Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Origins of the Obama Machine

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By Randy Shaw

Cesar Chavez and the farmworkers movement brought community organizing strategies into the electoral and legislative arena, writes Randy Shaw, in this excerpt from his new book, Beyond the Fields

During the United Farm Workers’ critical decade of growth, from 1966 to 1976, farmworker activists became experts in conducting voter registration among low-income and minority voters, and operating get out the vote (GOTV) drives to boost turnout in traditionally low-voting, working-class neighborhoods. The UFW responded to political attacks from growers by adopting innovative approaches for almost every type of electoral campaign. These strategies brought the union victories in statewide initiative contests, legislative fights and races for public office—and continue to set the course for today’s progressive election campaigns.

In 1966, the farmworkers movement had no more experience with politicians and elections than it had with boycotts. Cesar Chavez’s previous job as an organizer for the Community Services Organization had included voter registration drives, but the CSO did not make political endorsements or engage in partisan electoral work.

The UFW did have one experienced hand, however: Fred Ross Sr., who had become a legendary electoral organizer after running Edward Roybal’s winning campaign for a seat on the Los Angeles City Council in 1949. Roybal, who was president of CSO, was the first Mexican-American to win a Los Angeles city council election in more than 70 years, a victory described as marking “the birth of Latino politics in California.”

Ross used the same painstaking approach to voter registration and GOTV in the Roybal campaign that he later brought to the UFW’s first representation election at the DiGiorgio ranch in 1967, and his methods would soon become central to the union’s grassroots electoral approach. Using Ross’s lessons as a starting point, UFW activists were not deterred by their lack of financial resources or political experience; in fact, these circumstances forced them to pursue innovative electoral and legislative strategies.

Not all of these efforts succeeded, but by “pushing all kinds of buttons” and being willing to “try something else,” the UFW developed a model for grassroots voter outreach to Latino and other low-income and minority voters that has spearheaded winning progressive campaigns in subsequent years.

California’s 1968 Democratic presidential primary put Chavez and the UFW on the state and national political map. New York senator Robert F. Kennedy was a staunch ally, whose public support for Chavez and the farmworkers during Senate hearings in the fields in 1966 had greatly boosted national sympathy for the union, especially among Catholics. Chavez developed a close personal bond with Kennedy and considered it “heroic” that the powerful senator had publicly embraced the UFW without asking anything in return.

In April and May of 1968, UFW organizers spread throughout the state’s Mexican-American neighborhoods to build support for Kennedy. Chavez himself made as many as six public appearances a day on the senator’s behalf. Rallies were held across the Central Valley. In the long-ignored and politically disenfranchised Mexican-American neighborhoods of East Los Angeles, the UFW set up an electoral operation that included personal visits to all registered voters, phone banks, and walking committees. To build election excitement, the campaign even hired kids to hand out thousands of leaflets.

A key strategy the UFW developed during the Kennedy effort was the recruitment of volunteer organizers who could be counted on to turn out their neighbors to vote on election day. These volunteers were recruited at their doors by UFW campaign workers, who were simultaneously contacting voters, training them to conduct voter outreach on the spot, and enlisting them for GOTV efforts on Kennedy’s behalf. This emphasis on developing volunteer leadership was as central to the UFW’s electoral work as it was for the boycott, and it would become a major component of Latino voter outreach efforts in Los Angeles three decades later.

Marshall Ganz was the chief organizer of the UFW’s Kennedy campaign, and he later recalled the effort as “the model” for grassroots campaigns that the UFW and its alumni would run at the local and state levels over the next three decades. Journalist Sam Kushner observed that the UFW volunteers “worked as no other political activists. Hours meant nothing to them and they accepted hardships such as sleeping on floors in churches and meeting halls as a necessary part of the struggle.” Chavez later compared the experience to organizing a strike; the fact that the UEW assembled its campaign operation without much prior electoral experience likely contributed to its functioning more as a community organizing effort than a traditional political campaign.

The UFW was not the only organization helping to mobilize the Mexican-American vote. Kennedy — Latino activists such as Bert Corona, head of the national “Viva Kennedy” campaign, also played key roles — -but to Kennedy delegate Paul Schrade of the United Auto Workers union, “the farmworkers had made the difference.” Schrade’s conclusion was echoed by three journalists from the London Sunday Times, who wrote: “In the end, the votes of Chavez’s Mexican-Americans contributed most of the slender margin by which Kennedy beat McCarthy in California.”

The UFW was forced back into the California electoral arena in 1972 to face a political challenge that threatened the union’s very existence. Growers had tried to pass an anti-UFW measure in the legislature in 1971, but the union mobilized forty-five hundred people in a rally in front of the state capitol building to successfully defeat it. Farm interests then put an initiative on the ballot, known as Proposition 22, that included the standard provisions forbidding boycotts and strikes and added such extreme provisions as barring farmworker unions from bargaining on work rules.

The No on 22 campaign initiated a new approach to electoral politics that would become a prototype for the successful grassroots labor campaigns that began reshaping Los Angeles and California politics in the late 1990s. In many respects, the UFW’s model replicated on a larger scale the detailed approach that Fred Ross Sr. had developed for winning the union’s first representation election at DiGiorgio farms. Ellen Eggers, who extended her summer stint with the UFW in Los Angeles to help fight Prop 22 and ended up staying on with the farmworkers for fifteen years, describes the incredibly tight organization of the campaign:

We always kept totals of what we did and reported in to our coordinator. Whether it was bumpers “stickered,” leaflets passed out, voters registered, or declarations signed, we always kept accurate tallies. The numbers were turned in, added up, and reported on, probably to Cesar and LeRoy, but always, also, to those of us who were “out there.” The union leadership was excellent about this. Always keeping us going and lifting our spirits by showing us that our little piece of the puzzle was important. Each of us was doing our job, and as grinding and boring as it could be at times, we knew we were part of something much larger.
At the end of each day’s billboarding, the Reverend Chris Hartmire announced how many cars had seen the signs, a number based on UFW research on traffic patterns at the various intersections. This record-keeping reinforced the importance of the volunteers’ efforts, a critical encouragement for an activity that required people to wake up at 4:00 a.m., be out on freeways by 6:00 a.m., and then continue working into the evening. Boycott volunteers normally worked six days a week, but the Prop 22 campaign required an all-week, morning-to-night commitment.

Knowing that Latino voters would strongly oppose Prop 22, the UFW targeted this constituency by establishing precinct operations in East Los Angeles and other Latino communities across the state. In East L.A.’s Lincoln Park, the union set up a tent city to house the hundreds of farmworkers coming from the fields to help the campaign in the month before the election. Boycott staff across the nation had also been redirected to the campaign.

