Sunday, October 09, 2005

The War Against America

In America today, a myth has emerged that liberals and Democrats are opposed to religion and believers. When a legal dispute arose over the fate of Terri Schiavo, a woman in a persistent vegetative state with half of her brain gone, it was said that liberals wanted her to die. Democrats have been accused of trying to keep Christians off federal court benches. To a frightening and dangerous degree, the language of politics has been infused — and confused — with polarizing religious notions.

Supposed liberal hostility to religion is a myth. In fact, enlightened religious leadership is always more attuned to the left than the right. I’ve yet to meet a leftist who rejected Gandhi because he was a Hindu or Dr. King because he was a Baptist. Jesus supposedly advised his followers to sell their worldly goods and give their money to the poor. Is that the talk of a capitalist or a socialist?

The neo-conservatives who have invaded Washington couch their views in religious terms, but their actions run exactly counter to their professed beliefs. They seek conformity, not freedom. They stand opposed to all but the narrowest definitions of community. Ignorant of our history, they call the United States a Christian nation. Smiling on tv, they pass judgment upon others — in direct contravention of their lord’s command. Not content to cast the first stone, they demand that stone be wrapped in legislation.

As Terry Randall (the founder of Operation Rescue and, more recently, a spokesman for Terri Schiavo’s parents) observed in 1993:

Our goal is a Christian nation…We have a biblical duty; we are called by God to conquer this country. We don’t want equal time. We don’t want pluralism…Theocracy means God rules.

Unfortunately, god’s will has achieved some notoriety for its very mysteriousness. Consequently, politi-priests who speak for him pose a threat.

In the name of god, the politico-religious right is advancing a deeply anti-communitarian agenda — disaster capitalism. In foreign affairs, disaster capitalism is the tendency of the United States to devastate a country and then hire U.S. firms to rebuild the targeted nation. Along the way, we change the rules and regulations to make free markets and promote democracy. Translated into English, that means structuring markets to insure U.S. domination and creating political systems that preclude involvement by the citizens.

In domestic affairs, we let nature do the damage. Otherwise, the process is the same.

Michael Brown, the seriously unqualified head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, finally resigned. Unfortunately, his departure came too late to make a difference to the people along the Gulf coast affected by Hurricane Katrina. And while it is good to see him gone, it is important to remember that he was only part of the problem.

F.E.M.A. was created by President Jimmy Carter in 1979. After 9/11, it was subsumed under the so-called Department of Homeland Security, headed by Michael Chertoff. Chertoff had the power to begin preparations for relief before Katrina struck. Food, water, generators, tents, and other supplies could have been — and should have been — stockpiled at inland locations, ready for use. At a September 1 press conference, Chertoff said that just such steps had made a rapid response possible.

His claim was nearly true. There was pre-deployment of some supplies, but it began too late and fell far short of meeting the need. In fact, the response was so slow and so poor that even main-stream news noticed, however briefly.

Speaking in New Orleans, George Bush, Junior said that Katrina highlighted the need for greater involvement of the military in disaster relief because the military is capable of massive, logistical support on short notice. On Wednesday, September 21, Donald Rumsfeld said he was prompted by Bush’s comment to consider an increased role for the military in disaster response.

In fact, the military has long provided support for F.E.M.A. and was ready to do so before Katrina made landfall. When F.E.M.A. was an independent agency, it had direct access to the President and could task other agencies in the event of an emergency. The military routinely made contingency plans to assist F.E.M.A., should assistance be needed. But as a small part of the Department of Homeland Security, F.E.M.A. lost money, clout, and the ability to prepare.

That is why the public was treated to the sad blame game played by the administration. The first explanation was that Louisiana governor Blanco had not declared an emergency so the federal government was powerless to intervene. In fact, Blanco did declare an emergency before Katrina struck; Bush did, too! But all of that is beside the point. It was known in advance that Katrina could affect two or three states, making it a federal problem. Homeland Security could have mobilized without waiting for Blanco or Bush, but they didn’t.

