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WEEKLY WONK

Originally Published: 1/18/2014

TPP Environmental ChapterWikiLeaks has gotten and released documents from the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement that confirms environmentalists’ fears. We already know it would be bad for jobs, bad for our sovereignty, bad for our civil rights. So, here’s another reason to hate it. The document “underscores how multinational corporate interests rule the negotiating process of this important 12-nation treaty, representing more than 40% of the world’s GDP and one-third of world trade.” The document doesn’t include any environmental protection enforcement mechanisms. Of course not. It’s written by corporations, for corporations. The whole thing is meant to protect trade, not the environment. And it relies of corporations voluntarily doing what’s right.

 

More NSA Programs:  They just keep coming. One allows the NSA to use radio waves “that can be transmitted from tiny circuit boards and USB cards inserted surreptitiously into the computers. In some cases, they are sent to a briefcase-size relay station that intelligence agencies can set up miles away from the target.” Using radio frequency technology has solved one of the NSA’s biggest problems: “getting into computers that adversaries, and some American partners, have tried to make impervious to spying or cyberattack.” It appears that in most cases they must physically insert the hardware. Maybe this is what they’re doing with the program I told you about a couple of weeks ago. (TWW, Tailored Access Operations, 1/4/14) So far it’s in nearly 100,000 computers worldwide and it also allows the NSA to launch cyberattacks themselves. (NY Times) Here’s another one. The Guardian and the UK’s Channel 4 News did an investigation based on Snowden documents on a program called Dishfire. They found that the NSA is collecting “almost 200 million text messages a day from across the globe, using them to extract data including location, contact networks, and credit card details.” They also found that the UK spy agency Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) “has made use of the NSA database to search the metadata of ‘untargeted and unwarranted’ communications belonging to people in the UK.” Here’s the clincher: “The NSA has made extensive use of its vast text message database to extract information on people’s travel plans, contact books, financial transactions and more - including of individuals under no suspicion of illegal activity.” [Emphasis added.] (Guardian)

 

Preventing Terrorism:  The New America Foundation did an analysis of 225 terrorism cases that occurred within the U.S. since 9/11. They found that all the data collection done by the NSA “has had no discernible impact on preventing acts of terrorism.” The analysis found that in “the majority of cases, traditional law enforcement and investigative methods provided the tip or evidence to initiate the case.” (Washington Post)

 

Reining in Surveillance:  Obama has issued some new guidelines for American surveillance, but will not go as far as his advisers’ proposed. (TWW, NSA, 12/21/13) He’ll ask Congress to help him make some decisions. In fact, most changes that need to be made must be done by Congress. (Boston Herald) He’s going to increase the limits on their access to bulk telephone data, “call for privacy safeguards for foreigners, and propose the creation of a public advocate to represent privacy concerns at a secret intelligence court.” However, he will not go for “leaving bulk data in the custody of the telecommunications firms, nor will he require court permission for all so-called national security letters [NSLs] seeking business records.” (NY Times)

 

Gitmo:  The budget agreement (see The Budget below) once again prohibited Obama from transferring inmates to the U.S. from Guantánamo Bay. (NY Times)

 

Iran:  The main thing that brought Iran to the table is the sanctions that have been in place for several years. Now they’re negotiating about giving up (or dismantling) any nuclear weapons program they may have had in the offing. But the Senate Democrats seem to be determined to disable the talks. 59 senators have sponsored a bill “which would aim to drive Iran’s oil exports down to zero.” This could upend all diplomatic efforts as Iran has said they’ll leave the bargaining table if the U.S. enacts any new sanctions. Obama has threatened a veto but, at 60 votes, they could override it. (NY Times) What are they trying to do? Guess they’re still buying the “gotta be a warmonger to win an election” scenario. Whether this is already having an impact is a big question. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) announced that its meeting with Iran has been postponed. (Guardian)

 

Benghazi:  Despite Republicans screaming about the attack on the consul in Benghazi, their budget negotiations (see The Budget below) succeeded in cutting the appropriation for embassy security, construction, and maintenance in the new budget. (NY Times)

 

Arizona:  If you remember, a Court of Appeals struck down Arizona’s law banning abortions after 20 weeks of gestation. The state appealed to the Supreme Court. (TWW, Arizona I, 5/25/13) The Supremes have declined to take the case. (Reuters)

 

Michigan:  The Detroit bankruptcy met with an interesting decision by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes. The city proposed a deal it had negotiated with 2 banks to pay them $165 million “to extricate itself from some long-term financial contracts that have been costing the bankrupt city tens of millions of dollars a year.” The judge said that “Detroit had hurt itself with hasty and imprudent decisions in the past, and that the practice ‘must stop.’” He said the city should negotiate a new settlement or even sue the banks for “the swap transaction” deal it had entered into with Bank of America and UBS. (NY Times)

 

New Jersey:  I usually don’t get into the political stuff but this is just too good not to tell you about it. Bruce Springsteen joined with Jimmy Fallon for a spoof on Christie’s bridge scandal. Watch it at Mediaite.

