Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Venezuela's Elections Were Not Free or Fair – They Were Undermined by the US

The Western press did its utmost to portray the recent elections in Venezuela as fraudulent. There were legitimate allegations raised, such as how Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro offered recipients of state benefits a “prize” if they came out to vote. Therefore, an increasingly reluctant public would be compelled to vote for him to receive much-needed food and supplies.
But in reality this is only a minor example of a common practice employed throughout the region and surely prevalent in US-backed states. It also confuses the loyal support Maduro has amongst the poor as mere clientelism, disregarding the much more substantial impact of how the government looks after their interests & wellbeing. Despite being most harmed by the economic downturn, the poorer sectors are those most supportive of the government; not exactly what you’d call clientelism.
However, what is often not discussed is the much more substantial ways in which the elections were undermined—by the United States.

Continue reading...

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Trump's Assault Against the Working Class; June 4-10

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

Trump's Assault Against the Working Class; May 28-June 3

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 last week), is further revealed 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 also now completed one 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 consistent basis, evidenced by the frequency 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, lead directly to disease and death.

 On a similar note, Trump’s Energy Department is working on 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 paying back the corporate owners who funded his campaign. 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.

As predicted last week, the momentum of the deregulation drive is only just getting started.

The Fed is now seeking to roll back 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 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.

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 covered here last week. The Trump administration, which in many ways represents the interests of the private equity industry which lavishly funded 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 notes, 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 before, 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 1% snagged 82% of all of the wealth generated last year, and while the US “has the highest rate of income inequality 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 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 official report on poverty in the US.

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 the corporate elite, 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

Trump moves to protect ISIS, al-Qaeda enclave in Syria

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.

Continue Reading...