Analysis of and Progressive Alternatives to the Dead-End Policies of Trump and the Right-Wing Alliance

Analysis of and progressive alternatives to the dead-end policies of Trump and the right-wing alliance
Bob Sheak, August 10, 2019

The evidence based on verifiable facts depicts a reality of the US that is deeply troublingly, especially when this evidence is so often missed, ignored, misconstrued, or intentionally distorted. It takes a bit of time and effort to stay informed on the array of important issues that confront us. Here is a sample of what so many people are missing from a report by Jake Johnson on the distribution of wealth that captures how badly the present political-economic system is so unequally skewed in favor of the rich and powerful among us (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2019/08/05/if-inequality-continues-grow-current-rate-richest-americans-will-own-100-us-wealth). The point is that, rather than trickling down, wealth has flowed up in torrents.

“If wealth inequality in the United States continues to soar at its current rate,” Johnson reports, “the top 10 percent of Americans could own 100 percent of the nation’s net worth by 2052.” The supporting data for this contention comes from the Federal Research, which document that “[f]rom 2013 to 2016, the top 10 percent of households increased their share of total wealth from an amazing 75.3 percent to a stunning 77.2 percent. That’s a share gain of 1.87 percent in just three years.’” If that rate of increase continues, they will take the 22.8 percent now held by the other 90 percent of the population, fueled by Trump’s massive tax cuts for the rich. Johnson also refers to the published research of the University of California Berkeley economist Gabriel Zucman that just 400 Americans “own more than the bottom 150 million Americans.” Between 1989 and 2018, “the top one percent increases its total net worth by $21 trillion.” At the same time, according to a report by Matt Bruenig published on Common Dreams in June, “Federal Reserve data…show that the bottom half of Americans lost $900 billion in wealth between 1989 and 2018.”

The Right-wing alliance

Presently, the chief beneficiaries of the opposition to scientific and verifiable evidence on the economic, political, and social conditions of the country are the groups that make up the right-wing alliance. It is based on an affinity of interests and ideologies, with a massive propaganda effort to sustain and consolidate the current unequal, environmentally destructive, and corporate-dominated capitalist system. The alliance includes Trump, his advisers, the Republican Party, the red state political leaders, Trump’s base of 63 million or so voters, the mega-corporations that dominate all sectors of the economy, and probably most businesses and trade associations, along with right-wing experts, think tanks, political-action groups, and right-wing media. This seemingly disparate assorted of groups find enough common ground in combining economic, militaristic, nationalistic, white supremacist, xenophobic, anything-goes gun advocates, evangelical fundamentalists, and anti-environmental ideologies and interests.

The base is regularly energized by Trump’s tweets and rallies and a broad right-wing propaganda establishment. Ari Rabin-Havt and Media Matters elaborates on “the world of post-truth politics” in their book, Lies, Incorporated. They document the existence of what they label “Lies, Incorporated,” which is “made of lobbyists, PR companies, media lackeys, unethical ‘experts,’ and unscrupulous think tanks. This is a “growing industry that exists to create and disseminate fictitious public policy ‘facts’ on behalf of business and ideological interests willing to pay for them,” and to identify strategies for sustaining support from the broad right-wing base (pp. 5-6).

The center of power

Not all segments of this right-wing alliance necessarily espouse or are even concerned about every aspect of the policies and practices that emanate from such a vast and variegated right-wing coalition. But there is a center of power that keeps the primary focus on economic and political issues.

This center revolves around the key activists in this coalition, including Trump and his key advisers and appointees, those who run the mega-corporations, the rich, and key Republicans in the US Congress. They are supported by major business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable and the National Federation of Independent Businesses, The American Enterprise, and more more. They have their experts of all kinds to support their positions – trained staff, public relations advisers, lobbyists, lawyers, “conservative” economists, high-tech experts, etc. – who advance self-serving explanations and justifications to preserve and advance the advantages of the center of power, with a heavy dose of propaganda. And they use the most sophisticated computer hacking approaches from organizations like Quantum Analytica that use massive data bases on millions of people to manipulate how voters in key congressional districts vote or discourage people from voting. Then, focusing on those identified as “persuadable,” money pours in from “dark money” political contributors to barrage these citizens with misinformation and ads attacking Democratic candidates and their policies. This is supplemented by nefarious but often effective voter suppression efforts by the Republican Party establishment in the various states (e.g. gerrymandering, burdensome voter ID laws, misinformation about when and where to vote, the lack of reasonably located voting places, too few voting machines).

Those at the center of this right-wing coalition consolidate and advance their illiberal policies at home and abroad that are designed to favor the mega-corporations and the rich with selective and opportunistic support for programs of other parts of the society when politically it is expedient to do so. Domestically, neoliberal economic policies includes an emphasis on tax breaks for corporations and the rich, reducing regulations on the mega corporations and the private sector, re-directing government revenues away from public education, social-welfare programs of all kinds, as well as efforts to privatize or increase privatization of any parts of the public sector or public land from which there are potential profits to be made.

Indeed, the right-wing alliance can only win elections by using its political power by using manipulating the information received by undecided, moderate, and nonvoters in key congressional districts to support Republican candidates or by suppressing the vote of those likely to choose Democratic candidates. And they did this effectively enough in the 2016 election to elect a buffoon, malicious narcissist, and reckless President and an obstructionist and right-wing Republican candidates to the US Senate and House. It is not all bleak. The 2018 mid-term election gave Democrats, including progressive Democrats, control of the US House of Representatives. However, there is also reason to see a foreboding reality.

Central arguments of the right-wingers for “more of the same” – with some rebuttal

First, they contend that government spending, regulation and taxation should be avoided to the maximum extent – unless it benefits them.

They argue that government is mostly inefficient and wasteful, except when government reduces taxes, regulations, and opens public land, or schools, or prisons, or infrastructure to be privatized, or coastal waters to be mined for oil. They have had their eyes on privatizing Social Security and Medicare for a long time and do their best to oppose reforms that would strengthen these hallmark social programs. They make room for big exceptions. It’s okay to spend an enormous amount of taxpayer money on “national defense” for an already bloated military, far more than any other country. It’s okay for the government to do the basic research on new drugs if it then gives them long-term patents for-profit corporations to produce and sell the drugs for whatever price they chose. And it’s okay to run up the national debt without any real concern about the eventual disastrous economic consequences. There are plenty of such examples.

Steven Pearlstein writes on the anti-regulation views of the right wing as follows. “The mindless animosity toward all regulation…has now provided a rationale for handing over the keys to independent regulatory agencies to lobbyists and executives from the very industries they are supposed to regulate….Their aim is to hollow out these agencies from the inside – to maintain the fiction that the government is still protecting workers, consumers, investors and the environment while, in reality, trusting markets to restrain predatory business behavior.” And: “After gaining control of both the White House and Congress in 2016, Republicans moved aggressively to rescind dozens of Obama-era regulations that would surely strike most Americans as fair and reasonable. These include a rule setting strict environmental standards for oil and gas drilling in national parks and wildlife refuges, a rule barring federal student loans at for-profit colleges whose graduates never get jobs and a rule requiring financial advisers to act in the best interest of their customers. They include a rule preventing mines from dumping debris into nearby rivers and streams and a rule preventing cable and phone companies from collecting and selling information about the internet sites visited by customers. They even set out a to repeal a long-standing rule preventing restaurant owners from taking waiter’s tips for themselves” (Can American Capitalism Survive? Why Greed is Not Good, Opportunity is Not Equal, Fairness won’t make up Poor (2018). p. 14).

Pearlstein also points out that they want tax cuts so bad that “[e]ven the long-cherished conservative ideals such as balancing budgets and investing in infrastructure have been tossed overboard in the relentless pursuit of tax cuts, which are now the reflexive Republican solution to any problem” (p 15). Of course, for corporations and their political supporters the chase for profits continues to take precedence over all other interests.

Second, they contend that the unbridled “market” should be the rule in the economy, with some self-serving exceptions.

The right-wingers argue that generally a competitive “free market” is the best way to allocate the society’s resources, because, they say with a straight face, it unleashes the entrepreneurial spirt of investors and leads to innovation and capital accumulation. They ignore contrary evidence. They ignore the uncompetitive reality of oligopoly and concentrated corporate power (more on this point below). They ignore how corporate executives and the bankers have hollowed out US manufacturing, investing in low-wage economies rather than in the US economy and workers. They ignore, and welcome, the lavish compensation given to corporate executives. They ignore the principal of the polluter pays. Profits are foremost in their business decisions. Many executives act as though they are above the law.

The Corporate Crime Reporter publishes a running list of corporate crimes, posting examples every week (https://www.corporatecrimereporter.com/corporate-crime-morning-minute-podcast). Here are the examples for the last two weeks (as of this writing, Aug 9).

Week of August 5, 2019
Friday August 9, 2019 Is Amazon Liable for Defective Products Sold on Its Site?
Thursday August 8, 2019 Tech Millionaire Fined $3.7 Million After Destroying Wetlands for Winery
Wednesday August 7, 2019 How Trump’s Political Appointees Overruled Tougher Settlements With Big Banks
Tuesday August 6, 2019 NRA Chief Sought Help of Group’s Ad Agency in Trying to Buy $5 Million Mansion
Monday August 5, 2019 Defense Contractors Tighten Grip on Pentagon

Week of July 29, 2019
Friday August 2, 2019 Breast Implants Linked to Rare Cancer Recalled
Thursday August 1, 2019 Taco Seasonings Recalled
Wednesday July 31, 2019 FTC Fines Facebook $5 Billion
Tuesday July 30, 2019 3M China Bribery Probe
Monday July 29, 2019 Most California Lawmakers Took Money from Convicted Felon PG&E

There is another important point. The right-wing proponents of the “free market” dismiss the economic reality that a few mega-corporations control most of the assets, revenues, sales, and profits in most sectors of the economy and do their best to mislead the public about this reality. The real concern is that extraordinary economic power will distort markets and have a un-democratic impact on government. Here’s what I wrote about the concentration of corporate wealth in a post sent out on November 2, 2017, disputing the contention that the US has an economy driven by competitive markets.

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From November 2, 2017 post.

There is no doubt that we have a capitalist economy dominated by mega-corporations that measure their success by their profits and the value of their stocks compared to those of their domestic and foreign competitors. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a megacorporation as “a huge and powerful corporation.” You get some sense of the size of these corporations from the numbers generated each year by Fortune magazine in its “Fortune 500” list of the largest corporations in the economy. In the magazine’s most recent list for 2017, the magazine finds that “Fortune 500 companies represent two-thirds of the U.S. GDP [gross domestic product], $2 trillion in revenues, $890 billion in profits, and $19 trillion in market value, and employ 28.2 million people worldwide” (http://fortune.com/fortune500/list). The corporation with the most revenues in 2017 is Walmart, with $485.8 billion in revenues. The corporation with the most profits in 2017 is Apple, with $45.7 billion. The biggest corporations have more assets than most nations. According to Quora, there are 220 U.S. “firms” with revenues of $2 billion or more (https://www.quora.com/Forbes-400-How-many-companies-in-the-world-generate-over-US-1-billion-in-annual-revenue).

Here’s another way of thinking about the role played by mega-corporations. The domination of industry-specific markets by a few large corporations is defined as an oligopoly. In the U.S. economy, most industries are oligopolies. We have an economy in which virtually all industries and markets are dominated by a few mega-corporations. According to Wikipedia, “An oligopoly (from Ancient Greek ὀλίγος (olígos), meaning ‘few’, and πωλεῖν (polein), meaning ‘to sell’ is a market form wherein a market or industry is dominated by a small number of sellers (oligopolists). Oligopolies can result from various forms of collusion which reduce competition and lead to higher prices for consumers. Oligopoly has its own market structure.” Wikipedia continues: “With few sellers, each oligopolist is likely to be aware of the actions of the others. According to game theory, the decisions of one firm therefore influence and are influenced by decisions of other firms. Strategic planning by oligopolists needs to take into account the likely responses of the other market participants” (https://en/wikipedia/wiki/Oligopoly).

Tim Wu throws further light on this form of corporate concentration in an article for The New Yorker entitled “The Oligopoly Problem” (https://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/the-oligopoly-problem). He refers to Barry Lynn’s 2011 book Cornered “which carefully detailed the rising concentration and consolidation of nearly every American industry since the nineteen-eighties.” Lynn’s chief finding is that dominance by two or three firms “is not the exception but increasingly the rule.” Wu gives this example, among others: “while drugstores seem to offer unlimited choices in toothpaste, just two firms, Procter & Gamble and Colgate-Palmolive, control more than eighty percent of the market….” Wu argues that there should be more government regulation of such arrangements.
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The right-wing disinformation apparatus also ignores the obviously flawed medical system dominated by insurance, pharmaceutical, and medical-equipment corporations that keep prices rising for medical care, prescription drugs, hospital care, and a system in which tens of millions of American cannot afford insurance or afford medical care when they are insured. And they dismiss how the mega-banks and mega-auto corporations were among the principal causes of the Great Recession in 2007-2009, or that they were kept in business with an enormous federal government bailout, while millions of ordinary citizens lost their jobs and homes. They ignore furthermore how the Federal Reserve employed a method called “quantitative easing” to purchase hundreds of billions of dollars of toxic (valueless) assets that threatened the viability and bottom lines of the mega financial institutions on Wall Street. And, astoundingly and brazenly, the banks have grown bigger since the recession, while the “too big to fail” rule is now institutionalized in practice and in place for another taxpayer bailout the next time the mega banks and their speculative investment strategies lead to another market crash. The point: forget all this hogwash about a competitive economy based on a “free market.”

Third, they contend that only the free market economy can produce strong growth and the fruits of it will trickle down.

The economic growth that the “free” market produces is said to trickle down to the middle and working classes in jobs, income, wealth, and a slew of commodities of all sorts. However, the evidence indicates that more and more of the jobs are jobs that have little security, no benefits, low wages, and no union protection. And the distribution of incomes and wealth have reached record levels of inequality since the “roaring twenties,” as much of it goes to the most affluent and richest segments of the population. Examples abound of the lack of trickle down in the growing number of people who find it difficult or impossible to find decent and safe housing, or safe water to drink, or afford medical care, who or are “food insecure,” or whose children attend under-resourced schools, or whose parents must, if they are physically able, continue working into their 70s and 80s.

Anand Giridharadas refers to examples of widespread deprivation in his book, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, where he writes: “the average American’s health remains worse and slower-improving than that of peers in other rich countries”; “the average twelfth grader tests more poorly in reading than in 1992”; “the share of young people who own a business has fallen by two-thirds since the 1980s”; “illiteracy has remained stubbornly in place and that the fraction of Americans who read at least one work of literature a year has dropped by almost a quarter in recent decades”; “the average pretax income of the top tenth of Americans had doubled since 1980, that of the top 1 percent has more than tripled, and that of the top 0.001 percent has risen more than sevenfold – even as the pretax income of the bottom half of Americans has stayed almost precisely the same” (p. 4).

Jake Johnson, whose article on the highly unequal distribution of wealth I cited on the first page, reports on a study that uses figures from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Kaiser Family Foundation that finds the costs of employer-sponsored health insurance soared from 1999 through 2017 by 127 percent, while the median -household income rose only 2 percent, reflecting the stagnation in wages (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2019/08/07/eating-away-workers-wages-employer-sponsored-health-insurance-soared-121-1999). Johnson adds: “‘By 2017, family coverage absorbed more than double that amount, to about 31 percent of take-home pay,’ according to Axios. ‘Health insurance has hovered consistently around 31 percent of household income since 2012, as companies shifted their employees to plans that had steady premiums but higher deductibles and out-of-pocket costs.’”

Additionally, Robert Reich offers a refutation of the “free market” narrative as well. He writes that in the US there is “Socialism for the rich” (https://truthdig.com/articles/robert-reich-america-is-a-socialist-country-for-the-rich). For right-wingers, Reich points out, “socialism means getting something for doing nothing.” And that “pretty much describes the $21 billion saved by the nation’s largest banks last year thanks to Trump’s tax cuts” and the “$31.4 billion that “went into massive bonuses for bank executives.” At the same time, more than 4,000 lower-level bank employees lost their jobs. Reich gives other examples of how Trump is “promoting socialism for the rich and harsh capitalism for everyone else, pointing to how under Trump “GM has got more than $600 million in federal contracts plus $500 million in tax breaks.” He continues: “Some of this has gone into the pockets of GM executives. Chairman and CEO Mary Barra raked in almost $22 million in total compensation in 2017 alone.” These lucrative subsidies, tax breaks, and executive compensation occurred while “GM is planning to lay off more than 14,000 workers and close three assembly plants and two component factories in North America by the end of 2019.”

Here are some other examples identified by Reich: “Sears is doling out $25 million to the executives who stripped its remaining assets and drove it into bankruptcy, but it has no money for the thousands of workers it laid off.” And: “As Pacific Gas and Electric hurtles toward bankruptcy, the person who was in charge when the deadly infernos roared through Northern California last year (caused in part by PG&E’s faulty equipment) has departed with a cash severance package of $2.5 million. The PG&E executive in charge of gas operations when records were allegedly falsified left in 2018 with $6.9 million.” Then there was Equifax’s Richard Smith who retired in 2017 “with an $18 million pension in the wake of a security breach that exposed the personal information of 145 million consumers to hackers,” and “Wells Fargo’s Carrie Tolstedt departed with a $125 million exit package after being in charge of the unit that opened more than 2 million unauthorized customer accounts.” And, to rub it in, Trump wants to cut the estate tax for the superrich, many of whom have never done a day’s work in their lives, to apply only to estates valued at over $22 million per couple.” Over the next three decades, “an estimated $30 trillion will go to their children.” Reich notes that “Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is now proposing that the estate tax be repealed altogether.”

Government supported research has been critical in spurring innovation

There is yet another point worth making, that is, innovation generally and high-tech innovations specifically have often stemmed from research in government labs, or subsidized research in universities, or public-private partnerships with researchers from the private sector. Economics professor Mariana Mazucato has written a brilliant book, The Value of Everything, thoroughly documenting this fact. Here just a sample of what she has found.

“…the iPhone…depends on publicly funded smartphone technology, while both the Internet and SIRI were funded by the Defense Department of Defense; GPS by the US Navy; and touchscreen display by the CIA. In the pharmaceutical sector, research has shown than two-thirds of the most innovative new drugs (new molecular entities with priority rating) trace their research back to funding by the US National Institutes of Health. Meanwhile, some of the greatest advances in energy – from nuclear to solar to fracking – have been funded by the US Department of Energy, including recent battery storage innovations by ARPA-E, DARPA’s sister organization. Both Bill Gates, CEO of Microsoft, and Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Alphabet (the parent company of Google), have recently written about the immense benefits their companies gained from public investments: as well as the Internet and the html code behind the worldwide web written in CERN, a pubic lab in Europe, Google’s very algorithm was funded by a National Science Foundation grant” (p. 194).

Fourth, they contend that economic inequalities are not a problem because they reflect differential achievements and perhaps even genetic differences, not differential opportunities.

The historic and rising inequality that has been recorded since the 1970s should not be of concern to policymakers, they contend, because incomes, wealth, and other benefits are said to be based on merit, that is, hard work, IQ, the right education, and moral rectitude. From this view, the richest are the most meritorious of all, while the poor are said to deserve their desperate positions because of their own bad decisions and/or lack of a work ethic. Consistent with this Social Darwinist view, the right-wing leaders and propogandists want public assistance to be kept at a minimum or eliminated altogether to avoid giving incentives to the poor and needy a “free ride.” The same is true, they say, of minimum wages, that is, keep it low or eliminate it.

Such claims that government benefits to people with lower incomes are bad for society because there are too many people who don’t want to work for a living are challenged by historic examples. From 1939 to 1969, for example, there were opportunities related to WWII and the fact there was a labor shortage as a result of 11 million men and women in the armed forces, and then unique conditions that existed in the ensuing decades that gave great advantages to the US economy. According to estimates based on officially-based poverty standards, the poverty rate fell from 64-68 percent in 1939 to 12 percent by 1969 (from Sheak’s unpublished 2002 book draft, Poverty, Corporate Power, and the Welfare State – can send info on request; also see the extraordinary analysis of sociologist Edward Royce in his book, Poverty & Power: The Problem of Structural Inequality, 3rd ed).

The implication is that when there were opportunities, people who had previously been left and out and poor and/or because of racial or gender employment discrimination took advantage of the opportunities. These years, from the late 1930s to 1969, had high rates of economic growth (4% +), strong unions, job security for many with benefits and good wages, high taxes, the GI bill, the building of the inter-state highway system, the inclusion of the disabled under Social Security, a minimum wage that approximated labor productivity, the introduction of Medicare and Medicaid, food stamps, and more.

It was far from perfect, as the country was still affected by institutional racism and sexism. This was a period, moreover, when the ratio of CEO pay to workers’ pay was about 30-to-1. In recent years, according to one major study of 225 companies, it is now 339-to-1overall, and 997-to-1 in fast food and retail (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/16/ceo-worker-pay-ratio-america-first-study). Since the 1970s, the average wage of workers has stagnated, while the compensation of corporate CEOs has skyrocketed. This had little to do with meritocracy and more to do with corporate power, the primacy of keeping stocks high in value, corporate policies of deindustrialization and corporate investment abroad to low-wage countries, the right-wing assault on labor law and its enforcement, the increase in the number of right-to-work states, a falling minimum wage, the replacement of workers by automation, contracting out work to non-union firms, and similar practices, as well as trade policies that are devoid of protections for worker rights, human rights, the environment , and that prioritized corporate interests over democratic interests.

Fifth, they contend that the economic and political systems we have and US foreign interests need to be protected from foreign enemies as well as keeping markets open for US corporate exploitation through an ever-more profligate “national defense.”

The makers and shakers in this right-wing coalition benefit from or go along with pouring ever-more money into “national defense,” as the basis for a foreign policy that is increasingly based on war or the threat of wars, military interventions, 800 to 1,000 military bases located in 70 or more countries. According to the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, the US, for example, has “the highest combined battle fleet tonnage[10][6] and the world’s largest aircraft carrier fleet, with eleven in service, and two new carriers under construction.” Continuing: “With 319,421 personnel on active duty and 99,616 in the Ready Reserve, the U.S. Navy is the third largest of the U.S. military service branches in terms of personnel. It has 282 deployable combat vessels and more than 3,700 operational aircraft as of March 2018,[2] making it the third-largest air force in the world, after the United States Air Force and the United States Army” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Navy).

William D. Hartung and Mandy Smithberger give us some in-depth understanding of the extraordinary amount of taxpayer money that goes to pay for national “defense” and defense- related expenditures in an article for The Nation magazine. (https://www.thenation.com/article/tom-dispatch-america-defense-budget-bigger-than-you-think). Taking their numbers from Trump’s FY2020 budget proposal, the base budge for national defense is $750 billion, which would be “one of the largest military budgets in American history, topping peak levels reached during the Korean and Vietnam wars.” This money would pay for the 1.8 million military personnel, the 800,000 in military reserve units, and the 600,000 private contractors, and for the costs of maintaining facilities, housing, uniforms and equipment, feeding the troops, medical care, transportation, adding a Space Force, and a huge array of weapons from small-arms weapons to major weapons’ systems.

Also, according to Hartung and Smithberger, the base budget does not include the regular “cost overruns on major weapons programs like the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent—the Pentagon’s unwieldy name for the Air Force’s new intercontinental ballistic missile—and routine overpayments for even minor spare parts (like $8,000 for a helicopter gear worth less than $500—a markup of 1,500 percent).” There is more like “the overpriced weapons systems the military can’t even afford to operate, like a $13 billion aircraft carrier, 200 nuclear bombers at $564 million a pop, and the F-35 combat aircraft, the most expensive weapons system in history, at a price tag of at least $1.4 trillion over the lifetime of the program, the latter a program, this F-35 that “may never perform as advertised.”

The Pentagon “also maintains its very own slush fund, formally known as the Overseas Contingency Operations account, or OCO, which is supposed to pay for the War on Terror—that is, the US wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Syria, and elsewhere across the Middle East and Africa. In practice, it does that and so much more.” This includes a proposed nearly $174 billion, only $25 billion of which “is meant to directly pay for the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. The rest will be set aside for what’s termed enduring activities that would continue even if those wars ended or for routine Pentagon activities that couldn’t be funded within the constraints of the budget caps.” Hartung and Smithberger note that the “2020 OCO also includes $9.2 billion in ‘emergency” spending for building Trump’s beloved wall on the US-Mexico border.”

Then there are other military-related operations and costs that are not included in the basic national defense budget. Part of the Department of Energy’s budget, about $24.8 billion, is dedicated to running “a nationwide research, development, and production network for nuclear warheads and naval nuclear reactors that stretches from Livermore, California, to Albuquerque and Los Alamos, New Mexico, to Kansas City, Missouri, to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to Savannah River, South Carolina. Its laboratories also have a long history of program mismanagement, with some projects coming in at nearly eight times their initial estimates. $9 billion goes to “the FBI for homeland security-related activities, $216 billion for Veterans Affairs, a substantial part of which is for providing care for veterans who suffer from “the physical and mental wounds of war.” The sad fact is this: “Hundreds of thousands of returning troops suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, illnesses created by exposure to toxic burn pits, or traumatic brain injuries.” The cost of caring for these vets will total “more than $1 trillion in the years to come.” The estimated budget for the Department of Homeland Security is $69.2 billion, with “nearly a quarter of a million employees, includes spending budgets for “the Coast Guard, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Secret Service, the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, and the Office of Intelligence and Analysis.”

Hartung and Smithberger say that all the proposed activities thus far identified add up to $1.0469 trillion for 2020. But there are three more items. One, the international affairs budget of $51 billion has been cut under the Trump administration but still includes in the president’s 2020 budget the money for “the budgets of the State Department and the US Agency for International Development Diplomacy.” Two, “The proposed $80 billion budget for intelligence is $80 billion, for “the CIA, the National Security Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, the Drug Enforcement Agency’s Office of National Security Intelligence, the Treasury Department’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis, the Department of Energy’s Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, the National Reconnaissance Office, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the Army’s Intelligence and Security Command, the Office of Naval Intelligence, Marine Corps Intelligence, Coast Guard Intelligence, and Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance.” The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, set up to coordinate the activities of the other 16. And, three, the defense share of the national debt is $156.3 billion.

Hartung and Smithberger arrive at a “final tally” of “$1,254,200,000,000. Thus, when all the spending they identify is considered, the Trump government wants to spend $500 billion more than the base budget of approximately $750 billion, plus the uncalculated costs of overruns and inflated prices, or of the unnecessary wars, or of a military presence all over the world. They expect that if the average taxpayer was “aware that this amount was being spent in the name of national defense—with much of it wasted, misguided, or simply counterproductive—it might be far harder for the national-security state to consume ever-growing sums with minimal public pushback. For now, however, the gravy train is running full speed ahead, and its main beneficiaries—Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, and their cohort—are laughing all the way to the bank.”

It might be added. Trump and his advisers, with the support of the military contractors and compliance of the military brass, are drumming the war beats for a war with Iran, withdrawing from arms control treaties with Russia, preparing for war (a nuclear war) with Russia and China, modernizing the US nuclear arsenal, while, as just outlined, increasing spending on an already bloated and over-extended national defense. Bear in mind that the US still has a policy that allows for the first (preemptive) use of nuclear weapons, allows for lunch on command, and that embodies the irrational belief that the US could “win” a nuclear war, with only a few tens of billions of American casualties. (Read Daniel Ellsberg’s in-depth analysis of this craziness in his book, The Doomsday Machine, 2017).

Summing up the critique of the right-wing assumptions

If not effectively contested politically, the agenda of the right-wing alliance will further consolidate corporate power, increase the already extraordinary wealth of the rich, make government less democratic, irrationally do little to reverse the accelerating climate disruption, do little to rebuild the manufacturing sector, do too little to prevent further deterioration in the nation’s infrastructure, drive more Americans into insecure, low wage jobs and poverty, foment divisions and racism, pour vast resources into “securing the border,” put more people into the prison system, do nothing about the regulation of guns, and pursue foreign policies that rely on the threat of military force and nuclear war, and sanctions, and trade wars. The “America First” slogan that is so dear to the hearts of Trump’s base stupidly ignores the fact that the US economy is highly dependent on other countries for vital raw materials and goods of all kind, and that, like it or not, we live in a highly interdependent and interconnected world. The path on which the right-wing activists, their enablers, and supporters are taking us will lead us to economic ruin, environmental calamity, unprecedented inequality, the loss of allies abroad, and war, if not nuclear war.

Items for an incomplete alternative progressive agenda to advance democracy, equality, fairness, and sustainability

#1 – Reduce the size and power of the mega-corporations
• anti-trust enforcement
• eliminate corporate money in political campaigns
• limit corporate lobbying
• no more bailouts, no more quantitative easing, no “too big to fail” bailouts
• support public banks
• limit copyrights and patents
• reform corporate governance by requiring the participation of workers, consumers and others to have representation on corporate boards

#2 – Strengthen democracy
• make it easier to register to vote
• take steps to end the voter suppression tactics of the Republicans
• work to repeal “corporate personhood”
• promote public funding of political campaigns
• limit “special interest” money in politics
• enfranchise ex-felons who have served their time
• takes steps to stamp out domestic terrorism
• take steps to protect the privacy of Americans from “capitalist surveillance” (see Shoshana Zuboff’s book by that title)

#3 – “green” the economy
• phase out fossil fuels as quickly as feasible
• end government subsidies for fossil-fuel companies
• put solar panels on very government and military building and facility
• support companies that manufacture solar panels and wind turbines domestically
• support organic farming, while reducing support for industrial agriculture
• protect the viability of national parks and endangered species
• plant lots of trees

#4 – implement a plan to address the national infrastructure problem
• e.g.: highways, roads, ports, sanitation and water systems, high-speed rail, low-emission public transportation

#5 – raise taxes on the rich and corporations
• raise the corporate and individual tax rates
• raise tax on short-term capital gains and dividends
• institute a transaction tax on stock trading
• increase the estate tax by lowering the amount of inherited wealth that is untaxed

#6 – reduce the “defense budget”
• directly reducing the amount spent on the military
• reconsider the policy of “modernizing” the nuclear arsenal
• enter or re-enter treaties that aim to reduce and eventually eliminate nuclear weapons
• comply with obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty

#7 – strengthen the economic position of the working and middle classes
• push for a full-employment policy, which includes the creation of jobs in the public sector
• raise the minimum wage
• strengthen collective bargaining law for public as well as private sector workers
• oppose “right to work” proposals and laws
• pass legislation that would guarantee paid maternity leave, vacations, paid sick days
• expand the Earned Income Tax Credit
• Subsidize child care
• Share profits with employees

#8 – take steps to fix the public education system through college
• increase federal financial support for schools and teacher education
• support the idea that teachers and community officials and citizens should have a major say
• redraw school district boundaries to end segregation by class and put students in same school systems
• reduce, excuse, and find alternative ways to deal with the huge and rising student debt
• increase and encourage support for community colleges
• support an interim program of bussing, as the Marshall plan to end poverty is implemented

#9 – build a progressive social-welfare security system
• support universal health care legislation – e.g., “Medicare for all”
• do what it takes to maintain the solvency of all aspects of Social Security – e.g., eliminate the ceiling on the “wage tax”
• reduce the high rates of poverty, homelessness, and food insecurity, say with a Marshall Plan for poor communities or a “universal basic income”

#10 – have a foreign policy that aims to strengthen peaceful, non-military options, arms reduction, mutual trade arrangements, and non-exploitative investment rather than policies that assert “America First”
• rebuild the state department
• support the United Nations efforts to address the problems of the world’s nations, the poor, the environment, and economic development
• don’t support authoritarian governments or allow weapons to be sold to them
• better regulate and reduce the foreign sales of weapons to “developing” countries
• emphasize “development” projects in relations to “developing countries” that build their domestic economies – e.g., work to realize “the Sustainable Development Goals”
• enter into multilateral trade agreements that prioritize workers’ rights, human rights, environmental protection, green energy, and international tax avoidance
• avoid attempts to gain advantages and enhance America’s interests through sanctions, military and covert interventions, threats of conventional or nuclear war, tariff wars

Some of the challenges

The situation is clear: There’s a lot that needs to be done if Americans are going to reverse the un-democratic, corporate-dominated economy, the rising inequalities, the environmentally-devastating policies and practices, the war-mongering path that Trump and his administration are taking us. And there are additional concerns and questions about whether the process of robust change will even have a chance to begin.

One, will the Democratic Party have the vision, courage, and ability to advance a progressive agenda in the 2020 elections? It’s worrisome that many Democrats have been overly dependent on donations from corporate PACs, have been willing to support large increases in the military budget, flawed educational policies, a reckless “all-of-the-above” energy policy, a Federal Reserve board dominated by the mega-banks, etc.?

Two, will the American electorate in 2020 be able to understand what is at stake and not succumb to the fear-mongering, racist, divisive rhetoric, disinformation, and duplicitous policies of Trump and the Republican Party and/or have so many of their votes denied by Republican voter suppression tactics?

Julia Conley reports on a study by the Brennan Center for Justice that found how millions of Americans “are still suffering the consequences of the 2013 Supreme Court decision [Shelby County v. Holder] that loosened restrictions of the Voting Rights Act, giving states with long histories of voter discrimination free reign to purge voters from their rolls without federal oversight” (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2019/08/02/17-million-americans-purged-voter-rolls-between-2016-and-2018). The study found “that 17 million Americans were dropped from voter rolls between 2016 and 2018—almost four million more than the number purged between 2006 and 2008.” Furthermore: “The problem was most pronounced in counties and election precincts with a history of racial oppression and voter suppression. In such areas voters were kicked off rolls at a rate 40 percent higher than places which have protected voting rights more consistently.” Indeed: “The Brennan Center said that while there are legitimate reasons for removing names from a state’s voter database, such as a relocation to another state or a death, many voters’ names—especially those of minority voters—are purged even though they meet the state’s requirements for casting a ballot.” And: “Voters often do not realize they have been purged until they try to cast a ballot on Election Day—after it’s already too late,” according to one of the researchers. Bear in mind that this is only one method for suppressing the vote of those who would otherwise vote for Democratic candidates.

