Sunday, September 30, 2012

Thought For The Day with Buckminster Fuller

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Richard Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983) was an engineer, architect, inventor, scientist, poet. Among his many inventions is the geodesic dome, a structure with no theoretical limits to its size: the higher it is the greater the capacity of its foundations. Many have been built, particularly in the US. He was also distinguished by having the newly discovered carbon molecule named after him - Buckminsterfullerene.

His name is not often included in the pantheon of social revolutionaries, which only goes to show how parochial we are in our thinking. He came to much the same conclusions about the society we live in and possible alternative arrangements as we do, but from totally different premisses.

As an engineer he couldn't stand the inefficiency of capitalism - he called it "obnoxico." As an anthropologist he rejected the idea of "economic man", selfish, on the make, as a perversion of our natures by this crazy system. As a student of thermodynamics he anchored his reasoning not in sentiment but in the facts of nature:
"About 90 per cent of all USA employment is engaged in tasks producing no life-support wealth. These non-life-support producing employees are spending three, four, and more gallons of gasoline daily to go to their non-wealth-producing jobs, ergo we are wasting $3 trillion of cosmic wealth per day in the US. We may safely assume that class one evolution is syntropic and that class two is often entropically diseased. The desire to make money is inherently entropic, for it seeks to monopolize order while leaving un-cope-with-able disorder to overwhelm others. We must remember that the majority of those convincedly committed to "making money" are motivated to do so because of their mistaken conviction that there is a fundamental (external) inadequacy of human life support on our planet"

The word syntropic is in the dictionary but his meaning is clear if a touch poetic. Entropy yes. That describes the evolution of the universe toward randomness, the discharge of all potential, ultimate running down. Time is an arrow and not a boomerang. But life on earth, fuelled by the sun, is building structures, organisms, societies, except where frustrated by disease or disintegrating forces like capitalism.

We cannot have socialism by instalments. Only when all of the essential factors have been put in place can it start to function - like any self-regulating structure.

The universal free education which became a reality with the reforms beginning in the 1870s did not end capitalism, neither did the free health service which came into being in 1945, nor free radio entertainment, street lighting, toll-free bridges and public parks. But they will be part of our society of free access. Within the money system they are contradictions. Hence the complaints about social security scroungers but not education scroungers, or the huge trucks which are howling through the villages of the A40 to avoid the tolls which have been put on the Severn Bridge.

The paths to socialist consciousness converge from a thousand different directions: concern for peace, beauty, rationality, quiet, as an alternative to the warring, ugly, irrational, shoddy and noisy bedlam of these dying days of capitalism. No significant change will take place until critical-mass has accumulated, then everybody will be wise. It just had to happen, they will say.

We can leave the last word to Fuller:

"With complete freedom of choice, much of humanity will begin to discover that it loves to work at tasks of its own choosing that it loves to discipline itself to demonstrate its competence to others - that it will compete with the many to demonstrate its competence to serve on one of the multitude of production teams. There would be no payment for the work. It would be like qualifying for the Olympic team to be allowed to do what you want to do. have to prove that you could do the job better than to get onto the production teams. Permission to serve on the world's production teams will be the greatest privilege that humanity can bestow on any individual. There is no joy equal to that of being able to work for all of humanity and doing what you’re doing well. It is difficult to match the gratification of not just crudely crafting a plaything for one child (which indeed can be very rewarding) but of producing exquisite somethings for a billion children. Activities of this kind are re-inspirational to a mystical degree."

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Fact of the Day

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An estimated 215 million children around the world are forced into labour, at the cost of their education and childhood.

Child labour, slavery and exploitation don't occur in a vacuum, they are symptoms of poverty. For some of the 1.4 billion people around the world living in abject poverty, child labour isn't a choice, it's a necessity. Bans and boycotts can highlight the issues or force corporations to lift their standards, but as long as families cannot afford to feed themselves, children will be vulnerable to exploitation.

From here

Friday, September 28, 2012

Revolution is the only real change

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Since Obama took office in January 2009, wealthy Americans have continued to pull away from the rest of society. In the aftermath of the recession, income inequality in the U.S. reached a new high in 2011, Census Bureau data show.

The fortunes of labor and capital have diverged on his watch. Quarterly corporate profits of $1.9 trillion have almost doubled since the end of 2008, while workers’ inflation- adjusted average hourly earnings have declined.

“At the very high end, people got a whole lot wealthier whereas income stagnated at other levels,”
said Anne Mathias, director of Washington research for Guggenheim Securities LLC. “Fifty years ago, people talked about the other half, how the other half lived, and now we’re talking about the other 1 percent.”

  The top 1 percent of families garnered 93 percent of the income gains in 2009 and 2010, according to an analysis of Internal Revenue Service data by Emmanuel Saez of the University of California, Berkeley. On Sept. 12, the Census Bureau reported that income inequality had reached a new high, based upon a standard measure called the Gini index. For 2011, the index rose to 0.463, a 1.7 percent deterioration from the previous year. It was the widest income gap in more than 40 years.

The Census Bureau study released earlier this month found that four separate measures of income inequality showed the rich-poor gap widening. The richest 5 percent of the nation’s households accounted for 22.3 percent of income in 2011, up from 16.5 percent in 1980. The three-fifths of households in the middle of the distribution got 45.7 percent of national income last year, down from 51.7 percent in 1980. That shift represented the equivalent of $884 billion moving from those on middle income to the most affluent.

The slogan Barack Obama used during his previous election campaign was "change we can" - the  voter knows that that change did not happen. Things have in fact got worse.  This is a democracy determined and decreed by the forces of capital. It is the rule of capital and the people are periodically made to ratify the decisions and choices of wealthy political elites. Those who dream of a revolution within capitalism are utopians. Workers can only be empowered through the dispossession of those who possess their wealth today, and there are simply no two ways about it. Those used to lots of power are not likely to give it up easily.

adapted from here

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Hope and change

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In November Americans will again give their approval to one of the capitalism’s two candidates. The Obama re-election campaign are bitterly decrying the flood of corporate money going to his opponent Mitt Romney. At the 2008 election was held, Obama’s campaign had collected and spent a staggering $745 million.  About 80% of Obama’s campaign cash came from large donors — either individuals or, in most cases, corporations. His second biggest donor, giving a total of $1,013,091, was Goldman Sachs, a company that later provided many of the leading economic and financial advisors to the Obama administration, and that, by late 2008, was already known to have been a key player in causing the 2008 financial crisis, and that also received enormous bailout funding from the government. The second biggest corporate contributor was software giant Microsoft, $852,167, a company which had serious anti-trust issues being pursued by the federal government. Third was Google, which gave $814,540, which had its own anti-trust and other issues, and fourth was JP Morgan & Chase, another mega-bank that both played a key role in causing the financial crisis, and which benefitted mightily from the federal bailout. Both Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan have subsequently played key roles in lobbying to water down any kind of serious corrective regulation of the financial industry, to block efforts to break up the too-big-to-fail banks, and to have senior banking executives criminally or even civilly prosecuted for their roles in precipitating and profiting from the global economic crisis. Obama and his backers to now cry foul because Romney, a corporate executive and member of the $100-plus millionaire club himself, is raking in even more money this election season than the Obama did when he chose to forego public funding in his first campaign and roll over his opponent who took a principled stand and limited himself to federal financing is beyond hypocritical. In 2008, even though it was well-known that Obama was soliciting and accepting huge contributions from Wall Street ($19 million), from the health care industry ($16 million), from real estate companies ($11 million), from the media industry ($16 million) and from the high-tech industry ($9 million), a huge number of voters believed his campaign theme of “hope and change.”

Chomsky on Obama

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 All elections revolve around class interests. America is currently engaged in the most expensive presidential contest in world history. In the United States, money doesn’t just talk – it dictates.

Noam Chomsky is seen by many as one of the more prominent anarchists in the United States although there has been times in the last several years he has come out publicly in favor of strengthening the federal government. He has argued that there is no contradiction between this stance and his advocacy of a stateless future. Chomsky bases his support for the federal government on his contention that private power wielded by corporations is much more dangerous to people than state action, and that government can, and should, protect its defenseless citizens against the depredations of the capitalists. While the power of private corporations in the united states is truly awesome and oppressive, this power exists because these businesses are supported by the state, a point that Chomsky concedes, and admits government regulatory mechanisms are very weak, and mostly controlled by the corporations anyway. 

