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Opioid Deaths: Another Drug War Failure

LibertarianInstitute - Mon, 03/20/2017 - 01:19

Illicit drug use is an old phenomenon, and Jeff Sessions has an old solution: take off the gloves. “We have too much of a tolerance for drug use,” the attorney general complained to an audience of law enforcement officials Wednesday, promising more aggressive policing. “Our nation needs to say clearly once again that using drugs is bad,” he declared. “It will destroy your life.”

That claim will fall on a lot of deaf ears among the 100 million Americans who have used marijuana—most of whom found it did not destroy their lives and some of whom found it made their lives better.

He is right, though, that tolerance is rampant. A Gallup Poll last year showed that 60 percent of Americans think pot should be legalized for recreational use—as eight states and the District of Columbia have done. Medical marijuana is allowed in 28 states and D.C. But in his prepared remarks, Sessions insisted cannabis is “only slightly less awful” than heroin.

 Oh, please. The nation is in the midst of an epidemic of overdose deaths involving heroin and other opioids. In 2015, 32,000 Americans died of such overdoses. Compare that with the number of people who died from ingesting an excess of marijuana: zero. Pot, in fact, appears to be saving lives. A 2014 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that states allowing medical marijuana had 25 percent fewer deaths from prescription drug overdoses than states forbidding it. Read the rest at Reason here.

The post Opioid Deaths: Another Drug War Failure appeared first on The Libertarian Institute.

Opioid Deaths: Another Drug War Failure was first posted on March 20, 2017 at 12:19 am.

US Soldiers Wounded in ‘Insider Attack’ in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Base

LibertarianInstitute - Mon, 03/20/2017 - 01:12

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AP) — An Afghan soldier opened fire Sunday inside a base in the southern Helmand province, wounding three U.S. soldiers before being shot dead.

Navy Cpt. Bill Salvin, a U.S. military spokesman, said coalition forces had killed the soldier “to end the attack,” but Col. Mohammad Rasoul Zazai, an Afghan army spokesman, said the soldier had made a “mistake” and had not fired deliberately.

Several U.S. troops have been killed in Afghanistan in recent years in so-called insider attacks carried out by Afghan police or soldiers. In October, an Afghan man in a military uniform shot dead a U.S. soldier and an American civilian contractor inside a military base in Kabul before being killed.

Elsewhere in Afghanistan, Taliban insurgents attacked a district headquarters in the Kandahar province using a suicide car bomb, said Samim Khpolwak, a spokesman for the governor. He declined to say how many people were killed or wounded.

A security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release information, said six police were killed and five others were wounded in the assault, which was claimed by the Taliban.

In the southern Zabul province, an army operation killed 13 Taliban and wounded 11 others, said Gen. Sadiqullah Saberi. He said two Afghan soldiers were killed and three others were wounded by a roadside bomb during the operation.

Two Taliban commanders were killed in an apparent U.S. drone strike in the Barmal district of the eastern Paktika province, said Mohammad Rahman Ayaz, spokesman for the provincial governor. Another 10 insurgents were killed in a separate drone strike in the Dand-e Patan district of neighboring Paktia province, said Gov. Zelmai Wessa.

The post US Soldiers Wounded in ‘Insider Attack’ in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Base appeared first on The Libertarian Institute.

US Soldiers Wounded in ‘Insider Attack’ in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Base was first posted on March 20, 2017 at 12:12 am.

How much is an Afghan life worth? That depends

Top Reuters News - Mon, 03/20/2017 - 01:11
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In March 2014, the U.S. military paid an Afghan man just over $1,000 to compensate for killing his civilian son in an operation near the border with Iran, according to U.S. military records released to Reuters.   

G20 ministers give Mnuchin space to define Trump trade agenda

Reuters US Politics - Mon, 03/20/2017 - 01:07
BADEN BADEN, Germany (Reuters) - Wary of their first official encounter with U.S. President Donald Trump's blustery trade agenda, the world's top finance officials were relieved to find new Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin polite and business-like over the weekend.

Rule by Thieves

LibertarianInstitute - Mon, 03/20/2017 - 01:03

The American kleptocracy (a government ruled by thieves) continues to suck the American people down a rabbit hole into a parallel universe in which the Constitution is meaningless, the government is all-powerful, and the citizenry is powerless to defend itself against government agents who steal, spy, lie, plunder, kill, abuse and generally inflict mayhem and sow madness on everyone and everything in their sphere.

Case in point: in the same week that Wikileaks dropped its bombshell about the CIA’s use of spy tools to subject law-abiding Americans to all manner of government surveillance and hacking—a revelation that caused barely a ripple of concern among the citizenry—the government quietly and with little fanfare continued to wage its devastating, stomach-churning, debilitating war on the American people.

Incredibly, hardly anyone noticed.

This begs the question: if the government is overstepping its authority, abusing its power, and disregarding the rule of law but no one seems to notice—and no one seems to care—does it matter if the government has become a tyrant?

Here’s my short answer: when government wrongdoing ceases to matter, America will have ceased to be.

Just consider the devastation wrought in one week in the life of our American kleptocracy:

On Monday, March 6, police were given the go-ahead to keep stealing from Americans who were innocent of any wrongdoing.

In refusing to hear a challenge to Texas’ asset forfeiture law, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed Texas police to keep $201,000 in ill-gotten cash primarily on the basis that the seized cash—the proceeds of a home sale—was being transported on a highway associated with illegal drug trade, despite any proof of illegal activity by the owner. Asset forfeiture laws, which have come under intense scrutiny and criticism in recent years, allow the police to seize property “suspected” of being connected to criminal activity without having to prove the owner of the property is guilty of a criminal offense.

On April 1, 2013, James Leonard was driving with a companion, Nicosa Kane, on U.S. Highway 59 in Texas when the vehicle was stopped by a state police officer for allegedly speeding and following another vehicle too closely. A subsequent search of the vehicle disclosed a safe in the trunk, which Leonard explained belonged to his mother, Lisa Leonard, and contained cash. When the police officer contacted Lisa Leonard, she confirmed that the safe’s contents belonged to her, that the contents constituted personal business, and that she would not consent to allowing the officer to open the safe. After police secured a search warrant, the safe was opened and found to contain $201,000 and a bill of sale for a home in Pennsylvania.

Read the rest at the Future of Freedom Foundation.

The post Rule by Thieves appeared first on The Libertarian Institute.

Rule by Thieves was first posted on March 20, 2017 at 12:03 am.

Tweets of the Week

MebFaber - Mon, 03/20/2017 - 00:55

[View the story “Tweets of the Week” on Storify]

The post Tweets of the Week appeared first on Meb Faber Research - Stock Market and Investing Blog.

Lawmakers seek FBI, NSA answers on Trump, Russia at rare public hearing

Top Reuters News - Mon, 03/20/2017 - 00:03
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The directors of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and National Security Agency will break their public silence on Monday about their investigations into possible links between Russia and President Donald Trump's campaign at a rare open congressional intelligence committee hearing.

Lawmakers seek FBI, NSA answers on Trump, Russia at rare public hearing

Reuters US Politics - Mon, 03/20/2017 - 00:03
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The directors of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and National Security Agency will break their public silence on Monday about their investigations into possible links between Russia and President Donald Trump's campaign at a rare open congressional intelligence committee hearing.