Three, if Democrats win the 2020 elections and control the White House and both chambers of the US Congress, will they be able to find ways around Republican obstructionist tactics (e.g., the filibuster) and advance elements of the progressive agenda?

Four, can a progressive agenda be advanced without further increasing or having a plan to reduce expeditiously the already unsustainable national debt, which exceeds $22 trillion and is steadily rising?

Five, should the issue of some sort of “reparations” to African-Americans in compensation for the long history of slavery and racial oppression continuing to this day is an issue be prioritized? Or is the progressive agenda already sufficient, if implemented, to address many of the unfair and pressing issues African Americans still face?

Six, amidst the plethora of issues that need serious attention, there is one that is definitive in its deleterious and destabilizing effects, that is, climate change, or, as Dahr Jamail labels it, anthropogenic climate disruption. (See his book, The End of Ice.) Everything humans do depends on a relatively stable climate. We’re told by scientists that the US government – and other governments across the globe – has only a limited time to act to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, perhaps 10-30 years before the disruptive climate change already well underway will be beyond control and reach a point that threatens life as we know it. Therefore, if nothing else, the massive fossil fuel complex must be rapidly phased out and replaced by renewables, energy efficiency measures, and whatever else will reduce greenhouse emissions (e.g., electric cars, eco-designed or revamped cities), along with efforts to extract the extraordinary level of carbon that is already in the atmosphere (e.g., protecting and enhancing public land, stopping deforestation, along with massive reforestation and regenerative farming). On the latter subject, see the article by Juliett Majo, “Landmark UN Report Emphasizes Crucial Role of Regenerative Farming Practices to Address Climate and Food Emergencies (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2019/08/09/landmark-un-report-emphasizes-crucial-role-regenerative-farming-practices-address).

In the meantime, the effects of climate disruption continue to be shockingly manifest all around us. Andrea Germanos reports on the July 2019 report of the World Meteorological Organization that July “may go down as the hottest month the planet has seen thus far in recorded history and “on track to be among the five warmest on the books, from 2015 to 2019” (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2019/08/02/july-has-re-written-climate-history-month-could-go-down-planets-hottest-ever). The WMO chief is quoted: “The extraordinary heat was accompanied by dramatic ice melt in Greenland, in the Arctic, and on European glaciers” while “[u]nprecedented wildfires raged in the Arctic for the second consecutive month, devastating once pristine forests which used to absorb carbon dioxide and instead turning them into fiery sources of greenhouse gases.”

The time is not for moderation but for transformative change.

What to do when faced with Trump, desperate refugees, climate disruption

What to do when faced with Trump, desperate refugees, climate disruption?
Bob Sheak – July 29, 2019

There is a steady stream of reports and widespread concern about how migrants attempting to enter the US through the southern border with Mexico are being cruelly and illegally mistreated. There is little doubt, outside of what the Trump administration and its supporters think, that the situation at the border is an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. It remains to be seen how much harm Trump’s anti-immigration policies will continue to have, but they have already caused immense suffering among migrants seeking entry into the US.

Trump’s well-known purpose is to stop most migrants from entering the US, with special focus on the US-Mexico border and those fleeing from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. That’s not all. Trump is also determined to increase the deportation rate of the undocumented workers and families that already reside in the US., although I won’t write much about this topic here. The focus of this post is on the border. Why are so many migrants from Central America making the long, dangerous, and uncertain trek to seek a safe place to live in the US.? What has the Trump administration done to keep a large and increasing number of them from relocating in the US, while putting a large and increasing number of them into under-resources detention facilities for long period of time? And what are the alternative policies that would, if implemented, minimize the suffering of migrants and expedite decisions on their asylum claims?

Whatever the policies, the migration out of Central America (and other under-developed countries) will most likely continue in large numbers unless the conditions drive people to emigrate are radically changed. And the prospects are not good, given that such changes would be opposed not only by the wealthy and government elites in these countries but by the imperialistic, America-first policies of the Trump administration and his Republican allies in the US Congress. This is not to say that previous governments have not advanced policies in these countries that have been un-democratic and self-serving. The present situation is seriously complicated by the effects of increasingly destabilizing, existentially threatening climate disruption. As it stands now, the number of people forced to migrate is going up, the number reaching the border is rising, while Trump’s policies is “succeeding” in reducing the number of asylum seekers who are permitted to enter the US.

In the meantime, the Trump administration and the US Congress are spending an enormous amount of taxpayer money on trying to seal off the border and on rounding up undocumented individuals and families living in the US for deportation. In the process, they are intentionally compounding the misery of the migrants who come to the border and generating widespread destabilizing fear in the undocumented population residing in the US.

Part 1: A review of Trump’s anti-immigration policies

The Wall

Wikipedia gives a useful account of Trump’s build-the-wall saga (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trump_wall. Trump promised to construct a much larger border wall than the one that existed during his 2016 presidential campaign, “claiming that if elected he would ‘build the wall and make Mexico pay for it.” The President of Mexico at the time, Enrique Pena Nieto, stated that his country would not pay for the wall. And, up to the present, this has been the unwavering position of the Mexican government.

On January 25, 2017, after being elected, “Trump signed Executive Order 13767, which formally directed the US government to begin attempting wall construction along the US border with Mexico using existing federal funding,” though “actual construction did not begin at this time due to the significant expense and lack of clarity on how it would be funded.

Trump continued to grapple with Democrats in Congress through 2017over funding and threatened at his rallies and through his tweets to shut down the government if Congress did not approve funding. Congress refused and Trump did partially shut down the federal government for 35 days, from December 22, 2018 to January 25, 2019, and insisted that he would “veto any spending bill that did not include $5.7 billion in border wall funding.” This turned out to be the longest government shut down in US history. In the end, Trump lost this battle and did not get the funding he wanted.

The persistence of Trump on obtaining funding from Congress for the border wall continued. Congress did authorize $1.4 billion for border security, but that did not satisfy the president. On February 15, 2019, he “signed a Declaration of National Emergency, saying that the situation at the Mexico-United States border is a crisis requiring money allocated for other purposes to be used instead to build the wall.” Following this, “Congress passed a joint resolution to overturn the emergency order, but Trump vetoed the resolution.” This led Trump to say that he would go ahead and transfer already authorized funds for other purposes (e.g., military funds) to be transferred to wall building projects. Up to the present, July 2019, this effort has been stopped by the courts (https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-06-29/judge-blocks-trump-s-funding-plan-for-more-sections-of-the-wall). However, it was just announced on the Public Television’s News Hour, that the Supreme Court has ruled to allow Trump to shift $2.5 billion from other agency budgets to border security (July 26, 2019).

According to the US Customs and Border Protection agency, as of July 2019, construction “had begun to replace old fencing [but] no new wall had yet been built” with government money.

There are currently “a series of vertical barriers” along the border, “a discontinuous series of physical obstructions variously classified as ‘fences’ or ‘walls.’” In January 2019, there were 580 miles of barriers in place, according to US Customs and Border Protection. There are also other security measures “provided by a ‘virtual fence’ of sensors, cameras, and other surveillance equipment used to dispatch United States Border Patrol agents to areas where migrants are attempting to cross the border illegally. Legal expert Marjorie Cohn points out that Trump is” increasing his illegal militarization of the southern border by deploying 2,100 additional troops to join the 4,500 military personnel already there” (https://truthout.org/articles/trump-is-obliterating-the-right-to-asylum).

Uncertain and punitive treatment for those who get to the border

Trump and his administration have done a lot more than push for a wall. Once in the White House, Trump and his administration have advanced a series of policies that violate or attempt to re-interpret existing immigration laws to reduce, if not stop, the number of migrants permitted to enter the country legally as well as those attempting to enter illegally. When one policy doesn’t work or is met with public outrage, Congressional opposition, and/or legal challenges, another one with the same intent is concocted.

One thing is clear. Overall the policies have had the effect of intensifying the suffering of those who come to the border and who typically have few if any hopeful options. From the perspective of the administration, this is exactly what they have intended, that is, to make conditions so bad that word would get back to others in their home countries that the costs of migration to the US-Mexico border are too great to justify the arduous and dangerous trek of over a thousand miles from Central America, through Mexico, to the border with the US. In advancing such policies, they ignore or dismiss the deteriorating and unsafe conditions in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and other countries that compel them to migrate.

The subjectivity of the asylum application process

It is not clear when a claim for asylum into the US is acceptable? Kate Smith tries to clarify the issue, writing that, even after waiting for extended periods of time, the official acceptability of such a claim rests initially on whether the claimants’ are able to present acceptable evidence that they have “suffered persecution or fear that will they will suffer persecution due to race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular group or political opinion” https://www.cbsnews.com/donald-trump-on-immigration-topics-likely-2019-state-of-union-fact-check).

However, decisions by border officials and immigration judges have a large subjective element as well as reflecting whatever the current policy agenda of the White House happens to be. The facts indicate that many claims have been rejected. In 2018, during the second year of Trump’s reign, “the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services processed about 100,000 ‘credible fear’ claims, the first step in an immigrant’s asylum proceedings.” She continues: “Judges decided about 42,000 asylum cases during the same time period, more than any other year since 2001,” and “rejected 65 percent of the asylum claims they ruled on in 2018.”

Immigration lawyer Jennifer Harbury provides further details in an interview on Democracy Now on the process by which migrants seek “legal resettlement,” or legal entry, into the U.S. It’s complex that requires asylum seekers provide not only considerable documentation but must satisfy other requirements as well. (https://www.democracynow.org/2018/7/9/human_rights_lawyer_jennifer_harbury_on). Here is what some of what she said.

“…under 8 U.S.C. 1225, [a person] goes up to the port of entry, knocks on the door and literally says, ‘I’m in danger. I need to apply for asylum.’ And as I said earlier, they then go to a credible fear interview [no criminal record] and then to a detention center, initially, and they’ll be put in proceedings before an immigration judge. The way – the norm that has always been in place for either group of people, whether they went by the river or went across the bridge – is that if they’ve got perfectly good identification, they’ve never committed a crime, they’re not a threat to anyone, they’re just on the run from the cartels, and they have legal status relatives, citizen or LPR [legal permanent resident of the U.S.], who will take them in and sponsor them and pay all their expenses.”

At that point in the process, a person or parent and children who satisfied all these requirements would pre-Trump have “always been released” on conditional approval of resettlement. Zong and Batalova (cited earlier) point out, “Once granted U.S. protection, refugees and asylees are authorized to work and may also qualify for assistance (including cash and medical, housing, educational, and vocational services) to facilitate their economic and social integration into society.” Trump contemptuously calls this a “catch and release” policy that he is determined to end and has advanced policies that are aimed at ending “catch and release.” Bear in mind, that only a shrinking minority of migrants seeking a safe haven in the US are resettled in the US. And Caitlin Dickerson cites information from Heidi Altman, director of policy at the National Immigrant Justice Center, that case management programs have been used in the past to ensure immigrants show up for court have proven to be “both cheaper than detention and have a proven track record of near universal court compliance (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/22/us/immigration-detention.html).

Metering: To delay entry and hope that migrants return to their home countries

The metering method, begun in mid-2018, requires migrants who have come to the border claiming the right of asylum to sign their name on a “notebook,” be given a number, sometime later be called for an asylum hearing before an immigration judge, but in the meantime be required to remain on the Mexican-side of the border. often without shelter and other basic requirements of life and neighborhoods that are unsafe. Some give up and try to enter the US illegally. If they are caught on the US-side of the border, they often will be put in a detention facility until their asylum status is assessed by an immigration judge. This may take weeks, months, or more. Either way, they can be in a limbo time awaiting an official decision on whether they will be granted asylum or not.

Dara Lind addresses the issue of metering in an article for Vox (https://www.vox.com/2018/11/28/18089048/border-asylum-trump-metering-legally-ports). She describes what she has seen: “…asylum seekers wait, for days or weeks or (increasingly) months: sometimes in migrant shelters whose capacity has stretched to the breaking point, sometimes huddling together on bridges, sleeping on the street, in the cold, vulnerable to violence they hoped to escape in their home countries.” Under the pertinent law, the US government has an obligation to consider asylum claims once migrants have approach a US port of entry.

The metering policy grows out of a situation in which the CBP (Custom and Border Patrol) officials have been unable to deal with the large number of asylum seekers. Lind elucidates: ““Logistically…there’s a limit to how many asylum seekers CBP officials can process at once. People seeking asylum are generally [in the past] held in federal custody until they can undergo a screening interview with an asylum officer [and be given] medical and background checks shortly after their arrival. At ports of entry, officers also have to check the papers of people coming who already have legal status and scan cars for drugs and other contraband.”

Given the large number of asylum seekers, metering is one method by which the Trump administration has enabled border officials to avoid the ordinary, legal process. According to Lind’s on-the-ground research, the practice of metering varies along the border from entry port to entry port, but fundamentally when asylum seekers present themselves at ports of entry, they are told there’s no room for them to enter the country at that time and that they should sign their name(s) on a waiting list or to remain close to the entry port to await being called. In some cases, there are no lists and those who happened to be at the head of the line will be called first. In the meantime, they find shelter and other necessities on their own or, if they are lucky, obtain some assistance from the Mexican government, local volunteers, or NGOs that help out for a period of time. For example, Lind describes how the government in Tijuana, Mexico, converted a sports complex into a temporary shelter for 4,700 migrants.

The metering process has often backfired. After long waits, some unknown number of migrants cross the border between ports of entry with the paid help of smugglers or on their own. The number who actually avoid apprehension is unknown, though apprehensions by CBP continue to rise.

“Remain in Mexico”

In this case, migrants who reach the US-Mexico border are told to return to the Mexican towns near the border, which are violent places with limited or no shelters or centers in which they can stay, and, as transits, they are particularly vulnerable. Marjorie Cohn, professor-emeritus of law and prolific writer tells us that “Remain in Mexico” policy the colloquial name for “Migrant Protocols Program” (https://truthout.org/articles/trump-is-obliterating-the-right-to-asylum). It is a program designed to return asylum seekers and migrants to Mexico. It differs from the metering program in that it offers no official opportunity to be considered for asylum in the US. In both cases, they are prevented from entering the US for an asylum hearing. The “Remain in Mexico” program began on January 25, 2019. Within five months, Cohn writes, “the U.S. had returned 15,079 people – including at least 4,780 children – who came mostly from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, to Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Human Rights Watch reported at least 29 instances of harm to asylum seekers in Juárez, including kidnapping, violent attacks and sexual assaults.”

In an in-depth report, journalist Debbie Nathan provides a recent analysis on the program, verifying what Lind, Cohn, and others have documented, that is, how Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” Policy “exposes migrants to rape, kidnapping, and murder in dangerous border cities” (https://theintercept.com/2019/07/14/trump-remain-in-mexico-policy). By the end of June, 2019, “almost 17,000 asylum-seekers up and down the border” had been booted out of US border cities or told that, if metered, they would have an opportunity by and by to be considered for asylum, but only if they were at a port of entry at the time when their number was called. In the meantime, US border officials told them that they were to remain in Mexico. There are times when the metering and “remain in Mexico” policies are very similar in their impact, that is, they both are designed to keep asylum seekers from entering or remaining in the US border areas.

Hansen emphasizes a point already made, that is, the cities to which they returned or in which they remained were “crime-ridden Mexican border cities for months, even years, waiting for U.S. courts to decide their asylum claims.” According to Hansen, “Every few weeks, refugees enrolled in the MPP [Migrants Protocols Program] are brought into U.S. border cities such as El Paso to see an immigration judge. But after their hearings, they are sent back to Mexico, to cities so violent that the U.S. State Department recommends that Americans limit travel to them or avoid travel entirely.” She refers to Juarez as an example, which “is one of the 50 most violent cities in the world, so dangerous that the State Department forbids its employees from traveling through the poverty-stricken northern and western parts of the city.

While forced to remain in border cities near the border, they are vulnerable to being abused or attacked because most “are transient, poor, and without local ties.” Jeremy Slack, a University of Texas at El Paso anthropologist, has extensively documented what happens to immigrants in Mexican border cities in his recently published book, Deported to Death. As Hansen interprets Slack’s findings: “They are at severe risk of being robbed, kidnapped for ransom, beaten, raped, murdered — or at the very least, traumatized by violence they witness.

There are some 5,000 children up and down the border who are in the MPP, “and they are not spared from assaults. Among many examples, Hansen gives the following example.

“In July, I learned from an immigration lawyer in California that a distraught client had called to report that her sister, a Salvadoran woman, with a 14-year-old, 10-year-old, and 3-year-old, were kidnapped in Juárez. The “California family scraped together $4,000 for a ransom payment, and after several days, the family was freed near a church in downtown Juárez. The mother said that she and her children had been captured after the kidnappers had spotted them wandering into Juárez disoriented, after being dumped there following their enrollment into MPP. When I met them by the church, the family told me that during their captivity they’d had almost nothing to eat, and they barely slept. After being freed, they made it to a migrant assistance organization that operates behind locked doors. A psychologist there told me that the family was suffering from shock, including the kids.”

Hansen also describes what happens for migrants who beat the odds and have their cases assessed by an MPP court (her example is a court in El Paso). Most do not have legal representation, even pro bono lawyers are in scarce supply. Observers from Human Watch observed multiple MPP hearings in El Paso and only three out of 54 persons had legal representation. The asylum seekers tell their stories to Judge Nathan Herbert, who “is always punctiliously pleasant and respectful to the refugees, calling them ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am,’ and asking after their children’s health before testimony begins. His politesse only underscores the Alice-in-Wonderland absurdity and cruelty of the MPP.” And, adding to the already dire conditions of asylum seekers, Judge Herbert doesn’t proceed with a case unless there is legal representation.

In a few cases, according to a Reuters report cited by Hansen, “about one in 100 migrants in the MPP receive non-refoulement interviews that get them out of Mexico. To pass the interview, according to the rules, one must show that it is ‘more likely than not’ that they will be subjected to violence.” But, this rule is ignored in practice, because the US government takes the position that “a migrant [who] has already been victimized in a third country [Mexico as opposed to their home country] does not mean they will be hurt in the future.” Hansen clarifies this point: “An asylum officer recently told Vox that the standard for prevailing on a non-refoulement claim regarding Mexico is ‘all but impossible for applicants to meet.’ “Another officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, told me that they think the standard violates the law.”
The MPP has been challenged. According to Hansen, “Back in February, a few weeks after the MPP was first rolled out, the ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and other civil rights groups sued the government, arguing that the MPP violates U.S. immigration and administrative law, as well as U.S. obligations under international law not to send people back to countries where they are threatened. The plaintiffs at first won a preliminary injunction, but the government appealed. In May, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that the MPP could continue pending resolution of the appeal. Today the MPP remains in effect indefinitely.”

Hansen cites a new Human Rights Watch report that says the US government is now planning to vastly expand the MPP and “Mexico expects to receive 60,000 migrants by August [2019].”
Punitive, long-term detention

If they have gained entrance into the country with a pending asylum claim, have been apprehended after entering the country “illegally,” or give themselves up an entry port without asylum-appropriate papers, they are increasingly put into sorely inadequate detention facilities that are ill-suited to provide even minimally adequate space, food, heat or cooling, medical care, or decent accommodations for children. Marjorie Cohn also addresses this issue with her typical legal and analytical expertise (https://truthout.org/articles/indefinite-detention-of-migrants-violates-international-law).

On June 26, 2018, according to Cohn, a federal judge in San Diego ordered the Trump administration to stop separating children from their parents and to reunite them. This was after 2,300 children had been separated since May 5. Then on June 29, “the Department of Justice filed a notice of compliance with the court order, but indicated its intention to indefinitely detain families together.” Cohn adds that indefinite detention violates international law, noting that such detention can last for months or even years. On July 2, “a federal judge in Washington ordered the government to give asylum applicants a meaningful opportunity to be released….[But] More than 1,000 applicants have been incarcerated for months or years with no resolution of their cases.”

According to Cohn, the indefinite detention policy of the Trump administration violates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the US has ratified, and the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, “which says treaties shall be the supreme law of the land.” According to the UN Human Rights Committee, “the expert body that monitors compliance with the covenant, detentions are arbitrary [and unlawful] if they do not accord with due process and are manifestly disproportional, unjust or unpredictable,” and “Keeping families locked up for months with no good reason is unjust and inappropriate. It denies them due process and a timely resolution of their legal claims. And their time of release is unpredictable.” Cohn points out that “Negative effects of prolonged detention may amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, in violation of the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which the United States has ratified.”

There are exceptions under this law: “Parties to the covenant may refuse to comply with them only ‘in time of public emergency which threatens the life of the nation.’ But, Cohn quotes Aflred de Zayas, UN independent expert on the promotion of a democratic and equable international order, who says “Neither the war on terror nor restrictive immigration policies justify indefinite detention.”

The atrocious conditions in detention facilities

As already indicated, the conditions in the detention facilities are bad. Adam Serwer reviews the recent evidence on the conditions in an article for The Atlantic magazine on July 3, 2019 (https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/07/border-facilities/593239).

Observers who have visited immigration detention facilities in the Southwest have “reported that children were being held in cruelly austere conditions.” They told the press that at the facility in Clint, Texas, children, as young as 7 and 8 were sleeping on concrete floors and being denied soap and toothpaste. Many of the children were “described as wearing clothes caked with snot and tears … caring for infants they’ve just met.’ Serwer quotes a visiting doctor called the detention centers “torture facilities.” He refers to reports that “at least seven children have died in U.S. custody in the past year, compared with none in the 10 years prior.” And, astoundingly, Serwer writes that “[m]ore than 11,000 children are now being held by the U.S. government on any given day.” Beyond such beastly deprivations, “the administration has canceled recreational activities, an act that, like the conditions themselves, likely violates the law.”

There’s more evidence. According to Serwer, “At a processing center in El Paso, Texas, 900 migrants were ‘being held at a facility designed for 125. In some cases, cells designed for 35 people were holding 155 people,’ The New York Times reported. One observer described the facility to Texas Monthly as a ‘human dog pound.’ The government’s own investigators have found detainees in facilities run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement being fed expired food at detention facilities, ‘nooses in detainee cells,’ ‘inadequate medical care,’ and ‘unsafe and unhealthy conditions.’ An early-July inspector-general report found ‘dangerous overcrowding’ in some Border Patrol facilities and included pictures of people crowded together like human cargo. More than 50,000 people are being held in facilities run by ICE, and something close to 20,000 in facilities run by Customs and Border Protection, and more than 11,000 children in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services. (The government describes them as “unaccompanied,” a label immigration advocates say is misleading because many were separated by the government from the relative who brought them) Some of the people detained by the U.S. government have entered the United States illegally or overstayed their visas; some are simply seeking to exercise their legal right to asylum.”
Serwer continues.

“‘There were definitely parts of the Obama program that did similar—and, in fact, some of the same—things,’ said Chris Rickerd, a policy counsel at the ACLU. ‘But this all-encompassing skepticism of asylum seekers fleeing violence—justifying cruel treatment, justifying changes in the law, and justifying overcrowding to the point of unsafe and deadly conditions—[is] of a scale and a type that we haven’t seen before.’ One pediatrician who visited a Border Patrol facility in Texas observed ‘extreme cold temperatures, lights on 24 hours a day, no adequate access to medical care, basic sanitation, water, or adequate food.’ Photographs show migrants huddled together, languishing in filth behind chain-link fences, some with little more than Mylar blankets for shelter. The president’s defenders on Fox News have compared these conditions to summer camp and house parties.”

As I argued earlier, these policies are intentional, or as Serwer writes, “deliberately inflicted suffering on children to deter illegal immigration, with its use of family separation. It has altered immigration policy and the asylum process so as to force the authorities to hold migrants, whether they have properly sought asylum at a port of entry or crossed illegally, and has made it more difficult for children to be released to sponsors in the United States by threatening to arrest and deport family members who lack legal status. By deliberately throttling the asylum process, the administration has pushed desperate migrants to risk death by crossing the border illegally rather than presenting themselves at ports of entry, and has sought to prosecute those who would help migrants survive the journey by leaving them food and water, effectively making the federal misdemeanor of illegal entry a capital crime. In private, some Border Patrol agents consider migrant deaths a laughing matter; others are succumbing to depression, anxiety, or substance abuse.”

And, even with all of it, the number of people seeking refuge here continues to rise. And the response of the Trump administration is to intensify the “unlawfully draconian treatment it has inflicted on migrants.”
How many are in detention now?

Caitlin Dickerson reports that government detention facilities are unable to find the spaces for the increasing number of asylum seekers (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/22/us/immigration-detention.html).

The number of migrants housed in the detention facilities has risen every year since 2015, and is “currently housing 50,223 migrants, one of the highest on record, and about 5,000 more than the congressionally mandated limit of 45,274.” Therefore, federal immigrant authorities are being forced to scour the country to find space to for the rising number of detainees. She quotes Kevin K. McAleenan, then acting homeland security secretary, as saying: “It’s clear that all of our resources are being stretched thin. The system is full, and we are beyond capacity.”

The numbers at risk are daunting

Bear in mind that in 2019 there are over 31 million people living in Guatemala (17.3 million), El Salvador (4.5 million) and Honduras (9.6 million). According to the research of Stephanie Leutert, Director of the Mexico Security Initiative at the University of Texas at Austin, migrants from Guatemala, El. Salvador, and Honduras, make up half of the total migrants coming to the US border in 2018 who were apprehended by US border officials, that is, over 150,000 plus a small number who came through ports of entry and were granted asylum (https://www.lawfareblog.com-whos-really-crossing-us-border-and-why-they’re-coming).

According to an article by Georgina Gustin, “the World Bank projects that nearly 4 million people from Central America and Mexico could become climate migrants by 2050.” The crisis is already reflected in the number of migrants from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras who were apprehended by the US Border Patrol in 2018 as they attempted to cross the border. In that year, 115,722 people from Guatemala were apprehended, 76,513 from Honduras, and 31,369 from El Salvador, for a total of 223,604 (https://insideclimatenews.org/98072019/climate-change-migration-honduras-drought-crop-failure-farming-deforestation-guatemala-trump).

The numbers may become confusing, but overall those seeking asylum continue to go up, while the number granted asylum goes down.

Trump’s attempt to eliminate asylum altogether

The Trump’s Department of Justice and Homeland Security advanced a new rule, the “interim final rule,” on July 15, 2019. The rule says that migrants, including unaccompanied children, must apply for refugee status in any country they travel through on their way to the US. For those fleeing from Guatemala, El Salvador, or Honduras, this would be Mexico. The rule specifies that unless the request is rejected, they are assumed to have asylum in that country and so requests for asylum in the US will be considered unnecessary. Marjorie Cohn contends that “the new asylum rule undermines well-established law and prevents refugees fleeing persecution from receiving asylum” (https://truthout.org/articles/trump-is-obliterating-the-right-to-asylum). She continues that the Interim Final Rule (IFR) “creates an enormous bar to eligibility for asylum” and explains her reasoning as follows.

“Under the IFR, a noncitizen who crosses or tries to cross the U.S. southern border is ineligible to apply for asylum unless he or she: (1) applied for and was denied asylum in at least one country through which he traveled en route to the United States; (2) demonstrates that she is the ‘victim of a severe form of trafficking in persons’; or (3) has traveled to the U.S. only through countries that were not parties to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, or the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.” Mexico is a party to these laws. North Korea isn’t.

Cohn states unequivocally that the IFR violates existing law. She writes: “It is well-settled that merely traveling through a third country is not a valid basis to categorically deny asylum to refugees who arrive in the United States. It is also widely accepted in international refugee law that ‘asylum should not be refused on the ground that it could be sought from another State.”

Cohn is hardly alone in her opposition to the rule. Here are some examples from Cohn’s article. “U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said the new asylum rule ‘will put vulnerable families at risk.’ UNHCR, the U.N. Refugee Agency, issued a statement saying it ‘believes the rule excessively curtails the right to apply for asylum, jeopardizes the right to protection from refoulement, significantly raises the burden of proof on asylum seekers beyond the international legal standard, sharply curtails basic rights and freedoms of those who manage to meet it, and is not in line with international obligations.’

On July 16, the ACLU filed a lawsuit in the Northern District of California, arguing “on behalf of four immigrants’ rights groups that the IFR violates US and international Law,” and, fortunately, the judge supported their argument. Miran Jordan and Zolan Kanno-Youngs pen an article in the New York Times on the court’s decision, reporting as follows: “Judge Jon S. Tigar of the United States District Court in San Francisco issued a preliminary injunction against a new rule that would have effectively banned asylum claims in the United States for most Central American migrants, who have been arriving in record numbers this year. It would have also affected many migrants from Africa, Asia and other regions.” In his ruling, Judge Tigar also argued that the rule is likely to be invalid “because it is inconsistent with the existing asylum laws” and because “the government’s decision to put it in place was ‘arbitrary and capricious’ (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/24/asylum-ruling-tro.html).
Despite all their anti-immigration efforts, the flow of asylum seekers does not diminish

More recent figures indicate that Trump’s policies have not deterred the flow of migrants from Central America. According to CBS News, “More than 490,000 migrants were apprehended or turned away at the southwest border between January and May” of 2019 (https://www.cbsnews.com/news/ice-border-patrol-conditions-at-controversial-migrant-detention-centers-focus-of-congressional-hearing).

Camilo Montoya-Galvez reports: “Border apprehensions spike to 92,000 in March” and “We’ve arrived at the breaking point” (https://www.nytimes.com/border-apprehensions-103000-migrants-apprehended-along-us-mexico-border-customs-and-border-protection-says. He writes:

“U.S. immigration authorities apprehended or turned back more than 103,000 migrants — including approximately 53,000 families and nearly 9,000 unaccompanied children — along the U.S.-Mexico border last month, further overwhelming the Trump administration’s efforts to address the unprecedented surge in migrant families from Central America heading north.

“‘We’ve arrived at the breaking point,’ Brian Hastings, chief of law enforcement operations for U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), told reporters Tuesday. About 92,000 of the 103,000 migrants were apprehended between ports of entry, while nearly 11,000 migrants who appeared at ports of entry to claim asylum were deemed “inadmissible” and turned back, according to CBP statistics.

“With an average of 3,000 apprehensions per day in March, Hastings said immigration authorities are struggling to confront an ‘unprecedented humanitarian and border security crisis’ near the southwestern border. In the previous month, the busiest February for border officials in the last 12 years, the government apprehended more than 76,000 migrants — including about 36,000 families — along the southern border. A senior Trump administration official told CBS News CBP is projecting approximately 150,000 apprehensions this month.”

Alan Besin, Nate Bruggeman and Ben Cohrbaugh,offer further documentation on the border crisis (https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2019/04/05/border-crisis-donald-trump-226573).

“In fiscal year 2017, the last year of the Obama administration and the first of Trump’s, 303,916 migrants were arrested by the Border Patrol. This was the lowest level in more than three decades. The Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations had worked hard to tackle the problem of illegal migration through substantial increases in border security staffing, improvements in technology, innovations in strategy and improved security coordination and assistance to Mexico. Coupled with improved economic conditions in Mexico, these administrations were hugely successful in deterring and breaking the cycle of illegal crossing: Unlawful Mexican economic immigration, which had historically been the primary immigration enforcement issue at the border, dropped nearly 90 percent between 2000 and 2016.
“But the nature of undocumented immigration to the U.S. has changed. Today, it is primarily driven not by Mexican economic migrants—and not by a flood of criminals, as Trump claims—but rather by large numbers of families and minors from Central America who are seeking political asylum. Although this issue first rose to public attention in 2014, the influx then was only a fraction of what it is today. The Department of Homeland Security estimates that triple the number of 2017 apprehensions—more than 900,000—will occur at the southern border in 2019. Many of those will be migrants seeking asylum, and they will descend on a border and immigration court system ill-equipped to handle those claims.

Part 2: Why are they fleeing?

They migrants from Central America are fleeing not only the staggering levels of gang violence, government corruption, and persecution that is highlighted in media accounts but also the high levels of poverty, deprivation, and deteriorating environmental conditions that exist in these countries. These are conditions that have deep roots in history but are being exacerbated by the effects of relentlessly unfolding climate disruption and structural inequalities that have deep roots in history of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.

Historical roots

It has been well documented by historians that the countries of Central and South America have been ruled much of the time, certainly over the two hundred years, by authoritarian and self-serving government that siphon off foreign assistance money, promote foreign investment to extract resources, exploit cheap labor, and enable land graps and special treatment to forcing corpoations. And the US has been instrumental in fostering such conditions. Historian Greg Grandin provides an in-depth analysis of the US involvement in creating this system in his book, Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism (2006). The thrust of his analysis is captured in the following paragraph.

“An interventionist military posture, belief that America has a special role to play in world history, cynical realpolitik, vengeful nationalism, and free-market capitalism have all driven U.S. diplomacy in one form or another for nearly two centuries. But what is new is how potent these elements have become and how tightly they are bound to the ambitious of America’s domestic ruling conservative coalition….” (p. 7)

Legal scholar Majorie Cohn echoes Grandin’s account and provides a concise summary, as follows.

“The history of U.S. intervention in the Northern Triangle countries has destabilized them and exacerbated the migrant crisis. “[W]e must also acknowledge the role that a century of U.S.-backed military coups, corporate plundering, and neoliberal sapping of resources has played in the poverty, instability, and violence that now drives people from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras toward Mexico and the United States,” (https://truthout.org/articles/trump-is-obliterating-the-right-to-asylum).

