Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Fighting the Pipeline

By Reginald Johnson

NEW HAVEN --- Chanting and banging on cans, about 25 protesters braved blustery March winds as they demonstrated in front of TD Bank on Chapel Street, trying to alert customers to the bank’s role in funding the controversial Keystone XL pipeline project.

The Keystone will ship hundreds of thousands of barrels of heavy tar sand from Alberta to refineries in Texas, if the pipeline gets built. Critics say the project will lead to massive new releases of carbon into the atmosphere and worsen climate change.

“Hey, hey, ho, ho, the pipeline’s gotta go. Hey, hey, ho, ho, the pipeline’s gotta go,”  the group chanted.

Another ditty went “Hey TD! Leave tar sands alone! We don’t need the dirty oil. Leave the tar sands in the soil!”

Rebecca Burton, of Occupy Hartford, was one of those at the protest last Saturday, part of a number of actions around the country aimed at stopping the Keystone project. Burton said that all phases of the pipeline project, the extraction of the tar sands, the transport, the refinemnent , and the use of it, will trigger harmful emissions.

Some experts believe those releases in turn could lead to runaway climate change, with catastrophic consequences for the human race. Leading NASA scientist Dr. James Hansen, for instance, said last year that if the Keystone project is approved it will be “game over for the climate.”

Appropriately, Burton carried a sign that read “Tar Sands = Game Over.”


Burton also maintained that contrary to the claims by backers of the project, the oil produced won’t significantly help U.S. energy supplies.

“A lot of people don’t know this, but most of the oil will be shipped overseas to China and India,” she said.

The Keystone XL project, now the subject of an environmental review by the State Department, will ultimately be approved or not approved by President Barack Obama. The decision is expected within the next few months.

Some of the protesters handed passersby leaflets that read “Ditch TD. Stand with Us.” The leaflet, produced by an environmental organization called “350 Connecticut,” said that TD bank holds over 23 million shares in TransCanada, the Canadian energy company behind Keystone XL. Between 2007 and 2010, the flyer said, TD invested $993 million in corporate loans to fund the project and the bank stands to make “huge profits.”


Ben Martin, an activist from Wallingford, said the group hopes to persuade people not to put their deposits in TD bank, because in the long run that investment harms them.

“With the money people put in their bank, they are basically investing that money into tar sands, which will kill the people that put money in the bank,” he said.

Martin has been involved in the battle against Keystone from the early stages in 2010, when protesters first did civil disobedience actions close to the White House. Since then the protests have grown, with tens of thousands of people taking part, both in Washington and around the country.

The protesters also had a message for President Obama, with this song: “Hey Obama, we don’t want no pipeline drama! Hey Obama we don’t want no pipeline drama!”


Sunday, March 17, 2013

Downgrading Ed Schultz

By Reginald Johnson

Ed Schultz is telling everyone that it was his idea to be reassigned from his prime-time 8 p.m. show during the week on MSNBC to a two-hour time slot late Saturday and Sunday. After telling listeners about the change on Wednesday, Schultz said he’s happy about it because now he’ll have the time to do more in-depth stories on issues, which he couldn’t do before.

Maybe he really means it. But I’m not sure.

I’m skeptical because of the timing of the change, which will see Chris Hayes take over the 8 p.m weeknight slot as of today and be pitted against Bill O’Reilly of FOX and Anderson Cooper of CNN. Schultz had been getting increasingly agitated over the possibility of President Obama and the Democrats caving in to the GOP to allow cuts in social safety net programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, as part of a “grand bargain” for reducing the deficit.

One week before the change was announced, Schultz said he had always supported Obama, but now was wavering. One night before he announced his change, Schultz said "President Obama really could be the president to start the undooing of the New Deal."

Ouch. That line had to go over very badly with the White House and senior Democrats. It’s quite possible that the White House called to complain, and put pressure on the pro-Democratic network to push Schultz aside.

Such pressure, if it took place, together with likely dismay on the part of network management already over Schultz’ relentless and passionate defense of unions and “The Big Three” --- which so many in the business community want to cut back --- may have been the reason for removing Schultz in the middle of the week. No transition period, just boom, you’re now at a different time slot.

Obviously, this scenario is just speculation --- I have no proof to back it up. But it sure looks like a demotion of another outspoken liberal by MSNBC. Recall this is the same network that in the past found reasons for removing progressives Keith Olbermann and Cenk Uygur.

