Tuesday, June 12, 2018
Sunday, June 10, 2018
Last week, Trump signed a “right to try” bill that allows terminally ill patients to try experimental drugs that are not approved by the FDA. This is a major boost to Big Pharma companies. They now have even greater leeway to push potentially harmful drugs onto patients.
However, it is no consolation that the FDA chief this week said that, despite the bill, the agency will still make decisions on whether patients receive the drugs. Even before the bill, the FDA had approved around 99% of all such requests. The FDA, like all governmental agencies, mainly operates in the interests of the major corporations and their profit incentives. The Trump administration is only making their control even more blatant.
The conservative business newspaper the Wall Street Journal reported that Social Security will have to dip into its $3 trillion trust fund this year since its costs exceeded its income, the first time it has done so since 1982.
It’s important to keep in mind what the WSJ says are the reasons are for this years’ costliness: “The tax cuts signed into law last year have slightly lowered Medicare and Social Security’s projected revenue over the next few years,” while revenue has also been reduced due to Trump’s “decision to end a program [DACA] offering young undocumented immigrants reprieve from deportation while allowing them to work.” At the same time “The nation’s aging population is boosting the costs of Social Security and Medicare,” a problem that could be remedied through immigration. “Slower growth in the economy” is also noted, something that could be aided by a public-funded jobs and infrastructure-rebuilding program, if public fund weren’t already going to wasteful tax cuts that have not increased growth.
Trump’s effort to revitalize the profits of the coal company owners who funded his campaign (as reported last week), would, if successful, “cost ratepayers [i.e., the population] a fortune” since the cost of coal energy is becoming much more expensive (“more expensive than any other power source”) than cheaper, safer renewables, writes Greg Ip this week. This cost is even greater when you add in the costs imposed upon the environment though climate change.
Furthermore, burning coal emits harmful soot emissions that directly kills people, both in terms of the coal factory workers (“most tragically” harming “the coal miners [Trump] seeks to help”—which goes to show these measures are meant to help company owners, not workers) and by reducing the life expectancy of households that use subsidized coal.
However, Trump needs to secure campaign contributions from the coal companies to help fund his reelection, and so the efforts continue.
Obamacare was a failure on many levels (it did not, and could not, reduce medical costs), but the reason it is attacked is mainly because of its beneficial measures.
One of its good features was that it charged taxes on the exorbitantly wealthy and used that money to give healthcare to poor people who couldn’t afford it. This tax is the main reason why the law receives is so much hatred within establishment politics. It is also despised by insurance companies because it restricts their ability to do things like denying coverage and charging higher rates to people with pre-existing conditions. Now, Jeff Sessions and the Justice Department are asking a federal court to strike down these restrictions, including “the bans on insurers denying coverage and charging higher rates to people with pre-existing health conditions” and the limits “on how much insurers can charge people based on gender and age.”
This is just the latest salvo in Trump’s concerted effort to destroy Obamacare. He is working in service of rich investors and the insurance companies.
The reason the US healthcare system costs twice as much as other industrial nations while having some of the worst outcomes is because of the privatized system; high costs are charged to increase profits, while companies try to skirt providing as much care as possible to reduce costs. This could all be remedied by switching to the type of less-costly, more efficient national healthcare systems that almost all other Western nations employ, but the insurers won’t allow it. Trump’s efforts attack Obamacare in the wrong direction and exacerbate the problem.
There is also a human cost. Maintaining the privatized system means “maintaining” a situation that results in the unnecessary deaths of 45,000 people each year, who die due to lack of preventative care resulting from lack of health coverage. The Justice Department’s efforts to unwind protections for people with existing medical conditions will only exacerbate this.
The Trump administration is continuing its signature policy of placing industry officials and lobbyists into government positions designed to regulate industry.
A former banker, Joseph Otting, now heads the Comptroller of the Currency office, which oversees banks such as Bank of America and U.S. Bancorp, which are “two of his former employers.”
Mr. Otting’s initial efforts have been dedicated to rolling back “requirements for banks to have anti-money laundering and community-development programs”—for the record, big banks are the main lifeline of the illegal drug industry, because they launder its profits—and toward encouraging banks to expand business into things like providing more “loans to companies deep in dept.”
As I reported before, the EPA recently was embroiled in a scandal after trying to conceal a federal study showing that toxic chemicals had contaminated significant portions of the country’s water supply. I noted that the intimate connections between the EPA and the chemical industry are likely major factors behind this. Now, after much lobbying from the chemical industry, the EPA has decided that it will only review the effects of harmful chemicals that result from “direct contact with a chemical” and will exclude “any potential exposure caused by the substances’ presence in the air.”
The NYT notes “the approach means that the improper disposal of chemicals – leading to the contamination of drinking water, for instance – will often not be a factor in deciding whether to restrict or ban them.” The agency “will not focus on exposures that occur from traces of the chemical found in drinking water in 44 states as a result of improper disposal over decades”—in essence, allowing the chemical industry free reign to poison the environment, leading to illness and death, all in search of higher profits.
Needless to say, the Trump administration is working diligently to increase the major problems afflicting the country. This point was captured quite beautifully in a recently released report by a Special UN Rapporteur who just completed a mission surveying poverty and inequality in America. It provides a scathing critique of US policy:
The US is “a land of stark contrast” where “the immense wealth of the few” is juxtaposed with “the squalor and deprivation in which vast numbers of Americans exist.”
