Originally Published: 8/17/2013
NSA Violations: According to a National Security Agency (NSA) internal audit found in documents leaked by Edward Snowden, NSA broke the “privacy rules or overstepped its legal authority thousands of times each year since Congress granted the agency broad new powers in 2008.” Most of the infractions involve unauthorized surveillance of Americans or foreign intelligence targets” in the U.S., “both of which are restricted by statute and executive order.” They range from “significant violations of law to typographical errors that resulted in unintended interception of U.S. emails and telephone calls.” It appears that many of these were plain old “goofs” but the problem is that they attempted to cover it up. “In one of the documents, agency personnel are instructed to remove details and substitute more generic language in reports to the Justice Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. In one instance, the NSA decided that it need not report the unintended surveillance of Americans.” And here’s a good one. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), which has authority over many of these operations, “did not learn about a new collection method until it had been in operation for many months. The court ruled it unconstitutional.” (Washington Post) It seems clear to me that the NSA is operating all on its own. It spurns oversight and does exactly what it wants to do. FISC is supposed to provide oversight but cannot do that if it doesn’t know what’s going on. Congress has passed laws and the president has issued executives orders - all of which are ignored. I think it’s time to rethink this whole thing.
Stop & Frisk: The outrageous New York City policy that has resulted in millions of unwarranted stops of peaceful citizens finally had its day in court. It lost. Federal Judge Shira A. Scheindlin found that the New York City Police Department (NYPD) “adopted a policy of indirect racial profiling.” She wants “broad reforms” and has appointed Peter L. Zimroth to monitor NYPD’s compliance with the constitution. But, there’s a glitch. Long ago the Supreme Court ruled that stop-and-frisks were permissible under certain conditions. So, Scheindlin took another direction, noting that “New York police were too quick to deem as suspicious, behavior that was perfectly innocent, in effect watering down the legal standard required for a stop.” So, she instituted a pilot program in which “officers in at least 5 precincts will wear body-worn cameras in an effort to record street encounters.” Mayor Michael Bloomberg, among others, claims that the policy has made the city safer, but look at the graphs. Out of the hundreds of thousands of stops, the highest arrest rate they’ve ever attained is 7%. The other 93% were doing nothing wrong. Judge Scheindlin also accused top police officials of acting with “deliberate indifference.” (NY Times)
Louisiana: New Orleans became the first city in the Deep South to formally defy federal requests to detain suspected illegal immigrants. The city’s policy directs the New Orleans Parish sheriff’s office to decline all requests of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to detain persons suspected to be undocumented unless they are being held on felony charges. Similar policies have been enacted in Chicago, New York, Washington, and Connecticut. (NY Times)
Michigan: It’s being rumored that Detroit is preparing to sell some of its 60,000-piece art collection at the Detroit Institute of Art, “one of the most prestigious in the U.S.” But the surrounding counties have warned that if the bankruptcy managers do this they will cut their contributions to the Institute’s funding. “The combined income from 3 counties surrounding the city is worth $23 million a year to the museum, a sum that represents almost 75% of its operating budget.” (Guardian) Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face. Let me remind you. The city borrowed money from rich people rather than make them pay their fair share of taxes. Now the poor people have to pay back the rich people.
North Carolina: A 92-year old woman is suing North Carolina over the new voter ID laws. (Atlanta Daily World)
Pennsylvania: Philadelphia had to borrow $50 million just to open its schools with minimum staffing. (NY Times)
Texas: The redistricting issue continues. If you remember, a federal court recently found that Texas engaged in intentional race discrimination when it last drew its district lines. Then came the Supreme Court decision to neuter the Voting Rights Act. And now we have Attorney General Eric Holder suing Texas over its redistricting plan. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott had to file a brief in response to the lawsuit. In it he says that “[i]n 2011, both houses of the Texas Legislature were controlled by large Republican majorities, and their redistricting decisions were designed to increase the Republican Party’s electoral prospects at the expense of the Democrats.” In other words, they didn’t gerrymander to reduce the influence of people of color. They did it to reduce the influence of Democrats.
