Regions from Catalonia to Kurdistan are Clamoring for Their Own States

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(Photo: Joan Campderrós-i-Canas / Flickr)

Democracy can be messy. In the northeast corner of Spain this week, democracy was downright chaotic.

Catalans went to the polls on Sunday to vote in a referendum on whether to stay in Spain or go their separate way. The Spanish authorities, however, declared the vote illegitimate and sent in the national police to disrupt the referendum.

In many locales, as the police swept into the polling station to seize the ballots, the Catalans merely hid all the voting paraphernalia. When the police left, the Catalans set up again to register voter preferences, and lines reformed outside.

Such Keystone Kops scenarios would have been amusing if not for the outright violence of the Spanish police, which beat voters with batons and fired rubber bullets into crowds. In The Independent, Hannah Strange and James Badcock write:

Video footage showed officers from Spain’s national police — 4,000 of whom had been brought in by the government to help quash the ballot — fighting with elderly voters, some of whom were left bleeding, and dragging young women away from polling stations by their hair.

The Spanish government has been monumentally stupid. Its case for unity is much stronger than Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont’s case for independence. The Spanish constitution of 1978 speaks of the country’s “indissoluble unity,” while also according Catalonia considerable autonomy. “The Catalan government claims the right to self-determination,” The Economistpoints out. “But international law recognizes this only in cases of colonialism, foreign invasion, or gross discrimination and abuse of human rights.” None of those conditions applies to Catalonia.

Sure, the relatively wealthy Catalans are aggrieved that a portion of their economic success is redistributed elsewhere in Spain. But that’s a fundamental element of the modern state. New Yorkers subsidize New Mexicans, London subsidizes Leeds, Germans subsidize Greeks. Catalans can certainly challenge the terms of the economic arrangement — after all, the poorer Basque region doesn’t share much of its tax revenues with Madrid — but neither Spanish law nor international law allows them to gather up all their marbles and go home.

Meanwhile, the very process by which Puigdemont rammed through the referendum doesn’t reflect well on his democratic credentials. Writes Yascha Mounk in Slate:

The government rushed the necessary legislation for the referendum through the Catalan Parliament without giving deputies adequate time to discuss it. It passed the legislation in a late-night session even though the opposition was absent. It vowed to secede from Spain even if a majority of the population stayed away from the polls. And, taking a page from Trump’s playbook, it has been smearing everybody from opponents of secession to judges doing their jobs as enemies of the people.

With only a 42 percent turnout for the referendum, the Catalan authorities have no authoritative mandate for a declaration of independence. Many people who opposed secession simply refused to vote. On the other hand, the Spanish government’s reaction may well have pushed more people into the independence camp. On Monday, thousands of protesters poured into the streets of Barcelona to protest the Spanish government’s actions and assert their popular sovereignty. On Tuesday, unions called a general strike for the same purpose.

Ultimately the Catalan crisis boils down to consent — whether the Catalans continue to agree to be part of the larger Spanish nation. In an 1882 essay on nations and nationalism, the French philologist Ernest Renan famously wrote that the nation is a “daily referendum.” He meant that the nation is a matter not of inviolate borders or ancient history. Renan continued:

A nation is therefore a great solidarity constituted by the feeling of sacrifices made and those that one is still disposed to make. It presupposes a past but is reiterated in the present by a tangible fact: consent, the clearly expressed desire to continue a common life.

If a majority of Catalans no longer consent to be part of the larger Spanish nation, then the specifics of the Spanish constitution are largely irrelevant. The people will force a change. Given that the younger generation favors independence, demography is on the side of the secessionists. The more polarized the situation becomes in Spain, the less room there will be for the sensible middle option of greater autonomy for Catalonia.

In the past, secessionist movements represented not a challenge to the nation-state system, but its ultimate expression. After all, rebellious provinces or peoples want nothing more than to become nation-states themselves. If every nation deserves a state, then how can the international community deny the Slovaks, the Slovenes, and the East Timorese? Secessionist movements were simply the continuation of a process interrupted by historical anomalies like the Soviet, Yugoslav, or Czechoslovak federations, or the often arbitrary border delineations of colonial administrators.

But the Catalan case suggests a different kind of future. In this future, economics, geopolitics, and technology all point toward what I’ve called in my latest book: the splinterlands.

Catalonia and the EU

The architects of the European Union imagined that their new entity would solve the challenge of endless division on the continent.

Europe has always been a patchwork of different peoples, all striving for sovereignty over their own territory. People of varying histories, cultures, languages, and religions have been mixed together in a way that has defied any easy drawing of borders. Order has usually come over the centuries by force of arms. In the last century, two world wars were fought to upend those orders, and a third war beckoned.

The EU was supposed to change all that by pointing toward something beyond the nation-state.

Not only did the EU weaken the powers of the state by appealing to the benefits of something larger — economies of scale, a unified foreign policy voice, greater individual freedoms to travel and work — it also appealed to a “Europe of regions.” According to this project, regions could deal directly with Brussels, bypassing their national governments, and also cooperate horizontally with one another: Provence with Basque country, Bavaria with Lombardy, and so on. Secession would be rendered moot, for Catalans could get what they wanted if not from Spain then from Brussels or other European entities.

Alas, it was not to be. Writes Anwen Elias back in 2008, “Regionalist or autonomist parties who saw in the EU an opportunity for organizing political authority on a post-sovereigntist basis were also forced to recognize that, in practice, Europe was still dominated by sovereign states and sovereignty-based understandings of politics.” Even in Europe, the nation-state held onto its privileged position. Attempts to revive the “Europe of regions” to accommodate pressures from below, particularly after the last Catalan referendum in 2014, came up hard against the growing Euroskeptical movements, the continued problems in the Eurozone, and ultimately Brexit.

