(Lack of) Accountability

Journalists who want online privacy need to read this guide

Originally published on November 2, 2017 on occupy.com

We live in a time of journalistic prosecution, as investigative journalists get increasingly targeted for simply doing their job. The Obama Administration prosecuted more individuals under the Espionage Act than all previous administrations combined; in fact, it used the law to prosecute journalists almost exclusively.

It is imperative that journalists protect themselves as they continue to pursue their important work in the face of growing government control. That is why Michael Dagan, a former deputy editor of the Israeli newspaper Haaertz, and Ariel Hochstadt, a former security expert as well as a marketing expert for Google, have created a guide, Online Privacy for Journalists, to help journalists protect both themselves and their sources.

“Many journalists whom I have spoken with recently expressed concern for whatever lies ahead for the freedom of the press. All encryption systems can be compromised, if someone has the perseverance to track them,” writes Dagan in an introductory paragraph. “The good news is that it is nevertheless possible to make it difficult for anyone to try and intercept your emails, the text messages you’re sending or your phone calls.”

One may be surprised by the extreme measures the guide suggests are necessary as preventive steps to ensure the highest likelihood of a journalist maintaining privacy. Here are some examples:

  • Only download apps that require minimum rights.
  • Beware of big names because they are known to blindly comply with requests from the government for information.
  • Use separate computers for correspondence and purchase new computers from pawn shops.
  • Use disposable e-mails and disposable phones specifically for the use of speaking with your source. Make sure the source does the same thing.
  • Don’t talk to sources over the phone: phone companies store important metadata.
  • Don’t send messages over SMS text.
  • Perform full disk encryption. Don’t rely on cloud storage because that can be more easily accessed.
  • Fully encrypt e-mail and make sure the source does also.
  • Private browsing in Chrome or Firefox does nothing important. TOR Browser is one of the few secure methods to browse the web, despite its pitfalls.
  • Do not use organizational chats: Campfire, Skype, Google Hangouts, or Slack. They are easy to break in.
  • Use passphrases over 20 characters. Use a series of words that make sense only to you.
  • Use two-factor authentication.
  • Don’t keep notes on any information about the source, on your laptop or anywhere – even on paper.
  • Use a VPN at all times when possible.

If the list of measures seems exhaustive and thorough, that’s because it is. But given the current climate of threat to journalists at home and abroad, the guide clearly fills a need. Its message is simple: The delicate, important, noble work of investigative journalists must be protected, and the brave individuals who carry it out must protect themselves as well.

The most recent, tragic example was the murder several weeks ago of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta. “Caruana Galizia was a harsh critic of the government and effectively triggered an early election this year by publishing allegations linking [Prime Minister Joseph] Muscat to the Panama Papers scandal,” wrote the BBC. The killing of Caruana Galizia, whose popular blog targeted opposition politicians, is one of many examples of recent journalists – from Russia to Mexico to the Philippines and beyond – who have been silenced for investigating and writing the truth.

In the U.S., where journalist assassinations aren’t so common, questions tend to center more on cyber security for whistleblowers – think Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, James Risen, Glenn Greenwald and Julian Assange. Nonetheless, the message is clear: Journalists everywhere need to take to heart the precautions and suggestions laid out by Dagan and Hochstadt. Furthermore, everyday citizens should consider using these techniques to protect their privacy as well.

The full text of the guide can be found here.

As new pipelines get built, more people are standing in the way

Originally printed on November 27, 2017 on occupy.com

Reprinted on Nation of Change

Energy companies are notorious for their insistence and tenacity in creating new pipeline projects. Just look at TransCanada’s reviled Keystone XL, which took nine years to win approval earlier this month by Nebraska regulators, although the project’s future still hangs in the air.

The fact is, despite the damage they continue to cause to human health and the environment, investment in oil and gas industry infrastructure remains stable. The United States has the largest network of energy pipelines in the world, with more than 2.5 million miles of pipe on or underground. The American Petroleum Institute, one of the most powerful lobbying arms of the fossil fuel industry, estimates that investment in oil and gas will remain more than $80 billion annually until after 2020, at which point it will decrease to $60 billion by 2025.

Readers may find this continued support for fossil fuels surprising, not least given that global oil prices have fallen sharply over the past couple of years. Pipelines remain extremely dangerous and unreliable. Nonetheless, projects are continuing apace, as demonstrated by the industry’s relentless efforts to battle against and wear out protesters from the Keystone XL to the Dakota Access Pipeline.

