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New York Times Provides Cover for Austerity Cranks

February 22, 2019 - 7:06pm

 

It’s not uncommon to read news stories that quite explicitly identify economic mismanagement. For example, news reports on the hyperinflation in Zimbabwe routinely (and correctly) attribute the cause to the poor economic management by its leaders. We will see similar attributions of mismanagement to a wide range of developing countries.

One place we will never see the term mismanagement or any equivalent term applied is in reference to the austerity imposed on the euro zone countries by the European Commission, acting largely at the direction of the German government. In fact, major news outlets, like the New York Times, seem to go out of their way to deny the incredible harm done to euro zone economies, and to the lives of tens of millions of people in these countries, as a result of needless austerity.

A decade ago, it would at least have been an arguable point as to whether austerity, meaning budget cuts, in the wake of the Great Recession, was reasonable policy. There was some research suggesting that the boost to confidence from lower budget deficits could spur enough investment and consumption to offset the impact on demand of reductions in government spending.

Since then, however, we have far more evidence on the impact of deficit reduction in the context of an economy coming out of recession. There have been numerous studies, most importantly several from the International Monetary Fund’s research department, which show that lower deficits in this context slow growth and raise unemployment.

Furthermore, they show that periods of high unemployment have a lasting impact as a result of workers losing skills, and companies and governments in a downturn foregoing investment that they would have undertaken if the economy were closer to its potential level of output. This means that insistence on deficit reduction not only led to one-time drops in output and employment, but could reduce potential output by trillions of dollars over subsequent years.

At this point, the advocates of fiscal austerity, in the context of economies that are operating well below potential GDP, are ignoring a large body of evidence in favor of personal prejudices. These people should be viewed like global warming deniers or creationists. They are not credible people, and their policies have inflicted enormous damage where they have been put in place.

The New York Times (2/14/19) reports that seems that the shrinking of the middle class “should not be happening” in Spain, because “the country was feted by European policymakers as a model for the recovery, having tightened its belt to exit a deep recession.”

Incredibly, instead of pointing out that the advocates of austerity have been shown wrong, most reporting continues to treat their policies as being credible, and in fact often works to hide evidence of its failure. The New York Times (2/14/19) gave us a great example of this practice in an article on the decline of the middle class across Europe, with a focus on Spain.

Spain has been especially hard hit by the demands for austerity. In contrast to Greece and Italy, Spain had actually been running budget surpluses in the years leading up to the crisis. Its debt to GDP ratio was just 22.3 percent when the crisis hit, less than half of Germany’s, so there was no story of profligate government spending.

What Spain did have was a massive housing bubble, fueled largely by German banks, who apparently were not very good at their business. When the bubbles burst in Spain and elsewhere, the economy in Spain was especially hard hit, with the unemployment rate crossing 26 percent in 2013. While the unemployment rate has come down in the last five years, the number of people employed is still more than 1 million less than before the crisis.

Spain is a country that could have benefited enormously from a large-scale stimulus program, both domestically and the across the eurozone, since much of its GDP is exported. Instead, the great minds in charge of the euro zone’s economic policy insisted that Spain had to reduce its budget deficits to comply with the euro’s rules.

Given this history, the cause of the decline of the middle class in Spain seems about as clear as the causes of a person’s mobility problems after they have been run over by a truck. Instead, the New York Times made it all seem very mysterious, telling readers:

Spain’s economy, like the rest of Europe’s, is growing faster than before the 2008 financial crisis and creating jobs. But the work they could find pays a fraction of the combined 80,000-euro annual income they once earned. By summer, they figure they will no longer be able to pay their mortgage. [The “they” refers to a formerly middle-class couple who lost jobs in the downturn, and had to find new jobs at far lower pay.]

It is a precarious situation felt by millions of Europeans.

Since the recession of the late 2000s, the middle class has shrunk in over two-thirds of the European Union, echoing a similar decline in the United States and reversing two decades of expansion. While middle-class households are more prevalent in Europe than in the United States — around 60 percent, compared with just over 50 percent in America — they face unprecedented levels of vulnerability….

The hurdles to keeping their status, or recovering lost ground, are higher, given post-recession labor dynamics. The loss of middle-income jobs, weakened social protections and skill mismatches have reduced economic mobility and widened income inequality. Automation and globalization are deepening the divides.

Just about every part of this story is wrong. Spain and most other European countries are not growing faster than before the recession. According to the IMF, Spain’s economy grew at a 2.7 percent rate in 2018 and is projected to grow 2.2 percent this year. By comparison, it grew at an average rate of more than 3.9 percent in 2006 and 2007, the last two years before the recession.

But more importantly, the immediately relevant factor is cumulative growth, not a single year. As a result of its sharp downturn and weak recovery, Spain’s per capita GDP was just 3.0 percent higher in 2018 than it was in 2007. By comparison, coming out of the Great Depression in the United States, per capita income in 1940 was more than 8.0 percent higher than in 1929.

Given these basic growth numbers, it would be surprising if Spain’s middle class had not taken a big hit. While other factors, like the weakening of labor market protections, have made its plight worse, the dismal story on growth goes a very long way in explaining the decline in Spain and Europe’s middle class.

In the New York Times‘ framing (12/11/18), increasing the income of workers is at odds with a “push to revive economy.”

Unfortunately, this sort of story in the New York Times is not an exception. The paper has repeatedly told readers that policies that undermined the welfare state and redistributed money upward, were being done for the purpose of revitalizing the economy. This was especially the case with Emanuel Macron in France (here, here and here). In these and other cases, the media took at face value the claims of politicians that the reason for the measures was to help workers, not to reduce their bargaining power, which is their immediate effect.

To be clear, labor market regulations can be excessive, and there are certainly contexts in which streamlining them would end up benefiting most of the labor force, even if such streamlining could hurt narrow groups of workers. But the idea that excessive labor market regulation, rather than inept macroeconomic policy, is the main problem limiting growth and reducing employment in France, Spain and elsewhere in Europe does not have any evidence to support it.

David Howell, Andrew Glyn, John Schmitt and I did a study showing the limited impact of labor market protections on employment more than a decade ago. Based on our work, the OECD did its own analysis, and reached similar conclusions.

In short, the New York Times and other media outlets have been engaged in a great exercise in misdirection. While the blame for Europe’s economic problems over the last decade can very clearly be laid at the doorstep of its leaders who have insisted on austerity, the media consistently ignore evidence that is as clear as day. They instead treat the problems facing Europe’s workers as being mysterious in origin, or due primarily to an overly generous welfare state and excessive regulations that protect workers. This is some seriously biased and/or misinformed reporting.

A version of this post appeared on CEPR’s blog Beat the Press (2/22/18).

You can send a message to the New York Times at letters@nytimes.com (Twitter:@NYTimes). Please remember that respectful communication is the most effective.

 

Venezuela Coverage Takes Us Back to Golden Age of Lying About Latin America

February 22, 2019 - 5:52pm

 

Venezuelan pharmacy at a time when Time (5/19/16) was telling readers, “Basic medicines like aspirin are nowhere to be found” in Venezuela.

I was sitting in my apartment in Caracas, Venezuela, reading the online edition of Time magazine (5/19/16), which carried a report that there was not even something as basic as aspirin to be found anywhere in Venezuela: “Basic medicines like aspirin are nowhere to be found.”

I walked out of the apartment to the nearest pharmacy, four blocks away, where I found plenty of aspirin, as well as acetaminophen (generic Tylenol) and ibuprofen (generic Advil), in a well-stocked pharmacy with a knowledgeable professional staff that would be the envy of any US drugstore.

A few days after the Time story, CNBC (6/22/16) carried a claim that there was no acetaminophen to be found anywhere, either: “Basic things like Tylenol aren’t even available.” That must have taken the Pfizer Corporation by surprise, since it was their Venezuelan subsidiary, Pfizer Venezuela SA, which produced the acetaminophen I purchased. (Neither Time writer Ian Bremer nor CNBC commentator Richard Washington was in Venezuela, and there was no evidence offered that either of them had ever been there.)

I purchased all three products, plus cough syrup and other over-the-counter medications, because I doubted that anyone in the United States would believe me if I couldn’t produce the medications in their packages.

Unrelenting drumbeat of lies

Venezuelan Youth Orchestra in New York City, 2016

In fact, I myself wouldn’t have believed anyone who made such claims without being able to produce the proof, so intense and unrelenting has been the drumbeat of lies. When the Youth Orchestra of Venezuela gave a concert in New York in early 2016, before I moved to Caracas, I went there thinking, “Gee, I hope that the members of the orchestra are all well-dressed and well-fed.” Yes, of course they were all well-dressed and well-fed!

When I mentioned this in a talk at the University of Vermont, a student told me that he’d had the same feeling when he was following the Pan American soccer championship. He wondered if the Venezuelan players would be able to play, because they’d be so weakened from lack of food. In fact, he said, the Venezuelan team played superbly, and went much further in the competition than expected, since Venezuela has historically been a baseball country, unlike its soccer-obsessed neighbors Brazil and Colombia.

Hard as it may be for followers of the US media to believe, Venezuela is a country where people play sports, go to work, go to classes, go to the beach, go to restaurants and attend concerts. They publish and read newspapers of all political stripes, from right to center-right, to center, to center-left, to left. They produce and watch programs on television, on TV channels that are also of all political stripes.

Supporters of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro (photo: TeleSur)

CNN was ridiculed recently (Redacted Tonight, 2/1/19) when it carried a report on Venezuela, “in the socialist utopia that now leaves virtually every stomach empty,” followed immediately with a cut to a demonstration by the right-wing opposition, where everybody appeared to be quite well-fed.

But surely that’s because most of the anti-government demonstrators were upper-middle class, a viewer might think. The proletarians at pro-government demonstrations must be suffering severe hunger.

Not if one consults photos of the massive pro-government demonstration on February 2, where people seemed to be doing pretty well. This is in spite of the Trump administration’s extreme economic squeeze on the country, reminiscent of the “make the economy scream” strategy used by the Nixon administration and the CIA against the democratic government of President Salvador Allende in Chile, as well as many other democratically elected governments.

Rival demonstrations

Últimas Noticias on Twitter (2/1/19): “Capriles: The Parties Weren’t Supporting the Auto-Inauguration of Guaidó”

That demonstration showed considerable support for the government of President Nicolás Maduro and widespread rejection of Donald Trump’s choice for president of Venezuela, Juan Guaidó. Guaidó, who proclaimed himself to be president of the country and was recognized minutes later by Trump, even though a public opinion poll showed that 81 percent of Venezuelans had never heard of him, comes from the ultra-right faction in Venezuelan politics.

The pro-Maduro demonstration suggested, not surprisingly, that Guaidó had failed to win much popular support outside the wealthy and upper-middle class. But Guaidó couldn’t even win support from many of them. The day before rival rallies February 2, Henrique Capriles, the leader of a less extreme right-wing faction, gave an interview to the AFP that appeared in Últimas Noticias (2/1/19), the most widely read newspaper in Venezuela. In it, Capriles said that most of the opposition had not supported Guaidó’s self-proclamation as president. That may explain the surprisingly weak turnout at Guaidó’s demonstration, held in the wealthiest district of Caracas, and obviously outshone by the pro-government demonstration on the city’s main boulevard.

The New York Times did not show pictures of that pro-government demonstration, limiting itself to a claim by unnamed “experts” (2/2/19) that the pro-government demonstration was smaller than the anti-government one.

Readers can look at the photos of the rival demonstrations and judge for themselves. Both groups did their best to pull out their faithful, knowing how much is riding on a show of popular support. The stridently right-wing opposition paper El Nacional (2/3/19) carried a photo of the right-wing opposition demonstration:


If that was the best photo it could find, it was remarkably unimpressive compared to the photos in the left-wing papers CCS (2/2/19)….

