What Comes After Hope
I worked for years as an editor at Pantheon Books. Its publisher, maybe the most adventurous in the business, was André Schiffrin. Among his many accomplishments, he “discovered” Studs Terkel (already a well-known Chicago radio personality), published his first oral history (Division Street: America), and made him a bestseller. Sometime after I arrived at Pantheon in the mid-1970s, he asked me to take a last look at a new manuscript by Studs. It was the equivalent of sending the second team onto the field, but it began my own long relationship with the famed oral historian. He was an experience — a small man who, when he wasn’t listening professionally in a fashion beyond compare, never stopped talking. In doing so, he had an almost magical way of making those around him feel larger than life. Later, I would be the editor for two of his oral histories, one on death and the other on hope (in that splendid order and the second with the Studs-appropriate title Hope Dies Last).
Last October, Bill Moyers interviewed me about the dismal state of American politics. As our conversation was ending, he suddenly asked: “What keeps you going against all the evidence?” At that moment, Studs came to mind. I mentioned editing “one of the greats of our world” and responded this way: “It turned out that when he wrote his book about hope, it was all about activists and the basic point he made was: in good times you could just be hopeful about your life. You didn’t have to be an activist. You didn’t have to be an anything. In bad times, if you want to be hopeful, you have to take a step. You’ve got to take some step to do something in the world. And in that sense, TomDispatch is my medicine against despair. So what makes me hopeful is doing TomDispatch.”
All true. But I realize now that it wasn’t quite a full response. I had left out one crucial figure in my life: Rebecca Solnit, who taught me how to hope in a world that seemed dismal indeed. She was the one who — I’ve written about it before — slipped through the barely ajar door of my life in May 2003, at a moment as grim and dreary as any in my political experience. The largest antiwar movement ever to protest a war that had yet to happen had just packed its tents and gone home in despair, while Baghdad was occupied by American troops and George W. Bush and his top officials were in their “mission accomplished” triumphalist mode. Many activists then feared that they would remain so forever and would have dismissed out of hand someone who suggested that their Pax Americana dreams of domination would begin unraveling in mere weeks (as happened), not decades or centuries.
Ten years ago, exactly to the day, I published Rebecca’s miraculous piece “Acts of Hope,” which she would later expand into her book Hope in the Dark. It was written to welcome that “darkness” which seemed already to be enveloping us. It was written with a sense of how the expectable unravels, of how the future surprises us, often enough with offerings not of horror but of hope.
With few people can you ever say, she (or he) changed my life, changed the very way I understand our world. For me, she’s one of the few — and she’s still doing it with her miraculous new book (out in June), The Faraway Nearby. She taught me how to look into that future darkness with hope. Like Studs, she taught me that acting, even while not knowing, is a powerful antidote to despair. So it means the world to me that she’s returned to the subject of hope to celebrate the tenth anniversary of her arrival in my life and at TomDispatch. Tom
Too Soon to Tell
The Case for Hope
By Rebecca Solnit
Ten years ago, my part of the world was full of valiant opposition to the new wars being launched far away and at home — and of despair. And like despairing people everywhere, whether in a personal depression or a political tailspin, these activists believed the future would look more or less like the present. If there was nothing else they were confident about, at least they were confident about that. Ten years ago, as a contrarian and a person who prefers not to see others suffer, I tried to undermine despair with the case for hope.
A decade later, the present is still contaminated by the crimes of that era, but so much has changed. Not necessarily for the better — a decade ago, most spoke of climate change as a distant problem, and then it caught up with us in 10,000 ways. But not entirely for the worse either — the vigorous climate movement we needed arose in that decade and is growing now. If there is one thing we can draw from where we are now and where we were then, it’s that the unimaginable is ordinary, and the way forward is almost never a straight path you can glance down, but a labyrinth of surprises, gifts, and afflictions you prepare for by accepting your blind spots as well as your intuitions.
The despairing of May 2003 were convinced of one true thing, that we had not stopped the invasion of Iraq, but they extrapolated from that a series of false assumptions about our failures and our powerlessness across time and space. They assumed — like the neoconservatives themselves — that those neocons would be atop the world for a long time to come. Instead, the neocon and neoliberal ideologies have been widely reviled and renounced around the world; the Republicans’ demographic hemorrhage has weakened them in this country; the failures of their wars are evident to everyone; and though they still grasp fearsome power, everything has indeed changed. Everything changes: there lies most of our hope and some of our fear.
I’ve seen extraordinary change in my lifetime, some of it in the last decade. I was born in a country that had been galvanized and unsettled by the civil rights movement, but still lacked a meaningful environmental movement, women’s movement, or queer rights movement (beyond a couple of small organizations founded in California in the 1950s). Half a century ago, to be gay or lesbian was to live in hiding or be treated as mentally ill or criminal. That 12 states and several countries would legalize same-sex marriage was beyond imaginable then. It wasn’t even on the table in 2003. San Francisco’s spring run of same-sex weddings in 2004 flung open the doors through which so many have passed since.
If you take the long view, you’ll see how startlingly, how unexpectedly but regularly things change. Not by magic, but by the incremental effect of countless acts of courage, love, and commitment, the small drops that wear away stones and carve new landscapes, and sometimes by torrents of popular will that change the world suddenly. To say that is not to say that it will all come out fine in the end regardless. I’m just telling you that everything is in motion, and sometimes we are ourselves that movement.
Hope and history are sisters: one looks forward and one looks back, and they make the world spacious enough to move through freely. Obliviousness to the past and to the mutability of all things imprisons you in a shrunken present. Hopelessness often comes out of that amnesia, out of forgetting that everything is in motion, everything changes. We have a great deal of history of defeat, suffering, cruelty, and loss, and everyone should know it. But that’s not all we have.
There’s the people’s history, the counterhistory that you didn’t necessarily get in school and don’t usually get on the news: the history of the battles we’ve won, of the rights we’ve gained, of the differences between then and now that those who live in forgetfulness lack. This is often the history of how individuals came together to produce that behemoth civil society, which stands astride nations and topples regimes — and mostly does it without weapons or armies. It’s a history that undermines most of what you’ve been told about authority and violence and your own powerlessness.
Civil society is our power, our joy, and our possibility, and it has written a lot of the history in the last few years, as well as the last half century. If you doubt our power, see how it terrifies those at the top, and remember that they fight it best by convincing us it doesn’t exist. It does exist, though, like lava beneath the earth, and when it erupts, the surface of the earth is remade.
Things change. And people sometimes have the power to make that happen, if and when they come together and act (and occasionally act alone, as did writers Rachel Carson and Harriet Beecher Stowe — or Mohammed Bouazizi, the young man whose suicide triggered the Arab Spring).
If you fix your eye on where we started out, you’ll see that we’ve come a long way by those means. If you look forward, you’ll see that we have a long way to go — and that sometimes we go backward when we forget that we fought for the eight-hour workday or workplace safety or women’s rights or voting rights or affordable education, forget that we won them, that they’re precious, and that we can lose them again. There’s much to be proud of, there’s much to mourn, there’s much yet to do, and the job of doing it is ours, a heavy gift to carry. And it’s made to be carried, by people who are unstoppable, who are movements, who are change itself.
Too Soon to Tell
Ten years ago I began writing about hope and speaking about it. My online essay “Acts of Hope,” posted on May 19, 2003, was my first encounter with Tomdispatch.com, which would change my work and my life. It gave me room for another kind of voice and another kind of writing. It showed me how the Internet could give wings to words. What I wrote then and subsequently for the site spread around the world in remarkable ways, putting me in touch with people and movements, and deeper into conversations about the possible and the impossible (and into a cherished friendship with the site’s founder and editor, Tom Engelhardt).
For a few years, I spoke about hope around this country and in Europe. I repeatedly ran into comfortably situated people who were hostile to the idea of hope: they thought that hope somehow betrayed the desperate and downtrodden, as if the desperate wanted the solidarity of misery from the privileged, rather than action. Hopelessness for people in extreme situations means resignation to one’s own deprivation or destruction. Hope can be a survival strategy. For comfortably situated people, hopelessness means cynicism and letting oneself off the hook. If everything is doomed, then nothing is required (and vice versa).
Despair is often premature: it’s a form of impatience as well as certainty. My favorite comment about political change comes from Zhou En-Lai, the premier of the People’s Republic of China under Chairman Mao. Asked in the early 1970s about his opinion of the French Revolution, he reportedly answered, “Too soon to tell.” Some say that he was talking about the revolutions of 1968, not 1789, but even then it provides a generous and expansive perspective. To hold onto uncertainty and possibility and a sense that even four years later, no less nearly two centuries after the fact, the verdict still isn’t in is more than most people I know are prepared to offer. A lot of them will hardly give an event a month to complete its effects, and many movements and endeavors are ruled failures well before they’re over.
Not long ago, I ran into a guy who’d been involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement, that great upwelling in southern Manhattan in the fall of 2011 that catalyzed a global conversation and a series of actions and occupations nationwide and globally. He offered a tailspin of a description of how Occupy was over and had failed.
But I wonder: How could he possibly know? It really is too soon to tell. First of all, maybe the kid who will lead the movement that will save the world was catalyzed by what she lived through or stumbled upon in Occupy Fresno or Occupy Memphis, and we won’t reap what she sows until 2023 or 2043. Maybe the seeds of something more were sown, as they were in Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring of 1968 and Charter 77, for the great and unforeseen harvest that was the Velvet Revolution of 1989, the nonviolent overthrow of the Soviet totalitarian state in that country.
Second, Occupy began to say what needed to be said about greed and capitalism, exposing a brutality that had long been hushed up, revealing both the victims of debt and the rigged economy that created it. This country changed because those things were said out loud. I can’t say exactly how, but I know it mattered. So much that matters is immeasurable, unquantifiable, and beyond price. Laws around banking, foreclosure, and student loans are changing — not enough, not everywhere, but some people will benefit, and they matter. Occupy didn’t cause those changes directly, but it did much to make the voice of the people audible and the sheer wrongness of our debt system visible — and gave momentum to the ongoing endeavors to overturn Citizens United and abolish corporate personhood.
Third, I only know a little of what the thousands of local gatherings and networks we mean by “Occupy” are now doing, but I know that Occupy Sandy is still doing vital work in the destruction zone of that hurricane and was about the best grassroots disaster relief endeavor this nation has ever seen. I know that Strike Debt, a direct offshoot of Occupy Wall Street, has relieved millions of dollars in medical debt, not with the sense that we can fix all debt this way, but that we can demonstrate the malleability, the artifice, and the immorality of the student, medical, and housing debt that is destroying so many lives. I know that the Occupy Homes foreclosure defenders have been doing amazing things, often one home at a time, from Atlanta to Minneapolis. (Last Friday, Occupy Our Homes organized a “showdown at the Department of Justice” in Washington, D.C.; that Saturday, Strike Debt Bay Area held their second Debtors’ Assembly: undead from coast to coast.)
Fourth, I know people personally whose lives were changed, and who are doing work they never imagined they would be involved in, and I’m friends with remarkable people who, but for Occupy, I would not know existed. People connected across class, racial, and cultural lines in the flowering of that movement. Like Freedom Summer, whose consequences were to be felt so far beyond Mississippi in 1964, this will have reach beyond the moment in which I write and you read.
Finally, there was great joy at the time , the joy of liberation and of solidarity, and joy is worth something in itself. In a sense, it’s worth everything, even if it’s always fleeting, though not always as scarce as we imagine.
