Saturday, January 4, 2014


January 5, 2014, Issue 197

1.   Quotes of the month: H. L. Mencken (1880-1956)
2.   Editor’s note: the New Year  
3.   We don’t have emperors — yet
4.   Why the U.S. seeks to stay in Afghanistan
5.   How al-Qaeda changed the Syrian war
6.   Mao remains popular in china
7.   Snowden: End mass surveillance
8.   Obama and climate change: The real story
9.   Russia: The president and the oligarch
10. Poll: USSR breakup mostly ‘harmful’
11. Pope denies he’s a Marxist!
12. U.S. short-changes new parents
13. Senate bill would block credit checks
14. Inequality harming U.S. economy
15. Socialist wins in Chile, promises reforms
16. The end of Turkey’s Erdogan?
17. Global warming to harm farming and food
18. The clogged carbon sink
19. “Just another dead Mexican”
20. Books: the fate of species


1.   QUOTES OF THE MONTH: H. L. Mencken (1880-1956)

Prolific writer and author Mencken, known as “The Sage of Baltimore” for his years of newspaper columns, was a 
conservative elitist who went so far as to oppose the concept of representative democracy. He had a curmudgeonly and cynical wit, scorned pomposity, hypocrisy and religion, and when progressives weren’t ignoring or cursing him they very occasionally might be nodding or laughing. Here’s a selection:

·      “Freedom of press is limited to those who own one.”

·      “Conscience is the inner voice that warns us that someone may be looking.”

·      “Faith may be defined briefly as an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable.”

·      “Immorality is the morality of those who are having a better time.”

·      “In this world of sin and sorrow there is always something to be thankful for. As for me, I rejoice that I am not a Republican.”

·      “Every American is taught in school that all Americans are free, and so he goes on believing it his whole life —overlooking the plain fact that no Negro is really free in the South, and no miner in Pennsylvania, and no radical in any of a dozen great States. He hears of equality before the law, and he accepts it as a reality, though it exists nowhere.”

·      “It is [a politician's] business to get and hold his job at all costs. If he can hold it by lying, he will hold it by lying; if lying peters out, he will try to hold it by embracing new truths. His ear is ever close to the ground…. A good politician is quite as unthinkable as an honest burglar.”

·      “To sum up: 1. The cosmos is a gigantic fly-wheel making 10,000 revolutions a minute. 2. Man is a sick fly taking a dizzy ride on it. 3. Religion is the theory that the wheel was designed and set spinning to give him the ride.”


It’s difficult to say “Happy New Year” when the victims of bipartisan government cutbacks — including the long term unemployed; people on food stamps who have to make due with less food; and recipients of the WIC, a supplemental nutrition program for women, infants and children — are facing a very difficult new year right from day one. Not to mention the half of the U.S. population who are considered low wage or poor, the 76% of Americans who live from paycheck to paycheck and working families in the degraded portion of the middle class.

Instead we will wish everyone a “Progressive New Year.” This suggests we’ll all do something in 2014 to advance the causes of social and political equality, including at least basic economic equivalence; true democracy; peace and justice; civil liberties; taking steps to sharply reduce mass government surveillance, and incidents of police violence; and escalating the fight against global warming and fracking, etc.

Actually, several good things happened on New Years Day itself.

First, Lynne Stewart, a renowned left lawyer was released from prison. Here’s how “Democracy Now” opened its fantastic coverage of this momentous event:

“The civil rights attorney Lynne Stewart has returned home from prison after a federal judge ordered her compassionate release. Stewart is 74 years old and dying from late-stage breast cancer. Viewed by supporters as a political prisoner, she had served almost four years of a 10-year sentence for distributing press releases on behalf of her client, Omar Abdel-Rahman, an Egyptian cleric known as the "blind Sheikh." Stewart arrived to a group of cheering supporters in New York City on Jan. 1.” The video of Lynne’s return to New York City, greeted by Family and supporters, is priceless. Don’s miss it at

Second, Colorado began legal sales of marijuana Jan. 1 after voters approved legalization in November. Washington State voters did the same but it won’t go into effect until later this year.

Third, New York City’s progressive new Mayor Bill de Blasio was sworn in during a freezing ceremony on the steps of City Hall, Jan. 1, pledging to hike taxes on the rich to pay for citywide pre-school and after-school for all NYC’s kids and other people-centered programs. He has shortcomings and made a mistake naming William Bratton police chief after campaigning on ending massive stop-and-frisk abuses in the city — but he seems to be a breath of fresh air. Bratton’s appointment was the subject of a protest in front of the State Office Building in Harlem Dec. 27 organized by the October 22 Coalition, and backed by the Answer Coalition and others. De Blasio has been cut slack by the left because of his liberal program, but city residents — especially the black community that voted for him overwhelmingly — will be carefully watching his performance.

Fourth, speaking in Santiago de Cuba Jan. 1, Cuban President Raul Castro paid tribute to the resistance and struggle of the Cuban people, which made it possible for the revolution to celebrate its 55th anniversary on that day. “It’s been 55 years of constant struggle against the actions of 11 U.S. administrations, which have tried to topple the revolution.” Washington is still trying. Obama's handshake with Raul at Mandela's funeral was for show. Multitudes of black South Africans love Cuba for its unstinting support of their struggle against Apartheid. (For many years the U.S. supported the oppressive white government in the country.) To ignore Raul in passing would have been politically imprudent. Its amazing how Cuba has survived. Vive Cuba Libre!

Remember 2013? It wasn’t a good year for much of the world, from economics and wars to global warming. But there were positive moments — just two of which we will mention here.

Edward Snowden’s getaway with the equivalent of the crown jewels in secret data about the White House’s massive surveillance programs was a triumph for democracy. A judge has ruled the NSA’s spying unconstitutional; a government panel is calling for significant changes; and President Obama — who has been totally behind this egregious erosion of civil liberties — seems trying to convey the false impression he’s all for reform.

The selection of Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio to become Pope Francis was a masterstroke intended to breathe new life into the tainted and troubled Roman Catholic Church. Of course Francis has doctrinal shortcomings in the view of the left — opposition to contraception, abortion, gay marriage and female priests, among them. But any Pope who says, “Who am I to judge” gay clergy (and by extension LGBT people in general), and who blasts “unbridled capitalism” and focuses on the problems of the poor is a laudable step forward. Appearances may change. Fundamentals take longer. He’s so out there its came to this: Francis had to deny he’s a Marxist! (See story #11.)

Time magazine named Francis Person of the Year.  He came close but no cigar. The title belonged to #2, Snowden, on the basis of his global progressive impact. The Pope will do some good within the RC church during his pontificate. But Snowden’s brave revelations have a huge, immediate and beneficial political significance around the world. (Vive Snowden Libre!)

Now that we’re in 2014, guess what was the Obama Administration’s first important decision of the new year? The White House moved on two legal fronts Dec. 5 to preserve the National Security Agency's controversial spy programs, appealing a major court ruling against the agency while winning permission from a secretive court to continue collecting Americans' phone records. The appeal was against a federal court decision stating that NSA data collection likely violates the Constitution. U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon said the agency was using "almost-Orwellian technology."


[Following is an excerpt from a longer semi-biographical article by Bill Moyers, the progressive journalist and host of TV’s “Moyers and Company” that was posted on Dec. 12. We pick up where he discusses “the donor class and its streams of dark money” paid to politicians and government officials. The donors, of course, are giant corporations, individuals of great wealth and their minions.]

By Bill Moyers

The historian Plutarch [46-120] warned us long ago of what happens when there is no brake on the power of great wealth to subvert the electorate.  “The abuse of buying and selling votes,” he wrote of Rome, “crept in and money began to play an important part in determining elections.  Later on, this process of corruption spread in the law courts and to the army, and finally, when even the sword became enslaved by the power of gold, the republic was subjected to the rule of emperors.”
We don’t have emperors yet, but we do have the Roberts Court that consistently privileges the donor class. 

We don’t have emperors yet, but we do have a Senate in which, as a study by the political scientist Larry Bartels reveals, “Senators appear to be considerably more responsive to the opinions of affluent constituents than to the opinions of middle-class constituents, while the opinions of constituents in the bottom third of the income distribution have no apparent statistical effect on their senators’ roll call votes.”

We don’t have emperors yet, but we have a House of Representatives controlled by the far right that is now nourished by streams of “dark money” unleashed thanks to the gift bestowed on the rich by the Supreme Court in the Citizens United case. 