For example, Enbridge Energy, from Canada, is proposing a replacement of its old Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota, which was installed in the 1960s and is now considered too costly to remove. Instead, the company is seeking to build a new $7.5 billion pipeline to replace it. To make matters worse, all of the crude oil that doesn’t leak from Line 3 will be burned, releasing a vast stream of carbon into the atmosphere.

Meanwhile, Energy Transfer Partners, the Fortune 500 company that is building the Dakota Access Pipeline across the Standing Rock Sioux’s tribal land, is also busy constructing Mariner East 2, a pipeline in the West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania regions to carry crude oil to refineries in Philadelphia. ETP is also behind contentious projects like Bayou Bridge in Louisiana and Trans-Pecos in Texas.

But make no mistake: the implementation of these pipelines isn’t easy. Across the nation, energy companies are increasingly being accused of malicious, often illegal tactics to subdue resistance and keep protestors at bay. The violent events that took place during the DAPL occupation in North Dakota provide enough evidence of this.

RESISTANCE IS RISING

Yet even amid the companies’ growing use of scare tactics and secret maneuvers, citizens are ramping up direct action. People have braved the elements and matched the energy giants with their own brand of force, as residents nationwide turn to a mix of creative and traditional tactics to halt as many projects as they can.

For example, in late September, people participated in a “Hold the Line” rally in the Minnesota State Capitol to protest the Line 3 project. Among them was 70-year-old Minnesotan David Johnson, who said he would stand firm against large energy companies despoiling their state.

“I didn’t want to [be a speaker], but I love this land,” he said. “It’s a pretty isolated part of the county right on the edge of the vast wetlands. There’s lots of wildlife and very few people. I don’t want it threatened by the pipeline and their access roads and the potential leaks.”

Also in September, angry residents in Superior, WI, took more drastic and visible measures through direct action. Unicorn Riot reported that citizens overturned cars to block the way to the pipeline construction site, and chained themselves to the cars.

Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, four residents filed a federal lawsuit against Energy Transfer Partners claiming that the company had violated their constitutional rights, harassed landowners and caused emotional distress to pipeline protestors.

“Since May of 2015, every day of my life has been affected by the plans to build this pipeline, and the lengths that Energy Transfer Partners will go to in the pursuit of profit,” said plaintiff Elise Gerhart, who lives on property that the pipeline will cross. “We’ve been needlessly harassed by agencies and violently threatened by individuals who’ve been intentionally incited and mobilized.”

Citizens are increasingly challenging the process by which energy companies seize private property for the use of pipelines, known as eminent domain, generating more controversy over the issue. And people-powered organizations like 350.org are leading campaigns to remove the source of funding for these projects by getting big banks to divest from fossil fuels.

In some cases, environmental agencies are also doing their part to block unsafe aspects of these pipeline projects, like in North Carolina, where the Department of Environment Quality rejected the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s erosion control plan.

Despite the overwhelming evidence that pipelines remain unreliable, prone to damage, disrepair and devastating leaks, energy companies continue to treat their bottom line as the only factor when making decisions. As a result, more and more citizens are stepping up to hold companies accountable for their actions, and for their lies, using all the legislative, judicial, financial, political, physical and other creative tactics at their disposal.

Google’s casualties: Is there a corporate-state conspiracy to censor progressive websites?

Originally posted on August 14, 2017 on occupy.com

Back around December 2016, Google caught some flak because its search box Autocomplete function brought up disturbing terms like “Holocaust denial,” connected with untrustworthy websites, to the top query results list. In response, late in April 2017, Google announced it was changing its search algorithms to combat the dissemination of fake news and conspiracy theories.

“The most high profile of these [Internet issues] is the phenomenon of ‘fake news,’” Google claimed in a blog post, “where content on the web has contributed to the spread of blatantly misleading, low quality, offensive or downright false information…We’re taking the next step toward continuing to surface more high-quality content from the web. This includes improvements in Search ranking, easier ways for people to provide direct feedback, and greater transparency about how Search works.”

But as it turns out, there may be other casualties in these seemingly noble, well-intentioned goals.

According to some reports, the upgrade to Google’s search algorithm has resulted in a significant reduction in traffic to various socialist, progressive and anti-war web sites. Democracy Now!, Common Dreams, Wikileaks, Truth-Out, Alternet, Counterpunch and The Intercept, among others, have registered a substantial decline in readership and traffic since the new Google search algorithm was established in the spring.