Climates of Hope and Fear
I had lunch with Middle East and nonviolence scholar Stephen Zunes the other day and asked him what he would say about the Arab Spring now. He had, he told me, been in Egypt several months ago watching television with an activist. Formerly, the news was always about what the leaders did, decided, ordained, inflicted. But the news they were watching was surprisingly focused on civil society, on what ordinary people initiated or resisted, on how they responded, what they thought. He spoke of how so many in the Middle East had lost their fatalism and sense of powerlessness and awoken to their own collective power.
This civil society remains awake in Egypt and the other countries. What will it achieve? Maybe it’s too soon to tell. Syria is a turbulent version of hell now, but it could be leaving the dynasty of the Assads in the past; its future remains to be written. Perhaps its people will indeed write the next chapter in its story, and not only with explosives.
You can tell the arc of the past few years as, first, the Arab Spring, then extraordinary civil society actions in Chile, Quebec, Spain, and elsewhere, followed by Occupy. But don’t stop there.
After Occupy came Idle No More, the Canada-based explosion of indigenous power and resistance (to a Canadian government that has gone over to the far right and to environmental destruction on a grand scale). It was founded by four women in November of 2012 and it’s spread across North America, sparking new environmental actions and new coalitions around environmental and climate issues, with flash-mob-style powwows in shopping malls and other places, with a thousand-mile walk (and snowshoe) by seven Cree youth this winter. (There were 400 people with them by the time they arrived at Canada’s Parliament in Ottawa.)
Idle No More activists have vowed to block the construction of any pipeline that tries to transport the particularly dirty crude oil from the Alberta tar sands, whether it heads north, east, or west from northern Alberta. Each of those directions takes it over native land. This is part of the reason why tar sands supporters are pushing so hard to build the Keystone XL pipelinefrom Alberta to the U.S. Gulf Coast.
Thankfully, the push back is also strong. Our fate may depend on it. As climate scientist James Hansen wrote a year ago, “Canada’s tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history. If we were to fully exploit this new oil source, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas, and coal supplies, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now.”
The news just came in that we reached 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, the highest level in more than five million years. This is terrible news on a scale that eclipses everything else, because it encompasses everything else. We are wrecking our world, for everyone for all time, or at least the next several thousand years. But “we” is a tricky word here. Some of the people I most love and admire are doing extraordinary things to save the world, for you, for us, for generations unborn, for species yet to be named, for the oceans and sub-Saharan Africans and Arctic dwellers and everyone in-between, for the whole unbearably beautiful symphony of life on Earth that is imperiled.
Part of what sustains me in the face of this potential cataclysm is remembering that, in 2003, there hardly was a climate movement. It was small, polite, mostly believed the troubles were decades away, and was populated with people who thought that lifestyle changes could save the planet — rather than that you have to get out there and fight the power. And they were the good ones. Too many of us didn’t think about it at all.
Only a few years later, things have changed. There’s a vibrant climate movement in North America. If you haven’t quite taken that in, it might be because it’s working on so many disparate fronts that are often treated separately: mountaintop coal removal, coal-fired power plants (closing 145 existing ones to date and preventing more than 150 planned ones from opening), fracking, oil exploration in the Arctic, the Tar Sands pipeline, and 350.org’s juggernaut of a campus campaign to promote disinvestment from oil, gas, and coal companies. Only started in November 2012, there are already divestment movements underway on more than 380 college and university campuses, and now cities are getting on board. It has significant victories; it will have more.
Some countries — notably Germany, with Denmark not far behind — have done remarkable things when it comes to promoting non-fossil-fuel renewable energy. Copenhagen, for example, in the cold gray north, is on track to become a carbon-neutral city by 2025 (and in the meantime reduced its carbon emissions 25% between 2005 and 2011). The United States has a host of promising smaller projects. To offer just two examples,Los Angeles has committed to being coal-free by 2025, while San Francisco will offer its citizens electricity from 100% renewable and carbon-neutral sources and its supervisors just voted to divest the city’s fossil-fuel stocks.
There are so many pieces of the potential solution to this puzzle, and some of them are for you to put together. Whether they will multiply or ever add up to enough we don’t yet know. We need more: more people, more transformations, more ways to conquer and dismantle the oil companies, more of a vision of what is at stake, more of the great force that is civil society. Will we get it? I don’t know. Neither do you. Anything could happen.
But here’s what I’m saying: you should wake up amazed every day of your life, because if I had told you in 1988 that, within three years, the Soviet satellite states would liberate themselves nonviolently and the Soviet Union would cease to exist, you would have thought I was crazy. If I had told you in 1990 that South America was on its way to liberating itself and becoming a continent of progressive and democratic experiments, you would have considered me delusional. If, in November 2010, I had told you that, within months, the autocrat Hosni Mubarak, who had dominated Egypt since 1981, would be overthrown by 18 days of popular uprisings, or that the dictators of Tunisia and Libya would be ousted, all in the same year, you would have institutionalized me. If I told you on September 16, 2011, that a bunch of kids sitting in a park in lower Manhattan would rock the country, you’d say I was beyond delusional. You would have, if you believed as the despairing do, that the future is invariably going to look like the present, only more so. It won’t.
I still value hope, but I see it as only part of what’s required, a starting point. Think of it as the match but not the tinder or the blaze. To matter, to change the world, you also need devotion and will and you need to act. Hope is only where it begins, though I’ve also seen people toil on without regard to hope, to what they believe is possible. They live on principle and they gamble, and sometimes they even win, or sometimes the goal they were aiming for is reached long after their deaths. Still, it’s action that gets you there. When what was once hoped for is realized, it falls into the background, becomes the new normal; and we hope for or carp about something else.
The future is bigger than our imaginations. It’s unimaginable, and then it comes anyway. To meet it we need to keep going, to walk past what we can imagine. We need to be unstoppable. And here’s what it takes: you don’t stop walking to congratulate yourself; you don’t stop walking to wallow in despair; you don’t stop because your own life got too comfortable or too rough; you don’t stop because you won; you don’t stop because you lost. There’s more to win, more to lose, others who need you.
You don’t stop walking because there is no way forward. Of course there is no way. You walk the path into being, you make the way, and if you do it well, others can follow the route. You look backward to grasp the long history you’re moving forward from, the paths others have made, the road you came in on. You look forward to possibility. That’s what we mean by hope, and you look past it into the impossible and that doesn’t stop you either. But mostly you just walk, right foot, left foot, right foot, left foot. That’s what makes you unstoppable.
Rebecca Solnit’s first essay for Tomdispatch.com turned into the book Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, since translated into eight languages. Portions of this essay began life as the keynote speech at the National Lawyers’ Guild gala in honor of attorney and human rights activist Walter Riley, whose own life is a beautiful example of unstoppability. Solnit’s latest book, The Faraway Nearby, will be published in June.
Copyright 2013 Rebecca Solnit
Reprinted from TomDispatch.com
Fracking Ourselves to Death in Pennsylvania
More than 70 years ago, a chemical attack was launched against Washington State and Nevada. It poisoned people, animals, everything that grew, breathed air, and drank water. The Marshall Islands were also struck. This formerly pristine Pacific atoll was branded “the most contaminated place in the world.” As their cancers developed, the victims of atomic testing and nuclear weapons development got a name: downwinders. What marked their tragedy was the darkness in which they were kept about what was being done to them. Proof of harm fell to them, not to the U.S. government agencies responsible.
Now, a new generation of downwinders is getting sick as an emerging industry pushes the next wonder technology — in this case, high-volume hydraulic fracturing. Whether they live in Texas, Colorado, or Pennsylvania, their symptoms are the same: rashes, nosebleeds, severe headaches, difficulty breathing, joint pain, intestinal illnesses, memory loss, and more. “In my opinion,” says Yuri Gorby of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, “what we see unfolding is a serious health crisis, one that is just beginning.”
The process of “fracking” starts by drilling a mile or more vertically, then outward laterally into 500-million-year-old shale formations, the remains of oceans that once flowed over parts of North America. Millions of gallons of chemical and sand-laced water are then propelled into the ground at high pressures, fracturing the shale and forcing the methane it contains out. With the release of that gas come thousands of gallons of contaminated water. This “flowback” fluid contains the original fracking chemicals, plus heavy metals and radioactive material that also lay safely buried in the shale.
The industry that uses this technology calls its product “natural gas,” but there’s nothing natural about up-ending half a billion years of safe storage of methane and everything that surrounds it. It is, in fact, an act of ecological violence around which alien infrastructures — compressor stations that compact the gas for pipeline transport, ponds of contaminated flowback, flare stacks that burn off gas impurities, diesel trucks in quantity, thousands of miles of pipelines, and more — have metastasized across rural America, pumping carcinogens and toxins into water, air, and soil.
Sixty percent of Pennsylvania lies over a huge shale sprawl called the Marcellus, and that has been in the fracking industry’s sights since 2008. The corporations that are exploiting the shale come to the state with lavish federal entitlements: exemptions from the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Clean Drinking Water Acts, as well as the Superfund Act, which requires cleanup of hazardous substances. The industry doesn’t have to call its trillions of gallons of annual waste “hazardous.” Instead, it uses euphemisms like “residual waste.” In addition, fracking companies are allowed to keep secret many of the chemicals they use.
Pennsylvania, in turn, adds its own privileges. A revolving door shuttles former legislators, governors, and officials from the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) into gas industry positions. The DEP itself is now the object of a lawsuit that charges the agency with producing deceptive lab reports, and then using them to dismiss homeowners’ complaints that shale gas corporations have contaminated their water, making them sick. The people I interviewed have their own nickname for the DEP: “Don’t Expect Protection.”
Randy Moyer is a pleasant-faced, bearded 49-year-old whose drawl reminds you that Portage, his hardscrabble hometown in southwestern Pennsylvania, is part of Appalachia. He worked 18 years — until gasoline prices got too steep — driving his own rigs to haul waste in New York and New Jersey. Then what looked like a great opportunity presented itself: $25 an hour working for a hydraulic-fracturing subcontractor in northeastern Pennsylvania.
In addition to hauling fracking liquid, water, and waste, Randy also did what’s called, with no irony, “environmental.” He climbed into large vats to squeegee out the remains of fracking fluid. He also cleaned the huge mats laid down around the wells to even the ground out for truck traffic. Those mats get saturated with “drilling mud,” a viscous, chemical-laden fluid that eases the passage of the drills into the shale. What his employer never told him was that the drilling mud, as well as the wastewater from fracking, is not only highly toxic, but radioactive.
In the wee hours of a very cold day in November 2011, he stood in a huge basin at a well site, washing 1,000 mats with high-pressure hoses, taking breaks every so often to warm his feet in his truck. “I took off my shoes and my feet were as red as a tomato,” he told me. When the air from the heater hit them, he “nearly went through the roof.”
Once at home, he scrubbed his feet, but the excruciating pain didn’t abate. A “rash” that covered his feet soon spread up to his torso. A year and a half later, the skin inflammation still recurs. His upper lip repeatedly swells. A couple of times his tongue swelled so large that he had press it down with a spoon to be able to breathe. “I’ve been fried for over 13 months with this stuff,” he told me in late January. “I can just imagine what hell is like. It feels like I’m absolutely on fire.”
Family and friends have taken Moyer to emergency rooms at least four times. He has consulted more than 40 doctors. No one can say what caused the rashes, or his headaches, migraines, chest pain, and irregular heartbeat, or the shooting pains down his back and legs, his blurred vision, vertigo, memory loss, the constant white noise in his ears, and the breathing troubles that require him to stash inhalers throughout his small apartment.