Amid Spike in Civilian Deaths From US Strikes, Trump Requests Lifting Policy Limiting Casualties

Truth-Out - Mon, 03/20/2017 - 00:00

On Thursday, a US Reaper drone struck a gathering in a rebel-held village in Aleppo province, killing as many as 49 people. Monitoring groups say most of the dead were civilians who had gathered at a mosque to pray, while the Pentagon claims the gathering was a meeting of al-Qaeda members. The next day, 42 Somali refugees were gunned down by a helicopter gunship near the Yemen coast. Somalia accused Saudi Arabia of carrying out the strike. Eyewitness accounts suggest a US-made Apache helicopter was used to carry out the deadly strike. For more, we speak with Samuel Oakford, investigative reporter for the journalistic project Airwars, who reports that the number of civilian casualties in US airstrikes has been escalating since Donald Trump took office two months ago.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to look at two recent harrowing attacks involving the United States and its allies -- one in Syria, the other off the coast of Yemen. The first took place Thursday, when a US Reaper drone struck a gathering in a rebel-held village near Aleppo. As many as 49 people died. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, most of the dead were civilians who had gathered at a mosque to pray. The Pentagon acknowledged carrying out strikes on this village, but denied hitting a mosque. Pentagon officials said that the gathering was a meeting of al-Qaeda members. This is a Syrian ambulance driver Munther Abu Amar.

MUNTHER ABU AMAR: [translated] I'm an ambulance driver, Munther Abu Amar, from Aleppo's western province. We came here after we were called, after an airstrike targeted the mosque while worshipers were inside. There are more than 30 martyrs, and dozens of injured people were transported to the Atareb hospital. There are still many people who are missing, five or six missing people. One of the martyrs was an elderly woman who lived close to the mosque. God help us.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, 42 Somali refugees were killed Friday when they were gunned down by a helicopter gunship near the Yemen coast. Somalia accused Saudi Arabia of carrying out the strike. Eyewitness accounts suggest a US-made Apache helicopter was used to carry out the deadly strike.

This comes as the journalistic project Airwars is reporting the number of civilian casualties in US airstrikes has been escalating since Donald Trump took office two months ago today.

We're joined now by Samuel Oakford, investigative reporter for Airwars.

So, Sam, you recently tracked the thousandth civilian casualty tied to coalition strikes in Iraq and Syria. Can you talk about what we just learned about Saudi Arabia attacking the Somali refugees, Syria, Iraq? What about these increasing numbers, casualties?

SAMUEL OAKFORD: So, there's a lot to unpackage here. There's a unilateral campaign against al-Qaeda targets in Syria, which is what that mosque strike was. There's also the anti-ISIL coalition strikes, which is what we were tracking, and when you refer to the thousandth allegation, that's what that was. And that goes back to 2014. Then there's also the war that the US is supporting in Yemen. So there's three separate things.

The casualties we're seeing increase are largely in Syria and Iraq, and they have to do with the anti-ISIL coalition campaign. In Mosul, we've seen more than 300 civilian casualties in the past month alone. The fighting in west Mosul is becoming really horrible and in much denser areas, much more packed, in Raqqa, as well, where the coalition has focused its bombs and ground forces. We've seen over 150 casualties since the beginning of the year. These numbers are increasing. They were increasing under the last -- during the last months of the Obama administration, but there have been some signs that they're increasing further currently.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, there's a pretty huge discrepancy between the numbers that you've been compiling and the numbers that the US and its allies are acknowledging. Could you talk about that, how that -- how that has happened?

SAMUEL OAKFORD: Sure. Yeah, the coalition has admitted thus far to 220 civilian casualties, going back to 2014. We -- our best estimates are that over 10 times as many civilians have died in that time, so around 2,500. It's increasing every day. I could -- you know, you'd have to check, actually, to see what the figure is now. The US is the only coalition member to have admitted casualties. So, there's a lot of partner nations -- you know, France, the UK They launched a substantial number of strikes. They've admitted to no civilian casualties. That's a big issue. The coalition has made efforts in the past few months to try to incorporate additional reporting, but our fear is that the sheer number of strikes means that any effort they've made so far, they're going to fall behind. And what we're seeing now means that that discrepancy could grow further.

AMY GOODMAN: Where do you get these numbers, when you say you believe 10 times? What is Airwars? How are you counting?

SAMUEL OAKFORD: That's a good question. We have a team of researchers that focus on Arabic-language media, that look at social media, which is really, really important here. A lot of these things, you'd never find out about unless you look at people's Facebooks, unless you look at Twitter, unless you look at any number of other social media outlets, and you piece together kind of the constellation of evidence. And if there's more than two credible sources and the coalition has reported strikes in the area, then you can assess that as a "fair strike." So, the total number of allegations is far higher. That's the thousand figure. The 2,500 deaths is from the vetted figure that we look at.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I want to turn to something Donald Trump said in December 2015 regarding his plans for fighting ISIS.

DONALD TRUMP: The other thing is with the terrorists. You have to take out their families. When you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families. They -- they care about their lives, don't kid yourself. But they say they don't care about their lives. You have to take out their families.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Your response to that, and also to the news reports that we -- that have been surfacing, that Trump is paying far less attention to these actual strikes than President Obama did, who had a much more hands-on approach to being sure he vetted every strike?

SAMUEL OAKFORD: Yeah. I mean, that audio clip is -- I'm sure, horrifies a lot of people. It would violate international law, if you're purposely going after civilians. I'm sure it would horrify a lot of people in the US military also.

I guess if you fast-forward to once Trump is now president, in late January, he issues this memorandum that calls for, within 30 days, a plan to take on ISIS. He promises throughout his campaign. It's not clear exactly, you know, what that would entail. But in the request, he asks the military to consider drawing back limits to their civilian casualty policy. He said, in essence, "If you're doing anything above the level of what international law asks, why don't you maybe not do that?" And that's an extremely worrying sign. And if you put together all the signs right now, this strike on a mosque -- or the US says they didn't know it was a mosque, which in some ways is more troubling -- you look at the increasing civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria, in Raqqa and Mosul, and then you look at even in Yemen, where there's been like a rash of strikes there, that's a picture that's evolving, and you can imagine that that might have played a role, this request.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, the issue of the changing jurisdiction, who approves, signs off on, kill lists, Donald Trump signaling, though this didn't get a lot of attention, that the CIA could do it on their own, that the Pentagon -- that he wouldn't personally have to be on top of this, how does this affect the reporting you're doing?

SAMUEL OAKFORD: Well, our reporting primarily has to do with the coalition. So, there were CIA -- there's been a CIA strike recently, that the global number two for al-Qaeda was killed in Syria. But the vast majority of these civilian casualties are coming from this military campaign in Raqqa and Mosul. And one of the ways that this could manifest itself is that lower-level commanders could approve things that could be kind of the gradient moves, where they can approve operations where there might be more civilians. And, you know, you can look at the targeted killings and things like that, but the real numbers right now are coming from just airstrikes, artillery, things like that, in those areas.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank, Samuel Oakford, for joining us, in-house investigative reporter for Airwars. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I'm Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

Zephyr Teachout: Supreme Court Pick Neil Gorsuch "Sides With Big Business, Big Donors and Big Bosses"

Truth-Out - Mon, 03/20/2017 - 00:00

Confirmation hearings begin today for Neil Gorsuch, President Trump's pick to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court. If confirmed by the Senate, Gorsuch would give conservatives a narrow 5-4 majority on the court. When he was first nominated, Gorsuch praised Antonin Scalia. As a judge on the Tenth Circuit, Neil Gorsuch ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby in the case deciding whether the company could refuse to provide birth control coverage to employees as required by Obamacare. Judge Gorsuch also has a long history of ruling against employees in cases involving federal race, sex, age, disability and political discrimination and retaliation claims. For more, we speak with Fordham law professor Zephyr Teachout. She recently ran for a congressional seat in upstate New York. Her recent piece for The Washington Post is headlined "Neil Gorsuch sides with big business, big donors and big bosses."


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Confirmation hearings begin today for Neil Gorsuch, President Trump's pick to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court. There's been a vacant seat on the court for over a year following Scalia's death on February 13th, 2016. President Obama nominated Merrick Garland to replace Scalia, but Republicans refused to even hold hearings, fearing that Garland would tip the ideological balance of the court to the left. Once Donald Trump took office, he quickly moved to nominate Gorsuch, a 49-year-old federal judge on the Tenth Circuit with deep ties to the conservative movement. If confirmed by the Senate, Gorsuch would give conservatives a narrow 5-to-4 majority on the court. When he was first nominated, he praised Antonin Scalia.