Recent examples

Alison Bodine and Tamara Hansen point to how the relationship between U.S. intervention in Latin America and the severe problems in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala “is most clearly expressed by the 2009 U.S.-backed coup in Honduras” (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2019/07/23/imperialist-made-crisis-migrants-and-refugees). They elaborate: “10 years ago, the United States backed a right-wing overthrow of the elected government of Manuel Zelaya. Since then political repression, state violence, and increasing poverty in Honduras have escalated, creating structural and institutional vacuums, along with deep instability throughout the country. After the U.S. supported coup Honduras ended Manuel Zelaya’s presidency, a country with a prospect of political and economic development became a failed state.”

Trump and right-wing forces in the US frequently refer to the gangs, like MS-13, throughout the region, and how gang members are said to join migrants on their way to the US-Mexico border. There is little evidence to verify this point. Nonetheless, gang violence is a prominent reason in causing the flight of migrants out of Central America. At the same time, an often overlooked part of the story is that the gangs, or many of them, were created in the US. On this point, Bodine and Hansen say the gangs “were first formed in U.S. prisons, and then transplanted to Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala when people were released from prison and then deported.” The cite UNHCR reports to illustrate some of the consequences, and write: “Current homicide rates are among the highest ever recorded in Central America. Several cities, including San Salvador, Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, are among the 10 most dangerous in the world. The most visible evidence of violence is the high rate of brutal homicides, but other human rights abuses are on the rise, including the recruitment of children into gangs, extortion and sexual violence” (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2019//07/23/imperialist-made-crisis-migrants-and-refugees).

Guns made in the US often end up in the hands of gangs and drug cartels

Francis Moore Lappe presents evidence to substantiate this statement as follows (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2019/07/23/blood-on-our-hands-how-we-help-drive-immigration-north). More than 212,000 US weapons are smuggled across the US southern border into Mexico each year. The process begins when the guns are purchased from American gun dealers located in the US who “rely on this business to stay afloat.” According to a 2013 report by researchers at the University of San Diego. In Mexico, “these weapons end up in the hands of drug cartels or get shipped to gangs in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador,” says The Associated Press. In Honduras, “armed holdups on public transportation are a regular occurrence, where nearly half of the unregistered weapons originated in the U.S.,” reports the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Lappe continues: “El Salvador has one of the highest homicide rates in the world, and “almost half of weapons found at the country’s crime scenes are from the U.S. officials here estimate.”

Diminishing Opportunities

For the people in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras , there are presently a growing number of famers cannot grow enough food to feed themselves and to sell for money to buy essentials. There are many others who, amidst high levels of unemployment, cannot find paid work with wages that enable them to stay out of poverty. And corrupt governments there offer too few and inadequate public assistance, while promoting policies that disproportionately benefit foreign corporations and their own wealthy classes. These are systemic problems.
Hannah Holleman documents in her new book, Dust Bowls of Empire: Imperialism, Environmental Polices and the Injustice of “Green” Capitalism, that farmers not only in Central America but around the world have been locked into an agricultural system imposed by rich, capitalist countries that drive them into debt, degrades the soils and depletes water sources. This unsustainable situation is combined and made worse by the intensifying effects of climate disruption, reflected in increasing periods of drought and other extreme weather events.

The effects of climate disruption

Oliver Milman, Emily Holden, and David Agren address how climate change is increasingly figuring into the mass migration from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/oct/30/migrant-caravan-causes-climate-change-central-america). They report that “[w]hile violence and poverty have been cited as the reasons for the exodus, experts say the big picture is that changing climate is forcing farmers off their land – and it’s likely to get worse.” They confirm what so many others have found that most of the migrant caravans come from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, “the three countries devastated by violence, organized crime and systemic corruption, [have roots] which can be traced back to the region’s cold war conflicts.” Now people in these countries also being increasingly afflicted by climate change.

According to experts interviewed by Milman, Holden, and Agren, climate change “is likely to push millions more people north towards the US.” The journalists quote Robert Albro, a researcher at the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies at American University, says, “‘The focus on violence is eclipsing the big picture – which is that people are saying they are moving because of some version of food insecurity,’ And Albro continues: “‘The main reason people are moving is because they don’t have anything to eat. This has a strong link to climate change – we are seeing tremendous climate instability that is radically changing food security in the region.’ Albro adds:
“Migrants don’t often specifically mention ‘climate change’ as a motivating factor for leaving because the concept is so abstract and long-term…. But people in the region who depend on small farms are painfully aware of changes to weather patterns that can ruin crops and decimate incomes.”

“An unimaginable refugee crisis”

In another report for The Guardian in December 2016, Damian Carrington reminds us that the facts about climate change had been verified and well known for decades by scientists. Even the US military came around back in 2016 to acknowledge how the increasing ravages of climate change would generate
an unimaginable refugee crisis (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/dec/01/climate-change-trigger-unimaginable-refugee-crisis-senior-military).

Carrington also quotes Brig Gen Stephen Cheney, a member of the US Department of State’s foreign affairs policy board and CEO of the American Security Project, as follows: “Climate change could lead to a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions. We’re already seeing migration of large numbers of people around the world because of food scarcity, water insecurity and extreme weather, and this is set to become the new normal.” Carrington also reminds readers that in September of 2016, “coalition of 25 US military and national security experts, including former advisers to Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, warned that climate change poses a ‘significant risk to US national security and international security, increased risk of terrorism as states fail, and unprecedented migration that would overwhelm international assistance.’ Cheney is also quoted as saying that “Countries are going to pay for climate change one way or another… The best way to pay is by tackling the root causes of climate change and cutting greenhouse gas emissions. If we do not, the national security impacts will be increasingly costly and challenging.”

The example of one Honduran village

In a report published by Inside Climate News (cited earlier), Georgina Gustin provides a graphic example of one village in Honduras that faces a choice: “Pray for Rain or Migrate” (https://insideclimatenews.org/news/08072019/climate-change-migration-honduras-drought-crop-failure-farming-deforestation-guatemala-trump).

The name of the village is El Rosario with a population of 500 people whose staple crops are corn and beans. Gustin describes the community and how people are trying to cope without regular or enough rain. The situation is precarious in this village, though it is not atypical in that generally poverty afflicts nearly two-thirds of all Hondurans, according to Gustin. And, she quotes the US Agency for International Development that Honduras “is also among the countries in the world most vulnerable to climate change, because of its ‘high exposure to climate-related hazards. Gustin continues:

“For a period of 20 years, from 1998 to 2017, it was among the three most weather-battered countries in the world, a distinction largely attributable to Hurricane Mitch, which devastated the country in 1998. The situation is projected to get more dangerous, especially in Western Honduras, which is predicted to become a climate ‘hotspot,’ with greater temperature increases.”

The situation of people living in El Rasario, like in many villages in Central America and around the world, is that farmers need assistance in learning “new techniques for planting drought-tolerant crops” like sorghum and deep-rooted crops to control erosion, and new cash crops like avocados and plantains that survive in heat with less water, but, according to John Chater, who represents “a non-profit development group called Partners of the Americas, there “are very few organizations providing that training.” During the Obama administration, Congress doubled funding to the region from $338 million in 2014 to $754 million in 2016, and began directing more funding to climate and agriculture programs.” But the Central American governments and “the donor community” have “abandoned small and mid-sized agriculture for years,” while President Trump “has called for slashing foreign aid in general.” According to Gustin:

“In March [2019], Trump said his administration would cut aid to Central American countries to punish them for failing to stop migration flows….In June, the administration made the cuts official, saying it would withhold some of the funds allocated by Congress for the 2017 fiscal year and would suspend all funds Congress approved for 2018. The administration said it would also make 2019 and 2020 funds conditional.”

The problem of the people in El Rosario is also worsened not only by the effects of climate disruption, unsustainable farming practices, and the lack of government assistance and foreign aid, but also by extensive deforestation. Gustin offers some evidence. “For the past 10 or 15 years, maybe longer, people here have watched as loggers cut down the pine forests around them.” She describes the effects.

“The vast subtropical pine forests surround the village, which are now seriously diminished, once helped lower temperatures, controlled erosion and created a natural irrigation system that kept rainfall from running down the hillsides and taking precious soil.”

Part 3: A framework of feasible solutions

The migration out of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras will continue in large numbers and rise unless the conditions driving the emigration are radically changed. The prospects are not good, given that such changes would be opposed not only by the wealthy elites in these countries but by the imperialistic, America-first policies of the Trump administration and his Republican allies in the US Congress. We don’t have much time. Nonetheless, if the political landscape changes in 2020, and progressive Democrats have a significant voice in the federal government, it is useful to identify what a humane border policy would entail.

The elements of a comprehensive immigration policy on asylum seekers

Nonetheless, one can imagine progressive and radical alternatives that, if implemented, would in various combinations, reduce the suffering of migrants and increase the number who are permitted to enter the US. It would adhere to international and national laws on refugees, while expanding the criteria that define a legitimate asylum claim. It would decriminalize those who are caught trying to enter illegally. It would expedite the asylum process so that migrants who satisfy the criteria can enter the country without long waits. There would not be the dreadful detention facilities that exist under Trump, rather there would adequately-resourced and humanely managed facilities for those who have crossed the border illegally or who are waiting for an asylum decision by an immigration judge. Children would not be separated from their parents and unaccompanied children, those who come without a parent or legal guardian, would be housed in appropriate facilities until homes were found for them. Those permitted to relocate in the US would be provided with transitional assistance, unless that had relatives or other sponsors who were able to assist them. One thing is for sure. There would be far less detention than now.

End detention for asylum seekers

Alexia Fernandez Campbell argues for the end of detention (https://www.vox.com/2019/7/4/20681298/trump-migrant-detention-camps). She recommends two alternatives. “One alternative is to release immigrants under community supervision, in which a nonprofit group or government contractor provides families with social workers, who help them find housing and transportation, and who make sure they attend court hearings and comply with the law.” And: “Another alternative is to release immigrants with electronic monitoring, which generally involves placing GPS ankle monitors on adults and assigning them caseworkers.”

Similar policies were in place just a few years ago, Campbell informs us, when Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) ran “the Intensive Supervision Appearance Program (ISAP), which involves electronic monitoring, and the less restrictive Family Case Management Program (FCMP), which relied on community monitoring. The administration ended one of the programs and has not expanded the other. The methods used in these programs are available to DHS, and are much cheaper than traditional detention — but the Trump administration is operating as if locking everyone up in squalid conditions is the only way.” The enforcement of these alternatives relies on how ICE officers decide to enforce it and she worries about this. But, if the enforcement question can be resolved, her basic position stands, that is, there have been and can be alternatives to detention.

She gives the example of the “Family Case Management Program,” which was launched by the Department of Homeland Security in 2015 “ in response to the waves of mothers and children seeking asylum from gang violence.” The program released families in certain cities where they were “monitored by social workers, who helped them find lawyers, housing, and transportation and made sure they attended their court hearings.” According to ICE, it worked pretty well, “though officers never had more than 1,600 people enrolled in the program during the two years it existed (compared to more than 350,000 immigrants who were held in ICE detention centers just in 2016). Ninety-nine percent of participants “successfully attended their court appearances and ICE check-ins. It’s also economical to putting people into detention. Campbell cites numbers from DHS: “it cost about $133.99 per day to hold an adult immigrant in detention and $319.37 for an individual in family detention.” But, “the agency said the average cost of placing someone in an alternative programs is $4.50 per day.” She also cites a report from NBC News that found “housing immigrants in tent cities would cost a whopping $775 per detainee.”

This is not an “open border” policy. There would still be a need under this policy for some system of border security to enforce the new immigration system, and that would mean keeping some migrants out of the country. Who might be kept out? Perhaps gang members, those with criminal records, persons who have known records of domestic violence. However, there would be far more migrants admitted into the country than is now the case.

Assistance to the “home” countries from which asylum seekers flee

The number of migrants from the northern tier of Central America might be curtailed at the source. The US could help to reduce the number of migrants who are forced to migrate in the first place. This could be accomplished by launching a modern-day Marshal Plan to address the complex political, economic, and environmental problems responsible for the rising levels of migration to the US border. This would only work if the authoritarian political structures and neoliberal economic policies that now prevail are somehow ended.

Changing US foreign policy goals from “America first” to recognizing the need for equitable international relations with “under-developed” countries

However, much of the needed change must occur in the US itself. These are changes that require discussion that go far beyond this post and that address the concerns of American citizens, which feed the opposition to immigration. Nonetheless, here are some general ideas. There is a need to stop or severely restrict the sale of guns to Mexico. The drug policy in the US must be changed, with the goal of reducing the supply of illegal drugs that now come into the country through US ports of entry, and of enhancing assistance for Americans who use such drugs. US foreign policy must stop propping up authoritarian government leaders in these countries and stop opposing political forces that want to control over their own resources.

A Green New Deal to allay the fears some Americans have about immigration and address the unfolding climate crisis

The implementation of a Green New Deal would be a first step in significantly addressing the climate crisis and the economic insecurities of Americans. It calls for the development of plans to phase out fossil fuels and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, support renewable forms of energy and energy efficiency measures, create and begin to implement a full-employment policy, address the country’s infrastructure problems, and provide a social safety net to ensure that all Americans are assured adequate medical care, housing, and the other basics of a decent and dignified life, along with an improved public school systems, affordable or free post-high school education, universal, and single-payer health care.

Remembering: The first 7 years of the US war on Iraq: The false claims, the illegality, and the often forgotten lessons

Remembering:
The first 7 years of the US war on Iraq: The false claims, the illegality, and the often forgotten lessons

Bob Sheak – Nov. 15, 2010; shared again June 26, 2019

Introduction (June 26, 2019)

I gathered the information in this post, written back in November 2010, as a presentation for the organization, People for Peace and Justice in Athens, Ohio. Peggy Gish provided feedback on the write-up. She was in Baghdad as a member of Christian Peacemaker Teams when, on March 19/20 2003, the US Air Force dropped the first bombs on the city and spent a great deal of time there in subsequent years, witnessing and reporting on the horrors of the war, providing assistance to Iraqis, and always looking for ways to support reconciliation among groups.

There are similarities between then and the Trump, Bolton, Pompeo, et. al., efforts now to create the pretexts and conditions that will justify another war in the Middle East, this time against Iran. As many have reported, such a war would be more destructive than the Iraq War, though as this post documents the costs of the Iraq war both for Iraq and the US are hard to surpass. Once started, a US war on Iran would expand to the whole region and beyond, causing more death and destruction than the Iraq War and possibly so economically disruptive that it would lead to a global economic contraction.

This post from 2010 reviewed what the Iraq war had already cost both sides in death, casualties, resources, and, implicitly, how easy it was for US political officials to rally the media and the American people for this unnecessary war based on lies. It exacerbated the divisions between Shia, Sunni, and Kurds, and latter gave rise to ISIS and the spread of an ultra-fundamentalist version of the Islamic faith and more death and devastation.

—————-
From November 2010

False claims made for the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003

The US invaded Iraq in March 2003 on the false claim that Iraq posed an immediate threat to US security and to the Middle East as a whole. In fact, there was no threat militarily to the United States, immediate or otherwise.
Secretary of Defense Colin Powell made the “best” case from US intelligence sources for a military attack on Iraq to the UN Security Council in February 2003. Most of the media loved it. After the US invasion of Iraq, his claims and evidence were determined to be baseless. The UN Security Council did not support the US case for war presented by Powell. As we learned, the policymakers in the Bush administration lied about the reasons for going to war – the alleged link to Al Qaeda, the alleged Iraqi possession of weapons of mass destruction, the alleged acquisition of nuclear materials to restart Iraq’s nuclear capacity, the alleged desire to bring “democracy” to Iraq and then, as a model, to bring democracy to the whole Middle East region….It was about oil and geopolitical advantage.

The invasion and occupation violated the UN Charter, Geneva Conventions….

The US went ahead and launched a bombing attack and invasion on an ill-equipped rag-tag Iraq army with no navy or air force, all of this illegal under international law. According to the UN Charter, a country is only permitted to launch a war against another country under two circumstances. But there was no imminent threat to the US and the UN Security Council had not resolved to give the US the right to invade. Noam Chomsky called it a “preventive” attack by the US, which is defined as illegal in international law. It was a war of aggression.

First Lesson: The destruction of Iraq and the impoverishment of Iraqis did not begin with the illegal and misrepresented US invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

#1 – Iraq was already by 2003 a shattered society and in a humanitarian crisis
Even before March 2003, US policies had already shattered Iraq’s infrastructure and institutions by encouraging Saddam Hussein to launch a futile war against Iran back in 1980. The First Gulf War in 1991, followed by 13 years of brutal sanctions, further wrecked Iraq.

Joy Gordon has written an in-depth account of how the US dominated the UN sanction process from 1991 until the 2003 in her book, The Invisible War: The United States and the Iraq Sanctions. In the following paragraph from her book, she captures the immense destruction wrought by the sanctions.

“…it is important to remember that the U.S. presence in Iraq, and the harm done by the United States to the Iraqi population, did not begin in 2003. Starting in August 1991, the United States was instrumental in imposing the cruelest sanctions in the history of international governance. While the United Nations (UN) Security Council was within its mandate to respond to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the sanctions regime it imposed, in conjunction with the massive bombing campaign of 1991, destroyed nearly all of Iraq’s infrastructure, industrial capacity, agriculture, telecommunications, and critical public services, particularly electricity and water treatment. For the next twelve years the sanctions would prevent Iraq from restoring any of these to the level Iraq had achieved in the 1980s and would devastate the health, education, and basic well-being of almost the entire Iraqi population. The situation was worsened by the corruption in the Iraqi government, and the Iraqi government was not particularly effective in mitigating the harm done by the UN measures. But it was the extraordinary harshness of the sanctions, coming on top of the massive bombing of 1991, that was primarily responsible for the collapse of Iraq’s economy and the deterioration of public services” (pp. 1-2).

In their book, What Kind of Liberation?: Women and the Occupation of Iraq (2009), authors Nadje al-Ali & Nicola Pratt give us a general but heart-rending sense of the desperate humanitarian situation in Iraq in March 2003, prior to the US bombing and invasion of Iraq:

“Indicators for Iraq before 2003 are sporadic, but those that exist portray a dire humanitarian situation. Following the Iran-Iraq War, the Gulf War of 1991, and over a decade of sanctions, health indicators worsened. By July 2003, health outcomes were considered the worst in the region. As the World Bank and UNDP reported (2003:16), ‘Maternal and infant mortality and malnutrition are high, certain communicable diseases have reemerged to join non-communicable conditions in a double burden of disease. Malaria, cholera, and leishmaniasis are endemic in several parts of the country.’ These trends are largely due to a failing health system and to a deterioration in the water and sanitation systems. In addition, in 2000, the Iraqi Planning Commission found that the food ration was inadequate to meet the nutrition needs of the general population. Meanwhile, increasing numbers of Iraqi women reported suffering from anxiety, sleeplessness, and fear. Education also suffered under the effect of sanctions. During the 1990s, education enrollment rates fell. Girls in rural areas made up a disproportionate amount of this trend, with up to 50 percent not attending school. By the end of the 1990s, illiteracy rates among women aged fifteen through forty-nine were a staggering 55 percent.” (pp. 66-67)

Second Lesson: The war began in 2003 and in the ensuing 7-year occupation increased the devastation of Iraq and the harms to the Iraqi people. There is nothing in Obama’s speech of Aug. 31, 2010, about this.

#1 – Wikileaks revelations – There are many books and articles written about the years, from March 2003, when we launched the war, to the present. Recently, Wikileaks has released a trove of 400,000 internal, classified documents concerning US military operations in Iraq that give us some idea of how brutal the US-led occupation of Iraq has been.

#2 – Some statements on the harm we have done. US policies have left Iraq’s economy and institutions shattered, with corruption in its elections and governance, a society that is deeply divided by religious and ethnic differences, great inequality, and conditions that are especially hard on women and girls. The Iraq people, US soldiers along with the soldiers of US allies, and US taxpayer have paid an awful price for it all. And the example the US has set in Iraq for other nations is one of illegal, unjust, brutal, and war-promoting arrogance and flouting of international and US law. Negotiations, reconciliation, reconstruction, reparations – all are marginalized, if not dismissed, in favor of military force and anti-terrorist war that kills more civilian than combatants.

#3 – A summary of what we have done by Tom Engelhardt. The US leaders said that we were invading Iraq to “liberate” it. Tom Engelhardt summarizes in the following paragraph from his book, The American Way of War (2010) the “devastation” that US forces brought to the country.

“Since then, Saddam Hussein’s killing fields have been dwarfed by a fierce set of destructive US military operations, as well as insurgencies cum-civil-wars-cum-terrorist-acts: major cities have been largely or partially destroyed, or ethnically cleansed; millions of Iraqis have been forced from their homes, becoming internal refugees or going into exile; untold numbers of Iraqis have been imprisoned, assassinated, tortured, or abused; and the country’s cultural heritage has been ransacked. Basic services – electricity, water, food – were terribly impaired and the economy was simply wrecked. Health services were crippled. Oil production upon which Iraq now depends for up to 90 percent of its government funds, has only relatively recently barely surpassed the worst levels of the pre-invasion era” (155)

Third Lesson: We have not achieved victory in Iraq. Rather we have squandered lives and resources and left a devastated society and enormous human suffering and disruption. There is little in Obama’s speech on this.
President Obama’s “Oval Office Speech on Iraq,” August 31, 2010

On August 31 of 2010, President Obama gave a speech in which, among things, he said that he had achieved our military goals in Iraq and thus: (1) “the American combat mission in Iraq has ended [not true]; (2) “[we] have removed nearly 100,000 troops from Iraq….[and] closed or transferred hundreds of bases to the Iraqis….[and] moved millions of pieces of equipment out of Iraq.”[but over 90 bases remain in US hands, including the biggest bases]….and (3) “all US troops will leave by the end of next year” [we’ll believe it when we see it]. He also said that (4) there is an “elected government” in power” [fragile, with Sunni participation fragile and key decisions about the distribution of oil revenues still to be made] and (5) the Iraqi people have rejected “sectarian conflict” [there still violent attacks, though down in number]

President Obama’s speech that we have achieved victory, or something like it in Iraq, and that the US war/occupation can serve as a model for how to deal effectively with authoritarian governments, insurgents or “terrorists” in other parts of the Middle East, Central Asia, or anywhere else in “developing countries,” fails to persuade us.

The information that we’ve gathered does not support a pat-ourselves-on-the-back moment for what the US government and military have done in Iraq in our name. Indeed, we think that President Obama’s declaration of an end of the war is disappointingly close to Bush’s misbegotten statement of “mission accomplished.” Today, Iraq represents seven years of turmoil and violence for millions of Iraqis, and counterproductive costs in life and resources of both Iraq and the United States. Obama says nothing in his speech about the devastation of Iraq’s physical and social infrastructures or the great harm we have done to Iraqi civilians – children as well.

Some evidence on the impacts of US-led Iraq war and occupation on Iraq and why we do not accept President Obama’s up-beat speech.

#1- What is – and has been – the “impact” of the US intervention in Iraq’s infrastructure and environment – a shattered society

#1a – Overall economy -Noam Chomsky, Hopes and Prospects (2010) –“But wars, sanctions, poor management, international competition and disinvestment have left each industry a shadow of its former self. Slowly, Iraq’s economy has become based almost entirely on imports and a single commodity,’ oil, now providing 95 percent of the government’s revenues, leading to dependence on markets that are highly volatile, in large measure because of speculation in financial markets.” The privatization of the Iraqi economy was imposed by US authorities (p. 127)

#1b – Electric power – Abdu Rahman and Dahr Jamail, After False Promises, the Heat in On in Iraq, Inter Press Service, Sept. 21, 2010. Also at: http://dahrjamail.com/after-false-promises-the-heat-is-on-inIraq#more-1990 – “Iraqis promised development with the ouster of Saddam Hussein and the arrival of the U.S. are now suffering lack of development as never before. And where it hurts every moment is through the collapse of power supply.” “The problems since 2003 have been far worse.” “June 14 was the hottest day ever recorded in Iraq, with the maximum temperature reaching 52 degrees C (125 degrees F) in Basra. And most of the country’s residents had to suffer through it with no air conditioners, no refrigerators and no fans.”

#1c – Housing: – John Leland, “Cramped Quarters Define Struggles of Iraqi Families, NYT, Feb 27, 2010 – “By United Nations estimates, Iraq has 2.8 million housing units for a population of 30 million, leaving a shortage of about 1.3 million homes. As the population continues to grow, the country needs to build 3.5 million housing units — more than doubling its stock — by 2015, said Istabraq I. al-Shouk, the senior deputy minister of construction and housing.” “Building here is not easy. Iraq lacks adequate services for the housing it has now. According to the United Nations, which is working with the Housing Ministry, 89 percent of Iraqi homes lack stable water sources, and 73 percent are not connected to a sewer system. The average house gets eight hours of electricity a day from the grid. Adding houses will only increase the demand for services.”

#1d – Water: Julia Apland Hitz, “Water, Another Crisis for Iraq,” Earth Institute, June 17, 2010 – http://blogs.eicolumbia.edu/2010/06/17/water-another-crisis-for-Iraq

What are the water issues in Iraq? “In a related Reuters report, Serena Chaudhry gives an excellent account of the problem.

• ‘Water levels in the rivers have dropped
• ‘Failing crops have forced possibly millions of people out of rural areas and into cities
• ‘83 percent of sewage is discharged untreated
• ‘Government disorganization means improvement projects are delayed
• ‘US Government reconstruction efforts include sewage and water, but can’t solve the whole problem
• ‘Oil production requires huge amounts of water (1.6 barrels of water for each 1 barrel of oil), so personal and agricultural consumption competes with economic development

“In addition we find that:

• ‘US military forces require a lot of water, and sometimes run out. Then they resort to desperate measures.
• ‘Water rights dominate Iraq’s relationships with neighboring countries.
• ‘Soil salinity and water scarcity are reducing food production.
• ‘Lack of water threatens national hydroelectric production.
• ‘The polluted Shatt al Arab waterway south of Basra:

#1e – Ongoing toxic impacts – e.g., depleted uranium – Jeffrey St. Clair and Joshua Frank, “Iraq Wrecked Environment,” Counterpunch, May 1-3, 2009 —

“Months of bombing during the first Gulf War by the United States and Great Britain left a deadly and insidious legacy: tons of shell casings, bullets and bomb fragments laced with depleted uranium. In all, the United States hit Iraqi targets with more than 970 radioactive bombs and missiles.” “More than 15 years later, the dire health consequences of our first radioactive bombing campaign in this region are coming into focus. Since 1990, the incidence rate of leukemia in Iraq has increased over 600 percent. Detection and treatment of cancers was made unnecessarily difficult by Iraq’s forced isolation under a regime of sanctions, producing what was described by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan as ‘a humanitarian crisis.’

#1f – Cluster bombs – UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “Iraq: Local NGOs welcome cluster bomb ban,” http://www.reliefweb.int/rw/rwb.nsf/db900sid/SHIG-82SHXW?Open, Feb. 18, 2010 Document&RSS20&RSS20=FS –

“…millions of bomblets dispersed by cluster bombs were still scattered across the country as a result of the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 US-led invasion.”“In Baghdad 331 areas are affected by cluster bomb debris, mostly from the 2003 war, Kati said.” “South of Baghdad, the most affected provinces are Muthana, Basra, Najaf and Maysan, where cluster bomb debris dated mostly from the 1991 Gulf War, he said.”

#2 – Impacts on the lives of Iraqi people?

#2a – Articles on direct or supported violence by US military
• US troop brutality – See Dahr Jamail, “Iraq War Vet: ‘We Were Told Just to Shoot People, and the Officers Would Take Care of Us,” Truthout, April 7, 2010
• Pervasive Violence – see Kamil Mahdi, “What the Wikileaks don’t reveal, Stop the War Coalition, 10-24-10 – http://stopwar.org.uk/content/view/2117/1/
• More on violence – Pratap Chatterjee, “Wikileaks Iraq War Logs Reveal Private Military Contractors Killing With Impunity, Alternet.org, Oct. 25, 2010 – http://www.alternet.org/story/1485941

#2b – Iraqi civilian fatalities – John Tirman, “Wikileaks Docs Underestimate Iraqi Dead,” Alternet.org, Oct. 26, 2010 – http://alternet.org/story/148622 – Tirman’s article is the best recent assessment of the various estimates, I think. He estimates that there have been 700,000 excess deaths resulting from the war. He is Executive Director for MIT’s Center for International Studies.

#2b – Millions of refugees
Fred Branfman – http://www.alternet.org/story/147281, June 22, 1010 -“’Counting both internal and external refugees, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that nearly 5 million of Iraq’s population of 24 million have been uprooted during the conflict,’ the N.Y. Review of Books reported on May 13, 2010…. Five-hundred thousand are homeless squatters within Iraq, whose ‘settlements all lack basic services, including water, sanitation and electricity and are built in precarious places — under bridges, alongside railroad tracks and amongst garbage dumps’ according to Refugees International in March 2010. The emigration of 2-3 million Iraqis to refugee camps in Syria and other Mideast countries decimated Iraq’s educated middle class, with some daughters forced to become prostitutes and sons menial laborers just to keep their families alive.”

#2c – Orphans – Iraq: a country of orphans – John Tirman estimated in Feb. 2009 that there were 5 million orphans. The source: John Terman, “4.5 Million Displaced, 1-2 Million Widows, 5 Million Orphans,” The Nation, Feb 2, 2009
#2d -Children – PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder – Cesar Chelala, “Iraqi Children Bear the Costs of War,” CommonDreams.org, March 5, 2010. “The great number of Iraqi children affected with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is one of the saddest, and least known, legacies of the Iraq war. That a new clinic for their treatment opened last August in Baghdad is the first of its kind says a lot about how this problem is being addressed. Until now, hundreds of children suffering from PTSD have been treated by Dr. Haider Maliki at the Central Pediatric Teaching Hospital in Baghdad. Hundreds of thousands remain untreated.

#2e – Jacquelin Shoen, “Wounds of War,” Oct 20, 2010 – http://www.majalla.com/en/ideas/article165470.ece?service=print – “PTSD is equally prevalent amongst Iraq’s adult population, and because its symptoms can be debilitating, it is difficult to foresee how a country with enough political problems can be expected to create stability if fundamental health care issues go unaddressed.

#2f – Imprisonment – Tens of thousands of Iraqi men have spent years in American prisons. Most of the prisons and prisoners have been transferred to the Iraqis, who are known for the brutal treatment of prisoners.

#2g – Torture – Nick Davies and Jonathan Steele and David Leigh, The Guardian
Posted on October 22, 2010, Printed on October 23, 2010
http://www.alternet.org/story/148592/

“Almost 400,000 secret US army field reports have been passed to the Guardian and a number of other international media organizations via the whistleblowing website
• “ US authorities failed to investigate hundreds of reports of abuse, torture, rape and even murder by Iraqi police and soldiers whose conduct appears to be systematic and normally unpunished.
• “The numerous reports of detainee abuse, often supported by medical evidence, describe prisoners shackled, blindfolded and hung by wrists or ankles, and subjected to whipping, punching, kicking or electric shocks. Six reports end with a detainee’s apparent death.
#2h – the situation of women and girls has deteriorated
Nadje Al-Ali, “The Iraq Legacy: Millions of Women’s Lives Destroyed,” Alter Net.com, March 31, 2008 – http://www.alternet.org/story/80609 [Also Nadje Al-Ali and Nicola Pratt’s book, What Kind of Liberation?: Women and the Occupation of Iraq (2009).]

“In fact, Iraq’s women have become the biggest losers in the post-invasion disaster. While men have borne the brunt in terms of direct armed violence, women have been particularly hard-hit by poverty, malnutrition, lack of health services and a crumbling infrastructure, not least chronic power cuts which in some areas of Iraq see electricity only available for two hours a day.

“Meanwhile, rampant political violence has also engulfed women in Iraq. Islamist militias with links to political parties in government and insurgent groups opposing both the government and the occupation have particularly targeted Iraqi women and girls. A new Islamist puritanism is seeing women and girls being violently pressured to conform to rigid dress codes. Personal movement and social behaviour are being ‘regulated,’ with acid attacks (deliberately designed to disfigure ‘transgressive’ women’s faces), just one of the sanctions of the new moral guardians of post-Saddam Iraq.

#3 – Has the US-led war and occupation produced meaningful advances in the political system for Iraqis? Still not clear. There is headway toward the formation of a new government in November of 2010, but the Sunni representatives in parliament are unhappy with it.
Juan Cole (Informed Comment, Nov. 12, 2010) reports that the Iraqis have “finally begun forming a government … 8 months after the parliamentary elections of March 7 [2010]. On last Thursday, the Parliament “elected Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani president once again. By the constitution, the president then asks the leader of the bloc with the largest number of seats in parliament to attempt to form a government, for which he has 30 days….”Talabani tapped Shiite lay leader Nuri al-Maliki, whose current (post-election) coalition has over 140 seats of the 163 needed for a majority in parliament” “…Iyad Allawi’s secular, nationalist Iraqiya Party, including the principal Sunni elected officials, is supported by the Sunni Arabs and the United States. The US fears that al-Maliki is too close to Iran. Cole writes: “As the US withdraws its troops over the next year, Iran’s favorable position in Iraq will now likely be strengthened.”

Fourth Lesson: Most of the goals justifying the war and occupation have not been realized.

