Sunday, 19 February 2012

Faith and Reason & the Occupy Movement

Ian Harris   Otago Daily Times      Feb. 10, 2012

The evictions of Occupy protesters from their patches in Auckland and Wellington seem to have been greeted with relief by the public at large. Even the many who sympathised with the cause – outrage at the rapacious greed of major banks and financial institutions, obscenely large salaries and bonuses for top earners, massive taxpayer-funded bail-outs, corporate power corrupting politics, political indifference over growing income inequality – wondered what the protesters could gain by prolonging their encampments.

Though criticism of the Occupy movement’s shortcomings has flowed thick and fast, its achievements ought not be discounted.  Since September, protests have been mounted in more than 2800 centres around the world. In some sections of the overseas media, serious discussion has taken place about the economic distortions generated by the 30-year neoliberal ascendancy. Some British bankers have been shamed into refusing $2 million bonuses they would otherwise have accepted as their due. Last week former Royal Bank of Scotland chief Fred Goodwin was stripped of his knighthood. The cost to societies of allowing big business maximum freedom to make maximum profits, without government regulation or constraint, has become clear.

In Britain, for example, between 1999 and 2009 the poorest tenth of the population saw their income eroded by 12 per cent, while the top tenth enjoyed a 37 per cent rise.  In the United States, productivity rose by 119 per cent between 1947 and 1979, and the bottom fifth of the population shared the benefit as their incomes rose 122 per cent. Along came the Reagan reforms, and from 1979 to 2009 productivity rose by 80 per cent, the incomes of the bottom fifth fell 4 per cent – and the wealthiest one per cent basked in a 270 per cent bonanza. Then, after the moguls of high capitalism had guided many of their businesses to the brink of collapse and wiped $19,000 billion [Subs: US$16,000 billion] from American household wealth, they had the gall to beg the state they deplore to rescue them from the wreckage.

At one level, these are not problems of religion. At another, they are inherently religious because they have to do with human motivation, values, freedom and ethics, and every religion has a lot to say about those. The motivation of those who triggered the financial meltdown was greed. The values they pursued were the status and power that wealth confers. The freedom they invoked was freedom to exploit others. Ethics involves awareness of the effects of people’s actions on the society of which they are part, but these high-fliers cared nothing about that.

There have been no sustained moves to call them to account – and the Occupy protesters, along with millions of sympathisers, find that repugnant to any notion of justice and fair play. Part of the problem is that in a globalising world the primary allegiance of the multinationals is to themselves, not to any state or society. In tandem with that, the institutions that have so ravaged the world’s economies are now so influential that governments show more concern to rescue them than rein them in. The markets are not going to change the way they do business unprompted, so any change will have to come from governments focused on the well-being of the totality of their societies. The key question then becomes: What best serves the common good?

Suggestions abound, some from the Occupy movement, some from economists and some from church leaders. Among them:
 □ Ensure that risks and rewards, for companies and ordinary folk alike, are shared fairly across society.
□ Make depositors less vulnerable to market lurches by ring-fencing banks’ routine customer services from their investment arms.
□ Oblige banks bailed out with public money to direct lending towards reviving the real economy, by encouraging productive industry and stimulating social mobility.
□ Explode the myth that the super-rich deserve their millions because of a unique talent. Most simply got lucky.
□ Require transparency in setting executive pay, including getting shareholder approval, adding employees and independents to remuneration committees, and publishing the pay ratio between a company’s highest-paid executive and the company median.
□ Ban short-selling (where investors sell stocks without owning them, gambling on buying them more cheaply before delivery and pocketing the difference), and tighten rules on commodity trading.
□ Impose a “Tobin tax” of 0.05 per cent on transactions between financial institutions, with proceeds earmarked for investment in the productive economy at home and abroad.
□ Clamp down on tax havens.
□ Work towards some form of global monetary authority, taking account of the interests of developing countries.

All it would take around the globe is political will. Don’t hold your breath.

Prisons, Drones, and Black Ops in Afghanistan

The Pentagon’s Afghan Basing Plans for Prisons, Drones, and Black Ops
by Nick Turse                          February 13, 2012