JUDGE NEIL GORSUCH: Justice Scalia was a lion of the law. Agree or disagree with him, all of his colleagues on the bench cherished his wisdom and his humor. And like them, I miss him.

AMY GOODMAN: As a judge on the Tenth Circuit, Judge Gorsuch ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby in the case deciding whether the company should refuse -- could refuse to provide birth control coverage to employees as required by Obamacare. Judge Gorsuch also has a long history of ruling against employees in cases involving federal race, sex, age, disability and political discrimination and retaliation claims. Gorsuch is a member of the Federalist Society and has close ties to conservative Colorado billionaire Philip Anschutz, who owns The Weekly Standard and the Washington Examiner. Gorsuch also comes from a deeply conservative family. His mother, Anne Gorsuch Burford, briefly served as President Reagan's EPA administrator, where she slashed staff and eviscerated anti-pollution regulations before resigning amidst scandal.

We begin our coverage of Judge Gorsuch with Fordham law professor Zephyr Teachout, who recently ran for a congressional state, upstate New York -- a congressional seat. Her recent piece for The Washington Post is headlined "Neil Gorsuch sides with big business, big donors and big bosses."

Zephyr Teachout, explain.

ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Look, in the -- all of us are going to be part of sort of unearthing all of Neil Gorsuch's opinions, but the important parts to look at are where he expresses his philosophy. And what he has done in antitrust cases and then also in one money-in-politics case is show that he's going to be at least as bad as Scalia -- and we can't forget how bad Scalia was -- and possibly worse, in favoring elites, favoring corporate power and favoring the power of big donors.

So there's two antitrust cases that are really important to look at. And I know antitrust can seem like this kind of arcane area. But if you look around the world right now and look around America, you see this incredible concentration of power in office supplies, in -- with Amazon, with Comcast, with Monsanto, with -- in oil and gas. You see this incredible concentration. A lot of that comes from Justice Scalia and other people in the Chicago school, the law and economics school, believing that we should gut antitrust and basically allow monopolists to gather power. And in these two antitrust opinions, Judge Gorsuch shows that he is really with the -- with that Chicago school, and, in fact, suggested he might go even farther saying, "Well, one of the reasons people go into business is the capacity to get monopoly rent, so we don't want to discourage people for going into business," instead of understanding, as Justice Brandeis and the true lions of our democratic past understood, that antitrust law was really critical for challenging excessive concentrations of power.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Zephyr Teachout, if you could talk also about Judge Gorsuch's interest in natural law and what that might mean about his position on marriage equality?

ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Yeah, this is a really interesting and important area for the senators to ask about this week. In his dissertation, not that long ago, 2004, Judge Gorsuch shows that he is interested in natural law and very skeptical of the idea that the Constitution protects the intimate decisions that people make in the privacy of their own home. There's a long, long line of cases that respect and understand that there's constitutional protections for, for instance, the ability of people to use birth control, the rights of people to make their own sexual choices. And in his 2004 dissertation, Gorsuch was really skeptical of those decisions. And what that could mean is that Gorsuch might be a vote against marriage equality, because those decisions underpinned the decision a few years ago recognizing the right of all people to marry who they wanted to.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Judge Gorsuch addressing the conservative Federalist Society in 2013.

JUDGE NEIL GORSUCH: "What about our criminal justice system?" you might ask. It surely bears its share of ironies, too. Consider this one. Without question, the discipline of writing the law down, a codifying it, advances the law's interest in fair notice. But today we have about 5,000 federal criminal statutes on the books, most of them added in the last few decades. And the spigot keeps pouring, with literally hundreds of new statutory crimes inked every single year. Neither does that begin to count the thousands of additional regulatory crimes buried in the Federal Register. There are so many crimes cowled in the numbing fine print of those pages that scholars have given up counting and are now debating their number.

AMY GOODMAN: So that's Judge Gorsuch. If you could respond to that, Zephyr Teachout, and also talk about Citizens United?

ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Oh, OK. Well, you know, look, we're going to see a lot of particular quotes pulled out. And I think what we have to do now, this week, is ask him about, first of all, what that means for his judicial philosophy. And then, second, more broadly, we're not going to get him on a gotcha, I mean, unless -- he seems well polished to a fault. I mean, he really is the sort of dream elite candidate in that way. But we are going to be able to, I think, reveal, like, what's underpinning him, who does he think should govern in society. And this relates to Citizens United.

In a concurrence -- and so this is a case where Judge Gorsuch decided to go out of his way and explain, "Here's what I think" -- in Riddle v. Hickenlooper, a case involving limits on campaign contributions, Judge Gorsuch said that campaign contributions are -- went out of his way to say that they are one of the most fundamentally protected parts of our freedom, and suggested that we might want to apply strict scrutiny to campaign contributions. Now, let me translate. That means that Judge Gorsuch might be open to not only upholding Citizens United, which has been a wreck for our democracy, but actually striking down laws that limit how much an individual or a corporation can directly donate to candidates, which is actually a really terrifying idea. But what that suggests is that Gorsuch thinks that public decisions, where we all come together and pass laws together, the idea of the public coming together, that's not the right way to make decisions. It should be more in the billionaires and in the marketplace as opposed to in our democratic sphere.

AMY GOODMAN: We're going to break and then come back to our discussion about Judge Gorsuch. The confirmation hearing for him to become a Supreme Court justice begins today. Zephyr Teachout with us, constitutional and property law professor at Fordham University, she's run for public office twice. This is Democracy Now! We'll be back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: "Promised Land" by the rock 'n' roll pioneer Chuck Berry, who died Saturday at his home in Missouri at the age of 90. Berry was the first musician to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on its opening in 1986.

It's Time to Dismantle Trump's Murder Budget and Defund Militarism

Truth-Out - Mon, 03/20/2017 - 00:00

Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event aboard the battleship USS Iowa at the Port of Los Angeles in San Pedro, California, September 15, 2015. (Photo: Max Whittaker / The New York Times)

 Trump's budget proposal is an attack on our survival. Yet in order to truly challenge his devastating cuts, we have to confront their flip side: the fortification of US militarism, which is already devastating our country and the world. We have to make a real break with militarism itself -- and stop taking all forms of state violence for granted.

Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event aboard the battleship USS Iowa at the Port of Los Angeles in San Pedro, California, September 15, 2015. (Photo: Max Whittaker / The New York Times)

During the last three years of the Bush administration, I reported on the military budget, following the supplemental spending bills for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since Congress has not formally declared war since World War II, these budget bills were the mechanism that was keeping our wars going.

Every time the war budgets came up for a vote, I held my breath. Even though I knew better, I watched C-SPAN for hours, hoping for a surprise. There were a few stalwart Congress members who usually held out -- Barbara Lee, Maxine Waters, Dennis Kucinich -- but for the most part, Republicans and Democrats alike got in line to flood the war coffers, again and again. Eventually, I stopped watching; I could practically write my articles ahead of time. If a flight of angels crashed through the ceiling of the Capitol and announced, "The world is ending tonight," they'd still vote to fund tomorrow's wars.

The predictable passage of blank checks for war was an expression of the acceptability of the status quo. The status quo was murder, but within the halls of Congress and, of course, the White House, there was a level of comfort with that. From the US's early days, the military evolved largely as a vehicle for colonialism and genocide. As Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz writes in An Indigenous People's History of the United States, "the Iraq War was just another Indian war in the US military tradition." This country's military has long been more of an offensive force -- charging ahead with the winds of white supremacy and capitalism at its back -- than one of "defense." The Iraq War is one moment in its long legacy of actively disrupting, upending and devastating the lives and communities of millions of people of color, both at home and abroad.

