The coronavirus pandemic – being unprepared

The US public health system was unprepared to deal with the coronavirus that came to the United States in January 2020. The policies of the Trump administration made the problem worse than it might otherwise have been. Eventually, the spreading contagion forced the White House to take belated action, though as of March 25, 2020, there are still serious shortages of vital medical resources across the nation. And this is true even though we are still in the early stages of what has been defined as a pandemic. To protect people from infection, large parts of the economy have been shut down, millions of people are without employment or money, and there are fears that the country is headed toward one of the worst economic downturns since the Great Depression of the 1930s. While the Congress and the President have passed legislation to address some of the financial problems, there is still not enough scientific evidence to predict when we will reach the downslope on the curve. All of this is taking place in economic, political, and social contexts that have generated vast inequalities, unprecedented levels of corporate concentration, a money-driven, corrupted political system.

(A note on terminology. I have used the term “coronavirus” to refer to the current pandemic. It is a term widely used in the media and by many officials. The term actually refers to a family of viruses, not to a particular virus. Lindsay Holmes clarifies the terminology in an article published at The Huff Post. She writes that the term “coronavirus” refers to “a handful of diseases” that cause respiratory problems. It is not the name of a particular disease. Rather, COVID-19 is the correct reference to the current and a novel form of coronavirus (https://www.huffpost.com/entry/difference-between-coronavirus-covid-19_l_5e6be1c4c5b6dda30fc8cb30).)

The viruses are there waiting for the right conditions to attack humans

Human beings have had to endure periodic outbreaks of deadly pandemics for centuries, perhaps all human history. A pandemic, as defined in Sonia Shaw’s book, Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Eobola and Beyond (published in 2016), is “an infectious disease that spreads out of a particular locality to infect populations across regions or continents.” Unable to prevent them, societies have typically been ill-equipped to “mitigate” the rise in illness and deaths that follow from an outbreak.

Lethal viruses have always existed, often living in animal hosts like bats. Shaw points out in an article published in The Nation magazine (February 18, 2020): “Since 1940, hundreds of microbial pathogens have either emerged or reemerged into new territory where they’ve never been seen before,” including “HIV, Ebola in West Africa, Zika in the Americas, and a bevy of novel coronaviruses.” She continues: “The majority of them – 60 percent – originate in the bodies of animal. Some come from pets and livestock. Most of them – more than two-thirds – originate in wildlife” (https://www.thenation.com/article/environment/coronavirus-habitate-loss).

Shaw writes in her book Pandemic: “The disease-causing microbe, or pathogen, that will cause the world’s next pandemic lurks among us today.” They occur frequently. “Besides HIV, there was the West Nile virus, SARS, Ebola, and new kinds of avian flu…. drug-resistant tuberculosis, resurgent malaria, and cholera itself.” Indeed, when it’s all totaled, “between 1940 and 2004, more than three hundred infectious diseases either newly emerged or reemerged in places and in population that had never seen them before.” She notes that the notion that “developed societies” had eliminated them was “greatly exaggerated.” In the US between 1980 and 2000, “the number of deaths pathogens caused in the United States alone rose nearly 60 percent. Many of these deaths were from HIV. But the threat is wider than HIV and the potential impact is frighteningly large. Shaw cites a survey carried out by epidemiologist Larry Brilliant that found, as reported in a TED Talk in February 2006, “90 percent of epidemiologists said that a pandemic that will sicken 1 billion, kill up to 165 million, and trigger a global recession that could cost up to $3 trillion would occur sometime in the next two generations” (pp. 7-8). Shaw gives this example from 2009, that is, “a new kind of influenza virus, called H1N1 emerged and ended up killing “more than a half million…around the world” – including more than twelve thousand in the United States.” We may now be amidst such a pandemic. At the same time, there is ongoing research being done to identify and develop vaccines to squelch potentially deadly pathogens. As Show notes, scientists funded by USAID’s Predict program have undertook such efforts. They have “pinpointed more than 900 novel viruses around the world.”  But there is no vaccine yet for the current coronavirus sweeping the US – and the world.

Despite the sophistication of the science and the advances of contemporary medical practices and remedies, the conditions for pandemics are increasing while the anticipated responses are not. Shaw emphasizes how the habitats of wild animals that carry lethal viruses are being destroyed by deforestation and other destructive activities of extractive businesses (e.g., deforestation, fossil fuel operations, the mining of all sorts of minerals) along with the enormous and steady growth of the human population. All this is leading to increasing contact between wild animals that carry viruses and humans. On this point, she writes in The Nation article: “Habitat destruction threatens vast numbers of wild species with extinction, including the medicinal plants and animals we’ve historically depended upon for our pharmacopeia. It also forces those wild species that hang on to cram into smaller fragments of remaining habitat, increasing the likelihood that they’ll come into repeated, intimate contact with the human settlements expanding into their newly fragmented habitats. It’s this kind of repeated, intimate contact that allows the microbes that live in their bodies to cross over into ours, transforming benign animal microbes into deadly human pathogens.” She gives the following examples.

“To sate our species’ carnivorous appetites, we’ve razed an area around the size of Africa to raise animals for slaughter…[and] some of these animals are then delivered through the illicit wildlife trade or sold in so-called ‘wet markets.’ There, wild species that would rarely if ever encounter each other I nature are caged next to one another, allowing microbes to jump from one species to the next, a process that begot the coronavirus that caused the 2002-03 SARS epidemic and possibly the novel coronavirus stalking us today.” Additionally, many more animals are being reared in factory farms, “where hundreds of thousands of individuals await slaughter, packed closely together, providing microbes lush opportunities to turn into deadly pathogens. Shaw gives the following example.

“Avian influenza viruses…which originate in the bodies of wild waterfowl, rampage in factory farms packed with captive chickens, mutating and becoming more virulent, a process so reliable it can be replicated in the laboratory. One strain, H1N1, which can infect humans, kills more than half of those infected. Containing another strain, which reached North America in 2014, required the slaughter of tens of millions of poultry.”

“We Were Warned”

 This is the title of an article written by Uri Friedman for The Atlantic magazine on March 18, 2020 (https://www.theatlantic.com/archive/2020/03/pandemic-coronavirus-united-states-trump-cdc/608215). Friedman identifies the “signs” that a pandemic was likely to occur prior to the actual outbreak of the coronavirus. In 2012, “the Rand Corporation surveyed the international threats against the United States and concluded that only pandemics of all major threats posed an existential danger, in that they were ‘capable of destroying America’s way of life.’” Then there was a warning in 2015, “when Ezra Klein of Vox, after speaking with Bill Gates about his algorithmic model for how a new strain of flu could spread rapidly in today’s globalized world, wrote that ‘a pandemic disease is the most predictable catastrophe in history of the human race, if only because it has happened to the human race so many, many times before.”  While all this is true, there are other such threats to humanity, namely, nuclear war, the unfolding and accelerating climate crisis, and the ability of human activity to destroy the protective ozone layer in the higher atmosphere.

Back to the “warnings.” In 2017, a week before Trump’s inauguration day, “Lisa Monaco, Barack Obama’s outgoing homeland-security adviser, gathered with Donald Trump’s incoming national-security officials and conducted an exercise modeled on the administration’s experiences with outbreaks of swine flu, Ebola, and Zika. Continuing: “The simulation explored how the U.S. government should respond to a flu pandemic that halts international travel, upends global supply chains, tanks the stock market, and burdens health-care systems – all with a vaccine many months from materializing.”

On the 100th anniversary of the flu pandemic of 1918, “which killed 50 to 100 million people around the world, Luciana Borio, then the director for medical and biodefense preparedness at the National Security Council, told a symposium that ‘the threat of pandemic flu is our number-one health security concern.” She noted as well it could not “be stopped at the border.” The very next day, the Trump-appointed National Security Adviser John Bolton “shuttered the NSC’s unit for preparing and responding to pandemics, of which Borio was a part.”

There were other “warnings” in 2018 and 2019, “when the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security gathered public-health experts, business leaders, and U.S. government officials for simulations of the devastating humanitarian, political, social, and economic consequences of fictional novel coronaviruses that left tens of millions dead around the world. Then, it happened. “Two months after the second simulation, a novel coronavirus…emerged in China.” The U.S. intelligence community had warned in assessments from 2013 to 2019 about “the grave hazards of a new influenza pandemic, that it was not hypothetical, and that history was “replete with examples of pathogens sweeping populations that lack immunity, causing political and economic upheaval.”

Despite these warnings, neither the society nor the Trump administration was prepared for the virus SARS-Co V-2. However, it was not an unforeseen problem and it the serious preparation required had not been forthcoming.

Unprepared as a society

In an article published in The New York Times on March 19, 2020, journalists David E. Sanger, Eric Lipton, Eileen Sullivan and Michael Crowley report on federal-funded research by the Department of Health and Human Services focusing on a program code-named “Crimson Contagion” and other preparations by the federal government (https://nytimes.com/2020/03/20/us/politics/trump-coronavirus-outbreak.html). The Crimson Contagion program, which ran from January to August of 2019, simulated an imagined influenza pandemic, and reported in October how unprepared the US was in its preparation to deal with such an event. Officials “at the Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services, and even at the White House’s National Security Council, were aware of the potential for a respiratory virus outbreak originating in China” and spreading to the United States. They identified “in stark detail repeated cases of ‘confusion’ in the exercise,” including, for example, how “[s]tate officials and hospitals struggled to figure out what kind of equipment was stockpiled or available. Cities and stats went their own ways on school closings.” The planning exercise “involved officials from 12 states and at least a dozen federal agencies.”

The exercise revealed many problems. While during the exercise the CDC “issued guidelines for social distancing, and many employees were told to work from home,” “federal and state officials struggled to identify which employees were essential and what equipment was needed to effectively work at home.” There was “confusion over how to handle school children,” over among state governments over how Washington would help “address shortages of antiviral medications, personal protective equipment and ventilators. And there was a realization that the US economy “did not have the means to quickly manufacture more essential medical equipment, supplies or medicines, including antiviral medications, needles, syringes. N95 respirators and ventilators…”  These findings did not later influence Trump’s appointees in the relevant federal agencies. Even before the exercise was undertaken, in 2018, Mr. Trump’s national security at the time, John R. Bolton, eliminated the National Security Council Directorate,” which, as mentioned earlier, had been established to coordinate federal government planning for infectious diseases. In Testimony to Congress in early March 2020, “Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, suggested that ending the stand-alone directorate was ill-advised.”

The systemic obstacles to the government’s ability to manage pandemics

 The absence of a public healthcare system

 Robert Reich, Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, secretary of labor in the first Clinton administration, makes the argument that the system would be failing even if there was a competent president because “there is no real public health system in the United States” (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2020/03/17/coronavirus-outbreak-proves-there-is-no-public-health-system-us).

He writes: “Instead of a public health system, we have a private for-profit system for individuals lucky enough to afford it and rickety social insurance system for people fortunate enough to have a full-time job.” There is no central coordinating government entity to ensure that the current system has the reserve capacity to deliver necessary resources to state and local healthcare organizations in a crisis or the ability to deliver, out of necessity, health care to tens of millions of Americans free of charge. He points out that “[l]ocal and state health departments are already barebones, having lost nearly a quarter of their workforce since 2008, according to the National Association of County and City Health Officials.” There are other systemic deficiencies. As mentioned, the present system is not required to maintain a reserve capacity of resources necessary for such emergencies. Thus, “the nation’s supply of ventilators isn’t nearly large enough to care for projected numbers of critically ill coronavirus victims unable to breathe for themselves.” With an expected need of up to 2.9 million intensive care unit beds, there are only 45,000 now available.

In an interview on the only program Democracy Now, Dr. Steven Goodman gave additional information on the availability of all hospital beds. He said: “I think we have on the order of a million beds. And the actual number that are available on any on day is about of a third of that. The number of ICU beds is a fraction of that….So, we are not geared up as a society with the surge capacity to handle the number of COVID patients that we would get if we didn’t do anything” (https://www.democracynow.org/2020/03/13/us_coronoavirus_response). Government officials and hospitals in some states are now scrambling to fill the gaps.

While the system has been woefully unprepared on the healthcare resources side, it has also unprepared to deal with the dislocations and suffering of vast swaths of the American population caused by the pandemic. In summarizing the dire situation, Reich points out: “Almost 30% of American workers have no paid sick leave from their employers, including 70% of low-income workers earning less than $10.49 an hour. Vast numbers of self-employed workers cannot afford sick leave.” “Most jobless Americans don’t qualify for unemployment insurance because they haven’t worked long enough in a steady job…. Meanwhile, more than 30 million Americans have no health insurance.” Continuing: “It’s hard to close public schools because most working parents cannot afford childcare. Many children rely on school lunches for their one square meal a day. In Los Angeles, about 80% of students qualify for free or reduced lunches and just under 20,000 are homeless at some point during the school year.” The ad hoc and belated remedies currently being considered in the US Congress and by the White House won’t fill the void.

Years of austerity at all levels of government, combined with profiteering, in the health care sector

This is Mike Ludwig’s thesis, plus he adds: “the Trump administration’s bungled response.” All this “severely weakened the nation’s ability to combat the coronavirus outbreak and…putting public health workers on the front lines of the crisis in danger” (https://truthout.org/articles/years-of-austerity-weakened-the-public-health-response-to-coronavirus). In an interview with David Himmelstein, M.D., a professor of public health at the City University of New York at Hunter College, Himmelstein says that “public health departments nationwide have eliminated 50,000 positions since 2008.” The employees of public health departments “are the folks who actually go out and when someone is sick with an infectious disease…they track down the people who might be exposed and treat them in the case of treatable things like STDS or hepatitis,  or isolate them in the case of COVID-19.” According to the Trust for America’s Health, a nonpartisan research and advocacy group, 31 states made cuts from to their public health budgets between 2015 and 2017, “often because conservatives controlled their legislatures.” At the same time, “the CDC’s core budget…remained relatively flat for the last decade after steadily increasing from 1990 to 2010.” The Affordable Care Act “attempted to boost federal health spending at the local level through the section of the law known as the Prevention and Public Health Fund, but the fund has received nearly $12 billion less than the law intended by 2007.” To top it off, according to Himmelstein, spending on health care is very unequal, depending on incomes and color. He told Ludwig that “hospitals serving wealthier parts of the country may have plenty of ventilators and intensive care units for treating COVID-19 patients, while others are scrambling to respond with limited resources and protective equipment for staff.”

A drastic shortage of testing for coronavirus has hampered mitigation efforts

In its response to the coronavirus pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) emphasizes “social distancing” to curtail the spread of the disease and the need for a country to do widespread testing to identify the people who are infected. The New York Times Editorial Board writes that “[E]very region that has managed to get a coronavirus outbreak under control has succeeded thanks to a combination of social distancing and aggressive efforts to test as many people as possible.” So, at least on testing, “South Korea…has tested some 274,000 people since February,” while the “United States has tested just 82,000, the vast majority of them in the past few weeks” (https://nytimes.com/2020/02/19/opinion/covonavirus-testing.html). Adhanom Ghebreyesus Tedros, head of the WHO, says that “[e]pidemiological testing – where the contacts of infected people are identified, tested in turn and isolated as needed – is the only way to fully break the chains of transmissions” The editors tells us what has become well known that, until recently, “American officials have not absorbed that lesson.” For example, “Almost no efforts are underway to develop the infrastructure for quarantining the exposed or isolating the infected outside their homes, away from their families. In some places, as the case counts surge, doctors who think they’ve been exposed are being advised to keep on working.” Worst of all, the editors write, testing “has been disastrously slow to come online in the United States.”  The editors expand on the consequences.

“With coronavirus outbreaks in the states of New York and Washington stretching into their second months, some experts have all but given up on testing, saying that the virus has probably spread well beyond our ability to contain it. Based on that logic, people who are known to have been exposed are being advised to isolate themselves at home but are not being tested to determine whether they pose a risk to roommates or relatives, nor are they being monitored for symptoms in any consistent or meaningful way. It also means those who have immunities can’t know it, and thus can’t know they are in a position to safely help those who are high risk.”

In an article for Common Dreams on March 19, 2020, staff writer Jessica Corbett cites sources that confirm the national shortage of COVID-19 laboratory testing materials. She quotes from an interview CNN did with Scott Becker, CEO of the Association of Public Health Laboratories. Becker told Corbett: “I’m really concerned that we are not going to have the capabilities to test those who really need and should get the test.” Corbett refers to other evidence, citing how “medical officials at several state health departments, hospitals and labs have told CNN they need more testing swabs, reagents, pipettes, and other material need to conduct the COVID-1 tests.” There are also reports about such shortages from the Minnesota Department of Health, Utah officials who are reserving tests for “the most at-risk populations,” the San Francisco hospital system, and other hospitals around the country. Dr. Ulrike Sujansky of San Mateo, California, told the New York Times that “she has only been able to test a few patients in her hard hit area because of a supply problem, such as swab kits [that] have arrived late or haven’t been the right type.” Also, Sujansky said she “lacks standard protective gear, like face masks.” Then at major hospitals in Seattle and Washington, D.C., “mask shortages had already become so acute that doctors and patients were being asked to reuse the masks, not dispose of them as previous, traditional CDC protocol requires.” According to Wikipedia, fewer than 14,000 tests had been carried out by March 13 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2020_coronavirus_pandemic_in_the_United_States).

Doctors treating coronavirus patients don’t have the protective equipment they need

In an article published in the New York Times, Andrew Jacobs, Matt Richtel and Mike Baker report, as many others have, on the dire shortage of protective gear for doctors (https://nytimes.com.2020/03/19/health/cornoavirus-masks-shortages.html). They open their article with an example of how the Open Cities Community Health Center in St. Paul, Minn., “is considering shutting down because it doesn’t have enough face masks.” This follows with examples with the same problems at Doctor at Barnes Jewish Hospital in St. Louis and emergency room doctors in Los Angeles, anesthesiologist interviewed in central Kentucky, administrators at the Memorial Sloan Kettering in Manhattan, the Providence St. Joseph hospital chain based in Washington [state], emergency room doctors in New Jersey, and a surgeon in Fresno, California. They point out as well that while respirator masks can be used for eight hours of continuous and intermittent use, many doctors “around the country said they are being given just one, to use indefinitely, and they spray it down with Lysol or wipe it off, now knowing whether that will preserve it.

The NYT journalists cite Howard K. Mell, a spokesman for the American College of Emergency Physicians, who says the crisis requires decisive federal action. Mell urged “the White House to ramp up production of medical gear through the Defense Production Act powers, and he called on federal authorities to increase distributions from the Strategic National Stockpile, a repository of critical medical supplies for public health emergencies.” According to this source, the “stockpile has roughly 12 million N95 masks and 30 million surgical masks,” though the “country would need 3.5 billion masks in the vent of a pandemic lasting a year.” There is fear in this medical community that the prospects for adequate and speedy government intervention is limited.

Even if a person is found to have the virus, she/he may not be able to afford the necessary treatment. See the following article by Abigal Abrams, “Total Cost of COVID-19 Treatment: $34,927.43,” published in Time magazine on March 20 (https://time.com/5806312/coronavirus-treatment-cost).

For weeks, Trump fueled confusion and doubt about the reality of the coronavirus outbreak and spread

 In the article by Uri Friedman cited previously, he offers evidence that funding for pandemic preparedness has “long lagged behind other homeland-security priorities.” His example is that, according to one 2016 calculation, “the U.S. government…spends at least $100 billion on counterterrorism efforts versus $1 billion on pandemic and emerging-infectious-disease programs.” He goes on to write that the Trump administration not only underfunded such efforts “but also proposed steep spending cuts year-after-year to institutions, such as, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that are tasked with handling outbreaks.” Congress resisted the efforts of the Trump administration, but the proposed cuts nonetheless reveal the president’s low priority for pandemic preparedness.

Katie Rogers, White House correspondent for The NewYork Times is one among many journalists who document Trump’s  confusing and misinformed responses to the reality and significance of the coronavirus (https://nytimes.com/2020/03/17/us/politics/trump-coronavirus.html).

Rogers writes: “For weeks, President Trump has minimized the coronavirus, mocked concern about it and treated the risk from it cavalierly.” He changed his tune on Tuesday, March 17. However, this was only after confusing and delaying a meaningful government response to what was becoming an out-of-control outbreak.

Rogers identifies five occasions where the president downplayed the issue. On January 22, two days after the first person in the US was identified as having the virus. He was “asked by a CNBC reporter whether there were ‘worries about a pandemic.” The President’s reply: “No, not at all. We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be fine.” On February 16, “at a White House news conference, commenting on the country’s first reported cases: ‘We’re going to be pretty soon be at only five people. And we could be at just one or two people over the next short period of time. So, we’ve had very good luck.”

Then at a White House meeting on February 27, he said: “It’s going to disappear. One day – it’s like a miracle – it will disappear.” On March 7, while the president stood next to President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil at Mar-a-Lago and was asked “if he was concerned that the virus was spreading closer to Washington, he responded: ‘No, I’m not concerned at all. No, I’m not. NO, we’ve done a great job.” Her final example: On March 16 in the White House briefing room, the president said that outbreak would “wash” away this summer: “So it could be right in that period of time where it, I say, wash – it washes through. Other people don’t like that term. But where it washes through.”

The confusion generated by Trump’s statements – until recently – go beyond just minimizing the harm. Rogers reports he has mocked those who expressed concern. At a campaign rally in South Carolina on February 28, “Mr. Trump accused Democrats and the news media of hysteria and unfairly criticizing his administration by engaging in what he said was a political ‘hoax.’” He has propounded inaccurate information. “At a campaign rally on February 10, Mr. Trump suggested that the virus would be gone by April, a claim he has frequently repeated, even though his advisers had warned him that much about the virus was still not known.” He has misled the American people about the unpreparedness of the healthcare system. On March 6, during a tour of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, he said: “They’re there [the tests]. They have the tests and they are beautiful.” He has conveyed the bizarre idea that he has a deep knowledge of the science. During the visit to the CDE on March 6, “Mr. Trump praised his own ‘natural ability to grasp scientific theories.”

Other coverage of Trump’s  responses to the coronavirus from January 24 through mid-March

 David Leonhardt, opinion columnist for The New York Times, assembled “a complete list of Trump’s to play down Coronavirus” in an article with that name (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/15/opinion/trump-coronavirus.html). He identifies these statements, beginning on January 24 through mid-March, including his remarks at press conferences, his statements at rallies, interviews on Fox News programs, and his prolific twitter account. During this period, the number of coronavirus cases in the US continued rising, as it continues doing. The following paragraph from the article sums up Leonhardt’s findings.

“I’ve reviewed all of his public statements and actions on coronavirus over the last two months, and they show a president who put almost no priority on public health. Trump’s priorities were different. Making the virus sound like a minor nuisance. Exaggerating his administration’s response. Blaming foreigners and, anachronistically, the Obama administration. Claiming incorrectly that the situation was improving. Trying to cheer up stock market investors.”

Katelyn Burns identified “Trump’s 7 worst statements on the coronavirus outbreak” in an article for Vox (https://vox.com/policy-and-politics/2020/3/13/211776535/trumps-worst-statements-coronavirus). She is particularly concerned about Trump’s tendency “to outright contradict the facts and statements of the government’s top infectious disease experts.” On March 4, Trump told Fox viewers that the death rate [associated with the virus] was a “fraction of 1 percent.” Here’s the full quote in all of its eloquence: “Now, this is just a hunch, but based on a lot of conversations with a lot of people that do this, because a lot of people will have this and it is very mild…So if, you know, we have thousands or hundreds of thousands of people that get better, just by, you know, sitting around and even going to work, some of the go to work, but they get better and then, when you do have a death like you had in the state of Washington, like you had one in California, I believe you had one in New York, you know, all of sudden it seems like 3 or 4 percent, which is a very high number, as opposed to a fraction of one percent.”