Socialists have generally opposed the state for precisely this reason: that it protects the interests of the wealthy exploiters. But, because of working people's movements, the state has instituted some social welfare programs and instituted some regulation of private business to ameliorate the conditions of those most harmed by state-supported capitalism. These and other alleged public services are the aspects of government power that Chomsky supports and would see expanded. Yet the capitalist state is a package. The welfare state is also the warfare state. People can participate in government, but it is not under their popular influence. Chomsky argues that the state is the only form of illegitimate power in which people have a real chance to participate and here the World Socialist Movement can concur.

Chomsky on "Democracy Now"

    "So it’s no great secret that the U.S. electoral system is mainly public relations extravaganzas. They keep away from issues. It’s sort of a marketing affair, and the people who run it are the advertisers. And they had their national convention right after the 2008 election, and it revealed that they understood perfectly what was going on. They gave Obama the award for the best marketing campaign of the year. And if you go to the business press, they were reporting how executives were really excited. I mean, we have this new model as to how to, you know, delude people, enacted in the—we used to use the Reagan model, now we can use the Obama model for our delusional systems that we construct, which is pretty much what the PR industry is about. So, that captured it properly.

    I mean, he’s—there are a couple of things that he did that are, I think—he had a couple good appointments to the NLRB, National Labor Relations Board. There are a few actions here and there that, you know, you can kind of clap.

    Labor—there was a huge effort by the labor movement to get him into office. The first thing he did was kick them in the face, the no card check. In fact, what happened with the health program was quite interesting, because, you know, of course, there was a very important senatorial election in—must have been January 2010, after Senator Kennedy died—in Massachusetts, liberal state. And what was at stake was not just Kennedy’s position, but the filibuster-proof majority, which was quite critical. Well, the Democrats lost that election, which was pretty dramatic. And if—that was carefully analyzed. One of the main—there was, first of all, a ton of money pouring in to support the Republican candidate, who was a kind of a vacuum. I don’t know if you followed it. "I’m Scott Brown. Here’s my truck." You know, that was the campaign. But what was quite interesting was the—and in the suburbs, more or less affluent suburbs, voting was pretty high. In the downtown areas, the urban areas, where the working class and poor people live, voting was quite low. And what was quite interesting was the union vote, which was analyzed. Union members, the majority of them, voted against—well, for the Republican, meaning against Obama. Why? That was investigated, too. They were furious. They had worked really hard to put Obama into office. He broke all his promises to them.

    But furthermore, the health plan—one of the promises was there would be some kind of national healthcare. And he could have—I think he could have achieved that. For example, support for the public option was about three to two, I think. If he made any effort, he could have gotten it through. But not only did he not put that through, but the one thing that he insisted on was cutting back what were called "Cadillac health plans," that actually should be called "Chevrolet health plans." And those are the health plans that union workers had fought for, for years. You look at the history of the American labor movement, it’s kind of abandoned all sorts of things all along the way—you know, the rights of workers in the workplace, all kinds of things. But it insisted—it did make one gain: it made a compact with management, a contract that they’d get good benefits—all benefits for themselves, not for the country. Of course, a compact like that lasts only as long as business decides to keep it. I mean, give it up, it’s over. But they did have reasonable health plans for themselves. Those are the Cadillac health plans. So the one thing Obama wanted to do was to kill the health plans that they had sacrificed for and fought for for 50 years, giving up plenty of other things in the struggle. And they were pretty angry about it, and understandably.

    And I think if you look at other constituencies, it’s approximately the same. Take, say, environmental issues. I mean, you know, his attitude toward the tar sands and the fracking, the XL pipeline, is characteristic. So, in his State of the Union address, last State of the Union address, he emphasized the fact that we’re in a great position. We have maybe a hundred years of energy independence ahead of us using these methods, which are going to destroy the environment. So, who knows what things will be like in a hundred years? Maybe unlivable. But that’s—but it sounded nice. "I’ll put off the decision for a couple months and just have the southern part of the pipeline built, not the part that crosses the border." That’ll come next, when you’re not looking. But it’s been that way on issue after issue.

    And that’s not the only case, after all. I mean, the part—you’re looking at Obama’s programs, the part that really did surprise me—and I don’t, frankly, understand it—is his attack on civil liberties, which is extreme. He’s gone beyond Bush. Some of the worst cases aren’t even discussed, like one—I think one of the worst cases is the Supreme Court case, Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, which was initiated by the Obama administration, brought to the court by the administration, argued for the government by Elena Kagan, you know, his latest Supreme Court appointee. And if you look at the decision, it was kind of welcomed by the—even the right-wing justices didn’t accept all of it, but they accepted part of it. The crucial—at issue was whether this group, Humanitarian Law Project, was criminally liable for giving material support to a terrorist group. The material support in question was legal advice to the PKK, a Turkish group, giving them legal advice. That was material support. You read the wording, you and I, many people we know, are liable under this. If we’ve met people who the government calls or claims are terrorists—they don’t have to give any reason for it, they just say, "You’re a terrorist," like Mandela, for example—if you meet with them and you talk to them and you advise them, in fact, if you advise them to carry out nonviolent tactics, you’re giving material support under the Obama interpretation of "material support." Material support used to mean giving them arms or something, but it was extended by this to your speech to them. That’s a very wide-ranging and ominous stand.

    And it was—I should add, on the side, that the whole concept of on the terrorist list or being accused of a terrorist is something that should not be tolerated in a free society. I mean, you know, Mandela is a good example. If the government says you’re a terrorist, that ends it. No recourse, no argument needed, no justification. They can put anybody they like on the terrorist list. The idea that they decide who’s a terrorist is a granting to state power something we’ve never had in a free society. So, not only is that—should that be intolerable—and that’s, of course, not Obama, it goes way back—but extending the notion of material support to discussions with them or advice to them, I mean, that’s—it should be beyond discussion. It’s barely discussed.

    There are others that are pretty bad, too, like the attack on whistleblowers. As I’m sure you know, more whistleblowers have been under attack by this administration than all of American history put together. This is an attempt to strengthen executive power and executive privilege, keeping secret from the population. And if it was—and there’s another case. I mean, it’s not his initiative, but [inaudible]. But all of these extensions of state power and violations of civil rights are significant. But we should bear in mind that we’re a lot freer than people here have been in the past, and certainly a lot freer than other countries. So, it’s bad, but we shouldn’t exaggerate. There’s plenty of opportunities to do things"

In another interview, Chomsky explains

"Barack Obama has not been a good president. On a host of issues, he has been a bad president...Frankly, I didn’t expect much from Obama, so I wasn’t actually disillusioned. When he came into office at the height of the financial crisis, the first thing he needed to do, was put together an economic team. Who did he pick? He picked the people who created the crisis. There are Nobel laureates in economics who had different approaches. But he picked what they called the Rubin Boys, people like Tim Geithner, Larry Summers, bankers and so on. The people who essentially created the crisis. There was an article in the business press, Bloomberg News, which reviewed that. They concluded that these people shouldn´t be on the economic team, half of them should be getting subpoenas. So he was paying off the people who put him into office...Most of his campaign funding concentrated in the financial institutions, which preferred him to McCain. And there were people who understood it. So shirtly after he was elected, the advertising industry awarded him the prize for the best marketing campaign of the year... The United States healthcare systems is a total disaster. If the United States had a healthcare system like any other industrial society, there wouldn’t be any deficit. In fact, it would end up being a surplus. And the reason is not obscure. A largely privatized, mostly unregulated healthcare system which is extremely inefficient and very costly. Well, the Obama reforms are slightly better than what existed, but nothing like would should exist. In fact, even the idea of allowing a public option, to make a choice to pick a public healthcare, even that he refused to pursue.... Some of his supporters argue that it was the best that could be done, given the political circumstances. But that’s by no means obvious. The president has a lot of power, for example, he can appeal to the population. The population was very strong in favor, almost two to one. So okay, appeal to the population. That’s the way Roosevelt got the New Deal legislation through."


London's poor

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As the economic downturn takes effect, increasing numbers of Londoners are turning to charities and relying on free school meals because they cannot access or afford decent food.

Just last year, one charity’s foodbanks fed almost 15,000 people in the capital. Kids Company – a charity working with vulnerable young people – reports that 37 per cent of 5-12 year olds at three of their centres claim there is not enough food for them to eat at home every day.  Almost a third of London’s school children are registered for free school meals.

Fiona Twycross, member of the  London AssemblyHealth and Environment Committee, said: "It appears that many people who are turning to food banks are working but still can’t afford to buy enough food for their families."

