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America’s Homegrown Terror Threat—and Why We’re Doing Nothing to Fight It

Nuclear power

Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant Unit 1, Middletown, Pa., 2009 (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.

The US security complex is up in arms about cyberhackers and foreign terrorists targeting America’s vulnerable infrastructure. Think tank reports have highlighted the chinks in homeland security represented by unsecured ports, dams and power plants. We’ve been bombarded by stories about outdated software that is subject to hacking and the vulnerability of our communities to bioterrorism. Reports such as the Heritage Foundation’s “Microbes and Mass Casualties: Defending America Against Bioterrorism” describe a United States that could be brought to its knees by its adversaries unless significant investments are made in “hardening” these targets.

But the greatest dangers for the United States do not lurk in terrorist cells in the mountains surrounding Kandahar that are planning to assault American targets. Rather, our vulnerabilities are homegrown. The United States plays host to thousands of nuclear weapons, toxic chemical dumps, radioactive waste storage facilities, complex pipelines and refineries, offshore oil rigs and many other potentially dangerous facilities that require constant maintenance and highly trained and motivated experts to keep them running safely.

The United States currently lacks safety protocols and effective inspection regimes for the dangerous materials it has amassed over the past sixty years. We don’t have enough inspectors and regulators to assess the safety and security of ports, bridges, pipelines, power plants and railways. The rapid decline in our financial, educational and institutional infrastructure is the greatest threat to the safety of Americans today.

And it’s getting worse. The current round of cutbacks in federal spending for low-visibility budgets for maintainence and inspection, combined with draconian cuts in public education, makes it even more difficult to find properly trained people and pay them the necessary wages to maintain infrastructure. As Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution points out, the 2015 budget fresh off the press includes a chart indicating that non-defense discretionary spending—including critical investments in infrastructure, education and innovation—will continue to drop severely, from 3.1 percent of gross domestic product in 2013 to just 2.2 percent in 2024. This decision has been made even though the average rate for the past forty years has been 3.8 percent and the United States will require massive infrastructure upgrades over the next fifty years.

The recent cheating scandal involving employees of the country’s nuclear weapons complex is emblematic of the problem. Nuclear officers charged with protecting and maintaining the thousands of US nuclear weapons simply copied the answers for tests about how to employ the complex machinery related to nuclear missiles. The scandal is only the latest in a long series of accidents, mishaps and miscommunications that have nearly caused nuclear explosions and tremendous loss of life. As Eric Schlosser has detailed in his new book Command and Control, we have avoided inflicting a Hiroshima-sized attack on ourselves only through sheer dumb luck.

Last year, the American Society of Civil Engineers issued its Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, which painted a grim picture. The average grade for infrastructure—covering transportation, drinking water, energy, bridges, dams and other critical infrastructure—was a D+. The failure to invest in infrastructure over the past fifteen years, the report argues, bodes ill for the future and will guarantee further disasters. As political campaigns against “bureaucrats” render the federal government incapable of recruiting and motivating qualified people, these disasters appear almost unavoidable. The weakest links from the point of view of national security are the military and energy sectors.

Bad Chemistry

The problems begin with our weapons. Despite promises from twenty years ago that the Army Chemical Materials Agency would destroy chemical weapons stockpiles, we have finished only fifty percent of the job (whereas Russia has completed some seventy percent), according to Larry Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell.

The process of maintaining and removing dangerous weapons is tedious, labor-intensive and inevitably involves community approval and the rawest forms of politics. The task suffers from an unhealthy combination of secrecy and apathy: the military wants to keep their weapons secret while the general population treats the matter with a striking lack of interest. Although many chemical weapons are stored relatively safely—binary substances are stored separately and are dangerous only when combined—many chemicals related to fueling and other activities are also hazardous. Because they are out of sight and out of mind, they are poorly managed.

Military waste is but a small part of the problem. The United States is peppered with all-but-forgotten chemical waste dumps, aging nuclear power plants, nuclear materials, oil rigs, oil pipelines and mines (active and abandoned) that require an enormous investment in personnel and facilities to maintain safely.

Nuclear Headaches

The United States boasts the largest complex of storage facilities in the world related to civilian nuclear power and nuclear weapons programs. This network contains a dozen Fukushimas in the making. The US nuclear energy system has generated more than 65,000 tons of spent fuel, much of which is stored in highly insecure locations. ”Even though they contain some of the largest concentrations of radioactivity on the planet, U.S. spent nuclear fuel pools are mostly contained in ordinary industrial structures designed to merely protect them against the elements,” writes IPS nuclear expert Robert Alvarez. “Some [of the structures] are made from materials commonly used to house big-box stores and car dealerships.” An accident involving any one of these storage facilities could produce damage sixty times greater than the Chernobyl disaster.

The Energy Department, without much regard for public safety, plans to unceremoniously dump in a landfill a ton of radioactive material produced in its nuclear weapons program. Such an approach has precedents. The West Lake municipal landfill in Bridgeton, Missouri, harbors highly radioactive material from the weapons program of the 1940s and ’50s. That unsecured material could become a major public health risk due to fire or flooding. More recently, investigation of the Hanford nuclear waste complexin Washington State revealed that “significant construction flaws” exist in six of the twenty-eight radioactive waste storage tanks. One of them has been leaking since 2012. The site dates back to the plutonium experiments of the 1950s, and those flawed storage tanks contain around five million gallons of radioactive material.

The Obama administration has pledged to reduce its nuclear weapons arsenal and envisions a nuclear-weapons-free future. But at the same it is pouring money into “nuclear modernization” through the development of a new generation of weapons and, consequently, even more radioactive waste. Moreover, the administration continues to include nuclear energy as part of its carbon reduction plans, directing federal subsidies to the construction of two new nuclear plants in Georgia.

Despite the enthusiasm for nuclear weapons and power, the administration has turned a blind eye to the disposal of all the nuclear waste that both the military and the civilian sides have generated.

