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Thursday, June 30, 2011

Tort Reform? Woman Gang-Raped by 7 Halliburton Employees "Signed Away" Her Right to Sue? How Justice Has Become the Privilege of Corporations


Access to justice – like access to elected office, let alone a pundit's perch – is becoming a perk just for the rich and powerful.

Worried about the influence of money in American politics, the huge cash payouts that the US supreme court waved through by its Citizens United decision – the decision that lifted most limits on election campaign spending? Corporations are having their way with American elections just as they've already had their way with our media.

But at least we have the courts, right?

Wrong. The third branch of government's in trouble, too. In fact, access to justice – like access to elected office, let alone a pundit's perch – is becoming a perk just for the rich and powerful.

Take the young woman now testifying in court in Texas. Jamie Leigh Jones claims she was drugged and gang-raped while working for military contractor KBR in Iraq (at the time, a division of Halliburton). Jones, now 26, was on her fourth day in post in Baghdad in 2005 when she says she was assaulted by seven contractors and held captive, under armed guard by two KBR police, in a shipping container.

When the criminal courts failed to act, her lawyers filed a civil suit, only to be met with Halliburton's response that all her claims were to be decided in arbitration – because she'd signed away her rights to bring the company to court when she signed her employment contract. As Leigh testified before Congress, in October 2009, "I had signed away my right to a jury trial at the age of 20 and without the advice of counsel." It was a matter of sign or resign. "I had no idea that the clause was part of the contract, what the clause actually meant," testified Jones.

You've probably done the very same thing without even knowing it. When it comes to consumer claims, mandatory arbitration is the new normal. According to research by Public Citizen and others, corporations are inserting "forced arbitration" clauses into the fine print of contracts for work, for cell phone service, for credit cards, even nursing home contracts, requiring clients to give up their right to sue if they are harmed. Arbitration is a no-judge, no-jury, no-appeal world, where arbitrators are (often by contract) selected by the company and all decisions are private – and final.

Deadly small print is not only for subprime mortgage-seekers – and neither are the costly repercussions. When corporations evade the bills for harm, no matter how huge (for medical malpractice, say, or pension fund collapse), the liability is passed on to individuals, and then to taxpayers. A new documentary, Hot Coffee, premiering 27 June, on HBO, lays out the whole picture – and it's devastating.

First-time filmmaker Susan Saladoff starts where for many Americans, the term "tort reform" first appeared. Stella Liebeck, an 81-year-old woman, sued McDonald's over coffee that was "too hot" – and became the "welfare queen" of tort reform. Pilloried in corporate-funded PR and in the media after a jury imposed an initial $2.7m in punitive damages, lobbyists used Liebeck's case to deride "frivolous" lawsuits and bludgeon congressional and state legislators into passing laws that set maximum "caps" on damages. (Politicians all the way up to President George W Bush needed no bludgeoning: "frivolous suits" became a campaign trail hit.)

But look at the pictures Saladoff shows in Hot Coffee and you'll see Liebeck's legs seared by savage, third-degree burns, which covered over 16% of her body. As any reporter could have discovered at the time, McDonalds' protocols kept its coffee at 82-87ºC (180-190ºF). Over 700 people had been burned by it. Ten years of suits and claims had forced no change. Liebeck's suit was anything but "frivolous".

Likewise, Jones's suit. Or the big-business funded effort to unseat justices opposed to "tort reform" – also profiled in Hot Coffee. It's taken Jones nearly six years and a hearing in the US Senate to force her employer, Halliburton into open court, at last, in Houston this week. Jones tells Saladoff she's driven by concern for other young women in her position – in no position, that is, thanks to mandatory arbitration, to know the truth about past claims and what they may be getting into when they sign an employment contract.

Saladoff, a plaintiff's attorney for 25 years, is driven, too – by a belief in the seventh amendment right to a jury trial. "Tort" is a complicated word for a simple thing – "harm," she explains. The courts are supposed to be the branch of government where citizens and corporations have an equal shot. The US supreme court in Dukes v Walmart recently rejected 1.6 million workers' attempt to bring a class action case – making it a whole lot harder for Americans to band together to hold corporations accountable. Go it alone and the deck is stacked, thanks to decades of effort by corporations and the politicians they pay for.

They don't pay fair wages; they don't pay their fare share of taxes. They evade liability. What gives? Says Saladoff: "When corporations harm, there should be some way to hold them accountable."

Laura Flanders is the host of GRITtv, Mon-Thursday on Free Speech TV (Dish Network chn. 9315) and streaming at GRITtv.org.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Keeping the War on Drugs Profitable

Dissident Voice: a radical newsletter in the struggle for peace and social justice

Private Contractors Making a Killing off the Drug War

As tens of thousands of corpses continue to pile up as a result of the US-led “War on Drugs” in Latin America, private contractors are benefiting from lucrative federal counter-narcotics contracts amounting to billions of dollars, without worry of oversight or accountability.

U.S. contractors in Latin America are paid by the Defense and State Departments to supply countries with services that include intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, training, and equipment.

“It’s becoming increasingly clear that our efforts to rein in the narcotics trade in Latin America, especially as it relates to the government’s use of contractors, have largely failed,” said U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill, chair of the Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight which released a report on counter-narcotics contracts in Latin America this month. “Without adequate oversight and management we are wasting tax dollars and throwing money at a problem without even knowing what we’re getting in return.”

Washington doled out $3.1 billion dollars between 2005 and 2009, with spending having increased 32 percent over the five year period. DynCorp International was the big winner, racking in $1.1 billion, or 36 percent of total counter-narcotics contract spending in the region by the Defense and State Departments. Other contractors benefiting from the spending include Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, ITT, and ARINC.

“The federal government does not have any uniform systems in place to track or evaluate whether counter-narcotics contracts are achieving their goals,” the report states.

The June 7th Senate Report was released less than a week after an international drug commission declared the “War on Drugs” a failure. The commission included former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, former U.S. Federal Reserve Chief Paul Volcker, and former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria.

The lack of transparency, oversight and accountability by the Defense and State Departments on counter-narcotics contracts was brought to light last year in a May 2010 hearing McCaskill held in which the Defense Department provided incomplete accounting on how “Drug War” money was spent on private contractors. Remarkably, it was revealed that the Defense Department actually outsourced their audit to a private contractor for the hearing. In response, the frustrated Senator said at the time that she “will not hesitate to use subpoenas” in order to obtain accurate information.

This laissez-faire approach Washington takes with private contractors often leads to crimes and human rights abuses in foreign countries. For example, DynCorp, the company Washington has entrusted with a majority of taxpayer-funded counter-narcotics dollars, has been mired in scandals over the years, that include: employees allegedly having sex with teenage girls in Bosnia and selling them as sex-slaves; pimping out young “dancing boys” in Afghanistan; and spraying toxic chemicals in Colombia that drifted into Ecuador and is believed to have caused “massive health problems, numerous deaths and widespread environmental damage.”

In response to criticisms, a Pentagon Spokesman told the the L.A Times that counter-narcotics efforts “have been among the most successful and cost-effective programs” in decades and that “the U.S. has received ample strategic national security benefits in return for its investments in this area.” Some of these “benefits” might include U.S. military bases in Colombia, a law enforcement academy in El Salvador run by American “trainers” that critics fear could become another “School of the Americas“, and securing commercial access to oil. But one of these benefits definitely does not include significantly curtailing the amount of drugs reaching the United States, as the Rand Corporation’s Peter Chalk recently pointed out in his report on Latin America’s drug trade, an analysis sponsored by the U.S. Air Force.