Although Chavez was still recovering from his Arizona fast, he toured the state attacking Prop 22 as a “fraud which would destroy the farmworkers union in California.” The UFW had strong backing from the Democratic Party, the AFL-CIO, California’s Catholic bishops and Secretary of State Brown. Growers spent nearly $500,000 (a large sum by 1972 standards) on television ads supporting Prop 22, but they were outmatched by the UFW’s massive grassroots effort. The initiative was defeated by over 1 million votes, 8 percent to 42 percent, despite California voters’ strong support for pro-grower Republican Richard Nixon over pro-UFW Democrat George McGovern on the same ballot.

The UFW’s defeat of Prop 22 in 1972, its key role in the election of Jerry Brown in 1974, and the enactment of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975 enhanced Cesar Chavez’s confidence in the union’s ability to win California elections. This led him to promote a farm labor initiative on the November 1976 ballot primarily aimed at preventing legislative interference with the funding of the Agricultural Labor Relations Board. Although some of the issues the initiative addressed were quite technical, Chavez was so confident that the voters who had backed the UFW in 1972 would do so again that he vowed, “We’re going to teach the growers a lesson they’ll never forget once and for all.”

The union collected 720,000 signatures on initiative petitions in just 29 days, a remarkable show of strength for an all-volunteer effort. Most California initiatives reach the ballot by partially or entirely relying on paid signature gatherers. Growers were so impressed by the UFW’s display of grassroots mobilizing that they soon agreed to most of the provisions included in the ballot measure. Nevertheless, Chavez was tired of having to fight over implementation of the 1975 Agricultural Labor Relations Act, and Proposition 14 proceeded to the ballot.

In many ways, the campaign was a remarkable tribute to the grassroots political machine Chavez and the UFW had built. Prop 14 volunteers were seemingly everywhere, and the campaign exceeded the successful Prop 22 effort in money raised and volunteer hours spent. Prop 14 volunteer Larry Tramutola, who had worked for the UFW for years and later became a leading California campaign consultant, described the effort as “probably the best statewide grassroots campaign you can imagine.”

Marshall Ganz, by now recognized as one of the nation’s leading political strategists, managed the campaign. Prop 14 brought virtually the entire nationwide staff together for the first time, and the national UFW boycott structure was transformed into a statewide political operation. The campaign also built working relationships among boycott staff that would later benefit the labor movement.

Although the Prop 14 campaign enhanced activists’ electoral skills and established long-term working relationships among UFW veterans, the measure suffered a landslide defeat. Some voters were simply unwilling to make changes only a year after the ALRA’s passage. But Prop 14 was hurt most by a provision granting labor organizers a constitutional right to enter fields to meet workers. Opponents ran television commercials in which a farmer and homeowner expressed fear for his daughter’s privacy and safety if union organizers—assumed to be nonwhite—had unrestricted access to their property.

Even more effective were statewide newspaper ads offering the passionate testimony of a Japanese-American farmer who had been sent to an internment camp during World War II. The farmer, whose photo appeared in the ad, linked his wartime deprivations to the battle against Prop 14: “I was 20 years old and I gave up my personal rights without a fight,” he said. “Never again.”

Despite Prop 14’s defeat, Chavez and the UEW in the decade from 1966 to 1976 developed a model for labor and Latino political involvement that laid the framework for today’s grassroots campaigns. The farmworkers movement brought community organizing tactics and strategies—voter registration drives, mass petition drives, intensive door-to-door and street outreach, public visibility events to catch the attention of voters and the media, and election-day voter outreach efforts—into the electoral and legislative arena.

In contrast, mainstream labor unions did little to mobilize their rank-and-file members. As one union member described it, while the UFW was running grassroots electoral campaigns, other unions’ political programs focused on “writing checks to political candidates and party organizations, lobbying entrenched members of Congress, and—shortly before Election Day—sending mailings to union members informing them of our endorsements.”

Cesar Chavez and the UFW laid the groundwork for California’s increase in Latino voting, and Marshall Ganz and other UFW veterans then refined and expanded the UFW model in a series of 1980s campaigns. After Miguel Contreras and the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor found success using this approach during the 1990s, this grassroots mobilization and voter outreach model spread throughout California through labor-backed organizations, fueling the transformation of California politics.

These efforts continue to expand nationally as SEIU and other unions build their presence in Colorado, Florida, Arizona, Texas and other states where greater Latino voter turnout is boosting progressive candidates and issues. To the extent that much of America’s Latino electorate was once described as a “sleeping giant,” its awakening depends not on reacting to a hostile political environment, but rather on the spread of a UFW organizing model that has proven successful for over 40 years and is advancing the struggle for economic justice across the nation.

New federal mortgage plan offers relief to only a few

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By Kevin G. Hall

The Bush administration on Tuesday announced another plan to modify what it thinks will be hundreds of thousands of distressed mortgages held or backed by mortgage finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

But the plan, more than 15 months into a deep nationwide housing slump, is far short of the moratorium on foreclosures sought by President-elect Barack Obama and the Democrats who next year will have stronger control Congress. It would help only a relatively small number of homeowners whose loans Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac packaged and resold to investors as so-called mortgage-backed securities and a still smaller number of homeowners whose loans Fannie Mae and freddie Mac have kept on their books.

In a briefing conducted on the condition of anonymity, officials involved in the plan acknowledged that it might reach only 200,000 or so homeowners next year. That's a fraction of the 2.8 million who are thought to face foreclosure this year.

But offficials said they hope that the effort, which begins Dec. 15, will become a standard across the private sector, which holds far more troubled loans than Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The move follows announcements by private lenders such as Bank of America, J.P. Morgan Chase and most recently Citigroup that they'd voluntarily rework troubled mortgages.

"Troubled borrowers eligible for this program have already experienced significant erosion in their credit scores, making them unlikely to obtain mortgage credit through typical means," said James Lockhart, the director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which has assumed responsibility for Fannie and Freddie since the Treasury Department seized them in September.

Together, Fannie and Freddie own or back about 58 percent of all U.S. mortgage debt — about 31 million mortgages — and they've historically been associated with the nation's decades-long expansion in homeownership.

But because Fannie and Freddie were congressionally chartered private companies, they had tighter lending requirements than the Wall Street companies that securitized, or pooled, mortgages for sale to investors. Fannie's foreclosure rate through the end of September was 1.6 percent, versus nearly 20 percent for sub-prime adjustable-rate mortgages packaged and sold by Wall Street firms that have mostly gone bust.

To qualify for the new program, homeowners whose loans are owned or packaged by Fannie and Freddie must be 90 days or more past due on their payments for single-family dwellings in which they live. They must prove hardship, can't be in bankruptcy and their outstanding loan values must be at least 90 percent of their homes' current values.