Situation Normal: All Fracked Up

The coal industry continues to slice the peaks off mountains and replace them with vast expanses of barren land that cannot support life. That process fills rivers and lakes with toxic sludge, and regulation is all but nonexistent. From the 1990s on, coal companies have torn up West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee using new technologies that have already destroyed a patch of land larger than the state of Delaware. The run-off from these mining operations has buried 1,000 miles of streams.

The recent contamination of the Elk River in West Virginia with the dangerous chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol used in coal mining left over 300,000 people without safe drinking water. Although storage of the chemicals was the responsibility of the now-bankrupt Freedom Industries, responsibility for the accident does not stop there. In fact, federal officials never inspected the site, and neither Freedom Industries nor local government officials drew up an emergency response plan.

A few weeks later a pipe failure in Eden, North Carolina, dumped 39,000 tons of arsenic-laced coal ash into the nearby Dan River, causing a similar crisis. The situation is growing more serious as state budgets for inspection and regulation are being slashed. Training and preparation for hazardous material disasters is underfunded, and the personnel are unprepared to do their job.

Coal and oil workers are dying in greater numbers as a result of chronic inattention to safety concerns. So bad is the situation that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has only ninety-five inspectors to oversee safety rules for all Texas work sites, and few of them have training or experience in the energy sector.

If you like coal mining, you’re going to love fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, the latest weapon in the war on the environment. Fracking extracts natural gas and petroleum from subterranean rock formations by pushing water, sand and a variety of toxic chemicals deep into the ground to fracture the rock and release the trapped oil or gas. The process leaves beneath the surface large amounts of toxic chemicals that have already been shown to contaminate drinking water. The chemicals are so toxic that the water cannot be cleaned in a treatment plant.

Fracking is gobbling up large swaths of the United States because sites are quickly exhausted and the driller must constantly move on, leaving behind toxic chemicals to seep into the water supply. The long-term consequences of leaving extremely toxic substances like benzoyl or formic acid underground for decades are unknown. Without extensive regulation, maintenance and planning for future disasters, the fracking boom is a ticking bomb for US security.

The peril is not just on land. The increasingly desperate search for energy is making extreme measures—like deep-water drilling for oil—profitable for energy companies. The Deep Water Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 resulted in eleven deaths, affected 16,000 miles of coastline and will cost upwards of $40 billion. That accident didn’t stop the government from granting Shell a permit to drill in the deep waters of the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas off the Alaskan coast, an effort that has already racked up its share of accidents.

Coming Up: Le Deluge

The unending demand for budget cuts is taking a toll on the environment. The Environmental Protection Agency experienced cuts of more than 6 percent in both its budget and workforce: from a nearly $8.5 million budget in 2012 down to $7.9 million in 2013, and from 17,106 employees in 2012 down to 15,913 employees in 2013. This is happening at a time when environmental issues are growing more critical.

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Cuts in budgets for maintenance, inspection and regulation will all but guarantee further disasters and tens of billions of dollars in damages. The poor state of American infrastructure would be a problem in any case, but the challenge of climate change has thrown a monkey wrench into all predictions. The New York Panel on Climate Change concluded that rising sea levels will turn what was previously a once-in-100-years flood into something that happens once every thirty-five to fifty-five years by 2050 and once every fifteen to thirty years by 2080. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 caused more than $108 billion in damages, while Hurricane Sandy in 2012 cost more than $50 billion, according to the National Hurricane Center. Climate change combined with poor maintenance is a recipe for massive disaster. Although the costs of the next disaster will certainly exceed the 9/11 attacks in terms of damage, tragically we are cutting back on infrastructure investment at a time we should be increasing it dramatically.

Unfortunately, the constituencies concerned with safety inspections do not hire the most expensive lobbyists and rarely show up in the press. Inspectors and experts cannot, and should not, be expected to defend themselves in Washington. The media-obsessed political culture that rules the capital today makes commitment to low-key support for maintenance and long-term safety the kiss of death for congressmen engaged in an unending struggle to raise funds for re-election.

The strategic foolhardiness of cutting back on low-profile programs has become politically smart. But a few more major industrial or infrastructural disasters will be enough to bring the country to its knees. The American superpower could topple from self-inflicted wounds without a rival like China or Russia even having to say “boo!”

 

Read Next: Justine Drennan on the ongoing fight for nuclear disarmament.

Presidential Prospect or Not, Elizabeth Warren Has a Lesson for Democrats

Elizabeth Warren

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., questions a witness on Capitol Hill in Washington 2013. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

Many thoughtful media reports on the remarkable address that Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren gave at the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party’s Humphrey-Mondale Dinner have focused on the fact that she took apart Paul Ryan.

There is no question that the senator from Massachusetts shamed the congressman from Wisconsin.

One report was headlined: “Elizabeth Warren schools Paul Ryan on poverty in 80 seconds.”

Another announced: “Elizabeth Warren Picks A Fight With Paul Ryan.”

Still another reported: “Elizabeth Warren Slams Paul Ryan On Inner City Culture Comment.”

All true. All accurate.

However, what Warren really did in her March 29 speech in Minneapolis was school Democrats with regard to what they should expect from a presidential contender.

Yes, yes, Warren has said that she is not running for the Democratic nomination in 2016. And there are plenty of polls to suggest that, were she to enter the race, she would not have an easy time competing with a prospective Hillary Clinton candidacy—although, notably, Warren’s numbers rise rapidly in hypotheticals that do not feature Clinton.

But let’s put the polls aside for now.

Let’s recognize that a necessary politics does not just reflect public opinion, it anticipates concerns and answers them in bolder and better ways than pollsters and pundits can calculate. Those who would lead the nation ought to offer much more than a set of approved talking points. There must be a vision, a language, that explains the crisis, and inspires a response.

This is a truth that Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has brought into his discussions of a possible presidential run, especially when he suggests that any bid by a progressive in 2016 would have to be “revolutionary” in its rejection of the narrow thinking and narrow strategies that have produced low-turnout elections and low-results governance. Sanders gets that the politics of 2014 and 2016 must go deeper—as does Warren.

This has a lot to do with issues.

But it also has to do with approach.

