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Updated: 2 days 20 hours ago

The Real Numbers: Half of America in Poverty -- and It's Creeping toward 75%

May 26, 2013 - 9:32pm
The Census Bureau has reported that one out of six Americans lives in poverty. A shocking figure. But it's actually much, much worse.

The Census Bureau has reported that one out of six Americans lives in poverty. A shocking figure. But it's actually much worse. Inequality is spreading like a shadowy disease through our country, infecting more and more households, and leaving a shrinking number of financially secure families to maintain the charade of prosperity.

1. Almost half of Americans had NO assets in 2009

Analysis of Economic Policy Institute data shows that Mitt Romney's famous 47 percent, the alleged 'takers,' have taken nothing. Their debt exceeded their assets in 2009.

2. It's Even Worse 3 Years Later

Since the recession, the disparities have continued to grow. An OECD report states that "inequality has increased by more over the past three years to the end of 2010 than in the previous twelve," with the U.S. experiencing one of the widest gaps among OECD countries. The 30-year decline in wages has worsened since the recession, as low-wage jobs have replaced formerly secure middle-income positions.

3. Based on wage figures, over half of Americans are now IN poverty.

According to IRS data, the average household in the bottom 50% brings in about $18,000 per year. That's less than the poverty line for a family of three ($19,000) or a family of four ($23,000).

Census income figures are about 25% higher, because they include unemployment compensation, workers' compensation, Social Security, Supplemental Security Income, public assistance, veterans' payments, and various other monetary sources. Based on this supplemental income, the average household in the bottom 50% brings in about $25,000, which is just above the $23,000 poverty line for a family of four.

4. Based on wage figures, 75% of Americans are NEAR poverty.

According to IRS data, the average household in the bottom 75% earns about $31,000 per year. To be eligible for food assistance, a family can earn up to 130% of the federal poverty line, or about $30,000 for a family of four.

Again, Census income figures are about 25% higher because of SNAP reporting requirements, bringing average household income for the bottom 75% to about $39,000.

Incredibly, Congress is trying to cut food assistance. Republican Congressman Stephen Fincher of Tennesseereferred to food stamps as "stealing." He added a Biblical quote: "The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat." A recent jobs hearing in Washington was attended by one Congressman.

5. Putting it in Perspective

Inequality is at its ugliest for the hungriest people. While food support was being targeted for cuts, just 20 rich Americans made as much from their 2012 investments as the entire 2012 SNAP (food assistance) budget, which serves 47 million people.

And as Congress continues to cut life-sustaining programs, its members should note that their 400 friends on theForbes list made more from their stock market gains last year than the total amount of the foodhousing, andeducation budgets combined.

Mr. Fincher should think about the tax breaks that allow this to happen, and then tell us who's stealing from whom.

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18 Year-Old Facing Felony Charges for Same-Sex Relationship with 14 Year-Old Refuses Plea Deal, Heads to Court

May 25, 2013 - 8:42pm
Critics charge anti-gay bias is fueling the charges.

Kaitlyn Hunt, the 18-year-old high school senior facing felony charges over a same-sex relationship with a 14-year-old freshman classmate, has refused a plea deal that would have labeled her a sex offender and placed her under house arrest for two years. Hunt’s parents, citing that the relationship was consensual, had requested Florida prosecutors reduce the charges to a misdemeanor, but their request was denied by the state.

Hunt’s lawyer Julia Graves explained the decision to go to court in a statement: “This is a situation of two teenagers who happen to be of the same sex involved in a relationship. If this case involved a boy and girl, there would be no media attention to this case … If this incident occurred 108 days earlier when she was 17, we wouldn’t even be here.”

The case has generated considerable public attention, with many advocates arguing that anti-gay bias is fueling the charges. On Friday, Slate’s Emily Bazelon acknowledged why the parents of a 14-year-old would be wary of an 18-year-old partner while also recognizing the apparent role of homophobia in the case. She went on to note how Hunt’s ordeal raises additional legal and ethical questions about defining consent between high school students and the selective enforcement of statutory rape statutes more broadly:

Compare Hunt to Genarlow Wilson, convicted at 17 of child molestation for having oral sex with a 15-year-old girl at a New Year’s party. Or consider the case of Marcus Dwayne Dixon, prosecuted when he was an 18-year-old high school football star for raping a 15-year-old girl who said he’d forced her to lose her virginity. The jury found Dixon not guilty of rape, but convicted him of statutory rape: The girl was underage, and she and Dixon had sex. Both Wilson and Dixon got mandatory 10-year sentences, and each served two years before the Georgia Supreme Court struck down the punishment as “grossly disproportionate” to the crime.

Does it matter that Wilson and Dixon are black? That the girl in Dixon’s case was white? That after their convictions, the Georgia legislature made consensual sex between teenagers a misdemeanor? My point is that it’s so hard to know which older teenagers are predatory and which are in love, or at least fond of each other, with younger teenagers who love or like them back. Kaitlyn Hunt’s parents are understandably complaining about selective prosecution. They are absolutely right that most of the time no one calls the cops when a high school senior has sex with a freshman. But if the uneven enforcement of statutory rape laws is a problem, then it’s also a problem for the rare boy who gets caught in a prosecutor’s web.


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Big Backlash in Bangladesh: Workers Escalate Demands for Better Working Conditions

May 25, 2013 - 7:17pm
The future of Bangladesh lies in the power of international cooperation and the implementation of concrete political measures to end unfair labor practices.

Violence has erupted in Bangladesh, following the world’s worst garment industry disaster last month, as thousands of workers gathered in the country’s capital on Monday demanding better pay conditions. Police charged batons and fired rubber bullets and tear gas as angry protesters demonstrated outside the capital’s main factory district, blocking the main highway in the Ashulia industrial area, home to the world’s largest manufacturing factories such as Walmart.

Up to 20,000 people took part in the protests, with more than 50 people injured by police intervention. Ashulia chief police Badrul Alam defended the action, arguing that workers had attacked police, throwing stones and striking police vehicles.

"They were demanding higher wages. We fired rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse them after they became violent and occupied a road," he told the AFP.

The demonstration is part of a rising string of protests over the past month. Since the April tragedy, a million people have signed petitions calling on global corporations like Gap and Walmart to end unsafe labor practices in Bangladesh, with hundreds protesting at stores across the country.

Members from United Students Against Sweatshops and Jobs with Justice were arrested at demonstrations at the Gap shareholder meeting in San Francisco where they were calling upon the company to sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh aimed at improving worker safety conditions.

The Gap and Walmart, two of the major producers in Bangladesh, have resisted signing any agreement that is legally enforceable to date. Instead, Walmart said last week that it will conduct its own investigations into its supplier factories. This is a questionable move that raises much concern particularly in light of yesterday’s Reuters report that a Bangladesh factory where Walmart inspectors spotted cracks in the wall this month, is still making Wrangler shirts for the world’s largest apparel maker, US-based VF Corp.

The incident highlights an increasing need for policy makers to step in and harden their stance on international manufacturing practices.  Moreover, there is a lack of government accountability and impetus to act to respond to tragedies despite their continual occurrence.

According to Elizabeth Cline, author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Fashion, increasing wages and conditions for workers would not only improve labor conditions in developing countries like Bangladesh, but also allow the United States an opportunity to once again compete in the garment industry.

Over the last 20 years, the amount of clothing imports into the US has risen exponentially with the US now only making about two per cent of its clothing domestically, Cline states. Not only does this feed the exploitation of cheap labor in countries like Bangladesh, but it also impacts upon the US job market.

Without the political will to promote fair-priced labor conditions in the US and implement laws aimed at protecting workers from unfair buying practices, workers at both ends of the spectrum continue to suffer.

While media coverage of the April disaster undoubtedly placed Bangladesh and its contentious labor practices under scrutiny, the tragedy was not the first of its kind; over 1,800 workers have been killed in factory fires and building collapses in Bangladesh since 2005. Despite such figures, it is now considered the second largest clothing manufacturer in the world with 80% of its annual exports deriving from a $20 billion industry.

Furthermore, with a population of approximately 150 million people living in a radius the size of Iowa state, the country is one of the most densely populated on the globe. While this has contributed to many of its social and economic problems, Bangladesh continues to remain economically resilient.

Historically, the Bengal delta operated as a thriving, commercial trading route in the early 20th century, connecting India, China and Southeast Asia and expanding trade between the Middle East, East Africa and Europe. However, following Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan after the Liberation War in 1971, the country lost access to its much-needed capital and suffered from extreme economic loss and poverty.  

In an effort to rebuild, it began focusing on the ready-made garment sector by adopting export-orientated industrialization methods, denationalizing the public sector and shifting its socialist policies toward private sector participation and foreign investments.

In 1974, the Multi-Fiber Arrangement in the North American market began regulating the international garment trade industry, imposing quotas on exports from developing countries within Asia. Subsequently, foreign entrepreneurs went in search for countries that could become “quota-free” manufacturing locations.

Bangladesh, as a developing nation, benefited substantially from the Arrangement in that no restrictions on imports were imposed on those countries considered the poorest. This led to the emergence of the “export-oriented garment industry” in Bangladesh, which turned the country into one of the world’s leading export sectors.

Over the next 25 years, the garment industry in Bangladesh contributed to a major reduction in poverty and boosted employment by five percent a year from 1995-2005. Unfortunately, this economic success could not be reconciled with the increasingly poor labor conditions and low wages, which followed.  

In response to the media exposure of a number of worldwide sweatshop scandals within the garment industry involving companies such as Walmart and Nike, US President Bill Clinton established the Apparel Industry Partnership (AIP) in the mid ‘90s, joining forces with retailers and labor unions, with a view to eliminating sweatshops and improving labor conditions for workers worldwide.

The AIP also established the 1999 Fair Labor Association, which aimed to promote corporate culpability and facilitate inspections of unfair labor practices both domestically and internationally. However, as the garment supply chains moved further away from the United States to places such China and Asia, it became increasingly more difficult to monitor internal labor practices and conditions in factories abroad.

As a result, the 2000s were fraught with continuous workers rights violations, government intimidation and violence in Bangladesh. After a series of demonstrations and intense pressure from workers to improve work safeguards, the Bangladeshi government finally introduced laws allowing for the establishment of a workers association in 2006. However, such progression took a back seat when the government imposed a state of emergency in 2007 and banned union activities for the entire year.

In response, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) filed a petition in 2007 with US Trade Representative resulting in the removal of the state of emergency status in Bangladesh 2008. However, in 2009, workers rights violations continued prompting further review by the AFL-CIO.

Today, there are approximately 5000 garment factories in Bangladesh with 3.6 million garment workers, paid around $38 per month. While there has been an increase in worker elections supporting the formation of unions, dialogue between associations and employers remains sluggish.

Moreover, 80% of garment workers in the industry are women and are subject not only to inhumane work conditions, such as long work hours, unbearable working temperatures, lack of bathroom facilities and sexual harassment, but their voices are disregarded on the mere basis of their sex.

According to Human Rights Watch, the human rights situation in Bangladesh deteriorated significantly in 2012 with labor groups in the country such as the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity continuing to face criminal charges -- some as serious as the death penalty -- as well as numerous restrictions on funding for their activism.

Last week, the Bangladesh Cabinet agreed to allow the country’s garment workers to form unions without having to obtain consent from factory owners. In addition, a board has been set up to review the minimum wage for garment workers within three months.  

Whether or not the government will follow through on these promises remains uncertain, but in the interim global companies can at least react by complying with international recognized standards and fair-labor agreements such as signing the Accord.

Of cours, even a legally binding agreement signed by Western conglomerates has the potential to be ineffective in the face of homegrown corruption, particularly by local governments in Bangladesh which have continuously averted from rules and regulations.  

The question of the validity of any agreement also remains fallible, with enforcement still proving to be the greatest hurdle and anti-union companies like Walmart and the Gap still refusing to get on board.

Without the backbone of the major stakeholders, the immediate plight of the Bangladeshis will not change. With that in mind, the April 24 tragedy provides an opportunity for political reform. The future of Bangladesh lies in the power of international cooperation and the implementation of concrete political measures to end unfair labor practices and help the country emerge into the developed world.

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Judge Tells Lesbian Couple to Separate — or Lose Kids

May 25, 2013 - 6:42pm
How unmarried sexual relationships -- including straight ones – can be grounds for losing child custody.

A few weeks ago, Dallas Judge John Roach told Page Price she had to move out of her partner’s house in 30 days — or else that partner of three years, Carolyn Compton, would lose custody of her children. The judge’s reasoning? They aren’t married.

Compton’s ex-husband, Joshua, who had once been charged with stalking her (he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge) had asked for enforcement of a “morality clause” in the couple’s original divorce decree, which bars overnight guests who aren’t related by blood or marriage while the children are there. Of course, as a lesbian couple in Texas, they can’t be married. Never mind the fact that their children “are all happy and well adjusted,” according to Price.

Faced with the choice between Compton’s children and sharing a home, the couple has said they will reluctantly follow the order, though they believe it to be unconstitutional.

They aren’t alone in their predicament. So-called morality or paramour clauses aren’t explicitly limited to LGBT people, though courts once considered the mere fact of homosexuality reason enough to separate parents from children. For years, and as recently as the past few months, multiple courts, usually in red states, have ruled that unmarried sexual relationships, regardless of the genders involved, are grounds for denying custody, regardless of whether there’s evidence of harm to children.