Among the “worst statements” are Trump’s claim that health insurers’ “have agreed to waive all copayments for coronavirus treatments”,  that the contagion would likely just disappear when temperatures rose, that anyone wanting a test for COVID-19 could get one, that the seasonal flu is worse that the coronavirus, that a vaccine would soon be available, and that  the US was “the most prepared country in the world.” On this last point, Burns refers, as many others have, to how the Trump administration “fired the government’s entire pandemic response chain of command” in late 2018.

Trump is compelled by the mounting evidence to acknowledge the significance of the coronavirus pandemic in the US

 At the presidential press conference on March 16, “Trump finally seemed to grasp that the outbreak is guaranteed to have a serious impact on the daily lives of American,” according to an article by Cody Fenwick, published in Raw Story(https://www.rawstory.com/2020/03/trump-crashes-face-first-into-reality-as-he-reverses-himself-on-the-coronavirus-in-4-key-ways). Fenwick identifies four ways Trump “changed his tune at the press conference.” Most telling, he admitted that the coronavirus is very contagious, admitting that “This is bad in the sense that it’s so contagious…. It’s sort of record-setting type contagion.” Second, he reversed himself – for the moment – on the media, saying they had been “very fair,” after having repeatedly saying that the media had used it influence “to inflame the CoronaVirus situation, far beyond what the facts would warrant.” Third, he acknowledged, and seemed to agree, that scientists were correct in predicting that the pandemic could continue throughout the summer. Earlier he had said that it would go away in April, with the heat. Fourth, he tentatively agreed that the country could be headed into a recession, in the face of huge drops in the stock market. Though he maintained that, with the defeat of the virus, the economy would likely bounce back quickly to levels even greater than before.

Government responses

Even before Trump’s reversal, despite his skepticism, he had on January 29, 2020, established a White House Coronavirus Task Force “to coordinate and oversee efforts to ‘monitor, prevent, contain, and mitigate the spread’ of the pandemic in the United States” (https://wikipedia.org/wiki/2020_coronavirus_pandemic_in_the_United_States). According to Wikipedia, “Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar was appointed as the leader of the task force. On February 26, President Trump appointed Vice President Mike Pence to take charge of the nation’s response to the virus. And scientific experts…. were included. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was put in charge of procuring medical supplies on March 22.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was enlisted to support state and local efforts at identifying and containing the virus. And, over time, other federal agencies were instructed to focus resources in the fight against the pandemic.

The Trump administration issued orders on January 31, 2020, to deny entry to the US of foreign nationals who had recently traveled through China. On March 20, “the US began barring entry to foreign nationals who had been in China, Iran, or 28 European countries,” adding the UK subsequently.

The White House Coronavirus Task Force, including usually the president, started holding daily, nationally-broadcast, press conferences, to provide the administration with a way to keep the American people informed about current facts, what the administration was doing, and what citizens should do. While Trump tried to convey a upbeat spin at these press gatherings, the experts on the task force kept reporting on the growing spread of the virus and emphasizing what people must do to diminish its spread (e.g., “social distancing”). At the same time, during the question and answer parts of the press conferences, reporters in attendance typically posed hard questions about the ongoing shortage of testing materials to identify those who had the virus, why there continued to be shortages of “personal protective equipment” (masks, gloves, surgical gowns, ventilators, etc.), shortages of  hospital beds for sick patients with the virus, whether the president would follow the lead of some governors in issuing “stay in place” orders. At the same time, the President, the Vice President, and other government officials focused on how these shortfalls were being addressed  – or potentially addressed – by both corporations in the private sector, University research groups, and governors and mayors as well as public health agencies around the country. The evidence is still coming in as to whether these efforts will be adequate, though it is all too obvious that they have been late in emerging.

Another reversal by the President?

President Trump seems to have used the press conferences, at least in part, to promote himself and assure his political base of how “great” his contributions have been throughout the pandemic. At the same time, for weeks, he went along with the experts for some time in agreeing how serious the problem is. However, in the press conference on March 23, 2020, President Trump stunned reporters and the media audiences when he said that the emphasis on mitigating the pandemic would have to soon give way to efforts to re-boot the failing economy. Jake Johnson reports on what Trump said and the reaction of experts (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/03/24/all-about-power-ignoring-experts-trump-reportedly-moving-to-lift-coronavirus).

He writes: “Worried that the tumultuous stock market and soaring unemployment are imperiling his chances of reelection in November, President Donald Trump is defying the internal and public pleas of his administration’s own health experts and moving toward lifting federal coronavirus prevention guidelines in an effort to jumpstart the flagging economy.” In a tweet on Sunday, March 22, Trump claimed “the economic troubles caused by coronavirus prevention measures could outweigh the human costs of the virus itself.” Johnson reports: “Trump’s push to lift social distancing guidelines come as health experts, including the president’s own Surgeon General, are warning that the coronavirus threat is intensifying, not subsiding. On Monday alone, the U.S. reported more than 100 coronavirus deaths nationwide.” In contradiction to the President, Surgeon General Jerome Adams warned on Monday, March 23,

“I want America to understand this week, it’s going to get bad. Right now, there are not enough people out there who are taking this seriously… Everyone needs to act as if they have the virus right now. So, test or no test, we need you to understand you could be spreading it to someone else. Or you could be getting it from someone else. Stay at home.”

There have been expressions of concern, if not outrage, from epidemiologists and other scientists, including from Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert and a member of the President’s Coronavirus Task Force. Citing the Washington Post, Fauci “privately warned White House officials not to listen to growing calls from right-wing economists, Fox News pundits, business leaders, and Republican politicians to loosen federal guidelines aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19, which has officially infected at least 43,000 people and killed more than 530 in the United States.” Marc Lipsitch. An epidemiology professor at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health and director of Harvard’s Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics,  told the Post that lifting federal guidelines at this moment could have disastrous consequences for public health.” And, further: “Now is the time to tighten restrictions on contacts that could transmit the virus, not loosen them. If we let up now, we can be virtually certain that healthcare will be overwhelmed in many if not all parts of the country. This is the view of every well-informed infectious epidemiologist I know of.”

In the nationally-televised press conference on March 24, Trump repeated his belief that the pandemic would – could – be over, or well controlled at least, in a few weeks. At the same time, he conveyed a duel, somewhat confusing, message that his decisions would be guided by what the scientists told him about the pandemic, but that we could not let the economy stay in lock down much longer.

Concluding thoughts

So far the US Congress has passed three spending bill, the last a massive $2 trillion or so bill passed on March 25. They are designed to offer financial support for businesses in various sectors of  the faltering and shrinking economy, the under-resourced and chaotic health care system, buttress state unemployment agencies, send checks to millions of Americans, and fund childcare services for those still employed, and more. The Federal Reserve has moved to provide $4 trillion to ensure the liquidity into the banking system, lowered the interest rate to near zero to make borrowing from the Fed interest-free, and arranged to purchase worthless assets on the big bank accounts (previously called quantitative easing). There is concern that the banks mega-corporations will be bailed without conditions that require them to invest in the real economy, not in buying back their stocks and increasing the already lucrative compensation of top executives. Jack Rasmus offers an economic analysis of the potential and actual flaws in what the Fed has done at: https://popularresistance.org/an-economic-recovery-program-theirs-vs-mine.

The New York editorial board has put together a plan to fight the war against the coronavirus pandemic that, for example, calls for the federal government to “dramatically ramp up production” of the materials needed by public health practitioners and hospitals, much like what was done to transform the US economy during WWII” (https://nytimes.com/2020/03/17/opinion/war-coronavirus-trump-production.html).

The current pandemic, still in its early stages in the US and many other parts of the world. But there is much about our political, economic, social system that have been already taking us in un-democratic, unequal, and unsustainable directions. If we don’t find the courage and means to vanquish the virus, or if we do so in ways that reinforce existing societal arrangements, then the future will certainly be darker than ever conceived. Viewed in this context, the struggle to find ways to defeat the coronavirus may, nonetheless, represent one of those crucial historical moments that have profound and lasting system-wide consequences, either leading to the consolidation of an increasingly unequal, unbridled, ecologically-incompatible form of capitalism, or opening the door and taking the first serious steps towards the creation of a society that is based on the best science, on democratic and egalitarian values, and on the recognition and commitment to finds ways to achieve sustainable and peaceful ways to live together. Oh, there is a third possibility, that is, the we muddle on frantically trying to patch the system with modest “reforms,” while the systemic contradictions deepen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The debate over Bernie Sanders

Bob Sheak – March 6, 2020

This post focuses on Bernie Sanders multi-issue agenda and the cost of the many proposals that make up his agenda. It also considers the benefits as well as the costs of the agenda. Sanders vision is of comprehensive and structural changes requires a large expansion of government, fiscally, programmatically, in regulations. However, Sanders approach is not one that calls for centralized planning or a command economy. In all cases, businesses in the a less monopolistic private sector do the actual work, while ordinary voters, workers, and consumers have more influence. If ever implemented, his policies would make the society more democratic, equal, just, and less militaristic, than it is or has been. While the costs of the proposals are high, the savings and benefits are also considerable. The question of whether, if nominated by the Democratic Party to be its presidential nominee, Sanders could defeat Trump is taken up, while it is recognized that Sanders must first beat Joe Biden in the Democratic primaries. The outlook here is less bright since Biden’s resounding victories on Super Tuesday. Whoever eventually wins the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, Trump and the powerful forces that support him will pose formidable challenges.

 Bernie’s transformative agenda

Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign identifies 34 “issues” on “Bernie Sanders on the issues,” website. Many of the issues include several or many proposals. For example, under the “College for All” issue there are ten separate proposals. The 34 issues include Medicare for all, a green new deal, college for all, a welcoming and safe America for all, workplace democracy, housing for all, the expansion of Social Security, justice and safety for all, honoring our commitment to veterans, free child care and pre-k for all, eliminating medical debt, reinvesting in pubic education, fair banking for all, supporting HBCUs and MSIs, taxes on extreme wealth, racial justice, high-speed internet for all, free and fair elections, income inequality tax plan, revitalizing rural America, responsible foreign policy, women’s rights, getting corporate money out of politics, LGBTQ+Equality, fighting for disability rights, empowering Puerto Rico, Tax increases for the rich, gun safety, legalizing marijuana, empowering tribal nations, real wall street reform, jobs for all, fair trade, and corporate accountability and democracy.

The limits of the electoral process on communicating the full agenda

My guess is that most of Sanders’ supporters do not pay attention to the whole range or details of his proposals. When they do, they focus on what items on a platform potentially reflect their interests, worldview, and values, and/or their party affiliation, and/or some “demographic” factors, and/or their “electability,” especially with respect to the need to defeat Trump. The strictures of campaigning, the rallies, debates, media appearances, organizational maintenance, coordination and planning, the endless greetings and handshakes, the miles of traveling, the candidates can only focus on their “major” proposals and/or the specific interests of a group being addressed or targeted. Pollsters sometime ask respondents whether their votes for a Democratic presidential candidate will be more influenced by the “issues” presented by the candidates or by their “electability,” with the assumption that the two can be separated.

Issues vs electability

 In the present Democratic presidential campaign context, the question often implicitly associates “issues” with Sanders and “electability” with Joe Biden. In fact, both candidates have multi-issue platforms. Bernie has an appeal to the left side of the political continuum based on structural reforms, his long record in both the House and Senate, and the belief that there is a need for a movement outside of the Democratic Party to propel his candidacy, with a movement like enthusiasm and funding from small donors. Biden’s appeal is more to the center based on incremental reforms, a mixed record in the US Congress, his association with former president Barack Obama, the support of black Democratic voters, the support of the Democratic Party leadership, and contributions from any and all sources, now including multi-billionaire Mike Bloomberg.

The impact – if ever implemented

 The overall effect of Sanders’ platform, if ever fully implemented, would be to reduce overall income and wealth inequalities, through an expansion of government programs and spending. It would reverse, or begin to reverse the neoliberal ideologically justified programs that that have emphasized small government (not the military), low taxes, minimal regulation when it in anyway threats business interests, the shredding of the safety net, the privatization of every potentially profitable economic sector, huge military expenditures, the hollowing out and politicization of federal government agencies, maximum support for fossil fuels.

Under a Sander’s presidency, there would be programs that provide benefits for everyone, but especially for those in the lower 80% of the population and even more for those in the bottom 50%, that is, “the working class” of industrial workers, non-supervisory workers generally, farm workers and small farmers, those without jobs who want work, and the poor. It would provide the phasing in of universal, single-payer Medicare for All and free childcare and pre-K for all. It would eliminate medical debt, expand Social Security, support full employment (“jobs for all”; the 20 million jobs expected to be created by The Green New Deal), improve wages through a higher federal minimum wage and support a minimum salary of $60,000 for teachers . It would “reinvest in Public Education.” It would “Honor our commitments to Veterans.” Additionally, the Sanders’ platform would eliminate student debt and lower the interest rate on future student debt, support black colleges and universities, empower tribal nations and Puerto Rico, and work to end discrimination and improve opportunities for women, blacks, the disabled, and the LGBTQ communities, while “revitalizing rural America” and providing “high-speed internet for all.” There is more. Sanders would work to pass comprehensive immigration reform that support DACA and recognize the international right of asylum, advance a foreign policy that emphasizes diplomacy and strives for international cooperation. It would even legalize marijuana. Much of this agenda can only be advanced with the support of both the Senate and House. And, even in the most propitious circumstances, it doesn’t all happen overnight. Some programs could be instituted quickly, while others would take years to phase in, some requiring more than one administration.

The expansion of government under Bernie’s plan requires a robust, non-mega- corporate-dominated private sector

Sanders has at times called his campaign “revolutionary” in what he wants to achieve. Indeed, in 2016, he wrote and published a book entitled Our Revolution: A Future to Believe In.  All the many proposals address problematic economic, political, and social challenges that, if ever enacted, would domestically make America more democratic, equal, and just than it has ever been. The platform offers proposals to diminish the power of mega-corporations generally, and specifically of Wall Street financial institutions, of the military-industrial complex, the pharmaceutical industry, and eliminating or phasing out fossil fuels and the big energy corporations, insurance corporations in health care, and for-profit corporate control in the prison-industrial complex.

Bernie Sanders is a self-described “democratic socialist, which, contrary to his many critics, does not mean that he wants a centralized planned command economy. There is no doubt his policies, if supported congressionally, would greatly increase the role of the federal government in the economy. It would break up or reform the Wall Street banks (eliminating the “too big to fail” conundrum) and encourage the development of public banks at the state and local level. It would transform the health-care sector, taking over the funding of health care but leaving physicians, hospitals, and other health-related sectors to operate much as they have, while giving consumers the right to choose their providers and hospitals. His agenda would institute ways to negotiate prices for prescription drugs. It would advance policies to replace fossil fuels, supporting companies in the private sector that are investing and producing renewable energy sources, energy efficiency, and conservation. The green energy program would provide opportunities for small and larger contractors in the private sector. The Sanders agenda would cut the huge and bloated military budget, although his campaign has not specified clearly how much they would  cut (https://www.counterpunch.org/2020/02/27/bernie-finally-puts-a-number-on-cutting-military-spending).

Then, of course, his administration would expand benefits for Social Security beneficiaries, strengthen the social safety net, and generally expand what is known as the social-welfare state. This expansion would be like the social democratic systems in many European countries. Additionally, he would ask the congress to fund a massive housing program, built by private developers but under strict, non-discriminatory guidelines. And there would be massive support for a repair and renewal of the national infrastructure, again with the work done largely by private contractors. All work funded by the federal government would require that workers have the choice of being represented by a union, that there would decent wages and benefits, and that they would be non-discriminatory in hiring and other job- related areas. It is clear that Sanders wants to transform the role of the federal government but without the command structures, the one-party domination and interference, and the ownership of the means of production associated with, more or less, countries such as Russia, China, North Korea, and Cuba.

What about the costs?

Ronald Brownstein argues that the cost of Sanders agenda is troubling and could be economically disastrous, estimated by some experts to cost at least $60 trillion over ten years (https://cnn.com/2020/01/14/politics/bernie-sanders-proposals-cost/index.html).

Brownstein’s basic point is that Sanders’ proposals would at least double federal spending over the next decade, [while] he has provided little detail about how he would implement or finance such a massive increase.” According to “a wide variety of fiscal experts, according to Brownstein, the cost of Sanders’ agenda would represent “an expansion of government’s cost and size unprecedented since World War II.” Quoting Larry Summers, the former chief of White House economic adviser for Barack Obama and treasury secretary for Bill Clinton, the cost of Sanders’ agenda would  exceed as a share of the economy “far more than the New Deal under President Franklin Roosevelt, the Great Society under Lyndon Johnson or the agenda proposed by any recent Democratic presidential nominee, including liberal George McGovern in 1972.” Brownstein also quotes Maya MacGuineas, president of the bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a nonprofit group that advocates reducing federal deficits, who reiterates the point that “Sanders’ agenda would at least double federal spending. ”

There are difficulties in coming up with a precise cost estimate of his proposals because the “exact cost projections on all of Sanders proposals aren’t available, in part because he hasn’t fully fleshed out some of the ideas he’s embraced (such as universal pre-K and child care). Nonetheless, Brownstein insists, there are estimates that put the likely cost of the single-payer health care plan he has endorsed around $30 trillion or more over the next decade. Depending on the estimates used, including projections from his own campaign, the other elements of the Sanders agenda — ranging from his “Green New Deal” to the cancellation of all student debt to a guaranteed federal jobs program that has received almost no scrutiny — could cost about as much, or even more than, the single-payer plan. That would potentially bring his 10-year total for new spending to around $60 trillion, or more.” Brownstein reports that multiple officials at the Sanders’ campaign have not responded to requests for comments on the scope of his agenda or their own estimates of its cost.

Brownstein also provides some details on the “most expensive elements of the Sanders plan,” estimated by various organizations and the Sanders’ campaign itself. The Urban Institute estimated that Sanders’ single-payer health plan would cost $34 trillion over the next decade. According to the campaign, the ten-year cost of the Green New Deal will be $16.3 trillion. The campaign’s plan is to build 10 million “more units of affordable housing” over ten years at a cost of $2.5 trillion, $1 trillion to improve the nation’s infrastructure, $1.6 trillion to pay off all student debt, $460 billion for the cost of tuition-free public college, $1 trillion on federal spending on K-12, including a guaranteed $60,000 minimum salary for all teachers, $350 billion in support of universal preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds and universal child care support, and $275 billion to raise Social Security benefits. These plans alone add up to over $57 trillion.

Higher yet

The total costs may end up to be more expensive than $57 to $60 trillion over ten years. The two biggest uncertainties on the cost side are on the ten year costs of “paid medical and family leave for private-sector workers funded by an expansion of the payroll tax, and, most of all, Sanders “pledge to enact a federal jobs guarantee, to ensure that everyone is guaranteed a stable job that pays a living wage.” One estimate is that the employment program would “provide federal jobs to roughly 11 million Americans who are either unemployed or out of the workforce but still desiring to work” and “would cost around $7.5 trillion over 10 years,” including benefits and administrative costs. The costs in this program could turn out to be less than $7.5 trillion, as there is other funding in Bernie’s agenda to be allocated for the creation of up to 20 million jobs linked to the clean energy plan. However, the estimates for the demand of the federal jobs may well be too low. Jobs that pay $15 dollars an hour with benefits are likely attract millions of workers who are not only unemployed, or out of the labor force, but also workers who are employed in jobs that pay less than $15 and/or do not provide benefits. The existing federal and state employments services are not now equipped to handle such a demand for employment, gather information on the jobs created in the energy, infrastructure, housing sectors, and the full-employment, guaranteed job program.

Tax revenues

According to Brownstein’s sources the proposed taxes, economists across the ideological spectrum, is that the “sheer size of Sanders’ spending agenda dwarfs the proposed tax increases he has offered to pay for it.” He refers to an estimate by Brian Riedl, a former Senate Republican budget aide who’s now a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, who has calculated that “Sanders’ existing proposals to raise taxes on the wealthy, Wall Street and corporations would raise about $23 trillion over the next decade.” In addition, “the CBO projects the total amount the federal government will collect over the next decade from the personal income tax is $23.2 trillion. When the new Sanders’ taxes and the taxes projected by the CBO are combined, that is $43.2 trillion over ten years, there is a gap in the estimated $60 trillion costs of the Sanders’ agenda of $16.8 trillion over ten years and $1.68 trillion a year. Though these estimates are rough and subject to all sorts of unquantifiable contingencies. It should also be noted that there have been continuous “limits on government’s capacity to raise money from the wealthy and business.” These considerations raise the specter of a situation in which either the federal debt will rise, or there will be taxes on the middle class to keep the federal deficit from rising too much, or some or many of programs promised by Sanders will have to be postponed.

Savings and benefits

There could be offsetting savings that reduce any possible additions to the fiscal deficit. Brownstein points out that “Sanders and his supporters have responded to concerns about the cost of his plans by arguing that single-payer health care will save on total health care costs for average families by eliminating copayments, deductibles and premiums; that Sanders will save money by cutting defense spending; that spending in areas such as universal early childhood education or free public higher education will generate more benefits than costs for society by improving the productivity of the workforce; and that the overall agenda will accelerate economic growth to a point that makes the cost easier for the economy to absorb.”

Economist Jeffrey D. Sachs also emphasizes the social and political benefits to Americans that will flow from Bernie’s programs (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2020/02/26/even-wall-street-plutocrats-cant-burn-bernie). He notes that the Wall Street Elite, among other powerful forces, lobby against or ignore the benefits of Sanders proposals, writing: Sanders is a social democrat in the European mold who ‘wants to restore basic decency to America life: ‘universal publicly financed health care; above-poverty wages for full-time workers, along with basic benefits such as family leave for infants and paid leave for illness; college education that does not drive young adults into lifelong debt; elections that billionaires cannot buy; and public policy determined by public opinion, not corporate lobbying (which reached $3.47 billion in the United States in 2019). He refers to polls that find ‘large majorities….want government to ensure health care for all. They want higher taxes on the rich. They want a transition to renewable energy. And they want limits on big money in politics. These are all core Sanders positions, and all are commonplace in Europe.” The beneficiaries would include “tens of millions of Americans lack basic health-care coverage and that medical expenses bankrupt around 500,000 each year, or that one in five US households has zero or negative net worth and that nearly 40% struggle to meet basic needs….that ‘44 million Americans burdened by student debt totaling $1.6 trillion, a phenomenon essentially unknown in other developed countries. And while stock markets have soared, enriching the elites, suicide rates and other ‘deaths of despair (such as opioid overdoses) have also soared, as the working class has fallen further into financial and psychological insecurity.”

Picking up on the last point about the unmet needs that will be addressed by Sander’s proposals, Robert Reich considers “the humongous costs of inaction.”

(https://robertreich.org/post/610881487293874178). He notes that Larry Summers has put the price tag on Sanders agenda at a ten-year $60 trillion – and recognizes the problems of inaccuracy of that estimate. But inaction, Reich contends, will cost more over time than the costs of Bernie’s proposals, that is, the “costs of doing nothing.” Reich refers to several specific examples to make his point.

“A Green New Deal might be expensive but doing nothing about climate change will almost certainly cost far more. If we don’t launch something as bold as a Green New Deal, we’ll spend trillions coping with the consequences of our failure to be bold.”

“Medicare for All will cost a lot, but the price of doing nothing about America’s increasingly dysfunctional healthcare system will soon be in the stratosphere. A new study in The Lancet estimates that Medicare for All would save $450 billion and prevent 68,000 unnecessary deaths each year.”

“Investing in universal childcare, public higher education and woefully outdated and dilapidated infrastructure will be expensive too, but the cost of not making these investments would be astronomical. American productivity is already suffering and millions of families can’t afford decent childcare, college or housing – whose soaring costs are closely related to inadequate transportation and water systems.”

Reich says the main consideration on determining the value of a program is as follows. “As long as every additional dollar of spending reduces by more than a dollar the future costs of climate change, inadequate healthcare and insufficient public investment, it makes sense to spend more.” But critics raise another issue, arguing it “would be safer to move cautiously and incrementally.” Reich rebuttal: “This argument might be convincing if the problems Sanders… address were growing slowly.

