In China’s new surveillance state, everyone will be watched, reviewed and rated

Social credit and a high-tech, all-seeing government will keep every citizen in line

By James O’Malley/ The Spectator/ December 5, 2018

The bullet train from Beijing to Shanghai is the fastest in the world. It takes just over four hours to travel the 819-mile journey. From the train, it is impossible to ignore China’s economic success. There are cities the size of London that many westerners will never even have heard of. They are filled with glass towers and shopping centres, selling Cartier watches and Gucci bags.

As the train sets off from each station, an announcement plays in both Chinese and stilted English: ‘Dear passengers, people who travel without a ticket or behave disorderly, or smoke in public areas, will be punished according to regulations and the behaviour will be recorded in the individual credit information system. To avoid a negative record of personal credit please follow the relevant regulations and help with the orders on the train and at the station.’

As a technology journalist, I’m used to hearing Silicon Valley executives talk about how liberating new technology is. Yet this announcement startled me. It was a reminder that the same technology that has transformed liberal democracies is now starting to be used by authoritarian governments who want to tighten their grip on society.

‘Personal credit’ is essentially a permanent record of an individual’s behaviour. In the case of the train announcement, the record is maintained by China’s transport department. If you’re caught travelling without a ticket or smoking on the train, you’ll be put on a blacklist. You may even find yourself banned from the railways.


In principle, this might seem like a good idea. But what gives the system a sinister edge is the government’s stated intention. By 2020, it wants to join up the railway blacklist with similar blacklists held by other government departments, municipalities and even private sector businesses. These records will then form part of a national ‘social credit’ system.

Social credit works in a similar way to how we rate our Uber drivers and Deliveroo orders. It allows individuals to be rated and scored. Good behaviour is rewarded with points, while bad behaviour is penalised. Run a red light? Lose some points. Donated to charity? Bonus points. Sold contaminated food in your restaurant? That’s going to hit your social credit rating hard.

The score is constantly updated. If it falls below an acceptable threshold, then it’s game over. You could be denied the right to travel, purchase luxury goods or gain access to services. In some cases, you may even be publicly shamed with your face displayed on billboards. An infraction in one area of life could easily come back to haunt you in another. According to a State Council policy document: ‘If trust is broken in one place, restrictions are imposed everywhere.’

Dr Rogier Creemers, perhaps the West’s leading expert on the system, explains how moral authority has been a central part of Chinese politics for the past two millennia. ‘China never had a separate church in the way that western countries did, and so the moral authority of the church is also held by the state. This isn’t just about people obeying the law; it’s about the state claiming the moral authority to define what virtue is, and then demanding that people live virtuously.’

There isn’t yet a single system of control. The Chinese government is still working on knitting together the various databases and systems so that different parts of government can access data held in different silos. But there are around 40 local trials currently in operation, each of which has different rules and punishments. Once in place, the social credit system will act as a way of enforcing existing laws and regulations.

In China’s tech hub Shenzhen, a city of 12.5 million people, jaywalkers are punished using the social credit system. Pedestrians who don’t cross the road at the right time or do so in the wrong place have their photos posted on a government website, and on billboards on the sides of the roads. One firm, Intellifusion, is reported to be building a system that will automate this with facial recognition technology. Not only will the system be able to identify offenders automatically, it will then text them to let them know they face punishment.

Another local trial is taking place in the city of Jinan, but this one is for dog owners. Individuals start with 12 points, but can lose them for infractions like walking their pet without a leash, or letting the animal bark too much. Lose all your points and the government takes your pooch away.

The private sector has been just as keen to adopt social credit. Sesame Credit was launched by e-commerce giant Alibaba in 2015. Much like Amazon, Alibaba is a platform that connects buyers and sellers. But unlike in America and Europe, most Chinese people didn’t have a bank account until recently, so financial tools such as credit checks were unavailable. A system was needed to create trust within the marketplace.

Enter social credit. Users who opt in to the system are given a score — somewhere between 350 and 950, based on different metrics: how much a user spends, how much personal information has been entered into the app, whether bills and credit card payments have been made on time and how many verified friends a user has.

These metrics are then used as a proxy for trust. If someone has bought plenty of items without a problem, or has friends who use the platform whom the company has already verified, and so on, the system will divine that the person is more trustworthy.

As with the government systems, scores are important. If you have a sufficiently high score, you unlock perks, such as the ability to rent bicycles without paying a deposit, use massage chairs (which are strangely ubiquitous in China) for free, or even fast-track your application for a Schengen visa.

What makes Sesame Credit controversial is that the algorithm that drives it is kept secret. Most users will have no idea how their score is calculated. But the company has admitted it is partially based on the types of products people buy. ‘Someone who plays video games for ten hours a day, for example, would be considered an idle person,’ Li Yingyun, Sesame’s technology director, has said. Buying products for your child would mark you out as a more responsible citizen.

Economies are built on trust and China’s economy has matured at an astonishing rate. Those who support the system say that it’s designed to manage low-level misdemeanours and will help create more trust.

