Republican Congress Seeking to Deregulate Wall Street and Thus Cause Another Economic Downturn

Deregulating (and misregulating) Wall Street has been done before with disastrous consequences. The repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999 for example was a significant factor in causing the global economic collapse of 2008. Looking back further in the 20th century, it was the Republican party that controlled Congress and the White House in the 1920s before the Great Depression. That should cause people to be aware of what might happen soon.

WITH THE GOP’S tax plan moving ahead and the Obamacare fight in the rearview mirror, Republicans in Congress are setting their sights next on deregulating Wall Street.

But unlike the previous battles, they can count on Democratic help in this fight.

They will also face an invigorated populist wing of the party. During the debate over whether to create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Elizabeth Warren, not yet a senator, famously said at a crucial momentthat her first choice was a strong agency, and her second was “no agency at all and plenty of blood and teeth left on the floor.”

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In all, the bill removes enhanced supervision from 25 banks that control $3.5 trillion in assets and received $48 billion in taxpayer bailouts, according to an analysis from Public Citizen.

S.2155 also changes stress tests — which check if banks can manage hazardous scenarios — for all banks, making them “periodic” (which could mean whatever regulators want it to mean, staffers say) instead of annual. So JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, and Bank of America, along with literally every big bank in the country, recipients of hundreds of billions of dollars in bailouts, get assistance in this “small bank” relief bill. The stress test itself would change — at the discretion of President Donald Trump’s deregulatory army — for large regional firms.

Next, the bill rolls back protections on the mortgage market, by tweaking “safe harbor” and “qualified mortgage” provisions in ways that would allow small lenders to sell high-cost, adjustable-rate mortgages and avoid accountability in court for wrongful foreclosures. Just because a no-documentation or interest-only mortgage comes from a community bank doesn’t make it a safe financial product.

The bill also eliminates the need for appraisals in certain rural areas, creating incentives to cheat homebuyers; exempts sellers of manufactured homes like trailers from mortgage rules, which benefits the dominant player in that space, Warren Buffett’s conglomerateBerkshire Hathaway; and restricts data collection about mortgage lending that could help regulators spot the next crisis.

Finally, there’s no “consumer protection” worthy of the name in the bill. The tentpole consumer piece is a watered-down version of a recent billfrom Warren that would offer consumers stung by data breaches at credit reporting agencies like Equifax one free credit freeze and unfreeze every year. Warren’s bill would have made all credit freezes free. Even Equifax eventually offered a lifetime credit freeze, more than the authors of S.2155. And the measure preempts states from giving more generous terms to its citizens.

Net Neutrality’s Importance

Net neutrality is a doctrine that says Internet service providers should treat Internet traffic that flows over their networks fairly. The repeal of net neutrality means that even more unjust control will be granted to the corporate sector, which could then decide to charge people extra money per month to visit specific websites or even outright block them. So if you’re a U.S. citizen and appreciate the Internet, you should tell Congress to prevent net neutrality from being eliminated.

Senate Overturns CFPB Ban on Prohibiting Class Action Lawsuits Against Banks

The CFPB ban would have lessened the exploitation of the general public by the big banks, and since that represented a threat to the big banks’ profits, they used their power to have this ban repealed quickly.

The measure overturns the so-called arbitration rule, which would have banned banks, credit-card companies and other financial firms from requiring customers to settle disagreements through arbitration rather than in the courts. The mandate often appears as a fine-print clause in customer agreements.

Another article notes that despite majority support for the ban on prohibiting class action lawsuits against financial corporations, the rule was still overturned.

“The bill was entirely and exclusively supported by the [finance] industry,” said F. Paul Bland, an attorney at Public Justice, a consumer group. “Every group that represents consumers was strongly against the bill.”

Bland listed special interest groups that opposed the bill: armed service member groups, senior citizen groups, civil rights groups. “Lots of polling said both Republicans and Democrats oppose the bill by heavy margins,” said Bland. “This was the Wells Fargo immunity act. It’s essentially a bailout for those companies.”

For Wells Fargo, Equifax, and other companies that behave badly on a major scale, preventing consumers from banding together to seek justice is a major boon that could save these companies from an unknowable amount of damages.

From a report out months ago:

While the average consumer who wins a claim in arbitration recovers $5,389, this is not even close to a typical consumer outcome. Why? Consumers obtain relief regarding their claims in only 9 percent of disputes. On the other hand, when companies make claims or counterclaims, arbitrators grant them relief 93 percent of the time—meaning they order the consumer to pay. If you consider both sides of this equation, in arbitration, the average consumer is ordered to pay $7,725 to the bank or lender. That’s right: the average consumer ends up paying financial institutions in arbitration.

But let’s consider the consumers who do win in arbitration. How do those numbers stack up against class action lawsuits? In an average year:

  • At least 6,800,000 consumers get cash relief in class actions—compared with just 16 consumers who receive cash relief in arbitration, according to available data.
  • Consumers recover at least $440,000,000 in class actions, after deducting all attorneys’ fees and court costs—compared with a total of $86,216 in arbitration.

Banning consumer class actions lets financial institutions keep hundreds of millions of dollars that would otherwise go back to harmed consumers every year.

FBI Used by the Disgusting Factory Farm Industry to Deter Animal Rights Activists

It looks as though part of the FBI has again been subverted for disgusting corporations.

