Friday, April 30, 2010

IRAQI ELECTIONS: DEMOCRACY IN ACTION

Thomas Riggins

Just seven weeks ago there was a "free" election in Iraq. The opposition even won! Imperialists were jubilant. Jingoists were dancing jigs. "See. It was all worth it. Democracy has come to the Islamic mideast."

The existing government cried "Foul!" While it is not unusual in that part of the world, as elsewhere, for the opposition to protest that the elections were rigged, it is a novelty for the existing government to protest that the elections it carried out were rigged. But that was what the existing religious government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki claimed when his rival former occupation Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's secular alliance came out on top by a few seats in the parliament.

It looked like the winner would be given a crack at forming a new government. But now, lo and behold, seven weeks later the government's election courts are tossing out one of the winning parliamentary candidates (more to come) on the grounds that he used to be a supporter of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party-- back in the bad old days of rigged elections.[See New York Times 4-27-10-- front page report by Steven Lee Myers].

This court previously vetted the candidates BEFORE the elections (just to make sure al-Maliki wouldn't have a rough time). But they must have slipped up because he lost anyway. So now its time to eliminate winning candidates AFTER the election. This MAY reverse the defeat of al-Maliki-- these disqualifications can be appealed.

Here is another trick. The courts are disqualifying 51 of the losing candidates after the votes have been counted so the votes they received will be redistributed to the victors. What are the odds, when all is said and done, it turns out that al-Maliki won after all. The lessons of Florida and Ohio have not been lost on the Iraqis.

Recent Events: Notes

by Gary Tedman

In the coming UK election, the public don't want the cuts that are coming, so the politicians say almost nothing about them, which is saying nothing about the most important economic, political, and thus social crisis in modern times. So things are 'normal' at the top of the UK. And at the top of the EU, well, 'Germany' (meaning its ruling class) seems to regret having courted Greece to join the Eurozone, now that it is expected to act all sociable and bail it out. So things are 'normal' at the top of the EU too. What the journos say, to endarken us, is things like this -: "Germany doesn't want to bail out Greece like it had to bail out east Germany" (to paraphrase S. Erlanger). We thought Germany included its east, so could you say the eastern Germans don't want to bail out Greece like they bail out themselves? Strange. The UK election is now all about aesthetics: which party presents in the least offensive way (we know what they say is rubbish) to a people who are fed up with all of them for the various scandals (expenses) and rip-offs (bankers). If there was a choice to vote away capitalism I think it would do quite well now, but there isn't of course. But of the ordinary people who will vote in this election, they will be, whatever party wins, voting for their own suffering, one way or another, it is thus a kind of political sado-masochism, and it is floating around, welcomed and pointed up by the press everywhere -: "we need to take our medicine, it isn't nice, sir, but there's no choice is there?" they say. I was thinking at that moment of Kyrgyzstan, they seem to have made a new choice. The media didn't much like it and called it a 'bloody uprising', not denoting it by any fancy color names or a flowers anymore (Tulip Revolution, Orange Revolution), and neglecting to add on most occasions that the blood was on the hands of the state military and not the people.

The 'Endarkenment' and the Euro Debt Fiasco in the Cradle of Western Civilization (Greece)

By Gary Tedman

I found this, I think, brilliant term (to 'endarken', implying the opposite to enlighten, to confuse and obfuscate) mentioned by the blogger 'suav' on a BBC blog. The writer says it was from Polish youth.

The principles of 'endarkenment' are working well in the Press these days while they try hard to disassociate the current sovereign debt crisis (Greece and so on) from the earlier banking crisis (Lehman collapse), whilst constantly trying to highlight the 'recovery', but the fact that the latter crisis developed from out of the former will not go away, it is history and it shapes events anyway.

From an article in the Independent online edition "Sean O'Grady: Greece is a problem – but Spain could destroy the euro" Friday, 30 April 2010, a useful timeline of the current shenanigans is given:

See:
http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/comment/sean-ogrady-greece-is-a-problem-ndash-but-spain-could-destroy-the-euro-1958682.html


"2 May IMF talks in Athens with Greek officials end
3-6 May French parliament expected to approve rescue package
3-10 May IMF board, EU Commission have to formally approve the deal
6-7 May Greek parliament votes on new three-year austerity programme
6-10 May German Bundestag expected to endorse the deal, the last of those required to, the Netherlands and Luxembourg already having given tacit approval
9 May Key elections in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's most populous state
10 May European summit formally endorses the deal
19 May Next repayment of Greek debt; €8.5bn must be in place if Greece wants to avoid default
31 May €355m debt repayment due
Summer/autumn 2010 Threat of widespread strikes and unrest in Greece at harshness of deal; risk of political instability or that the government might fall
29 September Further €180m debt repayment due
2011 Greece needs to refinance the equivalent of 18 per cent of its GDP, or €23bn, with almost €9bn due on 20 March 2011. Annual deficit down to 9 per cent of GDP. Return to world growth should help
2012 Annual deficit down to 3 per cent of GDP by year end"

From http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/comment/sean-ogrady-greece-is-a-problem-ndash-but-spain-could-destroy-the-euro-1958682.html

To illuminate this from NYTimes "As Greek Drama Plays Out, Where Is Europe?", Published: April 29, 2010, Steven Erlanger writes:

from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/30/world/europe/30europe.html?hp


“The fact that a German regional election can play such a disproportionate role in messing up efforts to contain what was a much smaller crisis several months ago is astonishing,”

Mr. Kirkegaard said. And the fact that there will be no European Union summit meeting until May 10, after the German elections, “is so blatantly political,” he said.

“This is no way for an E.U. that has to contain an accelerating crisis and market panic to behave,” Mr. Kirkegaard said.


"...the Lisbon Treaty that created Mr. Van Rompuy’s position, and which was intended to make the enlarged European Union more agile and coherent, deliberately left out powers for coordinating fiscal policies, which are the fiercely guarded prerogative of the separate nations. Even so, countries like Germany can only blame themselves for not insisting on realistic European oversight of Greek statistics, which were widely believed to be false for two decades."

(…)


“Questions are asked to nations, not to the E.U. — but nations cannot deal with this problem alone,” said Dominique Reynié, director of the Foundation for Political Innovation and a political scientist at the Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris.

“The silence of the E.U. and its institutions has become deafening. It is incapable of demonstrating that an entity called Europe exists. This is a situation that cannot go on.”

"...The European Union “seems to be in a state of permanent self-promotion,” he said. “But it cannot ask its voters to relinquish part of their nations’ sovereignty and then not answer the call when there’s a problem.”…."

from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/30/world/europe/30europe.html?hp


Well… it has… so far; Merkel is, or was, trying still to put off any vote to ratify a loan in Germany until May 10 after the elections there, when it 'is expected' to be agreed by the whole Bundestag, all of whom are (weirdly, given they are still 'expected' to agree it) voicing strong anti-bail-out sentiments, and thus making her job rather more difficult. This would, if achieved, exculpate her party from sole responsibility for dumping the crisis onto the backs of German workers again.

Meanwhile neither the Greek nor the German working people want a bail out. They didn't cause the crisis.

Yes, the Greek and German people agree, they don't want a bail out which will just make them suffer more and help make the bankers and bourgeoisie even more wealthy (yet again). But the politicians, they want a bail out and don't want it all at the same time. The one's who stand to lose from a default want the bail out, but the others who want the euro low for exports want the falling euro, they also fear more for their personal political position. If both lots look at the future though, they see whole rounds of bail outs being necessary, including very probably for themselves, but will there be any money left in the kitty after a few have gone to the wall? Unlikely. But they won't worry about the future much.

Thus the current 'solution' is letting things slide, the anarchy of the market. And the longer the politicians dither about the loan the higher its price becomes and the more serious the social consequences of 'contagion', but it doesn't matter to these politicians because they know they won't be paying the price anyway, this will be taken on by the working classes of Europe, who they seek to be elected by (!), thus what matters to them is their own political futures. After all, the founding members of the EU wanted Greece on board for the benefits, to collude and trade with, not for its social problems, not to share responsibility for looking after the people who they are meant to represent, just for swapping them as a cheap labour force.

At the moment the world is being led by credit rating agencies, big investment banks, and big speculators (this is almost always the case in capitalism, but it is now very visible in the crisis). The main credit rating agencies are anointed by the SEC, based in New York they are private financial corporations that wield a lot of power and influence and are a part of the problem, they are not independent and 'objective' as is often made out, but have vested interests. Their judgements are as political as they are economic. The SEC was once run by Bernie Madoff, now in prison, and that just about sums up their approach to regulating finance. Of course they got the ratings wrong in the crisis (giving top ratings to bankers toxic CDSs), but that isn't the point - it just proves the politics of it. Most 'economists' are paid to get it wrong in the 'right way' for the ruling class, they are perhaps one of the last academic professions to still be in this backward condition of anti-science.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Arizona Sheriff refuses to enforce racist immigration law

NPR: Robin D. G. Kelley Interview: African American Communists

The Fight for Jobs

This video originally aired live Apr. 27. Send all comments to discussion2010@cpusa.org.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Who Needs Lindsey Graham?

Thomas Riggins

Monday’s NEW YORK TIMES reports that democrats have been “galvanized” to do something about immigration reform after Arizona put in place a new racist anti-immmigrant policy that not only profiles Hispanics and other nonwhites but gives a new meaning to the fundamentalist Xtian’s and red blooded American teabager’s notion of “love thy neighbor.” [NYT 2-26-2010 “Democrats Unite on Finance Bill, Pressuring G.O.P. by David M. Herszenhorn].

South Carolina Republican Sen. Graham seems outraged that the Dems want to do something to curb the incipient fascism raging amongst his race hating Republican cohorts in Arizona. So he has dropped out of cosponsoring a bill on climate change. Graham, Lieberman and Kerry were jointly proposing a bill to deal with the fact that global warming is threatening the very existence of life on our planet.

Well, it is a Southern virtue to prefer “Death Before Dishonor” and it is evidently a dishonor to be sympathetic to undocumented workers who have lost their jobs and incomes as a result of NAFTA and are trying to survive by finding work in Arizona and other states stolen from Mexico in a war of aggression. Yes, let the whole. world perish rather than share the sweet land of liberty with too many huddled masses yearning to be free.

