A new Congressional Budget Office report examining trends in family wealth confirms what most Americans know from experience: The poor are buried in debt, the middle class is stuck, and—shocker—the most wealthy are piling up all the green.
The report, released late last week, puts its findings simply: "The distribution [of wealth] among the nation's families was more unequal in 2013 than it had been in 1989." It lays out some stark figures: Families in the top 10 percent of wealth distribution now hold more than three-quarters of the nation's total family wealth. Those falling within the 51st to 90th percentiles owned less than a quarter of it. Meanwhile, the bottom 50 percent own just 1 percent of the total share.
Putting it into dollars, the CBO notes that the average wealth of the top 10 percent of families was $4 million compared with $36,000 for those in the 26th to 50th percentiles. The wealth of families in the bottom 25 percent was in the red, because of an average of about $13,000 in debt, up from around $1,000 in debt prior to the Great Recession. (CBO defines wealth as a family's assets—including business and home equities, other real estate holdings, financial securities, bank deposits, and pension accounts—minus its debts.)
Even though Americans at all levels took a hit during the recession, the top 10 percent has seen its losses return at a much faster rate than everyone else.
Congressional Budget Office
Looking at income, the CBO report confirmed that the gap between the rich and the rest has continued to grow. It found that the top 1 percent has seen its average real income grow 192 percent since 1979, compared with a 46 percent increase for middle-income families.
Congressional Budget Office
The report also found an increase in debt among the bottom 25 percent of families, due in part to rising student loan debt, which jumped from $24,000 to $36,000 on average between 2007 and 2013.
Congressional Budget Office
The report was conducted at the request of Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.). "The reality, as this report makes clear, is that since the 1980s there has been an enormous transfer of wealth from the middle class and the poor to the wealthiest people in this country," the former Democratic presidential candidate said in a statement. "There is something profoundly wrong when the rich keep getting richer and virtually everyone else gets poorer." Sanders also took to Twitter to condemn the wealth gap highlighted in the CBO report.
A total of 15 million families were in debt in 2013, with an average indebtedness of $32,000.
Children are among the dead following a suspected chlorine gas attack in Aleppo on Wednesday.
Bryan SchatzAug. 12, 2016 5:19 PM
Men inspect damage after an airstrike on Aleppo's rebel held al-Hallak neighbourhood on June 2, 2016.
For the third time in just two weeks, chemical weapons were reportedly used against civilians in northern Syria. The United Nations is investigating the most recent case, which came Wednesday when barrel bombs thought to contain chlorine gas dropped on the rebel-controlled neighborhood of Zubdiya in eastern Aleppo, killing at least four people, including a mother and her two children, and wounding around 60 more.
Both the Assad regime and opposition forces have denied responsibility, but several witnesses and monitoring groups have said that helicopters dropped explosive barrel bombs on the affected neighborhood. Opposition forces, it bears noting, do not have helicopters.
Staffan de Mistura, UN special envoy for Syria, told reporters yesterday that there is "a lot of evidence" that the attack took place, and if confirmed, would amount to a war crime. Images from the alleged attack, showing men and young children being fitted with oxygen masks, circulated widely on social media.
A doctor in Aleppo told Amnesty International that the victims "were all suffering from the same symptoms, mainly coughing and shortness of breath. I could easily smell chlorine on people's clothes." And Hamza Khatib, the manager of Aleppo's Al Quds hospital, told Reuters on Wednesday that he was preserving fragments from the bombs and pieces of clothing to submit as evidence.
"We expect more bombing...They know that the world will not respond."
Chlorine gas is classified as a choking agent, and when inhaled, fills the lungs with liquid and can lead to asphyxiation. Using it in a weapon is banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention, which the Assad regime agreed to join after a 2013 UN investigation found that the nerve agent Sarin was used against civilians in Eastern Ghouta, killing 1,429 people, more than 400 of them children. The Syrian government subsequently turned over thousands of tons of chemical agents, but chlorine, because of its necessary and legal use in other areas, was not among the chemicals that had to be destroyed. Since then, there have been dozens of chlorine gas attacks that have not been countered with any repercussions from the international community.