In late December, the lot was just a few burgundy metal shipping containers sitting in an expanse of crushed gravel inside a razor-wire-topped fence.  Next year, that empty lot will be a two-story concrete intelligence facility for America’s drone war, brightly lit and filled with powerful computers kept in climate-controlled comfort in a country where most of the population has no access to electricity.  It will boast almost 7,000 square feet of offices, briefing and conference rooms. Nor is it an anomaly. In early 2010, the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) had nearly 400 bases in Afghanistan.  Today the number tops 450.
The hush-hush, high-tech, super-secure facility at the massive air base in Kandahar is just one of many building projects the U.S. military currently has planned or underway in Afghanistan.  While some U.S. bases are indeed closing up shop or being transferred to the Afghan government, and there’s talk of combat operations slowing or ending next year, as well as a withdrawal of American combat forces from Afghanistan by 2014, the U.S. military is still preparing for a much longer haul at mega-bases like Kandahar and Bagram airfields. The same is true even of some smaller camps, forward operating bases (FOBs), and combat outposts (COPs) scattered through the country’s backlands.  “Bagram is going through a significant transition during the next year to two years,” Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Gerdes of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Bagram Office recently told Freedom Builder, a Corps of Engineers publication.  “We’re transitioning... into a long-term, five-year, 10-year vision for the base.” 
Whether the U.S. military will still be in Afghanistan in five or 10 years remains to be seen, but steps are currently being taken to make that possible.  U.S. military publications, plans and schematics, contracting documents, and other official data examined by TomDispatch catalog hundreds of construction projects worth billions of dollars slated to begin, continue, or conclude in 2012. 
While many of these efforts are geared toward structures for Afghan forces or civilian institutions, a considerable number involve U.S. facilities, some of the most significant being dedicated to the ascendant forms of American warfare: drone operations and missions by elite special operations units.  The available plans for most of these projects suggest durability.  “The structures that are going in are concrete and mortar, rather than plywood and tent skins,” says Gerdes. As of last December, his office was involved in 30 Afghan construction projects for U.S. or international coalition partners worth almost $427 million.  
The Big Base Build-Up  Recently, the New York Times reported that President Obama is likely to approve a plan to shift much of the U.S. effort in Afghanistan to special operations forces.  These elite troops would then conduct kill/capture missions and train local troops well beyond 2014.  Recent building efforts in the country bear this out.   A major project at Bagram Air Base, for instance, involves the construction of a special operations forces complex, a clandestine base within a base that will afford America’s black ops troops secrecy and near-absolute autonomy from other U.S. and coalition forces.  Begun in 2010, the $29 million project is slated to be completed this May and join roughly 90 locations around the country where troops from Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan have been stationed.
Elsewhere on Bagram, tens of millions of dollars are being spent on projects that are less sexy but no less integral to the war effort, like paving dirt roads and upgrading drainage systems on the mega-base.  In January, the U.S. military awarded a $7 million contract to a Turkish construction company to build a 24,000-square-foot command-and-control facility.  Plans are also in the works for a new operations center to support tactical fighter jet missions, a new flight-line fire station, as well as more lighting and other improvements to support the American air war.
Last month, Afghan President Hamid Karzai ordered that the U.S.-run prison at Bagram be transferred to Afghan control.  By the end of January, the U.S. had issued a $36 million contract for the construction, within a year, of a new prison on the base.  While details are sparse, plans for the detention center indicate a thoroughly modern, high-security facility complete with guard towers, advanced surveillance systems, administrative facilities, and the capacity to house about 2,000 prisoners.  [This is the first part of a long article]
[Original article here]

America's Private Prisons

The cynical world of America's private prisons  
A major factor in why US prisons are overflowing is the highly profitable privatised industry that has an incentive to fill them
Sadhbh Walshe                   Guardian/UK                           3 February 2012
In the past few decades, changes in sentencing laws and get-tough-on-crime policies have led to an explosion in America's prison population. Funding this incarceration binge has been an enormous drain on taxpayer dollars, with some states now spending more to lock up their citizens than to provide their children with education. It's difficult to spin anything positive out of that scenario, but as it turns out, even this blackest of clouds has a silver lining – silver as in dollars, that is, for the private prison industry.
In 2010, two of the largest private prison companies in America, GEO Group, Inc and the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) generated over $4bn dollars in profit between them. Their respective CEOs, George Zoley and Damon Hininger, each earned well in excess of $3m in 2010. Although there have been some concerns that any relaxation of sentencing or drug laws might negatively impact their bottom line (profit), they remain confident in their ability to drum up new ways of generating their taxpayer-funded commodities (also known as inmates): lobbying California for their excess prisoners being one; caging juveniles on trivial charges another. But the favorite, by a long shot, is the accelerated drive to lock up America's immigrants.
So far, these strategies seem to be working nicely. In their 2011 third-quarter earnings report, the GEO group proudly announced an increase in profits from the previous year. This joyous news can be at least partially attributed to changes in immigration law, particularly in states like Arizona and Oklahoma, which allow for, among other things, the indefinite detention of illegal immigrants, including those whose asylum proceedings are underway. The majority of immigrants who are picked up by law enforcement officials, mostly on civil charges, like being caught with a broken tail light for instance, will end up in privately run prisons. In many of these facilities, they will be charged $5 per minute to call their loved ones, whilst earning $1 per day for their labor, from which the corporation running the facility will profit.
According to an investigation by NPR, in 2008, two men, allegedly from CCA, showed up in a small Arizona town, close to the Mexican border to pitch the construction of a new prison specifically to house women and children who were illegal immigrants. Local officials were not convinced that the prison could be kept full, but that is, perhaps, because they were unaware that, at the time, CCA was one of the key groups involved in drafting and promoting the Arizona Senate Bill 1070 (which requires police to lock up anyone who cannot prove they came to the US legally), under the auspices of a secretive group called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which specializes in model legislation.
It's not all sunshine and roses in private prison land, however. These dens of inequity were sold to the public as super-efficient, money-saving, job-creating dream machines. The trouble is, most of the savings are derived from hiring too few prison guards and paying them on average 30-40% less than their counterparts in government-run prisons. According to Brian Dawe, executive director of the American Correctional Officers (ACO), an organization that promotes the well-being and safety of corrections officers (COs), no self-respecting CO wants to work in a private prison – where their chances of being assaulted are 49% higher, where escapes are commonplace, where riots are frequent and where the staff are ill-equipped to cope.
It might seem counterintuitive to create conditions that are conducive to outbreaks of violence, until you realize that violence is good for business. Inmates who act out tend to get time added to their sentence. Time added to sentences means more money, and more money is exactly what the CEOs and their shareholders are interested in.  In a sane society, the purpose of a prison should be to keep the public safe. The goal should not be to encourage criminal behavior or to find new ways to incriminate people, so that certain private individuals can line their pockets.  (But) these corporations which profit from human misery are doing so at the taxpayers' expense and to the detriment of public safety. But until the public cries foul, there will be no stopping them.                           [Abbrev.]
[Click here for original article]