In an earlier era, workers’ illnesses fell into the realm of “industrial medicine.” But these days, when it comes to the U.S. fracking industry, the canaries aren’t restricted to the coalmines. People like Randy seem to be the harbingers of what happens when a toxic environment is no longer buried miles beneath the earth. The gas fields that evidently poisoned him are located near thriving communities. “For just about every other industry I can imagine,” says Anthony Ingraffea of Cornell University, coauthor of a landmark study that established fracking’s colossal greenhouse-gas footprint, “from making paint, building a toaster, building an automobile, those traditional kinds of industry occur in a zoned industrial area, inside of buildings, separated from home and farm, separated from schools.” By contrast, natural gas corporations, he says, “are imposing on us the requirement to locate our homes, hospitals and schools inside their industrial space.”
The Death and Life of Little Rose
Little Rose was Angel Smith’s favorite horse. When the vet shod her, Angel told me proudly, she obligingly lifted the next hoof as soon as the previous one was done. “Wanna eat, Rosie?” Angel would ask, and Rosie would nod her head. “Are you sure?” Angel would tease, and Rosie would raise one foreleg, clicking her teeth together. In Clearville, just south of Portage, Angel rode Little Rose in parades, carrying the family’s American flag.In 2002, a “landman” knocked on the door and asked Angel and her husband Wayne to lease the gas rights of their 115-acre farm to the San Francisco-based energy corporation PG&E (Pacific Gas & Electric.) At first, he was polite, but then he started bullying. “All your neighbors have signed. If you don’t, we’ll just suck the gas from under your land.” Perhaps from weariness and a lack of information (almost no one outside the industry then knew anything about high-volume hydraulic fracturing), they agreed. Drilling began in 2002 on neighbors’ land and in 2005 on the Smith’s.
On January 30, 2007, Little Rose staggered, fell, and couldn’t get up. Her legs moved spasmodically. When Wayne and Angel dragged her to a sitting position, she’d just collapse again. “I called every vet in the phone book,” says Angel. “They all said, ‘Shoot her.’” The couple couldn’t bear to do it. After two days, a neighbor shot her. “It was our choice,” says Angel, her voice breaking. “She was my best friend.”
Soon, the Smiths’ cows began showing similar symptoms. Those that didn’t die began aborting or giving birth to dead calves. All the chickens died, too. So did the barn cats. And so did three beloved dogs, none of them old, all previously healthy. A 2012 study by Michelle Bamberger and Cornell University pharmacology professor Robert Oswald indicates that, in the gas fields, these are typical symptoms in animals and often serve as early warning signs for their owners’ subsequent illnesses.
The Smiths asked the DEP to test their water. The agency told them that it was safe to drink, but Angel Smith says that subsequent testing by Pennsylvania State University investigators revealed high levels of arsenic.
Meanwhile, the couple began suffering from headaches, nosebleeds, fatigue, throat and eye irritation, and shortness of breath. Wayne’s belly began swelling oddly, even though, says Angel, he isn’t heavy. X-rays of his lungs showed scarring and calcium deposits. A blood analysis revealed cirrhosis of the liver. “Get him to stop drinking,” said the doctor who drew Angel aside after the results came in. “Wayne doesn’t drink,” she replied. Neither does Angel, who at 42 now has liver disease.
By the time the animals began dying, five high-volume wells had been drilled on neighbors’ land. Soon, water started bubbling up under their barn floor and an oily sheen and foam appeared on their pond. In 2008, a compressor station was built half a mile away. These facilities, which compress natural gas for pipeline transport, emit known carcinogens and toxins like benzene and toluene.
The Smiths say people they know elsewhere in Clearville have had similar health problems, as have their animals. For a while they thought their own animals’ troubles were over, but just this past February several cows aborted. The couple would like to move away, but can’t. No one will buy their land.
The Museum of Fracking
Unlike the Smiths, David and Linda Headley didn’t lease their land. In 2005, when they bought their farm in Smithfield, they opted not to pay for the gas rights under their land. The shallow gas drilling their parents had known seemed part of a bygone era and the expense hardly seemed worth the bother.
With its hills and valleys, the creek running through their land, and a spring that supplied them with water, the land seemed perfect for hiking, swimming, and raising their son Grant. Adam was born after all the trouble started.
Just as the couple had completed the purchase, the bulldozers moved in. The previous owner had leased the gas rights without telling them. And so they found themselves, as they would later put it, mere “caretakers” on a corporate estate.
Today, the Headleys’ property is a kind of museum of fracking. There are five wells, all with attendant tanks that separate liquids from the gas, and a brine tank where flowback is stored. Four of the wells are low-volume vertical ones, which use a fracking technology that predates today’s high-volume method. A couple minutes’ walk from the Headleys’ front door stands a high-volume well. A pipeline was drilled under their creek.
“Accidents” have been a constant. When the well closest to the house was fracked, their spring, which had abounded in vegetation, crawfish, and insects, went bad. The DEP told the Headleys, as it did the Smiths, that the water was still safe to drink. But, says David, “everything in the spring died and turned white.” Adam had just been born. “No way was I exposing my kids to that.” For two years he hauled water to the house from the homes of family and friends and then he had it connected to a city water line.
All the brine tanks have leaked toxic waste onto the Headley’s land. Contaminated soil from around the high-volume tank has been alternately stored in dumpsters and in an open pit next to the well. The Headleys begged the DEP to have it removed. David says an agency representative told them the waste would have to be tested for radioactivity first. Eventually, some of it was hauled away; the rest was buried under the Headleys’ land. The test for radioactivity is still pending, though David has his own Geiger counter which has measured high levels at the site of the well.
An independent environmental organization, Earthworks, included the Headleys among 55 households it surveyed in a recent study of health problems near gas facilities. Testing showed high levels of contaminants in the Headleys’ air, including chloromethane, a neurotoxin, and trichloroethene, a known carcinogen.
Perhaps more telling is the simple fact that everyone in the family is sick. Seventeen-year-old Grant has rashes that, like Randy Moyer’s, periodically appear on different parts of his body. Four-year-old Adam suffers from stomach cramps that make him scream. David says he and Linda have both had “terrible joint pain. It’s weird stuff, your left elbow, your right hip, then you’ll feel good for three days, and it’ll be your back.” At 42, with no previous family history of either arthritis or asthma, Linda has been diagnosed with both. Everyone has had nosebleeds — including the horses.
Five years into the Marcellus gas rush in this part of Pennsylvania, symptoms like Randy Moyer’s, the Smiths’, and the Headleys’ are increasingly common. Children are experiencing problems the young almost never have, like joint pain and forgetfulness. Animal disorders and deaths are widespread. The Earthworks study suggests that living closer to gas-field infrastructure increases the severity of 25 common symptoms, including skin rashes, difficulty breathing, and nausea.
Don’t Expect Protection
DEP whistleblowers have disclosed that the agency purposely restricts its chemical testing so as to reduce evidence of harm to landowners. A resident in southwestern Pennsylvania’s Washington County is suing the agency for failing fully to investigate the drilling-related air and water contamination that she says has made her sick. In connection with the lawsuit, Democratic state representative Jesse White has demanded that state and federal agencies investigate the DEP for “alleged misconduct and fraud.”
In the absence of any genuine state protection, independent scientists have been left to fill the gap. But as the industry careens forward, matching symptoms with potential causes is a constant catch-up effort. A 2011 study by Theo Colborn, founder of the Endocrine Disruption Exchange and recipient the National Council for Science and Environment’s Lifetime Achievement Award, identified 353 industry chemicals that could damage the skin, the brain, the respiratory, gastrointestinal, immune, cardiovascular, and endocrine (hormone production) systems. Twenty-five percent of the chemicals found by the study could cause cancers.
David Brown is a veteran toxicologist and consultant for an independent environmental health organization, the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project. According to him, there are four routes of exposure to gas-field chemicals: water, air, soil, and food. In other words, virtually everything that surrounds us.
Exposure to water comes from drinking, but showering and bathing makes possible water exposure through the skin and inhaling water vapor. “Air exposure is even more complicated,” says Brown. The impacts of contaminated air, for example, are greater during heavy activity. “Children running around,” he says, “are more apt to be exposed than older people.” What further complicates the emerging toxicology is that chemicals act not as single agents but synergistically. “The presence of one agent,” says Brown, “can increase the toxicity of another by several-fold.”
Brown deplores the government’s failures to heed citizens’ cries for help. “No one is asking, ‘What happened to you? Are there other people who have been affected in your area?’ I teach ethics. There’s a level of moral responsibility that we should have nationally. We seem to have decided that we need energy so badly… that we have in almost a passive sense identified individuals and areas to sacrifice.”
Circles of Trust
No one I interviewed in communities impacted by fracking in southwestern Pennsylvania drinks their water anymore. In fact, I came to think of a case of Poland Spring as a better house gift than any wine (and I wasn’t alone in that). Breathing the air is in a different universe of risk. You can’t bottle clean air, but you can donate air purifiers, as one interviewee, who prefers to be unnamed, has been doing.
Think of her as a creator of what a new Pennsylvania friend of mine calls “circles of trust.” The energy industry splits communities and families into warring factions. Such hostilities are easy to find, but in the midst of catastrophe I also found mutual assistance and a resurgence of the human drive for connection.
Ron Gulla, a John Deere heavy equipment salesman, is driven by fury at the corporation that ruined his soil — his was the second farm in Pennsylvania to be fracked — but also by deep feeling for the land: “A farm is just like raising a child. You take care of it, you nurture it, and you know when there are problems.”
Gulla credits Barbara Arindell, founder of the country’s first anti-fracking organization, Pennsylvania’s Damascus Citizens for Sustainability, with teaching him about the dangers of the industry’s efforts. Now, he is a central figure in an ever-widening network of people who are becoming their own documentarians. Everyone I interviewed brought out files of evidence to show me: photographs, videos, news reports, and their own written records of events.
Moreover, in the midst of ongoing stress, many have become activists. Linda Headley and Ron Gulla, for instance, traveled with other Pennsylvanians to Albany this past February to warn New York State officials not to endorse fracking. “A lot of people have said, ‘Why don’t you just walk away from this?’” says Gulla. “[But] I was raised to think that if there was something wrong, you would bring it to people’s attention.’”
“You have to believe things happen for a reason,” says David Headley. “It’s drawn so many people together we didn’t know before. You have these meetings, and you’re fighting [for] a common cause and you feel so close to the people you’re working with. Including you guys, the reporters. It’s made us like a big family. Really. You think you’re all alone, and somebody pops up. God always sends angels.”
Still, make no mistake: this is an alarming and growing public health emergency. “Short of relocating entire communities or banning fracking, ending airborne exposures cannot be done,” David Brown said in a recent address in New York State. “Our only option in Washington County… has been to try to find ways for residents to reduce their exposures and warn them when the air is especially dangerous to breathe.”
In the vacuum left by the state’s failure to offer protection to those living in fracking zones, volunteers, experts like Brown, and fledgling organizations like the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project have become the new protectors of citizens’ health. Growing numbers of fracking victims, including Angel and Wayne Smith, are also suing gas corporations. “If I could go back to 2000, I’d show them the end of the road and say, ‘Don’t come back,’” Angel told me. “But we’re in the situation now. Fight and go forward.”
Ellen Cantarow first wrote from Israel and the West Bank in 1979. A TomDispatch regular, her writing has been published in the Village Voice,Grand Street, Mother Jones, Alternet, Counterpunch, and ZNet, and anthologized by the South End Press. She is also lead author and general editor of an oral history trilogy, Moving the Mountain: Women Working for Social Change.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook or Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.