Ownership America
Katrina’s winds and rain scoured three states and exposed the misguided notions of the Bush regime. One such belief is privatization of government functions. Before chaos descended upon New Orleans, Lieutenant General Steve Blum reportedly informed Donald Rumsfeld that 200,000 troops were available for service in the Gulf. Nevertheless, Homeland Security hired private security forces. Pacifica News reported that mercenaries from the company Blackwater U.S.A. were contracted by F.E.M.A. to patrol in New Orleans — at $350 per day for each man. (Democracy Now, 9/12/2005) Blackwater is perhaps best known for its work in Iraq. The killing in Falujah of four Blackwater troops, euphemistically described as contractors, sparked the massive, criminal U.S. retaliation there.

New Orleans became a militarized zone. Businessmen in New Orleans hired Israeli mercenaries to protect gated communities. Reportedly, more than 200 private security firms started operations in New Orleans. There may be order in New Orleans tonight, but law is another matter altogether.

The flat-tax enterprise zone pushed by the administration to promote reconstruction sounds fair; it sounds as if everyone pays the same cut. But the Clear Skies Initiative sounded like a good idea, too; No Child Left Behind sounded like a great idea. In November of last year, I wrote at length on an interview of Pulitzer-prize winning tax reporter David Cay Johnston on Air America radio. Here is part of what he said about the flat tax:

Johnston: But, on the business side, here’s how it works. If you’re in business and you own the business — not securities, but you own the business, like Steve Forbes owns his business — you get to write off the entire value of the business the first day the law takes effect. So, Steve Forbes, let’s imagine, assume, he spends ten million dollars a year on his lifestyle — he’s totally profligate. And then he deducts the value of his business, a billion dollars. So he reports to the government his financial position — minus $990,000,000. Tax owed — zero. The next year, he gets to adjust that for inflation; it’ll go back up over a billion dollars; he spends ten million. He’ll never pay taxes — ever.

…For those who have already got their fortunes, this is a great tax because you won’t have to pay again. For those people who are trying to create new wealth — which is the mantra you hear constantly now, we need to reduce taxes to create new wealth — you’re going to be stuck with a tax bill. It will be a huge hurdle, if you want to build wealth, to getting there…It’s been sold to be something it’s not. It is a tax exemption bill for those people who have more assets than they’ll spend in their lifetime.

—The entire article is available here.

Of course, while all this is going on, individuals displaced by the flood are piling up debt. The new bankruptcy law goes into effect this month, meaning thousands of people will be driven ever deeper into red ink with no prospect of relief.

Proponents of the law assumed that people only go into bankruptcy because of poor spending choices. In fact, most bankruptcies are caused by illness, loss of employment, or divorce. When the law was being debated, Democrats proposed an amendment insuring possible bankruptcy protection for our troops in Iraq — and the Republicans voted it down. The National Guard soldier who left his job to serve in Iraq and who cannot make his mortgage payments today cannot protect his house by filing for bankruptcy. (Hey, he made poor choices.) Now, Republicans are arguing against exemptions for victims of Katrina.

The recovery effort in the Gulf is the blunt edge of “ownership America.” It means no-bid, cost-plus contracts to insiders, with accountability thrown to the winds. There is no incentive for companies to reduce costs; in fact, the incentive is exactly the other way around.

We have seen this process in action in Iraq, and the results are not promising. The U.S. contributed $13 billion to the Coalition Provisional Authority to begin the rebuilding of Iraq, and roughly $9 billion went away somewhere. $1 billion in military aid also disappeared, allegedly stolen by a figure in the new Iraqi government.

The absence of oversight, here and abroad, is a major weapon in the war against America. Combined with tax cuts for the rich, the absence of oversight forces wage-earners to subsidize the very corruption undermining their communities.

Killing Communities
In response to Katrina, Bush suspended the Davis-Bacon Act of 1931 requiring federal contractors to pay prevailing wages to workers in construction projects.

Some contend that Davis-Bacon imposes added labor costs in what is obviously an economically hazardous environment — an argument which makes no sense when the entire country is footing the bill. Davis-Bacon actually could speed recovery by increasing consumption by workers in the affected area. Some contend that Davis-Bacon imposes burdensome record keeping requirements on small businesses. That may be, but the problem in New Orleans is not a surfeit of small construction businesses contracted by the federal government. The problem facing New Orleans is a surfeit of big businesses, even huge businesses, contracted by the federal government and dominating the market.

That scenario is mirrored in another facet of New Orleans’s calamity: local economic forces which simply do not want to restore New Orleans. Democracy Now reported that some wealthy figures were bringing in laborers from Texas for the clean-up effort. A truck driver who delivered produce in New Orleans for $15 an hour might be powerfully motivated to work for half that if it meant saving his home. But for major players, the goal is not to bring the people of New Orleans home. The goal is to disburse them.