That's important, since the program targets homeowners who are nearly or completely underwater, owing more than their homes are worth in a sinking market. This should help homeowners in Florida, Nevada and the less expensive inland parts of California that are suffering steep drops in home values.

If the program's thresholds are met, Fannie and Freddie will modify the mortgage with the goal of a monthly payment equal to about 38 percent of the holder's total income.

The goal could be achieved three ways: The loan could be stretched into a 40-year fixed-rate mortgage; the interest rate could be reduced; and/or money going to the mortgage balance, called the principal, could be deferred interest-free until the end of the loan and recaptured in what's known as a balloon payment. Fannie and Freddie will pay $800 to financial institutions for each loan they modify.

Officials from the departments of Treasury, Housing and Urban Development and the Federal Housing Finance Agency gave speeches touting the effort. They didn't take questions.

In a subsequent briefing conducted on the condition of anonymity, officials involved in the plan acknowledged that it might reach 200,000 or so homeowners at best next year. That's a fraction of the 2.8 million who are thought to face foreclosure this year.

"It's a first step," one official said, acknowledging that the private sector already is taking many of these steps.

Tuesday's plan was patterned after similar efforts by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., but it didn't go far enough for FDIC Chairman Sheila C. Bair.

"This is a step in the right direction but falls short of what is needed to achieve wide-scale modifications of distressed mortgages," Bair, a critic within the Bush administration of current mortgage-rescue efforts, said in a statement.

"Given continually rising foreclosures and their impact on the economy, we must address the need for appropriate economic incentives to prevent unnecessary foreclosures," she said. "As we lend and invest hundreds of billions of dollars to help institutions suffering leveraged losses from defaulting mortgages, we must also devote some of that money to fixing the front-end problem: too many unaffordable home loans."

Fannie Mae on Monday reported a $29 billion loss for the quarter that ended Sept. 30. Its leaders have warned that the current level of government support may not be enough to support its new mission of jump-starting the mortgage market.

The Bush administration to date has taken a voluntary approach on mortgage modifications, creating a program called Hope Now in which leading banks and financial institutions pledged to do all in their power to rework distressed mortgages.

That effort has been very slow, however, and John McCain last month criticized the administration for not using taxpayers' money to issue new loans that matched homes' present-day values.

"Everything to date has been voluntary, and it really hasn't worked and hasn't been enough," said Evan Fuguet, senior policy counsel for the Center for Responsible Lending, a housing advocacy group in Durham, N.C. "We think more needs to be done."

Prescription Drugs Kill 300 Percent More Americans than Illegal Drugs

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By David Gutierrez

A report by the Florida Medical Examiners Commission has concluded that prescription drugs have outstripped illegal drugs as a cause of death.

An analysis of 168,900 autopsies conducted in Florida in 2007 found that three times as many people were killed by legal drugs as by cocaine, heroin and all methamphetamines put together. According to state law enforcement officials, this is a sign of a burgeoning prescription drug abuse problem.

"The abuse has reached epidemic proportions," said Lisa McElhaney, a sergeant in the pharmaceutical drug diversion unit of the Broward County Sheriff's Office. "It's just explosive."

In 2007, cocaine was responsible for 843 deaths, heroin for 121, methamphetamines for 25 and marijuana for zero, for a total of 989 deaths. In contrast, 2,328 people were killed by opioid painkillers, including Vicodin and Oxycontin, and 743 were killed by drugs containing benzodiazepine, including the depressants Valium and Xanax.

Alcohol directly caused 466 deaths, but was found in the bodies of 4,179 cadavers in all.

While the number of dead bodies containing heroin jumped 14 percent from the prior year, to a total of 110, the number of deaths influenced by the painkiller oxycodone increased by 36 percent, to a total of 1,253.

Across the country, prescription drugs have become an increasingly popular alternative to the more difficult to acquire illegal drugs. Even as illegal drug use among teenagers have fallen, prescription drug abuse has increased. For example, while 4 percent of U.S. 12th graders were using Oxycontin in 2002, by 2005 that number had increased to 5.5 percent.

It's not hard for teens to come by prescription drugs, according to Sgt. Tracy Busby, supervisor of the Calaveras County, Calif., Sheriff's Office narcotics unit.

"You go to every medicine cabinet in the county, and I bet you're going to find some sort of prescription medicine in 95 percent of them," he said.

Adults can acquire prescriptions by faking injuries, or by visiting multiple doctors and pharmacies for the same health complaint. Some people get more drugs than they expect to need, then sell the extras.

"You have health care providers involved, you have doctor shoppers, and then there are crimes like robbing drug shipments," said Jeff Beasley of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. "There is a multitude of ways to get these drugs, and that's what makes things complicated."

And while some people may believe that the medicines' legality makes them less dangerous than illegal drugs, Tuolumne County, Calif., Sheriff's Office Deputy Dan Crow warns that this is not the case. Because everybody reacts differently to foreign chemicals, there is no way of predicting the exact response anyone will have to a given dosage. That is why prescription drugs are supposed to be taken under a doctor's supervision.

"All this stuff is poison," Crow said. "Your body will fight all of this stuff."
Tuolumne County Health Officer Todd Stolp agreed. A prescription drug taken recreationally is "much like a firearm in the hands of someone who's not trained to use them," he said.

While anyone taking a prescription medicine runs a risk of negative effects, the drugs are even more dangerous when abused. For example, many painkillers are designed to have a delayed effect that fades out over time. This can lead recreational users to take more drugs before the old ones are out of their system, placing them at risk of an overdose. Likewise, the common practice of grinding pills up causes a large dose of drugs to hit the body all at once, with potentially dangerous consequences.

"A medication that was meant to be distributed over 24 hours has immediate effect," Stolp said.

Even more dangerous is the trend of mixing drugs with alcohol, which, like most popularly abused drugs, is a depressant.

"In the case of alcohol and drugs, one plus one equals more than two," said Tuolumne County Sheriff's Office spokesperson Lt. Dan Bressler.

Florida pays careful attention to drug-related deaths, and as such has significantly better data on the problem than any other state. But a recent study conducted by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) suggests that the problem is indeed national. According to the DEA, the number of people abusing prescription drugs in the United States has jumped 80 percent in six years to seven million, or more than those abusing cocaine, Ecstasy, heroin, hallucinogens an inhalants put together.

Not surprisingly, there has been a corresponding increase in deaths. According to the Drug Abuse Warning Network, the number of emergency room visits related to painkillers has increased by 153 percent since 1995. And a 2007 report by the Justice Department National Intelligence Drug Center found that deaths related to the opioid methadone jumped from 786 in 1999 to 3,849 in 2004 - an increase of 390 percent.

Many experts attribute the trend to the increasing popularity among doctors of prescribing painkillers, combined with a leap in direct-to-consumer marketing by drug companies. For example, promotional spending on Oxycontin increased threefold between 1996 and 2001, to $30 million per year.