The problem of consent, in other words, has infected the EU as well. Many citizens of wealthier European countries don’t want to subsidize the citizens of less-well-off countries. Europe-firsters have been unenthusiastic about the influx of immigrants that the EU as a whole embraced. Though others threatened to do so, the British have been the first to withdraw their consent entirely.

If the Catalans withdraw from Spain, they are also withdrawing from the EU, which would amount to a second defection in so many years. The decision could prove even more costly for Catalonia than Brexit is proving for the UK, since it doesn’t have an economy the size of England’s, hasn’t preserved a separate financial system (and currency), and doesn’t have the same international profile (for instance, Catalonia is not a member of the World Trade Organization).

Of course, would-be countries are often prepared to take an economic hit for the sake of independence.

But the Catalans have perhaps not factored in just how big a hit they’re going to take, naively thinking that the small bump up in revenues not turned over to Madrid will make the difference. They’re also disgusted, and rightly so, with the economic austerity measures that the EU has imposed on Spain. But little Catalonia will have even less power to resist these forces after independence.

Now that the “Europe of regions” has faded into irrelevance, Europe faces more fracture points. As a result of the Brexit vote, Scotland is once again reconsidering its commitment to the United Kingdom, though public opinion polls suggest that a second referendum on independence would fail by a narrow margin just like the first. In Belgium, the largest political force is a nationalist party, the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), which supports Flemish independence. Of course, the Flemish are the majority in Belgium, and Flanders is doing much better economically these days than Wallonia, but Belgian unity remains a fragile thing. Other regions of Europe are also restive — Basque country, northern Italy, Corsica.

Although the Catalan vote isn’t likely to unravel the tapestry of Europe quite yet, other forces are at work in Europe — and not just Europe.

Kurdistan, Finally?

Kurds have wanted their own states for centuries. They’ve attempted to carve out autonomous regions in Turkey, Iran, and Syria. Last week, the Kurdish territory in Iraq held a non-binding referendum on independence, which garnered overwhelming support.

Surrounding states all took measures against the would-be new state of Kurdistan. Iran declared a fuel embargo, as did Turkey. Both countries moved troops to their borders for joint military exercises with Iraq. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called the referendum “illegitimate.”

Baghdad, too, rejected the non-binding vote. But unlike Madrid, the Iraqi authorities did not attempt to stop the vote from happening. Iraq banned flights to Kurdistan airports and imposed sanctions on Kurdish banks. But it didn’t send in troops. The Kurdish government has announced new elections for November 1, and Baghdad seems to be waiting to see what the Kurds’ next move will be. Neither side wants war.

As in Catalonia, the referendum wasn’t simply a transparent bid for independence. Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani used the vote as a way to boost his own popularity and that of his party, as well as to make a stronger bid for Kirkuk, a disputed oil-rich area that Baghdad also claims. Regardless of Barzani’s motives, however, independence is clearly popular in Kurdistan.

Indeed, it’s hard to imagine the Kurds dialing back their ambitions in Iraq. They’ve been running a de facto state of sorts for years. They thought, not unreasonably, that they could trade their extraordinary efforts against the Islamic State for a shot at real, de jure sovereignty. They’ve even embraced a rather ruthless realpolitik to their ethnic brethren across the borders. Kurdistan has maintained strong ties toward Turkey — despite President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s crackdown on Turkey’s own Kurdish population — and have been cool toward the de facto Kurdish state of Rojava in northern Syria.

But there’s still a huge difference between de facto and de jure. Just as Catalonia can be the string that unravels the European tapestry, Kurdistan can be the string that unravels the Middle East tapestry. Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Iraq all fiercely defend the unitary nature of their states, and the Kurds represent a strong threat to that structure.

Moreover, the region is as much of a patchwork as Europe. Yemen and Libya have already effectively fallen apart. Palestinians have been thwarted for decades from having their own state. Turkmen, Shia (in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain), and others might lobby as well for a piece of their own pie.

But what if they get their slice just when the pie has become stale and inedible?

Slouching toward Splinterlands

What’s happening in Europe and the Middle East is part of a larger pattern.

The global market has been eroding the power of the nation-state for several decades, as transnational corporations flit around the world to get the best tax deals and the cheapest labor, international trade deals remove key points of leverage that national governments once had over various economic actors, and global financial authorities impose conditions on all but the largest economies that governments must meet or face default.

The global market has delegitimized states. No wonder, then, that subnational units are taking advantage of this weakness.

Technology has amplified this trend. Communications advances make this global market possible, and the transfer in microseconds of huge amounts of capital in and out of nation-states renders national economic policy increasingly illusory. The Internet and social media have broken the monopoly on national media, providing civic movements (along with global disrupters like the United States and Russia) the means to challenge the once authoritative narratives of the nation-state. What happened in the Arab Spring to authoritarian governments is now happening to democratic governments as well (witness the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s victory).

Finally, in the world of geopolitics, the overarching reasons for ideological unity are gone. The West no longer faces a “Communist threat,” while the East no longer huddles together against the “Yankee threat.” Sure, there’s the Islamic State and its ilk to worry about. But all nation-states see these non-state actors as a threat. The “war on terrorism” hasn’t forced states to give up a portion of their sovereignty for the cause — only citizens to give up a portion of their civil liberties.

In the 1950s and 1960s, utopians dreamed of a world government even as dystopians feared a global Big Brother. Today, when the international community can’t even come together to stop climate change, the prospect of world federalism seems impossibly quaint. A much grimmer reality presents itself in places like Libya and Somalia and Yemen: failed states and the war of all against all.

Today the world faces a crisis of the intermediate structure. The EU is under siege. The power of nation-states is eroding. If this trend continues, with the world continuing to splinter, the only entities left with any global power will be corporations and religious organizations, a world where frightened people pray to Facebook and the gods of Google that the fierce winds of nationalism and the rising waters of climate change and the random fire of lone gunmen will stay away for one more day.