Clearly the US-led war on drugs is failing as a policy to stop the production and trafficking of drugs. And it’s not as though there are not numerous viable solutions being provided by people across the hemisphere. Javier Sicilia, Mexican poet and leading activist against drug war-related violence in his country, told journalist Laura Carlsen of the Americas Program, “The United States must go back to the drawing board, listen to what citizens are demanding, and the United States should remember, as a democratic country, that sovereignty lies in the citizens, not in government officials.”

While there is an anti-drug war movement budding in Mexico, we need to grow our own here in the United States and to start making our demands for humane and nonviolent policy alternatives.

Cyril Mychalejko is an editor at UpsideDownWorld.org. He can be reached at Cyril@upsidedownworld.org. Read other articles by Cyril.

This article was posted on Monday, June 27th, 2011 at 8:00am and is filed under Afghanistan, Colombia, Drug Wars, Ecuador, Mexico.

Apple, Google, Microsoft Sitting on 58 Billion in Overseas Profits, Blackmailing Us to Avoid Taxes



Apple, Google, Microsoft Sitting on 58 Billion in Overseas Profits, Blackmailing Us to Avoid Taxes

How does it feel to have the jobs gun pointed at your head? Because that’s what this is: a stickup.

Photo Credit: Brandon Anderson
America’s largest global corporations are holding $1.5 trillion dollars in profits overseas in order to avoid US taxes. “Apple has $12 billion waiting offshore, Google has $17 billion and Microsoft, $29 billion,” reports the New York Times.

These corporations claim that if we reduce their tax rate on that cash from 35 percent to 5.25 percent (which is less than the rest of us pay in sales taxes), they will bring the money home and invest it in creating badly needed jobs. They claim that for every billion invested, 15,000 to 20,000 jobs will be created directly and indirectly, which means such a tax holiday could create up to 30 million jobs – more than enough to bring us back to full employment and then some!

How does it feel to have the jobs gun pointed at your head? Because that’s what this is – a stickup, a robbery, job blackmail. It’s as if these corporations finally realized that they should emulate Wall Street and pick the carcass clean.

I know, I know. But, aren’t the pro-corporate lobbyists correct when they say that we need those overseas profits here? What good will it do the unemployed if that loot isn’t repatriated? Also, doesn’t that 5.25 percent of $1.5 trillion translate into more than $50 billion in federal revenues that we’ll never see if the money stays parked overseas? And given the fact that Washington is too broke for another jobs stimulus program, don’t we have to play ball with those who have the money to move our economy? Isn’t it time to grow up and realize that we have to encourage, not vilify Corporate America in order to put our people back to work?

Wrong on all counts. Here’s why we shouldn’t give the blackmailers the money.

1. Companies that got the tax breaks last time didn’t create jobs.

After the Bush administration and Congress passed the Homeland Investment Act of 2004, 800 corporations repatriated $312 billion, but didn’t create jobs, according to an in-depth study by the nonpartisan National Bureau of Economic Research (PDF). “Congressmen argued that it would create more than 500,000 jobs over two years by raising investment in the United States,” the report states.

Here’s what actually happened:

    “Rather than being associated with increased expenditures on domestic investment or employment, repatriations were associated with significantly higher levels of shareholder payouts, mainly through share repurchases.... A $1 increase in repatriations was associated with a $0.79 increase in share repurchases and a $0.15 increase in dividends…. [I]t is clear that they were able to reallocate funds internally to bypass the publicly stated goals of the Act.”

In plain English that means that 94 cents of every tax break dollar enriched the shareholders. That leaves six cents on the dollar for investment in research, development and jobs. They scammed us into giving them a tax break to create jobs and then they pocketed the money instead, or as the report summarizes,

“Firms that valued the tax holiday the most and took greatest advantageof it did not increase domestic investment or employment, instead returning virtually all of the cash they repatriated to shareholders.”

2. The money didn’t boost jobs in the overall economy either.

But doesn’t more money for shareholders lead to new investments and jobs all over the economy? They had to do something with the $300 billion.

If you look at the jobs data, you’ll see a steady decline starting in June 2003, when the unemployment rate was 6.3 percent to late 2006 and early 2007 when the rate fell all the way to 4.4 percent (a number we would kill for today). So the unemployment rate started going down before the tax holiday began, and unemployment continued down during the holiday and after it ended. The unemployment rate goes down at a slow, but steady rate showing no sign at all of a bump from the tax holiday.

3. The tax holiday money probably ended up in Wall Street’s fantasy finance casino.

So where did all that tax holiday money go after the shareholders got it? No one knows for sure, but I’d be willing to wager that most of it ended up on Wall Street helping to fuel the boom in junk mortgage-related securities, which in turn pumped up the housing bubble. By 2005, wealthy shareholders in major corporations had more money than they had real investment opportunities. And Wall Street, now deregulated, solved that little problem by creating a vast array of garbage securities that the rating agencies blessed with AAA ratings. This Wall Street garbage, in turn, created an enormous demand for millions of high risk mortgages. If you could breathe you could get a mortgage. The tax holiday, no doubt, fueled the calamitous Wall Street machine.

Is there any evidence for this claim? It’s circumstantial. In 2004, there were $157 billion in new collateralized debt obligations – those giant pools of mortgaged-back securities that turned toxic. In 2005 and 2006, as the tax holiday fully took hold, new CDOs climbed from $272 billion to $557 billion. Then in 2007, it decreased to $486 billion before crashing to next to nothing in 2008. It may just be a coincidence, but it sure looks like the tax holiday gave the CDO market a nice boost.

4. Corporate America is already sitting on a trillion dollars they are not investing.

The largest American corporations have tons of cash they are not moving into job-creating investments (the 500 companies in the S&P index alone are sitting on $960 billion, according to the Wall Street Journal). Why? Because unemployment is still so high and the recovery still so weak, that they have plenty of workers and productive capacity to fulfill the tepid demand.

This is the same problem that John Maynard Keynes identified during the Great Depression – an economy with high unemployment can get stuck in a trough where people are fearful of consuming and corporations are fearful of investing. The answer then, and the answer now, is for the government to put the unemployed back to work doing the vital business of the nation, even if it runs up the deficit some more. We could use a vast army of workers to weatherize buildings and to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure. These are the potential consumers that could spur corporations to create jobs.

5. Not only didn’t corporations create jobs during the last tax holiday, but they actually destroyed them.

Corporations are in business to make as much money as possible. If creating jobs helps do that, fine. If killing jobs is the highest profit strategy, then the jobs go. During the 2005 tax holiday, it was job-killing time. As the New York Times reports,

    “Indeed, 60 percent of the benefits went to just 15 of the largest United States multinational companies — many of which laid off domestic workers, closed plants and shifted even more of their profits and resources abroad in hopes of cashing in on the next repatriation holiday.”

6. Corporate America used the last tax holiday to prepare for the next one.

Did you catch that last line? That’s quite an accusation because it means that America’s largest corporations were preparing for the day when they could again jam through another tax holiday.

They couldn’t come begging again during the 2008 crash – too unseemly. They couldn’t stick their hand out while the bailouts were flowing to Wall Street – too many ahead in the line. And they couldn’t pretend to create jobs while the stimulus package was in effect – too hard to claim that the tax holiday was needed. But now that we’re deep in debt and now that no political party has the nerve to tax Wall Street to create the jobs that the Wall Street crash destroyed, this is the perfect time to execute the tax holiday game plan.

