Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Budgets Three, One for Thee

There are three budget proposals up for a vote soon, the President’s, the House of Representative’s and the Progressive Caucus’. The Progressive proposal is aligned with what polls say the general public wants so naturally this one doesn’t have a chance. The other two go to different lengths to cut services for the general public and increase breaks for the wealthy, corporations and spending for the military. The fiscal year for this budget kicks off October 1.
The annual budget to-do follows this order: the president submits his to congress (dead in the water, given the hostility of this Congress to anything the president proposes), lawmakers submit theirs, the Senate and House resolve the differences among the three, the president signs it. It’s almost never done on time so temporary funding resolutions are passed to keep the government going until the new budget is passed.
Enough hustlers run for Congress because that seat brings their greedy hands within proximity of the national treasury, so that insures that a lot of wrangling will go on this time of year. It’s not an attractive process. Say a corporation spends one million dollars to bribe, excuse me, to help key senators with their reelection campaigns. A pretty good investment if the budget process channels a couple billion their way.
President Obama’s budget adheres to the numbers from last year’s. Sequestration is the law that requires all budget items to be cut by a fixed percentage if the various factions can’t come to agreement. Of course they will always find a way to exclude the military from this meat cleaver. The President calls for an end to sequestration, a Reagan-era idea and part of the anti-government trappings of that reactionary regime.
The military gets a $2 billion increase with an extra “slush fund” of $59 billion – so named because it doesn’t have to justify itself. An interesting factoid: the Pentagon is excluded from the necessity that all other departments are subject to, the annual audit. Doesn’t that make the whole thing a slush fund? By the way, the U.S. spends more on the military than most of the rest of the world combined. Billions have literally disappeared in Iraq and Afghanistan, no one knows where those dollars went or in whose pockets it now resides. Imagine the scandal if the food stamp program or Planned Parenthood couldn’t account for billions of taxpayer dollars.
There is also a capital gains tax increase in Obama’s budget, sure to fall on deaf GOP ears.
The House proposal is light on detail but prioritizes deficit reduction and claims to create jobs – as usual by cutting taxes for the wealthy using the same old same old discredited trickle-down theory. The $59 billion military slush fund is in the House version, as well as the over $550 billion “defense” budget.
I remember complaining about the $250 billion spent annually on the military but 911 apparently gave the Pentagon a license to print money. Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine discloses how sordid politicians habitually lie in wait for a crisis under the cover of which they can loot the treasury and pass unpopular measures. 911 was an answer to their prayers.
This budget calls for $30 billion in cuts to discretionary funding, like Medicare, Medicaid, Food Stamps… programs that serve the general public as opposed to those citizens, the important ones, with the tax cuts. Over ten years this budget would slash $887 billion affecting domestic initiatives. There is also a shift to the states of the cost to administer programs, another funding burden that makes for an indirect tax increase on ordinary workers. Or maybe this provision is just another way of sabotaging the services. Or, likely, it’s both.
The Progressive Caucus (75 representatives and 1 senator – Bernie Sanders of course) proposal repeals sequestration and invests in domestic initiatives, job creation, education and other popular programs. The job-creation, unlike the House proposal, is specific, diverting (presumably from the Pentagon) $1 trillion over ten years to invest in the nation’s infrastructure and creation of 3.6 million jobs by 2016.
The Progressive Caucus budget would eliminate the Pentagon slush fund, moving it into the main budget which is slightly more accountable, and requires defense department auditing for the first time. There are cute little items in the military budget, not subject to sequestration caps, like the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) fund. It would cut the new-but-doesn’t-work-yet-but-trust-us F35 jet fighter and reduce nuclear weapons funding.
Obama's budget proposes $10 trillion over 30 years in nuclear arms spending... and this guy’s a liberal? We should spend trillions to increase the dangers to civilization? Who are his advisors on this, the NRA?
The Progressive Caucus budget foresees savings when troops are finally withdrawn from Afghanistan and Iraq and increases funding for diplomacy over war (gee, isn't that unAmerican?). It would also raise taxes by closing the capital gains loophole which taxes wealthy income at a lower rate than working people. Not that the rich don’t work – they work, some of ’em, very hard, at maintaining and expanding their privileges. There is only so much privilege and money so how it is distributed affects us all and our system is set up to favor, you might have anticipated this, the elite. This same elite would be stopped, under this plan, from avoiding taxes using off-shore trickery.
Polls show that Medicare and Medicaid are considered very important programs by 63% of our citizenry. Similar numbers support national health care and most of the Progressive Caucus budget.
The House budget is most likely to reach the President’s desk. It reflects how the general public goes woefully underrepresented in our theoretically representative government, which for various reasons, not least the lack of public financing of elections, ends up representing, above all, the interests of that infamous 1% – the ones whose tactics of domination, of divide and conquer, have overstepped, creating odious blowback in the form of Donald Trump.
Author’s Note: This article draws heavily from a recent webinar sponsored by Women’s Action for New Directions (WAND).
  • Image: The illustration is by the author, Tom Ferguson.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Where the Bodies Were Buried, T.J. English, a review