But it’s easy to see where the next steps could lead. You don’t need to read too much dystopian science fiction to imagine how such an opaque system, where a mysterious number decides your rights and privileges, could be used to control a population. Some trials have already led to alarming results. In one region, the phone system was configured so that anyone calling someone on a debtor blacklist was warned that they were contacting an untrustworthy individual.

While we might trust the people currently in charge of the new high-tech security apparatus, how can we be sure that the people in charge in the future will use it responsibly? In other words, even if you inexplicably trust the Chinese government to behave responsibly today, how can you be so sure that Xi Jinping or his successors will behave the same way tomorrow? China’s innovative use of new technology may not just enable perfect surveillance. It will align an individual’s motives with those of the state itself.

Technology is only going to develop further. Processing power will increase, as will facial recognition. The number of devices containing cameras and microchips will increase too. It will keep getting easier to sift through huge amounts of information, in the hunt for anything subversive.

What China has achieved in such a short time is staggering. But the announcement I heard on the bullet train made me nervous. It was an ominous reminder that there is a darker side to China’s growth, which may soon affect us all.

Expanded Surveillance


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How the Media Serve Trump

By Arlen Grossman

revised November 7
published in November 11, 2018

Donald Trump castigates the media at every opportunity, calling them “fake news,” and  “enemy of the people,”  but in reality, they are his best friends and most effective promoters.

Somehow his approval rating remains stable, despite his lies, divisive speeches and all the insane nonsensical garbage he spews out. He is still able to draw enthusiastic, adoring crowds and keep the nation’s attention squarely focused on him.

How is his popularity sustained? Why hasn’t he  been knocked off his pedestal? Why did millions of Americans vote for many of the senate candidates he campaigned for in the mid-terms? The answer, I believe, is the way he is treated by the corporate news media. These ratings-driven media companies allow Donald Trump to dominate their coverage. They breathlessly cover everything he does or says. The president is able to fabricate reality and go on bizarre, incendiary rants–and totally get away with it. 

Things may change now that Democrats control the House, but for the last two years the opposition party didn’t seem to exist. Oh, they were out there, pointing out the absurdity and danger of the president’s tweets and policies. Yet, with minimal coverage from the news media, they might as well have been talking into the wind. Where were  Democratic leaders and prominent office-holders, like Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi and Elizabeth Warren? They were around, of course, but Trump has been just plain irresistible to the news media. He sucks up all the air, leaving Democrats on the outside looking in.

Donald Trump enjoys extraordinary luck and political savvy and knows how to play the media like a violin virtuoso. Everything he says is treated like an important presidential pronouncement, when in fact they are truly infantile, unhinged, ill-informed blather, if not downright lies (What’s the latest count from the Washington Post, 6000-plus?). Unfortunately millions of Americans believe he knows what he is talking about and await his daily diatribes as if they were important proclamations.

Being that he is the President of the United States, Trump deserves to be heard. But the corporate news media can give him sufficient coverage without overwhelming the viewers, and allow some time for other points of view. As it stands now, he is receiving millions of dollars in free, mostly unchallenged advertising for his likely 2020 run for re-election.

There is no doubt Donald Trump is a media dream, pulling in phenomenal ratings. People love or loathe everything he says and does, and will continue paying attention. But the corporate news media needs to pay attention to the cost to the country. If there is still such a thing as corporate responsibility, they will realize their over-the-top coverage of President Trump only helps him destroy the underpinnings of our democracy and turn Americans against each other.

The corporate news media has a responsibility to treat President Trump as they have previous presidents and other influential political leaders. That is, not allow him to totally dominate the news coverage, and to allow the opposition some rebuttal time.

It’s way past time to level the playing field.


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Tired of Losing?

Why American Leaders Persist in Waging Losing Wars

Hint: They’re Winning in Other Ways

By William Astore/ October 25, 2018

As America enters the 18th year of its war in Afghanistan and its 16th in Iraq, the war on terror continues in Yemen, Syria, and parts of Africa, including Libya, Niger, and Somalia. Meanwhile, the Trump administration threatens yet more war, this time with Iran. (And given these last years, just how do you imagine that’s likely to turn out?) Honestly, isn’t it time Americans gave a little more thought to why their leaders persist in waging losing wars across significant parts of the planet?  So consider the rest of this piece my attempt to do just that.

PeLet’s face it: profits and power should be classified as perennial reasons why U.S. leaders persist in waging such conflicts. War may be a racket, as General Smedley Butler claimed long ago, but who cares these days since business is booming? And let’s add to such profits a few other all-American motivations. Start with the fact that, in some curious sense, war is in the American bloodstream. As former New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges once put it, “War is a force that gives us meaning.” Historically, we Americans are a violent people who have invested much in a self-image of toughness now being displayed across the “global battlespace.” (Hence all the talk in this country not about our soldiers but about our “warriors.”) As the bumper stickers I see regularly where I live say: “God, guns, & guts made America free.” To make the world freer, why not export all three?

