Originally Published: 2/1/2014
State of the Union: On Tuesday night President Obama gave his State of the Union address. (If you missed it, you can read it here.) Conservative Supreme Court Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, and Antonin Scalia did not attend. Scalia has not attended since 1997. (The Hill) Justice Sonia Sotomayor did not attend either, but she was in California for “a previously scheduled law school appearance.” (National Law Journal) Republicans were quite unhappy and Jed Lewison caught the “classless response to the president’s policy proposals.” According to Crooks and Liars, they “sat on their hands” when a number of statements were made, like: “That it’s a good thing that after 12 long years the war in Afghanistan is finally coming to an end.” (See the entire list at C&L.) But the classic is the interviews done by Jimmy Kimmel’s crew. He sent them out onto Hollywood Boulevard on Monday and Tuesday to ask people what they thought about the State of the Union address - which wouldn’t be given until Tuesday night. People had lots of opinions about something that hadn’t yet happened. (The Wrap)
NSA and Industries: In an interview on German television, Edward Snowden said that the NSA doesn’t just spy on people, it’s spying on industries too. “If there’s information at Siemens that’s beneficial to U.S. national interests - even if it doesn’t have anything to do with national security - then they’ll take that information nevertheless.” (Guardian)
NSA and Apps: Snowden documents show that the NSA and its British counterpart GCHQ are able to piggyback on smartphone application technology to collect personal data for their own purposes. They’re called “leaky apps.” “Depending on what profile information a user had supplied . . . the agency would be able to collect almost every key detail of a user’s life: including home country, current location (through geolocation), age, gender, zip code, marital status . . . income, ethnicity, sexual orientation, education level, and number of children. . . So successful was this effort that one 2008 document noted that ‘[i]t effectively means that anyone using Google Maps on a smartphone is working in support of a GCHQ system.” Such data is probably “content” not metadata and provides much more information than planting web-tracking cookies. But the NSA claims it doesn’t use this technology on Americans. “One mobile ad platform, Millennial Media, appeared to offer particularly rich information. Millennial Media’s website states that it has partnership with Rovio on a special edition of Angry Birds, with Farmville maker Zynga, with Call of Duty developer Activision, and many other major franchises.” (Guardian)
Disclosures: The U.S. Justice Department has reached a tentative agreement with technology companies - including Facebook, Google, Yahoo, LinkedIn, and Microsoft - “to tell the public more about how the U.S. government collects information on their customers.” Attorney General Eric Holder and National Intelligence Director James Clapper issued a joint statement saying that “the administration was acting to allow more detailed disclosures about the number of national security orders [NSLs] and requests issued to communications companies, and the number of customer accounts targeted. ‘Through these new reporting methods, communications providers will be permitted to disclose more information than ever before to their customers,’ the statement said.” (Independent)
Alabama: The Department of Justice has issued a report on its investigation of Alabama’s Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women. It found that the rampant abuse violates the Constitution's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment and calls on Governor Robert Bentley (R) to make immediate changes or face a lawsuit. The report states findings of “a toxic environment with repeated and open sexual behavior. The conduct to which women are exposed includes: officers forcing women to engage in sexual acts with officers in exchange for basic sanitary supplies; male officers openly watching women shower or use the toilet; a staff facilitated ‘strip show;’ a constant barrage of sexually offensive language; punishment of prisoners who report improper conduct; and encouraging improper sexual contact between prisoners. The sexual abuse and harassment is grossly underreported due to insufficient staffing and supervision, inadequate policies and procedures, a heightened fear of retaliation, and an inadequate investigative process.”