7. It’s all about eliminating taxes on Corporate America.

After the last tax holiday corporations moved even more money overseas than they did before, concludes a report by Thomas Brennan of the Northwestern School of Law:

    “[S]ince the holiday window, there has been a dramatic increase in the rate at which firms add to their stockpile of foreign earnings kept overseas…. This signal operates to condition those subject to the rules to anticipate the opportunities of future holidays and arrange their affairs accordingly….The fact that such conditioning can occur is certainly not new, and it dates at least back to Pavlov and his dogs.

But our Pavlovian corporations are smarter. They know that if they continue moving more and more money overseas, they can blackmail Congress into permanently reducing corporate taxes to a pathetic 5.25 percent or lower. Why not zero? Already various conservative leaders are jumping on the bandwagon.

So, if you still think that a rerun of the tax holiday fantasy is going to create new jobs, please share your excellent meds with the rest of us.

Les Leopold is the executive director of the Labor Institute and Public Health Institute in New York, and author of The Looting of America: How Wall Street's Game of Fantasy Finance Destroyed Our Jobs, Pensions, and Prosperity—and What We Can Do About It (Chelsea Green, 2009).

Friday, June 24, 2011

Toxic Culture: A unified theory of mental pollution.

Apocalyptic Boredom

Toxic Culture

A unified theory of mental pollution.

Toxic Culture: A unified theory of mental pollution.

How do we fight back against the incessant flow of logos, brands, slogans and jingles that submerge our streets, invade our homes and flicker on our screens? We could wage a counteroffensive at the level of content: attacking individual advertisements when they cross the decency line and become deceptive, violent or overly sexual. But this approach is like using napkins to clean up an oil spill. It fails to confront the true danger of advertising – which is not in its individual messages but in the damage done to our mental ecology by the sheer volume of its flood.

The first step to confronting advertising is to stop seeing it as a form of commercialized communication and start considering it to be a kind of pollution. Think about the long-term mental consequences of seeing a Nike swoosh dozens of times a day from birth until death, for example, or whether repetitive exposure to American Apparel’s patriarchal imagery might damage our psyches. Questions like these get at the heart of advertising and lead us to mental environmentalism.

Concern over the cumulative psycho-social effects of advertisements is as old as advertising itself. The French novelist Émile Zola, to provide a notable early example, wrote what may be the first mental environmentalist short story, Death by Advertising, in 1866. He returned to the theme in 1883 with the celebrated novel Au Bonheur des Dames, a deeper look at advertising’s role in inducing a consumerist mindset. Throughout the next hundred years, mental environmentalist sentiments popped up in unexpected places such as Susan Sontag’s 1977 essay “On Photography” where she wrote that “industrial societies turn their citizens into image-junkies; it is the most irresistible form of mental pollution.”

Although always a dispersed movement, since 1989 Adbusters: The Journal of the Mental Environment, has served as its center, and many of mental environmentalism’s most important documents have appeared in these pages. A key formulation was Bill McKibben’s 2001 article from Adbusters #38, in which he explained how “mental environmentalism may be the most important notion of this new century.” But it was Kalle Lasn’s seminal 1999 book-length manifesto, Culture Jam, which not only offered the mental environmentalist critique in its fullness but also elevated it into a formula for revolutionary social change. “We will jam the pop-culture marketeers and bring their image factory to a sudden, shuddering halt,” Lasn declared. “On the rubble of the old culture, we will build a new one with a non-commercial heart and soul.”

Since Zola, however, mental environmentalism has been stuck in a philosophical morass. To claim that advertising is metaphorically mental pollution is one thing, namely an easily dismissible rhetorical flourish. To say that advertising is literally a kind of pollution and that TV commercials and highway billboards are more closely related to toxic sludge than to speech is another matter entirely. And while mental environmentalists have always tried to make the latter argument, they have more often been forced to retreat to the former. Where is the evidence that advertising is a species of pollution? Isn’t it obvious that a corporate slogan is nothing but glorified, commercialized speech?

Into this difficult question has stepped one of the greatest living philosophers, the eccentric Michel Serres, who has written the inaugural philosophical work of the mental environmentalist movement. Malfeasance: Appropriation Through Pollution? is a radical reconception of pollution that cements its primal relation to advertising. The big idea of this recently translated book is that animals, humans included, use pollution to mark, claim and appropriate territory through defiling it, and that over time this appropriative act has evolved away from primitive pollution, urine and feces, to “hard pollution,” industrial chemicals, and finally to “soft pollution,” the many forms of advertising.

“Let us define two things and clearly distinguish them from one another,” Michel Serres writes, “first the hard [pollutants], and second the soft. By the first I mean on the one hand solid residues, liquid gases, emitted throughout the atmosphere by big industrial companies or gigantic garbage dumps, the shameful signature of big cities. By the second, tsunamis of writings, signs, images and logos flooding rural, civic, public and natural spaces as well as landscapes with their advertising. Even though different in terms of energy, garbage and marks nevertheless result from the same soiling gesture, from the same intention to appropriate, and are of animal origin.”

Michel Serres is the first to philosophically ground mental environmentalism upon a unified theory of pollution that explains how advertisements are actually a breed of industrial pollutant. Lacking this, mental environmentalists have hitherto skirted this central problem by taking up Zola’s contention that advertising is blameworthy for its role in making us into consumers. “The commercial media are to the mental environment what factories are to the physical environment,” Kalle Lasn and I wrote in Adbusters #90. “A factory dumps pollution into the water or air because that’s the most efficient way to produce plastic or wood pulp or steel. A TV station or website pollutes the cultural environment because that’s the most efficient way to produce audiences.” While this argument was true in Zola’s time and remains so today – and Serres too makes a similar point in his book – Serres has done something even more profound. He has shown why one cannot be an environmentalist without also being a mental environmentalist. In closing the gap between physical and mental toxins, Serres has closed the gap between physical and mental ecology.

Consider how, in the following quote from Serres, the critique of advertising resonates viscerally when the relation between advertisements and pollutants is not mere metaphor. “The captain who unloads waste in the high seas has never seen, or rather has never let, the countless smiles of the gods emerge; that would be too demanding, or even creative. Shitting on the world, has he ever seen its beauty before? Did he ever see his own beauty? And so, he who dirties space with billboards full of sentences and images hides the view of the surrounding landscape, kills perception, and skewers it by this theft. First the landscape then the world.”

The Earth is being claimed by corporations. Whether it is by appropriating the ocean with their oil spills or by seizing public spaces with their advertisements, corporations use hard and soft pollution to steal what is ours. Seen in this light, the fight against advertising is the defining struggle of our era, a unifying clash to prevent a legal fiction from usurping the common heritage of all beings. The stakes are high. Aware of the severity of the situation, Serres exhorts us to action, to dramatic social revolution along mental environmentalist lines.

“It makes me suffer so much that I need to say it over and over again and proclaim it everywhere; how can we not cry with horror and disgust confronted with the wrecking of our formerly pleasant rural access roads into the cities of France? Companies fill the space now with their hideous brands, waging the same frenzied battle as the jungle species in order to appropriate the public space and attention with images and words, like animals with their screams and piss. Excluded from those outskirts, I no longer live there; they are haunted by the powerful who shit on them and occupy them with their ugliness. Old Europe, what ignorant ruling class is killing you?”