We’ve referred to the unfounded public justifications of the Bush administration for launching a full-scale land and air war in March of 2003 [e.g., they had weapons of mass destruction], justifications that have long been discredited. What were the administration’s goals that were not publicized much? Was the “hidden agenda,” achieved over the seven years of the US-led occupation? NO. One implication of this finding is that US power is in decline. The less-publicized US goals, but goals that were vital to US decision makers, were to:

(1) gain control or privileged access of Iraq’s oil, much of the oil in untapped reserves and representing perhaps the second largest potential source of oil in the world (behind Saudi Arabia) – not yet achieved, while the US has become ever more dependent on oil
(2) create conditions in Iraq that would keep the oil flowing to our allies in Europe and SE Asia – Iraq’s oil production remains low and an increasing number of countries are competing for it
(3) gain some advantage from our aspired domination of Iraq in the global competition, especially against China – losing ground here, both in the region and around the globe – e.g., China was the first large country to negotiate an oil contract with Iraq
(4) create a counterforce to OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) – appears that Iraq will not be such a counterforce
(5) demonstrate the strength of the United State’s military power – there had not been a victory for the US military in Iraq
(6) have Iraq pay for the lion’s share of the costs of the US-led occupation – did not happen
(7) put in place a government the US could significantly influence, if not dominate – aside from the Kurds, the majority in the Iraq Parliament are not so dominated and they have close relations with Iran
(8) create a privatized economy, to show the world that a “free market” form of capitalism worked the best – US occupation authorities did shut down many state companies, but not the Iraqi nationalized oil fields, and some state enterprises have been reopened
(9) be in a (better) position to launch a war against Iran – If this happens, Iraq is not likely to be one of the launching pads

Fifth Lesson: The war has been costly to the United States both in terms of finance and in death and injury, physical and psychological, to many of the 1.5 million troops who have spent one or more tours of duty in Iraq

Some evidence on the costs for the United States and its citizens

#1 – How much has the Iraq War cost in dollar terms? What does it continue to cost?

In their book, The Three Trillion Dollar War (2008), Joseph Stiglitz (Columbia University) and Linda Bilmes (Harvard University), estimate that by 2017 the war in Iraq would have cost at least $3 trillion dollars. In a recent article, Washington Post, Sept. 5, 2010, they raise their lowest estimate to $4 trillion. They include costs to date, costs of future operations, estimates of long-term veterans’ medical costs, veteran’s disability, veteran’s social security, repair and updating of equipment, the interest from the debt-based payment for the war, rising oil prices, a higher national debt and higher related interest payments. In the following quotes they explain a couple of reasons (there are more in the article) for why their costs’ estimates have gone up.

“… today, as the United States ends combat in Iraq, it appears that our $3 trillion estimate (which accounted for both government expenses and the war’s broader impact on the U.S. economy) was, if anything, too low. For example, the cost of diagnosing, treating and compensating disabled veterans has proved higher than we expected.

…” two years on [since their book was published], it has become clear to us that our estimate did not capture what may have been the conflict’s most sobering expenses: those in the category of “might have beens,” or what economists call opportunity costs. For instance, many have wondered aloud whether, absent the Iraq invasion, we would still be stuck in Afghanistan. And this is not the only “what if” worth contemplating. We might also ask: If not for the war in Iraq, would oil prices have risen so rapidly? Would the federal debt be so high? Would the economic crisis have been so severe?

#2 – How many US soldiers have been killed, wounded, or otherwise physically or psychological harmed by their mobilization for the Iraq war?

#2a – Fatalities – According to icasualties.org, the total number of US military fatalities, beginning in 2003 and through the first months of 2010, was 4,426. The overall total, including 179 UK and 139 “other” came to 4,474 – http://icasualties.org

#2b – Wounded – Figures from Antiwar.com indicate that as of Oct. 16, 2010, there were a total of 32,899 wounded US military soldiers. There were additionally 320,000 with brain injuries, including (as I understand it) an unknown number of war veterans who had suffered concussions.

#2c – PTSD, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – Jacquelin Shoen, “Wounds of War,” Oct 20, 2010 http://www.majalla.com/en/ideas/article165470.ece?service=print – “one in five veterans returning from the conflict report signs of PTSD and depression. However, less than half have sought treatment. What is maybe more alarming is that a 2007 survey of soldiers found that 17 percent of active-duty troops and 25 percent of reservists had screened positive for symptoms of stress disorder.”

#2d – Troops are also affected by unsafe burning of waste from their own military bases. – Adam Levine, “Report: US Military Continues ‘Toxic Burn Pits” in Afghanistan and Iraq. Audit: “Military using Potentially Harmful Methods of Burning Trash,” Common Dreams. Org, Oct. 15, 2010 -“Between September 2009 and October 2010, investigators from the Government Accountability Office visited four bases in Iraq and reviewed planning documents on waste disposal for bases in Afghanistan. None of the Iraq bases visited were in compliance with military regulations. All four burned plastic — which generates harmful emissions — despite regulations against doing so.

#3 – What is the size of and plans for the US troop deployment in Iraq after the withdrawal of “combat” troops?

#3a – How many troops are there now – 50,000 “noncombat” troops

#3b – How long will US troops remain in Iraq – Liz Sly, “Iraqi Officials foresees a US military presence until 2016,” LA Times (Sept 8, 2010) – http://articles.latimes.com/2010/sep/08/world/la-fg-iraq-troop-presence-20100909 “’Some form of U.S. military presence will be needed in Iraq at least until 2016 to provide training, support and maintenance for the vast quantity of military equipment and weaponry that Iraq is buying from America,’ Iraqi Defense Minister Abdul Qader Obeidi said. Sly continues: “In addition, Iraq will continue to need help with intelligence gathering after 2011, and the fledgling Iraqi air force will require U.S. assistance at least until 2020, the date by which Iraq aims to achieve the capability to defend its airspace, Obeidi said.

#3b – continued -Tim Arango (NYT, July 2, 2010) – “The withdrawal, which will reduce the number of American troops to 50,000 — from 112,000 earlier this year and close to 165,000 at the height of the surge — is a feat of logistics that has been called the biggest movement of matériel since World War II. It is also an exercise in semantics.” “What soldiers today would call combat operations — hunting insurgents, joint raids between Iraqi security forces and United States Special Forces to kill or arrest militants — will be called ‘stability operations.’ Post-reduction, the United States military says the focus will be on advising and training Iraqi soldiers, providing security for civilian reconstruction teams and joint counterterrorism missions.”

#3c – How many bases does the US still have in Iraq? – Chulov, “Iraq withdrawal unmistakable signs of US military on way out,” Guardian [UK], August 31, 2010. “Around the country there are unmistakable signs of a military on its way out. “Over the past two years US forces have closed down 411 bases. They will maintain 94 bases nationwide, at least in the weeks immediately following tomorrow’s ceremony. Many, however, will be outposts where a small number of US forces will train and mentor Iraqi soldiers. They may occasionally patrol with them or join in on raids, but the US mission is designed from now on to be very much in the background. “At least 12 large bases will remain initially; Camp Victory at Baghdad airport, the nearby Camp Liberty, two bases inside the Green Zone, Taji and Balad bases north of Baghdad, bases in Mosul, Kirkuk and Ramadi, as well as al-Assad to the west, and forward vases in Nasireyah and Basra.
#3d – 20,000 US Special Forces remain in Iraq. Andrew Mulligan, “Iraq War Still Risky,” Georgetown U. via UWIRE, Aug. 31, 2010. [Not clear whether the US special forces are counted in the 50,000 non-combatant troops.] “At roughly the beginning of the Vietnam War, the American military created special operations forces for exactly the kind of work that is currently being done in Iraq. Many of the advisers currently in Iraq belong to these same units: the Army Special Forces, or Green Berets. The SF mission is to train and lead indigenous forces in combat, and they have successfully completed missions like these around the world, from Vietnam in the 1960s and ’70s to Panama in the ’80s, and now in Afghanistan and Iraq. They were referred to as advisers even then, and they are the soldiers that are training the Iraqi and Afghan military and police forces.

“However, they are also the soldiers that drop from helicopters onto rooftops, engaging in direct action missions against insurgent and terrorist cells. In recent years, Army Special Forces have subtly shifted their mission from training local soldiers and police to a broader focus on unconventional warfighting. This will likely remain the case in Iraq, as Special Forces soldiers continue to hunt down terrorists in an effort to improve Iraq’s shaky security situation. In short, our soldiers will still have their boots on the ground….
[….]

“Army Special Forces are some of the most highly trained soldiers in the American military. They are truly the best of the best, the Defense Department’s equivalent to Lebron James. They will continue to fight in Iraq, along with the roughly 20,000 American soldiers assigned to “advise and assist” Iraqi forces on patrols and during training exercises. These soldiers have their work cut out for them, as terrorist and insurgent groups promise to ramp up their attacks on the budding Iraqi security infrastructure.”

#3e – Iraqi Special Forces – Shane Bauer, “Iraq’s New Death Squad,” The Nation, June 3, 2009 – http://www.thenation.com/article/iraqs-new-death-squad – “The Iraq Special Operations Forces (ISOF) is probably the largest special forces outfit ever built by the United States, and it is free of many of the controls that most governments employ to rein in such lethal forces. The project started in the deserts of Jordan just after the Americans took Baghdad in April 2003.

There, the US Army’s Special Forces, or Green Berets, trained mostly 18-year-old Iraqis with no prior military experience. The resulting brigade was a Green Beret’s dream come true: a deadly, elite, covert unit, fully fitted with American equipment, that would operate for years under US command and be unaccountable to Iraqi ministries and the normal political process.

#3f – The State Department will have thousands of private contractors -Melina Milazzo, “3 Years After Blackwater Massacre in Iraq, Contractors Still [There], Salon, Sept 16, 2010 – “Despite the troubling lack of oversight, the United States is dramatically increasing its reliance on private security contractors. With the U.S. drawdown in Iraq, the Department of State plans to more than double the number of private security contractors it employs, from 2,700 to 7,000.

#3g – How many private contractors (outside the State Department) are there in Iraq – Pierre Tristam, “Private Contractors vs. Troops: How Many of Each?, March 2010 – http://middleeast.about.com/od/iraq/a/iraq-contractors-troops. “As of March 2010, there were 95,461 DOD contractor personnel in Iraq compared to approximately 95,900 uniformed personnel [now down to 50,000 or so] in-country.

#4 – The issue of oil and the growing competition from China and other countries for access to the oil?
Juan Cole interviewed on PRI’s The World program about “Developing Iraq’s Oil Industry,” May 27, 2010 – His main points: (1) new fields have not yet been developed, (2) established fields still need improvements; (2) production is down slightly; (3) oil companies are concerned about security; (4) Iraq government determined to get major benefits from oil industry as well
Michael Schwartz, TomDispatch.com, “Whatever Happened to the Neocons’ Grand Schemes to Control Iraq’s Oil?” Feb 2, 2010 – http://alternet.org/story/145522
– “Perhaps threatened by the possibility that Chinese companies might accumulate the bulk of the contracts for Iraq’s richest oil fields, leaving other international firms in the dust, by December a veritable stampede had begun to bid for contracts. In the end, the major winners were state-owned firms from Russia, Japan, Norway, Turkey, South Korea, Angola, and — of course

— China. The Malaysian national company, Petronas, set a record by participating with six different partners in four of the seven new contracts the Maliki government gave out. Shell and Exxon were the only major oil companies to participate in winning bids; the others were outbid by consortia led by state-owned firms. These results suggest that national oil companies, unlike their profit-maximizing private competitors, were more willing to forego immediate windfalls in exchange for long-term access to Iraqi oil.”

Lesson Six – The forces in support of war, or a military-oriented foreign policy, in the United States are strong and unabated

In the United States, unfortunately, there are many powerful groups, communities, and just ordinary citizens that support a militarized foreign policy. Why? Many parts of the US have benefited from the Iraq War financially, ideologically, and/or politically.

• The corporations associated with the huge military-industrial complex increase their sales and profits.
• The military establishment itself is able to justify its extraordinary budget by fighting wars.
• The President along with too many elected officials in the U.S. Congress advance a bipartisan, pro-war budget and agenda and have won votes as a result.
• The large veterans’ organizations typically defend the militarized foreign policy of the US government.
• Thousands of communities across the United States support the government’s large military budgets, especially when they have military bases in their areas or local business with contracts to produce weapons or military-related supplies. The benefits are extra employment, additional taxes, and spurs to the local economy.
• Burgeoning private firms prosper that provide services to the troops, security to embassies and officials, experienced former soldiers for special operations, and intelligence to the military.
• Millions of citizens who pride themselves on being patriotic have adopted the idea that military force is the only way to protect America and its interests here and abroad.
• And there is the widely held view that the Iraq War was a necessary war and represents one victory against an alleged movement of international Islamic terrorism.
• The media – are by and large an echo chamber of the official war narratives – Check out these two books, for example: Anthony Dimaggio, When Media Goes to War, and Norman Solomon’s War Made Easy
Lesson Seven – The forces for peace in the United States appear weaker today than in 2002-2003. And yet the voices for peace have not been silenced. Here is just one example.

Freda Berrigan. “Sunrise on Sunset for Iraq?, Foreign Policy in Focus, Feb. 26, 2010.

“March will mark seven years since the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. But Joshua Brollier, co-director of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, points out that the people of Iraq have endured 19 years of economic and military warfare at the hands of the United States. Thus, ‘it is hard to genuinely say what a New Dawn could look like for the people of Iraq, especially when it comes to U.S. involvement in the lives of Iraqis.’

“Brollier contrasts the $150 billion that the United States will spend on military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in fiscal year 2011 with the $330 million set aside for Iraqi refugee assistance. ‘If these excessive and ineffective combat funds were redirected to refugee assistance, locally directed projects and much-needed infrastructure, maybe then a crack could open up for reconciliation and trust to be built between the people of Iraq and the United States,’ he writes . ‘Changing our troop designation from combat brigades to advisors will not suffice; neither will a new name for more of the same.’

Conclusions

Some possible actions were suggested in the discussion the followed the presentations,
• the members of the group referred to fund-raising efforts to groups in Iraq, or even in the US (e.g., Veterans for Peace) that are known to be doing or supporting vital work in health care and providing other essential services for Iraqis.
• There was also some discussion on how to educate the community on the facts that document the harm we have done to Iraq and that the US continues to maintain a significant military presence in the country.
• In addition, there may be ways in which we can join or support groups that are working to ensure that veterans obtain the support they need and deserve.
• Further, there is a place for public forums perhaps, letter writing, small “house parties,” expert speakers, relevant videos that are focused on the issue of Iraq.
• One problem is that the war appears not to be a priority of the American people, who are confronted with grave economic and other pressing problems. Is there an effective way to link, say, the low-wages, unemployment, and housing foreclosures to the Iraq War, both wars, the hugely bloated military budget?

Themes suggested by our document for speaking out in various forums:

#1 – Dispute those who argue that the US-led war/occupation in Iraq has “ended.” Take issue with Obama and the bipartisan support of the US Congress on this issue.
#2 – Make the case that the harms done to Iraq and its people and to US soldiers (and taxpayers) are enormous and should serve as an example of how war is a vast waste of resources, human and otherwise, ineffective in advancing the interests of the majority of Americans, and immoral in the final analysis.
#3 – Support funds for reparations and reconstruction for Iraq (see Berrigan’s article above).
#4 – Support the needed medical and other assistance for Iraq veterans and other veterans who have served in the US armed forces.
#5 – Speak out against the other wars of the United States. We need the money for building a green economy and jobs at home, which would bring us more security than any war in sight.
#6 – Speak out against the extension of US troop deployment in Afghanistan beyond next year; in other words, bring all the troops home
#7 – Speak out against the rumblings for a war on Iran when they are reported

Trump, US capitalism and militarism, and Iran

Trump, US capitalism and militarism, and Iran

Bob Sheak, June 25, 2019

There is now a convergence of forces that increase the chances of war against Iran or, for that matter, any nation identified by the Trump administration as a threat to US national security or its designated allies. While Trump is impulsive and seems often poorly informed on foreign policy, US policy and history is riddled with reckless and counterproductive military wars and interventions based on lies and nationalistic propaganda. And, as a rule in US foreign relations, geopolitical considerations overshadow democratic values, human rights, or humanitarian assistance.

One glaring contradiction is that the Trump administration, following previous ones, has close and supportive relations with the authoritarian state of Saudi Arabia, an “absolute monarchy” based on an extreme fundamentalist form of Islam, that is engaged in the extensive bombing and devastation of Yemen, and that has been the home to or influencing the most radical “terrorists” on the planet. There is little or no political freedom here.

Reese Erlich describes Iran’s political system as follows:

“Iran is neither a secular state nor a theocracy, neither a totalitarian dictatorship nor a representative democracy. Conservative, religious, military, and business leaders have institutional control over major government decisions, but they are constrained by elections and sometimes raucous political debate.” (The Iran Agenda Today, p. 90).

Trump inherited the largest armed forces in the world, he loves the media attention he gets when he threatens countries he doesn’t like with even veiled threats of nuclear war – “fire and fury.” In this context, Trump and his key advisers have a hatred for Iran’s government and are trying to find ways to destroy the government, disregarding the harm the policies have on the Iranian people or the potential effects it will have on an already destabilized Middle East.

Framework for this post

I’ll assemble evidence for this post around 8 contentions on not only the US anti-Iranian policies but also how they reflect the large role played by the military in foreign policy. My overall view is twofold. One, the US should reduce its continuing build-up and deployment around the world of its already vast military forces and prioritize diplomacy and finding creative ways for peaceful collaboration with other countries. Two, regarding Iran, the US should reenter the nuclear agreement, end sanctions, stop the provocations and the advances toward war, and enter negotiations on other issues of concern, especially without pre-conditions. Seyed Hossein Mousavian offers “A Roadmap to Peace” in his informative book, Iran and the United States: An Insider’s View on the Failed Past and the Road to Peace (2014).

My arguments

 We are at a point in US history where (1) the drivers of an imperialistic US foreign policy are gaining momentum, (2) the US has massive military forces that extend around the globe and are being used to advance US interests but at great costs and based on misguided premises, (3) the state is gripped by what one analysts calls a “superpower syndrome,” and (4) the country is led by an unstable president.

With respect to Iran, (5) Trump’s foreign policy advisers favor using any means to topple the Iranian government. (6) They have applied a policy of “extreme pressure” on that nation through severe sanctions that have severely disrupted Iran’s economy and created widespread human suffering and even death. (7) The president’s advisers are looking for pretexts to justify a military attack on the country, while (8) there is seemingly no one in the administration and few if any in Republican Party taking seriously the potentially catastrophic consequences of attacking Iran.

Number 1: The outside and inside drivers of foreign policy now

The need for resources

Fundamentally, there are economic as well as political drivers of America’s foreign policy. We have a capitalist economy that must grow and expand or fall into recession or worse. And lacking many of the resources that the economy requires, and at a time when there is international competition and wars over who will control the increasingly scarce resources (e.g., oil, minerals, rare earths, timber, fertile land, fresh water), US leaders of just about all stripes support the need for maintaining a strong military force, the use of sanctions, and other means to intimidate and disrupt governments who oppose US exploitation of their resources.

Michael T. Klare has analyzed this situation in great depth in his publications; for example, in his books Resources Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict (2001) and The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources (2012). Andrew J. Bacevich makes this point his book, America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History (2016). One of Bacevich’s central points is that the vast oil deposits in the Middle East have always been a definitive motivator in US Middle East strategy (p. 1). Indeed, he reminds us that a Democratic President, Jimmy Carter, formalized US strategy around oil when he said:

“Let our position be absolutely clear…. An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force” (p. 28).

Profits – the mega defense contractors, the revolving door and foreign arms sales

The U.S. military is the largest in the world. The military budgets of the US represent have steadily increased. When all military-related expenditures are included, the US is spending over a trillion dollars in recent years. And the US leads by far in the sale of weapons abroad. The large share of the military budget goes to mega-weapons producers. Samuel Stebbens and Evan Comen document that 12 of the largest 20 companies “profiting from war” are in the U.S. including, for example, Lockheed Martin Corp (#1), Boeing (#2), Ratheon (#3), Northrup Grumman Corp (#5), Benval Dynamics Corp (#6) (https://247wallst.com/special-report/2019/02/21/20-companies-profiting-the-most-from-war-4/2).

American companies account for 57% of total arms sales by the world’s largest defense contractors. At the top is Maryland-based Lockheed Martin, with an estimated $44.9 billion in arms sales in 2017, including deals with governments all over the world. It’s share of the US budget is “more than the total annual budgets of the IRS and the Environmental Protection Agency, combined.”

Peter Castagno identifies some of the connections between the mega “defense” companies and foreign policy, involving (1) a circulation of people between the mega-defense contractors and high positions in government, (2) how presidents, continuing under Trump promote foreign military weapons sales by the mega-defense contractors, and (3) how Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal, The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, generated a demand from other countries for American-made weapons (https://truthout.org/articles/the-arms-trade-is-intensifing-under-trump).

First, on the revolving door, Castagno posits that it “has long distorted US foreign policy to serve war profiteers at the expense of the public interest and basic humanitarian norms,” and that now “global arms trade is experiencing its greatest boom since the Cold War,” because of the assumption that the private sector should be little regulated and allowed to follow the profits.

Before entering the White House but after winning the presidential election, Trump said in an interview on “Fox News Sunday” in December 2016: “You, know, they make a deal like that and then a year later, or two years later, or three years later, you see them working for these big companies that made the deal.” The implication is that he did not approve of the revolving door. He is also is reported to have asserted his belief in a “lifetime restriction” on top defense officials working for private defense contractors after their public service.”

However, what transpired in his first two years in the White House belie his statements. Castagno gives examples of the revolving door under trump. Patrick Shanahan, the current interim head of the Defense Department “spent three decades working for Boeing. Heather Wilson, “who has been secretary of the Air Force since 2017,” had been a lobbyist for Lockheed Martin. Mark T. Esper, the secretary of the Army, previously “worked as vice president of government relations for Raytheon before joining the Trump administration in 2017.” Castagno adds: “The Hill recognized Esper as one of Washington’s most powerful corporate lobbyists in 2015 and 2016, where he fought to influence acquisition policy and other areas of defense bills.”

Second, Castagno examines the “armament industry’s influence on foreign policy” during Trump’s presidency “through directives in official arms export policy.” He offers two examples. On November 2018, the State Department’s updated the Conventional Arms Transfer (CAT) Policy Implementation Plan. It promotes the weapons sales for the mega-defense companies by loosening restrictions on the sale of drones and other weapons and providing new financing options for countries who can’t afford U.S. weaponry. Castagno says there are plans by the administration “to put pressure on diplomats to put arms deals at the forefront of their mission.”

Third, when Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, “defense companies enjoyed an immediate boost to their stock, Castagno reports. “This is because demand in the arms trade surges alongside geopolitical instability.” And the intensifying on Iran since then, have motivated countries in the Middle East to buy more armaments in the face of anticipated conflict and possibly a new war involving the US and Iran.

To exploit cheap, foreign cheap labor

John Smith summarizes this point in his book, Imperialism In the Twenty-First Century: Globalization, Super-Exploitation, and Capitalism’s Final Crisis (2016). He writes:

“The vast wave of outsourcing of production processes to low-wage countries, enabled by the fortuitous arrival of ICT [information and communication technologies] and rapid advances in transportation technology, was a strategic response to the twin crises of declining profitability and overproduction that resurfaced in the 1970s in the form of stagflation and synchronized global recession.

“Outsourcing has boosted profits of firms across the imperialist world and helped to sustain the living standards of its inhabitants, but this has led to deindustrialization, has intensified capitalism’s imperialistic and parasitic tendencies, and has piled up global imbalances that threaten to plunge the world into destructive trade wars” (p. 313).

To maintain a certain standard of living in America

Additionally, US elites and many if not most US citizens want a good, it not affluent, material standard of living and believe that the nation is “exceptional” and, without often giving it much thought, entitled to continue claiming a disproportionate share of the earth’s bounty and economic wealth.

Historian Andrew J. Bacevich makes the point that our economic system is built on the imperative of ever-increasing economic growth and consumption, which require access to foreign resources, commodities, and markets. He writes: “The collective capacity of our domestic political economy to satisfy these appetites has not kept pace with demand.” He continues: “As a result, sustaining our pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness at home requires increasingly that Americans look beyond the borders to accommodate the American way of life” (The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, p. 9).

Number 2: The US has massive and increasing military forces are located around the world, and being used for all sorts of purposes, few if any of which have anything to do with support for “development” projects.

Tom Engelhardt offers an informative “six-category rundown” of what he calls “American extremity on a global scale,” or the extreme size and deployment of the US military (https://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/44408-caliphate-of-Trump-a-planet-in-ruin).

The point of going into this is that it is further validation of the view that we have a foreign policy that rests increasingly on an enormous military establishment. And, to underline a point, there are powerful arms producers and contractors (the military-industrial complex) and huge intelligence and surveillance networks that all depend on taxpayer money. And the more war or threat of war, the more they benefit.

#1 – Garrisoning the globe – Engelhardt writes, “The US has an estimated 800 or so military bases or garrisons, ranging from the size of small towns to tiny outposts, across the planet.” They are “everywhere” – “Europe, South Korea, Japan, Australia, Afghanistan, the Middle East, Africa, Latin America,” and the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center in Cuba. There are 450,000 military personnel stationed outside US borders. And there are six military commands which organize all this around plans and priorities emanating from the Pentagon and White House.

#2 – Funding the military – “The US puts approximately a trillion dollars [annually] in taxpayer funds into its military, its 17 intelligence agencies, and what’s now called ‘homeland security.’” As widely reported, the national security budget far exceeds those of other countries and continue to rise, year in and year out. There is so much money flowing to and through the Pentagon that there is no record of a significant portion of the funds that have been spent. For example, in an article published by Truthdig, Lee Camp reports, “The Pentagon’s own numbers show that it can’t account for $21 trillion. Yes, I mean trillion with a ‘T’ (https://www.truthdig.com/articles/the-pentagon-cant-account-for-21-trillion).

#3 – Fighting Wars – In Engelhardt’s words: “The US has been fighting wars nonstop since the US invaded Afghanistan in October 2001. That’s almost 17 years [now 18] of invasions, occupations, air campaigns, drone strikes, special operations raids, naval and missile attacks, and so much more, from the Philippines to Pakistan, Afghanistan to Syria, Libya to Niger. And in none of those places is such war making truly over.” None of this is considered extreme, or thought bout at all, by the US government, media, or probably most citizens. This “American-style war, despite invasions of countries thousands of miles away and the presidentially directed targeting of individuals across the globe for assassination by drone with next to no regard for national sovereignty is not considered extreme.”

#4 – Destroying cities – Since the destruction of the World Trade towers on September 11, 2001, “the US has had a major hand in destroying not just tower after tower, but city after city – Fallujah, Ramadi, and Mosul in Iraq, Raqqa in Syria, Sirte in Libya – as “parts or all of them were turned into literal rubble.”

#5 – Displacing people – The US wars have “helped to displace a record number of human beings since the last days of World War II.” Experts at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, provides some numbers of the number of refugees created by the US initiative and led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/costs/human/refugees).

“Over 8.4 million people in these war zones have been displaced, either abroad or within their own countries, and are living in grossly inadequate conditions. An additional 12.6 million people in Syria have been displaced by the fighting, many as a result of the US fight against the Islamic State in that country.

“Refugees also face difficulties in renewing visas, the denial of civil rights and services, the fear of deportation, and anxiety about the future.

“Many displaced persons, usually poorer migrants who lack the finances necessary to travel abroad, have had to relocate within their countries. For example, in Baghdad, internally displaced persons (IDPs) often squat in bombed-out buildings with no water, electricity, sewage, or garbage disposal. Precarious living conditions are further heightened by unemployment.

“Those who have managed to escape the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have fled to nearby states including Pakistan, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey, and Iran. The refugee influx into these countries has strained their resources and the livelihoods of their urban working classes. Given the continued reluctance of Western states to resettle Iraqi and Afghan refugees, the limited international assistance received by host states, and the uncertainty as to time of return, the refugee situation continues to worsen.”

#6 – Arming the planet (and its own citizens as well) – With the support of the government, US weapons makers “have outpaced all possible competitors in global arms sales.” Peter Castagno compiles recent numbers in his article entitled “The Arms Trade is Intensifying Under Trump” (https://truthout.org/articles/the-arms-trade-is-intensifying-under-trump). Here’s some of what he writes.

“The global arms trade is experiencing its greatest boom since the Cold War, fueled by horrific wars in the Middle East and revitalized power rivalries among China, Russia and the United States. In their most recent report, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute revealed a 44 percent increase in arms sales from 2002 to 2017. The United States is the world’s biggest arms exporter by far, holding 34 percent of total market share — a 58 percent lead on Russia, its closest competitor. From 2017 to 2018, U.S. arms sales to foreign governments increased 33 percent, in part due to the Trump administration’s diminished legal restraints on supplying foreign militias.”

Number 3: The state is gripped by a “superpower syndrome”

 The US appears to be caught in the grip, and has been, of what Robert Jay Lifton defines as “a superpower syndrome,” referring to “a national mindset – put forward by a tight-knit leadership group – that takes on a sense of omnipotence, of unique standing in the world that grants it the right to hold sway over all other nations. See his book SuperPower Syndrome: America’s Apocalyptic Confrontation with the World, published in 2003. This syndrome increases the chances that the US will use all its power to get its way in international relations and, as it turns out, with special reliance on military power.

Number 4: An unstable president

In addition to the forces driving foreign policy already examined, America has a president who is mercurial, maliciously narcissistic, a chronic liar (11,000 or so according to a count by the Washington Post), who has surrounded himself with war mongers. As one example of Trump’s key advisers, see John Feffer’s article, “Bolton in Wonderland” (https://fpif.org/bolton-in-wonderland). Feffer’s main point is that Bolton would like to see many of the hotspots around the world settled by war. Here’s some of what Feffer writes.

“The Trump administration is currently facing the consequences of its erratic foreign policy. Put a pin in the map of the world and you’ll either hit an example of U.S. foreign policy failure or, at best, another part of the globe that the administration is studiously ignoring. Conflicts are escalating with Iran and Venezuela. U.S. support of Saudi Arabia and Israel is producing enormous backlash in the region. The trade war with China is back on after the failure of the latest round of negotiations. Talks with North Korea have stalled, and Pyongyang is losing patience.

“John Bolton has a rather consistent answer to all of these foreign policy challenges: maximum pressure. He’d like to see regime change in Venezuela, Iran, and North Korea. He’d risk war to achieve these ends.”

But we must not forget that Trump is at the center of power, with awesome power, including the power to launch nuclear weapons virtually uncontested. The erratic behavior of Trump himself has been considered by experts in such books as Rocket Man: Nuclear Madness and the Mind of Donald Trump, edited by John Gartner, Steven Buser & Leonard Cruz, or The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President, edited by Bandy Lee, the organizer of the “Yale ‘Duty to Warn’ Conference.

The point: Trump and advisers like Bolton add volatile ingredients to an already dangerous situation.

Number 5: Hawkish views prevail in foreign policy and justify imposing maximum pressure on Iran, with the military option in the offing

Trump did not originate the hostility toward Iran but has intensified it. Helene Cooper and Edward Wong offer a summary of Trump’s policies, between May 2018 and May 2019.

“Since May 2018, the Trump administration has withdrawn from the major powers agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program, reimposed punishing sanctions on Tehran, demanded that allies choose between Iranian oil and doing business in the American market, and <ahref="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/08/world/middleeast/trump-iran-revolutionary-guard-corps.html?module=inline&quot; declared "the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps a terrorist organization” (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/14/world/middleeast/trump-iran-threats.html).

In 2015, as reported by BBC, “Iran agreed to a long-term deal on its nuclear program with a group of world leaders known as the P5+1 – the US, UK, France, China, Russia and Germany” (https://www.bbc/news/world-middle-east-33521655). The plan, as noted, is known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

“Negotiated over several years with European allies, China, and Russia, the agreement was a triumph of international diplomacy. It successfully blocked each of Iran’s pathways to the bomb, without provoking a military conflict. The deal worked. Iran ended its dangerous nuclear activities and submitted to the most intrusive inspections and monitoring regime in existence today

Cirincioni and Kaszynski point out that subsequent reports by the US intelligence community, the Israeli intelligence community, and the quarterly reports of the International Atomic Energy Agency have confirmed that Iran remains in full compliance (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2019/06/19/trump-misleading-america-new-war).

The agreement was undermined by the US in May 2018 when Trump abandoned the landmark deal and in November of that year “reinstated sanctions targeting both Iran and the states that trade with it.” Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was done unilaterally. Joe Cirincioni and Mary Kaszynski write the other signatories to the agreement, and US allies generally, along with “the vast majority of national security experts and former officials support the Iran anti-nuclear accord”

Following Trump’s action, the UK, Germany and France, all opposed to the US sanctions, “set up an alternative payment mechanism aimed at helping international companies trade with Iran without facing US penalties. The effects of the alternative mechanism have been ineffective. So, in May 2019, “Iran suspended commitments under the agreement and gave the other signatories a 60 day deadline [until July 2019] to protect it from US sanctions, otherwise it would resume production of highly enriched uranium.”

Further actions against Iran

 The administration is doing its deviously best to undermine the Iranian economy, imposing more and more severe sanctions, intimidating US allies to go along with the sanctions, and in the process generating untold suffering on the Iranian people. The policies also encourage terrorist groups, like MEK (People’s Mujahideen of Iran), to continue their mayhem within Iran. In his book, Iran and the United States, Seyed Hossein Mousavian earlier, writes:

“Terrorism in Iran has claimed the lives of thousands of civilians and more than 200 members of government, including a former president and prime minister, members of parliament, and military officials. Others such as the current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and former President and Majlis Speaker Hashemi Rafsanjani, have suffered injury at the hands of terrorists. Iranians therefore know all too well the meaning and impact of terrorism. And it is widely known, the Iranian government was the first in the Islamic world to extend its condolences to the U.S. following the 9/11 attacks….” (p. 239).