T.J. English writes what my librarian calls, “guy books.” – books about the mob, organized crime and criminal justice: gangsters in Hell’s Kitchen, Vietnamese gangs in China Town, the History of the Irish mob and this one, about the infamous Boston gangster Whitey Bulgar. His murderous escapades were sanctioned, even abetted, over a twenty year period, by segments of law enforcement and the FBI. This book covers the trial that convicted Bulgar, sentencing him to life x 2 plus 75 years, and the suppression of the story of government malfeasance.
Where the Bodies Were Buried: Whitey Bulger and the World That Made HimAnyone who has worked in an organization, particularly a large one, knows that certain ambitious and unscrupulous parties maneuver always to advance their status. If they finally get to the top, then the way to promotion in that organization becomes aiding and abetting the unscrupulous. Conversely the way to ruin is honesty or whistle-blowing. Thus was the organizational status of the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover, manifested to the Nth degree in Boston, in this case from the 70s to 1995.
The few who questioned the policies that used Whitey Bulgar as an informant to decimate the Italian Mafia in Boston and Providence, Road Island, protecting his criminality to the extent of murder, were rebuffed. One idealist was drummed out of the FBI very close to retirement, thus losing that hard won benefit. The arrest and conviction of the regional Mafia leader, the Patriarca crime family as represented by Raymond Patriarca Senior was the goal of this unsavory alliance. It had been determined on high (Hoover), after years of denial that the mob even existed, that the way to promotion and bonuses now lay in busting the mafia. So allowing non-mafia criminals to thrive in order to take down Mafia figures was a no-brainer under those guidelines. Not perhaps to the honest agent but that wasn’t who counted.
As a consequence, Bulgar’s inner circle known as the “Winter Hill Gang” felt immune and proceeded to conduct their illegal activities unhindered, committing gruesome murders along with their other loathsome racketeering. In several instances, as part of the FBI’s determination to maintain and protect their source, Bulgar was tipped off as to “snitches” in his own or allied gang’s ranks, resulting in predictable and swift death to said snitch. In at least one instance, Bulgar felt so confident of his immunity he invited a fellow gangster to his home, beat and tortured him to obtain as much of his ready cash as he could, $50,000 in this case, then killed him, burying the body in his rented basement. Joining this basement of bodies, that gave English his book title, were two women who Bulgar and his team concluded had to go, knew too much, were loose cannons, women who actually had nothing to do with the organization but may have picked up information incidentally hanging out with these killers. One was Bulgar’s mistress, the other his closest associate’s step-daughter, who was abusing her and decided to shut her up.
Again and again during the trial, Bulgar’s lawyers attempted to bring in what they argued was the “context” of their client’s situation – government enabling. This the prosecutor fought quite successfully to disallow, obviously not because it was irrelevant as claimed but to protect law enforcement from the stain that public knowledge of their little project would bring. They already had statuette of limitation immunity but, like the police wall of blue, these prosecutors protected their own. Part of that protection came out of the fact that Bulgar had been on the lam for sixteen years, tipped off to imminent arrest by his FBI handler, John Connolly. That agent was the only one on that side of the equation to be prosecuted for his involvement, which included taking money, trips, gifts and socializing with the Winter Hill gang. In Connolly’s case he came perilously close to being a member of the gang. The FBI prides itself on its legendary (if mythical) reputation of incorruptibility and was anxious to limit its exposure on this count. The Justice Department, not for the first time, made a joke of its own name and shared the FBI’s concern to limit the damage. Another discouraging item is the fact that so many of the government’s witnesses had participated in murder yet were granted immunity in exchange for their testimony. One even went on to star in a TV Reality show. A parallel situation, I’d say, is the DOJ and Obama Administration allowing his predecessor, the organized gang in the White House under George W, to skate on their war crimes (illegal invasions, torture etc;).
If you’re a “guy” in my librarian’s sense, you’ll appreciate T.J. English’s diligently researched take on criminality. It is incredibly frustrating to have this scourge preying on our society and infuriating to learn of blatant corruption among those who take oaths to oppose it. As Dylan said in his song Hurricane,
“couldn’t help but make me feel ashamed
to live in a land where justice is a game.“

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

A Talk and a Book on Israel and the U.S.

