Saturday, February 06, 2010

lynch-mob mentality

SALON, Feb. 5th, 2010
FRIDAY, FEB 5, 2010 04:06 EST
The lynch-mob mentality

If I had the power to have one statement of fact be universally recognized in our political discussions, it would be this one:
The fact that the Government labels Person X a "Terrorist" is not proof that Person X is, in fact, a Terrorist.

That proposition should be intrinsically understood by any American or Canadian who completed sixth grade civics and was thus taught that a central prong of our political system is that government officials often abuse their power and/or err and therefore must prove accusations to be true (with tested evidence) before they're assumed to be true and the person punished accordingly. In particular, the fact that the U.S. Government, over and over, has falsely accused numerous people of being Terrorists -- only for it to turn out that they did nothing wrong -- by itself should compel a recognition of this truth. But it doesn't.

All throughout the Bush years, no matter what one objected to -- illegal eavesdropping, torture, rendition, indefinite detention, denial of civilian trials -- the response from Bush followers was the same: "But these are Terrorists, and Terrorists have no rights, so who cares what is done to them?" What they actually meant was: "the Government has claimed they are Terrorists," but in their minds, that was the same thing as: "they are Terrorists."

They recognized no distinction between "a government accusation" and "unchallengeable truth"; in the authoritarian's mind, by definition, those are synonymous. The whole point of the Bush-era controversies was that -- away from an actual battlefield and where the Constitution applies (on U.S. soil and/or towards American citizens wherever they are) -- the Government should have to demonstrate someone's guilt before it's assumed (e.g., they should have to show probable cause to a court and obtain warrants before eavesdropping; they should have to offer evidence that a person engaged in Terrorism before locking them in a cage, etc.). But to someone who equates unproven government accusations with proof, those processes are entirely unnecessary. Even in the absence of those processes, they already know that these persons are Terrorists. How do they know that? Because the Government said so. Even when it comes to their fellow citizens, that's all the "proof" that is needed.

That authoritarian mentality is stronger than ever now. Why? Because unlike during the Bush years, when it was primarily Republicans willing to blindly trust Government accusations, many Democrats are now willing to do so as well. Just look at the reaction to the Government's recent attempts to assassinate the U.S.-born American citizen and Islamic cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.

Up until last November, virtually no Americans had ever even heard of al-Awlaki. But in the past few months, beginning with the Fort Hood shootings, government officials have repeatedly claimed that he's a Terrorist: usually anonymously, with virtually no evidence, and in the face of al-Awlaki's vehement denials but without any opportunity for him to defend himself (because he's in hiding out of fear of being killed by his own Government).

The Government can literally just flash someone's face on the TV screen with the word Terrorist over it (as was done with al-Awlaki), and provided the face is nefarious and Muslim-looking enough (basically the same thing), nothing else need be offered. That's enough for many people -- including many Democrats -- to march forward overnight and mindlessly proclaim that al-Awlaki is "a declared enemy of the United States working to kill Americans" (if you can stomach it, read some of these comments -- from Obama defenders at a liberal blog -- with several sounding exactly like Dick Cheney, screeching: "Of course al-Awlaki should be killed without charges; he's a Terrorist who is trying to kill Americans!!!").

Even now, beyond government assertions about his associations, the public knows virtually nothing about al-Awlaki other than the fact that he's a Muslim cleric with a Muslim name dressed in Muslim garb, sitting in a Bad Arab Country expressing anger towards the actions of the U.S. and Israel. But no matter. That's more than enough.

They're willing not only to mindlessly embrace the Government's unproven accusation that their fellow citizen is a TERRORIST ("a declared enemy of the United States working to kill Americans"), but even beyond that, to cheer for his due-process-free execution like drunken fans at a football game. And the same people declare: no civilian trials are necessary for Terrorists (meaning: people accused by the Government of being Terrorists). Even more amazingly, the identities of the other Americans on the hit list aren't even known, but that's OK: they're Terrorists, because the Government said so.

A very long time ago, I would be baffled when I'd read about things like the Salem witch hunts. How could so many people be collectively worked up into that level of irrational frenzy, where they cheered for people's torturous death as "witches" without any real due process or meaningful evidence? But all one has to do is look at our current Terrorism debates and it's easy to see how things like that happen.

