. Not only are Republicans complicit in the "failures" they rail against, but they are also the reason the president has had to resort to executive action to get some things done. Even (George) Will agrees Obama is within his authority to do this. He just doesn't like the degree to which he has done it.""

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

A White Man In Hollywood Thinks Political Correctness Is Overrated


"How many times must we have the same conversation? How many different ways can we say that nobody — in this case a cis, straight, white male — has the right to minimize the experiences of historically oppressed communities? No, we will not "take a fucking joke and get over" racism, homophobia, and blatant misogyny, because institutionalized discrimination is still a reality. And the history of those words haven't lost their meaning over time."

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Obama Saves Students, Boehner Mad as Hell


The presidential Pen and Phone strike again – this time, to help college graduates get ahead, or at least back to even.

In the latest countermeasure to Congressional Republicans blocking his agenda, President Obama signed an executive order to lift the student-loan burden from about 5 million people, capping the debt repayments at ten percent of the borrower's income.

The move is intended to eliminate one of the biggest drivers of personal bankruptcies and a drag on a sluggish economy.

In a brief White House ceremony, the president – flanked by several young people grappling with student loan debt as high as six figures – used the occasion to call out GOP hypocrisy when it comes to doling out financial breaks to the truly needy.  The order, he said, will be paid for by closing personal and corporate tax loopholes backed by Republicans.

"It would be scandalous if we allowed those kinds of tax loopholes for the very, very fortunate to survive while students are having trouble just getting started in their lives," the president said at the White House ceremony Tuesday. "If you're a big oil company they'll go to bat for you. If you're a student, good luck.'

"Some of these Republicans in Congress seem to believe that just because some of the young people behind me need some help, that they're not trying hard enough," he said.

He'll follow up on the order with a Q-and-A session on Tumblr tomorrow.

The order directs Education Secretary Arne Duncan to amend the department's student-loan regulation for the payment ceiling. The White House wants the amendments to be enacted for borrowers by December 2015.

Though the executive order circumvents Congress, Obama has at least one Capitol Hill ally in this fight: Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat and architect of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Warren, a long-time consumer-rights champion and hero of progressives, is sponsoring a bill that would help student borrowers refinance their loans. Obama – who tapped Warren to set up the CFPB during his first term – endorsed the bill during the ceremony and alluded to it in his weekly national address.

White House aides say the president's executive order will allow an additional 5 million borrowers with federal student loans to cap their monthly payments at 10 percent of their income.  It also helps make college more affordable at a time when more jobs require a diploma just to get an interview.

Since the 1980s, the average tuition at a public four-year college has more than tripled, but family incomes are stagnant, according to a White House fact sheet.  More students than ever are relying on loans to pay for college: 71 percent of undergraduates leave school an average of $29,400 in debt, starting their careers with payments that can eat up as much as a rent or mortgage payment.

While the executive order – and tag-teaming with Warren on a companion bill, due for a procedural vote this week – can have a financial impact on students, it also has political ramifications that perhaps Obama hopes can begin to reverse his underwater poll ratings.

By flexing some presidential muscle, Obama is pressuring Congress to pass this White House agenda item, signalling that his pen-and-phone strategy will continue to be an option, and hopefully expose GOP lawmakers as obstructionist.

rest at