Micah White is a senior editor at Adbusters

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Why Monsanto Always Wins


Why Monsanto Always Wins

by: Mike Ludwig, Truthout | Report

The USDA recently approved Monsanto's Roundup Ready alfalfa. Government regulators openly rely on data and research provided by the biotech industry when approving GE technology. (Photo: tipsycat)

The recent approval of Monsanto's Roundup Ready alfalfa is one of most divisive controversies in American agriculture, but in 2003, it was simply the topic at hand in a string of emails between the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Monsanto. In the emails, federal regulators and Monsanto officials shared edits to a list of the USDA's questions about Monsanto's original petition to fully legalize the alfalfa. Later emails show a USDA regulator accepted Monsanto's help with drafting the initial environmental assessment (EA) of the alfalfa and planned to "cut and paste" parts of Monsanto's revised petitionright into the government's assessment.

The emails were uncovered during a lawsuit filed by the Center for Food Safety (CFS) and concerned farmers that challenged the USDA's decision to approve Roundup Ready alfalfa in 2005. The CFS views the emails as prime evidence of "collusion" between the biotech industry and public officials charged with regulating genetically engineered (GE) crops. It's unclear if such internal cooperation continues under the current administration, but regulators still openly rely on data and research provided by the biotech industry when approving GE technology.

? It's unclear if such internal cooperation continues under the current administration, but regulators still openly rely on data and research provided by the biotech industry when approving GE technology.

A federal judge temporarily banned the alfalfa in 2007 as a result of the CFS lawsuit, but last summer, the Supreme Court ruled that the USDA could reconsider deregulating the GE alfalfa after completing an environmental impact statement (EIS). The USDA fully deregulated the alfalfa on January 27, 2011.

Like the GE corn and soybeans that now dominate agribusiness, Roundup Ready alfalfa is genetically engineered to tolerate glyphosate-based herbicides like Monsanto's Roundup. Farmers can plant Roundup Ready crops and blanket their fields with the herbicide knowing that weeds will be killed and the Roundup Ready crops will be spared.

Back in 2003, USDA officials were concerned about "deficiencies" in Monsanto's original petition to deregulate the GE alfalfa seeds, so they drafted a letter with about 90 questions for Monsanto. In several emails, officials working with the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) asked Monsanto officials to comment and "suggest improvements" on at least three drafts of the "deficiency letter." Monsanto was happy to redraft the letter point by point.

Monsanto withdrew its original petition in February 2004 after two undocumented conference calls with APHIS personnel. One month before the final petition was submitted in April, Monsanto regulatory officer Glen Rogan sent two emails to APHIS petition reviewer Virgil Meier indicating that Monsanto was willing to help draft the USDA's EA of Roundup Ready alfalfa. APHIS conducts EA's to assess the potential environmental impacts of proposed agricultural products.

Rogan asked Meier to consult his boss and colleagues about the possibility of Monsanto assisting in the assessment because it would be "precedent setting." Meier, who was in charge of writing the EA, accepted Monsanto's help and said he would "cut and paste" information right from petition into the EA:

If you are willing to provide assistance with the EA, I would appreciate it. At this time, no one has voiced concern with this so I am assuming that there is no problem. In a related matter, because I am supposed to write the EA, I would appreciate receiving an electronic copy of the petition (Word?) so I can do cut and paste which I think will speed up the completion of the EA.

Bill Freese, a policy analyst with CFS, said this kind of cooperation between federal regulators and the biotech industry is unacceptable. "It should go without saying that an applicant should play no role in APHIS's regulatory review of an applicant's product, beyond supplying requested information," Freese wrote in a 2009 letter to the USDA. The USDA did not respond to Freese's letter, but a spokesperson told Truthout that the USDA works closely with industry petitioners and can include some information from a petition in the EA.

Freese told Truthout that the approval process for controversial GE crops like Roundup Ready alfalfa is basically a "sham" designed to increase consumer confidence in the controversial GE crops. Freese has been fighting the battle against biotech for years, and he can't remember a single case when regulators failed to eventually grant approval of a GE crop.

Sham or not, the final EIS that led to the final approval of Roundup Ready alfalfa is a massive document that dives deep into the scientific debates over GE crops. Opponents argue that Roundup Ready alfalfa will threaten organic crops with herbicide drifts, increase the presence of an already growing list of herbicide-resistant weeds and inevitably contaminate conventional and organic alfalfa with transgenes through cross-pollination. The EIS contains evidence of these risks, but the USDA considers them inherent to modern agriculture and ruled that Roundup Ready alfalfa poses no more "plant pest risks" than conventional or organic alfalfa varieties.

The humble alfalfa crop provides more to Americans than crunchy sprouts for salads and sandwiches. Farmers plant millions of acres of alfalfa to produce forage seed and hay to feed cows and other livestock. The ever-growing organic dairy industry, for example, depends on naturally grown alfalfa products to feed its livestock, and in turn, the millions of Americans who eat organic food. The possibility that Roundup Ready alfalfa could cross-pollinate and infect non-GE organic alfalfa is a key issue for organic farmers. If the Roundup Ready transgene spreads to non-GE alfalfa - which critics like Freese claim is inevitable - then the industry may have to change the standards for determining what can be labeled "organic" and "natural," and the growing organic food industry could face millions of dollars in losses if their alfalfa is contaminated with Monsanto transgenes.

The USDA claims that the probability of gene flow between GE and non-GE alfalfa is very low, but the EIS does document several instances of transgenic contamination. About 200,000 acres of Roundup Ready alfalfa in 48 states were planted and harvested in 2005 and 2006 before the CFS lawsuit forced a ban. During this time, two alfalfa seed production firms, Dairyland and Cal/West Seeds, reported transgenic contamination in non-GE alfalfa seeds in California, Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Dairyland reported contamination rates hovering around 1 percent, but in 2009, Cal/West reported that 12 percent of more than 200 alfalfa seed lots were contaminated with transgenes, and in 2008, all six of the firm's research lots tested positive for GE contamination. Preliminary data from 2009 showed that 30 percent of seed stock lots were contaminated.

Forage Genetics International, the company that developed Roundup Ready alfalfa for Monsanto, provides the largest data set on cross-contamination in the USDA's final EIS. A report conducted by Forage Genetics on the "best practices" established by the industry for growing Roundup Ready alfalfa found cross-contamination rates between 0 and .18 percent. Critics like Freese say data provided by the industry doesn't belong in the USDA's assessments, but the USDA claims the data shows "acceptable" rates of transgenic contamination.

Freese and the CFS are not the only advocates concerned about the economic impacts of cross-contamination. In June 2010, 55 members of Congress joined Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) in sending a letter to the USDA requesting the department decide against deregulating Roundup Ready alfalfa. Citing alfalfa seed markets in countries that have banned GE seeds and data provided by Dairyland and Cal/West Seeds, Leahy and his supporters claim the US could lose $197 million annually in alfalfa seed and forage exports as a result of GE contamination of organic and conventional seeds.

The letter also questions the need for Roundup Ready alfalfa when only 7 percent of alfalfa hay is currently treated with herbicides. Freese said alfalfa is often treated with chemicals sprayed by airplanes, and the CFS is concerned that aerial sprays of Roundup could drift onto conventional and organic alfalfa plots and damage crops that are not resistant to Roundup. According to some estimates, Roundup Ready alfalfa could increase herbicide use by up to 23 million pounds per year.