Anyway, THE NATION [5-3-2010] says the Kerry-Lieberman-Graham Bill stinks and advocates its defeat. It basically is a bill favoring not the Earth but the coal and gas industries, nuclear power and off shore drilling ( President Obama came out for this but since a big rig blew up in the Gulf of Mexico and is spreading oil all over the place he may have come to his senses). The bill would also “gut” the Environmental Protection Agency of regulatory power. In other words it’s a Profits Before People and To Hell With the Planet bill.

So if Graham has abandoned it, good riddance to bag baggage. The people don’t need Graham. They don’t need Liberian either. And, Kerry-- what is he doing teaming up with a couple of Troglodytes? Even so-called “liberals”, when push comes to shove, put their mouths where imperialism’s money is. Come on John, maintain the illusion!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

EL MONSTROU

El Monstrou: Dread and Redemption in Mexico City
By John Ross
Nation Books, $28.95

Reviewed by Steve Bennett-- Express-News [reposted from mySA]

The Mexico City of the '50s, a pivotal period in its clamorous history, must have been one of those time-machine moments. Frida Kahlo was dead, and Jack Kerouac was writing verses that would become "Mexico City Blues." While Ernesto P. Uruchurtu, "a racist, xenophobic, puritanical tyrant" ruled as the mayoral "Iron Regent," Che Guevara's path crisscrossed with Fidel Castro's — all to the soundtrack of Perez Prado's infectious "Mambo No. 5."

"As far as I can tell, Uruchurtu was the first to use the term monstruo in connection with Mexico City, although the metaphor was contemplated as far back as Aztec mythology," says journalist John Ross, whose new book titled "El Monstruo: Dread and Redemption in Mexico City" offers a unique "street-level" view of the megalopolis from its primal roots to the present.

"There are references in the literature to the city as a kind of animal. But you really couldn't talk about Mexico City as being a monster until Uruchurtu in the '50s. He was a real right-wing guy, but also a preservationist. And the second world war was instrumental in bringing people in from the countryside, to work in the factories. That period from, really, 1940 to 1960, that's when the city became much more of a monster."

Meticulously researched and imaginatively reported, "El Monstruo" is not your typical history book. No dry, crinkly prose here. As it does in Ross' journalism, Mexico erupts, like PopocatÈpetl, from the page.

Ross, who flew in to cover the 1985 earthquake and has lived in Room 102 of the Hotel Isabel — "my cave . . . in the heart of he old city" — ever since, has scored coups over the years for his work on the 1993 Zapatista rebellion and as a "human shield" early in the Iraq war. A winner of the American Book Award and the Upton Sinclair Prize, he is an old-school journalist for whom the status quo is to be viewed with mistrust, for whom the term "shoe leather" means beating the streets to tell the real story. Among the many voices in "El Monstruo" are cafÈ owners, cops and hotel porters.

"My perspective is from the bottom up, from the street," Ross said in a recent telephone interview. "And that's always been the way I've always written. I worked for years for the Pacific News Service (a nonprofit service known for writing from and about the margins of society), where the rule was you always began the story in the street and then worked it into the larger picture.

"Other books try to give you a picture of the city from the top down," he adds. "There's a lot of flyover."

The 71-year-old Ross has had "the privilege" to witness up close the major political and social upheavals of Mexico City over the past quarter century. He has had a ringside seat at the bar of a cafÈ called La Blanca, just off the ZÛcalo, where, he says, "I've eaten two meals a day for the past 25 years."

"Interspersed throughout the book, there are 15 interviews that I did right around the counter at La Blanca, which is a place where officials from city hall and the federal government intersect with the people from the markets and people that sell in the streets," Ross said. "It's where writers from the local newspapers come to talk with the Chilangos. So there's a lot of interchange there from different strata of society. It's a great cross-section."

Ross says "El Monstruo" has been "percolating for a long time."

"I walked in on the earthquake," he says. "From the earthquake came this kind of incubation of the rebirth of Mexican civil society. And that led to the elections in 1988 when Cardenas actually won Mexico City by, I think, 4-to1, and the left actually never let go. So I was part of that whole process in the city itself."

Mexico, Ross argues, "doesn't really register" in the U.S. media "unless it's drugs and drug violence."

"It's just that that is the story from Mexico," he says. "There's precious little understanding of what the political dynamic is in the country, what the economic situation is in the country or any of the inherent contradictions that are always part of the Mexican dynamic."

Living in a city that is referred to as El Monstruo is not easy, Ross concedes. But he loves it.

"Why do I live there? It's the place where the Aztecs arrived on this desolate island, where the eagle grasped the snake in the thorny arms of a nopal bush. That prophecy really has determined why people have lived in Mexico City down through the years. That's where the prophecy was, and that's what all of Mexico knew — that's where the power emanated from, and that's where tribute was paid.

"So, why do people stay there? Despite the eternal battles with the environment, with the lack of water, with the threat of earthquakes, with the traffic, with the poison air? I think it's because of that sense of power, that sense of being in the center of things."

Monday, April 26, 2010

500 Years On And This War Is Still Going Strong

Bows and arrows vs machine guns, good luck guys-- and Lulu is a progressive"!

ACTION ALERT PLEASE SHARE WIDELY!

Brazil's Proposed Belo Monte Dam Damns Amazonian Rainforests and Peoples

By Rainforest Portal, a project of Ecological Internet
April 25, 2010

TAKE ACTION HERE NOW:
http://www.rainforestportal.org/shared/alerts/send.aspx?id=brazil_xingu

The Brazilian government continues with plans to build the massive Belo Monte Dam on the Xingu River in the Amazon rainforest, despite massive domestic and international opposition. The 11.2 billion dollar dam will flood an estimated 500 square kilometers of the Amazon rainforest and threaten the survival of tens of thousands of indigenous and traditional peoples who depend on the Xingu River for their livelihoods. The Kayapó leader Raoni Metuktire, who gained international exposure touring the world with Sting, said indigenous men from the Xingu were preparing their bows and arrows in order to fight off the dam. "I think that today the war is about to start once more and the Indians will be forced to kill the white men again so they leave our lands alone.”

DISCUSS THIS ALERT:
http://www.rainforestportal.org/issues/

---
Please support Ecological Internet's campaigns to protect and restore old
forests at http://www.rainforestportal.org/shared/donate/

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Lawmaker calls for Arizona boycott, governor signs draconian immigration bill

President Obama said the controversial anti-immigrant bill that passed Arizona's state legislature last week and is expected to be signed by its governor is "misguided." (The bill was signed by the governor late Friday afternoon, April 23.)

The president's remarks come days after hundreds of immigrant rights activists staged civil disobedience protests and vigils at Arizona's Capitol opposing the measure, which has drawn national attention.

The bill would make it a crime under state law to be in the country illegally and require local police to question people about their immigration status if there is a reason to suspect they are undocumented.

Critics of the measure say it would encourage racial profiling, lead to unwarranted arrests and greater distrust of local police in the Latino community that could translate into fear of reporting crimes.

Speaking at a naturalization ceremony for active duty service members on Friday in Washington, Obama said, "Our failure to act responsibly at the federal level will only open the door to irresponsibility by others."

The president referred to the recent efforts in Arizona, which he says "threaten to undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans, as well as the trust between police and their communities that is so crucial to keeping us safe."

Obama said he has instructed his administration to examine the Arizona bill to see if it violates people's civil rights.

Read the whole article here.

Friday, April 23, 2010

International Issues & U.S. Foreign Policy

World realignments, shifting balance of forces

Starting in the 1970s, and accelerating in the 1990s after the collapse of the USSR and the Eastern European socialist states, international capital led by U.S. imperialism embarked on a campaign to impose neoliberal policies at home and across the world - “free” trade which is really trade rigged in favor of the transnational corporations, privatization of the public sector to benefit transnational corporations and local oligarchies, slashing public services like education and health care, and deregulation of private sector activity, including banking and finance.

It is important to note that imperialist foreign and military policies are driven by the most powerful sectors of capitalism, including finance capital and the military-industrial-energy complex. These policies are in direct conflict with the interests of the working class worldwide.

This period also saw incredible new levels of global capitalist integration. With the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc no longer a world counterbalance to imperialism, finance capital felt free to roam the earth gobbling up resources and smashing resistance to its neoliberal policies.

In the emerging capitalist economies of Eastern Europe and in the developing countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America, these policies led to massive national debt, denationalization of industries and wholesale elimination of essential social programs. The major exception was China which refused to follow the neoliberal directives of the World Bank etc. China, a socialist state and socialist-oriented economy but still a developing country, not only got through the Asian crisis relatively unharmed but also shows signs of strength in the current crisis. But many developing economies were pushed to the verge of collapse. The neoliberal policies also spurred massive new patterns of labor migration from the poor countries to the rich ones.

In Western Europe as well, leading capitalist countries adopted the same privatization and financialization policies. Now Europe, along with the U.S., is at the center of the global economic crisis, with countries like Iceland narrowly avoiding a complete economic breakdown.

Read the whole document here.

Special Convention Discussion: Mexican American Equality

All contributions to the discussion should be sent to discussion2010@cpusa.org for selection not to the individual venues.For more information on the convention or the pre-convention discussion period, you can email convention2010@cpusa.org.

The pre-convention call for our 29th convention gives the right lead for our party, class and people and the Mexican American people and their struggles for equality and justice. It stresses:

  • "The key is broad united action, overcoming all obstacles that hold the movement back, getting a massive vote against the ultra-right in the primaries and in the midterm general election Nov. 2."
  • "The election of President Barack Obama and ending Republican majority rule in the House and Senate has opened many padlocked doors."
  • "The challenge now is to consolidate, widen and deepen that victory which can help open an era of progressive change."
  • "The ultra-right, bankrolled by Wall Street and the big corporations, will stop at nothing to filibuster meaningful change. We are confident that the democratic, progressive majority can win the day."