Much of the government seems to view perpetual war as an inevitability, the way most of us, in the words of Angela Davis, "take for granted" the existence of prisons. Davis has written that, although prisons as we know them are a fairly recent addition to the world, they have become so embedded in our society that "it is difficult to imagine life without them." The US's brand of imperialist militarism, too, is seen as natural. In the mid-2000s, many liberal Democrats were arguing for a strategy of amelioration: a small-scale withdrawal of troops, the cutting of some "waste" from the Pentagon budget, a halt to the production of a couple of bizarrely expensive fighter jets. These measures were aimed at mitigating the damage, instead of disrupting the overall project of war, militarism and the destruction of communities, most of them in Muslim-majority countries.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan did scale down over the course of Obama's presidency, but in one form or another, they've persisted -- and other undeclared wars have been and continue to be waged. In 2016 alone, the US bombed Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan, Syria, Libya and Somalia. Every year since 2003, the military has occupied the majority of the US discretionary budget. We are currently spending much more on the military (accounting for inflation) than we were at the height of the Vietnam War.

The way in which US militarism is taken for granted mirrors the ways in which other forms of mass violence are deemed inevitable -- policing, deportation, the genocide and erasure of Indigenous peoples, the exploitative market-driven health care system, the vastly inequitable education system and disastrous environmental policies. The generally accepted logic tells us that these things will remain with us: The best we can hope for, according to this narrative, is modest reform amid monstrous violence.

We have to choose life-giving priorities over violent ones. We have to stop granting legitimacy to all forms of state violence.

Now, we have a president who has no interest in modest reform. His draft budget, released last week, is a caricature of our bad budgets past. Not only will the Pentagon continue to occupy the majority of our discretionary budget this year, but if Donald Trump has his way, military spending will jump by 10 percent. Vital programs -- programs that support survival instead of murder -- will be slashed or eliminated. If his administration gets what it wants, the Department of Education will take a 14 percent hit, Health and Human Services will shrink by 16 percent, the Department of Housing and Urban Development budget will decrease by 16 percent, and the EPA will suffer a 31 percent blow. Under Trump's proposal, funding would be eliminated for the US Interagency Council on Homelessness, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Chemical Safety Board, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Legal Services Corporation (which provides civil legal assistance to low-income people).

The proposed budget doesn't simply represent an act of deprioritization or neglect of most people's needs. It is an attack on the lives of poor people and people of color. It is a call-to-arms against the environment, and thus, against the long-term survival of most species on Earth. It is a battle against the arts, against learning, against recreation, against shared space -- against the things that help give us life beyond mere survival.

We should not be surprised that these attacks on civil society and fundamental human rights are accompanied by a surge in military spending. The cuts and the hikes are part of the same murderous project.

The ground is already laid for that project to be built. Already, the US military budget exceeds the combined military budgets of the next seven countries: China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, the UK, India and Germany.

If we are going to confront Trump's proposed cuts to key domestic programs, we have to also confront the legitimacy that has been granted to endless war and militarism over the course of the past 16 years -- and throughout our country's history. We can't just add the priorities of health and life to the stock priorities of death and destruction. We can't just advocate for a few less fighter jets or a downsizing of Pentagon bureaucracy. We have to choose life-giving priorities over violent ones. We have to stop taking all forms of state violence -- war, militarism, deportations, prisons, surveillance, colonial destruction, disinvestment and deprivation -- for granted.

One way to start might be to imagine how we could reroute the money currently funneled toward this violence. For example, the National Priorities Project suggests that instead of increasing the military budget by $54 billion, as Trump suggests, we slash the military budget by that same amount. That $54 billion could provide Medicaid for 15 million adults, or grant 1.6 million students a free four-year college education, or create 1 million infrastructure jobs, or fund the Meals on Wheels program for 7,180 years.

Taking this a step further, military cuts could easily help fund programs that we don't yet have but desperately need, such as Medicare for all. With real cuts to the budgets of murder and devastation -- including not only the military, but also police, prisons, ICE and other violent institutions -- we could set viable plans to end homelessness, dramatically step up climate justice efforts, provide universal child care and more.

"Real cuts" would not only mean slicing off a certain number of dollars. They would also mean challenging the specific ways in which that money is spent. As United for Peace and Justice lays out, in addition to demanding a stop to US wars, we must also demand an end to the drone program, the closure of US military bases throughout the world, the start of active negotiations to eliminate nuclear weapons and the demilitarization of local police forces. I'd go a step further to say that the demilitarization of police forces is not enough -- we should move toward dismantling them.

Moreover, confronting militarism would require a fundamental prioritization of racial and social justice. Both within the US and abroad, the military and other forms of state violence overwhelmingly target, harm, displace and kill people of color. Within the US, poor and working class people are targeted for recruitment into the military, pulled in via a long string of false promises. Once we acknowledge that these realities are not accidents, and are not new, we can conceive of how injustice is not simply a side effect. It is embedded in the practice of US militarism.

Trump's budget was released on March 16, the anniversary of the My Lai Massacre, when the US military murdered the majority of people living in the small Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai, including many children and elderly people. This should serve as a reminder for all of us that rising military budgets are not a prescription for "public safety," as Trump has claimed. They are a prescription for murder.

As long as taxpayers continue to be complicit in filling that prescription, it seems that we have a responsibility to act against it.

We need to call and write to our Congress members and demand they reject the $54 billion increase to our military budget and the brutal cuts to crucial domestic programs. We have to stop taking our wars, our drones, our bombs, our imperialism and our decades of colossal military budgets for granted. We have to "imagine life without them." And we have to imagine -- and work to create -- the life-giving, healing, transformational priorities that will take their place.

Violence Against the Transgender Community Is Often Not Reported by Media

Truth-Out - Mon, 03/20/2017 - 00:00

Janine Jackson interviewed Kris Hayashi about the Supreme Court's non-ruling on trans students for the March 10, 2017, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

MP3 Link

Janine Jackson: Listeners may know the name Gavin Grimm, the transgender teen boy from Virginia whose case for his right to use the boys' bathroom in his high school the Supreme Court has just declined to hear. You are less likely to know the name Ciara McElveen, a New Orleans outreach worker for the homeless, or Jamie Lee Wounded Arrow, a nursing student in South Dakota, two of the at least seven trans women killed violently just so far in 2017.

The failure of institutions like the Court to prioritize the human rights of transgender people, and the daily violence committed against them, might seem like two separate, if related, stories. But maybe it's really only one story, about continued resistance to accepting transgender people, including kids, as fully human, deserving of inclusion and protection.

We're joined now by Kris Hayashi, executive director of the Transgender Law Center. He joins us by phone from Oakland. Welcome to CounterSpin, Kris Hayashi.

Kris Hayashi: Thank you for having me.

When media headlines reported that the Trump White House's retraction of the Obama administration's guidance around the rights of transgender students in public schools, when the headlines said that meant those rights were "rescinded" or "revoked," they were just wrong, and it seems important to make clear that that kind of move doesn't change the law, no matter what anybody says.

But it's also the case that a decision like the one the Supreme Court just made on Gavin Grimm, that kind of thing can still have an effect, can't it? I wonder what's your response, in particular to the Court's decision.

Absolutely. I mean, I think it's important to be clear that both the Trump administration's rescinding of the guidance a few weeks ago and the Supreme Court's decision not to hear Gavin Grimm's case and to send it back down to the Fourth Circuit -- none of those changed the fact that the law is firmly on the side of transgender students, and that transgender students are protected from discrimination under the law in this country. However, it is very true that both the rescinding of the guidance, coupled with the Supreme Court's decision not to hear Gavin's case, really sends a very clear message to transgender students that this new administration does not value them and will not protect their rights. I think it also sends a really clear message to school districts around the country that this new administration will not hold them accountable to the law.

And for transgender young people, who already face violence and harassment on the streets and in their schools, even though transgender students are protected under the law from discrimination, we hear stories all across the country from transgender students who continue to face discrimination and harassment in their schools simply for who they are. And the actions of the administration just send such a clear message to young people, who are already facing harassment, that this administration does not value them and will not protect their rights.