We don’t have emperors yet, but one of our two major parties is now dominated by radicals engaged in a crusade of voter suppression aimed at the elderly, the young, minorities, and the poor; while the other party, once the champion of everyday working people, has been so enfeebled by its own collaboration with the donor class that it offers only token resistance to the forces that have demoralized everyday Americans.

Writing in the Guardian recently, the social critic George Monbiot commented,

“So I don’t blame people for giving up on politics... When a state-corporate nexus of power has bypassed democracy and made a mockery of the voting process, when an unreformed political system ensures that parties can be bought and sold, when politicians [of the main parties] stand and watch as public services are divvied up by a grubby cabal of privateers, what is left of this system that inspires us to participate?”

Why are record numbers of Americans on food stamps? Because record numbers of Americans are in poverty. Why are people falling through the cracks? Because there are cracks to fall through. It is simply astonishing that in this rich nation more than 21 million Americans are still in need of full-time work, many of them running out of jobless benefits, while our financial class pockets record profits, spends lavishly on campaigns to secure a political order that serves its own interests, and demands that our political class push for further austerity. Meanwhile, roughly 46 million Americans live at or below the poverty line and, with the exception of Romania, no developed country has a higher percent of kids in poverty than we do.  Yet a study by scholars at Northwestern University and Vanderbilt finds little support among the wealthiest Americans for policy reforms to reduce income inequality.

Listen!  That sound you hear is the shredding of the social contract.

Ten years ago the Economist magazine — no friend of Marxism — warned: “The United States risks calcifying into a European-style class-based society.”  And as a recent headline in the Columbia Journalism Review put it: “The line between democracy and a darker social order is thinner than you think.”

We are this close — this close! — to losing our democracy to the mercenary class. So close it’s as if we’re leaning way over the rim of the Grand Canyon waiting for a swift kick in the pants….

— The complete article is at

By Jack A. Smith,  Activist Newsletter editor

Afghans protest  against U.S. occupation.
The U.S. is supposed to withdraw all its troops from Afghanistan by the end of this new year. But despite public opinion polls to the contrary, President Obama is seeking to leave several thousand Special Forces troops, military trainers, CIA personnel, “contractors” and surveillance listening posts for 10 more years in Afghanistan until the end of 2024.

The CNN/ORC International survey released Dec. 30 shows that 75% of the American people oppose keeping any U.S. military troops in Afghanistan after the scheduled pullout Dec. 31. Indeed, “a majority of Americans would like to see U.S. troops pull out of Afghanistan before the December 2014 deadline.”

The poll’s most important statistic is that “Just 17% of those questioned say they support the 12-year-long war, down from 52% in December 2008. Opposition to the conflict now stands at 82%, up from 46% five years ago. CNN Polling Director Keating Holland suggested the17% support was the lowest for any U.S. ongoing war.

A majority of Americans turned against the war against Afghanistan a few years go, but according to a Associated Press-GfK poll released Dec. 18 — these days 57% say that even attacking and invading Afghanistan in 2001was probably the “wrong thing to do.”

Clearly, the American people are truly fed up, but do not have a viable electoral alternative to a continuing military presence in Afghanistan. The era of the mass antiwar movement, which was supported by the great majority of Democrats, collapsed when Democrat Obama was elected. Democrats may acknowledge their views to pollsters but they rarely attend protests against Obama’s Afghan adventure or drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere.

President Obama is sticking to his original schedule of withdrawing “all ground troops” by the end of 2014, but the Special Forces, et al., are not technically “ground troops.” His intention to deploy a smaller but vital military presence is related to larger policy goals connected to the “pivot” to Asia.

The White House has been bargaining with the Kabul government for years to keep military forces in Afghanistan for another 10 years. In return the U.S. would pay multi-billions for the training and upkeep of the Afghan army and police and help finance the government at great expense until 2024.

It recently seemed an agreement was reached, but President Hamid Karzai says it cannot be signed until after a new president takes office after elections in April — a delay that upset the Oval Office.

According to Mara Tchalakov of the Institute for the Study of War: "With deep divisions in Afghanistan over the right of legal immunity for American soldiers and contractors, as well as the right to conduct night raids in private Afghan homes, Karzai is trying to buy time to build political support…. Waiting until after the election would buy time and leave open the possibility of renegotiating issues that could prove problematic as the election nears.”

At this stage it is not known who will win in April. Two-term Karzai cannot run for reelection, a blessing as far as the Obama Administration is concerned. He may be a puppet but he knows how to kick back on his own, especially about civilian deaths, night house invasions by U.S. troops, and Washington’s efforts to completely dominate the Kabul government.

The White House has a year to obtain a signed agreement and seems confident it will do so either before or soon after Karzai steps down, particularly if the anti-Taliban, pro-U.S. Northern Alliance and friendly political parties such as the Tajik-dominated Jamiat-e Islami, gain more influence.

Obama sought a similar arrangement in Iraq when U.S. troops were set to withdraw in December 2011, but a deal was rejected in the last months by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, much to the administration’s chagrin.

In a sense Obama was lucky. If the several thousand American troops he sought had remained in Iraq they would have become embroiled in the al-Qaeda and jihadist Sunni uprising against the majority Shi’ite regime led by Maliki. In 2013 alone, over 7,300 civilians and 1,000 Iraqi security forces — overwhelmingly Shia —were slaughtered. Most of the deaths were from executions and bomb attacks.

The White House may be extremely worried about closer ties between Shi’ite Iraq and Iran — an unintended consequence of the U.S. invasion and overthrow of the secular regime of Saddam Hussein — but it is now even more worried about Sunni jihadist gains in Iraq, particularly since jihadist elements began to dominate the rebel fighting in neighboring Syria. The al-Qaeda affiliate ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria) is making significant gains in both countries.

According to The New York Times Dec. 26, Washington “is quietly rushing dozens of Hellfire missiles and low-tech surveillance drones to Iraq to help government forces combat an explosion of violence by a Qaeda-backed insurgency that is gaining territory in both western Iraq and neighboring Syria.”

On Jan. 3 the same newspaper reported: “Radical Sunni militants aligned with Al Qaeda threatened on Thursday to seize control of Fallujah and Ramadi, two of the most important cities in Iraq, setting fire to police stations, freeing prisoners from jail and occupying mosques, as the government rushed troop reinforcements to the areas.”

Afghanistan is especially important to Washington for two main reasons.

The obvious first reason is to have smaller but elite forces and surveillance facilities in Afghanistan to continue the fighting when necessary to protect U.S. interests, which include maintaining a powerful influence within the country. Those interests will become jeopardized if, as some suspect, armed conflict eventually breaks out among various forces contending for power in Kabul since the mid-1990s, including, of course, the Taliban, which held power 1996-2001 until the U.S. invasion.

The more understated second reason is that Afghanistan is an extremely important geopolitical asset for the U.S., particularly because it is the Pentagon’s only military base in Central Asia, touching Iran to the west, Pakistan to the east, China to the northeast and various resource-rich former Soviet republics to the northwest, as well as Russia to the north.

A Dec. 30 report in Foreign Policy by Louise Arbour noted: “Most countries in [Central Asia] are governed by aging leaders and have no succession mechanisms — in itself potentially a recipe for chaos. All have young, alienated populations and decaying infrastructure… in a corner of the world too long cast as a pawn in someone else's game.”

At this point a continued presence in Afghanistan dovetails with Washington’s so-called New Silk Road policy first announced by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton two years ago. The objective over time is to sharply increase U.S. economic, trade and political power in strategic Central and South Asia to strengthen U.S. global hegemony and to impede China’s development into a regional hegemon.

As the State Department’s Robert O. Blake Jr. put it March 23: “The dynamic region stretching from Turkey, across the Caspian Sea to Central Asia, to Afghanistan and the massive South Asian economies, is a region where greater cooperation and integration can lead to more prosperity, opportunity, and stability.

“But for all of this progress and promise, we’re also clear-eyed about the challenges. Despite real gains in Afghan stability, we understand the region is anxious about security challenges. That’s why we continue to expand our cooperation with Afghanistan and other countries of the region to strengthen border security and combat transnational threats.”

Blake did not define what “security challenges” he had in mind. But both China and Russia are nearby seeking greater trade and influence in Central Asia — their adjacent backyard, so to speak — and the White House, at least, may consider this a security challenge of its own.

Jihadists in Syria are a growing factor in the war against the Assad government.
[A number of jihadist and Salifist-Islamist extremist groups have been actively fighting against the Syrian government for two years. The most powerful of them all these days is an al-Qaeda affiliate known by the acronym ISIS, and it has pushed the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army to the far sidelines. The following article by Sarah Birke, the Middle East correspondent for The Economist, appeared Dec. 27 in The New York Review of Books.]

