MoJo Author Feeds: Peter Van Buren | Mother Jones Mother Jones logo en This Is Why a $15 Minimum Wage Is Not the Answer <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p><em>This <a href="" target="_blank">story</a> first appeared on the </em><a href="" target="_blank">TomDispatch</a><em> website.</em></p> <p>When presidential candidate Bernie Sanders talks about income inequality, and when other candidates speak about the minimum wage and food stamps, what are they really talking about?</p> <p>Whether they know it or not, it's something like this.</p> <h3 class="subhed">My Working Life Then</h3> <p>A few years ago, I wrote about my experience enmeshed in the minimum-wage economy, chronicling the collapse of good people who could not earn enough money, often working 60-plus hours a week at multiple jobs, to feed their families. I saw that, in this country, people trying to make ends meet in such a fashion still had to resort to <a href="" target="_blank">food benefit programs</a> and charity. I saw an employee fired for stealing lunches from the break room refrigerator to feed himself. I watched as a co-worker secretly brought her two kids into the store and left them to wander alone for hours because she couldn't afford child care. (As it happens, <a href="" target="_blank">29 percent</a> of low-wage employees are single parents.)</p> <p><a href="" target="_blank"><span class="inline inline-left"><img alt="" class="image image-preview" height="33" src="" title="" width="100"></span></a></p> <p>At that point, having worked at the State Department for 24 years, I had been booted out for being a <a href=",_joining_the_whistleblowers'_club" target="_blank">whistleblower</a>. I wasn't sure what would happen to me next and so took a series of minimum-wage jobs. Finding myself plunged into the low-wage economy was a sobering, even frightening, experience that made me realize just how ignorant I had been about the lives of the people who rang me up at stores or served me food in restaurants. Though millions of adults work for minimum wage, until I did it myself I knew nothing about what that involved, which meant I knew next to nothing about 21st-century America.</p> <p>I was lucky. I didn't become one of those millions of people trapped as the "working poor." I made it out. But with all the election talk about the economy, I decided it was time to go back and take another look at where I had been, and where too many others still are.</p> <h3 class="subhed">My Working Life Now</h3> <p>I found things were pretty much the same in 2016 as they were in 2012, which meant&mdash;because there was no real improvement&mdash;that things were actually worse.</p> <p>This time around, I worked for a month and a half at a national retail chain in New York City. While mine was hardly a scientific experiment, I'd be willing to bet an hour of my minimum-wage salary ($9 before taxes) that what follows is pretty typical of the New Economy.</p> <p>Just getting hired wasn't easy for this 56-year-old guy. To become a sales clerk, peddling items that were generally well under $50 a pop, I needed two previous employment references and I had to pass a credit check. Unlike some low-wage jobs, a mandatory drug test wasn't part of the process, but there was a criminal background check and I was told drug offenses would disqualify me. I was given an exam twice, by two different managers, designed to see how I'd respond to various customer situations. In other words, anyone without some education, good English, a decent work history, and a clean record wouldn't even qualify for minimum-wage money at this chain.</p> <p>And believe me, I earned that money. Any shift under six hours involved only a 15-minute break (which cost the company just $2.25). Trust me, at my age, after hours standing, I needed that break and I wasn't even the oldest or least fit employee. After six hours, you did get a 45-minute break but were only paid for 15 minutes of it.</p> <p>The hardest part of the job remained dealing with&hellip;well, some of you. Customers felt entitled to raise their voices, use profanity, and commit Trumpian acts of rudeness toward my fellow employees and me. Most of our "valued guests" would never act that way in other public situations or with their own co-workers, no less friends. But inside that store, shoppers seemed to interpret "the customer is always right" to mean that they could do any damn thing they wished. It often felt as if we were penned animals who could be poked with a stick for sport, and without penalty. No matter what was said or done, store management tolerated no response from us other than a smile and a "Yes, sir" (or ma'am).</p> <p>The store showed no more mercy in its treatment of workers than did the customers. My schedule, for instance, changed constantly. There was simply no way to plan things more than a week in advance. (Forget accepting a party invitation. I'm talking about child care and medical appointments.) If you were on the closing shift, you stayed until the manager agreed the store was clean enough for you to go home. You never quite knew when work was going to be over and no cellphone calls were allowed to alert babysitters of any delay.</p> <p>And keep in mind that I was lucky. I was holding down only one job in one store. Most of my fellow workers were trying to juggle two or three jobs, each with constantly changing schedules, in order to stitch together something like a half-decent paycheck.</p> <p>In New York City, that store was required to give us <a href="" target="_blank">sick leave</a> only after we'd worked there for a full year&mdash;and that was generous compared with practices in many other locales. Until then, you either went to work sick or stayed home unpaid. Unlike New York, most states do not require such a store to offer any sick leave, ever, to employees who work less than 40 hours a week. Think about that the next time your waitress coughs.</p> <h3 class="subhed">Minimum Wages and Minimum Hours</h3> <p>Much is said these days about raising the minimum wage (and it should be raised), and indeed, on January 1, 2016, <a href="" target="_blank">13 states</a> did raise theirs. But what sounds like good news is unlikely to have much effect on the working poor.</p> <p>In New York, for instance, the minimum went from $8.75 an hour to the $9.00 I was making. New York is relatively generous. The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 and <a href="" target="_blank">21 states</a>&nbsp;require only that federal standard. Presumably to prove some grim point or other, Georgia and Wyoming officially mandate an even lower minimum wage and then unofficially require the payment of $7.25 to avoid Department of Labor penalties. Some Southern states set <a href="" target="_blank">no basement figure</a>, presumably for similar reasons.</p> <p>Don't forget: Any minimum-wage figure mentioned is before taxes. Brackets vary, but let's knock even 10 percent off that hourly wage just as a reasonable guess about what is taken out of a minimum-wage worker's salary. And there are expenses to consider, too. My round-trip bus fare every day, for instance, was $5.50. That meant I worked most of my first hour for bus fare and taxes. Keep in mind that some workers have to pay for child care as well, which means that it's not impossible to imagine a scenario in which someone could actually come close to losing money by going to work for short shifts at minimum wage.</p> <p>In addition to the fundamental problem of simply not paying people enough, there's the additional problem of not giving them enough hours to work. The two unfortunately go together, which means raising the minimum rate is only part of any solution to improving life in the low-wage world.</p> <p>At the store where I worked for minimum wage a few years ago, for instance, hours were capped at 39 a week. The company did that as a way to avoid providing the benefits that would kick in once one became a "full-time" employee. Things have changed since 2012&mdash;and not for the better.</p> <p>Four years later, the hours of most minimum-wage workers are capped at 29. That's the&nbsp;<a href="" target="_blank">threshold</a>&nbsp;after which most companies with 50 or more employees are&nbsp;<a href="" target="_blank">required</a>&nbsp;to pay into the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) fund on behalf of their workers. Of course, some minimum-wage workers get fewer than 29 hours for reasons specific to the businesses they work for.</p> <h3 class="subhed">It's Math Time</h3> <p>While a lot of numbers follow, remember that they all add up to a picture of how people around us are living every day.</p> <p>In New York, under the old minimum-wage system, $8.75 multiplied by 39 hours equaled $341.25 a week before taxes. Under the new minimum wage, $9.00 times 29 hours equals $261 a week. At a cap of 29 hours, the minimum wage would have to be raised to $11.77 just to get many workers back to the same level of take-home pay that I got in 2012, given the drop in hours due to the Affordable Care Act. Health insurance is important, but so is food.</p> <p>In other words, a rise in the minimum wage is only half the battle; employees need enough hours of work to make a living.</p> <p>About food: If a minimum wage worker in New York manages to work two jobs (to reach 40 hours a week) without missing any days due to illness, his or her yearly salary would be $18,720. In other words, it would fall well below the Federal Poverty Line of $21,775. That's food stamp territory. To get above the poverty line with a 40-hour week, the minimum wage would need to go above $10. At 29 hours a week, it would need to make it to $15 an hour. Right now, the highest minimum wage at a state level is in the District of Columbia at $11.50. As of now, <a href="" target="_blank">no state</a> is slated to go higher than that before 2018. (Some cities do set their own higher minimum wages.)</p> <p>So add it up: The idea of raising the minimum wage ("<a href="" target="_blank">the fight for $15</a>") is great, but even with that $15 in such hours-restrictive circumstances, you can't make a loaf of bread out of a small handful of crumbs. In short, no matter how you do the math, it's nearly impossible to feed yourself, never mind a family, on the minimum wage. It's like being trapped on an <a href="" target="_blank">M.C. Escher</a> staircase.</p> <p>The federal minimum wage&nbsp;<a href="" target="_blank">hit its high point</a>&nbsp;in 1968 at $8.54 in today's dollars and while this country has been a paradise in the ensuing decades for what we now call the "<a href="" target="_blank">One Percent</a>," it&rsquo;s been downhill for low-wage workers ever since. In fact, since it was last raised in <a href="" target="_blank">2009</a> at the federal level to $7.25 per hour, the minimum has lost about 8.1 percent of its purchasing power to inflation. In other words, minimum-wage workers actually make less now than they did in 1968, when most of them were probably kids earning pocket money and not adults feeding their own children.