This latest example comes shortly after rebel forces—led largely by hardline jihadi groups including Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly known as the Al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra)—broke the Syrian government's siege of Aleppo. The siege had cut off the city's last supply lines, subjecting the 250,000 residents remaining in the rebel-held east to a lack of food, water, and medical supplies. Shortly after the siege broke, doctors warned of revenge air strikes, including a fear that the regime would resort to chemical weapons.
"Looking at the regime's track record, they are ready to do anything to try to win back power," Zaher Sahloul, a Syrian-American doctor who was recently in Aleppo, told the Telegraph. "We expect more bombing...They know that the world will not respond."
Rebels from Jabhat al-Nusra wave their brigade flag in northern Syria in 2013.
It's a US-designated terrorist organizationthat is also one of the most effective fighting forces among the rebels in the Syria conflict. While managing to gain some measure of support from the Syrian population, it has also committed countless atrocities. Now it's serving a key role in efforts to break the Syrian regime's siege of Aleppo—considered by many to be one of the intractable conflict's most significant battles.
Jabhat al-Nusra had long been Al Qaeda's affiliate in Syria, but in a widely publicized video released late last week, it finally confirmed rumors of a break: "We declare the complete cancelation of all operations under the name Jabhat al-Nusra, and the formation of a new group operating under the name Jabhat Fateh al-Sham," said the group's leader, Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, in his first ever video appearance.
"For many people, this will be perceived as a concession to their Syrian nationalist cause," notes Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and author of the acclaimed book, The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of a Insurgency. He explains that the break put Nusra in an unprecedented position of power because it can potentially galvanize the large number of armed rebels in Syria "to unity initiatives that will by necessity be heavily influenced by Nusra itself."
We asked Lister to give us a low-down on these complex developments. What is this new organization? What is its relationship now with Al Qaeda and it's importance in the region? A day before Jolani's announcement, Lister released an in-depth paper profiling Jabhat al-Nusra. Here, he breaks down the group's significance, what the Al Qaeda split means, and JFS's role in the current battle for Aleppo.
Mother Jones: How has Nusra been able to establish itself as one of the most powerful armed actors in Syria? Why has its strategy been more effective than that of other armed groups, including ISIS?
Syria's broad spectrum opposition feel necessarily in a relationship of dependence with Jabhat al-Nusra.
Charles Lister: Jabhat al-Nusra—Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (or JFS) as they're now known—has played a methodically implemented long game in Syria, focused on attaining a position of military and social influence and, crucially, establishing a relationship of interdependence with Syria's opposition. Since late-2012, Jabhat al-Nusra has also practiced what I call "controlled pragmatism," in which it has by and large consciously avoided especially harsh and extremist behaviors in order to present a friendly face to local communities. As with some of Al Qaeda's global strategists in 2008 through 2010, Jabhat al-Nusra has at times spoken of local communities as if they were infants that had—through no fault of their own—never been brought up to believe and understand what it meant to be a pure Muslim and live in a credible "Islamic" society.
By practicing this "controlled pragmatism," Jabhat al-Nusra has sought to teach people and engender in them a steadily more conservative Islamist mindset. In a sense, it has been slowly socializing populations into accepting its presence within their midst with the objective of one day transforming that acceptance into discernible and sustainable support.
MJ: What is Nusra's relationship with other rebel groups in the actual conflict?
CL: Jabhat al-Nusra has demonstrated an especially effective capability on the battlefield. Man-for-man, the group is almost certainly the most powerful armed group in Syria's conflict. As a result of this and of the especially intense and seemingly intractable nature of the conflict against the Assad regime, Syria's broad spectrum opposition feel necessarily in a relationship of dependence with Jabhat al-Nusra for the sake of securing consistent success—defensive and offensive—on the battlefield. It's worth mentioning here, however, that nowadays, Jabhat al-Nusra and Syria's more moderate Free Syrian Army units both explicitly refuse to coordinate directly with each other on the battlefield. Instead, the reality is more complex—they are at times willing to contribute forces toward the same broader offensive operation, but their fighters are never fighting side by side. There's an important level of nuance there, too often missing from reporting on the conflict.
MJ: Right now there is a major effort to break the siege of Aleppo. What is Nusra's role?