 

North Carolina:  The conservatives that swept into power in the last election are fulfilling their promise. The state has eliminated its earned income tax credit (EITC), “giving North Carolina the dubious distinction of being the only state ever to do so.” They also raised sales taxes “to partly fund deep income tax cuts for the wealthy” and “cut funding for schools and other state services.” They also cut unemployment benefits “more deeply than any other state.” (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities)

 

Oklahoma:  U.S. District Judge Terence Kern has ruled that Oklahoma’s ban against same-sex marriage is unconstitutional. (NY Times)

 

Pennsylvania:  Commonwealth Court Judge Bernard McGinley struck down the law requiring voters to show photo ID at the polls. (AP) You know this will be appealed.

 

Utah:  The state’s tax commissioner has decided to allow same-sex married couples to file joint state income tax returns while the law is being appealed. This is probably because the U.S. said that it will acknowledge Utah’s same-sex marriages. (TWW, Utah, 1/11/14) They will also honor joint filings by same-sex married couples married in other states but residing in Utah. (Salt Lake Tribune)

 

West Virginia:  It is still dealing with its contaminated drinking water (TWW, West Virginia, 1/11/14) and more details are coming out. The leak came from a storage tank owned by Freedom Industries. Its founder, Carl Lemley Kennedy II, is a 2-time convicted felon. (West Virginia Gazette) Listen to what Steven Colbert has to say about it. How did this happen? Well, 3 years ago “federal experts urged the state of West Virginia to help the Kanawha Valley create a new program to prevent hazardous chemical accidents.” The state ignored it. (West Virginia Gazette) Critics are saying that this is just part of the “long and troubled history of regulating the coal and chemical companies that form the heart of its economy.” (NY Times) Freedom Industries has been ordered to “preserve evidence at the site.” (West Virginia Gazette) And Eastman Chemical, the maker of the chemical spilled into the Elk River, has been sued by West Virginia businesses and residents. (Bloomberg)

 

Wisconsin:  Have you heard about the proposed bill that would cut child-support payments for wealthy people? Guess who wrote it. A multi-millionaire, Michael Elsenga, and his attorney wrote it. Passage of the bill would allow Elsenga to reopen his divorce settlement and cut his payments. (Wisconsin State Journal)

 

The Budget:  Last December the congress critters reached an agreement on a new budget. (TWW, The Budget, 12/21/13; 12/14/13) But this only set out the parameters of spending. The House/Senate Conference Committee has now worked out the details of the $1.1 trillion budget that will finance the government through the end of the fiscal year (September 30, 2014). “Measures to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases and reverse clean water regulations did not survive the final negotiations.” Republicans also gave up on de-financing the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) but did get a $1 billion cut. Republicans also got a $503 million cut to the IRS as punishment for its scrutiny of Tea Party groups (IRSgate). There will be no high-speed rail projects or preschool development grants. “And some new regulations supported by liberals would be blocked, including a standard for energy-efficient light bulbs and livestock and poultry controls.” (NY Times) Funding for the Securities and Exchange Commission was $324 million less than it requested but Republicans dropped their demand for further cuts to the food stamp program (SNAP). (Guardian) “Democratic aides said the bill includes no new provisions prohibiting regulations on greenhouse gas emissions, nor forestry and stream management. They also prevented new gun-rights language from inclusion.” (Reuters) And they delayed the premium increases for flood insurance - a boon to coastline homeowners in Florida. (McClatchy) For a pretty good outline, see the Washington Post. The House and the Senate passed the bill. (Guardian)

 