Copyright 2013 Ellen Cantarow
How to Turn a World Lacking in Enemies into the Most Threatening Place in the Universe
The communist enemy, with the “world’s fourth largest military,” has been trundling missiles around and threatening the United States with nuclear obliteration. Guam, Hawaii,Washington: all, it claims, are targetable. The coverage in the media has been hair-raising. The U.S. is rushing an untested missile defense system to Guam, deploying missile-interceptor ships off the South Korean coast, sending “nuclear capable” B-2 Stealth bombers thousands of miles on mock bombing runs, pressuring China, and conducting large-scale war games with its South Korean ally.
Only one small problem: there is as yet little evidence that the enemy with a few nuclear weapons facing off (rhetorically at least) against an American arsenal of 4,650 of them has the ability to miniaturize and mount even one on a missile, no less deliver it accurately, nor does it have a missile capable of reaching Hawaii or Washington, and I wouldn’t count on Guam either.
It also happens to be a desperate country, one possibly without enough fuel to fly a modern air force, whose people, on average, are inches shorter than their southern neighbors thanks to decades of intermittent famine and malnutrition, and who are ruled by a bizarre three-generational family cult. If that other communist, Karl Marx, hadn’t once famously written that history repeats itself “first as tragedy, then as farce,” we would have had to invent the phrase for this very moment.
In the previous century, there were two devastating global wars, which left significant parts of the planet in ruins. There was also a “cold war” between two superpowers locked in a system of mutual assured destruction (aptly acronymed as MAD) whose nuclear arsenals were capable of destroying the planet many times over. Had you woken up any morning in the years between December 7, 1941, and December 26, 1991, and been told that the leading international candidate for America’s Public Enemy Number One was Kim Jong-un’s ramshackle, comic-opera regime in North Korea, you might have gotten down on your hands and knees and sent thanks to pagan gods.
The same would be true for the other candidates for that number one position since September 11, 2001: the original al-Qaeda (largely decimated), al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula located in poverty-stricken areas of poverty-stricken Yemen, the Taliban in poverty-stricken Afghanistan, unnamed jihadis scattered across poverty-stricken areas of North Africa, or Iran, another rickety regional power run by not particularly adept theocrats.
All these years, we’ve been launching wars and pursuing a “global war on terror.” We’ve poured money into national security as if there were no tomorrow. From our police to our borders, we’ve up-armored everywhere. We constantly hear about “threats” to us and to the “homeland.” And yet, when you knock on the door marked “Enemy,” there’s seldom anyone home.
Few in this country have found this striking. Few seem to notice any disjuncture between the enemy-ridden, threatening, and deeply dangerous world we have been preparing ourselves for (and fighting in) this last decade-plus and the world as it actually is, even those who lived through significant parts of the last anxiety-producing, bloody century.
You know that feeling when you wake up and realize you’ve had the same recurrent nightmare yet again? Sometimes, there’s an equivalent in waking life, and here’s mine: every now and then, as I read about the next move in the spreading war on terror, the next drone assassination, the next ratcheting up of the surveillance game, the next expansion of the secrecy that envelops our government, the next set of expensive actions taken to guard us — all of this justified by the enormous threats and dangers that we face — I think to myself: Where’s the enemy? And then I wonder: Just what kind of a dream is this that we’re dreaming?
A Door Marked “Enemy” and No One Home
Let’s admit it: enemies can have their uses. And let’s admit as well that it’s in the interest of some in our country that we be seen as surrounded by constant and imminent dangers on an enemy-filled planet. Let’s also admit that the world is and always will be a dangerous place in all sorts of ways.
Still, in American terms, the bloodlettings, the devastations of this new century and the last years of the previous one have been remarkably minimal or distant; some of the worst, as in the multi-country war over the Congo with its more than five million dead have passed us by entirely; some, even when we launched them, have essentially been imperial frontier conflicts, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, or interventions of little cost (to us) as in Libya, or frontier patrolling operations as in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Northern Africa. (It was no mistake that, when Washington launched its special operations raid on Abbottabad, Pakistan, to get Osama bin Laden, it was given the code name “Geronimo” and the message from the SEAL team recording his death was “Geronimo-E KIA” or “enemy killed in action.”)
And let’s admit as well that, in the wake of those wars and operations, Americans now have more enemies, more angry, embittered people who would like to do us harm than on September 10, 2001. Let’s accept that somewhere out there are people who, as George W. Bush once liked to say, “hate us” and what we stand for. (I leave just what we actually stand for to you, for the moment.)
So let’s consider those enemies briefly. Is there a major state, for instance, that falls into this category, like any of the great warring imperial European powers from the sixteenth century on, or Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in World War II, or the Soviet Union of the Cold War era? Of course not.
There was admittedly a period when, in order to pump up what we faced in the world, analogies to World War II and the Cold War were rife. There was, for instance, George W. Bush’s famed rhetorical construct, the Axis of Evil (Iraq, Iran, and North Korea), patterned by his speechwriter on the German-Italian-Japanese “axis” of World War II. It was, of course, a joke construct, if reality was your yardstick. Iraq and Iran were then enemies. (Only in the wake of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq have they become friends and allies.) And North Korea had nothing whatsoever to do with either of them. Similarly, the American occupation of Iraq was once regularly compared to the U.S. occupations of Germany and Japan, just as Saddam Hussein had long been presented as a modern Hitler.
In addition, al-Qaeda-style Islamists were regularly referred to as Islamofascists, while certain military and neocon types with a desire to turn the war on terror into a successor to the Cold War took to calling it “the long war,” or even “World War IV.” But all of this was so wildly out of whack that it simply faded away.
As for who’s behind that door marked “Enemy,” if you opened it, what would you find? As a start, scattered hundreds or, as the years have gone by, thousands of jihadis, mostly in the poorest backlands of the planet and with little ability to do anything to the United States. Next, there were a few minority insurgencies, including the Taliban and allied forces in Afghanistan and separate Sunni and Shia ones in Iraq. There also have been tiny numbers of wannabe Islamic terrorists in the U.S. (once you take away the string of FBI sting operations that have regularly turned hopeless slackers and lost teenagers into the most dangerous of fantasy Muslim plotters). And then, of course, there are those two relatively hapless regional powers, Iran and North Korea, whose bark far exceeds their potential bite.
The Wizard of Oz on 9/11
The U.S., in other words, is probably in less danger from external enemies than at any moment in the last century. There is no other imperial power on the planet capable of, or desirous of, taking on American power directly, including China. It’s true that, on September 11, 2001, 19 hijackers with box cutters produced a remarkable, apocalyptic, and devastating TV show in which almost 3,000 people died. When those giant towers in downtown New York collapsed, it certainly had the look of nuclear disaster (and in those first days, the media was filled was nuclear-style references), but it wasn’t actually an apocalyptic event.
The enemy was still nearly nonexistent. The act cost bin Laden only an estimated $400,000-$500,000, though it would lead to a series of trillion-dollar wars. It was a nightmarish event that had a malign Wizard of Oz quality to it: a tiny man producing giant effects. It in no way endangered the state. In fact, it would actually strengthen many of its powers. It put a hit on the economy, but a passing one. It was a spectacular and spectacularly gruesome act of terror by a small, murderous organization then capable of mounting a major operation somewhere on Earth only once every couple of years. It was meant to spread fear, but nothing more.
When the towers came down and you could suddenly see to the horizon, it was still, in historical terms, remarkably enemy-less. And yet 9/11 was experienced here as a Pearl Harbor moment — a sneak attack by a terrifying enemy meant to disable the country. The next day, newspaper headlines were filled with variations on “A Pearl Harbor of the Twenty-First Century.” If it was a repeat of December 7, 1941, however, it lacked an imperial Japan or any other state to declare war on, although one of the weakest partial states on the planet, the Taliban’s Afghanistan, would end up filling the bill adequately enough for Americans.
To put this in perspective, consider two obvious major dangers in U.S. life: suicide by gun and death by car. In 2010, more than 19,000 Americans killed themselves using guns. (In the same year, there were “only” 11,000 homicides nationwide.) In 2011, 32,000 Americans died in traffic accidents (the lowest figure in 60 years, though it was againon the rise in the first six months of 2012). In other words, Americans accept without blinking the equivalent yearly of more than six 9/11s in suicides-by-gun and more than 10 when it comes to vehicular deaths. Similarly, had the underwear bomber, to take one post-9/11 example of terrorism, succeeded in downing Flight 253 and murdering its 290 passengers, it would have been a horrific act of terror; but he and his compatriots would have had to bring down 65 planes to reach the annual level of weaponized suicides and more than 110 planes for vehicular deaths.
And yet no one has declared war on either the car or the gun (or the companies that make them or the people who sell them). No one has built a massive, nearly trillion-dollar car-and-gun-security-complex to deal with them. In the case of guns, quite the opposite is true, as the post-Newtown debate over gun control has made all too clear. On both scores, Americans have decided to live with perfectly real dangers and the staggering carnage that accompanies them, constraining them on occasion or sometimes not at all.
Despite the carnage of 9/11, terrorism has been a small-scale American danger in the years since, worse than shark attacks, but not much else. Like a wizard, however, what Osama bin Laden and his suicide bombers did that day was create an instant sense of an enemy so big, so powerful, that Americans found “war” a reasonable response; big enough for those who wanted an international police action against al-Qaeda to be laughed out of the room; big enough to launch an invasion of revenge against Iraq, a country unrelated to al-Qaeda; big enough, in fact, to essentially declare war on the world. It took next to no time for top administration officials to begin talking about targeting 60 countries, and as journalist Ron Suskind has reported, within six days of the attack, the CIA had topped that figure, presenting President Bush with a “Worldwide Attack Matrix,” a plan that targeted terrorists in 80 countries.
What’s remarkable is how little the disjuncture between the scope and scale of the global war that was almost instantly launched and the actual enemy at hand was ever noted here. You could certainly make a reasonable argument that, in these years, Washington has largely fought no one — and lost. Everywhere it went, it created enemies who had, previously, hardly existed and the process is ongoing. Had you been able to time-travel back to the Cold War era to inform Americans that, in the future, our major enemies would be in Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Mali, Libya, and so on, they would surely have thought you mad (or lucky indeed).
Creating an Enemy-Industrial Complex
Without an enemy of commensurate size and threat, so much that was done in Washington in these years might have been unattainable. The vast national security building and spending spree – stretching from the Virginia suburbs of Washington, where the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency erected its new $1.8 billion headquarters, to Bluffdale, Utah, where the National Security Agency is still constructing a $2 billion, one-million-square-foot data center for storing the world’s intercepted communications — would have been unlikely.
Without the fear of an enemy capable of doing anything, money at ever escalating levels would never have poured into homeland security, or the Pentagon, or a growing complex of crony corporations associated with our weaponized safety. The exponential growth of the national security complex, as well as of the powers of the executive branch when it comes to national security matters, would have far been less likely.
Without 9/11 and the perpetual “wartime” that followed, along with the heavily promoted threat of terrorists ready to strike and potentially capable of wielding biological, chemical, or even nuclear weapons, we would have no Department of Homeland Security nor the lucrative mini-homeland-security complex that surrounds it; the 17-outfit U.S. Intelligence Community with its massive $75 billion official budget would have been far less impressive; our endless drone wars and the “drone lobby” that goes with them might never have developed; and the U.S. military would not have an ever growing secret military, the Joint Special Operations Command, gestating inside it — effectively the president’s private army, air force, and navy — and already conducting largely secret operations across much of the planet.