Of course, straight couples in that situation can legally marry — that’s what a Plano, Texas, man described by the Dallas Morning News did after a family court refused to sanction his unmarried relationship under his divorce’s morality clause. And as gay rights activists have long pointed out, since gays and lesbians still can’t get married in most states — including and especially, for the foreseeable future, Texas — this amounts to particular discrimination against them. Meanwhile, the places with the highest percentages of same-sex couples with kids also happen to be the ones with the laws most hostile to them — from Mississippi to Salt Lake City, according to a recent analysis by the Williams Institute — often because those parents had prior heterosexual relationships.

LGBT parents have been fighting discrimination in custody proceedings at least since the 1970s, when the court’s reasoning often assumed that gay people were molesters. (One judge worried that a man’s pubescent sons would be victims of their own father’s “overt or covert homosexual seduction.”) The most famous case was the Bottoms case in 1991, in which a Virginia grandmother who was “sickened” by her daughter’s lesbian relationship was granted custody of a 2-year-old boy, despite the fact that the daughter, Sharon Bottoms, testified that her mother’s live-in (male) companion had molested her hundreds of times as a child. Nevertheless, Sharon Bottoms was ruled to be an unfit mother after the judge “forced Sharon to explain on the witness stand what lesbians do in bed,” according to the Advocate. “Sodomy” was illegal in Virginia at the time.

Nor are such cases relics of the past, though the language used might now be different. In 2012, a Kentucky judge awarded custody to the ex-husband of a lesbian mom, because she was “seeking to live an unconventional life-style that has not been fully embraced by society at large regardless of whether or not same-sex relationships should or should not be considered sexual misconduct.  Like it or not, this decision will impact her children in ways that she may not have fully considered and most will be unfavorable.” Happily, a higher court shot that down: “Legally, we conclude that being a member of a same-sex partnership alone does not meet the criterion for sexual misconduct.”

And of course, in some states, marriage equality allows couples who choose to marry to be considered acceptable parents. But using marriage as the dividing line has its pitfalls. They first engendered opposition in the 1970s, according to Nancy Polikoff, a professor of law at American University Washington College of Law: “If you had a mother who had a sexual relationship with a man she wasn’t married to, she was considered unfit and she lost her kids,” Polikoff says. “It began changing in most cases to require some proof of harm to the child,” also called a nexus test.

But in more conservative states, that’s not a relic of the past. Last year, in Alabama, a higher court actually held that it was OK to deny custody to a woman who wasn’t yet married to a man she called her fiancé, as well as take into account whether she was sufficiently religious.

During the trial, the lawyer for the woman’s ex-husband asked her on the stand if she thought she was “sending the wrong signal to your children with [her fiancé] living in the household and being in bed with you at night.” She was also asked whether she took the child to church. According to the decision, “The mother stated that she considered herself a Christian but that she had not taken the child to church for ‘about a year’ because she had not found a church in which she was comfortable.”

Both those facts were considered fair game to judge the woman’s fitness as a parent. In December 2012, the Alabama Court of Appeals held that a court “may, in an initial custody determination, consider a parent’s sexual conduct as it relates to that parent’s character, without showing that the conduct has been detrimental to the child.”

All this is one reason why Polikoff, a longtime critic of marriage, says the takeaway from the Dallas case shouldn’t be that gay people should be able to marry — it should be that marriage shouldn’t matter at all. Instead, courts should solely examine whether a parent’s relationship harms a child. That’s already the case in states that adopted the nexus test, looking at how parental behavior impacts kids’ well-being.

“The idea among same-sex couples that those who marry are suitable to raise children and those who aren’t married are not — it’s taking what was a view of sexuality and relationships from generations ago for heterosexuals and grafting it onto a world of people who have not constructed families in that way,” says Polikoff. “All the decades that many of us have been fighting against the restrictions for gay and lesbian parents, the issue hasn’t been that they can’t get married. The issue has been that parents should be able to raise their children as they want as long as there isn’t something harmful to the children.” She added, “If someone is bad for the children, it’s not going to cure it if they’re married.”

There is some record of success in challenging such clauses. Angel Chandler had been with her partner for 10 years when a Tennessee trial court imposed a paramour clause forbidding her partner to stay when the kids were there. With the help of the ACLU, which pointed out that a psychologist found the partner to be a “positive influence in the children’s lives,” Chandler won the right to not have to choose between custody of her kids and living with her partner. (She had to ask twice, though, and won twice.)

Occasionally, such family court restrictions can have unintended consequences. “In my child custody papers it states that no one of the opposite sex is allowed to be in the home after a certain hour,” one woman wrote in the comments of a Dallas Voice piece on the Compton case. “I laughed when I read that being I have no interest in the opposite sex.”


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How's Obamacare Turning Out? Great If You Live in a Blue State, and 'Screw You' If You Have a Republican Governor

May 25, 2013 - 3:18pm
Coverage for uninsured is cheaper than expected for millions, but red-state residents in poverty are facing pain.

Obamacare implementation is becoming the latest dividing line between blue- and red-state America, with Democrat-led states making progress to expand healthcare to the uninsured and the poor—and Republican-led states saying "screw you" to millions of their most vulnerable and needy residents.

The latest sign of the Republican Party’s increasingly secessionist tendencies comes as Obamacare passed a major milestone in California, which late last week announced lower-than-expected healthcare premiums for its 5.3 million uninsured, less than many small businesses now pay in group plans.

“Covered California’s Silver Plan… offers premiums that can be 29 percent lower than comparable plans provided on today’s small group market,” the state’s new insurance exchange announced Thursday, referring to the least-expensive option of four state-administered plans and posting this price comparison chart.

In contrast, the refusal by red-state America to create these health exchanges, which would be more local control—a supposed Republican value—and to accept federal funds to expand state-run Medicaid programs for the poor, means that about half the states are turning their backs on their residents, especially millions of the poorest people.

The federal government plans to step in later this summer and offer uninsured people in recalcitrant red states the option of buying plans via federally run heath care exchanges. But the poorest people can’t afford that, meaning the refusal to expand Medicaid programs will leave them in the cold. They will see ads selling new federal healthcare options that will be unaffordable for them.

TheNew York Times reports that local healthcare advocates in red states are predicting a backlash once Obamacare is rolled out and the poor realize that they cannot take advantage of it because Republicans are blocking it. However, that does not change the bottom line in state-run Medicaid programs: the GOP is again penalizing the poor.

Progress in Blue States

Meanwhile, in blue states, there have been surprising developments in the cost of Obamacare for those people who currently are uninsured. There, the bottom line is insurance premiums are hundreds of dollars a month lower than what employers are now paying for their workers under existing group plans.

California, with 5.3 million uninsured adults, is the biggest state to release cost estimates for Obamacare. Its lower-than-expected estimates are in line with announcements in Washington, Oregon, Maryland and Vermont. The actual prices will be known after insurers file rate documents in coming weeks.

These estimates are a bright spot in what’s otherwise been a season of dire and all-too-partisan predictions about Obamacare implementation. Even without the political smears, there still are plenty of unknowns about the law, including in the blue states where it is on track. The biggest concern is how will it affect current healthcare costs across the economic spectrum, as the law is designed to cost less for people and small businesses via tax credits to offset its expense. This chart shows how it is expected to affect various age and income groups.

Unlike the red-state retreat from taking responsibility for its residents, California has taken an aggressive approach to building benefit plans. Its new insurance exchange told insurers what coverage their plans had to include, prompting some of the largest national health insurance companies to skip the Obamacare rollout. However, enough firms are participating to offer real options.

As important, California is one of 15 states where its insurance regulators cannot reject premium increases. That means the companies can jack up prices with impunity, even if the public protests. “As important as this progress [on cost estimates] is, there’s still more work to be done,” said Dave Jones, California Insurance Commissioner. “I remain very concerned that there is no legal authority to reject unreasonable and excessive rate hikes.”

Red State Realities

The exchanges are one of two major pathways to expanding coverage. The other is via state-run Medicaid programs, which is health care for the poorest. TheNew York Times reports that Republican governors have not set up exchanges—and federal officials have yet to fill that void, even though the law says that they will. Those states also rejected expanding Medicaid to “millions of poor people,” even as the law offers nearly full federal subsidies for the first half-dozen years.   

“That benefit is not just to individuals but to local economies,” said Alwyn Cassil, spokeswoman for the Washington-based Center For Studying Health System Change. “The hospitals are very angry with those folks.”

Beyond Republican Party propaganda spreading outright lies about Obamacare, there are other real implementation issues. They concern the progress of states setting up the exchanges and then how the feds will step in when states fail to act. California’s exchange told the insurers what benefits to include in its plans, but the feds might not go that far and just bundle pre-existing health plans for individuals. That may result in fewer benefits offered.

How small businesses will react is another variable. Small businesses under 50 employees are eligible for tax credits. Business with more than 50 employees that don’t offer workers healthcare can face big fines. How that will alter hiring decisions is an open question, promoting much fear-based coverage in the business press.

There are also questions about which employee groups may not be helped, notably trade unions whose members work for different employers and currently have health coverage under older federal programs. Those unions are hoping upcoming federal regulations will address their concerns.  

Getting accurate answers to these questions is difficult, Cassil said, because the most vociferous critics and boosters are invested in the law’s success or failure. “It’s very difficult to find people who don’t have a dog in this fight,” she said. 

Take outgoing Montana Democratic Sen. Max Baucus, who, along with Ted Kennedy oversaw its drafting in the Senate. Baucus has been quoted as saying Obamacare implementation is a “trainwreck.” However, he was responsible for many of the legal ambiguities that have created today’s implementation challenges. The law’s drafting did not follow the usual practice of going through a House-Senate conference committee to find and fix technical problems. In effect, it was published without being edited.

It’s important to assess Obamcare by stepping back from today’s politics. Broadly speaking, the law has three waves of reform and we are now approaching the start of the second wave. The first wave allowed adult children to stay on their parents’ policies until they were 26 and got rid of annual coverage caps. Those were popular policies, touted by Obama and helping his re-election in 2012.

The second wave is creating state insurance-buying exchanges that will offer policies to uninsured individuals and small businesses. Another piece is offering poor people care by expanding coverage under state-run Medicaid. The third wave is making changes in how Medicare, the federal program for the elderly, pays doctors. There are pilot programs to encourage teams of doctors, not specialist after specialist, to treat patients and be paid for the results—not cutting checks for every test.

Rightwing critics as recently as Thursday were issuing reports slamming Obama for missing key deadlines with writing the federal regulations that states have to follow—including how the feds will step in where states have not created their own insurance exchanges. Some of those delays have come because the GOP-controlled House has delayed funding, and because reactionary GOP governors like Texas’ Rick Perry, also have not cooperated.

If you examine the report’s fine print, such as this one on federal regulations, you find that the criticisms are aimed at public health initiatives long opposed by corporate America, such as better nutrition labeling. There also are reports by legitimate non-partisan groups that offer other glimpses of how Obamacare is likely to shape healthcare services beyond the cost issues.

Most intriguing—and possibly controversial—is this one from the Center for Studying Health System Change that suggests that Americans increasingly will be seeing more of nurse practitioners and less of doctors, at least at the start of a physician’s visit. That’s because the addition of millions of new patients will put more pressure on doctors’ flexibility to spend time with patients. There is not an increase in the number of available doctors, whereas the ranks of patients will swell.

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6 Key Facts That Have Been Lost in the IRS Scandal

May 25, 2013 - 2:17pm
Dark money groups continue to warp politics and get tax exemptions without having to name their donors.

This originally appeared on  ProPublica.

In the furious fallout from the revelation that the IRS flagged applications from conservative nonprofits for extra review because of their political activity, some points about the big picture -- and big donors -- have fallen through the cracks.  

Consider this our Top 6 list of need-to-know facts on social welfare nonprofits, also known as dark money groups because they don’t have to disclose their donors. The groups poured more than $256 million into the 2012 federal elections.

1. Social welfare nonprofits are supposed to have social welfare, and not politics, as their “primary” purpose.

A century ago, Congress created a tax exemption for social welfare nonprofits. The statute defining the groups says they are supposed to be “operated exclusively for the promotion of social welfare.” But in 1959, the regulators interpreted the “exclusively” part of the statute to mean groups had to be “primarily” engaged in enhancing social welfare. This later opened the door to political spending.

So what does “primarily” mean?  It’s not clear. The IRS has said it uses a “facts and circumstances” test to say whether a group mostly works to benefit the community or not. In short: If a group walks and talks like a social welfare nonprofit, then it’s a social welfare nonprofit.

This deliberate vagueness has led some groups to say that “primarily” simply means they must spend 51 percent of their money on a social welfare idea -- say, on something as vague as “education,” which could also include issue ads criticizing certain politicians. And then, the reasoning goes, a group can spend as much as 49 percent of its expenditures on ads directly advocating the election or defeat of a candidate for office.

Nowhere in tax regulations or rulings does it mention 49 percent, though. Some nonprofit lawyers have argued that the IRS should set hard limits for social welfare nonprofits -- setting out, for instance, that they cannot spend more than 20 percent of their money on election ads or even limiting spending to a fixed amount, like no more than $250,000.

So far, the IRS has avoided clarifying any limits.

2. Donors to social welfare nonprofits are anonymous for a reason.

Unlike donors who give directly to politicians or even to super PACs, donors who give to social welfare nonprofits can stay secret. In large part, this is because of an attempt by Alabama to force the NAACP, then a social welfare nonprofit, to disclose its donors in the 1950s. In 1958, the Supreme Court sided with the NAACP, saying that public identification of its members made them at risk of reprisal and threats.

