Monday, September 22, 2014

Profits for the Privileged - Sluggish Recovery for the 99% - Treasury Dept. Targets Inversion

Inversion as defined by the White House Website (Image - White House.gov)
Overall it was a pretty crappy day for Wall Street; and not just because the Dow, S&P 500 and NASDAQ were all off.

Perhaps it was a reaction to the 1,000-plus activists who were camped out at the famous statue of the bull calling attention to corporate America's role in blocking government action to slow climate change.

It got a bit ugly when many protesters tried to push past a barricade at Wall Street and Broadway and the NYPD ended up arresting 100 people; mostly for disorderly conduct.

The NYPD has yet to arrest anyone for the sub-prime mortgage crisis which originated on Wall Street and nearly collapsed the US economy, but they DID arrest a protester wearing a polar bear suit today.

While economic numbers and steady but tepid monthly job gains signal an ongoing US economic recovery, it's clearly an uneven one for most Americans. At the end of the day, what does a strong GDP really mean for the bulk of Americans living paycheck to paycheck?

The nation's wealthiest households have already recovered the bulk of any financial losses suffered during the Great Recession and last week's IPO for the Chinese Web giant Alibaba helps illustrate why.

While it was technically a "public" offering of stock (intended to raise capital for the company), only large institutional investors, mutual funds and a select group of connected high net-worth individuals were able to purchase the stock at the initial price of $68 a share.

As Judd Legum's ThinkProgress.org article points out, by the time the average investor was able to purchase the stock, the price had shot up to $92.70 a share, enabling a select and privileged group of investors to take a healthy 36% profit while Alibaba raked in over $21 billion in capital. Not bad for a day's "work".

If that sounds kinda sketchy it's because it is - the game is not only afoot, it's rigged from every possible angle. In his latest book "Flash Boys" author Michael Lewis' illustrates how technology makes it easier. Washington Post columnist Stephen Pearlstein sums up the book perfectly:

"Lewis reveals how a new crop of investment firms has conspired with the big banks and the stock exchanges to use high-speed computers and complex software algorithms to skim pennies from the real investors who provide equity capital to the economy."

Too bad the trigger-happy Ferguson police couldn't go after those crooks in pricey suits. (If they shot an unarmed teenager just for walking along the street, think how fast they could discourage hi-speed traders.)

Let's not forget the LIBOR scandal (London Interbank Offered Rate), which, according to MIT professor of finance Lawrence Lo, completely dwarfs any other financial scandal in history.

But take, heart. Despite these monumentally complex schemes to skim trillions of dollars from average people for which no one ever seems to go to jail, there is hope.

Today President Obama announced that the Treasury Department will take action to make it more difficult for US corporations to pretend they're not actually US corporations by using inversion; a totally sketchy Mitt Romney-esque tax maneuver where American companies purchase foreign companies then claim their "new" company is headquartered outside the US in order to avoid paying the 35% tax rate.

Is this going to change the growing inequality in this nation? No, but at least it can make it harder for corporations to increase their profit margins by shifting the tax burden onto middle-class Americans.

I applaud the Obama administration for at least taking some kind of action. Much more meaningful and comprehensive changes could be made if not for that fact that THE most unproductive Congress in US history has pledged to do nothing at all - and oppose virtually anything the President proposes.

Except of course for authorizing military action.

Even THEY got behind the President when it comes to authorizing air strikes, selling billions of dollars worth of weapons to foreign nations and perpetuating the "War on Terror" (year 16??) by killing Islamic extremists who worship violence and death rather than a Supreme Being.


  



Sunday, September 21, 2014

Can a Sister Get a Break? Rihanna & Shonda Rhimes Wrestle With Big Media

Chris Brown's erie tattoo (L) Rihanna after being beaten by Brown in '09 (R) 
With flat wage growth, a hiring rate that is steadily inching up but still sluggish and millions of people chronically under-employed or stuck in jobs that don't pay living wages, the lingering after affects of the Great Recession are making these tough times for many average working class people in the US.

But Department of Labor statistics released two weeks ago show that black American women are a  particularly hard hit demographic when it comes to economic recovery.

The study shows that the unemployment rate amongst black women remains high at 10.6% - that hasn't changed since the same period 12 months ago. Compare that to the overall unemployment rate which has dipped to 6.2%. One reason?