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The View From the U.S.’s ‘Unsinkable Aircraft Carrier’

For IPS Next Leader Leilani Ganser, escalating tensions between the U.S. and North Korea hit a little too close to home. Her family’s homeland, the American colonial territory of Guam, is now well within striking distance of a North Korean missile.

But, as she told the Latino Media Collective, this threat is “nothing new.”

Back in 2013, North Korea issued similar threats. And throughout the Cold War, a Soviet Union missile strike was well within the realm of possibility. “The main difference this time,” Ganser said, “is that the North Korean threat was antagonized on Twitter.”

“For an island that’s been through so much, it’s alarming how much of its future is dependent on media,” Ganser said, “and surprisingly, social media.”

And the island has seen war, even if it hasn’t seen a Soviet or North Korean missile.

“As long as Guam has been a United States possession, it’s been a simulated war zone,” Ganser explained, describing the B-52 bombers and water-to-shore artillery blasts that make up Guamanian daily life.  

The base presence itself is an overbearing fact of life. About one-third of Guam land is exclusive to the military — enough that when plans were raised to expand the bases to take up to 40 percent of the area, a Georgia representative objected. He feared that “the entirety of Guam [would] capsize, tip over, and fall into the ocean.”

“I guarantee that’s not going to happen,” Ganser quipped, though a bigger build-up would still be a catastrophe.

Already, the area for exclusive military covers places of cultural significance that are on par with Arlington National Cemetery for the indigenous Chamorro people, Ganser explained. A build-up would take over more ancestral burial grounds, as well as require the dredging of surrounding coral reefs.

“Because of the threats that have been made,” Ganser said, returning to North Korea, “it’s likely they’ll be used to justify the build-up.”

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8 Lessons U.S. Progressives Can Learn From the U.K. Labour Party

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In March, progressive activists in the United Kingdom had reason to feel deeply discouraged. Nine months earlier, a majority had voted for Brexit, setting in motion plans to pull the U.K. out of the European Union. Then Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May decided to call a “snap election” with the goal of consolidating Tory power in Parliament in the face of weak opposition. The Labour Party, led by progressive Jeremy Corbyn, was polling at a miserable 24 percent and facing the possibility of further marginalization.

But on June 8, Corbyn and the Labour Party experienced a stunning reversal of fortune, almost winning the national election called in to vanquish them. And as of mid-July, Labour is 8 percentage points ahead of the Conservatives.

One key force in this change was a grassroots network called Momentum, formed in 2015 to build participation and engagement in the Labour Party. This election, Momentum mobilized 23,000 members and 150 local chapters through on-the-ground campaigning and social media. Think Our Revolution and MoveOn.org with a powerful electoral field operation.

“The results were beautiful,” said Deborah Waters, a Momentum co-founder and volunteer. “I heard it described as ‘the bitterest of victories for the Conservatives and the sweetest of defeats for Labour.’ The winners didn’t really win and the losers didn’t really lose.”

How did this reversal happen? And what can those of us deep in this Trump presidency learn from it? What follows are eight lessons from Momentum and Labour’s remarkable campaign.

Read the full article on YES! Magazine.

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Now Eric Trump is Accused of Stealing from a Cancer Charity

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(Photo: Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock)

It’s a tough time to be an heir to a multi-billion dollar fortune.

Well, no it isn’t, but Donald Trump Jr. is dominating the news cycle over his admitted collusion with Russia over the 2016 election. And he’s not the only Trump kid making life harder for himself than it has to be.

Before we get into what the Trump kids have been doing with their time, let’s first acknowledge that life as a Trump is pretty dang plush. If they do absolutely nothing but wait, they’ll have more money than they could ever spend in a dozen lifetimes.

The president’s stated fortune, $ 10 billion, is a bit larger than Forbes’s estimate, $ 3.5 billion. But no matter how you define it, he’s a very rich man and his family is firmly in the top 0.00001 percent of wealth holders.

Tiffany Trump appears to be the only one to truly understand the virtues of laying low. Her only major headline in recent months focuses on her recent vacation (or average Tuesday, to a billionaire heiress) on a yacht in Italy.

Ivanka Trump has mostly stayed out of the news as well, albeit under very different circumstances, as one of her father’s closest advisers in the White House. Her only negative press in recent months involves allegations of poor labor conditions at supplier factories for her personal shoe brand — not a small scandal by any measure, though a depressingly familiar one in the workings of global capitalism.

So, what has the other Trump kid, Eric, been up to?

Read the full article on Newsweek. 

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The U.S. Gives Refuge to Torture Victims from All Over — Except from Guantanamo

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(Photo: Garry Knight / Flickr)

June 26th marks the UN Day in Support of Victims of Torture. This day was declared in 1997 and is celebrated every year to honor the struggles of torture survivors.

In the U.S., it’s estimated that there are half-a-million torture survivors who’ve fled other countries in search of a safe haven. While survivors of torture who end up in the U.S. come from all over the globe, there’s a noticeable absence of a particular group of survivors: those tortured by the U.S. itself — and specifically those tortured at Guantanamo Bay.

Since it opened on January 11th, 2002, the prison at Guantanamo Bay has been one of the world’s most notorious. Housed at a U.S. military base on illegally occupied Cuban territory, the prison has held 779 Muslim men behind its bars over the years. For many, the experience has been devastating — not just for those who remain imprisoned, but for those who’ve been freed as well.

The prison currently houses 41 prisoners. Of those who remain, five men have been cleared for release, and 26 haven’t been either charged or cleared. Only seven have been charged in military commissions, and just three others have been convicted. The farcical semblance of justice that the military commissions have been designed to uphold includes a lack of due process rights, admission of hearsay evidence, and surveillance of attorney-client discussions. A fair trial for those detained is pretty much impossible.