But, according to Reich, experts on the environment, health, education and infrastructure are nearly unanimous: these problems are worsening exponentially.” Thus, in the final analysis, “the reason to support Sanders’ …proposals isn’t because they inspire and mobilize voters. It is because they are necessary.”

 A cleaner, less harmful environment

Jessica Corbett, staff writer for Common Dreams, reports that Sanders and two other senators have taken aim recently at corporate polluters with a bill to clean up toxic “forever chemicals” in drinking water (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/01/29/sanders-takes-aim-corporate-polluters-bill-clean-toxic-forever-chemicals-drinking). She brings attention to the regulator functions of the government and how, with adequate staff and relevant government regulations, the federal government can reduce the negative environment impacts of corporate policies and practices generally, though in this article the focus is on one instance of such potentially avoidable impacts. This would involve more funds for regulation but the costs would be outweighed by the savings from avoiding costly health and environmental outcomes.

Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), and Ed Markey (D-Mass.) on January 29, 2020 introduced legislation, The Prevent Future American Sickness Act, targeting toxic “forever chemicals” in drinking water. The chemicals in question are per- and polyfluoroalkl substances, known as PFAS. Corbett quotes Wenonah Hauter, Food and Water Watch, who says: “It [the bill] lays out a plan to finally hold polluters accountable to pay for cleanup of the worst contamination, while providing much needed financial relief for rural homeowners and local governments that need to upgrade treatment plants to remove these forever chemicals.” The problems associated with PFSAs have been scientifically documented. According to Corbett, Studies have tied this class of chemicals—which have been used in products ranging from nonstick pans and stain-resistant furniture to firefighting foam—to health issues including various cancer, weakened childhood immunity, and endocrine disruption.”

The proposed Senate bill includes findings from studies that the chemicals “‘have so far been confirmed in the groundwater or tap water of more than 1,400 communities’ nationwide, though scientists estimate that more than a million people in the country could be living with PFAS-contaminated tap water.” There is currently no federal legislation dealing with the problem of PFSAs, though “Vermont, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Michigan are leading the way in terms of setting robust drinking water standards for PFAS chemicals.” Corbett points out: “The bill would direct the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to designate PFAS as hazardous under both the Clean Air and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act—commonly called CERCLA or Superfund. As Sanders’ office summarizes (pdf), it also would set up “authorizations for EPA grants for drinking and wastewater infrastructure to address PFAS contamination in publicly owned water treatment plants, and residential water wells.” It would also “ban these ‘forever chemicals’ in food packaging and ban the incineration of PFAS firefighting foam. It would direct the EPA to examine other contaminated waste that shouldn’t be burned and require the Pentagon to put out a report detailing where in the country its firefighting foam is now and where it has been incinerated over the past decade.”

Sanders is quoted: “it is unconscionable that huge corporations like DuPont have, for decades, concealed evidence of how dangerous these compounds are in order to keep profiting at the expense of human health. Congress must pass this legislation to put an end to corporate stonewalling and criminal behavior and tackle this public health crisis.” Corbett also quotes one of the other co-sponsors, Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), “who introduced the Green New Deal with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) in February 2019.” Markey highlighted that landmark climate and economic resolution, which Sanders supports, in the statement Wednesday. “PFAS pose a serious health risk to residents across Massachusetts and the country,” he said. “Cleaning up our air, soil, and water of these forever chemicals is an important component of the Green New Deal, as we fight to provide our communities with a future free of the legacy of corporate pollution.”

 The bottom line on the costs of Sanders’ agenda and the presidential election

 There is no definitive analysis of the cost of Sanders proposals, as there is not for any other political platform. The estimate that Sanders’ proposals will cost $60 trillion or more over ten years, do not take into account sufficiently the amount of tax revenues that will be collected, do not take into account the savings and benefits that will reduce “future” costs, including how environmental regulations can reduce environmental damage and health effects. At the same time, the challenges of implementing at least even only major aspects of Sanders’ agenda are daunting in the scope and magnitude of the changes envisioned. However, it is important to keep in mind, for example, that Sanders’ Green New Deal is the only proposal that gives the United States the chance of taking effective action to curtail “climate change,” which, according to virtually all climate scientists, is an existential threat to humanity that is accelerating and approaching a point where the devastation overwhelms society’s institutions. (Go to “sanders.com/issues” and check out “The Green New Deal.”) Sander’s presidential bid is hardly in the bag. He will face immense opposition in the remaining Democratic primary season from the mounting Democratic Party support for Biden.

Can Bernie beat Trump in 2020?

No – Sanders cannot be Trump. He should not be the Democratic Party’s nominee

In an article for the New York Times, Thomas B. Edsall interviews experts and brings his own knowledge to bear in an analysis that concludes that, if Bernie wins the Democratic Party presidential nomination, it will not bode well for the Party (https://nytimes.com/2020/02/05/opinion/sanders-2020-election.html).

Edsall summarizes his foreboding as follows. “The potential pitfalls for the Democratic Party of nominating Sanders go beyond the possibility of losing to Trump again, raising the likelihood that the Senate will remain in Republican hands and threatening the re-election prospects of the 40+ Democrats who defeated Republicans in moderate districts in 2018. Edsall discounts the “seven most recent national head-to-head surveys shows Sanders ahead of Trump by 3.7 points, 49.0 to 45.3,” arguing that the polls “were taken before any concerted Republican efforts to demonize Sanders, which are certain to start in earnest if he becomes the nominee.” Indeed, Edsall writes, “Sanders stands out among the leading Democratic presidential candidates in that none of the others have accumulated as many potentially debilitating liabilities as he has over 50 active years in politics.”

Edsall thinks that Sanders agenda will alienate too many voters in the general election, referring to a few examples such as “a Medicare for All plan eliminating private health coverage, a ban on fracking highly unpopular in Pennsylvania, the decriminalization of illegal border crossings.”

His evidence – the experts

Edsall writes that “many studies show that in general elections, the nomination of more extreme candidates has alienated moderates and driven up voting for the opposition,” citing a 2018 academic paper by political scientists Andrew Hall and Daniel Thompson, who write: “We have found consistent evidence that extremist nominees do poorly in general elections in large part because they skew turnout in the general election away from their own party and in favor of the opposing party.” Edsall also cites an email he received from Anthony Fowler, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, who writes: “Given this evidence, if I had to make a prediction, I’d say that the Democratic Party’s chances of winning the presidential election are notably lower if they elect Sanders or Warren as opposed to, say, Biden, Klobuchar, or Buttigieg. That’s not to say that Warren or Sanders can’t win the general election, but the evidence suggests that their chances are lower.”  And Wendy Schiller, a political scientist at Brown University, wrote in an email that “Sanders appears to generate the most fervent and intense enthusiasm among his supporters, but polls continue to show that Biden attracts more support among the key groups that are known to get out the door to vote in general elections, especially black voters and voters over the age of 35.” There is also concern that a Sanders’ presidential candidacy will rachet up Republican turnout in response to this radical agenda, stirring a counter-mobilization. Overall, Edsall writes: “Most political scientists I contacted this week saw greater disadvantages for the Democratic Party in a Sanders nomination than in the possible selection of other leading candidates,” especially as it is turning out, the selection of Joe Biden.

Most Democratic Party leaders are opposed to Sanders’ presidential candidacy

For an article published on February 27 in The New York Times, Lisa Lerer and Reid J. Epstein, interviewed 93 Democratic leaders, most of whom think that a Sanders’ presidential nomination will damage the party and lead to a loss to Trump in the general election in November. (https://www.nytimes.com/us/politics/democratic-superdelegates.html).

They summarize how the investigation was done. “Dozens of interviews with Democratic establishment leaders this week show that they are not just worried about Mr. Sanders’s candidacy, but are also willing to risk intraparty damage to stop his nomination at the national convention in July 13-16 at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, if they get the chance. Since Mr. Sanders’s victory in Nevada’s caucuses on Saturday, The Times investigators interviewed 93 party officials — all of them superdelegates, who could have a say on the nominee at the convention — and found overwhelming opposition to handing the Vermont senator the nomination if he arrived with the most delegates but fell short of a majority.” In such an eventuality, those interviewed worried about “a brokered convention, a messy political battle the likes of which Democrats have not seen since 1952, when the nominee was Adlai Stevenson.” They refer to the concerns that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Chuck Schumer, the minority leader, receive in text-messaging chains from their members in the Congress, worries about congressional losses in November if Sanders is the Democratic standard bearer, and of getting wiped out in the general election. Party leaders across the country “say they worry that Mr. Sanders, a democratic socialist with passionate but limited support so far, will lose to President Trump, and drag down moderate House and Senate candidates in swing states with his left-wing agenda of ‘Medicare for All’ and free four-year public education.”

Concern among Democratic “leaders” that a Sanders presidential candidacy may end up splitting the Democratic Party

The issue of a brokered convention is particularly worrisome to the 93 Democratic leaders interviewed by Lisa Lerer and Reid J. Epstein. At this point in the Democratic primary elections, it looks like there will be two viable presidential candidates who will arrive at the party’s convention in July – Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. According to the party’s rules, if a candidate gets fifty percent + one of the votes cast at the first round of voting, then that candidate will be nominated as the party’s presidential candidate. All the delegates voting in the first round of votes are pledged to one or other candidate – over 3,200 delegates. If neither of the candidates has a majority, there will be a second round of voting. The difference between the first and second rounds is that 771 Superdelegates, unpledged delegates who are not permitted to vote in the initial round but will be permitted to vote in the second round, And, in the second round of voting, the pledged candidates will be allowed to change their votes. Sanders and his team want the rules changed so that, if one of the candidates has a plurality of favorable votes in the first round, that candidate should be given the party’s nomination. No second round. No superdelegate influence. Biden and the Democratic Party leaders want to follow the rules and go to a second vote if there is an absence of a majority for either candidate in the first round of voting. Sanders is concerned about the prospect of Superdelegates participating in the selection of the party’s nominee, as they will do in this scenario, because they are likely to support Biden and significantly increase his change of getting the nomination. Who are the superdelegates? They include members of the Democratic National Committee, Congress members, Democratic governors, party insiders and VIPs – including lobbyists (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2020/02/27/class-war-dnc-and-fight-our-lives). The superdelegates represent one example of what Sanders calls the Democratic Establishment.

The Democratic leaders and the experts interviewed by Edsall worry that Sanders ascendancy in the nomination fights, presently pitting Biden against Sanders, places the Democratic Party in a double bind. On the one hand, Edsall’s sources argue that Sanders is a “dangerously weak general election candidate. On the other hand, many of Sanders’ supporters are so strongly committed to his campaign that they “are likely to bolt on Election Day and vote for either a third-party candidate or even Trump…or sit out the contest altogether.” That is, their loyalty is to Sanders and not to the Democratic Party. And that could spell doom in the election against Trump. Edsall points to the 7 million votes in the 2016 election that “were cast for third-party candidates, more than enough to have given the election to Hillary Clinton.” Sanders himself has never encouraged such actions by his supporters and has repeatedly said that, if he loses the Democratic Party nomination, he will actively support whoever is the Party’s nominee in the 2020 general election. Nonetheless, to justify his unease, Edsall found a January 22-23 Emerson College survey that asked Democratic primary voters “will you vote for the Democratic nominee even if it is not your candidate?” In response, “87 percent of Joe Biden supporters said yes, as did 90 percent of those backing Elizabeth Warren and 86 percent of those aligned with Pete Buttigieg. 53 percent of Sanders supporters said yes, 16 percent said no, and 31 percent said they were undecided.” In a speech given the night of Super Tuesday, Sanders did say that his campaign had to fight both the “economic establishment” and “the political establishment,” with clear reference to the Democratic Party leadership.

Yes, Sanders can defeat Trump

In an opinion piece for the New York Times, Steven Phillips argues that “the math” says that “Bernie Sanders can Beat Trump” (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/28/opinion/bernie-sanders-polls.html).

 So, what is “the math,” or evidence?

First, Phillips points out that most “of the current polling data shows Mr. Sanders winning the national popular vote.” He continues: “In the most recent national polls testing Democratic candidates against Mr. Trump, Mr. Sanders beat him in every single one, with margins varying from 2 percent to 6 percent. This has been the case for nearly a year now, with Mr. Sanders outpolling the president in 67 of 72 head-to-head polls since March.” The polling data also show Sanders doing well against Trump in “the pivotal battleground states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

Second, the exit polls and precinct analysis in the first three nominating contests, in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada document that Sanders received strong support from voters under 30 and from heavily Latino precincts, which represent a formidable base of support for the general election in November. Phillips refers to a Pew Research project that found the “share of eligible voters from Generation Z (18-23 year olds) will be more than twice as large in 2020 as it was in 2016 (10 percent versus 4 percent).

Third, on the youth component of the electorate in past elections, Phillips reminds readers that “Mrs. Clinton defeated Mr. Trump by nearly 20 points among voters under 30, and the anti-Republican tilt of that demographic was even more pronounced in 2018, when 67 percent of them voted Democratic, 35 points more than the number who voted Republican. As for Latinos, nearly two-thirds of that population consistently vote Democratic.” Fourth, the demographics favor Sanders in 2020. Phillips writes: “In Michigan and Wisconsin, which were decided in 2016 by roughly 11,000 and 22,700 votes respectively, close to a million young people have since turned 18. Beyond the Midwestern trio of states, the demographic revolution has even more transformative potential. Mr. Trump won Arizona, for example, by 91,000 votes, and 160,000 Latinos have turned 18 in that state since then.”

Fourth, of all the remaining candidates, Phillips maintains plausibly that “Mr. Sanders is the most likely to reclaim those Democratic voters who defected to the Green Party in search of a more progressive standard-bearer,” especially in states like Michigan and Wisconsin where there was an “increase in votes for Jill Stein from 2012 to 2016” and that it was “greater than Mr. Trump’s margin of victory” in those states.

Fifth, there are concerns that a Sanders candidacy would have a negative effect on down-ballot congressional races. Phillips thinks such concerns are overblown and refers to how in the midterm 2018 elections “the vast majority of congressional districts where Democrats ousted Republican incumbents …it was enthusiasm and the high turnout of Democratic voters [attributable at least in part to how Sanders 2016 campaign has energized parts of the electorate] that made the difference, much more than alienated moderate Republicans switching their party allegiance. In all but five of the 41 seats picked up by Democrats, increased Democratic turnout alone would have been enough to flip the seats without any Republican crossovers.”

Moderate voters need to take a second look at Bernie’s record

This is Jason Sattler’s argument in an article for Common Dreams titled “Moderate Democrats have a duty to consider Sanders” (https://www.commondreams.org/lviews/2020/02/10/moderate-democrats-have-a-duty-consider-sanders-he-has-a-clear-path-beating-trump).

They should take a second look because Sanders proposals seek to address problems that have been allowed to worsen. Sattler writes: “If you believe in saving democracy, the courts and the planet, and reversing the unrepentant cruelty, corruption and carelessness that define the current administration, you have a duty to at least consider the candidacy of the most popular senator in America, the top fundraiser in the Democratic primaries, and the man who has generally beaten Trump in head-to-head polls for five years now.” Sanders is a candidate is a candidate “who has spent decades warning against the evils of an economy where the top 0.1% own as much as the bottom 90%.” He has been effective legislator in the Congress, co-sponsoring more than 200 bills that became law—”including the 2014 Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act he negotiated with conservative lawmakers John McCain and Jeff Miller to reform the Department of Veterans Affairs.”  He had been “one of the greatest champions of the $15 minimum wage, a movement that has swept many states and helped drive income gains among the poorest workers.” Addition, Sattler adds: “Supposed big ticket items like free college and universal pre-K might seem overly generous, but they’re just rounding errors compared with the recent increases in the defense budget combined with the massive tax cuts for corporations passed by Trump’s GOP. And while the popularity for “Medicare for All” rises and falls in polls, it would be a strong selling point if the entire Democratic Party got behind it and made the case that it would lead to higher wages.”

Concluding thoughts

 Democratic Party leaders, voters who are afraid of radical or structural change that upend or significantly modify what they are used to, and many media pundits find Sander’s agenda too radical, unsettling, destabilizing, are opposed to Sanders’ nomination. His proposals are certainly far-reaching and want to take the society and many of its institutions to places that are unprecedented in US history. He is talking about systemic or structural changes designed to reduce the concentration of corporate power and private wealth, to detach politics from plutocrats, to reduce significantly inequalities in income and wealth, to guarantee good-paying jobs and health care for all, as well as providing free public college education, a strong regulatory regime, and a wide range of social-welfare programs more generous than the society has ever experienced.

It remains to be seen if the vision of Sanders and his supporters will come to fruition when it is opposed by many Democrats, opposed by the candidacy of Biden,  and undoubtedly opposed by Trump and his allies, especially among the corporate elites and rich Americans. In the meantime, Sanders campaign faces huge hurdles. He needs to keep and expand his base of support, win more delegates in the remaining primary states than Biden, go to the convention with a majority of the pledged delegates, and thus secure the party’s presidential nomination without a brokered convention. If he and his supporters are unable to do all this, his chances of winning the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination evaporate. This pathway to Sanders’ success seems to be increasingly narrow.

One major challenge eventually facing the Democratic Party leaders is whether they can somehow find a way to nominate Biden as the party’s candidate at the Democratic Party convention in July without at the same time alienating Sanders’ supporters. There is little question that the party does not have a chance of beating Trump and the Republicans in November if it is not unified. So, among many other issues, how do the leaders in the Democratic Party nominate Biden while at the same time resolving the differences in the issues that divide the Biden campaign and the Sanders campaign. The challenge is daunting. On the one hand, it involves finding ways to reconcile some very different positions on policy like whether to build on Obamacare or go for Medicare for all, whether to settle for a carbon tax or commence a Green New Deal, whether too-big-to-fail Wall Street banks will continue to exist or be broken up along with other structural changes in the banking system, whether the bloated and wasteful military budget will continue being supported or be subjected to major cuts, and how much taxes on the corporations and high-income – and -wealth families will be raised. These and other differences on important issues will be hard to reconcile. On the other hand, maybe the threat of another four years of Trump will, in the end, lead all factions to subordinate their policy differences to this goal. But that may not be enough either.

Whatever happens, there is the question of whether Biden and the Democratic Party are up to the challenge of facing off against a highly unified Republican Party, a president who seems to have the unyielding support already of something like 45% of the electorate, seemingly unlimited funding sources, the un-democratic benefit of extensive voter suppression in many states, and, the resources to utilize the most advanced methods of spreading disinformation and character assassination to smear opponents.

 

 

 

 

 

The specter of fascism before and during the Trump presidency

Bob Sheak, February 19, 2020

The demise of US democracy

The U.S. power structure is fundamentally based on three crucial centers of power, including the mega-corporations, the presidency and executive branch of the government, and the military-industrial complex. Within a system of increasingly unfettered capitalism, the decision makers in these power centers are pivotal in determining the major economic, political, and military policies for the United States and, through media, public relations, think tanks, and various experts, in shaping the society’s culture. They represent a power structure that is inimical to democracy, has always limited democracy, and is in the process of further diminishing it. Giving shape to it all is a neoliberal ideology that serves to legitimate and continuously reshape the federal government in ways that favor the rich and powerful, including policies providing low taxes, low interest rates, deregulation, privatization when it is profitable, and corporate-friendly trade agreements. And, since the 2016 election, these structures of power have benefited from having a “leader” in the White House and a Republican-dominated Senate, both of whom ensure that the interests of the corporate-dominated economy and the rich are accommodated. It’s important to understand that the anti-democratic power structure was in place prior to the election of Trump, though he has been its enthusiastic, though at times erratic, champion since then.

In this post, I first consider some of the principal characteristics of the present economic-military-political-cultural system and rely particularly for an analytical framework on a book by sociologist Carl Boggs, Fascism Old and New. The central question is just how far the existing power arrangements have advanced toward the undermining the already tenuous democracy of the country. Boggs contends that the US system already has many fascist characteristics. I then consider what is likely to happen if Trump and the Republicans are victorious in the 2020 elections. If they do, then the US would take another step toward becoming a full-blown fascist system, or, as some argue, a form of tyranny.

 Fascistic tendencies in the present system

In his book, Fascism Old and New: American Politics at the Crossroads (2018), Boggs opening sentences capture the thrust of his analysis: “In this book I argue that the United States, the most exemplary liberal democracy in the world in terms of reputation, is well along the path to a new type of fascism, or what might be called a ‘fascist equivalent – ruled by a modern power structure that is increasingly oligarchical and authoritarian, not only politically, but economically and culturally” (p. 1). Boggs does not argue that the US is fascist yet, but rather that there are structural and other developments that are moving in that direction.  He refers to “a merger of historical forces that seem to be gaining momentum: corporatism, super-patriotism, militarism, imperialism, racism” (p. 2).

Friendly Fascism?

Boggs’ research leads him to find that fascism can have different manifestations, depending on the conditions in a given society. The principal implication is that, if fascism comes to the U.S., it will be rooted in the history and reflect the specific conditions that prevail at the time. Citing Bertram Gross’s book Friendly Fascism (1982), he suggests that “a distinctly American fascism is destined to be of a more ‘friendly’ type, without major social disruptions, systematic terrorism, paramilitary actions, Mussolini-style demagoguery, or outright attacks on the Constitution” (p. 11) – and that elements of liberalism will co-exist with right-wing authoritarianism (p. 10). For example, there is no large-scale fascist (or neo-fascist) movement or party” in the U.S. today. But there are troubling developments, some stretching back decades and others unleashed by Trump and his backers. Now, in early 2020, the signs that Trump and his right-wing alliance are ready and willing to pursue policies and employ methods that are anti-democratic have already surfaced, policies that spawn hatred and fear rather than the friendly pitch Bertram Gross anticipated (e.g., https://truthout.org/articles/trump-threatens-to-unleash-paramilitary-violence-in-the-us).

Henry A. Giroux captures the hate- and fear-tinged aspects of Trump’s incendiary language in his book, American Nightmare: Facing the Challenge of Fascism, pp. 90-91, writing that Trump seems to abide by the “fascist script” identified by Robert O. Paxton in his book, The Anatomy of Fascism.

“Trump has made in his repeated claim that the United States is in a period of decline; his nationalist slogan to ‘make America great again’; his official displays of coded bigotry and intolerance, as in his symbolic association with Andrew Jackson; his portrayal of himself as a strongman who alone can save the country; his appeal to aggression and violence aimed at those who disagree with him; his contempt for dissent; his deep-rooted anti-intellectualism, or what Arendt called ‘thoughtlessness’ (denial that climate change is produced by humans), coupled with his Twitter-driven elevation of impulsiveness over reason; his appeal to xenophobia and national greatness; his courting of anti-Semites and white supremacists; his flirtation with a discourse of racial purity; his support for white Christian public sphere; his denigration of Muslims, Blacks, undocumented immigrants, Native Americans, women, and transgender people; his contempt for weakness; and his adolescent, size-matters enthusiasm for locker-room masculinity”

Power becomes more and more consolidated at the top

Boggs argues we now confront a system that is becoming more and more fascistic. Democracy and its basic values are being eclipsed. Corporate power is becoming more concentrated in a fewer corporate and seems increasingly unassailable. Right-wing forces, with support from the rich and major corporations, control the major institutional levers of state power. Republicans use their power to control the legislative process, rig congressional districts, and suppress the vote. The Supreme Court and the federal judiciary are becoming politicized and dominated by ultra-conservative justices.

The domestic and global scope of American corporate and state power has no parallel. The “integration of corporate, state, and military power is more advanced in the U.S. than anywhere except perhaps China.” The American power elite, Boggs observes, “now possesses more leverage across the globe than any ruling groups in Europe, Asia, Latin American, or elsewhere” (pp. 151-152). It has accumulated vast wealth and power within the existing domestic institutional arrangements so that “there is no need to resort to a single-party dictatorship and terror under a supreme leader” (p. 152). The major media pay little critical attention to these situations, unless they are celebrating them. All of this “co-exists with many formal structures and norms of Constitutional democracy – a ‘democracy’ to be sure,” where party competition, elections, and legislative activity still exist but have been steadily undermined by the wealth and power of ruling elites (p. 156). But sadly, Boggs writes, “corporations, Wall Street, federal government, the military, educational system, surveillance network…are systematically and unapologetically authoritarian, never much impacted by voting results” (p. 175).

