The Last Picture Show for study of responsive law

In 1975, Universal Pictures launched the first nationwide ad campaign for its new film, “Jaws.” Universal avoided marketing its film regionally, as other major studios had been doing. Instead, it organized one major ad campaign, released the film nationally on a single date and raked in most of its profits that weekend, before anyone could say whether the film was worth the money.

Today, all major studios do nationwide releases. After “Jaws,” studios got rid of their regional marketing offices and consolidated them into national headquarters, where films would be distributed to thousands of theaters across the country.

Theaters, in turn, consolidated their spaces. Independent theaters were swallowed up by regional chains, which were then swallowed up by national chains, which were then swallowed up by multinational chains. It became more profitable to have one 20-screen complex rather than 10 two-screen theaters, especially because most people went to see the same few films.

During merger mania, small, independent theaters have struggled to survive as movie studios and multiplex chains spend more and more money promoting conventional cinema.

But now, independent theaters are facing a new threat: the shift from 35mm film to digital projection equipment, which reduces the fees of printing and shipping 40-pound film reels for studios but costs exhibitors from $60,000 to $80,000 to install. The price tag is one that many small-theater owners cannot afford.

To redistribute some of the savings, studios have created a Virtual Print Fee (VPF) agreement that ensures exhibitors a cut of the studio’s savings.

Say a studio saves $3,000 on a film print by shipping a digital copy that is some 40 pounds lighter than the 35mm reel. The studio will give $800 to the exhibitor to show the film. In most cases, the exhibitor has leased the equipment for digital projection. That $800 then goes to pay for converting from 35mm film to the Digital Cinema Package (DCP).

The package is a set of high-definition video files delivered on a hard drive encrypted with copyright protection that plugs into a system of proprietary servers, software and projectors. “Avatar,” released in 2009, was the movie that spurred industry adoption.

The lower distribution costs, the studios say, allows theaters and filmmakers more freedom in producing film. 

Instead, small exhibitors have found that signing a VPF agreement limits the movies that they can show. Smaller studios and independent filmmakers do not have the money to offer VPFs to exhibitors and that shuts many of them out.

It is, in many ways, the next step in the consolidation of the film industry, intentional or not.

It’s “really a creepy system,” says Karen Cooper, director of Film Forum in downtown Manhattan, “and I’m very fortunate in that I didn’t have to deal with that.”

Film Forum is one of the roughly 3,500 exhibitors that have converted to digital out of 5,700 independent theaters in the United States, and was able to pay for the conversion itself.

In the end, Cooper says, “either you own the DCP,” as Film Forum does, “or you owe a bunch of money ... and that’s a rotten deal.”

Cooper is frustrated with a government that has not empowered its arts agencies to act on the issue.

“The U.S. has an extremely bad track record,” she says. The National Endowment for the Arts and Department of Cultural Affairs, she says, have annual budgets of about $150 million. “That’s a laughable amount of money. The cities of Berlin and Vienna have larger arts budgets.”

“In a city that used to have 30 theaters when I was a kid, we now have … five,” says Josh Levin, co-owner and manager of West End Cinema in Washington, D.C.

Levin says that, despite the trajectory of neighborhood cinemas, he is not angry at the developments that contribute to the dearth of independent theatergoers.

The required conversion to digital projection, the creation of the VPF agreement, the popularity of new competitors such as Netflix—none of these changes, he says, are malicious.

“The idea of studios taking a chance on a low-budget drama, a serious drama or a comedy that is not of the lowest common denominator doesn’t make any economic sense,” he says. “At the same time that technology is democratizing filmmaking, the business model is crushing that democracy.

“It’s not sinister,” he says. “It’s just business.”

The responsibility to save neighborhood cinemas has apparently fallen into the laps of communities and charity groups.

When the Loews theater in Friendship Heights, D.C. went bankrupt in 2001, for example, Bob Zich, a retired Library of Congress librarian, and his wife, Joanne, stood out on the street collecting donations as small as 25 cents to reopen the theater.

“There was a sense of outrage when the theater closed down,” Joanne said over the phone, her husband also on the line. “There was a great sense of loss ... and [we saw our efforts] as a quixotic enterprise.” 

Bob and Joanne, who did not have backgrounds in film or in community organizing, managed to save the theater. The Avalon Theater, which has replaced the old Loews cinema, is now a not-for-profit art house.

The space, Bob and Joanne say, reflects something that is lost in America beyond film. Bob grew up in Nebraska and remembers the intimacy of four small theaters in his town. It was a different social atmosphere, he says, one where instead of having organized soccer games and music lessons, kids had “one place to play and that was outside.”

He remembers that when he and his wife moved to Washington, D.C., neighbors stopped by his apartment to welcome them. “They might bake a cake and stop to chat,” he says. “These were the people you would be living with.”

Now, Bob and Joanne feel estranged from their neighbors. People, they say, prefer prescribed events. There is no more faith in random interaction, which sits at the center of community life. “They have their own way of entertaining people now,” Bob says.

Every seat in the Avalon Theater has the name of a donor on the back, a reminder that the cinema was not an impersonal, private undertaking. For Bob, the theater is a glitch in an alienating culture.

“It was the perfect storm in reverse,” he says.


Understanding Economics in Plain English for study of responsive law

Fedspeak, vague and convoluted answers to economic questions, was popularized by Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve from 1987 to 2006. It allowed him to essentially say “no comment” without admitting that he was avoiding questions.

Fedspeak, which has an uncanny resemblance to what George Orwell called newspeak in “1984,” protected Greenspan from questions he didn’t want to answer in front of either the House Committee on Financial Services or the news media. It exiled public comment from the debate about economics and narrowed the conversation to a small group of economists and business consultants.

After 30 years of unintelligible fedspeak, writer Michael Goodwin decided that from a self-imposed exile to a small town in India, he would master economics the old-fashioned way: from a thick stack of books. Out of that study came a general history of economics that would be at once clear and simple.

“While the whole picture was complicated,” he writes in the preface to “Economix: How Our Economy Works (and Doesn’t Work),” which came out in September, “no one part of it was all that hard to understand.

“I could see that all this information made a story. But I couldn’t find a book that told the story in an accessible way. So I decided to write one in the most accessible form I knew: comics.”