For “almost five decades the overall policy response has been neglectful at best,” but the current administration’s efforts “seem deliberately designed to remove basic protections from the poorest, punish those who are not in employment and make even basic health care into a privilege to be earned rather than a right of citizenship." The tax cuts “overwhelmingly benefited the wealthy and worsened inequality,” and simply follow a general template that will only “worsen this situation” even further.
Download the full report here. I highly recommend reading the entire thing.
Sunday, June 3, 2018
This week, Scott Pruitt, the head of the Trump administration’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), who also has extensive ties with fossil fuel companies (as reported), is by the New York Times to be in bed with even more billionaire coal barons than previously thought.
The NYT piece runs-through some of the ways Pruitt has been working to undermine and neuter the agency he is charged with running. It notes how the EPA has repealed (already marginal and insufficient) Obama-era laws aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions, further freeing up coal companies to harm the environment, including by making it easier for them to dump toxic metals into rivers.
The EPA has alsoone of the final steps before it can impose a weakening of rules designed to cut pollution from vehicle tailpipes, the next salvo in its assault against the public good in order to make life better for the exorbitantly wealthy. It’s important to understand that car manufacturers already get around these rules by rigging their vehicles with technology that tricks emissions testers. This is done on a , evidenced by with which they get caught doing so.
Essentially, companies factor in the slap-on-the-wrist fines they receive as penalties within their cost-benefit analysis, and—given the weak laws and enforcement—they rightly judge it is more profitable to continue the practice and pay the fine if they get caught. Thus, the EPA will soon alleviate that small annoyance and manufacturers will be free to poison the air with even more impunity. These kinds of emissions, by the way,to .
On a similar note, Trump’s Energy Department a draft plan that would force energy-grid operators to purchase energy from nuclear and coal plants, in an effort to bail-out these failing industries. This is what is called “conservatism.” But what Trump is really doing here is . At the same time, he is accelerating the destruction of the environment through climate change. This is even more egregious given that these industries are already dying off due to the shift toward renewables, unlike the oil companies, who won’t go down without a fight. The obvious answer would be to just let them go.
Aslast week, the momentum of the deregulation drive is only just getting started.
The Fed is now seeking to further leeway to use FDIC (public) insured deposits to make risky speculative bets in hopes of receiving quick super-profits. The point being, if the bets go sour, the taxpayer is on the hook.a rule designed to curtail the kind of risky financial derivatives trading that led directly to the ’08 financial crisis, known as the Volcker rule. The proposed change to the rule would restrict all banks, including the largest ones, from further regulatory oversight of their high-risk derivatives transactions. The change would give the banks
Though the Fed is not a federal agency and is instead representative of the financial elite, the Wall Street Journal notes that the proposal “is part of a broader regulatory rollback that includes a recently enacted law easing rules on small banks and less aggressive leadership at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau”, which was last week. The Trump administration, which in many ways represents the interests of the private equity industry which Trump’s campaign, has no doubt been pushing for this kind of deregulation from the Fed.
Four other regulatory institutions must approve the proposed changes before they come into effect, and there will be a 60-day period for public comments before the rule could be implemented.
As the World Socialist Web Site, although Big Finance routinely condemns regulatory oversight laws like the Volcker rule, in reality “bank profits soared to a record $56 billion during the first quarter of 2018.” As noted , Trump has already lavishly showered financial investors (who had already been benefitting from rising profits) with even more wealth with the tax cut, which has been used mainly for stock buybacks and to pay dividends to investors.
This, as the worlds richest increasingly shrinking number of elites live in luxury while “40 million live in poverty, 18.5 million in extreme poverty, and 5.3 million live in Third World conditions of absolute poverty,” as reported by the special UN Rapporteur, Philip Alston, who recently completed his on poverty in the US.generated last year, and while the US “has among Western countries” and “one of the highest poverty and inequality levels among the OECD countries.” Thus, the US represents a “land of stark contrast” where an
As predicted last week, these and other deregulatory measures will lead directly to another economic meltdown. A question of “when”, not “if.” And after all, there is nothing to lose in the eyes of the financial elite. They can simply rely on their Too Big To Fail government insurance policy when everything collapses. The last time that happened they survived unscathed, got rewarded, and now are reaping record-setting profits.
Those who will suffer, as always, will be the working class and the poor; those who are marginalized and disenfranchised both by a tyrannical and rapacious economic system, as well as the decisions of political leaders, better known as—for accuracy’s sake—the in-office representatives of, who, every four years, are charged with managing the economy in service of the masters. It is no surprise then, that they would do so within their interests.
Friday, June 1, 2018
Syria is preparing an offensive to regain control of the southwest of the country near the Daraa and Quneitra regions. The area is occupied by al-Qaeda and other insurgent groups associated with them, and a substantial portion is controlled by ISIS. But the US says it is opposed to the Syrian action because it would violate the de-escalation agreement made between the US, Jordan, and Russia. The administration has warned that it will take “firm and appropriate measures” if the operation is carried out — effectively putting the US squarely on the side of ISIS and al-Qaeda.
Negotiations are now underway to determine the fate of the region, with Israeli media reporting that a possible deal could include a Russian agreement to prevent the involvement of Iran and Hezbollah from any operations in return for the Israeli agreement to refrain from intervening against Syrian government attempts to take area.