On the last point, Boggs quotes from Sheldon S. Wolin’s book, Democracy, Inc. (2007): “One cannot point to any national institutions that [today] can be accurately described as democratic…” Congress, the presidency, court system, parties, state agencies, workplaces, schools and universities, and of course the military” (p. 7). A turning point for Wolin was “an enlarged ‘power imaginary’ that surfaced during and after World War II.” This was manifest in the following: “War mobilization, superpower ambitions, nuclear politics, the security state, and permanent war economy all served to extend the boundaries of power, eroding constitutional limits while feeding into statist, corporate, and imperial authoritarianism – the very stuff of historical fascism” (p. 7).

There is another recent book that serves to document the concentration of power not only in the U.S. power structure but internationally as well. Peter Philips identifies 389 individuals who lead and/or are associated with “the most important networks of the Global Power Elite.” They are “the core of the policy planning nongovernmental networks that manage, facilitate, and protect the continued concentration of global capital,” “providing the ideological justifications for their shared interests and establishing the parameters of needed actions for implementation by transnational governmental organizations.” The title of the book is Giants: The Global Power Elite.” The book provides the names of the individual, their bios, their connections to mega-corporations and to important nongovernmental organizations, and how they are continually thinking and planning about how to protect and advance their interests within capitalist political-economic systems. The book provides detailed evidence on anti-democratic essence and coordinated thrust of the rich and powerful.

The military-industrial complex has a central role

The military continues to grow, and does so in support of corporate interests abroad, involved in unending, destructive, counterproductive wars and interventions, and at the expense of other non-military domestic programs. It has grown amidst “a process of global expansion, development of a Cold War ideological consensus, and narrowing of elite political culture binding Democrats and Republicans to a common international agenda.” At the same time, “the political and popular culture grew increasingly militarized, visible not only in foreign policy but in the media, high rates of crime, gun mania, and the world’s largest prison system” (p. 116). There is hardly a sports or pubic event that is not begun without patriotic songs and symbols.

The costs

By 2016, Pentagon “spending consumed more than half of all discretionary spending – at nearly one trillion dollars dwarfing expenditures of potential rivals such as Russia and China.” It “employed more than three million people worldwide, held fully 80 percent of the federal inventory, operated more than 800 bases in dozens of countries, and possessed a nuclear arsenal large enough to destroy the planet several times over” (p. 118). In his 2021 recommended budget, Trump calls for deep cuts in social spending and large increases for the Pentagon (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/02/10/trump-budget-propose-savage-cuts-medicaid-medicare-and-social-security-while-hiking).

US weapons makers profit exorbitantly by leading the world in unfettered foreign weapons sales – providing the means that fuel disorder, violence, repression, and wars across the globe (https://www.counterpunch.org/2018/08/16/donald-trump-gunrunner-for-hire).

There are other costs, as spending on the military is one of the principal sources of the climbing national debt and comes at the expense of  reduced spending and “austerity” in “social programs and public infrastructure, as spending “devoted to missiles, planes, ships, and guns” take precedence over spending for “roads, water and power facilities, bridges, public transportation, and education” (p. 118).

The enduring delusion that military power will keep the US safe

Despite this awesome military force, the elites who make up the power structure worry about losing military preeminence in the world. U.S. elites are concerned in recent years about nuclear proliferation and terrorism. Boggs refers to R. J. Lifton’s concept of “nuclearism,” or the “ideology of U.S. nuclear power…would allow the world’s dominant warfare state to set its own international rules and norms promoting its supposedly unique set of virtues, including the ‘American model’ of corporate globalization” (p. 125). But, also importantly, the U.S. military has been mired in costly and catastrophic wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, has extended provocatively NATO military forces in Eastern Europe on the border of Russia, is involved in dangerous naval operations in the South China Sea with China, supports Saudi Arabia’s military onslaught on Yemen, while expanding its present in Africa, allows US arms producers to sell by far more armaments to other countries than any other nation, and is making outer space the new battleground. And, as Michael Klare documents, the US and Russian are building up military (and nuclear) forces in the Arctic region very close to one another to control access to oil and other minerals buried at the bottom of the ocean, increasing the conditions for a new and existentially-threatening Cold War ((https://www.tomdispatch.com/post/176661/tomgram%3A_michael_klare%2C_war_in_the_arctic/#more). Along with all this, Trump has authorized the creation of a Space branch to join the existing Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard services. There are now no places on earth and in near space that are safe from US military operations and nuclear attacks.

US military policy in the Trump years increases the chances of nuclear war

Acknowledging this reality, the board of The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists have just made their annual adjustment of “the doomsday clock” for 2020 (https://thebulletin.org/doomsday-clock/current-time). The prestigious scientific board uses the doomsday clock as a symbol of how distant or close the minute hand is from midnight, which, if ever reached, would, in their considered estimation, result in a cataclysmic outcome, most likely the end of humanity and much of life on the planet in the case of nuclear war. In their 2020 report, editor John Mecklin writes: “the members of the Science and Security Board have concluded that the complex technological threats the world faces are at least as dangerous today as they were last year and the year before, when we set the Clock at two minutes to midnight (as close as it had ever been, and the same setting that was announced in 1953, after the United States and the Soviet Union tested their first thermonuclear weapons).” In January, the board moved the minute hand to 100 seconds before midnight, the closest it has ever been to this end-game time over all the years the board has been publishing its assessments. While the board includes both the prospects of climate change as well as nuclear war in is recent decisions, the focus in this post will be on the threat of nuclear war.

No closer to peace

The huge military force is said by to be a force for peace. In realty, it has done little to promote peace and has been stuck in unauthorized wars that have ravaged countries, killed and uprooted millions of people, created the conditions for the spread of “terrorist” groups, and cost hundreds of billions of dollars along with many tens of thousands of American casualties, men and women, who have fought in these wars. The published work of Andrew J. Bacevich in such books as The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism or Chalmers Johnson’s book, Dismantling the Empire: America’s Last Best Hope. Among other proposals, Johnson writes that “[w]e need to reduce, not increase, the size of our standing army and deal much more effectively with the long-term wounds our soldiers receive and the combat stress they undergo.” And “we must give up our inappropriate reliance on military force as the chief means of attempting to achieve foreign policy objectives” (p. 196). In his recently published book, A Nation Made by War, Tom Engelhardt offers an apt summary.

“…we’re truly in a new American age, whether of the plutocrats, by the plutocrats, and for the plutocrats or of the generals, by the generals, and for the generals – but most distinctly not of the people, by the people, and for the people.

“After all, for more than sixteen years, the US military has been fighting essentially failed or failing wars – conflicts that only seem to spread the phenomenon (terrorism) they’re supposed to eradicate – in Afghanistan, Iraq, more recently Syria, intermittently Yemen, and elsewhere across the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa. Meanwhile Donald Trump’s generals have been quietly escalating those wars. Hundreds, possibly thousands, more American soldiers and special ops forces are being sent into Syria, Iraq, and neighboring Kuwait (about which the Pentagon will no longer provide even inaccurate numbers); US air strikes have been on the rise throughout the region; the American commander in Afghanistan is calling for reinforcements; drone strikes recently set a new record for intensity in Yemen; Somalia may be the next target of mission creep and escalation; and it looks as if Iran is  now in Washington’s sniper scopes” (p. 146).

Fewer constraints on the power elite amidst the “war on terror”

 Since 9/11, constraints on U.S. power have further diminished, Boggs contends, “as the War on Terrorism perpetually legitimates the imperial state, cloaking its naked drive for economic and geopolitical advantage behind the wounded innocence of avenging victim, as in the case of Germany following its World War I defeat and then added humiliation at Versailles” (p. 7). And the ascendance of Trump to the White House, along with a right-wing cabinet, the systematic assaults and diminution of the federal bureaucracy, the undermining scientific research and environmental protections and attacks on the science itself, the ruthlessness of the Republican Party, the concurrence of most segments of the corporate community, and a cult-like following of tens of millions of Americans – all indicate that the U.S. has more fascist elements and tendencies than ever before. Boggs notes: “The sad truth is that popular movements, local organizations, and third parties ultimately constitute the only hope for challenging, possibly reversing, the seemingly relentless fascistic trends identified through this book. Such resistance will be the last line of defense in a world of unprecedented crises, overwhelming challenges, and potential disasters” (p. 179). But this line has yet to reverse the growing concentration and consolidation of corporate power and abuses of power by Trump.

A private-public system of surveillance is massively expanding

There are ominous signs and the federal government and mega-corporations are consolidating enormous control of the society’s principal economic, political, and military sectors. In addition to the fascist tendencies already discussed, our privacy is in danger of being eclipsed by an ever-more sophisticated state surveillance system augmented by large communications corporations. Julia Angwin offers an insightful analysis of this phenomenon in her book, Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security, and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance. And Yasha Levine documents the historical and contemporary influence of the military in creating the internet and how tech-industry giants like Google, Facebook, and Amazon now collect massive amounts of information on millions of Americans in the book, Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet. The internet can be used for good or bad. On the one hand, Levine writes:

“Today, we live in a troubled world, a world of political disenfranchisement, rampant poverty and inequality, unchecked corporate power, wars that seem to have no end and no purpose, and a runaway privatized military and intelligence complex – and hanging over it all are the prospects of global warming and environmental collapse. We live in bleak times, and the Internet is a reflection of them: run by spies and powerful corporations just as our society is run by them. But it isn’t all hopeless.”

On the other hand:

“Not all surveillance is bad. Without them, there can be no democratic oversight of society. Ensuring oil refineries comply with pollution regulations, preventing Wall Street fraud, forcing wealthy citizens to pay their fair share – none of these would be possible. In that sense, surveillance and control are not problems in and of themselves. How they are used depends on our politics and political culture” (p. 274).

Under the current power arrangements, however, there is every reason to believe that most of us have lost control over our personal information and live in a world where we have little privacy. David Gray looks at how use of the internet technology by corporations and the federal government is now little protected by the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution in his book The Fourth Amendment in an Age of Surveillance. The Fourth Amendment was designed to guarantee a basic degree of security against threats of unreasonable governmental intrusion.” However, it is increasingly irrelevant today and fails to address issues related to the electronic media. Gray writes:

“…in a recent ranking compiled by Privacy International comparing surveillance practices and privacy protections among nations, the United States landed at the very bottom, earning the designation ‘endemic surveillance society’ along with Thailand, Taiwan, Singapore, Russia, China, Malaysia, and the United Kingdom” (p. 6).

Boggs points to the enormous expanse of the government’s intelligence/surveillance systems as follows.

“…the system has expanded to include no fewer than 17 federal agencies along with hundreds of state and local bodies charged with homeland security, surveillance, espionage, covert operations, and everyday law enforcement.”

“…American surveillance entities vacuum up billions of electronic transactions daily, enabling them to locate and observe millions of people through cell-phone activity, social media transactions, and Global Positioning System (GPS) coordinates. The NSA in turn shares part of its voluminous information with such intelligence-oriented bodies as the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), FBI, CIA, Defense Information Agency (DIA), IRS, and multiple layers of state and local police forces.”

He continues:

“The NSA, moreover, has worked closely with such corporations as Microsoft, Verizon, AT&T, Apple, and Google, all central to the smooth functioning of American communications technology. The agency has produced a massive watch list, identifying more than a million potential ‘threats,’ entered into the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE) and Terrorist Identities Group (TIG).”

“…in 2013 alone, the NSA collected more than 125 billion telephone items and 97 billion pieces of computer data from around the world, much from (theoretically exempt) American citizens….” (p. 183).

There are additional concerns stemming from the current power structure. Dissent is fraught with risks, though not yet systemically quashed. More and more government functions are privatized, the infrastructure deteriorates, and ecosystems are degraded and depleted in record numbers, while increasingly cataclysmic climate change unfolds with little restraint on corporate polluters in the context of an unplanned and increasingly unregulated, profit-first, unending-growth capitalist economy.

Reactionary Populism gets a boost under Trump

 Along with all the rest, the right-wing political forces have gained strength from the growth of a reactionary populism since the 1990s, including “local militias, Christian fundamentalists, and the Tea Party among them.” Boggs points to how Trump benefited, as 35 percent of his presidential vote come from evangelical constituencies (pp. 12-13). His presidency has “apparently lent new legitimacy to the evangelical movement, especially the selection of Mike Pence as vice-president and Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. As American society moves ever rightward,” Boggs writes, “evangelicals have grown in numbers, organizations, media presence, and general influence. They work indefatigably through state legislatures, PACs, think tanks, conferences, and medical outlets to carry out ‘God’s work, hoping to Christianize secular institutions, beginning with education, bringing ‘family values’ and patriotism to the forefront.” Boggs thinks that they “could help to solidify a social bloc behind fascistic tendencies….” (p. 13).

Historian Kathleen Belew documents the growth of “the white power movement” in the U.S. in her brilliant, but disturbing, book, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America. Here is some of what she found.

“While white power featured a diversity of views and an array of competing leaders, all corners of the movement were inspired by feelings of defeat, emasculation, and betrayal after the Vietnam War and by social and economic changes that seemed to threaten and victimize white men. White power also qualifies as a movement through its central features: the contiguous activity of an inner circle of key figures over two decades, frequent public displays, and development of a wide-reaching social network.

“White power activists used a shared repertoire of actions to assert collectivity. Public displays of uniformed activists chanting slogans and marching in formation aimed to demonstrate worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment to both members and observers. Activists encouraged dress codes and rules about comportment and featured the presence of mothers with children, Vietnam veterans, and active-duty military personnel. Members showed unity by donning uniforms and by marching and chanting in formation. They made claims about their numbers. They underscored their commitment with pledges to die rather than abandon the fight; preparing to risk their lives for white power; and undertaking acts that put them at legal and physical risk. A regular circulation of people, weapons, funds, images, and rhetoric – as well as intermarriages and other social relationships – bound activists together” (pp. 10-11).

And they thrive.

“The state and public opinion have failed to sufficiently halt white power violence or refute white power belief systems, and failed to present a vision of the future that might address some of their concerns that lie behind the more diffuse, coded, and mainstream manifestations” (p. 239).

The white power movement, ultra-nationalistic, racist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, armed, opposed to progressive values and ideas, poses no threat to the power elite. They represent the potential street fighters against those who criticize the existing power structure from progressive and leftist points of view.

The Democratic Party falters

While there are policy differences that divide the Democrats from the Republicans on “secondary or tertiary” issues like immigration, gay marriage, abortion, both parties, Boggs contends, support “modern capitalism and the warfare state” (p. 159). Though it is important to recognize that in the Democratic Party there is a progressive caucus  and leftist Democrats mounting presidential campaigns that sets them apart from the Republicans on most issues and even from the Democratic leadership on some issues. Certainly, progressive Democrats strongly support civil rights, progressive taxes, the need to regulate the economy and break up some of the mega-corporations, less spending on the military, immigration reform that provides for pathways to citizenship and honors international laws on refugees, the need to ratchet up support for renewable forms of energy and energy efficiency, and the vital importance of government spending on infrastructure, housing, education, job training, and other policies that provide benefits to ordinary Americans. And Obama and his administration should be given credit for signing the international agreement in Paris in December 2015 aimed at limiting greenhouse emissions, the advance of federally-binding fuel-efficiency standards for cars, vans and light truck, and in the successful multilateral agreement signed with Iran, the UK, France, the EU, Germany, Russia on banning Iran from ever developing nuclear bombs. But Trump has negated Obama’s initiatives through various executive orders.

And it also true that Obama and many Democrats in the US Congress supported the bail-out of the big banks in 2008, allowed the banks to sell its junk assets to the Federal Reserve. They supported increased military spending, military engagements throughout the world, drone warfare, an “all of the above” energy policy that included oil, gas, and nuclear energy, and were weak on poverty, public job creation, raising the minimum wage, single-payer medical insurance. Much of the party remains tied to big money for campaign contributions. Obama did little to reach out to peace groups, unions, or other civic organizations. His trade proposals, like the TPP, had “bad labor laws and practices, few if any consumer or environmental protections that can be enforced in courts of law, and precious little freedom of speech” (Ralph Nader, To the Ramparts: how Bush and Obama paved the way for the Trump presidency, and why it isn’t too late to reverse course, p. 165).

Programs created to have wide benefits are attacked and citizen participation declines

 To reiterate, social-welfare programs are being eviscerated, along with environmental and consumer protections. There is increasing inequality in all aspects of the society, trends that go back to the 1970s, especially arising during the years of the Reagan administration. Citizens are increasingly detached from community and political activity and preoccupied with private worries, how to pay the bills, debt, entertainment, consumption. Boggs refers to signs of how vigorous democratic politics have declined, as evidenced by how “widespread and dynamic participating, institutional accountability, broad access, issue knowledge and awareness, sense of political efficacy – have sharply declined in recent decades.” Forty to fifty percent of the electorate don’t vote in presidential elections and sixty percent or more who don’t typically vote in mid-term elections. And, Boggs points out, “[r]ecent history shows…that counterforces to the political establishment – social movements, alternative parties, community enclaves – have not been sufficiently durable to challenge the status quo” (p. 165).

What if Trump is re-elected in 2020?

There is a question of just how far the forces embodied in the interconnected multifaceted economic, political, military, ideological power will take us toward the demise of democracy. Certainly, the election of Trump in 2016 has increased had a damaging effect on democracy and justice. The chances that the United States will end up with a more tenuous and limited democracy than before would be enhanced if Trump were to be re-elected in November 2020. Perhaps, it would be totally eclipsed. Certainly, Trump’s re-election would further consolidate these right-wing forces and threaten the country with a tyrannical or neo-fascist government intent on enhancing corporate capitalism.

A dystopian vision

With the Republican Party in control of the House as well as the Senate, the checks and balances provisions in the US Constitution would become irrelevant. The Trump political base would be energized. In this context, there would be more regressive taxes enacted, more subsidies for favored industries, more lucrative contracts especially notable in military and prison contracting, cheap access for corporate and other interests to the timber, ranch land, oil, and minerals on public land, along with corporate-friendly trade deals. A Trump administration would continue the buildup of the already bloated, wasteful military forces, already larger than at any time since WWII, and with one with far more lethal firepower than ever, stretching around the world and into space, and more likely to use nuclear weapons.

With Trump’s re-election, inequality would grow even more than it has, as the gig economy would expand and, with unions stymied by “right to work” laws and inadequate minimum wage laws in many states, wages would stagnate or barely keep up with rising prices. Many, if not most, Americans would be left increasingly dependent on the private sector for expensive medical care, high prices for prescription drugs. They would have increasingly limited opportunities for affordable and decent housing. The number of public school systems that are severely under-resourced would increase. The system of public higher education that would lead more students and graduates leads to terribly burdensome student debt. Furthermore, Trump would act on his threats to cut such government programs as Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and other social safety net programs. The dominant right-wing political narrative would spread through the culture, including appeals to ultra-patriotism, gun rights, the end of women’s legally-based reproductive rights, the strengthening consumerist values, and the promotion of the fear of the “other,” like most immigrants, Muslims, people of color, those with certain sexual orientations, and those who dissent from the pro-corporate, neoliberal agenda.

 Concluding thoughts

The information and analysis compiled in this post indicates that America is dangerously on a path toward some form of fascism. It is grounded in a capitalist system legitimated by a neoliberal ideology, and now abetted by a reactionary president whose policies are aimed at protecting and enhancing this system. It remains to be seen whether progressive/radical forces can win in the 2020 elections and start the kind of “revolution” that Bernie Sanders has in mind. But it is clear, as Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein and others have so often written, when all is said and done, it is up to the “people” and “social movements” to determine the outcome, good or bad. Henry Giroux writes: “In the end, there is no democracy without informed citizens, no justice without a language critical of injustice, and no change without a broad-based movement of collective resistance” (American Nightmare, p. 323). I would add, there is no democracy without a political party with an agenda to limit the power of the mega-corporations and the rich, to foster the replacement of neoliberalism with a radical alternative narrative emphasizing the need for a mixture of progressive and democratic socialist policy changes, and to persuade voters that not only their personal circumstances are at stake but so is the fate of the world. Put it another way: It is imperative the Americans elect a new president and other candidates who have a vision of a society and world that can be based on informed civic engagement by citizens, egalitarian values, environmentally sustainable economies and life styles, and peace and justice domestically and internationally.

There is resistance

On this score, Henry Giroux writes:

“While Trump attempts to expand its alt-right social base under its authoritarian hierarchy, forces for grassroots resistance are mobilizing around a renewed sense of ethical courage, social solidarity, and a revival of the political imagination. We see this happening in the increasing number of mass demonstrations in which individuals are putting their bodies on the line, refusing the fascist machinery of misogyny, nativism, and white supremacy. Airports are being occupied, people are demonstrating in the streets of major cities, town halls have become the sites of resistance, campuses are being transformed into sanctuaries to protect undocumented students, scientists are marching in masses against climate change deniers, and progressive cultural workers, public intellectuals, and politicians are speaking out against the emerging authoritarianism. In a number of red states, middle-aged women are engaged in the ‘grinding scutwork of grassroots organizing’ while addressing the big issues such as ‘health care and gerrymandering, followed by dark money politics, education, and the environment.’ Democracy may be in exile in the United States,  and imperiled in Europe and other parts of the globe, but the spirit that animates it remains resilient” (American Nightmare: Facing the Challenge of Fascism, p. 306).

The looming danger of nuclear war: the context and the doomsday clock

Bob Sheak, February 7, 2020
bobsheak@gmail.com

Overview

The current post was inspired by the 2020 annual report of the Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists specifying its decision to move the minute hand on the “doomsday clock” closer to midnight (end-game for humanity) than ever before in the over 70 years of such decisions. This year’s decision was based on their assessments of the chances for nuclear war and the ongoing cataclysmic advances of the climate crisis. This post focuses on the nuclear war part of the report, since I have recently written on the climate crisis.

There are three parts to my post. The first part provides background and context for understanding the existential threat of nuclear war. The second part reviews the Board’s report. The third part includes my “concluding thoughts.”

The concern about the increasing likelihood of nuclear war is not a topic that much surfaces in the media, or gets much attention in the Democratic presidential primaries, though pocketbook issues understandably resonate with broad swaths of the public. But indications from polls and news reports are that the growing potentiality of nuclear war won’t have much of an impact on how people vote in 2020. However, like the unfolding climate crisis, the growing danger of nuclear war is a well-documented reality that, if we are not extremely lucky, could destroy everything in a wisp of time. And this is not a new concern. Prior to the onset of the Cold War, Albert Einstein sent a telegram on May 1946 to several hundred prominent Americans “asking for contributions to a fund ‘to let the people know that a new type of thinking is essential’ in the atomic age.” In the telegram, he wrote: “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.” Einstein’ statement is truer today than ever.

Part 1 – The historical and contemporary background on nuclear weapons and the threat to human existence

Nuclear weapons are the deadliest of weapons ever created by humans, in this case by scientists with financing by the federal government (i.e., the taxpayers). Along with anthropogenic climate disruption, or “climate change,” nuclear weapons have the potential to destroy all human societies and much of life on the earth. What a sad accomplishment for us creatures with the most complex organ in the universe – the brain.

The Manhattan Project – letting the genie out of the bottle

The project to create nuclear weapons (then called atomic bombs) was initiated by the government and paid for by taxpayers during the early 1940s. The story of the project, called the Manhattan Project, is captured in detail by Wikipedia, the online free encyclopedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manhattan_Project).

Nuclear weapons – some facts

In hindsight, the creation of atomic bombs appears to have been an expression of the height of human folly by many knowledgeable people and scientists. Whatever, these terribly destructive weapons are a part of present day reality and most civilian and military leaders in the US and Russia, which alone have 93% of the warheads, view them as vital and necessary components of their military arsenals, while basing their views on a hollow and ultimately counter-productive conceptions of nationalism, “national security,” a vapid patriotism, and the self-serving assumption that nuclear arsenals can be managed in ways that deter the use of these weapons. (Richard Falk takes issue with the view that the existing nuclear arsenals can be managed and makes an argument for banning these weapons: https://popularresistance.org/contesting-management-or-transformation-an-urgent-challenge.