The study suggests that as a percentage of employees, women of color were over represented in federal, state and local municipal jobs - so when Republican lawmakers began slashing government jobs across the nation, black women suffered disproportionately. The reality is that many working class sisters are finding it much more difficult to get back into the workforce; much more so than their white, Hispanic or Asian counterparts. Don't look for that on the Tea Party's agenda, it doesn't even seem to be on the Democratic Party's radar at the moment. 

Last week the media was also tough on some high profile black women at the top of the economic scale too.
 
The Website Color of Change.org launched an online petition demanding that the New York Times retract a controversial Op-Ed piece written by Alessandra Stanley that took highly successful television producer/writer Shonda Rhimes to task for writing characters that are "angry black women".

Rhimes is best known for television shows like Grey's Anatomy, Private Practice and Scandal featuring strong female characters who are confident and outspoken, but also multidimensional, sensitive and compassionate. If Stanley had watched more than say, five episodes of Grey's Anatomy, she would realize Rhimes' characters are ethnically diverse and ALL of them deliver opinionated rants on a range of topics at various times - but only the black female characters are "angry"? Hmmm.

Rhimes took to Twitter on Friday to deconstruct Stanley's arguments in typically eloquent fashion and created something of an online backlash against Stanley, who obviously picked the wrong target and got called out for a sloppily-written Op-Ed.

Speaking of highly publicized Twitter responses, singer Rihanna also took to Twitter to express her anger at CBS for pulling the Jay-Z song "Run This Town", which features Rihanna's vocals, from the television intro for its Thursday Night Football broadcast.

The media dust-up began the week before last when CBS decided to pull the intro in light of the public outcry over the release of the elevator footage of Ray Rice punching his then-fiancĂ© in the face.

CBS pulled "Run This Town" from the televised intro prior to the September 11th national broadcast of the Baltimore Ravens - Pittsburgh Steelers game and replaced it with different theme music. Given that Ray Rice was the Ravens starting running back before he was suspended indefinitely by the NFL, the CBS decision to pull the song does make sense because of the potential risk to the brand.

The possibility of unforeseen media blowback from associating both the CBS and NFL brands (and their advertisers) with a celebrity who was herself a highly-publicized victim of domestic abuse could have very easily been taken in the wrong way and had unintended consequences.

While I respect Rihanna as an artist, global fame and stardom came to her at a very young age.

She's been ensconced within a retinue of managers, lawyers, handlers and publicists
(her own family has complained publicly of not being able to contact her at times) for years, so I'm not sure she actually realizes just how deeply shocked many people were by her decision to rekindle her relationship with Chris Brown in 2009 not long after the vicious beating he gave her. She also reunited with him again in 2011.

While one might certainly express a degree of admiration for her capacity to forgive someone as emotionally disturbed as Chris Brown, many people ultimately viewed her choice as immature and foolish; one reflective of an almost juvenile determination to date a "bad boy" and "fix him".

Rhihanna didn't catch heat because she tried to make her relationship with Chris Brown work, but because she came off as young and dangerously uninformed on the realities of domestic abuse.

Her decision flew in the face of volumes of credible data on the patterns of domestic abuse; one in four women has been a victim. She seemed unaware of the four phases of domestic abuse as described by Lenore Walker in 'The Dynamics of Domestic Violence - The Cycle of Violence' .

As documented on the Family and Child Abuse Prevention Center Website, Phase 3 follows the actual physical violence that takes place in Phase 2 and is known as the "Honeymoon Phase" where the abuser expresses deep remorse, apologizes profusely and:

"Many abusers will buy gifts, flowers, etc. so that the victim will forgive the abuse. Oftentimes the abuser will promise to go into treatment voluntarily, that the violence will never occur again, and that he or she will "Change"." 

I read that quote and think back to the famous photos of her and Brown jet-skiing around Florida together not long after he'd pummeled her; look at the picture above, would you even consider going jet-skiing with some guy who did that to you?

Personally I can't imagine how frustrating it must be for Rihanna to be put into the position where she's still having to deal with the repercussions of being a victim of domestic abuse five years after her violent encounter with Brown.

But the reality is that she is also dealing with the repercussions of the message that her choice to reunite with Chris Brown sent to the public. On one hand she remains defiant about wanting her personal life to remain private. Yet, look at any issue of Rolling Stone in the past couple years.

I'm a subscriber and I can tell you that more often than not, the "Random Notes" section which features color photos of famous musicians, has a photo of Rhihanna in a swim-suit with a drink in her hand hanging out in Ibiza or some other exclusive sunny vacation spot hanging out.