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The rich have it easy - as if we didn't know

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 "Its tough at the top." How often have we heard that? Harvard researchers however find leaders in business, politics and the military report lower anxiety levels than others. Compared with people of similar age, gender and ethnicity who haven't made it up the ladder, those who sit atop the nation's political, military, and business organizations are less stressed and anxious. And their levels of cortisol, a hormone that circulates at high levels in the chronically stressed.

Compared with workers who toil in lower echelons of the American economy, the leaders studied by a group of Harvard University researchers enjoyed control over their schedules, their daily living circumstances, their financial security, their enterprises and their lives.

"Leaders possess a particular psychological resource — a sense of control — that may buffer against stress,"
the research team reported.

"It's clear that having a sense of control is protective against stress,"
said Nichole Lighthall, who researches stress and its effects at Duke University. "People in a company at all levels may be affected by the market and its unpredictability," she said. But while rank-and-file employees may worry about being laid off, chief executives can pretty much rest assured that "they'll keep their position in society, their superiority, their lifestyle and their income" even if the organization over which they preside suffers" she said.

Worrying about being laid off, not finding a job, losing your home, and not being able to buy food for your kids — that's a lot more stressful. Lack of money make their lives tough.


The East gets Richer

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The number of super-rich people in Asia may approach 3 million, with a stock of wealth equal to US$16.7 trillion (Bt517 trillion), by 2015 according to Julius Baer, a leading Swiss private banking group. HNWIs are defined as those with investable assets of $1 million or more excluding their primary residence.

 China will record the greatest increase in wealth, with the number of high net worth individuals growing from 502,000 in 2010 to 1.43 million by 2015. Singapore's number of high net worth individuals is expected to grow from 64,000 in 2010 to 133,000 in 2015.


Income inequality grows

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Labor income has dropped as a share of total income earned in the United States, widening the gap between rich and poor, according to a study by the Cleveland Federal Reserve Bank. Cleveland Fed said labor's share of gross national income had declined to 63.8 percent now after fluctuating around 67 percent during the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s.

"...the decline made total income less evenly distributed and more concentrated at the top of the distribution, and this contributed to increase income inequality,"
it said.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Another Spanish Civil War ?

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 Spain, unemployment of over 25% and youth unemployment of over 50%. Last week in Barcelona, capital of the Autonomous Region of Catalonia with a population of 7.5 million Catalans, between 600,000 and 1.5 million—8% to 20% of the population!—protested in the streets, demanding independence. Out-of-money Catalonia had to ask the central government for a bailout. They claim that under the current fiscal setup, Catalonia transfers €16 billion annually to the central government, and that these transfers bankrupted the region. Catalonia have an economy the size of Austria. Now, in exchange for the bailout, the central government has imposed austerity measures that cut into health care, education, and other services.

 Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy declared the constitution that didn’t allow regions to secede. “Illegal and lethal,” said Foreign Minister José García-Margallo and threated Catalonia with exclusion from the EU if it chose independence. Decisions in Brussels as to which country will be allowed to accede to the EU have to be unanimous, and Spain’s veto would bar Catalonia “indefinitely,” he said.

Catalan President Artur Mas rebutted “Constitutions may or may not be modified, but they do not subjugate the will of the people,”

Meanwhile within the powerful military, a serving army officer, Colonel Francisco Alaman, compared the crisis with 1936 – when Gen Francisco Franco seized power – and by vowing to crush Catalan nationalists, described as “vultures”.

“Independence for Catalunya? Over my dead body. Spain is not Yugoslavia or Belgium. Even if the lion is sleeping, don’t provoke the lion, because he will show the ferocity proven over centuries,”
he said.

Retired Lt-Gen Pedro Pitarch, a former army chief, said the words reflect “deeply-rooted thinking in large parts of the armed forces”

The absurdity of capitalism

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 Billa, an Austria-based, German-owned supermarket chain which has locations in nine countries across Europe, thought it was a good idea to sell pre-peeled bananas wrapped in plastic and promote it as a 'common sense' move. It was environmentally unfriendly and wasteful. After all, the banana is one of the most convenient naturally packaged foods out there and it doesn't take much effort to peel one.

Capitalism kills

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A new study published in the American Journal of Public Health finds that  suicides have replaced car accidents  as the leading cause of injury-related death in the U.S., partly because deaths from automobile accidents are down but also by the fact that the suicide rate has increased. Between 2000 and 2009, according to data from the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics, deaths by suicide went up by 15%. According to the study’s author, Professor Ian Rockett, an epidemiologist at West Virginia University, “Suicides are terribly undercounted; I think the problem is much worse than official data would lead us to believe.” He added “there may be 20 percent or more unrecognized suicides.”

Last year, a  report by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that “suicide rates in the U.S. tend to rise during recessions and fall amid economic booms.” In Europe, a recent wave of “suicides by economic crisis” has been  well-documented. In Greece, the suicide rate among men increased more than 24 percent from 2007 to 2009, government statistics show. In Ireland during the same period, suicides among men rose more than 16 percent. In Italy, suicides motivated by economic difficulties have increased 52 percent - evidence of overwhelming human devastation and tragedy of the recession.

Monday, September 24, 2012

An Economic Miracle?

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A new report by Germany’s Labour Ministry has revealed that the gap between rich and poor continues to widen.

10% of the population owns 53% of the total wealth, while around 50% possess just 1%

“Hourly wages that are no longer sufficient - even if someone is working full time - to feed a one-person household,"
the ministry warned. The proportion of people working for low wages in Germany is on the increase in what appears to be a long-term trend. The bottom 40 percent of full-time employees are earning less after wages were adjusted for inflation. In 2010, the ratio of Germans working in the low-wage sector stood at 20.6 percent, compared with the 18.7 percent in 2006.

Critics argue that the expansion of the low-paid job opportunities, called "mini jobs,” have put the economic pressures on the poorest in society. The German "economic miracle" leaves the poorest behind. “Even if you’ve paid into the system for 35, 40 or 45 years and even if you have a qualified job and a regular salary, you may still not receive a pension above the poverty line,” Labour Minister Ursula Von der Leyen told parliament last week. Economic experts at the Hans Boeckler Foundation think tank calculate that an employee earning around 2,000 euros ($2,600) per month will need to work 43.5 years to receive the minimum monthly pension of 700 euros in Germany. Experts warned a situation could develop similar to that in the United States, where pensioners often have to work to make ends meet. More than 761,000 German pensioners are already having to work to complement their pensions, with 118,000 of those aged 75 or over. And that trend is rising.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Fact of the Day

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The Australian trade minister, Mark Vaile, pointed out that a typical cow in the European Union receives a government subsidy of $2.20 a day. That is more than what 1.2 billion of the world's poorest people live on every day.

iPhone workers

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The iPhone 5 is here. Who actually make the iPhones? Millions of Chinese workers. It's an exhausting, backbreaking, and mind-numbingly tedious job. A reporter for a Shanghai newspaper spent a week working in a Foxconn factory helping to build iPhone 5s. He described the working and living conditions as a "nightmare," and he couldn't quit soon enough. And it isn't a job that pays enough to enable the folks who make the iPhones to actually buy an iPhone. It pays only $2 an hour (Yes, thousands of people line up for Foxconn jobs as these jobs are a bit better than working in rice paddies.)

Third choice is no choice

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Some American voters will not be fooled by the two-horse race presidential race for the White House and will opt for another candidate. The ex-two term governor of New Mexico, Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party is one such possible alternative. Johnson has been appearing at pro-pot rallies, saying he inhaled and liked it. He’s for legalizing, regulating and taxing pot, a receptive message for recreational smokers and medical marijuana users. He visited Occupy Wall St and courted the protesters.  However he is a right wing free-market libertarian—in agreement with Ron Paul on many issues, and not far from many of Romney's positions.

He wants to cut the biggest federal health programs; Medicare for the elderly and Medicaid for the poor by 43 percent, as part of a $1.7 trillion in cuts. He wants to end George W. Bush’s prescription drug subsidy for seniors. Johnson wants to raise the retirement age when you can start getting Social Security. He wants to replace Social Security benefits with personal accounts, which is letting Wall Street gamble with one’s retirement savings. And he would means-test all federal Social Security recipients, so only the neediest get federal help. He would cut the federal deficit by drastically cutting safety net entitlements.

 He would end corporate income taxes, federal income taxes, capital gains taxes, and seek to reduce state income taxes. Instead, he would impose a 23 percent national sales tax—and abolish the IRS, along with the federal Education and Housing and Urban Development departments. He’d end government-subsized student loans. 