</p> <p>In adjusted dollars, the minimum wage peaked when the Beatles were still together and the Vietnam War raged.</p> <h3 class="subhed">Who Pays?</h3> <p>Many of the arguments against raising the minimum wage focus on the possibility that doing so would put small businesses in the red. This is disingenuous indeed, since <a href="" target="_blank">20 megacompanies</a> dominate the minimum-wage world. Walmart alone employs 1.4 million minimum-wage workers; Yum Brands (Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, KFC) is in second place; and McDonald's takes third. Overall, <a href="" target="_blank">60 percent</a> of minimum-wage workers are employed by businesses not officially considered "<a href="" target="_blank">small</a>" by government standards, and of course carve-outs for really small businesses are possible, as was done with Obamacare.</p> <p>Keep in mind that not raising wages costs you money.</p> <p>Those minimum wage workers who can't make enough and need to go on food assistance? Well, Walmart isn't paying for those food stamps (now called SNAP), you are. The annual bill that states and the federal government foot for working families making poverty-level wages is <a href="" target="_blank">$153 billion</a>. A single Walmart Supercenter costs taxpayers between $904,542 and $1.75 million per year in public assistance money. <a href="" target="_blank">According to</a> Florida Congressman Alan Grayson, in many states Walmart employees are <a href="" target="_blank">the largest group</a> of Medicaid recipients. They are also the single-biggest group of food stamp recipients. In other words, those everyday low prices at the chain are, in part, subsidized by your tax money. Meanwhile, an estimated <a href="" target="_blank">18 percent</a> of food stamps (SNAP) are spent at Walmart.</p> <p>If the minimum wage goes up, will spending on food benefits programs go down? Almost certainly. But won't stores raise prices to compensate for the extra money they will be shelling out for wages? Possibly. But don't worry&mdash;raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour would mean a Big Mac would cost all of <a href="" target="_blank">17 cents</a> more.</p> <h3 class="subhed">Time Theft</h3> <p>My retail job ended a little earlier than I had planned because I committed time theft.</p> <p>You probably don't even know what time theft is. It may sound like something from a sci-fi novel, but minimum-wage employers take time theft seriously. The basic idea is simple enough: If they're paying you, you'd better be working. While the concept is not invalid per se, the way it's used by the megacompanies reveals much about how the lowest-wage workers are seen by their employers in 2016.</p> <p>The problem at my chain store was that its in-store cafe was a lot closer to my work area than the time clock where I had to punch out whenever I was going on a scheduled break. One day, when break time on my shift came around, I only had 15 minutes. So I decided to walk over to that cafe, order a cup of coffee, and then head for the place where I could punch out and sit down (on a different floor at the other end of the store).</p> <p>We're talking an extra minute or two, no more, but in such operations every minute is tabulated and accounted for. As it happened, a manager saw me and stepped in to tell the cafe clerk to cancel my order. Then, in front of whoever happened to be around, she accused me of committing time theft&mdash;that is, of ordering on the clock. We're talking about the time it takes to say, "Grande, milk, no sugar, please." But no matter, and getting chastised on company time was considered part of the job, so the five minutes we stood there counted as paid work.</p> <p>At $9 an hour, my per-minute pay rate was 15 cents, which meant that I had time-stolen perhaps 30 cents. I was, that is, being nickel and dimed to death.</p> <h3 class="subhed">Economics Is About People</h3> <p>It seems wrong in a society as wealthy as ours that a person working full time can't get above the poverty line. It seems no less wrong that someone who is willing to work for the lowest wage legally payable must also give up so much of his or her self-respect and dignity as a kind of tariff. Holding a job should not be a test of how to manage life as one of the working poor.</p> <p>I didn't actually get fired for my time theft. Instead, I quit on the spot. Whatever the price is for my sense of self-worth, it isn't 30 cents. Unlike most of this country's working poor, I could afford to make such a decision. My life didn't depend on it. When the manager told a handful of my co-workers watching the scene to get back to work, they did. They couldn't afford not to.</p> <p><em>Peter Van Buren blew the whistle on State Department waste and mismanagement during the "reconstruction" of Iraq in his book </em>We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People<em>. A TomDispatch regular, he writes about current events at </em>We Meant Well<em>. His latest book is </em>Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent<em>. His next work will be a novel, </em>Hooper's War<em>. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from <a href=";id=1e41682ade">here</a>.</em></p></body></html> Politics Income Inequality Tom Dispatch Top Stories Thu, 10 Mar 2016 11:00:12 +0000 Peter Van Buren 299091 at War Porn: Hollywood Has Been Making the Same Movie About American War for 75 Years <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p><em>This <a href="" target="_blank">story</a> first appeared on the </em><a href="" target="_blank">TomDispatch</a><em> website.</em></p> <p><a href="" target="_blank"><span class="inline inline-left"><img alt="" class="image image-preview" height="33" src="" title="" width="100"></span></a></p> <p>In the age of the all-volunteer military and an endless stream of war zone losses and ties, it can be hard to keep Homeland enthusiasm up for perpetual war. After all, you don't get a 9/11 every year to refresh those images of the barbarians at the airport departure gates. In the meantime, Americans are clearly finding it difficult to remain emotionally roiled up about our confusing wars in Syria and Iraq, the sputtering one in Afghanistan, and various raids, drone attacks, and minor conflicts elsewhere.</p> <p>Fortunately, we have just the ticket, one that has been punched again and again for close to a century: Hollywood war movies (to which the Pentagon is always eager to lend a <a href="">helping hand</a>).<em>American Snipe</em><em>r</em>, which started out with the celebratory <a href="">tagline</a> "the most lethal sniper in US history" and now has the <a href="">tagline</a> "the most successful war movie of all time," is just the latest in a long line of films that have kept Americans on their war game. Think of them as war porn, meant to leave us perpetually hyped up. Now, grab some popcorn and settle back to enjoy the show.</p> <p><br><strong>There's Only One War Movie</strong></p> <p>Wandering around YouTube recently, I stumbled across some good old government-issue propaganda. It was a video clearly meant to stir American emotions and prepare us for a long struggle against a determined, brutal, and barbaric enemy whose way of life is a challenge to the most basic American values. Here's some of what I learned: our enemy is engaged in a crusade against the West; wants to establish a world government and make all of us bow down before it; fights fanatically, beheads prisoners, and is willing to sacrifice the lives of its followers in inhuman suicide attacks. Though its weapons are modern, its thinking and beliefs are 2,000 years out of date and inscrutable to us.</p></body></html> <p style="font-size: 1.083em;"><a href="/politics/2015/03/american-sniper-world-war-ii-propaganda-movie-hollywood"><strong><em>Continue Reading &raquo;</em></strong></a></p> Politics Film and TV Media Military Tom Dispatch Thu, 19 Mar 2015 20:07:02 +0000 Peter Van Buren 270636 at Once Again, American Weapons-Makers Are Making a Killing in Iraq <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p><em>This <a href="" target="_blank">story</a> first appeared on the </em><a href="" target="_blank">TomDispatch</a><em> website.</em></p> <p><a href="" target="_blank"><span class="inline inline-left"><img alt="" class="image image-preview" height="33" src="" title="" width="100"></span></a></p> <p>The current American war in Iraq is a struggle in search of a goal. It began in August as a humanitarian intervention, morphed into a campaign to protect Americans in-country, became a plan to defend the Kurds, followed by a full-on crusade to defeat the new Islamic State (IS, aka ISIS, aka ISIL), and then... well, something in Syria to be determined at a later date.</p> <p>At the moment, Iraq War 3.0 simply drones on, part bombing campaign, part mission to train the collapsed army the US military created for Iraq War 2.0, all amid a miasma of incoherent mainstream media coverage. American troops are tiptoeing closer to combat (assuming you don't count <a href="">defensive operations</a>, getting <a href="">mortared</a>, and flying <a href="">ground attack</a> helicopters as "combat"), even as they act like <a href="">archaeologists</a> of America's warring past, exploring the ruins of abandoned US bases. Meanwhile, Shia militias are using the conflict for the <a href="">ethnic cleansing</a> of Sunnis and <a href="">Iran</a> has become an ever-more significant player in Iraq's affairs. Key issues of the previous American occupation of the country&mdash;<a href="">corruption</a>, <a href="">representative</a> government, oil <a href="">revenue-sharing</a>&mdash;remain largely unresolved. The Kurds still keep "<a href="">winning</a>" against the militants of IS in the city of Kobani on the Turkish border without having "won."</p> <p>In the meantime, Washington's rallying cry now seems to be: "Wait for the <a href="">spring offensive</a>!" In translation that means: wait for the Iraqi army to get enough newly American-trained and -armed troops into action to make a move on Mosul. That city is, of course, the country's second largest and still ruled by the new "caliphate" proclaimed by Islamic State head Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. All in all, not exactly inspiring stuff.