The ACLU, which is itself a social welfare nonprofit, has long made similar arguments. So has Karl Rove, the GOP strategist and brains behind Crossroads GPS, which has spent more money on elections than any other social welfare nonprofit. In early April 2012, Rove invoked the NAACP in defending his organization against attempts to reveal donors.

The Federal Election Commission could in theory push for some disclosure from social welfare nonprofits -- for their election ads, at least. But the FEC has been paralyzed by a 3-3 partisan split, and its interpretations of older court decisions have given nonprofits wiggle room to avoid saying who donated money, as long as a donation wasn’t specifically made for a political ad.

New rulings indicate that higher courts, including the Supreme Court, favor disclosure for political ads, and states are also stepping into the fray. During the 2012 elections, courts in two states -- Montana and Idaho -- ruled that two nonprofits engaged in state campaigns needed to disclose donors.  

But sometimes, when nonprofits funnel donations, the answers raise more questions. It’s the Russian nesting doll phenomenon. Last election, for instance, California’s election agency pushed for an Arizona social welfare nonprofit to disclose donors for $11 million spent on two California ballot initiatives. The answer? Another social welfare nonprofit, which in turn got the money from a trade association, which also doesn’t have to reveal its donors.

3. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision meant that corporations could pay for political ads, anonymously, using social welfare nonprofits.

In January 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations and unions could spend money directly on election ads. A later court decision made possible super PACs, the political committees that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money from donors, as long as they don’t coordinate with candidates and as long as they report their donors and spending.

Initially, campaign finance watchdogs believed corporations would give directly to super PACs. And in some cases, that happened. But not as much as anyone thought, and maybe for a reason: Disclosure isn’t necessarily good for business. Target famously faced a consumer and shareholder backlash after it gave money in 2010 to a group backing a Minnesota candidate who opposed gay rights.

Many watchdogs now believe that large public corporations are giving money to support candidates through social welfare nonprofits and trade associations, partly to avoid disclosure. Although the tax-exempt groups were allowed to spend money on election ads before Citizens United, their spending skyrocketed in 2010 and again in 2012.

A New York Times article based on rare cases in which donors have been disclosed, sometimes accidentally, explored the issue of corporations giving to these groups last year. Insurance giant Aetna, for example, accidentally revealed it gave $3 million in 2011 to the American Action Network, a social welfare group founded by former Sen. Norm Coleman, a Republican, that runs election ads.

Groups that favor more disclosure have so far failed to force action by the FEC, the IRS, or Congress, although some corporations have voluntarily reported their political spending. Advocates have now turned to the Securities and Exchange Commission, which is studying a proposal to require public companies to disclose political contributions.

The idea is already facing strong opposition from House Republicans.

4. Social welfare nonprofits do not actually have to apply to the IRS for recognition as tax-exempt organizations.

With all the furor over applications being flagged from conservative groups -- particularly groups with “Tea Party,” “Patriot” or “9/12” in their names -- it’s worth remembering that a social welfare nonprofit doesn’t even have to apply to the IRS in the first place.

Unlike charities, which are supposed to apply for recognition, social welfare nonprofits can simply incorporate and start raising and spending money, without ever applying to the IRS.

The agency’s nonprofit wing is mainly concerned about ferreting out bad charities, which are the biggest chunk of nonprofits and the biggest source of potential revenue. After all, the IRS’s main job is to collect revenue. Charities allow donors to deduct donations, while social welfare nonprofits don’t.

Most major social welfare nonprofits do apply, because being recognized is seen as insurance against later determination by the IRS that the group should have registered as a political committee and may face back taxes and disclosure of donors. A recognition letter is also essential to raise money from certain donors -- like, say, corporations.

But some of the new groups haven’t applied.

The first time the IRS hears about these social welfare nonprofits is often when they file their first annual tax return, not due until sometimes more than a year after they’ve formed.

In many cases, the first time the IRS hears about these groups is a full year after an election.   

5. Most of the money spent on elections by social welfare nonprofits supports Republicans.

Of the more than $256 million spent by social welfare nonprofits on ads in the 2012 elections, at least 80 percent came from conservative groups, according to FEC figures tallied by the Center for Responsive Politics.

None came from the Tea Party groups with applications flagged by the IRS. Instead, a few big conservative groups were largely responsible.

Crossroads GPS, which this week said it believes it is among the conservative groups "targeted" by the IRS, spent more than $70 million in federal races in 2012. Americans for Prosperity, the social welfare nonprofit launched by the conservative billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, spent more than $36 million. American Future Fund spent more than $25 million. Americans for Tax Reform spent almost $16 million. American Action Network spent almost $12 million.

Besides Crossroads GPS, each of those groups has applied to the IRS and been recognized as tax-exempt. (You can look at their applications here.)

All of those groups spent more than the largest liberal social welfare nonprofit, the League of Conservation Voters, which spent about $11 million on 2012 federal races. The next biggest group, Patriot Majority USA, spent more than $7 million. Planned Parenthood spent $6.5 million. spent more than $3 million.

None of those figures include the tens of millions of dollars spent by groups on certain ads that run months before an election that are not reported to the FEC.

6. Some social welfare groups promised in their applications, under penalty of perjury, that they wouldn’t get involved in elections. Then they did just that.

Much of the attention when it comes to Tea Party nonprofits has focused on their applications and how the IRS determines whether a group qualifies for social welfare status.

As part of our reporting on dark money in 2012, ProPublica looked at more than 100 applications for IRS recognition. One thing we noted again and again: Groups sometimes tell the IRS that they are not going to spend money on elections, receive IRS recognition, and then turn around and spend money on elections

The application to be recognized as a social welfare nonprofit, known as a 1024 Form, explicitly asks a group whether it has spent or plans to spend “any money attempting to influence the selection, nomination, election, or appointment of any person to any Federal, state, or local public office or to an office in a political organization.”

The American Future Fund, a conservative nonprofit that would go on to spend millions of dollars on campaign ads, checked “No”in answer to that question in 2008. The very same day the group submitted its application, it uploaded this ad to its YouTube account:



Even before mailing its application to the IRS saying it would not spend money on elections in 2010, the Alliance for America’s Future was running TV ads supporting Republican candidates for governor in Nevada and Florida. It also had given $133,000 to two political committees directed by Mary Cheney, the daughter of the former vice president. 

Another example of this is the Government Integrity Fund, a conservative nonprofit that ran ads in last year’s U.S. Senate race in Ohio. Its application was approved after it told the IRS that it would not spend money on politics. The group went on to do just that.

For more on the IRS and nonprofits active in politics, read our story on how the IRS's nonprofit division got so dysfunctional, Kim Barker's investigation, "How nonprofits spend millions on elections and call it public welfare" and our Q&A on dark money.    


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I Lost My Sweetheart to Polyamory

May 24, 2013 - 6:22pm
Sophia wanted to experiment, so I tried to be game. Then the dominoes started to fall.

Sophia and I were dating a week when we created The List. We had a lot in common — we were both writers, lived in the same neighborhood, and had just gotten out of marriages — but it was our shared desire to be sexually experimental that really defined our relationship. I’m hardly this adventurous on my own, but after being married for 10 years and realizing Sophia had a yen to try just about anything, I felt at ease about traveling out of my comfort zone with her.

One night, while sipping wine in my apartment, we started adding items to the list of lascivious things we wanted to do together:

A shopping spree at a sex shop.
A threesome with another woman.
Sex clubs.
Light S&M.
Role playing.
Orgasm control.

I didn’t even know what “orgasm control” was. It sounded frightening.

“Anything else?” I asked.

There was one other thing Sophia wanted on our compendium of carnal delights: an open relationship. Sophia, who was openly bisexual, was convinced monogamy wasn’t for her, even though she’d never tried polyamory herself.

In theory, I loved the idea of an open relationship. In practice, though, I wasn’t so sure. What would happen, I wondered aloud to Sophia, if one of us starts having an emotional relationship with another person? What would happen to us? We both shrugged. “We’ll just cross that bridge when we get there,” she said.

I’d always been a faithful boyfriend and/or spouse and the idea of being able to openly be with other people while still maintaining a romantic, emotional relationship with Sophia seemed to go against everything I’d ever been conditioned on the subject of love and relationships. I had a feeling this would not end well, but I really liked Sophia and I was intrigued about the idea of this List.

We made rules for our open relationship. And then we’d tweak them if they didn’t work. At first we decided to keep our outside dating activities a secret from each other unless something physical happened with another person. A month later we’d think full disclosure might be better. No matter what, though, it was a challenge for me to reconcile my growing feelings for Sophia knowing she was actively seeking out women and men for romantic trysts. I had a couple encounters with other women, but in general I just wanted to be with Sophia. Lounging around my place, Sophia would log on to the dating site we were both on and show me the guys and gals she’d been corresponding with. It would make my stomach swirl with nerves.

To her credit, Sophia was as tactful as one could be in these situations. When she’d tell me about an experience she’d had, I could see she was nervous about how it would affect me. We had a good level of communication, and I wanted to tell her how uncomfortable this whole thing made me. But then I feared she’d tell me it would have to be an open relationship or no relationship. I told myself that I’d adjust.

And there were fun times. Like when we’d go out to lesbian bars in the hope of picking up a woman to bring back to my place. Sometimes we’d meet other male-female couples who were like us. And sometimes they’d end up at my apartment. Once, at my place, a guy laid out a few lines of cocaine on my coffee table. I don’t really do drugs but in my newfound spirit to live out of my comfort zone more, I indulged. As he and I snorted up the white powder and talked about travel, Sophia and the woman had sex on the couch across from us. It was one of the odder nights I’d had in a while.

Still, though, items were slowly being marked off The List.

Because we were both relatively fresh out of relationships, Sophia and I tried to keep things emotionally casual. But that was wishful thinking. We talked on the phone four times per day and knew where the other was at all times. We slept at each other’s apartments about every other night. It was casual by definition; serious in practice. Which the “open” aspect of our relationship complicated.

But about six months into our “not”-serious relationship, Sophia met Jodi, and everything changed.

“I really like her,” she said. “She’s cool. And gorgeous too. I can’t wait to see her again!”

Not long after that, Sophia told me that things seemed to be getting too serious with us, too fast. We broke up that night.

I understood. I knew this would happen — that one of us would feel we needed space to deal with the wreckage of our last relationship. And since I’d been single longer than Sophia had, I figured it would be her to break things off.

And so, heartbroken, I moved on. Or at least I thought I did. A couple weeks later, I met Amy via an online dating site. It wasn’t by design (at least not consciously), but she was a lot like Sophia. They were both writers of the same age, both very attractive with long brown hair. Also, she was bisexual. Amy and I had a connection from the second we finished saying “nice to meet you.” And we began seeing each other regularly — though I knew that she was still very active on the dating website and probably dated other people, too.

One morning, after Amy spent the night, I was making coffee while she was getting ready for her job at a fashion magazine. “I can’t wear the same outfit to work today,” she said. “The people I work with are so judgmental.”

Some of my ex-wife’s clothes were still in the closet. I didn’t love the idea of lending them to Amy, but I understood her dilemma. She slipped on a retro black dress with white trimming at the end of the sleeves and the neckline. It not only fit her perfectly; she looked great in it.

“I’m not sure I’m going to give this back,” she joked, smoothing down the dress while looking in the mirror. When she left for work, she said she was meeting a friend for drinks in my neighborhood that night and that she’d maybe text me when she was done.

The text came about 10pm, but it wasn’t what I was expecting.

“Um, I’m on a date right now with a woman you used to go out with.”

I felt like my head was going to explode. Waves of feelings flowed through me: sadness followed by disbelief followed by frustration. I wanted to call and tell someone about it but realized how ridiculously unbelievable it all sounded. “Hey, you know the last two women I’ve dated? Yeah, the two who happen to be bisexual. They’re on a date right now.”

Instead, I responded to Amy’s text: “Did you tell Sophia we’re dating?” I wrote. “Did you mention you happen to have woken up in my bed this morning?” And how in the world did they both figure out they knew me?

Amy wrote back begging me not to say anything to Sophia. She knew it would ruin the date and, it seemed, she really liked her. Which was when the next emotion emerged in me: annoyance.

The next morning Sophia called. Since we had split up a couple months earlier, we hadn’t talked much but we were generally on good terms. “Amy told me she texted you about last night,” she said. “That’s such a coincidence that you know her.”

“What did Amy tell you was the nature of our relationship?” I asked.

“She said you’re just friends.”

I didn’t know what to say. Should I lie? Or rather, be complacent in Amy’s lie, so that Amy and Sophia could continue dating?

“Sophia, there’s something I have to tell you,” I said. “Amy and I are … we’re dating.”

The other end of the line went silent for a long three seconds. “But … I don’t believe you,” she said.

“Was she wearing a black dress with white trim?” I asked. Sophia affirmed. “That’s my ex-wife’s. Amy spent the night the day before you went on your date and, that morning, she had nothing to wear to work.”

Sophia immediately texted Amy to tell her there wouldn’t be a second date. A minute later, Amy sent me a text saying it was over between she and I. It was a break-up of domino-effect proportions.

Sophia and I can now laugh about the incident, about how oddly coincidental it all was. It actually brought us a bit closer after a few months of only talking sparingly. Now we meet for coffee. We just don’t talk about dating.