It's just pure mob mentality: an authority figure appears and affixes a demonizing Other label to someone's forehead, and the adoring crowd -- frothing-at-the-mouth and feeding on each other's hatred, fears and desire to be lead -- demands "justice." I imagine that if one could travel back in time to the Salem era in order to speak with some of those gathered outside an accused witch's home, screaming for her to be killed, the conversation would go something like this:
Mob Participant: Hang the Witch!!! Kill her!!!

Far Left Civil Liberties Extremist-Purist ("FLCLE-P"): How do you know she's a witch?

Mob Participant: Didn't you just hear the government official say so?
FLCLE-P: But don't you want to see real evidence before you assume that's true and call for her death?

Mob Participant: You just heard the evidence! The magistrate said she's a witch!
FLCLE-P: But shouldn't there be a real trial first, with tangible evidence and due process protections, to see if the accusation is actually true?

Mob Participant: A "real" trial? She's a witch! She's trying to curse us and kill us all. She got more than what she deserved. Witches don't have rights!!!

Return to Question 1.

That's essentially how I hear our debates over Terrorism, and how I've heard them for quite some time. And it's how I hear them more loudly now than ever before. And with those deeply confused premises now locked into place on a bipartisan basis ("no trials are needed to determine if someone is a Terrorist because Terrorists don't have rights"), imagine how much louder that will get if there is another successful terrorist attack in the U.S. But in fairness to the 17th Century Puritans, at least the Salem witches received pretenses of due process and even trials (albeit with coerced confessions and speculative hearsay). Even when it comes to our fellow citizens, we don't even bother with those. For us, the mere accusation by our leaders is sufficient: Kill that American Terrorist with a drone!
UPDATE: A long-time, regular commenter here, Jestaplero, is a state prosecutor in New York, and he explains -- in this comment -- how the mentality discussed here can and does easily expand beyond the realm of Terrorism.

Interestingly, even Allahpundit at Michelle Malkin's Hot Air recognizes the serious dangers in allowing the Government to decree even U.S. citizens to be "Terrorists" and then treat them accordingly, with no due process. But note how his right-wing commenters are almost exclusively of the "just-kill-him" school of thought, and how identical they sound to that minority of Daily Kos commenters I linked above who, in their blind loyalty to Obama, also insist that there's nothing wrong with simply snuffing out the lives of their fellow citizens who are "Terrorists" (meaning: anyone their Leader claims is a Terrorist) with no due process or oversight whatsoever. Ultimately, authoritarians are authoritarians, regardless of whether they situate themselves on the left or right.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Water Heist

Water Heist: Corporations Are Targeting Cash-Strapped Cities for Control of Their Public Water
From wastewater to drinking water, big business is looking to cash in on public water systems and they've got a new tactic.
January 29, 2010 |

Corporate interests are eyeing our water. From wastewater to drinking water, big business is looking to cash in on public water systems and they've got a new tactic: They're using desperate economic times to convince city officials that they should place a corporation between families and their ability to eat, drink, and clean.

Take Akron, Ohio, for example. In September 2008 I wrote an article for Alternet about a ballot measure in Akron where voters were asked whether to lease the city's wastewater system to a corporation in return for an immediate, one-time payment. The plan was roundly defeated. But more importantly, as the article suggested, the lease signaled a new direction for water privatization in the U.S. This involved a collaboration between water companies and Wall Street to snatch up control of water infrastructure for the better part of a century.

Since that vote, similar lease plans have been floated in Milwaukee and Chicago, presenting a dangerous possibility: In the near future, a major U.S. city could sign over unprecedented control of its water system to a corporation for a generation or longer. The silver lining in this narrative is that the same communities being targeted by water corporations for these deals are now charting out new ways to ensure their water remains in public hands. And for the moment, advocates of public control are winning.

The Lease Model of Water Privatization

Recent decades have been an active period for water corporations. In the 1990s the corporate push to privatize was buffeted by a tax law change under the Clinton administration that encouraged multinationals to enter the U.S. market. However, when privatization of water systems in large cities proved to be a nonstarter-due in no small part of public education and opposition-the largest players like Veolia, Suez, American Water, and Aqua America opted instead for a strategy of gobbling up smaller systems. This has been the basic narrative of municipal water privatization in the U.S., until recently.

As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, water companies are pushing a new model of privatization and targeting some of America's largest cities, starting in the water-rich Midwest. This new business model involves the acquisition of systems for periods much longer than previously considered, and with much greater control of the asset. These companies now want to lease your water, so they can sell it back to you.