His economic stances would be a boon to the wealthy. He works for the 1%.

Americans dying earlier

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The New York Times reported on an alarming new study: researchers have documented that the least educated white Americans are experiencing sharp declines in life expectancy. Between 1990 and 2008, white women without a high school diploma lost a full five years of their lives, while their male counterparts lost three years. Experts say that declines in life expectancy in developed countries are exceedingly rare, and that in the U.S., decreases on this scale “have not been seen in the U.S. since the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918.”

 Undoubtedly, the increasing numbers of low-income Americans without health insurance is a major contributor factor. Researchers also say that lifestyle factors such as smoking, which has increased among low-income white women, play a role; poor folks tend to engage in more risky health behaviors than their more affluent counterparts.

 Moreover, there is a compelling body of research that suggests that inequality itself - quite apart from low incomes, or lack of health insurance - is associated with more negative health outcomes for those at the bottom of the heap. One of the most famous series of studies of the social determinants of health, Britain’s Whitehall Studies, had as their subjects British civil servants, all of whom health insurance and (presumably) decent enough jobs. Intriguingly, these studies "found a strong association between grade levels of civil servant employment and mortality rates from a range of causes. Men in the lowest grade (messengers, doorkeepers, etc.) had a mortality rate three times higher than that of men in the highest grade (administrators)." So what was behind such disparate health incomes among high-status and low-status workers? Researchers pointed the finger at inequality, hypothesizing that various psycho-social factors associated with inequality - such as the higher levels of stress at work and at home experienced by the lower tier workers, as well as their lower levels of self-esteem - were behind the dramatic differences in mortality rates.

Logo brain-washing

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 A generation of young people is growing up with the logos of fast-food companies "branded" on their brains. Scientists say scans of children show the pleasure and appetite centres of their brains light up when they are shown advertising images such as the McDonald's logo. It suggests fast-food firms are tapping into the reward areas of the brain, and that these develop before the regions that provide self-control, leading to unhealthy choices.

Dr Amanda Bruce
, who led the study. "That is concerning because the majority of foods marketed to children are unhealthy, calorifically-dense foods high in sugars, fat, and sodium."
The finding comes in the wake of research which showed advertising had a pronounced effect on children's eating habits. Children who tasted two identical burgers, one in a plain box and one labelled McDonald's, preferred the latter.

 "The brains of children are 'imprinted' with food logos. Without the necessary inhibitory processes to aid in decision-making, youth are particularly susceptible to making poor choices about what to eat."
said Dr Bruce.



Saturday, September 22, 2012

We won't be fooled again

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The president of the United States has acquired the power to assassinate people, including Americans, a power that is exercised through the military and the CIA. Assassination is official policy and not to be called to account for it.

Of course,  the president will say, “ The people we choose to assassinate must be terrorists. If they’re not terrorists, we don’t have the power to assassinate them.”

But who makes the call on who is a terrorist? The national-security officials of the president does. It has the only say in the matter. The president do not let Congress interfere with whom they choose to assassinate because they say that that would constitute interfering with the president’s war-making powers. While the judiciary will defer to the judgment of the military and the CIA on matters relating to “national security.”

An example of this policy was the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki’s teenager son. With the father, they could say, “Oh, we had evidence that he was conspiring to commit acts of terrorism against the United States.” Of course, some would argue that suspicions and accusations are still not a sufficient ground for the government to assassinate people, including its own citizens. But they can’t say that about the teenage son, who was also an American citizen. They had nothing on him, and they killed him anyway. Is there an investigation into the boy’s murder? Have grand jury indictments issued? No

Thus, as a practical matter the president now wields the extraordinary power to assassinate his own citizens. It’s extraordinary because it’s a power that the most brutal tyrants and dictators in history have wielded. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, wielded the same powers. Think about that: the president of the United States now wields the same powers that one of the most brutal dictators in the world wielded while he was in power. In fact, one of the principal demands made by the Egyptian protestors was the lifting of those powers. But Mubarak knew that the powers were essential to his dictatorial rule. He not only refused to relinquish them, he employed them against people who were challenging his dictatorship. Unfortunately, after his ouster the Egyptian military dictatorship has refused to relinquish those “emergency” powers, just as President Bush did and President Obama has.

Americans now live in a country in which the military and the CIA wield the authority to round up American citizens, keep them in jail or military camps indefinitely without trial, torture them. Think about American citizen Jose Padilla. They removed him from the jurisdiction of a federal district court and carted him away to a military dungeon, where they brutally tortured him. They were going to hold him in jail for the rest of his life without ever according him due process of law and trial by jury. They could have even executed him and nothing would have happened to the killers, as we have learned from the immunity from prosecution granted to the unidentified CIA and military officials who have already killed prisoners in their custody.

It’s also extraordinary because the Constitution fails to grant such a power to the president or the executive branch of government. It’s also extraordinary because it’s perpetual, given the fact that the war on terrorism itself is endless. It’s also extraordinary because the Bill of Rights expressly prohibits the federal government from depriving any person of life without due process of law. When a government wields the power to assassinate its own people and to arrest, incarcerate, torture and execute people without due process of law and trial by jury, that society cannot be genuinely considered a free society.

Regardless of who is elected — Obama or Romney — when it comes to civil liberties, America will remain similar to the many brutal military dictatorships which exist world-wide. It is time to wake up. Millions of Americans will soon vote for either the Republican or Democratic presidential candidate not because they deeply believe that he is the best possible president. No, they are compromising and choosing the lesser of two evils, mainly because most people know that both major parties and their candidates stink. But the lesser evil is still an evil. American voters appear to be delusional, whether on the left or right, based on a refusal to see the ugly truth.  Both Obama and Romney lie compulsively, endlessly and persuasively, tailoring their messages to their audiences. Informed American should not vote for either Obama or Romney. The better choice is to not vote for a president at all and help to delegitimize the corrupt and dysfunctional political system. Another choice is to employ the write-in option where possible and vote from conscience. This much is certain. If you vote for Romney or Obama, and if your choice wins, you will be painfully disappointed.

Adapted from here 

we know best

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The Australian government has been tightening its grip on welfare benefits through the Income Management program, which paternally dictates how the poor should spend their benefits. Participants may have about 50 to 70 percent their money placed under state control, reserved for essential items like food. Participants must spend the "quarantined" money using a “Basics Card” at government-approved outlets. The rationale is that too many poor people would squander money on gambling, drinking, pornography and other unproductive things when given a chance.

 The program was first piloted in destitute aboriginal communities. Income Management is now spreading to several new areas, according to the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS), with enrollment based on “referral from child protection authorities” and referrals from social workers “on the grounds of ‘vulnerability.’ " Income Management has been rolled out with another strict "intervention": the threat of suspending certain welfare benefits for parents “whose children are not enrolled or regularly attending school,” thus further punishing poor parents and their children. The targeting of already stigmatized groups - indigenous people, parents in troubled homes, and others deemed financially incompetent - reflects the myth that poverty is cultural and not the result of capitalism. The main problem facing poor people isn’t their bad self-management, but the faillure of the welfare state to provide adequate economic supports for "life essentials." A coalition of community-based service providers and advocacy organizations has dismissed Income Management as both discriminatory and needlessly punitive. To progressive anti-poverty advocates, Income Management threatens to infantilize people who want self-sufficiency but are hindered by structural economic hardships.

 Pam Batkin, head of Woodville Community Services explains that the program: "is a simplistic response to very, very complex social problems. People may be unemployed due to lack of education and skills or they may have a disability. Quarantining  their welfare payments if they are behind in their rent will not assist them to find a job. Indeed it may make life more difficult for people. Addictions to alcohol, illegal drugs or gambling are complex social issues which cannot be addressed by simply quarantining a person’s welfare payments."

Paddy Gibson of Sydney's Stop the Intervention Collective said the program was “built on racist assumptions that Aboriginal people are incapable of managing their lives; it imposes harsh control measures rather than creating opportunities."

An Australian Council of Social Services  policy analysis points to “a lack of evidence that the groups targeted were unable to manage their financial affairs.”

Now that the draconian model has been tested on indigenous people, the government is expanding it to new communities. Razza Kattan of the Arab Council Australia, located in Bankstown, where the program has just been launched, said "The government wants to push people off the books, blame them for their situation, for things that are beyond their control." For service providers, Income Management would damage community relations. “This is a system that will change our relationship and how we work with people. This system is about punishment and control. It's very nasty."