For instance, look at page 34 of the September 25th issue of RS with Taylor Swift on the cover. There's Rhihanna (with a drink in her hand...) floating in the waters off the island of Ponza, Italy celebrating the end of her Monster Tour. The photo caption reads: "RiRi and her entourage snorkeled in old pirate caves on the island of Ponza."

Now I'm not judging her personal life at all. If Rihanna wants to party on a yacht off Monaco with her friends, hey more power to her. She's a successful adult artist who's entitled to recreational down time and she can do with her time and money whatever she wants. 

But you don't get to saturate the media with images of yourself to promote your career as an entertainer then complain about the public prying into your private life.

When CBS pulled the song from their national prime time broadcast, they were just trying to be sensitive to the issue of domestic abuse, because they couldn't predict how the public would react to Rihanna's voice promoting a game involving the Baltimore Ravens with video of Ray Rice punching his fiance in the face making headlines and overshadowing the game itself.

The images of Rihanna's beautiful face all bruised, battered and swollen after Chris Brown attacked her are stuck in the public sub-conscious; like it or not she always WILL be linked to the issue of domestic abuse.

I can understand Rihanna being angry at CBS for having distanced themselves from the trauma she suffered. But maybe she should remember that domestic abuse affects millions of people, and many of those people simply still have a hard time understanding why anyone would willingly go back into a relationship with someone who would hit, and bite you like that.

And then get a tattoo of the photo of what he did drawn on his neck? I don't even want to know what that is about.

Can Rihanna really blame CBS for not wanting any part of that? I don't think so; her being a victim of Brown's violence wasn't her fault but it certainly wasn't CBS's decision for her to get back in a relationship with him either.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Tracking Down Anti-Gay Attackers or Shaming Pakistani VIP's Off Planes - Social Media's Evolving Cultural Impact

Surveillance footage of the attackers who beat two men in Philly on 9/11/14
Twitter's almost instantaneous ability to reach a vast online audience is rapidly evolving in ways that even founders Jack Dorsey, Evan Williams, Biz Stone and Noah Glass probably never imagined.

Like social media itself, co-founder Evan Williams has been quoted as saying Twitter has evolved from what the founders originally thought would function as a platform for "status updates and a social utility", to what has now become a legitimate organic "information network."

It's had a huge and lasting effect on journalism too; remember, the capture of Bin-Laden was first leaked when an IT professional working late looked out his window and started live-Tweeting about helicopters hovering over the compound where US Navy SEALs were in the process of a highly classified mission.

More recently in Missouri live Twitter feeds from reporters and citizens were able to circumvent un-Constitutional media blackouts by Ferguson police.

Now an interesting story I first read about on the BBC News Website on Wednesday sheds new light on a fascinating and innovative application for Twitter; the ability to help police track down people wanted in connection with crimes.

According to the article, last Thursday on the anniversary of 9/11 a large inebriated group of seemingly clean-cut men and women (see surveillance photo above) were out in Center City Philly when they confronted two men ages 27 and 28 on their way to dinner and began hurling homophobic insults at them.

At least two members of the group then physically attacked the two men; fracturing bones in the face of one of the men that will require surgery. When the Philly police posted surveillance video of the attackers on Youtube, a Twitter follower named Greg Bennett posted still photos of the attackers and another Twitter user from Philly reposted the photos to his followers leading someone else to identify the restaurant near where the incident occurred.

At least some of the attackers were then identified after their photos were ID'd on Facebook and the information was forwarded to the Philly police who were scheduled to interview some of the suspects today. That's essentially an investigation that took place on social media (via Youtube and Twitter) that actually led police to find these violent homophobic meat-heads.

For a much more lighthearted look at the evolving ways social media is impacting our culture we turn to Pakistan. Have you heard this hysterical story about former Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik being booted off a Pakistan International Airlines flight by the passengers because he was late?

The tardy Rehman Malik
Social inequality is a huge issue in Pakistan, just as it is around the globe; and that's no joke. Apparently a major source of irritation to average Pakistani travelers is when VIP's delay packed airline flights for up to two or three hours until they show up at the plane.

Can you imagine sitting on a plane at the gate at O'Hare for two hours waiting for Miley Cyrus or Paul Ryan to show up?