And finally, that "A larger Communist Party and YCL and a greatly expanded readership of People's World and Political Affairs on the internet is necessary, and possible, in this period." And I am sure we would add Mundo Popular

Our convention document also is key in pointing out how economic issues are the most basic for the political battles and to begin with the program of labor and peoples forces to extend the lifeline for jobless workers.

  1. Extend the lifeline for jobless workers.
  2. Rebuild America's schools, roads and energy systems.
  3. Increase aid to state and local governments to maintain vital services.
  4. Fund jobs in our communities.
  5. Put TARP funds to work for Main Street.
Read the whole document here.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

MILLIONS SPENT ON WAR-- OR TO PREVENT:

Dying: Millions of Women in Childbirth, Newborns and Young Children

ScienceDaily (Apr. 13, 2010) — Widespread global use of known and proven maternal and childcare techniques, practices, and therapies could save the lives of millions of women, newborns and children each year, according to a new analysis prepared for a mid-April meeting of world leaders and technical experts on maternal and child health. The meeting is being held to focus attention on this toll and develop a plan of action to reduce it.

Despite significant advances over the past decades, the detailed analysis shows that an estimated 350,000-500,000 women still die in childbirth each year, 3.6 million newborns fail to survive the first month, and an additional 5.2 million children die before the age of five.

It shows progress has lagged mainly in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia where an estimated 82 percent of maternal, newborn, and child deaths take place.

The new analysis comes from members of Countdown to 2015, a global scientific and advocacy movement formed in 2005 to track global progress in reducing the toll of maternal and child deaths, two of the Millennium Development Goals set by 189 member nations of the United Nations General Assembly in 2000. Countdowns focus on 68 countries, most of them in Africa, which together account for 92 percent of maternal, newborn and child deaths and include some of the poorest countries in the world.


Progress on Maternal and Child Health Lags

While considerable progress has been made towards meeting other Millennium Development Goals, the two goals on maternal and child survival have lagged behind, prompting a renewed effort to meet them.

"Because we know what causes these deaths and what would prevent them, major progress is possible," says Jennifer Bryce, a child health researcher at Johns Hopkins University and a member of the Countdown group. "The Countdown analysis provides a road map, helping countries focus on their own data and take action to meet their specific needs."

Already 135 countries have child mortality rates of less than 40 per 1,000 live births or have a rate of reduction sufficient to meet the goal of two-thirds reduction by 2015, according to UNICEF. Currently 39 show insufficient progress and 18 show no progress or a worsening of child mortality, says UNICEF.

"This is a multi-layered problem that can be addressed with a combination of many, very simple interventions, says Flavia Bustreo, M.D., Director of The Partnership for Maternal, Newborn & Child Health (PMNCH), a group of more than 300 organizations, foundations, institutions, and countries that is one of the leaders in this effort.


No Single Intervention

"No single intervention is sufficient," explains Zulfiqar Bhutta, M.D., Ph.D., of Pakistan's Aga Khan University and co-chair of Countdown to 2015. "What is required is a seamless continuum of care including family planning, breastfeeding, hand washing, skilled attendance at delivery and childhood immunizations. There are multiple therapies and practices that have been proven to save lives and the use of national data can prioritize which ones will make the biggest difference in the shortest time.

"Even more, besides additional funding, we need political leadership to guarantee that actions will be taken and will be successful, and we need community engagement to keep leaders accountable," Dr. Bhutta says.

The immense global toll of women and newborns has only just come to public attention, probably because maternal death and newborn death traditionally have been considered separate problems. Also, reducing maternal and newborn deaths were considered too difficult, according to some health professionals.

The new analysis details why these deaths still happen and shows how the toll can be reduced with additional political and financial support from donors and increases in health care budgets in the poorest countries.

It points out that malaria, HIV/AIDS and immunization have received major funding, including attention to drugs and commodities, and major progress was made. Maternal, newborn and child deaths remain a larger problem, yet receive less attention and funding.

Among the reasons are societal and cultural practices. Many stillbirths, newborn and maternal deaths occur at home, unseen and uncounted. The deaths of mothers, newborns and young children are accepted as part of life in some parts of the world, and birth and death certificates are not common. That is why precise data is lacking.


Babies Don't Need to Die

"Millions of babies die without people realizing it can be different," says Joy Lawn, M.D., Ph.D., of Saving Newborn Lives/Save the Children and a Countdown to 2015 member. "This is not high tech. Up to 3 million newborns each year can be saved with simple approaches, like cutting the cord with a clean blade, and kangaroo mother care where the mother acts as an incubator for her preterm baby, or antibiotics to treat infections."

A Countdown to 2015 report, due in June, will show what progress has been made toward meeting the two goals in 68 countries with the highest toll. This information will highlight service gaps and deficiencies so countries and their development partners can focus efforts on areas of greatest need.

Attacking maternal, newborn and child deaths means attention and resources. "When attention is focused on a problem and resources are mobilized, we get results," says Mickey Chopra, M.D., Ph.D., UNICEF's chief of health, and a member of the Countdown group. "For example, immunization, use of vitamin A and treated bed nets, breast-feeding, and treatment for HIV/AIDS are way up in many countries because of resources directed to these areas.

"It's important to create a supportive environment for maternal and newborn health based on respect for women's rights, and the need to establish continuum of care for mothers, newborns and children that integrate programs for reproductive health, safe motherhood, newborn care and child survival, growth and development." For example, if women go to clinics with trained staff or midwives and proper equipment, an estimated 50 percent of mothers and newborns could be saved. If quality antenatal care is routinely provided for women, up to 2/3 of lives could be saved.

Donor countries have increased their giving for maternal, newborn and child health by almost 100 percent to $4 billion a year from 2003 to 2007.

However, the funding gap will be about $20 billion per year between 2011 and 2015, which includes both maternal and child health programs and the cost of improving health systems.

An innovative health financing task force set up by world leaders in 2008 already is working to increase funding to help close the gap.

"The gap is about $16 billion a year more than we are spending now, but it is not out of range," says Dr. Bustreo.

"The emphasis is always on external aid, but internal funds are the main source of health funding. National authorities need to recognize and honor their financial commitments on maternal and child health," says Peter Berman of the World Bank, another Countdown to 2015 member.

According to the new analysis, if the funding gap were filled by 2015, the increased funding would buy:

Modern methods of family planning for 50 million more couples;
About 234 million more births in facilities that provide quality care for both normal and complicated deliveries;
Quality antenatal care for an additional 276 million women;
Quality postnatal care for an additional 234 million women and newborn babies;
Appropriate treatment for 164 million cases of child pneumonia;
An additional 2.5 million health care professionals and 1 million more community health workers.
The results by 2015 would be enormous in the number of lives saved: up to 1 million women, 4.5 million newborn babies, and 6.5 million children aged 1 month to 5 years.


Why High Death Rates

Beyond poverty, the analysis pinpoints the many reasons for continuing high rates of death during childbirth, both of women and newborns.

Most newborn deaths are due to conditions rarely seen in high-income countries: infections, birth complications, preterm birth -- even babies who are just a few weeks preterm often do not survive for lack of simple care.

Women in childbirth die from hemorrhage, infections, hypertensive disorders, obstructed labor, and unsafe abortions. In some countries, HIV/AIDS and malaria are also important causes.

Many of these deaths could be prevented with a maternal and newborn health program that includes continuing prenatal care, hygienic care during childbirth and the postnatal period.

In some parts of the world, traditions add to the risk faced by families. In parts of south Asia, for example, childbirth is considered dirty, so women are forced to deliver their babies in cowsheds, where they must stay for one month. Cords may be cut with dirty tools, leading to possible infection. "Strong cultural practices hide the problem. Families know many mothers and babies will die so they just accept it," says Dr. Lawn. "But this does not mean they do not care. Mourning is hidden."

"Countries are unlikely to meet the goals unless they prioritize the delivery of life-saving interventions to those who need them most," says Dr. Bhutta.

Another major barrier is a shortage of skilled health care and community workers in many parts of the world. One way to ease this shortage is to upgrade skills of existing workers, so that nurses and outreach workers can provide medications and surgeon assistants can perform caesarean sections where no obstetrician is available, as has been done successfully in Mozambique. Another is to recruit and train additional health workers and provide incentives for work in remote and underserved areas.

And, while the need for more research always exists, the failure to use proven techniques more widely poses yet another barrier to rapid progress. Examples are kangaroo mother care, improved techniques to manage child birth, and providing routine postnatal visits to newborns soon after delivery to advise the family on breast feeding and keeping the baby warm, and to check for cord infection or other problems.


Programs and Interventions Known to Work

The new analysis reports on the usage of specific packages of interventions, which, if scaled up, have been proven to reduce the continuing high toll of preventable deaths.

These packages form the core of effective health systems that can deliver a full range of services to assure that every pregnancy is wanted, that every birth is safe, and that every newborn and child is healthy.

A number of these packages of interventions are underutilized and underfunded including:

Comprehensive family planning
Skilled birth attendance
Emergency obstetric care
Antenatal and postnatal care
Breastfeeding and child feeding practices
Prevention and treatment of diarrhea, pneumonia, and malaria
Ensuring these services are available to all women and children who need them would go a long way in reducing mortality and improving the health of women, newborns and children under 5, and get countries closer to reaching MDGs 4 and 5.


Missed Opportunities

Though progress has been made toward meeting those goals, significant challenges remain.

For example, while the use of contraceptives has increased steadily, an estimated 26 percent of women in least developed countries that want to delay or stop childbearing are not using contraceptives. Unintended pregnancies contribute to high mortality and poor health for both mothers and babies, according to the analysis.

While the percentage of women who give birth with the aid of a skilled attendant, defined as an educated midwife, or similarly trained person, with access to the necessary equipment, resources and services, has increased to more than 60 percent, that leaves some 40 percent of women, mostly in Africa and Asia, giving birth without access to skilled obstetric care -- 60 million births each year.

And although an estimated 70 percent of women receive at least one antenatal care visit, even in the poorest countries, the quality of care may not be sufficient. For instance, many of these visits do not include essential blood pressure readings or HIV testing and drugs to prevent HIV transmission to the baby.

"These are lost opportunities," says Cesar Victora of Brazil's Universidad Federal de Pelotas, a member of the Countdown to 2015 group. "We know the service was provided, but not necessarily what was provided at that visit.