It’s too bad we hadn’t put “Date the same woman” on The List.

It would have been a nice final act for our relationship.

Or a first one for our new friendship.


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Is Documentary Film Viable in a Sensationalized Media World?

May 24, 2013 - 5:28pm
When the "press" became the "media," news bookers began to see themselves like big-game hunters on an African safari.

There has been a major shift in media culture as most TV networks have abandoned long-form information programming. In these times, with Twitter playing a big part in disseminating news, TV has to be punchy, quick and visual. The age of media mergers has seen showbiz merging with news biz, and soundbites have become shorter as the newscast story count rises. 

Significantly, the best TV criticism of these trends in the US appears in a nightly programme on the Comedy Central channel. But ultimately, there is nothing funny about the way a media system - intended to bolster a democratic discourse - contributes to its decline. 

News is increasingly becoming more about the image than the information - an approach to "coverage" that is at its core tabloid in its sensibilities, often intended for a memorable emotional impact that will boost media ratings and revenues. The race for "breaking news" is breaking our ability to understand the context of events. 

This all happened as "the press" became "the media" - a time in which branding and on-air personality became paramount. I saw it happening during the 10 years I spent in television news, during which the multi-million-dollar anchors became more newsworthy than what they reported on. 

Soon, the "big names" in media began focusing on the "big names" in politics. Landing hyped-up interviews with newsmakers became known—in insider parlance—as "getting the get." News bookers began to see themselves like big-game hunters on an African safari. 

Investigative Work 

When I started my career behind the small screen, each of the main TV networks featured a regularly scheduled documentary to expose wrongdoing and offer deeper analysis. CBS Reports was modelled on the tradition established by news legends like Edward R Murrow. NBC White Paper and ABC Close-Up all offered well-made in-depth programming until faster-paced segments on news magazines displaced the documentaries that were often poorly promoted and, as a result, poorly watched. 

As these shows went bye-bye, independent documentary-making drew former journalists like myself, eager to do more substantive investigative work. Other, less political and artsier filmmakers - often graduates of film schools or refugees from Hollywood - brought their dedication to "look" and storytelling into a business that had once been driven by a sense of political mission.

A market slowly emerged on cable channels that went for lurid crime dramas, wildlife shows, adventure series and history programmes mostly on scary bad guys. 

And soon, a class hierarchy could be seen among independent filmmakers. American Public Television cultivated a small elite to produce mostly non-controversial docs for well-funded regularly scheduled series. HBO Documentaries were more mixed and commercial - some about news issues, others profiling personalities, and still others using Hollywood techniques to treat docs as non-fiction films. They became a profit centre for a network known for movies. Economically, it is cheaper for cable channels to offer less pricey documentaries they can air over and over. 

A proliferating number of film festivals - some market-driven like Sundance, or associated with stars like Tribeca - provided more venues and opportunities to show and sell films. 

One of the documentary films I was associated with investigated the murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan. It took adding CNN's Christiane Amanpour as a narrator to give it more credibility and get it on air. 

Most independent filmmakers wanted to be in the major league, but only a few made it. 

It was only after Michael Moore, a radical print journalist turned filmmaker, proved that documentaries could make money in theatres, that what is still a small but high-profile industry was born. This has brought hard-hitting films, of a kind that could rarely get on television, into theatres where producers hope they can at least recoup their costs. 

A few bigger companies finance these films, but most filmmakers often have to spend years raising money by seeking grants, donations from friends and families or gifts generated by crowd-funding sites. 

In some cases, wealthy business types become instant producers because they could afford to finance projects. I was a beneficiary of this type of largesse when a real estate mogul troubled by excesses in his industry, especially subprime loans, financed my film In Debt We Trust, which came out in 2006 warning of the financial crisis to come. At the time, I was dismissed as an alarmist and a "doom-and-gloomer". But when the markets did implode two years later, my reputation briefly rose as I turned in some eyes from a "zero to a prophetic hero". 

There is no question that the small flood of films on the financial crisis that followed - including my follow-up Plunder on financial crimes - demonstrated that independent filmmakers had the guts and the gumption to challenge the greed of the big banks and corporate lobbies, and at the time show how complicit most of our media was in covering up crimes or simply not covering them. Thanks to many websites, these films were publicised and promoted, drawing audiences and encouraging activism. 

This counter-culture may have started on the left, but now right-wing funders are encouraging conservative filmmakers to go after President Obama and even activist groups with aggressive undercover videotaping designed to embarrass radicals. This type of deceptive "guerilla filmmaking" led to the demise of the community organising group ACORN.

Making Tilms is 'Easier' 

Like television itself, filmmaking has become contested terrain. 

Making films is often easier than marketing them. A field that was once the province of cause-related media activists has been turned into a profession that remains poorly underwritten, especially because well-known Hollywood personalities like Oliver Stone and many movie stars have become documentary filmmakers too. They have the name power and contacts to more easily sell their work. TV channels are quite willing to finance and promote them because of the power of celebrity culture that most independents detest. 

The legal departments of networks often impose strict guidelines on work they commission or acquire. They want to own everything even when their budgets are low. Some want independent to "indemnify" them should anyone sue them. Buying archival footage is much pricier than what you get when you sell it. 

I have often tried to persuade channels to pay me the same rate they sell footage for. It is usually a no-go, so much of the money you raise ends up going right back to the media companies you are often competing with or attempting to challenge. 

I had been trying for years to do a series based on exploring who really wields power, a kind of institutional analysis to show "Who Rules America" based on the findings of sociologist C Wright Mills, who wrote The Power Elite and other books on the ways that real power does not rest in elected officials, but in the lobbyists and special powers behind them. 

I was lucky because on a trip to a film festival in Iran, I met folks in the documentary department of Press TV, their state-funded broadcaster, who decided to fund it. The budget was very low, the time frame was rushed, and I knew it would attract no attention in the US although the "alternative" Free Speech TV will soon run it. 

My international distributor sells my work more widely overseas, and so my docs get me invited on the air as a commentator - but rarely on the US channels I worked for. They prefer predicable politicians to feisty filmmakers. I may be better known for appearances on RT, BBC and Al Jazeera. 

I just finished an hour-long piece on the fight for public education in a film on my Bronx high school, DeWitt Clinton, now more than 100 years old and known for its diversity. It was there that I started in journalism, editing the school newspaper. Even though the issue cannot be more timely, so far, I have not been able to place it. 

Perhaps I will be luckier with my current project, a TV series made in South Africa on the making and meaning of a new movie on Nelson Mandela's autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. It has movie stars and features unknown stories about one of the world's best-known icons.

I know all the stories about filmmakers who spent years slogging away before they were "discovered". So, there is always hope. I would not be fighting all the frustration that documentary filmmakers face if I did not believe in the value of my work, and, I guess, myself.

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Does Anthony Weiner's Comeback Mean that the Laws of Scandal Politics Have Changed?

May 24, 2013 - 5:16pm
Time—and changing moral values—has led to the rehabilitation of those formerly brought down by a sex scandal.


Former New York Congressman Anthony Weiner is back.  Having given up his House seat following being exposed in a 2011 sexting scandal, Weiner bowed out of politics for the last two years.

On May 22nd, Weiner threw his proverbial hat into the New York City mayoral race, one of a half-dozen Democratic candidates seeking to replace Michael Bloomberg in the upcoming election.  In a well-plotted campaign, he’s back in the game.  He harbors a war chest estimated at $5 million and was required to announce his run or forfeit public matching funds.

In a professionally produced video that launched his campaign, he lays out a profile of his life – his childhood in Brooklyn, his Congressional accomplishments and his “middle class” agenda for the city.  Most telling in terms of the scandal that will likely dog his campaign, Weiner opens and closes the video accompanied with his wife, Huma Abedin, an aide to Hillary Clinton.

Weiner’s reemergence on the political scene comes just a couple of weeks after another political figure who was forced from office following a sex scandal, Mark Sanford.  The former governor of South Carolina won a race for a House seat against Elizabeth Colbert Busch.

These two races — involving a Democrat and a Republican, in a blue and a red state — signal the further erosion of the culture wars.  The Christian right remains absolutist with regard to a woman’s right to an abortion.  But some within the Republican right have given ground with regard to gay rights, immigration, teen sex ed and the morning-after pill.

An increasing number of states have legalized marriage equality and the Senate is advancing a somewhat “bipartisan” immigration bill.  These efforts signal the emergence of a new right-of-center “moderate” faction within the Republican Party.

The new Republican moderates seem to recognize that the 2012 election signed a profound shift in the electoral climate.   They seem to acknowledge that the message of Tea Party activists is getting shriller, more fundamentalists.  More insightful, they see Republicans as a shrinking political force due to demographics and as capitalist recovery takes place.  They wonder how to hold – if not gain – ground in the 2014 Congressional elections.  Can it be a replay of what happened in 2010?


Americans love a scandal involving the high-and-mighty, whether a politician, celebrity or grandee.  It represents all-Americanschadenfreude, the satisfaction or pleasure that comes from someone else’s misfortune.  U.S. history is rich with political scandals, many involving sex.  More interesting, time — and changing moral values –has led to the rehabilitation of pols and others brought down by a sex scandal.

This shifting value system is personified by former-President Bill Clinton.  His illicit Oval Office tryst with Monica Lewinsky was the grounds for his Impeachment by a Republican-controlled House of Representatives led by Newt Gingrich.  Clinton’s value position has been significantly enhanced by the subsequent revelations about Gingrich, who, while leading the charge against the sitting president, was involved in an out-of-wedlock affair with Callista Gingrich, his current wife.

Today, Clinton has been fully rehabilitated.  He runs the prestigious Clinton Foundation and his wife, Hillary, who stuck with him through the scandal, served as Secretary of State and has a shot at becoming the next president.  One can only wonder whether Weiner, his wife and political confidants reflected on this possibly parallel scenario.

Other pols have not fared so well.  Gingrich flubbed the 2012 election. Al Gore, a well-meaning if inept politician – whatever happened to the “Information Superhighway”? – was deflated after his divorce.  New York’s former governor, Eliot Spitzer, kept his marriage but has floundered as an entertainment figure, jumping from an online columnist, to talk-show personality, to whatever gives him visibility.

Weiner seems to be taking a more strategic – and carefully plotted – play for political rehabilitation.  He reportedly paid $100,000 to David Binder, who worked as an Obama pollster, to determine his political viability.  Binder framed the question in stark terms: “Are voters willing to give him a second chance or not, regardless of what race or what contest?”  According to a New York Times’ story about the poll, “There was this sense of ‘Yeah, he made a mistake. Let’s give him a second chance. …  They want to know that they’ve put it behind them.”

Weiner has plotted a well-crafted campaign that involved a series of steppingstones, each one leading to his formal declaration as a candidate on May 22nd.  The cornerstone of the pre-announcement campaign was a feature spread in the Sunday, April 10thNew York Times magazine.  The puff piece, written by Jonathan Van Meter, reports that Weiner was truly remorseful about the pain and suffer he caused his wife.  This may well be the case, but offered – in a heartfelt declaration – in an influential, primary public-media source, seemed calculated, a steppingstone in a well-crafted campaign.

One can only wonder what was the strategic significance of our oh-so-contrite pol’s appearance a month earlier on NY-1, a local cable news program.  He declared, “I think I’ll be spending a lot of time, here on out, saying I’m sorry.”

It’s still a long way to the Democratic primary and one can only wonder whether he will release his game plan?

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10 Crazy Things the Right Did This Week

May 24, 2013 - 5:13pm
It's been another week of the insane, inane, and outright offensive.

It's been another week of the insane, inane, and outright offensive. Here's your top ten:

  1. Pennsylvania governor can't find any Latinos to work for him. Gov. Tom Corbett (R-PA) told a Spanish-language newspaper this week that he didn't have any Latinos working for him. There are approximately 18,000 Latinos just in the Harrisburg, PA area alone.
  2. Pennsylvania governor remembers single Latino who works for him. A day after saying he didn't have any Latinos working for him, Corbett suddenly remembered a single Latino appointee working in his administration.
  3. Conservatives freak out over Boy Scouts decision to admit gays. Here'sthe ten best conservative freak-outs over the group's decision to admit gay scouts while maintaining a ban on gay leaders.
  4. Tea Party congressman mansplains his anti-abortion views. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX), speaking at a hearing about an unconstitutional ban on abortion after 20 weeks that House Republicans are championing, told a witness that she should've been forced to wait and give birth rather than have an abortion even though her fetus had no brain function.
  5. Top Republican called Obama's national security speech "a victory for terrorists." The comments were made by Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee. Chambliss defeated a decorated, triple amputee veteran in 2002 by running an ad juxtaposing his opponent with images of Osama bin Laden.
  6. Texas GOP continued its obsession with limiting women's rights. The Texas GOP introduced another 24 anti-abortion bills this year, but thankfullynone of them advanced.
  7. This man could be the next Lieutenant Governor of Virginia. Virginia Republicans nominated an extremely anti-gay, anti-abortion minister who has a long history of making insensitive and inflammatory comments. Here's his20 craziest tweets.
  8. RNC chair melts down. In an effort to attack the president, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus threw out attacks so over the top that the Morning Joe crew called him out.
  9. GOP senator says implementing Obamacare is just like an illegal coverup. Because of her efforts to implement Obamcare, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) likened Health & Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to convicted criminal Oliver North.
  10. GOP senator defends Apple's efforts to avoid billions of dollars in U.S. taxes. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), in a move reminiscent of Rep. Joe Barton's infamous apology to BP in the wake of its disastrous oil spill, apologized to top Apple officials for being called in front of the Senate to explain how they use complex structures and gimmicks to avoid paying U.S. taxes.
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Is the Idea of an Intelligent Self-Help Book a Paradox?