However, this isn’t even the worst of Guantanamo, where at least nine men have died in U.S. custody, seven of those by suicide. Adnan Latif, one of the men who died, was a 32-year-old Yemeni citizen who’d spent 11 years behind bars at Guantanamo, even though he was cleared for release three times. Though questions remain about the government’s claim that he committed suicide, Latif suffered from serious mental health conditions. “Anybody who is able to die will be able to achieve happiness for himself,” he wrote in a parting letter to his attorney. “He has no other hope except that.”

But those who are released often fare no better than those still detained.

Take the case of Lutfi Bin Ali, a Tunisian citizen who spent 13 years in Guantanamo only to be released to Kazakhstan. Despite the fact that Bin Ali was subjected to egregious torture at the hands of the U.S. government, he’s expressed an eagerness to return to Guantanamo rather than face the isolation in his host country, where he knows no one. “At least in Guántanamo there were people to talk to,” he told the Guardian last September. “Here I have nobody.”

Bin Ali was told he’d be able to leave Kazakhstan after two years — a period that came up late last year. But similar to those made while he languished in Guantanamo Bay, where he was dubbed a “low risk” in 2004 but not released for another decade, those promises now look flimsy.

Guantanamo has become synonymous with the torture program orchestrated under the Bush administration. Many of the prisoners who ended up in Guantanamo were first subjected to torture in CIA black sites, the details of which can be found in the Senate Select Intelligence’s Committee report on CIA torture. Some of the worst findings include rectal feeding, eye removal, freezing conditions leading to death, and drowning simulations.

Fifteen years later, the security rationale for Guantanamo appears vaguer than ever. What do we win by housing Muslim men in a prison on illegally occupied land, subverting the rule of law to implement outrageous measures of “justice” and condoning and committing torture?

The rule of law in any democracy is built on the premise of accountability — yet, save for a pending civil suit against two psychologists who helped the CIA design its torture program, there’s been none for the torture that prisoners and former prisoners have experienced. Nor has the U.S. agreed to resettle any of those freed from Guantanamo, a move which symbolically cements their guilt despite their release without charge.

The prison’s future remains unclear, though President Trump has stated that no prisoners should be released. He’s even hinted at plans to “load it up with some bad dudes.”

On the UN Day in Support of Victims of Torture, we have a moral and ethical imperative to execute justice — not justice conceived in the height of a national security panic, but justice that is fair, legitimate, and transparent. Nothing short of this will rectify the harm that’s been done to these prisoners — and our democracy.

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Who Suffers the Most from the U.S. Drug War? Families

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Angela Pryor, a 41-year-old woman from Ross County, Ohio, is not living the life she thought she would.

She used to stay at home and take care of her kids while her husband, Jesse, went to work as a carpenter. But as Jesse fell into opioid addiction, Angela had to pick up the slack. It became even harder when he ended up in jail for selling drugs. And harder still when Jesse overdosed and passed away in 2015.

Now Angela’s struggling to care for her five children alone. She’s even lost her house, the Atlantic reported recently.

A few hundred miles to the east, in Washington, another familiar scene played out in the pages of the New York Times.

When Charlene Hamilton’s husband, Carl Harris, was jailed for selling drugs, she was left behind to take care of the kids, pay the rent and feed the family. Like Angela, Charlene found herself homeless more than once. She slept in a car for a month while her kids stayed with other relatives. Meanwhile in prison, Carl started using the drugs he once sold.

The similarities in their stories don’t stop there. Both families lived in communities plagued by joblessness. In Ohio, the decline of good-paying manufacturing jobs combined with health problems have led to a drug epidemic, largely among white men, that was responsible for more than 3,000 deaths statewide just last year.

Meanwhile, majority-black communities have been suffering from unemployment for decades. In the District of Columbia the unemployment rate for black residents — now at 13.4 percent — has actually gotten worse since the recession, even while every other racial and ethnic group in the city has seen an improvement.

These are the conditions that can lead a husband and father like Carl Harris or Jesse Pryor to turn to drug use, abuse and trade. It is what’s called economic despair. And it’s happening all over the country.

As extreme inequality gets worse and the middle class disintegrates, many formerly middle-income white Americans are now experiencing the sorts of pain long suffered by poorer communities of color.

All that’s bad enough. But there’s one man who seems determined to make it all worse: Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Reversing an Obama-era guideline, Sessions recently told federal prosecutors to go after low-level drug offenders and to seek the toughest possible penalties against them.

It’s an unmistakable return to widely discredited mandatory minimum sentencing laws that treat drug use and abuse as a crime, rather than a mental or physical health issue. (Interestingly, Sessions shows little interest in prosecuting the white-collar criminals who are the cause of much of the income inequality that can lead to drug use in the first place.)

The effects of a return to harsher drug law enforcement go beyond the loss of our white and black fathers, husbands and friends. These policies will stifle children for generations to come, as new data show.

Sociology professor Kristin Turney “found that children with incarcerated parents were three times more likely to suffer from depression or behavioral problems, and twice as likely to suffer from learning disabilities and anxiety,” The Nation reported.

That same story quotes a former New Orleans city councilman and former teacher who is an ex-offender himself. He said that when he speaks to schoolchildren and asks if any of them have a family member in prison, “just about everybody raises their hand.”

These students are more statistically likely to drop out, too, which of course makes it more difficult to get a job, continuing the cycle of economic despair.

Poor white families who are now suffering can learn a lot from the suffering that poor black families have endured from this system for decades. These communities can come together to fight reactionary drug war policies like Sessions’, which exacerbate everyone’s suffering.

The Essie Justice Group is one such effort that brings together those often forgotten victims — the women and the families left behind — of the war on drugs, mass incarceration, and the economic inequality wrapped up in all of it.