While the issue does not attract much mainstream media attention, it continues to be of utmost importance with 15,500 nuclear weapons stockpiled in the world, according to the Arms Control Association. That includes nuclear warheads that are on delivery vehicles and ready to be launched and thousands of warheads in non-operational status that can readily be made operational (https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/Nuclearweaponswhohaswhat).

Some of these warheads are on missiles located on launching pads in the US, on submarines, and on large bombers – and are ready to be launched in just minutes. The Union of Concerned Scientists notes that “the United States still keeps its 450 silo-based nuclear weapons, and hundreds of submarine-based weapons, on hair-trigger alert….around 3,500 total—are deployed on other submarines or bombers, or kept in reserve” (http://www.ucs.usa.org/nuclear-weapons/hair-trigger-alert#.WGbjjeQzXIU). In the meantime, the US military is planning to introduce “‘low-yield’ nuclear weapons on submarine-launched ballistic missiles – weapons that could cause as much damage as the bombs the United States dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The relatively lower-yield of such warheads makes them more likely to be used in a wider range of situations considered to be threatening by the US military command (http://truth-out.org/news/item/43460-pentagon-to-allow-nuclear-responses-to-non-nuclear-attacks).

Perhaps the gravest hotspot, or potential nuclear war situation, is in the highly rancorous and hostile relations between Pakistan (130 nuclear weapons) and India (120 nuclear weapons), particularly over the disputed control of Kashmir. These are two nuclear powers whose troops are within miles of one another. Any slight, accidental, or misunderstood provocation could be the spark that leads to the use of nuclear weapons. And it appears that the Trump administration is aching for the opportunity to wage war on Iran.

There are other nuclear powers, including England, France, China, Israel, and North Korea. At the same time, dozens of countries have the capacity to build nuclear warheads and the means to use them. At one time, six other countries had nuclear weapons but agreed to give them up (Belarus, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, South Africa, Iraq, and Libya). There were four other countries on their way to having nuclear weapons and then “shelved their nuclear weapons’ programs” (Argentina, Brazil, South Korea, and Taiwan). These figures come from: https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/Nuclearweaponswhohaswhat).

What about other countries. Per the Nuclear Weapons Archive:

“Virtually any industrialized nation today has the technical capability to develop nuclear weapons within several years if the decision to do so were made. Nations already possessing substantial nuclear technology and arms industries could do so in no more than a year or two. The larger industrial nations (Japan and Germany for example) could, within several years of deciding to do so, build arsenals rivaling those planned by Russia and the U.S. for the turn of the millennium….” (http://nuclearweaponsarchive.org/Nwfaq/Nfaq7-5.html).

The point is that the human world is already in a situation in which any one of the nuclear states could use their weapons for any one of a number of reasons – to extend power, preserve a perceived credibility, destroy an “enemy,” avoid a military defeat, or by accident.

It can be safely assumed that most citizens who even think about these weapons have no idea of how fragile nuclear weapons launching technology and procedures are. Couple this with a president who thinks in tweeter-length thoughts, who likes being right and winning every time, who glories in the spotlight, and you end up with an irrational and accident-prone nuclear weapons control and command system.

The crumbling of nuclear arms agreements between the US and Russia (formerly the Soviet Union)

After having some success in nuclear weapons reduction agreements in the 1960s and first years of the new mellinium, the US and Russia now are on a course that is taking the world in the opposite direction, a position taken up and considered later in this post by the board of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. This topic has received some attention in the media, especially on important progressive/leftist online websites (e.g., Democracy Now, Truthout, Truthdig, Counterpunch, Antiwar.org). Daryl Kimball, Executive Director of the Arms Control organization, reviews the US-Russian nuclear arms control agreements from 1969 to 2014 (https:///www.armscontrol.org/2556).

#1 – An overview of strategic nuclear arms agreements

The Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) commenced in November 1969 and led to the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, limiting strategic missile defense to 200, later 100, interceptors each, and then an Interim Agreement, “an executive agreement that capped US and Soviet ICBM and SLBM launch tubes and SLBM-carrying submarines.” There were gaps. “The agreement ignored strategic bombers and did not address warhead numbers, leaving both sides free to enlarge their forces by deploying multiple warheads (MIRVs) onto their ICBMs and SLBMs.” There was a follow-up agreement, SALT II, signed in June 1979, that “limited US and Soviet ICBM, SLBM, and strategic bomber-based nuclear forces to 2,250 delivery vehicles (defined as an ICBM silo, a SLBM launch tube [or missile launcher], or a heavy bomber) and placed a variety of other restrictions on deployed strategic nuclear forces.” However, when the Soviet’s invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, President Jimmy Carter “asked the Senate not to go ahead with the next round of negotiations known as SALT III.

In July 1991, President Ronald Reagan signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I), which “required the United States and the Soviet Union to reduce their deployed strategic arsenals to 1,600 delivery vehicles, carrying no more than 6,000 warheads….[and] required the destruction of excess delivery vehicles.” The implementation of this agreement was “delayed for several years because of the collapse of the Soviet Union and ensuing efforts to denuclearize Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus by returning their nuclear weapons to Russia and making them parties to the NPT [Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty] and Start agreements.” In January 1993, Presidents George H.W. Bush and Boris Yeltsin signed a follow-on agreement, called START II, which “called for reducing deployed strategic arsenals to 3,000-3,500 warheads and banned the deployment of destabilizing multiple-warhead land-based missiles.” However, “START II was effectively shelved as a result of the 2002 US withdrawal from the ABM treaty.” In between 1991 and 2002, Presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin “agreed to a framework for START III negotiations… ‘to promote the irreversibility of deep reductions including prevention of a rapid increase in the number of warheads.” But when START II was abandoned, the negotiations over START III never happened.

Later in 2002, on May 24, 2002, “Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin signed the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT or Moscow treaty), requiring that the United States and Russia reduce their arsenals to 1,700-2,200 warheads each.” This was to take effect on December 31, 2002. One of the limitations of the treaty was that the US limited reductions to warheads “deployed on strategic delivery vehicles in active service, i.e., operationally deployed’ warheads, and would not count warheads removed from service and placed in storage or warheads on delivery vehicles undergoing overhaul or repair. Nonetheless, the Senate and Duma approved the treaty and it entered into force on June 1, 2003.

The process of nuclear arms control agreements got another boost on April 8, 2010, when “the United States and Russia signed New START, a legally binding verifiable agreement that limits each side to 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads deployed on 700 strategic delivery systems (ICBMs, SLBMs and heavy bombers), and limits deployed and nondeployed launchers to 800.” This lowered the warhead limits of SORT and included tighter verification requirements, including “on-site inspections and exhibitions, data exchanges and notifications related to strategic offensive arms and facilities covered by the treaty, and provisions to facilitate the use of national technical mans for treaty monitoring.” Additionally, the treaty “provides for the continued exchange of telemetry (missile flight-test data on up to five tests per year) and does not meaningfully limit missile defenses or long-range conventional strike capabilities.” The Treaty was finalized on December 22, 2010, after it was approved by the Russian parliament and the US Senate.

#2 – Non-strategic Nuclear Arms Control Measures

This involves “ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers,” or 311 miles and 3,418 miles. The US and the Soviet Union signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty on December 8, 1987, including ‘intrusive on-site inspections.” The two sides “completed their reductions by June 1, 1991, destroying a total of 2,692 missiles, and later extended after the breakup of the Soviet Union to include “the United States, Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine.” The US became concerned in 2014 that Russia was violating the agreement by deploying ground-launched missiles that were prohibited. This would later give Trump a reason to withdraw from the agreement – rather than to seek a negotiated resolution.

The undoing of nuclear arms control agreements

Legal scholar Marjorie Cohn provides an informative analysis of the breakdown of US-Russian nuclear weapons treaties in an article titled “US Refusal to Negotiate with Russia Increases likelihood of Nuclear War” (https://www.truth-out.org/news/item/43811-us-refusal-to-negotiate-with-russia-increases-likelihood-of-nuclear-war). She reminds us that George W. Bush withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty with Russia, which called for the reductions of anti-ballistic missile defenses in both countries. Cohn quotes David Krieger, founder of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation: “The fuel for a new nuclear arms race was already on fire, and a Russian strategic response was predictable, when the US withdrew from the ABM Treaty and began developing a replacing missile defense systems globally. The US withdrawal and abrogation of the ABM Treaty may prove to be the greatest strategic blunder of the nuclear age.” Obama also contributed to the undermining of the nuclear détente with Russia when he signed off on the policy to “modernize” the US nuclear bomb arsenal. The official US nuclear arms position as reflected in the US Nuclear Posture Review has also, Cohn notes, reduced “the threshold for using nuclear weapons in response to non-nuclear attacks, including cyberattacks, in ‘extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States, its allies and partners.”

Enter Donald Trump

Now there is increased concern about US nuclear weapons and control and command over the nuclear arsenals. President-elect Trump has twittered and blustered in his braggadocio, narcissistic manner, that it may be better for the world if even more countries possessed their own nuclear weapons (e.g., Saudi Arabia, Japan, South Korea), implied that he might use nuclear weapons in the Middle East to “wipe out ISIS,” suggested that the US could win an escalated nuclear arms race, has withdrawn the US from the multilateral agreement with Iran over its nuclear energy program, is totally and unconditionally in support of Israel (which is in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation international treaty and whose policies intensify the repression of Palestinians and the expropriation of their land), appears to be committed to steamlining the “modernization” of the US nuclear weapons system. Trump has tweeted: “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” From Trump’s shallow knowledge of the subject and bully-boy temperament, there is no place for a policy of nuclear weapons reductions or nuclear weapons free zones, such as been proposed for the Middle East. From what we know, Trump is likely to behave impulsively in a crisis – and order helter-skelter the lunch nuclear weapons against Iran, Russia, North Korea, or some other perceived adversary. That would cause unimaginatively catastrophic and irreversible war. Indeed, a war to end all wars. Bear in mind that Trump’s mental instability, impulsiveness, malicious narcissism, and con man approach to policy does not bode well for America or humanity given the power of his presidency. (See the new books: (1) Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig, A Very Stable Genius, and (2) Mark Green and Ralph Nader, Fake President: Decoding Trump’s Gaslighting, Corruption, and General Bullsh*t.)

History professor and author Lawrence Wittner writes on how arms control and disarmament agreements have been “rapidly unraveling” under Trump’s administration (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2019/07/29/dear-moderates-presidential-debates-how-raising-issues-how-avert-nuclear-war). He gives the following examples. On May 2018, “the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from the laboriously-constructed Iran nuclear agreement that had closed off the possibility of that nation developing nuclear weapons.” Then on February of 2019, “the Trump announced that, in August, the US government will withdraw from the Reagan era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty – the historical agreement that had banned US and Russian ground-launched cruise missiles – and would proceed to develop such weapons.” Russian President Vladimir Putin responded in kind. The 2010 New Start Treaty is also on the chopping block, that is the treaty that “reduces US and Russian deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550 each, limits US and Russian nuclear delivery vehicles, and provides for extensive inspection.” Wittner notes that if the treaty is allowed to expire, “it would be the first time since 1972 that there would be no nuclear arms control agreement between Russia and the United States.” Then there are other ominous message from the White House and Pentagon. Wittner adds: Some in Trump’s administration are pressing for a US resumption of nuclear weapons testing. The push for “modernizing the nuclear arsenal, with the introduction of new types of nuclear warheads, is gaining support in the White House, a violation of Article VI of the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. And the US Joints Chiefs of Staff are expressing “new interest in nuclear warfare,” declaring in a June 2019 planning document that “using nuclear weapons could create conditions for decisive results and the restoration of strategic stability.”

A history of nuclear weapons accidents

There is a long history of accidents at nuclear weapons’ launching missile sites, both in the US and Russia (formerly the Soviet Union), that came within minutes of starting a nuclear war. This history is painstakinglydocumented by Eric Schlosser in his book Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety, and in an article for The New Yorker, titled “World War Three, by Mistake (Dec 23, 2016). You can find the article at: http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/world-war-three-by-mistake.

Schlosser’s main argument is that “harsh political rhetoric, combined with the vulnerability of the nuclear command-and-control system, has made the risk of global catastrophe greater than ever.” He concludes his long article with the following ominous words.

“My greatest concern is the lack of public awareness about this existential threat, the absence of a vigorous public debate about the nuclear-war plans of Russia and the United States, the silent consent to the roughly fifteen thousand nuclear weapons in the world. These machines have been carefully and ingeniously designed to kill us. Complacency increases the odds that, someday, they will. The ‘Titanic Effect’ is a term used by software designers to explain how things can quietly go wrong in a complex technological system: the safer you assume the system to be, the more dangerous it is becoming.”

Fred Pearce devotes an entire book to how accidents, mis-judgements, out-right lies have almost triggered nuclear war. See his book Fallout: Disasters, Lies, and The Legacy of the Nuclear Age. In his book, The Doomsday Machine, Daniel Ellsberg writes: “every president from Truman to Clinton has felt compelled at some point in time in office – usually in great secrecy – to threaten and/or discuss with the Joint Chiefs of Staff plans and preparation for possible imminent US initiation of tactical or strategic nuclear warfare, in the midst of an ongoing non-nuclear conflict or crisis” (pp .319-322). There were also such instances during the Bush Jr administration and, much more blatantly under Trump, who have talked about bombing North Korea and Afghanistan with nuclear weapons (see Mark Green and Ralph Nader’s book, Fake President: Decoding Trump’s Gaslighting, Corruption, and General Bullsh*t, the chapter on “War and Peace”).

There are more fingers on the nuclear launch button that the president’s

Ellsberg explains:

“For decades, Americans have been told that there is “exclusive presidential control of the decision to go to nuclear war and how it is to be conducted.” This officially propounded view is “embodied by the iconic ‘football,’ the briefcase carried by a presidential military aide that is to accompany the president ‘at all times,’ containing codes and electronic equipment by which the president, on receiving warning of a nuclear attack, can convey to the military his choice of a response ‘option’ to be executed” (p. 67-68). Ellsberg argues this is not true: “It was not only the president who could make the decision and issue the orders, and not even…the secretary of defense or the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Pentagon, but commanders in the field thousands of miles from Washington who thought their forces might be about to be destroyed…. In some circumstances, commanders of four-star rank could issue in their own name an authorized directive to undertake nuclear attack without the immediate prior involvement of the president” (p. 68).

This “hidden” decentralized command structure is considered to be necessary because of the threat of decapitation, that is, that the president and other high government officials in Washington DC could be wiped out by a surprise nuclear attack. Ellsberg puts it this way. “A single nuclear warhead on the capital could kill not only the president but all of his legally designated successors in the cabinet and Congress (and the JCS along with the secretary of defense, the only civilian aside from the president in the military chain of command) – all of them who were in town at that moment. If nuclear deterrence were to have any substantial backing at all – if it were to be more than an empty bluff – it could not be the case that one such explosion would definitively block any authorized, coordinated nuclear response to that or any subsequent attack” (p. 69).

America’s “First Use”policy of nuclear weapons

Ellsberg makes this point.

“Preparation for preemption or for carrying out threats of first use or first strike remains the essence of the ‘modernization’ program for strategic weapons for the last seventy years – prospectively being extended by Presidents Obama and Trump to one hundred years – that has continuously benefited our military-industrial-complex” (p. 324)….“The felt political need to profess, at least, to believe that the ability to make and carry out nuclear threats is essential to US national security and to our leadership in our alliances is why every single president has refused to make a formal ‘no-first-use’ (NFU) commitment” (p. 324)

“…the United States has tenaciously resisted the pleas of most other nations in the world to make an NFU pledge as an essential basis for stopping proliferation, including at the Nonproliferation Treaty Extension Conference in 1995 and the Review Conference since 2000. Moreover, the United States has demanded that NATO continue to legitimize first-use threat by basing its own strategy on them, even after the USSR and the Warsaw Pact had dissolved (and most of the former Pact members had joined NATO. Yet this stubborn stance – along with actual threats of possible US nuclear first use in more recent confrontations with Iraq, North Korea, and Iran – virtually precludes effective leadership by the United States (and perhaps anyone else) in delegitimizing and averting further proliferation and even imitation of US use of nuclear weapons” (324-325)

“UN Resolution 36/100, the Declaration on the Prevention of Nuclear Catastrophe… was adopted on December 9, 1981, in the wake of Reagan’s endorsement of the Carter Doctrine – openly extending US first-use threats to the Persian Gulf – which this resolution directly contradicted and implicitly condemned. It declares in its preamble: ‘Any doctrine allowing the first use of nuclear weapons and any actions pushing the world toward a catastrophe are incompatible with human moral standards and the lofty ideals of the UN” (p. 325) – 82 nations voted in favor of it, 41 abstained (under pressure from US), 19 opposed it (including the US, Israel and most NATO member nations).”

Nuclear Winter

No nation, no people, can survive an even limited, regional nuclear war with warheads in the present nuclear arsenals. Even a first-use attack by, say, the US to destroy the nuclear-launching capacity of, say Russia, would produce a worldwide catastrophe. The smoke from nuclear bomb blasts would rise into the atmosphere and remain there for an extended period, enough to cripple food production around the world. (See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_winter). There are no winners in nuclear war. However, the “doctors strange loves” in the Pentagon are busy at designing smaller nuclear weapons that may not themselves produce a nuclear winter.

Other effects of a nuclear war

Then there is the radiation from nuclear blasts. Robert Jacobs describes some of the chaos and hardship that would prevail after nuclear war had commenced (https://truth-out.org/news/item/3290-we-cannot-survive-a-nuclear-apocalpse-by-ducking-and-covering). He offers this graphic example: “After a nuclear attack, the suggestion that one [a survivor] can go somewhere and find clean water is ridiculous. Or that one could take their contaminated clothes off and simply find uncontaminated clothes nearby. Or that washing your hair one time will remove the systemic dangers of being in a radiologically contaminated environment, and your hair would not simply reabsorb some of that radiation. Or that shampoo would be contaminated, etc.” Jacobs refers to a study by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) which concluded that the radiation produced by a hydrogen bomb “detonated over Washington DC would have the following effects: “not only would everyone in Washington DC be dead from the blast and heat of the weapons, but everyone in Baltimore, Philadelphia and half the population of New York City would soon die of radiation sickness if they did not immediately evacuate.”

Part 2 – The Minute hand of the Doomsday Clock is moved closer to “midnight”

The Science and Security board of The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists have just made their annual adjustment of “the doomsday clock” (https://thebulletin.org/doomsday-clock/current-time). The prestigious scientific board uses the doomsday clock as a symbol of how distant or close the minute hand is from midnight, which, if ever reached, would, in their considered estimation, result in a cataclysmic outcome, most likely the end of humanity and much of life on the planet in the case of nuclear war. In their 2020 report, editor John Mecklin writes: “the members of the Science and Security Board have concluded that the complex technological threats the world faces are at least as dangerous today as they were last year and the year before, when we set the Clock at two minutes to midnight (as close as it had ever been, and the same setting that was announced in 1953, after the United States and the Soviet Union tested their first thermonuclear weapons).” In January, the board moved the minute hand to 100 seconds before midnight, the closest it has ever been to this end-game time over all the years the board has been publishing its assessments. While the board includes both the prospects of climate change as well as nuclear war in is recent decisions, the focus in this post will be on the threat of nuclear war. (I have recently written on the climate crisis.)

The board offers two multifaceted justifications for its decision. One is that the danger of nuclear war is increased by“cyber-enabled information warfare.” This is a multifaceted technology that will have the effect of reducing the time it takes to recognize a nuclear missile attack, but at the same time increases the chances of launching nuclear bombs because of mistaken information….computers that control bombs may be hacked….“many governments used cyber-enabled disinformation campaigns to sow distrust in institutions and among nations.”

They refer specifically to “the emergence of new destabilizing technologies in artificial intelligence, space, hypersonics, and biology,” all of which, the board contends, “portend a dangerous and multifaceted global instability.” ICAN provides an in-depth analysis of how these “emerging technologies” increase the risk of nuclear war, as they “add another layer of risk to an already unacceptable level of risk of nuclear weapons use” (https://popularresistance.org/emerging-technologies-and-nuclear-risks ). A 2018 study by Chatham House of cyber security and nuclear weapons found, according to ICAN: “The risks of a cyber-attack on nuclear weapons systems raise significant doubts about the reliability and integrity of such systems in a time crisis, regarding the ability to: a) launch a weapon b) prevent an inadvertent attack c) maintain command and control of all military system d) transmit information and other communication e) maintenance and reliability of such systems.”

The board’s second justification for moving the minute hand on the doomsday clock closer to midnight concerns that the heightened danger of nuclear war is compounded by the erosion of the “international political infrastructure for managing” the nuclear arsenals of the US and other countries. “They write: “national leaders have ended or undermined several major arms control treaties and negotiations during the last year, creating an environment conducive to a renewed nuclear arms race, to the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and to lowered barriers to nuclear war. Political conflicts regarding nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea remain unresolved and are, if anything, worsening. US-Russia cooperation on arms control and disarmament is all but nonexistent.”

The Board concludes its report on a positive note, despite all the bad news, and assume, first, the nuclear dangers can be potentially managed and kept from happening and, second, that “there are many practical, concrete steps that leaders could take – and citizens should demand – to improve the current, absolutely unacceptable state of world security affairs.” What are the practical steps?

“US and Russian leaders can return to the negotiating table to: reinstate the INF Treaty or take other action to restrain an unnecessary arms race in medium-range missiles; extend the limits of the New START beyond 2021; seek further reductions in nuclear arms; discuss a lowering of the alert status of the nuclear arsenals of both countries; limit nuclear modernization programs that threaten to create a new nuclear arms race; and start talks on cyber warfare, missile defenses, the militarization of space, hypersonic technology, and the elimination of battlefield nuclear weapons.”

Further: “The United States and other signatories of the Iran nuclear deal can work together to restrain nuclear proliferation in the Middle East….Whoever wins the United States’ 2020 presidential election must prioritize dealing with this problem, whether through a return to the original nuclear agreement or via negotiation of a new and broader accord.”

Additionally: “The international community should begin multilateral discussions aimed at establishing norms of behavior, both domestic and international, that discourage and penalize the misuse of science.”

Finally, there must be attention given to the need “to prevent information technology from undermining public trust in political institutions, in the media, and in the existence of objective reality itself. Cyber-enabled information warfare is a threat to the common good. Deception campaigns – and leaders intent on blurring the line between fact and politically motivated fantasy – are a profound threat to effective democracies, reducing their ability to address nuclear weapons, climate change, and other existential dangers.”

Part 3 – Concluding thoughts

The proposals by the Board of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists may be the best that can be advanced, however unlikely they are to be implemented, especially during the ascendancy of the Trump administration. Trump often refers to nuclear weapons as a tool to be used to threaten and intimidate adversarial nations at a whim, to get attention, or to really mean it without any understanding or regard of the dreadful and irretrievable consequences of launching nuclear weapons. As the nuclear situation stands now, one thing is crystal clear, that is, Trump, the Republican Party, and their corporate enablers will not follow the recommendations of the Board or anyone else who proposes that more diplomacy with the goal of multilateral agreements should be the basis for moving away from “midnight,” with the goal of phasing out nuclear weapons.

Indeed, in a rationale world based on verifiable, scientifically based evidence, the world leaders would be not only taking “practical” steps to reduce the chances of war but making efforts to ban nuclear weapons altogether. This is not so far-fetched. On July 7, 2017, “some 130 countries” at the United Nations successfully negotiated a treaty to outlaw nuclear weapons and, according to a report by Kennette Benedict for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, “agreed to make the developing, testing, manufacturing, possessing, or stockpiling of nuclear weapons by any state illegal” (https://thebulletin.org/prohibition-nuclear-weapons-treaty-10936). As with the festering and accelerating climate crisis, nations have little time to come together and truly advance such an effort.