Trump has closed US embassies in the country, increased US naval and combat forces in the region, while the military sends drones that are flown very close to or over Iran airspace to collect information on potential military targets. All the while, key players in the White House, National Security Adviser Bolton and Secretary of State Pompeo, continuously concoct and look for opportunities to justify military attacks on Iran.

Aside from Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Arab Emirates, all of whom urge military action against Iran, there is little or no support from other countries for a war with Iran because of the anticipated additional chaos, death, and destruction it would bring to a region already in shatters, if not to the whole world.

Cirincione and Kaszynski inform us to how the momentum for war is building in the Trump-led US government.

“U.S. intelligence officials have said that recent military posturing from Iran ‘is in response to the administration’s aggressive steps over the last two months.’ But as in other conflict spirals, U.S. actions are ignored in the official statements. ‘The National Security Strategy lists Iran as one of the four top threats, and we just need to be sure we’ve got the capability to deter them from these kinds of activities, threatening American lives and facilities, threatening the international oil market,’ National Security Advisor John Bolton said of the new deployment of 1,000 U.S. troops to the Gulf, adding that ‘they would be making a big mistake if they doubted the president’s resolve on this.’

“Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, meanwhile, is working full-time to lay the groundwork for military strikes. In a recent closed-door briefing with members of Congress, Pompeo suggested that the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force—the legal authority for the war in Afghanistan—allows the administration to launch military strikes against Iran. He visited the headquarters of the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Florida on Tuesday and is coordinating with Iran’s regional and religious rivals.”

At the same time, despite the horrors a war with Iran can unleash, Trump can count for support on the Republicans in Congress, the military-industrial complex and other parts of the corporate community, his hard-core base of 60million+ Americans, and Fox News and the right-wing media for virtually anything he wants to do. With respect to Iran, the Trump White House appears convinced that severe economic sanctions and various subversive actions, along with the threat of military intervention, will eventually bring Iran to its knees.

Such policies, so Trump and his advisers rosily imagine, will all have positive effects, will eventually bring democracy to its citizens, end what it identifies as Iranian-sponsored terrorism, eliminate all of Iran’s nuclear capacity for nuclear power as well as for nuclear weapons, eliminate Iran’s threat to Israel, help consolidate the power of Saudi Arabia, UAE, Israel and other American allies in the Middle East, while at the same time reducing the influence of Russia and China in the region. They seem to utterly fail to understand that the full costs and consequences of such an unnecessary war.

Number 6: Trump’s policy of applying extreme pressure to Iran through sanctions has led to extreme difficulties in Iran but have not toppled the regime

 BBC News reports that the additional US sanctions imposed under Trump have caused the economy in Iran to fall into recession, with the GDP contracting 3.9% in 2018 and expected to shrink by 6% in 2019 (https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-48119109).

Additionally, “oil exports have more than halved,” oil production has precipitously fallen off and estimates are that Iran’s government has lost more than $10bn ($7.7bn) in revenue as a result.” The value of the Iranian currency, the rial, has plummeted and has “lost almost 60% of its value against the US dollar on the unofficial market since the US sanctions were reinstated….” The costs of living for Iranians has risen dramatically. BBC reports, “In the past 12 months, the cost of red meat and poultry has increased by 57%, milk, cheese and eggs by 37%, and vegetables by 47%.” And, finally, the incomes of Iranians are falling in real terms.”

Sanctions as “economic terrorism”

Medea Benjamin and Nicolas J.S. Davies argue that sanctions represent a kind of “economic terrorism” that disproportionately harms civilians in the targeted nation – in this case Iran (https://www.counterpunch.org/2019/06/18/u-s-sanctions-economic-sabotage-that-is-deadly-illegal-and-ineffective).

US officials say that sanctions will benefit the people of Iran “by pushing them to rise up and overthrow” the government. But the evidence is not persuasive – perhaps at some deepening level of misery. Benjamin and Davies point to how the “use of military force, coups, and covert operations to overthrow governments have proven catastrophic in Afghanistan, Iraq, Haiti, Somalia, Honduras, Libya, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen.”

Compounding the economic impacts of the US sanctions on Iran is that the sanctions prohibit and international transactions using the dollar. This means, for example, “China, India, Japan, South Korea, and Turkey, all nations that purchase Iranian oil… now face US threats if they continue to do so.”

What does the historical evidence say about the effects of sanctions? Benjamin and Davies refer to a comprehensive study published in 1997 by Robert Pape, then a professor at Dartmouth College, who collected and analyzed “the historical data on 115 cases where [economic sanctions were] tried between 1914 and 1990. Pape concluded “that sanctions had only been successful in 5 out of 115 cases.” He suggested that states keep using them because they “overestimate the prospects of the coercive success of sanctions,” they “expect imposing sanctions first will enhance the credibility of subsequent military threats,” and because they yield “leaders greater domestic benefits.”

Number 7: Looking for pretexts to justify a military attack on the country

 Trump and his advisers appear to be convinced that the economic and subversive policies they advance, along with the threat of military intervention, will eventually drive Iran to submit to their demands. In the meantime, Trump has ordered the closing of the American embassies in Iran, sent an additional 1,500 US troops to the region, along with the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln and additional US naval power into the Persian Gulf. It has floated a plan to send 120,000 troops into the region if the US goes to war, though Trump also said that if a war erupts more troops than that would have to go.

In the meantime, Bolton and Pompeo and their group are looking for a pretext to use US military forces against Iran. They seem to irrationally assume, like the Bush administration and the generals did in 2003 regarding Iraq, that the US will win any war with Iran easily, quickly, with few casualties, and with limited destruction and death in Iran.

On Thursday, June 13, two oil tankers were attacked in the Gulf of Oman, and within hours Pompeo had blamed Iran for the attacks, based on a video described by Juan Cole, expert on the Middle East, as follows:

“Pompeo’s people put out grainy video of some sort of small ship coming alongside one of the tankers and then leaving peacefully. Since this doesn’t look very much like an attack, they are alleging that the Iranians were taking away an unexploded mine. That doesn’t make any sense at all, and the video again needs to be carefully analyzed” (https://juancole.com/2019/06/13/whatever-certainty-tankers.html).

Iran denied involvement in the attack and the Japanese owner of one of the tankers said that damage had been caused by flying projectiles, not mines attached to the tanker. Multiple news accounts said that Iranian ships did approach the oil tankers after the attack, but not to plant mines but to help rescue dozens of crew members from the tankers. Interviewed on Democracy Now, Vijay Prashad, questions the administration’s account of the episode.

“People who look closely at the oil business understand that 50% of the world’s oil goes through the Gulf of Hormuz. They understand that, you know, carrying oil is a dangerous activity. All kinds of things happen. There are accidents. There’s piracy. There are a series of quite common risks faced by oil tankers. Iran is not one of those high on the list as far as risk assessors are concerned. And yet, of course, this is the first thing the United States government has said… without any evidence. So, within a few hours and without any evidence, the United States government once more provoking some sort of response from Iran, perhaps, or at least to try to galvanize public opinion to believe that Iran is a threat to the world.

Nonetheless, the Administration acted on their assumption that Iran was the culprit.

Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan subsequently announced that the US is sending an additional 1,000 troops to the region. And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the US is considering a full range of options in response to the attacks. Democracy Now summarizes some of the other mixed responses.

“Republican Senator Tom Cotton, a member of the Armed Services Committee and a Trump ally, called Sunday for a ‘retaliatory strike’ on Iran, saying on CBS’s ‘Face the Nation,’ ‘The president has the authorization to act to defend American interests.’ Neither of the tankers were U.S.-owned; one belonged to a Norwegian company and the other to a Japanese company. The European Union’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini called for ‘maximum restraint’ as she heads to D.C. for talks today with U.S. officials. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres warned last week that the world ‘cannot afford’ a confrontation in the region and that ‘facts must be established, and responsibilities clarified.’”

Juan Cole offers some thoughtful responses to the tanker episode, as follows.

“It could also be by Iran, of course. I disapprove of violence and denounce the attack on civilian tankers. But any reporter who reports that Iran might be the culprit is dishonest to Trumpan depths if they neglect to mention that that the US is stopping 100% of Iran’s oil exports with no warrant of international law, no resolution from the UN Security Council, and in direct contradiction of US obligations under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which Trump breached. A physical blockade of Iran would be an act of war. I don’t see why a financial blockade should be looked at as any different. Trump has committed numerous acts of naked aggression on the Iranian people. I don’t condone a violent response, but anyone should be able to understand it.

Number 8: The illusion of an easy war with Iran

 This illusion is challenged by Mohammad Marandi, a professor of English literature and Orientalism at the Tehran University and who was part of the negotiations leading to the nuclear deal in 2015. He was interviewed on Democracy Now on June 21, 2019. His view is that any significant attack by the US on Iran will lead to catastrophic consequence for Iran, US troops, the region, and the global economy. He elaborates as follows.

“… if indeed a military conflict is inevitable between the United States and Iran, I think there are two important things that have to be kept in mind. First, if there is a war, then, in my opinion, all of the oil and gas facilities, as well as the tankers in the Persian Gulf region, will be destroyed. This will not be just the issue of closing the Strait of Hormuz. This will be something very long-term. And that will lead to a global economic catastrophe unlike anything we’ve seen in contemporary history. In addition to that, Iranian allies across the region will engage U.S. forces and U.S. allies militarily, in Iraq, in Afghanistan and elsewhere. And then you would have the Saudi and Emirati regimes collapse immediately, because they’re completely dependent on oil. And millions of people will be on the move. So, that’s a scenario that is just something that people should not even contemplate.

“The second is that the United States may carry out a small strike. Here, I think, is almost equally dangerous, because I think that there are some so-called Iran experts in the United States that are telling the U.S. government that if you carry out a limited strike, Iran will do nothing in response, or there will be just some token response. That is a major miscalculation. The Iranians will be relentless in their response. They will probably be very disproportionate, as well. And they will also strike those regional countries that are allowing—that would allow the Americans to attack. And the reason why the Iranians would respond so severely is that they want to make sure that the United States does not come to any conclusion that they could repeatedly attack Iran. And this, of course, could lead to further and further escalation. So, it would be against the interests of the whole of the international community, as well as the people of the United States, to even contemplate any strike, even limited.”

With all of its assets and illusions, the US military is not prepared for to fight an effective war with Iran

 This is the view of Scott Ritter, who, according to Wikipedia,“was a United Nations weapons inspector in Iraq from 1991 to 1998, and later a critic of United States foreign policy in the Middle East. Prior to the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Ritter stated that Iraq possessed no significant weapons of mass destruction (WMD) capabilities, becoming according to The New York Times ‘the loudest and most credible skeptic of the Bush administration’s contention that Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction.’ He received harsh criticism from the political establishment and became an antiwar figure.”

In an article published on Truthdig, “The U.S. Stands to Lose Much More Than a War with Iran,” Ritter agrees that the US has the capability to cause great destruction and death in Iran. He writes: “Iran’s civil and industrial infrastructure will be devastated, and tens of thousands of Iranian civilians would be killed.” But the US will not be able to conclude the war.” And, “Any U.S. victory would be pyrrhic in nature, crippling the U.S. and global economies while further diminishing America’s already diminished position in the world.”

Ritter makes the following points in explaining his view that a US war on Iran will be long-lasting and have numerous and counterproductive consequences that will stretch across the region and the entire world.

One, “the US marines are not able to conduct brigade-sized forcible entry operations except under ad hoc conditions, and even then, only against a lightly held objective. Any notion of landing Marines on a contested shore in Iran is suicidal. And yet any plan to secure the Strait of Hormuz would require the seizure of Iranian-held islands located in the strait, the port city of Bandar Abbas, and the entire Iranian coastline along the strait inland to depths of 50 kilometers. This mission far exceeds the operational capacity and capability of the Marine Corps.”

Two, “Airpower alone cannot accomplish this objective… the U.S. aircraft carriers will be operating under duress, reducing effectiveness, and U.S. air bases in the region will be under near continuous Iranian ballistic missile attacks, resulting in their closure or reduced effectiveness.” Ritter adds: “It will take the U.S. weeks, if not months, to deploy enough air power into the region to sustain a meaningful air campaign against Iran. During this time, Iran will disperse its forces to remote sites, many of which are underground and impervious to attack.”

Three, “While the U.S. can launch several hundred cruise missiles a day against Iranian targets, this number is virtually meaningless. Iran has spent decades preparing for a war with the U.S. and has studied American weaponry to a degree that is perhaps unappreciated in the West.” And: “U.S. cruise missiles, costing some $1.4 million each, will be destroying empty buildings, while US aircraft will have to fly in contested air space for the first time this century, decreasing operational efficiency while suffering casualties in terms of downed aircraft and aircrew that could very well prove to be unsustainable.”

Four, The Iranian military “will not only defend Iranian territory but also strike out against U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf region, as well as military and industrial targets, including oil and gas infrastructures, of any nation providing assistance to the American war effort.”

Five, “Iran has the capability to sink U.S. naval vessels, shoot down U.S. aircraft and destroy airbases supporting U.S. air operations. Iranian-backed militias in Syria and Iraq could very easily overrun U.S. military bases in those two countries, annihilating the garrisons based there. U.S. airpower that would normally be employed to defend these garrisons would be tied down in supporting operations over Iran.”

Six, a US war on Iran would “effectively denude U.S. forces worldwide, meaning the U.S. would lack any meaningful military capacity to respond to crises in Europe or the Pacific.”

Seven, such a war would “require significant regional support from Turkey, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, which is highly problematic.”

Concluding thoughts

 In the meantime, Trump is putting more sanctions on Iran, threatening retaliation on Iran for any harm it may do to US assets or interests in the region, or perceived to have done. Iran’s downing of a US drone near or over Iranian airspace almost became the pretext for a US air attack, but Trump was not yet ready to approve a military retaliatory strike. He may have some vague notion that a war with Iran would ruin his chances for a second-term in the White House, though the cult-like following of his core constituencies, would cheer him on. On thing is clear, he and his advisers don’t care a whit about the effects of US sanctions on Iranians. Nor, it seems, do most Americans.

Outside of the progressive media, most media seem to accept the view that Iran is a terrorist state and is responsible for all sorts of barbaric acts in the region, disregarding the fact that Iran’s military forces in Iraq and Syria were fighting against ISIS and Al-Qaeda, Mousavian reminds us of this fact and others, namely, that Iran has cooperated with the United States to oust the Taliban from Afghanistan and subsequent assistance with the overthrow of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein,” and joined the later battle against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, that it accepts a two-state solution in Israel, that it doesn’t want to build nuclear weapons but rather wants to have the capability to enrich uranium enough to fuel nuclear power plants, not nuclear bombs, that it supports groups like Hamas in Gaza because it was elected and represents the Palestinians there and Hezbollah in Lebanon because it had defended that country against Israeli invasions and it is a popular political force in the country, winning seats in the government.

Nevertheless, it is like beating a dead horse. Trump, his administration, the Republican Party, some Democrats, much of the news media, Trump’s core coalition, and the ill-informed pubic go along with the assumptions of the administration and Pentagon that Iran a terrorist state, that it wants to see an end to Israel, that it has advanced ballistic missiles and other armaments that threaten other countries in the region, that it wants to build nuclear bombs, that it represses its own people, and that, for all these reasons, it must be crippled or destroyed. It sounds like the same old double-standard war-mongering rhetoric we’ve heard before.

And what are we left with: a bloated military and a militarized foreign policy. Our wars in the Middle East have cost the US thousands of American casualties and trillions of dollars, devastated whole countries, spawned the growth of terrorist groups, created millions of refugees, killed millions more, and left the region more unstable than ever. Current policies emanating from the White House and Pentagon toward Iran will only produce more of this.

Fighting fossil fuels, climate crisis, and plastics

The fight over fossil fuels, the climate crisis, and plastics
Bob Sheak, June 3, 2019

There is an emergency of global proportions

We are living in a time when there is mounting scientific evidence validating unprecedented human-caused impacts on all aspects of the environment (biosphere). Everything is being affected, from the climate to the cryosphere, the oceans, the forests, the soils, fresh water sources. Human activities are degrading, contaminating, harmfully transforming, and depleting more and more of the natural world. Bill McKibben reminds us that in November of 2017 “fifteen thousand scientists from 184 countries issues a stark ‘warning to humanity.’” They predicted that humanity faces “widespread misery and catastrophic biodiversity loss” and soon “it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory” (Falter, p. 11). He refers to other daunting facts.

“A third of the planet’s land is now severely degraded, with ‘persistent declining trends in productivity….We’ve displaced most everything else: if you weigh the earth’s terrestrial vertebrates, humans account for 30 percent of their total mass, and our farm animals for another 67 percent, meaning wild animals (all the moose and cheetahs and wombats combined) total just 3 percent. In fact, there are half as many wild animals on the plant as there were in 1970…. In 2018, scientists reported that the planet’s oldest and largest trees were dying fast, ‘as climate change attracts new pests and diseases to forests’” (p. 12).

Fossil Fuels: the principal source of global warming

Much of what we have wrought can be traced directly or indirectly to our use of fossil fuels for generating electricity for all sectors of the economy, the gadgets and appliances we use, for heating and cooling our homes and businesses, for transportation in all its forms, and for the nitrogen/phosphorus-fertilizing agriculture system that grows our food while systematically denuding the soil and polluting rivers and the oceans.

The combustion of fossil fuels emits carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, gases that are at the heart of the accelerating and increasingly disruptive climate change and its myriad impacts on the environment (e.g., rising temperatures, the shrinking of ice in the polar regions and on all mountain glaciers, rising ocean levels, changing chemistry of the oceans, the destruction of coral reefs; the increase in extreme weather events; wildfires; species extinction).

The latest scientific research indicates that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is higher now than in the past 3 million years. According to a report by Jon Queally, the ongoing measurements at Mauno Loa Observatory in Hawaii by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography show that the atmospheric levels of carbon registered 415 parts per million on May 11-12, “a concentration level researchers say has not existed in more than 3 million years” (https://commondreams.org/news/2019/05/13/we-dont-know-planet-co2-levels-hit-415-ppm-first-time-3-million-years).

Queally quotes Jonathan Shieber of TechCrunch who explains the connection between rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and rising temperatures levels, as follows.

“The increasing proportion of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is important because of its heat absorbing properties. The land and seas on the planet absorb and emit heat and that heat is trapped in carbon dioxide molecules. The NOAA likens CO2 to leaving bricks in a fireplace, that still emit heat after a fire goes out.”

In other words, there is more heat from the sun being retained in the atmosphere than before and there are consequently “increases in greenhouse gases [that] have tipped the Earth’s energy budget out of balance, trapping additional heat and raising Earth’s average temperature.” Unless there are all-out efforts to phase out fossil-fuels as sources of energy by 2050 or soon thereafter and replace them with renewable sources and efficiencies that reduces energy use, then global warming will get worse than it is. This is not a new or uninformed warning, but one that scientists have been voicing for decades – and mostly ignored. On this point, a recent article on thelogicofscience reports that the “5 hottest years on record all happened in the past 5 years” (https://thelogicofscience.com/2019/02/07/5-hottest-years-on-record-all-happened-in-the-past-5-years-global-warming-is-real).
Don’t have a lot of time

Global warming is not just something that can be set aside or put off to some future time, as Republicans officials, fossil fuel corporations, and too many others insist that we do. But there is no skirting the vast scientifically produced evidence, unless it is suppressed by the government. It’s been happening, it is accelerating, and there is far too little being done, domestically or internationally, to stop it from engendering an increasingly cataclysmic future. Here’s what I wrote in a previous post, emphasizing how little time humanity has to confront the problem.

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In an article published in Truthout, Ryan Gunderson and Diana Stuart remind us of “two recent projections of catastrophic climate change, namely of scientists’ warning of a runaway “hothouse Earth” scenario and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report detailing the impacts of a 1.5 degree Celsius (1.5°C) rise in global temperatures,” as well as “an increasing number of scientists and activists are calling for a dramatic policy response to tackle climate change. The IPCC specifically calls for “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” to prevent the 1.5-degree scenario” and the worse effects of reaching 2.0-degrees (https://truthout.org/articles/the-green-new-deal-must-transform-the-economy).

Joseph Romm adds the following background information (https://thinkprogress.org/green-ned-deal-ocasio-cortez-7c9ac944b37d). “Scientists have been clear about the scale of effort needed for some time,” Romm writes. “In 2013, the world’s leading nations set up a ‘structured expert dialogue’ to review the adequacy of the 2°C (3.6°F) target to avoid catastrophic climate change. In 2015, 70 leading climate experts reported that every bit of warming above current levels ‘will only increase the risk of severe, pervasive, and irreversible impacts.’ The scientists also made clear that large-scale changes are necessary: “Limiting global warming to below 2°C necessitates a radical transition (deep decarbonization now and going forward), not merely a fine tuning of current trends.”

Then, in October of last year (2018), “the world’s nations unanimously approved a landmark report from scientists making the same exact point. The scientists warned that world leaders must make sharp reductions in global carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 — and then take total emissions down to zero by 2050 to 2070 to have any plausible chance of averting catastrophe.” They offered details on their dire assessment, explaining that “energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems” would require “system changes” that “are unprecedented in terms of scale, but not necessarily in terms of speed, and imply deep emissions reductions in all sectors, a wide portfolio of mitigation options and a significant upscaling of investments in those options.” Romm notes: “If that sounds like the Green New Deal, that’s because the resolution is rooted in science.” At the end of his article, Romm cites a leading climatologist, Michael Mann, who in an email to Think Progress wrote: “Climate change is a threat that is both global and existential” and he “applauded Ocasio-Cortez’s ‘bold leadership’ and reiterated that ‘averting disaster will require a degree of mobilization of effort and resources unlike anything we’ve witnessed since World War II.’”

In the meantime, contrary to what climate scientists call for in drastically cutting our use of fossil fuels, a study just released by the International Energy Agency, as reported by Andrea Germanos, finds that U.S. domestic fossil fuel use is way up due to fracking and the export of fracked gas and oil is also rising. (https://commondreams.org/news/2019/03/11/climate-crisis-be-damned-shale-revolution-poised-make-us-net-exporter-oil-three).
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Endless digressions: Trump’s administration attempting to suppress the evidence on global warming

The evidence on global warming from scientific research continues to multiply and it is important in helping to shore up the positions of those who want a more rational and sustainable energy system devoid of fossil fuels. However, the Trump administration is doing its best to undermine and stop government reports that rely on such evidence, so that it is not available for the public or only available in censured form.

The efforts of Trump and his administration on these fronts are well known. They essentially deny “climate change,” tout the virtues of and support fossil fuels, minimize or avoid any discussion renewables and energy efficiency, withdraw from relevant international treaties, populate the White House and executive branch of the federal government with advisers who are climate change deniers or avoiders, and encourage unregulated, market-based policies that encourage the existing oligarchic fossil-fuel dominant energy system . For an in-depth analysis of Trump’s most recent anti-climate-change moves, see the report by Coral Davenport and Mark Landler, “Trump Administration Hardens Its Attacks on Climate Science” (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/27/us/politics/trump-climate-science.html).

Here is a revealing segment of their report.

“The attack on science is underway throughout the government. In the most recent example, the White House-appointed director of the United States Geological Survey, James Reilly, a former astronaut and petroleum geologist, has ordered that scientific assessments produced by that office use only computer-generated climate models that project the impact of climate change through 2040, rather than through the end of the century, as had been done previously.

“Scientists say that would give a misleading picture because the biggest effects of current emissions will be felt after 2040. Models show that the planet will most likely warm at about the same rate through about 2050 [with increasingly catastrophic effects]. From that point until the end of the century, however, the rate of warming differs significantly with an increase or decrease in carbon emissions [and a higher rate of cataclysmic events].
“The administration’s prime target has been the National Climate Assessment, produced by an interagency task force roughly every four years since 2000. Government scientists used computer-generated models in their most recent report to project that if fossil fuel emissions continue unchecked, the earth’s atmosphere could warm by as much as eight degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century. That would lead to drastically higher sea levels, more devastating storms and droughts, crop failures, food losses and severe health consequences.”

Fossil fuels and plastics: The connection

James Brugger helps to clarify the connection between plastics and natural gas in an article entitled “Plastics: The New Coal in Appalachia?” (https://insideclimatenews.org/news/25022019/plastics-hub-appalachian-fracking-ethane-cracker-climate-change-health-ohio-river).

It begins with the extraction of natural gas or oil from the earth. Most of the natural gas or oil that is being extracted in the U.S. is accomplished via hydraulic fracturing technology, or fracking. In the extractive process, Brugger points out, natural gas liquids are obtained along with natural gas or oil. One of the liquids is ethane, which is also called “wet gas.” In turn, ethane is “used [processed] to produce ethylene, which then [eventually] gets turned into plastics, providing an additional revenue stream for the oil and gas industry.” Brugger adds: “It’s the industry’s latest play, and it comes at a time when industry analysts and the federal government say the demand for plastics is skyrocketing.”

The natural gas liquids are transported to a processing plant, where they are separated from natural gas. There are complex networks of pipes that are involved in the transportation from the wells to the processing plant (http://naturalgas.org/naturalgas/transport). The gas is delivered to a “fractionator” [which] refines the natural gas liquids “into their distinct products, such as propane, butane, and ethane.” Some of the ethane is “liquified for export in tanker vessels. The rest of it is broken down by an ‘ethane cracker’ into ‘ethylene’, the basic building block of most plastics.”

What are plastics used for?

They are used in manufacturing “to produce a wide variety of plastics and other products, including toys, textiles, containers, bags, PVC and housewares.” Brugger quotes Dave Witte, a senior vice president at HIS Markit, a global data and information service,” who said that plastics “are hooked into just about every part of the economy, from housing to electronics to packaging.” The keyboard I am typing on is made of plastic. Witte also says, “Today, the world needs six of these plants to be built every year to keep up with demand growth.” That is, unless these plastics are banned or perhaps taxed in ways that reduce the consumption of plastics.

The environmental, economic, and human costs

While plastics are useful and exist everywhere in our everyday lives, in businesses, in medical services, and so forth, they also pose a growing environmental problem. Jessica Mason reports on some of the costs, focusing on plastic bags (https://truthout.org/articles/barring-plastic-bag-bans-another-alec-law-takes-aim-at-local-democracy).

There are an “estimated hundred billion plastic bags… used in the U.S. annually, but only about 12 percent of them are recycled, making them a significant waste-disposal problem for towns and cities.” In addition, “plastic bag litter often ends up in streams and rivers, where it potentially leaches endocrine-disrupting chemicals such as bisphenol A into the water supply.” In particular, the single-use bags and disposable containers “also threaten marine life and contribute to growing ‘garbage patches’ in the Great Lakes and the world’s oceans.” Astonishingly, “by 2050, there will be more plastic (by weight) in the ocean’s water than fish, leading the McKinsey Center for Business and Environment and the Ocean Conservatory to declare, “the amount of unmanaged plastic waste entering the ocean… has reached crisis levels.” There is more. Plastic waste “is already taking a financial toll on fishing industries, urban infrastructure, and tourist economies.” Mason cites a conclusion of the World Economic Institute: “the cost of such after-use externalities for plastic packaging, plus the cost associated with greenhouse gas emissions from its production, is conservatively estimated at $40 billion annually — exceeding the plastic packaging industry’s profit pool.”

An example – Alabama coastal area

Bryan Lyman reports on plastic pollution in the Alabama coastal areas (https://www.montgomeryadvertiser.org/story/news/2019/04/08/bills-banning-local-plastic-bag-regulations-use-alex-model/3405085002).

Lyman interviewed Casi Callaway, the executive director of Mobile Baykeeper, “which organizes clean-up and protection efforts for Mobile Bay.” According to Callaway, they are pulling an enormous quantity of plastic litter from the Bay. In a one-day clean up along the coast in 2017 they “recovered 96,745 pieces of litter,” weighing “more than 35,000 pounds.” He said the plastic pollution is taking a toll on wildlife, clogging drainage infrastructure (e.g., storm drains). Sea birds and turtles ingest it or get tangled in it.

The Mobile Baykeeper group is part of a state environmental coalition that have organized in opposition to legislation that would bar local governments from banning single-use plastic bags. The Alabama state government is poised to follow in the steps of Texas and Florida and pass legislation banning local communities from taking steps to tax or ban plastic bags. Lyman observes that
the legislation “closely follow the ALEC [model] legislation.”

Plastic contamination in the oceans

Tatiana Schlossberg refers to striking evidence of the pervasiveness of “plastic bits” in the far reaches of the oceans in an article entitled “Trillions of Plastic Bits, Swept Up by Current, Are Littering Arctic Waters” (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/19/climate/arctic-plastics-pollution.html).

A group of researchers from the University of Cadiz in Spain and several other institutions, she reports, “show that a major ocean current is carrying bits of plastic, mainly from the North Atlantic, to the Greenland and Barents seas, and leaving them there – in surface waters, in sea ice and possibly on the ocean floor.” The scientists, led by Andres Cozar Cabanas, “a professor of biology,” “sampled floating plastic debris from 42 sites in the Arctic Ocean aboard Tara, a research vessel that completed a trip around the North Pole from June to October 2013, with data from two additional sites from a previous trip.” The plastic fragments, along with plastic fishing lines, film, and pellets, is similar to what is found in “the subtropical gyres.”

On another aspect of the problem, Dahr Jamail writes about the widespread presence of plastic in fish and that “humans are ingesting plastic thanks to ocean pollution” (http://www.truth-out.org/item/35291-not-a-fish-tale-humans-are-ingesting-plastic-thanks-to-ocean-pollution). He writes this stunning paragraph:

“Humans generate more than 300 million tons of plastic annually – an amount equal to the combined body weight of the entire global adult population – and nearly half of the plastic is only used on time before it is tossed away to eventually find its way to the oceans. So, it should come as little surprise that by 2050, it is a virtual certainty that every seabird on the planet will have plastic in its stomach.”

And:

“Recent estimates indicate that upwards of 8 million tons of plastic are added to the planet’s oceans each year, the equivalent of a dump truck full of plastic every minute. That is enough plastic to have led one scientist to estimate that people who consume average amounts of seafood are ingesting approximately 11,000 particles of plastic every year.”

The plastic “is also causing large-scale change to the oceans’ entire ecological system,” according to Miriam Goldstein, a researcher at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, at the University of California, San Diego,” who Jamail quotes. In one of her examples, Goldstein refers to “the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre’s eastern section, located between Hawai’i and California [which is a] vast ‘garbage patch [containing] an ‘alarming amount of plastic garbage, the majority of which is comprised of very small-size pieces.” Goldstein key point is that this vast quantity of plastic is not only “leading to early deaths of animals that ingest it, but also that humans ingesting fish with plastic in their systems are at increased risk of cancer and other health issues.” The problem is expected to get worse, since only “five percent of plastics are effectively recycled, and the production of plastics is expected to increase by at least 1.12 billion tons by 2050.”

Plastics and global warming

Sharon Kelley reports that the “plastics industry plays a major – and growing – role in climate change, being driven “largely by the shale gas rush unleashed by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.” According to a report she cites by the Center for International Environmental Law: “In 2019, the plastics industry is on track to release as much greenhouse gas pollution as 189 new coal-fired power plants running year-round, the report found — and the industry plans to expand so rapidly that by 2030, it will create 1.34 gigatons of climate-changing emissions a year, equal to 295 coal plants.” Quoting Carroll Muffett, president of the Center for International Environmental Law, “humanity has less than twelve years to cut global greenhouse emissions in half and just three decades to eliminate them almost entirely.” A report by the center finds that plastic has long been and continues to be a threat to the global environment, puts human health at risk, and is “putting the climate at risk as well” (https://truthout.org/articles/plastics-industry-on-track-to-burn-14-percent-of-worlds-remaining-carbon-budget).

Two irreconcilable positions

The supporters of the plastic industry want the industry to respond to rising demand, expand its production of plastic, and ignore or dismiss the environmental and health impacts. From this perspective, government’s role is to encourage – not ban or regulate – the production of plastics. Let the plastics industry grow and continue providing the stuff people want, the jobs they need, and the local and state tax revenues that pay for government services and public education.

Proponents of plastics ignore the costs and emphasize the benefits

While plastics are a major source of environmental harm, there are a host of reasons offered by proponents of single-use plastic bags, one of the worst environmentally harmful plastics, to leave them unregulated. They argue that such plastic should not be banned or even taxed, because consumers want them. They also argue that banning such plastic would lead to a loss of jobs and complicate or increase the expense of medical procedures using plastic gloves. They argue it is not a serious public issue because the bags are often reused. Making this an issue distracts the public conversation from more important environmental issues. And they argue that it would be inconvenient for consumers to rely on their own reusable cloth bags because they would sometimes forget them when they shop and are useful in picking up the poop of pet dogs (https://debatewise.org/debates/1011-should-plastic-bags-be-banned).
In the meantime, however, non-biodegradable plastics in bags and other forms (e.g., packaging, bottles, disposable gloves) are filling landfills, poisoning the oceans and aquatic life, and posing health hazards.

The opponents favor regulation and want to see policies that discourage or ban the use of plastic products, and have focused particular attention on supporting laws or proposed laws that would ban single-use plastic bags, while emphasizing reuse (e.g., cloth bags) and recycling of those plastics that can be recycled. Katie Wells offers a wide range of alternatives to grocery bags for shopping, for lunches, and for storage of food (https://wellnessmama.com/105581/alternatives-plastic-bags).

She points out:

“Most plastic bags contain some type of harmful chemical, but plastic bags are one of the worst offenders. Not only do we collectively use and discard over 1 TRILLION plastic bags each year, these bags take 1000 years to fully degrade, releasing chemicals the entire time. On top of that, plastic bags are the second most common ocean waste (after cigarette butts) and they harm thousands of species of ocean wildlife each year (with an estimated 40,000 pieces of plastic floating in each square mile of the ocean!).”