Sonora, Calif., pharmacist Eddie Howard reports that he's seen painkiller prescriptions jump dramatically in the last five years.

"I don't know that there is that much pain out there to demand such an increase," he said.
The trend concerns Howard, and he tries to keep an eye out for patients who are coming in too frequently. But he admits that there is little he can do about the problem.

"When you have a lot of people waiting for prescriptions, it's hard to find time to play detective," he said.

Still, the situation makes Howard uncomfortable.

"It almost makes me a legalized drug dealer, and that's not a good position to be in," he said.

Why eating GM food could lower your fertility

By Sean Poulter

Genetically modified corn has been linked to a threat to fertility in an official study that could deliver a hammer blow to controversial 'Frankenstein Food'.
A long-term feeding trial commissioned by the Austrian government found mice fed on GM corn or maize had fewer offspring and lower birth rates.

The trial has triggered a call from Greenpeace for a recall of all GM food crops currently on the market worldwide on the grounds of the threat to human health.

Most of the research on GM crop safety has been conducted by biotech companies, such as Monsanto, rather than outside independent laboratories.

GM advocates have argued that the fact the US population has been eaten some types of GM food for more than a decade is proof of its safety.

However, these reassurances have been turned on their head by the study commissioned by the Austrian Ministries for Agriculture and Health, which was presented yesterday at a scientific seminar in Vienna.

Professor Dr Jurgen Zentek, Professor for Veterinary Medicine at the University of Vienna and lead author of the study, said a GM diet effected the fertility of mice.

GM expert at Greenpeace International, Dr Jan van Aken, said: 'Genetically Engineered food appears to be acting as a birth control agent, potentially leading to infertility.

'If this is not reason enough to close down the whole biotech industry once and for all, I am not sure what kind of disaster we are waiting for.

'Playing genetic roulette with our food crops is like playing Russian roulette with consumers and public health.'

The Austrian scientists performed several long-term feeding trials with laboratory mice over a course of 20 weeks.

One of the studies was a so-called reproductive assessment by continuous breeding (RACB) trial, in which the same parent generation gave birth to several litters of baby mice.

The parents were fed either with a diet containing 33per cent of GM maize, a hybrid of Monsanto's MON 810 and another variety, and a normal feed mix..

The team found changes that were 'statistically significant' in the third and fourth litters produced by the mice given a GM diet. There were fewer offspring, while the young mice were smaller.

Prof Zentek said there was a direct link between the changes seen and the GM diet.

A press release from the Austrian Agency for Health and Nutrition, said the group of mice given a diet of genetically engineered corn saw a significant change in fertility.
It said: 'The number of litters and offspring decreased in the GE-fed group faster than in the control. In the GE-fed group more females remained without litters than in the control group.'

Monsanto press offices in the UK and USA were unable to provide a comment on the findings.

CropGen, which speaks for the biotech industry, claims GM crops have been accepted as safe by Government authorities on both sides of the Atlantic.

British scientists recently unveiled a GM purple tomato they claimed could help people avoid developing cancer. The tomato is high in antioxidants - naturally found in other fresh produce such as blueberrys, cranberries and carrots - which are seen as a protection against ill health.

IEA stokes doubts over world's climate fight

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By Gerard Wynn

The world will have to bet on extreme measures to avoid serious global warming, the International Energy Agency said on Wednesday, adding to growing worries that governments have under-estimated the problem.

The world will have to suck greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere because it was too late to rely on gradual curbs in heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions, it said.

The energy adviser to 28 rich countries detailed two paths for limiting warming to 2 and 3 degrees Celsius respectively, which would both require huge annual investments to deploy fossil fuels alternatives.

"Both scenarios imply that net greenhouse gas emissions turn negative -- carbon absorption exceeds gross emissions -- towards the end of the century," said the IEA's set-piece annual energy report, published on Wednesday.

That could involve the deployment of an untested technique to pump underground carbon dioxide produced from burning vegetation, using carbon capture and storage, and by planting more forests, the report added.

If the world carried on as normal without taking new steps to fight climate change temperature would rise in the long-term by up to 6 degrees.

Above 2 degrees warming, "hundreds of millions of people would face reduced water supplies," and above 3 degrees food production worldwide would be "very likely to decrease," a U.N. panel of climate scientists said last year.

Limiting warming to no more than 2 degrees would be especially expensive because it would involve scrapping and replacing dirty power plants at a cost of about $3.6 trillion from 2010-2030, the IEA report said.

That compares with global efforts in recent weeks to shore up the world economy at a cost of about $4 trillion.


A view that more than 2 degrees of global warming is inevitable has gained ground.

Greenhouse gases are already at high enough concentrations in the air to stoke that amount of warming -- except that smoke and other pollution are blocking out the sun's rays, said Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact research.

"This is masking two thirds of the global warming. We already have 2.4 degrees of warming in the system," he told Reuters on Tuesday.

On the positive side -- regarding the cost of the climate fight -- limiting greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels will also cut costly oil consumption.

Partly as a result of recent oil price rises, global spending on oil had quadrupled to 4 percent of global economic output (GDP) in 2007 compared to 1 percent in 1998, and that would rise to 5 percent, the IEA said.

"The only time the world has ever spent so much of its income on oil was in the early 1980s," the IEA said.

Another cost saving from the climate fight will be the avoided damage from droughts, floods and sea level rise, which British economist Nicholas Stern famously said could be 20 times the cost of curbing greenhouse gases.

"We start in a difficult place," Stern told Reuters on Tuesday. "The (pollution) in the atmosphere, give us time to bring that (CO2 in the atmosphere) back down to the kind of levels ... that are consistent with a 50/50 chance of holding the overall temperature increase to 2 degrees centigrade."

College Loan Slavery: Student Debt Is Getting Way Out of Hand

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By Nan Mooney

Raya Golden thought she was handling college in a responsible way. She didn't apply until she felt ready to dedicate herself to her studies. She spread her schooling across five years so she could work part-time throughout. She checked that her school, the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, had a high post-graduate employment rate. But there were two things she hadn't counted on. The first was the $75,000 in nonsubsidized federal student loans she'd have to take out for tuition and those living expenses her part-time jobs selling hotdogs and making lattes couldn't cover. The second was that she'd graduate into a workforce teetering on the edge of the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression.

"All of a sudden the work just dried up," says Golden, who got her degree in traditional illustration. "I've sent out probably a hundred resumes from L.A. to Canada, but I haven't had a single response. Experienced people are getting laid off, so why would anyone take a chance on a college grad?"