…and Correo del Orinoco  (2/3/19), which were only too happy to publish pictures of the pro-government event:

Unlikely humanitarian

A huge anti-government demonstration was supposed to make possible a coup d’état, a maneuver the CIA has used repeatedly—in Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, Brazil in 1964 and many more, straight through to Honduras in 2009 and Ukraine in 2015. The turnout at the Trump administration’s demonstration was disappointing, and the coup d’état never occurred. The result is that Trump has expressed a sudden interest in getting food and medicine to Venezuelans (FAIR.org, 2/9/19).

Trump, who let thousands die in Puerto Rico and put small children in cages on the Mexican border, seems to be an unlikely champion of humanitarian aid to Latin Americans, but the corporate media have straight-facedly pretended to believe it.

The CBC (2/15/19) acknowledged that the bridge depicted as being blocked to humanitarian aid has in fact never been opened.

Most have suppressed reports that the Red Cross and the UN are providing aid to Venezuela in cooperation with the Venezuelan government, and have protested against US “aid” that is obviously a political and military ploy.

The corporate media have continued to peddle the Trump-as-humanitarian-champion line, even after it was revealed that a US plane was caught smuggling weapons into Venezuela, and even after Trump named Iran/Contra criminal Elliott Abrams to head up Venezuelan operations. Abrams was in charge of the State Department Human Rights Office during the 1980s, when weapons to US-backed terrorists in Nicaragua were shipped in US planes disguised as “humanitarian” relief.

Canada’s CBC (2/15/19) at least had the honesty to acknowledge that it had been had in swallowing a lie from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that the Venezuelan government had blockaded a bridge between Colombia and Venezuela to prevent aid shipments. The newly built bridge has not yet been opened: it has never been open, apparently because of hostile relations between the two countries, but the non-opening long predates the US government’s alleged food and medicine shipments.

The absurdity of $20 million of US food and medicine aid to a country of 30 million, when US authorities have stolen $30 billion from Venezuela in oil revenue, and take $30 million every day, needs no comment.

‘Failed state’

The Financial Times (4/11/16) reported in 2016 that Venezuela was a “failed state,” “pure chaos” with “something akin to a civil war going on.”

The campaign of disinformation and outright lies about Venezuela was kicked off in 2016 by the Financial Times. Ironically, it chose the 14th anniversary of the 2002 failed coup d’etat against President Hugo Chávez—April 11, 2016—to claim that Venezuela was in “chaos” and “civil war,” and that Venezuela was a “failed state.” As with the Time and CNBC reports, the Financial Times reporter was not in Venezuela, and there was no evidence in the report that he had ever been there.

I asked right-wing friends in Venezuela whether they agreed with the Financial Times claims. “Well, no, of course not,” said one, stating the obvious, “there is no chaos and no civil war. But Venezuela is a failed state, since it has not been able to provide for all the medical needs of the population.” By that standard, every country in Latin America is a failed state, and obviously the United States too.

The New York Times has run stories (5/15/16, 10/1/16) claiming that conditions in Venezuelan hospitals are horrendous. The reports enraged Colombians in New York, who have noted that a patient can die on the doorstep of a Colombian public hospital if the patient has no insurance. In Venezuela, in contrast, patients are treated for free.

One Colombian resident in New York said that his mother had recently returned to Bogotá after several years in the United States, and had not had time to obtain medical insurance. She fell ill, and went to a public hospital. The hospital left her in the waiting room for four hours, then sent her to a second hospital. The second hospital did the same, leaving her for four hours and then sending her to a third hospital. The third hospital was preparing to send her to a fourth when she protested that she was bleeding internally and was feeling weak.

“I’m sorry, Señora, if you don’t have medical insurance, no public hospital in this country will look at you,” said the woman at the desk. “Your only hope is to go to a private hospital, but be prepared to pay a great deal of money up front.” Luckily, she had a wealthy friend, who took her to a private hospital, and paid a great deal of money up front.

Such conditions in Colombia and other neoliberal states go unmentioned in the US corporate media, which have treated the Colombian government, long a right-wing murder-squad regime, as a US ally (Extra!, 2/09).

“Latin American Juvenile Cardiac Hospital, Caracas: It’s Chávez’s Fault!” (YouTube, 3/31/11)

Well, OK, but are the reports of conditions in Venezuelan hospitals true or grossly exaggerated? “They are much better than they were ten years ago,” said a friend who works in a Caracas hospital. In fact, he said, ten years before, the hospital where he worked did not exist, and new hospitals are now being opened. One was dedicated recently in the town of El Furrial, and another was opened in El Vigia, as reported by the centrist newspaper Últimas Noticias (3/3/17, 4/27/18).  The government has also greatly expanded others, like a burn center in Caracas and three new operating rooms at the hospital in Villa Cura.

Meanwhile, the government is inaugurating a new high-speed train line, The Dream of Hugo Chávez, in March (Correo del Orinoco, 2/6/19). Since the US media have never allowed reporting on any accomplishments in the years since  Chávez took office in 1999, but only any alleged, exaggerated or, as noted, completely invented shortcomings, readers have to consult an alternative history. Here is one offered by a Venezuelan on YouTube (3/31/11): “Por Culpa de Chávez” (“It’s Chávez’s Fault”). Depicting new hospitals, transit lines, housing, factories and so on built under Chavismo, it might help many understand why the Maduro government continues to enjoy such strong backing from so many people.

Economic warfare

This is not to minimize Venezuela’s problems. The country was hit, like other oil-producing countries, and as it was in the 1980s and ’90s, by the collapse of oil prices. That failed to bring down the government, so now the Trump administration has created an artificial crisis by using extreme economic warfare to deprive the country of foreign exchange needed to import basic necessities.  The Trump measures seem designed to prevent any economic recovery.

Like any country at war (and the Trump administration has placed Venezuela under wartime conditions, and is threatening immediate invasion), there have been shortages, and products that can mostly be found on the black market. This should surprise no one: During World War II in the US, a cornucopia of a country not seriously threatened with invasion, there was strict rationing of products like sugar, coffee and rubber.

The Venezuelan government has made food, medicine and pharmaceuticals available at extremely low prices, but much of the merchandise has made its way to the black market, or over the border to Colombia, depriving Venezuelans of supplies and ruining Colombian producers. The government recently abandoned some of the heavy price subsidies, which resulted initially in higher prices. Over the past few weeks, prices have been coming down as supplies stayed in Venezuela, especially as the government gained greater control over the Colombian border to prevent smuggling.

There has never been a serious discussion of any of this in the US corporate media, much less any discussion of the campaign of lies or the Trump administration warfare. There has been no comparison with conditions in the 1980s and ’90s, when Venezuela’s neoliberal government imposed IMF economic recipes, resulting in a popular rebellion, the bloody 1989 Caracazo, when wholesale government repression took the lives of hundreds (according to the government at the time) or thousands (according to government critics), and martial law took the lives of many more.

Efforts by the right-wing opposition to provoke a similar uprising, and another Caracazo that could justify a foreign “humanitarian intervention,” have failed repeatedly. So the US administration and corporate media simply resort to the most extreme lying about Latin America that has been seen since the Reagan administration wars of the 1980s.

 

‘The Afghan Government Is as Corrupt as Governments Come’ - CounterSpin interview with Phyllis Bennis on Ending the Afghan War

February 22, 2019 - 4:49pm

Janine Jackson interviewed Phyllis Bennis about the possibility of ending the Afghan War for the February 15, 2019, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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MP3 Link

New York Times (1/29/19)

Janine Jackson: Some jokes write themselves. When we learned negotiations on Afghanistan suggested the possibility of an end to the grueling 17-year war, the longest in US history, the New York Times ran a piece headlined, “Fearing What Could Follow a Quick Exit.”

The US invasion and occupation have devastated the country and killed more than 100,000 people. But consider, cautions the Washington Post:An end to the Afghan war is desirable, but not at the expense of everything the United States has helped to build there since 2001.”

What and who is missing from such conversations around the current talks about Afghanistan, and from the talks themselves? Phyllis Bennis directs the New Internationalism project at the Institute for Policy Studies, and is author of numerous books, including Ending the US War in Afghanistan: A Primer, co-authored with David Wildman. She joins us now in studio. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Phyllis Bennis.

Phyllis Bennis: Great to be with you, Janine.

JJ: Things are in flux; things are changing, absolutely. We’re recording on February 13. What do we know about the nature of these ongoing negotiations?

PB: I would say, first of all, it’s always important for there to be negotiations. Wars end with negotiated settlements, before, during or after massive killing. So having those talks after such a long time is a good thing.

It’s a good thing that the US has finally acknowledged that the Taliban exist. They in fact control, depending on who you believe, somewhere between 50 and 70 percent of the country’s territory. So they’re obviously a force that has to be reckoned with, and has to be part of the negotiations. That’s all good.

If we look at who’s not at the table, then it’s a little more problematic. The Afghan government is not at the table. That’s not the worst thing in the world. The Afghan government is as corrupt as governments come.

The Taliban has refused to talk to the Afghan government on the theory that they are nothing but puppets of the United States, which is mostly true, probably not entirely true. But they certainly are not an independent actor.

More importantly, however, who’s not at the table includes women, crucially, particularly because the US claim is that the war in Afghanistan is grounded in the need to “protect women.” We hear this in the mainstream press all the time.

We also are not hearing from Afghan trade unions, Afghan farmers, Afghan tribal or religious leaders; we’re not hearing from youth leaders. We’re basically not hearing from any of the Afghan people. So that’s a serious problem.

In some ways, a greater problem is who is at the table. So talks between the US and the Taliban—not a bad thing. But on the US side, who’s leading those talks? Well, it’s a guy named Zalmay Khalilzad, who’s a longtime cohort of the Bush family, a longtime oil guy. He worked for Unocal in the 1970s and ‘80s. He was one of these analysts assessing the “threats” they would face in different parts of the world.

And one of the things that he’s most known for—it was written up in the Washington Post, back in the mid-’90s—about an incident that had happened in 1995, I think it was, when Zalmay Khalilzad went to Afghanistan and brought back with him—this is during the Afghan civil war, when the Taliban was fighting against a coalition of warlords known as the Northern Alliance; the Northern Alliance, of course, backed by India at the time against the Taliban, which was backed by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the US. In that period, he came back to the US, back to Houston, with a delegation of the Taliban to negotiate pipeline deals.

Zalmay Khalilzad (cc photo: Gage Skidmore)

And it was one of those things where it was described with a certain tongue-in-cheek approach in the Post. They described this lavish dinner at some fancy hotel in Houston, and nobody mentioned anything about how the Taliban, even then, was known for its most extreme forms of repression against women; these really medieval kinds of punishments in their courts, that involved amputation for theft, things like that; the destruction of parts of Afghan cultural heritage. None of that was mentioned.

It was all just sort of, “We think these guys are going to win the war, so we should be dealing with them now.” That was under George Bush I. Under George Bush II, Khalilzad became the ambassador, first to Afghanistan and then to Iraq. He was later the ambassador to the United Nations.

So he’s been around. He’s a neocon, an oil guy, a Bush guy. And now, all of a sudden, he’s Trump’s guy. So Trump has now appointed him as the special envoy to Afghanistan.

Now, in some ways, that’s kind of great. He speaks several of the local languages. He is a brilliant, urbane and charming diplomat. I remember when he came to the United Nations. Nobody in the mainstream press talked about this, but one of the things that happened was that he was replacing John Bolton, who Bush II had tried and failed to get approved by the Senate as the US ambassador to the UN. Everybody hated Bolton. Nobody wanted to help the US, because Bolton was such a bully.

When he was finally replaced with this charming guy who everybody adored—he was an Afghan, a person of color at the UN representing the US. Wow! It was a whole different story. People could not wait to get him on their side, to have tea with him. He would look into your eyes when he spoke, such a good diplomat, right, representing these terrible positions.