Image from "Economix: How and Why Our Economy Works (and Doesn't Work), in Words and Pictures"

Image from "Economix: How and Why Our Economy Works (and Doesn't Work), in Words and Pictures"

The visual medium of a graphic account forces the illustrator, Dan E. Burr, as well the reader to think of economics in hard terms. We see France’s finance minister in 1665, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, for example, handing a bag of money to merchants to show what subsidies mean, building a wall to France’s north to symbolize tariffs against the Dutch, and telling a weaver “your fabric must contain exactly 1,408 threads!” while holding a pamphlet entitled “How To Weave” to illustrate quality regulation.

The French regulations were imposed “so their products were good enough to compete with Dutch ones,” Goodwin writes.

Goodwin’s effect is to obliterate the jargon and clichés that dominate The New York Times Business Section and the American Economic Review.

The opening of the book defines capital as the means of production. He lists factories, trading ships and tools, as examples. “Spending money on capital,” he says, “is called investment.”

By building slowly on the basics, he is able to provide the reader with the inner workings of industrial capitalism and global finance. Depicted below each text box is a man with arrows pointing either toward or away from himself to show where capital, labor and money are flowing.

“Capitalists,” Goodwin says, “have been around for millennia, but the capitalist economy is fairly recent. For most of history, most people lived in farming economies governed by tradition.”

“New projects,” he writes above the picture of a man selling a thingumawatchit, “were frowned on” until the Dutch began to “organize their economy around trade and manufacturing” rather than around agriculture, which did not grow exponentially.

Goodwin makes his way through 400 years of economic history. He includes the economic impact of Industrialization, the Bolshevik Uprising and World War II. He sees class warfare as the engine of political struggle. The rich offer bags of cash to politicians, armies and foreign countries for the sake of profit and self-interest.

Once a revolution topples an existing regime, the cycle of power begins all over again.

Goodwin fails at times to credit the role of social and political movements with reform. He gives presidents such as Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama too much credit. Nixon, for example, was deeply hostile to Keynesian economics and the anti-war movement. He instituted modest liberal reforms not because he supported them, but because strong movements pressured him to push through worker-friendly legislation and finally end the war.

“Sometimes Nixon seemed like a lefty,” Goodwin writes, “like when he finally pulled America out of the Vietnam War, reached an understanding or detente with the Soviets, and talked to the Communist Chinese.”

It was an enraged American public fueled by the Pentagon Papers that forced Nixon to take us out of Vietnam.

Goodwin, in the same vein, portrays Clinton and Obama as quasi-progressives who fought the best they could against corporate influence. We should remember that Clinton oversaw the deregulation of the derivatives market, slashed social welfare and artificially lowered the unemployment rate.

Obama reappointed the same people who manufactured the 2008 bailout while expanding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, keeping private industries satisfied.

Goodwin follows history up to 2012 and the Eurozone crisis. He addresses the demands of Occupy Wall Street.

“But we’ve barely scratched the surface,” Goodwin admits at the end of “Economix.” “I hope you use this book as a foundation for further reading, observation and thinking,” he says. In the back, Goodwin has put together a list of books for further reading. And these are not books written in fedspeak. These are books that take aspects of the economy, as Goodwin has done, and dissect them using normal English.

“I hope you think of this as the beginning,” Goodwin writes on the last page, “and not the end.”


Three Men Who Wouldn’t Let the NSA Get Away With It, Center for Study of Responsive Law

The trial of former CIA agent and whistle-blower John Kiriakou has prompted many Americans to strongly criticize the Obama administration and its lack of oversight of U.S. intelligence agencies. Kiriakou, who uncovered the torture program that was started under President Bush and continued under President Obama, will face 30 months in jail and lose his government pension. Since his trial began in April, whistle-blowers such as Kirk Wiebe and William Binney, both of whom worked at the National Security Agency and then left because of mismanagement and corruption, have warned that intelligence agencies are abusing the Constitution and lavishing private companies with expensive contracts in exchange for subpar data processing and analysis systems. 

Kiriakou, Wiebe and Binney, who were each presented with a Joe A. Callaway Award for Civic Courage two weeks ago in Washington, D.C., said that the intelligence community cares more about protecting itself and its interests than those of the public.

The NSA, for example, has wasted billions of taxpayer dollars over the past 10 years according to Wiebe, Binney and several other former NSA employees who have blown the whistle on the agency’s financial mismanagement. Spending at the NSA, they said, increased significantly after the 9/11 attacks without much regulation. The agency used the period of fear after the attacks, these whistle-blowers said, to inflate its budget and arrange high profits for corporate friends. The waste, they charged, hampered significant programs and bloated inefficient ones.

The agency wants “to fix big things with big dollars and big business,” Wiebe said over the phone.

Wiebe was a part of a group that oversaw the design of a data processing and analysis system for the NSA that worked more effectively than the system that was outsourced to the private sector. But because of the cozy relationship between corporations and the government, he says, the less efficient and more expensive private system was adopted.

“It’s a shame that the NSA didn’t adopt the information it had at its disposal,” he said referring to a program for which he advocated called ThinThread.

Wiebe left the NSA after a dispute that began with the implementation of the private system called Trailblazer, which was designed a year before 9/11. The agency decided to adopt the private industry’s system over ThinThread, a program made with commercial, off-the-shelf equipment.

He says that the agency refused to use the program because it had committed to Trailblazer and didn’t want to walk away from such a large expenditure. Although ThinThread was a cheaper and better processing system, it did not have the capacity to generate profits for corporate donors.

“The more money you have as an intelligence agency,” said fellow whistle-blower Ed Loomis, “the more prestige you have. ... It’s the military-intelligence-industrial-complex. Congress approves the wasteful spending because all they want to do is get re-elected. They owe political favors to private sector campaign donors and thus open doors within the intelligence community to satiate their business interests. It’s just incestuous.”

A year after the World Trade Center had been attacked, Wiebe, Loomis and other NSA employees, including Binney and Thomas Drake, filed complaints to Congress and the Department of Defense Inspector General. In the complaints, they charged that the agency failed to prevent the attacks because of internal mismanagement and wasteful spending on flawed intelligence systems.

“The idea of intelligence is to prevent disaster, not to analyze it after the fact,” Wiebe said. The corruption, he said, was directly tied to the loss of life on 9/11. 