“The World Socialist Web Site has obtained statistical data from SEMrush estimating the decline of traffic generated by Google searches for 13 sites with substantial readerships,” reports wsws.org. The site goes on to claim these specific drops in readership since April:

In a separate post, the website claims that The Real News saw its search traffic drop by 37 percent, while the website of prominent digital rights leader Richard Stallman has seen a 24 percent decline.

But before we explore the censorship casualties from this new-found policy, we should first briefly look at how the algorithm actually works.

First and foremost, according to Google’s own blog, Google hires “raters” and “evaluators” as part of its screening process to determine what site links are valid enough to rise to the top of the results page. The company’s updated Search Quality Rater Guidelines detail how Google raters flag websites according to different criteria. The guidelines are surprisingly succinct: the document coaches raters on how to find main content, supplementary content, advertisements, website designers, contact information and sources. It also offers criteria of what it considers to be “highest quality” pages to “lowest quality” pages, with gradients of “high,” “medium” and “low” in between.

The guidelines encourage raters to search for examples of primarily two things: the established reputation of a site, and examples of what Google calls “EAT,” or Expertise, Authoritativeness and Trustworthiness. Websites are then ranked on the prevalence of these criteria.

At issue is the fact that many of the left-leaning websites may not meet the above criteria, and are therefore flagged as “low quality” or “lowest quality,” dooming them to a demotion on Google’s query results pages. Terms like “misleading” and “not authoritative” are often listed as the reasons for designating certain websites with a low quality score. Many of the aforementioned progressive websites have won few if any awards, rely on advertisement for support, and may or may not quote so-called “experts” in all of their articles – leading to their “low quality” descriptions by Google.

Additionally, the Google search box now allows users to report inaccurate and potentially offensive Autocomplete lines or snippets. While the idea might sound great – everyday people can report terms, ideas and phrases deemed offensive in today’s cultural zeitgeist – there is no limit to how much one individual can report. Consequently, people driven by political or other motives can, and often do, flag certain websites or ideas as “offensive,” further driving down their credibility. For example, I can type in “socialism,” “new world order,” or “care bears,” and flag all those terms as offensive, therefore skewing the algorithmic data.

Surely the vast majority of us agree that Holocaust denial is a repugnant theory whose time has come to be extinguished. But is it a technology company’s responsibility to expunge that idea from our supposed free marketplace of ideas? More importantly, if a behemoth like Google can determine that Holocaust denial should be flushed from the first page of query results, can they also condemn other, less threatening ideas to the same fate?

The recent report by World Socialist Web Site raises a critical question that has yet to be answered: Are these socialist, progressive and anti-war websites being demoted simply because they are operating as low-budget enterprises, or is this trend part of a greater corporate-state conspiracy to attack freedom of expression and ideas? More discussion and investigation is needed on this matter, but the bottom line is this: I’d rather not leave it to Google to filter out my research on the topic based on what its algorithm deems “accredited,” “trustworthy,” or “authoritative.”

We as a society have firmly determined that Holocaust denial is an error of opinion based on its irrational, unsubstantiated and, quite frankly, offensive position. Citizens should bear the responsibility, and the power, to weed out these and other harmful ideas from our search engine lexicon. It shouldn’t be up to one of the planet’s most powerful corporations to determine what is safe for us to read and be exposed to. We do not need “raters” working for Google sifting through websites that could potentially mislead us – just as we did not need Google algorithms or raters to tell us that Holocaust denial is a bunk theory.

As John Milton, Thomas Jefferson and Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes all insinuated in their allusion to the “marketplace of ideas”: error of opinion can be tolerated if reason is left to combat it.

The Incestuous Relationship Between Bankers, Business, and Congress

Originally published on November 7, 2012 on occupy.com

Reprinted on Truthout

If you look up the individual “Jon Corzine” on Wikipedia, the first sentence you encounter is “Jon Stevens Corzine is an American finance executive and political figure.”

Those two positions strung together in the same sentence may make some people uneasy, but the fact is that you can apply this description to many people in Congress. Looking closer, Jon Corzine may simply be the most poignant symbol of the incestuous relationship between bankers, business and Congress that is systemic in today’s political system.