Understandably the good people of Pakistan have had just about enough of this inconsiderate phenomenon. So when ex-minister Malik recently showed up two hours late for flight PK 370 from Karachi to Islamabad, the passengers teed off on him.

In what was surely a symbolic eruption of rage against average folk being forced to wait until VIP's decide to show up, the crowd verbally accosted the surprised Malik as he approached the plane's entrance from the jet way.

In fact, one passenger videotaped the confrontation and posted it on the video sharing Website Daily Motion where it was viewed over 53,000 times as of Tuesday. Now it's on Youtube and the story is blowing up on the Web. Malik himself took to Twitter to claim he wasn't responsible for the flight delay. Riiiight.

You GO Pakistani air passengers! Maybe they can teach us something about the power of demanding social change.

Seriously, click the link above and give it a watch. All kidding aside, despite the myriad problems associated with social inequality, politicians around the globe have shown little interest in doing anything about it; being that the folks on the quality side of inequality are probably either sending them fat campaign checks or doing them favors of some kind.

Perhaps this viral video of the Pakistani passengers confronting inequality en masse is a sign of a new and more expansive function for social media - as an agent for much deeper and more meaningful societal change. 

Get to the gate on time; or else...

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Broken Windows, Broken System - Daniel Pantaleo's Arrest Record Reveals Wildly Distorted Policing Policy

Officer Daniel Pantaleo after choking (& killing) Eric Garner in Staten Island
Analysis of records of the 259 arrests made by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo, who was caught on video applying an illegal choke hold during an arrest that led to Eric Garner's death, calls into question the very existence of the NYPD's "Broken Windows" policing policy.

Records show that a mere 24 of Pantaleo's 259 arrests were actually for serious felony crimes.

The bulk of his arrests are for very minor infractions like marijuana possession, loitering, obstructing traffic, selling loose cigarettes and of course, resisting arrest. If his record is a sample of a typical NYPD patrol officer, what does that say about Broken Windows and the thousands of people being shuttled into New York City's penal system?

The basic theory of Broken Windows follows a simple premise: by focusing police resources and manpower on lower-level offenses that directly impact quality of life, much more serious felony offenses like rape, robbery, assault and murder would in turn be reduced.

But is the enforcement itself triggering horrific felonies far beyond the petty offenses that often trigger violent confrontations between police and (mostly) minority suspects? WNYC reporter Robert Lewis explored that question in an excellent piece back in July.

The Broken Windows policy was a hallmark of the Rudy Giuliani-era when NYPD officers began to crack down hard on things like overly aggressive squeegee guys approaching idling vehicles, cleaning windshields then demanding change for the unsolicited service.

The NYPD also stopped graffiti artists from tagging trains, subway stations and walls; in conjunction with city ordinances they made it harder for kids to buy spray paint (and box cutters) from hardware stores. Fare-jumpers who hopped subway turn styles, or people drinking from open containers of alcohol in public also drastically dropped. They even started harassing food cart vendors.

The policy continued under the Bloomberg administration. 

But as the arrest statistics piled up almost exclusively for young men of color, as did the staggering number of totally innocent citizens caught up in the wide net that Broken Windows cast, the Constitutionality of "Stop and Frisk" (a core element of Broken Windows policing strategy) became a much larger legal issue. Now it's an ugly stain on the legacy of the Bloomberg administration.

In light of the national attention focused on Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson's fatal shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown over the summer, Eric Garner's death from Daniel Pantaleo's illegal choke hold during an encounter in Staten Island (resulting from Garner's arrest for selling loose cigarettes to people on the street) became more than just business as usual for the NYPD.

The encounter was filmed by a bystander and went viral, placing the policy of Broken Windows squarely into the spotlight of global media scrutiny.

Disturbing facts about Pantaleo have emerged as witnesses from some of his 259 arrests have stepped forward with alarming details of his treatment of suspects.

Back on August 2nd the NY Daily News ran a piece on 43 year-old Tommy Rice, a welder who was stopped, strip-searched and falsely arrested (along with three other passengers in a car) in Staten Island by Pantaleo and another officer back in March of 2012.

Rice was eventually awarded $30,000 from the city after it was shown Pantaleo mocked and insulted Rice during the strip search by slapping his genitals. Where do you find that technique in the NYPD manual?

Earlier today NPR ran a feature and interview about another African-American who was falsely arrested by Pantaleo in Staten Island after the rogue cop stopped him and a friend on the street while they were taking an old boiler to a scrap yard for cash.