Gina Clayton, who founded the group, has this message for those women like Angela and Charlene: “This loss that I’ve experienced is not OK, and we all need to do something about it.”

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Airlines Profit From ‘Economy-Class’ Misery

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Those of us on the shady side of 60 can remember a time when ordinary people could actually enjoy traveling on an airplane. Meals on all but short-hop flights. Comfortable seats with ample legroom. Plenty of space to stow your bags, since flights seldom took off much more than three-quarters full.

On cross-country trips, flight attendants on United used to hand out menus that proudly proclaimed the meal choices that even coach passengers could make.

We lucky travelers owed that golden age to regulation. Before 1978, airlines operated like electrical utilities. The government determined fares, routes, and schedules and essentially guaranteed the private airlines a reasonable rate of profit in return.

But America’s movers and shakers considered this entire system unreasonable. If we only deregulated the airline industry and let the free market work its magic, they promised, the resulting competition would lower fares and give passengers a much wider array of choices.

Lawmakers — from both parties — would enthusiastically swallow this free-market-magic line, with America’s liberal lion, senator Ted Kennedy, leading the way. In 1978, Congress deregulated the airline industry.

Deregulation at first seemed to bring nothing but good news. Jazzy new “low-fare” airlines jumped into the airline market, and prices sank. But then reality set in. The new airlines came and went, none lasted. A regulated industry essentially became an unregulated monopoly, with corporate executives — instead of public officials — calling the shots.

The shots these execs called would feather their nests at the expense of average travelers. Passengers soon found themselves bouncing at hubs instead of flying direct to their destinations. These hubs cut airline costs but added long hours to travel days.

The cost-cutting continued inside the planes. Airlines eliminated meals for average travelers and the comfy legroom between coach seats. Then they did their best to pack most every seat on every flight, creating ever longer delays in boarding and exiting.

But coach didn’t become truly cruel until earlier this week when United had a 69-year-old doctor dragged off his seat and down the airline aisle. Videos of the incident went viral and generated headlines worldwide.

First-class passengers at United never, of course, have to worry about getting dragged off a flight. America’s airline giants bend over backwards to move deep-pocketed passengers only in the greatest of comfort. United even drives top customers with tight connections from gate to gate in Porsches and Mercedes.

Once aboard United planes, these lucky few can relax in fold-out beds, notes one press report, “complete with mood lighting, adjustable lumbar supports, and bedding from Saks Fifth Avenue.”

The modern airplane, the University of Toronto’s Katherine DeCelles and Harvard’s Michael Norton observed last year, has become “a social microcosm of class-based society.”

And all that anger airline travelers have been feeling this week as they view the doctor-dragging videos? That anger, the DeCelles-Norton research suggests, can best be understood “through the lens of inequality.”

The contemporary airline business model rests on what some analysts like to call the “velvet rope economy.” Airlines make much more on premium seats than on seats in coach. Their goal: make coach seating unpleasant enough to keep the enormously lucrative premium seats filled.

For this scheme to work, the inequality involved has to be clearly visible. Coach passengers need to know that passengers upfront are luxuriating while they, cramped and hungry, sit and stew.

This stark, in-your-face inequality, DeCelles and Norton found in their research, seems to be contributing more to the misery of air travel than no-stretch seats and interminable delays.

Air rage incidents among economy-class passengers, the data show, turn out to be “nearly four times” more likely on planes that sport a first-class section. If coach-class passengers have to walk through first-class to reach their own seats, air rage incidents become, one analysis of the DeCelles-Norton research notes, “twice as likely again.”

An even more startling stat: Having coach passengers walk through first class appears to be “roughly as likely to produce an air rage incident as a six-hour travel delay.”

Corporate America, conclude researchers DeCelles and Norton, has built physical and situational inequality “into people’s everyday environments.”

How to end that inequality? Maybe we could get a little head start by discouraging lavish rewards for corporate execs who see average passengers as little more than sardines to be squeezed.

How lavish? United’s immediate past CEO, Jeff Smisek, had to step down in 2015 after a federal corruption probe implicated him in a favor-trading scheme. He walked away with $ 37 million in compensation, “including a car, free flights, and lifetime parking privileges at two major airports.”

Airline execs like Smisek all regularly rely on various subsidies that our tax dollars make possible. We could, if we so chose, start leveraging those tax dollars. We could, for instance, deny tax-funded airport subsidies to airlines that pay their top execs over 25 times what they pay their typical workers.

And if that doesn’t work? We can make the execs fly coach.

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What Russia Really Wants (And Got) From Trump

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It has all the hallmarks of a compelling thriller.

A U.S. president willing to put his reputation on the line in the interests of peace and prosperity prepares to reach out to Russia. The Kremlin shows some cautious interest. But before the president can propose anything substantial, his opponents do everything possible to derail his efforts.

Worse, this “deep state” of operatives within government — and political actors on the outside — leverages a full range of false accusations to smother the administration in the fog of scandal.

Maybe Tom Clancy could have done something with this. But as presented by Donald Trump and his defenders, this plot was never particularly convincing, even going back to its origin myth in the presidential primaries in early 2016. As a candidate, Donald Trump’s admiration for Vladimir Putin and his desire to improve relations with Russia seemed an unbelievable plot twist.

After all, anti-Russian sentiment has always run strong within the Republican Party (remember Mitt Romney’s assertion that Russia was America’s “number one geopolitical foe”). Making nice with the Kremlin wasn’t a position that could appeal necessarily to independents. And Putin was known in America largely for getting rid of his rivals and threatening countries bordering his country.

Even following the money didn’t produce much of a rationale, since Trump didn’t have any substantial investments in Russia (though Russia apparently invested in him).