Democrats can’t just talk about inequality. They have to address the economic and political underpinnings of insecurity and injustice. They have to challenge the assumptions of those who argue for the failed strategies of the past.

That’s what Warren did the other night in Minneapolis when she said to the DFL faithful, “So let’s take a look at what we’re up against.”

“Take a look at Paul Ryan, the former vice presidential candidate for the Republicans,” she said. “Now let’s just look at the facts. Congressman Ryan attacked unemployment insurance, saying it is, and I’m quoting here, ‘a hammock, which lulls able-bodied people into lives of complacency and dependency.’ I am really serious: I want you to think about that. If our neighbors and friends who are laid off when a company moves overseas, or the recession shuts them down, Paul Ryan thinks that a little help—to try to help keep the mortgage paid and to put food on the table—will cause them to kick back and live large, with no plans to work again.”

Piecing together her argument, going not for applause lines but for a point, she continued. “While Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar and I were working with other Democrats to extend unemployment benefits, Congressman Ryan actually doubled down, saying, and I am going to quote him again, ‘We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning to value the culture of work, so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.’”

Then she pounced:

Paul Ryan looks around, sees three unemployed workers for every job opening in American, and blames people who can’t find a job.

In 2008 this economy crashed, wiping out millions of jobs. Paul Ryan says don’t blame Wall Street: the guys who made billions of dollars cheating American families. Don’t blame decades of deregulation that took the cops off the beat while the big banks looted the American economy. Don’t blame the Republican Secretary of the Treasury, and the Republican president who set in motion a no-strings-attached bailout for the biggest banks—nope. Paul Ryan says keep the monies flowing to the powerful corporations, keep their huge tax breaks, keep the special deals for the too-big-to-fail banks and put the blame on hardworking, play-to-the-rules Americans who lost their jobs.

Let me tell you: That may be Paul Ryan’s vision of how America works, but that is not our vision of this great country.

The DFL crowd gave her a knowing ovation—not just for a point well made but for a concept fully formed, an argument taken to its logical and effective conclusion.

Whether or not Elizabeth Warren ever runs for the presidency, she is teaching her party a great deal about how to take the events of a moment and weave them into a narrative that addresses the fundamental challenges facing the country.

This is powerful, and powerfully important—especially at a point when the Democrats are wrestling with how to connect with the great mass of Americans who feel insecure economically, who worry about income inequality, but who are not quite sure that either party is on their side.

When Democrats have been at their best politically, there has never been a question of where the party stood.

There was no lack of clarity, when Franklin Roosevelt referred in 1936 to “the old enemies of peace—business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering,” and said, “They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.”

There was no triangulation when Harry Truman announced in 1948 that, “On the one hand, the Republicans are telling industrial workers that the high cost of food in the cities is due to this government’s farm policy. On the other hand, the Republicans are telling the farmers that the high cost of manufactured goods on the farm is due to this government’s labor policy. That’s plain hokum. It’s an old political trick: ‘If you can’t convince ‘em, confuse ‘em.’ But this time it won’t work.”

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And there was no mystery when Truman explained, “I’ve seen it happen time after time. When the Democratic candidate allows himself to be put on the defensive and starts apologizing for the New Deal and the Fair Deal, and says he really doesn’t believe in them, he is sure to lose. The people don’t want a phony Democrat. If it’s a choice between a genuine Republican, and a Republican in Democratic clothing, the people will choose the genuine article, every time; that is, they will take a Republican before they will a phony Democrat, and I don’t want any phony Democratic candidates in this campaign.”

Political parties are at their strongest when their tribunes argue for what they believe.

Elizabeth Warren knows this, instinctually.

And she knows this because she could not have missed the roar of approval from the crowd in Minneapolis when she told them, “I am fighting to level that playing field. I am fighting to build real opportunity—fighting to give every child a chance to build something extraordinary. And I want you to fight along beside me. We are in this together.”

 

Read Next: Elizabeth Warren steps up for populist democratic candidates.

What’s the GOP’s Excuse for Opposing Equal Pay This Time?

Rosie the Riveter

(Courtesy Wikipedia, CC 2.0)

When Congress considered the Equal Pay Act in the spring of 1963, few objected to the values motivating the legislation. “The principle of equal pay for equal work is one which almost any citizen would strongly support,” wrote the National Retail Merchant Association in prepared testimony for the US Senate that April. Nevertheless, the NRMA opposed the bill “on the grounds that Federal legislation is not needed, that the added cost to administer such a law is unnecessary, and that an equitable law would be complex, confusing and difficult to enforce.”

Fifty-one years later, the conservative, anti-feminist Independent Women’s Forum has this to say about the Paycheck Fairness Act, which expands on the 1963 legislation and will likely succumb this week to a Republican filibuster in the Senate: “Clearly, sex-based wage discrimination is wrong. Furthermore, it’s already illegal…This latest legislation—the Paycheck Fairness Act—won’t lead to more fairness or better pay. It will lead to more lawsuits, more red tape and fewer job opportunities for women and men.”

Not as much has changed since 1963 as one might have hoped, either in the workplace or in politics. Back then opponents of the Equal Pay Act said states were adequately addressing the issue of of equal pay. Others made excuses for the fact that women made fifty-nine cents for every dollar their male colleagues earned, arguing, as Council of Economic Advisers chair Walter Heller did, that the “added costs” of hiring women were to blame. Skepticism about labor protection for women wasn’t strictly partisan; the Democratic chairman of the House subcommittee on labor reportedly kept documents related to the Equal Pay Act filed under B, for “Broads.”

No one says now that the 1963 law was unnecessary or insignificant, though as its supporters acknowledged at the time of its passage, it was only a first step. Today, women make seventy-seven cents to a man’s dollar—or just sixty-four cents and fifty-five cents for black and Hispanic women, respectively—and Republicans are dusting off arguments from last century to block updated legislation, claiming that while they still support its underlying principles, today’s pay really is equal, or else the work is not. (Whether filing methods have changed in the new millennium is unclear.)