Talk to any Syrian you meet on the Syrian-Turkish border these days, and in less than five minutes the conversation is likely to turn to Da’ash — the Arabic acronym for the rebel organization known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, or ISIS. Linked to al-Qaeda, the fearsome group has swept across northern Syria, imposing sharia law, detaining and even beheading Syrians who don’t conform to its purist vision of Islam, and waging war on rival militias.

In early December, the group killed a foreign journalist, Iraqi cameraman Yasser Faisal al-Joumali, who was reporting in northern Syria. Even using the word Da’ash  — seen as derogatory by the group’s members—is punishable by 80 lashes, a 23-year-old wounded fighter from a rival Islamist group told me from his bed in a Syrian-run makeshift clinic in Turkey.

Since its appearance last April, ISIS has changed the course of the Syrian war. It has forced the mainstream Syrian opposition to fight on two fronts. It has obstructed aid getting into Syria, and news getting out. And by gaining power, it has forced the U.S. government and its European allies to rethink their strategy of intermittent support to the moderate opposition and rhetoric calling for the ouster of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

After months of shunning Islamist groups in Syria, the Obama administration has now said it may need to talk to the Islamist Front, a new coalition of hard-line rebel groups, in part because they might prove a buffer against the more extreme ISIS. Ryan Crocker, a former top U.S. State Department official in the Middle East, has told The New York Times that American officials, left with few other options, should quietly start to reengage with the Assad regime. In December, U.S. and Britain suspended non-lethal assistance to rebel groups in northern Syria after one base fell into Islamist hands.

“Syria is now viewed as a security problem, not one about ousting Bashar and helping the Syrians get what they want,” a Western diplomat in Istanbul told me.

[“Stratfor reported Jan. 4: “An alliance of Islamist and other rebel factions conducted apparently coordinated strikes against the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant [another name for ISIS] across northwestern Syria on Jan. 3-4, activists with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, Reuters reported. Dozens of fighters were killed in the clashes. The Islamic Front, an alliance of several Islamist rebel brigades, clashed with the jihadists in Aleppo and Idlib province. At least 60 people were killed, activists said. The United States is trying to recruit moderate Salifist-jihadist rebels in Syria for its fight against al-Qaeda, but Washington may not be able to find many willing partners among such ideologues.”]

The influence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria is all the more startling given how recently the group entered the conflict. Consider the eastern city of Raqqa, which was first captured by various rebel forces in early March 2013. When I visited that month, the city was ruled by a coalition of militias, and it was possible to move around as a woman without a headscarf. I met with an Alawite nurse who worked alongside Sunni peers. And I talked to Abdullah al-Khalil, a prominent lawyer before the war, who as head of the local council continued to pay street cleaners salaries and was trying to secure enough money to keep other services going.

But within two months, ISIS was firmly in charge. The group beheaded three Alawites in the city’s central square, and established sharia courts and policing. Abdullah al-Khalil, the head councilman, was kidnapped by ISIS or its allies. Women have been told to cover up, smoking banned, and girls and boys segregated in school. Minorities have been hounded out of the city, and foreign journalists and aid workers are no longer welcome: dozens are currently in ISIS captivity.

In the months since its takeover of Raqqa, ISIS has quickly become one of the most powerful forces on the ground, despite its modest manpower estimated at some 7,000 fighters. It has started expanding north and west, all along the border with Turkey. In August ISIS fighters led the rebel capture of Minbegh, an airbase close to Aleppo. And the group has kicked out other rebel militias to gain control of Atmeh, al-Bab, Azaz, and Jarablus, four border towns that serve as the gateways to the outside for northern Syria and which are now known as mini-emirates. According to Syrian rebels, aid workers, and civilians I spoke to, they are using such strategic towns to control who and what can move in and out of Syria.

When I visited the Turkish side of the border, trucks were lined up for miles waiting to transfer goods to other Syrian vehicles at the border: drivers are unwilling to enter the country. For their part, Syrian civilians and rebels who had just crossed from Syria into Turkey said they were terrified by ISIS checkpoints. “None of us can go in any more,” an aid worker in Antakya said.

ISIS’s spread along the border is particularly ominous for the more moderate rebel groups, loosely allied militias known as the Free Syrian Army, which have long depended on access routes from Turkey into northern Syria. A year ago, the main groups fighting on the rebel side were disorganized and badly behaved, but most of them still identified — at least in their core aims of toppling Assad and building a nation state open to all Syrians — with the street movement that started in 2011. And while Salafist-Islamist rebel groups began taking a larger part in the conflict in 2012, most of them were Syrian and viewed as part of the communities in which they established themselves.

In contrast, ISIS is a group with an international profile and an extremist view of Islamic rule. And it has shown its readiness to take on any Syrians it doesn’t like, whether opposition or regime supporters. In September ISIS ousted the moderately Islamist Ahfad al-Rasoul from Raqqa by using suicide bombings (Jabhat al-Nusra, another al-Qaeda offshoot, had clashed with the group, but had not gone this far). It pushed out Northern Storm, a local rebel band, from the town of Azaz, a staging post between Aleppo and the Turkish border. And it’s also been fighting the armed wing of Syria’s Kurdish party, the PYD, in the northeast. All of which has left little doubt about its strength, or the damage it has caused to the rebellion itself.

The mainstream opposition is in a tricky position. On Dec. 19, its exiled leadership council, the Syrian National Coalition, issued a blunt statement accusing ISIS of “abducting people for not abiding by their self-imposed regulations” and declaring that “the Coalition does not consider ISIS a part of the opposition. Its actions serve the regime’s interests.” But the Coalition has wavered on other groups with extreme views, since disavowing them highlights the lack of fighters allied with it on the ground. For example, it denounced the U.S,’s designation of Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist group in 2012 and today has an unclear relationship with other Islamist groups.

— This article is continued at

By the Activist Newsletter

The young Mao Zedong.
Mao Zedong, the leader of the Chinese revolution and long-time Chairman of the Communist Party who died in 1976, would have been 120 years old this past Dec. 26.

Despite the fact that his successors in the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) made what Mao would have viewed as the spectacular error of  “taking the capitalist road,” the masses of people in China still venerate their old leader.

The influential Chinese newspaper Global Times published a new opinion poll on the late leader’s birthday that revealed that more than 85% of respondents see the merits of Mao Zedong as greatly outweighing his mistakes, with more than 90% of respondents showing reverence or respect to Mao. 
The former “Great Helmsman” himself judged his own record as 70% positive, 30% negative.

The findings showed respondents aged above 50 and those with a high school or vocational school education are more likely to revere Mao, while respondents who have a bachelor's degree or above are more likely to be critical of him.

In a multiple choice poll, nearly 90% of respondents believe Mao’s greatest merit was founding an independent nation through revolution, while nearly 60% admire him for advocating the idea of serving the people and spreading the notion of fairness — basic ingredients in Mao’s revolutionary socialist

According to Global Times: “Nearly 80% of respondents believe Mao's main fault was launching the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), around 60% of them voted for his pushing the Great Leap Forward (1958-61), and 46% mentioned Mao's main fault as launching a personality cult,” critiques that echo the CCP’s position today. 

“More than 90% of respondents believe that Mao's era still influences today's China. Those respondents aged from 18 to 29 (96%) were most likely to believe Mao's era still has an influence today.... Activities such as galas, exhibitions and seminars are being held nationwide to commemorate the anniversary of his birth.”

Mao fought the entire notion of what came to be termed “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” a euphemism for building a mostly capitalist economy under the control of the CCP and in the name of building socialism. This was precisely what the Cultural Revolution was intended to prevent.

China, however, has experienced an extraordinary transition since the Qing Dynasty disintegrated over 100 years ago and it is still going on. This was followed by decades of semi-capitalism/semi-feudalism, until the successful communist revolution of 1949 and efforts to build an egalitarian socialist society, then — a few years after the death of Mao in 1976 — the beginning of capitalist economic development led rather incongruously by the CCP. There is no telling the final outcome.

China is an ancient, peaceful, developing country, still touched by vestiges of its revolutionary past, which is seeking to restore its position as an influential global power that it lost two centuries ago.