Taken from here 

Big Pharma Corrupting Science

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The well-respected science commentator for the Guardian Ben Goldacre in an article reveals how as a medical practioner he and his patient were purposfully misled by the pharmaceutical producer of the nti-depressant Reboxetine and goes on to explain that drugs are tested by their manufacturers, in poorly designed trials, on hopelessly small numbers of weird, unrepresentative patients, and analysed using techniques that exaggerate the benefits.

Seven trials had been conducted comparing reboxetine against a placebo. Only one, conducted in 254 patients, had a neat, positive result, and that one was published in an academic journal, for doctors and researchers to read. But six more trials were conducted, in almost 10 times as many patients. All of them showed that reboxetine was no better than a dummy sugar pill. None of these trials was published. Three small studies, 507 patients in total, showed that reboxetine was just as good as any other drug. They were all published. But 1,657 patients' worth of data was left unpublished, and this unpublished data showed that patients on reboxetine did worse than those on other drugs. Then there was the side-effects data. The drug looked fine in the trials that appeared in the academic literature; but when we saw the unpublished studies, it turned out that patients were more likely to have side-effects, more likely to drop out of taking the drug and more likely to withdraw from the trial because of side-effects, if they were taking reboxetine rather than one of its competitors.

Goldacre writes " In their 40 years of practice after leaving medical school, doctors hear about what works ad hoc, from sales reps, colleagues and journals. But those colleagues can be in the pay of drug companies – often undisclosed – and the journals are, too. And so are the patient groups. And finally, academic papers, which everyone thinks of as objective, are often covertly planned and written by people who work directly for the companies, without disclosure. Sometimes whole academic journals are owned outright by one drug company. Aside from all this, for several of the most important and enduring problems in medicine, we have no idea what the best treatment is, because it's not in anyone's financial interest to conduct any trials at all."

Friday, September 21, 2012

Egypts wage slaves

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Ali Mazen, a day laborer, barely makes enough in Cairo to buy food for his family back home. He can’t imagine how he would cope if basic food prices were to rise. “The money I make now barely covers my own expenses. I wait for weeks to gather enough money to go home,” he tells Egypt Independent. “I don’t know what to tell my children anymore.”

Om Shahenda, a domestic worker who lives with her three daughters, is unimpressed by the new government’s actions so far to help her feed her family. Widowed and in her late 50s, she says she can no longer keep up with rising prices. “At times, I have no money at all at home,” she says. “On a recent occasion, I had to the sell the last bag of sugar to a nearby coffee shop to afford transportation to a house I work at.” She’s not hopeful that political leaders’ actions will be able to change her situation any time soon. “Where is Morsy now? Collecting money from the world — money that we never see,” she says.

Economists warn that a food crisis could take place within months if several domestic and international factors don’t improve significantly. Egypt is in a precarious situation, being heavily dependent on food imports. Egypt imports 40 percent of its total food and 60 percent of its wheat.

The 2012 World Bank Global Monitoring Report warned that North African and Middle Eastern countries were seriously behind on their Millennium Development Goals of providing affordable and nutritious food to the poor. People in the region remain susceptible to international food price fluctuations due to governments’ reliance on food imports, the report says.

If a food crisis does happen, it seems many consumers could end up losing doubly. Food prices will increase while their income is decreasing. Egyptians spend an average of 44 percent of their total income on food-related items. Amid rising prices, factories could increase layoffs in an attempt to reduce expenses. Unemployment would lead to reduced income per family, further straining their ability to obtain food.  Data released by the Central Bank of Egypt shows that, nationwide, total savings have dropped by nearly a third since last year. Many people have essentially been dipping into their savings to make it through the past 20 months of unrest. When those savings run out, an even greater number of people will be struggling to put food on the table.

The conditions are ripe for a full-on food crisis. Some experts warn that Egypt could go the way of Yemen, which has been in the grip of a food crisis for more than two years. Yemenis also revolted against their leader last year, ending Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 33-year-reign, which many said was plagued with suppression, economic turmoil, inequality and corruption. His regime left behind a population, like Egypt’s, of which half lives on less than $2 a day. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the number of food-insecure Yemenis has doubled over the past two years. This translates to roughly 10 million nationals, or 44.5 percent of the population, of whom 5 million need immediate assistance.

In recent years, food price volatility has been in part attributed to food commodity speculators who bet on the price of wheat or other foodstuffs in the near future. Traders have become increasingly active and bold in recent years, speculating over the weather and crop yields.

Fact of the Day.

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Wealth disparity in the United States is worse now than it was in 1774 - even when slavery is accounted for. The conclusion comes from professors Peter Lindert of the University of California - Davis and Jeffrey Williamson of Harvard.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Fact of the Day

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A new survey by the American Payroll Association has indicated that more than two-thirds of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck.

Criminal drug dealers

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Continuing SOYMB exposure of Big Pharma, we read that  the global pharmaceutical industry has racked up fines of more than $11bn in the past three years for criminal wrongdoing, including withholding safety data and promoting drugs for use beyond their licensed conditions. 26 companies, including eight of the 10 top players in the global industry, have been found to be acting dishonestly.

The largest fine of $3bn, imposed on the UK-based company GlaxoSmith-Kline in July after it admitted three counts of criminal behaviour in the US courts, was the largest ever. But GSK is not alone – nine other companies have had fines imposed, ranging from $420m on Novartis to $2.3bn on Pfizer since 2009. The $3bn fine on GSK represents 10.8 per cent of its revenue while the $1.5bn fine imposed on Abbott Laboratories, for promoting a drug (Depakote) with inadequate evidence of its effectiveness, amounted to 12 per cent. Kevin Outterson, a lawyer at Boston University, says that despite the eye watering size of the fines they amount to a small proportion of the companies' total revenues and may be regarded as a "cost of doing business...Companies might well view such fines as a quite small percentage of their global revenue." He argues that penalties should also be imposed on executives rather than the company as whole. GSK had committed a $1bn crime and "no individual has been held responsible".

Trust in the industry among doctors has fallen so low that they dismiss clinical trials funded by it, even when the trials have been conducted with scientific rigour, according to a second paper in the journal by researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital, Boston. This could have serious implications because most medical research is funded by the drug industry and "if physicians are reluctant to trust all such research, it could hinder the translation of … research into practice," said Aaron Kesselheim, who led the study.

The Independent reported that the world's leading drug companies are giving up on the search for a cure for Alzheimer's disease, following a series of failed drug trials, scaling back their neuroscience departments and focusing on symptomatic, rather than disease-modifying, treatments.

Richer than Canada

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In this year's Forbes rich list Bill Gates heads the poll again with a fortune of $66bn, $7bn more than last year. This is his 19th year in a row at the top. Warren Buffett comes in second at $46bn and Oracle's Larry Ellison is third at $41bn. Charles and David Koch, industrialist billionaires and favourite funders of all things rightwing, came in joint fourth, with a combined fortune of $62bn. The Waltons of Walmart occupy four of the top 10 slots,

The average net worth of a Forbes 400 member is $4.2bn this year, up from $3.8bn in 2011. Net worth increased for 241 members, and decreased for 66 members. The total combined net worth of the 400 Club was $1.7tn, up from $1.5tn in 2011. Canada's gross domestic product was an estimated $1.7tn in 2011.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The rich are special

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The UK Border Agency has disclosed that it is working on plans for fast-track passport lanes for rich travellers. Brian Moore, the head of the UK Border Force, told MPs that "high-value" people who were considered valuable passengers by the airlines or valuable to the British economy would be given priority treatment at immigration control under the plans.

The super-rich from outside Europe have already been offered a fast track to settle in Britain under immigration rule changes proposed last year. Overseas "super-investors" who are willing to keep £5m in a UK bank account are to be given the right to stay indefinitely in Britain after only three years, two years faster than the five-year wait imposed on every other migrant. An overseas investor who is willing to deposit more than £10m will be able to stay after an even shorter period: two years.

This contrasts sharply with the new minimum income threshold of £22,400 a year introduced in July for a British citizen wanting to bring an overseas spouse and child into the country to live with them.




Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Money goes to money

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The recent World Ultra Wealth Report had this to say - the really, really rich got richer. It’s been a good year for billionaires. Wealth-X reported that the world's number of billionaires increased by 9.4% to 2160 people and their collective wealth grew 14% to $6.2-trillion.