Fox News’s Megyn Kelly, for example, called the concern about equal pay a “meme,” and Texas governor Rick Perry dismissed it as “nonsense.” Conservatives who do acknowledge the existence of a gender gap often attribute it to the concentration of women in lower-wage jobs. Two-thirds of minimum-wage workers are women, and traditionally female industries—like education, nursing and domestic work—usually pay less than industries dominated by men, like engineering and IT. The fact that women are funneled into lower-paying fields is certainly a problem. But it’s also true that in almost every single occupation for which data is available, women earn less than male co-workers. That’s true within low-wage industries and in those traditionally dominated by women. For example, women make up nearly 90 percent of the nursing workforce, and they collect $1,086 in median weekly earnings. Male nurses take home an extra $150 each week, according to Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Although the Paycheck Fairness Act is unlikely to pass the Senate, President Obama will sign two executive orders today regarding fair pay for women. One prevents federal contractors from retaliating against employees who discuss their wages; the other requires contractors to share information about compensation, broken down by race and gender, with the government. The orders won’t accomplish as much as the PFA, which extends those two provisions to private employers, as well as putting the burden on employers to prove that unequal pay is job-related and allowing workers to sue for damages based on gender discrimination, as they can for racial, disability and age discrimination. Still, joint White House and Senate campaigns on equal pay could have symbolic power as Democrats leverage the GOP’s resistance to bread and butter economic measures to spur turnout in the midterms, particularly among women.

Smartly, the GOP has given opposition to the PFA a new face—a female one, telling women to use their own bootstraps to scale the pay gap. “I would encourage women, instead of pursuing the courts for action, to become better negotiators,” said Texas GOP Beth Cubriel, explaining her party’s opposition to fair pay legislation. Targeting legislation at working women is “making us look like whiners,” Minnesota state Represenative Andrea Kieffer said in March. “All Republicans support equal pay for equal work,” wrote Republican National Committee press secretary Kirsten Kukowski, communications director Andrea Bozek and NRSC press secretary Brook Hougesen in a memo. “And while we all know workplace discrimination still exists, we need real solutions that focus on job creation and opportunity for women.”

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Conservatives have been pushing back against claims that the GOP is anti-women with the argument that it’s Democrats who demean women by focusing on structural disadvantages. The Independent Women’s Forum, for example, says the PFA “perpetuates the myth that all women are workplace victims.” The idea that government action turns women into victims, or makes them dependent, flows through conservative messaging around the Affordable Care Act, the social safety net, really any program that would help the people whose bootstraps have been stolen. “The fact is the Republicans don’t have a war on women, they have a war for women, to empower them to be something other than victims of their gender,” Mike Huckabee said at the Republican National Committee winter meeting in January.

The basic point here is that government can’t do anything good for women, or for people in general. Only individuals themselves, and an unfettered private sector, can. “Not every problem in America can be fixed by Washington,” Katie Packer Gage, Mitt Romney’s deputy campaign manager, wrote in opposition to the PFA. This anti-government agenda has nothing to do with women’s equality. It is, however, one of the oldest lines in the book.

Read Next: Katha Pollitt asks why leftists are pushing for sex work to be the “new normal.”

11 GOP Excuses for Not Extending Unemployment Benefits

John Boehner

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

After months of haggling, the Senate finally passed a five-month extension of long-term unemployment benefits on Monday, retroactive to their expiration at the end of 2013.

The lapse has already cost the economy nearly $5 billion in the first quarter of 2014, as 2.4 million jobless struggle without badly needed checks. Long-term unemployment is at all-time highs in forty-one states, while the share of jobless Americans receiving aid is at an all-time low.

But it doesn’t seem the House of Representatives will act any time soon. Speaker John Boehner and his top lieutenants have made it clear they are not receptive to the Senate bill.

Why? Actually, it’s hard to figure out. Republicans have given myriad and evolving reasons for opposing an extension over the course of this debate, from saying the checks were no longer needed, to saying it must be paid for, to claiming the very nature of the program is immoral.

We have compiled a timeline of the GOP’s reasons below. If you have any more—or can actually determine an underlying logic—let us know.

They Just Don’t Want To. (December 3, 2013) “I don’t see much appetite on our side for continuing this extension of benefits,” said Representative Tom Cole, R-OK. “I just don’t.”

The Benefits Actually Hurt the Jobless. (December 8, 2013) “I do support unemployment benefits for the twenty-six weeks that they’re paid for. If you extend it beyond that, you do a disservice to these workers.” Senator Rand Paul on Fox News Sunday.

It Makes America Vulnerable. (December 23, 2013) “Does it make sense for our country to borrow money from China to give it to the unemployed in America? That is weakening us as a country.” Senator Rand Paul to NBC News.

The Jobs Crisis Really Isn’t That Bad. (January 3, 2014) “But that’s the point, [the program] was meant to cope with an extraordinary situation. But that situation has been dealt with.” Representative Tom Cole, to Buzzfeed.

Because Democrats Want the Extension. (January 7, 2014) “Remember: These are the same folks who gave us the stimulus, who gave us tax increases, and who gave us Obamacare. All of it was done in the name of helping the little guy—in the name of greater equality. And what’s it given us? This mess.” Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell on the Senate floor.

Whatever This Means. (February 6, 2014) “The perception that I get from the Senate right now is: ‘Times are tough. We should make times tougher on our kids to make it easier on us, and then feel better,’” said Representative James Lankford, R-OK. “And I think that’s just not a philosophy I’m willing to support.”

A Benefit Extension Would Be Wicked. (February 5, 2014) “I believe it is immoral for this country to have as a policy extending long-term unemployments [benefits] to people rather than us working on the creation of jobs.” Representative Pete Sessions on the House floor.

No, Seriously, Unemployment Isn’t A Problem. (March 13, 2014) “The extended unemployment benefits by the administration were to be in place until unemployment came down,” said Representative Tom Price. “Unemployment is down.”