The New Orleans diaspora means that decisions about the fate of the city will not be made by the citizens of New Orleans. The future of the Big Easy is in the hands of politically connected businessmen who foresee a real estate boom when large numbers of homes or small businesses are demolished and the owners cannot afford to rebuild. They envision a new New Orleans very different from the city swamped by Katrina.

Last June, in a stunning 5-to-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the town of New London, Connecticut could assert eminent domain and force homeowners to sell their homes — not to make way for a public works project, but to make the land available for private developers who want to put up office buildings and condominiums. In effect, the court said that people could be driven from their homes if someone richer could move in and pay more taxes.

Matt Dery, one of the affected homeowners in New London, has been fighting for six years to keep his property — which has been held by the Dery family since the 1890s.

The ruling that rich, potential property owners have more rights than poorer, actual property owners has sparked eminent domain controversies around the country. Columbia University is examining the possibility of expanding its campus by pushing local government to invoke eminent domain on the University’s behalf. In Romulus, Michigan, a cabinet maker named Ed Hathcock won the battle in state courts to protect his shop from private developers backed by the city. But if the fight reaches the U.S. Supreme Court, Hathcock might not fare so well.

The most creative response to government-sanctioned extortion has come from businessman Logan Clements. He is petitioning the town of Weare, New Hampshire to take Justice David Souter’s home so that Clements can build a hotel. Souter voted with the majority in the Connecticut land grab.

During Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts’s confirmation hearings, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, he sidestepped questions about eminent domain. The reason is clear enough, even if he won’t enunciate it. Many home and business owners in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana face the prospect of losing their land, without any chance to rebuild, through eminent domain exercised for the benefit of shopping mall developers and hotel chains. In Biloxi, Mississippi, concerns ran so high that city councilor Bill Stallworth promised stricken residents that the city had no plans to use eminent domain to take their property.

While our attention was fixed on the Gulf coast, Republicans in Congress were not idle. They voted against an inquiry into the Downing Street Memos. And they voted against a congressional probe of the outing of C.I.A. operative Valerie Plame.

The decision to remain willfully ignorant about the Plame affair was especially timely since reporter Judith Miller was released from jail after agreeing to identify her source for information on Plame. It was Irving Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Vice-President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff. And in the first weekend of October, George Stephanopoulos asserted that sources in the government allege Cheney and Bush were involved in discussions over the Plame leak. So it makes sense that Bush lawyer Harriet Miers, the head of the Bush team assessing Supreme Court nominees, was nominated to the Supreme Court. Miers, a born-again Christian, also assisted in protecting Bush’s Texas Air National Guard records — a scandal which implicated the Texas Lottery Commission, then chaired by Harriet Miers.

Senator (and erstwhile doctor) Bill Frist
Senator Bill Frist (R –TN) is the Senate majority leader. Earlier this year, he diagnosed Terri Schiavo on the basis of a video. As a Christian, he decided that the Senate filibuster rule should be changed because Democrats were trying to keep people of faith off federal courts. Now, he is under federal investigation for insider stock trading in a family-owned company.

The Frist family owns the Hospital Corporation of America. For nearly a decade, H.C.A. was under investigation for defrauding Medicaid and Tricare (the program which covers members of the military and their families). The government alleged that H.C.A. kept two sets of books and fraudulently overcharged the government by inflating expenses — thereby violating both the law and medical ethics. H.C.A. allegedly gave kick-backs and gifts to physicians who referred patients to H.C.A. H.C.A. allegedly provided cooperative doctors with free rent, free equipment, and free drugs.

For a while, it looked as though Bill Frist’s brother, Tom, would be indicted — along with other executives. Then the Bush, Junior team took power. H.C.A. was fined $1.7 billion — a new record for fines — but no executives faced charges or jail time. The biggest fraud against the government in U.S. history produced a record fine and not one single perpetrator. It was a crime committed by no one.