Shortly after graduating this past January, Golden moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles hoping there would be more work available, only to find hiring freezes at most of the production studios and animation houses. She has looked into fields ranging from children's book publishing to T-shirt design, but no one is hiring. For now, she's doing her best to get by working part-time as a barista at Starbucks and sleeping on a friend's couch.

Golden has taken a three-month hardship deference on her student loans but is well aware that the longer she pushes off payments, the higher the interest will climb. She had hoped to consolidate her loans, which are now at $112,000, but every place she called either no longer handles consolidations or turned down Golden because she was not employed full-time. Since there's no way Golden could possibly make her $1,400-a-month payments on a part-time barista's salary, she brokered a temporarily reduced payment of $650.

"It doesn't even cover the interest," says Golden, "If I pay that for two years I'll wind up owing $150,000. But I can't see that I have any other choice."

As for her career future, Golden admits things look bleak.

"I'll probably have to go back to school to learn computer illustration," she says, acknowledging that this means racking up even more debt with still no guarantee of a job. She is wary given that so far, despite her work ethic and excellent grades, the higher education path hasn't paid off at all.

"My timing couldn't have been worse," she says, voice brimming with frustration. "I'm doing the exact same thing I was doing before I went to school, only now I have all this debt to carry around, too."

The economy these days looks frightening for just about everyone. Who would want to be a retiree with little to no earning potential, or a young family grappling with mortgage and child care payments while facing the possibility, or reality, of job loss? But imagine trying to enter the labor force right now, making career choices that could affect your entire earning future. How are college graduates supposed to juggle student loan payments with the realities of an imploding job market and family members too caught up in their own financial turmoil to help out? With all the attention focused on failing banks and government bailouts, the very legitimate panic felt by such graduates risks getting lost in the shuffle.

"Most of the recent graduates I hear from are petrified," says Alan Collinge, founder of Student Loan Justice, an organization that fights for student loan reform, and author of an upcoming book about the student loan industry. "They have yet to find real jobs in their field, so they're out there slinging hash to make ends meet. And then their loan payments come due."

Graduates like Golden are right to feel petrified. According to a recent College Board report, about 60 percent of 2007 college graduates had student debt, each taking out an average of $22,700 in loans. Graduates are expected to begin repaying within six months, healthy job market or no. Loans can be deferred, but never erased (unless you die or are permanently disabled). And when those payments do come due, many will face the prospect of paying back not only fixed-rate federal loans but also high-interest private loans. The private loan industry is now responsible for 24 percent of student lending. Before the economic crisis hit, it was the fastest-growing sector of the student loan industry. And though the $700 billion bailout bill includes provisions to enable the U.S. Treasury to buy troubled assets, including private loans, from student loan providers, it provides no relief for the students who have taken out such high-interest loans.

Collinge sees the proliferation of costly private loans and the abysmal job market as a potentially toxic mix, one that could result in a wave of bad loans echoing what has already happened in the housing industry.

"Attention needs to shift from welfare of the banks to welfare of the students," he offers. "Otherwise, I wouldn't be at all surprised to see a dramatic spike in the number of people defaulting on their private loans."

Private loans weigh heavily on Rebecca Gretzinger's financial future. When her $20,000 in government aid wouldn't stretch far enough, she took out $20,000 in private loans from Sallie Mae in order to complete her bachelor's degree. Since graduating two years ago, she has been paying $150 every six months to hold her private loans in forbearance. But come December she'll need to come up with $640 a month in total loan payments -- 40 percent of her monthly income.

"I'm in my mid-twenties, and I'm still living with my parents," she says. "I don't have any resources to fall back on. I am very concerned that my private loans will be put into default once I have to start paying them back. "

Gretzinger works at an insurance company call center, a job that doesn't require a college degree. It's neither well paid -- her salary is based on commission -- nor stable -- she was laid off in April and then rehired in October -- and Gretzinger holds out little hope that she will be able to support herself, and her debt, on what she makes. She has tried searching for better jobs near her family home in Green Bay, Wis., but despite her degree in business administration with a minor in marketing, no one is hiring.

"I don't know what my plans for the future are," she says. "But I realize now that I will never be able to have children or even a house of my own. I went to college to better myself but found myself much, much worse off then I ever could have imagined."

Gretzinger concedes that she's lucky to have a job at all, and she's right. The nation's underemployment rate -- which includes not only the unemployed but also part-time workers who want full-time jobs and jobless workers who want but are no longer seeking full-time employment -- reached 11 percent in September, its highest rate in 19 years. For recent graduates landing in a job market that already contains more than 17 million underemployed, the prospects are indeed depressing.

For those unable to find adequately paying jobs, and there will be plenty, the consequences of defaulting on student loans can be life-altering, ranging from ruined credit reports to garnished wages to liens placed against property and bank accounts. Not even declaring bankruptcy can hold them exempt. In these dicey economic times, an inability to pay could deliver a crippling blow to young people who have barely had a chance to get their feet wet in the working world. Such realities only add to the disillusion many like Golden and Gretzinger are experiencing regarding the nation's investment in their educations and their futures.

"I no longer believe that my job is safe, and there are very few other jobs out there," Gretzinger says. "The rescue plan may help the banks, but it's not going to help me. I believe that it will take years to get this country back on its feet."

It seems all a graduate can do these days is hang on and hope the new administration brings about some kind of economic change that will work in their favor. But for many, hope feels like a pretty tenuous thing.

"I feel like I'm on the Titanic," says Golden. "Who got out first? The rich people. Everyone else was just left to drown."

For years, young people have been banking on the message that acquiring job skills and an education will pave the way to financial security. Instead, for many, the quest for a college degree has only dumped them even deeper into the financial pit. For a country depending on coming generations to get us out of the economic mess we currently find ourselves in, such lack of faith in a brighter future truly is a petrifying prospect.

One Company's Toxic Agenda or Our Poisonous Way of Life? Marie-Monique Robin's "The World According to Monsanto"

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By Leslie Thatcher

How did a nation of would-be self-sufficient yeoman farmers and master craftsmen become the wellspring of the new thralldom? Can we blame corporate barons and their enablers in government for our dependence on "systems that mask and disperse responsibility while simultaneously spreading and intensifying risk" or have our own frivolity and negligence perverted the American dream?

Dominique Dhombres’ review of Marie-Monique Robin’s movie, "The World According to Monsanto", shown on French TV this spring, provoked so much reader interest, I obtained a copy of the book in French (to be released this coming spring in English) and the movie in English to see for myself.

Both text and film are extraordinary models of investigative reporting, each comprising chilling and compelling indictments of a company with a long history of producing varieties of poison. I have no doubt that had a human individual, rather than a multinational corporation, been responsible for the death, suffering and destruction Marie-Monique Robin documents, the International Criminal Court and other jurisdictions around the world would be clamoring for that person’s head. Yet, Monsanto continues to operate so much more freely than the disguised Radovan Karadzic. Only last week The Independent reported that Gordon Brown and other European leaders are secretly planning to promote GMO food - 90 percent of which is produced by Monsanto - over the objections of their own populations.