Because most of the work of the NSA is classified, it is impossible for outside auditors to inspect the intelligence agency. A report comparing Trailblazer to ThinThread was released to the public after 98 percent of its content had been blacked out, blocking any outside comparison. There are no accurate estimates of spending within the agency. And the names of data systems, such as Trailblazer and ThinThread, can be made public only by the NSA.

Wiebe and Binney remained with the NSA until the agency started using components of their program ThinThread to spy on Americans illegally. The agency, which was created in 1949 to intercept foreign communications that would put Americans in danger, was, they said, increasingly monitoring the phone calls, emails and Web browsing of U.S. citizens. The expansion of domestic surveillance, they said, is slowly strangling our democracy. The Obama administration’s aggressive prosecution of whistle-blowers, unmatched in scope by any other administration in history, has been working to discourage whistle-blowers such as Wiebe, Loomis, Binney and Drake from exposing government malfeasance. (This may change under the new whistle-blower protection laws that Obama signed Tuesday.)

The NSA, Binney suspects, cannot yet replicate the program he designed with Loomis, which was able to automatically select important information. Now, he says, agents have to enter what they’re looking for manually. The search bar technique, he says, doesn’t work well for agents because of different languages, unorganized results and unknown code words.

If the NSA, one day, is able to replicate his program, Binney fears that the agency will abuse it as it abused its powers after 9/11. He said that the KGB would have been delighted to have this automated system.

“This is the greatest threat to our constitutional form of government,” Binney said about increased government surveillance. “Something the terrorists could never have done, we have done to ourselves. If we don’t do something to reverse these tren


Music and Tears as the Rockets Fall for study of responsive law

Protesters in Washington, D.C., stood outside the White House on Thursday night to condemn U.S. backing of the recent Israeli airstrikes that have killed 19 Palestinians. A pro-Israeli group from George Washington University was on the other side of a barricade to show its support for the assault on Gaza.

The two groups played off each other. The students sang traditional Jewish songs and danced in circles. Most were smiling.

The critics of Israel’s actions, most of whom were independent of any single group, chanted “while you dance, children die.”

AP/Bernat Armangue

AP/Bernat Armangue

“I’m absolutely offended [by the celebration],” said protest organizer Adam Akkad. “The pro-Israeli side tonight is expressing their support for Israel while their country is killing children and the elderly.”

Civilians have died on both sides since the beginning of this surge in violence, which began six days ago when a 13-year-old Palestinian boy playing soccer near the border was hit and killed by gunfire from Israeli soldiers. After the incident, Hamas fired hundreds of rockets into southern Israel, destroying houses and killing three Israelis on Thursday. Israel’s retaliation has included airstrikes as well as calling up troops for a possible ground invasion.

The GWU students defended Israel’s actions.

“Israel dropped leaflets before the attacks,” said Rich Dweck, “letting people know: ‘We’re going to bomb you, please leave.’

“The problem is that we’re dealing with people [Hamas] who don’t value human life.”

Another student interrupted the interview as he silenced the pro-Israel demonstrators.

“We may feel a little bit impotent because our brothers and sisters are thousands of miles away,” he said, wearing an Israeli flag as a cape and sitting on top of someone else’s shoulders, “but with Hashem we are connected above. We are completely unified. ... Hashem is the No. 1 protector of Israel!” Cheers and singing followed.

Gabriel Felder, organizer of the pro-Israel rally and a student at GWU, said that the event was about “showing solidarity with the United States government and the State Department,” which he said don’t get enough support.

The students insist that the only impediment to peace is the Palestinian agenda. When Israel reacts violently, they say, it is always for self-preservation.

“We’re supporting Israel’s right to defend itself,” said Tomer Canaan, also a student at GWU. “The Palestinian agenda is pushing and promoting hatred and terrorism in the territories. ... If Israelis and Palestinians were on equal levels militarily,” he said, “Israel would cease to exist because I believe that the Palestinians are a lot more violent than the Israelis.”

The Israeli-American alliance, he added, is positive from an economic point of view.

“Seventy-five percent of U.S. aid to Israel is coming back to buy American products,” he said, “so it’s stimulating the American economy.”

Akkad, a critic of the occupation, is frustrated with these arguments. They pretend, he said, that the conflict is between two free and independent nations.

“There is a distinction in dynamics,” he pointed out. “Israel is the occupier. Hamas is an organization that came out of resistance to the occupation. Hamas is a couple of decades old. Palestine has been occupied for over six decades. Hamas is a response to that and Israel continues to feed off of that.

“When Israel claims self-defense,” Akkad continued, “it doesn’t tell you that it is also occupying these people, that it has checkpoints between Palestinian villages, that it builds illegal settlements on Palestinian land. It doesn’t tell you any of that information.”

Akkad said he understands the motives behind Hamas rocket fire, especially after the killing of the 13-year-old boy.

“Do I think rocket fire is the smartest form of resistance to the occupation?” Akkad asked. “Probably not, but I won’t say that Palestinians don’t have the right to violently resist their oppressor. It’s basic international law.”

Akkad suspects that the attacks on Gazans are, in the end, driven by Benjamin Netanyahu’s bid for re-election.

“We saw the same thing happen in 2008,” he said, referring to the Gaza Massacre. “Why? Because Benjamin Netanyahu wants votes. The election cycle in Israel is coming up and Benjamin Netanyahu needs a way to instill fear into his people, the fear of possible extinction so that they vote for him.

“The conclusion to draw here is that there’s an exchange,” he noted. “Benjamin Netanyahu wants votes; we have to bury pregnant women and children.”


How Germany Is Getting to 100 Percent Renewable Energy for study of responsive law

There is no debate on climate change in Germany. The temperature for the past 10 months has been 3 degrees above average and we’re again on course for the warmest year on record. There’s no dispute among Germans as to whether this change is man-made, or that we contribute to it and need to stop accelerating the process.

InsideClimate News /Osha Gray Davidson   Solar panels cover the rooftops of a German farming village.

InsideClimate News/Osha Gray Davidson

Solar panels cover the rooftops of a German farming village.

Since 2000, Germany has converted 25 percent of its power grid to renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and biomass. The architects of the clean energy movement Energiewende, which translates to “energy transformation,” estimate that from 80 percent to 100 percent of Germany’s electricity will come from renewable sources by 2050.