The Transgender Law Center just filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of some groups that work with trans students and families. And I think there's a value to showing it as being about family, after all, and saying, these aren't "controversies," they're kids. And I think media could use that re-centering too.

Absolutely. And I would also say that it's absolutely important to hear the voices and stories of transgender students themselves, and their families, all across the country. And it's also true that there are transgender young people all across the country who are also incredible leaders and organizers and who are fighting for their rights in their schools and in their communities, speaking out at rallies and protests, making public statements, that transgender young people themselves are also taking action and standing up for their rights.

Part of the reason, of course, that people are concerned about the Supreme Court's punt, if you will, is that by the time it comes back to the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court could be different. In just a few weeks, we're going to be looking at hearings around Trump's appointment, Neil Gorsuch. What would a Gorsuch appointment mean, or what could it mean, for transgender people?

We are really clear that a Gorsuch appointment, that he clearly does not support the rights of transgender people, and that that would be incredibly harmful for him to be on the Supreme Court. I'll also say that a piece of this story that is important to know, too, is that in addition to Gavin's case, there are also a number of other cases of transgender young people across the country. For example, at the Transgender Law Center, we are representing a transgender boy who lives in Wisconsin and, similar to Gavin, his school discriminated against him; he was singled out to use a restroom separate from other boys in the school, and his school actually took it a step further, and they required that all transgender students wear green wristbands so they could better monitor their bathroom use.

Oh, my gosh.

We were successful in getting a preliminary injunction on behalf of the young person, and so the school is not able to enforce that policy. And that case is actually going to be heard in the Seventh Circuit on March 29, so really at the end of this month.

That is shocking. And I guess it takes me to the question -- the fact that I think many listeners will not have heard about that brings me to the question of media coverage. I've been saying that I think there's some link between, not just the difficulty in getting a court to assert clearly the full human rights of trans people, but also the difficulty in getting media to accept it as a human rights issue and not a "controversy" or a "political football" -- that there's a link between that and actual harm to trans people. But if that kind of coverage can push in one direction, what sort of coverage would move us in a more positive direction? I mean, I would start with just information about the cases like the one that you've cited.

Yeah, definitely. I also think that it's important -- you know, we're in this moment, right, where for the transgender movement, there is a level of visibility that we have that is so different than even three or four years ago. We have folks like Laverne Cox, Janet Mock, highly, highly visible people.

And then the reality is that at the same time, the majority of transgender people, particularly transgender people of color in this country, are really struggling to survive on a daily basis, and facing violence and harassment. As you were speaking to earlier, there have been seven murders of transgender women of color in this country, and we're only barely into March. 2016, we saw the most reported number of murders of transgender people that we ever have, and, again, those are just the murders that we know about.

And it's that type of violence against our community that is often not told by the media, along with the incredible organizing and leadership, that both transgender young people and transgender adults all across the country are continuing to move forward, in the face of incredible violence and discrimination, to fight for the rights of our communities, to keep our communities safe and to build a different vision for what this world can look like.

All right then. I'd like to thank you. We've been speaking with Kris Hayashi of the Transgender Law Center. They're online at TransgenderLawCenter.org. Kris Hayashi, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

Thank you for having me.

Suppliers of Lowe's in the US and Walmart in Brazil Linked to Slave Labor in the Amazon

Truth-Out - Mon, 03/20/2017 - 00:00

New York City’s iconic Brooklyn Bridge was recently renovated using wood from sources linked to slave labor. (Photo: Tiago Fioreze via Wikimedia Commons)

This story is the third in a four-part series on slave labor practices at logging camps in Pará, Brazil, produced by Repórter Brasil; their Portuguese version of this story can be found here. Click the following links to access the first, second, and fourth parts in English on Mongabay.

Products derived from timber extracted by workers living in conditions analogous to slave labor in Brazil are connected to a complex business network linked to the US market -- possibly reaching the shelves of large retailers and being used in renovation of landmarks -- according to a new investigation conducted by Brazilian news outlet Repórter Brasil. After purchasing from suppliers held liable for that crime by the Brazilian government, local traders exported timber to companies like USFloors, which supplies the retail chain Lowe's, as well as Timber Holdings, which supplied timber for construction projects at Central Park and Brooklyn Bridge in New York.

The commercial network linking retailers to sawmill companies was identified by a three-month investigation and confirmed by the companies. The wood products were mixed at Brazilian intermediaries, so the investigation was unable to track the exact destination of each piece of wood. However, its findings reveal that large retail and construction groups are sourcing the product from companies whose supply chains are contaminated by the alleged use of criminal practices, with the conditions of workers rescued from sawmill sites aligning with slave labor practices as defined by Brazilian law.

Bonardi da Amazônia

The cases investigated by Repórter Brasil began at sawmill companies based in the state of Pará -- an important hub for the timber industry in the Brazilian Amazon. One of them is Bonardi da Amazônia, a sawmill company that recruited nine people who were rescued from conditions analogous to slave labor exploitation in October 2012. The workers were located by the Brazilian Ministry of Labor and Bonardi da Amazônia was formally held responsible for the crime.

The investigation found that workers slept in shacks in the forest at night, in makeshift facilities made of logs removed from the forest itself and covered with tarps, 110 kilometers (over 68 miles) from the nearest town. There were no walls to protect them from the dangers of the forest such as snakes, scorpions and even jaguars. They bathed and washed their clothes in a stream shared with local animals; there was no bathroom. The workers had no formal contracts and told investigators they were paid based on their productivity.

Because of the degrading accommodation and hygiene conditions found by Labor Ministry inspectors, Bonardi da Amazônia was held responsible for using slave labor in accordance with the conditions for that crime outlined in the Brazilian Criminal Code.

Between August 2012 -- two months before the crime was discovered -- and July 2015, Repórter Brasil found Bonardi supplied timber to Tradelink Madeiras, a company belonging to the London-based Tradelink Group. One of the companies that buys wood products from Tradelink is USFloors -- a leading floor manufacturer for the North American market. Tradelink confirmed the commercial relationship by email and, in reply to Repórter Brasil, stated that field inspections were conducted at this supplier but no labor irregularities were found at Bonardi da Amazônia in June 2012. That is, the Bonardi site was visited by Tradelink employees four months before criminal activity was uncovered by labor inspectors.

In justification of its business dealings with a sawmill held responsible for slave labor practices, Tradelink maintains that Bonardi pledged to change its labor conditions. According to Tradelink, the decision to continue purchasing from Bonardi was based on an agreement the company signed with the Ministério Público do Trabalho -- an independent branch of Justice in Brazil (see Tradelink's response).

When contacted by Repórter Brasil, Bonardi asserted that it met all authorities' requirements (see Bonardi's response).

Bonardi remained a supplier for Tradelink until July 2015, even after the sawmill was included in the government's "transparency list" in March of that year. The list discloses the names of companies caught by the federal government engaging in working conditions analogous to slave labor. Companies are included on the list after the Ministry of Labor completes an administrative procedure on the results of inspections, which guarantees the right of defense to those held responsible.

The "transparency list" is used by several companies that have formally committed to fighting slavery in their supply chains. It was disclosed by the Ministry of Labor at the request of Repórter Brasil and the Institute of the National Pact for the Eradication of Slave Labor (Inpacto) through the Access to Information Act (see its latest update here).

USFloors and Lowe's

Tradelink Madeiras' products have international reach. In 2015, one of its clients in the United States was wood flooring producer USFloors. Its products have been sold by the retailer chain Lowe's -- the second-largest construction material chain in the US Lowe's has more than 1,700 stores in the country and also operates in Mexico and Canada.

USFloors confirmed by email that the timber purchased from Tradelink was subsequently sold to Lowe's. However, both USFloors and Tradelink claim that this specific material did not come from Bonardi. In its response to Repórter Brasil, Tradelink states that the timber sold to USFloors came from a different sawmill. A USFloors representative who responded to Repórter Brasil stood behind Tradelink.