The increased reliance on glyphosate-based herbicides like Roundup has caused weeds to develop their own tolerance to the chemical. Herbicide-resistant weeds, sometimes called "superweeds," now infest millions of acres of cropland. Farmers now combat the weeds with cocktails of herbicides like 2,4 D - an ingredient in Agent Orange - that are know to be more toxic than glyphosate. In all, farmers have used at least 318 million more pounds of herbicides and pesticides in the past 13 years as a result of planting GE crop seeds like Roundup Ready corn and soy.

The USDA, however, concluded that new glyphosate-resistant weeds would be slow to develop in Roundup Ready alfalfa stands.

Freese said the USDA chose to ignore important data in favor of outdated research and information provided by firms with close connections to the biotech industry. "APHIS cites studies on herbicide use with Roundup Ready crops that were done in the late 1990s," Freese said. "That was before any glyphosate-resistant weeds had evolved, and so before the time when their emergence began driving the big increase in herbicide use we've been seeing since 2001."

Freese said that, like the data provided on cross-contamination provided by Forage Genetics, the USDA relies on data from industry-funded groups like the National Center for Food and Agriculture Policy (NCFAP) and PG Economics.

The biotech industry plays hardball in Congress as well. One week before Roundup Ready alfalfa was deregulated, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack testified before the House Committee on Agriculture, where Chairmen Frank Lucas (R-Oklahoma) led a charge to press the USDA to fully deregulate the alfalfa. A political action committee and individuals associated with Monsanto donated $11,000 to Lucas' campaign last year, and Lucas has received $1,247,844 from the agribusiness industry during his political career, according to watchdog site www.opensecrets.org. Since 1999, the top 50 companies holding agricultural or food patents have spent more than $572 million in campaign contributions and lobbying efforts, according to a report released last year.

The USDA does invite the American public to weigh in on controversial issues like GE crops, and the CFS reports that, last spring, 200,000 people submitted letters "highly critical" of the department's draft conclusions on Roundup Ready alfalfa. "Clearly the USDA was not listening to the public or farmers but rather to just a handful of corporations," CFS Director Anthony Kimbrell said after Roundup Ready alfalfa was fully legalized. The public comments may have fallen on deaf ears, or perhaps they were just drowned out by the booming voice of a biotech industry that refuses to take no for an answer.

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Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Diabolical World of Genetic Manipulation: Control the food and you control the people

Seeds of Destruction: The Diabolical World of Genetic Manipulation

PREFACE. This is no ordinary book about the perils of GMO.

This skillfully researched book focuses on how a small socio-political American elite seeks to establish control over the very basis of human survival: the provision of our daily bread. "Control the food and you control the people."

This is no ordinary book about the perils of GMO. Engdahl takes the reader inside the corridors of power, into the backrooms of the science labs, behind closed doors in the corporate boardrooms. The author cogently reveals a diabolical world of profit-driven political intrigue, government corruption and coercion, where genetic manipulation and the patenting of life forms are used to gain worldwide control over food production. If the book often reads as a crime story, that should come as no surprise. For that is what it is.

Engdahl's carefully argued critique goes far beyond the familiar controversies surrounding the practice of genetic modification as a scientific technique. The book is an eye-opener, a must-read for all those committed to the causes of social justice and world peace.


“We have about 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3% of its population. This disparity is particularly great as between ourselves and the peoples of Asia. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security.To do so,we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives.We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction.”
-George Kennan, US State Department senior planning official, 1948

This book is about a project undertaken by a small socio-political elite, centered, after the Second World War, not in London, but in Washington. It is the untold story of how this self-anointed elite set out, in Kennan’s words, to “maintain this position of disparity.” It is the story of how a tiny few dominated the resources and levers of power in the postwar world.

It’s above all a history of the evolution of power in the control of a select few, in which even science was put in the service of that minority. As Kennan recommended in his 1948 internal memorandum, they pursued their policy relentlessly, and without the “luxury of altruism and world-benefaction.”

Yet, unlike their predecessors within leading circles of the British Empire, this emerging American elite, who proclaimed proudly at war’s end the dawn of their American Century, were masterful in their use of the rhetoric of altruism and world-benefaction to advance their goals. Their American Century paraded as a softer empire, a “kinder, gentler” one in which, under the banner of colonial liberation, freedom, democracy and economic development, those elite circles built a network of power the likes of which the world had not seen since the time of Alexander the Great some three centuries before Christ—a global empire unified under the military control of a sole superpower, able to decide on a whim, the fate of entire nations.

This book is the sequel to a first volume, A Century ofWar: Anglo-American Oil Politics and the New World Order. It traces a second thin red line of power. This one is about the control over the very basis of human survival, our daily provision of bread. The man who served the interests of the postwar American-based elite during the 1970’s, and came to symbolize its raw realpolitik, was Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Sometime in the mid-1970’s, Kissinger, a life-long practitioner of “Balance of Power” geopolitics and a man with more than a fair share of conspiracies under his belt, allegedly declared his blueprint for world domination: “Control the oil and you control nations. Control the food, and you control the people.”

The strategic goal to control global food security had its roots decades earlier, well before the outbreak of war in the late 1930’s. It was funded, often with little notice, by select private foundations, which had been created to preserve the wealth and power of a handful of American families.

Originally the families centered their wealth and power in New York and along the East Coast of the United States, from Boston to New York to Philadelphia and Washington D.C. For that reason, popular media accounts often referred to them, sometimes with derision but more often with praise, as the East Coast Establishment.

The center of gravity of American power shifted in the decades following the War. The East Coast Establishment was overshadowed by new centers of power which evolved from Seattle to Southern California on the Pacific Coast, as well as in Houston, Las Vegas, Atlanta and Miami, just as the tentacles of American power spread to Asia and Japan, and south, to the nations of Latin America.

In the several decades before and immediately following World War II, one family came to symbolize the hubris and arrogance of this emerging American Century more than any other. And the vast fortune of that family had been built on the blood of many wars, and on their control of a new “black gold,” oil.

What was unusual about this family was that early on in the building of their fortune, the patriarchs and advisors they cultivated to safeguard their wealth decided to expand their influence over many very different fields. They sought control not merely over oil, the emerging new energy source for world economic advance. They also expanded their influence over the education of youth, medicine and psychology, foreign policy of the United States, and, significant for our story, over the very science of life itself, biology, and its applications in the world of plants and agriculture.

For the most part, their work passed unnoticed by the larger population, especially in the United States. Few Americans were aware how their lives were being subtly, and sometimes not so subtly, influenced by one or another project financed by the immense wealth of this family.

In the course of researching for this book, a work nominally on the subject of genetically modified organisms or GMO, it soon became clear that the history of GMO was inseparable from the political history of this one very powerful family, the Rockefeller family, and the four brothers—David,Nelson, Laurance and John D. III—who, in the three decades following American victory in World War II, the dawn of the much-heralded American Century, shaped the evolution of power George Kennan referred to in 1948.

In actual fact, the story of GMO is that of the evolution of power in the hands of an elite, determined at all costs to bring the entire world under their sway.

Three decades ago, that power was based around the Rockefeller family. Today, three of the four brothers are long-since deceased, several under peculiar circumstances.However, as was their will, their project of global domination—“full spectrum dominance” as the Pentagon later called it—had spread, often through a rhetoric of “democracy,” and was aided from time to time by the raw military power of that empire when deemed necessary. Their project evolved to the point where one small power group, nominally headquartered in Washington in the early years of the new century, stood determined to control future and present life on this planet to a degree never before dreamed of.