Add in, as well, the issue of political credibility. No president wants to appear weak and in the United States of the last many decades, pulling back from a war has been the definition of weakness. No one — certainly not Donald Trump — wants to be known as the president who “lost” Afghanistan or Iraq. As was true of Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon in the Vietnam years, so in this century fear of electoral defeat has helped prolong the country’s hopeless wars. Generals, too, have their own fears of defeat, fears that drive them to escalate conflicts (call it the urge to surge) and even to advocate for the use of nuclear weapons, as General William Westmoreland did in 1968 during the Vietnam War.



Washington’s own deeply embedded illusions and deceptions also serve to generate and perpetuate its wars. Lauding our troops as “freedom fighters” for peace and prosperity, presidents like George W. Bush have waged a set of brutal wars in the name of spreading democracy and a better way of life. The trouble is: incessant war doesn’t spread democracy — though in the twenty-first century we’ve learned that it does spread terror groups — it kills it. At the same time, our leaders, military and civilian, have given us a false picture of the nature of the wars they’re fighting. They continue to present the U.S. military and its vaunted “smart” weaponry as a precision surgical instrument capable of targeting and destroying the cancer of terrorism, especially of the radical Islamic variety. Despite the hoopla about them, however, those precision instruments of war turn out to be blunt indeed, leading to the widespread killing of innocents, the massive displacement of people across America’s war zones, and floods of refugees who have, in turn, helped spark the rise of the populist right in lands otherwise still at peace.

Lurking behind the incessant warfare of this century is another belief, particularly ascendant in the Trump White House: that big militaries and expensive weaponry represent “investments” in a better future — as if the Pentagon were the Bank of America or Wall Street. Steroidal military spending continues to be sold as a key to creating jobs and maintaining America’s competitive edge, as if war were America’s primary business. (And perhaps it is!)

Those who facilitate enormous military budgets and frequent conflicts abroad still earn special praise here. Consider, for example, Senator John McCain’s rapturous final sendoff, including the way arms maker Lockheed Martin lauded him as an American hero supposedly tough and demanding when it came to military contractors. (And if you believe that, you’ll believe anything.)

Put all of this together and what you’re likely to come up with is the American version of George Orwell’s famed formulation in his novel 1984: “war is peace.”

The War the Pentagon Knew How to Win

Twenty years ago, when I was a major on active duty in the U.S. Air Force, a major concern was the possible corroding of civil-military relations — in particular, a growing gap between the military and the civilians who were supposed to control them. I’m a clipper of newspaper articles and I saved some from that long-gone era. “Sharp divergence found in views of military and civilians,” reported the New York Times in September 1999. “Civilians, military seen growing apart,” noted the Washington Post a month later. Such pieces were picking up on trends already noted by distinguished military commentators like Thomas Ricks and Richard Kohn. In July 1997, for instance, Ricks had written an influential Atlantic article, “The Widening Gap between the Military and Society.” In 1999, Kohn gave a lecture at the Air Force Academy titled “The Erosion of Civilian Control of the Military in the United States Today.”

A generation ago, such commentators worried that the all-volunteer military was becoming an increasingly conservative and partisan institution filled with generals and admirals contemptuous of civilians, notably then-President Bill Clinton. At the time, according to one study, 64% of military officers identified as Republicans, only 8% as Democrats and, when it came to the highest levels of command, that figure for Republicans was in the stratosphere, approaching 90%. Kohn quoted a West Point graduate as saying, “We’re in danger of developing our own in-house Soviet-style military, one in which if you’re not in ‘the party,’ you don’t get ahead.” In a similar fashion, 67% of military officers self-identified as politically conservative, only 4% as liberal.

In a 1998 article for the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings, Ricks noted that “the ratio of conservatives to liberals in the military” had gone from “about 4 to 1 in 1976, which is about where I would expect a culturally conservative, hierarchical institution like the U.S. military to be, to 23 to 1 in 1996.” This “creeping politicization of the officer corps,” Ricks concluded, was creating a less professional military, one in the process of becoming “its own interest group.” That could lead, he cautioned, to an erosion of military effectiveness if officers were promoted based on their political leanings rather than their combat skills.

How has the civil-military relationship changed in the last two decades? Despite bending on social issues (gays in the military, women in more combat roles), today’s military is arguably neither more liberal nor less partisan than it was in the Clinton years. It certainly hasn’t returned to its citizen-soldier roots via a draft. Change, if it’s come, has been on the civilian side of the divide as Americans have grown both more militarized and more partisan (without any greater urge to sign up and serve). In this century, the civil-military divide of a generation ago has been bridged by endless celebrations of that military as “the best of us” (as Vice President Mike Pence recently put it).

Such expressions, now commonplace, of boundless faith in and thankfulness for the military are undoubtedly driven in part by guilt over neither serving, nor undoubtedly even truly caring. Typically, Pence didn’t serve and neither did Donald Trump (those pesky “heel spurs”). As retired Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich put it in 2007: “To assuage uneasy consciences, the many who do not serve [in the all-volunteer military] proclaim their high regard for the few who do. This has vaulted America’s fighting men and women to the top of the nation’s moral hierarchy. The character and charisma long ago associated with the pioneer or the small farmer — or carried in the 1960s by Dr. King and the civil-rights movement — has now come to rest upon the soldier.” This elevation of “our” troops as America’s moral heroes feeds a Pentagon imperative that seeks to isolate the military from criticism and its commanders from accountability for wars gone horribly wrong.