The fortunes for mere multi-millionaires haven’t been as bright. There are now 187,380 people in the world worth $30 million or more. Their combined fortune fell 1.8 percent to $25.8 trillion, although in North America the $30-million-plus crowd grew 2.8 percent up to $8.88 trillion.

According to the Fed, the top 5 percent own 60 percent of the nation’s individually held financial assets. They own 82 percent of the individually held stocks and more than 90 percent of the individually held bonds. Quantitative easing benefits the wealthy by driving up the prices of assets, especially financial assets and boosting wealth for those already engaged in the financial sector. By helping to reinflate the stock market in 2009 and 2010, the Fed created a recovery where the wealthy quickly recovered much of their wealth as stocks doubled in value*.  According to Spectrem Group, the wealthy have only about 13 percent of their investible assets in cash therefore less effected by the present low interest rates while the rest (more than 85 percent) in stocks, bonds, alternative investments and mutual funds - all benefited from quantitative easing.

* see here for a similar interpretation by the Bank of England

It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Capitalist World

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Question: can you name an antique which needs exotic parts sourced from e-bay at over £60,000 each and is part of a collection which will cost more than £15,000,000,000 to maintain?

Click here for the answer.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Occupy

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September 17 is the one-year anniversary of the occupation of Zuccotti Park. No matter what else it achieved, or failed to, Occupy Wall Street at least introduced a new phrase into politics. The slogan "We Are the 99%" clearly expressed the class divide that exists between the 1%, who own virtually the entire planet, and the 99%, who spend their lives in the service of that 1%, more often than not with the willing complicity of much of the 99%.  As unemployment and poverty reached record levels during the recession, the protest inspired hundreds of parallel occupations. Occupy Wall Street was part of a global revolt. Occupy Wall Street and its counterparts around the world exposed an economic system that only benefits the wealthiest 1%.

Another slogan often heard from Liberty Plaza was "Banks got bailed out, We got sold out" expressing an anger against the financial interests. It also raised the issue of betrayal of the many one-time Obama supporters, duped by his message of hope and change. The Occupy Movement  represented the re-awakening of radicals from their decades of slumber.

OWS with its consensus-driven, leaderless style, seemed to embrace the anarchist abolition of the state.However, collective decision-making as such is not direct democracy, unless it is formalised and consolidated. Many people were disillusioned because the general assemblies they attended were chaotic, without any serious co-ordination and with lack of power. Two main tendencies existed. The first one was directing these assemblies to be simply a part of this rebellion, to be organising spaces of this specific protest and struggle and work as centres of alternative information concerning this uprising and other crucial issues. The second tendency was arguing that these assemblies should be seen as potentially democratic institutions. They could form the basis for direct popular power, becoming arenas for local and general struggles. The prospect of their empowerment through cooperation and unification could challenge capitalism itself.

The Socialist Party has often argued that the vote and engaging in elections aren't useless but rather instead it just isn’t being used nearly effectively enough. However, to say as we do that we should mobilize at the ballot box is not to say that is the one and only option. Isn’t participation in elections just a way to to be co-opted into the capitalist system so we have to avoid anything to do with electoralism? Our societies are not absolute dictatorships like North Korea. Through historic struggles we have come to enjoy certain rights and liberties that protect us from being completely dominated by the ruling class. If we claim to speak on behalf of the 99%, this means that we have to find means through which the vast majority actually can be empowered. Participation in elections is one strategy to reach for that goal. It is not the only one that the movement should pursue, but it is an important one that it should not miss.

 Unwilling to announce any particular goals, OWS emphasized the importance of movement-building and a consistent advocacy of autonomy and non-violence. OWS gave vent to the pent up anger of the 99%, and has inspired the people throughout the world to expose capitalism for what it is: a profit-driven system to enrich and empower a tiny minority at the expense of everyone else (although we must add the caveat that it also appears that not all participants in the Occupy movements are against capitalism.)

Despite these achievements, however, OWS does not seem to be growing anymore and the movement appears to have stalled. Occupy Wall Street was forced out of Zuccotti Park by police enforcing the private property rights of the owner, Brookfield Properties. Similarly, the Occupy Boston encampment was cleared on the basis of trespassing, and in Chicago, it was unlawful according to municipal code to be in public parks between 11PM and 4AM. Almost all Occupy encampments faced similar evictions. This should not have come as a surprise to the Occupy movement, as private and state property lies at the heart of the unjust economic and political systems to which the movement is calling attention.

The challenge facing OWS organizers and ourselves is to demonstrate that the movement of the 99% has only just begun. As the late historian Howard Zinn said, it is important to “organize ourselves in such a way that means correspond to the ends, and to organize ourselves in such a way as to create the kind of human relationship that should exist in future society.”

The basis for a truly democratic society is dependent upon the shape and form of our struggles in the years ahead.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Pharmaceuticals and Profits

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France is the world’s fifth-largest consumer of pharmaceuticals. The average French citizen has 47 medicine packs or prescription in their medical cabinet every year. The cost of those medicines is around 532 euros per person, which equates to 12 percent of the French Gross Domestic Product.

Two eminent French medical experts say half of the drugs sold in France are either useless or bad for patients’ health that they blame for up to 20,000 deaths annually. Even and Debre decided to conduct the study in the wake of the scandal, which haunted France's second largest pharmaceutical, Servier. The company falsified documents to get Mediator pill marketed as a diabetic drug although they were aware of its appetite-suppressant qualities. The drug was pulled off the shelves in 2009 by French health authorities amid concerns that it had fatal side-effects.

 They blame pressure from the pharmaceutical industry on government and doctors for forcing ineffective drugs on the market.

Professor Even accused the industry of having a get-rich-quick attitude to making medicines and said it was interested in chasing only easy profits. "They haven't discovered very much new for the last 30 years, but have multiplied production, using tricks and lies. Sadly, none of them is interested in making drugs for rare conditions or, say, for an infectious disease in countries with no money, because it's not a big market. Nor are they interested in developing drugs for conditions like Alzheimer's or Parkinson's disease because it too difficult and there's not money to be made quickly. It has become interested only in the immediate, in short term gains. On Wall Street, the pharmaceutical industry is third after petrol and banking, and each year it increases by 20%. It's more profitable than mining for diamonds." 

Even told the Guardian that "The pharmaceutical industry is the most lucrative, the most cynical and the least ethical of all the industries. It is like an octopus with tentacles that has infiltrated all the decision making bodies, world health organisations, governments, parliaments, high administrations in health and hospitals and the medical profession.It has done this with the connivance, and occasionally the corruption of the medical profession. I am not just talking about medicines but the whole of medicine. It is the pharmaceutical industry that now outlines the entire medical landscape in our country."

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Miliband's true colours

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"I believe capitalism is the least worst system we've got..." he said. "...I want to save capitalism from itself."

Ed Miliband today declares that Labour will be on the side of capitalists who want to get rich, provided they work hard for their money. The “creativity” of capitalism should be harnessed and made “more decent” and “humane”.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Germans face a poor old-age

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 This article from Der Spiegel exposes that even the capitalist power-house, Germany, cannot provide for the future.

For decades, Germans have been able to live out their golden years in comfort.  For decades, one of the certainties of life in Germany was that the next generation of retirees would be better off and live a more secure existence than the preceding one. It was viewed as a sign of economic success when Germany's senior citizens thronged the luxury decks of international cruise ships and were wooed by the advertising industry as an affluent consumer group. No other segment of the population currently has a lower risk of falling into poverty than pensioners.

For today's younger generations, however, the retirement dream is turning into a nightmare. Von der Leyen, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union, released data showing that, in two decades, the statutory pension will only be enough to guarantee a life on the edge of poverty, even for average earners.

Back in 2007, the government pension agency published a study called "Old-Age Pensions in Germany," which is the largest evaluation of pension data ever conducted for Germans born between 1942 and 1961. The results were alarming. They clearly showed that old-age poverty is increasing. The reason for this trend is clear: The number of Germans in irregular work situations has risen dramatically since 1996, from over 6 million to more than 10 million. This includes roughly 3 million mini-jobbers along with some 5 million part-time workers who contribute relatively little to state pension funds -- and can expect to receive relatively little in return. It also includes a large proportion of the 2.5 million freelancers and independent contractors who employ no one but themselves.