"Even when the coverage is high, poor and disadvantaged women living in remote areas and ethnic groups don't necessarily get maternal, newborn and child services. Progress should be measured not only through national averages, but also by how much the poorest mothers and children are benefiting from overall progress. It is an equity issue."

"No woman should die giving life. All pregnancies should be wanted and every childbirth safe for both the woman and the baby," says Laura Laski, M.D., UNFPA's chief of Sexual and Reproductive Health, and H4 representative (WHO, UNFPA, UNICEF and the World Bank) in the planning of the mid-April meeting.


Progress is Possible Even in Poorest Countries

However, all the news is not bad.

Nineteen of the 68 countries with high incidences of maternal, newborn and infant deaths are now moving forward, and experience in several countries that were lagging shows a quick turn-around is possible, even in the poorest countries.

India's Janani Suraksha Yojana (Women's Protection Scheme) was launched in April 2005 under the Government of India's National Rural Health Mission. The program seeks to reduce maternal and neo-natal mortality by promoting institutional delivery and skilled attendance at birth by offering cash payments to women who fulfill the conditions of attending antenatal appointments and seeking skilled care at delivery. These payments are primarily to women below the poverty line.

These benefits reached only 700,000 women in 2005, increasing to 8,380,000 in 2008, more than a 10-fold increase in just a few years. The government realizes that quality of services now needs to be urgently addressed.

Nepal used national cause of death data to design programs that curb child and maternal deaths, developing innovative approaches to bring care closer to home that included community child pneumonia treatment programs and household visits to promote family planning and newborn care. The effort required recruiting and training additional community workers. Offering skilled birth care is a particular challenge with very low coverage (only 19 percent) and is now being addressed by new investments in training midwives.

Malawi, a low-income country with only four pediatricians, has been declared on track for child survival. The Ministry of Health identified the main causes of child death as pneumonia, diarrhea, malaria, HIV, and newborn problems and planned to address those problems with national scale-up of an essential health package, including programs for immunization, malaria control, prevention of mother-to-child HIV transmission, and improved water and sanitation services. In spite of these efforts, diarrhea, pneumonia, and maternal and newborn care remained problematic, so Malawi trained health surveillance assistants to deliver selected services closer to the community. Over 800 health assistants now offer malaria, diarrhea, and pneumonia treatment (using the latest malaria drugs, zinc for diarrhea, and appropriate antibiotics), and some are being trained to support home based newborn care. To overcome high maternal mortality, facilities are being improved and additional staff is being hired and trained, including non-physicians to undertake emergency cesarean sections. Death rates for children and women are now declining.

Brazil's success in reducing the under 5 death rate by 4.8 percent each year since 1990 is attributed to a sharp decline in inequalities in access to health care. This decline was done through a nationwide, tax-based Unified Health System with no user fees and specific geographical targeting of family health teams to attend the poorest areas of the country. Reducing regional and socioeconomic disparities in health and development have been a central element in Brazil's political agenda for the last 20 years. As a result, primary healthcare coverage is universal, primary care is free for everyone, and even the poorest Brazilians now have access to skilled attendance at birth.

Rwanda has introduced health reforms, which expand coverage across all areas of health care. One approach gives "performance bonuses" for health facilities and hospitals, based on provision of high quality, priority services. From 2005 to 2008, births in health facilities have increased from 39 to 52 percent, the use of insecticide treated bed nets for children under 5 has risen from 4 to 67 percent, and modern contraceptive use has increased from 10 to 28 percent, contributing to a decline in under-5 mortality from 152 to 103 deaths per 100,000 live births.

"We know this global problem can be solved even in the poorest countries," says Dr. Bustreo. "It will take commitment of donors and recipient countries, and considerable ingenuity. We are seeing that Malawi, Nepal, Brazil, and Rwanda are making progress in saving the lives of women and children."

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

WHY PREGNANT WOMEN SHOULD BE RELOCATED FROM BIG CITIES

The following report from Science Daily shows that the amount of air pollution generated by the world capitalist system and concentrated in urban areas destroys the brain functions of the unborn child carried by its mother.['...pollutants (EXPOSURE AS A FETUS) can adversely affect children's cognitive development at age 5.' ] The children will have lower IQ scores and this will be reflected in academic performance. TWO choices !) Get rid of capitalism or 2) keep pregnant women out of urban areas. Relocation camps can be built in rural areas. There will be Republican opposition as they need a lower IQ public in order to gain support. A third alternative-- doing nothing so that all babies will be equally of lower intelligence will hurt the progressive movement. Well, comrades. what's the solution? Getting rid of pollution under capitalism? Forget it.

Children's Cognitive Ability Can Be Affected by Mother's Exposure to Urban Air Pollutants

ScienceDaily (Apr. 20, 2010) — A study by the Columbia Center for Children's Environmental Health (CCCEH) carried out in Krakow, Poland has found that prenatal exposure to pollutants can adversely affect children's cognitive development at age 5, confirming previous findings in a New York City (NYC) study.

Researchers report that children exposed to high levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in Krakow had a significant reduction in scores on a standardized test of reasoning ability and intelligence at age 5. The study findings are published online in Environmental Health Perspectives.

PAHs are released into the air from the burning of fossil fuels for transportation, heating, energy production, and from other combustion sources.

"The effect on intelligence was comparable to that seen in NYC children exposed prenatally to the same air pollutants," noted Frederica Perera, professor of Environmental Health Sciences and director of the CCCEH at the Mailman School of Public Health, and senior author. "This finding is of concern because IQ is an important predictor of future academic performance, and PAHs are widespread in urban environments and throughout the world."

"These results contribute to the cumulative body of published evidence linking ambient air pollution levels and adverse health effects in children and are clearly relevant to public health policy," says Susan Edwards, study lead author.

The study included a cohort of 214 children who were born to healthy, non-smoking Caucasian women in Krakow, Poland between 2001 and 2006. During pregnancy, the mothers completed a questionnaire, wore small backpack personal air monitors to estimate their babies' PAH exposure, and provided a blood sample and/or a cord blood sample at the time of delivery. The children were followed through the age of 5 when they were tested using the Raven Coloured Progressive Matrices (RCPM) Test of reasoning ability and intelligence. The researchers accounted for other factors such as second-hand smoke exposure, lead and mother's education. Study participants exposed to air pollution levels below the median (17.96 nanograms per cubic meter) were designated as having "low exposure," while those exposed to pollution levels above the median were identified as "high exposure."

The present finding confirms the CCCEH's previous report in 2009 that prenatal exposure to PAHs adversely affected children's IQ at age 5 in a cohort of children of nonsmoking African American and Dominican American women in NYC (Perera et al, 2009).

"Air pollution knows no boundaries," said Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, which funded the study. "Researchers around the globe are finding that air pollution is harmful to children's development."

The authors also included researchers from Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, Jagiellonian University and The Southwest Research Institute: Zhigang Li, Shuang Wang, Virginia Rauh, Wieslaw Jedrychowski, Maria Butscher, Agnieszka Keiltyka, Elzbieta Mroz, Elzbieta Flak and David Camann. The research was funded by NIEHS and several private foundatio

Adapted from materials provided by Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, via EurekAlert!, a service of AAAS.
Journal Reference:

Edwards SC, Jedrychowski W, Butscher M, Camann D, Kieltyka A, Mroz E, et al. Prenatal Exposure to Airborne Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons and Children's Intelligence at Age 5 in a Prospective Cohort Study in Poland. Environ Health Perspect, April 20, 2010 DOI: 10.1289/ehp.0901070

Sunday, April 18, 2010

World War II for "Paleofascists"

by Norman Markowitz

An intelligent reader of PA and our blog recently asked me to read and review Patrick Buchanan's "Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War: How Britain Lost Its Empire and the West Lost the World," a book published for the far right market which has been widely (and outside of either right wing or anarcho-crazy circles) negatively reviewed.

I read the work after I had a nasty tooth pulled and, all things considered, I would prefer to have another tooth pulled rather than read it again. But, in its over the top distortions of general works of history, right left and center, its often comical and sometimes sinister use of classic propaganda ploys to advance its general interpretation , it deserves to be reviewed from a Marxist perspective, not simply as others have seen it as a book that attacks Winston Churchill. minimizes the Nazi danger, and trivializes the fascist genocide against the Jewish people and other aka the Holocaust,. But as progressives today should see it, a work that reflects almost completely the views of Chamberlain and those to his right like the British fascist leader, Sir Oswald Moseley, Laval, Petain, and the Vichy collaborationist government, Charles Lindbergh, Father Charles Coughlin and other open and not so open pro fascist isolationists in the U.S., and in general those forces through the world who fought on the side of the fascist axis during WWII and in many country, after reinventing themselves as good anti-Communists, have in recent decades sought to rationalize their past politics in terms of the world today.

It is difficult to really analyze a work like "Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War," since its distortions over and over again defy reason, but I will try to deal with those distortions. Buchanan uses two interrelated techniques--the Big Lie, associated with Nazi propaganda, and "multiple untruths" associated with U.S. McCarthyites and the House Un-American activities committee, namely, assertions based on distorted citations and false evidence, one after another in a way that makes it very hard to keep up with the flood of mis and disinformation.

Buchanan doesn't use primary sources. Instead, he scavenges from a wide variety of secondary sources, mostly from the right and also from the center and the left general historians , and takes assertions and bits and pieces of information to develop his plot narrative. Often, these works, including many of the right wing works, have very different interpretations than the ones he has (the British critics of Churchill for example blaming his policies as leading to the U.S. supplanting the British empire) but he doesn't even mention those differences. What matters is the master plot narrative. Critics of Ronald Reagan referred to this approach in Reagan's world-view as "movie truth," namely that all that matters is the story you are selling, and you make up situations, change them as you go along, in order to get your points across. And Buchanan has written a work based on the principles of "movie truth," even if the film makers would be closer to wartime Germany than Hollywood.