The concept is relatively simple. The company pays the municipality an upfront sum of money in return for control of the water system. The company regains its investment through water bills over the life of the lease. The lease model stands in contrast to the more common "operation and maintenance" (O&M) contracts of the past decade in three main respects. For starters, cash flows in the opposite direction: an O&M contract generally involves a city making payments to the water company. The lease also differs significantly in the degree of the control that the public hands over, which may include capital improvements, system reach, and collection of excess revenue. Finally, these proposals span a much greater length of time-often 75 to 99 years-theoretically so the company has adequate time to regain its investment.

The incentive for cities is clear, if shortsighted. In the rustbelt Midwest, where the recession has hit state budgets hard, the one-time cash influx-a lifeline of sorts-is hard to refuse. And while water systems are not the only asset companies are willing to acquire, many cities in the water-rich Midwest see their access to freshwater as one of their most valuable assets. Cities like Milwaukee and Chicago have excess capacity to deliver freshwater, a resource described with growing frequency as "blue gold" and "the new oil."

But the intrinsic costs to the community are numerous and in part account for the fact that no such deal has yet been concluded in a large U.S. city. For starters, rate increases are guaranteed, seeing as this is the company's primary means of recouping its investment. In Chicago, where parking meters were leased in 2008, a schedule of rate increases was written into the lease to ensure a return for the company. And loss of control can extend beyond rate-setting to encompass decisions over bulk water sales and regional development too. After all, no company would spend a pretty penny on an asset that it can not leverage or use to its advantage. These are costs to the community that endure over the life of the lease, whether it be 75 or 99 years.

Despite the drawbacks to these deals, water companies are using tough economic times as leverage.

Mobilization in the Midwest: Communities Fight Back

The upshot of this assault on large public water systems is that the same cash-strapped communities targeted by water corporations for these deals are meanwhile growing smart water activists and developing new tools to prevent the sale of their water. The three primary instances are Akron, Milwaukee, and Chicago.

The Voter Initiative in Akron

Akron, Ohio, a city with a well-functioning sewer system, was the first in the recent pack of large cities to consider leasing its water. In 2008 Akron Mayor Donald Plusquellic hired Morgan Stanley to act as a financial advisor to the deal and, despite public opposition, used his control over council to move the city inexorably toward a wastewater lease. Faced with little hope of swaying the council, residents organized the city's first successful voter initiative in ten years. Citizens to Save our Sewers and Water proposed amending the city's Charter to state that any sale or lease of a public asset must be subject to a public referendum. In November 2008, after a nine-month struggle, the electorate voted 2 to 1 to amend the city's charter and sink the mayor's privatization plan.

Akron voters had not only rejected privatization, they had also erected a hurdle for future privatization deals in the form of a referendum requirement. It was a landmark victory that inspired a similar strategy in Cincinnati, Ohio in 2009 when city officials sought to spin-off that city's water system (that issue will go to ballot this year).

Preventing the Financial Advisor in Milwaukee

Within months of the Akron vote the lease proposal reared its head in another Midwest city with a valuable and well-functioning water system. In late 2008 Milwaukee City Council voted to explore leasing its drinking water system. By May it had begun accepting applications from Morgan Stanley, Citibank and other Wall Street suitors to serve as financial advisor for the deal.

That spring Food & Water Watch joined with environmental, nonprofit, union and neighborhood partners in Milwaukee to form the Keep Public Our Water (KPOW) coalition. This energetic and smart group used lessons from Akron to launch an education campaign and pressure elected officials to halt the process. Central to these efforts was a critique of the financial advisor role. These advisors, commonly Wall Street firms, are supposed to aid cities in weighing whether to pursue a contract. However, they are frequently paid a "success fee" for their assistance, amounting to a portion of the completed contract-a clear incentive to ensure that privatization occurs.

The KPOW campaign was a success. One city alderman who had stated confidently in April that a financial advisor "would unquestionably be hired" joined three colleagues in June asking City Comptroller Wally Morics to suspend the plan indefinitely. The winning message was this: Hiring a financial advisor would sweep Milwaukee too quickly down a path that did not have the support of the community.

In November, KPOW went a step further to introduce a city resolution declaring water a public trust and stating that Milwaukee's water should not be privatized.

Is Chicago Next?

If 2008 and 2009 brought battles over water leases, 2010 promises to further up the ante. With water multinationals still without a flagship city to tout the lease model, talk has moved to the Windy City. The issue arose in Chicago during the November budget approval process when it came to light that Mayor Daily would consider leasing the water system. The mayor's remark sparked a flurry of questions and speculative news pieces.