Delaware: About 1,000 gallons of crude oil spilled into the Delaware River. Workers were “moving the crude oil from a boat in the river when a line ruptured.” (Philadelphia Business Journal)
Oklahoma: The decision of the federal judge declaring the same-sex marriage ban to be unconstitutional (TWW, Oklahoma, 1/18/14) has been appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit. Big surprise, huh? The appeals court has decided to “fast-track” the issue and oral arguments will be heard in April. (UPI)
Farm Bill: Congress critters negotiated a 5-year Farm Bill that eliminates or caps agriculture subsidies for farmers and slashes the food stamp (SNAP) program. This bill has been in the works for 2 years. Part of the problem has been the subsidy issue, which was paid to farmers whether or not there was a need. “Between 2003 and 2011, according to a government audit, nearly a quarter of the subsidies were paid to farmers who did not cultivate the crop for which the subsidy was calculated. Less than 1% of farms received grants from 2007 to 2011 even when they were growing no crops, according to a 2012 report by the Government Accountability Office. In reforming the policy, lawmakers have strengthened a federal insurance system to protect farmers against natural disasters.” The SNAP program was cut by $9 billion. Republicans wanted it cut by $40 billion; Democrats offered up a $4 billion cut. They settled on $9 billion. (AFP) Maybe if Democrats had started negotiations with a demand for an increase, they would have had a better result. According to the Food Research and Action Center, this is an average cut of $90 a month per household from an estimated 850,000 households. (Kansas City Star) The House passed the bill on Wednesday. (AFP)
Missing From the Farm Bill: The original House bill “mandated that members of Congress, cabinet secretaries, and their immediate family members disclose the amount of crop subsidies they received.” This clause was not in the Senate version. But, the clause was removed from the final bill. (Washington Times) Wanna guess why?
Corporate Tax: Our federal income tax, in law, stands at 35%, one of the highest in the world. However, due to the many deductions we allow, no corporation ever pays that. As has been noted before, many of the largest corporations pay no taxes whatsoever, and some even get money from us. For the 2010 tax year, according to a GAO report, “large, profitable U.S. corporations paid an average effective federal tax rate of 12.6%.” (CNN) What percentage did you pay in 2010?
Nuclear Programs: The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated the costs of our nuclear weapons. For the period 2014 to 2023 it estimated that the cost of nuclear forces (delivery systems, weapons, support laboratories, and naval reactors) is $241 billion; the cost of command, control, communications, and early-warning systems is $56 billion; and “additional costs based on historical cost” is $59 billion. That’s $355 billion, plus another $215 billion for “other nuclear-related activities.” That’s a total of $570 billion.
Obamacare: The Hobby Lobby case challenging Obamacare’s mandate that employee-provided health insurance plans include coverage for birth control is now before the Supreme Court. 19 Democratic senators - 5 of them women - have filed an amicus curiae brief (friend of the court) siding with the Obama administration. They argue that Hobby Lobby is “not exempt from the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate simply because some forms of birth control offend their religious beliefs.” (Yahoo)
Cancer Drug: Bayer CEO Marijn Dekkers, in an interview with Bloomberg, said that his company’s new cancer drug, Nexavar, is only for those who can afford it. The drug apparently is quite effective on late-stage kidney and liver cancer. In India it costs about $69,000 a year, so in March 2012 an Indian court granted a license to an Indian company to produce it for 97% less. Dekkers called it theft, saying, “[w]e did not develop this medicine for Indians . . .[w]e developed it for western patients who can afford it.” Nexavar costs about $96,000 a year in the United States, except patients don’t pay it, at least not directly. “Insurers cover much of the cost.” (Forbes)
Impact Statement: Yesterday the State Department issued its final environmental assessment of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. He states that the pipeline “would not significantly alter global greenhouse gas emissions.” Yeah, right. Officials are still “weighing whether or not the project would meet the test of the president’s broader climate strategy.” The report goes on to say that “approval or denial of any one crude oil transport project, including the proposed project, remains unlikely to significantly impact the rate of extraction in the oil sands, or the continued demand for heavy crude oil at refineries in the United States.” (Washington Post) But we know that the people doing the assessment for the State Department are tied to the oil industry. (TWW, Tar Sands Pipeline, 10/1/11)
TransCanada: A natural gas pipeline operated by TransCanada in Manitoba, Canada exploded, leaving 4,000 people without heat in sub-zero temperatures. Watch the video. This is the company that is running the Keystone pipelines. And we trust them to protect the environment?