Recently, Jon Corzine — CEO of MF Global from 2010 to 2011, CEO of Goldman Sachs from 1994 to 1999, Senator of New Jersey from 2001 to 2006 and Governor of New Jersey from 2006 to 2010 — was subpoenaed before a House committee to answer questions regarding the loss of approximately $1.6 billion of citizens’ money.

The “honorable” Jon Corzine, as his nametag so colorfully and inaccurately described him, claimed he did not know where the funds went. The House committee asked him, along with other MF Global executives: “Where is the money?” His response: “I don’t know.”

“OK,” replied the committee.

Could lawmakers’ passivity possibly be attributed to the amount of money those committee members received from financial agencies and trading groups to keep their mouths shut? Given the evidence, it’s a worthwhile question.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Committee chairman Spencer Bachus has received $262,177 from securities and investment firms, $78,677 of which was individual donations, the other $183,500 from PACs. He has also received $259,400 from commercial banks and $241,960 from insurance companies, a blend of PACs and individual contributions.

Open Secrets, the website of the Center for Responsive Politics, features a stunning chart demonstrating how the House Financial Services Committee as a whole has received an astonishing $11,425,875 from financial, real estate and insurance firms through PACs, and an additional $10,106,258 from individual contributions in the same fields.

But let’s go deeper — to those with even more power.

Earlier this year on June 13, Jamie Dimon — CEO of JP Morgan Chase, Class A director of the board of directors of the New York Federal Reserve, who worked at and helped to create the Citigroup mega-bank before he left it in 1998 — faced a Senate hearing over JP Morgan’s loss of more than $2 billion.

The Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs has 22 members, and 18 of those members are either directly or indirectly invested in JP Morgan. In between the star-struck gazing, admiration and lax questions, only a handful of senators, including New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez, managed to make Dimon slightly uncomfortable by asking difficult questions about the company’s malfeasance.

Many of the committee members’ aides are now lobbyists for JP Morgan or investment companies connected with them. For example, Naomi Camper, a committee chair aide from 2001-2004, and Kate Childress, former aide to New York Senator Charles Schumer, have been lobbyists for JP Morgan since 2008. JP Morgan has also helped fund the campaigns of a number of these same committee members.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Tim Johnson has received $81,335 from JP Morgan employees since 1998; Richard Shelby has received $136,771 from employees since 1990; and Mark Warner received $79,150 in 2012 alone. And one wonders why Dimon walked away without even a slap on the wrist.

Goldman Sachs, perhaps the most notorious of the investment banks on Wall Street and an emblem of the corruption of politics by big money that the Occupy Movement addresses, has also contributed to powerful committees and individuals in Congress. So let’s name a few.

House Speaker John Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, for example, have both received large sums from Goldman Sachs, all the while having tens of thousands of their own personal dollars invested in the company — about $32,500 between the two of them, to be exact.

Boehner has received about $29,500 while Cantor has received about $48,150 from the firm. And these two are just a fraction of the 19 congressional members who have invested in the company for a sum total of about $812,000; in return the company has paid out about $124,000 in contributions to those candidates.

This is no less true for vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, who has approximately $8,000 invested in Goldman Sachs and has received double that, or about $15,800, in campaign contributions from them. Though this is nothing compared to his running mate, Mitt Romney, who received a couple of thousand shy of $1 million from Goldman for the 2012 election.

Although President Obama didn’t receive much from the major banks for the 2012 campaign (Wells Fargo was the only big donor, at $289,000), in 2008 he received $1,013,091 from Goldman Sachs, $809,000 from JP Morgan Chase, $736,771 from Citigroup and $512,232 from Morgan Stanley, along with staggering contributions from the University of California, Harvard University, Microsoft, Time Warner, Columbia University, IBM, and General Electric. It’s likely the major banks considered their initial campaign contributions to Obama as a “long-term investment,” one that has paid off immensely: not a single executive from any of the major banks has been criminally prosecuted for their illegal and reckless behavior in the economic meltdown.

And this is the point: both Democrats and Republicans have taken enormous sums from the country’s biggest financial institutions, then repaid those institutions with policies that favor them. With congressional oversight committees under the thumb of the financial sector, banks have been allowed to pursue their fraudulent actions without repercussions. Finally, you don’t need to pay money to get what you want; you just need to hire the right people for influential positions in government. Just look at Obama’s cabinet, and the cabinet of previous presidents:

Tim Geithner – Current Secretary of the Treasury, formerly director of Policy Development and Review at the IMF (2001 to 2003) and president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank. In November of 2007 he rejected an offer to become Citibank’s chief executive.