Some movement to ban single-use plastic bags

Jessica Mason (cited previously) finds that from a national perspective, “local governments are in the vanguard in addressing plastic waste.” Indeed, “US cities started experimenting with ways to reduce plastic bag waste in the late 2000s, with cities like Washington, D.C., and Portland, Maine, adopting small fees on single-use plastic bags. Other cities like Honolulu tried out biodegradable and compostable bags. Still other cities, such as San Francisco, banned plastic bags altogether.” Bryan Lyman reports that “Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state lawmakers are [were] poised to ban plastic shopping bags beginning March (https://www.montgomeryadvertiser.org/story/news/2019/04/08/bills-banning-local-plastic-bag-regulations-use-alex-model/3405085002).

In September 2018 issue of Forbes magazine, Trevor Nace published a list of hundreds of cities that had banned and/or taxed plastic bags that did not include any cities in Ohio (https://www.forbes.com/sites/trevornace/2018/09/20/heres-a-list-of-every-city-in-the-us-to-ban-plastic-bags-will-your-city-be-next/#72a5).

There are also bans that have been instituted at the state level. The Ohio Sierra Club issued a report in December 15, 2017, in which the pointed to how in 2016 “California became the first state in the nation to ban single-use plastic bags when voters passed Proposition 67. In 2017, Michigan became the seventh state in the nation to ban single-use plastic bag bans” (https://www.sierraclub.org/ohio/blog/2017/12/why-are-so-many-states-banning-plastic-bag-bans).

The realty of powerful well-organized forces

At the same time, according to Jessica’s Mason’s investigation, fossil fuel and plastic-industry interests have been able to stop or reverse local regulation and bans in some instances, urging state governments to pass legislation preempting local restrictions and bans on plastic bags.

Model legislation for these efforts has been adopted by the American City County Exchange (ACCE), an off shoot of “the ALEC [the Koch Brothers’ supported American Legislative Exchange Committee]. The ACCE targets state and local officials. The model legislation is titled “Regulating Containers to Protect Business and Consumer Choice” and includes a resolution calling “on municipal governments not to regulate single-use containers and packaging, such as ‘reusable bags, disposable bags, boxes, cups, and bottles that are made of cloth, paper, plastic, extruded polystyrene, or similar materials…’” ACCE claims that the “free market is the best arbiter of the container,” dismissing how the market has failed “to address the problem of the estimated nearly 88 billion plastic bags that are not recycled annually in the U.S.”

In addition to ACCE, there is a group funded by plastics manufacturers like Novolex, the Superbag Corporation, and Advanced Polybag, called “The American Progressive Bag Alliance (ABPA) that marshals its resources to oppose any plastic bag regulation. Mason goes into detail describing their anti-regulatory activities that, for example, includes warnings such as “city plastic bag bans” are “stepping stones to the regulation of all packaging.” As a consequence, “State bills prohibiting local plastic bag bans were proposed in a number of states in 2015 and 2016, including in Georgia, South Carolina, and Idaho, as well as Wisconsin.” In addition, “APBA has also led an effort to kill California’s statewide ban on plastic bags. The trade group spent $3 million in 2015 on a petition drive in California to force a referendum on a statewide ban on plastic bags, which goes before voters later this year.”

APBA and ALEC members are not alone in opposition to plastic regulation. But there is a common link to ALEC. Mason points out that the American Chemistry Council (ACC), “a member of ALEC’s Energy, Environment, and Agriculture Task Force,” has been fighting “for years to keep the U.S. hooked on disposable plastic products.” The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) is also involved, even though it “purports to be a nonpartisan trade group representing small business interests; however, NFIB primarily lobbies for big corporate interests and almost all of its political contributions support Republican candidates. Its funding sources have included the Koch brothers’ Freedom Partners and Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS.” State chapters of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Restaurant Association, both ALEC members, have been active in opposition to any regulations on plastics. Mason also mentions that the Koch family fortune is the biggest source of funds for ALEC. This is a fortune that has been built in part by petroleum processing, “which creates compounds that can be used to manufacture plastic bags.” And the Kochs and their allies demonstrate that “there’s little room for local democracy in ALEC’s vision of freedom.”

Plastics in Ohio

As indicated earlier in this post, there are many cities and at least 7 states that have banned plastic bags. Courtney Astolfi writes in an article for Cleveland.com on May 29, 2019, the Cuyahoga County Council passed a countywide ban on plastic bags along partisan lines, with 8 Democrats voting in favor of the ban and 3 Republicans voting against it. Astolfi reports that the “ban will go into effect in Jan. 1, 2020. It was originally proposed as taking effect Oct. 1, 2019, but Simon [one of the Democratic sponsors of the bill] said she pushed the date back to allow retailers time to adjust” (https://www.cleveland.com/metro/2019/05/cuyahoga-county-council-passes-plastic-bag-ban.html).

“The legislation approved Tuesday,” Astolfi writes, “bans plastic bags and paper bags that are not 100 percent recyclable or made from at least 40 percent of recycled material.” But it reflects some compromises with the Republican minority. It includes exemptions for bags for restaurant leftovers or carry-out orders, bags consumer bring with them, or bags for newspapers, dry-cleaning, meat, pet waste, prescriptions, or partially-consumed bottles of wine.” In a later action, the Council added bags for hazardous materials to the list of exemptions, or “certain chemical bought at home supply stores.”

The Department of Consumer Affairs will enforce the qualified ban with hefty fines for violators, if the ban can stand. According to Astolfi, “First-time violators will be subject to a written warning. Second violations will carry a civil fine of up to $100 and subsequent violations will carry fines up to $500. Violations are defined as each day a retailer doesn’t comply with the ban.”
There are also a few Ohio towns that have banned plastic bags, including Orange Village, the first community in Ohio to enact a plastic bag ban last year (2018).

Republican lawmakers in Ohio poised to undo “local” bans

There are two developments that threaten to nullify any bans on plastics and their harmful effects in Ohio. One is political. The other is economic.

Preemption by the state

The Ohio House is considering a bill (HB 242) that would allow the state to “preempt” or bar local governments in the state from banning or taxing single-use plastic bags. If it passes, it would nullify home-rule powers in the Ohio Constitution. Ohio is not alone in this regard. The Sierra Club informs readers that “Missouri, Idaho, Arizona, Wisconsin, Indiana and Florida are the other states that have adopted the preemption measures pushed by bag manufacturers and the plastic industry, with legislative model language often provided by ALEC.” (https://www.sierraclub.org/ohio/blog/2017/12/why-are-so-many-states-banning-plastic-bag-bans).

With Republicans in control of both chambers of the Ohio General Assembly and a Republican governor, they are likely to get whatever they want legislatively. Sam Allard reports that they don’t want regulation that hampers businesses, with increased costs and the lack of uniform state-wide regulations. Reps. George Lang of Butler County and Don Jones of Warren County have introduced House Bill 242, a revamp of last year’s House Bill 625to prevent local communities from regulating auxiliary containers like plastic bags (https://www.citybeat.com/news/blog/21069751/ohio-lawmakers-look-to-preempt-local-plastic-bag-ban-again).

The Republican legislation has the support of the Ohio Beverage Association, the Ohio Chamber of Commerce and other politically influential business groups, according to Rep. Lang.

An economic boom in the production of plastics

The second development that threatens to nullify efforts to regulate plastics, especially single-use plastic bags, is that Ohio is in the process of becoming a major part of a plastics production hub for the region, which will include parts of eastern Ohio and near Cleveland, West Virginia, and western Pennsylvania.

James Bruggers (cited earlier) describes what is happening (https://insideclimatenews.org/news/25022019/plastics-hub-appalachian-fracking-ethane-cracker-climate-change-health-ohio-river).

Construction of the facilities for the region’s first ethane cracker plant are underway along the banks of the Ohio River in Pennsylvania, another one is planned for western Pennsylvania, three in the planning stages in Ohio, and one is being planned for Wood County, West Virginia.

“Cracker plants take ethane, a liquid natural gas byproduct, and,” Bruggers reports, “‘crack’ the molecules to produce ethylene, a root chemical used to manufacture a variety of plastic products.” The name of the plant under construction in Pennsylvania is “Shell Polymers,” which is “part of the global energy company Royal Dutch Shell.” Shell is investing $6 to $7 billion in the plant. There are also two Asian companies, PTT Global Chemical, based in Thailand, and its Korean partner, Daelim Industrial Co., Ltd., that “could announce any day that they plan to invest as much as $6 billion in a similar plant in Ohio.” If the plan is finalized, the plant will be located in Belmont County, Ohio. Officials are not concerned about climate change or other environmental harms of plastics. Rather they want the taxes and jobs that will come with the plants and the contributions from industry lobbyists.

The fuel for these plants would come from the “natural gas boom brought on by more than a decade of hydraulic fracturing.” And, Bruggers points out, “The idea for a plastics hub in Appalachia got a lift in December with a report to Congress from the U.S. Department of Energy [which] described a proposal for the development of regional underground storage of ethane along or underneath the upper Ohio River.” Storage is a necessary component of the plastics hub because cracking plants require “a steady and reliable stream of ethane.” The Department of Energy is in the second phase of an application process for $1.9 billion in loan guarantees for a West Virginia business, Appalachia Development Group LLC, that has proposed developing storage for ethane.

If plans for 4 or so cracker plants and the storage facilities are completed, ethane production would “total 640,000 barrels per day through 2025, more than 20 times greater five years ago. By 2050, the DOE says, “ethane production in the region is projected to reach 950,000 barrels per day.”

All this would come with a steep environmental costs. Bruggers writes:

“Planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions from the Shell plant alone would more or less wipe out all the reductions in carbon dioxide that Pittsburgh, just 25 miles away, is planning to achieve by 2030. Drilling for natural gas leaks methane, a potent climate pollutant; and oil consumption for petrochemicals and plastics may account for half the global growth in petroleum demand between now and 2050.”

Echoing this concern, Brittany Patterson cites a report by the Center of International Environmental Law, Environmental Integrity Project, FracTracker Alliance, and others (https://www.ciel.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/16/as-ohio-valley-ponders-plastics-growth-report-warns-of-threat-to-climate).

The report “estimates production and incineration of plastic this year will add more than 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, or equal to the pollution of building 189 new coal-fired power plants,” a figure that “will rise substantially over the next few decades as the demand for single-use plastics live cycle could account for as much as 14 percent of the earth’s entire remaining carbon budget.” She refers to Shell’s ethane cracker plant currently under construction in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, that is already “permitted to release up to 2.25 million tons of greenhouse gas pollution annually.” And this is an underestimate because the report does not include estimated emissions from compressor stations or the miles of pipelines involved.

Concluding thoughts

The only apparent way to curtail and reverse the continuing increase in greenhouse gas emissions, concomitant rising temperatures, plastic pollution, and a host of other assaults on the planet is to begin a serious phasing out of fossil fuels and those plastics that are most harmful. The state and federal governments must increase government support for renewable energy and energy efficiency programs.

Serious support for such policies at the state and national levels will require changes to political power that is supportive of a “green new deal.” The Republicans in Ohio and nationally will oppose any such changes. Therefore, a strong political and social opposition must grow to have any chances of ever advancing such an agenda. What kind of changes are necessary?

A majority of voters in Ohio and nationally will have to be educated about the pressing need for these changes and persuaded that there are more benefits than costs in supporting them. That will be hard because fossil fuels and plastics are so important for what people are used to and rely on. The agenda must pay serious attention to programs that help displaced workers to retrain for identifiable jobs and communities that have experienced economic distress when fossil fuel and plastic plants close. Voter support must be given to politicians who are not dependent on corporate lobbyists for their elections and re-elections. And there must be a movement or movements in support of such changes, including an army of skilled and committed organizers, to supplement the efforts and campaign of far-sighted politicians and political candidates.

What’s the likelihood?

The resolution for a green new deal offered by some Democratic members of the U.S. Congress provides one organizing framework, with its focus on phasing out fossil fuels, which if successful, would also eliminate the types of plastic most harmful to the environment and people. This, when coupled with job creation and support for other basic necessities of modern life, would represent major steps toward realizing the best of America’s values.

Bailing out old nuclear plants is bad public policy

Bailing out old nuclear plants is bad public policy
Bob Sheak, May 13, 2019
bobsheak@gmail.com

The Ohio House is in the process of considering a bill, H.B. No. 6, to create the “Ohio Clean Air Program.” It is widely described as a bailout bill being advanced by Republicans to give FirstEnergy Solutions (FES), until last year a subsidiary of FirstEnergy Corp, a large ongoing stream of cash to keep its two old, uncompetitive, highly indebted nuclear plants in operation. It is $3 billion in debt. While it’s described as a clean-energy bill, it nonetheless includes language that would even make coal and natural gas power plants, the great emitters of greenhouse gases, eligible to reap financial assistance from the state, if they can show that they have made any “improvements” in reducing the emissions of polluting gases, not necessarily carbon dioxide or methane. And it introduces measures that undermine state support for energy-efficiency standards and renewable energy.

A Subcommittee of the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee, the Energy Generation Subcommittee, has held a series of hearings on the bill, with both proponents and opponents offering testimony. Dave Simons, co-Chair Ohio Chapter Sierra Club Energy Committee, provides a fitting summary of how the bill is written. Speaking as a citizen at the hearing on April 24, 2019, Simons described the bill as not involving “a careful study and vetting done by experts at the PUCO when making policy decisions like this,” but rather the work of “an under qualified, understaffed, nearly unknown agency operating in the shadows, with little accountability or oversight.” Simons says pointedly, “The Bill is so undefined, poorly written, that pretty much anything goes.” At the same time, given the Republican majority on the subcommittee and in the entire Ohio state government, the bailout of the nuclear plants seems preordained politically. And FirstEnergy Corp and FirstEnergy Solutions will the biggest beneficiaries.

HB6 falls into a pattern of right-wing energy policies across states
The bill is a reflection of a long-term effort by right-wing and industry-backed forces in the country to accomplish at least seven goals related to energy, namely, (1) preserving nuclear power as part of the energy mix, (2) supporting the policy of “energy independence,” which favors fracked natural gas; (3) avoiding costly shut-downs of the nuclear plants, regardless of the environmental and health impacts (unless the public picks up the tab), (4) protecting jobs in the nuclear and fossil-fuel industries to shore up public support, (5) keeping support for renewables at a minimum, (6) continuing to satisfy nuclear plant owners and their allies so that their political contributions keep rolling in for Republicans, and (7) dismissing, if not denying, the vast disruption and harm accompanying global warming. Ohio House Democrats are likely to go along with the bailout, provided the legislation retains something for renewables. Though the political realty in Ohio is that the Republicans in the Ohio House will pass the legislation, with the bailout, regardless of what the Democrats want, and it will ultimately be passed into law. (For the larger context on trends on nuclear policy at the state level, see Sarah E. Hunt, “A Policy Renaissance: Emerging Trends in State Nuclear Policy: https://www.alec.org/app/uploads/2017/09/2017-Center-Point-Nuclear_FINAL_Disclosure_WEB.pdf.).

Travis Kavulla gives us some background on this larger, long-term venture in an article entitled “How nuclear plants are gaming climate-change rules” (https://www.politico.com/agenda/story/2019/04/23/nuclear-energy-climate-change-000893). The renewed interest in preserving and extending the life of old nuclear power plants is in reaction to the gains in renewable energy. On this he writes: “For more than a decade, state officials have been adopting procurement mandates to grow the share of electricity needs supplied by solar, wind, and other renewable technologies. Today, such laws are in force in 29 states. As renewable technologies have grown in scale, cost has declined. Indeed, these laws have been so effective at reducing the cost of renewables that it is not readily apparent that such mandates are a necessary driver for decarbonization. A recent report by Energy Innovation, an independent research firm, suggests three-quarters of the U.S. coal fleet could be replaced today by renewables solely for economic reasons.” In the face of the development, “some of the nation’s largest energy producers have started to turn them to their own benefit… In numerous states, companies with large investments in nuclear energy – including Exelon, First Energy, Dominion and PSEG – have lobbied states to reconfigure their clean-power incentives to subsidize existing nuclear plants, rather than the emergent technologies that the laws were intended for.”

These reactionary efforts have had some success. Kavulla says this: “The result is a contagion of subsidies to nuclear power plants that started in Democratic states like Illinois and New York in 2016, spread to Connecticut in 2017 and New Jersey in 2018. Bills to this effect are now being considered by Republican-led chambers in Ohio and Pennsylvania. If these measures pass [and this is likely], nuclear interests will have executed a clean sweep of the six northeastern states that have the largest quantities of nuclear generation.” The pro-nuclear-power changes differ slightly from one another, but all “take advantage of green-sounding energy incentives, and they share a basic outline intended to avoid the appearance of a naked subsidy.” They emphasize that nuclear power plants do not produce carbon-dioxide emissions in the generation of electricity and therefore they, like solar and wind, deserve public/government support for their “zero-emissions.” In the end, old nuclear power plants are being bailed out, costumers are paying higher rates, and support for renewables is being questioned or challenged.

The nuclear plants in Ohio

The Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Plant is one of these plants. Journalist Sandy Mitchell writes that Davis-Besse “is located on 954-acre site 10 miles north of Oak Harbor, Ohio, and 21 miles east of Toledo. (https://www.tripsavvy.com/ohio-nuclear-power-plants-753093). The plant opened in 1978, making it the first in Ohio and the 57th commercial nuclear power plant in the United States. It was originally co-owned by Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company and Toledo Edison and is named for the chairmen of both companies, John K. Davis and Ralph M. Besse”). Subsequently, First Energy Corp became the owner. Mitchell adds, “Davis-Besse is [has] a pressurized water reactor and produces 40 percent of the electricity used in northwestern Ohio” [and] “The plant contributes over $10 million a year in local and state taxes. Its original 40-year license to operate ran from 1977 until 2017 and then was extended by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for another 20 years to 2037, despite its record of accidents and the unsolved, ever-growing nuclear waste problem.

Gar Smith, author of Nuclear Roulette: The Truth About the Most Dangerous Energy Source on Earth (published 2012),writes that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission recognized “Davis-Besse as one of the most dangerous reactors in the United States and that “Between 1969 and 2005 this single plant experienced six out of the 34 reported ‘significant accident sequence precursors’ – triple the rate reported at any other U.S. nuclear plant” (p. 147). There have been at least six accidents at the Davis-Besse plant since 2005, according to Sandy Mitchell investigation ((https://www.tripsavvy.com/ohio-nuclear-power-plants-75309). Wikipedia has a summary of information on the “Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station,” including the following notorious example.

“On March 5, 2002, maintenance workers discovered that corrosion had eaten a football-sized hole into the reactor vessel head of the Davis–Besse plant. Although the corrosion did not lead to an accident, this was considered to be a serious nuclear safety incident.[2][3] The Nuclear Regulatory Commission kept Davis–Besse shut down until March 2004, so that FirstEnergy was able to perform all the necessary maintenance for safe operations. The NRC imposed its largest fine ever—more than $5 million—against FirstEnergy for the actions that led to the corrosion. The company paid an additional $28 million in fines under a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice.[2]” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Davis%E2%80%93Besse_Nuclear_Power_Stations).”

You can see further details on this near-catastrophic event in Helen Caldicott’s book, Nuclear Power is Not the Answer (pages 81-83), or in James Mahaffey’s Atomic Accidents: A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters: From the Ozark Mountains to Fukushima (pp. 337-341).

The other FirstEnergy Solutions’ nuclear power plant is “The Perry Nuclear Power Plant.” It is notable because it has one of the largest “boiling water reactors in the U.S.” The Perry plant “sits on 1100 acres in North Perry, Ohio, about 40 miles northeast of Cleveland.” When the plant opened in 1987, it “was the 100th power reactor to be built in the US.” While there have been accidents at Perry and while it is unprofitable and in debt, and while the NRC has included it in a list of “27 reactors most at risk from earthquakes” (Gar Smith, p. 79), the focus of attention in the debate over HB6 has been largely about Davis-Besse.

Getting rid of the albatross of old nuclear power plants

FirstEnergy Solutions was a subsidiary of FirstEnergy Corp. until spring of 2018. All along, FirstEnergy Solutions (FES), which operates generating facilities in several states, had the responsibility of operating the two nuclear plants and a coal plant in Ohio. During this time, FirstEnergy Corp. and FES agreed to a “restructuring” plan to have FES become an independent company and to cut all ties with each other. At the same time, FES, already highly indebted, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on March 31, 2018 (https://www.utilitydive.com/news/firstenergy-solutions-files-for-bankruptcy-after-pushing-for-doe-energy/520371; and “on March 28, 2018, FES filed notice with PJM Interconnection LLC (PJM), the regional transmission organization, that the three nuclear facilities [the two in Ohio and another one in Pennsylvania] would be deactivated or sold during the next three years. In the meantime, the company assured its customers that “all of the plants will continue current operations” (https://www.fes.com/content/fes/home/restructuring.html).

The coincidence of the restructuring plan and the bankruptcy proceeding reflects the interests of FirstEnergy Corp. FirstEnergy wanted to get rid of this subsidiary, because it is not only unprofitable and encumbered with large debt but has little prospect of becoming competitive. Anya Litvak offers some support for this analysis in an article published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (https://wwww.post-gazette.com/business/powersource/2019/03/19/Who-s-afraid-of-FirstEnergy-Solutions-restructuring-plan-Every-government-agency-that-has-seen-it/stories/201903180113), According to Litvak, the restructuring plan cuts “virtually all ties between First Energy and FirstEnergy solutions, freeing the former “from any liability going forward.” Litvak notes that “FirstEnergy Corp. has been trying to separate from its unprofitable, non-utility power generating division for several years, after low natural gas prices, slow economic growth and other factors conspired to push older coal and nuclear plants out of the money.” There are creditors and government regulators that had to be satisfied with the creation of this new company. But the restructuring plan went ahead. As part of the deal, FirstEnergy agreed to transfer “about $1 billion in value” to FirstEnergy Solutions and “waive any claims against it,” or about “$2.1 billion in claims (https://www.cleveland.com/politics/2019/04/firstenergy-solutions-banruptcy-plan-rejected-by-federal-judge.html). And to sweeten the restructuring plan for FirstEnergy Corp, the company was given “absolution for potential crimes of the past.”

According to Litvak’s investigation, regulators were “shut out of the process.” Government agency officials complained that FirstEnergy provided no information “about the extent of environmental contamination at the sites and that the restructuring plan was “so vague about what rights creditors are forfeiting…they can’t even make a decision whether it’s a reasonable trade . FirstEnergy Corp apparently will go to great lengths to remove FES from its corporation. Why?

It pays off financially

The restructuring plan has been good financially for FirstEnergy Corp. John Fund reports that “FirstEnergy made money after cutting ties with bankrupt FirstEnergy Solutions” (https://www.cleveland.com/business/2019/02/firstenergy-made-money-in-2018-after-cutting-ties-with-bankrupt-firstenergy-solutions.html). In 2018, the company’s net profits were $981 million, up from $1.7 billion in losses in 2017. There turnaround stems from higher transmission rates, $2.5 billion in “short-term stock investment in the company by several hedge funds, increased sales, reduced debt, and a $3 billion growth strategy to impress the rating agencies (e.g., to increase transmission lines). But the separation of FirstEnergy Solutions from FirstEnergy Corp. was a factor in making all the rest happen.

It pays off politically

The separation also cleared the way politically. The Republicans in the Ohio House would have had a harder time convincing the public that a bailout for FES was necessary if it was still a part of FirstEnergy Corp. After all, FirstEnergy Corp. is one of the largest corporations in the U.S., making the Fortune magazine 500 list. The online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, elucidates this fact as follows. “FirstEnergy Corp is an electric utility headquartered in Akron, Ohio. Its subsidiaries and affiliates are involved in the distribution, transmission, and generation of electricity, as well as energy management and other energy-related services. Its ten electric utility operating companies comprise one of the United States’ largest investor-owned utilities, based on serving 6 million customers within a 65,000-square-mile (170,000 km2) area of Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey and New York.[4] Its generation subsidiaries control more than 16,000 megawatts of capacity, and its distribution lines span over 194,000 miles. In 2018, FirstEnergy ranked 219 on the Fortune 500 list of the largest public corporations in the United States by revenue[5]” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FirstEnergy).

Politics and corporate interests drive HB 6

It is a Republican bill. The primary sponsors of the bill are Republicans, Reps. Jamie Callender, of Lake County’s Concord Township, and Shane Wilkin, of southwest Ohio’s Highland County. One of the two plants, the Perry plant, is in Callender’s House district. The House Speaker, Larry Householder, wants the bailout. Jim Siegel reports that Governor “DeWine backs saving Ohio nuclear plants,” despite the opposition (https://www.dispatch.com/news/20190423/dewine-backs-saving-ohio-nuclear-plants-amid-opposition).Jessie Balmert writes that “FirstEnergy’s political action group has donated more than $250,000 to Householder’s campaign since August 2017. The Pac also gave money to the proposal’s sponsors – $13,700 to Rep Jamie Callender’s most recent campaign and $10,000 to Rep. Shane Wilkin’s,” environmental groups say” (https://www.cincinnati.com/story/news/2019/04/12/new-fee-bailout-firstenergy-nuclear-plants-environmental-groups-say/3445510002), while Jim Seigel and Mark Williams report that in “the 2017-18 election cycle, FirstEnergy’s political-action committees and executives donated about $1.3 million to Ohio candidates and party funds — more than 70% to Republicans — and spent millions more on lobbying in Ohio and Pennsylvania” (https://www.disptach.com/news/20190506/what-you-need-to-know-about-ohio-houses-energy-bill).

The proponents’ justifications for the bailout

How do they justify the bailout? John Seewar reports on April 20, 2019 for U.S. News and World Report” on the views of Dave Griffing, vice president of government affairs for FirstEnergy Solutions (https://www.usanews.com/news/best-states/ohio/articles/2019-04-20/nuclear-operator-closing-plants-would-be-felt-around-ohio). Griffings says the company needs HB6 to be passed to make the electricity generation playing field equal, because solar and wind sources of non-polluting electricity get energy efficiency and renewable energy incentives while nuclear plants don’t. HB6 will help to make up for this past inequity, Griffing is arguing. Note that Republicans have been trying to undermine these incentives since they were introduced. Griffing claims that there have been upgrades at the nuclear plants that “now allow them to operate more efficiently,” implying they are now competitive in the electricity marketplace. The company does not provide any evidence of what the “upgrades” are or that any of its policies have improved its competitiveness. Griffing strongest arguments are based on what the state will lose if the nuclear plants are shut down. Tax revenues will be lost in the communities where the plants are located, affecting “schools, safety services and programs for children and seniors.”1,400 workers plus suppliers and contractors will be thrown out of work, though Seewar notes there are no job guarantees in HB6. And he contends that electricity rates will go up as supply from the plants vanishes and utilities are forced to import electricity from other states. And, as we’ll see, HB 6 does little to strengthen the wind and solar sectors of the Ohio economy.

Thomas Suddes adds to this discussion in an article headlined “Politics, not dirty-air concerns, drive Ohio House GOP’s Green New Deal” (https://www.dispatch.com/opinion/20190421/column-politics-not-dirty-air-concerns-drive-ohio-house-gops-green-new-deal). While it is dubbed a “clean-air plan” that will be “a fair deal for homeowners and renters” who pay FirstEnergy Solutions for electricity, the passage of HB 6 carries a heavy price and in significant ways is just the opposite of a “clean air” bill. The company has no remedy for the nuclear waste accumulating at the two nuclear plants. Clean air credits (cash) would go to any “Ohio electricity producer (whether generating with nuclear fuel, natural gas, coal, wind or the sun) if its plant, or plants, emit no or reduced amounts of carbon dioxide).” But, as already pointed out, coal and natural gas power plants are the biggest emitters of carbon dioxide. It threatens to cancel the $4.39 monthly renewable-energy and electricity demand charges designed to encourage the development of solar and wind power generation. And the proponents of HB6 warn that if the two Ohio nuclear plants are closed, as FirstEnergy Solutions threatens to do, then 4,000-plus jobs will be directly and indirectly lost, many of them union jobs. Suddes suggests this is a bit hypocritical, pointing out that Republican legislators have not shown “the same degree of urgency for Ohioans in Trumbull (Warren) and Mahoning (Youngstown) counties thrown out of work thanks to General Motors’ Lordstown shutdown. (FYI, total 2018 compensation of Mary T. Barra, General Motors’ board chair and CEO, was $21,870,450.)” When all is said and done, this is a partisan bill that will benefit some Republican contributors.

According to a report by Jim Siegel and Mark Williams, “Supporters of the bill highlight that the plants generate about 90% of the state’s carbon dioxide-free power and support about 4,000 workers directly and indirectly, while the plants’ taxes are important to local communities and schools. About 15% of the state’s electricity production comes from nuclear sources, according to the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio. FirstEnergy Solutions warns that electric bills will go up if the plants close. PJM, which coordinates the wholesale movement of electricity in 13 states, says closing the plants is not expected to hurt electricity reliability in the region. However, closures would require the state to import more power generated elsewhere.” (https://www.disptach.com/news/20190506/what-you-need-to-know-about-ohio-houses-energy-bill).

HB 6 – some details

There are now two versions of the bill, the original bill and a newer substitute bill. However the original purposes stand, namely, “to facilitate and encourage electricity production and use from clean air resources, to facilitate investment to reduce the emissions from other generating technologies that can be readily dispatched to satisfy demand in real time, and proactively engage the buying power of consumers in this state for the purpose of improving air quality in the state.” What does this mean?
First version of H.B. 6.

Customers pay more

It means the residential, commercial, and industry customers who buy electricity will see their rates go up. If this bill is enacted, the funding will come from raising the rates of residential customers by $2.50 a month, for commercial utilities by twenty dollars, for smaller industrial users by $250, and for commercial or industrial customers “that exceed forty-five million kilowatt hours of electricity at a single location in the preceding year, two thousand five hundred dollars. According to this version, it was estimated that the rate increases would yield $300 million a year, roughly $160-170 million of which was expected to go to the Davis-Besse and Perry, which are viewed by proponents as “clean air resources” and “zero-carbon emitters.” There is no “sunset” provision in the current bill, which means that unless the state legislature (and governor) acts in the future or unless electricity usage goes down, the new rates will continue generating hundreds of millions of dollars each year and for years to come. Bear in mind taxpayers paid for original construction when the plants were built.

How would the money be allocated or spent? An analysis by the editors of The Columbus Dispatch (April 21, 2019) puts it as follows. “The bill purports to be an impartial boost to cleaner energy because it would reward utilities of any sort for zero-emissions energy. A surcharge on electric bills…would create and fund something called the Ohio Clean Air Program. The program would pay utilities $9.25 for every megawatt hour of energy produced with zero carbon emissions.” Wind and solar would be short-changed, because, as the editors write, “While wind and solar energy are growing in Ohio, the two nuclear plants still account for the vast majority of zero-carbon power in the state, so estimates are that they would claim about half of the $300 million the monthly fees would generate” ((https://www.dispatch.com/opinion/20190421/editorial-energy-bill-needs-work-to-be-future-blueprint). Jessie Balmert reports that, while the Davis-Besse and Perry nuclear plants would be eligible for about $169 million of the $300 million Ohio expects to collect in fees…. wind energy in Ohio would be eligible for about $16.4 million and solar could get about $1.4 million, using the plan’s formula” (https://www.cincinnati.com/story/news/2019/04/12/new-fee-bailout-firstenergy-nuclear-plants-environmental-groups-say/3445510002).

Furthermore, according to reporter Mark Williams, “[t]he state also would likely create a program to send funding to coal and gas power plants that make emissions improvements,” something far less than “zero carbon,” or no carbon dioxide or methane emissions (The Columbus Dispatch, April 24, 2019, B1, 12). Williams quotes John Finnigan, the senior regulatory attorney for EDF’s US Climate and Energy Program, representing EDF before state public utility commissions on smart grid deployments and energy efficiency matters who referred to the bill as “nothing but a brazen boondoggle of a bailout for a bankrupt business.”

Renewables are undermined by Ohio Republican legislators

Ohio’s Renewable energy law includes “a renewable energy portfolio standards that requires that 12.5 percent of electricity sold by Ohio’s electric distribution utilities service companies must be generated from renewable energy sources by 2027 and each year thereafter (https://www.puco.ohio.gov/consumer-topics/how-does-ohio-generate-electricity). However, Republican legislators have tried to end such support. Dave Simons contends: ““House Bill 6 effectively annihilates Ohio’s middle of the road energy efficiency and renewable energy standards by defunding them.” In written testimony for the Subcommittee on Energy Generation, Neil Waggoner (Sierra Club member) writes that the HB 6 “guts Ohio’s clean energy and efficiency standards while forcing electric customers to pay more each month to bail old uneconomic nuclear plants – all while calling it a clean air program. The idea of this would be laughable if it weren’t for the fact that it could become a regressive and destructive law” (https://www.sierra.org/press-releases/2019/04/nuclear-energy-bailout-bill-introduced). The editors at the Columbus Dispatch published a piece on April 21, 2019 (cited above as well) that reveals how HB 6 is a bill that wants to reduce government/state support for renewables (https://www.dispatch.com/opinion/20190421/editorial-energy-bill-needs-work-to-be-future-blueprint). Here’s some of what the editors write:

“HB 6 backers say the Clean Air Program and its zero-emission credits are open to wind and solar producers, but the bill eliminates funding to achieve Ohio’s Renewable Portfolio Standards — a requirement that, by 2027, utilities in the state must produce at least 12.5 percent of their power from renewable sources. Backers say the standards haven’t worked well enough, but the claim is hardly credible given Republicans’ steady efforts to undermine them. From the time they were approved in 2008, think tanks supported by fossil fuel interests published studies claiming the mandate for renewables would kill Ohio jobs and shrink the economy. Those claims generally were rebutted by reports showing that renewables helped lower customers’ electric bills and generated tens of thousands of jobs.

