Weekly Mulch: Obama Lacks Vision on Energy, Stomach to Defend EPA

by Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium blogger

President Obama made an energy speech this week that had little new to offer, while on Capitol Hill, Republicans were pushing to relieve the government of its last options to limit carbon emissions. In the House Republicans have passed a bill that would keep the EPA from regulating carbon, and in the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid repeatedly pushed back a vote on the same issue.

But as Eartha Jane Melzer reports at The Michigan Messenger, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) has become the latest senator to propose taking away the EPA’s authority over greenhouse gasses this week. If the Senate decides it wants to pursue this policy, it will have plenty of options to choose from.

Conflicting news leaked out about how strongly the Obama administration was willing to stand up for the EPA’s right (granted by the Supreme Court) to treat carbon as a pollutant under the Clear Air Act.Grist’s Glenn Hurowitz noted an Associated Press story with a comment indicating that the White House was telling Congress they’d have to compromise on this issue. But on Thursday the White House reassured progressive bloggers that it was opposed to any amendments to funding bills that furthered “unrelated policy agendas.”

The energy speech

The energy speech that President Obama delivered at Georgetown this week, however, did not do much to reassure climate activists that the administration will put forward a strong vision on these issues. The president talked about decreasing our dependence on foreign oil and set a goal of having 80% of the country’s electricity come from clean energy sources by 2035.

But as David Roberts at Grist writes, Obama skirted some of the trickiest issues. “The core truth is that for the U.S., oil problems mostly have to do with supply and oil solutions mostly have to do with demand,” he says. “America becomes safer from oil by using less. From the Democratic establishment, only retiring Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) is telling the public that truth.”

Is clean energy green energy?

President Obama is right that the country has room to pursue more clean energy opportunities. As Public News Service’s Mary Kuhlman reports, America is behind in the clean energy race. The Pew Environment Group just released a report that, according to Kuhlman, “finds the United States as a whole is falling behind in the global clean-energy race….The U.S. maintained the top spot until 2008, according to research from the Pew Charitable Trusts, but fell in 2010 to third behind China and Germany.”

But as I point out at TAPPED, when politicians use the words “clean energy,” they’re generally talking about mid-point solutions like natural gas and nuclear energy. President Obama’s proposed standard does not necessarily support renewable energy — wind and solar projects that are truly sustainable.

The alternatives

And as Gavin Aronsen writes at Mother Jones, renewable energy projects need more support. “The near-term future of solar power in the US will also depend on whether President Obama’s stimulus money keeps flowing,” he explains. “For now, energy companies have until the end of the year toqualify for funding. Meanwhile, some solar advocates are suggesting alternatives like installing panels on urban rooftops.”

If these projects flag, the alternative to renewable, or even clean, energy is not appealing. The world is beginning to depend on energy sources that require greater effort and create more environmental damage. Oil from tar sands is one such source, although as, Beth Buczynski reports at Care2, “a research group at Penn State spent the past 18 months developing a technique that uses ionic liquids (salt in a liquid state) to facilitate separation of oil from the sands in a cleaner, more energy efficient manner. The separation takes place at room temperature without the generation of waste water.” Sounds like an improvement!

Does genetically modified alfafa do a body good?

The Obama administration is not only disappointing on energy issues. At GritTV, Laura Flanders talks to New York Times food writer Mark Bittman about the future of organic food, and the two agree that the only person whose agriculture and food policy they can wholeheartedly endorse is Michelle Obama’s. Too bad she’s not part of the administration.

One recent gripe is the Department of Agriculture’s decision to approve genetically modified alfafa. “Essentially it’s the beginning of the end of organic,” Bittman said. “Once you introduce alfafa, which pollinates by the wind, you can’t guarantee that any alfafa doesn’t have genetically modified seed in it. And alfafa is used as hay, hay is used to feed cows, there goes organic milk. There goes a lot of organic meat.”

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment bymembers of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The AuditThe Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

Weekly Diaspora: 100 Years After Triangle Fire, Immigrant Workers Still Fighting for Labor Rights

by Catherine A. Traywick, Media Consortium blogger

Last week marked the centennial of the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, in which 146 mostly immigrant workers died. The tragedy prompted widespread labor reforms in the United States, but its commemoration underscores the plight of immigrant workers similarly exploited today.

As Richard Greenwald notes at Working in These Times, the disaster marked “the moment that a strong collective working class demanded its citizenship rights,” while today, “we are living in a time where organized labor is weak, fractured and leaderless.” He concludes that a rebirth of labor must come, as it did in 1911, from today’s new immigrant communities, which continue to bear the brunt of exploitative labor practices.

Immigrant workers rally for labor rights

Immigrant workers and union organizers articulated the same sentiment when they commemorated the fire last week. According to Catalina Jaramillo at Feet in Two Worlds, labor groups rallied Friday to call for safer working conditions and unionization—especially for the thousands of immigrants who face abuse and exploitation because of their immigration status. One union member articulated the similarities between today’s migrant workers and those who perished in the Triangle Fire:

“I see that a hundred years since this terrible accident that killed so many people, things have really not changed at all,” said Walfre Merida, a member of Local 79, from the stage.

Merida, 25, said before joining the union he worked at a construction company where he was not paid overtime, had no benefits and was paid in cash.

“Safety conditions, none. Grab your tool and go to work, no more. And do not stop,” he told El Diario/La Prensa. ”When we worked in high places, on roofs, we never used harnesses, one became accustomed to the dangers and thanked God we weren’t afraid of heights. One would risk his life out of necessity.”