Henry Paulson – Secretary of the Treasury under George W. Bush, former CEO of Goldman Sachs (1974 to 2006) and a member of Council on Foreign Relations.

William Daley – Previous Chief of Staff under President Obama (2011-2012), COO of Amalgamated Bank of Chicago, Midwest Chairman of JP Morgan Chase since 2004 and member of Council on Foreign Relations.

Jacob Lew – Current Chief of Staff under Obama, COO of Citigroup’s Alternative Investments unit since 2006, and member of Council on Foreign Relations.

Eric Holder – Current Attorney General, previously worked for Covington & Burling LLP, an international law firm that has represented multinational corporations such as Phillip Morris, Halliburton and Xe Services (now known as Academi, formerly known as Blackwater – a company that changed its name twice to dodge a dismal public relations record).

It should come as no surprise, then, to learn that the (In)justice Department and the SEC has dropped all criminal charges against Goldman Sachs for its involvement with the housing market crisis, despite having $1.3 billion worth of subprime mortgage securities on their portfolio.

The Senate report also documented e-mails that referred to these securities as “junk” and “crap.” The company was charged $550 million – a sum of money that is made in weeks.

The most naked example of how our political system has been robbed by the bankers and corporations is the fact that Green Party presidential candidate, Jill Stein, was arrested for attempting to enter the building where the second debate between Obama and Romney was being held.

Why should a woman who has consistently polled at 3% nationally and has raised enough money (yes, it is a criterion) to get on the ballot in 36 states not have a chance to have her voice heard with the heavy corporate hitters? Because the Commission on Presidential Debates, which sets the agenda for this nationally televised theater, accepts donations from corporations whose funds are contingent on the candidates only debating each other.

Certain topics are not raised in the debates, of course, among them climate change, banker bail-outs, campaign finance reform, Mexico’s U.S.-funded drug war, drone strikes, the illegitimacy of the National Defense Authorization Act, the FISA act, the Patriot Act, our treatment of government whistleblowers, the ongoing war in Afghanistan, etc. There is no point debating the issues, after all, if your party duopoly is in agreement.

It’s more than a revolving door we’re talking about. It’s an incest fest. And it’s at times like these that I, and many others, ask: What Would Jesus Do? He explained to us in John 2:15-16 exactly what he would do: “in the temple courts He [Jesus] found men selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said: ‘get these out of here! how dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!'”

We, too, must drive the “money changers” out of our political temple before we can rationally and peacefully progress into the 21st century. This starts with a constitutional amendment to repeal the Citizens United ruling of 2010; the elimination of PACs and super-PACs; and imposing extreme limits, with complete transparency, on all political donations and contributions.

Either this, or we apply our savage consumerist mentality in the most practical sense to our political system: when something breaks, don’t fix it. Throw it out and get a new one.

Ramble: The Puppet Show – Our American Dream Inverted

Originally published on December 5, 2012 on occupy.com

Shakespeare, Mark Twain or Oscar Wilde could not have asked for a better piece of irony than what has become of the American dream.

A dream that once encompassed the idea of entrepreneurism, individuality and hard work is currently devolving – or, some would argue, has already devolved, into its antithesis: a developing, collectivist, Big Brother society that does not respect privacy, press, speech or religion, that is not transparent or accountable, whose middle class is collapsing and whose State makes decisions without consulting the People, all the while operating under the guise of fealty to old ideals while secretly uprooting them.

Our country is now overrun with executive orders, immunity for telecommunication companies that spy on and wiretap innocent American citizens, data mining by the NSA, excessive and intrusive security at airports, legislation drafted outside of Congress, undeclared wars, billions invested on political theater instead of social programs and curbing poverty, taxpayer bailouts for corrupt financial institutions, severe crackdown on whistleblowing, unconstitutional and illegal drone strikes, torturing facilities, indifference to war crimes, a chain of hundreds of military bases around the world and a restrictive, controlled “free-market” that has given us a Walmart every 10 miles and a McDonald’s every two.

We are now a country wherein 1% of our nation controls about 43 percent of the wealth, more than the entire bottom half of the population; where six corporations control 90 percent of mass media; and where about one in four corporations pay nothing in taxes while getting millions of our dollars in refunds.