Let's start with some of the big lies. Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm was not an aggressive power and WWI was unnecessary and the result of "germanophobia." Here Buchanan uses pop geopolitics and a loving portrayal of Kaiser Wilhelm(a much more pacific individual than Winston Churchill) to make his points, taking materials from a variety of right wing pro imperialist historians. That World War I was a war of rival imperialist blocs is certainly true, but that has nothing to do with Buchanan's view, which is that the war, with the German empire a victim of its enemies , divided the "West" and brought about the ultimate evil, the Russian Revolution.

But Buchanan is just warming up. In 1919-1920, during the global reaction to the Soviet revolution, capitalist media and politicians hurled everything at it that they could, including anti-Semitism as they pointed to prominent Bolshevik leaders of Jewish background. Winston Churchill, who had said things like "we must kill the baby in its crib"(which Buchanan of course would support) about the Soviet revolution, also joined in these attacks. But Buchanan, who in recent decades has become America's tolerated and and semi-official anti-Semite, argues that an article that Churchill wrote in this period, "Zionism and Bolshevism," when British imperialists among other things were seeking to consolidate their mandate over Palestine against the opposition of both Jewish settlers and Arabic people, is no different than Hitler's concept of a Judeo Bolshevik conspiracy. Churchill to Buchanan, who doesn't make any distinction, is as big an ant-Semite as Hitler, even though Churchill's career in British politics was never characterized by anti-Semitic policies and Hitler initiated policies that led to the murder of nearly 1/3 of the Jewish people of the world.

Anyone who equates Churchill with Hitler on the question of anti-Semitism is certainly capable of anything and Buchanan doesn't disappoint. The depression as Buchan , myself and everyone else knows, produced a mass Nazi party in Germany and helped bring Hitler to power. Since Buchanan identifies completely with those sectors of corporate capital who backed Hitler against the Socialists and the Communists, he makes no analysis of their role or that of the larger class struggle in Germany. Instead, he blames the French for bringing Hitler to power in 1993 by refusing to support a German Austrian "customs union" advocated, which he sees has leading to a deeper banking collapse in Austria and intensifying the depression.

While the collapse of the Kreditanstalt bank in Vienna did add to the European depression, no one sees the Customs Union as a serious solution to anything, since capital had dried up internationally, and trade had collapsed. Hitler's smashing of the trade union movement, mass arrests of socialists, communists and other anti-fascists, and persecution of the Jewish minority, to be charitable, don''t concern Buchanan. Hitler's re-armament doesn't concern Buchanan either, or rather, it is implicitly justified, since the Versailles Treaty was a monstrous violation of German rights, creating countries like Czechoslovakia which Buchanan like Hitler contends had no right to exist, ceding territory to Poland in an an unjust manner, oppressing Germany. Here Buchanan presents the view of the Nazis and their allies that Germany was a "have not power" victimized by the great powers, seeking what was fair for it in Europe as it sought to defend "Western civilization" from Bolshevik revolution. Neville Chamberlain is praised for his settlement at Munich and then attacked for not doing the same thing a year later over Poland.

Hitler, according to Buchanan and the secondary sources that he selectively cites, didn't want war with England over Poland but friendship and cooperation against the Soviets. His demands on the right wing Polish government were fair and Chamberlain should have pushed the Poles to go along with them. The anti-Comintern Pact, the fascists answer to the peoples front anti-fascist campaigns, which became a major organizing tool for them in occupied Europe, Buchanan sees positively. Not even the virulently anti-Communist Polish government would join the anti-Comintern Pact because they understood that it would make them completely a protectorate of Hitler, and, unlike Buchanan, they had read Mein Kampf and understood that Nazi imperial policy and allied race theory offered them nothing but slavery at best, extinction at worst.

The rest reads like old communiques from the Reich Ministry of Propaganda. Churchill is condemned for not playing the part of Pierre Laval and accepting Hitler's peace offers in 1940 and thus saving the "West" from the revolutionary consequences of WWII, which Buchanan sees as the ultimate evil, i.e., the survival of the Soviet Union and its expanded influence in Eastern Europe (Europe is seen as "the Christian continent") and the victory of the Chinese revolution, far greater evils than anything associated with German or Japanese imperialism---indeed, for Buchanan, the war crimes of the Nazis and the Japanese imperialists are no worse than those of the allies in their bombing of civilian populations in Germany and Japan and the forgotten and for Buchanan really important Holocaust is the expulsion of millions of Germans from Eastern Europe at the end of the war.

If Buchanan were a bit more in control, he might have presented his pro fascist, pro Axis views in way that would have been more palatable to many of his fellow "conservatives." If he were a bit more honest, he might have titled his work "the war the Axis should have won," since a British collaborator government signing a peace with Hitler in 1940 and a right wing U.S. government doing business with Hitler as it expanded its power in the Western Hemisphere and abandoned both China to Japanese imperialism and the rest of the world is really what the world according to Patrick Buchanan would have been. There would have been no expulsions of Germans from Eastern Europe. Instead, the Slavic peoples of Eastern Europe, especially the people of Poland, would have been treated much like the Congolese were by Belgian imperialism at the turn of the 20th century or the African majority under the worst of apartheid, massacred, worked to death, and put on reservations. In such a world, the world of Hitler's "new order," there would have been many little and big Hitlers like Patrick Buchanan and those who support his views as there were throughout Europe and Asia, and they would have profited at the expense of must of humanity--a world where extreme forms of racism, militarism and colonial domination would be the norm.

Nearly seventy million people died in WWII on all sides, but the sides were never the same. Winston Churchill, whom Buchanan attacks in such crackpot ways, was a conservative and an imperialist whose primary interest was in saving the British empire. He took the position, against Neville Chamberlain and the great majority of his fellow conservatives that Hitler was the main enemy in the short run, not the Soviet Union. He even made a joke about it to his fellow conservatives, saying at the time of Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union that if Hitler invaded Hell, he would at least say a good word about the devil in the House of Commons. After the Soviet victories at Stalingrad and Kursk in 1943, he did everything that he could to block the Soviets, in effect becoming a premature cold warrior and helping by his opposition to an early second front, to prolong the war. But he was not Chamberlain, who by the way wasn't Pierre Laval or Vidkun Quisling either. They, the right wingers who joined collaborated with the German occupation, supported WWII as a holy war against the Soviets and a war against the "inferior races" are the ones whose views dominate Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War.

You could make many jokes about this book. The old line from the late 1930s, "Hitler wants peace; a piece of Czechoslovakia, a piece of Poland." Spike Jones comedy record, "When the Fuhrer says we is the Master Race we go (farting sounds) in the Fuhrer's face." And of course, from The Producers, as the Churchill hating buffoon author of Springtime for Hitler says "Hitler was a better dresser than Churchill, Hitler was a better painter than Churchill, and he could dance the pants off of Churchill." But this book isn't really funny.

P.S. Buchanan does conclude with an attack on George W Bush for going to war in Iraq under the influence of Churchill's policies, which were represented by his neo-conservative advisors. Buchanan in the special world of the right is sometimes referred to as a "paleoconservative" as against the "neo-conservatives." This book, in my opinion, might be more accurately titled "paleofascist."

Thursday, April 15, 2010

EAARTH: Book Review

EAARTH: MAKING A LIFE ON A TOUGH NEW PLANET
[reposted from Willamette Week]

reviewed by PHILLIP NEIMAN

In the preface to Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (Times Books, 253 pages, $24), environmental advocate, writer and climate-change educator Bill McKibben clues the reader in to the main thrust of his new book: Global warming is no longer some distant, amorphous threat. In fact, he says, it’s “no longer a threat at all.” Not as in it conveniently vanished; as in, we’re in it full on. As in, it’s our new reality.

Whereas McKibben’s previous book addressing climate change, The End of Nature, had a philosophical bent, Eaarth addresses the urgency of the moment, the frigid fact that we’re now experiencing globally the practical effects of a climatic phenomenon we’ve created but don’t control. We’re locked into a hotter, hairier existence where storms are more frequent and more destructive and the word “drought” is no longer applicable because it implies only temporary scarcity of water. Read: Dust Bowl 2.0. Read: Katrina revisited.

McKibben’s term, “Eaarth,” is his word for this new planetary object we inhabit. The logic is that a wholly different entity requires a different signifier.

Eaarth is our only home, and we don’t have the option of writing off remedial action as we stare into the maw of a daunting future. According to McKibben, now is precisely the time to transform our scourgelike, resource-intensive collective behavior into something more in keeping with our current circumstances. Our mantra must be dig in or hunker down, as opposed to growth at all costs or higher GDP.

McKibben advocates we take our cue from warm-weather animals. Their lower-body masses are selected for survival in warmer climates, as they regulate body temperature better. We have to shrink ourselves; shrink our toxic “eaarthly” impact by downsizing our political economy, producing locally and consuming on a smaller scale. We’ll have to once peak oil comes into full effect, because a cheap and abundant energy supply simply won’t be there anymore. And energy is wealth. We’ll have to shed our psychological dependency on fossil fuels and shift to a more decentralized society by reinvesting in the community around us, reacquainting ourselves with neighbors, and using the Internet intelligently to merge demographics and generate state and local movements.