So I remember that very well, and now he’s the one representing the US in talks with his former clients, the Taliban. So what are we supposed to make of that?

JJ: And who’s going to help us make sense of that? Well, it’s going to be, for example, the New York Times, who are saying the primary concern is if the United States troops leave Afghanistan, we’d be “handing over the country to the same ruthless militants that the United States went to war to dislodge.” And they’re talking about the Taliban, and that’s their explanation for the purpose of the war, and it’s in that context that they’re going to talk about the agreement.

Phyllis Bennis: “How much better is it for women under areas not controlled by the Taliban, controlled by what I believe to be an incredibly misogynistic gang of ruthless warlords that’s called the Afghan government, backed by the United States?”

PB: It is sort of extraordinary. There’s a sense in the mainstream press—you see it in the Times, you see it in the Post, you hear it on NPR, you see it on all the network news, you hear it on CNN, you hear it pretty much everywhere—that we maybe should get out relatively soon, but not too fast.

And I’m thinking, “Okay, almost 18 years. How long do we have to occupy the country before we can say it’s not too fast?” I mean, what makes it fast, when we’ve been there for 18 years?

And we should note: You remember, Janine, how much of the press back in 2001, when the US first invaded Afghanistan, and right up until today: A huge amount of the press coverage has focused on the question of women. Now, with some legitimacy; there is no question that the Taliban is one of the most ruthless, misogynistic political forces out there. And the prospect of them holding 50 percent, let alone even more, is a terrible one for the women of Afghanistan.

But what we never hear is, “Well, how different is it?” How much better is it for women under areas not controlled by the Taliban, controlled by what I believe to be an incredibly misogynistic gang of ruthless warlords that’s called the Afghan government, backed by the United States?

It is true that in Kabul, there have been some significant gains for urban women. Schools have been built. There are women in the parliament. There are women in some of the professions. But overwhelmingly, 80 percent of Afghans do not live in the city. They live in tiny rural villages, very far removed from anything that happens in Kabul. And we don’t hear about that in the Times or the Post or NPR or anywhere else.

What we hear about is what’s going to happen to women in Kabul. And that could be bad. It could get worse when the US pulls out.

But I would just note two things about that. No. 1, a statistic: When the US invaded Afghanistan, the Taliban had been in control for about five years. The conditions for women were horrifying. According to the UN, to all the various figures from UNICEF and others, Afghanistan was either the first or second worst place in the world for children to be born and survive.

Today, after 18 years of US occupation supposedly aimed at improving the lives of women, where is Afghanistan on the ratings? Number one in infant mortality, the same place, it has not improved. So that’s No. 1.

No. 2: There was an extraordinary young woman who was the youngest person elected to the Afghan Parliament back in 2004, I guess it was, or ’05, a woman named Malalai Joya. And she said something very interesting about this—again, something you never heard about. She said, when I was having a conversation with her—she was in the US for a while—and I asked her about this question of, “Would it be worse for women, and for civil society in Afghanistan, if and when the US pulls out?”

And she said, “You know, we in civil society, and we women in Afghanistan, we have three big problems, three enemies of our rights. One is the Taliban; they are certainly an enemy of our rights. Two is the Afghan government, certainly an enemy of our rights. And third is the US occupying forces, who are continuing the war, and are certainly responsible for the denial of rights of all of us.” So, she said, “If you in the US can arrange the withdrawal of one of those, get the US troops out, we’ll only have two.” I thought that was a very prescient understanding of the situation.

JJ: Eighteen years doesn’t even really contain the whole breadth of it, because before that, of course, there were years and years of US-backed anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan.

PB: Absolutely.

JJ: Some of us remember Dan Rather in a cave, you know, reporting…. And so I was struck by the New York Timesanalysis that US withdrawal “could consign Afghanistan to a protracted, bloody civil war.”

PB: What have we been waging for the last 17 and a half years, if not the second or third iteration of a protracted, bloody civil war?

JJ: Let me ask you, on Afghanistan, if we think, not in an isolationist way, but if we center the priorities of the Afghan people, what criteria would we be using to judge any agreement?

PB: I think, first, the question of who’s at the table, which goes to whose interests are being at least acknowledged, if not recognized. Two, is there any discussion anywhere—there has not been yet—of the need for reparations, compensation for the extraordinary devastation that our years of war have brought to the people of Afghanistan.

Certainly plenty of damage has been done by the Taliban. Plenty has been done by other warlords. Plenty has been done by the Afghan government.

But what the US is directly responsible for, because of the continuing drone war, airstrikes, so much death and destruction…. The notion that we could be convening peace talks and not even acknowledge that, not even begin the conversation about, “How do we begin to help rebuild?”

That’s, to me, one of the indicators that I don’t think we’re going to be hearing too much about in the mainstream press.

JJ: And that, given that our US mainstream press are writing largely for Americans, ought to really be leading the conversation.

Well, while we have you here, Phyllis Bennis, you wrote the book, Understanding the Palestinian/Israeli Conflict, now in its seventh updated edition, and helped found the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights. I have to ask you what you are making of the reaction to the comments made by Rep. Ilhan Omar about the influence of AIPAC on US policy.

Twitter (2/10/19)

PB: This was an extraordinary moment. What Ilhan said was that money is the basis for the power of pro-Israel sentiment and pro-Israel resolutions and decisions in the Congress. That’s hardly news. That’s not something that’s so surprising to anybody.

When she was asked, derisively, she took it as a serious question, on the question, “Who do you think is responsible?” Her answer was “AIPAC!” Not exactly news, again, if we’re talking about “breaking news.”

AIPAC takes money to influence Congress. Really? Why is this surprising?

First of all, this is what lobbies do. AIPAC is hardly the only lobby that does it. The NRA does it, very powerfully. The arms manufacturers, they pour billions of dollars over the years into campaigns of various sorts.

AIPAC does it very, very well. They’re very skilled. AIPAC, of course, is not a political action committee. They don’t make donations. What they do is act as bundlers of other small foundations and other agencies that do directly aid Congress and Senate campaigns.

JJ: Amplifiers.

PB: Amplifiers—that’s a good word for it. That’s what the press likes to use. That’s true. They are definitely amplifiers.

They also have been known to use money to threaten members of Congress. Not to say, “If you toe the line on Israel, if you vote for all of our agenda items”—which means uncritical support in the United Nations for any Israeli violations of international law; continuing or escalating US military aid to Israel, to the point that it’s now $38 billion that has been pledged over a 10-year period, $3.8 billion a year, direct of our tax money right to the Israeli military—“if you toe the line on all of that, we will give you money.”

That’s not exactly how it works. More often, it’s, “If you don’t toe the line, we will find and we will fund an opponent you may have never even heard of yet, and they will beat you in the next primary.” That’s how they operate. So the notion that AIPAC uses money is hardly news.

Now, the claim is made that, “Oh my God, she said it in a way that is these antisemitic tropes.” Well, I’ve got to say, growing up Jewish, and hearing a lot about antisemitism, I never heard that particular trope, that had anything to do with Puff Daddy’s rap song about—

JJ: The Benjamins.

PB: The Benjamins. You know, when I first saw it, I was thinking, “Benjamin,” because that’s a kind of common Jewish name, “Is that what it’s about?” And then I realized, “Oh my God, no, this is referencing that.”

So this was not actually about the word she used. Somebody said to me on a debate yesterday, or a discussion yesterday, a good discussion, somebody said, “Well, but wouldn’t it have been better if we could go back in time and just ask Congresswoman Omar to just say it a different way, and we wouldn’t all have to be dealing with this?”

And my answer was, “It doesn’t matter.” This was not a response to those particular words. This was a response to two things. No. 1, it was somebody calling out AIPAC, in the context of calling out US congressional refusal to recognize Palestinian rights. That was No. 1.

Twitter (10/23/18)

No. 2, even more importantly, was that the person calling out AIPAC is a young, black African Muslim refugee. And in the eyes of people like Kevin McCarthy, people like that are just not supposed to be in Congress. That’s what this was about. So you have somebody like McCarthy, who was himself known for these really antisemitic tweets that identified individual Jews, wealthy billionaire Jews, as trying to buy elections.

Really? That’s your claim here? You know, he could say that and not be held accountable at all.

JJ: But it does have to do, just finally, with who media decide is legitimately in the conversation, whose words need sifting, who we can look to as sources of presumed bias, and who, on the other hand, gets to be presented just as a legitimate source.

And so it does connect us to the conversation about Afghanistan, and it does connect us to the conversation about Venezuela and Syria. It has a lot to do with who media think are legitimate participants in the conversation.

PB: I think that’s absolutely right. But the good news is that the discourse, particularly on the question of Palestine, is changing massively. So the fact is that when Ilhan Omar said AIPAC is responsible, it wasn’t really news. If she hadn’t gotten the pushback and the attacks that she did, it would have passed right by. Because this is now understood.

The discourse in the Jewish community is different. The discourse in the media is different. The media have not yet caught up with the public discourse. And the policy, of course, is not close to catching up to the media. But all of them are in flux, all of them are changing, and it’s because of our movements.

It’s because of the news outlets of our movements, and it’s because of our movements overall. Organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace, that I’m very honored to be on the steering committee of, it’s like the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, it’s like Palestine Legal, it’s like Black for Palestine. All of these organizations that have been working for years to change the discourse, we’re now seeing that work bearing fruit. And that’s hugely important.

JJ: I’m going to end on that note. We’ve been speaking with Phyllis Bennis. She directs the New Internationalism project at the Institute for Policy Studies; they’re online at ips-dc.org. And you can find her recent article, “Is the Longest US War Finally Ending?,” on Truthout.org. Phyllis Bennis, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

PB: Great to be with you here in your office.

 

Neil deMause on Amazon’s Retreat, Nina Besser Doorley on Women’s Healthcare Restrictions

February 22, 2019 - 10:24am
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Amazon Seattle HQ (cc photo: kiewic)

This week on CounterSpin: Corporate media aren’t in the business of challenging the idea that corporations are benevolent social actors who bring benefits to the communities lucky enough to have them. So even if Amazon didn’t own a major newspaper, there was no reason to expect much by way of deep media criticism of the company’s search for a second “HQ”—even as that led to cash-strapped US cities falling over one another to offer tax breaks and subsidies to a corporation that paid zero federal taxes last year on profits of over $11 billion.  Surprisingly, some media followed the lead of community organizers and questioned the deal—questions Amazon pulled out over rather than engage. More surprisingly, the deal’s end didn’t end the questions. We’ll hear that story from journalist Neil deMause, author of, most recently, The Brooklyn Wars.

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(photo: International Women’s Health Coalition)

Also on the show: We may wish and work for a world in which countries don’t have to rely on aid from the US to fund critical social programs. But while the US is a global aid provider, we’re right to examine how that aid is employed: Does it build up or weaken? Support or coerce? When it comes to global health funding, recent Republican presidents, but especially Donald Trump, have used that aid to restrict women’s healthcare, and even the discussion of women’s healthcare—with effects that are as harmful as they are predictable. We’ll talk about the fightback to that problem with Nina Besser Doorley, senior program officer for US foreign policy at the International Women’s Health Coalition.

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US Media Erase Years of Chavismo’s Gains

February 20, 2019 - 5:37pm

by Gregory Shupak

Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution, which took off with the election of President Hugo Chávez in December 1998, frequently and even quite recently received praise for its social gains from the United Nations, international humanitarian organizations and economists. This aspect of the country’s story has been almost entirely written out of media coverage of the effort to overthrow the Venezuelan government by the US, Canada and their right-wing partners in Venezuela and the region.