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Stone Cold Justice - excerpts

Stone cold justice    

The Weekend Australian Magazine      by: John Lyons                 
From: The Australian                November 26, 2011
> YOU hear them before you see them. The first clue that a new group of children is approaching is a shuffle of shoes and a clinking of handcuffs and shackles. The door to the courtroom bursts open - four boys, all shackled, stare into the room. Four boys looking bewildered.  They wear brown prison overalls and they trail into the room where their fate is to be decided by a female Israeli army officer/judge, who is sitting at the bench, waiting. The look on the face of one of the boys changes to elation when he sees his mother at the back of the court. He blows her a kiss. But his mother begins crying and this upsets the boy. He begins crying too.>
> We're sitting in an Israeli military court which is attached to the Ofer prison in the West Bank, 25 minutes from Jerusalem. Mondays and Tuesdays are "children's days". Hundreds of Palestinian children from the age of 12 are brought here each year to be tried under Israeli military law for a range of offences. The majority are accused of throwing stones and, as the court has close to a 100 per cent conviction rate, almost all will be imprisoned for anything from two weeks to 10 months. Some will end up in adult jails.
> Today, groups of children in threes and fours shuffle in; some cases last only 60 seconds, just long enough for the child to plead guilty and hear their sentence. Sitting in a room 50m away, more children wait. Despite their confessions, many insist that they did not throw stones or molotov cocktails, and the human rights group Defence for Children International estimates that about a third who pass through the system have either been shown or signed documentation in Hebrew - a language they cannot understand.
>  Others are said to have confessed under coercion. Since January 2007, DCI has collected and translated into English 385 sworn affidavits from Palestinian children held in Israeli detention who claim to have suffered serious abuse: electric shocks, beatings, threats of rape, being stripped naked, solitary confinement, threats that their families' work permits will be revoked, and "position abuse" - which involves a child being placed in a chair with their feet shackled and hands tied behind their back, sometimes for hours.
> Into this world has walked Gerard Horton, an Australian lawyer. Horton was a Sydney barrister for about eight years.  During his five years at Defence for Children International Horton says the office has increased its evidence-gathering capacity and will only pursue credible allegations based on sworn affidavits. He takes me through the arrest process: "Once bound and blindfolded, the child will be led to a waiting military vehicle and in about one-third of cases will be thrown on the metal floor for transfer to an interrogation centre. The whole idea, he says, is to get a confession as quickly as possible.
> DCI has documented three cases where children were given electric shocks by a hand-held device and Horton claims there is one interrogator working in the settlement Gush Etzion "who specialises in threatening children with rape". Some cases contain horrifying allegations, such as this one from Ahmad, 15, documented by DCI, who was taken from his home at 2am, blindfolded and accused of throwing stones. "I managed to see the dog from under my blindfold," he says. "They brought the dog's food and put it on my head. I think it was a piece of bread, and the dog had to eat it off my head. His saliva started drooling all over my head and that freaked me out. I was so scared my body started shaking ... they saw me shaking and started laughing ... Then they put another piece of bread on my trousers near my genitals, so I tried to move away but he started barking. I was terrified."
 I tell my guide I've never seen any court where 100 per cent plead guilty. "The thing the indictment is based on is true evidence," he explains. "Usually the evidence is their admission to police."
{Excerpts from a 5-page report by an Australian Journalist, John Lyons]