Although our atmosphere is currently 390 parts per million carbon dioxide, there is still the opportunity, first with the acknowledgment about the truth of our situation, then by abrogating the ingrained ideology of endless economic expansion, that we can return to and maintain a less volatile planet with an atmosphere of 350 ppm CO2. It will be tough, this bearing down, but let’s say we give it the ol’ college try.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

MURDER CITY :Book Review

Reviewed By Cindy Widner
[ reprinted from://www.austinchronicle.com/gyrobase/Issue/review?oid=987874]

Murder City: Ciudad Juárez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields
by Charles Bowden
Nation Books, 352 pp., $27.50


Murder City reads like a nightmare, a recurring one, and not just because of its horrific subject matter. In his account of a year in the world's most homicidal city, Charles Bowden can be found revisiting particular details, people, theories, and events, often repeatedly. Interspersed are history and statistics, the kind that floor you. This impressionistic back-and-forth has the pounding rhythm of a blood tide or an intractable migraine, one that inspires both visions and moments of clarity. Bowden gives lie to the myth that Juárez's grinding, otherworldly killing explosion is a drug-cartel war, one that claims primarily drug dealers and a few people caught in their crossfire. Pointing out that organized crime figures move about with impunity, that law enforcement on all levels has traditionally been allied with the cartels and now terrorizes citizens directly, that the U.S. in many cases trained and armed many of the city's spree killers, that not a single arrest has been made in connection with any murder, that free trade has turned honest work into an impossible nightmare that ends in early death, that the press has long been cowed and ineffective, and that poverty and desperation create their own rules, he concludes that "Violence is now woven into the very fabric of the community, and has no single cause and no single motive and no on-off button." Rather than see this as a sign of regression, though, he concludes that Juárez looks like the future: "All the other things happening in the world – the shattering of currencies, the depletion of resources, the skyrocketing costs of food, energy, and materials – are old hat here." Bowden's statements about the long-running border epidemic of violence against women can be unsettling in that they imply a normalcy in this cross-cultural tendency. It is in those passages, and in his nightmare impressions, though, that we see that Bowden is advancing a theory of human nature, a gesture more typical of art than of reporting. We understand that Murder City aspires to poetry, with the singular voice and tragic bent that implies.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

ENGELS ON THE DIALECTICS OF THE NEGATION OF THE NEGATION

Thomas Riggins

Engels discusses the negation of the negation in Chapter XIII of Part One of Anti-Dühring [on Philosophy].

It seems that Herr Dühring approves of Marx's discussion of primitive accumulation at the end of Vol. I of Das Kapital: he calls it "relatively the best part of Marx's book." However, he has one big objection, viz., that Marx uses the "dialectical crutch" of "Hegelian verbal jugglery" to explain how private property will become social property. That verbal jugglery consists of the Hegelian concept of "the negation of the negation."

Herr Dühring thinks Marx ends up spouting nonsense since that is what "must necessarily spring" from using "Hegelian dialectics as the scientific basis" of one's discussion. This upsets Engels, but Dühring could take comfort from the fact that most bourgeois economists today would agree with him. In fact, it is because they agree with him that most of them themselves spout nonsense

Before getting down to the nitty-gritty of the negation of the negation, Engels wants to take Dühring to task for thinking Marx was spouting nonsense when he spoke of property being both individual AND social at the same time.

Engels now explains the meaning of Marx's notion of property being both individually and socially owned at the same time. This problem comes up in Chapter 32 of volume one of DAS KAPITAL ("Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation").

In this chapter Marx details how the growth of capitalism led to the concentration of workers into factories and their loss of their own tools (which as individual craftsmen they formerly owned) resulting in their dependence on the capitalists not only for employment but also for the tools with which to work.

This development of capitalism is the FIRST NEGATION , with respect to the workers, of private property-- i.e., they lose their means of production to the capitalists (their tools and handicraft properties. But capitalism brings about its own negation (the SECOND NEGATION). This means that it gives birth to socialism as a result of its own internal contradictions ("with the inexorability of a law of Nature"). Thus Marx says: "It is the negation of the negation." [The "It" is socialism.]

"This does not, " Marx writes, "re-establish private property for the producer, but gives him individual property based on the acquisitions of the capitalist era: i.e., on co-operation and the possession in common of the land and of the means of production."

So, Engels maintains, Herr Dühring is way off the mark by calling that notion of Marx's a lot of contradictory Hegelian nonsense. Engels says, "To anyone who understands plain talk this means that social ownership extends to the land and other means of production, and individual ownership to the products, that is, the articles of consumption."

How can Dühring be so confused with regard to Marx's meaning? He misquotes Marx's words over and over again. Engels decides it is either because Dühring can't understand Marx, or he is quoting him from memory and getting it wrong.

It is important to realize that Marx is not using dialects in a mechanical fashion to construct his description of capitalism. Marx's famous observation, in this chapter of Das Kapital, that "One capitalist always kills many" and that capitalism should lead to socialism, is the result of an EMPIRICAL investigation of the capitalist mode of production. Due to competition and monopoly, capitalist concentration leads to the domination of a few big corporations, to over production and to the relative impoverishment of the working masses.

These masses, however, have been trained to work in large socialized industrial enterprises which run on principles of specialization of functions and cooperation of labor. It is a small step from this capitalist set up to socialism. Only the private ownership of these effectively socialized means of production needs to be replaced by public ownership.

Right now, Spring 2010, General Motors Corporation is already a virtually socialized enterprise (60% owned by the American people). It is only the lack of a socialist consciousness in the working class that allows GM to remain under capitalist control and allows representatives of the capitalist class to be elected to positions of governance in the US.

What Marx showed was that this process of change by which the petty producers were eliminated and replaced by the capitalist enterprises has now developed to the point where capitalism has, as Engels says, "likewise itself created the material conditions from which it must perish." [It's taking its sweet time about it.]

The point is that this is an HISTORICAL PROCESS, and Engels says "if it is at the same time a dialectical process, this is not Marx's fault, however annoying it may be to Herr Dühring."

This means that Marx is not appealing to the NEGATION OF THE NEGATION to demonstrate the historical necessity of the transformation of capitalism into socialism. He is doing just the opposite according to Engels. He is showing, by an appeal to history, that such a transformation is already under way and that this is the trend of future development. Only after doing this does Marx also point out this development can be described as well "in accordance with a definite dialectical law." He is NOT saying the law determines this development. E=mc2 does not determine that mass and energy are interchangeable, but that they are allows us to discover that E=mc2. Failure to realize this shows "Herr Dühring's total lack of understanding of the nature of dialectics."

Engels proceeds to give several examples of dialectical thinking that exemplify the negation of the negation. For example, in olden times there was common ownership of land which was negated by private property and all the attendant evils of that negation are currently manifest in our time and can only be eliminated by a negation of the negation (socialism).

Engels discusses how this was seen by Rousseau as far back as the middle of the 18th century, and although he did know the "Hegelian jargon" he nevertheless developed "a line of thought which corresponds exactly to the one developed in Marx's CAPITAL." Let's look at the work Engels refers to.

Rousseau wrote the DISCOURSE ON THE ORIGIN OF INEQUALITY in 1755. Unlike most of the thinkers of the Enlightenment Rousseau thinks that the development of civilization, the growth of private property and individualism have led to the intensification of human inequality rather than being forces for the growth of liberty, equality and fraternity.

The invention of agriculture brought about he concept of property and the idea of justice to ensure the rights of people with respect to it. It is not possible, Rousseau says, “to conceive how property can come from anything but manual labor.”

But once property in land and its products was introduced greed, competition, the desire to accumulate the produce and labors of others was also introduced. “All these evils were the first effects of property, and the inseparable attendants of growing inequality.”

We must remember that in the state of nature there is no “right” to property other than what a person, by his/her own labor can extract for the necessities of life. The growth of private property, the development of classes, the foundation of the state and laws to protect private property represent a negation of the original existential condition of humanity vis a vis nature.

Now, under the rule of law and living in a state, how do the rich and powerful few prevent the many, the poor and oppressed, from asserting their rights to their own labor and the natural use of the products of nature? That is, how do they keep their negation of the natural state from being negated?

Rousseau says “the rich man, thus urged by necessity, conceived at length the profoundest plan that ever entered the mind of man: this was to employ in his favor the forces of those who attacked him, to make allies of his adversaries, to inspire them with different maxims and to give them other institutions as favorable to himself as the law of nature was unfavorable.”

This was done by appealing to all to join together in forming a society based on laws designed to protect everyone from everyone. Here is what we should do, said the first usurpers of the common property of humanity: “Let us, in a word, instead of turning our forces against ourselves, collect them in a supreme power which may govern us by wise laws, protect and defend all the members of the association, repulse their common enemies, and maintain eternal harmony among us.”

Well this certainly sounds good. Liberty and Justice for All-- who could be against that. Throw in motherhood and apple pie and you have an unbeatable formula. Thus, Rousseau says, “All ran headlong to their chains, in hope of securing their liberty.”

This was, "or may have been," Rousseau says, "the origin of society and law." This was a clever set up pulled off by the rich. Engels would suggest, I am sure, that it was probably not consciously done. This scenario is a retroactive description based on a rational analysis of the consequences of the agricultural revolution. Rousseau lacked the vocabulary, as did Enlightenment intellectuals in general, to describe these historical developments as purely objective developments. This vocabulary would have to await Hegel, Feuerbach and Marx.

The result of the negation of individuals living in a state of nature was the appearance of civilization and the existence of numerous independent political organizations which recreated the conditions of the state of nature but now. on a higher level, between states and peoples.

One need only turn to the daily press to read about the outrages in Afghanistan, the rape of Iraq for its oil, or the constant bullying of small states by powerful ones to see the truth of Rousseau's words that this change is responsible for "national wars, battles, murders, and reprisals, which shock nature and outrage reason; together with all those horrible prejudices which class among the virtues the honor of shedding human blood. The most distinguished men hence learned to consider cutting each other's throats a duty; at length men massacred their fellow-creatures by thousands without so much as knowing why, and committed more murders in a single day's fighting, and more violent outrages in the sack of a single town, than were committed in the state of nature during whole ages over the whole earth." Well, this is where we find ourselves today. I hope left-center unity will get us out of here to a better place.

The remedy to this state of affairs, the negation of the negation, is the abolition of private property and the establishment of a world socialist order. The heroic attempt, and temporary defeat, to establish this order in the last century reminds us of the immense difficulty involved in this task, but it in no way diminishes the need to do it.

Engels gives several other examples of the negation of the negation for the edification of Herr Dühring but I think his point is sufficiently clear. He concludes his discussion of philosophy (part one of Anti-Dühring) with a brief conclusion (Chapter XIV) which is that Herr Dühring has absolutely nothing of importance to say about philosophy. Nevertheless, as we have seen, he served as a useful foil for Engels to give a fine presentation of Marxist philosophy. And so we conclude this brief introduction to Engels thought. If you persevered to the end with me-- thanks.