Paradoxically, Americans have become both too detached from their military and too deferential to it. We now love to applaud that military, which, the pollsters tell us, enjoys a significantly higher degree of trust and approval from the public than the presidency, Congress, the media, the Catholic church, or the Supreme Court. What that military needs, however, in this era of endless war is not loud cheers, but tough love.

As a retired military man, I do think our troops deserve a measure of esteem. There’s a selfless ethic to the military that should seem admirable in this age of selfies and selfishness. That said, the military does not deserve the deference of the present moment, nor the constant adulation it gets in endless ceremonies at any ballpark or sporting arena. Indeed, deference and adulation, the balm of military dictatorships, should be poison to the military of a democracy.

With U.S. forces endlessly fighting ill-begotten wars, whether in Vietnam in the 1960s or in Iraq and Afghanistan four decades later, it’s easy to lose sight of where the Pentagon continues to maintain a truly winning record: right here in the U.S.A. Today, whatever’s happening on the country’s distant battlefields, the idea that ever more inflated military spending is an investment in making America great again reigns supreme — as it has, with little interruption, since the 1980s and the era of President Ronald Reagan.

The military’s purpose should be, as Richard Kohn put it long ago, “to defend society, not to define it. The latter is militarism.” With that in mind, think of the way various retired military men lined up behind Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016, including a classically unhinged performance by retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn (he of the “lock her up” chants) for Trump at the Republican convention and a shout-out of a speech by retired General John Allen for Clinton at the Democratic one. America’s presidential candidates, it seemed, needed to be anointed by retired generals, setting a dangerous precedent for future civil-military relations.

A Letter From My Senator

A few months back, I wrote a note to one of my senators to complain about America’s endless wars and received a signed reply via email. I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that it was a canned response, but no less telling for that. My senator began by praising American troops as “tough, smart, and courageous, and they make huge sacrifices to keep our families safe. We owe them all a true debt of gratitude for their service.” OK, I got an instant warm and fuzzy feeling, but seeking applause wasn’t exactly the purpose of my note.

My senator then expressed support for counterterror operations, for, that is, “conducting limited, targeted operations designed to deter violent extremists that pose a credible threat to America’s national security, including al-Qaeda and its affiliates, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), localized extremist groups, and homegrown terrorists.” My senator then added a caveat, suggesting that the military should obey “the law of armed conflict” and that the authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) that Congress hastily approved in the aftermath of 9/11 should not be interpreted as an “open-ended mandate” for perpetual war.

Finally, my senator voiced support for diplomacy as well as military action, writing, “I believe that our foreign policy should be smart, tough, and pragmatic, using every tool in the toolbox — including defense, diplomacy, and development — to advance U.S. security and economic interests around the world.” The conclusion: “robust” diplomacy must be combined with a “strong” military.

Now, can you guess the name and party affiliation of that senator? Could it have been Lindsey Graham or Jeff Flake, Republicans who favor a beyond-strong military and endlessly aggressive counterterror operations? Of course, from that little critical comment on the AUMF, you’ve probably already figured out that my senator is a Democrat. But did you guess that my military-praising, counterterror-waging representative was Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts?

Full disclosure: I like Warren and have made small contributions to her campaign. And her letter did stipulate that she believed “military action should always be a last resort.” Still, nowhere in it was there any critique of, or even passingly critical commentary about, the U.S. military, or the still-spreading war on terror, or the never-ending Afghan War, or the wastefulness of Pentagon spending, or the devastation wrought in these years by the last superpower on this planet. Everything was anodyne and safe — and this from a senator who’s been pilloried by the right as a flaming liberal and caricatured as yet another socialist out to destroy America.

I know what you’re thinking: What choice does Warren have but to play it safe? She can’t go on record criticizing the military. (She’s already gotten in enough trouble in my home state for daring to criticize the police.) If she doesn’t support a “strong” U.S. military presence globally, how could she remain a viable presidential candidate in 2020?

And I would agree with you, but with this little addendum: Isn’t that proof that the Pentagon has won its most important war, the one that captured — to steal a phrase from another losing war — the “hearts and minds” of America? In this country in 2018, as in 2017, 2016, and so on, the U.S. military and its leaders dictate what is acceptable for us to say and do when it comes to our prodigal pursuit of weapons and wars.

So, while it’s true that the military establishment failed to win those “hearts and minds” in Vietnam or more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan, they sure as hell didn’t fail to win them here. In Homeland, U.S.A., in fact, victory has been achieved and, judging by the latest Pentagon budgets, it couldn’t be more overwhelming.

If you ask — and few Americans do these days — why this country’s losing wars persist, the answer should be, at least in part: because there’s no accountability. The losers in those wars have seized control of our national narrative. They now define how the military is seen (as an investment, a boon, a good and great thing); they now shape how we view our wars abroad (as regrettable perhaps, but necessary and also a sign of national toughness); they now assign all serious criticism of the Pentagon to what they might term the defeatist fringe.