May 24, 2013 - 4:49pm
Popular self-help book series from the 'School of Life' lacks depth and purpose.

This article first appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Is the very idea of an intelligent self-help book a paradox? It is certainly trying to serve two demanding masters: philosophical speculation and practical action. After all, readers don’t pick up self-help books just to ruminate on life’s dilemmas, but to be guided to solutions. The new series of self-help books published by the London-based School of Life, co-founded by the Swiss-born popular philosopher Alain de Botton, echoes the school’s lofty approach to problems, claiming to be “intelligent, rigorous, well-written new guides to everyday living.” Yet to peruse the School of Life’s calendar of classes is to fall into a vortex of jargon pitched somewhere between the banal banter of daytime talk shows and the schedule for a nightmarish New Age retreat: “How to Have Better Conversations,” “How to Realise Your Potential,” “Developing a Compassionate Mind: One Day Intensive,” “Philosophy Slam,” “Learning How to Say No,” “Getting Better at Online Dating,” “Resilience: One Day Workshop.” Before long, I was ready to sign up for “How to Stay Calm.

De Botton himself is a divisive, if not easily dismissed, public intellectual. The author of bestselling books about many of the broad topics the School of Life curriculum covers — love, work, religion, happiness, and philosophy itself — de Botton is often accused of being a purveyor of Philosophy Lite (see, for example, Victoria Beale’s January 3, 2013, attack on him in The New Republic, “How to Be a Pseudo-Intellectual”). His works are securely aimed at the insecure middlebrow reader, the kind of person who knows that Proust can change her life but maybe would rather read about how Proust can change her life than slog through seven life-changing volumes. Indeed, there is something ersatz, if not quite fraudulent, about de Botton’s entire intellectual enterprise: he often seems like a grad student who shows up to seminar having done just enough of the reading to participate by jumping on other people’s comments, but who never makes an original observation of his own. He is constantly quoting and alluding to great figures — Jane Austen, John Stuart Mill, Stendhal, and Freud, among others, all get name-dropped in his self-help book, How To Think More About Sex (about which more below) — but he tends to meander and summarize after a quotation rather than using it to drive his own argument forward.

De Botton has, however, up until recently, been a great champion of philosophy as a way to work through life’s conundrums. His The Consolations of Philosophy (2000) is a charming and, in its own way, useful book that dissects the lives and ideas of major philosophers like Socrates and Nietzsche and applies them to everyday problems like “unpopularity” and “difficulties.” De Botton claims in Consolations that it is possible to “take on a task at once both profound and laughable: to become wise through philosophy.” In this he has positioned himself in a long line of thinkers about the care and maintenance of the self, such that the editing and writing of “intelligent self-help books” would not seem like such a stretch.

Yet the real issue with de Botton’s new book, and the others in the How To series, is not simply a lack of depth but one of purpose: they are certainly shallow in their philosophy, but they are not particularly useful either. The books are combination platters of soft science, anecdotal case studies (some real, some fictional), and exercises or suggestions about steps the reader could take to further his or her goal. Along with de Botton’s volume purporting to inspire more (but not deeper, note) thought about sex, the School of Life series includes How to Stay Sane, by Philippa Perry; How to Change the World, by John-Paul Flintoff; and How to Find Fulfilling Work, by Roman Krznaric. Krznaric’s volume is by far the most successful, perhaps because he is the only one of the authors who does not seem embarrassed by either his topic or the means of treating it. Perry, a psychotherapist, and Flintoff, a journalist, retain a tone like they should be doing their work by more highfalutin means. And de Botton’s book makes an enraging little study (all the books clock in at around 200 pages) of contemporary assumptions about sex, marriage, and relationships, regarded strictly from the point of view of a bored, married, middle-aged man who maybe dabbles in philosophy and fancies himself an intellectual. It’s like being hit on by a paunchy, balding European guy at an office party who tries to seduce you with, well, quotes from Jane Austen and Stendhal, and empty proclamations about the place of sex, marriage, and relationships in contemporary society.

The title of de Botton’s book, How to Think More About Sex, is actually a misnomer, or at least misleading, for he in fact advocates against thinking more about sex, at least if “more” here means “differently” or “better.” He certainly does not want anyone to interrogate the assumptions mainstream society currently holds about courtship and marriage (what a queer theorist might designate as “heteronormative practices”). He never explores any type of relationship outside of monogamous heterosexuality; even the idea of a marriage without children or with, say, a stay-at-home father and working mother seems to be outside of his imaginative purview.

So he’s not exactly Michel Foucault, but there is a historical dimension to de Botton’s thinking about sex. Sometime around the advent of space shuttles and bikinis, he states, “[s]ex came to be perceived as a […] pastime, a little like tennis — something that everyone should have as often as possible in order to relieve the stresses of modern life.” To do this, he cautions, is to take sex much too lightly, as

sex has a recurring tendency to wreak havoc across our lives: it leads us to destroy our relationships, threatens our productivity and compels us to stay up too late in nightclubs talking to people whom we don’t like but whose exposed midriffs we nevertheless strongly wish to touch.

It is an “inherently weird […] anarchic and reckless power,” with which the best we can hope for is “a respectful accommodation.” Given how frightened de Botton seems to be of sex, is it any wonder that his book utterly lacks imagination and a sense of curiosity?

This might in fact be the most boring book ever written about sex. In his (fictional) case studies, de Botton presents us with several boring couples in compromising positions: there is, for example, the “couple in a cafe on a Saturday night at eleven o’clock in a large city, eating ice cream after seeing a film together.” De Botton narrates their entire sexual encounter, with odd asides about their personal histories interrupting the action: “Soon enough he was dreaming of orgies and anal sex, obsessing about obtaining hardcore pornography and fantasizing about tying up and defiling his maths teacher. How could he still be a nice person?” As for the intercourse, it is utterly unerotic: “In a world in which fake enthusiasms are rife […] the wet vagina and the stiff penis function as unambiguous agents of sincerity.” Even the couple’s fetishes are dull: his is for “black, sensible loafers (of the sort often associated with librarians and schoolgirls, and in this instance manufactured by the Italian company Marni)”; hers is for men’s watches, like her father’s.

When de Botton finally gets the couple off, so to speak, he provides a profoundly unsexy definition of sexiness: “The more closely we analyze what we consider ‘sexy,’ the more clearly we will understand that eroticism is the feeling of excitement we experience at finding another human being who shares our values and our sense of the meaning of existence.” There are, of course, other kinds of eroticism, other ways to reach orgasm, not dreamt of in de Botton’s philosophy, but he confidently brands these “empty.” Thus, everything from masturbation (since it is performed alone) to bestiality (since it is nonconsensual) is considered a “betrayal of what sex should really be about”: a procreative couple in love sharing their values and their sense of the meaning of existence.

The only two real positions (no pun intended) that de Botton takes are an anti-pornography stance and a pro-adultery one. Neither, however, are at all radical, and both have a whiff of an acutely masculine frustration. How To Think More About Sex uses another fictional couple, the long-married and long-suffering Daisy and Jim, to illustrate these arguments. The story is timeworn: between work (though it is unclear whether Daisy works outside of the house), children, aging, and dwindling desire, Daisy and Jim’s sex life has all but disappeared. So Jim turns to the evils lurking in the family computer, which de Botton writes about with appalled strenuousness:

[P]erhaps as many as two hundred million man-hours annually that might have otherwise been devoted to starting companies, raising children, curing cancer, writing masterpieces or sorting out the attic, are instead spent ogling the mesmerizing pages of sites such as www.hotincest.comand

In the name of productivity, then, de Botton advocates censorship of the internet, as “the entire internet is […] pornographic, a deliverer of constant excitement that we have no innate capacity to resist, a seducer that leads us down paths that for the most part do nothing to answer our real needs.” In the absence of government intervention, though, how can we resist the evils of the internet? Pray. Yes, really: de Botton suggests that religion, not philosophy, might provide guidelines to help individuals keep themselves in line. “A portion of our libido,” de Botton writes, “has to be forced underground for our own good; repression is not just for Catholics, Muslims and the Victorians, but for all of us and for eternity.” He urges readers to fall into line: “We cannot allow our sexual urges to express themselves without limit, online or otherwise; left to run free, they destroy us.” This interest in religion is not new: de Botton’s last book was Religion for Atheists. But the idea that it can solve problems instead of philosophy is a betrayal of de Botton’s earlier work. Apparently, rigorous thought is powerless against the seductions of the internet.

To proceed straight from this pious suggestion to one that long-term fidelity to a single partner might not work out after all would be galling in a writer who cared less about being provocative and more about being consistent, but coherency is not de Botton’s bag. He returns to poor frustrated Jim, sending him on a business trip where he runs into a comely young graphic designer, Rachel, who has done some freelance work for him. A glass of wine, a room at the Holiday Inn, and Jim and Rachel are off to the races.

There is, according to de Botton, nothing the matter with a little extramarital sex, as long as everyone is agreed that the bond between the partners is primary. “That a couple should be willing to watch their lives go by from within the cage of marriage, without acting on outside sexual impulses,” he writes, “is a miracle of civilization and kindness for which they ought both to feel grateful on a daily basis.” The “cage of marriage”? Eek. If you want to kill your libido and quash a budding relationship in one fell swoop, I have the perfect how-to book for you.


The School of Life books by de Botton’s epigones are also pretty dreadful. Substituting Philippa Perry’s How To Stay Sane for the rigors of psychotherapy is like insisting that running for the bus rather than going to the gym is sufficient exercise. “Exercise,” indeed, is a loaded word in Perry’s book, as she provides “exercises” for the reader to do in order to put her ideas into practice; these mostly involve lots of making lists and charts. The exercises are designed to increase self-awareness, help deepen relationships, and relieve stress, all elements in keeping life in perspective and thus remaining sane. Yet the most striking element of Perry’s text is her reluctance to be writing it at all:  “This is a ‘how-to’ book and at this point I wish it was not, because as soon as we start to legislate relationships, we are already in danger of getting it wrong.” This is, hands down, the most honest moment in the book. Perry is the most hamstrung of these writers by the self-help form; her frustration bleeds through every page. After de Botton, it is a relief to read someone less pedantic and more pragmatic, but Perry’s reluctance to take a position on anything other than breathing and journaling makes her book utterly useless.

Equally maddening is John-Paul Flintoff’s How To Change the World, which offers a great deal of commonsensical advice about what could vaguely be called “making a difference.” Offering such pearls as “the personal is political” and “do what feels good,” the only engaging part of Flintoff’s book are the case studies he offers. Yet many of those have a familiar ring: all the usual world-changing suspects appear, from Gandhi to Rosa Parks to Mother Theresa to Martin Luther King Jr. Flintoff does cite a few lesser known figures, such as Richard Reynolds, who started a “guerrilla gardening” movement in London, and lawyer and environmentalist Polly Higgens, who is working to make “ecocide” (the destruction of ecosystems) a crime. Flintoff provides advice on how to change the world in small ways like reaching out to neighbors, volunteering, giving to charity, or just helping a friend. Overall, though, there is little here that a person with average intelligence could not figure out on her own with good intentions and a couple of Google searches.

After all of these failures, it’s a minor miracle that Roman Krznaric’s How to Find Fulfilling Work works as well as it does. Krznaric accomplishes what the other books do not by harmonizing a philosophical point of view with practical advice. The basic elements here are the same as in the other School of Life books: exercises, case studies, a pinch of philosophy. Yet Krznaric combines them in such a way that the reader is likely to actually feel both challenged and helped by his advice, perhaps because work is a topic you can be both philosophical and practical about without being overwrought. He focuses the book around two questions: first, what are the central elements of a rewarding career; and second, “how do we go about changing career and making the best possible decisions along the way?” It is in answering the second question that Krznaric’s book is most impressive. He notes that most people get bogged down in thinking about what kind of career might suit them, while the best way to figure out what job might be best for you is to try out as many things as possible. Most of his exercises are centered around figuring out how to take this approach which he calls “job dating”: whether it is confronting your fears about job change or writing a “personal job advertisement” which lists your skills and interests but does not mention any particular job you might be suited for. Krznaric then suggests emailing your advertisement to 10 friends in disparate jobs and asking them what you might try to do next. This is a book which is both clever and prescriptive without being preachy: it makes you think about work in a new way, as well as offering real exercises and solutions for people who are looking for more fulfilling work.

In The Consolations of Philosophy, de Botton writes, “It would scarcely be acceptable […] to ask in the course of an ordinary conversation what our society holds to be the purpose of work.” This is one of his throwaway lines, but a telling one: why couldn’t you ask such a question? What is so potentially frightening or offensive about where such a conversation might lead? In thinking back to the ludicrous list of School of Life classes, one could argue that the school — a word which, etymologically, refers to leisure time — is turning what are fundamentally leisure activities into work. Conversation, dating, thinking, feeling, and, alas, philosophy, which is supposed to be the pure love of wisdom, are all made into chores under the school’s rubric. The books the school has produced also turn philosophy into work, without much reward for our efforts: de Botton’s book on sex is too prudish and pedantic; Perry’s on sanity, too soft; and Flintoff’s on changing the world, too pedestrian. Given some of the most interesting topics there are, these writers flinch rather than engage.