CL: JFS has taken on a preeminent role in this new offensive, which was something that at least 26 separate armed opposition groups had been planning for several weeks, as a contingency plan for when Aleppo city fell under siege. The objective is to break the siege on Aleppo and place a portion of regime-controlled western Aleppo under opposition siege.
JFS has assumed responsibility for coordinating offensive operations on several fronts in which the Islamist Jaish al-Fateh coalition is running things. Other front lines are dominated by the moderate Fatah Halab operations room, which Jabhat al-Nusra refuses to directly cooperate with. In short, it's a very substantial opposition operation, perhaps one of the largest of the entire conflict, but the dynamics between groups involved remains as complex as ever. Should the siege be successfully broken, even for short time, JFS will undoubtedly stand to benefit yet further.
MJ: You write that Nusra's transnationally minded jihadi movement will likely have an "invaluable launching pad for attacking Europe and the United States for years to come." How do you see this potentially unfolding?What do you consider to be their ultimate goals?
CL: Listen, JFS as of today is a jihadi movement that has chosen strategically to focus its resources into a local jihad, limited to within Syria's borders. With the explicit approval of Al Qaeda's central leadership, JFS has chosen to highlight this localism now in order to best ensure its efforts since 2012 are not wasted. Syrians remain adamant that a considerable portion of JFS' Syrian members are not committed 'transnational' jihadis, but merely conservative-minded Islamists who chose to join a particularly effective fighting group. I think in 2013-2014, this point almost certainly had some truth in it, though I worry that as the conflict has continued and the suffering on the ground has worsened, the ratio of "rescuable" to "now-committed" may have reversed in the wrong direction.
Nonetheless, at a leadership level, there can be little doubting that JFS still closely resembles any typical Al Qaeda jihadi movement. Having Abu Mohammed al-Jolani sit alongside a decadeslong jihadi veteran like Ahmed Salemeh Mabrouk sent that message as clear as day. Therefore, JFS' long game in Syria should be seen as a strategy aimed at achieving a sequenced set of accomplishments, the final one of which will be the establishment of jihadi rule in at least part of Syria, which itself will represent the emergence of a launching pad for external attacks. With international attention and pressure set only to rise on JFS and with the conflict in Syria seemingly with no end, I can't see JFS not having that eventual state of affairs as their ultimate objective.
MJ: Are you suggesting that eventually a greater threat to our long-term stability may not be be ISIS, but instead, JFS?
In all likelihood, ISIS will begin to revert back into its pre-state days, in which it operated as a ruthless and effective terrorist organization, committing a sustained campaign of micro-level attacks.
CL: ISIS has never sought outright popular support—it rules people by force of threats and intimidation. While it undoubtedly developed itself into a formidable military force capable of astutely exploiting immense instability and lack of governance in places like Syria and Iraq, I cannot foresee ISIS as having a genuinely sustainable territorial base. In all likelihood, ISIS will begin to revert back into its pre-state days, in which it operated as a ruthless and effective terrorist organization, committing a sustained campaign of micro-level attacks. Jabhat al-Nusra, on the other hand, has developed for itself a model that gives it a far improved chance of acquiring a sustainable rule over territory, and certainly a long-term and capable presence within Syrian territory.
MJ: You highlight the US proposal to coordinate operations against Nusra with the Russian military as a legitimate but long overdue concern over Nusra. Has the US underestimated the group?
CL: I think I've been fairly hawkish on Nusra for a long time now—not so much based on a claim of them having immediate plans to launch attacks across the world, but based on an assessment that their long-game strategy of controlled pragmatism, localism, and gradualism was setting it up for the long-haul in Syria. I don't think we've ever seen a jihadi group anywhere in the world develop such a potentially effective model aimed at securing a long-term and substantial foothold in strategically valuable territory. For Nusra, Syria lends a special value, not least for its theological importance, but more practically for its borders with Europe and Israel. Basically, my assessment of Nusra's threat is based on the threat I think they could come to represent in the future, rather than the force posture they currently represent, which I do believe is locally focused.
MJ: You write that "external intervention alone will do nothing but empower Jabhat al-Nusra's increasingly accepted narrative within an already bitter Syrian opposition population." What would be a better tactic?