However, the US warning makes clear that the administration regards the presence of ISIS, al-Qaeda, and associated forces as preferable to the Syrian state, and that it would like to maintain these in the area to prevent a Syrian advance. This is conducive with the overarching goal of keeping Syria weak and divided, of attempting to punish Russia and its allies for defeating the US-backed opposition by turning the Syrian victory into a liability.
Sunday, May 27, 2018
Ever since Trump’s election, he has presided over a dedicated assault against the working class.
Despite his populist rhetoric, it was not surprising that a billionaire capitalist would side with the interests of business owners while eroding the ability of labor to interfere with their ability to amass profits. The surprising thing has been how much these efforts have flown under-the-radar. While the $1.5 trillion tax cut is correctly seen as a handout to the rich, there has also been a constant stream of other actions aimed at enriching the wealthy at the populations expense.
Focus, however, has been diverted to irrelevancies like scandals and Trump’s most recent exploit. So, I decided to give a brief rundown of the administrations recent efforts, sticking to just the past week.
While the tax cut was packaged as a way to inject a windfall of private investment into the economy, and thereby create jobs and increase wages, it became apparent that this was just a narrative used to justify a massive government welfare payment to the wealthy.
In a CNN report this week, “Tax cut sparks record-setting $178 billion buyback boom,” the journalists describe how “corporate America is throwing a record-setting party for shareholders” by “showering Wall Street with at least $178 billion of stock buybacks during the first three months of 2018.” In the past 12 months, this has resulted in payouts to shareholders that “could top $1 trillion for the first time ever.”
For context, around 84% of all stocks are owned by the top 10%, while the richest 1% own nearly 40%. A party indeed for the sectors of already exorbitant wealth and privilege, who are now “raking in monster profits”, in addition to the profits that were already accelerating before the tax cut. And, according to CNN, “they can thank President Trump for their success.”
In contrast, the promised job-creating investment has yet to materialize, which is not surprising, since there has never been any data to suggest that it would.
After giving a windfall of taxpayer funds away to investors, Trump moved to further disenfranchise the black working class—already the demographic most disenfranchised and harmed by our economic system—by making it harder for government agencies to enforce fair housing policies, which are aimed at addressing discriminatory housing practices.
The barely-disguised racism underlying this move was evident in the argument that was used to justify it: the Wall Street Journal reports that “Critics of the Obama administration’s housing policies said the tool was intended to force communities to integrate against their will and was cumbersome.”
One of the major facets of the Trump presidency has been to further blur the already blurry line between corporate representatives and government officials. For example, Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency chief, Scott Pruitt, is a climate denier with intimate relations with corporations that profit from burning fossil fuels. He is also the man appointed to the task of protecting our environment. It is not hard to see how this will turn out, especially within a system where business interests already determine policy.
This week, Pruitt headed off a public relations stunt meant to provide damage control to a story exposed by Politico. Documents proved that the EPA was blocking the publication of a federal study which revealed a nation-wide water-contamination crisis. Certain chemicals, found in products like Teflon and foam, have been seeping into the water supply and endangering civilians.
The deputy assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, the body that is supposed to protect us from harmful chemicals, went from working at the EPA under Obama to working at the American Chemistry Council, a trade association for US chemical companies, before then coming back to the EPA; government and private office are a revolving door.
It is therefore not surprising that representatives of the chemical industry would try to hide information showing that its chemicals are poisoning Americans.
On a similar note, it is widely expected that Trump will sign a “right to try” bill next week, which recently cleared Congress. It allows terminally ill patients to access experimental drugs not yet approved by the FDA. However, nearly all of the patients who ask to try experimental medication get approval to do so already. The bill is simply a way for Big Pharma to bypass FDA regulations and push unsafe and unproven medications onto patients; giving people on the cusp of death false hopes of remedy, while increasing bottom lines.
Trump also just signed a bill to deregulate the financial industry and roll back measures aimed at preventing another financial crisis. The Obama-era Dodd Frank regulations were exceptionally weak and did not adequately protect the economy. Yet the financial class refuses to even entertain minor curbs to their ability to accumulate wealth, no matter how harmful it is to the world.
The bill exempts a majority of financial firms from stronger regulatory oversight, and will be followed up by further measures to erase what little protections still exist.
It is important to understand that in the period after the New Deal when there were strict regulations there were no major financial crisis. Ever since the deregulation drive of the ’70s took off we have experienced intermittent and expanding crisis’, the last of which nearly brought down the global economy, and from which we have yet to recover.
Those who will eventually pay the costs of these measures, as happened after the last crash, will be working class, the poor, and the disenfranchised. The banks, on the other hand, don’t have to worry because they have a “Too Big to Fail” public insurance plan, paid by you, the taxpayer.
In closing, this headline from the Wall Street Journal says all that is needed to be said: “Trump Issues Orders Making It Easier to Fire Federal Workers.”
The executive orders further diminish the already marginal and decreasing leverage of workers over their employers. While making it easier to fire workers considered “poor performers”, the White House says it could save taxpayers more than $100 million a year. Of course, it is fine to charge the taxpayer $1.5 trillion over 10 years to pay for record corporate profits, but when it comes to public sectors jobs, that’s where we have to tighten the belt. It is unlikely this will be mentioned the next time Trump promises to “bring back our jobs.”