For all of this to happen, there had to be an enemy-industrial complex as well, a network of crucial figures and institutions ready to pump up the threat we faced and convince Americans that we were in a world so dangerous that rights, liberty, and privacy were small things to sacrifice for American safety. In short, any number of interests from Bush administration figures eager to “sweep it all up” and do whatever they wanted in the world to weapons makers, lobbyists, surveillance outfits, think tanks, military intellectuals, assorted pundits… well, the whole national and homeland security racket and its various hangers-on had an interest in beefing up the enemy. For them, it was important in the post-9/11 era that threats would never again lack a capital “T” or a hefty dollar sign.
And don’t forget a media that was ready to pound the drums of war and emphasize what dangerous enemies lurked in our world with remarkably few second thoughts. Post-9/11, major media outlets were generally prepared to take the enemy-industrial complex’s word for it and play every new terrorist incident as if it were potentially the end of the world. Increasingly as the years went on, jobs, livelihoods, an expanding world of “security” depended on the continuance of all this, depended, in short, on the injection of regular doses of fear into the body politic.
That was the “favor” Osama bin Laden did for Washington’s national security apparatus and the Bush administration on that fateful September morning. He engraved an argument in the American brain that would live on indelibly for years, possibly decades, calling for eternal vigilance at any cost and on a previously unknown scale. As the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), that neocon think-tank-cum-shadow-government, so fatefully put it in “Rebuilding America’s Defenses” a year before the 9/11 attacks: “Further, the process of transformation [of the military], even if it brings revolutionary change, is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event — like a new Pearl Harbor.”
So when the new Pearl Harbor arrived out of the blue, with many PNAC members (from Vice President Dick Cheney on down) already in office, they naturally saw their chance. They created an al-Qaeda on steroids and launched their “global war” to establish a Pax Americana, in the Middle East and then perhaps globally. They were aware that they lacked opponents of the stature of those of the previous century and, in their documents, they made it clear that they were planning to ensure no future great-power-style enemy or bloc of enemy-like nations would arise. Ever.
For this, they needed an American public anxious, frightened, and ready to pay. It was, in other words, in their interest to manipulate us. And if that were all there were to it, our world would be a grim, but simple enough place. As it happens, it’s not. Ruling elites, no matter what power they have, don’t work that way. Before they manipulate us, they almost invariably manipulate themselves.
I was convinced of this years ago by a friend who had spent a lot of time reading early Cold War documents from the National Security Council — from, that is, a small group of powerful governmental figures writing to and for each other in the utmost secrecy. As he told me then and wrote in Washington’s China, the smart book he did on the early U.S. response to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, what struck him in the documents was the crudely anti-communist language those men used in private with each other. It was the sort of anti-communism you might otherwise have assumed Washington’s ruling elite would only have wielded to manipulate ordinary Americans with fears of Communist subversion, the “enemy within,” and Soviet plans to take over the world. (In fact, they and others like them would use just such language to inject fear into the body politic in those early Cold War years, that era of McCarthyism.)
They were indeed manipulative men, but before they influenced other Americans they assumedly underwent something like a process of collective auto-hypnotism in which they convinced one another of the dangers they needed the American people to believe in. There is evidence that a similar process took place in the aftermath of 9/11. From the flustered look on George W. Bush’s face as his plane took him not toward but away fromWashington on September 11, 2001, to the image of Dick Cheney, in those early months, being chauffeured around Washington in an armored motorcade with a “gas mask and a biochemical survival suit” in the backseat, you could sense that the enemy loomed large and omnipresent for them. They were, that is, genuinely scared, even if they were also ready to make use of that fear for their own ends.
Or consider the issue of Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction, that excuse for the invasion of Iraq. Critics of the invasion are generally quick to point out how that bogus issue was used by the top officials of the Bush administration to gain public support for a course that they had already chosen. After all, Cheney and his men cherry-picked the evidence to make their case, even formed their own secret intel outfit to give them what they needed, and ignored facts at hand that brought their version of events into question. They publicly claimed in an orchestrated way that Saddam had active nuclear and WMD programs. They spoke in the most open ways of potential mushroom cloudsfrom (nonexistent) Iraqi nuclear weapons rising over American cities, or of those same cities being sprayed with (nonexistent) chemical or biological weapons from (nonexistent) Iraqi drones. They certainly had to know that some of this information was useful but bogus. Still, they had clearly also convinced themselves that, on taking Iraq, they would indeed find some Iraqi WMD to justify their claims.
In his soon-to-be-published book, Dirty Wars, Jeremy Scahill cites the conservative journalist Rowan Scarborough on Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s growing post-invasion irritation over the search for Iraqi WMD sites. “Each morning,” wrote Scarborough, “the crisis action team had to report that another location was a bust. Rumsfeld grew angrier and angrier. One officer quoted him as saying, ‘They must be there!’ At one briefing, he picked up the briefing slides and tossed them back at the briefers.”
In other words, those top officials hustling us into their global war and their long-desired invasion of Iraq had also hustled themselves into the same world with a similar set of fears. This may seem odd, but given the workings of the human mind, its ability to comfortably hold potentially contradictory thoughts most of the time without disturbing itself greatly, it’s not.
A similar phenomenon undoubtedly took place in the larger national security establishment where self-interest combined easily enough with fear. After all, in the post-9/11 era, they were promising us one thing: something close to 100% “safety” when it came to one small danger in our world — terrorism. The fear that the next underwear bomber might get through surely had the American public — but also the American security state — in its grips. After all, who loses the most if another shoe bomber strikes, another ambassador goes down, another 9/11 actually happens? Whose job, whose world, will be at stake then?
They may indeed be a crew of Machiavellis, but they are also acolytes in the cult of terror and global war. They live in the Cathedral of the Enemy. They were the first believers and they will undoubtedly be the last ones as well. They are invested in the importance of the enemy. It’s their religion. They are, after all, the enemy-industrial complex and if we are in their grip, so are they.
The comic strip character Pogo once famously declared: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” How true. We just don’t know it yet.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.
Copyright 2013 Tom Engelhardt
Michael Hudson explains how public banks may serve the goals of capitalism, while private banks — under our current system — tend to become parasites.
Reprinted from Consortium News
Exclusive: With solid Republican opposition and many Democrats scared of the gun lobby, Congress is turning its back on a renewed assault weapons ban, a collapse made easier by the refusal of Newtown officials to release crime-scene photos of the bullet-riddled bodies of 20 first-graders, writes Robert Parry.
By Robert Parry
As a father and grandfather, I appreciate the feelings of those Newtown, Connecticut, parents who don’t want the gruesome crime-scene photos of last December’s massacre released. But it is now imperative that the people of the United States and especially the Congress face up to the horrible realities resulting from the nation’s cavalier attitude toward assault weapons.
If we are to prevent future Newtown massacres, we need – as a country – to study what actually happens to human beings when they are subjected to the violence of these powerful weapons. Yet, viewing these awful photos is equally necessary if we – as a nation – decide to place some twisted notion of what the Framers intended in the Second Amendment over the bodies of these 20 first-graders and the many other victims from mass killings.
Noah Pozner, 6, one of 20 children murdered on Dec. 14, 2012, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
It was unpleasant, too, for Americans to be confronted with photos of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, but without the public release of those images, the reality of that war would never have been understood. Similarly, in the 1950s, the mother of 14-year-old lynching victim Emmett Till insisted that people see her son’s mutilated body.
In both cases, the images galvanized the consciences of honorable Americans to do something to prevent recurrences of these atrocities. However, even those who wanted to continue the Vietnam War or who favored maintaining racial segregation in the South needed to look at the images so their beliefs could be measured against real human costs.
Similarly, we must all look at these bullet-riddled six-year-olds, some of them literally ripped to pieces by multiple gunshots from an AR-15 rifle. For some of us, such an experience – as distressing as it would be – would strengthen a determination to take action. For others who believe that the Second Amendment gives them the right to own any weapon they want and carry it wherever they please, seeing the dismembered school children would give them a new way to value their “right.”
If, after all, the “right to bear arms” is so precious, it would be even more precious after seeing the torn flesh and the fresh blood of these 20 tiny schoolchildren and their six brave teachers. Each time, these “gun rights” enthusiasts shout out their truncated version of the Second Amendment – leaving out the parts about “a well-regulated militia” and the “security of a free state” – they could have these images of mangled children flash through their minds.
It would be a value-added to their Second Amendment pride. It would remind them that their “right” is even more valuable than the lives of innocent children.
Or, it might give these true-believers reason to rethink their absolutism and perhaps study the real history in which the Framers never viewed the Second Amendment as a “libertarian” right to rise up against the government, but rather as a practical necessity for states to maintain order and to put down armed rebellions. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “More Second Amendment Madness.”]
Though some of the Newtown parents have understandably recoiled at the thought of seeing photos of their children’s shredded bodies piled together or scattered about their classroom, one mother, Veronique Pozner, grasped the importance of facing the grim truth. She insisted that Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy see the body of her son Noah at his open-casket funeral in December.
The bottom half of Noah’s face was covered by a cloth. That was because his mouth and jaw had been blown away as had his left hand. He had been shot 11 times.
“I owed it to him as his mother — the good, the bad, the ugly,” Pozner told a reporter. “It is not up to me to say I am only going to look at you and deal with you when you are alive, that I am going to block out the reality of what you look like when you are dead. And as a little boy, you have to go in the ground. If I am going to shut my eyes to that I am not his mother. I had to bear it. I had to do it.”
As painful as her message was, Pozner was right. The horrifying facts of the massacre – like the 20 children who died that day – belong to all of us since we live in a democratic Republic in which all citizens bear responsibility for the laws that do or don’t protect our society.
We owe it to the little victims of Newtown to view the crime-scene photos and to listen to their silent witness as to what “gun rights” actually mean.
[For a limited time, you can purchase Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush family for only $34. For details, click here.]
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).
Reprinted from Web of Debt
By Ellen Brown
Confiscating the customer deposits in Cyprus banks, it seems, was not a one-off, desperate idea of a few Eurozone “troika” officials scrambling to salvage their balance sheets. A joint paper by the US Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and the Bank of England dated December 10, 2012, shows that these plans have been long in the making; that they originated with the G20 Financial Stability Board in Basel, Switzerland (discussed earlier here); and that the result will be to deliver clear title to the banks of depositor funds.
New Zealand has a similar directive, discussed in my last article here, indicating that this isn’t just an emergency measure for troubled Eurozone countries. New Zealand’s Voxy reported on March 19th:
The National Government [is] pushing a Cyprus-style solution to bank failure in New Zealand which will see small depositors lose some of their savings to fund big bank bailouts . . . .
Open Bank Resolution (OBR) is Finance Minister Bill English’s favoured option dealing with a major bank failure. If a bank fails under OBR, all depositors will have their savings reduced overnight to fund the bank’s bail out.
Can They Do That?
Although few depositors realize it, legally the bank owns the depositor’s funds as soon as they are put in the bank. Our money becomes the bank’s, and we become unsecured creditors holding IOUs or promises to pay. (See here and here.) But until now the bank has been obligated to pay the money back on demand in the form of cash. Under the FDIC-BOE plan, our IOUs will be converted into “bank equity.” The bank will get the money and we will get stock in the bank. With any luck we may be able to sell the stock to someone else, but when and at what price? Most people keep a deposit account so they can have ready cash to pay the bills.
The 15-page FDIC-BOE document is called “Resolving Globally Active, Systemically Important, Financial Institutions.” It begins by explaining that the 2008 banking crisis has made it clear that some other way besides taxpayer bailouts is needed to maintain “financial stability.” Evidently anticipating that the next financial collapse will be on a grander scale than either the taxpayers or Congress is willing to underwrite, the authors state:
An efficient path for returning the sound operations of the G-SIFI to the private sector would be provided by exchanging or converting a sufficient amount of the unsecured debt from the original creditors of the failed company [meaning the depositors] into equity [or stock]. In the U.S., the new equitywould become capital in one or more newly formed operating entities. In the U.K., the same approach could be used, or the equity could be used to recapitalize the failing financial company itself—thus, the highest layer of surviving bailed-in creditors would become the owners of the resolved firm. In either country, the new equity holders would take on the corresponding risk of being shareholders in a financial institution.