In their hearts, America’s self-professed warriors know they’re right. But the wrongs they’ve committed, and continue to commit, in our name will not be truly righted until Americans begin to reject the madness of rampant militarism, bloated militaries, and endless wars.

A retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and professor of history, Astore is a TomDispatch regular. His personal blog is Bracing Views.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Storyand Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power, John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II, and John Feffer’s dystopian novel Splinterlands.

Copyright 2018 William J. Astore

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You’ve Seen One Tree, You’ve Seen Them All


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How the Rich Get Richer

Seeing Trump tax returns is just first step

By Charlotte Rampell/ Washington Post/ October 8, 2018


Everyone is shocked, shocked to learn that President Trump amassed his fortune not by the sweat of his brow, but rather the old-fashioned way: choosing the right parents and dodging the Internal Revenue Service. That’s certainly the lesson of The New York Times expose this week reporting that Trump received more than $400 million in today’s dollars from his father’s business empire, some of it through what the Times characterized as criminal tax fraud.

What to do with this information? Beyond all the Trump-specific takeaways — such as, duh, we need to see his tax returns — two much broader policy conclusions shouldn’t get lost here: 1. We need to adequately fund the IRS.

2. What’s scandalous here isn’t just what’s illegal. It’s also what is legal.

If you’re wondering how Trump was able to duck the tax authorities for so long, given the brazen acts documented by the Times, note that we have basically stopped prosecuting tax crimes and other white-collar offenses.


There are lots of reasons tax cheats are sleeping easier than they used to. One is that Congress has repeatedly stripped the IRS of money and staff, though the IRS brings in much more money than it spends.

Consequently, audit rates have plummeted, especially for corporations and the ultrawealthy. Since fiscal 2011, the audit rate for big corporations (those with at least $10 million in assets) has fallen by half; for households making at least $1 million in income, it’s down by two-thirds.

To some extent, corporations and the rich have always managed to outgun the IRS — including during the 1990s, when the Trump family engaged in its dodgiest tax dodging. But these days, the agency is bringing a knife to a bazooka fight. Which brings me to the second issue.

There’s a bunch of stuff the Trumps reportedly did that may not be illegal, but should be. When itcomes to taxes — like lots of other policy arenas,such as campaign finance— we need to work harder not only to enforce the laws on the books, but also to make those laws fairer, clearer and less susceptible to exploitation.

Real estate, in particular, has lots and lots of loopholes and other opportunities for (legal) tax avoidance. Relative to other taxpayers, for instance, real estate investors can more easily use losses to reduce or completely wipe out future tax bills — something Trump is also believed to have done, based on a leaked 1995 return declaring a $916 million loss.

There have been periodic attempts to plug real-estatespecific tax loopholes. In fact, Trump personally testified before Congress in 1991 about his disgust for the removal of tax shelters for real estate, complaining that tax shelter is “a very bad-sounding word, even though it isn’t necessarily a bad thing.”

The Times reported that the Trumps used (and likely abused) an estate-planning technique known as a “grantorretained annuity trust” to help them duck hundreds of millions of dollars in gift taxes during the 1990s. This is, in fact, a tool that many rich people employ to pass on more wealth to their heirs tax-free, costing Uncle Sam tons of money for no justifiable economic reason. The Barack Obama administration issued regulations to curb this popular tax-dodging tool. But almost a year ago, the Trump administration quietly withdrew those regulations.

And, of course, two months later, Trump signed an enormous tax overhaul that will save dynastic families such as his even more money by cutting income tax rates, doubling the exemption for the estate tax and, at the last minute, even adding a special new tax break for (you guessed it!) real estate investors.

Ours is a tax code that largely operates on the honor system. If high-profile people don’t behave honorably — by cheating, by axing the cops who could catch the cheating and by rigging the tax code further in their favor so that cheating becomes a little less necessary — that entire honor system will deteriorate. No one, not even Leona Helmsley’s “little people,” wants to be the only sucker left still paying their tax bills honestly.

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Trump, The Koch Brothers and Their War on Climate Science

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Who Can Blame Them?

WASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report)—In the latest controversy to envelop the Supreme Court nominee, criminals across the United States are demanding that their cases receive the kind of F.B.I. investigation that Brett Kavanaugh just got.

From coast to coast, perpetrators of crimes ranging from arson to bank robbery are arguing that, if the F.B.I. investigates them at all, such investigations should be extremely limited in scope.

Harland Dorrinson, a criminal lawyer in Cleveland, said that his clients have followed the Kavanaugh probe “with great interest” and see it as “tailor-made” for the crimes for which they stand accused.

“My clients are asking that the F.B.I. investigate them for no more than five days and only talk to the witnesses I designate,” Dorrinson said. “We think this could be a huge time saver for everybody.”

One of his clients, Denton Faldo, currently faces twenty criminal counts of cooking and selling meth, but wants the F.B.I. to investigate only an unrelated speeding violation.

“It’s important that the F.B.I. wrap up this investigation by Friday and release me from jail in time for the weekend,” Faldo said. “A man’s life is in tatters.”