China does not seek global hegemony, nor is it a danger to world peace, but its incredible economic and industrial growth in recent decades has alarmed the United States, the existing superpower and global hegemon that jealously guards its privileged position and its ability to intervene militarily throughout the world. At this stage, Washington is obviously seeking to circumscribe China’s authority even within its own geographical sphere of influence — a situation fraught with eventual dangers.

In decades to come this will undoubtedly impact and possibly alter the direction of China‘s continuing transition in one way or another depending on the extent of Washington’s growing antagonism and Beijing’s response.

It is not possible to predict whether conditions will eventually result in a move to the left by the CCP. A return to the revolutionary spirit of 1949-1976 is highly improbable. But Mao’s continuing mass popularity after nearly four decades, and the existence of a left wing within the CCP, no matter how quiet today, bespeaks a lingering influence, like a small but still glowing spark awaiting a dry prairie.


From The Activist Newsletter
In a message broadcast on British television Dec. 25, Christmas day, Edward J. Snowden, the former American security contractor now receiving sanctuary in Russia, urged an end to mass surveillance. He said:

Recently we learned that our governments [U.S., UK], working in concert, have created a system of worldwide mass surveillance, watching everything we do. Great Britain’s George Orwell warned us of the danger of this kind of information. The types of collection in the book — microphones and video cameras, TVs that watch us — are nothing compared to what we have available today. We have sensors in our pockets [cellphones] that track us everywhere we go.

Think about what this means for the privacy of the average person. A child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all. They’ll never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves, an unrecorded, unanalyzed thought.

And that’s a problem because privacy matters. Privacy is what allows us to determine who we are, and who we want to be.

The conversation occurring today will determine the amount of trust we can place both in the technology that surrounds us, and the government that regulates it.

Together, we can find a better balance, end mass surveillance, and remind the government that if it really wants to know how we feel, asking is always cheaper than spying.

[The Activist Newsletter and many left publications call for dropping all charges against Snowden and for prosecuting NSA officials who have lied for years to conceal the agency’s mass surveillance. Here is what The New York Times stated in an editorial Jan. 2 — not good enough but a big advance.

[“Considering the enormous value of the information he has revealed, and the abuses he has exposed, Mr. Snowden deserves better than a life of permanent exile, fear and flight. He may have committed a crime to do so, but he has done his country a great service. It is time for the United States to offer Mr. Snowden a plea bargain or some form of clemency that would allow him to return home, face at least substantially reduced punishment in light of his role as a whistle-blower, and have the hope of a life advocating for greater privacy and far stronger oversight of the runaway intelligence community.”]


[Bill McKibben is one of the best-known fighters against climate change in the U.S., and his organization — — is among the most activist in the environmental movement. His perspective is that of a liberal extremely disturbed by the contradiction between President Obama’s climate change rhetoric and the failure of the White House to take real action to reduce global warming.]

By Bill McKibben

Two years ago, on a gorgeous November day, 12,000 activists surrounded the White House to protest the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. Signs we carried featured quotes from Barack Obama in 2008: "Time to end the tyranny of oil"; "In my administration, the rise of the oceans will begin to slow."

Our hope was that we could inspire him to keep those promises. Even then, there were plenty of cynics who said Obama and his insiders were too closely tied to the fossil-fuel industry to take climate change seriously. But in the two years since, it's looked more and more like they were right – that in our hope for action we were willing ourselves to overlook the black-and-white proof of how he really feels.

If you want to understand how people will remember the Obama climate legacy, a few facts tell the tale: By the time Obama leaves office, the U.S. will pass Saudi Arabia as the planet's biggest oil producer and Russia as the world's biggest producer of oil and gas combined. In the same years, even as we've begun to burn less coal at home, our coal exports have climbed to record highs. We are, despite slight declines in our domestic emissions, a global-warming machine: At the moment when physics tells us we should be jamming on the carbon brakes, America is revving the engine.
You could argue that private industry, not the White House, has driven that boom, and in part you'd be right. But that's not what Obama himself would say. Here's Obama speaking in Cushing, Oklahoma, last year, in a speech historians will quote many generations hence. It is to energy what Mitt Romney's secretly taped talk about the 47% was to inequality. Except that Obama was out in public, boasting for all the world to hear:

"Over the last three years, I've directed my administration to open up millions of acres for gas and oil exploration across 23 different states. We're opening up more than 75% of our potential oil resources offshore. We've quadrupled the number of operating rigs to a record high. We've added enough new oil and gas pipeline to encircle the Earth, and then some…. In fact, the problem…is that we're actually producing so much oil and gas…that we don't have enough pipeline capacity to transport all of it where it needs to go."

Actually, of course, "the problem" is that climate change is spiraling out of control. Under Obama we've had the warmest year in American history – 2012 – featuring a summer so hot that corn couldn't grow across much of the richest farmland on the planet. We've seen the lowest barometric pressure ever recorded north of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, and the largest wind field ever measured, both from Hurricane Sandy. We've watched the Arctic melt, losing three quarters of its summer sea ice. We've seen some of the largest fires ever recorded in the mountains of California, Colorado and New Mexico. And not just here, of course – his term has seen unprecedented drought and flood around the world. The typhoon that just hit the Philippines, according to some meteorologists, had higher wind speeds at landfall than any we've ever seen.

When the world looks back at the Obama years half a century from now, one doubts they'll remember the health care website; one imagines they'll study how the most powerful government on Earth reacted to the sudden, clear onset of climate change.

And what they'll see is a president who got some stuff done, emphasis on "some." In his first term, Obama used the stimulus money to promote green technology, and he won agreement from Detroit for higher automobile mileage standards; in his second term, he's fighting for EPA regulations on new coal-fired power plants. These steps are important – and they also illustrate the kind of fights the Obama administration has been willing to take on: ones where the other side is weak. The increased mileage standards came at a moment when D.C. owned Detroit – they were essentially a condition of the auto bailouts. And the battle against new coal-fired power plants was really fought and won by environmentalists. Over the past few years, the Sierra Club and a passel of local groups managed to beat back plans for more than 100 new power plants. The new EPA rules – an architecture designed in part by the Natural Resources Defense Council – will ratify the rout and drive a stake through the heart of new coal. But it's also a mopping-up action.

Obama loyalists argue that these are as much as you could expect from a president saddled with the worst Congress in living memory. But that didn't mean that the president had to make the problem worse, which he's done with stunning regularity. Consider:

• Just days before the BP explosion, the White House opened much of the offshore U.S. to new oil drilling. ("Oil rigs today generally don't cause spills," he said by way of explanation. "They are technologically very advanced.")

• In 2012, with the greatest Arctic melt on record under way, his administration gave Shell Oil the green light to drill in Alaska's Beaufort Sea. ("Our pioneering spirit is naturally drawn to this region, for the economic opportunities it presents," the president said.)

• This past August, as the largest forest fire in the history of the Sierra Nevadas was burning in Yosemite National Park, where John Muir invented modern environmentalism, the Bureau of Land Management decided to auction 316 million tons of taxpayer-owned coal in Wyoming's Powder River basin. According to the Center for American Progress, the emissions from that sale will equal the carbon produced from 109 million cars.

Even on questions you'd think would be open-and-shut, the administration has waffled. In November, for instance, the EPA allowed Kentucky to weaken a crucial regulation, making it easier for mountaintop-removal coal mining to continue. As the Sierra Club's Bruce Nilles said, "It's dismaying that the Obama administration approved something even worse than what the Bush administration proposed."

All these steps are particularly toxic because we've learned something else about global warming during the Obama years: Most of the coal and gas and oil that's underground has to stay there if we're going to slow climate change.

Though the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009 was unquestionably the great foreign-policy failure of Obama's first term, producing no targets or timetables or deals, the world's leaders all signed a letter pledging that they would keep the earth's temperature from rising more than two degrees Celsius [3.6 degrees Fahrenheit]..

This is not an ambitious goal (the one degree we've raised the temperature already has melted the Arctic, so we're fools to find out what two will do), but at least it is something solid to which Obama and others are committed. To reach that two-degree goal, say organizations such as the Carbon Tracker Initiative, the World Bank, the International Energy Agency, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, HSBC and just about everyone else who's looked at the question, we'd need to leave undisturbed between two-thirds and four-fifths of the planet's reserves of coal, gas and oil.

The Powder River Basin would have been a great place to start, especially since activists, long before the administration did anything, have driven down domestic demand for coal by preventing new power plants. But as the "Truth Team" on puts it, "building a clean future for coal is an integral part of President Obama's plan to develop every available source of American energy."