Pat Robertson’s Gold Mine
A decade ago, televangelist Marion Gordon “Pat” Robertson narrowly avoided prosecution for diverting donations from his tax-exempt, non-profit charity — Operation Blessing. He used the money to transport diamond mining equipment to the African Development Corporation, his company in Zaire. (Max Blumenthal, “Pat Robertson’s Katrina Cash,” The Nation)

Robertson owned a gold mine for a while, Freedom Gold, in Liberia, one of the lower hells on earth. (Chuck Fager, “Mining Controversy: Robertson Takes Flak for Gold-Mining Venture,” Christianity Today) Charles Taylor, the beast who ruled Liberia at the time, was Robertson’s partner; Taylor held 10% of Freedom Gold. You may recall the controversy a couple of years ago over possible U.S. intervention in Liberia because Taylor’s boys were butchering people who didn’t see things their way.

Although Robertson said that proceeds from his mine helped fund humanitarian and evangelical work in Liberia, he reportedly abandoned the mine and allowed it to fail, leaving debts in Liberia and the international mining service sector. Link

In a 1999 deal with the Bank of Scotland, Robertson was slated to be the chairman of the bank’s American holding company. (Greg Palast, “Pat Robertson: ‘I don’t have to be nice to the spirit of the Antichrist”) The deal fell through because of publicity attending Robertson’s comments on gays and minorities. In a stroke of stupidity or genius, he described Scotland as a “dark place” teeming with homosexuals. The details are not clear, but the Bank of Scotland subsequently paid Robertson between $9 and $16 million to terminate the agreement. Link

Not long after that, Robertson formed the Global Business Development Network to do business in China. (Colbert I. King, “Pat Robertson and His Business Buddies,” Washington Post) Apparently, the idea is to sell China lists of potential customer email addresses compiled by Robertson’s Christian Broadcast Network.

After Katrina, Operation Blessing was listed for one or two days on F.E.M.A.’s website as one of the top three religious entities to which relief donations should be sent. But within days, Press Secretary Scott McClellan was quizzed about how F.E.M.A. selected Robertson’s fund; and Operation Blessing was transferred to another site with a much longer list of charitable organizations.

Estimates of Marion Robertson’s net worth range between $140 million and $1 billion.

Curiously, Robertson abdicated his ordination in 1988 to pursue a career in national politics. Perhaps he didn’t genuinely believe his religious affiliation was an asset. In any case, he unsuccessfully sought the Republican presidential nomination in 1988 and 1992. Today, he is a rich and influential man advocating the assassination of the President of an oil producing nation. Presumably, as a man of the cloth, he once encountered the lunatic claim that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. Does Marion Robertson want to go to hell? Does he intend to renounce his wealth on his deathbed? Or has he found a teeny-tiny camel small enough to pass through the eye of a needle?

Let’s Go Citgo!
Oil companies have recently recorded record profits. I don’t mean record profits for the industry; I mean record profits for any industry at any time.

Now, winter is coming. Peoples Energy in Illinois, like many other suppliers, is warning of 30% increases in the cost of heating oil. Months ago, I wrote about Bush administration cuts in home-heating subsidies, cuts which primarily impact the elderly on fixed incomes. Well, there is another perspective on the issue.

You may recall that televangelist Pat Robertson recently announced support for the assassination of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, saying:

“It's a whole lot cheaper than starting a war. And I don't think any oil shipments will stop.”

Venezuela and Cuba offered to send aid to the U.S. after Katrina. The Cubans have extensive experience with hurricanes; they even have an international school for training medical personnel in hurricane relief operations. They were ready to send doctors with medical packs into hard-hit areas immediately after the storm. The U.S. turned them down.

Hugo Chavez offered to send electrical generators to enforcement and recovery agencies. He offered food and water. But perhaps most importantly, he offered cheap gasoline to the stricken areas. The U.S. turned him down.

The real thrust of Chavez’s offer, however, passed almost unnoticed in the press. Speaking through an interpreter on September 19, Chavez told Democracy Now about his larger vision:

Chavez: So here we have CITGO, this oil company. We have the CITGO company here in the United States. This is a Venezuelan company, so let’s have a look at the U.S. map the distribution area of CITGO in the U.S. We are present in 14,000 gas stations in the U.S., and here we have a different refineries, asphalt refineries, eight refineries that we have in the U.S., the plants for filling units, the third, refineries, terminals, and so on.