It’s Too Late. (March 19, 2014) After months of GOP delay in the Senate, Boehner and Republicans on House Ways and Means now argue the extension is “unworkable” and “can’t be implemented,” since states would supposedly have trouble distributing retroactive benefits. House Democrats say these are “relatively minor concerns.”

We Have to Approve Keystone XL and Repeal Obamacare First. (April 8, 2014) “As the Speaker said months ago, we are willing to look at extending emergency unemployment insurance as long as it includes provisions to help create more private-sector jobs—but, last week, Senate Democratic leaders ruled out adding any jobs measures at all. The American people are still asking, ‘Where are the jobs?’ and House Republicans are focused on our jobs agenda for families and small businesses,” said Boehner spokesman Michael Steel.

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The Fiscal Times: “Steel was apparently citing Democrats’ refusal last week to accept a package of amendments, being pushed by South Dakota Republican Senator John Thune, to the already bipartisan unemployment insurance bill. Thune’s proposal included a veritable laundry list of Republican priorities, from approval of the controversial Keystone pipeline to outright repeal of the Affordable Care Act.”

Because of Benghazi. No Republican has actually claimed this. Yet.

Read Next: A GOP fundraiser’s push for US military action in Iran

The UConn Huskies Win ‘NCAA Hunger Games Bingo’

Shabazz Napier

Connecticut guard Shabazz Napier (13) celebrates after winning the NCAA college basketball championship on April 7, 2014. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Congratulations to the University of Connecticut men’s basketball program, which won its fourth championship in the last sixteen years all while holding up a mirror to the most corrupt, amoral entity in American sports, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). UConn just absolutely nailed a game we could call “NCAA Hunger Games Bingo” in ways that not even NCAA President Mark Emmert’s Dorian Gray, Kentucky coach John Calipari, could have accomplished.

Just look at the boxes the UConn Huskies have checked off, and keep in mind that this is a basketball program being called a “model” now that the team has won twice as many championships as any other school’s over the last two decades. Get out your Nike-swoosh adorned NCAA Bingo cards and let’s have a look at everything UConn tells us about so-called amateur student-athletics.

Have the worst graduation rate of any school in the NCAA tournament, with only 8 percent of their players (one in twelve who enrolled eight years ago) earning a diploma? Check!

Win your title after two years of tournament probation for your school’s abysmal academic efforts? Check!

Have your star player, Shabazz Napier, speak with pride about how probation motivated their efforts and say on national television at the trophy ceremony, with a figurative middle finger aimed at Mark Emmert, “This is what happens when you ban us?” Check!

Also have your star player, the aforementioned Mr. Napier, tell the world that he is so poor, “Sometimes, there’s hungry nights where I’m not able to eat, but I still gotta play up to my capabilities?” Check! (Napier even calls his team “the hungry Huskies,” and it is not clear if he means they are hungry for championships or protein.)

While Shabazz and his teammates starve, have him win the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player trophy in front of a crowd of 79,000 people paying $500 a pop for tickets, on a network shelling out $10.8 billion to watch him play? Check!

Have commentators speak repeatedly—with ears made out of the purest tin—about how “underpaid” UConn coach Kevin Ollie is since he “only” makes $1.3 million a year and will “only” receive $166,666 for winning the big game? Have them state with relief that Ollie is now in for a big raise? Check!

Now that UConn has achieved the ultimate NCAA Bingo (plus one for good measure), all you need is for the students at UConn’s Storrs campus to have an impromptu, entitled, alcohol-fueled riot and celebrate their school pride by smashing the windows of their university’s buildings and setting fires. Hey! That happened too! (Do we have to mention how different the Storrs police response would have been if, say, it were the student-athletes themselves smashing windows instead of the overwhelmingly white student fanboys?)

So let us recap: we have a team of majority African-American basketball players not getting an education and not getting paid, but generating millions of dollars for their coach and billions of dollars for the NCAA, CBS and the assorted sponsors. We have a state college suffering budget cuts and tuition hikes, that has been trashed by students thrilled that their team of unpaid mercenaries has brought them a measure of reflected glory. All the evening was missing was a war in the Middle East to get everyone truly good and frothy.

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It is difficult to not recall the press conference of NCAA President Mark Emmert over the weekend who spoke out with mottle-faced passion against the mere concept that NCAA athletes should ever form unions. He does not want NCAA student-athletes having any kind of a seat at the table so they can discuss everything that is manifestly and obviously poisonous in the NCAA system of student-athletics. Emmert said that if student athletes were unionized employees, “it would blow up everything about the collegiate model of athletics.” The response to that should be two simple words: “You promise?”

 

Read Next: Boomer Esiason, Mike Francesa, and toxic masculinity

Why Bobby Jindal’s Health Plan Is an Epic Fail

Bobby Jindal

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal speaks in St. Louis in 2012. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

As Christie Watch noted last month, as unlikely as it might seem, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal is hoping to take advantage of Chris Christie’s troubles to emerge as a leading candidate for the GOP nomination. He’s speaking wherever he can, including in New Hampshire, and he’s putting together a group of political operatives for his pre-presidential political setup called America Next, which includes a veteran of Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign and a consulting and a media expert from the Bush-Cheney campaign.

Jindal, a wonk with long experience in healthcare policy, wants to be known as the Republican Party’s idea man—after all, he once complained that the GOP was becoming “the stupid party.” To that end, he hopes, he and his political operation have just issued a blueprint on healthcare, which he’s offering to the Republican party as “open-source code” for their its leading candidates and members of Congress to put forward as part of their own anti–Affordable Care Act health plans.

If they do, it will result in what programmers call an “epic fail,” and it can only help Democrats in both 2014 and 2016.

You can read Jindal’s entire plan, The Freedom and Empowerment Plan, but here’s the gist. It would eliminate Obamacare, replacing it with a series of proposals that rehash much of what Republicans have been advocating for two decades. These include privatizing Medicare, eliminating employer-sponsored health coverage, collapsing Medicaid and shifting much more of healthcare costs onto consumers. Even National Review criticized one of the report’s proposals, a standard tax deduction for individuals buying health insurance equal to what employers currently receive. According to the magazine, the plan is “too disruptive to existing employer-provided insurance, and it does not help enough people get coverage. Replacing Obamacare with this plan would probably result in millions of people losing their coverage, and I think that would doom it.”