Germans are baffled that the United States has not taken the same path. Not only is the U.S. the wealthiest nation in the world, but it’s also credited with jump-starting Germany’s green movement 40 years ago.

“This is a very American idea,” Arne Jungjohann, a director at the Heinrich Boll Stiftung Foundation (HBSF), said at a news conference Tuesday morning in Washington, D.C. “We got this from Jimmy Carter.”

Germany adopted and continued Carter’s push for energy conservation while the U.S. abandoned further efforts. The death of an American Energiewende solidified when President Ronald Reagan ripped down the solar panels atop the White House that Carter had installed.

Since then, Germany has created strong incentives for the public to invest in renewable energy. It pays people to generate electricity from solar panels on their houses. The effort to turn more consumers into producers is accelerated through feed-in tariffs, which are 20-year contracts that ensure a fixed price the government will pay. Germany lowers the price every year, so there’s good reason to sign one as soon as possible, before compensation falls further.

The money the government uses to pay producers comes from a monthly surcharge on utility bills that everyone pays, similar to a rebate. Customers pay an additional cost for the renewable energy fund and then get that money back from the government, at a profit, if they are producing their own energy.

In the end, ratepayers control the program, not the government. This adds consistency, writer Osha Gray Davidson says. If the government itself paid, it would be easy for a new finance minister to cut the program upon taking office. Funding is not at the whim of politicians as it is in the U.S.

“Everyone has skin in the game,” says Davidson. “The movement is decentralized and democratized, and that’s why it works. Anybody in Germany can be a utility.”

The news conference the foundation organized with InsideClimate News comes two weeks after one of the biggest storms in U.S. history and sits in the shadow of the Keystone XL Pipeline, which would unlock the world’s second-largest oil reserve in Canada. The event also comes one day after a report that says that the U.S. is on track to become the leading oil and gas producer by 2020, which suggests that the U.S. has the capability to match Germany’s green movement, but is instead using its resources to deepen its dependency on fossil fuels.

Many community organizers have given up on government and are moving to spark a green movement in the U.S. through energy cooperatives.

Anya Schoolman is a D.C. organizer who has started many co-ops in the district although she began with no experience. She says that converting to renewable energy one person at a time would not work in the U.S. because of legal complexities and tax laws that discourage people from investing in clean energy.

Grid managers in the U.S., she explains, often require households to turn off wind turbines at night, a practice called “curtailment.”

“It’s a favor to the utility companies,” she says, which don’t hold as much power in Germany as they do in the United States.

Individuals and cooperatives own 65 percent of Germany’s renewable energy capacity. In the U.S. they own 2 percent. The rest is privately controlled.

The largest difference, panelists said, between Germany and the U.S. is how reactive the government is to its citizens. Democracy in Germany has meant keeping and strengthening regulatory agencies while forming policies that put public ownership ahead of private ownership.

“In the end,” says Davidson, who spent a month in Germany studying the Energiewende, “it isn’t about making money. It’s about quality of life.”


Elections Are Shrinking

Office of the Speaker /Bryant Avondoglio

Office of the Speaker/Bryant Avondoglio

The voters in Ohio’s 8th District had better be happy with Republican Rep. John Boehner. They have no choice. No Democrat is opposing the incumbent, who’s been in office since 1990 and ran uncontested once before in 1994. But Boehner is not alone. He is one of 58 incumbents this election running without a challenger, according to a FairVote reportpublished in July called “Monopoly Politics.” An additional 270 races out of 435 are so heavily dominated by one party or the other to render the races meaningless. There are 74 districts that are “balanced,” within the margins of 54 percent to 46 percent for either candidate.

“The problem isn’t gerrymandering,” says director of Rob Richie. “Even if you draw squares across the country, [races] will still be noncompetitive.”

Districts are traded like baseball cards between the two major parties. When one district is stamped Republican or Democrat, the parties move on. In 1984, for example, there were 14 or 15 swing states. Today, there are eight or nine.

The shrinking number of districts that remain competitive become the center of campaigns. They are the last pockets where Democrats and Republicans can each mine votes.

The Citizens United case from 2010, which permits unlimited corporate spending in elections, has exacerbated the calcification of the electoral process.

The case has also increased the number of negative advertisements. It does not require super PACs to disclose their sources of funding, allowing for fierce attacks on candidates without linking the message to a company or candidate.

Richie says that dirty advertising works. “People,” he says, “vote with fear.” People need to pick a side when there are more negative ads. “It’s like being on a team,” he says. “When you don’t like the other party, you start to like your side more and more.”

This dividing up of districts atrophies state and local elections. About 40 percent of legislative races, the FairVote report says, are uncontested this year. In Georgia, 77 percent of state legislative races have only one candidate on the ballot.

Voters are settling comfortably into one party or the other. There “isn’t even a pretense of dialogue now,” says Richie. The two parties have become “more distinctive in people’s minds … [and] people seem simply to be voting for their team.”

Richie insists that elections and politics are more about partisanship than they are about campaign contributions.

“If a candidate is with the wrong party in the wrong district,” the report reads, “he or she will probably lose no matter how highly qualified and well-funded.”

Most voters have already been sold on either the Democratic or Republican brand. A candidate who attaches his or her name to one of the two brands benefits from the billions spent by the two parties in political advertising. And it is estimated that politicians will spend more by far this year on their campaigns than in any other year in history.

Despite this rise in spending, neither President Obama nor Gov. Romney has visited the vast majority of cities suffering the worst unemployment.

“This is a product of statutory rules,” Richie says. “And I don’t think there’s any indication of this changing.”


Rocky Anderson Decides Not to Get Arrested for study of responsive law

Justice Party presidential candidate Rocky Anderson stood outside the White House on the eve of the election demanding that President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder respond to the stripping away of American rights that began under George W. Bush and accelerated when Obama took office in 2008.

White House/Lawrence Jackson

White House/Lawrence Jackson

Next to him were two enlarged pictures, one of a dismissive letter from Holder in response to Anderson’s demand that anti-torture laws and the War Powers clause be complied with, and another with more than a hundred names of prominent activists who support his cause.