Monday, April 12, 2010

LOOTING MAIN STREET

[This is long comrades-- but it's how the system works and what we are up against--tr]

Looting Main Street
How the nation's biggest banks are ripping off American cities with the same predatory deals that brought down Greece

MATT TAIBBI [reposted from Rolling Stone]

If you want to know what life in the Third World is like, just ask Lisa Pack, an administrative assistant who works in the roads and transportation department in Jefferson County, Alabama. Pack got rudely introduced to life in post-crisis America last August, when word came down that she and 1,000 of her fellow public employees would have to take a little unpaid vacation for a while. The county, it turned out, was more than $5 billion in debt — meaning that courthouses, jails and sheriff's precincts had to be closed so that Wall Street banks could be paid.

As public services in and around Birmingham were stripped to the bone, Pack struggled to support her family on a weekly unemployment check of $260. Nearly a fourth of that went to pay for her health insurance, which the county no longer covered. She also fielded calls from laid-off co-workers who had it even tougher. "I'd be on the phone sometimes until two in the morning," she says. "I had to talk more than one person out of suicide. For some of the men supporting families, it was so hard — foreclosure, bankruptcy. I'd go to bed at night, and I'd be in tears."

Homes stood empty, businesses were boarded up, and parts of already-blighted Birmingham began to take on the feel of a ghost town. There were also a few bills that were unique to the area — like the $64 sewer bill that Pack and her family paid each month. "Yeah, it went up about 400 percent just over the past few years," she says.

The sewer bill, in fact, is what cost Pack and her co-workers their jobs. In 1996, the average monthly sewer bill for a family of four in Birmingham was only $14.71 — but that was before the county decided to build an elaborate new sewer system with the help of out-of-state financial wizards with names like Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase. The result was a monstrous pile of borrowed money that the county used to build, in essence, the world's grandest toilet — "the Taj Mahal of sewer-treatment plants" is how one county worker put it. What happened here in Jefferson County would turn out to be the perfect metaphor for the peculiar alchemy of modern oligarchical capitalism: A mob of corrupt local officials and morally absent financiers got together to build a giant device that converted human shit into billions of dollars of profit for Wall Street — and misery for people like Lisa Pack.

And once the giant shit machine was built and the note on all that fancy construction started to come due, Wall Street came back to the local politicians and doubled down on the scam. They showed up in droves to help the poor, broke citizens of Jefferson County cut their toilet finance charges using a blizzard of incomprehensible swaps and refinance schemes — schemes that only served to postpone the repayment date a year or two while sinking the county deeper into debt. In the end, every time Jefferson County so much as breathed near one of the banks, it got charged millions in fees. There was so much money to be made bilking these dizzy Southerners that banks like JP Morgan spent millions paying middlemen who bribed — yes, that's right, bribed, criminally bribed — the county commissioners and their buddies just to keep their business. Hell, the money was so good, JP Morgan at one point even paid Goldman Sachs $3 million just to back the fuck off, so they could have the rubes of Jefferson County to fleece all for themselves.

Birmingham became the poster child for a new kind of giant-scale financial fraud, one that would threaten the financial stability not only of cities and counties all across America, but even those of entire countries like Greece. While for many Americans the financial crisis remains an abstraction, a confusing mess of complex transactions that took place on a cloud high above Manhattan sometime in the mid-2000s, in Jefferson County you can actually see the rank criminality of the crisis economy with your own eyes; the monster sticks his head all the way out of the water. Here you can see a trail that leads directly from a billion-dollar predatory swap deal cooked up at the highest levels of America's biggest banks, across a vast fruited plain of bribes and felonies — "the price of doing business," as one JP Morgan banker says on tape — all the way down to Lisa Pack's sewer bill and the mass layoffs in Birmingham.

Once you follow that trail and understand what took place in Jefferson County, there's really no room left for illusions. We live in a gangster state, and our days of laughing at other countries are over. It's our turn to get laughed at. In Birmingham, lots of people have gone to jail for the crime: More than 20 local officials and businessmen have been convicted of corruption in federal court. Last October, right around the time that Lisa Pack went back to work at reduced hours, Birmingham's mayor was convicted of fraud and money-laundering for taking bribes funneled to him by Wall Street bankers — everything from Rolex watches to Ferragamo suits to cash. But those who greenlighted the bribes and profited most from the scam remain largely untouched. "It never gets back to JP Morgan," says Pack.

If you want to get all Glenn Beck about it, you could lay the blame for this entire mess at the feet of weepy, tree-hugging environmentalists. It all started with the Cahaba River, the longest free-flowing river in the state of Alabama. The tributary, which winds its way through Birmingham before turning diagonally to empty out near Selma, is home to more types of fish per mile than any other river in America and shelters 64 rare and imperiled species of plants and animals. It's also the source of one of the worst municipal financial disasters in American history.

Back in the early 1990s, the county's sewer system was so antiquated that it was leaking raw sewage directly into the Cahaba, which also supplies the area with its drinking water. Joined by well — intentioned citizens from the Cahaba River Society, the EPA sued the county to force it to comply with the Clean Water Act. In 1996, county commissioners signed a now-infamous consent decree agreeing not just to fix the leaky pipes but to eliminate all sewer overflows — a near-impossible standard that required the county to build the most elaborate, ecofriendly, expensive sewer system in the history of the universe. It was like ordering a small town in Florida that gets a snowstorm once every five years to build a billion-dollar fleet of snowplows.

The original cost estimates for the new sewer system were as low as $250 million. But in a wondrous demonstration of the possibilities of small-town graft and contract-padding, the price tag quickly swelled to more than $3 billion. County commissioners were literally pocketing wads of cash from builders and engineers and other contractors eager to get in on the project, while the county was forced to borrow obscene sums to pay for the rapidly spiraling costs. Jefferson County, in effect, became one giant, TV-stealing, unemployed drug addict who borrowed a million dollars to buy the mother of all McMansions — and just as it did during the housing bubble, Wall Street made a business of keeping the crook in his house. As one county commissioner put it, "We're like a guy making $50,000 a year with a million-dollar mortgage."

To reassure lenders that the county would pay its mortgage, commissioners gave the finance director — an unelected official appointed by the president of the commission — the power to automatically raise sewer rates to meet payments on the debt. The move brought in billions in financing, but it also painted commissioners into a corner. If costs continued to rise — and with practically every contractor in Alabama sticking his fingers on the scale, they were rising fast — officials would be faced with automatic rate increases that would piss off their voters. (By 2003, annual interest on the sewer deal had reached $90 million.) So the commission reached out to Wall Street, looking for creative financing tools that would allow it to reduce the county's staggering debt payments.

Wall Street was happy to help. First, it employed the same trick it used to fuel the housing crisis: It switched the county from a fixed rate on the bonds it had issued to finance the sewer deal to an adjustable rate. The refinancing meant lower interest payments for a couple of years — followed by the risk of even larger payments down the road. The move enabled county commissioners to postpone the problem for an election season or two, kicking it to a group of future commissioners who would inevitably have to pay the real freight.

But then Wall Street got really creative. Having switched the county to a variable interest rate, it offered commissioners a crazy deal: For an extra fee, the banks said, we'll allow you to keep paying a fixed rate on your debt to us. In return, we'll give you a variable amount each month that you can use to pay off all that variable-rate interest you owe to bondholders.

In financial terms, this is known as a synthetic rate swap — the spidery creature you might have read about playing a role in bringing down places like Greece and Milan. On paper, it made sense: The county got the stability of a fixed rate, while paying Wall Street to assume the risk of the variable rates on its bonds. That's the synthetic part. The trouble lies in the rate swap. The deal only works if the two variable rates — the one you get from the bank, and the one you owe to bondholders — actually match. It's like gambling on the weather. If your bondholders are expecting you to pay an interest rate based on the average temperature in Alabama, you don't do a rate swap with a bank that gives you back a rate pegged to the temperature in Nome, Alaska.

Not unless you're a fucking moron. Or your banker is JP Morgan.

In a small office in a federal building in downtown Birmingham, just blocks from where civil rights demonstrators shut down the city in 1963, Assistant U.S. Attorney George Martin points out the window. He's pointing in the direction of the Tutwiler Hotel, once home to one of the grandest ballrooms in the South but now part of the Hampton Inn chain.

"It was right around the corner here, at the hotel," Martin says. "That's where they met — that's where this all started."

They means Charles LeCroy and Bill Blount, the two principals in what would become the most important of all the corruption cases in Jefferson County. LeCroy was a banker for JP Morgan, serving as managing director of the bank's southeast regional office. Blount was an Alabama wheeler-dealer with close friends on the county commission. For years, when Wall Street banks wanted to do business with municipalities, whether for bond issues or rate swaps, it was standard practice to reach out to a local sleazeball like Blount and pay him a shitload of money to help seal the deal. "Banks would pay some local consultant, and the consultant would then funnel money to the politician making the decision," says Christopher Taylor, the former head of the board that regulates municipal borrowing. Back in the 1990s, Taylor pushed through a ban on such backdoor bribery. He also passed a ban on bankers contributing directly to politicians they do business with — a move that sparked a lawsuit by one aggrieved sleazeball, who argued that halting such legalized graft violated his First Amendment rights. The name of that pissed-off banker? "It was the one and only Bill Blount," Taylor says with a laugh.

Blount is a stocky, stubby-fingered Southerner with glasses and a pale, pinched face — if Norman Rockwell had ever done a painting titled "Small-Town Accountant Taking Enormous Dump," it would look just like Blount. LeCroy, his sugar daddy at JP Morgan, is a tall, bloodless, crisply dressed corporate operator with a shiny bald head and silver side patches — a cross between Skeletor and Michael Stipe.

The scheme they operated went something like this: LeCroy paid Blount millions of dollars, and Blount turned around and used the money to buy lavish gifts for his close friend Larry Langford, the now-convicted Birmingham mayor who at the time had just been elected president of the county commission. (At one point Blount took Langford on a shopping spree in New York, putting $3,290 worth of clothes from Zegna on his credit card.) Langford then signed off on one after another of the deadly swap deals being pushed by LeCroy. Every time the county refinanced its sewer debt, JP Morgan made millions of dollars in fees. Even more lucrative, each of the swap contracts contained clauses that mandated all sorts of penalties and payments in the event that something went wrong with the deal. In the mortgage business, this process is known as churning: You keep coming back over and over to refinance, and they keep "churning" you for more and more fees. "The transactions were complex, but the scheme was simple," said Robert Khuzami, director of enforcement for the SEC. "Senior JP Morgan bankers made unlawful payments to win business and earn fees."