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George Zimmerman's Defense Team Releases Texts and Photos to Fit Their Racist Narrative

May 24, 2013 - 12:50pm
"Is the defense trying to prove Trayvon deserved to be killed by George Zimmerman because of the way he looked?"

The defense team for George Zimmerman, the man accused of killing unarmed teenager Travyon Martin, released dozens of photos and text messages of the 17-year-old murder victim in a seeming effort to portray him as a “gangsta” troublemaker.

It is unclear whether the texts and photos will be permissible in court, though attorneys for Martin’s family claim they represent “irrelevant red herrings.” Zimmerman’s attorneys are expected to use the “evidence” to make insinuations about Martin’s character, as the Zimmerman can be heard in a 911 call accusing the teen of being “up to no good” and “on drugs or something.”

The “evidence,” posted on a website run by Zimmerman’s attorneys, includes text messages from Martin discussing cannabis, a school suspension and a troubled home life, as well as several texts expressing interest in guns. The defense also posted 25 photos of Martin, some previously released on the internet, which include photo of the teen wearing gold teeth and flicking the camera off, as well as a photograph in which he appears to be smoking cannabis.

Benjamin Crump, an attorney representing Martin’s family, noted the irony of Zimmerman’s defense pushing a stereotypical image of Martin in a case already fraught with racial implications.

"Is the defense trying to prove Trayvon deserved to be killed by George Zimmerman because of the way he looked?" Crump said in a statement obtained by NBC. "If so, this stereotypical and closed-minded thinking is the same mindset that caused George Zimmerman to get out of his car and pursue Trayvon, an unarmed kid who he didn't know. The pretrial release of these irrelevant red herrings is a desperate and pathetic attempt by the defense to pollute and sway the jury pool."

One of many striking example of an apparent “red herring” released by Zimmerman’s defense is text messages referring to Martin’s homelife. In one text, from Nov. 22, 2011, he writes, "My mom just told me i gotta mov wit my dad … She just kickd me out." 

Some legal experts say Zimmerman’s defense will have a hard time using the texts and photographs in court, as it resides in the legally murky area of character evidence.

“What does his mom saying he needs to live with his dad for a while say about why he was shot?  Nothing,” Jeff Deen, a former state attorney in Florida, told NBC. “Generally, reputation evidence is not admissible in court.”

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Best Thing of the Day: WikiLeaks Leaks Transcript of Hollywood's Doc on the Online Activists

May 24, 2013 - 10:14am
"We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks" premieres today -- but the transcript hit the internet last night.

Beating the entertainment industry in the message control race, Wikileaks leaked the transcript of the new documentary, “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks,” one night ahead of its worldwide release. The leaked transcript includes annotations that allege factual errors, misrepresentations and misguided framing in the film, directed by Academy Award winner Alex Gibney.

An unnamed annotator disputes several over-arching conclusions drawn in Gibney’s film, starting with its title, which implies that Wikileaks “steals secrets.” “In fact, the statement is made by former CIA/NSA director Michael Hayden in relation to the activities of US government spies, not in relation to WikiLeaks,” the annotator writes.

The annotator also addresses Gibney’s characterizations of Bradley Manning, the private accused of leaking classified information to WikiLeaks. By focusing on Manning’s alleged sexuality, rather than political motivations, the writer says, “Gibney's portrayal of Manning is as a disempowered individual, rather than as someone courageous and principled.” As a press release from Wikileaks notes, these details are especially relevant now, as Manning’s 12-week-trial continues on Monday. “The premiere of "We Steal Secrets" is opportunistically timed,” the release states. “Manning may face life in prison and could potentially face the death penalty. Charges include espionage and aiding the enemy.”

The annotator also takes issue with suggestions in the film that Manning was in contact with Wikileaks-founder Julian Assange and claims misinformation about the sexual allegations against Assange. Wikileaks not only hit Gibney for the what’s in his documentary, but also its omissions. “Gibney's film could have been an important and timely project,” the release states, “The film barely touches on the US investigation against WikiLeaks, never mentions the words "grand jury", and trivialises the larger issues, perhaps because the film-maker could not secure an interview with Julian Assange.”

According to Reuters, Gibney sought to include Assange in the film, but chose to proceed without him due to difficulties in securing an interview. Media accounts suggest a dispute between Gibney and Assange over framing in the filmmaker’s final product. "He likens himself as the puppet master, the one who's pulling the strings on the media. I think he took some offense at the idea that I was independent," Gibney told Reuters, adding that Assange allegedly asked for money to be interviewed. 

Firedoglake’s Kevin Gosztola, who has extensively covered WikiLeaks and Manning’s trial, wrote a detailed analysis of the film and this annotated transcript. “As someone who has extensively covered the story of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange and Bradley Manning, there are multiple aspects of the film that happen to be misleading, disingenuous or seem to be the product of a director who has an axe to grind,” Gosztola writes.

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Judge Forbids Lesbian Woman From Living with Partner

May 24, 2013 - 9:07am
In Texas, a judge is enforcing a morality clause in one of the women's divorce papers to prevent the lesbians from living together.


A Texas judge has ordered a lesbian couple to stop living together due a morality clause in one of the women's divorce papers.
     Judge John Roach of the 296th District Court in Collin County enforced the clause from Carolyn Compton's 2011 divorce decree on May 7, the Dallas Voice reported.
     Compton has lived for three years with Page Price, who was ordered by Roach to move out within 30 days because Compton's children live with the couple. The clause states that a person who has a "dating or intimate relationship" or is not related "by blood or marriage" must leave after 9 p.m. when the children are present.
     Shortly after the ruling, Price posted on her Facebook profile that Roach was a "bigot hiding behind a robe."
     "By his enforcement, being that we cannot marry in this state, I have been ordered to move out of my home," Price said. "Said judge offered further information to our attorneys that if he could throw her in jail for being gay he would. The only reason he didn't incarcerate her was because of a technicality our attorneys found in the original wording."
     Price accused Compton's ex-husband of hiring a private investigator to bring the matter before the court.
     "This is the same man who lives just a few miles away yet has taken his children a total of 12 times in three years and not attended ONE school or athletic event," Price said in another Facebook posting. "This request for enforcement was filed 'in the interest and welfare of the children.' If he is so worried about their welfare where is he every 1st, 3rd and 5th weekend?"
      Price said children that live with the couple are "happy and well adjusted."
      "We didn't want to be the face for this movement, but it looks like God has bigger plans for us," she added. "We will stand up and fight this for our family and hope that it helps pave the way for marriage equality in Texas."
     Texas voters approved a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage in 2005.   Related Stories

"If Money Were No Object" - Behind Our Obsession With Powerball

May 24, 2013 - 8:31am
As Florida continues to search for their Powerball winner, some people are still fantasizing about what they would do if they won.

As Florida continues to search for their Powerball winner, some people are still fantasizing about what they would do if they won.

Though the jackpot weighs in at $590.5 million dollars, the real prize isn’t exactly this precise amount, but instead the concept that for the winner, money will no longer be an issue.

In capitalist societies, people must work in order to survive. We are tied to our labor, and thus, to money, as we need it to feed ourselves and maintain shelter.  We can’t really escape this system, and so it isn’t surprising that when presented with a possibility to break out of it, we rush for the chance, despite our odds. In fact, 1 in 5 Americans believe that the best way to achieve financial security is to play the lottery.

Winning the jackpot means that no longer does someone have to be tied down to the 40-hour workweek our society cruelly created. It means no longer does someone have to go into debt to pursue their interests. It means no longer does someone have to worry about taking a sick day, vacation, spending more time with family, affording children or retiring.

Capitalists, however, argue that winning the Powerball would mean taking the purpose out of your life. They believe that people will just become lazy blobs if they don’t have the financial incentive to do something productive. But here lies the big capitalist myth. In fact, while people struggle to maintain their existence, many are unable to utilize their yearning passions — which are better (not to mention more ethical) incentives of production than the fear of poverty, homelessness and even death. 

I recently asked my friends what they would do if they won the Powerball, or essentially, if money were no object. Their answers were remarkably innovative, creative and resourceful. (After paying off their student debt), my friends told me they would pursue their dreams. From opening art centers to building community farms, their ideas were beyond exciting.

Now, of course, there are always some people that can’t even imagine life without financial struggle or concern. After being alienated all their lives, it’s no surprise that some people say that if they won, their only desire would be to relax on an island somewhere or whatever. But their responses indicate just how socialized we are to be controlled. Hopefully, they would eventually be encouraged to embrace the unfamiliar territory of a real sort of freedom that would allow us to produce things because we want to, not because we need to, and produce these things creatively, not mechanically.

When I talk about the concept of winning the Powerball, I’m not promoting greed or any type of pursuit of wealth. Nor am I saying that you can’t be creative or follow your passions with little money or within the confines of this economic system. Instead, I’m pushing for quite the opposite. I’m hoping we fight for a different economic system, where our lives don’t rely on finances. I hope we work toward giving everyone opportunities to follow their passions. I hope we fight for a society that provides us with safety nets and, essentially, allows us to feel like “money is no object.” I hope we change society enough that something like the Powerball wouldn’t be so popular because people wouldn’t desire such financial freedom — they would already have it. 

But right now, too many people have all their dreams hanging on a winning Powerball ticket. And the odds of winning are 1 in 175 million.

I think it’s about time to rethink our economic system and make sure it works for us — instead of us working for it.  

Then we’ll all hit the jackpot. 



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Progressive Activism Is Bubbling Up Across the Country -- Here's What's Happening That the Corporate Media Can't Be Bothered to Report

May 23, 2013 - 6:12pm
Guantanamo to shrink, drone rules enacted. Huge Monsanto demonstrations in the works, and a lot more.

This was a week that exemplified the historic moment in which we live.  We will look back at these times and see the seeds of a national revolt against concentrated wealth that puts profits ahead of people and the planet.

Mike Lux, who authored a history of the movements of the 1960s, wrote this week that when he researched his book he “was struck by the fact that so many big things happened so close together.” Comparing that moment to today he writes, “We are living in such a moment in history right now, that organizers and activists are sparking off each other and inspiring each other, that there is something building out there that will bring bigger change down the road.”

That is how we felt as we watched and participated in this week’s unfolding.  We began the week prepared to focus our attention on the amazing teacher, student and community actions that were occurring in defense of schools.  In Philadelphia, there was a giant walk-out of schools last Friday as students demanded their schools remain open and be adequately funded.  The photos of young people fighting for the basic necessity of education were an inspiration.  

That was followed by three days of protests in Chicago that were equally inspiring, students organized and communities came together to fight for education.  Though corporate-mayor Rahm Emanuel’s carefully selected board voted to close 50 elementary schools and one high school (while the city funds the building of a new basketball stadium), the Chicago activists say they are not done. They are just getting started.  It is that kind of persistence that wins transformation.  These school battles are part of a national plan to replace community schools with corporatized charter schools. The battles of Chicago, Philadelphia and other cities are all of our battles.

Then there were the college students, who inspired us with their bravery especially because they were not fighting for themselves but for the students who come after them.  At Cooper Union, students are in their second week of occupying the school president’s office. As the sit-in grew to more than 100, they garnered increasing community support.  The school is about to begin to charge tuition, ending the nearly two century mission of its founder for free higher education. The students protesting will get free tuition; they are protesting for the students who follow. While they are sitting in, they are painting the president’s offices black and will continue to do so until he resigns his $750,000 a year job. Thousands have signed a “no confidence” petition against the president and board chairman.

We believe that a country that really believed in its youth and was building for its future would provide free post-high school education, college or vocational school, to young adults rather than leaving them crippled by massive debt.

As the week went on, more Americans stood up and showed their power.  On Monday, people who have lost their homes to foreclosure or are threatened with foreclosure, along with their allies, began an occupation of the Department of Justice. Some of them joined us first as guests on our radio show on We Act Radio. Afterwards, we went to Freedom Plaza where they rallied.  The coalition was a great mix of people of different ages, races and regions who were angry, organized and prepared.  They marched down Pennsylvania Ave. to the Department of Justice to demand that Attorney General Eric Holder prosecute the bankers who collapsed the economy and stole their homes.

They blocked the doors at the Department of Justice and put up tents emblazoned with “Foreclose on Banks Not on People,” put up a home with “Bank Foreclosed” over it and blocked the streets with orange mesh saying “Foreclosure and Eviction Free Zone.”  As evening came, they moved their tents onto DOJ property, brought in a big couch and prepared to stay the night – and some did.  By the third day of protests, they moved to Covington and Burling, the corporate law firm that spawned Eric Holder and where the DOJ official in charge of prosecuting the banks, Lenny Breuer, who did not prosecute a single big bank now gets a $4 million annual salary. In Congress the DOJ could not justify their claim that prosecuting the big banks would hurt the economy.

The Home Defenders League/Occupy Our Homes actions broke through in the media as you can see at the end of this photo essay.  We particularly enjoyed the coverage in Forbes – someone claiming to be Jamie Dimon was arrested in DC – reporting on protesters who gave the name of banksters when they were arrested. The police responded aggressively, which often attracts media coverage, including the tasering non-violent protesters. And, we were pleased to see local groups, like Occupy Colorado, highlighting the efforts of their colleagues who came to DC.