In our country today, most politicians are no more than spokesmen employed by wealthy special interests. Meanwhile, people are being foreclosed on by the banks their taxpayer dollars bailed out. They are having to choose between food and rent, as about 47 million Americans now need government help to feed themselves.

The deeper you look, the worse it gets. Our government has contracts with corrupt, private multinational corporations to purchase weapons and surveillance technology while not even receiving a slap on the wrist for blatant war crimes of past administrations. Our taxpayer dollars fund and supply weapons to oppressive oligarchic regimes such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen and Kuwait instead of areas at home such as Benton Harbor, Michigan; Gary, Indiana; and Pine Ridge, South Dakota, where the male life expectancy is 48 – the lowest in the Western Hemisphere outside of Haiti. All the while, draconian bills to regulate and monitor Internet activity have seen a push in Congress (SOPA, PIPA, ACTA, and most importantly, CISPA).

What may be most disturbing about our current state is that most Americans still accept emotionally-charged mantras like “We are land of the free, home of the brave” and ridiculously misguided and ignorant claims that we’re “spreading democracy and freeing nations around the world” (all the while expanding our number of military bases). We tell ourselves that soldiers overseas are dying to ensure our own freedoms at home (to be indefinitely detained without trial, conviction or due process). We are entering a near-psychotic state wherein we chronically see our country for what we want it to be – a constitutional republic – and not for what it really is: a corporatist, surveillance empire.

This illusion and psychosis is maintained in large part through control of the media, but also through the guise of humanitarianism: by bombing metropolitan areas such as Tripoli, and now-defunct award mechanisms such as the Nobel Peace Prize for a president who drops bombs, and a European Union that shoves millions into poverty with crippling, anti-democratic austerity measures.

Our psychosis has reached such a point that we ignore reality and continue indulging in our delusions. For many, it is much easier to believe the lie than to accept the truth because it is so distant from what is truly happening. Many simply reject the data and claim that these facts – surveillance, war crimes, political persecution and detainment without due process – are actions reserved for far-away developing nations and can’t happen here in America.

But they can, and they have, and they are. We as Americans must come to terms with what we have allowed to happen. We must accept what our country has become and quit sticking our heads in the sand and hoping that things will magically get better. They will not. If we look at the track record of our rigid economic-political dynasty governing from Wall Street and Washington, we do not have the leadership to extricate ourselves from this devolving socioeconomic crisis.

We must learn to hit the “Bullshit!” button more often and discredit the meaningless, mind-numbing ideology and doublespeak emanating from Washington if we are to understand what is really going on, because if the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the Islamic Republic of Iran and the People’s Republic of China can teach us anything, it’s that terminology and ideals are a great way for governments to operate as legitimate governing bodies performing a puppet show while pulling the important strings behind the stage.

Ramble: It’s a Big Club and You Ain’t In It

Originally published on December 19, 2012 on occupy.com

In his 2006 HBO special “Life is Worth Losing,” George Carlin presciently noted: “They call it the American dream, because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

With stunning tact and foresight, Carlin predicted much of what is happening today, including “increasingly shittier jobs with the lower pay, the longer hours, the reduced benefits, the end of overtime, and the vanishing pension that disappears the minute you go to collect it, and now they’re coming your Social Security money, they want your (fucking) retirement money. They want it back, so they can give it to their criminal friends on Wall Street, and you know what? They’ll get it from you, they’ll get it all from you sooner or later, because they own this (fucking) place. It’s a big club, and you ain’t in it.”

He’s right. So are the Occupy activists who point to the extreme economic polarization in this country. We are now faced with the reality that 1% percent of our nation controls about 43% of our wealth, our taxpayer dollars bailed out corrupt financial institutions that engaged in reckless behavior which resulted in millions of Americans losing their homes, and now, the reality that politicians are seriously considering cutting programs such as Social Security and Medicare as a solution to the budget problem.

There have been many steps that have led us to this current predicament – and our elected officials are hugely to blame for expediting the process. Because politicians have become no more than actors employed by special interests, the “big club” has had the political assistance required to deregulate the economy and pave the way for their pseudo-monopolies and tax-dodging cartels.

A few key repeals include the Glass-Steagall Act, which contained provisions that segregated commercial banks and investment banks; relaxing the Sherman Antitrust Act, which outlawed trusts; the Clayton Anti-Trust Act, which augmented the Sherman Antitrust Act and made room for unions; and the Robinson-Patman Act, which outlawed price discrimination (but exempted cooperative associations).