Pantaleo accused the man of stealing the boiler even though he explained that it had come from his girlfriend's mother's home and had been given to him. Pantaleo arrested him anyway; further clogging the New York City court system by charging the guy with obstructing traffic for pushing the boiler along the street in a shopping cart.

Obviously Garner's death was a ruled a homicide, but should we really blame Pantaleo? What about the system that put him back out on the street as a cop? Clearly the guy is no brain surgeon, but he's only enforcing the existing laws on the city's books.

What's becoming painfully clear is that Pantaleo is just one cog in a damaged machine and a symptom of a broken system.

If you want evidence of just how broken the system is, last week Sarah Ryley published the findings of some truly unsettling analysis by the NY Daily News. Look for yourself as these startling statistics showing the disproportionate rate at which Hispanics and Blacks are issued summonses for low-level offenses in New York.

Take for example the Upper West Side (North) in Manhattan, where, according to Ryley's Daily News article, blacks and Hispanics make up 34% of the population - yet they account for 84% of the summonses issued by the NYPD.

As Ryley's article states: "The analysis also found blacks and Hispanics received the vast majority of summonses for scores of common offenses, such as disorderly conduct (88%), loitering (89%), spitting (92%) and failure to have a dog license (91%) — even though the Health Department estimates that less than 17% of dogs citywide are licensed."

Those numbers are startling. If you consider the amount of revenue those summonses generate for the city, one might conclude the Broken Windows policy essentially amounts to a city tax on the behavior of black and Hispanic citizens.

Or perhaps Broken Windows policing serves the more sinister goal of offering NYPD officers the option of being able to criminalize virtually anything a person of color is doing in New York; walking an unlicensed dog, spitting on the sidewalk, having some weed in their pocket - any of which their white counterparts are also doing on any given day in Park Slope, the Village, Williamsburg or DUMBO.

I lived in New York for 15 years, I know that's true. By the way it's common knowledge that you can walk into almost any corner Bodega and by a "loosie" (a single cigarette) in case you just want a quick smoke and don't want to shell out ten bucks for a pack, strange that Pantaleo would arrest Eric Garner for doing it on the street in Staten Island.

Stranger still that Pantaleo would put him in a choke hold and end Garner's life for doing it.

But when viewed in the larger context of the numbers cited in the Daily News analysis, an officer like Daniel Pantaleo actually makes sense - a policy like Broken Windows can only function when you have officers like him to do the dirty work.

Dirty work indeed.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

George Zimmerman Threatens Another Innocent Stranger - LAPD Accuse 'Django Unchained' Actress Daniele Watts of Being a Prostitute

A policeman removes a gun from George Zimmerman (right) last week
It's really only a matter of time before George Zimmerman kills another innocent person.

It wasn't long after he was famously acquitted of 2nd degree murder after stalking, attacking and shooting teenager Trayvon Martin in July of 2013 that he was detained by Lake Mary Florida police for domestic battery and threatening his estranged wife Shellie Zimmerman and her father with a gun.

Zimmerman made headlines last week when police questioned him after a 35-year-old driver named Matthew Apperson claims he left work to get a cup of coffee when a Honda SUV driven by Zimmerman followed his car then pulled up alongside his driver's side window and the two passengers inside confronted him.

According to a transcript of Apperson's 911 call: "I then rolled my window down and there was a passenger going, 'Hey, what's your problem? Why are you shaking your finger?' I said 'Excuse me? I was in my car rapping to myself with my windows up.' And I looked over and George Zimmerman was the driver. And they were threatening to kick my ass and shoot me."

Apperson (who is white by the way) then pulled in to a Circle K gas station to call police and the truck followed him, but drove off before police arrived. Two days later Apperson was at work when he saw Zimmerman in the truck sitting outside, he called 911 again and that's when police arrived and stopped and questioned Zimmerman.

As you can see from the dash camera photo in the police car above, Zimmerman had a handgun in his waist band when police stopped him to ask why he was in the parking lot of Apperson's place of work. The guy is clearly confrontational with strangers, prone to violence and is still allowed to openly carry guns in public - why's he still on the street? What would have happened if Apperson hadn't called 911?

Wasn't it painfully clear that Zimmerman has serious problems when he stalked an innocent teenager, confronted him and eventually shot him? Maybe the race of his victim blinded the jury to who he really is.