And where will the coal we don't need ourselves end up? Overseas, at record levels: the Netherlands, the UK, China, South Korea. And when it gets there, it slows the move to cleaner forms of energy. All told, in 2012, U.S. coal exports were the equivalent of putting 55 million new cars on the road. If we don't burn our coal and instead sell it to someone else, the planet doesn't care; the atmosphere has no borders.

As the administration's backers consistently point out, America has cut its own carbon emissions by 12% in the past five years, and we may meet our announced national goal of a 17% percent reduction [from 2005 levels, not today’s] by decade's end. We've built lots of new solar panels and wind towers in the past five years (though way below the pace set by nations like Germany). In any event, building more renewable energy is not a useful task if you're also digging more carbon energy – it's like eating a pan of Weight Watchers brownies after you've already gobbled a quart of Ben and Jerry's.

Bill McKibben, fighting for our future.
Let's lay aside the fact that climate scientists have long since decided these targets are too timid and that we'd have to cut much more deeply to get ahead of global warming. All this new carbon drilling, digging and burning the White House has approved will add up to enough to negate the administration's actual achievements: The coal from the Powder River Basin alone, as the commentator Dave Roberts pointed out in Grist, would "undo all of Obama's other climate work."

The perfect example of this folly is the Keystone XL pipeline stretching south from the tar sands of Canada – the one we were protesting that November day. The tar sands are absurdly dirty: To even get oil to flow out of the muck you need to heat it up with huge quantities of natural gas, making it a double-dip climate disaster. More important, these millions of untouched acres just beneath the Arctic Circle make up one of the biggest pools of carbon on Earth. If those fields get fully developed, as NASA's recently retired senior climate scientist James Hansen pointed out, it will be "game over" for the climate.

Obama has all the authority he needs to block any pipelines that cross the border to the U.S. And were he to shut down Keystone XL, say analysts, it would dramatically slow tar-sands expansion plans in the region. But soon after taking office, he approved the first, small Keystone pipeline, apparently without any qualms. And no one doubts that if a major campaign hadn't appeared, he would have approved the much larger Keystone XL without a peep – even though the oil that will flow through that one pipe will produce almost as much carbon as he was theoretically saving with his new auto-mileage law.

But the fight to shut down the pipeline sparked a grassroots movement that has changed the culture of environmentalism – but not, so far, the culture of the White House. For me, the most telling moment came a month or two ago when it emerged that the president's former communications director, Anita Dunn, had taken a contract to flack for the pipeline.

The reason for fighting Keystone all along was not just to block further expansion of the tar sands – though that's required, given the amount of carbon contained in that expanse of Alberta. We also hoped that doing the right thing would jump-start Washington in the direction of real climate action. Instead, the effort necessary to hold off this one pipeline has kept environmentalists distracted as Obama has opened the Arctic and sold off the Powder River Basin, as he's fracked and drilled. It kept us quiet as both he and Mitt Romney spent the whole 2012 campaign studiously ignoring climate change.

We're supposed to be thrilled when Obama says something, anything, about global warming – he gave a fine speech this past June. "The question," he told a Georgetown University audience, is "whether we will have the courage to act before it's too late. And how we answer will have a profound impact on the world that we leave behind not just to you, but to your children and to your grandchildren. As a president, as a father and as an American, I'm here to say we need to act." Inspiring stuff, but then in October, when activists pressed him about Keystone at a Boston gathering, he said, "We had the climate-change rally back in the summer." Oh.

In fact, that unwillingness to talk regularly about climate change may be the greatest mistake the president has made. An account in Politico last month described his chief of staff dressing down Nobel laureate and then-Energy Secretary Steven Chu in 2009 for daring to tell an audience in Trinidad that island nations were in severe danger from rising seas. Rahm Emanuel called his deputy Jim Messina to say, "If you don't kill Chu, I'm going to." On the plane home, Messina told Chu, "How, exactly, was this fucking on message?" It's rarely been on message for Obama, despite the rising damage. His government spent about as much last year responding to Sandy and to the Midwest drought as it did on education, but you wouldn't know it from his actions.

Which doesn't mean anyone's given up – the president's inaction has actually helped to spur a real movement. Some of it is aimed at Washington, and involves backing the few good things the administration has done. At the moment, for instance, most green groups are rallying support for the new EPA coal regulations.

Mostly, though, people are working around the administration, and with increasing success. Obama's plan to auction Powder River Basin coal has so far failed – there aren't any bidders, in large part because citizens in Washington state and Oregon have fought the proposed ports that would make it cheap to ship all that coal to Asia. Obama has backed fracking to the hilt – but in state after state, voters have begun to limit and restrict the technology. Environmentalists are also taking the fight directly to Big Oil: In October, an Oxford University study said that the year-old fight for divestment from stock in fossil-fuel companies is the fastest-growing corporate campaign in history.

None of that cures the sting of Obama's policies nor takes away the need to push him hard. Should he do the right thing on Keystone XL, a decision expected sometime in the next six months, he'll at least be able to tell other world leaders, "See, I've stopped a big project on climate grounds." That could, if he used real diplomatic pressure, help restart the international talks he has let lapse. He's got a few chances left to show some leadership.

But even on this one highly contested pipeline, he's already given the oil industry half of what it wanted. That day in Oklahoma when he boasted about encircling the Earth with pipelines, he also announced his support for the southern leg of Keystone, from Oklahoma to the Gulf. Not just his support: He was directing his administration to "cut through the red tape, break through the bureaucratic hurdles and make this project a priority, to go ahead and get it done."

It has: Despite brave opposition from groups like Tar Sands Blockade, Keystone South is now 95% complete, and the administration is in court seeking to beat back the last challenges from landowners along the way. The president went ahead and got it done. If only he'd apply that kind of muscle to stopping climate change.

— From the Dec. 19, 2013-Jan. 2, 2014, issue of Rolling Stone.

By Stratfor Global Intelligence

Jailed Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky left prison Dec. 20 after receiving a pardon from President Vladimir Putin. A day earlier, in an unexpected comment to journalists after a news conference, the Russian leader casually announced his decision to finally release Khodorkovsky after a decade behind bars. The decision, and how Putin made it public, is proof that the era of oligarch rule in Russia is over.

The Oligarch.
Khodorkovsky was one of Russia's wealthiest men in the mid-1990s and early 2000s before going to jail for embezzlement, fraud and money laundering. Khodorkovsky rose to power in the 1990s, when three distinct political factions within Russia emerged from the fall of the Soviet Union: then-President Boris Yeltsin's Family, the security services' siloviki (1) and the oligarchs. These factions were scrambling for wealth, power and assets among the post-Soviet chaos of the early 1990s. The oligarchs, like Khodorkovsky, were a class of enormously wealthy businessmen who used their political or personal connections to build empires out of the ruins of the Soviet system.

Khodorkovsky began trading products such as computers in the late 1980s, before the fall of the Soviet Union, when consumer goods were still hard (if not impossible) to get. Using his growing wealth from his import-export business, he set up a bank, Menatep -- one of Russia's first privately owned banks -- in 1989. Khodorkovsky was childhood friends with the son of the head of the Soviet State Bank and thus had access to critical connections and guidance on organization.

Private banking was still not fully regulated -- nor did the Russian people, politicians or bureaucrats quite understand the concept. This allowed many oligarchs to acquire assets or political positions amid the confusion. Khodorkovsky acquired both. He became an energy investor for the government and then rose to the rank of deputy energy minister. His government connections and private banking system allowed him to purchase shares of the major Russian oil firm, Yukos, at an incredibly low price in 1995. Essentially, this put Russia's most prized asset -- oil, the sales of which accounted for half of the government budget then, as it does now -- in the hands of an oligarch.

It also gave Khodorkovsky the strength to politically influence Russia at a time when Yeltsin's Family and the siloviki could not counter him. This lasted until Putin came to power and consolidated the siloviki and many within the liberal reformist camp under his control.

Khodorkovsky funded anti-Putin political movements and went on television with Putin and called his government criminals. What Khodorkovsky missed was that Putin was skillful enough to gain the abilities necessary to take down the one oligarch who was seen as too large to fall. Putin famously said, "I have eaten more dirt than I need from that man," and ordered Khodorkovsky's arrest, leaving the Russian state to take his energy assets. At the time, the majority of Russian people also said that Khodorkovsky was a criminal and supported the state's decision to take over big business in Russia. This was a warning to Russia's oligarch class that the state was back in control after more than a decade of unruliness.