Arctic Drilling: The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals determined that “[o]pening up about 30 million acres of U.S. Arctic waters to oil exploration 6 years ago was illegal” because its environmental risks had not been correctly assessed. Shell has already spent about $5 billion on oil exploration in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. (RT) In light of this decision, Shell has “abandoned” its plans to drill this year. (McClatchy) If you remember, last November Shell had said it was going to start drilling again. (TWW, Arctic Drilling, 11/9/13)
Fracking: Vera Scroggins, a 63-year-old anti-fracking activist, was taken to court by Cabot Oil & Gas Corporation for her activism. She “has operated peacefully and within the law including taking Yoko Ono to frack sites in her bid to elevate public concerns about fracking.” Cabot sought, and got, a restraining order against Scroggins, barring her from 312.5 square miles of land mined by Cabot in a largely rural area in northeastern Pennsylvania - where Scroggins lives. “[E]ach trip Scroggins makes outside her home requires a calculation about whether her route will take her on lands or roads leased to Cabot.” But Cabot hasn’t, and apparently won’t, provide a map of the lands they control. (Guardian)
Long-Term Unemployment: As you remember, Congress failed to extend unemployment compensation for people who have been unemployed for a long time. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that 1.5 million jobless workers have already stopped receiving unemployment compensation and that another 2 million will have exhausted their benefits by the end of this year. But long-term unemployment is at record levels and “long-term unemployment benefits have never been cut off before with long-term unemployment so high.” Then again, we never had a black guy in the White House before. Here’s an interactive map that shows, state-by-state, the share of the unemployed who’ve been jobless for 27 weeks or more.
Minimum Wage: Since nothing gets through Congress these days, Obama hasn’t been able to get a raise in the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. He does, however, have executive authority and is going to use it. He announced at his State of the Union address that he is requiring a $10.10 minimum wage for all federal contractors. However, this will only apply to new and renewed contracts. (NY Times)
Wage Theft: This can be restaurants stealing tips, employers demanding overtime without paying for it, not paying minimum wage, calling an employee an independent contractor or a temporary employee, making deductions from paychecks but not depositing them where they’re supposed to go, and many other things. But here’s a new one. Some low-wage employers, like Walmart, are paying with debit cards. CNBC reported on one Walmart worker whose paychecks are deposited onto a prepaid debit card. She is allowed 1 cash withdrawal per period. After that, each withdrawal costs $2. But she can avoid the fee by shopping at - ta-da - Walmart.
TPP: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D, NV) has said he opposes fast-track legislation which would be the vehicle whereby Obama gets authority to enter into the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Asked whether he’d block a floor vote on fast-track, he said: “We’ll see. Everyone would be well-advised just to not push this right now.” (Bloomberg)
myRA: Obama, at his State of the Union address, launched a retirement savings vehicle called “myRA” that is “aimed at enrolling more Americans in a government-backed investment option.” It will be similar to a Roth IRA but backed by savings bonds. It purportedly will guarantee a decent return with no risk and will be available to households earning no more than $191,000 a year. “Businesses will need to register in the pilot program by the end of the year for their employees to participate voluntarily.” (Reuters) George Zornick at The Nation has a good description of the plan.
Housing Credit Bubble: I told you a few weeks ago about the new securities scam - bonds that bundle housing rentals. (TWW, Another Housing Crash, 12/7/13) It looks like the scam is growing, and people are finally getting concerned. “While this securitization market is still in its infancy, a recent Wall Street estimate put potential financing opportunities for the single-family rental industry as high as $1.5 trillion. Already some members of Congress and economists are worried about another credit bubble.” (NY Times)