To point to a significant example, the Glass-Steagall Act is what would have prohibited Citicorp, a commercial bank, from merging with Traveler’s Group, an insurance company, to form Citigroup in 1998, a conglomerate vastly involved in the current mortgage crisis. The Federal Reserve gave Citigroup a temporary waiver that year, while their political stooges were working on the next piece of legislation: the Gramm–Leach–Bliley Act of 1999, which allowed security firms, investment banks and commercial banks to merge. The bill was signed into law by President Bill Clinton.

This was the same President that signed the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, which deregulated OTC derivatives and credit default swaps, paving the way for the investment banks, now consolidated with commercial/consumer banks, to tie their sub-prime mortgages into the derivatives without government oversight or regulation and sell them on our casino-capitalist market.

Let us not forget who the Treasury Secretary was under the Clinton administration: Robert Rubin, an employee of Goldman Sachs for 26 years, and who served as a member of the board as well as the co-chairman from 1990 to 1992.

After he left the Clinton administration, Rubin continued to serve on the board of directors of many entities such as the New York Stock Exchange, the Harvard Corporation, the Ford Motor Company, the Council on Foreign Relations and, most importantly, his own brainchild: Citigroup. During his tenure at Citigroup, Rubin made an estimated $126 million in stock options and cash. It was also under his watch that the federal government injected about $45 billion into the company.

Speaking of TARP, who was leading the rallying cry for the bailouts? Then-Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, a former CEO of Goldman Sachs. The TARP bailout was a perfect illustration of how our tax dollars don’t go towards improving infrastructure and eradicating poverty, but to propping up corrupt financial institutions, formed through deregulation, to continue their criminal activity.

Deregulation has led to a strip mall in every rural town, a Walgreen’s on every corner, a McDonald’s at every stoplight, a Starbucks on every block, a Wal-Mart on every three-acre plot, and a Home Depot on an area that used to include many family hardware stores.

You name the industry – retail, telecommunication, Internet, food, home repair, goods and services – and increasingly only a few companies are controlling and dominating them. There used to be family-owned stores, flower shops, pharmacies and hardware stores. Now the road is paved only for those on the inside: the big club.

To be part of the “big club” is also to be absolved of any criminal activity. When faced with a conviction or accusation that would warrant a criminal prosecution for the everyday citizen, those in the “big club” get off with a fine amounting to a few weeks or months of profit, paid to a government that in exchange lets the criminals go free.

This is illustrated with the recent finding that HSBC Bank laundered and processed about a billion dollars of drug money of some of the most notorious and dangerous drug cartels in Mexico. They paid a good amount as retribution, $1.9 billion, but not a single individual was criminally indicted or convicted for their activity.

With alarming boldness, Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer declared that “despite HSBC’s ‘blatant failure’ to implement anti-money laundering controls and its willful flouting of U.S. sanctions, the consequences of a criminal prosecution would have been dire. Had the U.S. authorities decided to press criminal charges, HSBC would almost certainly have lost its banking license in the U.S., the future of the institution would have been under threat and the entire banking system would have been destabilized.”

The federal investigation even revealed that “senior bank officials were complicit in the illegal activity.” You know you’re in the big club when the sanctity and ubiquity of your institution will never be sacrificed by thorough, blatant and disgraceful criminal activity.

Goldman Sachs, when faced with trial, paid a petty $550 million fine for misleading investors with sub-prime mortgage products, and thus avoided criminal prosecution. MF Global, an institution that lost about $1.6 billion of consumer money, got off with no criminal prosecution or indictment. JP Morgan, which lost billions of dollars in trading, was let off with no criminal indictment or prosecution. British Petroleum was charged with manslaughter for their negligence regarding the Deepwater Horizon explosion, but no one was sent to jail for the incident. The list goes on: no time for the white-shoe boys – even if you’re found, like HSBC, having violated the Trading with the Enemy Act.

The situation has become so neurotic that a group of CEOs, posing as rational and well-intended people, have formed a political campaign known as Fix the Debt comprised of the wealthiest and most powerful CEOs on the planet. On their list of solutions, you’d expect to find perhaps a mirror or a magnifying glass to more closely examine their tax returns. No such luck: the only thing on their list is our retirement money and our future health care money that we pay into.