Jeff Halper, an Israeli peace activist, spoke at Atlanta's Oakhurst Baptist Church Monday night (2/29/16). He confirms and elaborates much of what Noam Chomsky says on the subject of Israel-U.S. relations in his talk and War on the People, his book. Halper raises the question, why does the U.S. so unconditionally support Israel, enabling a brutal occupation and blocking peace with the Palestinians? He dismisses several conventional answers as being factors but in themselves not satisfactory: the U.S. christian right expecting Armageddon in the mid-east and the Israeli lobby. He proposes instead two other rather troubling factors: The famous U.S. Military Industrial Complex, (which President Eisenhower so wisely warned us about, when leaving office, but so heartily endorsed while in office) and Israel's formidable companion. 

The U.S. complex, Boeing, Lockheed etc; obviously favors war and threats of war because that enhances their bottom line. The Israeli cousin does the same. The natural resource of oil is not overlooked in this analysis.    

The United States is the largest arms merchant on the planet, producing the really big stuff. The new F-35 bomber Halper cites as a huge financial commitment (for the taxpayer), and whether it works is not particularly relevant. Profit-making will occur just as whether the meat was rotten or not did not affect the profits for the entrepreneurs flocking to supply the army during the civil war. Israel produces the little stuff, the highly sophisticated electronic apparatus that so enhances the killing machine. U.S. drones are really souped up Israeli drones.     

Interestingly, Israel has unprecedented access to U.S. technology, uses that knowledge, selling it around the world. In a sort of circular logic, the alliance incentivizes itself to ever greater accomplishment in order to stay ahead and retain its position as go-to armaments dealer. Israel also is guaranteed by the U.S. a frontal position. If the U.S. sells armaments to Saudi Arabia for example ($7 billion recently), Israel must get the more advanced, cutting edge stuff, ahead of all rivals. Israel will receive the new U.S. F-35 bomber before, that's right, before the U.S. military.    

Halper reminds us that Israel is about the size of New Jersey yet, all told, is guaranteed $70 billion from the U.S. over the next ten years, in military assistance. That tiny country is the 4th most powerful nuclear-armed nation. It can deliver its warheads within a geographic circle which passes through London. So U.S. politians make a great to-do about Iran who has zero nukes and no way to deliver them if they had them. But nary a word about Israel. Though the U.S. has military bases in 174 countries (there are only 200+ countries) Israel has military relations with 130. The U.S. bases are mainly enclaves in countries from which to attack other countries. Israel's presence goes deeper and is very profitable. These relations include countries with which the U.S. is at odds, China and Russia for example.    

This brings us to Israel's export of its expertise in security – everything from fences to surveillance to truly scary nanno technology weaponization, all aimed at what Halper calls the War Against the People or Securocratic Warfare. Israeli websites (there are 500 arms companies in Israel) advertise their war stuff as “combat proven” and here is another reason Israel opposes peace with the Palestinians. Gaza and the West Bank are handy sites to test their weaponry and security apparatus.    

Halper ends his presentation with a local disturbing twist, a list of Georgia law enforcement personnel who have traveled to Israel for training. This is part of the militarization of policing that accompanies the erosion of civil rights, the Patriot Act etc; Halper points out that the act was passed so quickly that it had to have been on the shelf, ready to go, just awaiting the proper “crisis”. Israel has developed leading expertise in repression, or more kindly, control (of Palestinians) and this expertise is, apparently, a prized commodity among those who wish to suppress dissidents. Substitute the Occupy Movement for Palestinian, or any other movement that calls for significant questioning of the global who-rules-for-whose-benefit. Israel's gruesome calling card might as well read, like the old TV cowboy assassin, Have Gun Will Travel. Or, it might be modernized to Have Repression Technology, Will Deliver... not as catchy, or economical but hell, by now they can afford it.