In the US, the 2020 elections will represent a seminal moment in the country’s history. If Trump and the Republicans win, the existential threats faced by the country – and the world – will be ignored and made worse than they are. If “moderate” Democrats win, then there is the possibility that the threats will be acknowledged but insufficiently addressed. It will take political candidates with transformative agendas to give the country a chance of possibly advancing policies that lead us away from the “midnight” of nuclear war. The odds of this happening are not good, but not impossible.

There is some public concern. Wittner refers to a May 2019 opinion poll by the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland that found “two-thirds of US respondents favored remaining within the INF Treaty, 80 percent wanted to extend the New START Treaty, about 60% supported ‘phasing out’ US intercontinental ballistic missiles, and 75 percent back legislation requiring congressional approval before the president could order a nuclear attack” (cited previously). Dahr Jamail offers a detailed report (Truthout, Nov 11, 2018) on how “physicians work to bring back the anti-nuclear movement (https://truthout.org/articles/physicians-work-to-bring-back-the-anti-nuclear-movement). According to an article by Jon Letman (Truthout, January 13, 2020), “cities in the crosshairs are pushing back against nuclear weapons” (https://truthout.org/articles/cities-in-the-crosshairs-are-pushing-back-against-nuclear-weapons). And, in a report by Marjorie Cohn (Truthout, Oct 28, 2019), some brave anti-nuclear activists engage in non-violent acts of disobedience against US nuclear facilities, even though it may result in long-term imprisonment (https://truthout.org/articles/convicted-anti-nuclear-activists-speak-out-pentagon-has-brainwashed-people). And James Carden writes in an article for the Nation magazine (Oct 2, 2019): “women state legislators and advocacy groups are uniting to call for a no-first-use nuclear policy” (https://thenation.com/article/trump-nuclear-proliferation). There are, moreover, some Democrats in the US Congress who vote against increases in the bloated military budget and who favor nuclear arms control initiatives, if not a ban on these horrendous weapons.

The lethal mixture of neoliberalism and corporate capitalism

The lethal mixture of neoliberalism and corporate capitalism
Bob Sheak, January 26, 2020

The US political-economic system of corporate capitalism is beset with multiplicity of problems that will only be intensified if Trump is re-elected in 2020. This is the thesis of economist Jack Rasmus in his new book, The Scourge of Neoliberalism: US Economic Policy from Reagan to Trump. Rasmus presents a persuasive case that the US economy has not recovered from the 2008-2009 crisis and, despite the claims of Trump and his allies, the economy is hardly “great.” Rather, it is plagued with problems (“contradictions’) that cannot be surmounted by the policies advanced by the Trump administration and Republican Party. Rasmus is also skeptical that modest reforms of the system will be adequate. The US is coming to a historic fork in the road. On one path, the neoliberal-based policies, selectively implemented, of the Trump/Republicans will not only continue but be strengthened. This path will only deepen the crisis. The other path, rarely taken, will be taken if a radical alternative is chosen by voters, an alternative that is committed to a policy agenda more aligned with the spirit and content of the New Deal, European Social Democracy, or the idea of democratic socialism. The ideas of a Green New Deal or Medicare for All are in these intellectual currents.

The title of Rasmus’ book highlights the importance of Neoliberal, but it would have been better if he had used the concept “corporate capitalism,” with the title “the scourge of corporate capitalism.” Neoliberalism is an ideological framework that justifies policies and programs that serve the interests of the mega-corporations, the private sector of the economy generally, and calls (selectively) for minimal government. Corporate capitalism is an economic-political system dominated by mega-corporations whose principal goals are to maximize profits and who have a disproportionate influence on the political system.

The powerful advocates and political and intellectual enablers of Neoliberalism do two things to mystify the public about their real goals, which are about maximizing/optimizing profits, satisfying their shareholders, and keeping executive compensation going up. They equate less government with “freedom,” however they love tax cuts, government subsidies, and military spending, Indeed, they promise that tax breaks, deregulation, privatization, de-unionization, a low-interest monetary policy, bailing out big banks, will generate economic growth, innovation, and lots of good jobs. The reality is different. Corporate concentration increases, as competition is stifled. The number of multi-millionaires and billionaires rise. Income and wealth inequalities reach levels not seen since before the 1930s. The number of “good jobs” in the economy shrink. And government support for all sorts of social, educational, and health care benefits declines, while the prison population remains the largest in the world. The system is rigged against democracy because, in the absence of massive grassroots mobilizations and the rise of a progressive/radical Democratic candidates, the corporate and political decision-makers have the power to make it that way.

Neoliberalism

Neoliberalism was given intellectual legitimacy in right-wing circles by the work Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises in Europe who argued for a political system based on “unfettered individualism,” a system very different from what Classic Liberals such as Adam Smith, David Hume, and John Locke had in mind (Rasmus, p. 6).

In 1947, there was “a watershed meeting of what was called the Mont Pelerin Society” that laid the foundation for a Neoliberal policy agenda. Wendy Brown points out that the term “neoliberalism “was coined at the 1938 Colloque Walter Lippman, a gathering of scholars who laid the political-intellectual foundations for what would take shape at the Mont Pelerin Society a decade later” (In the Ruins of Neoliberalism: The Rise of Antidemocratic Politics in the West, p. 17).

The Mont Pelerin Society convened its first meeting in Geneva as Hayek and Milton Friedman and other right-wing economists gathered to contest the precepts and practices of John Maynard Keynes, whose economic ideas influenced the New Deal, and where an alternative framework of how the economy should operate was articulated. It took time for the ideas to congeal into a full-blown economic doctrine. According to Rasmus, Neoliberalism developed “a cohesive…set of related economic, political, and philosophical ideas sometime in the 1970s” (p. 2). Wendy Brown adds this about the fortunes and meaning of neoliberalism: “By the end of the 1970s, exploiting a crisis of profitability and stagflation, neoliberal programs were rolled out by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, again centering on deregulation capital, breaking organized labor, privatizing public goods and services, reducing progressive taxation, and shrinking the social state” (p. 18).

The doctrine entered the mainstream of US politics with the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan. Since then, through both Republican and Democratic administrations, Neoliberalism has significantly shaped the content and limits of government economic policies and justified attacks on Democracy. However, Neoliberalism is not the basic driver of the policies and attacks, as already indicated. Rasmus cogently analyzes how Neoliberalism and its variants gain influence as ideological response to economic crises linked to changing political realities and technological changes. In the course of the crises, Neoliberalism is modified, but not basically compromised. In crises, there is among decision-makers the aim of offering rationales, policies, and programs that continue to aid and abet the positions and interests of the corporate power and the rich.

Rasmus makes clear that the advocates of Neoliberalism, ideological advocates, corporate elites, and those who occupy the White House, along with many of those in the US Congress, call for policies that reflect the Neoliberal framework. At the same time, their very assertions and proposals increasingly contradict economic realities. Rather than looking for alternatives, these advocates continue to endorse Neoliberalism’s basic principles and goals, now with a blustering, authoritarian champion in the White House. The questions are how far will the advocates for Neoliberal policies and the maintenance and strengthening of corporate power stretch the truth and how long will US publics continue to go along with their self-serving, anti-democratic narrative?

Economic reality contradicts Neoliberal principles and rhetoric

The advocates of Neoliberalism favor economic policies and an economy based on “free markets,” but in practice they support the mega-corporations that dominate all sectors of the economy and “do all they can to suppress free markets and competition.” Here are the points made by Rasmus on pp. 3, 7-19 of his book.

They say they are “concerned about the individual,” but “these same corporations have moved tens of millions of jobs from the US to cheaper costs of production abroad.”

They say they favor “efficient markets” that keep prices for their products and services low, arguing that markets are always better than “government intervention or production of public goods and services. But prices typically decline not so much in response to market forces as to the power of corporate executives to keep wages low and other practices that have little to do with efficiency in production (e.g., union-busting and avoidance, two-tier labor contracts, opposition to raising the minimum wage).

They say they favor “free trade,” but trade deals are “rife with tariffs, quotas and other limits on free trade,” with the goal of “guaranteeing favorable terms and conditions for US corporations,” ensuring the repatriation of profits back to the multinational corporations’ headquarters in the US.

They want to minimize government intervention in the economy, but they do so selectively, allowing, for example, “spending on social programs and public works to decline in the name of austerity, while pushing for increases in military spending.”

They contend that lower taxes have the effect of increasing the number of jobs in the labor market, without providing any empirical evidence. Trump’s recent tax cut overwhelmingly favored the corporations and the rich and affluent.

They maintain that deregulation and privatization are good, but express little or no concern for the environmental devastation or climate-disrupting emissions that are linked to corporate activities.

They think that there is nothing worrisome about the rising national debt or large and growing government budget deficits, but such budgetary realities rests on the strength of the US dollar currency and the willingness of trading partners to use the currency and buy US “debt” from the Federal Reserve in the form of US securities. It is an increasingly fragile arrangement, given that China and other countries are in a position to develop alternative currencies for the purposes of international trade and

And finally, they express a decided bias in favor of monetary policy on the false assumptions that increases in the money supply will lower interest rates and the excess cash will be invested in the production of goods and services; however, much of the money generated in this way goes to buy backs their own stocks or for acquisitions of and mergers with already existing businesses. In the meantime, sectors of the real economy have difficulty raising money for investment purposes.

The “material forces” driving the economy will push Neoliberal narratives beyond their limits

Thus, Rasmus argues that the economy is plagued by “contradictions” that are not acknowledged by those in power. But Rasmus digs deeper into the crisis-laden economy. It is not the Neoliberal-inspired ideas and apologies that explain economic conditions and trends but rather specific “material forces” that will either lead to radical changes in policies or intensify the contradictions.

However, the current situation and the way it is unfolding are disconcerting. Rasmus analyzes “concurrent revolutions in several key technologies, accelerating changes in production and distribution processes, change in the very nature of money, and the consequent rapid changes in product markets, financial markets due to technological processes, financial markets, and labor markets due to the technological, processes, and money form revolutions.” His chief contention: “Neoliberal policy will not be able to harness, nor contain, the negative consequences of these forces as they evolve full blown into the 2020s decade ahead.” Unless these changes are addressed based on radically different assumptions, policies, and practices, “[g]rowth will continue to slow, stagnate and even contract, and financial instability will grow in frequency, scope, and magnitude” (p. 211). In this case, a growing share of the society will face economic hardship.

Trump’s policies of maximizing fossil fuels in the production and distribution of electricity will exacerbate the climate crisis (pp. 213-214). The rapid introduction of Artificial Intelligence will increase “the automation of decision making made possible by massive databases of information plus equally massive computing power to withdraw and process information virtually instantaneously from those databases.” Among other developments, “5G wireless technology” will accelerate “sensor technologies,” which, in turn, “will enable driverless cars, trucks, public transport, and even aircraft, “while also expanding “private corporate and government surveillance capabilities” (p. 215). With the onset and expansion over the 2020s of driverless vehicles, “more than one million truck drivers in the US alone will be displaced.” AI will enable online commerce and the faster delivery of goods and will have the effect of replacing millions of small manufacturing companies and distribution companies (p 218). Amazon is a leader in this area. Warehouses will become increasingly automated, as the “stocking and retrieving of goods warehoused will be done by intelligent machines which will know where every item is stored” (p. 220). Photovoltaic cells are being embedded in glass technology, solar panels will be replaced by “cells embedded in the windows of a building, and thereafter, eventually, in new forms of paint” (p. 220). Again, there will be major labor dislocations that Neoliberal ideology leaves to the working of the “free market,” but also perhaps create the conditions to give rise to oppositional social movements.

There is no place in the Neoliberal policy arsenal for a universal basic income, major infrastructure projects, Medicare for All, re-unionization, a sufficient federal minimum wage, money for retraining dislocated workers, expansion of vocational education, support for debt-burdened college students, or for the potential job-creation that would accompany a Green New Deal. Large corporations like Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft will destroy more jobs than they create (p. 231). Rasmus refers to a recent survey by Mckinsey Consultants that “estimates no less that 30% of the US workforce will be negatively impacted by AI, with either complete loss of jobs or severe reduction in hours worked, that is “more than 50 million redundant workers in the next decade,” and these will be added to “the already 50 million “contingent, part-time-temporary-independent contractor…jobs.” There will be good jobs for about 10%-15% of the workforce, but “two thirds or more will in AI/GIG/Amazoned/low paid/few benefits/no job security employment” (p. 236).

The US has already, since the 1980s, “flooded the world economy with excess dollars, leading to “widespread and chronic excess money supply and chronic negative interest rates,” and thus limiting the ability of central banks to manage monetary policy. In addition, Rasmus writes: “the flooding has reached extreme and is resulting in financial over-investment and asset bubbles” (p.225). The potential spread of cryptocurrencies (e.g., Bitcoin) will exacerbate the problem. The financial problem has been further complicated by the growth of a shadow banking system, which is “essentially unregulated, global in scope, and determined to engage in highly speculative risk taking investments in derivatives, properties, and other financial securities….The shadow banking system was at the center of the cause of the 2008-2009 crash. Shadow banks consist of investments banks (like Lehman Brothers, Bear-Stearns, etc.) private equity companies, hedge funds, finance companies, pension funds, sovereign wealth funds, insurance companies, and so on” (227-228). In the event of a recession, Neoliberal policies of reducing interest rates will not be available and there will be no controls over rampant financial speculation that will divert financial support away from investment in the real economy.

Under the current corporate-dominated power structure and Neoliberal rationalizations, profits and tax savings will continue to go to shareholders. Rasmus refers to these stunning facts. “Trillions of dollars have been distributed, more than $1 trillion on average every year, by US corporations to their shareholders in the form of stock buybacks and dividend payouts since 2010. Trillions more in personal income tax cuts. That has produced a $23 trillion national government debt load, projected to rise further to $34 trillion by 2028. Meanwhile, chronic low interest rates have enabled US corporations to raise more than $1 trillion a year more in debt – much also distributed to shareholders” (240). The tax cuts, combined with enormous military expenditures, have “produced massive deficits and debt and thus have now largely negated future fiscal spending on much needed infrastructure and other social investments” (240). To have any hope in reversing such trends, it will take a “democratic revolution” in the 2020 elections. But those in power have done their utmost to eliminate this option.

Destroying Democracy

This is been done in many ways. Republicans have used their control in the US Senate to influence appointments to the US Supreme Court. As a result, the Supreme Court now has a conservative majority that, among other decisions, has eliminated limits on corporate political spending (p. 248). At least a dozen states, mainly concentrated in “red” states like Georgia, Florida, Ohio, North Dakota, Texas, and others, have used their power over congressional redistricting to gerrymander such districts. Today, Rasmus writes, “22 states are firmly in Republican control – both through the governorship and the combined legislative houses.” With respect to gerrymandering, Chief Justice Roberts has argued that “the Supreme Court justices lacked the competence to decide when partisan politics in gerrymandering was undermining democracy,” thus allowing partisan gerrymandering to be permitted everywhere (p. 252). Meanwhile, gerrymandering technology has made it “possible to draw precise and detailed ‘voter maps’ showing where one’s party’s voters were distributed and concentrated, and where the other party’s voters might be broken up and allocated to another district” (p. 252).

The Electoral College allows states with small populations to have a disproportionate effect on the outcome of presidential elections. Rasmus quotes the expert political forecaster, Nate Cohn on the implications of this fact and writes: “Trump could very well win the 2020 election even if he loses the popular vote by an even greater margin than the 2.8 million by which he lose it n 2016” (p. 256). Red states have as well employed various voter suppression laws to limit the votes of populations who tend to vote for Democratic candidates, including purging voter rolls, placing holds on voter registration just prior to an election, using old voting machines without paper trails that can be hacked, requiring voter IDs that many voters may not have, reducing the number of voting places, and limiting the days before an election that citizens can register to vote Ari Berman documents such anti-democratic political tactics in articles for The Nation magazine and in his book, Give US the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America. Carol Anderson’s book, One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Our Democracy buttresses the authoritative documentation of how the political system works against democracy.

There is more. The assault on democracy is undermined when 35,000 lobbyists work the halls of the US Congress, “the vast majority of whom are either direct employees of corporations, or of their trade associations, or their law firms.” Rasmus adds that the number of lobbyists is under-estimated and does not include “the ‘unregistered’ lobbyists or lobbying at the state and local government level” (p. 258). He draws out attention to how the corporate, Neoliberal, agenda is articulated and fostered by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization created by the Koch Brothers to provide right-wing “boilerplate” bills for states to pass into legislation.

Trump’s assault on democracy takes it to another level

Rasmus sums it up well. Trump is taking us – “Toward a view that his presidency is more than a ‘co-equal’ branch of government. Toward a view he can and should govern when necessary by bypassing Congress. Toward a view the Constitution means he can force states to abandon their rights to govern. And toward a view the president can publicly attack, vilify, insult, coerce, and threaten opponents, critics, and whomever he chooses” (266). This is a path that leads to tyranny. (See Timothy Snyder’s book On Tryanny for an explanation of the concept and its relevance for the US political system today.)

For example, Rasmus reminds us, Trump invoked a national emergency and “transferred money allocated by Congress and authorized by the US House for defense spending to fund the border wall” (266-267). Trump has proclaimed periodically that he “considers himself personally ‘above the law’” (267). He abuses the presidential authority to “pardon” and says that he can pardon himself and anyone else (267). He refuses “to allow executive branch employees to testify to Congress, subpoenas notwithstanding” (268). He “expands” the typical reading of the Supremacy Clause by ordering that California’s fossil fuel emission standards cannot be any stricter that the much lower federal standards (268). He uses the billions the US has received from his tariffs to subsidize sympathetic interests, like US farm interests. And he attacks opponents in the media as “fake news,” and others as “traitors” and “criminals,” and incites his supporters at his rallies to violent attack protestors (269).

Concluding Thoughts

Rasmus makes a strong case that the economic conditions of a growing number of Americans are not so good, and if the economy falters as his analysis indicates, the number will increase over the next decade, if not longer. The evidence supports the proposition that many Americans are not able or are having a hard time making ends meet. At the same time, Trump promised that the steep tax cuts for corporations and the ultrarich in 2017 have not fostered increased investment, increased economic growth, and a rise in good jobs in manufacturing and generally across the economy. At the January 2020 meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, Trump blustered triumphantly, as reported by Sonali Kolhatkar: “The US is in the midst of an economic boom the likes of which the world has never seen before,” “America is thriving, American is flourishing, and yes America is winning again like never before,” and “No one is benefiting more than America’s middle class” (https://www.truthdig.com/articles/trumps-rosey-economic-outlook-is-a-big-lie).

But the evidence gathered by Rasmus and others challenge Trump’s rosy claims. Here are some other accounts that support the thrust of Rasmus’ analysis.

Contrary to Trump’s claims, economist Joseph Stiglitz reports that the tax cuts favored corporations and the rich, and when fully implemented will “result in tax increases for most households in the second, third, and fourth income quintiles,” that for 60% of households in the broad middle class” (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2020/01/17/heres-the-truth-trumps-economy-absolute-disaster-people-and-planet).

With respect to investment, Stiglitz writes that instead of a new wave of investment, the tax cuts “triggered an all-time record binge of share buybacks – some $800 billion in 2018 – by some of America’s most profitable companies.” Economist Dean Baker refers to data from the Commerce Department for December 2018, and finds that investment was down or hardly rising in orders for new equipment, for intellectual property products, and nonresidential construction (https://truthout.org/articles/trumps-tax-cut-has-failed-to-deliver-promised-investment-boom).

The stock market has risen, but most Americans do not own stocks or bonds. Trump said there would be economic growth of 4%, even 6%, but economic growth has been barely above 2 to 2.4%. Stiglitz says this is a “remarkably poor performance considering the stimulus provided by the $1 trillion deficit and ultra-low interest rates.” And Trump’s “great economy” has not stopped budget and trade deficits from rising.

What about Trump’s claim that his policies would “bring manufacturing jobs back to the US. and create good jobs generally. Stiglitz reports employment in manufacturing “is still lower than it was under his predecessor, Barak Obama…and markedly below its pre-crisis level.” On wages, Stiglitz writes: “Real median weekly earnings are just 2.6% above their level when Trump took office. The modest increases in median wages have not offset long periods of wage stagnation. For example,” he continues, “the median wage of a full-time male workers (and those with full-time jobs are the lucky ones) is still more than 3% below what it was 40 years ago.” Martha Ross and Nicole Bateman find in an analysis of data for nearly 400 metropolitan areas that “low wage work is more pervasive than you think, and there aren’t enough ‘good jobs’ to go around. Their central finding is that “53 million Americans between the ages of 18 to 64 – accounting for 44% of all workers – qualify as ‘low-wage,” with “median hourly wages” of just $10.22 and median annual earnings” of $18,000” (https://www.brookings.edu/blog/the-avenue/2019/11/21/low-wage-work-is-more-pervasive-than-you-think-and-there-arent-enough-good-jobs-to-go-around).

In short, there are many well-founded facts that dispute Trump’s triumphant claims about the US economy. In the current partisan-divided political environment, however, facts will not persuade those who are hard core supporters of Trump and his right-wing policies. However, if the Neoliberal policies of Trump have the anticipated negative impacts on his supporters that Rasmus and others anticipate, then perhaps some of these supporters may eventually look for other candidates who address their concerns. In the meantime, the facts may help to solidify the views and commitments of those who already recognize the Neoliberal rationale and the system of corporate capitalism for what they are. It is a rationale for a system that offers only disinformation, inequality, a worsening of economic prospects, and increasingly authoritarian political remedies.

Trump risks war by ordering assassinations in the ongoing US effort to maintain hegemony in the Middle East

Trump risks war by ordering assassination to maintain US hegemony in the Middle East
Bob Sheak, January 13, 2020

Overview: This post analyzes the long-standing US militaristic policy in the Middle East, Trump’s reckless and unlawful order to assassinate Qassim Soleimani and others, how the administration has attempted to justify the action, what the justification leaves out, and the negative consequences for the US in Iran and other parts of the Middle East.

Introduction

The US assassination of top Iranian military leaders is rooted in the imperialistic view that the US is right to have troops and to intervene as it wants in the Middle East and elsewhere unless confronted with a militarily strong nation and/or one that has nuclear weapons. Ali Abunimah captures the gist of this view as follows, namely, US leaders “never question the premise that the United States has the right to send troops, aircraft carriers and drones to impose its will on every corner of the world, to bomb and kill and install handpicked puppet leaders in any country that fails to toe Washington’s line” (https://electronicintifada.net/content/why-trump-escalating-us-israeli-war-iraq/29231).

Indeed, the US military as ubiquitous in the Middle East and around Iran. Along with battle ships, submarines, aircraft, all equipped with missile-launching capabilities, with 50-90 nuclear weapons housed at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, and, as reported by O’Connor, with 53,906 American soldiers stationed in the region as of January 4, 2020, including 800 in Syria, 3000 in Jordan, 3000 in Saudi Arabia, 6000 in Iraq, 13000 in Kuwait, 7000 in Bahrain, 13000 in Qatar, 5000 in UAE, 606 in Oman, and 2500 in Turkey, you can’t turn a corner without being in bomb or drone sight of the US military (https://newsweek.com/where-us-troops-near-iran-1480617). Why?

Some Background

Historian Andrew Bacevich reminds us that President Jimmy Carter announced what became the “Carter Doctrine” in the 1980 State of the Union address in which he said: “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf 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.” There is another point. Trump and previous US Presidents want to protect the governments and oil facilities of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Emirates, along with friendly governments in Kuwait, Bahrain, etc., to ensure some degree of stability in the global oil markets, maintain markets for US military weapon producers, and ensure the bases for US military forces are allowed to continue in operation.