No exception is indicated for “insured deposits” in the U.S., meaning those under $250,000, the deposits we thought were protected by FDIC insurance. This can hardly be an oversight, since it is the FDIC that is issuing the directive. The FDIC is an insurance company funded by premiums paid by private banks. The directive is called a “resolution process,” defined elsewhere as a plan that “would be triggered in the event of the failure of an insurer . . . .” The only mention of “insured deposits” is in connection with existing UK legislation, which the FDIC-BOE directive goes on to say is inadequate, implying that it needs to be modified or overridden.
An Imminent Risk
If our IOUs are converted to bank stock, they will no longer be subject to insurance protection but will be “at risk” and vulnerable to being wiped out, just as the Lehman Brothers shareholders were in 2008. That this dire scenario could actually materialize was underscored by Yves Smith in a March 19th post titled When You Weren’t Looking, Democrat Bank Stooges Launch Bills to Permit Bailouts, Deregulate Derivatives. She writes:
In the US, depositors have actually been put in a worse position than Cyprus deposit-holders, at least if they are at the big banks that play in the derivatives casino. The regulators have turned a blind eye as banks use their depositaries to fund derivatives exposures. And as bad as that is, the depositors, unlike their Cypriot confreres, aren’t even senior creditors. Remember Lehman? When the investment bank failed, unsecured creditors (and remember, depositors are unsecured creditors) got eight cents on the dollar. One big reason was that derivatives counterparties require collateral for any exposures, meaning they are secured creditors. The 2005 bankruptcy reforms made derivatives counterparties senior to unsecured lenders.
One might wonder why the posting of collateral by a derivative counterparty, at some percentage of full exposure, makes the creditor “secured,” while the depositor who puts up 100 cents on the dollar is “unsecured.” But moving on – Smith writes:
Lehman had only two itty bitty banking subsidiaries, and to my knowledge, was not gathering retail deposits. But as readers may recall, Bank of America moved most of its derivatives from its Merrill Lynch operation [to] its depositary in late 2011.
Its “depositary” is the arm of the bank that takes deposits; and at B of A, that means lots and lots of deposits. The deposits are now subject to being wiped out by a major derivatives loss. How bad could that be? Smith quotes Bloomberg:
. . . Bank of America’s holding company . . . held almost $75 trillion of derivatives at the end of June . . . .
That compares with JPMorgan’s deposit-taking entity, JPMorgan Chase Bank NA, which contained 99 percent of the New York-based firm’s $79 trillion of notional derivatives, the OCC data show.
$75 trillion and $79 trillion in derivatives! These two mega-banks alone hold more in notional derivatives each than the entire global GDP (at $70 trillion). The “notional value” of derivatives is not the same as cash at risk, but according to a cross-post on Smith’s site:
By at least one estimate, in 2010 there was a total of $12 trillion in cash tied up (at risk) in derivatives . . . .
$12 trillion is close to the US GDP. Smith goes on:
. . . Remember the effect of the 2005 bankruptcy law revisions: derivatives counterparties are first in line, they get to grab assets first and leave everyone else to scramble for crumbs. . . . Lehman failed over a weekend after JP Morgan grabbed collateral.
But it’s even worse than that. During the savings & loan crisis, the FDIC did not have enough in deposit insurance receipts to pay for the Resolution Trust Corporation wind-down vehicle. It had to get more funding from Congress. This move paves the way for another TARP-style shakedown of taxpayers, this time to save depositors.
Perhaps, but Congress has already been burned and is liable to balk a second time. Section 716 of the Dodd-Frank Act specifically prohibits public support for speculative derivatives activities. And in the Eurozone, while the European Stability Mechanism committed Eurozone countries to bail out failed banks, they are apparently having second thoughts there as well. On March 25th, Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem, who played a leading role in imposing the deposit confiscation plan on Cyprus, told reporters that it would be the template for any future bank bailouts, and that “the aim is for the ESM never to have to be used.”
That explains the need for the FDIC-BOE resolution. If the anticipated enabling legislation is passed, the FDIC will no longer need to protect depositor funds; it can just confiscate them.
Worse Than a Tax
An FDIC confiscation of deposits to recapitalize the banks is far different from a simple tax on taxpayers to pay government expenses. The government’s debt is at least arguably the people’s debt, since the government is there to provide services for the people. But when the banks get into trouble with their derivative schemes, they are not serving depositors, who are not getting a cut of the profits. Taking depositor funds is simply theft.
What should be done is to raise FDIC insurance premiums and make the banks pay to keep their depositors whole, but premiums are already high; and the FDIC, like other government regulatory agencies, is subject to regulatory capture. Deposit insurance has failed, and so has the private banking system that has depended on it for the trust that makes banking work.
The Cyprus haircut on depositors was called a “wealth tax” and was written off by commentators as “deserved,” because much of the money in Cypriot accounts belongs to foreign oligarchs, tax dodgers and money launderers. But if that template is applied in the US, it will be a tax on the poor and middle class. Wealthy Americans don’t keep most of their money in bank accounts. They keep it in the stock market, in real estate, in over-the-counter derivatives, in gold and silver, and so forth.
Are you safe, then, if your money is in gold and silver? Apparently not – if it’s stored in a safety deposit box in the bank. Homeland Security has reportedly told banks that it has authority to seize the contents of safety deposit boxes without a warrant when it’s a matter of “national security,” which a major bank crisis no doubt will be.
The Swedish Alternative: Nationalize the Banks
Another alternative was considered but rejected by President Obama in 2009: nationalize mega-banks that fail. In a February 2009 article titled “Are Uninsured Bank Depositors in Danger?“, Felix Salmon discussed a newsletter by Asia-based investment strategist Christopher Wood, in which Wood wrote:
It is . . . amazing that Obama does not understand the political appeal of the nationalization option. . . . [D]espite this latest setback nationalization of the banks is coming sooner or later because the realities of the situation will demand it. The result will be shareholders wiped out and bondholders forced to take debt-for-equity swaps, if not hopefully depositors.
On whether depositors could indeed be forced to become equity holders, Salmon commented:
It’s worth remembering that depositors are unsecured creditors of any bank; usually, indeed, they’re by far the largest class of unsecured creditors.
President Obama acknowledged that bank nationalization had worked in Sweden, and that the course pursued by the US Fed had not worked in Japan, which wound up instead in a “lost decade.” But Obama opted for the Japanese approach because,according to Ed Harrison, “Americans will not tolerate nationalization.”
But that was four years ago. When Americans realize that the alternative is to have their ready cash transformed into “bank stock” of questionable marketability, moving failed mega-banks into the public sector may start to have more appeal.
Ellen Brown is an attorney, chairman of the Public Banking Institute, and the author of eleven books, including Web of Debt: The Shocking Truth About Our Money System and How We Can Break Free. Her websites are webofdebt.com and ellenbrown.com.For details of the June 2013 Public Banking Institute conference in San Rafael, California, see here.
Reprinted from Alternet
By Les Leopold
North Dakota’s thriving state bank makes a mockery of Wall Street’s casino banking system — and that’s why financial elites want to crush it.
But North Dakota is also red in another sense: it fully supports its state-owned Bank of North Dakota (BND), a socialist relic that exists nowhere else in America. Why is financial socialism still alive in North Dakota? Why haven’t the North Dakotan free-market crusaders slain it dead?
Because it works.
In 1919, the Non-Partisan League, a vibrant populist organization, won a majority in the legislature and voted the bank into existence. The goal was to free North Dakota farmers from impoverishing debt dependence on the big banks in the Twin Cities, Chicago and New York. More than 90 years later, this state-owned bank is thriving as it helps the state’s community banks, businesses, consumers and students obtain loans at reasonable rates. It also delivers a handsome profit to its owners — the 700,000 residents of North Dakota. In 2011, the BND provided more than $70 million to the state’s coffers. Extrapolate that profit-per-person to a big state like California and you’re looking at an extra $3.8 billion a year in state revenues that could be used to fund education and infrastructure.
One of America’s Best Kept Secrets
Each time we pay our state and local taxes — and all manner of fees — the state deposits those revenues in a bank. If you’re in any state but North Dakota, nearly all of these deposits end up in Wall Street’s too-big to-fail banks, because those banks are the only entities large enough to handle the load. The vast majority of the nation’s 7,000 community banks are too small to provide the array of cash management services that state and local governments require. We’re talking big bucks; at least $1 trillion of our local tax dollars find their way to Wall Street banks, according Marc Armstrong, executive director of the Public Banking Institute.
So, not only are we, as taxpayers1, on the hook for too-big-to-fail Wall Street banks, but we also end up giving our tax dollars to these same banks each and every time we pay a sales tax or property tax or buy a fishing license. In North Dakota, however, all that public revenue runs through its public state bank, which in turn reinvests in the state’s small businesses and public infrastructure via partnerships with 80 small community banks.
How the State Bank Creates Jobs
Banks are supposed to serve as intermediaries that turn our savings and checking deposits into productive loans to businesses and consumers. That’s how jobs are supported and created. But the BND, a state agency, goes one step further. Through its Partnership in Assisting Community Expansion, for example, it provides loans at below-market interest rates to businesses if and only if those businesses create at least one job for every $100,000 loaned. If the $1 trillion that now flows to Wall Street instead were deposited in public state banks in all 50 states using this same approach, up to 10 million new jobs could be created. That would effectively end our destructive unemployment crisis.
No Bailouts for the BND
Banking doesn’t have to be a casino. It doesn’t have to be designed to create gambling opportunities so bank traders and executives can make seven- and eight-figure salaries. As BND president Eric Hardmeyer said in a 2009 Mother Jones interview:
We’re a fairly conservative lot up here in the upper Midwest and we didn’t do any subprime lending and we have the ability to get into the derivatives markets and put on swaps and callers and caps and credit default swaps and just chose not to do it, really chose a Warren Buffett mentality—if we don’t understand it, we’re not going to jump into it. And so we’ve avoided all those pitfalls.
As state government employees, BND executives have no incentive to gamble their way toward enormous pay packages. As you can see, the top six BND officers earn a good living, but on Wall Street, cooks and chauffeurs earn more.
- Eric Hardmeyer, President and CEO: $232,500
- Bob Humann, Chief Lending Officer: $135,133
- Tim Porter, Chief Administrative Officer: $122,533
- Joe Herslip, Chief Business Officer: $105,000
- Lori Leingang, Chief Administrative Officer: $105,000
- Wally Erhardt, Director of Student Loans of North Dakota: $91,725
The very existence of a successful BND undermines Wall Street’s claim that in order to attract the best talent big banks need to offer enormous pay packages. Yet somehow, North Dakota is able to find the talent to run one of the soundest banks in the country? The BND is living proof that Wall Street’s rationale for sky-high executive pay is a self-serving fabrication. (For more information on financial inequality please see my latest book, How to Earn a Million Dollars an Hour,Wiley, 2013.)
Wall Street Is Gunning for Bank of North Dakota
As you can well imagine, our financial elites would love to see this successful (socialist!) bank disappear. Its salary structure and local investments makes a mockery of Wall Street’s casino banking system. But the bigger threat comes from the possible spread of this public banking concept to other states. Already, there are 20 or so state legislatures that are exploring state banks. Collectively, more public banks would pose an enormous threat to the $1 trillion in state and local bank deposits that now run through Wall Street.