Kari Lydersen at Working In These Times adds that, while workplaces in general have gotten safer, immigrant workers tend to be employed in the most dangerous professions and are disproportionately affected by workplace health and safety problems. In particular, foreign-born Latinos tend to suffer injury and illness at a much higher rate than U.S.-born Latinos. Lydersen writes:

Work-related injury and illness can be especially devastating for undocumented workers since they are often fired because of their injury and they often don’t collect workers compensation or other benefits due them. […] A 2009 Government Accountability Office report says non-fatal workplace injuries could be under-reported by 80 percent.

Crackdown on immigrant workers bad for the economy

Other labor rights advocates are drawing attention to the federal government’s ongoing crackdown on immigrant workers. Worksite audits which require employers to check the immigration status of their workers have resulted in thousands of layoffs in recent months. This sweeping trend hurts families as well as local economies, according to a new report from the Center for American Progress and the Immigration Policy Center.

The report specifically looks at the economic impact of immigrant workers in Arizona, but its findings present much wider implications. Marcos Restrepo at The Colorado Independent sums up the key points:

  • The analysis estimates that immigrants on the whole paid $6 billion in taxes in 2008, while undocumented immigrants paid approximately $2.8 billion.
  • Increase tax revenues by $1.68 billion.

The report adds that the effects of deportation in Arizona would:

  • Decrease total employment by 17.2 percent.
  • Eliminate 581,000 jobs for immigrant and native-born workers alike.
  • Shrink the state economy by $48.8 billion.
  • Reduce state tax revenues by 10.1 percent.

Meanwhile, the effects of legalization in Arizona would:

  • Add 261,000 jobs for immigrant and native-born workers alike.
  • Increase labor income by $5.6 billion.

Restrepo adds that, in part because of such mounting evidence, immigrants rights advocates are exhorting authorities to recognize immigrants as workers, first and foremost.

Immigrant farm owners contend with exploitation

Of course, even when immigrants are owners, rather than employees, they still disproportionately contend with exploitative industry practices. At The American Prospect, Monica Potts reports on the unique experiences of Hmong immigrants operating chicken farms in the Ozarks. Specifically, Potts examines how behemoth agri-businesses like Tyson exploit the inexperience or limited English abilities of immigrants to sell chicken farms and secure contracts that often put the farmers deep into debt:

Many Hmong were signing contracts they couldn’t read and getting into deals they didn’t fully understand. At least 12 Hmong declared bankruptcy in 2006. […] The concerns are similar for other immigrant farmers, especially Hispanics, who moved into the area to work at chicken-processing plants but were also recruited to buy operations. Hispanic farmers sometimes pooled their money and bought farms without a contract, only to realize later they wouldn’t be able to sell their chickens on the open market. … Many just walked away rather than trying to save their farms.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about immigration by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Diaspora for a complete list of articles on immigration issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, and health care issues, check out The Audit, The Mulch, and The Pulse. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

Weekly Audit: Wolf in Sheep's Clothing--The Myth of Fiscal Conservatism

By Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium blogger

Fashionable pundits like to say that the Republican Party has shifted its focus from “social conservatism” (e.g., banning abortion, shoving gays back in the closet, teaching school children that humans and dinosaurs once walked the earth hand-in-claw) to fiscal conservatism (e.g., tax cuts for the rich, slashing social programs). But is that really true? Tim Murphy ofMother Jones argues that the old culture war issues never really went away. Rather, the Republicans have simply rephrased their social agenda in fiscal terms.

For example, Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN) is quite upfront about the fact that he hates Planned Parenthood because the group is the nation’s leading abortion provider. Yet, he seeks to de-fund the Planned Parenthood and the entire Title X Family Planning Program in the name of balancing the budget. Never mind that the federal money only goes toward birth control, not abortion, and research shows that every dollar spent on birth control saves $4 in Medicaid costs alone.

Steve Benen of the Washington Monthly surveys the current crop of GOP presidential hopefuls in Iowa and agrees that reports of the death of the culture war have been greatly exaggerated.

But the key takeaway here is that fiscal issues have largely been relegated to afterthought status. That’s just not what these right-wing activists — the ones who’ll largely dictate the outcome of the caucuses — are focused on. Indeed, even Ron Paul, after pandering to a home-school crowd last week, conceded, “I haven’t been asked too much about fiscal issues.”

Budget cuts

Sarah Babbage writes in TAPPED that Obama and the Democratic leadership in Congress seem poised to grant an additional $20 billion in spending cuts for FY 2011, in addition to the $10 billion in cuts they’ve already pledged for this fiscal year. Babbage notes that, after weeks of negotiations, we’re right back to the $30 billion in cuts the GOP initially demanded. She warns that these cuts will have a trivial impact on the $1.6 trillion deficit, but they could have a devastating effect on the fragile economy.

Taxes for thee, but not GE

General Electric raked in $14.2 billion in profits last year, $5.1 billion of which came from the United States, yet the company paid $0 in U.S. income tax, Tara Lohan notes in AlterNet. Despite its healthy bottom line, and its sweet tax situation, GE is asking 15,000 unionized U.S. workers to make major concessions at the bargaining table. GE wants union members to give up defined benefit pension programs in exchange for defined contribution programs.

As we discussed last week in The Audit, defined benefit plans guarantee that a retiree will get a set percentage of her working salary for the rest of her life; defined contribution plans pay the worker a share of the revenue from a pool of investments. As the fine print always says, investments can decrease in value. So, if the stock market crashes the day before you retire, you’re out of luck.