So, at a time in history when these institutions have gotten away with so much already, we as citizens must decide if we are going to accept the lie that “entitlement programs,” as they’re referred to, are actually posing the gravest threat to our massive $16 trillion debt. With middle-class incomes collapsing and jobs coming with less and less decent wages and benefits, we must not let our politicians sacrifice the programs that were built to help us.

How the Monsanto Protection Act Became Law

Originally printed on occupy.com on March 29, 2013

Reprinted on Truthout

Reprinted on Nation of Change

Once again, the largest corporations and their governmental cohorts succeeded in sealing their dominance over our lives without any oversight, transparency or leniency. This time it concerns food safety, as Monsanto and lobbyists have shoved through dangerous legislation that effectively makes any oversight of GMO food void.

The Monsanto Protection Act, which President Obama signed into law this week, will strip judges of their constitutional mandate to protect consumer rights and the environment, while opening up the floodgates for the planting of new untested genetically engineered crops, endangering farmers, consumers and the environment. The result is that GMO crops will be able to evade any serious scientific or regulatory review.

The insistence of our government, and of corporations, is stunning. Like the civil liberties-violating CISPA law that is now being re-introduced in Congress after a year of languishing, Monsanto and its lobbyists are re-introducing the same provisions in the 2013 Farm Bill as they did in 2012. Lobbyists and politicians are relying on Americans’ amnesia to push through their secretive, sweeping agendas.

Modest amendments to the Farm Bill proposal in 2012 were shot down. The Sanders Amendment, introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, was struck down by a 73-26 vote, 28 of which were Democratic. Sanders sponsored earlier legislation popularly known as the Vermont Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act, but Vermont lawmakers allowed the bill to stall after a representative threatened to sue the state if it passed, based on claims that food oversight should not be delegated to the states but handled by the FDA.

Monsanto is no stranger to our political and judicial system – especially when it comes to influencing it. Currently eight lawmakers own stock in Monsanto: Sen. Kay Hagan (D-North Carolina) and Reps. Dave Camp (R-Michigan), Joe Kennedy III (D-Massachusetts), Alan Lowenthal (D-California), Michael McCaul (R-Texas), Jim Renacci (R-Ohio), Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin) and Fred Upton (R-Michigan).

Additionally, according to Open Secrets, Monsanto spent nearly $6 million on lobbying in 2012 and contributed about $500,000 to federal candidates in the last election.

As a couple of other examples of the breadth of Monsanto’s political influence, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a purportedly philanthropic organization fund established by Bill Gates, purchased 500,000 shares in Monsanto back in 2010, valued at more than $23 million.

And then there’s the election last fall in California where Proposition 37, which would have mandated the labeling of genetically modified organisms in the state, was debated at great cost – and violations of the truth – before its eventual defeat. Monsanto poured about $8,112,000 into advertising and political campaigns against the legislation. The same organization claimed that the No to 37 campaign, largely funded by Monsanto, fabricated a quote that bore the FDA official logo. The quote read:

“The [FDA] says a labeling policy like Prop 37 would be ‘inherently misleading.’”

The campaign supporting Proposition 37 sent a letter to the Justice Department demanding action against the No to 37 campaign for its flagrant violation of law, specifically section 506 of the U.S. Criminal Code. But we should expect no comment or action from the department.

Regarding its influence on the judicial system, Monsanto recently wrapped up a Supreme Court case in which it pressed charges against an Indiana soybean and wheat farmer, Vernon Hugh Bowman, whom it accused of breaking a patent agreement on second-generation Roundup Ready soybean seeds.

Bowman bought the seeds from a grain elevator after a farmer, who had purchased Monsanto’s seeds legally, sold them to the grain elevator. The case made it all the way to the Supreme Court, whose line of justices includes a former lawyer for Monsanto: Clarence Thomas. Thomas did not recuse himself from the case. The verdict has yet to be decided, but food advocacy groups are apprehensive about the ruling.

Monsanto devotes about $10 million a year and 75 staffers to investigating farmers for possible patent violations. 93 percent of soybeans, 88 percent of cotton and 86 percent of corn in the U.S. are grown with Monsanto’s patented seeds.

Just as central and major commercial banks are attempting to control the economy, just as corporations and other large entities are attempting to control our politics and elected officials, just as large oil companies are attempting to control the debate on climate change and the environment in general, biotech and agriculture giants are attempting to control food production through patented, genetic manipulation, using dirty political clout to support it and a lack of judicial or legislative oversight to continue it.