The orders also limit the power of public-sector unions, the last holdout of worker representation after years of assaults have reduced union participation to a shadow of its former self. It limits the amount of time employees can spend on union activities, while cutting union funding and also charging unions for rent space in federal buildings. The order will also “halt payments to unions specifically related to their time lobbying Congress,” the intent to decrease the influence of workers being readily apparent.
Given the anti-labor corporate agenda briefly outlined in the preceding examples, it is obvious that this move is just another example of the Trump agenda of further increasing the totalitarian nature of capitalism. Whereby owners and managers own the profits and exercise tyrannical control over decision making, while the workforce is subordinated to wage-slavery and order-taking from the masters, without there being even a pretense of a social contract or respect for worker rights.
Friday, May 25, 2018
President Trump has cancelled the Singapore summit with North Korean leader Kim Jung-Un. He cited North Korea’s “hostility” as the reason, while using language that leaves open room for future reconciliation.
North Korea then sent back a respectful letter, which Trump described as “warm and productive.” I expect the situation to continue improving, as both sides seem to want negotiations, despite the malign influence of spoilers like National Security Advisor John Bolton.
The media, on the other hand, immediately interpreted Trump’s cancellation and the breakdown of negotiations as proof of North Korea’s bad-faith and intransigence, that it is not serious about its commitments, and that Kim was simply “playing” the victimized US.
A little recap of the actual recent events is therefore in order.
The US Scuttles Peace
North Korea has recently made a number of important concessions. It had agreed to halt its missile tests and has made good on that commitment. It also agreed to accept the end-goal of denuclearization as a prerequisite of negotiations. These were the two main preconditions the US was demanding.
Furthermore, it recently released a number of US prisoners as a further show of good-will, and has completed the destruction of its only known nuclear test site, which foreign journalists were allowed to witness.
It has also pulled-back from its earlier position regarding the US-South Korean military drills, instead accepting that they will take place.
The US, in turn, had scaled back the military drills to not include “strategic assets”, meaning nuclear-capable aircraft. As well, it halted its position of enmity against the North. This can be seen in the marked shift from the beginning of the year when tensions were mounting and the threat of nuclear war was over the horizon.
In short, North Korea made extension concessions, while the US made extremely minor ones. Essentially, the US halted an already illegitimate posture of threatening to destroy a small nation which poses it no threat, while continuing highly threatening military drills, albeit ones that didn’t come with the threat of nuclear destruction attached. However, there were concessions on both sides and the chance of a possible peace settlement was therefore hopeful.
Recently, William J. Perry, who was directly involved in the 1994 negotiations between North Korea and the Clinton administration, described how the success of the current round of negotiations depends on building a mutual “sense of trust” and good faith on both sides.
Its important to note that the 1994 negotiations were the first time the US seriously pursued diplomacy with the North, which proved to be the only strategy that has ever yielded results. The US was able to obtain a temporary halt to the North’s nuclear development. When the Bush administration came in and rejected diplomacy in favor of its own brand of “maximum pressure”, the progress was undermined and North Korea went on to obtain nuclear weapons and to further build up its arsenal.
How did the administration take Perry’s advice and enhance the “sense of trust” in the face of multiple North Korean good-faith concessions? First, John Bolton, who was a key figure in the Bush administrations derailment of Clinton’s North Korea diplomacy, demanded complete capitulation from North Korea while threatening to destroy the country.
In an interview, Bolton said the US was pursuing the “Libya model” for the negotiations. Libya gave up its nuclear program following US pressure, which then freed the US to later attack and destroy the country. Libya is therefore an example of US duplicity and a testament to the necessity of possessing a nuclear deterrent to ward off US aggression. Evoking the “Libya” model was a barely-disguised threat against North Korea and an effort to derail the negotiations.
Secondly, the US conducted more threatening military drills along the North’s border, which the US would of course find threatening if similar drills were conducted by Russia or China along the Canadian border. This time, the drills were to include nuclear-capable B-52’s, a reneging of the previous US concession to scale back the drills.
According to reports, the original decision to include the B-52’s was done against the will of South Korea, which, if true, exemplifies the neo-colonial relationship the US exerts over its South Korean client, erroneously described as a mutually-beneficial “alliance” in the media.
With these moves, the US tarnished the mutual trust and good-faith that had been building, and North Korea responded by denouncing Bolton and threatening to cancel the Trump-Kim summit. The North was taking advantage of how badly Trump wanted the summit to take place; his desire to be seen as “the great statesmen” and a purveyor of world peace, a leader deserving of the Nobel prize.
The media responded to North Korea’s letter by proclaiming it was proof of the North’s subterfuge and untrustworthiness, blaming them for the breakdown of trust. The obvious effect of these kinds of narratives being to support state power and provide ideological cover to policies aimed only at power projection; to shield policymakers from scrutiny about what they are actually doing in the world, making aggressive actions seem defensive and justified.
In response to North Korea’s denunciation of Bolton and the US’ threats, the administration began to back off. It cancelled the participation of the B-52’s and attempted to roll back comments about the “Libya model.” Trump also walked-back his public demands of complete and immediate denuclearization, saying that a gradual denuclearization was perhaps a possibility.
However, at the same time Trump issued a new threat, saying that if no deal was reached the Libya model would be back on and the US would engage in “total decimation” of the country. In short: either make a deal or we’ll murder you.