Reducing Prison Population: AG Eric Holder announced steps to “avert mandatory minimum sentences for some low-level drug offenders.” It will apply to non-violent drug offenders with no ties to gangs or large-scale drug organizations. They will “no longer be charged with offenses that impose severe mandatory sentences.” (Washington Post) This will save a lot of tax money currently spent on federal prisons. So, before you get all mushy about how great Holder is, remember, this is probably just a financial decision. Better to have these people working and paying taxes than to spend $100,000 each year to lock them up. Then again, the numbers of these types of people in the federal system is just a fraction of those held in state prisons. Maybe it’ll spur states to do the same thing. And what’s going to happen to those already incarcerated under the old rules? I’m assuming they’ll have grounds to petition for a reduced sentence - or something like that.
Sentencing Commission: The U.S. Sentencing Commission is reviewing the “drug quantity table,” the “grid that determines prison lengths for dozens of different categories of offense.” The Sentencing Commission could go further than AG Holder’s proposals (above) in lowering sentences but it could be overruled by Congress. (Guardian)
Teacher Pay: Which country pays the best? Which pays the worst? Upworthy has a chart of teachers’ hours worked and the average salary after 15 years of experience - based on the countries’ GDP. Not hard to tell the the worst is the United States with the most hours worked and one of the worst in pay. The best? United Kingdom with just about the fewest hours worked and one of the best paid.
Post Office: The Postal Reform Act of 2013 has been proposed by Senators Tom Carper (D, DE) and Tom Coburn (R, OK). It’s designed to “help USPS pay some of the $15.9 billion it owes the Treasury in outstanding debt.” But, let me remind you that the debit is bogus. (TWW, U.S. Post Office, 9/10/11) The bill will direct the Office of Personnel Management to change the way they calculate the employees retirement plans and it would replace the statutory health pre-funding to a 40-year amortization. (Federal News Radio)
Same Sex Marriage: The Pentagon is moving forward with its plans to extend benefits - medical coverage, basic housing allowances, and family separation allowances - to same-sex spouses. Spousal and family benefits will be available by September 3rd “as long as a valid marriage certificate is presented.” Also, if same-sex couples are not married and are stationed in states that do not permit their marriage, they will give them leave, “not to be charged against annual days off,” so they can travel to a state where they can be married. (Reuters)
Obamacare: Another delay, “hidden in a maze of legal jargon.” This time in a provision meant to protect consumers - the provision that capped the total of out-of-pocket expenses that insurance companies can charge for deductibles, co-pays, and prescriptions. This was supposed to be capped at about $6,000 for individuals and $12,000 for a family, but it has been delayed. (RT)
Medical Marijuana: Dr. Sanjay Gupta is at it again. (TWW, Marijuana, 8/10/13) He criticized the United States for its criminal policies on marijuana while holding the patent. (TWW, Marijuana Has Been Patented, 7/13/13) “The U.S. holds a patent [on marijuana] on one hand, and on the other hand, the same government says it has no medical applications. . . This is hypocrisy.” (Raw Story)
Climate Change: The preliminary report of the August State of the Climate is out. 2012 was the hottest year on record for the U.S. Records began in 1895. The previous record was set in 2006. And 2012 was also among the 10 warmest years on record globally. There are other highlights. (Weather)
White House: Solar panels are being installed on the White House this week. (Washington Post) If you remember, President Jimmy Carter also installed solar panels, but Ronald Reagan took them down. What does that tell you?
Keystone XL: IHS CERA, an industry research firm, issued a new study predicting that construction of the pipeline would have “no material impact” on greenhouse gas emissions. The findings of this study contradict a July study by the National Resources Defense Council which found that over its 50-year life, the pipeline would add 1.2 billion metric tons more carbon pollution than if it carried conventional crude - more than every car in the U.S. releases into the air annually. But if you read the study, it relies on no evidence; it just cites other studies. So, who is IHS CERA? Well, it calls itself “a leading advisor to international energy companies, governments, financial institutions, and technology providers.” If you look at its list of sponsors for its 2013 conference in Houston, you get a clue as to who these people are. “Partners” included BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil. “Sponsors” included ConocoPhillips and Offshore. (CERA Week 2013) Top executives from these companies participated.