“Our president,” he said loudly, competing with the wind, “is identifying people around the world he wants killed and in the process killing hundreds if not thousands of innocent[s] … in other sovereign nations without authority from Congress to make war. He’s unilaterally decided to go to war, as we did in Libya, with no authorization from Congress, which is contrary to the War Powers clause. And now he’s claiming the power of the federal government to kidnap and imprison anybody that he points the finger at without due process.”

Anderson pressed Obama on legislation such as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which Obama promised to shoot down as a senator and then favored when he took office in 2008, and the National Defense Authorization Act, which allows for the indefinite detention of American citizens without due process.

Anderson, a lawyer who served as mayor of Salt Lake City from 2000 to 2008, says people support an image of Obama that is not consistent with his voting record.

“There’s this us vs. them phenomenon, where you attribute all the good virtues to those on your team and all the bad ones to the other, even when it’s shown that people on your team are doing the kinds of things that you would be up in arms about.

“And because it’s President Obama doing this, it really makes him not the lesser of two evils but the more effective of the evils because now the Democrats line up silently behind him, accepting these abuses because Obama’s a member of their team. They’ve sacrificed principle for partisanship.

“That’s why I left the Democratic Party.”

As he spoke to journalists and other supporters, the blowup photos flailed behind him and a woman struggled not to lose them in each burst of cold air. Police had arrived earlier to tell Anderson that tying the blowups to the fence was a felony.

“This is not the country that I grew up in,” he said. “[This new legislation] is transforming our nation into the kind of totalitarian state we used to be very proud to distinguish ourselves from.”

“All they’re telling us,” he said, turning and pointing at the letter from Holder, “is that there are people in government who are above the law. … When somebody’s violated the law, the chips ought to fall wherever they may and people need to be held accountable, even if they’re rich and powerful.”


The Bomb Bazaar for study of responsive law

Credit: Thomas Hedges

Credit: Thomas Hedges

More than 650 companies showcased their weapon systems at the 2012 Association of the United States Army (AUSA) annual meeting and exhibition last month at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C. Representatives from industry, the Army and foreign ministries networked for three days in the presence of mammoth armored vehicles, attack helicopters, drone prototypes and trucks that carried spinning missile defense systems.

They were joined by weapons enthusiasts here for the latest 360 radar detection technologies, robotic squad support vehicles and low-velocity rifle grenades that explode in midair. Visitors watched television screens that simulated the operation of large air and land craft while seated in a chair that shook each time there was turbulence. There were also booths where it was possible to don video glasses and shoot at pixilated Iraqis.

The United States is the top exporter of weapons, providing the global market with 30 percent of its total supply. The world’s top 10 weapons contractors made $230 billion in profits in 2010, according to a report by 24/7 Wall Street. Eight of those companies were American. The United States itself will spend up to $4 trillion on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, alone, according to a Brown University study.

The exhibition is one of the biggest of its kind in the world. AUSA, which is a nonprofit lobby group whose sponsors include Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman, spends tens of millions of dollars each year on it.

The purpose of the exhibition is unclear. Many, like the manager in charge of the Army booth, Col. Lee Reynolds, said that the showcase was a window through which taxpayers can see how their money is being used and “hopefully be reassured.” But there weren’t any unaffiliated civilians at the event, perhaps because registration cost $1,000 for nonmembers.

Others said the convention facilitated the discussion between armies, domestic and foreign, and weapons systems manufacturers. In other words: networking.

Weapons manufacturers rely on collaboration with other companies. The sensors and voice commands on a Lockheed Martin Squad Mission Support System vehicle, for example, come from other businesses. Many of the prototypes in the hall were not finished. This permitted representatives from a company that needs to outfit a product with software to approach a company, such as Raytheon, for collaboration.

A representative from the Turkish corporation Roketsan, who asked that he not be identified, said that his company came to mingle with potential co-producers for the new Turkish CIRIT rocket.

Credit: Thomas Hedges

Credit: Thomas Hedges

The conversation was interrupted by a salesman who asked if Roketsan would be interested in buying his company’s seeker coolant for its new missile design. But the salesman mistakenly approached a 26-year-old hostess, who knew nothing about missiles and had been hired to provide tea and Turkish delights to visitors to the booth.

“I’ve been here three times in two days. You gonna mark that down?” he asked her.

The two floors of the convention, larger than football fields, are focused solely on army weapons and tactical operations. At the Israeli pavilion, there was no direct mention of Palestine. The Israelis spoke only of national security and “protection from the enemy.” There was no pavilion for Afghan and Iraqi defense forces. The French were present, informing U.S. soldiers about their efforts to train rebel groups in Senegal, Niger and Uganda. All exchanges were devoid of politics.

In the press room, reporters gathered at a large table to upload stories on the new Tracer UHF Penetrating Radar, which is a low-frequency radar that can immediately pick up on anomalies of a given area by circling around that space several times. It can also penetrate foliage.

The trade representatives did not venture outside of their areas of expertise.

The words “death,” “violence,” “blood” and “body” were replaced by “lethality enhancement,” “area denial” and “kill mechanism.”

Some weapons companies had green initiatives.

“We’re trying to come up with things that are less hazardous and more environmentally friendly,” said Jack Robertson from DS Arms. “We have what are called ‘green rounds’ that have no detrimental content in them. ... They’ll have already existing stuff in ’em like iron, steel or pieces of aluminum that would not pose any harm or danger to anybody that picks it up. They’re totally safe.”

Next to every massive military vehicle was its toy model. There were stations where attendees sat in chairs and played with an AH-64 helicopter flying simulation. At almost every booth there was a flat screen mounted playing clips of bombs exploding in slow motion, planes zipping across the sky, and digital renditions of soldiers wielding prototypes in virtual war zones.

“You can see why for a 7- or 8-year-old boy this would be heaven,” a woman said as I exited the building.

Credit: Thomas Hedges

Credit: Thomas Hedges


Chamber of Commerce’s ‘Secret’ Election Spending for study of responsive law

Seventy protesters stood outside the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C., last week, asking for full disclosure of the lobby group’s financial contributions. They gathered in Lafayette Square before walking two blocks to the Chamber doors. The interest groups that organized the event—Public Citizen, the D.C. Public Interest Research Group and the Business Ethics Network—presented a petition with 30,000 signatures to the business federation along with wrapped up “mystery gifts.” They brought two birthday cakes with them. One was for the protesters. The other was delivered to the Chamber of Commerce, which was celebrating its centennial.