That’s the conservative critique of Jindal’s plan. The liberal critique is much sharper. The Louisiana governor promotes getting rid of Medicare as it currently exists, forcing seniors to buy insurance from private carriers as they did before 1965. His report notes, without irony, that this is the answer to Medicare’s financial problems. It is in fact the privatization of Medicare. But to disguise it, Republicans call it “premium support,” since some seniors would be given a subsidy, at least initially, to help them buy the private insurance. This is old hat for Jindal, who helped develop this idea when he headed the congressionally established Medicare Commission back in the late 1990s.

Since Jindal would eliminate one of the most successful aspects of Obamacare—its requirement that insurers must cover everyone, even those with pre-existing conditions, at almost the same price—Jindal has to offer an alternative. His plan is to return to what dozens of states used to offer, namely, high-risk insurance pools overseen by state regulators. However, these were last-resort insurance packages. The problem with the risk pools is that for most people who buy them, there are exorbitant premiums and out-of-pocket cost-sharing, long waiting times before the insurance actually covers the actual pre-existing condition, and restrictive eligibility rules.

Another proposal in Jindal’s plan is one that was a favorite of the Bush family, both President George W. Bush and his brother Jeb, when he was governor of Florida. The Bush-Jindal idea involves high-deductible insurance plans with a savings account in which tax-advantaged money can be put aside to pay for healthcare not covered by the insurance. This was touted as a key way to put consumers in charge of their healthcare, with the claim that it would make them wise purchasers and bring down health spending. Ignored was the fact that most people are not informed well enough to make the right choices about which plan to buy, what it covers, what it will cost them and especially how to decide what care to seek.

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Developed by a phalanx of conservative think tanks in the 1990s, with political organizing for it orchestrated by Patrick Rooney, then-head of Golden Rule Insurance Company which pioneered the product, it made headway in Congress when George W. Bush promoted it in his first State of the Union address and pressed for tax changes and congressional action that allowed it to take shape. On the state level no one was a more ardent support of the concept than Jeb Bush. He helped enact legislation requiring all insurers in Florida to offer this insurance product and he set off on a two-month road show throughout the state to promote it.

The high-deductible insurance plans never got much traction because people with them are hit with high upfront costs to meet huge deductibles and often have large co-payments to boot. Then, too, the insurance plans usually put many restrictions on which medical providers people can use and limit what care is covered by the plan, and in other ways shift costs to individuals. And in the long run they may drive up healthcare costs because studies have shown that because of the high upfront costs, people forgo care they might otherwise have sought, ending up needing operations and other treatment that could have been prevented.

If that’s the best that Jindal can come up with, he’s hardly the Republicans’ idea man.

 

Read Next: Christie Watch analyzes Jindal’s 2016 chances.

McCutcheon’s Big Winner: Media Corporations… but Not Journalism

Supreme Court

Members of the Supreme Court (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Alter-reviews:

I’ve been travelling, to Jerusalem and back, to Wayne State University in Detroit (and back) and am about to leave for Barcelona and Valencia and so I’ve not seen any music or anything but so dedicated am I to your musical education/edification that I managed to load into my IPod and DVD player, the following:

Looking Into You: A Tribute To Jackson Browne (two CDs) and A MusiCares Tribute To Bruce Springsteen (DVD)

So the Jackson tribute is sure a long time coming. It’s got too many highlights for me to list. Most are pretty much in sync with Jackson Browne-ness without too much tampering. You were not expecting surprises from the likes of longtime Brownites like Bonnie Raitt and David Lindley, Don Henley, J.D. Southerner, etc. Bruce and Patti do “Linda Paloma,” which is kind of crazy, but it works. Lucinda Williams’s “Pretender” is the standout on the CD, but I can’t make up my mind if it’s in a good way or not. Still, there is not enough Jackson Browne music in the world, so this is really nice to have. The Bruce tribute DVD is pretty wide-ranging and your favorites will depend on your tastes. It’s hosted by Jon Stewart and has a pretty amazing tracklist including:

"Atlantic City" Performed by Natalie Maines, Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite

"My City of Ruins" Performed by Mavis Staples and Zac Brown

"American Skin (41 Shots)" Performed by Jackson and Tom Morello

"My Hometown" Performed by Emmylou Harris

"Streets of Philadelphia" Performed by Elton John

"Born in the USA" Performed by Neil Young with Crazy Horse

and five songs by Bruce and the band, but no surprises. Excellent quality recording, though.

Any moderate fan will want it, I should think. Also it’s a good organization, so check them out here.

I’ve also been listening to the Legacy edition of the album No Depression, originally released in 1990 and perhaps the founding document of a movement that continues today nearly as vibrant as ever. With this release you get the original album remastered plus twenty-two extraordinary extras, including for the first time on CD, the “Not Forever, Just For Now” demo tape. 

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I was listening to the audio version of “Benjamin Black’s (really John Banville’s) new Philip Marlowe novel, The Black-Eyed Blonde. It’s pretty good actually, not Chandler, but not crap either. You can read a long review of the novel here from The Guardian. This fellow thinks it’s “an entertaining, note-perfect piece of literary ventriloquism.” Well, ok, I just thought it was pretty good. (But I do agree that it is certainly not “a Robert B Parkeresque fiasco.”)

That’s all. Now here’s Reed:

McCutcheon’s Big Winner: Media Corporations…But Not Journalism
by Reed Richardson

Since last week’s McCutcheon v. FEC ruling, legal scholars and political pundits have spent untold hours examining the Roberts Court’s latest broadside into the already sinking ship of our nation’s campaign finance laws. But half the story has been missing. For all the number crunching of how many extra millions could pour into our elections and for all the strategic predictions of what political groups would enjoy more bequests from billionaires, the discourse failed to look beyond the sources of campaign money to ponder its impact at the destination. If it had, we would have been reminded that the newly attractive "super” joint fundraising committees soon to be coming to a House race near you are but the latest middleman in a political system that is increasingly converting our democracy into a cash-based transaction. What McCutcheon didn’t change, however, is the ultimate benefactor of this SCOTUS-enabled largesse: media companies.