But elite financiers also stand to lose much more. In the 49 states without a public bank, there’s no safe place to turn for loans to rebuild schools and finance other public infrastructure projects. That creates an enormous opportunity for Wall Street firms to hook localities on expensive bond programs — like capital appreciation bonds, which can lead to repayments equaling 10 times the original loan. Investment bankers and advisers also make enormous fees by selling expensive, high-risk financial schemes to state and local governments (read an investigative report here). But such schemes are useless in North Dakota where the state bank provides the capital the state needs for a fraction of the long-term costs.
Trade Agreements: Wall Street’s Weapon of Mass Destruction
Clearly, from Wall Street’s perspective, the North Dakota bank must go, and all other state efforts to replicate it must be thwarted. Wall Street’s stealth weapon may be lodged within the latest corporate trade agreement called the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which currently is being negotiated in secret. We already know that Wall Street is seeking to remove all tariff restrictions that prevent the U.S. financial services industry from doing business in countries like Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam. The biggest banks also want the treaty to eliminate “non-tariff” barriers including regulations that create “unfair” competition with state-owned financial enterprises.
Depending on the final language, it is possible that the activities of the Bank of North Dakota could be ruled illegal because “foreign bankers could claim the BND stops them from lending to commercial banks throughout the state,” according to an analysis by Sam Knight in Truthout. How perfect for Wall Street: a foreign bank can be used as a shill to knock out the BND.
The Public Bank Movement
A small but highly dedicated group of financial writers, public finance experts and former bankers have formed the Public Bank Institute to spread the word. Working on a shoestring budget, its president Ellen Brown (author of Web of Debt), and its executive director Marc Armstrong, a former wholesale banker, have become the Johnny Appleseeds of public banking, hopping from state to state to encourage legislatures to explore state-owned banks.
The movement is gathering steam as it holds a major conference on June 2-4 at Dominican University in San Rafael, CA featuring such anti-Wall Street hell raisers as Matt Taibbi and Gar Alperowitz, along with Brigitte Jonsdottir, a member of the Icelandic parliament, and Ellen Brown.
Is America Up For This Fight?
Since the crash, the financial community has largely managed to wriggle off the hook. In fact, fatalism may be replacing activism as we sense that maybe Wall Street is simply too big and too powerful to change. After all, the big banks seem to own Washington, as too-big-to-fail banks are permitted to grow even larger and more invulnerable to prosecution and control.
But this new public banking movement could have legs, especially if it teams up with those fighting for a financial transaction tax (see National Nurses United.) Most Americans remain furious about how financial elites profited from the crisis — before, during and after — while the rest of us pick up the tab. Americans know deep down that Wall Street is the predator and we are the prey.
The state-owned and operated Bank of North Dakota proves that it doesn’t have to be that way. This is the time to fight for public state banking in a big way.
Les Leopold is the executive director of the Labor Institute in New York, and author ofHow to Make a Million Dollars an Hour: Why Hedge Funds Get Away with Siphoning Off America’s Wealth (J. Wiley and Sons, 2013).
- Editor’s Note: And now, as depositors too. See “It Can Happen Here: The Confiscation Scheme Planned for US and UK Depositors” ↩
Reprinted from Credit Slips blog
Jonathan Ginsberg posted an interesting article on the National Association of Chapter 13 trustees web site this weekend, that will be relevant to many of our readers as well. Social security is now requiring all beneficiaries to set up direct deposit, which means the resulted funds could become available to executing creditors if there are any funds from any other source in the account as well. You might recall my blog about this some time back, which contains cites to some of the relevant law.
As my previous blog explains, Federal law provides that Social Security payments are exempt from garnishment from civil creditors. If, for example, a credit card lender sues you and obtains a judgment, that creditor cannot ask Social Security to withhold funds from your government check. While these protections do not apply with equal force to the IRS collecting a tax debt or a creditor collecting child support, all other creditors are not to touch social security funds under any circumstances.
There is however, a rub. Under the applicable law, Social Security money (SSA) that is co-mingled with non-Social Security money may lose this special protection. Here is what Jonathan Ginsberg says recipients should do:
“Social Security recipients can protect themselves by asking their bank to create a sub-account that holds onl y SSA issued funds. No money other than SSA funds should ever be deposited into this account. This is especially necessary if the recipient has civil judgment creditors looking for a source of funds to levy against.
In my practice, I have represented a number of senior citizen clients who are living with tens of thousands of dollars in credit card debt, have no assets or equity in property, and who survive on Social Security only. In these cases I often discourage bankruptcy and instead write each creditor advising the creditor that my client is judgment proof with no source of funds that can be garnished.
At the same time I write the credit card company, I also draft a letter to my client’s bank, putting the bank on notice that it should not honor any garnishment because the sole source of funds is Social Security money. Often, however, I find that my clients are using their “Social Security” account as a regular bank account and they deposit other money, such as funds generated from a garage sale or a gift from a relative. I spend a lot of time explaining to my client that even a few dollars of co-mingled money may jeopardize the protected status of their Social Security bank account.
Now that many more Social Security recipients are entering the electronic banking world, I expect that more than a few will find themselves trying to get money back from a judgment creditor who found a co-mingled account. Sometimes, senior citizens choose to file bankruptcy for the peace of mind benefit, but often a Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 filing is not necessary – instead many creditors and collection agencies will write off your debt and close their files if you can show that you are judgment proof. If you are receiving Social Security money, I urge you to take time now – before a judgment creditor begins collection efforts – to protect your bank accounts.”
Nathalie Martin joined the University of New Mexico law faculty in 1998. Her research focuses on consumer law and bankruptcy, as well as elder law. Most recently, she has studied predatory lending products such as payday loans and title loans, as well as products and services offered to the elderly. Her projects include several empirical studies funded by the National Conference of Bankruptcy Judges, including one that funded curbside interviews of payday loan customers and an ongoing study of the credit habits of undocumented New Mexicans. The author of several books and dozens of law review articles, she holds what is thought to be the only endowed chair in the country dedicated to consumer law issues.
Reprinted from TomDispatch.com
If cities were stocks, you’d want to short Phoenix.
Of course, it’s an easy city to pick on. The nation’s 13th largest metropolitan area (nudging out Detroit) crams 4.3 million people into a low bowl in a hot desert, where horrific heat waves and windstorms visit it regularly. It snuggles next to the nation’s largest nuclear plant and, having exhausted local sources, it depends on an improbable infrastructure to suck water from the distant (and dwindling) Colorado River.
In Phoenix, you don’t ask: What could go wrong? You ask: What couldn’t.
And that’s the point, really. Phoenix’s multiple vulnerabilities, which are plenty daunting taken one by one, have the capacity to magnify one another, like compounding illnesses. In this regard, it’s a quintessentially modern city, a pyramid of complexities requiring large energy inputs to keep the whole apparatus humming. The urban disasters of our time — New Orleans hit by Katrina, New York City swamped by Sandy — may arise from single storms, but the damage they do is the result of a chain reaction of failures — grids going down, levees failing, back-up systems not backing up. As you might expect, academics have come up with a name for such breakdowns: infrastructure failure interdependencies. You wouldn’t want to use it in a poem, but it does catch an emerging theme of our time.
Phoenix’s pyramid of complexities looks shakier than most because it stands squarely in the crosshairs of climate change. The area, like much of the restof the American Southwest, is already hot and dry; it’s getting ever hotter and drier, and is increasingly battered by powerful storms. Sandy and Katrina previewed how coastal cities can expect to fare as seas rise and storms strengthen. Phoenix pulls back the curtain on the future of inland empires. If you want a taste of the brutal new climate to come, the place to look is where that climate is already harsh, and growing more so — the aptly named Valley of the Sun.
In Phoenix, it’s the convergence of heat, drought, and violent winds, interacting and amplifying each other that you worry about. Generally speaking, in contemporary society, nothing that matters happens for just one reason, and in Phoenix there are all too many “reasons” primed to collaborate and produce big problems, with climate change foremost among them, juicing up the heat, the drought, and the wind to ever greater extremes, like so many sluggers on steroids. Notably, each of these nemeses, in its own way, has the potential to undermine the sine qua non of modern urban life, the electrical grid, which in Phoenix merits special attention.
If, in summer, the grid there fails on a large scale and for a significant period of time, the fallout will make the consequences of Superstorm Sandy look mild. Sure, people will hunt madly for power outlets to charge their cellphones and struggle to keep their milk fresh, but communications and food refrigeration will not top their list of priorities. Phoenix is an air-conditioned city. If the power goes out, people fry.
In the summer of 2003, a heat wave swept Europe and killed 70,000 people. The temperature in London touched 100 degrees Fahrenheit for the first time since records had been kept, and in portions of France the mercury climbed as high as 104°F. Those temperatures, however, are child’s play in Phoenix, where readings commonly exceed 100°F for more than 100 days a year. In 2011, the city set a new record for days over 110°F: there were 33 of them, more than a month of spectacularly superheated days ushering in a new era.
In Flight From the Sun
It goes without saying that Phoenix’s desert setting is hot by nature, but we’ve made it hotter. The city is a masonry world, with asphalt and concrete everywhere. The hard, heavy materials of its buildings and roads absorb heat efficiently and give it back more slowly than the naked land. In a sense, the whole city is really a thermal battery, soaking up energy by day and releasing it at night. The result is an “urban heat island,” which, in turn, prevents the cool of the desert night from providing much relief.
Sixty years ago, when Phoenix was just embarking on its career of manic growth, nighttime lows never crept above 90°F. Today such temperatures are a commonplace, and the vigil has begun for the first night that doesn’t dip below 100°F. Studies indicate that Phoenix’s urban-heat-island effect may boost nighttime temperatures by as much as 10°F. It’s as though the city has doubled down on climate change, finding a way to magnify its most unwanted effects even before it hits the rest of us full blast.
Predictably, the poor suffer most from the heat. They live in the hottest neighborhoods with the least greenery to mitigate the heat-island effect, and they possess the least resources for combatting high temperatures. For most Phoenicians, however, none of this is more than an inconvenience as long as the AC keeps humming and the utility bill gets paid. When the heat intensifies, they learn to scurry from building to car and into the next building, essentially holding their breaths. In those cars, the second thing they touch after the ignition is the fan control for the AC. The steering wheel comes later.
In the blazing brilliance of July and August, you venture out undefended to walk or run only in the half-light of dawn or dusk. The idea for residents of the Valley of the Sun is to learn to dodge the heat, not challenge it.
Heat, however, is a tricky adversary. It stresses everything, including electrical equipment. Transformers, when they get too hot, can fail. Likewise, thermoelectric generating stations, whether fired by coal, gas, or neutrons, become less efficient as the mercury soars. And the great hydroelectric dams of the Colorado River, including Glen Canyon, which serves greater Phoenix, won’t be able to supply the “peaking power” they do now if the reservoirs behind them are fatally shrunken by drought, as multiple studies forecast they will be. Much of this can be mitigated with upgraded equipment, smart grid technologies, and redundant systems. But then along comes the haboob.
A haboob is a dust/sand/windstorm, usually caused by the collapse of a thunderstorm cell. The plunging air hits the ground and roils outward, picking up debris across the open desert. As the Arabic name suggests, such storms are native to arid regions, but — although Phoenix is no stranger to storm-driven dust — the term haboob has only lately entered the local lexicon. It seems to have been imported to describe a new class of storms, spectacular in their vehemence, which bring visibility to zero and life to a standstill. They sandblast cars, close the airport, and occasionally cause the lights — and AC — to go out. Not to worry, say the two major utilities serving the Phoenix metroplex, Arizona Public Service and the Salt River Project. And the outages have indeed been brief. So far.