Flickr/ 401(K) 2012

Flickr/ 401(K) 2012

“Happy disclosure to you,” a chorus of demonstrators sang to two security guards outside the Chamber building. “No more secret political donors. ... Democracy demands transparency. ... Secret corporate money out of our elections,” they sang.

The protesters were targeting the secrecy of corporate spending that the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision made possible. Corporations, in addition to spending unlimited amounts of money through super PACs, can now funnel money into not-for-profit business leagues like the Chamber of Commerce and skirt the public eye. The IRS doesn’t require nonprofit groups to reveal their funds, so they can collect money from corporations that don’t want to attract attention and spend it on their behalf.

“The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is the poster child for Citizens United,” said Blair Bowie from U.S. PIRG. “They’re the lobby shop that actively fights against any sort of disclosure reforms that would keep corporations from buying elections.”

The Chamber of Commerce has been the top-spending lobbyist group in the United States since 1998. It donated more than $150 million in 2010, tripling the amount spent by the next biggest lobbyist group, PG&E Corp.

“We want the Security and Exchange Commission to require publicly traded companies,” such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, “to disclose their sources of contribution,” said Lisa Gilbert, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch Division. Corporations right now “are putting their money through conduits like the Chamber or 501(c)(4) nonprofits ... and the only way for citizens like you and me to know where the advertisements that are flooding our airwaves come from is through mandatory disclosure.”

This demand comes, Gilbert said, as Public Citizen continues to fight against the entire premise of unlimited spending. “Disclosing their sources,” she said, “is the very least they can do.”

One recent scandal involves Aetna, a health insurance company that paid $4.5 million to the Chamber of Commerce and $3.3 million to the American Action Network (AAN). The AAN, interestingly, opposes health care reform, while Aetna has publicly supported it.

“We need rules, so that when an oil company spends money to push an environmentalist out of office, it can’t simply give the Chamber a bunch of money to do their dirty work in secret,” Bowie told the demonstrators. They “need to run an ad that says ‘I’m Shell Oil and I approve this ad,’ so that their customers and shareholders can hold them accountable for the spending that they’re doing, so that someone watching that ad understands the profit-driven motivations behind it and judges the credibility accordingly.”


Growing an Alternative Economy One Community at a Time for study of responsive law

On Sunday mornings, farmers, producers and consumers meet in Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C., and exchange locally grown products. Bright fruits, vegetables and flowers are lifted from large tables and brought to the cash register, where shoppers and farmers talk at length. Others taste cheeses and sample slices of tomato, pausing to savor the taste or read a handout detailing the food’s provenance.

The apples, pears, potatoes here are collected from farms within 150 miles of where they are sold. The men and women behind each stand are often the farmers themselves. Pesticides, antibiotics and artificial growth hormones are banned. Fresh Farm Markets, a not-for-profit organization that oversees and regulates the farmers market in Dupont Circle, travels to each farm to make sure that regulations are followed.

Any producers, whether they sell jam, pastas, or soups, must prove that their ingredients are from the region.

“We work with the locals,” says Isabel Castillo, co-owner of Dolcezza Artisanal Gelato. “I have apples from here, pears from here, ricotta from here. I support here.” Castillo makes the gelato in her flagship store on Wisconsin Avenue and Q Street. She has two other stores. “My son-in-law is the chef and my daughter and husband and I manage the shops,” she says.

The vibrancy here reaches beyond the mere color of the produce. It’s found in the conversations between shoppers and vendors, which point to a level of care in how people are consuming. It’s about more than health. It’s about buying food that hasn’t traveled thousands of miles to get here, and the impact that has on the environment.

“The best thing about farmers markets is that people talk,” says environmentalist Bill McKibben. “A study found that shoppers at farmers markets had 10 times as many conversations per visit than at supermarkets.”

“That’s one way we reknit the community, lost as America sprawls outwards,” he says.

The farmers market is a microcosm of an alternative economy. It is marked by conversation, not by profit.

In recent years, chain stores like Whole Foods and Sun Organic Farm have sought to graft this local economy onto an international business model. In its mission statement, Whole Foods declares “we promote environmental stewardship.” But “we are not a fully self-sustaining ecosystem,” it says afterward. “There are hundreds of other businesses that we depend on to assist us in creating an outstanding retail shopping experience for our customers.”

The message from environmentalists like Michael Pollan, Wendell Berry and Bill McKibben is that it is doubtful that international chains will be the ones to spearhead the “buy local” movement. Instead they create a “shopping experience” for customers, one that satisfies us even if it means lying about the use of GMOs in the food they sell.

The problem is that stores such as Whole Foods, can’t make up their minds, McKibben says. “Eat seasonally—and when you go to Whole Foods, tell them you’re not buying the Chilean raspberries because they make a mockery of the store’s commitment to doing something good for the planet.”

Food transportation, or “food miles,” is a non-issue in mass media. The chemicals used to treat the food are covered. Its healthfulness is covered. But not its carbon footprint.

The New York Times has featured two articles on this issue in the past five years, both of which end by defending the global food market.

James McWilliams wrote in the 2007 article “Food That Travels Well,” that researchers “found that lamb raised on New Zealand’s clover-choked pastures and shipped 11,000 miles by boat to Britain produced 1,520 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per ton while British lamb produced 6,280 pounds of carbon dioxide per ton, in part because poorer British pastures force farmers to use feed.

“In other words,” he wrote, “it is four times more energy-efficient for Londoners to buy lamb imported from the other side of the world than to buy it from a producer in their backyard. Similar figures were found for dairy products and fruit.”

But McWilliams never addressed the obvious. Why not sacrifice the lamb? If it’s better to import lamb from halfway around the world than to raise it locally, why not simply eat something else?

We can’t pin the problem of food trade on any single store. Whole Foods is, in fact, one of the more progressive supermarkets in some ways. It caps the amount of money executives make, for example, and makes an effort to collect local produce for retail.

But local food amounts to only 10 to 30 percent of what’s on the shelves. 