Call it a dirty little secret or an inconvenient truth of journalism. But the fact is, whenever more money is introduced into politics, the last check written with that extra cash usually goes to a corporation that is also in the news business. Before McCutcheon effectively broadened the potential impact of large-scale donations last week, its 2010 forerunner, Citizens United, had deepened it, unleashing a colossal wave of political spending on campaign ads in its aftermath. In 2012, nowhere was this windfall more noticeable (or miserable, if you lived in a swing state) than on local TV stations. All told, $3.1 billion was spent on local TV political ads during the last election cycle, a figure nearly 50 percent higher than in 2010 and more than double the last presidential election in 2008. After having struggled for years, many regional media companies and broadcast TV conglomerates were suddenly flush with cash and enjoying healthy revenues again.

The bottom-line lesson was clearly taken to heart by the big media companies. After such a banner election year, a wave of acquisition and consolidation cascaded through the local TV market in 2013, with major corporations scooping up small and independent stations at a furious clip. According to Pew’s 2014 State of the Media report, an incredible 290 TV stations changed hands last year, in deals worth nearly $9 billion, and what might be called the Citizens United effect was clearly driving these media buying strategies, as Pew explains:

[B]roadcasters are looking to buy stations in politically competitive states. Nexstar cited ‘political advertising activity’ as a major reason it bought two Citadel stations in Des Moines and Sioux City, Iowa—a crucial caucus state where presidential campaigns spend millions on TV ads. It picked up two more Iowa stations in a separate deal.

Thanks to McCutcheon, big-spending billionaires can now widen the spectrum of their individual candidate donations far beyond just early primary and battleground states. House and Senate campaigns that might have previously flown under the radar could very well experience their own political arms races now. Raising the stakes in this way means local TV stations across the country may soon enjoy some of the same profit-taking attention from big media companies.

But what’s good for local TV’s bottom line and its parent corporation’s stock price doesn’t necessarily translate into good news for the news audience it purports to serve. Indeed, as more local stations are owned or operated by a few, far-flung major corporations, news is increasingly being rebranded, homogenized, and regionalized. While sharing news resources undoubtedly has benefits, it can also devolve into a parody of news channel independence. As of last year, nearly one-quarter of local TV stations across the country no longer produced any original news content.

To be fair, the past few years have witnessed an across-the-board resurgence in local TV news staffing. Likewise, the local TV market’s newshole now stands at near record highs (thanks mostly to an outbreak of pre-dawn morning news shows). Last year, local stations broadcast 46 percent more hours of weekday news than just a decade ago. No doubt, the flood of campaign ads coursing into local TV station coffers lately has been bankrolling a lot this larger investment in news coverage.

Upon closer inspection, however, these positive developments in TV news are merely the silver lining to a much bleaker reality. That’s because the kind of journalism these media conglomerates are tapping their campaign ad bonanza to pay for isn’t worth very much to our democracy in the long run. As Pew noted in its 2013 annual report:

When data from 2012 is compared with stations studied in 2005 and earlier, the amount of time devoted to edited story packages has decreased and average story lengths have shortened, signs that there is less in-depth journalism being produced. Traffic, weather and sports—the kind of information now available on demand in a variety of digital platforms—seems to be making up an ever-larger component of the local news menu, according to the stations studied in 2005 and 2012. Coverage of politics and government, meanwhile, was down by more than 50%.

By the end of 2012, local TV news was devoting a mere 7 percent of its newshole, on average, to covering politics and government, foreign affairs, science, and healthcare combined. For a twenty-two minute evening news broadcast that amounts to barely ninety seconds of airtime, hardly enough time to do all these issues justice. By contrast, coverage of commodified, ephemeral news topics like weather, traffic, and sports jumped to forty percent of local TV broadcasts. Though it might be tempting to dismiss these editorial decisions or to minimize local TV’s impact overall, this coverage imbalance matters, for several reasons.

For one, local TV news still reaches more Americans—71 percent—than any other platform. So, the whittling down of political coverage to a tiny nub—particularly for local and state races—sends a powerfully corrosive signal to a very large audience. The message: campaigns and elections don’t matter to our news organization, so they shouldn’t matter to you either.

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This apathy toward covering the public commons is shameful enough, but it becomes outright negligence in a post-Citizens United and McCutcheon world. By ceding their own airwaves to an onslaught of political messages from dark-money 501(c)(4) groups and supercharged party fundraising committees, local TV stations effectively abandon their own viewers, leaving them to guess what’s true and what’s not in a campaign ad as well as who’s really paying for it. Without transparency and accuracy, though, honest governance becomes practically impossible.

But the greatest danger to journalism lies in the corrosive conflicts of interest that rulings like McCutcheon create for media companies. Fearful of killing the golden goose, these large corporations—and, by extension, their affiliates—have every financial incentive to avoid fact-checking the outlandish claims and investigating the secret funders of the campaign ads their stations are being paid handsomely to run. Perhaps not surprisingly, a 2012 Free Press study, "Left in the Dark," found local TV stations reaping millions in ad revenues in five swing-state media markets were guilty of this very behavior. And the report’s conclusion, as sobering as it is prescient, speaks to the fundamental dilemma that still confronts both broadcast journalism and our country after the McCutcheon ruling:

Democracy requires an informed public. But Americans aren’t getting the news they need. Instead, we have a political system whose players are constantly chasing dollars—a system gamed to a point of dysfunction by wealthy, undisclosed donors and media corporations that are all too content to just cash their checks.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson@gmail.com. I’m on Twitter here—@reedfrich.

Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

 

Read Next: Katrina vanden Heuvel: It’s Time the CIA Gets Some Serious Oversight.