But, action in the nation’s capital did not end there.  There was also a massive walkout of food service workers across the city.  The strike began at the building named for the famed union-destroying president, the Ronald Reagan Building, and then moved on, with a particular focus on Obama – the largest employer of low-wage workers.  Obama could end poverty federal wages with a stroke of the pen.  Will he?  

DC is the sixth city to see low-wage workers striking, New York, Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, and Milwaukee, came before the Capital.  Communities have stood with the workers when employers threatened their jobs and people now need to do the same for the DC workers who are being threatened with job loss, please take action to support them.  And, coming up is the Wal-Mart workers’ “Ride for Respect” to the annual shareholders meeting on June 7 which emulates the Freedom Riders.

Actions are happening throughout the country. In Illinois, so far two people have been arrested at a sit-in in the capitol building to support a ban hydro-fracking. And, the reaction to the call for a fearless summer by front-line environmental groups has been very strong. They are working together to plan major actions throughout the summer escalating resistance against extreme energy extraction. Pressure is building in the environmental movement which now recognizes Obama is part of the problem, not part of the solution. Groups like that avoided protesting Obama, are now protesting his “grass roots” group, Organizing for America.

And, more is coming.  At the end of the week people who have been marching to Washington, DC from Philadelphia as part of “Operation Green Jobs” will arrive to protest at the corporate bully of the capital – the US Chamber of Commerce – uniting the masses in opposition to the corporate lobbyists.  Their long walk to DC echoes a walk last week by people from Baltimore seeking jobs and justice.

This Saturday will be the worldwide March Against Monsanto in 41 countries and nearly 300 cities.  We published an article in Truthout that explains why we should all protest Monsanto on May 25.  This is a great example of non-hierarchical organizing as this protest was called by young grass roots activists and supported by Occupy Monsanto.

One of the things that let us know the popular revolt is more powerful than we realize is the reaction of the power structure.  The Center for Media and Democracy issued a report this week that examined thousands of pages of documents which showed how the national security apparatus against terrorism combined with corporate America to attack the occupy movement.  And, in Chicago one of the undercover police involved in the NATO 5 case, is still spying, now on students and teachers protesting school closures.  If they did not fear the people, would the power structure be behaving this way?

But, when you read reports about police acting in this undemocratic way, don’t forget that many of them do not like doing what they are ordered to do and that pulling them to join the popular revolt is part of our job. A mass movement needs people from the power structure to join it in order to achieve success. We highlight one this week, Officer Pedro Serrano of New York who took the great personal risk of taping his superiors as part of an effort to end the racist ‘stop and frisk’ program of the NYPD.

And, it is great to see people planning ahead.  We got notice this week from activists in Maine planning for an October Drone Walk.  The anti-drone movement and Guantanamo protests have had very positive effects. This week, President Obama had to admit that he killed four Americans with drones, mostly by accident – even though the DoD claims drones are accurate.  Also this week, activists filed a war crimes complaint against Obama, Brennan and other officials seeking their prosecution.  And Thursday, Obama was forced to make a public speech at the National Defense University about both the drone program and Guantanamo Bay Prison. Medea Benjamin of CODEPINK, interrupted the speech several times such that the President had to acknowledge her and she asked powerful questions as she was escorted out by security. [See video and transcript.] Guantanamo activists responded to the president saying “no more excuses” and vowed to keep the pressure on!

So, just as author Mike Lux saw in the 60s, there is a lot going on, lots of issues coming to a head at the same time and people taking action to confront them.  How do we get to the next phase of popular resistance?  

Long time writer on movements and transformational change, Sam Smith, the editor of Progressive Review wrote “The Great American Repair Manual in 1997,” we reprinted a portion of it this week: A Movement Manual.  The essence: movements are “propelled by large numbers of highly autonomous small groups linked not by a bureaucracy or a master organization but by the mutuality of their thought, their faith and their determination.” He recommends: organize from the bottom up, create a subculture, create symbols, develop an agenda and make the movement’s values clear. He also recommends becoming what you want to be – become an existentialist – writing “existence precedes essence. We are what we do.”  As far as building community power, we recommend this video from “The Democracy School” on how to use local governance to challenge corporate power.”

Do not despair when the media says there is no popular resistance.  We have been covering the actions of the movement with weekly reports since 2011 and even before the occupy movement began, we saw Americans beginning to stand up. We knew it was the right time for occupy and we now see it is the right time for a mass  popular resistance.  We will be announcing a new project in mid-June to help bring the movement to a new level.  Sign up here to hear about it and how you can help. To create the transformative change we want to see, we need people to get involved.

We agree with Mike Lux who writes: “just as it took several years for the seeds planted in those 18 months in the early '60s to take root and begin to bring about the changes of the years to come in terms of civil rights, women's rights, and the environment, it will take several years for the seeds being planted now to fully take root. But I believe more and more that it will happen.”

The government responds with police force and ignores the demands of the people. Super majorities of Americans agree with the views of the popular resistance, even if they are not yet acting. This is a recipe for a mass eruption of movement activity.  We are in the midst of the pre-history of historic transformational change: a transformation, which will end the power of money to ensure that the people and planet come before profits.

(For a listing of upcoming protests see last week’s newsletter.)

This article is produced in partnership with AlterNet and is based on a weekly newsletter for October2011/Occupy Washington, DC. To sign up for the free newsletter, click here. If you have actions you want to promote or report on write us at [email protected].


Kevin Zeese, JD and Margaret Flowers, MD co-host Clearing the FOG on We Act Radio 1480 AM Washington, DC, co-direct Its Our Economy and are organizers of the Occupation of Washington, DCRead other articles by Kevin Zeese and Margaret Flowers.

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Has Obama Presented a New Plan to Fight Terror or More of the Same?

May 23, 2013 - 5:21pm
Obama admits "No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare” -- but fails to offer way out.


Four years ago, President Obama gave a seminal counterterrorism speech in front of the Constitution arguing we “uphold our most cherished values not only because doing so is right, but because it strengthens our country and it keeps us safe.” Today, amid controversies over his Administration’s killing of American citizens in drone strikes, efforts to break hunger strikes by Guantanamo Bay detainees who have long been cleared for transfer, and seizures of the call records of national security journalists, Obama tried to reclaim those cherished values in his fight against terror.

In a speech at the National Defense University, Obama tried to redefine that fight and at least rhetorically end the war. “We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us, mindful of James Madison’s warning that ‘No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.’”

In the speech, Obama proposed a number of policies that would return us closer to the values. He directed his aides to consider proposals—like a drone court or an additional Executive Branch review—to add oversight to targeted killing. He instructed Eric Holder to review Department of Justice guidelines “governing investigations that involve reporters” by July 12 (the only deadline in the speech). He even argued for the use of more foreign assistance rather than just military force in combating terrorism, though suggested people in both parties opposed such assistance.

Obama also promised to “engage Congress about the existing Authorization to Use Military Force, or AUMF, to determine how we can continue to fight terrorists without keeping America on a perpetual war-time footing“ and threatened to veto any proposal that expanded this war. Obama has failed to make good on such veto threats in the past, and he made no mention of the Iraq AUMF, which remains in force two and a half years after the last troops were withdrawn from Iraq. So it remains to be seen whether his stated commitment to rework the AUMF will survive the political difficulties it has not in the past.

Obama’s most substantive proposals recommitted to closing Guantanamo Bay, a commitment that seemed to arise out of a focus on his own legacy. “[H]istory will cast a harsh judgment on this aspect of our fight against terrorism, and those of us who fail to end it,” he reflected. The President laid out the following plan:


I have asked the Department of Defense to designate a site in the United States where we can hold military commissions. I am appointing a new, senior envoy at the State Department and Defense Department whose sole responsibility will be to achieve the transfer of detainees to third countries. I am lifting the moratorium on detainee transfers to Yemen, so we can review them on a case by case basis. To the greatest extent possible, we will transfer detainees who have been cleared to go to other countries. Where appropriate, we will bring terrorists to justice in our courts and military justice system.

All of these proposals have been possible for the last four years (indeed, the State Department only got rid of its existing envoy to close Gitmo in January). Yet the constant concerns of the 102 Gitmo detainees hunger striking and a concern about legacy appears to have given Obama renewed urgency.

With this plan, Obama received applause from the audience.

The speech was weakest in its promise to reform the use of drones and other targeted killing. Obama announced he was sending new guidelines to Congress to govern “our use of force against terrorists” (while he was speaking about drones, he didn’t limit these guidelines to drones). His speech and the White House guidelines on it insists on a standard of “near-certainty” that the terrorist is present and that that no civilians will be killed” in the strike. That is an improvement off past practice, and those more rigorous standards may explain why there have been vastly fewer drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen this year (even while some of the strikes seem to violate Obama’s recommitment to capture targets whenever possible, rather than kill them).

But the guidelines include a good deal of wiggle room, such as on whether they apply only to Al Qaeda and associated forces or to terrorists more generally.  It includes a significant reservation, asserting “these new standards and procedures do not limit the President’s authority to take action in extraordinary circumstances when doing so is both lawful and necessary to protect the United States or its allies.” And it commits to notifying Congress only when “a counterterrorism operation covered by these standards and procedures has been conducted.” Given that Senator Ron Wyden (D-WA) has asked for over a year for a list of all the countries we’ve used lethal force, it seems there may be lethal operations outside these guidelines.

The rollout of new guidelines suggests the Administration has answers (though a report today from the Daily Beast suggests the Administration doesn’t even know whether it will end strikes targeted at patterns, rather than individuals).

But in spite of all the lip service to new transparency, neither the President or his aides had answers for CodePink’s Medea Benjamin, who interrupted the President’s speech calling to remember Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, the 16 year old American citizen son of Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed two weeks after his father in October 2011.

In Eric Holder’s letter yesterday declassifying the names of the four Americans we’ve killed with drones, he explained only that Abdulrahman and two others were “not specifically targeted.” In a briefing prior to the speech, a senior Administration official hemmed and hawed when asked about Abdulrahman, refusing to explain why he was killed. “I don’t want to get into the details of each of those instances.  What I will say generally is that there are times when there are individuals who are present at al Qaeda and associated forces facilities, and in that regard they are subject to the lethal action that we take.  There are other instances when there are tragic cases of civilian casualties and people that the United States does not in any way intend to target — because, again, as in any war, there are tragic consequences that come with the decision to use force, including civilian casualties.”

Obama, though, just paused while Benjamin cried out about the younger Awlaki.

Ultimately, he turned her ability to raise concerns about the teenager killed by a drone strike as another form of strength.

I’m going off script as you might expect here. The voice of that woman is worth paying attention to. [Applause] Obviously I do not agree with much of what she said. And obviously she wasn’t listening to me in much of what I said. But these are tough issues and the suggestion that we can gloss over them is wrong.

Later, he even hailed Benjamin as he recited a list of Americans who represent resilience. “A citizen shouting her questions at the President.”

She may be resilient, but we still don’t have answers.

For all the answers Obama did offer today—some convincing, others not so much—ultimately some of the big questions remain.

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The New Crime of Eating While Homeless (Hard Times, USA)

May 23, 2013 - 5:11pm
By outlawing dumpster diving, Houston is making life impossible for the most vulnerable.

Whenever one of our cities gets a star turn as host of some super-sparkly event, such as a national political gathering or the Super Bowl, its first move is to tidy up — by having the police sweep homeless people into jail, out of town, or under some rug.

But Houston’s tidy-uppers aren’t waiting for a world-class event to rationalize going after homeless down-and-outers. They’ve preemptively outlawed the “crime” of dumpster diving in the Texan city.

“I was just basically looking for something to eat,” he told the Houston Chronicle. But, unbeknownst to both this indigent tourist and the great majority of Houston’s generally generous citizens, an ordinance dating way back to 1942 says that “molesting garbage containers” is illegal. In March, James Kelly, a 44-year-old Navy veteran, was passing through Houston on his way to connect with family in California. Homeless, destitute, and hungry, he chose to check out the dining delicacies in a trash bin near City Hall. Spotted by police, Kelly was promptly charged with “disturbing the contents of a garbage can in the [central] business district.” Seriously.

Also, in 2012, city officials made it a crime for any group to hand out food to the needy in the downtown area without first getting a permit. It’s a cold use of legal authority to chase the homeless away to…well, anywhere else.

Such laws are part of an effort throughout the country to criminalize what some call “homeless behavior.” And, sure enough, when hungry, the behavioral tendency of a homeless human is to seek a bite of nourishment, often in such dining spots as dumpsters. The homeless behavior that Houston has outlawed, then, is eating.

The good news is that when Houstonians learned of Kelly’s situation, many reached out to help him get through his hard times. Now they need to reach out to local politicos and get the city to stop cracking down on this abuse of homeless people.

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How Did Major Hedge Fund Earn 30% Returns for 20 Years Straight? Lots of Cheating

May 23, 2013 - 4:40pm
There are 8,000 hedge funds, and they are up to their eyeballs in unethical behavior.

How would you like to invest $10,000 and watch it grow over 20 years into $1,461,920? Well that's what happened at the giant hedge fund, SAC Capital Advisors, which made a 30% return for 20 years in a row.  

How is it possible to make such profitable investments again and again and again? The U.S. Attorney for Manhattan, Preet Bharara, believes he has the answer: SAC is cheating ... again and again and again. In fact, Bharara suggests that hedge funds that engage in insider trading may be rotten to the core:  

"Given the scope of the allegations to date, we are not talking simply about the occasional corrupt individual; we are talking about something verging on a corrupt business model, for the defendants seem to have taken the concept of social networking and turned it into a criminal enterprise. " [refers to a 2011 hedge fund indictment, not the current case against SAC.]