Middle East Oil and other US interests in the region

Trump now says that the US no longer needs Middle East oil, though US European and Japanese allies do. All the while, the US domestic appetite for oil has been ramping up under Trump, with the opening of more and more public spaces, onshore and offshore, for oil extraction and now in the competition with Russia and other countries for oil and other minerals in the Arctic region. The US appetite for maximizing the production and use of fossil fuels is also reflected in the unhinged fracking boom, the termination of Obama’s fuel efficiency standards, Trump’s enthusiastic efforts to salvage coal, the gutting of EPA regulations, the growing export of liquified natural gas, and the unwillingness to support renewable alternatives. By the way, the US still imports 25% of the oil it uses. If oil sources in the Middle East were disrupted, the effects on the US and world economies would, in time, be catastrophic.

In an in-depth, historically-nuanced article, historical economist Michael Hudson argues that oil continues to be a basic reason for US involvement in the Middle East, requiring the willingness of Saudi Arabia and oil exporters in the region to trade in dollars, use the dollars to buy US weapons, and help to ensure that countries continue use the US currency (https://www.counterpunch.org/2020/01/06/america-escalates-its-democratic-oil-war-in-the-near-east).

Since 9/11, the militaristic aspect of the US Middle East policy it vital to US interests, as it provided the rationale for the launching of the “war against terrorism,” an ill-defined, unbounded, and virtually endless war. So, it can be surmised that US Middle East policy rests on geopolitical interests (it’s US turf!), oil (“who put our oil under their sand”), and this war on terrorism. Insofar as Trump (and past presidents) is concerned, there are good players (e.g., Israel, Saudi Arabia), who are aligned with US interests, and bad players (e.g., Iran, Syria) who are not. In this context, the bad players must be penalized (e.g., sanctions) and attacked by US-supporter terrorist groups until they are either driven into oblivion, destabilized and made dysfunctional, or come to comply with what the US demands of them. Bush reinforced US antagonism toward Iran in the 2002 State of the Union Address (January 29, 2002), when he included Iran in the “axis of evil,” as one example among many. Obama took an extraordinary – though very focused and limited – step in the opposite direction when he supported the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. Though, as we know, Trump cancelled that modestly positive agreement.

Trump ups the ante and orders the assassination of Soleimani, with support by the usual right-wing forces in the US

The assassinations were carried out at the direction of Trump. In an unprecedented action, the US military launched a drone attack near Baghdad International Airport on Friday, January 3, 2020, that killed senior Iranian general Qassim Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds forces, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, Iraqi deputy commander of Iran-back militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), and five others. The action has been lauded by Republicans in the US Congress, by some Democrats, the right-wing media echo chamber. Trump’s base, of course, goes along with anything he decides. Ali Abunimah reports (cited above) that the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the US attack and was happy that Trump had acted “with determination, strongly and swiftly. He also gives examples of other senior Israeli politicians, including opposition leaders to Netanyahu, who lauded the American attack.

Abunimah quotes scholar Greg Shupak who observes, “US and Israeli planners despise Iran principally because it is an independent regional power.” And because “[i]t has a strong military and a foreign policy that includes providing material support for armed Palestinian resistance to Israel and for Hizballah’s defense of Lebanon from US-Israeli aggressions, including the joint invasion in 1982 and the US-backed Israeli assault in 2006.”

At the same time, according to an Aljazeera report and others, there is considerable worldwide opposition to the attack. Leaders in the Middle East condemned the US attack. The Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei “warned that US of ‘harsh revenge for the assassination” (https://aljazeera.com/news/2020/01/qassem/soleimani-assassination-trump-pompeo-defendl-decision-200103141834352.html).

“Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif condemned the killing as an ‘act of state terrorism. ”The Iraqi caretaker Prime Minister called it an “aggression on Iraq that would spark a devastating war,” that “flagrant violation of Iraq’s sovereignty,” and it could lead to “dangerous escalation that triggers a destructive war in Iraq, the region, the world.” Upon the request of the Iraqi Prime Minister, the Iraqi Parliament passed a resolution to ask the US military to leave the country. “Many analysts called the strike an ‘act of war.’” European leaders were taken aback and advised diplomacy as the best way to deescalate the conflict.

Back in the US, “House speaker Nancy Pelosi said the strike ‘risks provoking further dangerous escalation of violence.’” “Eliot Engel, Chairman of the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs point out annoyingly: “This strike went forward with no notification or consultation with Congress” in violation of the War Powers Act. Senator Bernie Sanders warned that Trump’s “dangerous escalation brings us closer to another disastrous war in the Middle East that could cost countless lives and trillions more dollars.” But he stopped short of condemning the killing of Soleimani itself. Historian and Middle East expert Juan Cole emphasizes that the assassinations were unprecedented. In an interview on Democracy Now, he said:
“Well, both the assassination of General Soleimani and the Iranian response are unprecedented in the past 40 years of tension between the United States and Iran. In fact, the assassination of General Soleimani is unprecedented in general. I lived through the Cold War, and never do I remember the United States assassinating a Soviet general. The two countries were involved in very serious proxy wars and great tensions, but it never went to the point where they would just murder each other’s high officials. So, this is, I think, something that would only be done by an extremely erratic person such as Donald Trump. This is not a normal piece of statecraft” (https://www.democracynow.org/2020/1/8/cole_us_iran_escalation).

One poll done after the assassination indicates that a majority of Americans think Trump action was “reckless”

ParsToday reports on a “USA Today/Ipsos poll found that Americans, by 55%-24%, said they believe the assassination has made the United States less safe, rejecting a fundamental argument the Trump administration has made.” Additionally, the poll found “that a majority of those surveyed, by 52%-34%, called Trump’s behavior with Iran ‘reckless.’” Sixty-nine percent agreed that “Soleimani’s assassination made it more likely Iran would attack American interests” in the region, 63% that there would be attacks on US soil, and 62% that the United States and Iran would go to war. Also, by 47%-39%, “those surveyed said Trump ordered the assassination of Soleimani in an attempt to divert the focus from his impeachment (https://parstoday.com/en/news/world-i115292-americans_say_soleimani%27s_assassination_made_us_less_safe_trump_%27reckless%27_on_iran_poll).

Even before the impact of the assassination, Trump received negative ratings from most countries around the globe

Trump is overall not trusted around the world. A Pew survey of 32 nations reported on January 8 found that “Trump ratings remain low around the globe” (https://pewresearch.org/globe/2020/01/08/trump-ratings-remain-low-around-the-globe….) Pew researchers report that, “[a]s has been the case throughout his presidency, U.S. President Donald Trump receives largely negative reviews from publics around the world. Across 32 countries surveyed by Pew Research Center, a median of 64% say they do not have confidence in Trump to do the right thing in world affairs, while just 29% express confidence in the American leader. Anti-Trump sentiments are especially common in Western Europe: Roughly three-in-four or more lack confidence in Trump in Germany, Sweden, France, Spain and the Netherlands. He also gets especially poor reviews in Mexico, where 89% do not have confidence in him.” Iraq, Iraq, Syria, Turkey and other Middle East countries were not included in the survey; however, Lebanon gave Trump a low score of 23%, while Israel gave him a score of 71% (the second highest, behind the Philippines, with 77%). The Pew survey did include one question pertinent to Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran Nuclear agreement. On this issue, 52% disapproved, while 29% approved.

The assassinations were unlawful.

Marjorie Cohn, professor emerita at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, author, and public intellectual, identifies the domestic and international laws violated by the assassinations (https://truthout.org/articles/trump-threatens-war-crimes-against-iran-congress-must-stop-him). According to Cohn’s analysis, the assassinations constitute “the crime of aggression and violated both the United Nations Charter and the US War Powers Resolution.” Cohn points out that there was “no evidence to support Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s claim that Iranian-sponsored attacks on US military bases were ‘imminent’” The UN Charter, Article 2.3, “requires that all member states ‘settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered.” And: “Article 2.4 requires all member states to refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” There are two exceptions to the UN Charter, namely, “when a country acts in self-defense or with permission of the Security Council.” She continues: “The drone assassinations were not carried out in self-defense and the Security Council did not sanction them.”

Cohn also contends that the “drone killings violated the US War Powers Resolution.” This resolution “permits the president to introduce US armed forces into hostilities or imminent hostilities only after Congress has declared war, or in ‘a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces,” or when there is “specific statutory authorization.” The assassinations violate these conditions. “Iran has not attacked the US or its armed forces and Congress had not declared war on Iran or authorized the use of force against Iranian targets.” However, there are defects in this resolution that allow a president to commence military actions against another country for a short period of time without consulting with Congress.

Harry Blain underline the deficiency of the War Powers Resolution, writing “the War Powers Resolution…contains some clearly defective features. Once we read beyond the high-minded preamble, we find less potent words like ‘consultation’ and ‘reporting.’ Here, we can also see the resolution’s fundamental flaw: It lets the president move first” (https://fpfi.org/the-useless-war-powers-act). Blain continues as follows.
“Yes, he must explain his actions to congressional leaders within 48 hours (a requirement that even Trump could meet), and he is supposed to withdraw any commitments of American troops after 60 days without affirmative congressional approval. (Although, in an Orwellian caveat, the president is allowed 30 more days if he or she ‘determines and certifies to the Congress in writing that unavoidable military necessity respecting the safety of United States Armed Forces requires the continued use of such armed forces in the course of bringing about a prompt removal of such forces.’)

“But, by then, we’re already at war. And war usually means an emboldened president, supine media, and hesitant judiciary. Once it starts, it’s hard to stop — even if popular support is lukewarm. Witness Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, among other protracted catastrophes.”
The Trump administration’s “double speak” justifications for the assassinations

Aljazeera reports (cited above) that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo defended Trump’s decision on Friday, January 3 without evidence, “saying…the administration had intelligence-based evidence that ‘Iran was planning imminent action that threatened American citizens’ and that it was going to be a big action that would have put dozens if not hundreds of American lives at risk.’” Pompeo said on Fox News that the actions (assassinations) will “see American resolve and that their decision will be to de-escalate, to take actions consistent with what normal nations do” (i.e., conform to the dictates of the US). He continued: “And in the event they do not, in the event they go the other direction, I know that President Trump and the entire United States is prepared to respond appropriately.”

As it turns out over the next days, the administration did not come forth with persuasive evidence and, furthermore, had misled the American public about why Qassim Soleimani was visiting Iraq. Here’s Juan Coles take on the latter point.

“Abdul-Mahdi [Iraq’s prime minister] made it very clear that he had invited General Soleimani to Iraq to be involved in negotiations between Iran and Saudi Arabia to reduce tensions. Soleimani came on a commercial flight, where the manifest is clear. He checked through Baghdad airport with a diplomatic passport. And then Trump just blew him away, along with several other people, including a high-ranking Iraqi military official” (https://www.democracynow.org/2020/1/8/juan_cole_us_iran_escalation).

Max Blumenthal also confirms what Abdul-Mahdi said, namely, that “he had planned to meet Soleimani on the morning the general was killed to discuss diplomatic rapprochement that Iraq was brokering between Iran and Saudi Arabia, adding that “Trump had personally thanked him for the efforts, even as he was planning the hit on Soleimani – thus creating the impression that the Iranian general was safe to travel to Baghdad” (https://thegrayzone.com/2020/01/06/soleimani-peace-mission-assassinated-trump-lie-imminent-attack).

A vacuous classified briefing for Congress to justify the assassinations
On January 8, representatives of the administration briefed members of relevant House and Senate committees supposedly to provide evidence that would establish that the assassinations were provoked by evidence of an imminent attack by Soleimani on US forces. It did not turn out well for the administration. The reactions of the elected officials, some Republicans as well as Democrats, were that the briefers were confused at times and provided no meaningful evidence to support the administration’s claim that Soleimani was planning an “imminent” attack.

Reporting for Common Dreams, Jon Queally writes, “Congressional Democrats emerged from a classified briefing presented by Trump administration officials on Wednesday afternoon and decried the ‘sophomoric and utterly unconvincing’ body of evidence that was put forth to justify last week’s assassination of Iranian military commander Qassim Soleimani” (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/01/08/strike-choice-us-lawmakers-decry-utterly-unconvincing-trump-briefing-soleimani). Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn) “reacted to the briefing by saying that rather than showing Soleimani posed an ‘imminent’ threat as President Donald Trump and his top officials have repeatedly claimed, the military operation—based on the evidence presented—appears to be nothing more than a ‘strike of choice’ by the administration.” Republicans who attended the briefing expressed similar views. Queally writes: “Disgust with the presented case did not only come from Democrats. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), standing beside an equally unconvinced Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), told reporters after the closed-door session that it was ‘the worst briefing I’ve had on a military issue in my nine years’ serving in the Senate.” Lee added: “I find this insulting and demeaning”… telling reporters that he now plans to vote in favor of a War Powers Resolution put forth by Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.).”

But the administration says that Soleimani is a “bad” person and deserved to be assassinated

To buttress the legitimacy of illegal action, Trump and other officials identified Soleimani as a “bad” or “horrific” person who is said, for example, to be responsible for supporting Sunni rebels in Iraq that killed over 600 US soldiers and maimed many more during the years between 2003 and 2011. Trump emphasized this point, according to the Aljazeera report (cited earlier), that “Soleimani has killed or badly wounded thousands of Americans over an extended period of time and was plotting to kill more… but got caught!” The evidence is flimsy for Trump’s claim, but there is no doubt that the Sunnis, including many former officers and soldiers of Saddam Hussain’s army, who were pushed out of the government and out of employment in the early days of the US occupation, were responsible for these lethal attacks. But Trump is wrong about Soleimani’s involvement. The Iraqi opposition had the expertise to construct such weapons on their own and had access in Iraq to the materials to build such weapons. The following section recaps a few relevant historical details.

The US occupation authority in the aftermath of the US unlawful invasion of Iraq created the conditions for the insurgency, not Soleimani or Iranian interference

The rise of the opposition to the US-led occupation grew out of foolish decisions made by US occupation authorities in the early stages of that occupation. From 2002 to June 2004, L. Paul Bremer, headed the Coalition Provisional Authority which had he responsibility for managing non-military aspects of the occupation. Bremer issued two directives which went a long way toward creating the conditions for the subsequent civil war and violent opposition to the US-led and -dominated occupation. Historian Andrew Bacevich writes in his book, America’s War for the Greater Middle East: “The first disbanded Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party and prohibited members from laying any further role in Iraqi public life. The second dissolved the entire Iraqi national security apparatus, which included the army” p. 257). The directive affected Sunnis alone. By the end of 2004, a broad Sunni insurgency fighting against the US occupation had “kicked into high gear” (p. 266). Among other weapons, the insurgency used improvised explosive devices. Wikipedia provides a useful account of the effects of these devices and other “insurgency tactics” in the fight against the occupiers. The account suggests that these and other weapons were devised with materials available in Iraq and constructed by the Iraqi insurgents themselves. The information suggests that the Iraqi insurgents did not need Iranian support in this instance. Here’s what Wikipedia says.

“Many Iraqi insurgent attacks have made use of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.

“In the chaos [1] after the war, mass looting of infrastructure, including munitions, occurred. According to the Pentagon, 250,000 tons (of 650,000 tons total) of ordnance were looted, providing an almost endless source of ammunition for the insurgents.[2]

“Methods of detonation include simple pull-wires and mechanical detonators, cell-phones, garage-door openers, cable, radio control (RC), and infrared lasers among others.

“55-millimetre artillery shells rigged with blasting caps and improvised shrapnel material (concrete, ball bearings, etc.) have been the most commonly used, but the makeshift devices have also gradually become larger as coalition forces added more armor to their vehicles, with evidence from insurgent propaganda videos of aviation bombs of 500 lb being used as IEDs, as well as the introduction of explosively formed penetrator (EFP) warheads.

“These explosive devices are often concealed or camouflaged hidden behind roadside rails, on telephone poles, buried underground or in piles of garbage, disguised as rocks or bricks, and even placed inside dead animals. The number of these attacks have steadily increased, emerging as the insurgents’ most lethal and favored method to attack coalition forces, with continually improving tactics.”

What is left out in the Trumpian narrative about Iran

Iran’s contribution in the subduing of ISIS in Iraq and Syria

ISIS grew out of the Sunni opposition to the US-led occupation. Iraqi militias trained by Iranians and Iranian militias played major roles in the fight against ISIS.

The official narrative dismisses or ignores the fact that Iranian militias provided a major part of the ground forces in Iran and Syria in driving ISIS out of many of the cities and areas they controlled and in the destruction of the Caliphate. The US contribution came through the aerial bombing, training by special forces, and technical and logistical support. Note the US troops were not a significant factor in the ground war against ISIS. There is an in-depth analysis of the various militias that kept ISIS from controlling major Iraqi cities and other areas and the important role played by Iranian supported militias in this process. Garrett Nada and Matthew Rowan provide the following background (https://wilsoncenter.org/article/part-2-pro-iran-militias-iraq).

“In 2014, Iraq’s army crumbled as ISIS captured wide swaths of territory in the north, including Mosul, the country’s second largest city. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, issued a call to arms in a fatwa, a religious decree. Tens of thousands of men responded by joining new and old militias. More than 60 armed groups eventually merged under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF).

“By spring 2015, the PMF had some 60,000 fighters. In November 2016, Iraq’s parliament legalized the PMF, a move supported by Shiites but opposed by Sunnis, many of whom boycotted the vote. The law passed with 170 out of 328 possible votes. The PMF “would constitute something that looks like Iran’s Revolutionary Guard,” Raad al Dahlaki, a Sunni lawmaker, warned. By early 2018, estimates of its strength ranged from under 100,000 to up to 150,000. Not all fighters were registered with the PMF.

“Shiite militias have formed the majority of the PMF brigades, which also include Sunnis, Christians, and Turkmen. The Shiite groups fell into roughly three categories. The first includes militias that have received arms, training and financing from Tehran. Some have pledged allegiance to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The second category includes militias loyal to Grand Ayatollah Sistani. A third category is represented by Saraya al Salam, or the Peace Brigades. It is loyal to Muqatada al Sadr, another Iraqi cleric who has connections to Tehran. The Peace Brigades are the latest incarnation of the Mahdi Army, a militia that received weapons from the IRGC and training from Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah agents in the mid-2000s. Many militias are offshoots of the Mahdi Army.”

The US role in destabilizing the Middle East

The US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and involvement in Syria have done more far more to destabilize the Middle East than anything Iran has ever done. The US wars were unnecessary and based on lies. Remember the “weapons of mass destruction,” the chief justification of the invasion of Iraq, that were never found. Remember that the Taliban in Afghanistan agreed to send Osama bin Laden to a “neutral” country for a trial.

The Iraq war of choice and based n lies generated massive destruction and upheaval in Iraq, destroying vital infrastructure, killing up to a million Iraqis and maiming many thousands of others. Millions of Iraqis were forced to flee the violence by migrating out of the country or became internally displaced. The US war intensified religious and social divisions in the country. Indeed, the US created the conditions out of which ISIS emerged and expanded. And don’t forget the US war and occupation cost American taxpayers trillions of dollars, thousands of US soldiers were killed while hundreds of thousands suffered severe physical and/or psychological wounds requiring ongoing government support. Along with a slew of books and articles documenting these facts, the “cost of war” project at Brown University provides ample documentation (https://watson.brown.edu/costs-of-war).

Trump, his family, and the well-off don’t do most of the fighting

There is another point on the US costs of the wars in the Middle East that Trump and politicians generally ignore. That is, the US instigated wars are fought by “the poorer parts of America ‘bearing a greater share of the human costs of war.” This quote if from historian Andrew Bacevich’s just published book, The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory.” The quote is from an article by scholars Douglas Kriner and Fancies Shen that appeared in the University of Memhis Law Review, 46 (2016: 545-635). Given the relative lack of opportunities to obtain jobs with a living wage and benefits, more and more high school graduates are enlisting, because “the Pentagon is one of the dwindling number of employers offering youngsters fresh out of high school jobs that come with decent pay, comprehensive medical benefits, and the prospect of a guaranteed pension, if they live long enough to claim it” (p. 142). Bacevich points out the all-volunteer arms services don’t attract for the most part the upper class or those with the prospect of good opportunities. He gives this example.

“…Donald Trump and his offspring qualify as exemplary of upper-class Americans. During the Vietnam War, Trump avoided military service, this at a time when dodging the draft qualified as somewhere between righteous and commonsensical. His children and their spouses have followed in the family tradition. With military service officially optional, they have seen fit to opt out, as have most other well-to-do Americans” (p. 140).

Iran’s right to be an independent nation is ignored

Far from perfect, as attested by the many thousands of Iranians who have protested against their government in recent weeks over their lack of political democracy and government corruption. (See the interview with Ali Kadiva, assistant professor of sociology and international studies at Boston College, at https://www.democracynow.org/2020/1/13/iran_protests_airlines_flights_752).

Nonetheless, Iran has resisted US domination and managed to maintain its independence, while suffering an 8-year war with Iraq from 1980 to 1988 (encouraged by the US), being internally attacked by US supported terrorist groups like the Mujahedine-e Khaig (MEK) inside of Iran, having nuclear facilities bombed by Israel, while being subjected to brutal and escalating US sanctions (a financial blockade), while confronted by a US hegemon that seems to be unwilling to accept anything but regime change. On the MEK, a Brookings report, cited in an article by Tony Cartalucci for journal NEO (New Eastern Outlook), the MEK has “undeniably…conducted terrorist attacks – often excused by the MeK’s advocates because they are directed against the Iranian government.” In the years between 1998 and 2001, “the group claimed credit for over a dozen mortar attacks, assassinations, and other assaults on Iranian civilian and military targets” (https://journal – neo.org/2018/09/29/us-delisted-mek-terrorists-still-openly-committed-to-violence). John Bolton and other present and former hawks in the Trump administration promote the MEK and view it as a potential alternative to the present Iranian government. It has served the US as a “proxy” in its multiple efforts to achieve regime change.

Under Obama, the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was successful

The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a multilateral agreement made during the Obama administration region, was based on Iran’s willingness to submit to unprecedented, intrusive inspections by the International Atomic Energy Commission. From all accounts, it was being implemented as planned. By January 16, 2016, Obama could report that “the International Atomic Energy Agency verified that Iran has completed the necessary steps under the Iran deal that will ensure Iran’s nuclear program is and remains exclusively peaceful” (https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/issues/foreign-policy/iran-deal). The deal ensured that Iran would not have “enough highly enriched uranium to produce enough material to construct a uranium bomb and tens of thousands of centrifuges.” Iran was on the path to reducing “its stockpile of uranium by 98%” and keeping “its level of uranium enrichment at 3.37% – significantly below the enrichment level needed to create a bomb.” Iran would need “tens of thousands of centrifuges to create highly enriched uranium for a bomb; it had nearly 20,000 centrifuges; and it agreed to “reduce its centrifuges to 6,104.” By January 2016, Iran had already

• shipped 25,000 pounds of enriched uranium out of the country
• dismantled and removed two-thirds of its centrifuges
• removed the calandria from its heavy water reactor and filled it with concrete
• provided unprecedented access to its nuclear facilities and supply chain

As a result, the US was prepared to lift nuclear-related sanctions (not all sanctions) on Iran and to integrate the country into the world economy.

Trump’s decision to withdraw from the agreement increases hardship in Iran and instability in the Middle East

Juan Cole writes that “Trump began the war with Iran on May 8, 2018, when he breached the international treaty with Iran” (https://www.juancole.com/2020/01/conducted/months-finally.html). Trump instituted “the most severe sanctions on Iran ever applied to any country by another in peacetime” and “strong-armed Japan, South Korea, Europe, and India into not buying Iranian petroleum and threatened companies throughout the world with Treasury Department third-party sanctions if they traded with Iran. No one wants to be excluded from the $22 trillion a year American economy or be forced to pay billions of dollars in finds, so everyone, including Europe, fell into line behind Trump’s ‘maximum pressure.’” Cole says that this amounts to a “financial blockade” and a “war” on Iran, which was never “mandated by an act of Congress” or a resolution from the UN Security Council. All of this, Cole maintains, “violates international laws and norms.”