It’s Time the CIA Gets Some Serious Oversight

Senator Dianne Feinstein

Senator Dianne Feinstein at the US Capitol on March 11, 2014. (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

Every once in a while, the CIA’s “Because I said so” club lets loose with a bit of preposterous condescension that reminds us why, along with extraordinary rendition and drone strikes, we’re also a nation of transparency and checks and balances. In this case, the crowing comes from Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., former head of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service and the administrator of that agency’s post-9/11 enhanced interrogation (i.e., torture) program. We shouldn’t believe the “shocking” results of Senator Dianne Feinstein’s (D-CA) Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation, Rodriguez says, especially those that lay bare the lies and exaggerations promulgated by the CIA and the ineffectiveness of the program itself.

Why not? Because Rodriguez was there, and you weren’t. Never mind that Rodriguez hasn’t actually read the report, or the fact that CIA-sponsored torture isn’t a yoga class, so “being present” doesn’t really count as the endeavor’s ultimate objective. And never mind the findings of the “Internal Panetta Review,” conducted by the CIA, that, according to Senator Feinstein, “documented at least some of the very same troubling matters already uncovered by the committee staff—which is not surprising, in that they were looking at the same information.”

If we ever want to know the truth about what atrocities were committed by our government in our name under the umbrella of the “Global War on Terror,” then we need to not only conduct investigations into them but also release the results—however sickening they might be—with as little redaction as possible. We need to re-establish the precedent (exemplified by the Church Committee of the 1970s) that accountability matters. Not only will we as a nation not abide torture, but we won’t stomach erstwhile torturers, either.

On April 2, Representatives Adam Schiff (D-CA) and Walter Jones (R-NC) introduced the bipartisan Targeted Lethal Force Transparency Act ,which would “require an annual report on the number of combatants and civilians killed or injured annually by strikes from remotely piloted aircraft, also known as drones.” The bill allows for an investigation into US drone strikes since 2008, building on a similar provision that had been included by Feinstein’s committee in last year’s (unpassed) Intelligence Authorization Act for 2014. Numerous human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have issued a joint statement in support of the bill.

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But if the CIA succeeds in squelching—or at least significantly redacting—the Intelligence Committee’s enhanced-interrogation report, it will cast an opaque pall on the Schiff-Jones bill in particular and on transparency in general. Indeed, what is the point of congressional oversight if the committee charged with it allows itself to be pushed around by the agency it oversees? Last month, Frederick A.O. Schwartz Jr., chief counsel for the Church Committee, wrote here, “Executive agencies and the White House—whichever party is in power—will always resist such efforts. They will stall, they will rely on secrecy, and—if Feinstein is right—they may even spy on Congress and illegally impede its lawful investigations. These obstructions must be overcome.”

And as The New Yorker’s Steve Coll has written, “Can the C.I.A., after a decade of fat budgets and swaggering prerogative, adjust to emboldened congressional oversight? Can Congress provide such oversight? And can the American people at last have the facts about the Bush Administration’s embrace of torture as national policy, carried out in their name?” Let’s hope so. If we refuse to admit, let alone acknowledge, what we’ve done, what’s to stop us from doing it again? Speaking to the Senate in a closed session in 1975, Sen. Church said, “We must remain a people who confront our mistakes and resolve not to repeat them. If we do not, we will decline. But if we do, our future will be worthy of the best of our past.”

Take Action: Demand a Senate Investigation into America’s Secret Government

Read Next: Rebecca Solnit pays tribute to Jonathan Schell.

New Surge in Death and Violence in Iraq—Eleven Years After We Took Baghdad

Baqouba, Iraq

Security forces inspect the scene of one of three suicide bombings in Baqouba, Iraq, March 3, 2010. (AP Photo)

In the wake of George W. Bush’s gaining serious treatment as an artist over the weekend, and being greeted warmly at NCAA basketball finals last night—even as we mark eleven years since the US took Baghdad (based on his lies)—there’s this today from Agence France-Presse:

Attacks in Iraq left 15 people dead Tuesday while security forces said they killed 25 militants near Baghdad amid worries insurgents are encroaching on the capital weeks ahead of elections.

The latest violence is part of a protracted surge in nationwide bloodshed that has left more than 2,400 people dead since the start of the year and sparked fears Iraq is slipping back into the all-out sectarian fighting that plagued it in 2006 and 2007.

The unrest has been driven principally by anger in the Sunni Arab community over alleged mistreatment at the hands of the Shiite-led government and security forces, as well as spillover from the civil war in neighboring Syria.

In Tuesday’s bloodiest incident, soldiers killed 25 militants in an ambush southwest of Baghdad, the capital’s security spokesman Brigadier General Saad Maan said. Elsewhere in Iraq on Tuesday, attacks north of the capital killed 15 people overall, security and medical officials said, including six members of the same family shot dead inside their home on the outskirts of the restive city of Mosul.

Near-daily bloodshed is part of a long list of voter concerns that also include lengthy power cuts, poor wastewater treatment, rampant corruption and high unemployment.

Looking through an article in The New York Times eleven years ago today (Baghdad would fall on April 9, 2003), one is struck by how many were already noting that we were not being greeted as liberators and that tough times were ahead, though none recognized the true scope of the problem (and the crime of the invasion to start with). “Chaos” and “looting” were also beginning, amid false US reports that “barrels” of chemical agents had been found, a possible “smoking gun,” as one official put it.

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Thomas Friedman, later rightly mocked for his prediction, over and over, for years, that things would be turning around there within six months, was pretty clear-eyed in a column titled ‘Hold Your Applause,” which closed with:

America broke Iraq; now America owns Iraq, and it owns the primary responsibility for normalizing it. If the water doesn’t flow, if the food doesn’t arrive, if the rains don’t come and if the sun doesn’t shine, it’s now America’s fault. We’d better get used to it, we’d better make things right, we’d better do it soon, and we’d better get all the help we can get.

Greg Mitchell’s new book on Iraq and media malpractice is So Wrong for So Long.

Read Next: Greg Mitchell: “Eleven Years Ago: Questions Arise About ‘Embedded’ Media Coverage of Our Iraq Invasion.”