The story of the genetic engineering and patenting of plants and other living organisms cannot be understood without looking at the history of the global spread of American power in the decades following World War II. George Kennan, Henry Luce, Averell Harriman and, above all, the four Rockefeller brothers, created the very concept of multinational “agribusiness”. They financed the “Green Revolution” in the agriculture sector of developing countries in order, among other things, to create new markets for petro-chemical fertilizers and petroleum products, as well as to expand dependency on energy products. Their actions are an inseparable part of the story of genetically modified crops today.

By the early years of the new century, it was clear that no more than four giant chemical multinational companies had emerged as global players in the game to control patents on the very basic food products that most people in the world depend on for their daily nutrition—corn, soybeans, rice, wheat, even vegetables and fruits and cotton—as well as new strains of disease-resistant poultry, genetically-modified to allegedly resist the deadly H5N1 Bird Flu virus, or even gene altered pigs and cattle. Three of the four private companies had decades-long ties to Pentagon chemical warfare research. The fourth, nominally Swiss, was in reality Anglodominated. As with oil, so was GMO agribusiness very much an Anglo-American global project.

In May 2003, before the dust from the relentless US bombing and destruction of Baghdad had cleared, the President of the United States chose to make GMO a strategic issue, a priority in his postwar US foreign policy. The stubborn resistance of the world’s second largest agricultural producer, the European Union, stood as a formidable barrier to the global success of the GMO Project. As long as Germany, France, Austria, Greece and other countries of the European Union steadfastly refused to permit GMO planting for health and scientific reasons, the rest of the world’s nations would remain skeptical and hesitant. By early 2006, the World Trade Organization (WTO) had forced open the door of the European Union to the mass proliferation of GMO. It appeared that global success was near at hand for the GMO Project.

In the wake of the US and British military occupation of Iraq, Washington proceeded to bring the agriculture of Iraq under the domain of patented genetically-engineered seeds, initially supplied through the generosity of the US State Department and Department of Agriculture.

The first mass experiment with GMO crops, however, took place back in the early 1990’s in a country whose elite had long since been corrupted by the Rockefeller family and associated New York banks: Argentina.

The following pages trace the spread and proliferation of GMO, often through political coercion, governmental pressure, fraud, lies, and even murder. If it reads often like a crime story, that should not be surprising. The crime being perpetrated in the name of agricultural efficiency, environmental friendliness and solving the world hunger problem, carries stakes which are vastly more important to this small elite. Their actions are not solely for money or for profit. After all, these powerful private families decide who controls the Federal Reserve, the Bank of England, the Bank of Japan and even the European Central Bank. Money is in their hands to destroy or create.

Their aim is rather, the ultimate control over future life on this planet, a supremacy earlier dictators and despots only ever dreamt of. Left unchecked, the present group behind the GMO Project is between one and two decades away from total dominance of the planet’s food capacities. This aspect of the GMO story needs telling. I therefore invite the reader to a careful reading and independent verification or reasoned refutation of what follows.

-F. William Engdahl
Seeds of Destruction: The Hidden Agenda of Genetic Manipulation
Global Research, 2007 . ISBN 978-0-937147-2-2 . 341 pages with complete index
More info:

F. William Engdahl is a leading analyst of the New World Order, author of the best-selling book on oil and geopolitics, A Century of War: Anglo-American Politics and the New World Order,’ His writings have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

Five of the Nastiest Examples of Wal-Mart Evil


From worker mistreatment to putting local stores out of business, here's how Wal-Mart is still fighting for the wrong side.

It seems like Wal-Mart is never out of the news. From intensive campaigns to draw attention to sweatshop conditions in their overseas factories, to efforts to keep the discount retail giant out of urban areas where they’d put local stores out of business, to complaints about gun sales and censorship of music, to massive lawsuits filed by workers in stores around the country, the questionable ethics of the giant corporation remain under constant attack. In fact, there’s even a WikiPedia page devoted solely to criticisms of Wal-Mart.

In fact, the company’s union busting is so relentless (simply closing branches that push for unionization) while their worker treatment remains sub-par that workers are currently organizing a non-union group to push for fairer wages and hours.

A quick search through AlterNet’s own archives for “Wal-Mart” reveals dozens upon dozens of stories and blog posts from the last decade, detailing everything from worker exploitation in China to “greenwashing” to sex discrimination to, in a case that got decided on appeal last week, breaking an agreement to provide paid rest breaks for workers.

Here are five of the most egregious examples of corporate wrongdoing from Wal-Mart, many of them recently in the spotlight:

No paid rest or meal breaks

Imagine being on your feet all day working an aisle or cash register, and being so harried that you can’t even go outside for your designated rest break--or those breaks count as unpaid time. For many Wal-Mart workers, that was (and possibly still is) the reality.

For these violations, the corporate behemoth has been in the spotlight thanks to a class-action lawsuit begun by two workers in Pennsylvania--on behalf of 187,000 employees--who alleged that Wal-Mart denied them the paid rest and lunch breaks demanded by their contract--thanks to a smaller staff and increased pressure to drive a profit. The plaintiff’s team used the evidence of over 46 million individual work-shifts to make their case. They won their $187.6 million verdict, and this week the workers won their appeal, dealing another blow to the employer.

As the website for the class-action suit explains, “After a five-week trial, the jury found that Wal-Mart violated state laws and breached their agreement to provide paid rest breaks and to pay for all time that employees worked off-the-clock.” The same decision was upheld on appeal.

Wal-Mart has vowed to continue fighting. In the meantime, a similar case is being filed in Minnesota, evidence that this was a widespread problem.

To see what it’s really like working in Wal-Mart, read this dispatch from John Olympic, who wrote in AlterNet about everyday life working the aisles of the shopping giant.

Widespread Sex Discrimination

While the brave women in the case above sued Wal-Mart for specific violations, other women across the country have joined together to sue Wal-Mart for discrimination, claiming gender-based mistreatment that pervades every aspect of working at Wal-Mart.

Dukes vs. Wal-Mart is the largest civil class-action suits in history, filed back in 2001 by brave employee Betty Dukes and joined by between 500,000 and 1.5 million women. Drawing attention to commonplace instances of a workplace glass ceiling, the denial of advancement, a persistent pay gap between men and women, and retaliation for worker grievances, the case has been working its way through the courts since then and the Supreme Court agreed to hear it this year. A decision is expected soon.

The Equal Rights Advocates sum up the suit here:

“The lawsuit alleges that female employees of Wal-Mart are denied advancement and training opportunities, paid less than men for the same or comparable work, steered to lower wage departments, subjected to a sexually hostile work environment and retaliated against when they attempt to address sex discrimination.”

At the ERA site, it’s noted that since the lawsuit was filed, and as it gained class-action status and traction in the courts, Wal-Mart has changed many of its corporate policies, while other big companies have been sure to take notice and avoid a costly court battle.

Back in 2006, in response to another class-action sex discrimination lawsuit filed by employees, Wal-Mart agreed to change insurance policy to cover contraceptives, which had previously been excluded.