Malnutrition in children under five was one of several social indicators that improved dramatically in Venezuela following the election of Hugo Chávez in 1999. (Source: Instituto Nacional de Nutrición/CEPR)

Under Chávez, poverty in Venezuela was cut by more than a third, and extreme poverty by 57 percent (CEPR, 3/7/13). (These declines were even steeper if measured from the depths of the opposition-led oil strike, designed to force Chávez out by wrecking the economy.)

In June 2013, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) included Venezuela in a group of 18 nations that that had cut their number of hungry people by half in the preceding 20 years, 14 of which were governed by Chavismo: The FAO said that Venezuela reduced the number of people suffering from malnutrition from 13.5 percent of the population in 1990–92 to less than 5 percent of the population in 2010–12; the FAO credited government-run supermarket networks and nutrition programs created by Chávez.

Three months later, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination said that it “welcomes the social development measures, programs and plans that include indigenous peoples and people of African descent, which have helped to combat structural racial discrimination” in the country. The committee also noted that it

welcomes the progress made by the [Venezuelan government] in the area of education and its efforts to reduce illiteracy, as a result of which it was declared an “illiteracy-free territory” by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in October 2005.

In 2014, Niky Fabiancic, resident UN coordinator for Venezuela, called the country “one of the leading countries in Latin America and the Caribbean in reducing inequality,” according to Venezuelanalysis (5/9/14). The website also quoted UNICEF representative Kiyomi Kawaguchi as saying that from 2009–10, 7.7 million students attended school, an increase of 24 percent over ten years previously.

Thus, in the Bolivarian Revolution’s 14th and 15th year, multiple UN organs highlighted how Chavismo had improved the lives of Venezuela’s poor majority.

Similarly, the UN’s Economic and Social Council published a report in 2015, two years into the presidency of Nicolas Maduro, that said the council

takes note with satisfaction of the progress made by [the Venezuelan government] in combating poverty and reducing inequality. The Committee also welcomes the huge progress made by the [Venezuelan government] in the fight against malnutrition through the expansion of the school meals program and the food allowance for low-income families.

One widely used measure of a country or territory’s overall well-being is the UN’s Human Development Index (HDI), a statistical composite index of life expectancy, education and per capita income indicators. The most recent HDI report is the one that was published in 2018, based on 2017 data.

The 2018 report put Venezuela in the category of countries or territories that have “High Human Development,” the second best of the HDI’s four rankings, and 78th of the 189 countries and territories examined. On that list, Venezuela outranks the majority of the states in the 14-country Lima Group currently trying to overthrow its government, including Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Paraguay, Peru and Saint Lucia. Guatemala, Guyana and Honduras are categorized as “Medium Human Development,” the group below the one to which Venezuela belongs and the second lowest HDI category.

The HDI does not provide a perfect picture of present conditions in Venezuela, since the situation in the country has evolved and appears to have worsened since 2017, in large part because of the sharp escalation of the economic war on the country by the Trump administration in August 2017. The HDI does, however, indicate that by this metric, in 2017 Venezuela was doing reasonably well by regional and global standards even in the face of harsh sanctions.

While the progress made by the Bolivarian Revolution has eroded—in larger measure due to US, Canadian and European sanctions undercutting Venezuela’s economy and its people’s access to food and medicine—a mere six months ago, Alfred de Zayas, the first UN special rapporteur to visit Venezuela in 21 years, issued a report based on his late 2017 visit to the country, four years into the Maduro era. The report says:

In the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, the Gran Misión Vivienda low-cost housing program has contributed to saving millions of persons from homelessness. Over 2 million housing units have been delivered to persons who would otherwise live in shanty towns. In order to address hunger, the Local Supply and Production Committees provide needy Venezuelans with 16kg packages containing sugar, flour, dried milk, oil etc., as the independent expert was able to verify at the Urbanización Nelson Mandela. Another social acquis, El Sistema, established by the late José Antonio Abreu, has offered free musical education to over 1 million youngsters, contributing to a reduction in juvenile delinquency.

Each of these pieces of information constitutes evidence about life in Venezuela in the Chavismo period, which the US and its partners are attempting to end. As such, this data should at least be part of the current conversation about Venezuela, especially inside of states that are trying to illegally oust the Venezuelan movement that not long ago was being praised for its successes by the UN, international humanitarian groups, and economists, and drawing favourable comparisons to the social order that had previously prevailed in the country.

To the Wall Street Journal (2/7/19), Venezuela was “paradise” when it was much more unequal.

To assess whether US media have noted this crucial part of the story of the Bolivarian Revolution, I used the media aggregator Factiva to search the databases of three of the country’s major newspapers:  the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post. I examined the period since the US government and its allies have asserted that Juan Guaidó is the president of Venezuela, not the elected Nicolás Maduro. According to Factiva, the three outlets have run a combined 800 pieces in the intervening period, and I was able to find four that make reference to Chavismo social programs and even these are done in a vague, dismissive fashion. None discuss in any detail the accomplishments that won the Bolivarian Revolution international acclaim.

The Wall Street Journal (2/7/19) gave a timeline of Venezuelan history that, in a section labelled “2003–12,” asserts:

Mr. Chávez expropriates farms and businesses, and uses oil revenue to build homes, distribute food and upgrade healthcare. The programs reduce poverty and make him popular. But he also saddles Venezuela with high inflation, billions in foreign debt and makes the country even more oil dependent.

This piece’s mention of Chavismo’s achievements subsumes them into an overarching narrative that is overwhelmingly focused on the many failures the authors attribute to the Bolivarian Revolution.

The New York Times‘ “short, simple primer” (1/24/19) on “how did things in Venezuela get so bad?” never mentions the word “sanctions.”

Max Fisher of the New York Times (1/24/19) noted that “Mr. Chávez was a dedicated leftist who spent heavily on social programs,” but failed to mention that these programs benefited Venezuelans for a very long time, especially the poorest in the country. In a common trope that’s typically used against leftist governments, especially those in the Global South with non-white majorities, Fisher denigrates the use of Venezuela’s resources to aid its people as a kind of bribery: “handouts to maintain support among his supporters.”

Also in the Times, Virginia Lopez Glass (1/25/19) made a brief, hand-waving reference to the long period of successes of the Bolivarian Revolution, writing that “perhaps Venezuela is finally at the end of a political cycle that, despite some years of social gains, ultimately impoverished what was once the richest nation in the region.”

Times columnist Bret Stephens  (1/28/19) mentioned Chavismo’s social programs, but only to blame government spending on these for the country’s ailments.

The Post seems not to have made any mention at all of the improvements the Bolivarian Revolution brought to the poor and working class who make up most of Venezuela’s population.

When the gains that Chavismo made are erased from the story being told about the country, a distorted version of events is presented. This accounting carries the incorrect message that the Bolivarian Revolution has been an abject failure from start to finish, and that every aspect of the project must therefore be abandoned in order to improve Venezuelans’ conditions. Such a misleading narrative further suggests that, since the Venezuelan government has allegedly brought only harm to the country’s people, the states involved in the effort to remove the Venezuelan government are justified in so doing, and their citizens should support rather than try to stop these efforts.

The starting point for discussions about Venezuela involving anyone who purports to care about the welfare of the people of the country ought to be the question, “What steps can be taken for Venezuela to resume making the impressive strides that it made for the majority of the time that Chavismo has held power?” as opposed to, “How can we disempower the social forces that gave birth to those gains, namely Venezuela’s poor and disproportionately mestizo, indigenous and black populations?” To their discredit, corporate media have framed their coverage around the latter rather than the former–a question whose answer necessarily involves lifting the draconian sanctions.

 

When India Tries to Regulate Amazon, US Media Qualms About Monopoly Disappear

February 20, 2019 - 3:18pm

 

The “breakthrough idea” heralded by the New York Times (9/7/18)–that antitrust should be about power, not just prices–was nowhere to be seen when US media reported on India’s attempt to regulate Amazon.

Last September, the New York Times (9/7/18) ran a remarkable profile on a law student who had, as the Times characterized it, “rocked the antitrust establishment” with a “runaway bestseller” essay in the Yale Law Journal (1/17). In her manuscript, Lina Khan called into question the prevailing approach to regulating retail monopolies, focusing on a potential offender that stands heads above the rest: Amazon.com, Inc.

Khan’s work and criticism of Amazon have been covered by corporate acolytes like CNBC (4/3/18), Bloomberg (7/9/18) and Forbes (1/28/19). Now an academic fellow at Columbia Law School, she argues that the current paradigm of gauging anticompetitive practices in the retail sector according to consumer welfare is “unequipped to capture the architecture of market power in the modern economy.”

“Because online platforms serve as critical intermediaries,” she writes, “integrating across business lines positions these platforms to control the essential infrastructure on which their rivals depend.”

Khan’s conclusion—that this new kind of monopoly calls for either aggressive regulation of marketplace competition, or classifying e-commerce giants as utilities and establishing checks on their power—prompted the Times’ celebrity treatment of her as a member of an emerging class of “antitrust foot soldiers,” fighting against a corporate titan that, in the paper’s own estimation, “overwhelmingly dominates online commerce.”

Now, as India enforces new regulations in an attempt to check the monopolistic reach of Amazon and other foreign online merchants there, the New York Times, along with most corporate media voices, sings a different tune. Having forgotten Khan’s argument that consumer welfare is a poor rubric for modern anticompetitive practices in an online marketplace, the Times (1/30/19) baldly stated that “Amazon Users in India Will Get Less Choice and Pay More Under New Selling Rules.”

Other media rang similar alarm bells. The Wall Street Journal (2/1/19) reported that products have been “yanked” from Amazon in India, which has plunged the market “into chaos,” according to Bloomberg (2/1/19). CNN (2/1/19) and CNBC (2/1/19) described the “huge threat” India now poses to Amazon and its rivals like Walmart, while The Verge (2/1/19) told readers that these corporate victims have already been “hit hard” by the new restrictions. Reuters (1/31/19) went so far as to portray India as a kind of giant spider that has “caught” unsuspecting flies like Amazon and Walmart in its vicious “web.”

So while commentators are at least beginning to worry about Amazon’s emerging monopoly here at home, this concern does not extend to countries like India, exposing the underlying neocolonial disposition of corporate media: Business practices that may be intolerable for the mother country should nonetheless be encouraged at the colonial periphery.

India’s complex investment history

The New York Times (1/30/19) leaves no doubt as to how it wants you to feel about India trying to regulate Amazon.

At issue is a modification of India’s Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) policy for e-commerce announced in December, which took effect on February 1. While allowing for 100 percent FDI in the marketplace-based model of e-commerce, in which the foreign entity merely acts as a facilitator between sellers and buyers (think eBay), India banned FDI in the inventory-based model, wherein the foreign entity sells its own products directly to consumers (think Walmart.com).

Because Amazon uses its hegemony to manipulate the market in favor of products in which it has a vested interest—the “architecture of market power” about which Khan cautioned—the Indian government, in response to complaints from industry associations, clarified its rules to prohibit the sale of products when the owner of the marketplace had “equity participation” or “control on its inventory.” The updated rules also require foreign entities like Amazon to provide their services “to vendors on the platform at arm’s length and in a fair and non-discriminatory manner.”

These events are just the latest chapter in a tumultuous history of regulating FDI since India’s independence. In 1947, after wrenching itself from nearly 200 years of British colonial subjugation, India had to balance its desperate need for capital investment in development with a well-earned skepticism about the intentions of foreign business.

The new indigenous government nationalized industries deemed critical to India’s strategic interests, such as the energy and military sectors. Niti Bhasin of the Delhi School of Economics wrote that “the prevailing mood in independent India was one of preserving and consolidating freedom, and not permitting once again any sort of foreign domination, political or economic.”