</p> <p>You can't have <a href=",_seven_bad_endings_to_the_new_war_in_the_middle_east/">victory</a> if you have <a href=",_iraq_and_the_battle_of_the_potomac/">no idea</a> where the finish line is. But there is one bright side to the situation. If you can't create Victory in <a href=",_back_to_the_future_in_iraq/">Iraq</a> for future VI Day parades, you can at least make a profit from the disintegrating situation there.</p> <p><br><strong>Team America's Arms Sales Force</strong></p> <p>In the midst of the December holiday news-dumping zone, the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency (<a href="">DSCA</a>) quietly <a href="">notified</a> Congress of several pending arms deals for Iraq. DSCA is the Pentagon office responsible for coordinating arms agreements between American defense contractors and foreign buyers.</p> <p>Before those thousands of not-boots-on-the-ground troops started hemorrhaging back into Iraq late last year, DSCA personnel made up a significant portion of all US military personnel still <a href="">there</a>. Its staff members are, in fact, common in <a href="">US embassies</a> in general. This shouldn't be surprising, since the sales of weaponry and other kinds of war equipment are big business for a range of American companies, and the US government is more than happy to assist. In fact, there is even a <a href="">handbook</a> to guide foreign governments through the buying process.</p> <p>The DSCA operates under a mission statement which says the "US may sell defense articles and services to foreign countries and international organizations when the President formally finds that to do so will strengthen the security of the US and <a href="">promote world peace</a>." While the Pentagon carries out the heavy lifting, actual recommendations on which countries can buy US gear are made by the <a href="">secretary of state</a>, and then rubber-stamped by Congress.</p> <p><a href=""><img align="left" alt="" hspace="6" src=""></a>As for countries that can't afford US weaponry, Washington has the <a href="">Foreign Military Finance</a> program up its sleeve. This opens the way for the US government to pay for weapons for other countries&mdash;only to "promote world peace," of course&mdash;using your tax dollars, which are then recycled into the hands of military-industrial-complex corporations.</p> <p><br><strong>Iraq's Shopping List</strong></p> <p><strong>&nbsp;</strong>Here's part of what the US is getting ready to <a href="">sell</a> to Iraq right now:</p> <p>* 175 M1A1 Abrams main battle tanks;</p> <p>* 15 Hercules tank recovery vehicles (you can't have a tank without the tow truck);</p> <p>* 55,000 rounds of main gun ammunition for the tanks (the ammo needed to get the biggest bang for your bucks)</p> <p>And what will all that firepower cost? Just under <a href="">$3 billion</a>.</p> <p>Keep in mind that these are only the most recent proposed sales when it comes to tanks. In July, for example, General Dynamics received a <a href="">$65.3 million</a> contract to support the existing Iraq M1A1 Abrams program. In October, the US approved the sale of <a href="">$600 million</a> in M1 tank ammunition to that country. There have also been sales of all sorts of other weaponry, from <a href="">$579 million</a> worth of Humvees and <a href="">$600</a> million in howitzers and trucks to <a href="">$700 million</a> worth of Hellfire missiles. There are many more examples. Business is good.</p> <p>While the collapse of the Iraqi army and the abandonment of piles of its American weaponry, including at least <a href="">40 M1s</a>, to IS militants, helped create this new business opportunity for weapons-makers like General Dynamics, the plan to cash in on Iraq can be traced back to America's occupation of that country. Forward Operating Base Hammer, where both Private <a href="">Chelsea Manning</a> (she collecting State Department cables for WikiLeaks) and I (supervising State Department <a href="">reconstruction</a> efforts) lived for a year or so, was built across the street from the <a href="">Besmaya Firing Range</a>. That testing grounds was US-outfitted not just for the live firing of artillery, but for&mdash;you guessed it&mdash;<a href="">M1 tanks</a>. It was to be part of the pipeline that would keep an expensive weapons system heading into Iraq forever. In 2011, as US troops left the country, both facilities were "gifted" to the Iraqis to serve as logistics bases for training in, and the repair of, US-sold weapons.</p> <p>As I write this, American contractors still live on the remnants of Hammer, supporting the Iraqi army's use of whatever M1 tanks they didn't turn over to the Islamic State. On a contractor <a href=",-Iraq/reviews?id=c5c48be8413657a5&amp;from=overview&amp;irclick=reviewc">job-review site</a>, "job work/life balance" at the base gets an acceptable 3.5 stars from those working there and one American trainer even praises the fact that work starts and ends before the heat of the day (even if another complains that the only toilets available are still port-a-potties).</p></body></html> <p style="font-size: 1.083em;"><a href="/politics/2015/01/iraq-military-win-business-not-war"><strong><em>Continue Reading &raquo;</em></strong></a></p> Politics Iraq Tom Dispatch Fri, 16 Jan 2015 22:10:25 +0000 Peter Van Buren 268301 at We're Four Months Into the New Iraq War. Has Anything Gone Right? <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p><em>This <a href="" target="_blank">story</a> first appeared on the </em><a href="" target="_blank">TomDispatch</a><em> website.</em></p> <p>Karl von <a href="" target="_blank">Clausewitz</a>, the famed Prussian military thinker, is best known for his aphorism "War is the continuation of state policy by other means." But what happens to a war in the absence of coherent state policy?</p> <p><a href="" target="_blank"><span class="inline inline-left"><img alt="" class="image image-preview" height="33" src="" title="" width="100"></span></a></p> <p>Actually, we now know. Washington's Iraq War 3.0, Operation Inherent Resolve, is what happens. In its early stages, I asked sarcastically, "<a href=",_seven_bad_endings_to_the_new_war_in_the_middle_east/" target="_blank">What could possibly go wrong?</a>" As the mission enters its fourth month, the answer to that question is already grimly clear: just about everything. It may be time to ask, in all seriousness: What could possibly go right?</p></body></html> <p style="font-size: 1.083em;"><a href="/politics/2014/11/were-four-months-new-iraq-war-has-anything-gone-right"><strong><em>Continue Reading &raquo;</em></strong></a></p> Politics Iraq Military Tom Dispatch Mon, 10 Nov 2014 23:02:57 +0000 Peter Van Buren 264436 at 7 Worst-Case Scenarios in the Battle With ISIS <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p><em>This <a href="" target="_blank">story</a> first appeared on the </em><a href="" target="_blank">TomDispatch</a><em> website.</em></p> <p>You know the joke? You describe something obviously heading for disaster&mdash;a friend crossing Death Valley with next to no gas in his car&mdash;and then add, "What could possibly go wrong?"</p> <p><a href="" target="_blank"><span class="inline inline-left"><img alt="" class="image image-preview" height="33" src="" title="" width="100"></span></a></p> <p>Such is the Middle East today. The US is again at war there, bombing freely across Iraq and Syria, advising here, droning there, coalition-building in the region to loop in a <a href="" target="_blank">little more</a> firepower from a collection of recalcitrant allies, and searching desperately for some non-American boots to put on the ground.</p> <p>Here, then, are seven worst-case scenarios in a part of the world where the worst case has regularly been the best that's on offer. After all, with all that military power being brought to bear on the planet's most volatile region, what could possibly go wrong?</p> <p><strong>1. The Kurds</strong></p> <p>The lands the Kurds generally consider their own have long been divided among Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran. None of those countries wish to give up any territory to an independence-minded ethnic minority, no less find a powerful, oil-fueled Kurdish state on their borders.</p></body></html> <p style="font-size: 1.083em;"><a href="/politics/2014/10/7-worst-case-scenario-fight-isis-iraq-iran"><strong><em>Continue Reading &raquo;</em></strong></a></p> Politics Iraq Military Tom Dispatch Fri, 17 Oct 2014 18:57:29 +0000 Peter Van Buren 262716 at A Former Diplomat Explains Why Our Third War In Iraq Is Doomed <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p><em>This <a href="" target="_blank">story</a> first appeared on the </em><a href="" target="_blank">TomDispatch</a><em> website.</em></p> <p>I wanted to offer a wry chuckle before we headed into the heavy stuff about Iraq, so I tried to start this article with a suitably ironic formulation. You know, a <em>d</em><em>&eacute;j&agrave;-vu-</em>all-over-again kinda thing. I even thought about telling you how, in 2011, I contacted a noted author to blurb my book, <a href="" target="_blank"><em>We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People</em></a>, and he presciently declined, saying sardonically, "So you're gonna be the one to write the last book on failure in Iraq?"</p> <p><a href="" target="_blank"><span class="inline inline-left"><img alt="" class="image image-preview" height="33" src="" title="" width="100"></span></a></p> <p>I couldn't do any of that. As someone who cares deeply about this country, I find it beyond belief that Washington has again plunged into the swamp of the Sunni-Shia mess in Iraq. A young soldier now deployed as one of the 1,600 non-boots-on-the-ground there might have been eight years old when the 2003 invasion took place. He probably had to ask his dad about it. After all, less than three years ago, when dad finally came home with his head "<a href="" target="_blank">held high</a>," President Obama <a href="" target="_blank">assured</a> Americans that "we're leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq." So what happened in the blink of an eye?</p></body></html> <p style="font-size: 1.083em;"><a href="/politics/2014/09/diplomat-third-iraq-war-america-cant-win"><strong><em>Continue Reading &raquo;</em></strong></a></p> Politics Iraq Tom Dispatch Tue, 23 Sep 2014 22:21:22 +0000 Peter Van Buren 260871 at Another Casualty of the War on Terror: the Fifth Amendment <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p><em>This <a href="" target="_blank">story</a> first appeared on the </em><a href="" target="_blank">TomDispatch</a><em> website.