Putin's riding high
The Russian oligarch class now consists of a few survivors who understand that their empires exist only with Putin's permission. This was seen in 2009, when Putin ordered the remaining oligarchs to dump large parts of their personal fortunes into the Russian economy in order to keep it from falling amid the global recession. The remainder of big business in Russia is now either directly state owned or controlled by a Putin loyalist, likely from the security services.

Third, in allowing Khodorkovsky to be released early, Putin is undermining Khodorkovsky's ability to rally his political supporters against Putin for sentencing him to 10 years in prison. The Kremlin also does not want Khodorkovsky and others seen as political prisoners in Russia to attract attention when Russia hosts the Winter Olympics in Sochi in February. Thus, a general amnesty to many political prisoners will be granted soon. Khodorkovsky is not being released under the general amnesty, as he does not qualify; this will be a direct pardon from Putin himself.

Putin was reshaping public perception, portraying Khodorkovsky as groveling and treating his release as an issue that was not important enough to mention during his press conference. This is Putin's way of showing that the Kremlin is not concerned about the oligarch class that shaped Russia in the 1990s and that the state is charting Russia's course.

(1) According to Russiapedia: “Siloviki are members of security services police and armed forces. Also, “siloviki” is an unofficial term for a group of high-ranked politicians in the top state institutions of the Russian Federation who used to be the members of military or of the security services and worked closely with Vladimir Putin in the early years of his career.”

— Stratfor, the geopolitical intelligence firm, posted this article Dec. 20, 2013

By the Activist Newsletter

A large majority of the American people — accustomed as they are to anti-communist rhetoric that still reverberates today — undoubtedly think that people in the various republics of the USSR welcomed the breakup of the Soviet Union. But this is hardly true, even after more than two decades.

According to a new Gallup Poll, conducted to coincide with 22nd anniversary of the implosion of the Soviet Union (Dec. 26, 1991) “residents in seven out of 11 countries that were part of the union are more likely to believe its collapse harmed their countries than benefited them. Only Azerbaijanis, Kazakhstanis, and Turkmens are more likely to see benefit than harm from the breakup. Georgians are divided.

In earlier times Lenin pointed the way.
“Overall, residents of these former Soviet republics are more than twice as likely to say the breakup harmed (51%) than benefited their countries (24%).

“For many, life has not been easy since the Soviet Union dissolved. Residents there have lived through wars, revolutions, coups, territorial disputes, and multiple economic collapses. However, this is also the prevailing opinion in Russia, which continues to exert considerable economic and political influence over its former republics.”

In the Russian Republic itself, 55% of the people believe the breakup harmed their country as opposed to 19% who believe it was beneficial. Most of the minority are younger citizens. A 2009 poll showed that nearly 60% of Russians “deeply regret” the USSR's demise.

Despite the demonstrations in Ukraine calling for closer ties with Europe than Russia, 56% said they thought the dissolution of the union created more harm than benefit, and only 23% said the opposite. The U.S. has been suggesting that the majority of Ukrainians seek distance from Russia but this could be an overestimate based on the large crowds in the Kiev protests that may not reflect the majority view throughout the country.

In Armenia, the harm total was 51%, benefit was 24%. In Moldova, 42% harm, 26% benefit. Belarus, 38% harm, 26% benefit. 

The votes that were not included here were “neither” or “don’t know;” The maximum margin of sampling error is ±2.7 to ±3.8 percentage points. Several of the former republics were not included in the poll.

By Paul Brandeis Raushenbush
In a new interview with the Italian newspaper La Stampa, Pope Francis responded to allegations that he is a Marxist, after he recently criticized “unfettered capitalism.”

The Pope told La Stampa that “Marxist ideology is wrong. But I have met many Marxists in my life who are good people, so I don’t feel offended.... There is nothing in the exhortation that cannot be found in the social doctrine of the church.”

He was referring to an apostolic exhortation from November, in which he wrote, "As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world's problems or, for that matter, to any problems."

Another passage read, “Just as the commandment 'Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills."

The Pope's words received harsh criticism from American conservatives, including Rush Limbaugh, who told his audience, "this is just pure Marxism coming out of the mouth of the pope. Unfettered capitalism? That doesn't exist anywhere. Unfettered capitalism is a liberal socialist phrase to describe the United States. Unfettered, unregulated.”

— From the Huffington Post.

By Gretchen Livingston, Factank

Women’s labor force participation has surged in recent decades, driven largely by increases in labor force participation among women with young children, according to a new Pew Research Center report. At the same time, fathers — virtually all of whom are in the labor force — are also taking on more child care responsibilities, as fatherhood has grown to encompass far more than just bringing home the bacon.

Despite these transformations, the U.S. government support for working parents remains very limited, compared with 37 other nations, according to data compiled by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The data do not address paid leave or other accommodations that individual employers make available to employees or guarantees provided by a few individual states.

Of the 38 countries represented, the U.S. is the only one that does not mandate any paid leave for new mothers. In comparison, Estonia offers about two years of paid leave, and Hungary and Lithuania offer one-and-a-half years or more of fully paid leave. The median amount of fully paid time off available to a mom for the birth of a child is about five-to-six months. 

In the vast majority of countries offering paid time off, the government is footing the bill, though in some cases employers are required to pony up, as well.

Then, there’s also protected leave, which essentially allows new parents to be away from their job to care for their baby, without fear of losing that job. Along with Mexico, the U.S. offers the smallest amount of (unpaid) leave protection related to the birth of a child among these 38 countries — 12 weeks. In the U.S., this is a result of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) which was enacted in 1993, and guarantees job security for those who have been employed for at least a year, and who work for an organization with 50 or more employees.

At the other end of the spectrum, Poland, Estonia, Spain, Lithuania, The Czech Republic, Slovakia, Germany, Hungary, France and Finland offer three years or more of protection for leave related to motherhood. The median amount of protected leave for new mothers among these countries is about 13 months.

Some 25 of these countries also offer guaranteed paternity leave — leave that is specifically available for new fathers. Norway, Ireland, Iceland, Slovenia, Sweden and Germany all offer eight weeks or more of protected paternity leave, and with the exception of Ireland these countries also mandate that a portion of this time off be paid. For the most part, though, paternity leave, where available, is more modest—in Greece, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, South Korea, Austria and Hungary paternity leave is guaranteed for one week or less.


By Erica Eichelberger

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and six of her colleagues in the Senate introduced a bill Dec. 17 that would prevent employers from using credit checks in the hiring process, — a practice that disproportionately hurts poor people.

Over the past few decades, credit-reporting bureaus have begun selling their services not just to lenders, but also to a wide range of employers. Forty-seven percent of employers check applicants' credit history as an indicator of their employability, according to a 2012 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management. But research shows that a person's credit score has nothing to do with her likelihood of succeeding in the workplace. The Equal Employment for All Act — co-sponsored by Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) — would prohibit the judging of applicants by this metric.

"A bad credit rating is far more often the result of unexpected medical costs, unemployment, economic downturns, or other bad breaks than it is a reflection on an individual's character or abilities," Warren said. "Families have not fully recovered from the 2008 financial crisis, and too many Americans are still searching for jobs. This is about basic fairness — let people compete on the merits, not on whether they already have enough money to pay all their bills."

The bill, which is backed by over 40 community, financial reform, labor and civil rights organizations, would be a boon for low-wage workers, minority communities, and women. Credit checks used in the hiring process disproportionately disqualify people of color. Divorce tends to hit women's finances harder than men's, and women are also more likely to receive subprime loans than men.

— From Mother Jones, Dec. 17, 2013


By Jon Queally

A majority of "private, corporate and academic economists" agree: economic inequality in the U.S. is not just hurting individuals and families who struggle to make ends meet; the growing gap in both wages and wealth is harming the economy as a whole.

That's according to a new survey by the Associated Press which confirms what progressive-minded economists and policy-makers have been saying since... always.

After asking more than three dozen economists a host of questions about trends in the current economy, the survey discovered that one of the chief concerns shared by most is the stagnation of the middle class as the rich get richer. Why? According to what AP gleaned from economists:

“Higher pay and outsize stock market gains are flowing mainly to affluent Americans. Yet these households spend less of their money than do low- and middle-income consumers who make up most of the population but whose pay is barely rising.

"What you want is a broader spending base," says Scott Brown, chief economist at Raymond James, a financial advisory firm. "You want more people spending money."

“Spending by wealthier Americans, given the weight of their dollars, does help drive the economy. But analysts say the economy would be better able to sustain its growth if the riches were more evenly dispersed.”