Over subsequent decades, India’s regulation of FDI in its economy fluctuated. Foreign participation was largely encouraged across economic sectors, though the government informally prodded companies to include local equity in their investments. In the late 1960s and early ’70s, however, India codified these equity requirements and began to crack down on monopolistic behavior, leading to an exodus of large multinational corporations from the Indian marketplace—including, famously, the departure of Coca-Cola in 1977.

These strict regulations on FDI were gradually relaxed over time until the Indian economy underwent a radical transformation in the 1990s, when “pressure of the IMF and World Bank to liberalize the Indian economy forced the government to accelerate the pace of liberalization,” according to Amar K.J.R. Nayak of the Xavier Institute of Management, Bhubaneswar. Coca-Cola, which re-entered India in 1993, now controls the largest share of the soft drink market there, including ownership of Thums Up, the indigenous cola brand that took Coke’s place 40 years ago when the US-based soda abandoned ship.

Hardly an anti-capitalist, Narendra Modi, the current prime minister of India, could be seen as the culmination of this more recent history. After coming to power in 2014 with the promise of continued economic liberalization, the Modi government last January instituted automatic approval for 100 percent FDI in aviation and construction, as well as single-brand retail, and is looking to do the same for the insurance industry.

Although understanding India’s unique historical struggle to secure its political and economic sovereignty is essential to comprehending the dynamics of the present standoff, corporate media chose instead to paint a picture for readers using more familiar—but fundamentally erroneous—analogies to a Western context.

Equivocating on ‘brick and mortar’

Whenever abuses by monopolies become so egregious as to provoke popular resistance, corporate media’s shallow coverage tends to cast aside the real story in favor of a staged battle royale between moguls (FAIR.org, 8/18/17). A similar trend emerged once again as India’s position on FDI in e-commerce evolved.

Rather than forefront the concerns of India’s myriad independent retailers about the potentially devastating effect of foreign-controlled e-commerce on their livelihoods, Reuters (1/24/19) led the story as a geopolitical “tussle,” “the latest in a number of US protests over Indian government policies which impact American companies.” Fortune (1/5/19) spun a heartwarming tale of erstwhile rivals “teaming up” to fight the uppity Indian government. “It isn’t all bad for Amazon and Walmart,” they reassured readers, as there may yet be hope for finding loopholes in the new restrictions.

More common was an effort to reduce the “tussle” to a competition between US billionaires Jeff Bezos and the Walton family, on the one hand, and Indian billionaires like Mukesh Ambani, owner of Mumbai-based Reliance Industries, on the other. Bloomberg (7/5/18), the Telegraph (1/18/19) and Quartz (1/29/19) each ran profiles on Ambani in the context of India’s new FDI rules, with the latter extolling that “Reliance could not have found a better time to launch its e-commerce business.”

The New York Times (4/7/16) has explained to its readers that, “as in the United States, in India brick-and-mortar retailers have expressed alarm at the growth of e-commerce.” While for an American audience, this depiction may conjure up memories of Amazon winning out over legacy retail corporations like Barnes & Noble, in India nothing could be further from reality.

According to the Indian government’s Department of Commerce, in 2017 e-commerce represented 3 percent of India’s overall retail economy, while “organized retail,” its term for large firms, including corporate brick-and-mortar establishments akin to Barnes and Noble, took up another 9 percent. In other words, a whopping 88 percent of retail commerce in India is conducted in so-called “mom and pop” stores, the likes of which are little more than a distant memory in the United States.

The “unorganized” or “traditional” retail sector in India is defined as “unincorporated private enterprises owned by individuals or households…with less than ten total workers.” By comparison, according to the latest available US Census data, American firms with fewer than ten workers amount to just 10 percent of total retail receipts, almost the exact opposite of India.

While Mukesh Ambani certainly has a large stake in the future of Indian e-commerce, his business dwells in that meager 12 percent slice of India’s overall retail marketplace. Meanwhile, tens of millions of working Indians see their livelihoods hanging in the balance.

Recalling the decimation of American mom-and-pop shops would arouse sympathy among a US audience but, sadly, erasing the plight of ordinary Indians isn’t the only diversionary tactic that corporate media have employed to spin this story.

Universalizing Trumpism

Narendra Modi (cc photo: World Economic Forum/Norbert Schiller)

Narendra Modi, who is pushing forward with regulations on foreign e-commerce, has been the subject of serious criticism, both within his country and abroad. Many hold him at least indirectly responsible for pogroms that killed upwards of 2,000 people while he was chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat, and his tenure as PM has also seen considerable controversy.

Despite hailing from western India, Modi symbolically contested for his seat in parliament from the ancient holy city of Varanasi, sweeping his Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People’s Party) into control on a platform of Hindutva nationalism, atop what the local press coined as a “Modi wave.” Since the 2014 national election, lynchings by right-wing “cow vigilantes” have increased, while some journalists and scholars have warned of new threats to freedom of speech there.

At the time of his ascension, Modi was described as “a corporate candidate” by Arundhati Roy, who saw the election as a contest deciding “which corporation will come to power.” Vijay Prashad, a historian at American University of Beirut, called Modi’s candidacy the “worst of all worlds” for exploiting sectarianism and anti-incumbency to advance a neoliberal economic agenda that would make even the Clintons blush (Common Dreams, 5/16/14).

Grasping as usual for the simplest possible narrative, however, Western corporate media have been content to style Modi as the Indian counterpart to a more fashionable villain, US President Donald Trump. The New York Times (10/16/16), New Yorker (1/18/17) and Atlantic (12/26/18), for example, have linked Modi and Trump as fellow “strong men” who employ “anti-bureaucracy and country-first language” to rile up their constituencies.

Albeit accurate with regard to certain rhetorical strategies, it is hard to see what relevance Trump’s political likeness to Modi bears on the Indian president’s position toward Amazon’s potential takeover of his country’s online marketplace. After all, as Reuters reported, Trump’s State Department and Office of the United States Trade Representative coordinated a lobbying effort against the new rules.

In other words, Modi’s decision to restrict FDI in inventory-based e-commerce, despite his more general openness to economic liberalization, and Trump’s support of US firms, despite his earlier threats to trust-bust Amazon, together represent a break from the very narratives corporate media are nevertheless injecting into the story.

That conceptual incongruity did not stop Bloomberg (2/4/19) from analyzing the matter in terms of Trumpism. “In India, populist fervor and fear is also working against Amazon,” they wrote, as Modi-qua-Trump “seems bent on appeasing millions of mom-and-pop store owners who make up a powerful voting block.” Euronews (1/25/19) similarly used Modi’s association with right-wing groups in a veiled attempt to discredit India’s resistance to Western economic imperialism.

With Amazon haunted by the threat of a leader “bent on appeasing” the vast majority of his country’s retail businesses in the face of potential corporate annihilation, it is little surprise that Jeff Bezos’ personal newspaper syndicated Bloomberg’s story (Washington Post, 2/4/19). As Adam Johnson documented, more broadly, US outlets lap up opportunities to render Bezos and his company in a flattering light (FAIR.org, 7/28/17). In this case, the alignment of Modi with Trump is the spoonful of sugar that helps corporate media’s Amazon apologetics go down.

Neocolonial legacies

As novel as Lina Khan’s approach to e-commerce monopolies may be, the phenomenon of US corporations taking control of “the essential infrastructure on which their rivals depend” is certainly not new, and it is a story with which India is all too familiar.

Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, Indian agriculture underwent a radical transformation as part of what is popularly called “The Green Revolution,” led by the US government, the World Bank, and the Ford and Rockefeller foundations. While the figurehead of the project, Norman Borlaug, was eventually awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his “miracle seeds” in 1970, not everyone views the aftermath of revolutionizing India’s largest economic sector as a miracle.

The environmentalist and scholar Vandana Shiva argues that the program hoisted onto India shifted its agricultural system from “an indigenous and ecological model to an exogenous and high-input one,” by introducing crop varieties and methods developed in partnership with US corporations that relied on pesticides and fertilizers produced by those same corporations to thrive. In Shiva’s view, this new dynamic “brought violence instead of peace, dependence instead of self-reliance and autonomy.”

Writing in 1991, at the dawn of India’s rapid economic liberalization, Shiva warned of further corporate encroachment into its indigenous industries. “We can draw some lessons from history about how technological change initiated by a special interest brings development to that interest group while creating underdevelopment for others,” she reflected.

Modi likely has history on his mind as he assesses another potential foreign-sponsored revolution of his country’s economy. As Shiva foretold, India’s agricultural industry is still plagued by political and economic strife and, notwithstanding his “populism,” ongoing discontent among farmers may well be Modi’s political undoing in the upcoming national election this year.

United with Trump against sovereignty

Khan, acting in the “antitrust foot soldier” capacity acclaimed by the New York Times, weighed in on their coverage of the new e-commerce FDI rules taking force in India. “Interestingly, @nytimes describes India’s rule as ‘protectionism,’” she wrote on Twitter, highlighting corporate media’s tendency to lump Modi in with universal Trumpism. “But this sort of structural separation has been a key principle in US competition policy. For example, Congress in 1906 passed a law prohibiting railroads from transporting goods they owned,” she noted.

Despite their openness to a new conceptualization of antitrust that is responsive to the dynamics of modern industry in the United States, corporate media are aghast at the implementation of such an approach to forestall US monopolies in another country like India. And despite adopting a banner of vanguard resistance against Trumpism, corporate media position themselves alongside Trump in his effort to undermine India’s economic sovereignty.

The only way to explain these inconsistencies is to acknowledge the latent neocolonial attitude that governs corporate media’s treatment of familiar issues whenever they cross the US border. The potential consumers in corporate media understand the damage already wrought by retail monopolies here, as well as the risks posed by Amazon’s dominance of the online market. Nevertheless, as potential shareholders, they are eager to see Amazon tap that heretofore unexploited 88 percent of India’s retail economy (CNBC, 1/31/19).

What corporate media find at least questionable for the homeland, they nonetheless encourage in the colonial periphery, because Indian wealth is meant to be extracted by the West.

No one yet knows what the future will hold for India’s online retail economy, or the US corporations salivating at the chance to take a bite out of it, but it should go without saying that this future is India’s to decide for itself. US media need to quit the role of corporate cheerleader for once and leave Indians to it.

 

CBS’s Horror Stories on National Debt Aren’t Actually All That Scary

February 15, 2019 - 3:59pm

CBS News (2/14/19)

CBS News had a piece warning its audience about the problems of large government debt. It noted projections of rising US government debt, commenting:

The only countries with a higher debt load than the US are Portugal, Italy, Greece and Japan. The first three have become synonymous with profligate spending and economic woes post–Great Recession, while Japan’s “lost decade” of economic stagnation is a mainstay of economic textbooks.

The first three countries are all in the euro zone. They do not have their own currency, but rather must adhere to rules set by the European Central Bank and the European Commission. Their situation is comparable to that of a state in the United States. No one disputes that it would be a big problem for Utah or California to run up very large debts.

Japan is the country most comparable, but the textbooks CBS refers to seem not to be very reliable. According to the IMF, Japan’s per capita GDP has increased by an average rate of 0.9 percent annually between 1990 and 2018; while this is somewhat less than the 1.5 percent rate in the United States, it is hardly a disaster. In addition, average hours per worker fell 15.8 percent in Japan over this period, compared to a decline of just 2.9 percent in the United States.

In spite of having a debt to GDP ratio that is more than twice as large as the US, Japan does not provide evidence to support the warnings CBS gives about large deficits. Its long-term interest rates are near zero, meaning the debt is not crowding out investment. Its interest payments on its debt are roughly 0.5 percent of GDP ($100 billion in the United States), indicating that they are not crowding out other spending priorities. And its inflation rate is just over 1.0 percent, indicating that profligate spending has not led to a problem with inflation.

Dean Baker is a senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC. A version of this post originally appeared on CEPR’s blog Beat the Press (2/14/19).

Messages to CBS may be sent here (or via Twitter @CBSMoneyWatch). Please remember that respectful communication is the most effective.