"I personally went to Tradelink factory in Brazil and we felt that among other factories we visited, Tradelink was the only company with adequate procedures for due diligence to ensure compliance with local and international regulations," said Philippe Erramuzpe, chief operating officer of USFloors. He added that all of the company's suppliers are required to "certify that the material is not harvested in violation of any local laws or requirements" (see USFloors' full statement).

Repórter Brasil tried to contact Lowe's by telephone and email several times, but the company did not respond.

Brooklyn Bridge and Central Park

Another regular client of Bonardi da Amazônia, from 2012 to the present day, is Ronardi Comercial Exportadora de Madeiras, a Brazilian trading company based in the state of Paraná. Its clients include US companies such as Timber Holdings USA, a wood flooring manufacturer that has supplied raw material for major urban projects such as the Atlantic City Boardwalk in New Jersey, restoration of the Brooklyn Bridge, and construction projects in Central Park.

Many of these projects include the use of the Brazilian ipê, or Brazilian walnut (Handroanthus spp). With its colorful canopy, this tree stands out in the forest. But with a high value in the market, the ipê is ever more difficult to find in Brazil. It is the same type of timber that Timber Holdings purchased from Ronardi in 2016, and which Ronardi has also purchased from Bonardi.

A flowering Brazilian walnut tree. (Photo: mauroguanandi via Wikimedia Commons)

In a statement obtained by Repórter Brasil, Ronardi stated it "vehemently repudiates any violation of labor laws." The company says it requested clarification from Bonardi on the issue and reproduced the company's statement in which Bonardi mentions to have improved working conditions and has no pending labor issues. (See Bonardi's and Ronardi's full statements).

Repórter Brasil also contacted Timber Holdings. In its first response, sent by email, the company stated it purchased two containers of ipê flooring with papers saying that the timber came from Bonardi da Amazônia. In a later email, however, the company changed its response, stating that the timber acquired from Ronardi came from other sawmills.

"Our company is completely against any kind of slave labor and illegal timber trade, and it should be noted that Timber Holdings was one of the first companies in the world to invest in an outsourced audit for every shipment of timber imported from Brazil," Timber Holdings said in its statement. According to the US-based importer, no shipment of timber is approved if a company with which it is dealing is listed on the Brazilian government's "transparency list." Timber Holdings stated it conforms to this standard at every stage of the supply chain, from the source to the direct seller. (See Timber Holding USA's response to Repórter Brasil).

Tramontina and Walmart

Another supply chain investigated by Repórter Brasil revealed links between slave labor exploitation and Tramontina, one of the largest manufacturers of kitchen utensils in Brazil. The group's products are sold to the nation's top retailers, including Brazilian Walmart stores.

The case begins with Madeireira Iller, a company held liable for using practices analogous to slave labor in December 2012. The Brazilian Ministry of Labor rescued 31 people who worked in the processing, cutting and transportation of native wood for the company, in the city of Santarém, Pará.

Workers were living in similar conditions as those in the Bonardi case and most other cases linked to slave labor in the industry: tarp or straw shacks with no walls, meals prepared below minimum hygiene standards, no toilet, and water taken from the local stream.

Although they worked in an occupation in which the risk of accidents is high, Madeireira Iller workers were not wearing protective equipment at the time of their rescue, had no formal contracts, and their earnings were based off their productivity. They were not guaranteed the legal minimum wage -- it all depended on the number of trees they harvested.

According to the Ministry of Labor, the company's owner told 23 of the people working at the facility to flee and hide from inspectors, allegedly to avoid being caught committing violations. The inspectors' account states the workers were forced to hide in the forest for five days.

Three years after the inspection, in 2015, Madeireira Iller was charged with environmental crimes and the company's owners arrested. The government operation "Clean Wood" dismantled an operation allegedly engaging in illegal logging and land grabbing. Madeireira Iller was fined over $578,000 for having timber stored without proof of legal origin as well as for entering false information in the official forest control systems.

Repórter Brasil contacted Írio Luiz Orth, a member of the family that owns Madeireira Iller. According to labor inspectors, he was the primary representative in charge of the company's administration when the slave labor case took place. However, Orth declined the request for an interview.

As with Tradelink and Bonardi, Tramontina's press office stated that consultants personally assessed the supplier's labor conditions in 2012 -- the same year in which slave labor was found by the Ministry of Labor. The company reports that an internal evaluation showed a reality that is quite different from the one observed by federal inspectors: "During visits by Tramontina's staff, it was possible to see the existence of eating facilities, accommodations, uniforms and personal protective equipment. In case there were workers in other places, the company was not aware of it," the company said in a statement issued to Repórter Brasil.

Madeireira Iller continued supplying Tramontina until June 2015, according to Repórter Brasil's investigation. The supplier was excluded only after it was found that it "probably processed timber from some legal projects and from other projects of dubious origin," according to Tramontina's statement.

Three months before that, however, Madeireira Iller had been included in the government's slave labor "transparency list."

When asked by Repórter Brasil if Tramontina used the "transparency list" when monitoring its suppliers, the company claimed that it does.

"We have always used it and will continue to use it," said a company representative. Tramontina stated that from 2016 on, it started updating the records it provides for the de-accreditation of suppliers found to be involved in slave labor practices and environmental crimes every three months instead of the previously used six-month period.

Walmart, as well as two other retail groups in Brazil -- Carrefour and Pão de Açúcar -- have also pledged to restrict their business with companies included in the "transparency list." They are signatories of the Brazilian Pact to Eradicate Slave Labor, a multistakeholder initiative created 12 years ago advocating this kind of restriction. As the three of them are all Tramontina clients, Repórter Brasil asked for their stance on the case. Carrefour says it rejects any form of labor similar to slavery or any practices that are not in accordance with environmental legislation. Walmart and Pão de Açúcar underscored that Tramontina had already taken steps to exclude Madeireira Iller from its supply chain. (Read the full statements from Tramontina, Carrefour, Pão de Açúcar and Walmart.)

André Campos is a reporter with Repórter Brasil. Translation by Roberto Cataldo Costa.

What Every Country Can Do to Make Schools Safer

Truth-Out - Mon, 03/20/2017 - 00:00

On an autumn afternoon in 1993, following heavy artillery fire, my older sister Edina gave me a backpack and rushed me through deserted streets to a local school in Visoko, a town 30 kilometers outside of Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, where we lived with our mom as internally displaced people. The shelling had further battered the already damaged school, making it possible for us to sneak in through what looked -- to a 9-year-old me -- like an exciting tunnel made of rubble.

Inside, an eerie silence filled the corridors and the empty classrooms. Holding each other's hands, we walked through the debris until we found our way to what once was a library, where books had neatly lined white shelves a year before, and now hundreds of books were scattered on the floor. I watched as Edina got to her knees and started to collect some books and put them in her backpack. I bent down and started to do the same. Half an hour later we left the school with two backpacks full of stolen books.

Our local school was closed the first time in fall 1992, because local authorities saw that it was no longer safe after it was hit by artillery fire. For a while, teachers would gather a few students together and teach in the basement of a local post office or in houses that were considered safe. Sometimes, in the nearly four years of war, the school would open its doors and allow us to study in classrooms looking out on the inner garden -- hoping there was less of a chance in the interior to be killed from a mortar or artillery fire. But overall, together with thousands of other children in Bosnia and Herzegovina, I spent more years in basements trying to survive the shooting and cold and hunger than in school.

During the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1992 until 1995, instead of being safe places for children to learn, play, and make friends, schools were often places of summary execution and unlawful detention of civilians, where women, men, and children were subjected to tortureinhuman treatment and sexual violence. A high school in my hometown, Foča became the place where many women and girls from the area were held as sex slaves. According to the World Bank, 50 percent of the schools in Bosnia were damaged or destroyed. They often came under deliberate fire, were burned downtaken by the army and converted into barracks or weapons storage, or used as shelters for displaced families.