As the debate in Washington and across the country about economic inequality receives fuel from a populist surge that has included growing demonstrations by low-wage workers and calls for a large federal increase of the minimum wage, the consensus by this diverse group of economic minds should bolster those calling for real policy changes in the wake of the financial collapse of 2008.

As Paul Krugman, noted Keynesian and columnist for the New York Times, wrote Dec. 15: "The economic populists have it right." Citing the numbers, Krugman explains:

“On average, Americans remain a lot poorer today than they were before the economic crisis. For the bottom 90% of families, this impoverishment reflects both a shrinking economic pie and a declining share of that pie. Which mattered more? The answer, amazingly, is that they’re more or less comparable — that is, inequality is rising so fast that over the past six years it has been as big a drag on ordinary American incomes as poor economic performance, even though those years include the worst economic slump since the 1930s.

“And if you take a longer perspective, rising inequality becomes by far the most important single factor behind lagging middle-class incomes.”

And going deeper than that, Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz explains the four main reasons why inequality stifles economic health and a more broad-based recovery:

“The most immediate is that our middle class is too weak to support the consumer spending that has historically driven our economic growth. While the top 1% of income earners took home 93% of the growth in incomes in 2010, the households in the middle — who are most likely to spend their incomes rather than save them and who are, in a sense, the true job creators — have lower household incomes, adjusted for inflation, than they did in 1996. The growth in the decade before the crisis was unsustainable — it was reliant on the bottom 80% consuming about 110% of their income.

“Second, the hollowing out of the middle class since the 1970s, a phenomenon interrupted only briefly in the 1990s, means that they are unable to invest in their future, by educating themselves and their children and by starting or improving businesses.”

“Third, the weakness of the middle class is holding back tax receipts, especially because those at the top are so adroit in avoiding taxes and in getting Washington to give them tax breaks. The recent modest agreement to restore Clinton-level marginal income-tax rates for individuals making more than $400,000 and households making more than $450,000 did nothing to change this. Returns from Wall Street speculation are taxed at a far lower rate than other forms of income. Low tax receipts mean that the government cannot make the vital investments in infrastructure, education, research and health that are crucial for restoring long-term economic strength.

“Fourth, inequality is associated with more frequent and more severe boom-and-bust cycles that make our economy more volatile and vulnerable. Though inequality did not directly cause the crisis, it is no coincidence that the 1920s — the last time inequality of income and wealth in the United States was so high — ended with the Great Crash and the Depression. The International Monetary Fund has noted the systematic relationship between economic instability and economic inequality, but American leaders haven’t absorbed the lesson.”


By Evelyn Matthei, Reuters

SANTIAGO — Socialist Michelle Bachelet has promised major tax and education reforms to help ease Chile's social divisions after sweeping back to power with a huge majority in presidential elections on Dec. 15.

The center-left candidate of New Majority coalition won with about 62% support, the highest share of votes for any presidential candidate since the country returned to holding democratic elections in 1989.

The landslide victory against Evelyn Matthei, the conservative candidate of the Alianza coalition, puts Bachelet back in the Moneda presidential palace after a four-year gap and gives her a mandate to push for an education overhaul and the fiscal reforms to help pay for it.

"Chile has looked at itself, has looked at its path, its recent history, its wounds, its feats, its unfinished business and this Chile has decided it is the time to start deep transformations," Bachelet told a jubilant crowd of supporters after her victory as confetti rained down. "There is no question about it: profits can't be the motor behind education because education isn't merchandise and because dreams aren't a consumer good."

Good-quality schooling is generally only available in Chile to those who can pay, and massive student protests demanding change hurt the popularity of the outgoing conservative president Sebastián Piñera. Bachelet ran on a platform of social policies to address a deep divide between rich and poor, and plans to raise the corporate tax rate. Chile, the world's top copper-exporting nation, is ranked the most unequal country in the 34-member Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

"She will govern a country with profound demands for change," Senator Ricardo Lagos Weber of Bachelet's coalition told Reuters. "The country isn't flat on its back, it is healthy, organized, growing economically, creating jobs and improving salaries. But it is also deeply unequal."

Plans to change a constitution and electoral system that date back  Gen.Augusto Pinochet's 17-year dictatorship – which ended in 1990 – are also among Bachelet's campaign pledges.

"Bachelet has promised a lot and expectations are high, while the [economic] situation isn't as favorable as it was in recent years," said Patricio Navia, a political scientist and professor at New York University. If she does need to water down her promises because slower growth makes increased public spending tricky – or if opposition becomes obstructionist in a congress that remains divided after parliamentary elections last month – she could herself face popular protests.

By John Hannah

There's a very big story developing in Turkey that all foreign policy mavens should be watching closely. Exactly how big remains to be seen, but the stakes are huge. At issue: Will the decade-long domination of Turkish politics by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamist-leaning Justice and Development Party (AKP) continue? Or is the Erdogan era about to come crashing down, fatally weakened by scandal, infighting, and authoritarian overreach?

Early Tuesday morning, police in Istanbul and Ankara carried out a wave of stunning arrests that included powerful businessmen, the sons of three cabinet ministers, and the head of an important state-owned financial institution, Halkbank. The operation flowed from a series of corruption-related investigations that have apparently been underway for a year or more. All the key targets swept up in the raids are closely linked to Erdogan's government.

Erdogan, characteristically, responded by going on the offensive and hurling accusations at his opponents. He attacked the action as a "dirty operation," the goal of which was to smear his administration and undermine the progress that Turkey had made under his leadership. He alluded to a dark conspiracy launched by terrorist gangs, both foreign and domestic.

Anti-regime protest in Turkey few months ago.
Erdogan alluded to a dark conspiracy launched by terrorist gangs, both foreign and domestic,  that were operating a state within the state. While insisting that Turkey was a democracy, not some two-bit banana republic, he proceeded to engineer within a day the sacking of more than 20 high-level police officers in Istanbul and Ankara, including those directly in charge of the units that carried out the raids. More heads seem almost certain to roll. Rumors that the lead prosecutor supervising the investigations had also been removed were vehemently denied -- though two new prosecutors were suddenly (and mysteriously) added to the probe. Howls of political interference in an ongoing judicial matter erupted. The crisis deepened.

These dramatic events were simply the latest escalation in a long-simmering battle royale within the AKP's Islamist coalition. On one side: Erdogan and his followers, whose political roots lie in the transnational Muslim Brotherhood movement founded in Egypt in 1928. On the other: the Gulenists, a secretive society whose religious ideology bears a more distinctly Turkish flavor, led by Fethullah Gulen, a septuagenarian cleric who fled Turkey in the late 1990s and now lives in exile in rural Pennsylvania. Partners for much of the past decade in the AKP's systematic efforts to undermine the foundations of Ataturk's secular republic and bring the Turkish military to heel, Erdogan and the Gulenists have now turned on each other with a vengeance.

Figuring out exactly why is no easy matter. Ultimately, it's about power, of course. More specifically, it's about Erdogan and the intensifying megalomania that has become an increasingly prominent feature of his governing style. The man now appears more or less incapable of brooking any challenge to his authority. Egged on by an inner-circle of sycophants who live in fear of his wrath, Erdogan appears genuinely convinced that his personal interests and agenda, and those of the Turkish nation, are now largely synonymous. What he wants is, ipso facto, what the Turkish people need. Anyone who disagrees with him is resisting the popular will. Anyone who criticizes him is attacking Turkey and constitutes, by definition, an enemy of the state, a traitor that must be broken and neutralized.

It's a world where independent centers of power, wealth, influence, and allegiance are always a danger. Eventually, they must be cowed into submission, co-opted, or crushed, deploying as necessary the coercive levers of the state to do so -- threats, wiretaps, blackmail, tax liens, arrests, manufactured evidence, long-term imprisonment, all are fair game. In no small part, the story of the first decade of AKP rule has been its slow but methodical march through the commanding institutions of Turkish society. One by one, by hook or by crook, they have been brought into line. The bureaucracy: check. The media: check. Business: check. The courts: check. And, of course, the big enchilada, the military: check. Or, more accurately, checkmate.

From this perspective, it was perhaps only a matter of time before Erdogan set his sights on the Gulenists. They oversee a worldwide network of schools. They control their own business and media empire. They have a charismatic leader, a distinct ideology, and, it is believed, millions of loyal followers throughout Turkey. Most threatening of all, Gulenists are said to be seeded throughout the Turkish power structure, with particular influence over the police and the judiciary. Indeed, Gulenists have almost certainly been the tip of the spear in the AKP's multi-year campaign to marginalize and subjugate Turkey's military, as well as the other former pillars of the Kemalist state. But with that task largely complete, Erdogan appears to have come to the conclusion that the time was ripe to take them down a peg -- or more. Paranoid he may be, but leave it to Erdogan to recognize a threat, or at least a potential threat, to his authoritarian ambitions when he sees one….