“A 2014 bill froze the mandates at their then-current level and created a study committee that eventually recommended doing away with them entirely. To his credit, former Gov. John Kasich vetoed two bills that would have done that, and the standards remain in place for now.

“But investment in renewables in Ohio surely has been hurt by the uncertainty created by lawmakers’ hostility to the mandates. As bad or worse, in 2014 opponents of wind power passed a law that essentially shut down new wind development by greatly increasing the required distance between wind turbines and adjacent property lines.

“Yet even against those headwinds, clean energy companies and construction projects added nearly 5,000 Ohio jobs in 2018, bringing the total to more than 112,000 — the third-highest in the Midwest and eighth in the U.S., according to a recent report by E2 and Clean Energy Trust, two nonprofit groups supporting clean energy entrepreneurs.

“Imagine what Ohio could accomplish by actually supporting renewables.”

Substitute H.B. 6.

The Energy Generation Subcommittee released an outline of “Sub. H.B. 6” bill on May 2. A list of the changes can be accessed online through the “Ohio Legislative Service Commission.” Mark Williams reports “The House subcommittee voted 5-3 along party lines to refer the revised House Bill 6 to the full Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The proposal was introduced last month as a way to shore up the state’s two financially struggling nuclear power plants, both operated by Akron-based FirstEnergy Solutions” (https://www.ohio.com/news/20190502/ohio-house-tweaks-bill-that-would-help-firstenergy-solutions-keep-nuclear-plants-running).

Jeremy Pelzer provides a useful overview of the latest version of HB6, which remains at its essence a bailout for FirstEnergy Solutions. In the new bill, there is a “slower timeline to end Ohio’s existing green-energy mandates and replace them with new subsidies for ‘zero-carbon power plants’” (https://www.cleveland.com/politics/2019/05/ohio-lawmakers-seek-to-start-revamped-clean-energy-electricity-surcharges-in-2020.html).The bill takes this into account by lowering the surcharge rates for 2020 to 50 cents per month for residential customers and $15 per month for commercial customers.” This is done because Ohioans will continue through 2020 to pay $4.39 per month “to fund energy-efficiency, renewable-energy, and peak demand programs.” Beginning in 2021, the full surcharge that was specified in the first version of the bill will take effect, that is, “$2.50 per month for residential customers, $20 per month for commercial customers, $250 per month for industrial ratepayers and $2,500 per month for very large power users,” and the state subsidies for energy efficiency and renewable energy will be phased out as they now stand.

There are two big changes. The energy efficiency program will become the responsibility of the electric utilities like FirstEnergy Solutions rather than of the state, if they get state approval, and customers who have had to “opt out” if they did not want to participate in the. Under HB6, customers will have to “opt in,” that is to notify their electric utility that they want to pay a monthly fee for energy-efficiency programs.

If passed, Mark Williams reports, the new surcharge would generate an estimated $176 million in 2020 and $300 million or more in the years thereafter.” Pelzer’s numbers are a bit different. He reports, “The new surcharge would generate an estimated $86 million in 2020, $239 million in 2021, and $306 million annually after that, according to an analysis by the non-partisan Legislative Service Commission.” Either way, the HB6 will raise $300 million or more a year by 2021 or 2022 from customers, and then continue at this levels in subsequent years.

As before, the new bill will authorize that the money “be awarded in the form of ‘clean-energy credits,’ based on $9 credit per megawatt in reduced emissions, to the two nuclear plants as well as to wind and solar plants, but in much lower amounts, and to coal and natural gas plants if they can document any “improvements” in their operations that have lowered any air-polluting emissions. But, as previously noted, the majority of the funds are expected to go to FirstEnergy Solutions. Pelzer notes that “Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder, a Perry County Republican who has made HB 6 a priority, has said he hopes to pass the legislation in the next couple of weeks,” that is, before the end of May.

Democrats offer an alternative to HB6: “The Ohio Clean Jobs Plan”

Kristin Boggs (D-Columbus), a member of the Ohio House Energy Generation subcommittee, provides some details on this Democratic alternative “clean energy” bill on her government website https://www.ohiohouse.gov/kristin-boggs/press/boggs-dem-lawmakers-propose-ohio-clean-energy-jobs-plan).

It differs from the Republican versions of the bill mainly by emphasizing the need to encourage and develop renewable energy companies that “protect and grow good jobs across the state, improve the health of Ohioans and avoid rate hikes on consumer utility bills.” With respect to jobs, the emphasis is on restoring the promise of “better jobs and brighter futures, and gives the next generation of Ohio workers the opportunity to lead again – in advanced, clean energy jobs that will power our state into the future.” The implication is that these jobs will be in energy sectors such as solar, wind, energy efficiency, not jobs in nuclear power plants.

The alternative clean energy plan of the subcommittee Democrats also includes a priority for non-nuclear clean energy when it calls for the establishment of “a 50-percent renewable energy portfolio standard by 2050, fix setback requirements to encourage large-scale wind turbine investment, and require a 50 percent in-state preference for new wind and solar projects. And there’s more. The Democratic bill want to “strengthen Ohio’s renewable and energy efficiency benchmarks and re-envisions the state’s Advanced Energy Standards (AES) to save consumers money and grow emerging sectors of Ohio’s clean energy economy.” Boggs refers to a report that “Ohioans could realize $3.5 billion in additional economic value under updated efficiency standards” [while] “Nuclear power will not save Ohioans money on their electric bills.”

The message of the Democratic alternative is muddled, because along with the strong emphasis on solar, wind, and energy efficiency, the bill seems to include support for some sort of bailout for the nuclear plants, as suggested by the following language: “The plan would re-envision and modernize Ohio’s AES to support nuclear technology as part of the state’s energy future and create Advanced Energy Credits to maintain a 15 percent baseline generation capacity from emissions-free nuclear power.”

The arguments of those who oppose HB6

The arguments are both for why the nuclear plants should not be bailout and why there should be increased government support for renewables, especial wind and solar, and energy efficiency.

In an email sent out to Sierra Club email-lists on April 20, 2019, Harvey Wasserman offers a “preliminary draft talking points for this week’s Ohio nuke bailout hearings [April 24] (solartopia@GMAIL.COM). He lists his talking points into four categories of reasons for opposing the bailout and generally for opposing nuclear energy, but also reasons for supporting wind and solar energy – and I add information supporting energy efficiency.

#1 The first category is on the “physical status” of the Davis-Besse and Perry nuclear plants, which Wasserman says “literally crumbling.” He elaborates with this example: “The shield building at Davis-Besse is swiss cheese…pock-marked with holes caused by moisture getting into cracks, then expanding in cold weather, then melting in thaws. It could easily drop heavy chunks onto vital components.” Though it came into operation in 1978, based on a 1960’s design, there “has never been a comprehensive inspection of DB in its over 40 years of operation by an independent agency to check for cracking, embrittlement, incomplete maintenance.” And, as mentioned earlier in this essay, the plant has suffered numerous accidents. Sandy Mitchell offers a list of notable accidents, as follows:

“September 24, 1977—the plant shut down due to a problem with the feedwater system, causing the pressure relief valve to stick open. The NRC still considers this to be one of the top safety incidents in the U.S.
June 24, 1998—the plant was struck by an F-2 tornado, causing damage to the switchyard and the external power to shut off. The reactor automatically shut down until the plant’s generators could restore power.

“March 2002—damage from corrosion of the steel reactor pressure vessel was found by staff. The damage, about the size of a football, was caused by a leak of water containing borax. Repairs and corrections took two years and the plant was fined more than $5 million by the NRC, which called this incident one of the top five in nuclear incidents in U.S. history.

“January 2003—the plant’s private computer network was infected by a computer virus called the “slammer worm,” causing the safety monitoring system to be down for five hours.

“October 22, 2008—a tritium leak was discovered during an unrelated fire inspection. It was indicated that the groundwater outside the plant was not infiltrated by radioactive water.

“March 12, 2010—two nozzles on a reactor head did not meet acceptance criteria during a scheduled refueling outage. After inspection, new cracks were discovered in about one-third of the nozzles, including one that could potentially leak boric acid.

“October 2011—during routine maintenance, a 30-foot-long crack was found in the concrete shield building around the containment vessel.
June 6, 2012—while inspecting the reactor coolant pump, a pinhole spray leakage was discovered from a weld in the seal.

“May 9, 2015—FirstEnergy operators declare an “unusual event” due to a steam leak in the turbine building. (https://www.tripsavvy.com/ohio-nuclear-power-plants-75309).

#2 – Wasserman’s second category is about the negative “health impacts” of nuclear power. He gives three examples that apply to nuclear plants generally and, by implication to Davis-Besse as well. In his email, he writes that “All nukes emit deadly radiation,” refers to “downwind infant death rates rise when a nuke opens,” and refers to the cataclysmic nuclear accidents and their massive ecological and health effects at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima. In another article, Wasserman point to how Davis-Besse continuously “dumps its waste water into Lake Erie between Toldao and Cleveland” (https://www.opednews.com/article/America-s-Hole-in-the-head-by-Harvey-Wasserman-Cuomo_Energy_Nukes_Radiation-10419.997.html). In his book, Nuclear Roulette, Gar Smith offers the following example of how the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been negligent in enforcing safety standards at nuclear power facilities, a contributing factor in the accidents, and, implicitly, to make the point that nuclear facilities are inherently unsafe, accidents compound the problem, and poor regulation further exacerbates both safety and health.

“In 2011, the Associated Press published an extraordinary series of reports revealing the extent to which the NRC had become a tool of the very industry it was supposed to be regulating. After spending a year poring over more than 11,000 NRC documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, the AP came to a chilling conclusion: ‘Federal regulators have been working closely with the nuclear power industry to keep the nation’s aging reactors operating within safety standards by repeatedly weakening those standards, or simply failing to enforce them” (p. 138).

Joseph Mangano, Executive Director Radiation and Public Health Project, published a report on April 6, 2019, titled “ Rising Cancer Incidence Near New York State Nuclear Power Plants Since Startup of Reactors” (https://www.radiation.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/NY-5reactors-April-2019-cancer-report-RJK-majic). He points out that there is good reason to be concerned about the health effects of nuclear power plants, since they “routinely release over 100 radioactive chemicals into the environment/food chain – chemicals only created in reactor operations or atomic bomb explosions. Just one federal study of cancer near U.S. plants has been conducted, a review of cancer mortality trends from 1950 to 1984.”

Mangano uses data from The New York State Cancer Registry to compare the cancer incidence in the counties in which the six nuclear reactors are variously located to the cancer incidence in all other counties combined, which are defined as the ‘control’ area, in which no exposures or much lower exposures from nuclear plants occur…most of whom live over 20 miles from any reactor.” He identifies the counties in which the nuclear reactors are currently operating or counties that are closer than 20 miles from. Two are at the Indian Point plant in Westchester County (started 1973 and 1976). Four others are on Lake Ontario, including one at the James Fitzpatrick plant in Oswego County (1974); two at the Nine Mile Point plant in Oswego County (1969 and 1987); and one at the R. E. Ginna plant in Wayne County (1970).” Except for Nine Mile Point unit 2, the other five reactors “are among the oldest of 98 reactors currently operating in the U.S. A tentative agreement signed by New York State would shut down the Indian Point reactors in spring 2020 and spring 2021. A 2016 law allows electric utilities to increase rates.”

“The registry,” Mangano notes, “provides historical data for five-year periods, according to when cases were diagnosed. Moreover, cases are assigned to the county of residence of the person diagnosed at the time of diagnosis. The earliest data is the period 1976-1980, and the latest five-year period is 2011-2015 (as of April 2019).” He continues: “The registry provides the number of cancer cases for five-year groups, along with the rate (number of cases per 100,000 population). The rates are age-adjusted to the 2000 standard U.S. population, using five-year groups (age 0-4 up to age 80-84, age 85 and over). This adjustment, used as a standard in epidemiological research, ensures an ‘apples to apples’ comparison by period and by geographic area; failure to make such an adjustment would mean that an area with an unusually large percentage of elderly residents (with high cancer rates) would always have higher rates.”

Mangano’s analysis of the data finds that the incidence of cancer goes up in the targeted counties after the nuclear power plants go into operation and that the cancer incidence in these counties are higher than in the rest of New York. Here’s a summary from the report of what he found. “This report is the first of trends in cancer cases near New York State nuclear plants, comparing trends in local county(ies) with the state, for five-year periods, from 1976-1980 to 2011-2015.” He then refers to the results of the study, as follows:

1.Indian Point. In 1976-1980, cancer incidence in the four counties closest to Indian Point was 20.5% BELOW the state rate. By 1996-2000, the local rate was 4.0% ABOVE the state, and since then has been 1 to 4% ABOVE the state. If the local rate had remained at 20.5% below the state rate over the following 35 years, 56,012 fewer cancer cases would have occurred (“excess” cases).

2.Fitzpatrick and Nine Mile Point. In Oswego County, the 1976-1980 cancer incidence rate was 52.9% BELOW the state rate. By 1986-1990, the county rate had surpassed the state rate (2.0% ABOVE); and in the five-year periods in the 21st century, had risen to 12.3%, 8.7%, and 9.1% ABOVE the state. Total excess cases from 1981-2015 were 10,793.

3.R. E. Ginna. In Wayne County, the 1976-1980 cancer incidence rate was 28.6% BELOW the state rate. By 1986-1990, the county rate had surpassed the state rate (7.5% ABOVE), and has ranged from 3.6% to 6.6% ABOVE since then. Total excess cases from 1981-2015 were 5,020.

The findings are “significant and unexpected trends near each of the nuclear plants are not just statistically significant but raise the question of whether radioactive emissions from the reactors have harmed local residents.” That is, there is a need to collect additional evidence to determine the specific links between the radioactive chemical that nuclear reactors release into the air and water and the people who are stricken with cancer. Thus, he writes, “More studies are warranted, and any discussion of the future of New York nuclear plants must consider public health issues, not just financial ones.” Bear in mind that the discussions in Ohio over HB6 lack such information.

#3 – The third category identified by Wasserman is about “environmental impacts. He makes three points. One, the “Cooling towers at Perry and Davis-Besse kill far more birds than modern industrial wing turbines, solar panels, batteries or LED/efficiency.” Two, “Heat emissions from steam and hot water [from the reactors] ‘kill trillions of marine creatures and unbalance Lake Erie’s eco-system; renewables emit no such heat.” Three, “All reactors create both low and high radioactive waste – [and there is] no realistic management plan.”

Coolant ponds

On the second point, Gar Smith has this is say:

“The 104 US reactors operating in 40 of the 50 states [as of 2012] routinely discharge used coolant water into the nation’s major streams, the Great Lakes, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. While much of a reactor’s coolant water is released as steam (which heats the atmosphere), the remainder – heated up to 25 degrees F over ambient water temperatures and sometimes tainted with radioactive isotopes – is discharged back into local waters, where it wreaks damage on river and water life” (p. 56).

He also notes: “When it comes to producing electricity, nuclear is an extravagantly water-wasting technology” (p. 57).

Global warming increases the chances of accidents.

The nuclear reactors at Davis-Besse and Perry need relatively cool water constantly flowing through them to prevent the uranium fuel in the core of the nuclear reactor from over-heating and exploding. What that have to do with global Warming? Helen Calidcutt makes the point concisely: “Global warming can induce unpredicted and extreme weather events that could heat up the rivers and lakes from which nuclear power plants extract their cooling water. An adequate supply of water itself may also cease to exist as drought conditions take over” (Nuclear Power is Not the Answer, p.86).

Nuclear waste

The problem of nuclear fuel waste is referred to by Wasserman, another serious and growing problem without an adequate solution in sight. This is a problem that would continue even if Davis-Besse was denied the bailout and the nuclear power plants were shutdown, because it would leave the accumulated spent fuel rods there. If the company is bailed out, then it will continue generating waste on top of what is already there. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has a “backgrounder” on “radioactive waste,” (https://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collection/fact-sheets/radwaste.html). The NRC publication is a useful reminder of how lethal and long-lasting such waste is. Here is some of what the NRC says on the issue.

“High-level radioactive waste primarily is uranium fuel that has been used in a nuclear power reactor and is ‘spent,’ or no longer efficient in producing electricity. Spent fuel is thermally hot as well as highly radioactive and requires remote handling and shielding. Nuclear reactor fuel contains ceramic pellets of uranium 235 inside of metal rods. Before these fuel rods are used, they are only slightly radioactive and may be handled without special shielding.

“During the fission process, two things happen to the uranium in the fuel. First, uranium atoms split, creating energy that is used to produce electricity. The fission creates radioactive isotopes of lighter elements such as cesium-137 and strontium-90. These isotopes, called “fission products,” account for most of the heat and penetrating radiation in high-level waste. Second, some uranium atoms capture neutrons produced during fission. These atoms form heavier elements such as plutonium. These heavier-than-uranium, or “transuranic,” elements do not produce nearly the amount of heat or penetrating radiation that fission products do, but they take much longer to decay. Transuranic wastes, sometimes called TRU, account for most of the radioactive hazard remaining in high-level waste after 1,000 years.
“Radioactive isotopes eventually decay, or disintegrate, to harmless materials. Some isotopes decay in hours or even minutes, but others decay very slowly. Strontium-90 and cesium-137 have half-lives of about 30 years (half the radioactivity will decay in 30 years). Plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,000 years.

“High-level wastes are hazardous because they produce fatal radiation doses during short periods of direct exposure. For example, 10 years after removal from a reactor, the surface dose rate for a typical spent fuel assembly exceeds 10,000 rem/hour – far greater than the fatal whole-body dose for humans of about 500 rem received all at once. If isotopes from these high-level wastes get into groundwater or rivers, they may enter food chains. The dose produced through this indirect exposure would be much smaller than a direct-exposure dose, but a much larger population could be exposed.”
Storage of nuclear waste

How is this waste stored? Robert Alvarez has an answer in an article published for The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists on August 9, 2017 (http://thebulletin.org/pushing-storage-horse-nuclear-waste-cart-spent-fuel-pool-problem11002). He discusses “the pool problem,” where “[c]urrently, about 70 percent of some 244,000 spent nuclear fuel assemblies in the United States sit in US power reactor cooling ponds, with the remaining 30 percent in dry storage casks.” The capacity of the US reactor fleet’s cooling pond storage is “maxed out.” The problem, or challenge, is that any situation where the cooling pool would lose a significant amount of water. Alverez continues:
“If the fuel assemblies in a pool are exposed to air and steam, their zirconium cladding will react exothermically, after several hours or days catching fire in burn front, ala a forest fire or a fireworks sparkler…. Such a fire would release a potpourri of radioisotopes; particularly worrisome is the large amount of cesium 137 in spent fuel. Cesium 137 gives off highly penetrating radiation and has a 30-year half-life, meaning it persists in the environment for a long time. It is absorbed and concentrates in the food chain as it if were potassium.”

Alvarez and his colleagues recommend two steps: “a reduction of the density of spent fuel assemblies now stored in these pools, and an expansion of on-site storage of used fuel in hardened ‘dry casks.’” At the same time, Alvarez points out that the “current generation of dry casks was intended for short-term on-site storage…. None of the dry casks storing spent nuclear fuel is licensed for long-term disposal.” The upshot is that there appears to be no efficient, long-term solution to the nuclear-waste problem. Trump and his administration are ignoring the problem: “The trump administration zeroed out a $65 million-line in the Energy Department’ fiscal 2018 budget that would have gone toward improving the safety and security of stored spent nuclear fuel.” In the meantime, “US commercial power reactors have generated about 75 percent of the global inventory of spent nuclear fuel” and all they can do is continue what they’ve been doing. And that’s scary. By the way, it is not an issue that has been raised in the hearings over H.B. 6, as far as news coverage goes.

#4 – This is about the problematic “economics” of nuclear-generated electricity. Wasserman maintains that state regulation that has deterred investment in Ohio’s wind. On this, he writes: “The Legislature’s senseless anti-wind setback is purely Luddite, stopping $4 billion in private investment ready to build northern Ohio wind farms that would quickly and cleanly provide the power now produced by nukes.” The conditions in that part of the state are propitious for wind farms. The land is flat and there is plenty of wind. The farmers on whose land wind turbines would be located “want the income.” Wind farms can be up and running in two years and keep going for 30 years. Investment in renewables will create jobs: “More than a quarter-million Americans now work in the solar industry; more than 100,000 in wind, far more than in coal, oil, or nuclear.
There are other issues concerning current and anticipated regulation.

At the hearing held by the Energy Generation subcommittee on April 22, 2019, Annie Gilleo, Senior Manager, State Policy, American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy [ACEEE], gave the following testimony. She opposes H.B. 6 because it makes little sense to support “Ohio’s aging nuclear fleet while simultaneously rolling back the state’s energy efficiency.” She also says that “HB 6 increases electricity rates but “provides no direct benefits in exchange.” But “similarly funded energy efficiency programs save customers money by lowering energy usage and keeping utility system costs down.” She continues: “In 2017, every $1 spent on them created $2.65 in benefits for Ohio families and businesses…. A study by ACEEE found Ohio’s energy savings goals could save customers almost $5.6 billion in avoided energy expenditure and reduced wholesale energy and capacity prices over 10 years of implementation” (https://aceee.org/sites/default/files/on-hb6-opposition-042219.pdf).

Gilleo refers to other benefits stemming from existing energy efficiency programs. “Efficiency improvements in buildings and industry decrease fossil fuel emissions and air pollution. The reduced emissions could help counties working to improve air quality meet national standards. A recent analysis shows that efficiency is a key tool for reducing emissions for a few Ohio counties in particular Jefferson, Lorain, Butler, and Hamilton. These pollution reductions also have significant impacts on the health impacts from energy efficiency, saving up to $1.6 billion in avoided health harms. And efficiency is a major job creator in the state, employing almost 80,000 Ohioans. It accounts for 20% of all construction jobs and 24% of all energy sector jobs. HB 6 could entirely erase these health and job benefits.”

The Ohio Environmental Council also views energy efficiency as something to be given priority in Ohio’s energy policy. The organization defines energy efficiency as “a means to getting the same amount of services we expect when we use energy – electricity or natural gas in our homes, for example – but using less of it to deliver those same services.” Energy efficiency makes our homes, businesses, factories, schools, and home appliances less energy wasteful and more energy efficient (https://theoec.org/energy-efficiency). According to OEC, “Ohio’s Energy Efficiency Resource Standard (EERS) – the state’s requirement on electric utilities to meet a portion of their customer demand through energy efficiency – was established in 2008 with the enactment of Ohio Senate Bill 221.” Under this standard, Ohio utilities “offer discounts and rebates on energy efficient lighting, weatherization, and household appliances.” Customers “can earn a rebate on purchasing an Energy Star refrigerator, or a factory could get an incentive to replace old light with new LED fixtures.” Overall, if the standard is not eliminated by HB 6, the standard is expected to “reduce 22.5% of Ohio’s electric energy use by the year 2027.” And since 2009, the standard “has resulted in over $5.1 Billion in savings for Ohio customers on their utility bills.” The results might have been even better if “in 2014 the Ohio General Assembly [had not] enacted law changes that negatively impacted Ohio’s efficiency standard by creating an opt-out for large industrial customers, and allowed utilities to count efficiency savings” that not improve energy efficiency.

Why are there so few new nuclear reactors being built?

Peter Fairley addresses this question in an article for MIT’s Technology Review on May 28, 2015 (https://www.technologyreview.com/537816/why-dont-we-have-more-nuclear-power). His bottom line is that “it’s just too expensive.” There other concerns as well. The accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima added to the worries about nuclear power. The “economics” of the nuclear power plants remains have gone from poor to worse. Fairley refers to a report by the International Energy Agency and the OECD’s Nuclear Energy Agency that found equipment costs had risen 20 percent from 2010 to 2014. He cites evidence from the financial advisory firm Lazard that the costs of generating power from solar and onshore wind had fallen below the costs of nuclear. In the meantime, power from natural-gas-fired plants (increasingly from fracking) is far cheaper than from nuclear power, though be reminded that natural gas is a carbon-emitter. While there are four new nuclear reactors under construction in Georgia and South Carolina, only loan guarantees from the federal government and additional financing support from state regulators made that feasible.

For a rebound to occur, Fairly maintains, the nuclear industry will have “to demonstrate that it can build the enhanced-safety reactors that regulators are mandating, on time and on budget.” There is no indication that this is going to happen, at least when it comes to the construction of the large conventional nuclear reactors. The new reactors being built are “now years late and billions of dollars over budget.” The U.S. Department of Energy and other proponents of nuclear-powered energy have hope that work on the construction of small modular reactors will sooner or later become available and will be a boost the nuclear power industry. On this point, however, Fairley found that “the most mature designs have yet to attract buyers.” He continues this point: “Several leading developers, including Babcock & Wilcox and Westinghouse, have recently scaled back their programs.”

Concluding thoughts

The future of HB6 lies presently in the hands of the Republican Party, its control of both houses of the General Assembly and the governorship. And they have made it clear that, whatever else ends up in the bill, they support a funding formula that will give FirstEnergy Solutions large and continuing financial assistance for an unspecified number of years into the future. And they will do this without any restrictions on how the money will be spent and without any expressed concern about the age of the two nuclear plants and history of accidents, especially at Davis-Besse. They will do it without acknowledging the frequent, if not continuous, harmful leaks of radioactive isotopes into the air, the water contamination in Lake Erie, and the effects on health of workers and local communities. And they will pass HB6 without an independent audit of the nuclear plants. They will do it without a word about the festering problem of nuclear wastes, accepting the assurances of FirstEnergy Solutions that there have been unspecified “upgrades.” And, while they may include some token provisions in the bill in support of wind and solar power to placate their Democratic colleagues, the Republicans in Ohio have a history of doing their best to undermine wind and solar by imposing or freezing regulations that undermine their prospects. And the funding formula under HB6 ensures that little will go to wind and solar. The hypocrisy of these opportunistic free market ideologues is blatant.

But the situation, the result of past corporate and government decisions, does not provide for good options. If the legislators rule against the bailout (unlikely), FirstEnergy Solutions will end up bankrupt and will close the nuclear power plants, jobs and taxes will be lost. The question then would be: Who is responsible for the very expensive and lengthy decommissioning of the plants? Probably Ohio taxpayers. Maybe it would just become another minimally secured sacrifice zone. If the legislators support the bailout (likely), then the customers will pay. What about wind and solar? Well, the Republican legislators have pretty much decided that wind and solar are not viable alternatives to nuclear power at this time.

In the meantime, all this talk about Republican talk about zero-emissions seems a distraction. They generally express little or no concern about the increasingly disruptive climate change and its effects that have been not only well documented by scientists but also by our own experience with extreme weather events, flooding, wildfires, droughts, extraordinary hurricanes, and such. And what is “normal” adds to the problem. We have locally and nationally an energy system that is overwhelmingly based on carbon-dioxide emitting fossil fuels. The transportation system is dominated by gasoline-burning cars, vans, and trucks, and a substantial portion of taxpayer money goes into maintaining the roads and bridges that keep the system operating. Most residences and buildings and businesses are heated and cooled by electricity generated largely by natural gas and coal, the dirtiest of fossil fuels. Real estate development engulfs every available of profitable space, often devoid of any though to infrastructure. The landfills steadily fill with the wastes culture of hyper consumption that is fostered by endless corporate advertising and products made not to last. While solar, wind, and energy efficiency may not be the whole answer to global warming, there are the only viable energy options available and they need all the support they can get. But, as far as the Republicans are concerned, there is no climate emergency that requires extraordinary government intervention, the economy is just fine, and the more consumption the better and wind and solar don’t quite fit into this conception.

The Healthcare Crisis and a Medicare for All solution

The Healthcare Crisis and a Medicare for All Solution
Bob Sheak – April 21, 2019

The Health Care Crisis is Now

The story of the U.S. healthcare system is best told with documented and verifiable facts. When that is done, the evidence tells us that the U.S. healthcare system is failing in critically important ways to provide accessible and affordable health care to tens of millions of Americans. At the same time, health care costs are going up, while corporations in the healthcare business have been making enormous profits and corporate CEOs extraordinary salaries and bonuses. Consider aspects of the healthcare crisis.

Inadequately insured

According to a report authored by Sarah R. Collins for the Commonwealth Fund (Feb 2019), “45 percent of U.S. adults ages 19 to 64 are inadequately insured in 2018 [uninsured + underinsured],” that is over 87 million of 194 million in this broad category, about the same percentage as in 2010, when then President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law (https://www.commonwealthfund.org/sites/default/files/2019-02/Collins_hlt_ins_coverage_8_years_after_ACA_2018_biennial_survey_sb.pdf).

(You can see a summary of the main features of the Affordable Care Act” at: http://kff.org/health-reform/fact-sheet/summary-of-the-affordable-care-act.)

The Commonwealth Fund report is based on data collected by the Princeton Survey Research Associates from “a random, nationally representative sample of 4,225 adults ages 19 to 64 living in the continental United States.” The surveys and reports go back to 2001. Aside from estimating the total number of people who had inadequate healthcare insurance, the chief finding of the most recent report for 2018 is that there has been in a shift in the composition of the inadequately insured. The number of uninsured adults went down from 2010 through 2018, though increased during the first two years of Trump’s reign, while the number of underinsured went up.

The uninsured

Collins reports that the number of people reporting being uninsured went down from 20% of Americans in this category in 2010 to 12% in 2018, when 23.3 million people were uninsured at the time of the survey. That’s good and reflects the effects of the Affordable Care Act, which came into law in 2010. But the estimates vary somewhat from study to study. A recent Gallup survey reported by Dan Witters on January 23, 2019 finds that 13.7 uninsured rate for adult Americans, or 26.6 million were uninsured in 2018, higher by 3.3 million than the Commonwealth Fund estimate (https://news.gallup.com/poll/24634/uninsured-rate-rises-four-years-high.aspx?g_source=link_NEWSV9&g_medium=NEWSFEED&g_campaign=item_&g_content=U.S.%2520Uninsured%2520Rate%Rises%2520to%2520Four-Year%2520High). Other estimates are even higher. In the “summary” that accompanies Bernie Sanders “Medicare for All Act of 2019,” the number of uninsured Americans is said to be “34 million” (https://www.sanders.senate.gov/download/medicare-for-all-act-of-2910?id=ODD31317-Ef09-4349A0D40510991EF748&download=1&online=file) The number from Sanders is higher probably because it includes children ages 18 years and younger and elderly Americans ages 65 and older. John Alker and Olivia Pham report on how the downward trend in children’s health un-insurance rates have been reversed in the wrong direction during the Trump years (https://ccf.georgetown.edu/2018/11/21/nations-progress-on-childrens-health-coverage-reverses-course). Here’s what Alker and Pham write.

“For the first time since comparable data was first collected in 2008, the nation’s steady progress in reducing the number of children without health insurance reversed course. The number of uninsured children under age 19 nationwide increased by an estimated 276,000 to about 3.9 million (3,925,000) in 2017, according to newly-available data from the U.S. Census Bureau (Figure 1). The rate of uninsured children ticked upward from the historic low of 4.7 percent in 2016 to 5 percent in 2017 (Figure 2). Both of these changes were large enough to be statistically significant.”

They continue:

“Also notable was the lack of any statistically significant progress on children’s coverage in any state across the country in 2017, with the exception of the District of Columbia. Nine states saw statistically significant increases in the rate of uninsured children in 2017. In order of magnitude of change, they are: South Dakota, Utah, Texas, Georgia, South Carolina, Florida, Ohio, Tennessee, and Massachusetts. No state saw its number of uninsured children decline, except for DC.”

Whatever the exact numbers on the uninsured, they all depict a grave situation for tens of millions of Americans, access to healthcare for whom is severely jeopardized and limited to the use of hospital emergency rooms or no care. Trump is doing his best to make it worse, as I’ll document later in this essay. In confirmation of this assertion, Sarah Kliff reports, “Under Trump, the number of uninsured Americans has gone up by 7 million” (https://www.vox.com/2019/1/23/18194228/trump-uninsured-rate-obamacare-medicaid).

The underinsured

The Commonwealth Fund survey reported by Sarah R. Collins indicates that the number of underinsured adult Americans increased from 26% in 2010 to 33% in 2018, or 64 million Americans in 2018. The underinsured here “refers to adults who were insured all year or part of the year but experienced one of the following while insured: out-of-pocket costs, excluding premiums, equaled 10% or more of income; out-of-pocket-costs, excluding premiums, equaled 5% ore more of income if low income (<200% of poverty); or deductibles equaled 5% or more of income.” This is a conservative measure, as Collins points out, because it does not include “premiums” or copayments or those who were insured but decided not to use the insurance at all because of high copayments. There are a host of reasons that help to explain the large and rising number of underinsured Americans. The overriding reason is that medical costs are rising, while wages and average family incomes are barely changing or declining in an economy with fewer opportunities for stable fulltime employment at decent wages and benefits. As the report puts it: “‘Growth in Americans’ incomes [for most Americans from wages/salaries] has not kept pace with the growth in health care costs.”

Collins identifies additional reasons. People who purchase marketplace health care plans, part of ACA, and all of those who buy plans directly from insurance companies have seen their health care insurance go up, with high deductibles and copays. Also, the ban against insurers excluding people because of pre-existing conditions has had the unintended consequence of increasing healthcare costs, as the number of people “with greater health needs, and thus higher costs, are now able to get health insurance in the individual market.” Trump wants to give states the right to lift this ban. And a last point. Collins reports that employers who provide health care as a benefit to their employees are “asking workers to shoulder an increasing share of health costs.”