Sure, a certain far-right constituency in the United States, which has seen Russia as a valuable partner in the fight against Islam, immigrants, and “permissive” culture like gay marriage, warmed to Trump’s approach. And if you dug deep enough, maybe you could find a few outliers on the left who imagined, foolishly, that Trump would push a reset button on relations with Russia that could result in nuclear disarmament, a negotiated end to the war in Syria, and free Matryoshka dolls for everyone.

But none of this should have been sufficient reason for Trump to reverse his own negotiating principles by glad-handing the leader of a country with whom he’d be negotiating hard as president.

Then came the WikiLeaks that hobbled the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton in particular, which Trump welcomed even as evidence mounted that the hacking of the Democratic National Committee, and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, had Russian fingerprints all over them.

Next up: revelations from a former British spy of more serious allegations that Russia had a file of compromising information about Trump, including tapes of a sexual nature from the future president’s 2013 visit to Moscow. And now come even more tantalizing clues that the U.S. intelligence community was on the trail of a Russian transfer of funds to Trump’s election campaign back in summer 2016. Since Donald Trump has never cared a whit about détente or disarmament, this emerging narrative of various quid pro quos makes much more sense.

So far, Russiagate has forced National Security Adviser Michael Flynn to resign because he lied about his discussions with Russian ambassador Sergei Kisalyov. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also lied about his meetings with Russians, but so far he’s merely recused himself from any investigation into the allegations of Russian involvement in the election campaign. No one within the Trump administration, including Trump himself, has yet been saddled with more serious impeachable offenses.

The Trump administration and its followers on the right continue to push the notion that Russia has done nothing wrong. So, strangely, have some people on the left — including Stephen Cohen, most recently in The NationGlenn Greenwald, Robert Parry of Consortium News, and Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity all question whether Russia was behind the DNC hack. It’s a “witch-hunt,” they say, and the Kremlin agrees.

The counter-evidence? Julian Assange of WikiLeaks says that Russia was not the source of the hacked materials, and the Obama administration has a “reputation for manipulating intelligence for political purposes.”

Well, I wouldn’t count Assange as a particularly reliable witness. And if the Obama administration was so good at manipulating intelligence for political purposes, why was it so slow off the mark in providing any of this supposedly doctored information before the election, when it would have actually counted for something politically?

Then there’s the argument that the NCCIC joint analysis report released at the end of December doesn’t contain a smoking gun. Okay, perhaps — I’m no cyber expert. But if it wasn’t the Russians, as the government analysis claims, then who had a motive to deep-six the Dems other than the Republicans and Russia? The skeptics are left with little more than Trump’s 400-pound hacker sitting on a couch. They might as well blame gremlins or extraterrestrials.

And please: a witch-hunt? Sorry, wrong era.

This isn’t a McCarthyite smear campaign of a handful of radicals but an effort to get to the heart of an intervention into politics by some very powerful actors. As in the Watergate scandal, the Democratic Party suffered a break-in. WikiLeaks successfully used the pilfered materials to influence the election. Russian hackers have been involved in countless hacking operations, and it goes beyond interfering only in the U.S. elections.

Journalists have been trying to piece together a story that provides an explanation more convincing than the narrative that Trump and Putin have put out there. Sure, many people desperately want to believe that some evidence will come to light that can end the Trump nightmare. But even those who are skeptical of the stories leaked to the press so far should support an impartial investigation with real subpoena power. Better a proper investigation than continued innuendo.

In the meantime, forget about that reset with Russia. There never was much of a chance of a Trump-led détente in the first place. Russia played the United States. The Kremlin got what it wanted — an America paralyzed by an incompetent administration at odds with more than half the country’s population. And it cost a mere fraction of the price of a single nuclear warhead.

What Russia Wants

First of all, Russia isn’t interested in taking over the world.

Vladimir Putin isn’t even interested in reconstituting the Soviet Union.

Administering a lot of new territory is more of a headache than it’s worth. The only spit of land that Russia has actually absorbed, the Crimean peninsula, has been a drain on the Russian budget, and the exclave has seen very little of the prosperity Russia promised. The other parts of the near abroad locked in “frozen conflicts” — South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Transnistria — are no great shakes economically either.

The Kremlin is content to have a secure perimeter free from NATO interference. Of course, given NATO’s perennial interest in expanding eastward, a basic conflict lies at the heart of East-West relations. Until the two sides come up with a disengagement agreement, Eastern Europe will continue to be a zone of contention, with poor Ukraine split in half like a cheap piñata.

Putin is really more concerned about economic matters.

When oil prices dropped, the Russian economy quickly went south as the GDP per capita suffered an astounding drop from $ 15,000 in 2014 to only $ 9,000 one year later. U.S. sanctions, imposed after Russia seized Crimea in 2014, certainly didn’t help matters. Since then, Russia has boosted oil production and taken advantage of a rise in prices. Modest growth has returned. Lifting U.S. sanctions would add as much as .2 percent to Russian growth in 2017 and .5 percent in 2018. That’s actually a lot of rubles.

Putin no doubt welcomed Trump’s hints that he would lift sanctions, cooperate with Russia against the Islamic State, and downplay U.S. concerns for human rights around the world. But Trump was never a reliable patsy.

For one thing, he wasn’t reliable, period. For another, he backed positions that would ultimately conflict with Russia, such as his promise to undo the nuclear agreement with Iran. If Russia were indeed behind the hack of the DNC — even if it’s proved to have funneled money into the election on Trump’s side — I’m not convinced that Putin ever expected Trump to win. As a canny politician, the Russian leader also would have anticipated that if Trump did manage to beat the odds, he would have to contend with a foreign policy establishment that is far from Russia-friendly.

So, more likely, Putin simply wanted to throw the American political system into turmoil. He was hoping for, at best, a legitimation crisis that would hobble any incoming administration and make it that much more difficult for the United States to act in the world.