Court Strikes Down FCC’s Mean-Spirited Effort to Reinforce Digital Divide

February 15, 2019 - 12:54pm

by Janine Jackson

A federal appeals court has overturned FCC chair Ajit Pai‘s attempt to gut the subsidy that makes it possible for low-income communities to access broadband. For reasons known only to themselves, the FCC’s Republican majority voted last fall to make it much harder for people, including tribal residents, to obtain a subsidy provided by a program appropriately called Lifeline.

Lifeline helps people who qualify with a $9.25 monthly subsidy to buy phone and Internet service; for those living on tribal lands, the subsidy is $25 in recognition of additional hurdles to access they face. Nearly 11 million people subscribe, which still just represents 28 percent of eligible households.

Ars Technica (2/4/19)

As Jon Brodkin at Ars Technica (2/4/19) reminds, the Lifeline program started as a landline phone subsidy under Reagan, then became a wireless subsidy program under George W. Bush, then a phone and Internet subsidy program under Obama. It is, in other words, not a controversial thing, but seen as a relatively cheap way to bridge an increasingly critical and unconscionable  divide—that is, until we get to Trump’s FCC and former Verizon lawyer Pai.

As part of their evident “public interest, what’s that?” philosophy, Pai and pals pushed through a change of policy to limit access to Lifeline last fall; they just didn’t bother to make a case.  The US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit stayed the FCC decision pending appeal, and, as Brodkin reports, the same court followed that up early this month with a ruling that reversed the FCC decision and remanded the matter back to the commission for a new rule-making proceeding.

Among other should-be-embarrassing things, the judges wrote that the Commission’s decisions were “arbitrary and capricious,” without “a reasoned explanation… supported by record evidence.” And the agency

ignored that its decision is a fundamental change that adversely affects the access and affordability of service for residents of Tribal lands. Similarly, in adopting the Tribal Rural Limitation, the Commission’s decision evinces no consideration of the impact on service access and affordability.

It’s almost as if they don’t have the public interest at heart.

 

Phyllis Bennis on Afghanistan Armistice?

February 15, 2019 - 10:03am
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(photo: DoD/Kyle Davis)

This week on CounterSpin: Every news report contains text—whatever new information is being conveyed—and subtext: a lesson it’s underscoring, or a pattern it fits. When it’s a foreign policy story, as in coverage of current negotiations on ending the war in Afghanistan, the subtext is that the US may naturally, legitimately unleash all the violent, life-shattering power it sees to fit to muster in those countries in which it deems itself interested, and the terms for cessation of that violence should be judged primarily, if not entirely, according to those interests. We’ll look at Afghanistan through a different lens with Phyllis Bennis, director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, and author of, among other titles, Ending the US War in Afghanistan: A Primer, with David Wildman, and Before & After: US Foreign Policy and the War on Terror.

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Plus Janine Jackson takes a quick look at press coverage of Venezuelan “aid.”

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ACTION ALERT: MSNBC’s ‘Resistance’ to Trump’s Venezuela Coup Ranges from Silence to Support

February 13, 2019 - 1:49pm

 

After much behind the scenes angling and plotting, the Trump administration is now waging an overt campaign to overthrow the government of Venezuela—coordinating directly with the Venezuelan military, lobbying other countries to support the opposition government-in-waiting, threatening a military invasion and engaging in aggressive PR stunts under the guise of “aid.”

MSNBC (1/27/19)

Given MSNBC is the largest, most influential liberal platform in the US—one that has long marketed itself as a progressive counter to the lies and ruthless right-wing onslaught of the Trump government, one would think they’d be leading the charge against Trump’s old school, Cold War–style coup-mongering in South America.

But a FAIR survey of MSNBC since Trump threw the US’s support behind self-proclaimed Venezuelan president Juan Guaidó (the effective start of the attempted coup) finds coverage has ranged from outright support to virtual silence—with only one five-minute segment on All In With Chris Hayes (1/29/19) broaching objections to Trump’s Venezuela policy. The only segment that comes close to criticizing Trump’s attempted coup, Hayes’ “Is Trump Moving Toward War in Venezuela?” largely framed his opposition as “just asking questions,” and had on Texas Rep. Joaquin Castro to insist the “timing” for sanctions and regime change wasn’t right.

MSNBC (1/29/19)

Based on a search of MSNBC’s website, these were the only five of the cable channel’s 30,240 on-air minutes since Trump’s coup was launched three weeks ago that were dedicated to criticizing it, and these did so only mildly.

Aside from Hayes’ brief chiding, primetime coverage of Trump’s coup on MSNBC has been entirely nonexistent: Searching turned up nothing about Venezuela in recent weeks on Hardball With Chris Matthews, the Rachel Maddow Show, Last Word With Lawrence O’Donnell or 11th Hour With Brian Williams. The vast bulk of the coverage, such that it is, has been during the daytime, and has been largely fluffy, pro-regime change propaganda:

  • Venezuela’s Maduro Cuts Relations With US as Trump Recognizes Opposition Leader Juan Guaidó as Interim President (Velshi & Ruhle, 1/23/19)

A fairly dry news report where Andrew Mitchell, reporting on behalf of NBC News, repeatedly refers to Maduro’s “regime” and passes along Trump’s line uncritically.

  • Sen. Rubio: If Any Harm Comes to US Diplomats in Venezuela, the Consequences Will Be ‘Swift and Decisive’ (Andrea Mitchell Reports, 1/24/19)

Softball interview with Sen. Marco Rubio, the leading congressional coup proponent. propping up all the primary arguments for the coup. The segment leads with “hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans are taking to the streets…demanding freedom,” and refers repeatedly to “authoritarian leftist, authoritarian socialist president” Maduro.

  • Maduro and Guaidó Fight for Power in Venezuela, US Gets Involved (Ayman Mohyeldin, 1/27/19)

A five-minute phone call with opposition leader Lilian Tintori.

  • Brief discussion by Joy Ann Reid (AMJoy, 1/27/19)

Not a full segment, but MSNBC go-to Venezuela expert Mariana Atencio promotes all of Trump’s core arguments for the coup.

  • Velshi & Ruhle breaking news segment (Velshi & Ruhle, 1/28/19)

MSNBC just plays the press conference of National Security Adviser John Bolton, the administration’s chief coup architect.

  • MSNBC (1/30/19)

    Venezuela Power Play: Breaking Down Maduro and Guaidó’s Options (Hallie Jackson, 1/30/19)

Jackson leads with Mariana Atencio—using her personal background to lend gravitas to her one-sided pro-Guaido analysis: “This is a battle right now between legitimacy and power. Guaidó has the legitimacy, but Maduro has the guns, meaning the power.”

“Mariana, we are so thrilled to have you on,” Jackson began; “You’re a native of Venezuela.”

But if Atencio’s background is brought up to present her as the voice of the Venezuelan people, why not mention her deeply atypical class status? A 2012 ABC profile of Atencio suggests she is far from representative of the average Venezuelan:

Besides the typical Disney trip that many Latin American families venture to, [Atencio] had not spent much time in the States before attending tennis summer camp at age seven. That’s when her father sent Mariana and her siblings to Camp Lincoln and Camp Hubert Tennis Camp in Brainerd, Minnesota, for four consecutive years. “It seemed like the end of the world,” she says, with a laugh.

The rest of the article was a gallery of Atencio’s favorite shoes.

  • Thousands of Anti-Maduro Protesters Gather in Florida (Weekends With Alex Witt, 2/2/19)

Pro-coup agitprop as Atencio reports from a pro-Guaidó rally in Doral, Florida. MSNBC is apparently still unable to find a Venezuelan to report or provide analysis who isn’t an Ivy League–educated tennis camp alum married to a real estate entrepreneur.

  • Venezuela’s Opposition Leader Speaks as Pressure Grows on Maduro (Velshi & Ruhle, 2/4/19)

Softball interview with Juan Guaidó by NBC’s Kerry Sanders.

This has been the extent of MSNBC’s coverage of Trump’s attempted coup, carried out in broad daylight by a murderers’ row of hardcore right-wing Cold Warriors: five minutes of hand-wringing from Chris Hayes, total silence from all the other primetime personalities, and daytime reporting that echos Trump and Rubio’s uniform praise for the coup attempt and its primary actors.

Just as the New York Times has long stood behind the US’s history of coups, MSNBC is following the tradition of Democratic Party–aligned media who are happy to oppose Trump when it comes to mean words and Russiagate, but fall in lockstep with his White House the second he begins to carry out Washington’s bipartisan regime-change agenda.

ACTION ALERT: Please contact MSNBC to urge the network to balance its pro-coup coverage of Venezuela.

CONTACT: Deb Finan, Senior VP, Programming and Production

Email: debbie.finan@nbcuni.com

Twitter: @MSNBC, @maddow@Lawrence

‘MBS Has Ushered in an Era of Unprecedented Crackdowns and Repression of Political Speech’ - CounterSpin interview with Sarah Aziza on Saudi repression of women

February 12, 2019 - 3:33pm

Janine Jackson interviewed Sarah Aziza about Saudi Arabia’s repression of women for the February 8, 2019, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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New York Times (6/23/17)

Janine Jackson: When Saudi Arabia officially lifted a ban on women driving last June, it made for a great photo-op. Time magazine had a video feature in which they rode along with the country’s first women taxi drivers. 60 Minutes had already declared Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman a “liberator of women.” For the New York Times editorial board, the “young and brash leader” is in some ways “just what his country needs,” because “he would allow concerts, and would consider reforming laws tightly controlling the lives of women.” But US media are only slowly coming to acknowledge that beyond the photo-op lies a very different reality.

Journalist Sarah Aziza writes on these issues, among others, for the Intercept, as well as other outlets. She joins us now by phone from Brooklyn. Welcome to CounterSpin, Sarah Aziza.

Sarah Aziza: Thank you so much for having me.

JJ: You actually saw reporters swarming on the photo-op of Saudi women driving. And one can see why: It’s both a symbolic and a material change that seems to say that Saudi Arabia, under the influence particularly of Mohammed bin Salman, is on the road to reform. But subsequent and even previous events should tell us that that’s not really the story here. What should we know about bin Salman as liberator of Saudi women?

SA: Yeah, I would say that it is not the full story. It is true that there are some women—particularly who come from liberal families, middle- or upper-class families—who are enjoying the benefit of these limited reforms, the increased flexibility for women in the workforce. And the ability to drive was no small thing, symbolically or practically.

Sarah Aziza: “One of the themes of bin Salman’s reign is this absolute top-down, unilateral approach, that any rights or privileges granted to his subjects must be seen as coming directly from him, and a product of his will and his will alone.”

But on the much grander scale, Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS, as we often see him referred to in the press, has ushered in an era of really unprecedented crackdowns and repression of all forms of political speech. But also just a general chill of authoritarianism that rendered even ordinary citizens afraid to speak about the royal family, to discuss their opinions whatsoever when it comes to the reforms that are happening in their society, or even everyday topics.

Whether it’s issues of culture or commerce, there’s just this sense that, yes, there are movie theaters and concert halls people are enjoying attending, but no one there feels the freedom to speak openly about anything anymore, on the issue of women in particular.

It’s perhaps the most monstrous paradox of MBS’s reign so far, is the way that he’s branded himself as a liberator of women. He’s defended to the foreign press that women in Saudi Arabia are equal, absolutely equal, and that he is just here to empower and raise them up.