Generation Debt

Higher education is supposed to be a stepping stone to a better standard of living, but with unemployment hovering around 10%, many college graduates are struggling to find jobs to pay their student loans. Aliya Karim argues in Campus Progress that the government should compel colleges and universities to be more transparent about the realities of student loan debt:

The government should require colleges to provide information about graduation rates, college costs, and financial aid packages on college websites, enrollment forms, and guidebooks. This information should be easy to find and understand. Without such information available to them, students may not be aware that their future college has a graduation rate lower than 20 percent or that its graduates face close to $30,000 in debt.

The government has a lot of leverage over public and private schools because so much student debt is guaranteed by taxpayers. Greater transparency will enable students to make more informed choices, and give colleges with low graduation rates a greater incentive to clean up their act.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy bymembers of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The MulchThe Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Weekly Diaspora: Big Business Dictates Immigration Policy—At Workers’ Expense

By Catherine A. Traywick, Media Consortium blogger

Arizona’s business leaders, frustrated by the deep financial fallout of increasingly radical immigration proposals, successfully swayed state lawmakers into defeating five extremist anti-immigrant bills.

New America Media’s Valeria Fernández reports that 60 executives from the likes of WellsFargo bank and U.S. Airways penned an open letter to state Senate President Russell Pearce last week, urging him to leave immigration policy to federal government. Julianne Hing at Colorlines.com has posted the letter in full, but here’s the gist:

Last year, boycotts were called against our state’s business community, adversely impacting our already-struggling economy and costing us jobs. Arizona-based businesses saw contracts cancelled or were turned away from bidding. Sales outside of the state declined … It is an undeniable fact that each of our companies and our employees were impacted by the boycotts and the coincident negative image […] Arizona is looking like a nativist, restrictive and intolerant place, and that’s bad for business.

The legislature subsequently voted down five controversial measures that sought to redefine citizenship and ban undocumented immigrants from hospitals and public schools, among other provisions.

Pearce, whose behind-the-scenes maneuvering repeatedly saved the contentious bills from dying much sooner, has vowed to continue pushing his agenda by voter referendum, if necessary. If he does, he may have more success. Arizonans have repeatedly voted in favor of harsh anti-immigrant proposals, including measures that stripped undocumented college students of financial assistance, banned ethnic studies, and ended equal opportunity programs.

Arizona’s business leaders overlook immigrant workers

It’s worth noting, though, that while the letter’s signatories handily criticized the legislature’s immigration agenda for negatively impacting the state’s economy, they had almost nothing to say about its detrimental impact on the state’s workers—a considerable proportion of whom are  immigrants. Instead, they urge “market driven immigration policies” that will “preserve our ability to compete in the global economy“ — language that is more evocative of labor-exploitative capitalism than worker solidarity.

Their calls for “the creation of a meaningful guest worker program” are similarly suspect. While the notion of a “meaningful guest worker program” that would legalize certain undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. may, on the surface, seem like a sympathetic solution—particularly in light of the federal government’s failure to move forward with any kind of comprehensive immigration reform—it nevertheless poses dire implications for undocumented workers.

Utah’s guest worker proposal evokes Bracero program abuses

As David Bacon at In These Times posits, “guest workers” whose legal status is contingent on their employment situation are uniquely vulnerable to workplace abuse and exploitation, and could face labor conditions “close to slavery.” The Bracero Program, a guest worker initiative which imported Mexican laborers primarily for work in agriculture between 1942 and 1964, stands out as stark example of the dark side of guest worker programs. Bacon explains:

Braceros were treated as disposable, dirty and cheap. Herminio Quezada Durán, who came to Utah from Chihuahua, says ranchers often had agreements between each other to exchange or trade braceros as necessary for work. Jose Ezequiel Acevedo Perez, who came from Jerez, Zacatecas, remembers the humiliation of physical exams that treated Mexicans as louse-ridden.

“We were stripped naked in front of everyone,” he remembers, and sprayed with DDT, now an outlawed pesticide. Men in some camps were victims of criminals and pimps.

Arizona isn’t the only state to toy with the idea of establishing a guest worker program. In an effort to distance itself from Arizona’s contentious and economically disastrous immigration agenda, Utah—a fiercely red state and Arizona’s northern neighbor—is considering creating its own guest worker program, according to the Texas Observer’s Victor Landa. The law would grant legal residency to working, undocumented residents who do not commit serious crimes.

While Landa notes that the purportedly progressive measure nevertheless runs afoul of federal immigration laws (only the federal government can grant immigration status), the bill presents other issues. One must stay employed or lose residency—a circumstance that would strip employees of bargaining power while granting their employers an inordinate amount of license in the workplace. In practical terms, that doesn’t much change the existing workplace dynamics of undocumented immigrants, who frequently endure exploitation and abuse without recourse.

Labor unions vs. worksite immigration enforcement

What’s more: Exploitative employers generally get off scot free even when targeted by employer sanctions efforts; it’s the workers, not employers, who bear the brunt of the federal government’s worksite immigration enforcement. For this reason, a Services Employees International Union (SEIU) leader, Javier Morillo, has condemned the Department of Homeland Security’s emhasis on workplace raids and employer verification, according to Nicolas Mendoza at Campus Progress.