Vice President Pence then doubled-down on this by evoking Trump’s ultimatum while directly threatening the country, saying that if they don’t make a deal it will “end like the Libyan model ended” for them.
North Korea responded by lashing out against Pence, saying that it will not be intimidated and will not capitulate to unilateral US demands. The press, again, latched onto this as proof of North Korean intransigence. Journalists cited what they called North Korea’s threat of nuclear war as proof that it was being aggressive. In reality, the statement was much less dramatic and contained no threat: “Whether the US will meet us at a meeting room or encounter us at nuclear-to-nuclear showdown is entirely dependent upon the decision and behavior of the United States,” North Korea’s vice foreign minister wrote.
Not mentioned was how the US had threatened to “totally decimate” their country first, the North’s response therefore being incredibly mild. Also not mentioned was how North Korea has a no-first-use nuclear policy while the US maintains the right to a first strike. Nor that the entire reason for the North even having nukes in the first place is to ward off a US attack, a position that is only further justified by continued US threats and intransigence.
North Korea essentially responded by saying: we’ll accept negotiations, not demands and threats. So if you’d like to go back to threatening us with nuclear destruction, then we’ll respond without backing down.
So, while North Korea employs vitriolic and insulting language, in actuality their position is entirely understandable and has remained consistent throughout the years.
The Unsayable Reality
The core issue of the entire North Korea situation is, and has been, the threat of US attack.
The US divided Korea in pure colonial fashion. It “decimated” its population during the Korean War, burning down “every town in North Korea” while erasing at least 13.5% of its population. It followed this with economic and political strangulation, which is partly responsible for the starvation and famine that has transpired throughout the country’s history, as is conceded in the internal US record.
Throughout all of this, the US maintained a posture of threatening hostility against the North, repeatedly threatening them with nuclear attack. In response to this existential threat, North Korea developed a nuclear arsenal as a deterrent to US aggression. This has repeatedly been the assessment of US intelligence, and was recently reiterated by James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence.
The position of the US during the negotiations has been one of demanding that North Korea give up its only means of defense against US aggression.
When officials evoke the “Libya model” or demand full denuclearization as a prerequisite, they are demanding that North Korea give up its defenses without any recognition of the country’s legitimate security concerns; that it essentially bow on its knees in complete capitulation to US diktats, which would likely mean the eventual destruction of its country.
It may not seem like much to us in America that our government decimated their population during the Korean War, or that their nation is under existential threat from US power, but it means something to North Koreans. Although Western pundits and analysts in effect have no skin in the game one way or the other – the only way the US is threatened by North Korea is if it launches an attack against them first, provoking a defensive response – for North Koreans and people living on the Korean peninsula it is a matter of life and death, especially when US policymakers threaten their security by making threats, ultimatums, and attempting to fly nuclear-capable aircraft along the peninsula.
Yet for the ideological indoctrinators who service state power, i.e. journalists and “experts”, nothing short of complete North Korean capitulation is acceptable. Anything less and its “proof” of North Korean subterfuge, intransigence, and deviousness.
It is literally unsayable to discuss the relevant history and the core root of the problem. It cannot be said that the US is the aggressor, that the threat of US aggression is the main reason behind North Korea’s nuclear deterrent. These blasphemies contradict the ideological doctrines that the US is always defensive, that it always has the right to threaten or use force and violence against the world, while the world does not have the right to defend themselves against it.
So, while the system of propaganda—commonly referred to as the “free press”—will do everything in its power to back up Trump’s claim of the US simply responding to North Korean “hostility”, the reality shows something entirely different.
Saturday, May 19, 2018
Tuesday, May 15, 2018
While the US is quick to label any act of resistance by the Palestinians as terrorism, it has yet to condemn Israel's calculated massacre of unarmed Palestinians, including children, during this and the preceding weeks. In fact, the Trump administration has gone out of its way to defend Israel's inhumane actions and repeatedly blocked the UN Security Council's attempts to investigate Israel's clear violation of international law.
Monday, March 26, 2018
The recent diplomatic breakthrough between the Trump administration and North Korea provides a hopeful opportunity for peaceful resolution to the crisis on the Korean peninsula. Immediately after the announcement, the media went into overdrive to try and undermine the development, worrying more about photographs of Kim Jung-Un than of preventing nuclear war.
This, however, is only the latest iteration in a long history of media reporting which has enabled an aggressive US foreign policy.
While the momentum during the Olympic Games was pushing towards détente, the Trump administration ramped up its “maximum pressure” campaign. Meanwhile, the media constantly reminded its audiences of the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons. A threat not only to the people of the region—but likely even the United States itself.
When faced with such a threat the bellicose posturing of the Trump administration seems perhaps to have been warranted. After all, if the US does not coerce North Korea into denuclearization, what else will protect us?
There is a problem though. This threat is not real. North Korea’s nuclear program—according to official US intelligence assessments—is defensive. Its overall military posture is designed to deter an attack – exactly the kind that Trump has threatened them with.
By falsely portraying North Korea as the aggressor, the press have functioned much in the same way that state-sponsored propaganda would, bolstering an aggressive foreign policy despite the chance that it will descend the world into a possible nuclear war.
The Threat of Deterrence
The most authoritative assessments of US military intelligence have repeatedly concluded that North Korea’s nuclear program is defensive.