To date, nine current and former SAC employees face insider trading criminal charges stemming from their work at the firm. Four have pled guilty and two are still fighting their indictments. Now the head of SAC, multi-billionaire Stephen A. Cohen (note the initials), will be subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury. The federal strategy may be to indict the entire hedge fund and shut it down, according to the New York Times.

We do not know as yet to what degree SAC relied on illegally obtained information (or other illicit activities) to amass its extraordinary profits. But we do know this: hedge funds don't like to gamble. Rather they want to make their billions by betting on sure things. In researching my book, How to Make a Million Dollars an Hour, it became clear that that the hedge fund industry as a whole is up to its eyeballs in a series of unethical maneuvers that sometimes are legal, sometimes are borderline and often are outright criminal.

But aren't there many (some?) honest and ethical people working in America's 8,000 hedge funds?  

Maybe so, but the overwhelming culture within hedge funds makes cheating a way of life, according to Lynn Stout of UCLA Law School. In her article, "How Hedge Funds Create Criminals," Stout claims that hedge funds flash three critical signals that promote unethical behavior:

Signal 1: Authority Doesn’t Care about Ethics. Since the days of Stanley Milgram’s notorious electric shock experiments, science has shown that people do what they are instructed to do. Hedge-fund traders are routinely instructed by their managers and investors to focus on maximizing portfolio returns. Thus, it should come as no surprise that not all hedge-fund traders put obeying federal securities laws at the top of their to-do lists.

Signal 2: Other Traders Aren’t Acting Ethically. Behavioral experiments also routinely find that people are most likely to “follow their conscience” when they think others are also acting prosocially. Yet in the hedge-fund environment, traders are more likely to brag about their superior results than [about] their willingness to sacrifice those results to preserve their ethics.

Signal 3: Unethical Behavior Isn’t Harmful. Finally, experiments show that people act less selfishly when they understand how their selfishness harms others. This poses special problems for enforcing laws against insider trading, which is often perceived as a “victimless” crime that may even contribute to social welfare by producing more accurate market prices. Of course, insider trading isn’t really victimless: for every trader who reaps a gain using insider information, some investor on the other side of the trade must lose. But because the losing investor is distant and anonymous, it’s easy to mistakenly feel that insider trading isn’t really doing harm.

Brilliant Criminals?

The more we dig into what hedge funds actually do, the more we find that insider-trading is just one of many unethical strategies used to rig bets. Their goal always is to find a sure thing. And the only sure way to secure such infallible investments is to cheat.

  • At the height of the housing bubble, large banks colluded with hedge funds to sell mortgage-related securities that were designed to fail so that the hedge funds could collect insurance on that failure. (This is exactly like building a home that will burn down in three months so that you, the seller and builder, can collect the insurance.)

  • High frequency hedge funds set up their super-computers next to the stock exchanges so they get the information a few nanoseconds before the rest of us. This allows them to deploy automated systems to front-run our trades. Between the time you press your E-trade button and the time the trade actually goes through, a high-frequency trader is buying what you want and selling it back to you for a few pennies more. By systematically fleecing stock-market participants, high-frequency traders extract $5 to $20 billion a year from the rest of us.

  • Jim Cramer (host of CNBC's "Mad Money") admits to planting false stories with his media colleagues while he was running a successful hedge fund. Through manipulating the media, Cramer was able to move stocks in the direction he wanted in order to cash in. In a startling kiss-and-tell online interview he admits that the hedge fund game consists of one lie after the other. Furthermore, he says that if you're not willing to lie, cheat and violate the law, "maybe you shouldn't be in the game."  

  • To provide even more incentive for hedge fund managers to cheat their way to riches, the federal tax code rewards them with a special tax loophole called "carried interest." As a result, billionaire hedge fund managers pay a lower tax rate than the rest of us, and neither political party has the nerve to remedy this blatant injustice.

Let us now praise famous hedge funds?  

Because so few of us know these stories, and because so few of us feel comfortable wading into the muck of high finance, hedge fund moguls preen about the universe bestowing a small part of their ill-gotten gains upon institutions that can help them enhance their reputations. Central Park and the New York Public Library are receiving $100 million each from prominent hedge fund managers seeking to polish their images. Colleges want hedge fund managers on their boards and in charge of their endowments. Non-profits, even progressive ones, kiss up to them, hoping to score big donations. Pension funds scramble to invest in hedge funds, looking to secure a share of the booty.  

But very few have the nerve to ask where hedge fund riches really come from. If you're receiving such largess, you don't want to know if the money is tainted. Better to pretend that these guys are just brilliant investors with the uncanny gift for making 30 percent a year, year after year after year.  

All of us should be grateful that our Wall Street-riddled government still has honest prosecutors like Preet Bharara who are not afraid to ferret out the cheats and put them away. So far his Manhattan office has secured 81 indictments against hedge fund managers and traders, 74 of whom have either have pled guilty or have been convicted.

Only another 10,000 or so to go.

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Reefer Madness Started in Mexico

May 23, 2013 - 4:10pm
Spanish paranoia and propaganda about indigenous toking gave birth to Mexico’s drug wars.

The following excerpt from Home Grown: Marijuana and the Origins of Mexico's War on Drugs, by Isaac Campos. It is a summary the author's thesis at the University of Cincinnati, first printed as the introduction toHome Grown. (University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2012).

The Conventional Wisdom is that marijuana prohibition was first imposed early in the 20th century by sheriffs in southwestern states seeking to increase their power over Mexican immigrants who had brought the herb from south of the border, where smoking it was part of the culture, no big deal. Then, the Conventional Wisdom continues, Hearst newspapers and Harry Anslinger’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics concocted and publicized stories of marijuana use causing violence and insanity, which led to Congress imposing a federal ban in 1937.

Around the year 1530, a conquistador named Pedro Quadrado left his small village near Seville and traveled to the New World. After actively participating in the ongoing conquest of Mexico, Quadrado received a coveted encomienda, or royal tribute and labor grant, to undertake the cultivation of cannabis there. He thus became the first person to cultivate this species in the Americas. 

That, anyway, is what he himself claimed, and probably with justification, for it was not until June 1545 that the Spanish Crown first ordered its subjects to sow cannabis in the New World. 

For the Spanish, cannabis was first and foremost a fiber plant. They called it cáñamo.Tall, green, and gangly, of round seeds and “abominable smell,” this was an extraordinarily common cultivar whose strong fibers, or hemp, made clothing, rope, and the broad and sturdy sails that powered the greatest sea-borne empire the world had ever known. Thus began the long journey of cannabis through Mexican history, one that would eventually see its meaning and identity radically transformed.

The first signs of that transformation appeared in the 1770s. By then, cannabis had found its way into local medical-religious practice, and its seeds and leaves were sold by herb dealers under the namepipiltzintzintlis, or “the most noble princes.” 

Though still cherished by Spanish officials as an industrial fiber, there were growing rumors that, for Indians, it also facilitated visions, communion with the devil, and sometimes madness. Prohibitionist edicts briefly raised the profile of these noble princes, but the name pipiltzintzintlis would soon fade into obscurity, as would (temporarily) the drug use of cannabis in Mexico.

A new generation of nationalist botanists would rediscover cannabis drugs during the 1850s. These men become interested in cataloging Mexico’s “indigenous” natural wonders, and in the process they noted that “certain Mexicans” had begun smoking the stuff. The word pipiltzintzintlis was no longer in use, but two other local designations, both of which helped to reinforce the plant’s apparent indigeneity, had emerged: rosa maría and mariguana.

The former would also soon disappear, leaving the wordmariguana, or marihuana—or as it is now spelled in English, “marijuana”—to conquer the lexica of most of the Western Hemisphere.

Though these nationalist botanists saw potential value in this “local” drug plant, their writings would soon be overwhelmed by the view that this was a quintessentially indigenous “narcotic” causing madness, violence, and mayhem. In 1886, for example, a Mexican medical student delivered a thesis in the field of legal medicine on marijuana and the insanity defense, concluding that “the criminal responsibility of an individual in a state of acute marijuana intoxication should be exactly the same as that of the maniac,” namely none. 

By 1898, Mexico City’s leading daily could claim that “for years the press has described horrifying crimes, criminal eccentricities and suicides, which place before the court of public opinion individuals whose type oscillates between furious madmen and criminals worthy of being placed before the firing squad, and one after another case demonstrates that the murderer, the rapist, the insubordinate, the presumed suicide, and the scandalous acted under the influence of marihuana.”

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, hundreds of newspaper stories described marijuana’s effects in similar fashion.

Descriptions like this one of marijuana’s effects not only were standard during the late 19th and early 20th centuries but also went virtually unchallenged. As I demonstrate in chapter four, a close analysis of more than 400 Mexican newspaper articles —drawn from over a dozen publications, both liberal and conservative, and all describing the effects of marijuana— reveals that not a single article questioned this basic stereotype. 

Given that these papers were published in an environment of significant media competition and that they routinely lambasted each other for untruths and sensationalism, this unblemished record is quite extraordinary. Furthermore, there is evidence that lower-class Mexicans, most of whom were illiterate, were equally convinced of marijuana’s frightening effects. As one commentator revealed in 1908: “The horror that this plant inspires has reached such an extreme that when the common people . . . see even just a single plant, they feel as if in the presence of a demonic spirit. Women and children run frightened and they make the sign of the cross simply upon hearing its name.”

In 1920, after labeling marijuana a threat to “degenerate the race,” Mexican sanitary authorities banned the drug nationwide, 17 years prior to similar legislation in the United States.

Originally an industrial fiber symbolizing European imperial expansion, cannabis had been transformed by the dawn of the twentieth century into a quintessentially indigenous, and putatively dangerous, Mexican drug plant. Thus, in 1920, after labeling marijuana a threat to “degenerate the race,” Mexican sanitary authorities banned the drug nationwide, 17 years prior to similar legislation in the United States. 

For those readers familiar with the existing historical and social scientific scholarship on drugs in North America, much of this may come as a surprise. The War on Drugs is routinely described as “America’s War on Drugs” and the drug problem as an “American disease,” where “America” means the United States and the rest of the Americas have been cajoled or forced into cooperating. 

Global drug prohibition has recently been portrayed as a kind of “informal American cultural colonization,” while Latin America has been identified as a place where, prior to U.S. involvement, substances like marijuana and peyote were an accepted part of “Indian and Latin American culture.”

The problem is not that historians have looked deeply at the origins of drug prohibition in Latin America and gotten it all wrong. The problem is that historians simply have not looked deeply at the origins of drug prohibition in Latin America. 

Not a single monograph exists, for example, on the birth of these policies in Mexico. This is a remarkable fact given the tremendous political, social, and economic costs that the War on Drugs have produced in that country over the last century. Drug prohibition is the sine qua non of the War on Drugs. Without prohibition, there is no black market, and without a black market, there are no “narcotraffickers” to demonize, no illicit drug users to incarcerate, and no national security threat to declare. 

Scholars who date the War on Drugs to Richard Nixon’s formal declaration of that “war” in 1971, or to the Reagan-era militarization of the conflict, are missing the forest for the trees. 

That is why scholars who date the War on Drugs to Richard Nixon’s formal declaration of that “war” in 1971, or to the Reagan-era militarization of the conflict, are missing the forest for the trees. Nixon merely intensified an antidrug crusade that formally began at the federal level in the United States (and Mexico) in the early 20th century. 

Certainly that “war” became more militarized in the late 1980s, but neither was this completely new. Mexico’s military, for example, had been eradicating drugs intended for the U.S. market since the late 1930s. In sum, the origins of the War on Drugs lie in the legal and ideological roots of prohibition. With respect to marijuana in North America, those origins have their deepest roots in Mexico.

Marijuana also provides a simply fascinating case study for U.S.-based historians interested in the ideological foundations of drug prohibition. It is a substance whose inclusion among “Schedule 1” drugs in the United States is often cited as a fanatical excess of extremist drug warriors, an unscientific designation proving that politics, not rationality, drives the War on Drugs. It is a compelling argument. After all, there is not a single death on record that can be attributed to overindulgence in marijuana, while serious research has long demonstrated that alcohol and tobacco are generally more habit-forming and unhealthy for their users than is cannabis.

Yet despite today’s typical view of marijuana as a “soft” drug in comparison to, say, the opiates and cocaine, Mexicans of a century ago believed it to be perhaps the “hardest” drug of them all, one that triggered sudden paroxysms of delirious violence. Could marijuana really have produced these effects?

And, whatever the answer, what was it about the historical circumstances of the day that made such descriptions so eminently believable? How is it possible that not a single newspaper or scientific source seriously challenged their veracity? 

Finally, how did the radical transformation of cannabis’s meaning occur in Mexico between the sixteenth and twentieth century? Where in the plant’s long journey through Mexican history did these changes occur?

These are the questions around which this book is organized. By answering them, I hope to better explain marijuana’s prohibition in Mexico, itself a key to understanding the origins of the War on Drugs in that country and, to a certain extent, in North America as a whole. 

Ultimately, the evidence will demonstrate that marijuana prohibition can only be described as a kind of “informal American cultural colonization” if one takes the radical step of considering Mexico as worthy of the “America” label as its powerful neighbor, for in this case the influence mostly flowed northward. Marijuana’s prohibition in Mexico was, in short, home grown.

Reprinted with permission from University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2012.

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Dr. Radut