It is in that other 70 to 90 percent—the coffee from Africa, the tomatoes from Chile, the lentils from Morocco—that we see where Whole Foods truly stands on the global vs. local food issue. Unlike a small farmers market, there is no conversation between grower and consumer, no initiative to move toward self-sustainability, and no acknowledgment of the energy that goes into transporting food overseas. Without the communication and community found in places like Dupont Circle on Sunday mornings, chain corporations cannot opt out of the global food market that is destroying the planet, and stay in business.


One Year Later: Lessons Learned From Occupy Wall Street for study of responsive law

Last week protesters disrupted traffic and picketed corporate headquarters in Washington, D.C., in honor of the Occupy Wall Street movement’s one-year anniversary. Roughly 130 people gathered at 7 a.m. Oct. 1 in Farragut Square and then marched along K Street, where many lobbying firms are located, chanting “all day, all week, occupy K Street” and clutching signs that read “Down With K Street” until reaching Liberty Plaza.

After breakfast and a string of discussions, the group left Liberty Plaza at 1:20 p.m. and marched toward McPherson Square, the birthplace of Occupy D.C.

The demonstrators stopped in front of corporate offices along the way, denouncing abuse toward taxpayers, consumers and the environment.

A young protester turned and addressed the group via mic check (echo rather than amplification) in front of Brookfield Properties, which manages Trinity Church property in New York City and refused to allow demonstrators to camp in Duarte Square after the Occupy Wall Street movement was evicted from Zuccotti Park last year.

The marchers also stopped at Pepco, reproaching the utility’s inflation of rates, and chanted “Bank of America, bad for America,” as they passed BofA.

Fifteen or so flashing police cars hugged the back of the group.

“Taking K Street is a rejection of the two-party system,” said Kathryn Seidewitz, 17, a student from the D.C. area.

Seidewitz, who is too young to vote, joined the movement last year and has found that going to the polls cannot stand on its own.

“Voting, punching a ballot every four years? That’s a sham after all of this. It’s a farce. By participating in it, it feels like you’re giving in. I’m not going to unequivocally say there’s no value [in voting]. But the reason this movement hasn’t participated in the process is because it’s much more about people, it’s much more about changing people’s lives and working within communities and working with each other and that’s not what the political process does. It alienates and plays into power, which does not benefit most people.”

The presidential campaigns illustrate for many protesters how the electoral process is rigged in favor of corporate interests.

“The issues that really affect working people, [Romney and Obama] agree on,” said Matt Kirkland, 28, a salesman from D.C. “They agree on NDAA [National Defense Authorization Act]. They agree on drones over the U.S. They agree on endless wars for profit. They both agree with SOPA [Stop Online Piracy Act] and PIPA [Protect IP Act]. Guantanamo’s not closed. And neither plan on closing it.”

Government has finally abandoned the public interest for good, Kirkland says. He sees little potential for taking it back.

It’s now “about building self-sufficient communities that can support themselves without the government,” he said. “It’s no longer political. It’s social.”

The Occupy movement, Kirkland says, teaches people how to cope with the absence of government. As social programs, school offerings and health and pension benefits get cut, working-class people will have to learn to take charge of their own communities.

Because of the movement, “they’ll be prepared for when there is no government to serve them,” he said.

Kirkland and Seidewitz do not agree with notions in the mainstream media that the Occupy Wall Street movement has died out.

“The parks were magical,” said Seidewitz, “but they served as a place where we all met each other.”

The encampments were educational. They helped people build connections and form social groups. But camping in a park and talking to like-minded people, she said, can only do so much.

“It’s now about creating alternative media sources, which is easier to do now that we have all these connections,” she said. “We’ve all woken up. So it’s not about a park anymore.”

Seidewitz is an editor and contributor for the online publication D.C. Mic Check. Although unsure of where Occupy Wall Street is headed, she is confident that the movement, which has receded from a physical space and found life on alternative news sites, is an auspice for the majority of the country that is quickly being left behind.


War Power Abuse Makes Iran Conflict More Likely for study of responsive law

Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., along with retired military officers Col. Lawrence Wilkerson and Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer as well as former Associate Deputy Attorney General Bruce Fein denounced President Barack Obama at a news conference Sept. 21 for overstepping his authority in wartime and warned that unless war powers are restored to Congress, the country could soon be involved in a battle with Iran.

The resolution comes at a time when tensions among Iran, the United States and Israel have intensified and could lead to what Col. Wilkerson described as an eruption of catastrophic violence in the Middle East.

Resolution HRC107, written by Jones and supported by 13 House members, is the latest attempt to restore one of the fundamental constitutional powers to Congress.

The retired military officers and congressman told a small gathering of reporters that the unchecked power of the imperial presidency, which began in earnest under the Truman administration, has expanded its authority under Obama to order the assassination of U.S. citizens and wage proxy wars in Libya, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia without seeking congressional approval. They said they fear that unless this power is restored to Congress the country could find itself in a conflict with Iran.

“The most recent disclosures in The New York Times, not at all refuted by the Obama administration, show that the president claims and exercises authority to surveil every ... individual on the planet,” Fein said. “If he says, ‘You’re an imminent danger to the United States,’ you get vaporized. Predator drone. Any judicial review? No. Any congressional review? No. Any disclosure of the profile of the intelligence that justifies the finding you’re one of the terrorists we’re going to vaporize? No.”

This is “a combination of legislative, executive, judicial power, plus being executioner, all in one man!”

Fein described the pursuit of ceaseless military expansion and conquest as a “macho thrill.” The British, he pointed out, also expanded their empire beyond its ability to sustain itself, a pattern the United States was now repeating. He said that empires eventually grow beyond the control of the public or politicians.

The congressman and former officials argued that the power to declare and wage war must be wrested from the hands of the president and restored to Congress.

“This is a natural evolution of power,” Wilkerson said. “This is what was going to happen as soon as Harry Truman, on the 26th of July, put his signature to the 1947 National Security Act. George Marshall looked at the president, perhaps the most iconic military figure other than George Washington in American history ... and said, ‘Mr. President, I fear we have militarized the decision-making process.’ ”

Wilkerson was Colin Powell’s chief of staff when Powell, then secretary of state, delivered his Iraq address to the United Nations in 2003. He helped Powell with the presentation, making the case for war. He now says that the speech was “the lowest point in my life.”

He has become one of the nation’s harshest critics of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and says that a system that permits an imperial presidency to declare war is “tantamount to tyranny.” He said that in the last decade, the United States has killed well over 300,000 people, although the country faces “no existential threat.”