While "The World According to Monsanto" excoriates Monsanto executives and their enablers, what Marie-Monique Robin most effectively documents are the perverse effects - the moral, social, technological, economic and market failures - of Western society’s economic organization, most specifically with respect to science and the products of science, and, ultimately, with respect to the preservation of the public commons and human life on the planet.

Both Ms. Robin’s film and her book use a montage of Monsanto advertising, promotional films, claims and pledges to illustrate the fantasy chemical, then biotech/life sciences company it purports to be. Then she proceeds in both media to examine, deconstruct and destroy the fantasy, revealing a far less attractive reality - which the company invariably denies. From PCBs to the 2,4,5,-T dioxin in Agent Orange to Roundup, Ms. Robin demonstrates that the company’s products caused serious harm, that the company knew and denied the dangers and proceeded to discredit - ruining careers and sometimes lives - whistleblowers and opponents. In each case, "The World According to Monsanto" shows government agencies and entities charged with protecting the public good - most notably the EPA - standing against it, defending Monsanto’s interests rather than the innocents poisoned by its products.

As Ms. Robin’s investigation moves forward in time - to the introduction of recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), genetically modified foods (GMO), "Terminator" seeds, and patents on life - and across the world to Mexico, Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil and India, she shows the pattern repeating itself. The film uses the image of an actual revolving door to convey the chief means by which Ms. Robin shows the company perverting its own regulatory regime as regulators, judges and scientists move in and out of Monsanto’s executive suites and the offices of such key contractors as its legal counsel. And while American readers and viewers may be unsurprised by the impact of what Russ Feingold has called a "system of legalized bribery and legalized extortion" with respect to regulatory agencies, the corruption of science Ms. Robin depicts operating through the very mechanisms that are supposed to keep it professional and objective - peer-reviewed articles in professional journals, for example - may shock and surprise, although perhaps less so now when the eagerness of "independent" financial rating agencies and many academic economists and financial experts to jump on the financial industry’s gravy train has been revealed.

Robin’s documentary has the tremendous emotional force that comes from seeing the impact on human beings of the events she described and the stark gulf between company promises and realities delivered. The book is in other ways more powerful: her arguments and evidence are more thoroughly developed and supported throughout with detailed notes. It is earnestly to be hoped that the English language edition will contain an index. A timeline allowing the reader to track the overlaps and sequences of various events described would be even more helpful, as would diagrams tracking the connections between regulators and the regulated.

The most damning regulatory failure Ms. Robin documents is the FDA’s May 29, 1992, ruling that genetically modified food is "substantially equivalent" to conventional varieties. The policy statement went on to address labeling: "The agency is not aware of any information showing that foods derived by these new methods differ from other foods in any meaningful or uniform way, or that, as a class, foods developed by the new techniques present any different or greater safety concern than foods developed by traditional plant breeding. For this reason, the agency does not believe that the method of development of a new plant variety É would É usually be required to be disclosed in labeling for the food." (1) She evokes the unrestrained joy of lobbyists following the ruling - which they know is a joke, scientifically - and she films James Maryanski - who in 1992 was biotechnology coordinator with the United States Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition - saying the ruling was "a political decision ... not based on scientific data." And although the evidence, Robin argues, using as examples the L-trytophane epidemic and Arpad Pusztai’s transgenic potatoes, is compelling that transgenic plants may have dramatically different properties from the natural variety - properties that do not inhere to the transgene - none of the GMO food sold in the United States has been independently tested, a level of stringency inferior to that applied to the least food additive.

You might be naive enough to imagine that in the US the market would rule and consumers would be free to decide whether they care to be guinea pigs for the long-term impact of drinking pus-laced milk from rBGH-injected cows or of eating untested foods. But no, Robin reports, the agencies charged with protecting US consumers have carried water for Monsanto a little further and supported its efforts to ban labeling. "As many as 20 polls effected between 1997 and 2004 clearly indicate that over 80 percent of Americans want labeling of transgenic products." (2) Apparently our free market ideologues are unaware that a free market is predicated on - requires - perfect information. Robin illustrates the near impossibility of acquiring or developing such information when Monsanto’s proprietary technology claims make it impossible for scientists to study their products or release the results of those studies without permission, when scientists who succeed in doing independent work are hounded from their jobs, subjected to concerted attacks on professional blog sites, and otherwise victimized - all too often with the collusion of their own governments. The stories Robin documents make a mockery of the concept of independent science.

But Robin shows that the independence and integrity - not only of regulators and judges, scientists and reporters - have been undermined by Monsanto’s tactics, but also that rural communities in the US have been torn apart by the "totalitarian world" tactics, the "gene police" sent there to enforce Monsanto’s agreements with growers and its patents - even against those whose fields have been contaminated by wind-blown pollen. That contamination of conventional varieties by GMO crops - which Robin documents occurring far from where GMO agriculture is authorized - for example, in the Mexican heartland of corn cultivation - lends still more credence to such claims made by Robin interviewees as, "They want to own life;" "They are in the process of owning food, all food."

Robin, the daughter of farmers, reveals how the invasion of mono-culture GMO soybean cultivation in Latin America has contributed to rainforest elimination as well as to the eradication of independent multi-crop peasant farmers, their communities and the extraordinary biodiversity their traditional farming methods had sustained: just so Europeans and other Westerners can feed their chickens and pigs "cheap" fodder. "The fundamental problem with GMO," Robin quotes stock analyst Mark Brunner," is that only Monsanto profits from them: the risks are for others, while the regulatory agencies have abdicated their role of regulation and control." (3)

Robin substantiates that the government of the United States under the last four administrations has been Monsanto’s constant champion (there’s a marvelous film clip of then-Vice President George H. W. Bush touring a Monsanto facility in a lab coat) against its own citizens’ interests and expressed will, lobbying foreign governments at the most senior levels, as one interviewee suggested, as though its biotechnology were key to America’s industrial base. Yet, Monsanto’s key biotech products have not been developed in response to any perceptible market need: rBGH was introduced when there was a glut of milk on the market; GMO corn and soybeans were developed for resistance to Monsanto herbicides, precluding the need for the labor-intensive weed pulling by hand - at least until herbicide-resistant weeds develop. Robin maintains that no GMO crop has yet been developed that demonstrates nutritional, yield or overall hardiness superiority to conventional varieties in independent studies, not even the famed "golden rice," which apparently produces "derisory" quantities of beta carotene when cultivated under realistic conditions. (4)

The fantasy - not of biotech’s promise, which many of the truly independent and subsequently ruined scientists Robin covers believed in - but of its results is nonetheless still maintained. In Le Monde’s Monday, November 3, edition, the director of Monsanto’s French subsidiary, Laurent Martel, is quoted, "A country that allows a handful of obscurantists to lay waste its research deprives itself of all the promises of progress that research bears for the present and the future." (5)

Not unlike the snake oil salesmen of subprimes who argued their product brought the American dream a home within reach of those who had previously been unable to afford it, Monsanto as portrayed by Robin makes the most extravagant claims for its products, some of which she shows dealing death, ruin and an entire panoply of unintended but foreseeable consequences instead. And as securitized, derivative-enhanced subprimes have infiltrated and contaminated the global financial system, Robin shows how the use of Monsanto’s chemical and GMO products has contaminated biological, social and essential economic systems.