Some media analysts maintained the switch came about simply because MSNBC wanted to make a “tone change” at 8 p.m.  With his populist approach, Schultz may have been seen as out of step with other network commentators who are more wonkish and intellectual, such as Hayes, Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell. The suggestion is that the network thinks they can do better with this kind of style, particularly in terms of reaching a younger demographic.

I don’t want to indirectly bad mouth Chris Hayes. From what I’ve seen of him when he’s filled in at night or on his “Up with Chris Hayes” show early Saturday and Sunday, he’s not too bad. Bright, thoughtful, and seems to be progressive, (although one media analysis labeled him “right of center.”) Even if he turns out consistently progressive, however, I doubt he will show the kind of fire Schultz did in defending the safety net and the interests of labor.

 Remember Schultz' on-the-scene reporting in Wisconsin two years ago with union protesters fighting Gov. Scott Walker?  Those shows were memorable and unique in TV journalism.

The apparent sidelining of Ed Schultz couldn’t come at a worse time. Progressives are fighting a bitter struggle against Republicans, big business interests and now Obama, to hold the social compact together. To win the battle, they need as many strong voices in the media as they can get.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Rand Paul: Making a Point

By Reginald Johnson

I don’t care what pundits like Larry O’Donnell and “mature” members of Congress may say, Rand Paul deserves a lot of credit for standing up for the Constitution the other day.

The libertarian senator from Kentucky may be way off base on a number of other issues, but performed a tremendous service by filibustering the John Brennan nomination as CIA director, and questioning the Obama drone program.

Brennan was eventually confirmed, hours after Paul’s marathon, in a vote largely along party lines.

But people were still buzzing later about Paul’s 13-hour traditional “talking filibuster,” which spotlighted the administration’s constitutional excesses with respect to the use of drones and the war on terrorism.

Paul rightly criticized the administration for giving signals that it might use killer drones to take out an American on U.S. soil, if suspected of terrorism. Such an act would be a blatant violation of the Constitution’s due process and habeas corpus guarantees.

In a letter sent to Paul recently, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said the government did not rule out the use of lethal force against citizens in the U.S.

Holder declared that under undefined “extraordinary circumstances” the president could “authorize the military to use lethal force within the territory of the United States.”

Paul said the vote on confirming Brennan --- who was the architect of the drone program which has resulted in thousands of civilian deaths --- should be held up until the administration issued a clear statement, in writing, saying it would not kill Americans on U.S. soil.

Already, drones were used to kill three Americans abroad. One of them was suspected of terrorist activities against the U.S. None of them were involved in combat against the United States.

Paul discussed the fact that government agencies have drawn up lists of “terrorist suspects” --- which have included the names of people who have expressed radical views, unpopular views or are dissidents. Such lists have been passed on to local law enforcement agencies recommending surveillance of those individuals, he said.

The senator said it is one thing for the government to target individuals who are taking up arms against the government, and another thing to target people who are simply critics of the government or affiliated with an unpopular group.

Paul demanded to know what standards were being used to draw up the watch lists, and what standards were being used to draw up kill lists, something Obama has directly been involved in.

“This filibuster is not so much about Brennan as it is about constitutional principles,” said Paul.

The lawmaker offered the Democrats a proposal that he would drop his filibuster and allow a vote to go ahead if they agreed to a non-binding “Sense of the Senate Resolution” which said “Use of drones to execute or target an American citizen on American soil who poses no imminent threat clearly violates the constitutional due process rights of citizens.”

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., speaking for the Democrats, conceded that many of the issues Paul raised were legitimate. Nonetheless, he turned the offer down.

The filibuster ended after midnight Thursday morning when Paul took a bathroom break. Later, there was some debate on the floor, with Sen. John McCain defending the drone program and saying the filibuster was out of place. McCain, who is becoming increasingly annoying, admonished the younger Paul “to calm down.”

That’s right, let’s all “calm down” about illegal drone strikes and assaults on the Constitution.

When the vote took place, it fell rather disgustingly along party lines. Almost all Republicans voted against Brennan, in most cases simply to oppose Obama, though some may share Paul’s liberterian views. Only three people on the left side of the aisle voted to oppose. They were Senators Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Jeff Merkley of Oregon, both Democrats, and Independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Sanders is one of the few real progressives on the Hill.