We want to use this infrastructure to help the poor populations. We have made some progress. We have given instructions to the president of CITGO, Felix Rodriguez…We supply every day to the U.S. 1.5 million barrels of oil…and we refine, here, close to 800,000 barrels a day…So we would like to take 10 percent of what we refine, those products, and to offer these products in several modalities to the poor populations. And the pilot project will be starting in Chicago; we are already operating in Chicago. Well, let’s hope that there’s not going to be any obstacle by the government opposed to this project being implemented; but we will be working in those poor populations. We have some allies, local partners, and we have a number of communities, and we are going to donate some heating oil, because the winter is close. And for the school transportation to school, for the Mexican neighborhood which is the largest in Chicago — La Villita is the name of this neighborhood, with close to 900,000 inhabitants — and so there are other neighborhoods with Hispanics and Latinos. October the 14th we’re going to start with these pilot projects with small communities and schools, but there are other pilot projects that will start in November in Boston, and here in New York.

So different modalities, with local authorities, mayors, organized communities, religious groups. So we are very pleased to announce this. And to help just with a drop, and a grain of contribution to help these low-income populations, Blacks or Hispanics or also White population so we’re just starting with this project.

While the Bush administration tells its citizenry to prepare for the cold, the Chavez administration looks at the foreigners to the north and offers real help. What on earth is going on?

Watergate? Is that one of those filters for your faucet?
The Watergate conspiracy against President Richard Nixon was a complicated case. Nevertheless, it was essentially one story with a lot of updates and additions. By contrast, the neo-cons in Washington today provide us with one new story after another, each one worse than Watergate.

House majority leader Tom Delay has been forced to step down because he has been indicted for money laundering. His friend, lobbyist Jack Abramoff, is under scrutiny because of an apparent protection racket and money laundering. Most recently, Abramoff has been questioned about a gangland-style murder in Florida. The victim was Konstantinos “Gus” Boulis, who sold a fleet of gambling ships to a group which included Abramoff. Abramoff and an associate allegedly defrauded investors to the tune of $60 million dollars by using a fake wire transfer — wire fraud.

The Office of Management and Budget procurement officer, David Hossein Safavian, almost didn’t get the job. His nomination was held up for a year because he had not disclosed connections to a lobbying firm with ties to terrorist supporters. Still, he was confirmed, putting him in a position to control government spending policies. He hit a snag last August, when he was indicted in Florida on conspiracy and wire fraud charges. After Katrina, however, his political clout skyrocketed when Republicans pushed a bill through Congress which dramatically increased limits on no-bid contracts. The bill also removed certain long-standing provisions: set-asides for veterans and small businesses, and the preference for buying American products. Link

On September 16, Safavian resigned. On September 19, he was arrested by the F.B.I. for making false statements to the government in the Abramoff investigation. Apparently, Safavian was trying to help Jack Abramoff get control of two federally managed properties to build a Hebrew school.

The neo-cons sully everything they touch. Remember the prescription drug program for senior citizens? They lied about the cost and made it illegal for the government to negotiate prices with the drug companies. Remember the “journalists” paid by the administration to promote certain programs? The General Accounting Office has concluded that was a crime. The only problem is that the Justice Department has no interest in prosecuting anyone. General Colin Powell, former Secretary of State, has come forward with regrets about his role in the Iraq weapons situation comedy. Our new ambassador to the United Nations thinks there shouldn’t be a United Nations; our new attorney general thinks it is permissible to hold prisoners without charges and torture them.

It is worthwhile to remember how we got into this mess. Election practices and regulations vary widely across the country. Many systems cannot be audited, meaning there is no way to determine the accuracy of the results. While the government claims to promote democracy abroad, it actively undermines democracy at home. The United States of America has perhaps the most disorganized and questionable federal election systems in the developed world.

Former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James Baker led a federal commission to review election procedures. The commission’s report was released on September 19, 2005. That evening, President Carter spoke at the American University, where he talked about the findings and recommendations of the commission.

During the question and answer period following his address, he was asked the inevitable question; and he gave the inevitable answer:

Well, I would say that in the year 2000, the country failed abysmally in the presidential election process. There’s no doubt in my mind that Al Gore was elected president. (Sustained applause.) He received the most votes nationwide; and in my opinion, he also received the most votes in Florida. And the decision was made, as you know, by a 5-to-4 vote on a highly partisan basis by the U.S. Supreme Court. So I would say in 2000 there was a failure.

And it’s been one failure after another since then.