— From Foreign Policy, Dec. 20, 2013,

By Rob Mitchum,, 12-17-13

A warmer world is expected to have severe consequences for global agriculture and food supply, reducing yields of major crops even as population and demand increases. Now, a new analysis combining climate, agricultural, and hydrological models finds that shortages of freshwater used for irrigation could double the detrimental effects of climate change on agriculture. [Sixty-nine countries are already facing extremely tough competition for water, according to a study by the World Resources Institute.]

Given the present trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions, agricultural models estimate that climate change will directly reduce food production from maize, soybeans, wheat and rice by as much as 43% by the end of the 21st century. But hydrological models looking at the effect of warming climate on freshwater supplies project further agricultural losses, due to the reversion of 20 to 60 million hectares of currently irrigated fields back to rain-fed crops. [1 hectare: about 2.47 acres.]

It's a huge effect, and an effect that's basically on the same order of magnitude as the direct effect of climate change," said Joshua Elliott, a research scientist with the Computation Institute's Center for Robust Decision Making on Climate and Energy Policy (RDCEP), Argonne National Laboratory, and lead author of the paper. "So the effect of limited irrigation availability in some regions could end up doubling the effect of climate change."
[Science Today reported Dec. 16 that 30 research teams in 12 different countries have systematically compared state-of-the-art computer simulations of climate change impact to assess how climate change might influence global drought, water scarcity and river flooding in the future. What they found was:
• The frequency of drought may increase by more than 20% in some regions.
• Without a reduction in global greenhouse-gas emissions, 40% more people are likely to be at risk of absolute water scarcity.
• Increases in river flooding are expected in more than half of the areas investigated.
• Adverse climate change impacts can combine to create global “hotspots of climate change impacts.

By Jessica Goad and Matt Lee-Ashley

Spanning more than one-fifth of the U.S. landmass, America’s national forests, national parks, and other public lands have long been valued for their ability to absorb and store carbon and other air pollutants. “Forests,” said President Franklin D. Roosevelt, “are the lungs of our land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people.”

Yet rather than fulfilling their natural role of absorbing carbon and balancing the carbon cycle, public lands have become one of the largest sources of U.S. carbon emissions as a result of fossil fuel extraction [by energy corporations]. In fact, public lands in the continental United States are contributing nearly 4.5 times more carbon to the atmosphere than they are currently able to absorb. The extraction of coal, oil, and natural gas from public lands — and their subsequent combustion in power plants, vehicles, and other energy-consuming activities — is the primary cause of this imbalance.

To address this growing problem, we propose a carbon-emissions reduction plan for public lands that, using a range of tools already available to land managers and the administration, would • increase public lands’ ability to naturally sequester carbon and • decrease carbon pollution from fossil fuels extracted from public lands.

Policymakers have largely overlooked the role of U.S. land and resource management policy in contributing to climate change. President Barack Obama’s “Climate Action Plan,” for example, outlines a set of critical steps his administration [is supposed to] take to address climate change, including reducing pollution from power plants, increasing fuel-efficiency standards in vehicles, expanding renewable energy production, and helping make communities more resilient to extreme weather. With the exception of accelerating large-scale renewable energy projects on federal lands, however, the Climate Action Plan does not take meaningful steps to address carbon pollution that results from U.S. natural resource policy.

Though underappreciated, the 700 million acres of land that the U.S. government manages on behalf of the American people occupy an oversized role in U.S. energy and climate policy. Public lands, for example, are “ground zero” for the effects of a warming world: Glaciers are disappearing from Glacier National Park, polar bears are losing their Arctic habitat, and water supplies in the Colorado River are diminishing. Public lands also serve as carbon “sinks,” meaning that forests, grasslands, coastal ecosystems, and other landscapes absorb and store carbon through natural processes.

But public lands also affect climate policy in a third significant way: The fossil fuels extracted from them, when burned, contribute high levels of carbon emissions to the atmosphere. Federally managed lands are one of the largest sources of U.S. energy and mineral production, from the oil that is drilled in North Dakota to the coal that is mined in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. Currently, 42.1% of our nation’s coal, 26.2% of its oil, and 17.8% of its natural gas is extracted each year from public lands and the outer continental shelf, or OCS. In sum, these extracted fossil fuels contribute 23% of our nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to an analysis conducted by Stratus Consulting and commissioned by The Wilderness Society.

Because of the steady and rapid expansion of fossil-fuel production on public lands over many decades, far more carbon is coming out of the ground than our forests and public lands are able to absorb.

Based on an analysis of publicly available ecosystem carbon-sequestration data accessed from the U.S. Geological Survey, or USGS, public lands in the continental United States absorb 259 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, or MMTCO2e, every year. Meanwhile, 1,154 MMTCO2e are emitted each year from the combustion of coal, oil, and natural gas extracted from onshore public lands in the continental United States.

In other words, nearly 4.5 times more carbon is being emitted from public lands than these places can absorb naturally. All told, we estimate that onshore public lands in the continental United States alone are contributing a net 895 MMTCO2e yearly surplus of carbon to the atmosphere.

— From the Center for American Progress, Dec. 5, 2013

By the ANSWER Coalition

On Dec. 21 and 22, two demonstrations took place in Southern California as part of the movement against police brutality.

Justice for Carlos, protest in L.APhoto Mike Prysner. 
With actions across the entire state growing in frequency, activists, community members and families of victims took action in the Los Angeles area against the LA County Sherriff’s Department. The actions were supported by the ANSWER Coalition and other community organizations.

On Dec. 21, people marched in East Los Angeles in response to the recent murder of Carlos Oliva L.A. Country Sherriff’s Deputy Anthony Forlano. Oliva was a 23-year-old customer service worker, who was walking in his own neighborhood when he was racially profiled by police, who say they were responding to a domestic disturbance in the area, which had taken place on Sept. 10, 2013. Witnesses say officer Forlano shot and killed Oliva almost immediately after stopping him.

Marching through the heart of East LA to the Sherriff’s station, the young sister of Carlos Oliva spoke to the crowd: “We have to do this so that nobody else has to go through what we’re going through.”

On Dec. 22, family and community members in Paramount, Calif., marked what would have been the birthday of Ignacio Ochoa, an immigrant worker. On May 14, 2013, Ochoa was riding his bike on the way to the store when police racially profiled and detained him. The crowd rallied near Ochoa’s home, led by his widow, Yuli, and his three children, ages 17, 11 and three.

While Ochoa was handcuffed and restrained by police, he was shot execution-style in the back of the head.
When one witnessed tried to ask one of the L.A. police officers what had happened, they replied, “Don’t worry, it’s just another dead Mexican.”

By Caspar Henderson
The Fate of Our Species: Why the Human Race May Cause its Own Extinction and How We Can Stop It. By Fred Guterl, 
Bloomsbury USA. Paperback, 209 pages.

The Stoics, a philosophical school of the ancient Greek and Roman world, developed a technique called “the premeditation of evils” which involved deliberately envisaging worst-case scenarios. One benefit of this approach, they argued, is that one replaces limitless panic and fear – which is how humans often respond to seemingly insuperable problems – with a sober analysis of exactly how badly things could go wrong.

Fred Guterl's The Fate of Our Species is precisely such a premeditation of evils and, specifically, monsters of our own creation – the potential disasters consequent upon the ways in which, through ignorance and lack of careful thought, we organize the world in ways that present existential risks.  It focuses on six threats to future human existence and thriving on the planet: superviruses, the collapse of biodiversity, climate change, ecosystem degradation, and synthetic biology and other technologies gone awry. 

Guterl, the executive editor of Scientific American, is no Luddite or primitivist. “Optimism,” he writes, “is an outlook, a state of mind that is partly reason and emotion, partly a product of personality. I tend toward the techno-optimistic side of the spectrum. I also think optimism is our best weapon.” In his view there's no going back on our reliance on computers and high-tech medicine, agriculture, power generation without causing vast human suffering – unless you want to contemplate reducing the world population by many billions of people.

“We have climbed out on a technological limb…. We are dependent upon our technology, yet our technology now presents the seeds of our destruction. It's a dilemma. I don't pretend to have a way out. We should start by being aware of the problem.” This brief, highly readable book is an excellent aid in that direction.
— From China Dialogue.