Some consequences

There are negative health-related consequences identified in the Commonwealth Fund study for both the uninsured and underinsured, including: not being able to fill a prescription; skipping a recommended test, treatment, or follow-up; not going to a doctor when there was a medical problem; not getting the care of a specialist; less likely to get preventive care; less likely to get cancer screenings. In addition, when the underinsured have difficulty in paying for their medical bills, they sometimes go into debt to pay these bills, while spending less on other necessities like rent or food and sometimes being unable to afford prescribed drugs. The summary to Sanders “Medicare for All Act of 2019” gives the following examples. (You can find links to the bill, the summary, and how to finance it at: https://www.sanders.senate.gov/newsroom/press-release/sanders-14-senators-introduce-medicare-for-all.)

“As tens of thousands of American families face bankruptcy and financial ruin because of the outrageously high costs of health care and 30 percent of US adults with private health insurance delay seeking medical care each year due to cost….”

“Today, about one out of five Americans cannot afford to fill the prescriptions given to them by their doctors because we pay, for far, the highest price in the world for prescription drugs.”

More on how many Americans who have health insurance can’t afford to use it

It’s worth repeating the point from Sanders that “30 percent of US adults with private health insurance delay seeking medical care year due to cost.” Helaine Olen authored an article for The Atlantic Monthly on this point titled “Even the Insured Often Can’t Afford Medical Bills” (https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2017/06/medical-bills/530679). Here’s some of what she writes.

“Just because a person is insured, it doesn’t mean he or she can actually afford their doctor, hospital, pharmaceutical, and other medical bills. The point of insurance is to protect patients’ finances from the costs of everything from hospitalizations to prescription drugs, but out-of-pocket spending for people even with employer-provided health insurance has increased by more than 50 percent since 2010, according to human resources consultant Aon Hewitt.”

“At the same time, the most recent Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households, an annual survey conducted by the Federal Reserve Board, found that 44 percent of adult Americans claim they could not come up with $400 in an emergency without turning to credit cards, family and friends, or selling off possessions. When this reality combines with healthcare bills, the consequences can be financially devastating…. A poll conducted earlier this year by Amino, a healthcare-transparency company, with Ipsos Public Affairs, found that 55 percent of those they surveyed claimed they had at least once received a medical bill they could not afford. No surprise, then, that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau reported earlier this year that medical debt was the most common reason for someone to be contacted by a debt collector.”

Where one lives influences access to adequate health insurance

In an article for Consumer Reports, Donna Rosato refers to another important fact: “More than ever before, if you buy your own health insurance, where you live will determine your choice of health plans and what you will pay for them—and the geographic differences may be dramatic” (https://www.consumerreports.org/health-insurance/cost-of-individual-health-insurance-depends-more-than-ever-on-where-you-live).

Under the Affordable Care Act, states have set up health insurance exchanges on which individuals can buy insurance. This is a large market. Rosato quotes Karen Pollitz, a senior fellow at the Kaiser Family Foundation, who says that “[n]early 20 million Americans buy their own health insurance [and] About 60 percent of people who buy individual health insurance get some kind of subsidy [under provisions of the Affordable Care Act] that reduces their costs.” They other 40 percent are on their own because they “make too much to qualify for financial help.”

There are some state governments that are “passing laws to preserve consumer protections the ACA put in place,” and “are implementing innovative programs to reduce costs for insurers, which can lead to more choice and lower rates for consumers. However, other states are loosening regulations “and are finding ways to sell less costly insurance that doesn’t meet the ACA’s required minimum standards.” The uncertainty in the health care market has been greatly compounded by the Trump administration to subvert the ACA. For example, there will be less support for some people: “The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), which oversees the ACA health insurance exchanges, announced that it is slashing funding to organizations that help people shop for coverage. Nonprofit organizations that provide navigators in states that use the federal Healthcare.gov online marketplaces will be $10 million for the 2019 plan year, down from $37 million for 2018 and $63 million in 2017.

What are some of the effects? One study cited in Rosato’s article analyzes the rate proposals for 2019 of 10 states and Washington, D.C., finding that “the proposed rates represent everything from double-digit drops compared with 2018, to increases of more than 30 percent. In Minnesota, for example, the average premium on the benchmark Silver plan is expected to be 11 percent less this year compared with last, or $552 a month.” Why? “… Minnesota, and a few other states, have instituted reinsurance programs to reimburse insurers who cover sicker, higher-cost customers, which in turn has helped insurers stem premium increases.” By contrast, in Maryland, the average premium on benchmark Silver plans is projected to be 36 percent higher, or $869 a month, in 2019. Insurers there say the rate hikes are necessary because rising premiums are driving out healthier people willing to take the risk of going without insurance, now that Congress has done away with the financial penalty for doing so” [or the individual mandate]. In Iowa, the governor approved a plan “that allows residents to buy something called a ‘health benefits plan,’ which is inexpensive but isn’t insurance at all.” The plan offers limited benefits, caps annual amounts of coverage, and does not require insurers to accept people with pre-existing conditions.

Wait Times – lengthy in many places

Suzanne Gordon has written an in-depth, highly-informative book in defense of the Veterans Health Administration entitled Wounds of War: How the VA Delivers Health, Healing, and Hope for the Nation’s Veterans (2018). Despite under-funding by the U.S. Congress, a national shortage of primary-care doctors, and attacks by the Trump administration, the VHA continues to provides holistic, integrated care based on a team approach at its facilities, involving active coordination among all those who have any role in a patient’s medical needs and with access to the electronic records of all participating veterans around the country available online at every facility. Wait times at the VHA, overall outcomes from medical treatment, the record of treating those with “mental illness,” and inpatient palliative care are better than in comparable private sector practices. Nonetheless, Trump and Republicans in the U.S. Congress have reduced the funds going to the VHA in efforts to subvert and shrink it. Gordon writes:

“By late 2017 the concept of ‘choice’ dominated the discussion of veterans’ health care and how it should be delivered. Congress was considering multiple bills that would, in one form or another, make the Veterans Choice program [through which eligible veterans could acquire health care outside of the VHA system] permanent and relax its previous limits on using doctors or hospitals outside the VHA. In addition, some members of Congress sought to shrink the VHA’s own health care network by creating a facility closing commission that would insulate Capitol Hill and the White House from unpopular decisions to shutter local medical centers and lay off staff. If that approach gained traction, veterans’ reliance on the private health care industry would increase, regardless of their individual choice, because he VHA services would be curtailed” (p. 353).

Trump’s “choice” scheme when added to his other healthcare reduction policies will lead to increases in wait time as well as increasing costs and fragmented treatment. Consider wait time. Gordon refers to a 2017 survey of fifteen major metropolitan areas conducted by the health-care industry consulting firm Merritt Hawkins, which assembled “broad wait-time information industry-wide” The Merritt study found “that the wait times to get a first appointment with a physician [outside of the VHA] are up 30 percent since 2014, with an average of 24 day, up from 19.4 in 2014.” The study also found that in many parts of the country, “the wait times are far longer than that, especially to see certain kinds of doctors.” Gordon continues as follows. “This is a very serious problem not only in rural areas but also in cities, including ones that are awash in medical schools and hospitals. Residents of the Boston area, for example, must spend an average of 109 days to find a family practitioner who is still taking on new patients and up to a year to get an appointment with a cardiologist. And: “Even patients with good health insurance can face long wait times – particularly for primary care physicians and geriatricians.

The Trump administration is making a bad situation worse

Trump, the Republican Party, and their right-wing allies in the healthcare industries favor legislative measures that would, if they have their way, help the insurance and pharmaceutical corporations and other healthcare-based industries to further consolidate their control of the U.S. healthcare system. The results are and will be: overall cut backs of federal government spending on healthcare programs; no letup in rising prices for prescription drugs; a decline employer-supported healthcare benefits; the further evisceration of the ACA; changes in the rules so that states have more and more responsibility for how much to fund Medicaid programs; price increases for Medicare coverage; the continuation of channeling funds away from Veterans Health Administration to for-profit alternatives. The effects will be to exacerbate the healthcare crisis, causing additional tens of millions of Americans to end up without any healthcare insurance, or to be underinsured, or to be precariously insured with healthcare insurance that is very expensive and with limited benefits.

Steffie Woolhandler and David U. Himmelstein give us a summary of what Trump’s administration has already done and what it plans to do (https://annals.org/aim/fullarticle/2729989/medicare-for-all-rivals-new-offshoots-old-health-policy-roots).

“…reforms under the Trump administration have moved to shrink the government’s role in health care by relaxing ACA insurance regulations; green-lighting states’ Medicaid cuts; redirecting U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs funds to private care; and strengthening the hand of private MA [Medicare Advantage] plans by easing network-adequacy standards, increasing Medicare’s payments to these plans, and marketing to seniors on behalf of MA plans.” And, “A recent administration white paper… presents the administration’s plan going forward: Spur the growth of high-deductible coverage, eliminate coverage mandates, open the border to foreign medical graduates, and override states’ ‘any-willing-provider’ regulations and certificate-of-need laws that constrain hospital expansion. The president’s recently released budget proposal [for 2020] calls for cuts of $1.5 trillion in Medicaid funding and $818 billion in Medicare provider payments over the next 10 years.”

The authors continue.

“Thus far, the effects of the president’s actions—withdrawing coverage from some Medicaid enrollees and downgrading the comprehensiveness of some private insurance—have been modest. His plans would probably swell the ranks of uninsured persons and hollow out coverage for many who retain coverage, shifting costs from the government and employers to individual patients. The effect on overall national health expenditures is unclear: Cuts to Medicaid, Medicare, and the [deregulation and shredding of the] comprehensiveness of insurance might decrease [government] expenditures; however, deregulating providers and insurers would probably increase them.”
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Kimberly Amadeo presents a timeline on the healthcare related actions of the Trump administration, particularly Trump’s executive actions to roll back Obama’s Affordable Care Act (https://www.thebalance.com/how-could-trump-change-health-care-in-america-4111422). Here a few examples.

“On October 12, 2017, President Trump stopped reimbursing insurers who waived deductibles and copayments for 6 million low-income customers.” Amadeo continues: “He blamed Congress for not appropriating the funds to cover these ACA subsidies. A study showed that the subsidy allowed insurance companies to cover 3.2 million people. They would, in turn, provide enough revenue to lower premiums for everyone by 20-40 percent.” However, once the reimbursements were stopped, “insurance companies said they must raise customers’ premiums by 20 percent.” Further: “The Congressional Budget Office estimates Trump’s move to stop reimbursements will cost the government at least $194 billion over the next 10 years.”

On December 22, 2017, President Trump signed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which repeals the individual mandate provision of the ACA in 2019 that required all adult Americans to get health insurance. The Administration hopes that this will remove the incentive for healthy people to get insurance. “The CBO estimated,” Amadeo writes, “13 million people “would drop coverage as a result,” health care costs would rise because there would be “fewer healthy people paying premiums,” “[h]ealth insurance companies will be left with just the sicker people,” “fewer people will get preventive care or treatment for chronic diseases,” “[p]eople without insurance [will] use expensive emergency rooms as a substitute for primary care,” and consequently, “costs will increase for everyone.”

“On January 11, 2018, the Trump administration allowed states to impose work requirements on Medicaid recipients. At least 10 states asked for this permission. They will cut off benefits for ‘able-bodied’ recipients unless they have a job, are caregivers, or are in school, a proposed change that would affect about 6 percent of Medicaid recipients, mainly single adults who don’t have children. The administration also “encouraged states to submit waivers that make other Medicaid changes. For example, states asked to charge Medicaid recipients premiums. Some wish to limit the time recipients can receive benefits. Others want mandatory drug testing.”
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Sarah Kliff reports on Trump administration’s proposed annual budget for FY 2020, released to the public in March 2019, and how it will affect healthcare (https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2019/4/1/18290422/trump-mulvaney-health-plan-graham-cassidy).The healthcare parts of the proposed budget are “modeled after the Graham-Cassidy-Heller-Johnson bill proposed in September 2017” (referred to as Graham-Cassidy). The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has analyzed the proposal and “estimated the plan would cause millions to lose coverage.” What does it propose? It would “repeal the Affordable Care Act entirely, including consumer protections preexisting conditions and an expansion of Medicaid, that gave millions of low-income Americans coverage.” Additionally, Klifff writes, “The Obamacare subsidies that enable 8.8 million Americans use to purchase private coverage on the health law’s marketplaces would cease to exist.” It would “allow states to give insurers flexibility in choosing what gets covered (and not covered), like maternity care.” Here is more of what Kliff reports.

“The rules around private insurance would change a lot, in a way that is much less friendly to sicker Americans. The mandate that private Obamacare patients not be charged for preventive care visits would go away. Current limits on out-of-pocket spending for Obamacare enrollees would be abolished too, a change that could be especially challenging for those with costly medical conditions.

“In Obamacare’s place, Graham-Cassidy would create something it calls a Health Care Grant Program, which would give states a lump-sum to fund its health care programs. States would also have the option to allow insurers to charge sicker people higher premiums. They could let insurers set higher prices for pregnant women, too (this was common practice before the Affordable Care Act). States could let insurers opt out of Obamacare’s essential health benefits requirements, which currently mandate that health plan cover a core set of services including prescription drugs and maternity care.” The response of states would vary. “States that like Obamacare could try and keep the system running, using the money from their new health care grants. They could keep requiring insurers to charge sick people the same premiums as healthy people, keep the essential benefits package in place, and try to pay for their Medicaid expansion.” But even these states would probably find that quite difficult, “because Graham-Cassidy would cut spending on these programs significantly.”

Such changes would reduce government spending by $230 billion on health care compared to spending under the Affordable Care Act, according to an earlier analysis by the Congressional Budget Office of the Graham-Cassidy proposal. The CBO concluded: “Some states ‘would find it particularly challenging to reach current enrollment levels using the available subsidies,’ and “determined that ‘if this legislation was enacted, millions of additional people would be uninsured compared with CBO’s baseline projections.’ The increase in uninsured would largely come from rolling back the Medicaid expansion. That program, which covers 61 million Americans and has grown significantly under the Affordable Care Act, would face a $1 trillion budget cut over the course of a decade.”

No successful limits on the rising health costs

Despite the ACA and prior efforts to stem the rising costs of healthcare in the United States, the long-term trend has seen a steady rise in national healthcare expenditures. Statista documents that the United States has the highest level of health spending based on GDP among developed countries. In 2019, such spending represented 17.8 percent of the GDP, up from 5 percent in 1960 (https://www.statista.com/statistics/184968/us-health-expenditure-as-percent-of-gdp-since-1960). Spending rose into the 17 percent for the first time in 2009 and peaked at 18.0 percent in 2016 [the last year of Obama’s presidency], declining to the current 17.8 percent with a price tag of $3.3 trillion. Most of the small decline occurred in public spending during the Trump years, while private spending continued to rise. Yusra Murad reports for Morning Consult on estimates from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Office of the Actuary on projected future spending on healthcare in the U.S. This source indicates that national expenditures on health care will reach 5.96 trillion in 2027, or 19.4 percent of GDP, that is, without significant changes in the healthcare system (https://morningconsult.com/2019/02/20/cms-estimates-annual-u-s-health-care-spending-to-hit-5-96-trillion-by-2027).

Other “wealthy” countries do better

The aging of the population and concomitant increase in Medicare coverage in the U.S. explain part of why healthcare expenditures are increasing, but the power of big insurance and pharmaceutical companies and their price-setting power explains a major part as well. Researchers Gerard F. Anderson, Peter Hussey, and Varduhi Petrosyan at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health conclude that “the higher overall health care spending in the U.S. was due mainly to higher prices — including higher drug prices, higher salaries for doctors and nurses, higher hospital administration costs and higher prices for many medical services” (https://www.sciencedailey.com/releases/2019/01/190107161700.htm).

While the demographics of other developed nations are changing in ways that are like the U.S., they have been better able to keep healthcare costs lower than the U.S., while also devoting more resources to healthcare. I’ve already discussed many of the negative consequences of the U.S. healthcare system, but note here that, among “developed” nations, the United States is last in infant mortality rates, in maternity mortality rates, in life expectancy. (One cautionary note: Virtually all “developed” countries are responding to fiscal challenges and economic difficulties by introducing “austerity” measures that may well affect their healthcare systems in negative ways.)

Some confirmatory evidence

First on expenditures, the researchers at Johns Hopkins find that the U.S. remains a high-spending outlier in terms of per capita health care spending, which was $9,892 in 2016. That amount was about 25 percent higher than second-place Switzerland’s $7,919. It was also 108 percent higher than Canada’s $4,753, and 145 percent higher than the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) median of $4,033. And it was more than double the $4,559 the U.S. spent per capita on health care in 2000 — the year whose data the researchers analyzed for a 2003 study.”

Second, the U.S. system “has less access to many health care resources” than other nations in the OECD organization (i.e., “developed” or “wealthy” countries). The researchers found that in 2015, the most recent year for which data were available in the U.S., there were only 7.9 practicing nurses and 2.6 practicing physicians per 1,000 population, compared to the OECD medians of 9.9 nurses and 3.2 physicians.” Other evidence shows that in 2015 the U.S. “had only 7.5 new medical school graduates per 100,000 population, compared to the OECD median of 12.1, and just 2.5 acute care hospital beds per 1,000 population compared to the OECD median of 3.4.” Further, the researchers point out this: “Although the U.S. ranked second in the numbers of MRI machines per capita and third in the numbers of CT scanners per capita — implying a relatively high use of these expensive resources — Japan ranked first in both categories, yet was among the lowest overall health care spenders in the OECD in 2016.” One the researchers, John F. Anderson, says that “[i]t’s not that “we’re getting more; it’s that we’re paying much more.”

In an article for Modern Healthcare, Harris Meyer also analyzes some of the reasons for why healthcare costs are higher in the U.S. than in Canada and other “developed” or “wealthy” nations
(https://www.modernhealthcare.com/article/20180407/NEWS/180409939/why-does-the-u-s-spend-so-much-more-on-healthcare-it-s-the-prices).

Higher administrative costs in the U.S.

Harris opens his article by comparing the medical practice of Dr. John Cullen’s four-physician medical practice in Valdez, Alaska, with Dr. Trina Larsen Soles 12-physician general practice in Golden, British Columbia to help us understand in a concrete way why administrative costs are higher in the corporate-dominated U.S. healthcare system than in the universal healthcare system of Canada.

With fewer physicians, Cullen’s practice in Alaska “employs three full-time staffers who work on insurance and patient billing [and a] fourth full-timer focuses on obtaining prior authorizations from nine private and public insurers.” In addition, “Cullen and his partners often must call and write letters to convince insurers to approve coverage or pay claims.” Cullen, president-elect of the American Academy of Family Physicians, is quoted: “It’s an incredible bureaucratic mess to get anything done for patients.” Larsen Soles, “president of Doctors of BC, which represents British Columbia physicians in fee negotiations, has a very different situation. She and her eight colleagues have “one full-time staffer assigned each day to billing the province’s public medical services plan, its public workers’ compensation plan and its quasi-public auto insurance company.” Further, she and the other eight physicians “don’t get involved in billing or utilization-review issues.” Soles sums it up saying, “I can focus on patient issues, not administrative issues.”

Meyer cites a 2013 Health Affairs study co-authored by Dr. Steffie Woolhandler for additional evidence. I’ve referred earlier to some of Woolhandler’s work on healthcare. She is a health policy professor at Hunter College and a co-founder of PNHP. Woolhandler’s study “found that administrative costs accounted for 25.3% of U.S. hospital spending in 2010, compared with 19.8% in the Netherlands, 15.5% in England, and 12.4% in Canada.”

Higher prices

For additional evidence, Meyer then draws on a study by Dr. Ashish Jha, a professor of global health at Harvard, who co-authored an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) comparing the spending on healthcare in the U.S. with “10 other wealthy nations.” Jha concludes that the high relative spending on healthcare system in the U.S. compared to the other 10 is due not only to higher administrative costs but also to “much higher prices for medical services and pharmaceuticals and much higher pay for physicians and nurses.” Thus, it is not surprising that Jha found that “17.8% of GDP in the U.S. went to healthcare versus an average of 10.8% in the other 10 countries.

Meyer gives other examples of the evidence documenting the relatively high healthcare prices in the U.S. MRIs cost twice as much in Kansas as in London, and that makes no sense.” And, another example, “the U.S.’ per-capita pharmaceutical spending was more than twice as high as average spending in the other 10 countries—$1,443 versus $680.” Meyer also cites evidence from The U.S. International Federation of Health Plans, which “reported in 2015 that coronary artery bypass graft surgery cost $78,318 on average in the U.S., compared with $34,224 in Switzerland and $14,579 in Spain,” and that “[a]bdominal CT scans cost an average of $844 in the U.S., compared with $483 in New Zealand, $233 in South Africa, and $85 in Spain. Average payment for an MRI was $1,119 in the U.S., $455 in South Africa, and $215 in Australia. Indeed, virtually everything related to healthcare in the U.S. costs more than other comparable nations. Healthcare executives, and specialist and generalist physicians earn considerably more than their counterparts in the other nations.

Profits and lucrative compensation for CEOs

Just one last example of why healthcare costs are so high in the U.S. In the summary of Sanders’ “Medicare for All Act of 2019, there is a glimpse of an answer. (Go to https://www.sanders.senate.gov for a copy). “The ongoing failure of our health care system is directly attributable to the fact that – unique among major nations – it is primarily designed not to provide quality care to all in a cost-effective way, but to maximize profits for health insurance companies, the pharmaceutical industry and medical equipment suppliers.” And: “the top five health insurance companies last year [2018] made nearly $21 billion in profits, led by UnitedHealth which made almost $12 billion alone.” “…the top 65 healthcare CEOs made $1.7 billion in compensation in 2017 including $83.2 million for the CEO of UnitedHealth Group, $58.7 million for the CEO of Aetna; and $43.9 million for the CEO of Cigna.” “…last year pharmaceutical companies made over $50 billion in profits. A 2013 study showed that in 2010, the United States paid, on average, about double what was paid in the United Kingdom, Australia, and Switzerland for prescription drugs. Since 2014, the cost of 60 drugs commonly taken has more than doubled, and 20 of them have at least quadrupled in price.”

Moving toward incremental or comprehensive reform of the U.S. health care system

Steffie Woolhandler and David U. Himmelstein identify the options being advanced by Democrats, and find they fall into two categories, a Medicare for All plan and public-option plans (https://annals.org/aim/fullarticle/2729989/medicare-for-all-rivals-new-offshoots-old-health-policy-roots). There is a third option as well, that is, proposals to expand Medicare so that it would be available to people under 65 – at 55 or even 50, and then incrementally reducing he age-limit over time to include even younger categories of people. Perhaps, eventually, Medicare expansion would become Medicare for All. In the meantime, however, the present healthcare insurance, pharmaceutical, medical, equipment, for-profit nursing, homes, sectors would continue as major forces in healthcare.

Woolandler and Himmelstein discuss several public-options, “most of which would offer a public plan alongside private plans on the ACA’s insurance exchange. The public-option plans “envision a…plan that would pay Medicare rates and use providers who participate in Medicare.” They see some positive features in these plans, including reforms that would offer additional insurance choices and minimize the need for new taxes because enrollees would pay premiums to cover the new costs.” (Premiums are now $135 a month.) But, according to their analysis, “these plans would cover only a fraction of uninsured persons, few of whom could afford the premiums; do little to improve the comprehensiveness of existing coverage; and modestly increase national expenditures.” They prefer the Medicare for All option, though they worry about whether it will end up increasing healthcare costs. Despite their concern, an analysis by economist Robert Pollin indicates the passage of Senator Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All Act of 2019 would reduce costs, even while making a more comprehensive array of medical services available to all eligible U.S. residents and to all citizens.

I’ll spend the rest of this essay describing Bernie Sanders’ “Medicare for All Act of 2019.” The text of the bill is available along with accompanying summaries, there is a companion bill in the House, it has been widely lauded on the liberal/left, given wide coverage by the media, especially online, and has done well in early polls.

Medicare for All – covering everyone and costing less

On April 10, Bernie Sanders (I-Vt) introduced the Medicare for All Act of 2019, Senate Bill 1129, along with 13 co-sponsors. Already 63 national organizations and unions have endorsed the bill. Representative Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) introduced a similar bill (HB 1384) earlier in March with 100 other co-sponsors. The House bill is being revised to make it consistent with the Senate bill. The Sanders’ bill is 100-pages long and is loaded with subject titles and subtitles, definitions, cross references, and exhaustive detail. The bill can be accessed at Bernie Sanders’ Senate website, along with a summary and a statement how the bill will be financed. There are links to these documents on Sanders’s Senate website as well as in various other online sites (e.g., https://www.commondreams.org/sites/default/files/medicare_for_all_act_of_20192.pdf).

The bill proposes to cover every single resident of the U.S., though it remains for the Secretary of Health and Human Services to flush out the meaning of “resident.” In this first iteration of the bill, there are points that will need clarification or modification. Title X of the bill is about “Transition,” that is the steps to be taken in shifting from the current healthcare system to the new one. The bill says that there will be a five-year transition to go from the present to the new healthcare system. But it lacks clarity and detail on just how this transition will be carried out, as the private insurers are replaced by the Medicare for All system and as eligible residents move from being uninsured or insured to being given universally-available healthcare.

Nonetheless, the bill represents a huge first step in the right direction.
It has helped to spur a serious national conversation. One unexpected effect is that private health insurance (and for-profit hospital) stocks are, as Jake Johnson reports, in “free fall as Medicarefor All gains momentum” (https://commondreams.org/news/2019/04/18/private-health-insurance-stocks-free-fall-medicare-all-gains-momentum). Johnson quotes a Bloomberg report, “Together, the shares of hospitals and insurers lost $28 billion in market value on Tuesday” (April 16), with the slide downward continuing into Wednesday. The plunge affected the stocks of Anthem, UnitedHealth, Centene, Humana, etc., and occurred just a few days after Sanders introduced the Medicare for All bill in the Senate and after he pushed the plan in a “special” program on the right-wing Fox News. Johnson also quotes a tweet from University of California, Berkeley professor and economist Robert Reich who “argued that tumbling insurance stocks are ‘a sign that Medicare for All is real,” and “marks [the] beginning of end of for-profit health insurance’s business model of seeking healthy people and avoiding sick people.” National Nurses United echoed Reich’s message in a tweet as follows: “Insurance industry stocks dropping as the Medicare for All movement heats up—we’ve got some serious people power on our hands!”

#1 – The Anticipated Benefits (mostly quoted from the “summary” of the Sanders’ bill)

Coverage for all.

In the summary of the Bill, the purpose is clearly stated: “The Medicare for All Act will provide comprehensive health care to every man, woman, and child in our country – without out-of-pocket expenses.”

“This legislation will create a federal universal health insurance program to provide comprehensive coverage for all Americans including patient and outpatient hospital care; emergency services; primary and preventive services; prescription drugs; mental health and substances abuse treatment; maternity and newborn care; pediatrics; home- and community-based long-term services and supports; dental, audiology, and vision services.”

What will this bill mean for patients?

“As a patient, all your basic needs are covered. You choose your doctor. No deductibles, no surprise bills for out-of-network services, no copays. If you change jobs, you don’t have to change insurance plan or worry about losing the coverage you and your family depend on. No more worrying about whether you can afford to get the care you need, or how to pick the right insurance plan for your family.”

What will it mean for providers?

“Health care providers can spend more time with their patients and less time on paperwork. A universal health care system will allow the country to invest more resources in provider education and training and make smart investment to avoid provider shortages and ensure communities can access the providers they need.”

What will it mean for employers?

Instead of struggling to provide health insurance to employees, businesses will simply pay a payroll tax – just like they do for Medicare now.”

More Freedom, more security

“Under this bill, Americans will benefit from the freedom and security that comes with finally separating health insurance from employment. That freedom would not only help the American people live happier, healthier and more fulfilling lives, but it would also promote innovation and entrepreneurship in every sector of the economy. People would be able to start new businesses, stay home with their children or leave jobs the don’t like knowing that they would still have health care coverage for themselves and their families. Employers would be free to focus on running their business rather than spending countless hours figuring out how to provide health insurance to their employees. Working Americans wouldn’t have to choose between bargaining for higher wages or better health insurance. Parents wouldn’t have to worry about how to provide health insurance to their children. Seniors and people with serious or chronic illnesses could afford the care necessary to keep them healthy without worry of financial ruin. Millions of people will no longer have to choose between health care and other necessities like food, heat and shelter.”

#2 – Will it reduce healthcare expenditures/costs?

From the Sander’s documents

The issue of costs of the Medicare for All Act is addressed in the text of Sanders’ Medicare for All bill and in the summary of it, but there is a lack of detail in this first iteration. This is not surprising for the first draft of any legislation. The issue of costs is discussed in Title VI of the Medicare for All bill, which deals with the “Health Budget; Payments; Cost Containment Measures.” The text does not answer the question with many specific costs estimates, but instead offers in legislative language definitions, what the components of the health budget will be, how the “Secretary” of Health and Human Services will allocate funds among the components, including 1 percent of the budget for “Temporary Worker Assistance” for up to five years following the date benefits first become available.” There is also in Title VI text on how the “Application of Payment Processes Under Title XVIII” will work and a “standardized and documented review process,” how accurate “valuation of services” will be done, and assurance that there will be “internal tracking of reviews,” along with a section on how periodic audits by the Comptroller General will be built into the new healthcare system.

In the 5-page summary of the bill, “Financing Medicare for All,” there are references to two studies that have made cost estimates (no details) and that find the Senate’s Medicare for All legislation would, if implemented, reduce total healthcare expenditures, including reductions in administrative costs and prices for prescription drugs. And there are verifiable generalizations about what the cost savings will be to various groups. Businesses will no longer have to devote resources to employee health benefits. Families will no longer face bankruptcy. Top healthcare CEOs will no longer get multi-million dollar-compensation packages. However, on the specific financing and costs of the bill, the document just lists in bullet-format the financing options. There is again no detailed analysis of how much the Medicare for All Act will cost and who will pay less and who will pay more, except that the healthcare insurance companies will be gone, drug prices will be negotiated, and individuals and families will have no premium, deductibles, or copays and will at the same time of access to healthcare with many benefits..

An economic analysis of the costs of Medicare for All

Robert Pollin and his colleagues at the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at UMass, Amherst, produced a 200-report in November 2018 on Sanders’ earlier 2017 version of Medicare for All, very similar to the 2019 bill. It documented that, if that bill had been signed into law, U.S. healthcare expenditures would have fallen by 9.6 percent “while also providing decent health care coverage for all Americans” (https://commondreams.org/2018/11/30/depth-analysis-team-umass-amherst-economists-show-viability-medicare-all).

Then, on March 20, 2019, Pollin published an updated analysis in a long article on “The Case for Medicare for All,” published on the “opinion” page of The Wall Street Journal (WSJ).

Pollin writes that if the 30 million uninsured people and 86 million underinsured people (a higher number than citied earlier in this essay) are provided with publically-financed , single-payer healthcare under Sanders’ Medicare for All bill, “the overall costs of treatments would rise by about 12%, from $3.3 trillion to $3.6 trillion.” But “Medicare for All could also eliminate 19% of total health-care of total system costs.” The first source of major savings would come in dramatically reduced administrative costs “in contracting, claims, processing, credentialing providers and payment validation – all of which would be unified under one federal agency.” The second source of major savings “would come from the government negotiating down prescription-drug prices, which would eliminate about 6% of total system costs.” Taking into account the expanded coverage and cost reductions, Pollin estimates that “Medicare for All could operate with an overall budget of $2.93 trillion – nearly 10% less than current spending.” The government already spends “$1.9 trillion for Medicare, Medicaid and smaller public programs.” Therefore, government would have to raise another $1 trillion “out of what businesses and families now pay to private insurers.” Finally, he identifies plausibly how this $1 trillion can be raised, as follows.

#1 – “We propose that all businesses that currently purchase health insurance for their employees be mandated to pay 92% of what they now spend into Medicare for All – saving 8% of their healthcare expenditures. Larger firms that haven’t provided coverage for every worker would pay $500 for each uninsured worker, while small business would be exempt from these premiums. This measure would raise $600 billion.” Then: “After two to three years, this system could make a transition to a 1.78% tax on gross receipts or an 8.2% payroll tax, either of which would generate the needed $600 billion.”

#2 – “The remaining $400 billion would come from two measures: a national sales tax of 3.75% on non-necessities, which would generate about $200 billion, and a wealth tax of 0.38%, after exempting the first $1 million of all families’ net worth for another $200 billion.”

#3 – Pollin and his colleagues also propose taxing long-term capital gains as ordinary income.

Under the Medicare for All plan, families would get comprehensive healthcare coverage, with no premiums, deductibles, or copays to private insurers. The highest income brackets would pay more for healthcare, but most families would pay less or nothing. Pollin gives this example: “Net health-care spending for middle-income families that now purchase insurance for themselves would fall by fully 14% of their income.”

Concluding thoughts

The time for Medicare for All has come – rather late. It is a plan that provides universal coverage and potential costs savings in total U.S. healthcare spending. Thus, it makes economic sense while also advancing and institutionalizing values of fairness and collective responsibility and assuring all of us that we have healthcare. However, as you know the political road to the passage of Medicare for All will not be easy. It threatens the economic interests of powerful private healthcare businesses, raises taxes on high-income individuals/families, upsets right-wing interests in the Republican Party, makes moderate wings of the Democratic party wary, and conflicts with the dominant neoliberal ideology that says government can never do anything right and always makes things worse. This neoliberal view has been challenged by many liberal/leftist economists (e.g., see Mariana Mazzucato’s book, The Value of Everything: Making Taking in the Global Economy). If moderate forces win out, there may be incremental reforms but without expanding coverage much or at all, without controlling corporate price gauging, and with the continuation of rising and unsustainable healthcare costs. If right-wing forces win out, the healthcare crisis will be worse. The battle is on.