Urban Encroachment

Wal-Mart has been a mainstay in rural areas where other options are slim (although it has resulted in mom and pop stores closing left and right), but for a long time, it couldn’t make a dent in the biggest cities. Why? Nelson Lichtenstein explained in AlterNet earlier this year:

Wal-Mart was barred from these big blue cities because a coalition of unions, liberals, and environmentalists, including a large slice of those elected officials representing African American and Latino communities, said no. More recently, though, Wal-Mart has been banging on these doors again -- this time around, marketing itself as an environmentally sensitive, job-providing panacea for urban America. While doing nothing to alter its exploitative labor practices, Wal-Mart has worked hard to woo an incongruous collection of liberal constituencies, including enviros, building-trade unions, and inner-city pols. They’ve gained a limited entry -- one store here, another there -- to some cities they couldn’t crack half a decade ago. Whether they can gain more -- flooding into the cities and bringing down the wages of hundreds of thousands of unionized urban grocery workers in the process -- remains to be seen.

Lichtenstein also writes that Wal-Mart needs these urban customers, and that’s why despite numerous setbacks at the hands of these coalitions, Wal-Mart continues to push and release endless propaganda to gain a foothold in these markets. Just recently, Wal-Mart has been attempting to open a branch in NYC. And make no mistake; if Wal-Mart does open stores the net result for citizens would be no good. AlterNet’s own Lauren Kelley wrote a piece for Change.org explaining the negative impact a Wal-Mart would have on the city, explaining the “Trojan Horse” effect the retailer would have:

New York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio has released a report finding that a New York City Wal-Mart would have a net negative effect on job creation in the city while driving down wages and benefits for workers...the report looks at data from more than 50 Wal-Mart studies around the country and concludes that Wal-Marts generally put neighboring mom-and-pop stores out of business, negating any jobs created by the retailer. "For every two jobs that a Wal-Mart adds, they destroy three," de Blasio told ABC. "So there's a net job loss. The jobs that remain are lower paying. You add all that up, it doesn't make sense for a community. It's like a Trojan horse."

Unfair Wages and Union-Busting at Home and Abroad

One of the great ironies of Wal-Mart is that it exemplifies both unfair labor treatment at home and in its overseas factories--and both problems are caused by the relentless drive to lower prices, the relentless “race to the bottom” that leads to sweatshop conditions in third-world countries.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, during the heyday of the anti-sweatshop movement, Wal-Mart’s was one of the names that came up most frequently for egregious abuses like workers being locked in, forced to work overtime, denied maternity and sick leave, and worse. AlterNet contributor Robert Greenwald’s 2005 documentary "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price” revealed some of these egregious conditions.

And here at home, the company’s anti-union efforts have been widely documented--so intense are they that the United Food and Commercial Workers has decided that instead of fighting to form union, it will support a group called "Our Wal-Mart."

Erik Loomis at Lawyers, Guns and Money explains that since it's "almost impossible" to unionize a Wal-Mart store, this is the next best bet:

And that’s why I like the Our Walmart organization. Rather than lose another union campaign, UFCW has chosen to create a kind of voluntary workers’ organization with dues-paying members that will serve as the closest thing to an advocacy group as Wal-Mart workers will have for the present. Ideally, this organization will show workers that a union can do wonderful things for you, thereby building more support for a true union.

Hopefully these worker advocates will implement change. AlterNet's Joshua Holland did an economic analysis of Wal-Mart workers salaries, pointing out that raising wages to a “living wage” standard would, in fact, barely impact the American consumer.

This level of disrespect is endemic to the very foundation of the company. Barbara Ehrenreich, who worked at Wal-Mart for research, has described the corporate structure of the organization as so top-down and bureaucratically rigid that even discussions of where to stock merchandise have to come from headquarters, not from workers themselves.

Perhaps David Moberg summed the issue at the heart of the Wal-Mart problem when he explained, in a must-read piece, that Wal-Mart both follows and leads the disturbing trends in American capitalism:

Wal-Mart casts a global shadow across the lives of hundreds of millions of people, whether or not they ever enter a Supercenter. With $405 billion in sales in the last fiscal year, Wal-Mart is so big, and so obsessively focused on cost-cutting, that its actions shape our landscape, work, income distribution, consumption patterns, transport and communication, politics and culture, and the organization of industries from retail to manufacturing, from California to China.

Sarah Seltzer is an associate editor at AlterNet, a staff writer at RH Reality Check and a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has been published in Jezebel.com and on the websites of the Nation, the Christian Science Monitor and the Wall Street Journal. Find her at sarahmseltzer.com.

The Latest Creepy Step From Facebook: Facial Recognition Technology


The Latest Creepy Step From Facebook: Facial Recognition Technology

Is Facebook's new facial recognition tool designed to make the site more useful to users or to boost its value for executives?

Remember the uproar when Facebook made your list of friends, pages you are a fan of, gender, geographic region and networks publicly available to everyone? Now, the social networking behemoth has silently enabled facial recognition software without your permission under the rather benign tag "Suggest photos of me to friends." Even if you choose to disable the option, Facebook still will have the technical ability to connect your name with your image.

Mark Zuckerberg might say his company is just evolving on privacy – witness his comments in this video interview that:

"We view it as our role in the system to constantly be innovating and be updating what our system is to reflect what the current social norms are."

Contrast this with his former claims that privacy is "the vector around which Facebook operates".

Imagine if, in the name this vector, his company had labelled the new feature "facial recognition photo tags" and required users to opt in, rather than disable it after the fact. Methinks Zuckerberg would have had fewer takers.

But already, the deck is stacked against privacy. As media activist Cory Doctorow noted in a TED lecture, Facebook employs "very powerful game-like mechanisms to reward to disclosure – it embodies BF's Skinner's famous thought experiment, the notion of the Skinner box … lavish[ing] you with attention from the people that you love … in service to a business model that cashes in the precious material of our social lives." Is this new feature really designed to make the site more useful to users or to boost its commercial value as it nears an initial public stock offering?

As Joan Goodchild, senior editor of CSO (chief security officer) Online, noted to me:

"Many privacy advocates feel Facebook needs to do a better job of educating folks about what the new feature is, what it does, and how to opt in or out. Many also feel a user should always be opted out of new features automatically, and should then have to opt in themselves. But it is often the other way around when Facebook rolls out these features."

My concerns go deeper: once data is available to third parties, however temporarily, the cat is out of the bag and beyond retrieval. And it's not just this constant meddling with our settings that's releasing our information – there are also security holes, not to mention scams and release of our data by third-party apps, which the Wall Street Journal found "were sending Facebook ID numbers to at least 25 advertising and data firms, several of which build profiles of internet users by tracking their online activities". More recently, Facebook was adding apps to our profiles that we hadn't requested and which we were unable to permanently disable.

And these front doors – and also back doors – are available for governments, including our own, which has been surveilling such security "risks" as the Quakers and calling Virginia opponents of mountaintop removal "terrorists" (pdf) (while excluding the Ku Klux Klan). There are already huge government-controlled facial databases: your photo on your driver's licence, government-issued identity card, travel visa and passport ends up in a government office. If the government wants to see a photo of your face, it often wouldn't need Facebook to get it. But Facebook's facial recognition feature certainly adds data points and a social graph. As Bruce Schneier, chief security technology officer of BT wrote me:

"Right now, Facebook has the largest collection of identified photos outside of governments. I don't think we know what the ramifications of that will be."

All this reminds me of Steven Spielberg's Minority Report: the 2002 film, based on a 1958 short story by Philip K Dick, featured law enforcement preventing "precrimes" and corporations bombarding passersby with holographic advertisements which crawled up the sides of walls, addressing them by name.