The most recent report available, published by the Department of Defense in 2015, concludes that the military capabilities of the North are designed “to deter external attack.” North Korea’s “overarching national security objectives” are to develop nuclear weapons, gain recognition as a nuclear armed state, and thereby establish the “maintenance of a viable deterrent capability.” In terms of “North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs,” the DoD clearly explains that “DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) leaders see these programs as necessary for a credible deterrent capability essential to its survival.”
A similar assessment is given in the 2013 report. The report notes that the objectives of the North Korean regime “have not changed markedly from those pursued by Kim Jong Il,” the country’s previous leader who came to power in the 1990’s. North Korean leaders have seen “these programs, absent normalized relations with the international community, as leading to a credible deterrence capability essential its goals of survival.”
Despite the public availability of these assessments, the mainstream media continues to portray these programs as offensive.
In a New York Times report from February 13, titled “U.S. Opens Door to North Korea Talks, a Victory for South’s President”, the authors uncritically quote Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, as saying that the current leader of North Korea, Kim Jung-Un, “probably sees nuclear ICBMs as leverage to achieve his long-term strategic ambition to end Seoul’s alliance with Washington and to eventually dominate the peninsula.”
While journalists routinely cite such statements from US intelligence officials uncritically, they eschew the most exhaustive assessments produced by the officials’ own agencies. If the DoD report from 2012 had been consulted, it would have been understood that while in the 60s & 70s the North did have “reason to believe its goal of reunification on its own terms was a possibility”, ever since the 1990s “North Korea has largely abandoned unilaterally enforced reunification as a practical goal.”
On the diplomatic side, the Times article explains that “the Trump administration has long resisted” the approach of peaceful negotiation because it does not want to “be drawn into a negotiation like that of the Clinton administration in 1994, which resulted in a deal North Korea later broke.” This last point is stated plainly as fact.
The secretary of defense for President Clinton at that time, who was directly involved in negotiating that deal, says the opposite.
William Perry explains that while the agreement was “imperfectly implemented” it did in fact “effectively halt the regime’s nuclear progress for a time.” Attempts to iron-out a more permanent agreement, which “were tantalizingly close”, only collapsed when the incoming Bush administration cut-off all dialogue with the North and “abandoned Clinton’s diplomatic plan for his own more confrontational model”, thereby losing “a priceless opportunity.”
Importantly, Perry also says that “while [the North Korean leadership] is evil and sometimes reckless,” it is not “crazy or suicidal.” It knows “that if it launches a nuclear attack, the American response would bring death to the leadership and devastation to its country. … The arsenal achieves its goal only if North Korea does not use it.”
By omitting this crucial context, the Times lends undo credibility to the Trump administration’s approach, and further enables the push towards possible nuclear war.
Hyping the Threat
3 More articles from February, The New York Times’, “Seeing Bounty Abroad, Will North Koreans Change Their Homeland?”, the Washington Post’s, “Did Kim Jong Un’s ‘historic’ missile get a boost from old Soviet weapons?”, and the Washington Post’s, “South Korean president says Olympics have lowered tensions with North”, all paint a similar picture.
In the Times piece, the main explanation of North Korea’s behavior is left to a University professor of Korean studies, who echoes the mainstream consensus when he says that North Korea “remains a menacing nuclear state.” No attempt is made to ask what might explain this seemingly erratic behavior, nor what it would feel like to be in North Korea’s shoes, to have the world’s superpower threaten to “totally destroy” your country. It is simply not considered whether such things have anything to do with those “menacing” defensive nukes.
The Washington Post articles add to the paranoia.
In the first, a vivid description is depicted of “the 75-foot-tall colossus… one of two intercontinental ballistic missiles to appear abruptly on North Korean launchpads last year, and the first with sufficient range to strike cities across the continental United States.”
In the second, the authors similarly describe how “the North has made rapid nuclear progress in recent years, and some experts say the country has successfully miniaturized a nuclear warhead - the kind of weapon it could use to target the U.S. mainland.” These articles descend to the level of scaremongering because they make no effort to ask why these capabilities are being built. If it was understood that the only way in which these “colossus” missiles would ever threaten “to target the U.S. mainland” is if the Trump administration launches an attack against North Korea first—thus provoking a retaliation—people might have harsher things to say about the administration’s behavior.
History is also turned on its head.
The Post tells its readers that “until recently, relations with North Korea seemed at a crisis point. North Korea was testing nuclear weapons, launching missiles toward Japan, all as President Trump said the United States was ‘locked and loaded’ to respond.” Another Washington Post piece, “The leaders of both Koreas feel like they won gold medals this week”, similarly frames the situation as the US simply responding to North Korean provocations: “After a year of threats, actual and rhetorical, fired from North Korea toward the United States, the sudden burst of inter-Korean diplomacy has turned the focus away from Washington, at least temporarily.”
The most prominent academic scholars say the actual history has been the opposite. Instead, the pattern has been one where a reduction in tensions initiated by the US usually results in a North Korean reciprocation. Conversely, when the US acts aggressively the North tends to respond in kind, usually with some kind of ballistic missile test.
According to one of the most prominent scholars on the subject, Leon V. Sigal, director of the Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project at the Social Science Research Council in New York, “Pyongyang in fact has been playing tit for tat-reciprocating whenever Washington cooperates and retaliating whenever Washington reneges-in an effort to end enmity.”