Given the shitload of money to be made on the refinancing deals, JP Morgan was prepared to pay whatever it took to buy off officials in Jefferson County. In 2002, during a conversation recorded in Nixonian fashion by JP Morgan itself, LeCroy bragged that he had agreed to funnel payoff money to a pair of local companies to secure the votes of two county commissioners. "Look," the commissioners told him, "if we support the synthetic refunding, you guys have to take care of our two firms." LeCroy didn't blink. "Whatever you want," he told them. "If that's what you need, that's what you get. Just tell us how much."

Just tell us how much. That sums up the approach that JP Morgan took a few months later, when Langford announced that his good buddy Bill Blount would henceforth be involved with every financing transaction for Jefferson County. From JP Morgan's point of view, the decision to pay off Blount was a no-brainer. But the bank had one small problem: Goldman Sachs had already crawled up Blount's trouser leg, and the broker was advising Langford to pick them as Jefferson County's investment bank.

The solution they came up with was an extraordinary one: JP Morgan cut a separate deal with Goldman, paying the bank $3 million to fuck off, with Blount taking a $300,000 cut of the side deal. Suddenly Goldman was out and JP Morgan was sitting in Langford's lap. In another conversation caught on tape, LeCroy joked that the deal was his "philanthropic work," since the payoff amounted to a "charitable donation to Goldman Sachs" in return for "taking no risk."

That such a blatant violation of anti-trust laws took place and neither JP Morgan nor Goldman have been prosecuted for it is yet another mystery of the current financial crisis. "This is an open-and-shut case of anti-competitive behavior," says Taylor, the former regulator.

With Goldman out of the way, JP Morgan won the right to do a $1.1 billion bond offering — switching Jefferson County out of fixed-rate debt into variable-rate debt — and also did a corresponding $1.1 billion deal for a synthetic rate swap. The very same day the transaction was concluded, in May 2003, LeCroy had dinner with Langford and struck a deal to do yet another bond-and-swap transaction of roughly the same size. This time, the terms of the payoff were spelled out more explicitly. In a hilarious phone call between LeCroy and Douglas MacFaddin, another JP Morgan official, the two bankers groaned aloud about how much it was going to cost to satisfy Blount:

LeCroy: I said, "Commissioner Langford, I'll do that because that's your suggestion, but you gotta help us keep him under control. Because when you give that guy a hand, he takes your arm." You know?

MacFaddin: [Laughing] Yeah, you end up in the wood-chipper.

All told, JP Morgan ended up paying Blount nearly $3 million for "performing no known services," in the words of the SEC. In at least one of the deals, Blount made upward of 15 percent of JP Morgan's entire fee. When I ask Taylor what a legitimate consultant might earn in such a circumstance, he laughs. "What's a 'legitimate consultant' in a case like this? He made this money for doing jack shit."

As the tapes of LeCroy's calls show, even officials at JP Morgan were incredulous at the money being funneled to Blount. "How does he get 15 percent?" one associate at the bank asks LeCroy. "For doing what? For not messing with us?"

"Not messing with us," LeCroy agrees. "It's a lot of money, but in the end, it's worth it on a billion-dollar deal."

That's putting it mildly: The deals wound up being the largest swap agreements in JP Morgan's history. Making matters worse, the payoffs didn't even wind up costing the bank a dime. As the SEC explained in a statement on the scam, JP Morgan "passed on the cost of the unlawful payments by charging the county higher interest rates on the swap transactions." In other words, not only did the bank bribe local politicians to take the sucky deal, they got local taxpayers to pay for the bribes. And because Jefferson County had no idea what kind of deal it was getting on the swaps, JP Morgan could basically charge whatever it wanted. According to an analysis of the swap deals commissioned by the county in 2007, taxpayers had been overcharged at least $93 million on the transactions.

JP Morgan was far from alone in the scam: Virtually everyone doing business in Jefferson County was on the take. Four of the nation's top investment banks, the very cream of American finance, were involved in one way or another with payoffs to Blount in their scramble to do business with the county. In addition to JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs, Bear Stearns paid Langford's bagman $2.4 million, while Lehman Brothers got off cheap with a $35,000 "arranger's fee." At least a dozen of the county's contractors were also cashing in, along with many of the county commissioners. "If you go into the county courthouse," says Michael Morrison, a planner who works for the county, "there's a gallery of past commissioners on the wall. On the top row, every single one of 'em but two has been investigated, indicted or convicted. It's a joke."

The crazy thing is that such arrangements — where some local scoundrel gets a massive fee for doing nothing but greasing the wheels with elected officials — have been taking place all over the country. In Illinois, during the Upper Volta-esque era of Rod Blagojevich, a Republican political consultant named Robert Kjellander got 10 percent of the entire fee Bear Stearns earned doing a bond sale for the state pension fund. At the start of Obama's term, Bill Richardson's Cabinet appointment was derailed for a similar scheme when he was governor of New Mexico. Indeed, one reason that officials in Jefferson County didn't know that the swaps they were signing off on were shitty was because their adviser on the deals was a firm called CDR Financial Products, which is now accused of conspiring to overcharge dozens of cities in swap transactions. According to a federal antitrust lawsuit, CDR is basically a big-league version of Bill Blount — banks tossed money at the firm, which in turn advised local politicians that they were getting a good deal. "It was basically, you pay CDR, and CDR helps push the deal through," says Taylor.

In the end, though, all this bribery and graft was just the table-setter for the real disaster. In taking all those bribes and signing on to all those swaps, the commissioners in Jefferson County had basically started the clock on a financial time bomb that, sooner or later, had to explode. By continually refinancing to keep the county in its giant McMansion, the commission had managed to push into the future that inevitable day when the real bill would arrive in the mail. But that's where the mortgage analogy ends — because in one key area, a swap deal differs from a home mortgage. Imagine a mortgage that you have to keep on paying even after you sell your house. That's basically how a swap deal works. And Jefferson County had done 23 of them. At one point, they had more outstanding swaps than New York City.

Judgment Day was coming — just like it was for the Delaware River Port Authority, the Pennsylvania school system, the cities of Detroit, Chicago, Oakland and Los Angeles, the states of Connecticut and Mississippi, the city of Milan and nearly 500 other municipalities in Italy, the country of Greece, and God knows who else. All of these places are now reeling under the weight of similarly elaborate and ill-advised swaps — and if what happened in Jefferson County is any guide, hoo boy. Because when the shit hit the fan in Birmingham, it really hit the fan.

For Jefferson County, the deal blew up in early 2008, when a dizzying array of penalties and other fine-print poison worked into the swap contracts started to kick in. The trouble began with the housing crash, which took down the insurance companies that had underwritten the county's bonds. That rendered the county's insurance worthless, triggering clauses in its swap contracts that required it to pay off more than $800 million of its debt in only four years, rather than 40. That, in turn, scared off private lenders, who were no longer ­interested in bidding on the county's bonds. The banks were forced to make up the difference — a service for which they charged enormous penalties. It was as if the county had missed a payment on its credit card and woke up the next morning to find its annual percentage rate jacked up to a million percent. Between 2008 and 2009, the annual payment on Jefferson County's debt jumped from $53 million to a whopping $636 million.

It gets worse. Remember the swap deal that Jefferson County did with JP Morgan, how the variable rates it got from the bank were supposed to match those it owed its bondholders? Well, they didn't. Most of the payments the county was receiving from JP Morgan were based on one set of interest rates (the London Interbank Exchange Rate), while the payments it owed to its bondholders followed a different set of rates (a municipal-bond index). Jefferson County was suddenly getting far less from JP Morgan, and owing tons more to bondholders. In other words, the bank and Bill Blount made tens of millions of dollars selling deals to local politicians that were not only completely defective, but blew the entire county to smithereens.

And here's the kicker. Last year, when Jefferson County, staggered by the weight of its penalties, was unable to make its swap payments to JP Morgan, the bank canceled the deal. That triggered one-time "termination fees" of — yes, you read this right — $647 million. That was money the county would owe no matter what happened with the rest of its debt, even if bondholders decided to forgive and forget every dime the county had borrowed. It was like the herpes simplex of loans — debt that does not go away, ever, for as long as you live. On a sewer project that was originally supposed to cost $250 million, the county now owed a total of $1.28 billion just in interest and fees on the debt. Imagine paying $250,000 a year on a car you purchased for $50,000, and that's roughly where Jefferson County stood at the end of last year.

Last November, the SEC charged JP Morgan with fraud and canceled the $647 million in termination fees. The bank agreed to pay a $25 million fine and fork over $50 million to assist displaced workers in Jefferson County. So far, the county has managed to avoid bankruptcy, but the sewer fiasco had downgraded its credit rating, triggering payments on other outstanding loans and pushing Birmingham toward the status of an African debtor state. For the next generation, the county will be in a constant fight to collect enough taxes just to pay off its debt, which now totals $4,800 per resident.

The city of Birmingham was founded in 1871, at the dawn of the Southern industrial boom, for the express purpose of attracting Northern capital — it was even named after a famous British steel town to burnish its entrepreneurial cred. There's a gruesome irony in it now lying sacked and looted by financial vandals from the North. The destruction of Jefferson County reveals the basic battle plan of these modern barbarians, the way that banks like JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs have systematically set out to pillage towns and cities from Pittsburgh to Athens. These guys aren't number-crunching whizzes making smart investments; what they do is find suckers in some municipal-finance department, corner them in complex lose-lose deals and flay them alive. In a complete subversion of free-market principles, they take no risk, score deals based on political influence rather than competition, keep consumers in the dark — and walk away with big money. "It's not high finance," says Taylor, the former bond regulator. "It's low finance." And even if the regulators manage to catch up with them billions of dollars later, the banks just pay a small fine and move on to the next scam. This isn't capitalism. It's nomadic thievery.

[From Issue 1102 — April 15, 2010]

More by Matt Taibbi:
Wall Street's Bailout Hustle
Wall Street's Naked Swindle
The Great American Bubble Machine