  • Andy Borowitz is the New York Times best-selling author of “The 50 Funniest American Writers,” and a comedian who has written for The New Yorker since 1998. He writes the Borowitz Report, a satirical column on the news, for

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Speaking Truth to Power


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The Slaves Rebel

By Chris Hedges/ Truthdig/ September 3, 2018


Cartoon by Mr. Fish

The only way to end slavery is to stop being a slave. Hundreds of men and women in prisons in some 17 states are refusing to carry out prison labor, conducting hunger strikes or boycotting for-profit commissaries in an effort to abolish the last redoubt of legalized slavery in America. The strikers are demanding to be paid the minimum wage, the right to vote, decent living conditions, educational and vocational training and an end to the death penalty and life imprisonment.

These men and women know that the courts will not help them. They know the politicians, bought by the corporations that make billions in profits from the prison system, will not help them. And they know that the mainstream press, unwilling to offend major advertisers, will ignore them.

But they also know that no prison can function without the forced labor of many among America’s 2.3 million prisoners. Prisoners do nearly all the jobs in the prisons, including laundry, maintenance, cleaning and food preparation. Some prisoners earn as little as a dollar for a full day of work; in states such as Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, South Carolina and Texas, the figure drops to zero.

Corporations, at the same time, exploit a million prisoners who work in prison sweatshops where they staff call centers or make office furniture, shoes or clothing or who run slaughterhouses or fish farms.

If prisoners earned the minimum wage set by federal, state or local laws, the costs of the world’s largest prison system would be unsustainable. The prison population would have to be dramatically reduced. Work stoppages are the only prison reform method that has any chance of success. Demonstrations of public support, especially near prisons where strikes are underway, along with supporting the prisoners who have formed Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, which began the nationwide protest, are vital. Prison authorities seek to mute the voices of these incarcerated protesters. They seek to hide the horrific conditions inside prisons from public view. We must amplify these voices and build a popular movement to end mass incarceration.

The strike began Aug. 21, the 47th anniversary of the 1971 killing of the Black Panther prison writer and organizer George Jackson in California’s San Quentin. It will end Sept. 9, the 47th anniversary of the 1971 Attica prison uprising. It is an immensely courageous act of civil disobedience. Prison authorities have innumerable ways to exact retribution, including placing strikers in solitary confinement and severing communication with the outside world. They can take away the few privileges and freedoms, including the limited freedom of movement, yard time, phone privileges and educational programs, that prisoners have. This makes the defiance all the more heroic. These men and women cannot go elsewhere. They cannot remain anonymous. Retribution is certain. Yet they have risen up anyway.

In addition to making demands about wages, the prisoners are calling for an end to the endemic violence that plagues many prisons. During a riot in April at Lee Correctional Institution, a maximum-security prison in South Carolina, seven prisoners were killed and 17 were injured as prison guards waited four hours to intervene.

Prisons in America are a huge and lucrative business. The private prison contractors Corrections Corporation of America and The GEO Group have annual revenues of $1.6 billion and more than $2 billion, respectively. They spent a combined $8.7 million on lobbying from 2010 through 2015, according to Global Tel Link, which runs the privatized phone services in many prisons, is valued at $1.2 billion. The food service corporation Aramark, a $8.65 billion company, has contracts in 500 prisons across the country although it has been accused of serving contaminated and spoiled food that has led to food poisoning. The money transfer corporation JPay Inc. is a subsidiary of the telecommunications firm Securus Technologies, which is owned by the private equity firm Abry Partners. JPay made $53 million in 2014 on transfers of $525 million, through an average charge of 10 percent to those sending money to prisoners. Corizon Health has a contract to provide health care to more than 300,000 prisoners nationwide. It earns about $1.4 billion a year. And there are many other corporations with equally large revenues and profit margins within the prisons.

Private corporations exploit prison labor in at least 40 states. In some cases these workers are paid next to nothing. They have no benefits, including Social Security participation, and cannot form unions or organize. They are not paid for sick days. And if they complain or are seen as troublesome they are placed in solitary confinement, often for months.

Some of the country’s biggest corporations have moved into prisons to take advantage of this bonded labor force. They include Abbott Laboratories, AT&T, AutoZone, Bank of America, Bayer, Berkshire Hathaway, Cargill, Caterpillar, Chevron, the former Chrysler Group, Costco Wholesale, John Deere, Eddie Bauer, Eli Lilly, ExxonMobil, Fruit of the Loom, GEICO, GlaxoSmithKline, Glaxo Wellcome, Hoffmann-La Roche, International Paper, JanSport, Johnson & Johnson, Kmart, Koch Industries, Mary Kay, McDonald’s, Merck, Microsoft, Motorola, Nintendo, Pfizer, Procter & Gamble, Quaker Oats, Sarah Lee, Sears, Shell, Sprint, Starbucks, State Farm Insurance, United Airlines, UPS, Verizon, Victoria’s Secret, Walmart and Wendy’s.

Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote that “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” Prisons expose how far a state will go to exploit and abuse its most vulnerable. Life in the American prison system is a window into the corporate tyranny that will be inflicted on all of us once we are stripped of the power to resist. The poorest families in the country are forced to pay an array of predatory fees to sustain incarcerated relatives. This is especially cruel to those children whose only contact with an incarcerated parent is through phone service that costs four or five times what it does on the outside. Prison life is one of daily humiliation and abuse. It entails beatings, torture, rape—especially for female prisoners who are preyed upon by prison staff—prolonged isolation, rancid food, inadequate heating and ventilation, substandard or nonexistent health care and being locked in a cage for days at a time, especially in supermax prisons.

Slavery within the prison system is permitted by the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, passed in 1865 at the end of the Civil War

to create a new form of slave labor. It reads: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States. …” Plantations in the South and industries such as Florida’s vast turpentine farm operations, which survived into the early 20th century, used the 13th Amendment to force black convicts to do the same uncompensated work that many had done as slaves.

“Imprisoned in stockades or cells, chained together at night or held under armed guards on horseback, the turpentine farms were bleak outposts miles from any chance of comfort or contact with the outside world,” Douglas A. Blackmon writes in “Slavery by Another Name,” a description of convict life for tens of thousands of African-Americans that is eerily similar to today’s prison conditions. “Workers were forced to buy their own food and clothes from a camp commissary and charged usurious interest rates on the salary advances used to pay for the goods—typically at least 100 percent.”



Prisons, which contain mostly poor people of color, over half of whom have never physically harmed anyone, are part of the continuum of slavery, Black Codes, Jim and Jane Crow, convict leasing, lynching and the lethal, indiscriminate force used by police on city streets. Prisons are not primarily about crime. They are about social control. They are about profiting off black and brown bodies, bodies that in blighted, deindustrialized neighborhoods do not produce money for corporations but once locked away generate some $60,000 a year per prisoner for prison contractors, police, parole agencies, corrections officers, phone companies, private prisons, money transfer companies, medical companies, food venders, commissaries and the industries that manufacture body armor, pepper spray and the gruesome array of restraints and implements—four- and five-point restraints, restraint hoods, restraint belts, restraint beds, stun grenades, stun guns, stun belts, spit hoods, body orifice security scanners (BOSS chairs), tethers, and waist and leg chains—that look like a collection amassed by the Marquis de Sade. Prisons are also where we warehouse the poor who are mentally ill. It is estimated that 25 percent of the prison population has severe mental illness. Those with crippling mental disorders are given not therapy but cocktails of powerful psychotropic drugs that turn them into zombies sleeping 20 hours a day.

Once corporations moved manufacturing overseas and denied those in poor communities the possibility of a job that could sustain them and their families, they began to extract billions in profit by putting bodies in cages. Since 1970 our prison population has grown by about 700 percent. We have invested $300 billion in prisons since 1980. The prison-industrial complex mirrors the military-industrial complex. The money is public; the profits are private. Those who enrich themselves off the incarcerated are morally no different from those who enriched themselves from the slave trade.

Prisoners, once released, often after decades, commonly suffer from severe mental and physical trauma and other health problems including diabetes (which is an epidemic in prisons because of the poor diet), hepatitis C, tuberculosis, heart disease and HIV. They do not have money or insurance to get treatment for their illnesses when they are released. They have often become alienated from their families and are homeless. Stripped of the right to public assistance, unable to vote, banned from living in public housing, without skills or education and stigmatized by employers, they become members of the vast criminal caste system. Many are burdened with debts because of monetary charges in the criminal justice structure and a predatory system of prison loans. Over 60 percent end up back in prison within five years. This is by design. The lobbyists for the prison-industrial complex make sure the laws and legislation keep the prisons full and recidivism high. This is good for profit. And it is profit, not justice, that is the primary force behind mass incarceration. This system will end only when those profits are wrested from the hands of our modern slaveholders. The only people who can do that are the slaves and the abolitionists who fight alongside them.

The full list of national demands from “the men and women in federal, immigration, and state prisons” reads:
1. Immediate improvements to the conditions of prisons and prison policies that recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women.

2. An immediate end to prison slavery. All persons imprisoned in any place of detention under United States jurisdiction must be paid the prevailing wage in their state or territory for their labor.

3. The Prison Litigation Reform Act must be rescinded, allowing imprisoned humans a proper channel to address grievances and violations of their rights.

4. The Truth in Sentencing Act and the Sentencing Reform Act must be rescinded so that imprisoned humans have a possibility of rehabilitation and parole. No human shall be sentenced to death by incarceration or serve any sentence without the possibility of parole.

5. An immediate end to the racial overcharging, over-sentencing, and parole denials of black and brown humans. Black humans shall no longer be denied parole because the victim of the crime was white, which is a particular problem in southern states.

6. An immediate end to racist gang enhancement laws targeting black and brown humans.

7. No imprisoned human shall be denied access to rehabilitation programs at their place of detention because of their label as a violent offender.

8. State prisons must be funded specifically to offer more rehabilitation services. 9. Pell grants must be reinstated in all U.S. states and territories.