In addition, there is a rising number of low-wage earners. There are now some 8 million German employees who work for an hourly wage of less than €9.15, as revealed by a study conducted by the Duisburg-based Institute for Work, Skills and Training (IAQ). Researchers found that 1.4 million employees even earned less than €5 an hour in Germany, which has no statutory federal minimum wage. Figures from the German government's new report on provisions for old age, to be published in November, show that of the roughly 25 million employees in the country between the ages of 25 and 65 who make social security contributions, more than 4.2 million earn a gross monthly salary of less than €1,500. This only entitles these individuals to the legally guaranteed basic social security.

Playing the stats game

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The World Bank and UN reports celebrate a global success story: Between 1990 and 2008, the world cut by half the share of the world's really poor -- those living on less than $1.25 a day. And we achieved this goal five years ahead of the "Millennial Development Goal." Woweee! The following is taken from here.

How could the world have made huge strides against extreme poverty when, since the mid-nineties, the number of chronically undernourished people has risen to record highs -- now roughly one billion? Given that the poor spend at least half their income on food and global food prices have hit historic highs, how is it possible that poverty is truly decreasing? How could we cut the rate of dire poverty in half when at the same time we learn elsewhere that 71 percent of the world's people live in countries where economic inequality is worsening?

The bar for extreme poverty, $1.25, is even more dire than it appears. It's not set via international exchange rates -- which, say, in India would mean 69 rupees a day. Instead, the Bank uses what's called "purchasing power parity (PPP)," which in India amounts to only about a third as much. It comes to just 19.50 rupees for all daily needs -- enough to buy one meal in a Calcutta street market. "PPPs for individual household consumption," Professor Thomas Pogge, a philosopher at Yale and author of Politics as Usual, writes, under-rates the cost of food in poor countries "by about 50 percent on average."

Additionally, the World Bank and UN changed what gets measured to determine progress in overcoming world poverty: Pogge notes that the 1996 Rome Declaration -- the product of representatives of more than 80 countries convened by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization -- promised to reduce, relative to 1996, the number of hungry people by half by 2015.

But in 2000, the Millennium Declaration, and the subsequent Millennial Development Goals, shifted the measurement from numbers of people to their share of the population affected. And this is a telling change, especially because poverty -- a root of hunger -- itself contributes mightily to population growth. So a poverty-spurred growth in numbers of people has, ironically, helped meet a poverty-reduction target measured by a decline in the percentage of people affected.

The advance-against-poverty picture looks quite different when using absolute numbers. World Bank statistics reveal that between 1990 and 2008 the number of people still in the below-$1.25 category has not fallen by half but by less than a third; and excluding China, the drop is an unimpressive 9 percent. Suddenly, it is much harder to celebrate.

The second goal-post fudge Pogge points out that while the Millennium Declaration adopted by the UN in 2000 makes that year its baseline, the eight specific Millennial Development Goals are measured against 1990. Starting the race in 1990 makes it possible to include the hundreds of millions of Chinese who officially escaped extreme poverty during the decade following.

Taking in twenty-seven years, from 1981 to 2008, we see that the number of people living below the still very miserly poverty line of $2.50 per person a day has increased by almost 8 percent to three billion. Outside of China, the number has grown by fully 32 percent to 2.4 billion.

The first target under the Millennial Development Goal #1, focusing on poverty, is to cut in half the percentage of hungry people hungry worldwide. At the 1990 starting line, 16 percent of the global population -- 845 million people -- officially suffered from hunger. As poor people were reeling from a doubling of the global Food Price Index between 2007 and 2011, the Food and Agriculture Organization estimated in 2009 that 1.02 billion, or 15 percent, were hungry. Even though, in 2010 its estimate fell back some, to 925 million -- that's still 13.6 percent of the world's people, far from the 8 percent that the Millennial target demands.

"Seventy-one per cent of the world's people live in countries where income inequality has been increasing," reports the Conference Board of Canada. These include "large-population countries like China, India, Russia, and the United States," it notes. Only 22 percent live in countries where inequality in decreasing. It may be statistically possible for income inequality to go up and poverty to go down (if the poor were joining the middle class while the rich were leaping even farther ahead of everybody). But that's not what we are seeing. In the U.S., for example, poverty and inequality are certainly spreading together. "The number of families in deep poverty grew sharply during the recent recession and its aftermath," writes Paul Tough in The New York Times Magazine, "and in 2010, the share of Americans whose families made less than half of the poverty line hit a record: 6.7 percent of the population, or 1 in 15 Americans."

In India, in early 2012, an official commission reported that the country's population below the official poverty line is now 30 percent, down from 37 percent in 2004-05. Given India's size, such improvement must have contributed significantly to the World Bank's positive claims. But, at about the same time we started hearing good news on global poverty reduction, the Times of India reported that "inequality in earnings has doubled in India over the last two decades, making it the worst performer on this count of all emerging economies." Plus, almost 42 percent of Indian children younger than five are underweight and almost 60 percent are stunted in height. Both estimates are much larger than the overall percent of Indians below the poverty line. How could there be so many more children suffering from obvious hunger than Indians in "official poverty"?

The risk of work-place stress

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People with highly stressful jobs but little real control over decision making are running a 23% increased risk of a heart attack, according to authoritative research.

The definition used by authors of the study in the Lancet medical journal is precise. They considered job strain to involve high demands on the individual and little freedom to make his or her own decisions about how and when to do the work. This sort of stress is to be found among all sorts of people, holding down all sorts of jobs on both high and low salaries, said one of the authors of the study, Professor Andrew Steptoe of the department of epidemiology and public health at University College London.

"It is the coupling [of high demand and low control] that is problematic," he said. "It is more common in low income jobs where people are doing the same thing again and again, such as assembly line work, but it is across the whole social spectrum. A doctor could be someone who has very high skills but might well feel that they have very little control over how quickly they can work, and they have high demands on them."

 200,000 people in the studies were followed for an average of 7.5 years, during which time there were 2,356 heart attacks or other first-time coronary heart disease events. Among those who met the definition for job strain, the risk was 23% higher than among the others, even after taking into account potentially confounding factors such as lifestyle, age, gender and socio-economic status.

There were other factors in the workplace which could affect stress and health, Steptoe added. "There is uncertainty of employment and whether wages are going up in the way they expected," he said.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

American's choice

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In America, the working class is the unmentionable class, a class that doesn’t exist, just like the upper class doesn’t exist. Everyone is in the middle class, we were told. 

 Many promises and claims were made the Republican and Democratic Party conventions from the respective party podiums, but no real solutions were put forward. Despite the posturing between Obama and Romney, both stand by the capitalist commandment - make profit. Neither Romney or Obama are proposing an alternative, only variations of the same.

In its most recent report, the Census Bureau describes the reality many Americans are facing, including declining household earnings.

    46.2 million Americans are under the poverty line — that's 15.7 percent of the country
    1-in-15 American households earned less than $11,406, the second highest percentage since 1967
    Median household incomes fell 1.5 percent to $50,100
    48.6 million Americans did not have health insurance in 2011 (down from 2010)
    9.4 percent of children did not have health insurance
    The bottom 10 percent of earners made the same amount of money in 2011 as they did in 1994
    Women continued to earn 77 percent of what men earned
    27.6 percent of Black Americans were in poverty
    25.3 percent of Hispanic Americans were in poverty
    9.8 percent of White Americans were in poverty
    More than one-fifth of those under 18 were in poverty

 93% of the economic growth that has occurred since the economic crisis went into the pockets of the top 1%. Big business is sitting on $2 trillion in cash. Side by side with this enrichment, high unemployment and underemployment persist and 58 percent of new jobs pay under $13.83 per hour.  Today wealth is vastly more concentrated into fewer hands. The top richest 400 individuals have more net worth than the bottom 60 percent of all Americans. Six members of the Walton family behind Walmart have, by themselves, as much wealth as the bottom 150 million. This elite’s top goal is to generate as much short-term profit as possible for themselves. The long-term effects of how they do this are of no concern to them.

Wall Street interests would have us believe that the best way to deal with the plight of the poor is to bring up the bottom by growing the economy from the top down—the classic claim of trickle-down economics. When wealth and power are concentrated at the top, however, the result is not trickle down. It is a sucking up. Those on the top suck up the wealth. Wall Street generated eye-popping profits and bonuses through financial manipulation, deception, and extortion while producing nothing of real value. When access to the essentials of living—for example, food, water, shelter, education, and medical care—depends on our individual access to money, those who control the creation and allocation of money hold tremendous power.