How did our leaders come to see support for such jury-rigged systems - systems that mask and disperse responsibility, while simultaneously spreading and intensifying risk - as somehow in the national interest? What has led them to renounce their responsibility to defend us as citizens and consumers - thwarting our will, common sense and the essential independent science necessary for informed decision-making? How is it that we have allowed them to create a desolation and call it "progress?" From the biblical verses in Kings, Isaiah and Micah, America’s founders were inspired with the image of what we could expect from freedom and independence:

"You will sit under your own Vine, and under your own Fig-tree, none being permitted to make you afraid. All political Power will be derived from you; and will be exercised only by such Persons, during such Terms in such Manner and for such Purposes as you shall appoint. Those who shall be entrusted with the Management of public Affairs, will be the Servants, and not the Masters of the States." (6)

Neither we, nor the Paraguayan peasants Robin films trying to maintain their diverse little farms as islands in a mono-culture sea of GMO soybeans regularly sprayed with dangerous herbicides, can live without fear of coercion, or be confident there will be no reduction of our human potential for happiness and self-fulfillment through the corrosive and pervasive chemical, social and biological by-products that infuse "the world according to Monsanto."


The World According to Monsanto
Marie-Monique Robin
English edition, book: New Press (March 2009), 352 pages.
English edition, Movie/DVD: Yes! Films, 109 minutes.

Truthout French language editor Leslie Thatcher.

(1) FDA.
(2) p. 340 in the French edition, "Le Monde selon Monsanto," my translation.
(3) p. 341 in the French edition, "Le Monde selon Monsanto," my translation.
(4) p. 345 in the French edition, "Le Monde selon Monsanto."
(5) Le Monde, "Monsanto contre les obscurantistes’," by Laetitia Clavreul
(6) Journals of the Continental Congress -- THURSDAY, MAY 29, 1777.

Pending Home Sales Fall Sharply Outside of the West

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By Dean Baker

The decline in mortgage applications shows that the problem is not the credit crunch.

The National Association of Realtors’ pending home sales index fell 4.6 percent for the country as a whole in September. However, this decline was dampened by a 3.7 percent increase in the West. Sales fell by 0.7 percent in the Midwest, 7.9 percent in the South, and 16.8 percent in the Northeast. September sales in the Northeast were the lowest on record for this index, which only dates back to 2001.

The increase in sales in the West is almost certainly due to a jump in distress sales, with banks anxious to offload their backlogs of foreclosed homes. reported that foreclosures accounted for 18.6 percent of all sales over the last year. Clearly, the percentage would be much higher in the last few months and also in states like California that were at the center of the housing bubble. It would not be surprising if distress sales lead to further increases in sales in some of the former bubble markets over the next few months, albeit with sharp decline in prices.

The new plans for workouts announced in the last week by Citibank, J.P. Morgan, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac provide hope that more efforts will be made to allow homeowners to stay in their homes. In many cases, workouts will likely prove to be the most profitable routes for the lenders, also. They will inevitably take large losses when they get possession through foreclosure of another home in an already glutted market.

As always, everything will depend on the details. In the case of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the details released thus far do not sound encouraging. The relief appears to center on lowering interest payments and dragging out the terms of the loan, in some cases to 40 years. Homeowners will still be left paying 38 percent of their income for mortgage costs.

This ignores the reality of homeownership in the United States. The median period of ownership is just over 5 years. Many of the people helped by this program will be looking to sell their home in two or three years and will still be hugely underwater. This means that they will still end up with no equity and a big strike on their credit record. In the meantime, they may have struggled with a mortgage payment that is far more than the rent that they would have paid for a comparable unit. Having people throw good money after bad is not helping them.

Any serious housing program must distinguish between markets and look to different solutions for the still-deflating bubble markets and the markets which either did not have a bubble or have already seen it deflate. For whatever reason, most people in Washington, DC, still do not want to acknowledge the housing bubble.

There is considerable effort by many analysts to blame the current downturn on a credit crunch, implying that if we could somehow fix the financial sector, then the economy would be back on its feet. While the troubles in the financial sector are certainly exacerbating the economy’s problems, the main cause of the downturn is the loss of more than $5 trillion in housing wealth, coupled with a loss of an even larger amount of stock wealth over the last year. The disappearance of so much wealth is the main reason that the economy is crashing, not difficulties that individuals and businesses face getting credit.

One measure that demonstrates this fact clearly is the sharp decline in the mortgage applications index over the last couple of months. Mortgage applications are down by roughly a third from their year-ago level. If people with good credit were being turned down, we would expect the number of applications to be rising, as they apply to several banks before finally finding one that will issue a loan.

The fact that applications are actually declining by as much as sales is solid evidence that the problem is not that otherwise creditworthy borrowers can’t get loans. The problem is that people are not creditworthy.

For more analysis on the prospects of equity accrual over the next four years, please click here.

Global Starvation Ignored by American Policy Elites

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By Peter Phillips

A new report (9/2/08) from The World Bank admits that in 2005 three billion one hundred and forty million people live on less that $2.50 a day and about 44% of these people survive on less than $1.25. Complete and total wretchedness can be the only description for the circumstances faced by so many, especially those in urban areas. Simple items like phone calls, nutritious food, vacations, television, dental care, and inoculations are beyond the possible for billions of people. logs the increasing impacts of world hunger and starvation. Over 30,000 people a day (85% children under 5) die of malnutrition, curable diseases, and starvation. The numbers of unnecessary deaths has exceeded three hundred million people over the past forty years.

These are the people who David Rothkopf in his book Superclass calls the unlucky. “If you happen to be born in the wrong place, like sub-Saharan Africa, …that is bad luck,” Rothkopf writes. Rothkopf goes on to describe how the top 10% of the adults worldwide own 84% of the wealth and the bottom half owns barely 1%. Included in the top 10% of wealth holders are the one thousand global billionaires. But is such a contrast of wealth inequality really the result of luck, or are there policies, supported by political elites, that protect the few at the expense of the many?