It's like Zimmerman is wandering around in this bizarre parallel reality defined by paranoia and rage but the justice system doesn't really want to stop him because that would mean he really was guilty of 2nd degree murder when he shot Trayvon Martin. Arresting Zimmerman would be admitting the system failed the Martin family.

So the ticking time bomb that is George Zimmerman is still driving around - armed with a loaded gun looking for the next innocent person that is looking at him the wrong way.

When he kills another innocent victim the blood will be on the jury's hands because they could have put him in jail where he belongs when they had the chance and the evidence was overwhelming.

Oh and speaking of injustice...


Across the country in Los Angeles last Thursday, 'Django Unchained' actress Daniele Watts (pictured left) was making out with her white boyfriend Brian James Lucas in public when LAPD officers confronted her and accused her of being a prostitute and Lucas of being a John.

The officers handcuffed her, then put her in the back of a police car because she was so upset she refused to show them her ID.

According to Variety Watts posted a picture her boyfriend took of herself in tears while in handcuffs as an LAPD officer talks to her on Facebook - according to the Variety article:

"An LAPD public information officer said there was no record of the incident as Watts wasn’t arrested or brought into the station for questioning." 

Of course she wasn't, because she's a professional actress, not a hooker. And it's not surprising that there's no official record of the humiliation she was subjected to.

That kind of policing in America is policy but always officially off the record. 




    


Friday, September 12, 2014

The Sound & The Fury: GA Sec of State Brian Kemp Warns About "Registering All These Minority Voters"

Georgia Sec. of State Brian Kemp 
In terms of the GOP's rather feeble minority outreach efforts, March of 2013 seems like the distant past - or possibly another dimension.

That's when a far more conciliatory and humbled Republican National Committee made national headlines with the release of a frank and openly self-analytical examination of their 2012 election losses acknowledging the urgent need of the GOP to do more to reach out to women, minorities and the LGBT community.

Here's a quote from that report:
“the Republican Party must be committed to building a lasting relationship within the African American community year-round, based on mutual respect and with a spirit of caring.”

Recent comments by Georgia Secretary of State of Georgia Brian Kemp would suggest that the "commitment" to a more progressive GOP was little more than superficial self-serving hot air.

According to the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, at a GOP breakfast earlier this summer Kemp told an audience:

“In closing I just wanted to tell you, real quick, after we get through this runoff, you know the Democrats are working hard, and all these stories about them, you know, registering all these minority voters that are out there and others that are sitting on the sidelines, if they can do that, they can win these elections in November.”

By "all these minority voters" I assume he meant the citizens of Georgia exercising their Constitutional right to participate in the Democratic process? 

In its quest to recapture the Senate, maintain a majority in the House, keep "super majorities" in state legislatures around the nation and take another crack at the White House, the GOP is busy trying to harvest the fruits of the Southern Strategy by dividing voters along racial lines and making it more difficult for students, the poor, the working class, the elderly and minorities to vote - and not just in Georgia.

Just last Thursday federal judge Peter Economus blocked efforts by Republicans in Ohio to eliminate early voting hours and ordered the state to add more voting dates to the calendar in the interest of ensuring equal access to the electoral process in November by minorities, the elderly and the poor. Republican secretary of state Jon Husted and Republican Governor John Kasich were both active supporters of measures intended to suppress votes.

While those kinds of measures may stand in total contrast to the Democratic principles of freedom the Republicans like to claim they stand for, it's par for the course with today's GOP.

A Washington Post article reports that a staggering 95% of Republican House districts are majority white - a direct result of years of Republicans spending their time in Washington gerrymandering House districts into all manner of bizarre shapes to create Republican majority districts where they don't actually exist.

Take a moment to look at the shapes of some of the most gerrymandered districts in the country from this Wonkblog article in the Washington Post by Christopher Ingraham. These are the kinds of bush-league tactics a Republican Party that can't win on the issues employs to win elections. 

Speaking of issues, as the fall elections approach, the default Republican strategy for stimulating the economy, cutting taxes for the wealthiest citizens by stripping revenue from critical state programs (like cutting pay for teachers and firefighters or stripping funding for schools) has proved to be as big a failure as it was when it was called the "trickle down" theory under Ronald Reagan.

Bond rating agencies Fitch and Standard & Poors both recently downgraded the state of New Jersey's bond rating because of a flat economy and Governor Chris Christie's failure to shore up the states massive pension obligations in part because if his ill-advised and highly criticized decision to grant generous tax breaks to (drum roll please...) the states wealthiest individuals.