Then the wise, so-called liberal pundits like Lawrence O’Donnell of MSNBC weighed in with derision for Paul’s filibuster. O’Donnell called Paul “relentlessly ignorant” and deemed the filibuster a publicity stunt. The same network’s Ed Schultz said Paul was “grandstanding” and grabbing attention for a presidential run.

Though both commentators said the drone issue was an important one, Paul had somehow mishandled the matter. Neither one bothered to actually discuss the questions raised by Paul.

The Republican senator did score a victory Thursday morning, however, when Holder sent him a terse letter saying that the President does not have the authority to use a “weaponized drone” to kill an American on U.S. soil who is not engaged in combat.

Medea Benjamin, co-founder of CODEPINK:Women for Peace and a strong critic both of the drone program and Brennan’s nomination, said Paul should have devoted time in his filibuster to talking about the terrible results of past drone strikes overseas, the massive loss of civilian life, and Brennan’s role in heading up the “nefarious program.”

Nonetheless, in a piece she authored for Common Dreams, she lauded Paul’s stand:

“While progressives have all sorts of reasons to dislike Rand Paul’s Tea Party, small government libertarian views, killer drones is one issue on which progressives should make common cause with Paul and his growing legions of supporters,” she wrote.

She continued, “After all, it’s not about the messenger but the message. And compared to the Democratic Senators who have, with few exceptions, remained either silent or support President Obama’s killer drones, Rand made a heroic stand. In gratitude, progressives should ‘Stand with Rand.’ “ http://www.commondreams.org/view/2013/03/07-7

Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Bipartisan Gift: Budget Cuts

By Reginald Johnson

The budget “sequester” --- complete with $85 billion worth of discretionary spending cuts ---- is now kicking in.

A lot of vital services around the country will take a hit from this round of automatic budget cuts, which started on Friday. They include funding for teachers and teachers’ aides, Head Start, airport traffic controllers, national parks, the IRS, nuclear safety, Medicare reimbursements for hospitals, and the military.

The purported aim of the cuts, agreed upon by both Republicans and Democrats, is to start bringing the federal deficit under control, and in the long-run, bring down the national debt. It’s one downpayment on a 10-year plan which will see something in the neighborhood of $1.2 trillion in government spending cuts. The reductions will help to ease the deficit and chip a way at the debt, but it will come at quite a price. More automatic cuts will kick in as the years go by.

There’s been a lot of talk in recent weeks that these hurtful cuts should be avoided, and the plan for automatic reductions be scuttled. President Obama, in a public relations campaign, has been faulting the Republicans for not being willing to agree to a more humane deal, where instead of many cuts, the deficit would be reduced by raising more revenue, by closing tax loopholes for the rich and corporations. Many leading congressional Democrats and liberals in the media are sounding a similar theme, and blasting the GOP for creating unnecessary suffering for the American people.

But Obama is being duplicitous here. At the same time he has chided Republicans for being cruel in their approach to the budget, the White House released a statement last month on their website entitled “A Balanced Plan to Avert the Sequester and Reduce the Deficit” that proposed, along with modest increases in taxes for the wealthy, $400 billion worth of cuts in Medicare and Medicaid, $200 billion in cuts in mandatory domestic spending, $100 billion in cuts in discretionary domestic spending, including a $35 billion cut in federal retirement programs and a $50 billion cut in unemployment insurance.

Won’t cuts in Medicare, Medicaid hurt people? Of course. And is slashing jobless benefits somehow nice?

It has to be remembered as well, that it is Obama who really has been the primary driver in recent years behind getting a deficit control program underway --- one which focused heavily on cuts in social programs, not cuts in defense or tax hikes for the rich and the corporations. In the first year of his administration, it was his idea, not the Republicans, to set up the Simpson-Bowles deficit control commission. The panel’s members, after studying spending issues for a year, never reached a consensus on what to recommend to Congress.

But the group’s chairmen, Wall Street investor Erskine Bowles and former conservative Republican senator Alan Simpson, put out their own report proposing some $4 trillion worth of deficit reductions. Those would be accomplished in part by cutting Social Security benefits, raising the Social Security eligibility age, cutting social spending and lowering income tax rates.