Responding to the termination of 250 unionized janitors in Minnesota following an I-9 audit—a verification process through which the federal government can ask businesses to check the immigration statuses of their employees—Morillo said:

Under the leadership of Secretary Napolitano the federal government has become an employment agency for the country’s worst employers. With each I-9 audit, the government is systematically pushing hardworking people into the underground economy where they face exploitation… Let’s be clear: I-9 audits, by definition, do not go after egregious employers who break immigration laws because many of them do not use I-9 forms. Human traffickers do not ask their victims for their social security cards. [emphasis added]

Mendoza notes that the federal government’s employer verification programs rely on the honesty of employers and rewards them for firing undocumented workers, rather than sanctioning businesses for hiring them. Workers pay the price, while employers get off.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about immigration by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Diaspora for a complete list of articles on immigration issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, and health care issues, check out The Audit, The Mulch, and The Pulse. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

 

Weekly Pulse: Vermont Poised to Pass Single-Payer


By Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium blogger

Vermont is poised to abolish most forms of private health insurance, Lauren Else reports for In These Times. The state’s newly inaugurated Democratic governor, Peter Shumlin, unveiled his health insurance plan in early February. If the state legislature passes the bill, Vermont will become the first state to ban most forms of private health insurance.

The bill is getting support from some unlikely quarters:

On February 24, the Republican Mayor Christopher Louras, of Rutland, urged the state to adopt the single-payer legislation, noting that more than a third of the city’s $7 million annual payroll is consumed by healthcare costs. “The only way to fix the problem is to blow it up and start over,” Louras said.

A very bad doctor

In the Texas Observer, Saul Elbein tells the bizarre story of small-town huckster Dr. Rolando Arafiles and the nurses who exposed him as a quack and paid with their jobs.

Arafiles came to work at Winkler County Memorial Hospital in 2008. Nurses Anne Mitchell and Vickilyn Galle noticed that patients were walking out of his office with mysterious liquids. Arafiles was selling untested dietary supplements.

Sometimes, he even took patients off their real medicine and directed them to buy his cure-alls, which he sold online, and promoted in seminars at the local Pizza Hut. He prescribed powerful thyroid-stimulating drugs to patients with normal thyroid levels, a potentially lethal practice. He was also performing “unconventional” surgeries, even though he wasn’t a surgeon.

The hospital ignored the nurses’ complaints, so they reported Arafiles to the Texas Medical Board. After the board informed Arafiles that he was under investigation, Arafiles got his golf buddy, the local sheriff, to issue a warrant to search the nurses’ computers. The hospital fired the nurses. The local prosecutor indicted them for “misuse of official information” but these charges fizzled out. In 2010, the two women were awarded $750,000 in compensation from the county, but they still haven’t found new nursing jobs.

What are they doing out there?

Lon Newman is the executive director of Family Planning Health Services, a Wisconsin health clinic that offers birth control and other reproductive health care, but doesn’t provide abortions, or even abortion referrals. Anti-choice protesters picket the clinic anyway, Newman reports at RH Reality Check. They carry signs with misleading slogans like “The Pill Kills” and “Stop Chemical Abortion.”

Newman wonders why, given all the pressing problems in Wisconsin, the nation, and the world, some people make it a priority to hang out at Family Planning Health Services and badmouth birth control:

There are so many struggles for freedom, social justice, and disaster relief right now, that I do not think it is justifiable to be blocking access to health care for our uninsured neighbors who want to delay childbearing so they can finish school or take a new job or even wait to have children until they can afford them.

South Dakota institutes 72-hour abortion waiting period

The governor of South Dakota signed legislation this week that will force women seeking abortions in the state to observe a 72-hour waiting period. As Scott Lemieux argues in TAPPED, mandatory waiting period legislation is based on inherently sexist assumptions. By instituting a waiting period, the state is institutionalizing the stereotype that women seeking abortions are acting irrationally and must be coerced into waiting.

Body positive

Body hatred hasn’t been this popular since the days of the hair shirt. Hundreds of millions of women, and no shortage of men, spend billions of hours and billions of dollars despising their bodies. A new movement is afoot to find the political in this very personal issue, Sarah Seltzer reports in AlterNet. This year, the Women’s Therapy Center Institute will hold a series of  summits in New York, London, Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires, and Melbourne. In keeping with the theme of “Loved Bodies, Big Ideas” participants are discussing a range of ideas for helping to improve body image, including  a so-called “reality stamp,” a seal of approval that would indicate that a photograph hasn’t been digitally altered beyond the bounds of reason. Come to think of it, a “reality stamp” could be useful for all kinds of politics.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about health care by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Pulse for a complete list of articles on health care reform, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Mulch, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

 

Weekly Audit: Hostile Takeover Threat Spurs Concessions from Michigan Unions

By Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium blogger

Michigan’s new Emergency Manager Law is already forcing major concessions from unions. The law gives the governor the power to declare a city insolvent and appoint an emergency manager with virtually unlimited power to reorganize every aspect of city business, including dissolving the city entirely. The emergency manager even has the power to terminate collective bargaining agreements.

As a result of these expanded new powers, public employees unions in some Michigan municipalities are already making large preemptive concessions to keep their cities from tripping any of the “triggers” in the new law that might give the governor an opening to send in a union-bustingemergency manager, Eartha Jane Melzer reports in the Michigan Messenger.

In Flint, the firefighters’ union agreed to increase contributions to health insurance and give up holiday pay and night shift differentials. Flint Firefighters Union President Raul Garcia told the Wall Street Journal that these concessions were driven by fear of a state takeover of Flint. “I would rather give concessions that I would like than have an [emergency financial manager] or something of that magnitude come in and say this is what you are going to do,” Garcia said.

The new law also gives the Emergency Manager the power to privatize prisons, Melzer notes.

Detroit grows green

The citizens of Detroit aren’t waiting around for an emergency manager to take over. The city’s industrial economy is dying, but its grassroots economy is stirring to life, Jenny Lee and Paul Abowd report in In These Times. Detroit residents have been growing their own food in town for decades, but recently activists and the city have joined forces to link many small producers into a network that will provide food security for the city.