And in particular, in relation to the women driving, that’s the most perhaps egregious and awful irony, was that practically all the women who had campaigned for the right to drive—some of them dedicating decades of their lives to peaceful protest and demonstration and petitioning of the government to obtain the right to drive, among other rights—they were all in jail when the day finally came, when all of the reporters were swarming these open lots, these choreographed spectacles that look so good on the front pages of newspapers with these smiling women, but in the meantime, the women that really had the legacy of pushing for these reforms were in detention. They’ve not yet faced trial or even formal charges, not yet had access to legal counsel, haven’t seen their family. And we’ve had recent reports in the past few months that several of them, at least, have faced systemic torture and sexual abuse while in detention, at the same time that MBS was using their cause as evidence of his credentials as a reformer.

The Intercept (10/6/18)

JJ: When you wrote about this in 2018, you said that one activist said that maybe the crackdown has something to do with the regime not wanting the lifting of the ban to be seen as a reward for that activism. They’d prefer it be presented as a gift from the king.

SA: Absolutely, that’s been one of the themes of bin Salman’s reign, is this absolute top-down, unilateral approach, that any rights or privileges granted to his subjects must be seen as coming directly from him, and a product of his will and his will alone, and that there are no channels, there’s no two-way channel between the people and the government, that they’re not to have expectations of activism or organizing as bringing about any changes or demands. This is not a conversation. This is a patriarchal, top-down granting or bequeathing of rights as he sees fit.

So the locking up of these women journalists was a way, we think, of pre-empting any sort of credit-taking, or any sort of celebration. The women were contacted ahead of time, in some cases, and told not to even tweet congratulations or in praise of the reforms, because that could be seen as attaching themselves to the outcome, and MBS wanted to fully control the narrative for himself.

JJ: And then to go back for a moment to the women in prison, and the reports of abuse, including torture. This is something new, this mistreatment, right, of women. This is not common, exactly.

SA: No, absolutely not. The concept of female political prisoners was pretty unheard of before MBS, and that comes back to, in a lot of ways, the sense of propriety, the patriarchal norms that in many ways harm women so much, but in another sense have these really stringent and old-fashioned ideas of modesty, where women are not meant to be publicly displayed in any way.

But that really has fallen by the wayside, in the case of many of these women activists. They were viciously attacked in the pro-government press, and there was a smear campaign. They were identified as enemies of the state. Rumors of their connections to foreign governments, to Qatar, among other things, were just splashed across the front pages of local newspapers, along with their pictures, which is, again, just such a transgression of modesty norms in the country. So it really just shows a willingness to transgress all normal bounds by MBS in order to push his narrative forward at whatever cost, and victimizing whomever along the way.

JJ: The October 2018 disappearing and presumed murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Turkey was absolutely shocking. And yet the murder itself sort of got swallowed up in debate over how Trump or the US should or would respond to it.

What did you make of the treatment of Khashoggi’s killing? What got lost, do you think, there in media coverage?

Intercept (2/1/19)

SA: I think that what got lost the most perhaps are the long-term implications of allowing MBS to really, in essence, get away with murder. This is a young man who, although there are elements to his reign that may still be tenuous, he’s really consolidated an unprecedented amount of power, and maneuvered his way into the crown prince position.

His father’s very old and ailing, and should this man succeed to the throne, we could be dealing with a Saudi Arabia led by MBS for 50 years to come, for decades, and it’s an absolute monarchy at this point still.

So the implications for millions of Saudis and for the world, as well as just the freedom of press in general, and the violation of just the concept of journalism and dissent—all of these presumably universal principles seem to be just swept aside in favor of Trump and Jared Kushner’s personal relationship with the  crown prince, and an unwillingness to perhaps endanger a lucrative arms deal or strategic interests against Iran.

So it’s a really short-sighted approach that was taken to Khashoggi’s death, and it’s really a travesty of justice, and a tragedy for all those who knew him, and for what he represents as a journalist and as a Saudi.

JJ: Well, let me ask you about—and you talked about this—but within Saudi Arabia, outside of Thomas Friedman chatting with a cab driver, we don’t hear much street-level storytelling, really. You reported that many Saudis are themselves “unaware of the government’s crackdown on activists,” like it’s not necessarily something that everyone is talking about, or maybe comfortable talking about.

SA: No, there’s certainly a sense of confusion. There’s a lot of obliviousness, definitely. Apart from the smear campaign against Loujain al-Hathloul and some of the other women’s rights activists back in the summer of 2018, a lot of these arrests and disappearances, they’re emerging through Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International reports and social media, but they’re going unmentioned in the local press.

So there’s a lot of confusion, a lot of lack of awareness, and then, when there is awareness, there’s incredible reluctance to even admit knowing anything about these subjects. Everyone’s worried that even having an interest, even following stories that are critical of MBS, could render them liable to be called enemies of the state themselves, they could be targeted for arrest or stigmatization or suspicion, under this growing sense of a police state, and Thought Police, in a way. And you see that, even the impact on social media: people shutting down their accounts, being unwilling—even their anonymous accounts—to be on Twitter or Facebook anymore, to even click on stories that they think might lead somewhere to a critical story.

And I should just add that Saudi Arabia has been expanding and emphasizing their anti-cybercrime laws that really criminalize any use of media, or propagating any information, that might be seen as portraying the kingdom or the royal family in a negative light. So these are now criminal offenses, and everyone’s just tiptoeing, as far as their information and conversation surrounding any of these issues now.

JJ: It’s amazing, in a way, that activism continues under these circumstances.

Well, finally, outside of the false hope, if you will, that MBS is being portrayed as, where do you see real hope within Saudi Arabia?

SA: I speak to a lot of people, both inside and outside the country, and there seems to be a pretty unanimous opinion that the hope really lies outside of the borders of Saudi Arabia, at this point, whether it’s Saudis abroad who are advocating for their people, or the journalists and activists, human rights groups and foreign governments, who it’s really incumbent upon them to look at the evidence and admit what’s so obviously there, that this is a dangerous leader, that’s he’s taking Saudi Arabia into a really frightening direction, and that there needs to be meaningful sanctions and consequences for him now, rather than later. Each time we let him get away with another violation or offense is another reinforcement, in his mind, that he has an impunity that renders him exempt from the rules.

So, yeah, I’m speaking to even one leading human rights activist from Saudi Arabia, who’s in exile now, self-exile. And she told me, “My only hope is in the international community.” Yet she does have hope. She says, “I believe in my people and I believe in our women. They’ve overcome so much for decades,” So, they won’t be stopped, but it’s absolutely incumbent upon the rest of us to do our part, too.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Sarah Aziza. You can find her recent piece, “Mohammed bin Salman Is Running Saudi Arabia Like a Man Who Got Away With Murder,” on TheIntercept.com, and a related piece, “The Saudi Government’s Global Campaign to Silence Its Critics,” on New Yorker.com. More of her work’s at SarahAziza.com.

Sarah Aziza, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

SA: Thank you so much. I enjoyed this.

Facts Don’t Interfere With Propaganda Blitz Against Venezuela’s Elected President

February 12, 2019 - 10:22am

by Joe Emersberger

The Miami Herald (2/8/19) reported, “Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro continues to reject international aid—going so far as to blockade a road that might have been used for its delivery.“

The “Venezuelan leader” reporter Jim Wyss referred to is Venezuela’s elected president. In contrast, Wyss referred to Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s “interim president.”

Guaidó, anointed by Trump and a new Iraq-style Coalition of the Willing, did not even run in Venezuela’s May 2018 presidential election. In fact, shortly before the election, Guaidó was not even mentioned by the opposition-aligned pollster Datanálisis when it published approval ratings of various prominent opposition leaders. Henri Falcón, who actually did run in the election (defying US threats against him) was claimed by the pollster to basically be in a statistical tie for most popular among them. It is remarkable to see the Western media dismiss this election as “fraudulent,” without even attempting to show that it was “stolen“ from Falcón. Perhaps that’s because it so clearly wasn’t stolen.

Data from the opposition-aligned pollsters in Venezuela (via Torino Capital) indicates that Henri Falcón was the most popular of the major opposition figures at the time of the May 2018 presidential election. Nicolás Maduro won the election due to widespread opposition boycotting and votes drawn by another opposition candidate, Javier Bertucci.

The constitutional argument that Trump and his accomplices have used to “recognize” Guaidó rests on the preposterous claim that Maduro has “abandoned” the presidency by soundly beating Falcón in the election. Caracas-based journalist Lucas Koerner took apart that argument in more detail.

The Miami Herald headline (2/8/19) blames food shortages in Venezuela on “Maduro’s blockade,” not on US-led sanctions.

What about the McClatchy-owned Herald‘s claim that Maduro “continues to reject international aid”? In November 2018, following a public appeal by Maduro, the UN did authorize emergency aid for Venezuela. It was even reported by Reuters (11/26/18), whose headlines have often broadcast the news agency’s contempt for Maduro’s government.

It’s not unusual for Western media to ignore facts they have themselves reported when a major “propaganda blitz” by Washington is underway against a government. For example, it was generally reported accurately in 1998 that UN weapons inspectors were withdrawn from Iraq ahead of air strikes ordered by Bill Clinton, not expelled by Iraq’s government. But by 2002, it became a staple of pro-war propaganda that Iraq had expelled weapons inspectors (Extra! Update, 10/02).

And, incidentally, when a Venezuelan NGO requested aid from the UN-linked Global Fund in 2017, it was turned down. Setting aside how effective foreign aid is at all (the example of Haiti hardly makes a great case for it), it is supposed to be distributed based on relative need, not based on how badly the US government wants somebody overthrown.

But the potential for “aid” to alleviate Venezuela’s crisis is negligible compared to the destructive impact of US economic sanctions. Near the end of Wyss’ article, he cited an estimate from the thoroughly demonized Venezuelan government that US sanctions have cost it $30 billion, with no time period specified for that estimate. Again, this calls to mind the run-up to the Iraq invasion, when completely factual statements that Iraq had no WMDs were attributed to the discredited Iraqi government. Quoting Iraqi denials supposedly balanced the lies spread in the media by US officials like John Bolton, who now leads the charge to overthrow Maduro. Wyss could have cited economists independent of the Maduro government on the impact of US sanctions—like US economist Mark Weisbrot, or the emphatically anti-Maduro Venezuelan economist Francisco Rodríguez.

Illegal US sanctions were first imposed in 2015 under a fraudulent “state of emergency” declared by Obama, and subsequently extended by Trump. The revenue lost to Venezuela’s government due to US economic sanctions since August 2017, when the impact became very easy to quantify, is by now well over $6 billion. That’s enormous in an economy that was only able to import about $11 billion of goods in 2018, and needs about $2 billion per year in medicines. Trump’s “recognition” of Guaidó as “interim president” was the pretext for making the already devastating sanctions much worse. Last month, Francisco Rodríguez revised his projection for the change in Venezuela’s real GDP in 2019, from an 11 percent contraction to 26 percent, after the intensified sanctions were announced.

The $20 million in US “aid” that Wyss is outraged Maduro won’t let in is a rounding error compared to the billions already lost from Trump’s sanctions.

Former US Ambassador to Venezuela William Brownfield, who pressed for more sanctions on Venezuela, dispensed with the standard “humanitarian” cover that US officials have offered for them (Intercept, 2/10/19):

And if we can do something that will bring that end quicker, we probably should do it, but we should do it understanding that it’s going to have an impact on millions and millions of people who are already having great difficulty finding enough to eat, getting themselves cured when they get sick, or finding clothes to put on their children before they go off to school. We don’t get to do this and pretend as though it has no impact there. We have to make the hard decision—the desired outcome justifies this fairly severe punishment.

How does this gruesome candor get missed by reporters like Wyss, and go unreported in his article?

Speaking of “severe punishment,” if the names John Bolton and Elliott Abrams don’t immediately call to mind the punishment they should be receiving for crimes against humanity, it illustrates how well the Western propaganda system functions. Bolton, a prime facilitator of the Iraq War, recently suggested that Maduro could be sent to a US-run torture camp in Cuba. Abrams played a key role in keeping US support flowing to mass murderers and torturers in Central America during the 1980s. Also significant that Abrams, brought in by Trump to help oust Maduro, used “humanitarian aid” as cover to supply weapons to the US-backed Contra terrorists in Nicaragua.