CL: The unfortunate genius of Jabhat al-Nusra's strategy and modus operandi in Syria has been that given its embedded status and its militarily interdependent relationship with the mainstream opposition, any external campaign against Nusra will necessarily be seen by ordinary Syrians supportive of the opposition as counter-revolutionary. I've literally just come out of a full-day meeting with the leaderships of all of Syria's most powerful armed opposition groups and every single one of them said this is how it would view US-Russian strikes on JFS "as an attack against the revolution." All universally warned that such action would only serve to drive more young Syrians into JFS' lap, undermining the more moderate nature of the revolution and opposition itself. That strikes me as a consequence we should do everything to avoid.
MJ: Last Friday, Jolani announced that Jabhat al-Nusra would no longer be, that they were forming a new group named Jabhet Fateh al-Sham, and that it would have no affiliation with "any external entity." In reality, does this mean a severing of ties with Al Qaeda?
Make no mistake, Al Qaeda is playing a critically important role in shaping this development and their thinking and strategizing will remain crucial for this new Jabhat Fateh al-Sham movement.
CL: Ultimately, very little will change in terms of Nusra as a group, how it behaves and what its objectives are. Make no mistake, Al Qaeda is playing a critically important role in shaping this development and their thinking and strategizing will remain crucial for this new Jabhat Fateh al-Sham movement. It will still oppose the most moderate of opposition groups in Syria, it will still be sectarian, and it will still ultimately seek the establishment of Islamic Emirates in Syria and the potential launching of external attacks on the West.
This should also not be seen as a loss for Al Qaeda—in fact, this may turn out to be to the international jihadi movement's long-term benefit. For some time the value of a more decentralized jihad has been considered by some of Al-Qaeda's highest ranking thinkers, and this appears to be the first sign that its value is being acknowledged.
MJ: What kind of impact does this have on the ground, both in terms of Jabhet Fateh al-Sham's own actions as well as how coalition partners view and engage with it?
CL: I don't think we really know yet. There is a small but very powerful grouping of independent religious clerics who were instrumental in convincing Nusra to dissolve its external ties and rebrand itself JFS. They are now working intensely on pushing the group to more clearly demonstrate a behavioral or ideological change beyond what we've heard so far. Just as there was very heavy pressure on Nusra to break ties to Al Qaeda, there is now especially heavy pressure on them to prove their words actually mean something. Intriguingly, although it has not been reported, there are at least eight senior Nusra commanders who have refused to go along with this new JFS identity, as they have aggressively disagreed with the idea of breaking relations with Al Qaeda. There are also well-placed reports of roughly 200 Nusra fighters having defected after the JFS announcement, mostly to even more hardline jihadi group Jund al-Aqsa. A few reportedly also went to ISIS.
I do think it was interesting that JFS' founding statement included a reference to the value of ijtihad, or independent decision-making on issues of Islamic jurisprudence. That's not the typical kind of language one would find in Al Qaeda materials. If it can demonstrate to Syria's more mainstream Islamist opposition groups that it truly is willing to accept varying interpretations of legal issues, then some portion of Syria's revolutionary society may be encouraged. But we don't see any sign of that—or anything else different—yet.
But he's still fallen far short of what criminal justice reform advocates say is needed.
Bryan SchatzAug. 4, 2016 3:03 PM
President Barack Obama speaking in Atlanta on August 1, 2016
By commuting the sentences of 214 inmates on Wednesday—including 67 people serving life sentences, almost all for nonviolent drug offenses—the White House announced that President Barack Obama has now granted more commutations than the previous nine presidents combined.
Yesterday's batch of commutations represents the most ever granted in a single move since 1900. It raises Obama's total number of commutations to 562 since entering office.
In a blog post, White House Counsel to the President Neil Eggleston noted that the individuals freed yesterday had been convicted under "outdated and unduly harsh" sentencing laws. In 2014, the Obama administration announced that it would make "meaningful changes to this country's approach to clemency," which was under scrutiny after pardon attorney Ronald L. Rodgers, responsible for advising on clemency cases, was removed from office for failing to accurately share key information in a high-profile clemency case. During Rogers' tenure,which ended in April 2014, Obama had granted fewer clemencies than any other modern president.