Although there has not yet been a formal proposal, the threat of a water lease is very real in Chicago. Perhaps more than any other U.S. city Chicago has embraced the concept of major asset leases. In 2004 Mayor Daley oversaw a 99-year lease of the Chicago Skyway, followed in 2008 by a 75-year lease of the city's parking meters, and currently he is seeking to lease Chicago's Midway Airport. In this water-rich city where the mayor has firm control of city council, a serious budget shortfall, and penchant for unloading public assets, a water lease is hardly a stretch of the imagination.

However, stung by the surprising and disastrous parking meter lease in 2008, some Chicagoans are wisely not waiting to mobilize against this possibility. In October, Chicago Alderman Scott Waguespack introduced the Asset Lease Taxpayer Protection Ordinance. The measure would raise hurdles and restrict the circumstances under which a city asset could be leased. It is a first step in protecting Chicago's water from private control.

In the end, advocates of public control can hardly relish the thought of a fight with Mayor Daley over privatization. However, they are wise to not wait to take protective steps. And whether it is a charter amendment, a sharp analysis of Wall Street advisors, or more responsible city ordinances, advocates of public control have demonstrated that they have the tools needed to win.

Jon Keesecker is the midwest region director for Food & Water Watch.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Olympics head for disaster

Vancouver's Olympics head for disaster
Douglas Haddow
Two weeks before the games and with police officers on every corner, Vancouver is far from an Olympic wonderland

It's now two weeks until the start of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic games, a city-defining event that is a decade in the making. But a decade is a very long time. Much of what seemed sensible in the early 2000s has proven to be the opposite: for instance, allowing investment bankers to pursue profits willy-nilly was acceptable when Vancouver won the bid in 2003, but is now viewed as idiotic. So it comes as no surprise that just days before the opening ceremony, Vancouver is gripped by dread. Not the typical attitude for a host city, but understandable when you consider that everything that could go wrong, is in the process of going wrong.

Vancouver has been continually ranked as the world's most livable city. An Olympic sized-dose of gentrification would only serve to speed up Vancouver's transformation from a livable yet expensive city into a glitzy hotel for international capital. But these neoliberal dreams are now little more than fantasy. In the mid-2000s the games were originally slated to cost a pittance of $660m and bring in a profit of $10bn. This ludicrous projection was made before the market crash – an event that the Vancouver's Olympic committee failed to anticipate.

"The Bailout Games" have already been labelled a staggering financial disaster. While the complete costs are still unknown, the Vancouver and British Columbian governments have hinted at what's to come by cancelling 2400 surgeries, laying off 233 government employees, 800 teachers and recommending the closure of 14 schools. It might be enough to make one cynical, but luckily every inch of the city is now coated with advertisements that feature smiley people enjoying the products of the event's gracious sponsors.

Conservative estimates now speculate that the games will cost upwards of $6bn, with little chance of a return. This titanic act of fiscal malfeasance includes a security force that was originally budgeted at $175m, but has since inflated to $900m. With more than 15,000 members, it's the largest military presence seen in western Canada since the end of the second world war, an appropriate measure only if one imagines al-Qaida are set to descend from the slopes on C2-strapped snowboards. With a police officer on every corner and military helicopters buzzing overhead, Vancouver looks more like post-war Berlin than an Olympic wonderland. Whole sections of the city are off-limits, scores of roads have been shut down, small businesses have been told to close shop and citizens have been instructed to either leave the city or stay indoors to make way for the projected influx of 300,000 visitors.

Vancouver's Olympic committee has also assumed the role of logo police. Librarians are being commanded to feed McDonald's to children while unauthorised brands have been banned from Olympic venues. Worse yet, they've begun to casually slip clips from Leni Riefenstahl films into their Coldplay-soundtracked promotional videos.

This manic mix of hype and gloom is a byproduct of the games' utter pointlessness. For those who have been planning their resistance since 2003, Vancouver is about to become the world's premier political stage. It will be the best chance yet for the Olympics to be derailed and exposed as what they are: a corrupt relic of the 20th century that does little more than gut city coffers and line the pockets of developers and investors. If things go pear-shaped and Vancouverites resort to their riotious ways, at least the city will get its money's worth out of that bloated security force and the ensuing spectacle will boost NBC's slumping ratings. After all, the Olympics are primarily a patriotic event, and in the words of the late Howard Zinn, "Dissent is the highest form of patriotism".