There is no data on how many children grew up without receiving a proper education during the Bosnian war. What I do know is that for the kids in my neighborhood, the books that my sister and I stole from the school were one of the rare sources of education in the winter of 1993 and the following year.

The books were not only a source of knowledge. Having a book during the war was like a window to another world. The books and stories kept us alive.

More than 20 years have passed since the Bosnian war. However, today, nearly 24 million children worldwide cannot go to school and receive an education because their schools -- just like schools during the war in my country -- are not safe due to war or insecurity.

However, there is reason for hope. It's called the Safe Schools Declaration, a new international commitment by countries to do more to ensure that schools are safe places for children, even during war.

To date, 59 countries have endorsed the Declaration. This includes the majority of both all European Union and NATO member states. It shouldn't be difficult for other countries to sign too.

By joining the declaration, countries pledge to restore access to education when schools are bombed, burned, and destroyed during armed conflict, and make it less likely that students, teachers, and schools will be attacked in the first place by investigating and prosecuting war crimes involving schools, and minimizing the use of schools for military purposes so that they do not become targets for attack.

Preparations are under way for the Second International Conference on Safe Schools, hosted by Argentina in Buenos Aires in March. The conference is an opportunity for governments around the world that haven't yet joined, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, to sign the Safe School Declaration, and firmly stand together committed to prevent children from ever again having to risk their lives to get books and education.

What Slashing the Labor Department Budget by 21 Percent Would Mean

Truth-Out - Mon, 03/20/2017 - 00:00

The Trump administration's "budget blueprint" would devastate worker safety, job training programs and legal services essential to low-income workers. Its cuts include a 21 percent, or $2.5 billion, reduction in the Department of Labor's budget.

(Photo: Matt Popovich)

The Trump administration's "budget blueprint" would devastate worker safety, job training programs and legal services essential to low-income workers. Its cuts include a 21 percent, or $2.5 billion, reduction in the Department of Labor's budget.

The budget would reduce funding for or eliminate programs that provide job training to low-income workers, unemployed seniors, disadvantaged youth and for state-based job training grants. It eliminates the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA) training grants as well as the independent Chemical Safety Board. Also targeted for elimination is the Legal Services Corporation, which provides legal assistance to low-income Americans.

"Cutting these programs is cutting the safety net for the most vulnerable workers, those striving for the middle class," said Matt Shudtz, executive director at the Center for Progressive Reform. "This budget would eliminate training programs for them, the kind of things people need to move up in the world. It is very anti-worker and anti- the most vulnerable workers."

Judy Conti, National Employment Law Project (NELP) federal advocacy coordinator, didn't mince words.

"This budget will mean more illness, injury and death on the job," she said Thursday, the day the proposed budget was released.

Targeting Programs That Prevent Injury and Illness

The White House budget proposal justifies its enormous cuts to the Department of Labor by saying it focuses on the agency's "highest priority functions and disinvests in activities that are duplicative, unnecessary, unproven or ineffective."

The budget would close Job Corps centers that serve "disadvantaged youth," eliminate the Senior Community Service Employment Program, decrease federal funding for state and local job training grants—shifting more financial responsibility to employers and state and local governments. The budget would also eliminate certain grants to the Office of Disability Employment Policy, which helps people with disabilities stay in the job market.

Also slated for elimination are OSHA's Susan Harwood training grants that have provided more than 2.1 million workers, especially underserved and low-literacy workers in high-hazard industries, with health and safety training since 1978. These trainings are designed to multiply their effects by "training trainers" so that both workers and employers learn how to prevent and respond to workplace hazards. They've trained healthcare workers on pandemic hazards, helped construction workers avoid devastating accidents, and workers in food processing and landscaping prevent ergonomic injuries. The program also helps workers for whom English is not their first language obtain essential safety training.

"The cuts to OSHA training grants will hurt workers and small employers," said David Michaels, former assistant secretary of labor for OSHA. "Training is a proven, and in fact necessary method to prevent worker injuries and illnesses. OSHA's training grants are very cost effective, reaching large numbers of workers and small employers who would otherwise not be trained in injury and illness prevention." 

"Everyone, labor and management, believes that a workforce educated in safety and health is essential to saving lives and preventing occupational disease. That is the purpose of the Harwood grants," said Michael Wright, director of health, safety and environment at United Steelworkers.

The White House says eliminating these grants will save $11 million, a miniscule fraction of the $639 billion the Trump administration is requesting for the Department of Defense.

"No Words to Describe How Cruel It Is"

Eliminating the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) would mean no independent federal agency dedicated to investing devastating industrial accidents such as the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the West Fertilizer plant explosion, Freedom Industries chemical release in Charleston, West Virginia, and the Chevron refinery fire in Richmond, California. Those are among the hundreds of cases CSB has investigated over the past 20 years or so.

"Our recommendations have resulted in banned natural gas blows in Connecticut, an improved fire code in New York City, and increased public safety at oil and gas sites across the State of Mississippi. The CSB has been able to accomplish all of this with a small and limited budget. The American public are safer today as a result of the work of the dedicated and professional staff of the CSB," said CSB chairperson Vanessa Allen Sutherland in a statement.

"The cost of even one such accident would be more than the CSB's budget over its entire history. And that calculation is only economic. The human cost of a catastrophic accident would be enormous," said Wright. "The CSB's work has saved the lives of workers in chemical plants and oil refineries, residents who could be caught in a toxic cloud, even students in high school chemistry labs."

The budget proposal also jeopardizes essential legal support for low-wage workers. While not dedicated to employment issues, the Legal Services Corporation provides vital services to low-wage workers, including on issues related to workers' compensation and other job benefits.

"Gutting the Legal Services Corporation," said NELP's Conti, "there are no words to describe how cruel it is, especially considering grossly underfunded the agency is."

"The government should be investing in workers, their families, and communities, but instead this budget drastically cuts the programs meant to uplift them," said Emily Gardner, worker health and safety advocate at Public Citizen.

The White House calls the budget proposal a "Budget Blueprint to make American Great Again." On a call with reporters, Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, "this is the 'America First' budget" and said it was written "using the president's own words" to turn "those policies into numbers."

"This is not so much a budget as an ideological statement," said David Golston, government affairs director at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

As Trump Slashes EPA, Worry Over the Fate of an Agency Doing Similar Work

Truth-Out - Mon, 03/20/2017 - 00:00

It has little name recognition, a budget less than 10 percent of the Environmental Protection Agency's, and is part of a government institute embraced by both of the nation's major political parties. Still, those concerned about the future of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences are wary of what's to come.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt of Oklahoma speaks at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, February 28, 2015. (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

It has little name recognition, a budget less than 10 percent of the Environmental Protection Agency's, and is part of a government institute embraced by both of the nation's major political parties.

Still, those concerned about the future of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences are wary of what's to come.

"In light of what President Trump wants to do to the EPA, I don't think any agency that deals with issues unpopular with the current government is going to escape," said Tracey Woodruff, a professor at University of California, San Francisco's School of Medicine.

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences is a branch of the National Institutes of Health based in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. Founded in 1966 under President Lyndon B. Johnson, it has a 2017 fiscal year budget of $771 million, far less than the EPA's $8.2 billion and a tiny fraction of the NIH's $32 billion.

The NIEHS studies the health effects of pesticides, chemicals and cancer-causing compounds. Some of its work is akin to the EPA's efforts on environmental health -- programs that would be eliminated or rolled back under President Trump's proposed 31 percent cut to the EPA's budget.

Trump's initial 2018 budget calls for a 19 percent cut in NIH funding and an unspecified "major reorganization" of NIH's 27 institutes and centers "to help focus resources on the highest priority research and training activities." But it doesn't mention the NIEHS.

It's not like the NIEHS hasn't found itself in political crosshairs before.