</em></p> <p><a href="" target="_blank"><span class="inline inline-left"><img alt="" class="image image-preview" height="33" src="" title="" width="100"></span></a></p> <p>You can't get more serious about protecting the people from their government than the <a href="" target="_blank">Fifth Amendment</a> to the Constitution, specifically in its most critical clause: "No person shall be... deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." In 2011, the White House ordered the drone-killing of American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki without trial. It claimed this was a legal act it is prepared to <a href=",_the_divine_right_of_president_obama/" target="_blank">repeat</a> as necessary. Given the Fifth Amendment, how exactly was this justified? Thanks to a much contested, recently released but significantly redacted&mdash;about <a href="" target="_blank">one-third</a> of the text is missing&mdash;Justice Department white paper providing the basis for that extrajudicial killing, we finally know: the president in Post-Constitutional America is now officially judge, jury, and executioner.</p> <div class="inline inline-right" style="display: table; width: 1%"><img alt="" class="image" src="/files/surveillance_0_0.jpg"><div class="caption"><strong>Read <a href="" target="_blank">Peter van Buren's breakdown</a> of the destruction of the Fourth Amendment. </strong></div> </div> <p><strong>Due Process in Constitutional America</strong></p> <p>Looking back on the violations of justice that characterized British rule in pre-Constitutional America, it is easy to see the Founders' intent in creating the Fifth Amendment. A government's ability to inflict harm on its people, whether by taking their lives, imprisoning them, or confiscating their property, was to be checked by due process.</p> <p>Due process is the only requirement of government that is stated <a href="" target="_blank">twice</a> in the Constitution, signaling its importance. The Fifth Amendment imposed the due process requirement on the federal government, while the <a href="" target="_blank">Fourteenth Amendment</a> did the same for the states. Both offer a crucial promise to the people that fair procedures will remain available to challenge government actions. The broader concept of due process goes all the way back to the thirteenth-century <a href="" target="_blank">Magna Carta</a>.</p> <p>Due process, as refined over the years by the Supreme Court, came to take two forms in Constitutional America. The first was <a href="" target="_blank">procedural</a> due process: people threatened by government actions that might potentially take away life, liberty, or possessions would have the right to defend themselves from a power that sought, whether for good reasons or bad, to deprive them of something important. American citizens were guaranteed their proverbial "day in court."</p> <p>The second type, <a href="" target="_blank">substantive</a> due process, was codified in 1938 to protect those rights so fundamental that they are implicit in liberty itself, even when not spelled out explicitly in the Constitution. Had the concept been in place at the time, a ready example would have been slavery. Though not specifically prohibited by the Constitution, it was on its face an affront to democracy. No court process could possibly have made slavery fair. The same held, for instance, for the "right" to an education, to have children, and so forth. Substantive due process is often invoked by supporters of same-sex unions, who assert that there is a fundamental right to marry. The meaning is crystal clear: there is an inherent, moral sense of "due process" applicable to government actions against any citizen and it cannot be done away with legally. Any law that attempts to interfere with such rights is inherently unconstitutional.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p></body></html> <p style="font-size: 1.083em;"><a href="/politics/2014/07/death-due-process-america"><strong><em>Continue Reading &raquo;</em></strong></a></p> Politics Civil Liberties Tom Dispatch Thu, 24 Jul 2014 22:30:56 +0000 Peter Van Buren 256936 at 4 Ways the Fourth Amendment Won't Protect You Anymore <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p><em>This <a href="" target="_blank">story</a> first appeared on the </em><a href="" target="_blank">TomDispatch</a><em> website.</em></p> <p><a href="" target="_blank"><span class="inline inline-left"><img alt="" class="image image-preview" height="33" src="" title="" width="100"></span></a></p> <p>Here's a bit of history from another America: the Bill of Rights was designed to protect the people from their government. If the <a href=",_rip,_the_bill_of_rights/" target="_blank">First Amendment's</a> right to speak out publicly was the people's wall of security, then the Fourth Amendment's right to privacy was its buttress. It was once thought that the government should neither be able to stop citizens from speaking nor peer into their lives. Think of that as the essence of the Constitutional era that ended when those towers came down on September 11, 2001. Consider how privacy worked before 9/11 and how it works now in Post-Constitutional America.<br> &nbsp;</p> <p><strong>The Fourth Amendment</strong></p> <p>A response to British King George's excessive invasions of privacy in colonial America, the <a href="" target="_blank">Fourth Amendment</a> pulls no punches: "<em>The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.</em>"</p> <p>In Post-Constitutional America, the government might as well have taken scissors to the original copy of the Constitution stored in the National Archives, then crumpled up the Fourth Amendment and tossed it in the garbage can. The NSA revelations of Edward Snowden are, in that sense, not just a shock to the conscience but to the Fourth Amendment itself: our government spies on us. All of us. Without suspicion. Without warrants. Without probable cause. Without restraint. This would qualify as "<a href="" target="_blank">unreasonable</a>" in our old constitutional world, but no more.</p> <p>Here, then, are four ways that, in the name of American "security" and according to our government, the Fourth Amendment no longer really applies to our lives.<br> &nbsp;</p> <p><strong>The Constitutional Borderline</strong></p> <p>Begin at America's borders. Most people believe they are "in" the United States as soon as they step off an international flight and are thus fully covered by the Bill of Rights. The truth has, in the twenty-first century, become infinitely more complicated as long-standing practices are manipulated to serve the expanding desires of the national security state. The mining of words and concepts for new, darker meanings is a hallmark of how things work in Post-Constitutional America.</p> <p>Over the years, <a href="" target="_blank">recognizing</a> that certain situations could render Fourth Amendment requirements impractical or against the public interest, the Supreme Court crafted various exceptions to them. One was the "border search." The idea was that the United States should be able to protect itself by stopping and examining people entering the country. As a result, routine border searches without warrants are constitutionally "reasonable" simply by virtue of where they take place. It's a concept with a long history, enumerated by the First Congress in <a href="" target="_blank">1789</a>.</p> <p>Here's the twist in the present era: the definition of "border" has been changed. Upon arriving in the United States from abroad, you are not legally present in the country until allowed to enter by Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials. You know, the guys who look into your luggage and stamp your passport. Until that moment, you exist in a legal void where the protections of the Bill of Rights and the laws of the United States do not apply. This concept also predates Post-Constitutional America and the DHS. Remember the sorting process at Ellis Island in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? No lawyers allowed there.</p> <p>Those modest exceptions were all part of constitutional America. Today, once reasonable searches at the border have morphed into a vast "<a href=",_locking_down_the_borders/" target="_blank">Constitution-free zone</a>." The "border" is now a strip of land circling the country and extending <a href="" target="_blank">100 miles</a> inland that includes <a href="" target="_blank">two-thirds</a> of the US population. In this vast region, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) can <a href="" target="_blank">set up checkpoints</a> and conduct warrantless searches. At airports, American citizens are now similarly subjected to search and seizure as filmmaker <a href="" target="_blank">Laura Poitras</a>&mdash;whose work focuses on national security issues in general and Edward Snowden in the particular&mdash;knows firsthand. Since 2006, almost <a href="" target="_blank">every time</a> Poitras has returned to the US, her plane has been met by government agents and her laptop and phone examined.</p> <p>There are multiple similar high-profile cases (including those of a <a href="" target="_blank">Wikileaks researcher</a> and a <a href="" target="_blank">Chelsea Manning supporter</a>), but ordinary citizens are hardly exempt. Despite standing in an American airport, a pane of glass away from loved ones, you are not in the US and have no Fourth Amendment rights. How many such airport searches are conducted in the aggregate is unknown. The best information we have comes from a <a href="" target="_blank">FOIA request</a> by the ACLU. It revealed that, in the 18-month period beginning in October 2008, more than 6,600 people, about half of them US citizens, were subjected to electronic device searches at the border.</p> <p>Still, reminding us that it's possible to have a sense of humor on the road to hell, the CBP offers this undoubtedly inadvertent <a href="" target="_blank">pun</a> at its website: "It is not the intent of CBP to subject travelers to <em>unwarranted </em>scrutiny." (emphasis added)<br> &nbsp;</p> <p><strong>Making It All Constitutional In-House</strong></p> <p>Here's another example of how definitions have been readjusted to serve the national security state's overriding needs: the Department of Justice (DOJ) created a <a href="" target="_blank">Post-Constitutional interpretation</a> of the Fourth Amendment that allows it to access millions of records of Americans using only subpoenas, not search warrants.</p> <p>Some background: a warrant is court permission to search and seize something. As the Fourth Amendment makes clear, it must be specific: enter <a href="" target="_blank">Thomas Anderson's</a> home and look for hacked software. Warrants can only be issued on "probable cause." The Supreme Court <a href="" target="_blank">defined</a> probable cause as requiring a high standard of proof, or to quote its words, "a fair probability that contraband or evidence of a crime will be found in a particular place."