In the Herald article, the use of US “aid” for military purposes is presented as another allegation made by the vilified Venezuelan president: “Maduro has repeatedly said the aid is cover for a military invasion and has ordered his armed forces not to let it in, even as food and medicine shortages sweep the country.”

Calling for international aid and being democratically elected will do as little to protect Maduro’s government from US aggression as being disarmed of WMD did to prevent Iraq from being invaded—unless there is much more pushback from the US public against a lethal propaganda system.

 

‘The Distribution of Income Depends on How We Structure the Economy’ - CounterSpin interview with Dean Baker on taxing the rich

February 11, 2019 - 1:54pm

Janine Jackson interviewed Dean Baker about taxing the rich for the February 8, 2019, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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Janine Jackson: One in three GoFundMe campaigns in this country are for medical expenses. One in five households have zero or negative wealth. Millions of people are one paycheck away from hardship. And this is the same society in which there are people who can’t remember how many houses they own, or are puzzled about why furloughed federal workers would be going to food banks.

Inequality is a life or death issue, which makes it especially disconcerting that some folks with media megaphones seem proudly ignorant of the basic mechanisms by which resources are distributed. Some myths and misunderstandings are being thrown into relief as we’re seeing a strikingly bold (for recent times) conversation about progressive taxation, occasioned by proposals from New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, among others. But if the present debate goes further than we’re used to, does it go far enough?

Dean Baker is co-founder and senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. He joins us now by phone from Utah. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Dean Baker.

Dean Baker: Thanks a lot for having me on.

Dean Baker: “We could disagree, is 70 percent the right rate, but to act like that’s just impossible, we’re going to see our economy collapse—that’s nuts.” (image: BillMoyers.com)

JJ: Corporate media have trouble, or often don’t bother, to distinguish between ideas and those espousing them. So when Ocasio-Cortez suggests the idea of a top marginal tax rate of 70 percent, that gets sucked into the vortex of her coverage—you know, coverage of her—as with wealth tax proposals from senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

Before we talk about the limits of those ideas, I wonder if you could just talk a bit about both top marginal tax rates and increased taxes on extreme wealth, given that media often present those ideas as kind of ideas from Mars, or proof that these politicians are wild-eyed fantasists.

DB: Yeah, well, the reaction to both proposals has been fascinating. Both the public reaction, where there’s clearly been a lot of support—people are saying, “Yeah, you have a lot of real rich people, why shouldn’t they pay more in taxes?”—but more so from the media and from some establishment politicians.

So the reaction is, “Oh, here’s flaky Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, where’s she get off, 70 percent?” And, in fact, that’s a number that many of the world’s most prominent tax economists have said, “This is the maximum tax rate,” in the sense of maximum amount of revenue.

And there was a widely read article by Peter Diamond, who’s a professor at MIT, and Emmanuel Saez at Berkeley, both very, very prominent. Diamond won the Nobel Prize, Saez the John Bates Clark award, two of the most prestigious awards you can get in the profession, so these are people in very high standing. And they came up with that number; there are all sorts qualifications and reservations, but in any case, they didn’t think it was ridiculous.

New York Times (1/3/19)

So when you have a new member of Congress propose that, well, the media jumped on that like, “Oh, she’s just being flaky.” And, in fact, it’s a very reasonable thing to put on the table; whether that’s the right rate, of course you could debate that. But it certainly was not a ridiculous proposal, and again, Paul Krugman had a very nice piece, where he’s contrasting that with the Republican proposals to cut taxes on the rich, where they were saying that they would pay for themselves, which was ridiculous. But that was treated like these are serious people.

So it’s been fascinating that there’s been such a rush to dismiss these kind of far-out proposals by radical leftists, when they’re reasonable proposals—which, again, is not to say that they’re necessarily the best policy, but they’re certainly reasonable proposals to put on the table, and to be debated.

JJ: We read that Michael Dell—who has $30 billion or so—at the World Economic Forum, apparently said, “Name a country where that’s worked—ever.” The 70 percent top marginal rate. Missing something, you could say.

DB: Yeah, of course, one of the co-panelists said, “The United States,” because that was in fact the rate in the United States, until Ronald Reagan lowered it with his tax cuts in 1981. And if we go back a little further, it was 90 percent in the Eisenhower days; Kennedy had lowered it to 70 percent.

So, again, one could argue whether these are the best rates. But to treat this as a crazy idea out of far left field is just wrong. And some of the back and forth—because I was on Twitter with Dell, and there were others involved, obviously—and what I find most striking, Dell’s kind of a poster child here, because what is Dell’s expertise in this area? He’s very rich, no doubt about that, but he obviously knows nothing about tax rates.

I mean, again, we could disagree, is 70 percent the right rate, but to act like that’s just impossible, we’re going to see our economy collapse—that’s nuts. He knows nothing about it; he just has $30 billion, so therefore he thinks he’s qualified to talk about it.

JJ:  It’s good, I think, that we’re talking about taxing extremely high incomes and wealth—for all kinds of reasons. The LA Times’ Michael Hiltzik was saying, it helps move us away from this notion that wealth is “self-made,” that these folks owe nothing to society, and it disrupts the fallacy of trickle-down.

But having said that, it does take the form of a giveback: “You’ve got an absurd amount of money, so you should throw some back in the pot, because that’s the socially decent thing to do.”

You suggest, in this recent piece for Truthout, that while that is not wrong, it’s not getting to the crux, the bigger source, of the rise in inequality.

DB:  Yeah. So the point I made in that piece—and, really, I’ve made it in much of my writings over the last 10 or 15 years—is that the distribution of income is not something that just happens. It depends on how we structure the economy.

And I would say the economy is pretty much infinitely malleable. We could structure it all sorts of different ways. And my favorite example here—just because it’s so blatant—is I like to say, “How rich would Bill Gates be if he didn’t have copyright or patent monopolies on Windows software?” If anyone in the world could just start mass-producing computers, and copy in Windows and all the other Microsoft software, and they don’t even have to send them a thank-you note?

Well, needless to say, he would not be one of the richest people in the world. He wouldn’t have $100 billion. I’m sure he’d do fine. But the fact that someone like Bill Gates could become incredibly wealthy was because of how we designed that market.

And it’s pretty much the same story everywhere you look. Finance: Where would all these Goldman Sachs guys be if we didn’t have the bailout in ’08 and we just let the market run its course? There’s many other ways we subsidize finance as well.

Corporate CEOs: They were always well-paid, but if you go back to the pay standards of the ’60s and ’70s, they’d be getting $2 or $3 million a year, not $30 and $40 million.

So we structure rules that allow people to get incredibly wealthy.

And I really prefer that to be the focus, both because as a practical matter, it’s much harder to get the money back once they have it. I mean, there’s all sorts of practical issues that people rightly raise. Sen. Elizabeth Warren says, “Let’s tax the wealthy.” Well, they’re not just gonna hand it over to you. It’s going to be hard to do, which isn’t to say it’s not something we might want to do, but it’s going to be hard.

And secondly, the political issue. If we act as though, “Well, you know, Bill Gates got that fair and square,” we shouldn’t take any of it back. If you go, “Well, we could have structured it differently, and then Bill Gates wouldn’t have it,” and then we don’t even have to have this discussion.

NBC News (1/26/19)

JJ: I wonder, do you think it’s a trap to talk about these things in terms of revenue, in terms of how much money it would bring to the economy? I read a piece by Vanessa Williamson from Brookings, where she said that taxes on the very wealthy “should be judged by their societal impact and not simply by their revenues,” that it has to do with the fact that just having some people be so wildly wealthy is “incompatible with democracy.” And so we shouldn’t get too hung up on how much money it would give to the economy to institute some of these changes. What do you make of that?

DB: I think it’s a very important point, and I remember some years ago, there was a piece on the estate tax that was done by Alicia Munnell, now at Boston College, and she came up with some figure that we get a relatively small amount of revenue from the estate tax. I’m saying relatively small, still substantial, but much less than if you just said, “Oh, here’s how many rich people died, and we tax it a 40 percent rate”—we get a very small amount relative to that.

But she wasn’t writing as a critic of the tax, because of the two points she was making, one is exactly this one: That part of the story is, we don’t want massive amounts of wealth to be handed down, so you get Donald Trump or his kid walking away with billions, and suddenly having all this political influence.

But the other is, part of what they do to avoid the taxes is do things like start foundations, like the Ford Foundation and the Gates Foundation. Now, those aren’t my dreams; I mean, there’s a lot of bad things I could say about the way those foundations are run. But the point is, that’s not altogether a loss for society, because they do do some good things.

So to act like, “Oh, they aren’t going to pay the tax. They’re just going to start a foundation that provides inoculations to children in Africa.” Well, that’s not a bad thing. So to just look at it and say, “OK, how much revenue are we getting from the tax,” that is missing the point.

JJ: Well, and then, though, going back to Michael Dell, he said:

My wife and I set up a foundation…and we would have contributed quite a bit more than a 70 percent tax rate on my annual income. And I feel much more comfortable with our ability as a private donation to allocate those funds than I do giving them to the government.

DB: Well, I guess we’d have to talk to Michael Dell. He still could do that.

JJ:  Exactly. But I think what people are saying is, the problem isn’t whether that’s true in real numbers; the problem is running a society on noblesse oblige.

DB: Yes, you know, we don’t want to have to depend on—you know, I wasn’t going to go into my criticisms of the Gates Foundation and the others, but yeah, we don’t want to depend on their goodwill. I mean, people need healthcare, they need education, all the other necessities of life. And it shouldn’t depend on whether Michael Dell, he and his wife, are good people, and they’re going to contribute to that. I mean, it’s nice if they want to, but that shouldn’t be what we depend on.

JJ:  Well, a poll from that pinko rag Business Insider showed that Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal, the 70 percent top marginal tax rate, was more popular than the GOP tax cuts, which you alluded to before. People don’t even think that “socialism” is a curse word anymore, which removes a real arrow from some folks’ quiver.

But I think we want to say that none of these proposals, working on pre-tax income, post-tax income, they’re not opponents of one another as proposals, right? And other things, like raising the minimum wage, could fit in there, too. I guess it just does seem like more ideas are on the table than we’ve grown accustomed to, and I wonder how we keep that window open, and how we keep pushing for more?

DB:  It has been great that you have people put it on the table, and there’s been a good popular response. And I have to say it, to some extent our best allies in this have been  the Republicans and conservatives, because they’ve said things that are just so absurd.

I mean, I remember Scott Walker, the former governor of Wisconsin, was criticizing Ocasio-Cortez’s 70 percent proposal. And he’s talking to— by his account—he’s talking to fifth graders, and he says, so you do some work for your grandmother and she gives you $10, and the government takes seven of it, and they all go, “That’s not fair!”

Of course, it has nothing to do with her proposal. She’s talking about people who get over $10 million. So over $10 million.

And I don’t know whether Scott Walker literally doesn’t understand a marginal tax rate, or he’s just being dishonest about it. But he publicized this, and needless to say he got raked over the coals for it. My guess is he won’t do that again.

But it has certainly pushed the window on how we could talk about these things. So in that sense, we don’t all have to agree that A, B or C is the best or, you know, what I would say is, we probably want a mix of A, B and C.

But in any case, it certainly expanded the window of discussion in a really positive way.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Dean Baker. He is senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. They’re online at http://cepr.net/, and that’s where you can also get hold of Dean’s free book called Rigged.  His piece, “Progressive Taxes Only Go So Far. Pre-Tax Income Is the Problem,” can be found at Truthout.org. Dean Baker, thank you for joining us this week on CounterSpin

DB: Thanks a lot, Janine; good to be on again.