As it happened, Trump won on a long shot, and the American political system has indeed been thrown into turmoil as a result of it. U.S. policy toward Russia hasn’t really changed. The sanctions remain in place, Washington still expects Russia to pull out of eastern Ukraine and give back Crimea, and the usual criticisms of Russian conduct prevail at the United Nations. As with everything to do with policy, Trump was winging it. Once in power, he has fallen back on the status quo ante.

But here’s the interesting part. There’s good reason to believe that, despite all the hoopla in Moscow over Trump’s victory, Russia took the first steps to begin to undermine the new administration. It was only two days after the election, after all, that the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov contradicted the claim of the Trump campaign that it hadn’t maintained contact with Russian officials.

Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak also confirmed that meetings took place, though he also sought to normalize them by saying that they happen all the time with political figures. That’s true, of course, but the Trump campaign was busy denying that they’d transpired in the first place.

So, perhaps Russia didn’t really expect that Trump would keep his word. Confirming that the meetings did in fact take place helped fulfill the underlying objective of destabilizing the American political system.

And now, what can Trump do? Admitting that he’s been played by Moscow would bring his administration crashing down around his head (not to mention damaging his ego). He can continue to lie, and ask his team to do the same, but only so many loyal adjutants can fall on their swords before all the blood on the floor makes governance impossible.

So, Trump did the only thing he knew how to do: make things up. His claim that the Obama administration was spying on him — a Watergate-sized accusation — suddenly had the media in a tizzy trying to find substantiation. In a reasonable world, Trump’s latest tweets would be his “Milo moment” when everyone realizes that, like the ludicrous pundit Milo Yiannopoulos, Trump is truly unhinged. Milo’s book contract can be rescinded, but it’s not so easy to take away Trump’s presidency.

The Future Impact of Russiagate

Donald Trump’s presidential campaign was plagued by one scandal after another. But none of the gaffes and revelations and embarrassments seemed to end Trump’s political career.

Russiagate is different. First of all, Trump is now an elected figure, not just a cartoonish candidate. Second, this scandal involves much higher stakes than insulting John McCain’s war record or mocking a disabled reporter. Laws might have been broken; national security might have been breached; an election might have been compromised.

Pursuing an investigation into Trump’s possible misdeeds may have any number of unanticipated consequences. But it is not likely to precipitate a new Cold War with Russia. Such a development depends more on NATO policy in Eastern Europe, Russian actions in its near abroad, and imponderables such as the course of the war in Syria and petropolitics in Europe.

I have lots of reasons to criticize Vladimir Putin and his attempt to push a far right-wing agenda at home and abroad. But it’s absolutely critical to separate one’s views about Putin and Kremlin policies from an investigation into Donald Trump’s misconduct. Let me repeat: This is no witch-hunt. This is democracy in action in an effort to discover abuse of power.

If the appointment of a special prosecutor doesn’t attract bipartisan support, I will be unhappy but unsurprised. But everyone to the left of Ann Coulter should be on board. If ever there were a time for unity, it is now.

John Feffer directs the Foreign Policy in Focus project at the Institute for Policy Studies.

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Why Trump’s Labor Secretary Pick Might Back Down From the Job

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(Photo: blue cheddar / flickr)

Amid speculation that Donald Trump’s pick for Labor Secretary, Andrew Puzder, may have lost his appetite for the job, the fast food CEO’s personal financial disclosure documents are being kept from public view.

When — and if — the Office of Government Ethics releases these documents, we’ll get a clearer picture of the grand fortune Puzder has built up in his 16 years as the chief of CKE, the company behind the Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. chains. But even the incomplete data CKE has filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission make clear that Puzder has received massive rewards for exploiting his low-wage labor force.

In just the four-year period of 2009-2012, SEC filings show Puzder made $ 27.5 million in total compensation, with a peak haul in 2011 of $ 10.1 million. (After 2012, CKE no longer had to report executive compensation data because it had become privately held.) Special executive “perks” made up just a small portion of his pay, and yet these rewards dramatically illustrate the hypocrisy of Puzder’s positions on labor issues.

For example, Puzder opposes mandatory sick leave policies for workers and wants to get rid of the Affordable Care Act. At the same time, he himself has enjoyed huge reimbursement checks from his company for medical and dental costs — above and beyond his regular employer-provided health insurance benefits. In just one year, 2009, these reimbursements totaled an astounding $ 61,000. In contrast, only 9 percent of CKE non-managerial staff have access to any health care benefits at all through their employer.

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As CKE CEO, Puzder has been so hostile to his employees that he famously once said he’d like to replace all of them with robots who “never take a vacation.” Meanwhile, he has pocketed as much as $ 11,000 per year from the company to cover the cost of his personal leisure trips. CKE has also reimbursed him for personal income taxes related to those trips.

To make sure Puzder travels in style, the company has forked over as much as $ 60,000 per year for his transportation via company car or jet. For leisure time closer to home, the company covers the tab for private social and recreational club dues, which ran more than $ 3,000 one year.

In California, where the firm has been headquartered for most of its history, Puzder bristled at state worker protections, including regulations that require a 30-minute meal break for a worker putting in a shift of five or more hours and a 10-minute break for a shift of more than four hours. Puzder has made clear he will work to strip workers of the right to even these small windows for rest or perhaps a personal phone call. By contrast, his own personal cell phone is covered by the company, at a rate that must be one of the highest in the world — as much as $ 4,424 per year.

CNN has quoted an unnamed Republican source saying that Puzder “may be bailing” from the cabinet competition because he’s “not into the pounding he is taking” from those critical of his labor practices at CKE. Some of that pounding took place at an emotional public forum on Capitol Hill on January 10, where three individuals with experience working for Carl’s Jr. restaurants told U.S. senators about routine incidents of wage theft and other abuses. Two days later, the Fight for $ 15 campaign helped organize protests against Puzder in more than a dozen cities.