There is no shortage of work that desperately needs to be done. Industries need to be re-tooled to reverse climate change. Our infrastructure needs to be maintained and, in many cases, rebuilt. Public education needs to be improved and expanded. Social services and health care need to be made available for everyone who needs them. Workers need to wrest control of the economy from the 1% by building a politically independent mass social movement to place our needs fore-most. Economic growth is not the solution to our problems. In fact, sheer economic growth drives the need to exploit ever more of Earth's resouces, creating an environmental deficit that compromises Earth’s living systems to feed an economic system that fails to meet our most basic needs because of an egregious misallocation of resources.The financial logic of profit maximization becomes the only logic. Concern for others and Earth’s living eco-systems is off the table. Our prime need as socialists is for a more intelligent production and distribution of the wealth we have and giving priority to social and environmental returns instead of financial returns.


Racism - the myths

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The Guardian carries a much needed rebuttal of many of the myths peddled by racists. The following are some very apt extracts from it.

"Blaming immigrants for the failings of the welfare state only fuels the misperceptions that drive support for the far right. If people complain they can't get council houses, for instance, then the only honest question a politician can ask is: "Why aren't there more council houses?" If there are large numbers of people receiving unemployment benefit or tax credits, then the only honest question is: "Why is the economy failing to provide more jobs, or pay sustainable wages?"....."


"....The communities among which the BNP thrived were those whose inhabitants had reasons to feel pessimistic, even during the boom years. Its voters were often skilled workers who had done well for themselves, but felt their position threatened. Now, during the worst economic crisis in a century, with a coalition government whose austerity policies are guaranteed to spread despondency further still, people have more reason than ever to worry about the future. Across Europe, the financial crisis has inflamed tensions between a global market, a multinational EU and nation states that still count on patriotism as a social glue. Rightwing populism of various hues is on the rise...In Britain, all three main parties are committed to varying degrees of austerity. We had a taste of the anger that can arise at feeling locked out of the political system when students smashed the windows of the Treasury in 2010. Perhaps aware of this, the coalition has been pursuing a media strategy that seeks to shift public anger on to convenient scapegoats: the unemployed, people on disability benefits and immigrants – who have been blamed at the same time for being benefit scroungers and for taking "British" jobs. Societies that promise equality, freedom and democracy, yet preside over massive inequalities of wealth, are breeding grounds for racism and other vicious resentments. And wherever these resentments exist, the far right will try to exploit them."

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Cuba Libre?

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In Cuba, a country supposedly founded on egalitarian ideals, the Cuban select is as gilded as ever. This article exposes the secret lives of Havana's rich, just down the street from its many poor, are a reminder that this so-called "communist" paradise is anything but equal. In Cuba, taking pictures of the ruling family, the Castros, or reporting on their personal lives is prohibited; in the Press Freedom Index, Cuba ranked 167 out of 178.

The author writes:
 "How, you can almost hear Karl Marx asking from the grave, did an ostensibly communist country become so riven by disparity? The simplest answer may be that Fidel Castro's struggle for power was never truly a "peasant revolution."... Fidel Castro's interest in politics was never really Marxist...As a young man Fidel actually joined the Partido Ortodoxo, an anti-communist political party. The CIA told the U.S. Senate in 1959 that "we believe Castro is not a member of the Communist party," and, as late as 1961 American political scientists were still arguing over his status as a communist. Castro himself repeatedly denied an affiliation throughout his rise to power; it wasn't until after U.S. President Eisenhower refused to support Castro's presidency that he began to develop a relationship with the Soviet Union...Before taking power, Fidel referred to nationalization as a "cumbersome instrument," and pledged to not nationalize the sugar industry....Castro's former brother-in-law, Raphael Diaz Balart, said of Castro's motivations at the time: "He was just in that moment an opportunist leader who wanted to promote himself."

A one-legged man hawking CDs to tourists said he didn't believe Cuba, or the fates of the rich, would ever change. "They say about us, if we eat, we eat," he said of the ruling class. "If we don't, we don't."

Punk was proletarian

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The New York Times reported that Tom Morello, of the metal rap band Rage Against the Machine, described Romney's pit bull, Paul Ryan thus, " He is the embodiment of the machine that our music has been raging against for two decades. I clearly see that Ryan has a whole lot of rage in him; a rage against women, a rage against immigrants, a rage against workers, a rage against gays, a rage against the poor, a rage against the environment. Basically, the only thing he is not raging against is the privileged elite he is grovelling in front of for campaign contributions." And metal is not the only type of music to offer meaningful social comment...

Jowe Head and the Demi-Monde (featuring singer and multi-percussionist Catherine Gerbrands) played a short set in July at Club Integral at 'The Grosvenor' in Brixton in London. Jowe, resplendent in an exploding psychedelic tie-dye shirt and a top hat with feather performed a Kevin Coyne song with Gerbrands on theremin, a 12th century ballad beautifully sung by Gerbrands, and a cover of Oscar Brown's 'Rags and Old Iron'. Jowe Head played in the bands Swell Maps, Palookas, TV Personalities, and was one of the pioneers of low-fi DIY music production which represented punk's swipe at corporate and monopoly capitalism.

Punk was proletarian at musician level but the capitalist manufacturers of music were major labels like EMI who also had commercial interests in the defence industry. Punk was critical of capitalism, consumerism and commodity fetishism (X-Ray Spex's 'Oh Bondage Up Yours!'), alienation, and the selling of oneself in wage slavery (The Pop Group 'We Are All Prostitutes' and Vic Godard sang “Everyone is a Prostitute”). Punk was also concerned with a sense of existential authenticity in life criticising “poseurs”, and The Clash sang of “bullshit detectors” to identify inauthenticity.

The first low-fi DIY production was the Buzzcocks 'Spiral Scratch' EP in 1976 whose cover detailed the means of production; recording process, takes, overdubs, and the catalogue number ORG 1 (ORG ONE) was a playful reference to Wilhelm Reich.

Green, a member of the British Young Communist League playing as Scritti Politti also 'appropriated the means of production' for the pressing of the single 'Skank Bloc Bologna' in 1978. The single cover demystified the process of production by listing the complete costs of studio hire, recording, mastering, pressing, and printing. Green made reference to Leninist thinker Gramsci idea of a 'bloc' of classes in opposition to capitalist hegemony. Green was inspired by 'il movimento' in 'la rossa' city of Bologna in 1977 where a cultural revolt and political uprising of autonomists (Marxists and Anarchists) and counter culture radicals took control. There were clashes with the police, protesters killed and eventually the Italian Army went in to suppress the revolt.

The Desperate Bicycles pressed 500 copies of their single 'Smokescreen' in 1977 on their own label Refill Records. The cost of production was £153 (studios, pressing, sleeves), and a profit of £210 was made in 4 months which went to a second pressing of 1,000 and with profit from these sales a further 2,500 copies pressed and capital investment in equipment made.

Jowe Head and the Swell Maps booked Spaceward Studios in Cambridge and pressed 2,000 copies of their single 'Read About Seymour' in 1977. Jowe Head recalled “the thrill of feeling empowered by our realisation that we could seize the means of production”. Low-fi DIY music production was about making your own entertainment and selling it to other creative, autonomous and like-minded souls. It represented authenticity and a purity of intent, and was an exercise in anarcho-capitalism.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Wind Power

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Earth has more than enough wind to power the entire world, at least technically, two new studies find. The research looked only at the physics, not finance so others noted that it would be too costly to put up all the necessary wind turbines and build a system that could transmit energy to all consumers.

The studies are by two different U.S. science teams  calculated that existing wind turbine technology could produce hundreds of trillions of watts of power. That's more than 10 times what the world now consumes. Wind power doesn't emit heat-trapping gases like burning coal, oil and natural gas. But there have been questions, raised in earlier studies, about whether physical limits would prevent the world from being powered by wind. The new studies showed potential wind energy limits wouldn't be an issue.

Money would be.

"It's really a question about economics and engineering and not a question of fundamental resource availability," said Ken Caldeira, a climate scientist at the Palo Alto campus of the Carnegie Institution for Science. He is a co-author of one of the studies that appeared in the journal Nature Climate Change. Caldeira's study finds wind has the potential to produce more than 20 times the amount of energy the world now consumes.

Mark Jacobson, a Stanford University professor of civil and environmental engineering wrote the other study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It shows a slightly lower potential in the amount of wind power than Caldeira's study. But he said it still would amount to far more power than the world now uses is or is likely to use in the near future. If there were 100 new wind turbines for every existing one, that could do the trick. Jacobson said start-up costs and fossil fuel subsidies prevent wind from taking off.