</p> <p><a href="" target="_blank"><img align="left" alt="" hspace="6" src=""></a>A subpoena on the other hand is nothing more than a government order issued to a citizen or organization to do something, most typically to produce a document. Standards for issuing a subpoena are flexible, as <a href="" target="_blank">most</a> executive agencies can issue them on their own without interaction with a court. In such cases, there is no independent oversight.</p> <p>The Department of Justice now claims that, under the Fourth Amendment, it can simply <a href="" target="_blank">subpoena</a> an Internet company like Facebook and demand that they look for and turn over all the records they have on our Mr. Anderson. Their explanation: the DOJ isn't doing the searching, just demanding that another organization do it. As far as its lawyers are concerned, in such a situation, no warrant is needed. In addition, the Department of Justice believes it has the authority to subpoena multiple records, maybe even all the records Facebook has. Records on you? Some group of people including you? Everyone? We don't know, as sources of data like Facebook and Google are <a href="" target="_blank">prohibited</a> from <a href="" target="_blank">disclosing</a> much about the information they hand over to the NSA or other government outfits about you.</p> <p>It's easy enough to miss the gravity of this in-house interpretation when it comes to the Fourth Amendment. If the FBI today came to your home and demanded access to your emails, it would require a warrant obtained from a court after a show of probable cause to get them. If, however, the Department of Justice can simply issue a subpoena to Google to the same end, they can potentially vacuum up every Gmail message you've ever sent without a warrant and it won't constitute a "search." The DOJ has continued this practice even though in 2010 a federal appeals court <a href="" target="_blank">ruled</a> that bulk warrantless access to email violates the Fourth Amendment. An <a href="" target="_blank">FBI field manual</a> released under the Freedom of Information Act similarly makes it clear that the Bureau's agents don't need warrants to access email in bulk when it's pulled directly from Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, or other service providers.</p> <p>How far can the use of a subpoena go in bypassing the Fourth Amendment? Recently, the inspector general of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) issued a <a href="" target="_blank">subpoena</a>&mdash;no court involved&mdash;demanding that the Project On Government Oversight (<a href="" target="_blank">POGO</a>) <a href="" target="_blank">turn over</a> all information it has collected relating to abuses and mismanagement at VA medical facilities. POGO is a private, non-profit group, dedicated to assisting whistleblowers. The VA subpoena demands access to records sent via an encrypted website to POGO under a promise of anonymity, many from current or former VA employees.</p> <p>Rather than seek to <a href="" target="_blank">break the encryption</a> surreptitiously and illegally to expose the whistleblowers, the government has taken a simpler, if unconstitutional route, by simply demanding the names and reports. POGO has <a href="" target="_blank">refused to comply</a>, setting up a legal confrontation. In the meantime, consider it just another sign of the direction the government is heading when it comes to the Fourth Amendment.<br> &nbsp;</p> <p><strong>Technology and the Fourth Amendment</strong></p> <p>Some observers suggest that there is little new here. For example, the compiling of information on innocent Americans by J. Edgar Hoover's low-tech FBI back in the 1960s has been well documented. Paper reports on activities, recordings of conversations, and photos of meetings and trysts, all secretly obtained, exposed the lives of <a href="" target="_blank">civil rights leaders</a>, <a href="" target="_blank">popular musicians</a>, and <a href="" target="_blank">antiwar protesters</a>. From 1956 to at least 1971, the government also wiretapped the calls and conversations of Americans under the Bureau's counterintelligence program (<a href="" target="_blank">COINTELPRO</a>).</p> <p>But those who look to such history of government illegality for a strange kind of nothing-new-under-the-sun reassurance have not grasped the impact of fast-developing technology. In scale, scope, and sheer efficiency, the systems now being employed inside the US by the NSA and other intelligence agencies are something quite new and historically significant. Size matters.</p> <p>To avoid such encroaching digitization would essentially mean withdrawing from society, not exactly an option for most Americans. More of life is now online&mdash;from banking to travel to social media. Where the NSA was once limited to traditional notions of communication&mdash;the written and spoken word&mdash;new possibilities for following you and intruding on your life in myriad ways are being created. The agency can, for instance, now collect images, photos, and video, and subject them to <a href=";_r=0" target="_blank">facial recognition</a> technology that can increasingly put a name to a face. Such technology, employed today at <a href="" target="_blank">casinos</a> as well as in the secret world of the national security state, can pick out a face in a crowd and identify it, taking into account age, changes in facial hair, new glasses, hats, and the like.</p> <p>An offshoot of facial recognition is the broader category of biometrics, the use of physical and biological traits unique to a person for identification. These can be anything from ordinary fingerprinting to cutting-edge DNA records and iris scans. (Biometrics is already big business and even has its own <a href="" target="_blank">trade association</a> in Washington.) One of the world's <a href="" target="_blank">largest</a> known collections of biometric data is held by the Department of State. As of December 2009, its Consular Consolidated Database (CCD) contained more than 75 million photographs of Americans and foreigners and is growing at a rate of approximately 35,000 records per day. CCD also collects and stores indefinitely the fingerprints of all foreigners issued visas.</p> <p>With ever more data available, the NSA and other agencies are creating ever more robust ways to <a href="" target="_blank">store</a> it. Such storage is cheap and bounteous, with few limits other than the availability of electricity and <a href="" target="_blank">water</a> to cool the electronics. Emerging <a href="" target="_blank">tech</a> will surely bypass many of the existing constraints to make holding more data longer even easier and cheaper. The old days of file cabinets, or later, clunky disk drives, are over in an era of mega-data storage <a href="" target="_blank">warehouses</a>.</p> <p>The way data is aggregated is also changing fast. Where data was once kept in cabinets in separate offices, later in bureaucratically isolated, agency-by-agency digital islands, post-9/11 <a href="" target="_blank">sharing</a> mandates coupled with new technology have led to fusion databases. In these, information from such disparate sources as <a href="" target="_blank">license plate</a> readers, wiretaps, and records of <a href="" target="_blank">library book</a> choices can be aggregated and easily shared. Basically everything about a person, gathered worldwide by various agencies and means, can now be put into a single "file."</p> <p>Once you have the whole <a href="" target="_blank">haystack</a>, there's still the problem of how to locate the needle. For this, emerging technologies grow ever more capable of analyzing Big Data. Some simple ones are even available to the public, like IBM's Non-Obvious Relationship Awareness software (<a href="" target="_blank">NORA</a>). It can, for example, scan multiple databases, geolocation information, and social media friend lists and recognize relationships that may not be obvious at first glance. The software is fast and requires no human intervention. It runs 24/7/365/Forever.</p> <p>Tools like NORA and its more sophisticated classified cousins are NSA's solution to one of the last hurdles to knowing nearly everything: the need for human analysts to "connect the dots." Skilled analysts take time to train, are prone to human error, and&mdash;given the quickly expanding supply of data&mdash;will always be in demand. Automated analysis also offers the NSA other advantages. Software doesn't have a conscience and it can't blow the whistle.</p> <p>What does all this mean in terms of the Fourth Amendment? It's simple: the technological and human factors that constrained the gathering and processing of data in the past are fast disappearing. Prior to these "advances," even the most ill-intentioned government urges to intrude on and do away with the privacy of citizens were held in check by the possible. The techno-gloves are now off and the possible is increasingly whatever an official or bureaucrat wants to do. That means violations of the Fourth Amendment are held in check only by the goodwill of the government, which might have qualified as the ultimate nightmare of those who wrote the Constitution.</p> <p>On this front, however, there are signs of hope that the Supreme Court may return to its check-and-balance role of the Constitutional era. One sign, directly addressing the Fourth Amendment, is this week's ;<a href="" target="_blank">unanimous decision</a> that the police cannot search the contents of a cell phone without a warrant. (The court also recently issued a <a href="" target="_blank">ruling</a> determining that the procedures for challenging one's inclusion on the government's no-fly list are unconstitutional, another hopeful sign.)</p> <p>Prior to the cell phone <a href="" target="_blank">decision</a>, law enforcement held that if someone was arrested for, say, a traffic violation, the police had the right to examine the full contents of his or her cell phone&mdash;call lists, photos, social media, contacts, whatever was on the device. Police traditionally have been able to search physical objects they find on an arrestee without a warrant on the grounds that such searches are for the protection of the officers.</p> <p>In its new decision, however, the court acknowledged that cell phones represent far more than a "physical object." The information they hold is a portrait of someone's life like what's in a closet at home or on a computer sitting on your desk. Searches of those locations almost always require a warrant.