10. The voting rights of all confined citizens serving prison sentences, pretrial detainees, and so-called “ex-felons” must be counted. Representation is demanded. All voices count!

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Marx Warned Us

Capitalism Is Beyond Saving, and America Is Living Proof

By Jacob Bacharach/ Truthdig/ August 31, 2018




Policies that fail in the same way over and over are not failing. Someone is lying about their intent. The drug war didn’t fail to stem the flow of banned narcotics and to stop epidemic abuse and addiction; it succeeded at building a vast carceral and surveillance apparatus targeted at people of color as a successor to Jim Crow.

The war in Iraq didn’t fail to bring democracy to the Middle East; it smashed an intransigent sometimes-ally in the region, and deliberately weakened and destabilized a group of countries whose control of, and access to, immense oil reserves was of strategic American interest.

The “end of welfare as we know it” didn’t fail to instill in the nation’s poor a middle-class sense of responsibility; it entrenched a draconian regime of means-testing and a Kafkaesque bureaucracy for access to even meager social benefits for a rapidly shrinking middle class.

It’s not that “Capitalism isn’t working,” as Noah Smith recently argued in Bloomberg. It’s that it’s working all too well.

Real wage growth has been nonexistent in the United States for more than 30 years. But as America enters the 10th year of the recovery—and the longest bull market in modern history—there are nervous murmurs, even among capitalism’s most reliable defenders, that some of its most basic mechanisms might be broken. The gains of the recovery have accrued absurdly, extravagantly to a tiny sliver of the world’s superrich. A small portion of that has trickled down to the professional classes—the lawyers and money managers, art buyers and decorators, consultants and “starchitects”—who work for them. For the declining middle and the growing bottom: nothing.

This is not how the economists told us it was supposed to work. Productivity is at record highs; profits are good; the unemployment rate is nearing a meager 4 percent. There are widely reported labor shortages in key industries. Recent tax cuts infused even more cash into corporate coffers. Individually and collectively, these factors are supposed to exert upward pressure on wages. It should be a workers’ market.

But wages remain flat, and companies have used their latest bounty for stock buybacks, a transparent form of market manipulation that was illegal until the Reagan-era SEC began to chip away at the edifice of New Deal market reforms. The power of labor continues to wane; the Supreme Court’s Janus v. AFSCME decision, while ostensibly limited to public sector unions, signaled in certain terms the willingness of the court’s conservative majority—five guys who have never held a real job—to effectively overturn the entire National Labor Relations Act if given the opportunity. The justices, who imagine working at Wendy’s is like getting hired as an associate at Hogan & Hartson after a couple of federal clerkships, reason that every employee can simply negotiate for the best possible deal with every employer.

To those for whom capitalism cannot fail but can only be failed, the answers lie at the margins. Neoliberal doctrine forecloses any hope of large-scale change; present circumstances always prevent future possibilities. Instead, as Smith writes, “there are some simpler, humbler changes that state governments can begin taking right away, without waiting for labor-friendly politicians to take control of the White House and Congress.”

These changes involve banning noncompete agreements, through which companies forbid employees from going to work for competitors, and more assiduously policing industry wage-fixing.

Both would be fine reforms, but neither would have much effect on the labor share of gross domestic product. They are minor symptoms of the capitalist disease. Capitalism isn’t broken; it’s working precisely as it’s supposed to: generating surpluses and giving all of them to a small ownership class. The New Deal and postwar prosperity, which barely lasted until 1980, represent historic outliers—the one significant period in which growth at the top was somewhat constrained and a relatively large share of wealth went to the middle. It was possible only through massive government intervention and redistribution, combined with a powerful labor sector backed by that same federal government. It took the collective power of entire societies to briefly restrain capitalism, which, left to its own devices, will do what it has always done: make the already very rich infinitely richer. Capitalism is “working” just fine.

What we are seeing, I suspect, is an acceleration of a broader social transformation that’s been occurring for some time. Rome, the saying goes, wasn’t built in a day, but neither did it fall in one, either. Changes to societies as large and complex as theirs or ours occur subtly and over years—if not decades. Those workers who do remain in the workforce increasingly depend on work and work alone for all their benefits. The companies for which most people work are like the Roman villas that gradually became central nodes of a manorial society as the imperial metropole retreated through a series of self-inflicted wars and crises of governance.

One moment you’re working for some kind of money wage in a fully monetized economy; the next you’re living in a company town, buying your groceries with scrip, and you can’t leave without your boss’ permission.

In America today, supposedly the most prosperous society ever to exist on earth, nearly a third of families report experiencing economic hardship. Sixty percent—60 percent!—say they could not cover an unexpected expense of $1,000, and nearly 40 percent have less than $500 in savings. People with good insurance get billed $100,000 for having a heart attack. People commute four hours a day because they can’t afford to live in the cities where they work.

The barbarians aren’t at the gates. They’re already here in the boardrooms; they’ve been here all along.

Jacob Bacharach is the author of the novels “The Doorposts of Your House and on Your Gates” and “The Bend of the World.” His most recent book is “A Cool Customer: Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.”…
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