As Eggleston highlighted, Obama has now commuted more sentences than any president in almost a century. That said, thousands of inmates remain in federal prison for nonviolent drug charges, many of them holdovers from the draconian sentencing laws that came out of the war on drugs. In 2011, then-Attorney General Eric Holder announced a new clemency initiative, claiming that 10,000 inmates "were potentially going to be released" as a result. But 562 is a far cry from that. And as Mother Jones has reported, dozens more are serving life sentences without parole for marijuana-only crimes, a group of people whom advocates view as an obvious choice for the kind of clemency reform that's been promised. (One marijuana lifer, Ramon Gonzalez, had his sentence commuted in yesterday's round.)
The Office of the Pardon Attorney, which is responsible for vetting and recommending clemency petitions to the White House, has long been accused of being dominated by career prosecutors, shrouded in secrecy, and hampered by a restrictive, bureaucratic culture. In January, the previous pardon attorney, Deborah Leff, left her post in frustration after just two years on the job, writing in her resignation letter, "Given that the Department has not fulfilled its commitment to provide the resources necessary for my office to make timely and thoughtful recommendations on clemency to the President, given your statement that the needed staff will not be forthcoming, and given that I have been instructed to set aside thousands of petitions for pardon and traditional commutation, I cannot fulfill my responsibilities as Pardon Attorney."
In May, Quartz pointed out that although Obama has been racking up a historic number of commutations, he has been "one of the least merciful presidents ever" when it comes to pardons, which, rather than simply reducing a sentence, wipe an individual's criminal past clean.
As Eggelston himself wrote yesterday on the White House blog, "Our work is far from finished."
And Aleppo's kids are trying to create a no-fly-zone.
Bryan SchatzAug. 2, 2016 4:37 PM
An image being shared on Twitter under the #AleppoUnderSiege hashtag
Last month, the Syrian regime successfully encircled the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo and choked off the last remaining rebel supply line. Since then, Syrian forces and their Russian allies have been bombarding the rebel-held half of the city, striking civilian infrastructure including hospitals and markets, and creating what many are calling a "humanitarian catastrophe." Muhammad al-Zein, an administrator who helps oversee hospitals in the rebel-held part of Aleppo, told the Wall Street Journal that airstrikes have hit five hospitals, a clinic, and a medical training institute since pro-Assad forces took control of Castello Road, which had been an access point for food and medical supplies into the besieged city.
"What is happening is to break the will of the opposition," said al-Zein. "They are targeting the infrastructure in order to create a feeling of defeat and surrender."
On Sunday, however, various rebel forces—with the former Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, now called Jabhat Fath al-Sham, in a lead role—launched a coordinated surprise counter-offensive in an attempt to break the siege, and over the next two days gained ground against Assad, Hezbollah, and other allied forces, according to Syria Direct. Observers are calling the battle one of the biggest offensives in the Syrian civil war. Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, writing of its significance in MEI's Monday Briefing yesterday, called it a "major pivot point" in the Syrian crisis:
The city's Free Syrian Army-dominated Fatah Halab coalition has been planning for the siege since late-2015, with its senior leaders saying they now intend to adopt guerrilla warfare tactics to retaliate against regime targets. More significant, however, has been the reaction of armed groups outside the city. Commanders from Latakia, Hama, Idlib and Aleppo have coalesced to launch what may be the most substantial opposition operation of the conflict. Personal, political and ideological differences have been shelved in order to prioritize a counter-offensive that within 36-hours looks to have the potential to at least temporarily break the siege of the city.
Meanwhile, the city's children have been burning tires in the streets to create do-it-yourself, no-fly-zones to try to prevent Syrian and Russian airstrikes. The burning tires are creating a smoke curtain, impeding the visibility of aircraft carrying out bombing raids. "It's causing confusion for the jets and a diversion for the offensive on the ground that aims to break the siege," Rami Jarrah, a journalist covering Syria, told the BBC. "Everyone is doing it, but to participate in the resistance this is really the only thing the children can do."
Updates, images, and videos of the counteroffensive and the residents' self-made no-fly-zones are spreading on social media under the hashtag #AleppoUnderSiege and #AngerforAleppo. Here's a collection of recent updates: