Tag Archives: austerity

Al-Jazeera English’s Danny Schechter: “A Happy ‘News’ Year”

OWS protesters attempt to enter Zuccotti Park on New Year's Eve 2011 in Lower Manhattan. Photo courtesy of Newsone.com

Editor’s note: As editorial writer Danny Schecter (@Dissectorvents) points out in the following opinion piece, New Year’s Eve in New York City’s Time Square was a surreal spectacle. While Lady Gaga kissed Mayor Michael Bloomberg, “the NYPD, a force he [Bloomberg] recently had the temerity to call his ‘private army’, pepper sprayed an attempt by Occupy Wall Street to regain the park [Zuccotti Park] they had been forcibly ousted from a few miles downtown.”

He goes on to note:

“”Happy New Year” has become a mantra of good cheer and smiles all around but it’s a sentiment that’s strangely disconnected from any deeper reality.

Would so many millions be cheering if they had any inkling of what lies ahead, as one really bad year foreshadows one that may be even worse?”

Indeed. In a society that has been warped by celebrity culture, and that has swallowed what Benjamin DeMott calls “junk politics”, the only thing the masses can do is watch an oligarch kiss a media-created fantasy like Lady Gaga during a thoroughly-commercialized event in Times Square, while the country plunges head-first into what many are predicting to be a very bleak year.

Meanwhile, the 68 Occupy Wall Street protesters who know perfectly well that this country is living in an illusion are brutally arrested and will continue to be villified by many in the media who either choose to ignore what the Occupy movement represents or truly cannot fathom what it means.

Schecter’s piece is republished here under Al-Jazeera’s Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License agreement.

New York, NY – Who doesn’t love fireworks, especially on New Year’s Eve, when it’s out with old and in with the new?

Who knows how much all these crowd-pleasing explosives cost as they ricochet from loud celebrations all over the globe?

And who cares? Many partygoers got too drunk to think about it.

Here, in New York, the great ball drop in Times Square has blown up into a major spectacle with celebrities galore that is followed by entertainment specials on every network.

We had Lady Gaga kissing Mayor Michael Bloomberg as the NYPD, a force he recently had the temerity to call his “private army”, pepper sprayed an attempt by Occupy Wall to regain the Park they had been forcibly ousted from a few miles downtown.

Sixty-eight activists became the first arrestees of 2012.

Mayor Bloomberg and Lady Gaga kiss in Times Square to bring in 2012. Photo courtesy of Mamapop.com

“Happy New Year” has become a mantra of good cheer and smiles all around but it’s a sentiment that’s strangely disconnected from any deeper reality.

Would so many millions be cheering if they had any inkling of what lies ahead, as one really bad year foreshadows one that may be even worse?

The hunger for happiness and the ability to deny reality is pervasive, and permeates borders everywhere.

Somehow there are those who know how truly absurd it is to celebrate when your life is about to turn for the worse. But, even if many did know, would they know what to do?

As Geoffrey Wheatcroft writes, “Could there be a single phrase that explains the woes of our time, this dismal age of political miscalculations and deceptions, of reckless and disastrous wars, of financial boom and bust and downright criminality?”

Maybe there is, and we owe it to Fintan O’Toole. That trenchant Irish commentator is a biographer and theatre critic, and a critic also of his country’s crimes and follies, as in his gripping book, Ship of Fools: How Stupidity and Corruption Sank the Celtic Tiger.

He reminds us of the famous saying by Donald H Rumsfeld, the former United States secretary of defence, that “There are known knowns… there are known unknowns… there are also unknown unknowns”.

But the Irish problem, says O’Toole, was none of the above. It was “unknown knowns”.

Given the degraded state of American media, we can’t assume that a TV-addicted audience of young people can know how bad it is or will become.

These partying crowds would have to wait a day to hear the BBC predict the downturn that awaits Europeans:

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Europe was experiencing its “most severe test in decades…

France’s President Sarkozy said the crisis was not finished, while Italy’s president called for more sacrifices.

Growth in Europe has stalled as the debt crisis has forced governments to slash spending.

Protesters across Europe strike and demonstrate against severe austerity measures. Photo courtesy of SFGate.com

The leaders’ New Year messages came as leading economists polled by the BBC said they expected a return to recession in Europe in the first half of 2012.

Liberal economists like Paul Krugman at the New York Times have dismissed any talk of recession. He says the right word to use is depression. Politicians who believe that it takes confidence to promote a recovery want to stay positive, even though critics call this confidence-hype a “con game”.

“These realities will only be more obvious when gas goes to $5 a gallon… when more students drop out because they can’t afford the loans or tuition.”

Attorney Max Gardener, who runs popular “boot camps” for bankruptcy and foreclosure defence lawyers, knows the personal details of the avalanche of distress among the Middle class. He is skilled at fighting back, but is not optimistic in his New Year’s predictions, which include:

The unemployment rate will not drop below 7.00 per cent at any point during the year and will be above 8.00 per cent for at least half of the year. With our educational system in disarray, and technical skills at an all-time low among US workers, the fact of the matter is that all of the good jobs are in China, India, Vietnam, Brazil, Thailand and Argentina.
One of the top 10 United States banks will fail or be forced into a takeover by the end of the year. My best guess is Bank of America. BOA will be forced into liquidation under the too big to fail provisions of the Dodd Frank Act. The FHFA as conservator of BOA may impose the Chapter 13 principal reduction programme for all loans and serviced by the Bank.
The number of homes in foreclosure will double or triple from 2011 levels and home values will drop by another 15 per cent to 20 per cent by the end of year. I do not expect to see any real recovery in the housing market until at least 2022.

Ok, maybe this is all boring stuff that glazes over most minds. It’s certainly not as much fun as reading about Hollywood scandals.

These realities will only be more obvious when gas goes to $5 a gallon, when more cities plunge into darkness to save money on electricity, or when more students drop out because they can’t afford the loans or tuition.

As the Movie Biz is reporting one of its worst years, food prices are rising although some of this is invisible because of new packaging techniques that permit selling fewer of a product for more.

It is no wonder then that politicians don’t want to sound like bad news bears and talk about any of this because they know they can’t do anything. Politicians can’t tell markets what to do.

They prefer to demonise Iran perhaps in the hope that a new war will divert public attention and get keep the military-industrial complex generating new jobs. They are always on the prowl for new threats to exploit.

President Obama has now written off the possibility of doing anything new while planning to wage war on the Republican Congress as his campaign focus. The Republicans, meanwhile, are still battling each other, determined to prevent the rich from paying a fairer share of taxes.

As the New Year comes in with a bang, we are seeing our politics recede with a whimper, with signs of paralysis and stalemate all around. Even Lady Gaga can’t help us now.

News Dissector Danny Schechter is a blogger, author and filmmaker. His latest DVD is Plunder: the Crime of Our Time. He also hosts News Dissector Radio on ProgressiveRadioNetwork.com. Comments to Dissector@mediachannel.org

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American Students Should Take a Page from the Chilean Uprising

The strike by Chilean workers, students and citizens begins peacefully in Santiago. Photograph: Ivan Alvarado/Reuters

“In the United States of America, no one should go broke because they chose to go to college.” – President Barack Obama, State of the Union Address, Jan. 27, 2010

Chilean society has been rocked by over three months of protests, beginning as a student uprising demanding affordable education and culminating in workers, environmentalists, LGBT rights activists, and others demanding reforms ranging from “building electric dams in Patagonia to improving education.”

The unrest began when students started taking to the streets en masse to demand “the elimination of a voucher system that supports private universities and demanding free, higher quality education at public universities.” The student revolt’s de facto leader, as it were, is Camilla Vallejo (@camila_vallejo) who has come to be known as “Commander Camila”. According to The Guardian, Vallejo has the ability to shut down whole sections of Santiago. Her call for better, cheaper education, has galvanized nothing less than a major populist uprising:

“Her press conferences can lead to the sacking of a minister. The street marches she leads shut down sections of the Chilean capital. She has the government on the run, and now even has police protection after receiving death threats.

Yet six months ago, no one had heard of Camila Vallejo, the 23-year-old spearheading an uprising that has shaken not only the presidency of the billionaire businessman Sebastián Piñera, but the entire Chilean political class.”

Chilean student leader Camila Vallejo sits among a peace sign created from empty teargas canisters used by police against protesters. Photograph: Roberto Candia/AP

And now, incredibly, student leaders and teachers’ union leaders met with President Pinera for the first time this past Saturday. While both sides found the talks productive, there hasn’t been an agreement on affordable education hammered out yet.

Let’s turn to America now.

Student loan debt is projected to reach $1 trillion by June of 2012. An unjust and downright punitive student loan debt system exists for borrowers, locking them out of discharging their debt in bankruptcy and bringing the full force of the Department of Education down on people who default. This is the same government that ensures that lenders get their money paid back in full (subsidized student loans) and then come after the financially crippled for the bank’s profit. There is much more to be outraged about with this immoral system that ensnares the newly graduated, trapping them in a twisted sort of indentured servitude to a profit-driven education industry. Many of you are probably acutely aware of just how disgusting our higher education system has become, however, as default rates have skyrocketed–and the numbers available are likely conservative, and represent for-profit colleges only. Private college graduate default rates aren’t publicly available.

Where’s the mass outrage on campuses over obscene tuition hikes? Why aren’t graduates organizing to fight back against the lack of protections for people who are forced to default? I asked higher education justice advocate Cryn Johannsen (@cjohanns), founder of All Education Matters, why America (despite massive income inequality rivaling Rwanda and Nepal, a worsening economic outlook, and a more dysfunctional education system that leaves graduates tens of thousands of dollars in debt after graduation) isn’t seeing an uprising even approaching what Chile is experiencing:

“There have been numerous protests this past year, especially in response to tuition hikes. Much like the poor coverage of protests in Wisconsin and Indiana, as well as the protests against harsh immigration laws in Georgia and elsewhere, corporate media fails to cover these stories.”

And while it’s true that there have been a number of protests related to tuition hikes, as well as push-back against state-by-state education budget cuts (not to mention Pell grants on the federal level), one wonders what it will take to get students organized to push back against the tyranny of the higher education system as a whole. Perhaps inconsistent mainstream coverage of student protests contributes to a lack of momentum, much like the town of Budros in the Palestinian territories was experiencing, until independent media began to spread the word about their nonviolent resistance movement (which in turn galvanized other towns.) It’s more complicated than that, of course, but it can’t be denied that political ideas and movements snowball when attention is paid to them, and their popularity increases.

Johannsen continues:

“Just like other groups and facets of U.S. society, students have been depoliticized here. Instead of being citizens, they are repackaged as “consumers.” The language is key. People lose a sense of what they belong to, especially when they are rarely, if ever, referred to as citizens. That means civic engagement is undermined by the constant barrage of messages to consume.”

The scourge of consumption is certainly one factor of many to consider in the depoliticization of America’s student population. Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist and author Chris Hedges writes eloquently of the depoliticization of American universities, which were once hotbeds of resistance and critical thought. Thanks to people like Johannsen, the lack of consumer protections for student borrowers is starting to be examined in Washington D.C., although predictably there are powerful interests vested in maintaining the status-quo when it comes to the student loan industry: the industry as a whole has spent over $62 million lobbying Congress over the past decade.

Perhaps as austerity sets in, and many of these education cuts really go into effect, students will see the inequity of continually-rising tuition while educational resources dwindle due to draconian budget cuts–and perhaps that will be the moment when the spark is lit. After all, it took Chile three months to really gather the numbers that made the country’s political elite sit up and take notice–and discontent was brewing long before protests broke out into the street, undoubtedly. America may just take a little longer, right?

Young demonstrators run away from police on horseback. Photograph: Victor Ruiz Caballero/Reuters


History Demands Nonviolent Resistance from Us

We are living in extraordinary times. The gulf between rich and poor has widened to its greatest since the Gilded Age: executive salaries have skyrocketed 23% in just over a year, while wages (when adjusted for inflation) have lost ground since the 1980s. Based in large part on a corporate-backed, state-focused legislative agenda called American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) unleashed by radical conservative legislators and governors, women’s reproductive rights are facing an unprecedented, nationwide assault. Public education is being dismantled, and its carcass fed to private enterprise. The assault on collective bargaining, which began and has succeeded in Wisconsin, is the first step in what promises to be a protracted dismantling of public sector workers’ rights across America, followed by the rights of private sector workers. And last but not least, efforts to restrict voting rights are well underway. On a federal level, social programs such as Medicare and Medicaid are on the chopping block—and under a Democratic president, no less, who habitually acquiesces to corporate influence.

Extraordinary times indeed. Pennsylvania is no exception.

Governor Tom Corbett, according to the July 3rd, 2011 edition of The Philadelphia Inquirer, issued his “maiden budget [which] makes deep cuts in aid to schools and colleges and slices millions from social-service programs that provide job training, health care, shelter, food, and counseling to the poorest citizens.” His cuts also include $212 million from community colleges and $220 million from the state’s 14 colleges (which include University of Pittsburgh, Temple University, Pennsylvania State University, and Lincoln University.) The evisceration doesn’t stop there, however. Governor Corbett wants to cut $900 million from special education, teacher training, tutoring, and other aid to public schools. In other words, he’s willing to destroy the future of our state’s children and young adults, all so he can pay back his corporate benefactors, who happen to be the charter school corporations that largely funded his campaign for Governor. Corbett is willing to feed our public infrastructure to free-market capitalism, so that a select few reap large profits at the expense of the working and middle class.

This is class warfare, and it’s time Pennsylvanians begin fighting back. But how do we fight back effectively?

We often cling to the misconception that real change comes from parliamentary measures and the ballot box. But in so doing, we each shoulder a forgetting that meaningful reform, be it in labor struggles or the civil rights movements of our past, were not accomplished through legislation. Reforms were, and will always be, achieved by direct action. In spite of itself direct action has at times turned violent (as the struggle for labor rights illustrated), but just as often it manifests its message in non-violent civil disobedience: sit-ins, marches, boycotts. The machinery of government is slow, and it suggests through its impotence the need for responsive measures. The groundwork for peaceful, radical reform techniques has already been paved for us in historical stone. We as a people now need to find the courage to throw ourselves at “the machine.”

Our American ancestors did it in Selma, staring down police brutality, angry segregationists, and lynchings. Exploited factory workers in early textile mills of New England at the birth of the industrial revolution did it. And now our Arab brothers and sisters are doing it.

Imagination and a commitment to non-violence are the only guidelines:

Crash a governor’s press conference with your school choir to poignantly illustrate the impact cuts to education programs will have on public schools.

Organize a church group to pray-in at a fracking site to rail against the immorality of natural gas corporations who don’t pay an extraction tax, while Pennsylvania’s most vulnerable citizens suffer a 50% cut in low-income health care services.

Hold a teach-in inside a bank, like US Uncut Philadelphia (of which I am an organizer, in the interest of full disclosure) has done on numerous occasions, and invite media to draw attention to the fact that major banks like Bank of America don’t contribute any income taxes despite paying their investment bankers billions of dollars in bonuses.

Stage a sit-in at the governor’s mansion in Harrisburg, or the state capital, protesting how our state loses hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue because PA-based corporations don’t pay their fair share (unlike small-business owners and the working class.)

Organize a rally of small business owners to protest against large corporations exploiting tax loopholes.

How do we organize into a non-violent force that our government must reckon with? I’ll use the Egyptian revolution of 2011 as an example.

The main thrust of Egypt’s Arab Spring demanded that Hosni Mubarak step down as leader. He represented the corruption and tyranny that was oppressing the Egyptian people, and that made basic necessities like food, education and employment unreachable. There’s a buzzword that covers things like that: it’s called freedom, right? The Egyptian activists’ strength, in my humble analysis, relied on three key factors: 1) their ability to frame their demands into one succinct statement; 2) that statement’s simplicity bonding otherwise disparate interest groups together to rally as one, building a coalition for Mubarak’s ouster; and 3) the movement using their growing numbers to solidify a mass presence who would no longer be ignored.

We are now in a struggle to regain our freedom from corporate aggression. Basic necessities like education, health care, and gainful employment are becoming increasingly inaccessible to a growing swath of Americans, and while the solution to these problems is admittedly complicated, there is one demand that activists both in Pennsylvania and across America can rally behind: corporate America is gaming the system. As a result, our country’s revenue stream has starved, and it has little allowance left for those basic freedoms and necessities. It also cannot be denied that normal channels to redress grievances are failing in large part because these corporations hold a tight grip on the levers of government. We must make it clear that we will no longer be ignored, and that the time for passive opposition (letter writing, petitions, and even voting) alone simply will not do anymore. Come August, when Congress breaks for recess and comes home to hold town halls with their constituents, we must make our message loud and clear: We will not tolerate corporations gaming the system at the expense of working-class Americans and our most vulnerable neighbors. And we must proclaim and make good on our promise to engage in non-violent disruption in order to ensure that we are taken seriously.

Like Tahrir Square, which brought together the Muslim Brotherhood, trade unionists, students, women’s rights groups, and others, so we must be unified and strong behind our message of corporate fiscal accountability, because it is this issue that Americans of all stripes—be they small business owners, students, teachers, public employees, the unemployed, church groups, etc—can, and must, rally behind.

Political scientist Gene Sharp (whom Egyptian activists credit in-part with galvanizing them to resistance) writes in his brilliant book, Waging Nonviolent Struggle: 20th Century Practice And 21st Century Potential: “While individual acts may at times not have much impact, the defiance of organizations and institutions—for example, trade unions, business organizations, religious organizations, the bureaucracy, neighborhoods, villages, cities, regions and the like—can be pivotal.”

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This piece is cross-posted at Raging Chicken Press.
Dustin M. Slaughter is the Founder of The David and Goliath Project


US Uncut Olympia Occupies Capital Building, National Protests Planned for this Weekend

Activists, including members of a grassroots network called US Uncut Olympia, held week-long demonstrations at Olympia, Washington’s state capital building, culminating in the occupation of the capital rotunda for 3 days. According to the blog, Occupy Washington, there were 50 activists who staged the act of civil disobedience. Their actions were aimed at proposed budget cuts to a variety of public programs. Austerity measures like this are taking place all over the country, as conservative governors and state legislatures roll out unmitigated assaults on the working and middle class.

Also from Occupy Washington: “The proposed budget removes the basic support framework for the most vulnerable members of our community including seniors, people with disabilities, low income families, students, and single parent families. At the same time, the budget includes over $8 billion of lost revenue in corporate tax exemptions [emphasis mine]. Those inside are demanding an end to this dichotomy, effective action from the legislature to close tax loopholes, and restoration of basic services. Their rallying cry is, ‘No more cuts until fair taxation!’”

The activists were forcibly removed by state police on Saturday night.

Their rallying cry, “No more cuts until fair taxation!” echoes similar calls from their national counterpart, US Uncut, which is a network of citizens dedicated to exposing corporate tax evasion, and highlighting the effect this missing revenue has on community education, low-income healthcare, and other vital public services.

Since its inception almost two months ago, they have staged well over 150 protests and acts of civil disobedience, including occupying and shutting down major bank branches owned by Bank of America, and other corporations. US Uncut has drawn their inspiration from UK Uncut, who began pushing back against their own country’s austerity measures.

Actions in over 30 U.S. cities are planned for the weekend of the 15th this month, timed with the arrival of Tax Day on the 18th. Telecommunications company Verizon is expected to be the focus of US Uncut’s efforts, where “bail-ins” will occur in stores, and in tandem with UK Uncut, who will focus on Vodafone, Verizon’s sister company.

Not having paid federal income tax in two years, Verizon made over $12 billion in profits last year, and were it not for tax loopholes the company exploits, it would have owed $4 billion in taxes. That amount, for instance, would have made every single proposed budget cut in Pennsylvania unnecessary, where millions of dollars in cuts to public education and low-income health care are being proposed by Governor Tom Corbett.

To learn more and get involved with your local US Uncut chapter, visit their website.