It’s not hard to believe that the rumors about Puzder having second thoughts might be true. Given the level of imperial coddling he’s grown accustomed to at CKE, such public scrutiny would no doubt be a bit unsettling.

The post Why Trump’s Labor Secretary Pick Might Back Down From the Job appeared first on Institute for Policy Studies.

Sarah Anderson is the director of the Global Economy project at the Institute for Policy Studies.

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What Putin Wants from Trump

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(Image: Shutterstock / )

I wrote this article about Russian efforts to cultivate Donald Trump as an asset last week for a Korean newspaper where it was published on Sunday. Little did I know that news would break this week of allegations that Russia has a file of damaging information it can use to blackmail President-elect Trump. In that file is information about Trump’s dalliance with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel. The allegations come from a former British intelligence officer, and the Trump camp denies them. The information was “widely known among journalists and politicians in Washington,” according to The New York Times, but aside from a piece in Mother Jones, it remained under wraps.

In the world of espionage, the “honeypot” is trap in which someone seduces an unsuspecting diplomat or embassy employee. Then the seducer  a “swallow” (woman) or a “raven” (man)  blackmails the dupe. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union developed a certain expertise in using honeypots to extract information from CIA operatives, FBI agents, and ambassadors.

Russia is in the news at the moment for a more high-tech spying operation  its alleged hacking of Democratic Party e-mail accounts. The Obama administration claims that it has proof of Russian fingerprints on this operation and thus its influence on the November presidential elections. The White House has imposed a set of additional sanctions against Russia and also expelled 35 Russian diplomatic personnel.

These charges are serious and should be investigated. But they are a distraction. The real operation Russia is conducting in the United States is an old-fashioned honeypot trap. But it’s not a conventional version of the scheme in which an attractive woman makes eyes at a lonely intelligence officer.

Rather, the “raven” in this case is Vladimir Putin. And the dupe is Donald Trump. By romancing the Republican candidate, the Russian president has gotten much more than mere information. He is acquiring the most influential ally imaginable. And he doesn’t even have to wait until the inauguration. When the Obama administration announced its retaliatory moves, Putin declined to escalate. Trump, rather than standing behind his president, praised Putin and promised to “move on.”

Let me be clear. I don’t think Russia directly tampered with the vote in November. Nor do I think that the revelations connected to the alleged Russian hacking made the difference in the election. Trump won for other reasons; Clinton lost for other reasons too. I’m not even sure that Putin wanted Trump elected. The Russian president probably just wanted to sow some confusion and discord in the U.S. political system.

Nor do I want to see a new Cold War develop between the United States and Russia. I’m not a fan of Vladimir Putin or current Russian policies in Ukraine or Syria. But Moscow and Washington can certainly identify common interests such as reducing nuclear weapons, preserving the landmark agreement with Iran, and negotiating some new agreement with North Korea.

But the honeypot that Russia has used to trap Trump will have much more serious ramifications than a few email accounts hacked or disinformation spread around the Internet.

First of all, Putin will get some immediate foreign policy benefits. The Trump administration is likely to lift all economic sanctions against Russia, which will provide a nice bump up for the Russian economy. The United States will accept the Kremlin’s seizure of Crimea and roll back its complaints over Russian meddling in Ukraine. Trump has already expressed reservations about NATO, so his administration will not likely welcome new members around Russia’s perimeter. And the new administration will cooperate with Russia in attacking the Islamic State and pull away from backing rebels who want to oust Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

All of that is worth a great deal more than the name of a few spies or a cache of secret Pentagon documents. But Vladimir Putin has even grander plans, and Donald Trump could play a role in those as well.

In a 2013 speech, Vladimir Putin chastised the Euro-Atlantic countries for “rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilization. They are denying moral principles and all traditional identities: national, cultural, religious, and even sexual. They are implementing policies that equate large families with same-sex partnerships, belief in God with the belief in Satan.” He went on to excoriate “political correctness” and “unlawful migration.” He added, “One must respect every minority’s right to be different, but the rights of the majority must not be put into question.”

Here are all the themes of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign two years before Trump even launched it. More importantly, these themes can found in the campaigns of most far-right-wing political parties in Europe. It’s no surprise that Marine Le Pen of France’s National Front, Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party, and Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary are all part of Putin’s widening circle of admirers.

Putin aspires to create a new global alliance founded on conservative values, religious principles, and autocratic leanings. The Russian leader is comfortable working with outright racists, xenophobes, and Islamophobes. He aims to unravel the European Union and has provided support to European movements that share that goal. He has nothing but contempt for civil society unless it slavishly follows his political line. He no longer appears to believe that global warming is a hoax, but he still presides over an economy dependent on fossil fuels that does some of the greatest damage to the environment.

Again, Donald Trump fits right into this picture. The honeypot scheme doesn’t involve sexual propositioning, but ideological seduction.

The greatest threat over the next couple years is not that the Trump administration will simply step back and allow Russia free rein in the world. Russia, after all, has rather limited global influence beyond its ties with right-wing extremists and a few morally bankrupt autocracies. Rather, the real threat is that Donald Trump will help Putin create a noxious alliance that gives an international platform for all the most deplorable actors, from white supremacists to crusading Islamophobes.

The media makes a mistake by calling the relationship between Putin and Trump a “bromance.” That somehow implies mutual fondness. Putin doesn’t care about romance any more than the “ravens” and “swallows” of the Cold War era. The Russian president has laid a trap for Donald Trump. And it looks as though Trump will drag America into the honeypot with him.

The post What Putin Wants from Trump appeared first on Institute for Policy Studies.

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus and the author of the new novel Splinterlands.

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