Plutonomy:  “Economic growth that is powered and consumed by the wealthiest upper class of society. Plutonomy refers to a society where the majority of the wealth is controlled by an ever-shrinking minority; as such, the economic growth of that society becomes dependent on the fortunes of that same wealthy minority.” (Investopedia) Yes, that’s what we have here in the good old USA. Citigroup (yes, Citigroup) did an analysis, the results of which have been posted by Pissed Off Woman. It found that the world is dividing into 2 blocs: “the plutonomies, where economic growth is powered by and largely consumed by the wealthy few, and the rest.” Tell us something we don’t know. The prediction: “We project that the plutonomies (the U.S., UK, and Canada) will likely see even more income inequality, disproportionately feeding off a further rise in the profit share in their economies, capitalist-friendly governments, more technology-driven productivity, and globalization.” The plutocrats are the consumers, at least the only ones that matter. This is because the top 1% in the U.S. “accounted for about 20% of overall U.S. income in 2000” and for “40% of financial net worth, more than the bottom 90% of households put together.” How did this happen? You know the answer. “The rise in their share since the mid-eighties [read Reagan administration] might be related to the reduction in corporate and income taxes.” Ya think?

 

Net Neutrality:  The Court of Appeals for Washington D.C. has ruled that the Federal Communication Commission’s net neutrality rules are invalid. “To cut to the chase, the court says the FCC simply doesn’t have the authority to force Internet Service Providers [ISPs] to act like mere dumb pipes, passing data through their tubes with a blind eye and sans preferential treatment.” (PC World) In simple language, the Internet used to be considered a “common carrier” just like your telephone. You paid 1 fee no matter who you talked to or, in the case of the Internet, no matter which sites you visited. Now, with this decision, ISPs are no longer considered “common carriers” and, therefore can charge you for different usage and speed. The Internet will become like cable television. You’ll be charged based on your usage. This means that the big corporations will have an advantage over everyone else. They are cutting off the last bit of non-corporate controlled information. But there is a remedy. In the decision written by Judge David Tatel, he noted that “the commission has general authority to regulate in this area.” (McClatchy) So, the FCC could promulgate new rules and fix everything. Let them know how you feel about it. Go to Free Press and sign the petition.

 

MapsA Sheep No More has posted 40 maps. If you love maps, you’ll love this - and spend some time looking through it. There are all kinds of things covered - some important, some trivial. My favorite is the one about paid maternal leave across the world.

 

Obamacare:  The House passed a bill that would require the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to make weekly, detailed reports “on how the Obamacare insurance exchanges are working.” It also requires state-run exchanges to release weekly reports. “The reports would have to include a laundry list of data, including the number of unique visitors, web chats, new account registrations, and enrollees in private exchange plans and Medicaid. These summaries would also have to note the zip code where enrollees live and the level of coverage purchased. Other details would identify specific problems with the websites, which private contractors are to blame, the pending fixes and their cost, how that cost is being covered, and which government officials are overseeing the process.” It also requires HHS to “submit weekly reports on the HealthCare.gov call center, with detail information on how many people called in and what website problems they reported. And there’s a provision requiring the department to release and update weekly a list of the navigators and application counselors who have been trained and certified to help people enroll in Obamacare coverage.” Of course there is no money to do all this. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) scored this as costing nothing, but someone has to put the data together in each state as well as at the federal level; someone has to compile it; and someone has to put it into a report. (Politico) It’s nothing more than an attempt to bog the programs down in detail so the people can’t do their job.

 

Offshore Drilling:  Obama is “nearing a decision on allowing seismic testing off the Atlantic Coast, a critical step in opening waters off Virginia, the Carolinas, and elsewhere to oil drilling.” The tests would be done from Delaware to Florida’s Cape Canaveral, “although most of the push for offshore drilling is in the areas off North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia.” A study, due out at the end of February, will look at the effects on whales, dolphins, and other fish. Claire Douglass, Oceana campaign director, said that the air gun blasts used in the testing are “100,000 times more intense than a jet engine” and “pose threats to marine mammals, including the endangered right whale. ‘These dynamite-like blasts can cause temporary or permanent hearing loss, which can seriously harm animals that depend on their hearing for critical life-sustaining behaviors such as feeding, mating, and communicating.’” The House of Reps had a hearing last Friday on air guns but no environmental groups were invited to testify. (McClatchy)

 

Carbon Emissions:  U.S. carbon emissions increased by 2% last year “after years of declining.” The increase is probably due to the improved economy. The largest increase was from coal consumption by the electric power industry. But, “American cars and factories spewed 5.38 billion tons of carbon dioxide in 2013, up from 5.27 billion in 2012.” (Guardian)

 

Unemployment Compensation:  Senate Republicans filibustered the bill to extend unemployment compensation. (Wall Street Journal)

 

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