“Those 300,000 killings,” Fein said, “are murder. Because legal war makes what’s customarily murder, legal. But if you’re not at war legally, those are homicides.”

The retired military officers said they estimated that a war with Iran would plunge the United States into a conflict that would last at least a decade and cost about $3 trillion.

Wilkerson, who spent 31 years in the military, warned that a war with Iran could spread beyond the Middle East: “I could paint you a scenario where we start a NATO no-fly zone over Syria, and wind up, in a year or two, with a general regional war, and then, within a year or two of that, possibly lots of big players fighting each other, first through surrogates, and then their own troops.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Russians ... begin to sell their most sophisticated air defense missiles to Syria. Then they’re going to start shooting down NATO airplanes; not one or two, but lots of them.”

Wilkerson likened the current era to the years before World War I, adding grimly that the primary difference is that today countries have nuclear arsenals.

“Every empire in human history is gone,” he said. “Whether it’s the empire of the Khans, or the Thousand-Year Reich of Adolf Hitler. They’re gone. Nowhere in the world is it written in stone that the American empire is an exception.”

Wilkerson said the implosion of the American empire would create chaos and anarchy.

“We’re doing our level best to create that chaos and anarchy right now,” he said.


How Charity Can Be Deadly to the Disabled

Posted on Sep 19, 2012

truthdig/center for study of responsive law

Ralf Hotchkiss was 18 when a motorcycle accident paralyzed him from the waist down. Fourteen years later, in 1980, he met four teenagers at a rehabilitation center in Nicaragua’s capital, Managua. The teenagers shared one wheelchair and used it to make trips out of the center to go on dates. The chair, designed only for traveling over floors, broke regularly. They would tip it upside down and fix it, and then a few days later it would break again.

Hotchkiss had flown to Managua from San Francisco State University, where he was and still is a faculty expert on wheelchair design. Disabled Nicaraguans had reached out to a group of disabled rights activists, asking for tools and parts to fix broken chairs like the one the four teenagers shared. The relationship between the teenagers and Hotchkiss sparked the creation of Whirlwind Wheelchair International (WWI), an organization that sells high-quality chairs at low costs, provides tools and parts and trains locals to maintain the chairs, which are designed to handle rough roads, uneven dirt and mud. In 2011 WWI sold 15,000 chairs at 10 to 20 percent of their actual cost to people in need. The other 80 to 90 percent was made up through government contracts, both U.S. and foreign.

There are some 55 million paraplegics in the developing world. A few hundred thousand have received wheelchairs from companies like the one Hotchkiss started.

Hotchkiss rails against big companies that sell chairs in large quantities to distributors, which then provide them to disabled people in developing countries at no cost. He says the chairs are poorly made, not custom-fitted and undermine the market for better chairs.

“I don’t like the charity model,” Hotchkiss said in an interview in early September. “It doesn’t work. People who are getting free chairs don’t have the incentive to invest in preventative maintenance if they think another free one might come their way. They don’t feel that they have the right to complain to the manufacturer when the chair has defects.”

Hotchkiss himself uses a custom-fitted RoughRider wheelchair. Much of it he designed himself, and much of the rest of it was designed by partners abroad. The wide front wheels, made of solid rubber, were copied from pushcarts in Zimbabwe. Nicaraguans replaced the square wheel frame with a triangular one, making it stronger while using less material.

For Hotchkiss, quality chairs do not mean luxury. They mean survival for those who use them. Cheap chairs, ones that are not fitted to size or that do not have good padding, increase the risks of pressure sores. Infected sores kill most paraplegics, whose life expectancy after injury drops significantly. A doctor in Kenya told Hotchkiss patients might live only two years after transitioning to a chair.

“During one of our first training sessions in Jamaica, one of the trainees was a skilled mechanic who came from Trinidad,” Hotchkiss recounted. “But when he arrived he had a pressure sore from years of sitting on makeshift devices and hanging out in bed. We knew he was at risk. We trained him. He built a chair. He went back home and not too long after we heard that he had passed away.”

Many paraplegics in the developing world face prejudice. A young man with whom Hotchkiss worked in Kenya had been kicked out of school after he broke his back in the third grade. He enrolled with WWI for a training session at the age of 15, and he almost died from pressure sores halfway through the course. He survived a crisis thanks to a drunk driver rushing him to an emergency room.

Hotchkiss showed me a picture on his camera of a washed-out road and said, “The poorer you get, the more likely you are to live at the end of a path like this.”

“People with disabilities, on average, are the poorest of the poor. They’ll be poorer than any racial minority, any group that’s disadvantaged some other way.”

A high-quality wheelchair costs as little as $200. U.S. spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan averages $3 billion a week, which means that four weeks of spending could provide wheelchairs to every paraplegic in the world, with a billion dollars left over for maintenance.

The four teenagers Hotchkiss met in 1980, along with about 20 other paraplegics, organized a 10-kilometer race toward the end of his visit in Managua. Those in the race were “macho guys trying to show off” and a woman—Telma Ramos, one of the four teenagers. 
Her old wheelchair was one of “the most horrendous hospital boxes,” Hotchkiss said, laughing. “The wheels were misaligned so they weren’t going in the same direction. ... She switched to using the first Whirlwind, which she had redesigned for the race” in an effort to show others what the RoughRider could do. “And she whipped them, she won.” A dozen of the other competitors placed orders for a RoughRider chair after the race.

The riders were all “survivors of the war they had just finished,” Hotchkiss explained. “This was months after the civil war, throwing out [Anastasio] Somoza, one of the more despicable agents of U.S. imperialism in the Western Hemisphere.

“At the same time the U.S. launched our Contra war, where we supported Somoza’s military in Honduras fighting over the border. That really put a halt to progress [for disability rights] in the ‘80s.” 

The point of the wheelchair race, Hotchkiss explained, “was to say, ‘Listen, OK, fine, the revolution is over and some of us were heroes and some of us are just disabled folks who were here before. Whatever happens next we will be a part of it.’ ”

Hotchkiss’ hope is, surprisingly, that Whirlwind Wheelchair International will become obsolete. “I would like to see it become unnecessary,” he said, “—that wheelchairs and other mobility devices become so readily available at reasonable prices throughout the world that we can just back off.”