The result is that Trump’s maximum-pressure policy has “cut Iran’s exports from 2.5 million barrels a day in 2017 to a few hundred thousand barrels a day last fall. Iran’s government gets 70% of its revenues from petroleum exports.

The goal, one obviously desired by Trump and his advisers, is to intensify the economic hardships on Iranian citizens in the hope they will eventually rise and throw out the present government. The administration has accomplished the goal of making life much harder for Iranians. However, the assassination of Soleimani has apparently caused Iranian citizens of all political stripes to unite around the present government and against any US threats. There are reports of up to a million people in the streets of Tehran alone protesting the assassination of Soleimani.

Narges Bajoghli, professor of Middle East studies at Johns Hopkins University, told host Amy Goodman on Democracy Now,

“I mean, a week ago, it would have been unthinkable to have crowds like this in Iran. Today was Tehran; yesterday in Ahvaz and Mashhad; tomorrow the body will go on to Kerman. After the violent crackdown that the state orchestrated against protesters in November of 2019 — so just a month and a half ago — there was so much anger in Iran because of the violent crackdown of the state, that there really was another crisis of legitimacy within the Islamic republic in dealing with the fallout of the maximum-pressure campaign and the severe sanctions that the Trump administration has put on them.

“So, to think that these numbers of people are coming out onto the streets really signals two things. One, Qassem Soleimani, within Iran itself, was seen as a national hero, because he was seen as keeping ISIS at bay, and, two, because of Trump’s tweets just two nights ago that he would target Iranian cultural sites, it’s creating a sense of national unity within the country. And this is no longer about support for the regime, but it’s really about standing up to a foreign aggressor. This is something that — the killing of Soleimani, the assassination of Soleimani, and then Trump’s repeated tweets and threats, is doing two things: one, rallying Shia, sort of a transnational Shia community, especially those that are loyal to the Islamic republic in Iran, and then, two, rallying national sentiment within Iran against the United States” (https://www.democracynow.org/2020/1/6/narges_bajoghli_qassem_soleimani_assassination_iran).

Concluding thoughts

On the one hand, we are saddled with US imperialistic efforts and ambitions in the Middle East, intensified by half-baked, reckless, illusionary decisions of Trump and his advisers. With respect to Iran, the tweets and “policies” flowing out of the White House are about changing the present government to one that is favorable to US interests. So, can we gather about Trump’s “ideal” vision for Iran? He wants Iran to submit to US power. If that unlikely event happens, what would follow? The present government would be eliminated and replaced by a right-wing, pro-US government, with plutocratic, authoritarian tendencies. The agenda? The creation of regime that fits into America’s conception of a stable Middle East, based on neoliberal economics (low taxes, privatization, deregulation, encouragement of foreign investment), on opportunities for US corporations, especially in Iran’s oil sector, on a foreign policy sympathetic to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Israel, and other countries in the US orbit, and perhaps on one or two Trump towers and other benefits for the family.

As argued in the article, Trump’s anti-Iranian policy, including the unlawful assassination, increase the chances of war in the Middle East. In a revealing summing up of the negative effects of the assassinations, Medea Benjamin and Nicholas J.S. Davies list ten ways in which Trump’s actions hurt the US, the region, and the world (https://commondreams.org/views/2020/01/10/10-ways-trump-actions-against-iran-hurt-us-region-and-world).

• may be an increase in US war deaths across the greater Middle East
• injecting even more volatility and instability into an already war-torn and explosive region
• “embolden a common enemy, the Islamic State, which can take advantage of the chaos created in Iraq.
• leading Iran to announce it is withdrawing from all the restrictions on enriching uranium that were part of the 2015 JCPOA nuclear agreement.
• destroying what little influence the U.S. had with the Iraqi government
• strengthening conservative, hard-line factions in Iran.
• losing the support of US friends and allies
• following US violations of international law, setting the stage for a world of ever greater
• enhancing the influence of weapons makers
• further escalation between US and Iran could be catastrophic for the world economy

There is an alternative, if the anti-war movement in the US and around the world grows and coalesces with other movements for radical change, if Bernie or another progressive presidential candidate defeats Trump in 2020 and, once in the White House, moves to cut the military budget, renew the nuclear deal with Iran, reduce sanctions on Iran, if this president is supported by the US Congress, and if such a government moves away from the present militaristic foreign policy to one based on diplomacy and efforts to strengthen the United Nations and/or other international organizations. Right now, the odds don’t seem promising. In the meantime, check out the visionary book of now deceased Jonathon Schell, The Unconquered World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People (2003) for ideas on what people power has accomplished and on what a global commonwealth would look like.

The realty and challenges of the climate crisis

Bob Sheak, December 28, 2019

This post focuses on recent evidence documenting the accelerating climate crisis, what propels it, the prospects for meaningful change.

Recurrent and increasingly bad news on the unfolding climate crisis

The climate crisis grows, leaving humanity very little time to avoid a terrifying outcome. Recent scientific findings based on systematic field observations, sophisticated computer modeling, meta-analyses of research continue to document how the effects of the climate crisis are accelerating and affecting all parts of the earth.

Bob Berwyn reports for Inside Climate News (12-18-19) that scientists are “confidently saying 2019 was Earth’s second-warmest recorded year on record, capping the warmest decade. Eight of the 10 warmest years since measurements began occurred this decade, and the other two were only a few years earlier” (https://insideclimatenews.org/news/18122019/decade-climate-heat-drought-extreme-storms-arctic-sea-ice-antarctica-greenland).

There were plenty of examples of this rapidly unfolding crisis in 2019. “Arctic sea ice melted faster and took longer to form again in the fall. Big swaths of ocean remained record-warm nearly all year, in some regions spawning horrifically damaging tropical storms that surprised experts with their rapid intensification. Densely populated parts of Europe shattered temperature records amid heat waves blamed for hundreds of deaths, and a huge section of the U.S. breadbasket region was swamped for months by floodwater.” And that wasn’t all. There were deadly heat waves, droughts, and wildfires in many parts of the world.

“…wildfires burned around the globe, starting unusually early in unexpected places like the UK. They blazed across country-size tracts of Siberia, fueled by record heat, flared up in the Arctic and devastated parts of California. Australia ended the decade with thick smoke and flames menacing Sydney and a record-breaking heat wave that sent the continent’s average temperature over 107 degrees Fahrenheit. Again and again, scientists completed near real-time attribution studies showing how global warming is making extremes—including wildfires—more likely.”

Leslie Hook cites evidence from a The UN’s World Meteriological Organization documenting that “global average concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rose to 407.8 parts per million in 2018, up from 405.5 parts per million in 2017.” This particularly reflects how the biggest economies of the world continue on energy paths dependent on fossil fuels. Hook quotes Petteri Taalas, Secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organization: “There is no sign of a slowdown, let alone a decline, in greenhouse gases concentration in the atmosphere despite all the commitments under the Paris agreement,” [adding] “It is worth recalling that the last time the Earth experienced a comparable concentration of CO2 was 3 to 5 million years ago…. Back then, the temperature was 2 to 3°C warmer, and sea level was 10 to 20 meters higher than now.”(https://insideclimatenews.org/news/26112019/unep-emissions-gap-report-paris-climate-greenhouse-gas-peak-2030).

Jake Johnson brings our attention to a study issued by the UN Environmental Program (UNEP) on just the day after the report by the World Meteorological Organization was made public. The UNEP confirmed in its annual Emissions Gap report “that levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere reached a record high in 2018.” Johnson also quotes from the report: “It is evident that incremental changes will not be enough and there is a need for rapid and transformational action….By necessity, this will see profound change in how energy, food, and other material-intensive services are demanded and provided by governments, businesses, and markets (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2019/11/26/science-screaming-un-report-warns-only-rapid-and-transformational-action-can-stave). The UNEP finding that only “profound change” is enough to curtail greenhouse gas emissions has relevance for the 2020 elections. In this context, Bernie Sanders call for “revolutionary” change seems far more appropriate than Democratic candidates who want only incremental change.

Impacts on people

In another of his articles, Jake Johnson cites findings from a report by Oxfam International that shows “climate-related disasters displaced 200 million people since 2008” (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2019/12/02/condemning-inaction-rich-nations-oxfam-unveils-report-showing-climate-related). According to Oxfam, “one person every two seconds being forced from their home due to hurricanes, wildfires, cyclones, and other extreme weather,” while “[o]ur governments are fueling a crisis that is driving millions of women, men, and children from their homes and the poorest people in the poorest countries are paying the heaviest price.” And: “Today, you are seven times more likely to be internally displaced by extreme weather disasters… than by geophysical disasters such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, and three times more likely than by conflict,” the organization found. “There was a five-fold increase in the reported number of extreme weather disasters that resulted in people being displaced over the last decade.”

Tipping points

The evidence is indisputable, based on authoritative and verifiable scientific research, that fossil fuel emissions continue to increase, more of the sun’s heat is trapped in the earth’s atmosphere, temperatures rise, and climate-related disruptions and catastrophes occur more frequency and with more intensity. At some point soon, climate scientists tell us, the effects of climate change will reach a point where they overwhelm societal or international capacities to cope. They are called “tipping points.” Bob Berwyn writes on how scientists think we are closer to or have already reached climate tipping points (https://insideclimatenews.org/news/27112019/climate-tipping-points-permafrost-forests-ice-antarctica-greenland-amazon-nature).

Scientists are warning, as Berwyn reports, about a point of no return, where “‘abrupt and irreversible changes’ to the climate system could be triggered by small changes in the global temperatures to create ‘a new, less habitable, hothouse climate state.’” And there are “indications that exceeding tipping points in one system, such as the loss of Arctic sea ice, can increase the risk of crossing tipping points in others.” In an article for Nature, cited by Berwyn, “scientists focused on nine parts of the climate system susceptible to tipping points, some of them interconnected:
• Arctic sea ice, which is critical for reflecting the sun’s energy back into space but is disappearing as the planet warms.
• The Greenland Ice Sheet, which could raise sea level 20 feet if it melts.
• Boreal forests, which would release more carbon dioxide (CO2) than they absorb if they die and decay or burn.
• Permafrost, which releases methane and other greenhouse gases as it thaws.
• The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, a key ocean current, which would shift global weather patterns if it slowed down or stopped.
• The Amazon rainforest, which could flip from a net absorber of greenhouse gases to a major emitter.
• Warm-water corals, which will die on a large scale as the ocean warms, affecting commercial and subsistence fisheries.
• The West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which would raise sea level by at least 10 feet if it melted entirely and is already threatened by warming from above and below.
• Parts of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet that would also raise sea level significantly if they melted.

Naomi Oreskes and Nicholas Stern give the following examples of how the ravages in one part of the climate crisis can affect other parts, with catastrophic effects on societies (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/23/opinion/climate-change-costs.html).

“In some cases,” they write, “they may produce a sequence of serious, and perhaps irreversible, damage.” They give the following examples: “a sudden rapid loss of Greenland or West Antarctic land ice could lead to much higher sea levels and storm surges, which would contaminate water supplies, destroy coastal cities, force out their residents, and cause turmoil and conflict,” or “increased heat decreases food production, which leads to widespread malnutrition, which diminishes the capacity of people to withstand heat and disease and makes it effectively impossible for them to adapt to climate change,” or “Sustained extreme heat may also decrease industrial productivity, bringing about economic depressions.” But they refer to an even “worst-case scenario,” in which “climate impacts could set off a feedback loop in which climate change leads to economic losses, which lead to social and political disruption, which undermines both democracy and our capacity to prevent further climate damage. These sorts of cascading effects are rarely captured in economic models of climate impacts. And this set of known omissions does not, of course, include additional risks that we may have failed to have identified.”

(Anthony D. Barnosky and Elizabeth A. Hadly have devoted an entire book to the subject: Tipping Points for Planet Earth: How Close are We to the Edge.)

International efforts to address the climate crisis fail

2015-2019

Representatives of the world’s nations came together at the U.N. Paris Climate meeting back in December 2015 and not only acknowledged the reality of the global reality of the climate crisis but, for the first time, pledged to cut their respective carbon emissions enough by 2030 to keep the world’s average temperature under 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (or 2 degrees Celsius). Climate scientists James Hansen has observed, as quoted by Nathaniel Rich (Losing Earth: A Recent History, p. 4), that a 2-degree warming is “a prescription for long-term disaster.” Overall, however, the nations have failed to live up to their pledges and the crisis has worsened.

Georgina Gustin writes that there is a “dangerous lack of urgency” in the implementation of the 2015 UN Paris Climate agreement, that their pledges to reduce carbon emissions are failing, and that, if the nations are to have any meaningful effect in next few decades, emissions will have to be effectively reduced at rates more than before (https://insideclimatenews.org/news/07112019/paris-climate-agreement-pledges-lack-urgency-ipcc-timeline-warning). Gustin quotes former IPCC Chair Robert Watson (i.e., International Panel on Climate Change): “The current pledges, even if fully implemented, are placing us on a pathway to a world 3 to 4 degrees Celsius warmer—a world that would have devastating impacts on food and water security, human health, displacement of people, and loss of biodiversity and degradation of ecosystem services.” In early November 2019, Gustin notes, 11,000 scientists signed a report published in the journal BioScience, noting that “climate researchers have been warning of the effects of climate change since the 1970s,” that “emissions are still rapidly rising, and that the problem is being compounded by “subsidies for oil, air travel, population growth, and meat consumption.”

Unfortunately, in the four years since 2015, investments and use of fossil fuels have increased. Consider these facts as reported by Robert Hunziker for Counter Punch (https://www.counterpunch.org/2018/12/19/biosphere-collapses).

“Global banks have invested $1.9 trillion in fossil fuel projects.” The US, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, India, Canada, and Australia are among the countries where governments “plan to increase fossil fuels by 120% by 2030.” China “has added enough new coal-based power generation (43GW) to power 31 million new homes…. [and] plans on adding another 148GW of coal-based power, which will equal the total current coal generating capacity of the EU.” In India, coal-fired power capacity has already “increased its coal-fired power capacity by 74% over the past 7 years…. [and] expects to further increase coal-generated capacity by another 22% over the next 3 years.” China is also “financing 25% of all new worldwide coal plant construction outside of its borders, e.g., South Africa, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. [And] kissing goodbye to its commitment to cut emissions, cuts renewable power subsidies by 30%.” In the United States, “Trump proposes slashing renewable budget items, as his administration rebrands fossil fuels ‘Molecules of U.S. Freedom.’ (Forbes, May 30, 2019).” To all this, Hunziker adds: “the Stockholm Environment Institute claims the world is on a pathway to 3C[elsius] pre-industrial, probably ‘locked-in’ because of fossil fuel expansion across the globe,” which, as Nathaniel Rich writes, is a “prescription for short-term disaster: forests sprouting in the Arctic, the abandonment of most coastal cities, mass starvation.”

In the meantime, Hunziker reports, “all three major greenhouse gas concentrations, carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide are accelerating. It means we are on a trend for total planetary catastrophe. We are on a trend for biosphere collapse.” In an interview with climate scientist Dr. Peter Carter, the scientist said that “Carbon dioxide is on a rate exceeding anything over the past millions of years. We are at 412 ppm [carbon dioxide in the atmosphere]. To put that into context, we have an ice core that goes back 2.2 million years. The highest CO2 over that period is 300 ppm.” (Carter)

In December 2019, the world’s nations gathered in Madrid, Spain, for another round of climate negotiations

Against the grim backdrop of a world awash in fossil fuels, 25,000 participants from countries of the world gathered again in Madrid, Span, in December 2019, to discuss their progress in setting and adjusting national goals for reducing carbon emissions and, as a secondary issue, for making financial contributions to a fund to assist poor countries in meeting their energy needs without adding to the climate crisis. In the end, though, the meeting has universally been considered a failure, in large part because the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait blocked “the science from the negotiations.”

Reporting for the New York Times, Somini Sengupta quotes the United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, who “offered an unusually blunt assessment of the 25th annual climate negotiations, formally known as the Conference of Parties. ‘I am disappointed with the results of #COP25,’ he said on Twitter. ‘The international community lost an important opportunity to show increased ambition on mitigation, adaptation & finance to tackle the climate crisis’(https://nytimes.com/2019/12/15/climate/cop25-un-climate-talks-madrid.html).

During the meeting, “there was a push from both rich and poor countries to commit, at least on paper, to ramping up climate-action targets next year.” In the end, there was “no agreement on even that.” Sengupta writes: “The final declaration included what counts as exceptionally weak diplomatic language, saying only that there was an ‘urgent need’ to reduce emissions in line with the Paris Agreement.” However, “[o]n their current trajectory, average global temperatures are on pace to increase to levels where heat waves would be very likely to intensify, storms to become more severe and coastal cities to be at risk of drowning, according to the scientific consensus.”

There was opposition, but not among the key negotiators. Julia Conley reports that close to “100 civil society organizations…released a joint statement condemning the US. Australia, the E.U., and other wealthy countries that emit much of the carbon that’s warming the planet, for insisting on a deal ‘only for the corporate elites, while damning [ignoring the plight of] people and the planet” (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2019/12/14/final-hours-cop-25-denounced-utter-failure-deal-stripped-ambitions-and-us-refuses).

Why does the US continue as a reactionary and obstructionist force on the climate crisis?

The systemic need for growth and fossil fuels.

Most fundamentally, as many have cogently argued, the US corporate-dominated capitalist system must continuously expand in ways that are incompatible with more and more of the earth’s ecosystems (e.g., John Bellamy Foster, Ecology Against Capitalism). This system, as currently organized, requires in turn continuous access to fossil fuels and other natural resources (e.g., Michael T. Klare, The Race for What’s Left). But the extraction, processing, and transportation of fossil fuels and other natural resources are environmentally devastating and contribute significantly to the climate crisis. As the economy grows, the environmental devastation grows along with it. The economic power of the corporate elites and rich are at the center of the climate crisis, but they are hardly alone. And it is rare for members of the corporate elite and rich to call for significant government action on the climate crisis.

The existence of a grand right-wing alliance.

In the US, there are, obviously, powerful forces arrayed against any action or policy that include but go beyond but include what Trump has unleashed. These forces are connected variously in an opportunistic alliance that includes most notably Trump, his hand-picked advisers and administrators, all levels of the Republican Party, most of the corporate community which pours money into candidate selection and lobbying, right-wing media, right-wing think tanks, ideological compliant “experts,” as well as tens of millions of apparently stalwart, often single-issue, followers.

The incipient rise of this right-wing alliance can be traced back to corporate elites who opposed the 1930s’ New Deal, and it has never gone away and has always been organized around corporate elites and supportive political regimes. This alliance gained momentum with the further politicization of the corporate community in the 1970s. The Reagan administration boosted its legitimacy and expansion in the 1980s. The alliance expanded through subsequent administrations, especially but not only Republican ones. It is based on the propositions that include but go beyond energy policies, though energy policies are critical to any understanding of the climate crisis. Now the culmination of this process is embodied in the current President.

Amidst all of Trump’s blustering about how good the economy, amidst his lies and stream of tweeting, he is filling regulatory agencies like the EPA with people who deny or dismiss the climate crisis, introducing or eliminating regulations designed to reign in greenhouse gas emissions (see: https://environmentalintegrity.org/trump-watch-epa/regulatory-rollbacks), withdrawing from the UN climate agreement, pushing pro-coal proposals, opening up more public land – onshore, offshore, in the Arctic- to drilling, and continuing a foreign policy based significantly on the protection and access to oil and other vital minerals. Indeed, Amy Goodman and Denis Moynihan argue that Trump’s climate policies are criminal and “his most impeachable offenses” (https://commondreams.org/views/2019/11/19/trumps-climate-crimes-are-his-most-impleachable-offenses?cd-origin=rss&utm_term=AO&utm_campaign=Dailey%20Newsletter&utm_medium=Email).

What are the prospects for radical change in the US?

It may be that there will be a growing number of Americans who recognize that the carbon-soaked, exploitative, endless-growth system cannot be sustained without contaminating the air, water, and soils, and without increasing the catastrophic events that accompany the climate crisis. And, at some point, more and more of people will be forced to grips with the reality that there must be extensive structural changes in the economic, political, energy, and social systems. The Democratic victories in the 2018 elections may be a precursor of what is to come, though the elections did not end Republican control of Trump and the Senate and the federal judiciary and Supreme court have been filling up with right-wing justices. Thus, a lot is at stake in the upcoming 2020 elections. Given the dire state of the climate crisis, it will not be enough to displace Republicans with centrist, moderate Democrats who limit their agenda to incremental changes and hope of achieving bipartisanship in the Senate and House. There is a need for radical, systemic, structural changes in US energy policy, and other policies that negatively affect the environment and spur the climate crisis. Proposals for a New Green Deal provide a framework for a process of changes that go in a desirable direction. Though Arn Menconi points out that there is still not any bill in the US Congress, even in the House, related to the Green New Deal (https://consortiumnews.com/2019/11/21/theres-still-no-green-new-deal-bill-in-congress).

Outside of electoral politics, Naomi Klein (On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal) and Bill McKibben (Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself out) are among the brilliant analysts and activists who been leaders in the efforts and struggles to mobilize people to phase out fossil fuels and restructure the society on a sustainable basis. Many authors have written books and articles on what such a sustainable society would look like (e.g., Fred Magdoff and Chris Williams, Creating an Ecological Society: toward a revolutionary transformation; ). Economists like Robert Pollin offer details on how to create a sustainable economy (Greening the Global Economy). A Stanford report charts a path for 143 nations to implement a “green new deal” (https://phys.org/2019-12-country-green-stanford-paths-countries.html). Then there are writers who offer a case for being optimistic. Jeremy Brecher writes a book Against Doom: A Climate Insurgency Manual. Wendy Becktold , from the Sierra Club, offers “10 Reasons to Feel Hopeful About Climate Change in 2019”(https://sierraclub.org/series/10-reasons-feel-hopeful-about-climate-change-2019). There is an unknown number of activists and organizers working for ecologically-sound solutions (https://popularresistance.org/social-ecology-radicalizing-the-climate-movement). Some cities are committed to achieving zero-carbon emissions within a few decades. Greta Thornburg has helped to ignite a global movement of young people and has done as much as or more than anyone to bring the world’s attention to the climate crisis.

There are other difficult challenges. Robert Jensen points to two that are overlooked by proponents of a Green New Deal such as Naomi Klein. He writes that societies like the US have to be re-organized, so they consume much less than they do presently. And a sustainable world cannot become ecologically sustainable with close to 8 billion people. On the first point, he writes: “There’s no simple answer to how much energy and material resources we can consume without undermining the ecosystems on which our own lives depend, but I’m confident in saying that it’s dramatically less that we consume today, and that reducing aggregate consumption—even if we could create equitable societies—will be difficult.” And on the second point: There’s no specific number to offer for a sustainable human population, but I’m confident in saying that it’s fewer than 8 billion and that finding a humane and democratic path to that lower number is difficult to imagine. What then to do? Jensen answers: “Such challenges may not be overcome, but Our challenge is to highlight not only what we can but also what we cannot accomplish, to build our moral capacity to face a frightening future but continue to fight for what can be achieved, even when we know that won’t be enough.”

Near the end of his journeys to climate engendered devastated places around the world, Dahr Jamail gives his thoughts near the end of his brilliant book, “The End of Ice: Bearing Witness and Finding Meaning in the Path of Climate Disruption, on how to live without hope but without giving up.

“A willingness to live without hope allows me to accept the heartbreaking truth of our situation, however calamitous it is. Grieving for what is happening to the planet also now brings me gratitude for the smallest, most mundane things. Grief is also a way to honor what we are losing…. My acceptance of our probably decline opens into a more intimate and heartfelt union with life itself….Falling in love with the Earth in a way I never though possible…to reach a place of acceptance and inner peace, while enduring the grief and suffering that are inevitable as the biosphere declines.”

He has learned from the wisdom on indigenous cultures that teach “obligations to those who came before, to those who will come after, and to the Earth itself. When I orient my self around the question ‘what are my obligations,’ the deeper question immediately arises: ‘From this moment on, knowing what is happening to the planet, to what do I devote my life?