Wal-Mart and wage discrimination

Next week, the Supreme Court will take up the case of 100 women who are suing Wal-Mart for wage discrimination. As Scott Lemieux explains in The American Prospect, the Court will decide whether these women can band together to sue the nation’s largest retailer, or whether each must sue the firm individually.

Lemieux argues that, for the sake of women’s rights at work, it is very important that these Wal-Mart employees be allowed to sue together instead of one at a time:

Given the compelling stories these individual women can tell, does it matter whether they can file suit collectively? Absolutely, for at least two reasons. First of all, only a class-action suit can properly create a record of the systematic gender discrimination at Wal-Mart. Any individual case can be dismissed as an anomaly or a misunderstanding, but the volume of complaints makes clear that gender discrimination was embedded deeply within the culture of the corporation, a very relevant fact for a discrimination suit.

Litigation is expensive and time-consuming, for the individuals and for the court system. Forcing victims of discrimination to sue one by one makes it less likely that they will seek justice, especially if they’re suing because they were underpaid in the first place. Wal-Mart claims that the class is too large to be allowed to proceed, and that the women couldn’t possibly have similar enough claims. But as Lemieux points out, the class is huge because Wal-Mart is huge.

War and the deficit

Jamelle Bouie writes at TAPPED, in response to the United States’ new military commitments in Libya:

I just wish we could at least acknowledge the obvious truth: conservatives don’t care about deficits but will use them to cut spending on poor people. When it comes to things they like — wars, for instance — they’re willing to pay any price.

The U.S. fired 110 Tomahawk Missiles at Libya on Saturday, at an estimated total cost of $81 million, or 33 times the annual federal funding for National Public Radio.

Sally Kohn of TAPPED notes that the United States scraped together $2.3 million worth of “blood money” to pay off the families of the victims of Raymond Davis, a rogue CIA operative who shot and killed two men who tried to rob him in Pakistan. Laura Flanders of GRITtv calculates that $2.3 million ransom for a single killer would have paid the salaries of 45 Wisconsin public school teachers for a year.

Public pensions 101

We often hear that public pensions are unfunded. On the Breakdown, Chris Hayes of The Nation asks economist Dean Baker what this actually means. Baker explains that s0-called “defined benefit” pensions have become rare in the private sector, but remain relatively common in the public sector. A defined benefit pension guarantees the pensioner a certain income. Most private sector pensions are so-called “defined contribution” plans, which means that employer puts aside a certain amount of money each month for the employee, but there’s no guarantee how much return the pensioner will eventually get on that investment.

A state pension fund is considered unfunded if the assets the fund has today aren’t sufficient to cover the defined benefits that are due to workers over the next 30 years. Baker notes that many funds are a lot healthier than they look because their values were calculated at the nadir of the stock market in 2009. The market has since made up a large percentage of that ground. A handful of states were mismanaging their pension funds, but most states have been responsible.

Ethical outlaws

Bea is a manager of a big-box chain store in Maine. The company pays her staff between $6 and $8 an hour and many are struggling. Even as she tries to keep a professional atmosphere in the store, Bea has been known to bend the rules to help an employee in need, as Lisa Dodson describes in YES! Magazine:

When one of her employees couldn’t afford to buy her daughter a prom dress, Bea couldn’t shake the feeling that she was implicated by the injustice. “Let’s just say … we made some mistakes with our prom dress orders last year,” she told me. “Too many were ordered, some went back. It got pretty confusing.” And Edy? “She knocked them dead” at the prom.

Andrew, a manager in the Midwest is quietly padding his employees’ paychecks because he knows their wages aren’t enough to live on. Andrew knows he might be accused of stealing, but he does it anyway because the alternative is unthinkable.

Dodson interviewed hundreds of low- and middle-income people about the economy between 2001 and 2008. Along the way, she stumbled on what she calls “the moral underground,” a world where managers bend the rules at corporate expense to enable their low-wage staff to get by. It is legal to pay people less than a living wage, but increasing numbers of people like Bea and Arthur have decided that the situation is morally unacceptable, and quietly acted accordingly.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy bymembers of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The MulchThe Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

 

The Wavelength: What does proposed AT&T and T-Mobile Merger Mean?

By Eric K. Arnold, Media Consortium Blogger

Welcome to the Wavelength, your bi-weekly field guide to the world of media policy. Over the next four months, we’ll be compiling great content, connecting the dots, building context, and reporting how media policy impacts the lives of everyday people. From the ongoing battle over Net Neutrality to the wild world of Internet regulation, from partisan crusades to media accountability, the Wavelength is here to keep you in the know.

This week, we're focusing on major mergers, holding telecom giants accountable, and the revolving door at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

So, without further ado, let’s take a spin through the media zone.

AT&T to Absorb T-Mobile?

On Sunday, AT&T announced it had reached an agreement with T-Mobile to buy the mobile phone service provider for $39 billion. As reported in the New York Times, the deal would “create the largest wireless carrier in the nation and promised to reshape the industry.”

The immediate upshot is that the number of nationwide wireless carriers would drop from four to three, with Sprint Nextel running a distant third behind AT&T/T-Mobile and Verizon. Another impact could be higher rates for current T-Mobile customers. Advocates of the deal suggest it could improve AT&T’s oft-criticized service, resulting in fewer dropped calls. However, critics note that the roughly $3 billion in projected annual cost savings will likely come at the expense of workers at the hundreds of retail outlets expected to close, if the deal goes through.