Last spring, for instance, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, demanded documents from the NIEHS about its research with the Food and Drug Administration on Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical used in food packaging that mimics the hormone estrogen. The FDA banned BPA from baby bottles and sippy cups in 2012, and California regulators declared the chemical a known reproductive toxicant three years later. Chaffetz's wide-ranging inquiry asked for a slew of documents including "all communications referring or relating to BPA between any NIEHS employee and any FDA employee since April 1, 2008." In response, NIEHS scientists met with GOP staffers from the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, which Chaffetz chairs, and spent an hour briefing them on the BPA study.

In 2013, after NIEHS Director Linda Birnbaum wrote a journal article summarizing the public health threat of endocrine disruptors -- chemicals that can harm child development and reproductive health -- two GOP members of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology sent a letter to Birnbaum's boss, NIH Director Francis Collins, demanding to know if the article represented Birnbaum's personal views or the views of the Obama administration. An NIH official wrote back, saying the article was published in a peer-reviewed journal, and that Birnbaum's "scientific views cannot be separated from her role as an institute director."

And when the NIEHS released a congressionally mandated Report on Carcinogens in 2011, an industry group sued the Department of Health and Human Services for the report's inclusion of styrene (used in rubber and plastics manufacturing) as a compound that's "reasonably anticipated" to cause cancer. The suit was dismissed, but it led to a contentious House hearing at which Republican representatives criticized the NIEHS while Democrats condemned the chemical lobby.

Although Congress has final say over agency budgets, the White House proposal has added to general anxiety over the future of science, climate and environmental health funding. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt created a flurry of controversy recently when he declared carbon dioxide was not a primary contributor to climate change, rejecting decades of scientific consensus. And Trump's budget would eliminate the EPA's Endocrine Disruptor Screening Program, which evaluates up to 1,000 chemicals a year for their potential to act as endocrine disruptors.

The NIEHS and the White House Office of Management and Budget didn't respond to requests for comment about the budget. An NIH spokeswoman referred to a statement from Secretary Tom Price, who leads NIH's parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services. "HHS is dedicated to fulfilling our department's mission to improve the health and well-being of the American people. This budget supports that mission and will help ensure we are delivering critical services to our fellow citizens in the most efficient and effective manner possible," Price said.

Cuts to federal environmental health programs could reach beyond the NIEHS and EPA. The Centers for Disease Control, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry and the Food and Drug Administration all do similar work, though the White House budget says little about their funding. Details of individual agency and program budgets will be hashed out over a monthslong process in Congress.

Some scientists believe the NIEHS can avoid budget cuts by keeping a low profile, especially because the NIH usually gets bipartisan support.

Others say that's wishful thinking. "Congress is well aware of the impact of research coming from the NIEHS," said Thomas Zoeller, a biology professor at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who's received NIEHS grants for his research.

"NIEHS is one of the least funded institutes" within the NIH. "A 20% budget cut [at NIH] is pretty significant and will give the new director -- depending on who that is -- an incredible amount of power in setting the research agenda," Zoeller said in an email.  

Carol Kwiatkowski, executive director of the Endocrine Disruption Exchange, said there's "no reason" why the NIEHS should be a target any more than the rest of the NIH, which study cancer, aging, diabetes and other illnesses. Kwiatkowski's group is a nonprofit that studies how endocrine disruptors affect humans and the environment. Kwiatkowski said she's received NIEHS funding and collaborated with NIEHS researchers.

The NIEHS has no regulatory power, so it's been able to conduct independent science with less political pressure than the EPA, she said. The institute presents evidence on the hazards of certain substances without dictating policy, though regulatory agencies may cite its work when developing new rules.

A list of active NIEHS grants shows the institute funds research related to climate change and environmental justice, two topics facing potential cuts at the EPA. But grants also go toward less controversial issues, including anti-terrorism science, childhood cancer and research funding for small businesses.

Here's a snapshot of several NIEHS programs that could be at risk:

NIEHS/EPA Children's Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research Centers

Launched in 1998, this initiative funds multidisciplinary research on children's health. One of the grant recipients is CIRCLE (the Center for Integrated Research on Childhood Leukemia and the Environment), a collaboration among universities that studies the causes of childhood leukemia, the most common form of cancer in kids.

According to Catherine Metayer, the principal investigator and a public health professor at University of California, Berkeley, childhood leukemia has increased by 35 percent over the past 40 years. The human genome can't change that quickly, so the cause must be environmental in nature, Metayer said. Exposure to pesticides, air pollution and cigarette smoke are all linked to increased leukemia risk.

In the latest round of funding, CIRCLE received $6 million last summer from the EPA and NIEHS to be distributed over four years. Part of the funding will be used to study archived blood samples of mothers and newborns to see how chemical exposure during pregnancy affects children's immune systems and subsequent risk of developing leukemia. Metayer said it's a new methodology, and she has no idea if potential budget cuts would imperil the project.

"I do hope that every human being, regardless of their political stance, will understand how important it is to provide a clean environment to children," she said.

The NIEHS began supporting Metayer's research 20 years ago, and the EPA came on board in 2008, she said. The long-term, sustained support has allowed the researchers to collaborate with scientists worldwide. It also funds a major outreach effort to educate doctors and community members on how to reduce chemical exposures to lower leukemia risk.

Without the NIEHS, "we would not be here," Metayer said.


Chaffetz criticized this $30 million project last year. The study combines research from 12 university labs and the FDA. Many large-scale BPA studies have been stymied because it's difficult to compare results from academic labs, regulatory agencies and industry, all of which use different methods. This project tries to address that by standardizing research methods across all the labs.

National Toxicology Program

This division of the NIEHS produces the Report on Carcinogens every two years, providing updates on the latest substances that are known or reasonably suspected to cause cancer. These reports have been congressionally mandated since 1978, and the NIEHS makes its decisions based on a review of the latest science. The most recent report, released just a few days before the election, added seven substances: five viruses (including HIV-1), the element cobalt and trichloroethylene, a chemical used to make refrigerants.

Superfund Research Program

The program funds university research on new technology to clean up toxic Superfund sites and provides commercialization support to quickly move the science from the lab to the field.

Martyn Smith, a University of California, Berkeley toxicology professor who directs the Superfund Research Program at his university, said he's optimistic about its future. "We've been very successful in keeping that program even when [politicians] wanted to eliminate the EPA," he said. The NIEHS-funded research feeds into the EPA's Superfund cleanup.

Pruitt recently declared his support for the EPA's Superfund program, calling it "absolutely essential."

Questions for Judge Gorsuch

RealClearPolitics - Sun, 03/19/2017 - 23:08
George Will, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
• Lincoln's greatness began with his recoil from the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, which empowered residents of those territories to decide whether to have slavery. The act's premise was that “popular sovereignty” — majorities' rights — is the essence of the American project. Is it, or is liberty?

Cutting Foreign Aid Makes America Less Safe

RealClearPolitics - Sun, 03/19/2017 - 23:08
Bill Gates, Time
Protecting Americans, preventing epidemics, strengthening markets, saving lives: aid delivers phenomenal benefits, and for a bargain. It represents less than 1 percent of the federal budget, not even a penny out of every dollar. It is some of the best return on investment anywhere in government. This money is well spent, it has an enormous impact, and it ought to be maintained.

Stephen Bannon Wants to Dismantle Your Government

RealClearPolitics - Sun, 03/19/2017 - 23:08
Ross Baker, USA Today
Presidential adviser Stephen Bannon has made a bold vow: to "deconstruct" the administrative state. For Bannon to use a term invented by French academic literary critics, the founding fathers of political correctness, is ironic. Achieving the goal in four or even eight years is an iridescent dream because it would require the uprooting of a 130-year-old complex of institutions, practices and statutes that no Congress, however partisan, would agree to.

Ten of Trump's Budget's Cruelest Cuts

RealClearPolitics - Sun, 03/19/2017 - 23:08
Rachel Black, CNN
As his framing message suggests, "To keep Americans safe, we have made tough choices that have been put off for too long. " Choices, he says, made in the interest of fiscal responsibility. Fiscal responsibility is a good idea but not when the result is morally bankrupt