Farmers around the world grow more than enough food to feed the entire world adequately. Global grain production yielded a record 2.3 billion tons in 2007, up 4% from the year before, yet, billions of people go hungry every day. describes the core reasons for continuing hunger in a recent article “Making a Killing from Hunger.” It turns out that while farmers grow enough food to feed the world, commodity speculators and huge grain traders like Cargill control the global food prices and distribution. Starvation is profitable for corporations when demands for food push the prices up. Cargill announced that profits for commodity trading for the first quarter of 2008 were 86% above 2007. World food prices grew 22% from June 2007 to June 2008 and a significant portion of the increase was propelled by the $175 billion invested in commodity futures that speculate on price instead of seeking to feed the hungry. The result is wild food price spirals, both up and down, with food insecurity remaining widespread.

For a family on the bottom rung of poverty a small price increase is the difference between life and death, yet neither US presidential candidate has declared a war on starvation. Instead both candidates talk about national security and the continuation of the war on terror as if this were the primary election issue. Given that ten times as many innocent people died on 9/11/01 than those in the World Trade centers, where is the Manhattan project for global hunger? Where is the commitment to national security though unilateral starvation relief? Where is the outrage in the corporate media with pictures of dying children and an analysis of who benefits from hunger?

American people cringe at the thought of starving children, often thinking that there is little they can do about it, save sending in a donation to their favorite charity for a little guilt relief. Yet giving is not enough, we must demand hunger relief as a national policy inside the next presidency. It is a moral imperative for us as the richest nation in the world nation to prioritize a political movement of human betterment and starvation relief for the billions in need. Global hunger and massive wealth inequality is based on political policies that can be changed. There will be no national security in the US without the basic food needs of the world being realized.

Peter Phillips is a professor of sociology at Sonoma State University and director of Project Censored a media research group. His new book Censored 2009 is now available from by Seven Stories Press.

Too Poor for Bankruptcy

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By David Glenn Cox

We, as a country, seem to have little problem saving the wealthy from the clutches of poverty. We’ll bail out banks and insurance companies, mortgage funds. The formerly big three automakers will meet with the new administration this week to arrange a further multi-billion-dollar bailout.

How can we say no? Hundreds of thousands of jobs are dependent on these industries. So I guess we must help them, but our society is so far out of economic whack. Most all of our problems seem to evolve from a falling standard of living in America’s working class, and yet when we call for help for America’s working poor we are told that it can’t be helped. Here in Atlanta a local food pantry advertises that 40% of all its recipients are employed.

Just yesterday I read this: "Liberals are traitors, losers, punks, criminals, baby-killers, homos, and the scum of our country. They are godless, plus they costa lotta money and ya gotta burp em frequently." How is it that we have come to hate our own people so? Is it then to be assumed that the heads of the banks and insurance companies are liberals? The state of Georgia gave Hyundai motors a $100 million, ten-year tax credit to build its parts distribution site here in Georgia. That's a $25,000 per year per employee subsidy; is that liberal or conservative?

We let the minimum wage flounder for almost a decade and despite the results still argue about its impact. We worry instead about welfare queens living the life of Riley while we schlep off to work each day. Here in Georgia the maximum welfare payment is $574 per month. The program formally known as food stamps is only available to families without children for three months and only if they make less than 130% of the poverty level. Why do we call it the poverty level if you must make less than that to qualify?

If you made $15,000 during the first six months of the year and then became unemployed, you are not eligible, period. If you are self-employed or a contract worker or day laborer, you are not even eligible for unemployment. If you have recently left the military or graduated from college or technical school, you are not even considered unemployed. Like the poverty-level figure, the unemployment number becomes a fuzzy, whatever-you-want-it-to-be figure. After 16 weeks you become a discouraged worker anyway, no longer unemployed at all. A non-worker, a non-person, ineligible for any assistance of any kind whatsoever.

We worry so about the hive and forget about the bees, but for the hive to ever prosper we must have healthy workers. We funneled $750 billion in to rescue the banks and now the CEO’s are contemplating whether they should give themselves bonuses! Are you kidding me? Our economy is disintegrating before our eyes, almost a quarter of a million jobs lost in the last thirty days when the economy should be adding workers for Christmas. We have a cataclysm even more serious then failing banks, failing bank customers.

The new administration, to its credit, is holding its first economic meeting three days after the election. The Clinton administration held its first meeting in December; the Bush administration in January. The seriousness of this situation cannot be overstated as the economy grinds to a halt. The unemployment curve looks more like a rock climber’s delight but should be remembered only as a misery index of underpaid workers who, while employed, had been falling behind and now find themselves locked out with no help from anyone save private charities in an 1932 redux.

God, it’s great to be a free American! No socialist fetters on me! No national healthcare to crimp my check; I’ll pay the highest health insurance rates in the world, and when unemployed, excuse me, when I'm a discouraged worker I’ll do without. To work twenty-six years without missing a paycheck and when you seek help to be told, "you don’t qualify! You have to be 130% below the poverty rate for assistance!"

Besides, your wife still has a job and you still own your home. After you’ve lost all those things, come on back. Maybe then you’ll qualify! Why do we hate our own people so? We pour out billions of dollars in aid to third world countries, to disaster areas, even to feed stray dogs and cats. But when it’s our own people, our neighbors, our countrymen, veterans, women and children, this mean, vindictive streak comes out in us. When hurricane Ike hit Houston one women blogged on the hurricane website, "How do we know those people are entitled to the free ice and food? How do we know that they are even from Texas?"

She was too oblivious to understand that people would not drive in from out of state to stand in line for hours for RME’s and two bags of free ice. Were this her opinion alone it could be easily ignored, but it was a significant minority opinion. Many of those who were better prepared or escaped unscathed were denouncing aid to those who did not fare as well as themselves. One man interviewed on TV stayed behind with his invalid mother. He was asked if they had stocked up on supplies. He answered, "Yes, I did, but we lost them when the water began to rise into the house."

Are we one nation? Or are we just interest groups? Can we rescue Wall Street and ignore Main Street? Those suffering number in the millions already and the snows are beginning to fall. In 1932 America had no social safety net of any kind and because of that millions suffered needlessly. Today we have a social safety net in name only, underfunded and bureaucratic, offering hope to few and help to even fewer. Just what sort of nation are we with billion-dollar warplanes and hungry children? That when times get tough that’s all we have to offer, tough!

To file a Chapter 7 bankruptcy will cost you $1,500, plus court costs, plus the credit counseling - just an extra $100.00 added by the credit card industry in the 2005 bankruptcy legislation. Without the cash you are meat on the street; God Bless America! The new President promises change and I wish him well and I hope for the best. But I won’t hold my breath because no one hates Americans more than other Americans.