</p> <p>Does this matter when talking about the NSA's technological dragnet? Maybe. While the Supreme Court's decision applies directly to street-level law enforcement, it does suggest an evolution within the court, a recognition of the way advances in technology have changed the Fourth Amendment. A cell phone is not an object anymore; it is now recognized as a portal to other information that a person has gathered in one place for convenience with, as of this decision, a reasonable expectation of privacy.<br> &nbsp;</p> <p><strong>National Security Disclosures Under HIPPA</strong></p> <p>While the NSA's electronic basket of violations of the Fourth Amendment were, pre-Snowden, meant to take place in utter secrecy, here's a violation that sits in broad daylight: since 2002, my doctor can disclose my medical records to the NSA without my permission or knowledge. So can yours.</p> <p>Congress passed the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act (<a href="" target="_blank">HIPPA</a>) in 1996 "to assure that individuals' health information is properly protected." You likely signed a HIPPA agreement at your doctor's office, granting access to your records. However, Congress quietly amended the HIPPA Act in 2002 to permit disclosure of those records for national security purposes. Specifically, the new version of this "privacy law" <a href="" target="_blank">states</a>: "We may also disclose your PHI [Personal Health Information] to authorized federal officials as necessary for national security and intelligence activities." The text is embedded deep in your health care provider's documentation. Look for it.</p> <p>How does this work? We don't know. Do the NSA or other agencies have ongoing access to the medical records of all Americans? Do they have to request specific ones? Do doctors have any choice in whose records to forward under what conditions? No one knows. My HMO, after much transferring of my calls, would ultimately only refer me back to the HIPPA text with a promise that they follow the law.</p> <p>The Snowden revelations are often dismissed by people who wonder what they have to <a href="" target="_blank">hide</a>. (Who cares if the NSA sees my cute cat videos?) That's why health-care spying stands out. How much more invasive could it be than for your government to have unfettered access to such a potentially personal and private part of your life&mdash;something, by the way, that couldn't have less to do with American "security" or combating terrorism.</p> <p>Our health-care providers, in direct confrontation with the Fourth Amendment, are now part of the metastasizing national security state. You're right to be afraid, but for goodness sake, don't discuss your fears with your doctor.<br> &nbsp;</p> <p><strong>How the Unreasonable Becomes Reasonable</strong></p> <p>At this point, when it comes to national security matters, the Fourth Amendment has by any practical definition been done away with as a part of Post-Constitutional America. Whole <a href="" target="_blank">books</a> have been written just about Edward Snowden and more information about government spying regularly becomes available. We don't lack for examples. Yet as the obviousness of what is being done becomes impossible to ignore and reassurances offered up by the <a href="" target="_blank">president</a> and <a href="" target="_blank">others</a> are shown to be lies, the government continues to spin the debate into false discussions about how to "balance" freedom versus security, to raise the specter of another 9/11 if spying is curtailed, and to fall back on that go-to "nothing to hide, nothing to fear" line.</p> <p>In Post-Constitutional America, the old words that once defined our democracy are twisted in new ways, not discarded. Previously unreasonable searches become reasonable ones under new government interpretations of the Fourth Amendment. Traditional tools of law, like subpoenas and warrants, continue to exist even as they morph into monstrous new forms.</p> <p>Americans are told (and often believe) that they retain rights they no longer have. Wait for the rhetoric that goes with the celebrations of our freedoms this July 4th. You won't hear a lot about the NSA then, but you should. In pre-constitutional America the colonists knew that they were under the king's thumb. In totalitarian states of the last century like the Soviet Union, people dealt with their lack of rights and privacy with grim humor and subtle protest. However, in America, ever exceptional, citizens passively watch their rights disappear in the service of dark ends, largely without protest and often while still celebrating a land that no longer exists.</p> <p><em>Peter Van Buren blew the whistle on State Department waste and mismanagement during the Iraqi reconstruction in his first book, </em><a href="" target="_blank">We Me</a><a href="" target="_blank">a</a><a href="" target="_blank">nt Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People</a><em>. A </em><a href=",_regime_change_in_america/" target="_blank"><em>Tom Dispatch regular</em></a><em>, he writes about current events at his blog, </em><a href="" target="_blank"><em>We Meant Well</em></a><em>. His new book, </em><a href="" target="_blank">Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent</a><em>, is available now. This is the second in a three-part series on the </em><a href=",_rip,_the_bill_of_rights/" target="_blank"><em>shredding</em></a><em> of the Bill of Rights. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from</em> <em><a href=";id=1e41682ade">here</a></em>.</p></body></html> Politics Civil Liberties Tom Dispatch Thu, 26 Jun 2014 21:44:39 +0000 Peter Van Buren 254951 at Whistleblower Crackdowns, Self-Censorship, Stonewalled FOIAs: The 1st Amendment Under Attack <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p><em>This <a href="" target="_blank">story</a> first appeared on the </em><a href="" target="_blank">TomDispatch</a><em> website.</em></p> <p><a href="" target="_blank"><span class="inline inline-left"><img alt="" class="image image-preview" height="33" src="" title="" width="100"></span></a></p> <p>America has entered its third great era: the post-constitutional one. In the first, in the colonial years, a unitary executive, the King of England, ruled without checks and balances, allowing no freedom of speech, due process, or privacy when it came to protecting his power.</p> <p>In the second, the principles of the Enlightenment and an armed rebellion were used to push back the king's abuses. The result was a new country and a new constitution with a Bill of Rights expressly meant to check the government's power. Now, we are wading into the shallow waters of a third era, a time when that government is abandoning the basic ideas that saw our nation through centuries of challenges far more daunting than terrorism. Those ideas&mdash;enshrined in the Bill of Rights&mdash;are disarmingly concise. Think of them as the haiku of a genuine people's government.</p> <p>Deeper, darker waters lie ahead and we seem drawn down into them. For here there be monsters.<br> &nbsp;</p> <p><strong>The Powers of a Police State Denied</strong></p> <p>America in its pre-constitutional days may seem eerily familiar even to casual readers of current events. We lived then under the control of a king. (Think now: the imperial presidency.) That king was a powerful, unitary executive who ruled at a distance. His goal was simple: to use his power over his American colonies to draw the maximum financial gain while suppressing any dissent that might endanger his control.</p> <p>In those years, <a href="" target="_blank">protest</a> was dangerous. Speech could indeed make you the enemy of the government. Journalism could be a crime if you didn't write in support of those in power. A citizen needed to watch what he said, for there were spies everywhere, including fellow colonists hoping for a few crumbs from the king's table. Laws could be brutal and punishments swift as well as extra-judicial. In extreme cases, troops <a href="" target="_blank">shot down</a> those simply assembling to speak out.</p></body></html> <p style="font-size: 1.083em;"><a href="/politics/2014/06/first-amendment-free-speech-attack"><strong><em>Continue Reading &raquo;</em></strong></a></p> Politics Civil Liberties Media Tom Dispatch Tue, 17 Jun 2014 23:00:10 +0000 Peter Van Buren 254261 at 9 Questions About Poverty, Answered <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p><em>This <a href="" target="_blank">story</a> first appeared on the </em><a href="" target="_blank">TomDispatch</a><em> website.</em></p> <p>Last year&nbsp;<a href="" target="_blank">eight</a>&nbsp;Americans&mdash;the four Waltons of Walmart fame, the two Koch brothers, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett&mdash;made more money than 3.6 million American minimum-wage workers combined. The median pay for CEOs at America's large corporations rose to&nbsp;<a href="" target="_blank">$10 million</a>&nbsp;per year, while a typical chief executive now makes about 257 times the average worker's salary, up sharply from 181 times in 2009. Overall, 1 percent of Americans own more than a third of the country's wealth.</p> <p><a href="" target="_blank"><span class="inline inline-left"><img alt="" class="image image-preview" height="33" src="" title="" width="100"></span></a></p> <p>As the United States&nbsp;<a href="" target="_blank">slips</a>&nbsp;from its status as the globe's number one economic power, small numbers of Americans continue to amass staggering amounts of wealth, while simultaneously inequality trends toward historic levels. At what appears to be a critical juncture in our history and the history of inequality in this country, here are nine questions we need to ask about who we are and what will become of us. Let's start with a French economist who has emerged as an important voice on what's happening in America today.<br> &nbsp;</p> <p><strong>1) What does Thomas Piketty have to do with the 99 percent?</strong></p> <p>French economist Thomas Piketty's surprise bestseller, <a href="" target="_blank"><em>Capital in the Twenty-First Century</em></a>, is an unlikely beach read, though it's selling like one. A careful parsing of massive amounts of data distilled into "only" 700 pages, it outlines the economic basis for the 1 percent-99 percent divide in the United States. (Conservative critics, of course, <a href="" target="_blank">disagree</a>.)