By the way, that's the record eighth time the state of NJ's bond rating has been downgraded under Christie's leadership and the state still lags almost last among the fifty states in new job creation - no wonder Hizzoner has spent much of the summer traipsing around the country trying to sew the seeds for a 2016 run at the White House.

It's the same story in Kansas where Republican Governor Sam Brownback famously trumpeted the explosion in job growth a generous tax cut for the wealthiest Kansas citizens would create. So he slashed state spending and what happened?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics as of August 18th, Kansas created a grand total of 6,900 jobs - a gain of . 5 %. Point 5 percent. Right across the state line in Missouri where tax cuts were NOT used to strip the state of revenue during a fragile economic recovery, job growth has been 1.2% for the same period.

Such is the state of the Republican Party party as we approach critical fall elections.

As Shakespeare said, "Sound and fury signifying nothing."

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Iraq Revisited - The Rise of ISIS

ISIS fighters prepare to execute captured Iraqi soldiers in Salahaddin
In some ways it actually feels as if we've gone back in time to the period between 2002 - 2011 during the ill-advised US invasion and occupation of Iraq.

This morning two of the major headlines on NPR news were about Iraq. The numbers are still hard to digest.

Nine years. 4,486 American service personnel killed. An estimated 129,065 to 144,562 Iraqi civilians killed; like WWII we'll never really know the total body count. And it's still ongoing, over 80 Iraqi civilians killed just this month alone.

The US has spent over 3 trillion dollars in Iraq (and counting). Now we're going back.

ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria have seized headlines this summer with their campaigns to take large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria. They've flooded the Internet with photos and videos of the most horrific kinds of atrocities committed against their enemies; crucifixions, whippings, public executions, shootings and most recently the barbaric beheading of two American journalists captured in Syria.

ISIS has succeeded in inspiring a sense of fear. Politicians have already responded to that fear.

As you read this, ongoing US air operations striking and bombing ISIS targets in Iraq are expanding. The President has already ordered over 304 military advisers back into Iraq to help the besieged and unprepared Iraqi military. He's about to consult Congress to request additional funding to finance a plan to confront ISIS before it gets out of control and will address the nation this Wednesday.

This is awkward for our nation. Except for the Republican Hawks in Washington who dream of a state of perpetual war, most of the American public have long since wearied of the staggering human, ecological and financial costs of war.

In 2008 we elected Obama based in large part on his commitment to wind the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq down. But yet we all saw the images of the beheadings and know that something has to be done and suddenly we seem to be moving very quickly towards an unknown commitment. It feels confusing and rushed.

Here's a suggestion to help ease the sense of confusion. If you missed the July 29th episode of 'Frontline' on PBS entitled "Loosing Iraq", take some time and go online and watch it. You can also probably catch it on-demand on your cable provider.

The episode is an excellent and sobering recap of the US invasion and subsequent occupation. It's not easy to watch. Not so much because of the graphic video clips of some of the horrific images of the war, but because of how it spells out the monumental errors made by the US government.

You might also want to read Roy Scranton's excellent piece, "Back to Baghdad" in the July 17th issue of Rolling Stone. It offers some startling observations about Iraq from the perspective of an American veteran of the Iraq war returning after ten years.

The difficult truth is that bad foreign policy decisions made ISIS. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is a Sunni fundamentalist organization (an off-shoot of Al Qaeda) that grew frustrated with being systematically excluded from the ruling Shi'ite government headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Who, as the 'Frontline' episode "Loosing Iraq" notes, was an unimpressive, relatively unknown member of the Iraqi parliament, hand-picked from obscurity by the US to be the prime minister.

When the world did nothing to stop Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from killing his own civilians and plunging the country into civil war, ISIS took advantage of the chaos and set up a foothold with the help foreign nationals from places as disparate as Chechnya, France, England and even America.

Their goal? Establish a (Sunni) Islamic Caliphate that stretches from Iraq to Syria.

Remember, Iran is dominated by Shi'ites; (the US actually worked secretly with Iran to prop up al-Maliki in Iraq). Saudi Arabia is dominated by Sunnis.

ISIS controls more territory than Al Qaeda ever had, they're bigger, much more well-armed, better financed, far more ruthless and they despise the United States. They've also got a lot of members with visas who are capable of entering the United States.

Do the math.