No More Water: In the small town of Barnhart, Texas the town well has gone dry, it's out of water. There are towns across the southwest with the same problem. “3 years of drought, decades of overuse, and now the oil industry’s outsize demands on water for fracking are running down reservoirs and underground aquifers. And climate change is making things worse.” According to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, “In Texas alone, about 30 communities could run out of water by the end of the year.” [Emphasis added.] In Barnhart’s case, the town ran dry “because water was being extracted for shale gas fracking.” (Guardian)
Fracking: Research from the University of Texas at Arlington has found elevated levels of arsenic and other heavy metals in groundwater near the fracking sites in Texas’ Barnett Shale. (Environmental Science & Technology)
Great Barrier Reef: Remember the undetonated bombs that were dropped on the Great Barrier Reef marine park? (TWW, Great Barrier Reef, 7/27/13) I guess the complaints must have been extensive as the U.S. and Australia formed a joint task force to go find them. The Australian navy found them and the U.S. is going to help remove them. (Guardian)
Deepwater Horizon: BP is suing the U.S. government for “abuse of power” for banning it from federal contracts after the Gulf of Mexico disaster. (AFP) Their arrogance knows no bounds.
Retirement Inequality: In the last decade not only did wages become more inequitable, as did net worth, so did retirement savings. The wealthy have more and more of the retirement savings than does anyone else. Look at the chart from Economic Policy Institute. “The amount of private retirement savings in individual accounts is 9 times greater at the 90th percentile than at the 50th percentile.” This is what the 401(k) replacement of pensions has brought us.
Tax Evasion: The U.S. has “cut a deal” with the Cayman islands “that will smooth implementation in the Caribbean island nation of a new U.S. anti-tax evasion law, while pressuring other low-tax and no-tax countries to follow suit.” (Reuters)
Uneven Recovery: This piece is surprising only in that anyone is surprised. Chain stores that cater to middle- and lower-income customers “say they are feeling the pinch of an uneven economic recovery.” (Reuters) Now, let’s just look at the facts. Companies like Walmart (the largest employer in the U.S.) and McDonald’s are the lowest-paying employers. That drives down wages for everyone. So, we now have a huge number of people, a number that may be approaching 50%, living on damn near slave wages. So why are they surprised that people can’t afford their goods? These people are supposed to be business experts yet they can’t figure out the most basic of equations: when people have no money, they don’t buy anything. Geez.
Antitrust: Finally the U.S. government has decided to enforce the Sherman Antitrust Act. This has only been done a few times since the 1970s. Clearly Reagan didn’t enforce it, neither did Clinton (or not much) or Bush. The Justice Department filed a lawsuit to block the proposed merger between American Airlines and U.S. Airways, “which would create the world’s largest airline.” The suit was joined in by 6 attorneys general from states and the District of Columbia. The NY Times reported that industry officials were “surprised.” I bet they were. They had “expected little resistance to the deal. But it underscored a newly aggressive approach by the Justice Department’s antitrust division.” I wasn’t aware that it had blocked the merger of AT&T and T-Mobile and forced Anheuser-Busch to alter its terms of its takeover of Corona before approving it. “The airline industry, though, has had a nearly unfettered run of mergers in recent years and the American-U.S. Airways combination was seen as the capstone.” Have you seen lower rates? Better service? Service to more regional airports? No? Hmmmm.
JPMorgan: 2 former London traders for JPMorgan have been criminally charged with “manipulating the books to disguise hundreds of millions of dollars in losses.” Javier Martin-Artajo, “a manager who oversaw the trading strategy,” and Julien Grout, “a low-level trader in London,” were allowed to operate “for months with scant supervision and the impression that higher-ups of the bank supported them.” (NY Times) Seems to me they’re going for the low-hanging fruit.