</p> <p>Just in case you aren't yet rock-bottom certain about the reality of that divide, here are some stats: the top 1 percent of Americans hold <a href="" target="_blank">35 percent</a> of the nation's net worth; the bottom 80 percent, only 11 percent. The United States has such an <a href="" target="_blank">unequal distribution</a> of wealth that, in global rankings, it falls among the planet's kleptocracies, not the developed nations that were once its peers. The mathematical measure of wealth-inequality is called "<a href="" target="_blank">Gini</a>," and the higher it is, the more extreme a nation's wealth-inequality. The <a href="" target="_blank">Gini</a> for the U.S. is 85; for Germany, 77; Canada, 72; and Bangladesh, 64. Nations more unequal than the U.S. include Kazakhstan at 86 and the Ukraine at 90. The African continent tips in at just under 85. Odd company for the self-proclaimed "indispensable nation."</p> <p>Piketty shows that such inequality is driven by two complementary forces. By owning more of everything (capital), rich people have a mechanism for getting ever richer than the rest of us, because the rate of return on investment is higher than the rate of economic growth. In other words, money made from investments grows faster than money made from wages. Piketty claims the wealth of the wealthiest Americans is rising at 6-7 percent a year, more than three times as fast as the economy the rest of us live in.</p> <p>At the same time, wages for middle and lower income Americans are sinking, driven by factors also largely under the control of the wealthy.&nbsp; These include the application of new technology to eliminate human jobs, the crushing of unions, and a decline in the inflation-adjusted minimum wage that more and more Americans depend on for survival.</p> <p>The short <a href="" target="_blank">version</a>: A rising tide lifts all yachts.<br> &nbsp;</p> <p><strong>2) So why don't the unemployed/underemployed simply find better jobs?</strong></p> <p>Another way of phrasing this question is: Why don't we just blame the poor for their plight? Mention unemployment or underemployment and someone will inevitably invoke the old "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" line. If workers don't like retail or minimum-wage jobs, or if they can't find good paying jobs in their area, why don't they just <a href="" target="_blank">move</a>? Quit retail or quit Pittsburgh (Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis) and...</p> <p>Move to where to do what? Our country lost one-third of all decent factory jobs&mdash;almost six million of them&mdash;between 2000 and 2009, and wherever "there" is supposed to be, piles of people are already in line. In addition, many who lost their jobs don't have the means to move or a friend with a couch to sleep on when they get to Colorado. Some have lived for generations in the places where the jobs have disappeared. As for the jobs that are left, what do they pay? <a href="" target="_blank">One out of four</a> working Americans earn less than $10 per hour. At 25 percent, the US has the highest percentage of low-wage workers in the developed world. (Canada and Great Britain have 20 percent, Japan under 15 percent, and France 11 percent.)</p> <p><a href=";utm_medium=recirculation&amp;utm_campaign=thursdayPM" target="_blank">One in six men</a>, 10.4 million Americans aged 25 to 64, the prime working years, don't have jobs at all, a portion of the male population that has almost tripled in the past four decades. They are neither all lazy nor all unskilled, and at present they await news of the uncharted places in the U.S. where those 10 million unfilled jobs are hidden.</p> <p>Moving "there" to find better work isn't an option.<br> &nbsp;</p> <p><strong>3) But aren't there small-scale versions of economic "rebirths" occurring all over America?</strong></p> <p><a href=",_regime_change_in_america/" target="_blank">Travel</a> through some of the old Rust Belt towns of this country and you'll quickly notice that "economic rebirth" seems to mean repurposing buildings that once housed factories and shipping depots as bars and boutiques. Abandoned warehouses are now trendy restaurants; a former radiator factory is an artisanal coffee shop. In other words, in a place where a manufacturing plant once employed hundreds of skilled workers at union wages, a handful of part-timers are now serving tapas at minimum wage plus tips.</p> <p>In Maryland, an <a href="" target="_blank">ice cream plant</a> that once employed 400 people with benefits and salaries pegged at around $40,000 a year closed its doors in 2012. Under a "rebirth" program, a smaller ice cream packer reopened the place with only 16 jobs at low wages and without benefits. The new operation had 1,600 applicants for those 16 jobs. The area around the ice cream plant once produced airplanes, pipe organs, and leather car seats. No more. There were roughly 14,000 factory jobs in the area in 2000; today, there are 8,000.</p> <p>General Electric's <a href="" target="_blank">Appliance Park</a>, in Louisville, Kentucky, employed 23,000 union workers at its peak in 1973. By 2011, the sputtering plant held onto only about 1,800 workers. What was left of the union there agreed to a two-tier wage scale, and today 70 percent of the jobs are on the lower tier&mdash;at $13.50 an hour, almost $8 less than what the starting wage used to be. A full-time worker makes about $28,000 a year before taxes and deductions. The <a href="" target="_blank">poverty line</a> for a family of four in Kentucky is $23,000. Food stamp benefits are available to people who earn up to 130 percent of the poverty line, so a full-timer in Kentucky with a family still qualifies. Even if a worker moved to Kentucky and lucked out by landing a job at the plant, standing on your tiptoes with your lips just above sea level is not much of a step up.</p> <p>Low paying jobs are not a rebirth.<br> &nbsp;</p> <p><strong>4) Can't people just get off their couches and get back to work?</strong></p> <p>There are <a href="" target="_blank">3.8 million</a> Americans who have been out of work for 27 weeks or more. These are the country's long-term unemployed, as defined by the Department of Labor. Statistically, the longer you are unemployed, the less likely it is that you'll ever find work again. Between 2008 and 2012, only 11 percent of those unemployed 15 months or more found a full-time job, and research shows that those who do find a job are less likely to retain it. Think of it as a snowball effect: more unemployment creates more unemployable people.</p> <p><a href="" target="_blank"><img align="left" alt="" hspace="6" src=""></a>And how hard is it to land even a minimum-wage job? This year, the Ivy League college admissions acceptance rate was <a href="" target="_blank">8.9 percent</a>. Last year, when Walmart opened its first store in Washington, D.C., there were more than <a href="" target="_blank">23,000</a> applications for 600 jobs, which resulted in an acceptance rate of 2.6 percent, making the big box store about twice as selective as Harvard and five times as choosy as Cornell.</p> <p>Telling unemployed people to get off their couches (or out of the cars they live in or the shelters where they sleep) and get a job makes as much sense as telling them to go study at Harvard.<br> &nbsp;</p> <p><strong>5) Why can't former factory workers retrain into new jobs?</strong></p> <p><a href="" target="_blank">Janesville</a>, Wisconsin, had the oldest General Motors car factory in America, one that candidate Obama visited in 2007 and insisted would be there for another 100 years. Two days before Christmas that year and just before Obama's inauguration, the plant closed forever, throwing 5,000 people out of work. This devastated the town, because you either worked in the plant or in a business that depended on people working in the plant. The new president and Congress quickly paid for a two-million-dollar Janesville retraining program, using state community colleges the way the government once used trade schools built to teach new immigrants the skills needed by that Janesville factory a century ago.</p> <p>This time around, however, those who finished their retraining programs simply became trained unemployables rather than untrained ones. It turned out that having a certificate in "heating and ventilation" did not automatically lead to a job in the field. There were already plenty of people out there with such certificates, never mind actual college degrees. And those who did find work in some field saw their take-home pay drop by 36 percent. This, it seems, is increasingly typical in twenty-first-century America (though retraining programs have been little studied in recent years).</p> <p>Manufacturing is dead and the future lies in a high-tech, information-based economy, some say. So why can't former factory workers be trained to do that? Maybe some percentage could, but the U.S. graduated <a href="" target="_blank">1,606,000</a> students with bachelor's degrees in 2014, many of whom already have such skills.</p> <p>Bottom Line: Jobs create the need for training. Training does not create jobs.<br> &nbsp;</p> <p><strong>6) Shouldn't we cut public assistance and force people into the job market?</strong></p> <p>At some point in any discussion of jobs, someone will drop the nuclear option: cut federal and state benefits and do away with most public assistance. That'll motivate people to find jobs&mdash;or starve. Unemployment money and food stamps (now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or <a href="" target="_blank">SNAP</a>) encourage people to be lazy. Why should tax dollars be used to give food to people who won't work for it? "If you're able-bodied, you should be willing to work," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor <a href="" target="_blank">said</a> discussing food stamp cuts.</p> <p>The problem with such statements is <a href="" target="_blank">73 percent</a> of those enrolled in the country's major public benefits programs are, in fact, from working families&mdash;just in jobs whose paychecks don't cover life's basic necessities. McDonald's workers alone receive <a href="" target="_blank">$1.2 billion</a> in federal assistance per year.</p> <p>Why do so many of the employed need food stamps? It's not complicated. Workers in the minimum-wage economy often need them simply to survive. All in all, <a href="" target="_blank">47 million</a> people get SNAP nationwide because without it they would go hungry.</p> <p>In Ohio, where I did some of the research for my book <a href="" target="_blank"><em>Ghosts of Tom Joad</em></a>, the state pays out benefits on the first of each month. Pay Day, Food Day, Mother's Day, people call it. SNAP is distributed in the form of an Electronic Bank Transfer card, or <a href="" target="_blank">EBT</a>, which, recipients will tell you, stands for "Eat Better Tonight." EBT-friendly stores open early and stay open late on the first of the month because most people are pretty hungry come the Day.