Goodchild recently listed some of the hidden dangers of Facebook. And this is nothing new. As early as 2005 (the year after Facebook's rollout), MIT students were already detailing (pdf) what they saw as Facebook's threats to privacy:

"Users disclose too much, Facebook does not take adequate steps to protect user privacy, and third parties are actively seeking out end-user information using Facebook."

Facial recognition on Facebook arrived with no notice in the US, unless you kept up with the social network's blog last December. The feature came to general light last week, when Facebook extended the feature to other countries and European regulators started investigating.

In the US, Congressman Edward Markey (Democrat, Massachusetts), co-chairman of the bipartisan congressional privacy caucus, has complained:

"Requiring users to disable this feature after they've already been included by Facebook is no substitute for an opt-in process … If this new feature is as useful as Facebook claims, it should be able to stand on its own, without an automatic sign-up that changes users' privacy settings without their permission."

Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Centre (Epic), spearheaded a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission on 10 June that Facebook's deployment of facial recognition software rises to the level of "unfair and deceptive trade practices". Joining Epic were the Centre for Digital Democracy, Consumer Watchdog and the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, all of which asked (pdf) "the commission to investigate Facebook, determine the extent of the harm to consumer privacy and safety, require Facebook to cease collection and use of users' biometric data without their affirmative opt-in consent, require Facebook to give users meaningful control over their personal information, establish appropriate security safeguards, limit the disclosure of user information to third parties, and seek appropriate injunctive and compensatory relief." Facebook has responded to the FTC complaint, with the statement:

"We have heard the comments from some regulators about this product feature and we are providing them with additional information which we are confident will satisfy any concerns they will have."

Facebook provides valuable ways to stay in touch with our friends and families, to network with our colleagues and customers and to coordinate activism. But is hypervisibility really in our best interest, and shouldn't we be the ones making the decisions about what to disclose? Markey submitted legislation in May outlawing the tracking of children online. He might need to add something for adults.

Beth Wellington is a poet, journalist and activist living in Virginia.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

How the Corporate Right Divided Blacks from Teachers Unions and Each Other

Black Agenda Report


Back in the mid-Nineties, devious right-wing activists at the Bradley Foundation, in Milwaukee, hit upon a “wedge” issue designed to wreck the alliance at the core of the Democratic Party’s urban base. Blacks and public employee unions – particularly teachers – were the foundations of Democratic power in the cities. Aware that African Americans revered education but were often in conflict with largely white teachers unions over issues of racism and community control, the Bradley gang, under president Michael Joyce, created out of whole cloth a “movement” for publicly-funded vouchers for private schools. No such Black community “demand” had ever existed, but well-aimed infusions of millions of dollars among opportunistic politicians like Cory Booker, a first term city councilman who aspired to become mayor of Newark, New Jersey, grafted Black faces onto a Hard Right corporate scheme to divide key progressive constituencies: Blacks and unions.

By the turn of the millennium, the Bradley outfit solidified its position as George W. Bush’s “favorite” foundation when it invented “faith-based initiatives” to funnel millions of public dollars to churches to provide social services. Faith-based funding and private school vouchers comprised the totality of Bush’s first term outreach to Black America. Neither program drew masses of Blacks into the Republican Party – even the wealthy social engineers at Bradley can’t perform miracles. But Bradley and its far-right sister funders – the Walton and DeVos Family Foundations, Olin, Scaife, Freidman and other troglodytes – had succeeded in penetrating Black Democratic politics, where the real action would unfold. Cory Booker, Harold Ford, Jr., the 29-year-old who inherited his father’s congressional seat in Memphis, in 1996, and other hustlers were the “new Black leaders” ready to embrace “pro-business” solutions to inner city problems, said corporate media boosters. The Democratic Leadership Council, the party’s corporate money bagmen, launched a frenzied, and quite effective, recruitment campaign among Black office-holders and aspirants.

This is the national stage onto which Barack Obama stepped with his U.S. Senate campaign, in 2003-2004, as the very embodiment of the “new” Black politician, full of phrases like “public-private partnerships” and other codes for corporate penetration of the public sphere. By this time, the wealthy foundations were directing much of their money and attention to hawking charter schools as the cure for what ails education in the inner cities. Not that the Waltons and Friedmans and Scaifes give a damn about ghetto kids, but because they understood that Black parents were desperate for anything that might save their children, and would be receptive when fellow Blacks made the pitch. From its inception, the purpose of the project was to drive a wedge between teachers unions and Black constituencies. In addition to being unencumbered by sticky constitutional considerations, charter schools are technically public schools, and African Americans remain broadly committed to the concept of public education. Most importantly, from the rich man’s point of view, charter schools are the gateway to corporate access to the public education purse, a “market” worth hundreds of billions a year in which the public takes all the risk – a capitalist’s paradise! Obama and his Education Secretary, Arne Duncan – a veteran Chicago union buster and corporatist – have labored mightily to erect an alternative national system of charter schools.

The Hard Right foundations now had even bigger company as boosters of charter schools: the institutional weight of Wall Street, huge hedge funds, and individual billionaires, all out to make a financial killing, knock off teachers unions, and mold the world views of new generations. After more than a decade of corporate cultivation of ambitious “new Black leaders,” a large cadre of business-friendly African American politicians was in place – including, by 2008, in the highest place of all.

President Obama is the guy that Michael Joyce, at the Bradley Foundation, was dreaming about when he launched his campaign to split Blacks from unions, 15 years ago. Obama and his Education Secretary, Arne Duncan – a veteran Chicago union buster and corporatist – have labored mightily to erect an alternative national system of charter schools, plugged into a private financial and educational services sector, that in some cities is as large or larger than the traditional public schools. Obama, because of his race and his party affiliation, is a far more effective foe of public education and teachers unions than his white Republican predecessor.

Michael Joyce was right; he knew that the crucial battle over school privatization would have to occur in Black Democratic circles, if it were to work as a fractious wedge issue. Last month, the NAACP and the United Federations of Teachers filed a lawsuit to halt the closing of 20 public schools and to stop giving preferential treatment to charter schools that often share the same buildings. The differences in learning conditions, schedules and equipment are so striking, says the NAACP, as to reduce public students to second-class citizens. Charter schools, which President Obama fawns over like his own legacy, are blatantly favored by school systems and corporate sponsors. The NAACP is seeking to prove – in a different age and racial context – that separate is not equal, in New York City and other sites of breakneck charterization.

The inequalities are by design. From President Obama on down, charter school strategists hope to expand their privatized systems by deliberately making charters relatively more attractive than traditional classrooms, in order to create a political constituency for more charters. At root, it is a kind of bait-and-switch that is not sustainable, and will come to a halt once the public school “competition” is marginalized or eliminated. By then, the political forces necessary to revive public schooling will have been exhausted in fratricidal battles, and the corporations will have established a system to suit their own purposes– as Michael Joyce foresaw.

When the NAACP joined in the teachers union’s suit, charter school advocates declared war on the civil rights group. Two thousand people attended a May 26 rally in Harlem, accusing the NAACP of dividing the community. Of course, Michael Joyce knows who did the dividing – he and his right-wing schemers and billionaires wrote the script.

Glen Ford

Back Agenda Report executive editor Glen Ford can be contacted at Glen.Ford@BlackAgendaReport.com.