Both the Justice Department and the FCC have to sign off on the merger before it can be approved, a process that could take up to a year.

House adds insult to NPR’s injury

On St. Patrick’s Day, the Republican-controlled House voted 228-192 to end federal funding for NPR. The move came on the heels of a secretly recorded video from conservative activist James O’Keefe that purportedly showed NPR fundraiser Ronald Schiller expressing support for Islamic fundamentalism and disavowing the Tea Party as “racist” — leading Schiller and NPR CEO Vivian Schiller (no relation) to resign. The video was later revealed to be excerpted and heavily edited from a longer video which places Schiller’s remarks in context.

At TAPPED, Lindsay Beyerstein watched the entire two hour video, and notes that:

O'Keefe's provocateurs didn't get what they were looking for. They were ostensibly offering $5 million to NPR. Their goal is clearly to get Schiller and his colleague Betsy Liley to agree to slant coverage for cash. Again and again, they refuse, saying that NPR just wants to report the facts and be a nonpartisan voice of reason.

As reported in the Washington Times, the Democratic-controlled Senate is unlikely to pass the bill, making NPR’s federal funding safe—for now. However, the timing of the vote suggests that House Republicans are essentially endorsing O’Keefe’s questionable tactics, showing that their dislike of the so-called liberal media is of greater concern.

Telecoms add ramming to their list of illegal practices

A recent AlterNet story by David Rosen and Bruce Kushnick details sneaky, unethical, and possibly illegal telecom tactics, the most recent of which is "ramming."

“Ramming” happens “when a phone company‘s customer is put on a service plan or package s/he did not need or want or cannot even use.” According to the article, “An estimated 80 percent of phone company customers have been overcharged or are on plans they did not need or even order. These and other scams can cost residential customers $20 or more a month extra and small business customers up to thousands of dollars a month.”

These practices are insidious because modern telephone bills are so cryptic that it’s not easy for even the most astute customer to figure out they’ve been duped.

Powell’s next move

Last Tuesday, former FCC chair Michael Powell announced that he has taken over as president of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association. Leading media advocacy organization Free Press snarkily congratulated Powell via a statement from Managing Director Craig Aaron:

If you wonder why common sense, public interest policies never see the light of day in Washington, look no further than the furiously spinning revolving door between industry and the FCC.

Former Chairman Michael Powell is the natural choice to lead the nation's most powerful cable lobby, having looked out for the interests of companies like Comcast and Time Warner during his tenure at the Commission and having already served as a figurehead for the industry front group Broadband for America.

AT&T imposes monthly usage caps

Finally, we’ve got more bad news for those unlucky enough to have AT&T as their Internet and cable service provider. As Truthout’s Nadia Prupis recently reported, AT&T customers who use the company's U-Verse cable TV service and DSL hi-speed Internet services in the United States can expect a bump in their monthly bills if they exceed a new usage cap – 50GB for DSL customers and 250 GB for U-Verse users. Those who exceed the storage fee will be charged $10 extra for every 50GB over the limit.

Surprisingly, the telecom behemoth continues to insist their price-gouging moves are in the consumer’s best interests. According to an AT&T press release: “Our new plan addresses another concern: customers strongly believe that only those who use the most bandwidth should pay more than those who don't use as much."

Personally, I don’t spend too much time thinking about how much bandwidth other people are using, as long as I’m getting the download speeds I’m paying for.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about media policy and media-related matters by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint and repost. To read more of The Wavelength, click here. For the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Weekly Mulch: Saying No to the Nuclear Option

by Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium blogger

Faced with the nuclear crisis in Japan, governments around the world are confronting the vulnerabilities of their nuclear energy programs. Some European countries, such as Germany and France, are considering more stringent safety measures or backing off of nuclear development altogether, but in the United States, the Obama administration is pushing forward with plans for increased nuclear energy production.

Ultimately, these questions are the same that the country faced after last summer’s Gulf Coast oil spill. As we search for more and more clever ways to fill our energy needs, can we write off the risk of disaster? Or are these large-scale catastrophes so inevitable that the only option is to stop pursuing the policies that lead to them?

The risks of nuclear

As Inter Press Service’s Andrea Lund reports, anti-nuclear groups are using the Japanese disaster as just one example of the disadvantages of nuclear power. Linda Gunter, of the group Beyond Nuclear, told Lund:

Even if you get away from the safety issue, which is obviously front and centre right now because of what’s happening in Japan, and you look at solutions to climate change, then nuclear energy takes way too long to build, reactors take years to come online, they’re wildly expensive. Most of the burden of the cost will fall on the U.S. taxpayer in this country, so why go there?…The possibility of it going radically wrong, the outcome is so awful that morally you can’t justify it. The reliability of nuclear power is practically zero in an emergency when you have this confluence of natural disasters.

And, as Maureen Nandini Mitra writes at Earth Island Journal, there are plenty of nuclear plants that are at risk. “More than 100 of the world’s reactors are already sited in areas of high seismic activity,” she reports. “And what’s happening in Japan makes one thing clear – we have absolutely no idea if any of these plants are actually capable of withstanding unprecedented natural disasters.”

Build up

The irony of nuclear energy is that the world started relying on it in part to mitigate the perceived threat of nuclear weapons. Jonathan Schell writes in The Nation about nuclear power’s transition from warheads to reactors:

A key turning point was President Dwight Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace proposal in 1953, which required nuclear-armed nations to sell nuclear power technology to other nations in exchange for following certain nonproliferation rules. This bargain is now enshrined in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which promotes nuclear power even as it discourages nuclear weapons….

Eisenhower needed some proposal to temper his growing reputation as a reckless nuclear hawk. Atoms for Peace met this need. The solution to nuclear danger, he said, was “to take this weapon out of the hands of the soldiers” and put it “into the hands of those who will know how to strip its military casing and adapt it to the arts of peace”—chiefly, those who would use it to build nuclear power plants.

While the threat of nuclear war still looms, since World War II, the nuclear materials that have caused the most damage have been those in the energy industry. And, as Schell reminds us, soldiers still have nuclear weapons in hand, as well.

The nuclear era

The Obama administration has always been gung-ho about nuclear energy: The president is from Illinois, after all, where Exelon Corp., one of the countries’ biggest nuclear providers, is based. Even in the face of Japan’s disaster, the administration is not backing off of its push for nuclear, as Kate Sheppard reports at Mother Jones:

Nuclear power is part of the “clean energy standard” that Obama outlined in his State of the Union speech in January. And in the 2011 budget, the administration called for a three-fold increase in federal loan guarantees for new nuclear power plants, from the $18.5 billion that Congress has already approved to $54.5 billion. “We are aggressively pursuing nuclear energy,” said Energy Secretary Steven Chu in February 2010 as he unveiled the budget….In Monday’s White House press briefing, press secretary Jay Carney said that nuclear energy “remains a part of the president’s overall energy plan.”

The state of safety in the U.S. nuclear industry isn’t particularly reassuring, though. As Arnie Gunderson told Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman, almost a quarter of American nuclear plants rely on the same design as the one currently faltering in Japan. Even worse, experts have known for decades that the design of this reactor is not safe. Gunderson explained:

This reactor design, this containment design, has been questioned since 1972. The NRC in 1972 said we never should have licensed this containment. And in 1985, the NRC said they thought it was about a 90 percent chance that in a severe accident this containment would fail. So, that we’re seeing it at Fukushima is an indication that this is a weak link. It’s this Mark I, General Electric Mark I, containment. And we have—essentially one-quarter of all of the nuclear reactors in the United States, 23 out of 104, are of this identical design.

It’d be reassuring if the U.S. government could promise that our superior safety standards would overcome these dangers. But, as Mother Jones‘ Sheppard writes, the day before the earthquake in Japan, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission extended the life a Vermont plant using this very design, over the objections of the state’s legislature.

Stumbling with stellar fire

Whatever the attractions of nuclear energy, it’s a dangerous business. The Nation’s Schell puts it best when he argues that the fallibility of humankind is the biggest risk factor. He writes:

The problem is not that another backup generator is needed, or that the safety rules aren’t tight enough, or that the pit for the nuclear waste is in the wrong geological location, or that controls on proliferation are lax. It is that a stumbling, imperfect, probably imperfectable creature like ourselves is unfit to wield the stellar fire released by the split or fused atom.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment bymembers of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The AuditThe Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

Weekly Diaspora: AZ Lawmakers Try to Ban Undocumented Children from Public School

by Catherine A. Traywick, Media Consortium blogger

Arizona lawmakers are considering two bills that would block undocumented immigrants’ access to education to an even greater degree than current state law.

SB 1611 — sponsored by state Senate President Russell Pearce (R) — bans undocumented students from enrolling in Kindergarten through 12th grade and attending community college. It also requires schools to notify law enforcement agencies if parents are unable to submit proof that their child is a citizen or legal resident. The other bill, SB 1407, requires schools to submit data on the number of enrolled undocumented and authorized immigrants alike, under threat of funding loss.

Given the state legislature’s persistently anti-immigrant stance on public education, these new laws are plainly part of a larger strategy. The state was the first to pass a law prohibiting students from receiving public funding for education, including merit-based scholarships, and last year welcomed two new laws banning ethnic studies and equal opportunity programs. The measures being considered now would work in tandem with those other laws to categorically deprive undocumented students of an education, while subjecting even authorized immigrants to greater scrutiny than before.

Challenging Plyler v. Doe

New America Media’s Valeria Fernandez reports that the proposed measures are an attempt on the part of lawmakers to spur a challenge to the Supreme Court’s 1982 decision in Plyler v. Doe. The landmark ruling determined that children, regardless of citizenship, have a constitutionally guaranteed right to public education.

Anti-immigrant politicos have long taken issue with the decision, arguing that the public education of undocumented immigrants is an undue economic burden to the state. But many educators take the opposing view. As one Phoenix high school principal told New America Media, such hostile measures have already cost him 100 students, which means fewer financial resources for the school as funding is determined by the number of students enrolled. Other critics contend that failing to educate these students “would create an underclass and harm the state’s long-term interests.”

Public education undermined by older, white electorate

But, as Harold Meyerson notes at The American Prospect, the unfortunate fate of Arizona’s immigrant population is compounded by the fact that, while only 42 percent of Arizonans under 18 are white, 83 percent of Arizonans over 65 are white. As he states, the educational opportunities of a rapidly growing population of racially diverse youth are being determined — or undermined — by a class of much older, white Americans.

As racial demographics across the United States are shifting in much the same way as in Arizona, the political power dynamic could change accordingly. But until then, state lawmakers in Arizona are taking drastic measures to ensure that the state’s growing majority of Latinos — and especially immigrants — are deprived of the educational opportunities that would enable them eventually to shift the political status quo.

Labor groups jump into the fray

Perhaps that’s why organizations representing sectors besides education are now getting behind educational equality measures. As Seth Sandronsky reports for Working In These Times, prominent labor organizations including the AFL-CIO and the southern Arizona-based Pima Area Labor Federation (PALF) have recently announced their opposition to Arizona’s ethnic studies ban, and their support of the Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican American Studies program, which is allegedly in violation of the ban.

In an interview with Sandronsky, Rebekah Friend, the secretary-treasurer for the Arizona AFL-CIO, illuminates the links between educational equality, labor rights and civil society:

HB 2281 (the ethnic studies ban) in Arizona is part of a bigger, repressive attempt nationwide to control parts of the population, from women’s health care to workers’ and immigrants’ rights. … It’s a mindset to cleanse out ethnic studies, unions, and all social spending generally that we in unions and others have fought for, like the eight-hour working day, child labor laws and social security, and won.

California and Connecticut to pass their own DREAM ACT?

Meanwhile, as Arizona youth and their allies continue the fight for education, two other states are pushing the envelope on educational equality for undocumented students. Connecticut and California have both considered passing their own versions of the DREAM ACT. While the original DREAM ACT, which died in the Senate last November, would have created a path to legalization for certain undocumented youth who committed to attending college, these new bills are less sweeping, if similarly progressive, in scope.

Melinda Tuhus of the Public News Service reports that Connecticut’s DREAM ACT “would allow undocumented high school graduates to pay in-state tuition at Connecticut’s public colleges, if they graduate after four years of high school.” And in California, the legislature’s Higher Education committee has already moved forward with its own mini DREAM ACT, which “would allow undocumented immigrants who graduate from a California high school to qualify for college scholarships and financial aid,” according to New America Media/La Opinion.

The measure builds on a California Supreme Court ruling last November, which upheld the state’s decision to allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at public colleges.  Both states’ measures run counter to the growing national trend of denying in-state benefits and public funding to undocumented students — a retrogressive movement that began with the passage of Arizona’s pernicious 2005 law, Prop 300.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about immigration by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Diaspora for a complete list of articles on immigration issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, and health care issues, check out The Audit, The Mulch, and The Pulse. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

 

Weekly Pulse: Japan’s Nuclear Crisis Deepens

By Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium blogger

A second reactor unit at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan may have ruptured, authorities announced on Wednesday. This is on top of their earlier revelation that the containment vessel of a separate reactor unit had cracked.

As of Tuesday, four nuclear reactors in Japan seem to be in partial meltdown in the wake of an earthquake and tsunami, according to Christian Parenti of the Nation:

One of them, reactor No. 2, seems to have ruptured. The situation is spinning out of control as radiation levels spike. The US Navy has pulled back its aircraft carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan, after seventeen of its crew were exposed to radiation while flying sixty miles off the Japanese coast.

But despite three major explosions—at reactor No. 1, then No. 3, then No. 2—the Fukushima containment vessels seem to be holding. (Chernobyl lacked that precaution, having only a flimsy cement containment shell that collapsed, allowing the massive release of radioactive material.)

So, the good news is that only one out of four of the reactors is teetering on the brink of a full meltdown, and engineers might still be able to stave off disaster. The bad news, Parenti explains, is that spent fuel rods on the reactor sites could pose grave health hazards even if the threat of meltdown is averted. Even so-called “spent” rods remain highly radioactive.

The big question is whether the facilities that house this waste survived the earthquake, the tsunami, and any subsequent massive explosions at the nearby reactor. Given the magnitude of the destruction, and the relatively flimsy facilities used to house the spent rods, it seems unlikely that all the containment pools emerged unscathed. Parenti explains:

Unlike the reactors, spent fuel pools are not—repeat not—housed in any sort of hardened or sealed containment structures. Rather, the fuel rods are packed tightly together in pools of water that are often several stories above ground.

A pond at the Fukushima Daiichi plant is overheating, but radiation levels were so high that the Japanese military has postponed a helicopter mission to douse the pond with water.

Journalist and environmental activist Harvey Wasserman tells the Real News Network that the housing the spent rods (a.k.a. nuclear waste) is a chronic problem for the global nuclear industry.

Wasserman told GRITtv that the west coast of the United States has reactors that could suffer a similar fate in the event of a sufficiently large earthquake.

“If I were in Japan, I would at least get the children away from the reactor, because their bodies are growing faster and their cells are more susceptible to radiation damage. I would go out to 50 kilometers and at least get the children away from those reactors,” nuclear engineer Arnie Gundersen told DemocracyNow! on Tuesday. At the time he said this, 70,000 residents had already been forced to evacuate their homes, and another 140,000 were ordered to stay indoors.

Mainstreaming anti-contraception

Kirsten Powers, Fox News’ resident self-proclaimed liberal, took to the pages of the Daily Beast recently to make the bizarre case that Planned Parenthood should be de-funded because the 100-year-old organization doesn’t really prevent the half-million abortions that it claims to prevent by supplying millions of clients with reliable birth control. (Powers was forced to concede that a gross statistical error rendered her entire piece invalid.) At RH Reality Check, Amanda Marcotte describes how Powers attempted to repackage fringe anti-contraception arguments for a mainstream audience. At TAPPED, I explain why Planned Parenthood’s abortion-prevention claim is rock solid.

Diet quackery

Unscrupulous doctors are cashing in on the latest diet fad: hormone injections derived from the urine of pregnant women, Kristina Chew notes for Care2.com. Patients pay $1,000 for consultations, a supply human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG), and a 500-calorie-a-day diet plan. There is no evidence that hCG increases weight loss more than a starvation diet alone. But paying $1,000 to inject yourself in the butt every day does evidently work up a hell of a placebo effect.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about health care by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Pulse for a complete list of articles on health care reform, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Mulch, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

 

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