</p> <p>A single person with nothing to her name in the lower 48 states would qualify for no more than <a href="" target="_blank">$189</a> a month in SNAP. If she works, her net monthly income is multiplied by .3, and the result is <em>subtracted</em> from the maximum allotment. Less than fifty bucks a week for food isn't exactly luxury fare. Sure, she can skip a meal if she needs to, and she likely does. However, she may have kids; almost <a href="" target="_blank">two-thirds</a> of SNAP children live in single-parent households. <a href="" target="_blank">Twenty percent</a> or more of the child population in 37 states lived in "food insecure households" in 2011, with New Mexico (30.6 percent) and the District of Columbia (30 percent) topping the list. And it's <a href="" target="_blank">not just</a> kids. Households with disabled people account for 16 percent of SNAP benefits, while 9 percent go to households with senior citizens.</p> <p>Almost <a href="" target="_blank">22 percent</a> of American children under age 18 lived in poverty in 2012; for those under age five, it's more than 25 percent. Almost 1 in 10 live in extreme poverty.</p> <p>Our system is trending toward asking kids (and the disabled, and the elderly) to go to hell if they're hungry. Many are already there.<br> &nbsp;</p> <p><strong>7) Why are Walmart and other businesses opposed to SNAP cuts?</strong></p> <p>Public benefits are now a huge part of the profits of certain major corporations. In a <a href="" target="_blank">filing</a> with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Walmart was oddly blunt about what SNAP cuts could do to its bottom line:</p> <p style="padding-left: 20px; padding-right: 20px;" target="_blank">"Our business operations are subject to numerous risks, factors, and uncertainties, domestically and internationally, which are outside our control. These factors include... changes in the amount of payments made under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Plan and other public assistance plans, [and] changes in the eligibility requirements of public assistance plans."</p> <p>How much profit do such businesses make from public assistance? Short answer: <a href="" target="_blank">big bucks</a>. In one year, nine Walmart Supercenters in Massachusetts received more than $33 million in SNAP dollars&mdash;more than four times the SNAP money spent at farmers' markets nationwide. In two years, Walmart received about half of the one billion dollars in SNAP expenditures in Oklahoma. Overall, <a href="" target="_blank">18 percent</a> of all food benefits money is spent at Walmart.</p> <p>Pepsi, Coke, and the grocery chain Kroger <a href="" target="_blank">lobbied</a> for food stamps, an indication of how much they rely on the money. The CEO of Kraft <a href="" target="_blank">admitted</a> that the mac n' cheese maker opposed food stamp cuts because users were "a big part of our audience." <a href="" target="_blank">One-sixth</a> of Kraft's revenues come from food stamp purchases. Yum Brands, the operator of KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut, tried to convince lawmakers in several states to <a href="" target="_blank">allow</a> its restaurants to accept food stamps. Products eligible for SNAP purchases are supposed to be limited to "healthy foods." Yet lobbying by the soda industry keeps sugary drinks on the approved list, while companies like Coke and Pepsi pull in <a href="" target="_blank">four billion dollars</a> a year in revenues from SNAP money.</p> <p>Poverty is big business.<br> &nbsp;</p> <p><strong>8) Should We Raise the Minimum Wage?</strong></p> <p>One important reason to raise the minimum wage to a living one is that people who can afford to feed themselves will not need food stamps paid for by taxpayers. Companies who profit off their workers' labor will be forced to pay a fair price for it, and not get by on taxpayer-subsidized low wages. Just as important, people who can afford to feed themselves earn not just money, but self-respect. The connection between working and taking care of yourself and your family has increasingly gone missing in America, creating a society that no longer believes in itself. Rock bottom is a poor foundation for building anything human.</p> <p>But won't higher wages cause higher prices? The way taxpayers functionally subsidize companies paying low-wages to workers&mdash;essentially ponying up the difference between what McDonald's and its ilk pay and what those workers need to live via SNAP and other benefits&mdash;is a hidden cost squirreled away in plain sight. You're already paying higher prices via higher taxes; you just may not know it.</p> <p>Even if taxes go down, won't companies pass on their costs? Maybe, but they are unlikely to be significant. For example, if McDonald's doubled the salaries of its employees to a semi-livable $14.50 an hour, not only would most of them go off public benefits, but so would the company&mdash;and yet a Big Mac would cost just <a href="" target="_blank">68 cents</a> more. In general, only about <a href="" target="_blank">20 percent</a> of the money you pay for a Big Mac goes to labor costs. At Walmart, increasing wages to $12 per hour would cost the company only about <a href="" target="_blank">one percent</a> of its annual sales.</p> <p>Despite labor costs not being the most significant factor in the way low-wage businesses set their prices, one of the more common objections to raising the minimum wage is that companies, facing higher labor costs, will cut back on jobs. Don't believe it.</p> <p>The Los Angeles Economic Round Table concluded that raising the hourly minimum to $15 in that city would generate an additional <a href="" target="_blank">$9.2&thinsp;billion</a> in annual sales and <em>create</em> more than 50,000 jobs. A <a href="" target="_blank">Paychex/IHS survey</a>, which looks at employment in small businesses, found that the state with the highest percentage of annual job growth was Washington, which also has the highest statewide minimum wage in the nation. The area with the highest percentage of annual job growth was San Francisco, the city with the highest minimum wage in the nation. Higher wages do not automatically lead to fewer jobs. Many large grocery chains, including Safeway and Kroger, are <a href="" target="_blank">unionized</a> and pay well-above-minimum wage. They compete as equals against their non-union rivals, despite the higher wages.</p> <p>Will employers leave a state if it raises its minimum wage independent of a nationwide hike? Unlikely. Most minimum-wage employers are service businesses that are tied to where their customers are.&nbsp; People are not likely to drive across state lines for a burger. A <a href=";ex=1168578000&amp;en=bf304392cdc5baf4&amp;ei=5094&amp;partner=homepage" target="_blank">report</a> on businesses on the Washington-Idaho border at a time when Washington's minimum wage was nearly three bucks higher than Idaho's found that the ones in Washington were flourishing.</p> <p>While some businesses could indeed decide to close or cut back if the minimum wage rose, the net macro gains would be significant. Even a small hike to $10.10 an hour would put some <a href="" target="_blank">$24 billion</a> a year into workers' hands to spend and lift 900,000 Americans above the poverty line. Consumer spending drives <a href="" target="_blank">70 percent</a> of our economy. More money in the hands of consumers would likely increase the demand for goods and services, creating jobs.</p> <p>Yes, raise the minimum wage. Double it or more. We can't afford not to.<br> &nbsp;</p> <p><strong>9) Okay, after the minimum wage is raised, what else can we do?</strong></p> <p>To end such an article, it's traditional to suggest reforms, changes, solutions. It is, in fact, especially American to assume that every problem has a "solution." So my instant suggestion: raise the minimum wage. Tomorrow. In a big way. And maybe appoint Thomas Piketty to the board of directors of Walmart.</p> <p>But while higher wages are good, they are likely only to soften the blows still to come. What if the hyper-rich like being ever more hyper-rich and, with so many new ways to influence and control our political system and the economy, never plan to give up any of their advantages? What if they don't want to share, not even a little more, not when it comes to the minimum wage or anything else?</p> <p>The striking trend lines of social and economic disparity that have developed over the last 50 years are clearly no accident; nor have disemboweled <a href="" target="_blank">unions</a>, a deindustrialized America, wages heading for the basement (with profits still on the rise), and the widest gap between rich and poor since the slavery era been the work of the invisible hand. It seems far more likely that a remarkably small but powerful crew wanted it that way, knowing that a nation of fast food workers isn't heading for the barricades any time soon. Think of it all as a kind of "<a href="" target="_blank">Game of Thrones</a>" played out over many years. A super-wealthy few have succeeded in defeating all of their rivals&mdash;unions, regulators, the media, honest politicians, environmentalists&mdash;and now are free to do as they wish.</p> <p>What most likely lies ahead is not a series of satisfying American-style solutions to the economic problems of the 99 percent, but a boiling frog's journey into a form of twenty-first-century feudalism in which a wealthy and powerful few live well off the labors of a vast mass of the working poor. Once upon a time, the original 99 percent, the serfs, worked for whatever their feudal lords allowed them to have. Now, Walmart "associates" do the same. Then, a few artisans lived slightly better, an economic step or two up the feudal ladder. Now, a technocratic class of programmers, teachers, and engineers with shrinking possibilities for upward mobility function similarly amid the declining middle class. Absent a change in America beyond my ability to imagine, that's likely to be my future&mdash;and yours.</p> <p><em>Peter Van Buren blew the whistle on State Department waste and mismanagement during Iraqi reconstruction in his first book, </em><a href="" target="_blank">We Me</a><a href="" target="_blank">a</a><a href="" target="_blank">nt Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People</a><em>. A </em><a href=",_regime_change_in_america/" target="_blank"><em>Tom Dispatch regular</em></a><em>, he writes about current events at his blog, </em><a href="" target="_blank"><em>We Meant Well</em></a><em>. His new book, </em><a href="" target="_blank">Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent</a><em>, is available now.</em></p></body></html> Politics Income Inequality Tom Dispatch Top Stories Fri, 06 Jun 2014 10:00:11 +0000 Peter Van Buren 253426 at