While Obama never fully embraced that proposal, he never totally rejected it, either. He’s made clear all along he is open to cuts in “entitlements.” The use of that term alone is a slap in the face to all retired Americans, who paid a portion of their earnings throughout their career to earn Social Security and Medicare at the end of their work years. The term “entitlement” implies these benefits are something people really don’t deserve. But Americans paid for these programs, and they absolutely deserve to get their benefits, in full.

In 2011, when Republicans in Congress insisted on draconian cuts to the budget in return for agreeing to the president’s request that the nation’s debt ceiling be raised --- so the nation could borrow enough money to keep government operations going --- Obama caved in, and agreed to the plan for cutting $1.5 trillion over 10 years. This is the plan, with the built-in automatic cuts, which we are starting now.

But many political and legal observers noted at the time of the “debt-ceiling debate” that Obama did not have to submit to the GOP demands --- he could have raised the debt ceiling on his own, by signing an executive order. Former President Bill Clinton was among those who said he had that power.

The sad truth is that Obama wants to see a smaller government, and agrees with the Republicans in good part about cutting government spending, and that includes the safety-net programs like Social Security. He is strongly influenced by the business community, which wants social programs reduced to keep corporate taxes down and head off the possibility that corporations pay for the rising debt.

Some Wall Street investment houses, I believe, also see the cuts as a way to deliberately weaken the Social Security program, thus paving the way for privatization --- creating a bonanza for them.

It is true that Republicans, particularly the tea party faction in the House, have been pushing irresponsibly for deep spending cuts, without any tax hikes and they have been unwilling to negotiate on any reasonable terms about how to reduce the deficit. So they are very much to blame for the fiasco that is now unfolding.

But the idea that Obama has been boxed in by the GOP and been “held hostage” by this intransigent group, is really wrong. It was Obama who let the horse out of the barn on the issue of reducing the deficit, and indicating early on, he was willing to entertain cutting social programs, including the Big Three --- Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security.

Just imagine, a Democrat, suggesting that these landmark programs --- which past generations of liberals and Democrats had worked so hard to build --- should be cut!

If Obama had never brought up the deficit and been firm from the get-go in terms of defending the social safety net, and insisted that the discussion be about creating jobs, not budget cuts, I don’t think the nation would be going through this fiscal war today.

I know some people would maintain that times have changed, but I can’t help but think that a Lyndon Johnson, Jack Kennedy or certainly a Franklin Roosevelt could have torn these tea party Republicans to shreds. Their positions are so backwards, so moronic and so at odds with the popular will that they are easily open to attack. But that attack has to be strong, relentless, and based along class lines. The theme has to be: which side are you on? The side of the big corporations, banks and the rich, or working people?

Have you heard this kind of broad-based class attack by Obama or leading Democrats? Except for a few references here and there by Obama during the presidential campaign against Romney, no.

Have you heard Obama saying it’s high time for a stock transaction tax as a way to raise revenue, in light of soaring Wall Street profits? No. (This despite the fact that many Democrats in Congress are lobbying for a “Robin Hood Tax.”) Has he suggested raising corporate tax rates? No, in fact just the opposite.

A successful attack against those who want to slash the deficit by cutting “entitlements” would point out that the deficit has been caused in good part by a drop in income tax receipts due to a collapsed economy. Who caused the collapse? The banks with their reckless and sometimes criminal investment and lending practices. Now these same institutions, which got huge taxpayer bailouts and are now profitable again, want their taxes protected from increases, while you, the American people, pick up the budget tab and suffer reduced services.

Several economists such as Paul Krugman have pointed out recently that the deficit is really not that serious enough of a problem, that it warrants sharp spending cuts.

To the extent that the deficit has to be reduced and the long-term debt slowed down, the best and fairest approach is a combination of increased taxes on the rich and corporations, a Wall Street transaction tax and sharp cuts to a bloated military. (Why in heavens do we still have troops in Europe 70 years after the end of World War II and troops in Korea 60 years after the end of the Korean War?)

Finally, a major federal jobs program would do wonders for the economy, and get revenue flowing back to the government in a big way. Yes, that would take some serious spending in the beginning to do that, but the outlay would be more than offset in the long run by revenue coming back.

Given the corporate mindset of Obama and leading Democrats, who rely heavily on campaign contributions from the business sector, I am skeptical as to whether a more progressive approach will ever be taken by this president on budget matters. But the people have to demand it.

Cuts in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, as well as other important domestic programs, are unacceptable.