Indeed, if the Trump-North Korea summit breaks down and the US increases its threats and war-games we can expect to see more missile tests from North Korea in response, and for the media to depict them as aggressive and hostile provocations.
The way the Washington Post decided to report on the Trump administration’s recent implementation of additional sanctions against North Korea, in “Trump administration unveils sanctions aimed at starving North Korea of resources”, was not to warn against the likelihood that they might undermine the slim opportunities for peaceful negotiations, nor to denounce the negative impact they will have on the wellbeing of the North Korean population—but to help justify the decision.
The sanctions come “as the Trump administration seeks new ways to intensify pressure on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, whose increasingly advanced missile and nuclear weapon programs have made the isolated nation the most pressing foreign threat facing the United States.” For this statement to be taken seriously, the reader would have to believe that the North Korean leadership is not only brutal, but downright “crazy or suicidal.”
The article ends with Nikki Haley, the United States’ UN representative, extolling the practice of using economic suffering as diplomatic leverage, while also castigating the North Koreans for refusing to willfully curtail their attempts to defend themselves: “Even though North Korea has yet to end its nuclear and missile programs, we know the sanctions are having a real impact. The regime has less and less money to spend on its ballistic missile tests and less capacity to threaten other countries with those tests.”
The Post takes this account at face-value, offering no criticisms of its accuracy nor of its moral legitimacy. The perception that we have the right to threaten and coerce whoever we want while they do not have the right to defend against this seems to have transcended into the realm of unquestionable and accepted dogma.
The lasting consequence of this kind of reporting is to provide diplomatic cover for the aggressive policies of the US government, helping to justify actions that would likely be condemned if the population had access to the full picture.
It is precisely this type of priming of the narrative that enables pundits to throw scorn upon peaceful negotiations and to favor instead the threatening of aggression and war.
Indeed, it is only with the aid of the mass media that someone like Trump could have gotten away with threatening to “totally destroy” a country for attempting to defend itself, or for people to see military action taken against North Korea – the one thing that does threatens to send nukes into the United States – as necessary to protect the population from nukes.
Steven Chovanec is an independent journalist and analyst based in Chicago, Illinois. He has a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Sociology from Roosevelt University, and has written for numerous outlets such as The Hill, TeleSUR, Truthout, MintPress News, Consortium News, INSURGE intelligence, and others. Follow him on Twitter @stevechovanec.
Saturday, March 24, 2018
A lot of the debate surrounding Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs misses key points.
Many who have vehemently rejected the measures have exaggerated the harms that are likely to be caused by them. The arguments mainly stem from a desire to safeguard the global economic architecture that has been pursued by decades of previous administrations, commonly referred to as "globalization."
Really, this represents one specific form of global interconnection, one that has been constructed by, and for, the interests of Western economic elites. It has been championed by US administrations because it expands US influence and control throughout the world and the primary beneficiaries are US and allied nations’ corporations. A debate that oscillates either between Trumpian nationalism or this formulation of globalization is a false dichotomy.
In terms of the effects of the tariffs, price raises are likely to be barely noticeable for consumers, while the loss of employment in other affected sectors is likely to outweigh any benefits within the steel and aluminum industries, resulting in a net loss. The main threat though lies elsewhere: that the tariffs will provoke retaliatory measures from trading partners like the EU which will harm export industries. Therefore, they “may help protect the minority of workers in the targeted industries, but at some cost to the majority in others,” as Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), has commented.
But the knee-jerk opposition to anything protectionist is also misguided.
Protecting Profits, Not People
Every major advanced industrial economy rose to its position as a result of government intervention that protected its domestic industries, including the United States. The modern innovation being that the US, after building up its industries using protections, used its global influence to break-down trade barriers worldwide once its companies were in a position to dominate and profit from global competition. This is called “kicking away the ladder” that was used to get to the top.
US-directed liberalization therefore mainly benefitted Western corporate owners at the expense of the masses of working people. It led to massive increases in inequality and consolidation of profits at the top, brutal austerity measures that have shifted costs onto vulnerable populations, and a rise in legitimate anti-establishment grievances that created the conditions for populist demagogues like Trump to win office.
Some form of protectionism might help to alleviate those disaffected by the globalized economy, but Trump is going about it in the wrong way and for the wrong reasons.
While Trump routinely employs worker-friendly language, his policies have been structured specifically to increase the profits of a small group of wealthy business owners and to exacerbate the suffering and marginalization of everybody else.
The examples are far too many to list, but nearly every proposal has followed this basic template. The latest iterations include the Department of Labor (DOL) proposal that would allow employers to take worker’s tips. The administration even tried hiding just how harmful this would be by deliberately scrubbing its own estimates showing billions would be transferred to employers if the rule was approved.
Other DOL proposals seek to allow employers to self-regulate their failures to pay their workers, the predictable results of which do not have to be stated. The infrastructure plan as well was designed to transfer money from the population to investors by funding the rebuilding process through private investment, which will seek to accrue a profit by charging the population with tolls and other user fees, subordinating the rebuilding of infrastructure to the interests of private owners at the expense of the public. Or the massive upward redistribution of wealth that is the tax-cuts, mainly geared toward enriching the already very wealthy. This has been followed up by calls from opportunistic “deficit-hawks” to cut public programs that benefit working people in the name of “budget reform.” This is exactly what Trump’s 2019 budget proposes, exemplified in its “food-box” program that is designed to drastically reduce spending on assistance that helps to feed poor people. Or the current push to deregulate Wall-Street, risking another collapse that will inevitably harm the working-class poor most of all. And the list goes on, and on.