Before Katrina hit, the Army Corps of Engineers was similarly reassuring to the people of New Orleans. And until Superstorm Sandy landed, almost no one worried about storm surges filling the subway tunnels of New York.
Every system, like every city, has its vulnerabilities. Climate change, in almost every instance, will worsen them. The beefed-up, juiced-up, greenhouse-gassed, overheated weather of the future will give us haboobsof a sort we can’t yet imagine, packed with ever greater amounts of energy. In all likelihood, the emergence of such storms as a feature of Phoenix life results from an overheating environment, abetted by the loose sand and dust of abandoned farmland (which dried up when water was diverted to the city’s growing subdivisions).
Water, Water, Everywhere (But Not for Long)
In dystopic portraits of Phoenix’s unsustainable future, water — or rather the lack of it — is usually painted as the agent of collapse. Indeed, the metropolitan area, a jumble of jurisdictions that includes Scottsdale, Glendale, Tempe, Mesa, Sun City, Chandler, and 15 other municipalities, long ago made full use of such local rivers as the Salt, Verde, and Gila. Next, people sank wells and mined enough groundwater to lower the water table by 400 feet.
Sometimes the land sank, too. Near some wells it subsided by 10 feet or more. All along, everyone knew that the furious extraction of groundwater couldn’t last, so they fixed their hopes on a new bonanza called the Central Arizona Project (CAP), a river-sized, open-air canal supported by an elaborate array of pumps, siphons, and tunnels that would bring Colorado River water across the breadth of Arizona to Phoenix and Tucson.
The CAP came on line in the early 1990s and today is the engine of Arizona’s growth. Unfortunately, in order to win authorization and funding to build it, state officials had to make a bargain with the devil, which in this case turned out to be California. Arizona’s delegation in the House of Representatives was tiny, California’s was huge, and its representatives jealously protected their longstanding stranglehold on the Colorado River. The concession California forced on Arizona was simple: it had to agree that its CAP water rights would take second place to California’s claims.
This means one thing: once the inevitable day comes when there isn’t enough water to go around, the CAP will absorb the shortage down to the last drop before California even begins to turn off its faucets.
A raw deal for Arizona? You bet, but not exactly the end of the line. Arizona has other “more senior” rights to the Colorado, and when the CAP begins to run dry, you may be sure that the masters of the CAP will pay whatever is necessary to lease those older rights and keep the 330-mile canal flowing. Among their targets will be water rights belonging to Indian tribes at the western edge of the state along the lower reaches of the river. The cost of buying tribal water will drive the rates consumers pay for water in Phoenix sky-high, but they’ll pay it because they’ll have to.
Longer term, the Colorado River poses issues that no amount of tribal water can resolve. Beset by climate change, overuse, and drought, the river and its reservoirs, according to various researchers, may decline to the point that water fails to pass Hoover Dam. In that case, the CAP would dry up, but so would the Colorado Aqueduct which serves greater Los Angeles and San Diego, as well as the All-American Canal, on which the factory farms of California’s Imperial and Coachella valleys depend. Irrigators and municipalities downstream in Mexico would also go dry. If nothing changes in the current order of things, it is expected that the possibility of such a debacle could loom in little more than a decade.
The preferred solution to this crisis among the water mavens of the lower Colorado is augmentation, which means importing more water into the Colorado system to boost native supplies. A recently discussed grandiose scheme to bail out the Colorado’s users with a pipeline from the Mississippi River failed to pass the straight-face test and was shot down by then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar.
Meanwhile, the obvious expedient of cutting back on water consumption finds little support in thirsty California, which will watch the CAP go dry before it gets serious about meaningful system-wide conservation.
Phoenicians who want to escape water worries, heat waves, and haboobshave traditionally sought refuge in the cool green forests of Arizona’s uplands, or at least they did until recently. In 2002, the Rodeo-Chediski fire consumed 469,000 acres of pine and mixed conifer on the Mogollon Rim, not far from Phoenix. It was an ecological holocaust that no one expected to see surpassed. Only nine years later, in 2011, the Wallow fire picked up the torch, so to speak, and burned across the Rim all the way to the New Mexico border and beyond, topping out at 538,000 charred acres.
Now, nobody thinks such fires are one-off flukes. Diligent modeling of forest response to rising temperatures and increased moisture stress suggests, in fact, that these two fires were harbingers of worse to come. By mid-century, according to a paper by an A-team of Southwestern forest ecologists, the “normal” stress on trees will equal that of the worst megadroughts in the region’s distant paleo-history, when most of the trees in the area simply died.
Compared to Phoenix’s other heat and water woes, the demise of Arizona’s forests may seem like a side issue, whose effects would be noticeable mainly in the siltation of reservoirs and the destabilization of the watersheds on which the city depends. But it could well prove a regional disaster. Consider, then, heat, drought, windstorms, and fire as the four horsemen of Phoenix’s Apocalypse. As it happens, though, this potential apocalypse has a fifth horseman as well.
Rebecca Solnit has written eloquently of the way a sudden catastrophe — an earthquake, hurricane, or tornado — can dissolve social divisions and cause a community to cohere, bringing out the best in its citizenry. Drought and heat waves are different. You don’t know that they have taken hold until you are already in them, and you never know when they will end. The unpleasantness eats away at you. It corrodes your state of mind. You have lots of time to meditate on the deficiencies of your neighbors, which loom larger the longer the crisis goes on.
Drought divides people, and Phoenix is already a divided place — notoriously so, thanks to the brutal antics of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. In Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World’s Least Sustainable City, Andrew Ross offers a dismal portrait of contemporary Phoenix — of a city threatened by its particular brand of local politics and economic domination, shaped by more than the usual quotient of prejudice, greed, class insularity, and devotion to raw power.
It is a truism that communities that do not pull together fail to surmount their challenges. Phoenix’s are as daunting as any faced by an American city in the new age of climate change, but its winner-take-all politics (out of which has come Arizona’s flagrantly repressive anti-immigration law), combined with the fragmentation of the metro-area into nearly two dozen competing jurisdictions, essentially guarantee that, when the worst of times hit, common action and shared sacrifice will remain as insubstantial as a desert mirage. When one day the U-Haul vans all point away from town and the people of the Valley of the Sun clog the interstates heading for greener, wetter pastures, more than the brutal heat of a new climate paradigm will be driving them away. The breakdown of cooperation and connectedness will spur them along, too.
One day, some of them may look back and think of the real estate crash of 2007-2008 and the recession that followed with fond nostalgia. The city’s economy was in the tank, growth had stalled, and for a while business-as-usual had nothing usual about it. But there was a rare kind of potential. That recession might have been the last best chance for Phoenix and other go-go Sunbelt cities to reassess their lamentably unsustainable habits and re-organize themselves, politically and economically, to get ready for life on the front burner of climate change. Land use, transportation, water policies, building codes, growth management — you name it — might all have experienced a healthy overhaul. It was a chance no one took. Instead, one or several decades from now, people will bet on a surer thing: they’ll take the road out of town.
William deBuys, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of seven books, most recently A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest. He has long been involved in environmental affairs in the Southwest, including service as founding chairman of the Valles Caldera Trust, which administers the 87,000-acre Valles Caldera National Preserve in New Mexico.
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Copyright 2013 William deBuys
Reprinted from robertreich.org
By Robert Reich
Imagine a plot to undermine the government of the United States, to destroy much of its capacity to do the public’s business, and to sow distrust among the population.
Imagine further that the plotters infiltrate Congress and state governments, reshape their districts to give them disproportionate influence in Washington, and use the media to spread big lies about the government.
Finally, imagine they not only paralyze the government but are on the verge of dismantling pieces of it.
Far-fetched? Perhaps. But take a look at what’s been happening in Washington and many state capitals since Tea Party fanatics gained effective control of the Republican Party, and you’d be forgiven if you see parallels.
Tea Party Republicans are crowing about the “sequestration” cuts beginning today (Friday). “This will be the first significant tea party victory in that we got what we set out to do in changing Washington,” says Rep. Tim Huelskamp (Kan.), a Tea Partier who was first elected in 2010.
Sequestration is only the start. What they set out to do was not simply change Washington but eviscerate the U.S. government — “drown it in the bathtub,” in the words of their guru Grover Norquist – slashing Social Security and Medicare, ending worker protections we’ve had since the 1930s, eroding civil rights and voting rights, terminating programs that have helped the poor for generations, and making it impossible for the government to invest in our future.
Sequestration grew out of a strategy hatched soon after they took over the House in 2011, to achieve their goals by holding hostage the full faith and credit of the United States – notwithstanding the Constitution’s instruction that the public debt of the United States “not be questioned.”
To avoid default on the public debt, the White House and House Republicans agreed to harsh and arbitrary “sequestered” spending cuts if they couldn’t come up with a more reasonable deal in the interim. But the Tea Partiers had no intention of agreeing to anything more reasonable. They knew the only way to dismember the federal government was through large spending cuts without tax increases.
Nor do they seem to mind the higher unemployment their strategy will almost certainly bring about. Sequestration combined with January’s fiscal cliff deal is expected to slow economic growth by 1.5 percentage points this year – dangerous for an economy now crawling at about 2 percent. It will be even worse if the Tea Partiers refuse to extend the government’s spending authority, which expires March 27.
A conspiracy theorist might think they welcome more joblessness because they want Americans to be even more fearful and angry. Tea Partiers use fear and anger in their war against the government – blaming the anemic recovery on government deficits and the government’s size, and selling a poisonous snake-oil of austerity economics and trickle-down economics as the remedy.
They likewise use the disruption and paralysis they’ve sown in Washington to persuade Americans government is necessarily dysfunctional, and politics inherently bad. Their continuing showdowns and standoffs are, in this sense, part of the plot.
What is the President’s response? He still wants a so-called “grand bargain” of “balanced” spending cuts (including cuts in the projected growth of Social Security and Medicare) combined with tax increases on the wealthy. So far, though, he has agreed to a gross imbalance — $1.5 trillion in cuts to Republicans’ $600 billion in tax increases on the rich.
The President apparently believes Republicans are serious about deficit reduction, when in fact the Tea Partiers now running the GOP are serious only about dismembering the government.
And he seems to accept that the budget deficit is the largest economic problem facing the nation, when in reality the largest problem is continuing high unemployment (some 20 million Americans unemployed or under-employed), declining real wages, and widening inequality. Deficit reduction now or in the near-term will only make these worse.
Besides, the deficit is now down to about 5 percent of GDP – where it was when Bill Clinton took office. It is projected to mushroom in later years mainly because healthcare costs are expected to rise faster than the economy is expected to grow, and the American population is aging. These trends have little or nothing to do with government programs. In fact, Medicare is far more efficient than private health insurance.
I suggest the President forget about a “grand bargain.” In fact, he should stop talking about the budget deficit and start talking about jobs and wages, and widening inequality – as he did in the campaign. And he should give up all hope of making a deal with the Tea Partiers who now run the Republican Party.
Instead, the President should let the public see the Tea Partiers for who they are — a small, radical minority intent on dismantling the government of the United States. As long as they are allowed to dictate the terms of public debate they will continue to hold the rest of us hostage to their extremism.
Robert Reich is Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, was Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration. Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the last century. He has written thirteen books, including the best sellers “Aftershock” and “The Work of Nations.” His latest, “Beyond Outrage,” is now out in paperback. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine and chairman of Common Cause.