In keeping with this, the steel and aluminum tariffs are essentially a gift to the business-owners who helped to fund Trump’s campaign.
Follow the Money
Political scientists have amassed an authoritative body of research showing that elections in the US are, above all else, competitions between competing financiers. Campaign costs are very high, and the barrier to entry is more than most can afford, therefore influence over electoral outcomes “passes by default to major investor groups” who can bear these costs. Funding is forwarded to candidates from various investor blocs who then compete with each other for control over the state. Campaign funding alone is the dominant determinant of electability. In short, elections are essentially bought.
Candidates therefore must present policy platforms that attract funding from economic elites. Because of this, only the positions that can be financed are presented to voters. This funding acts as a filter which sifts out any platform that is not amenable to the interests of the dominant investors. The innovation in 2016 was that both Sanders and Trump were able to break through this filter.
The pioneer of this research, Thomas Ferguson, has released a new study paper that systematically breaks down the 2016 elections, shedding important new light on this historical phenomenon. Astonishingly, Bernie Sanders was able to establish a genuine grass-roots movement that collectively amassed enough money through small donations from average citizens to seriously contend with the Wall-Street backed Clinton campaign. Clinton only won the Democratic primaries as a result of the DNC manipulations that stemmed this tide of genuine democracy.
In Trump’s case, he was able to act and talk the way he did because he was a billionaire who could fund his own campaign and was therefore not beholden to the traditional Republican investors. “To many spectators,” Ferguson writes, “the truncated range” of discussion amongst the establishment Republican candidates sounded “as though everyone on stage in the debates was in the iron grip of some powerful force blocking normal human speech. This, of course, was because they were.” Trump’s ability to break this spell by opening his wallet was like “throwing open a tomb that had been sealed for ages,” electrifying many Americans who harbored grievances with the status-quo.
But the research points to an influx of corporate funding as being the deciding factor that secured Trump’s victory.
Initially, Trump’s corporate-funding came from traditional Republican donors. Big Pharma, tobacco, oil, and “mining, especially coal mining”—making the push to revitalize coal easy to understand. “Money from executives at the big banks also began streaming in,” though the decisive “torrent” came from private equity and hedge funds. Combined with “oil, chemicals, mining and a handful of other industries,” large private equity firms likely accounted for a “giant wave of dark money” that rushed into the Trump campaign in the final weeks. Deregulation, therefore, has been a top priority of the administration.
The rest came from companies located within the old industrial states that have been gutted by globalization, “from firms in steel, rubber, machinery, and other industries whose impulses to protection figured to benefit from” Trump’s nationalistic rhetoric.
It is not surprising then that Trump has constructed his protectionism to benefit these industries. The likely result of the tariffs, according to Michael Hudson, professor of economics at Peking University in Beijing, will be to enable “the steel and aluminum companies to use their increased profits for share buybacks and to pay dividends,” which is how most of the proceeds from the tax cuts appear to have been utilized so far.
As well, the steel and aluminum companies will be reliant on the tariffs staying in place to maintain their newfound profits, therefore securing their support and funding for Trump’s reelection campaign.
But the hodgepodge mixture of investors that make up the Trump coalition are, in Ferguson’s words, “extremely unstable.” They have little in common besides “their intense dislike of existing forms of American government.” “The world of private equity,” for instance, “intent on gaining access to the gigantic, rapidly growing securities markets of China and the rest of Asia,” are “likely to coexist only fitfully with American industries struggling to cope with world overcapacity in steel and other products or facing twenty-first century mercantilist state targeting.” The debate within the administration between “nationalism” and “globalism” is representative of these contradictions.
These, however, are not the only options available.
An alternate possibility, as proposed by the economist Dean Baker, is to formulate a trade policy that embraces globalization in an inclusive way that reduces inequality. His recommendation is to subsidize job creation to help aid domestic industries that have been harmed by trade, therefore helping those who have been most harmed by globalization: the industrial workers. He also advocates eliminating protections for highly paid professions (like doctors) as well as those of government-granted pharmaceutical patents (both of which drastically inflate medical costs). This would help to mitigate the upward redistribution of wealth, while also drastically reducing bloated medical costs that are a major burden to Americans.
Another economist, professor Richard D. Wolff, emphasizes domestic changes that would have an international effect. As Wolff suggests, if domestic enterprises were organized democratically, they would be much less likely to engage in the kind of harmful economic activity that is prevalent today.
For example, if the decisions within the firm were made by democratic vote among all who worked there, rather than by a small group of profit-seeking owners at the top, how likely would they be to decide to shut down their factories, destroy their own jobs, and move production abroad to take advantage of cheap labor?
Indeed, the options are plenty, and not very hard to imagine. Not once the constraints of the current doctrinal orthodoxies are thrown aside, and once policies are crafted with the interests of people in mind, not profit.
Steven Chovanec is an independent journalist and analyst based in Chicago, Illinois. He has a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Sociology from Roosevelt University, and has written for numerous outlets such as The Hill, TeleSUR, Truthout, MintPress News, Consortium News, Insurge-Intelligence, and others. Follow him on Twitter @stevechovanec.