A warning: The article I’m linking to here has graphic images of animal abuse. I haven’t included any of those images in this post, however.

FBI agents are devoting substantial resources to a multistate hunt for two baby piglets that the bureau believes are named Lucy and Ethel. The two piglets were removed over the summer from the Circle Four Farm in Utah by animal rights activists who had entered the Smithfield Foods-owned factory farm to film the brutal, torturous conditions in which the pigs are bred in order to be slaughtered.

While filming the conditions at the Smithfield facility, activists saw the two ailing baby piglets laying on the ground, visibly ill and near death, surrounded by the rotting corpses of dead piglets. “One was swollen and barely able to stand; the other had been trampled and was covered in blood,” said Wayne Hsiung of Direct Action Everywhere (DxE), which filmed the facility and performed the rescue. Due to various illnesses, he said, the piglets were unable to eat or digest food and were thus a fraction of the normal weight for piglets their age.

Rather than leave the two piglets at Circle Four Farm to wait for an imminent and painful death, the DxE activists decided to rescue them. They carried them out of the pens where they had been suffering and took them to an animal sanctuary to be treated and nursed back to health.

This single Smithfield Foods farm breeds and then slaughters more than 1 million pigs each year. One of the odd aspects of animal mistreatment in the U.S. is that species regarded as more intelligent and emotionally complex — dogs, dolphins, cats, primates — generally receive more public concern and more legal protection. Yet pigs – among the planet’s most intelligent, social, and emotionally complicated species, capable of great joy, play, love, connection, suffering and pain, at least on a par with dogs — receive almost no protections, and are subject to savage systematic abuse by U.S. factory farms.

At Smithfield, like most industrial pig farms, the abuse and torture primarily comes not from rogue employees violating company procedures. Instead, the cruelty is inherent in the procedures themselves. One of the most heinous industry-wide practices is one that DxE activists encountered in abundance at Circle Four: gestational crating.

Where that technique is used, pigs are placed in a crate made of iron bars that is the exact length and width of their bodies, so they can do nothing for their entire lives but stand on a concrete floor, never turn around, never see any outdoors, never even see their tails, never move more than an inch. That was the condition in which the activists found the rotting piglet corpses and the two ailing piglets they rescued.

The pigs are so desperate to get out of their crates that they often spend weeks trying to bite through the iron bars until their gums gush blood, bash their heads against the walls, and suffer a disease in which their organs end up mangled in the wrong places, from the sheer physical trauma of trying to escape from a tiny space or from acute anxiety (called “organ torsion”).

So cruel is the practice that in 2014, Canada effectively banned its usage, as the European Union had done two years earlier. Nine U.S. states, most of which host very few farms, have banned gestational crating (in 2014, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, with his eye on the GOP primary in farm-friendly Iowa, vetoed a bill that would have made his state the 10th).

But in the U.S. states where factory farms actually thrive, these devices continue to be widely used, which means a vast majority of pigs in the U.S. are subjected to them. The suffering, pain, and death these crates routinely cause were in ample evidence at Smithfield Foods, as accounts, photos, and videos from DxE demonstrate.

[…]

What has vested these two piglets with such importance to the FBI is that their rescue is now part of what has become an increasingly visible public campaign by DxE and other activists to highlight the barbaric suffering and abuse that animals endure on farms like Circle Four. Obviously, the FBI and Smithfield — the nation’s largest industrial farm corporation — don’t really care about the missing piglets they are searching for. What they care about is the efficacy of a political campaign intent on showing the public how animals are abused at factory farms, and they are determined to intimidate those responsible.

Deterring such campaigns and intimidating the activists behind them is, manifestly, the only goal here. What made this piglet rescue particularly intolerable was an article that appeared in the New York Times days after the rescue, which touted the use of virtual reality technology by animal rights activists to allow the public to immerse in the full experience of seeing what takes place in these companies’ farms.

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A sweeping framework of draconian laws — designed to shield the industry from criticism and deter and punish its critics — has been enacted across the country by federal and state legislatures that are captive to the industry’s high-paid lobbyists. The most notorious of these measures are the “ag-gag” laws, which make publishing videos of farm conditions taken as part of undercover operations a felony, punishable by years in prison.

Though many courts, including most recently a federal court in Utah, have struck down these laws as an unconstitutional assault on speech and press freedoms, they continue to be used in numerous states to harass and, in some cases, prosecute animal rights activists. As the Times article notes, these ag-gag laws are one reason activists are forced to turn to virtual reality: to show what really happens inside industrial farms without running the risk of prosecution.

[…]

Having the FBI — in the midst of real domestic terrorism threats, hurricane-ravaged communities, and intricate corporate criminality — send agents around the country to animal sanctuaries in search of DNA samples for two missing piglets may seem like overkill to the point of being laughable. But it is entirely unsurprising in the context of how law enforcement resources are used, and on whose behalf.

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A recent change in U.S. political discourse — spurred by events such as the 2008 financial crisis, the Occupy movement, and the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign — is the increasingly common use of the words “oligarchy” and “plutocracy” to describe the country’s political system. Though dramatic, the terms, melded together, describe a fairly simple and common state of affairs: power exerted by and exercised for the exclusive benefit of a small group of people who wield the greatest financial power.

It is hard to imagine a more vivid illustration than watching FBI agents don bulletproof vests and execute DNA search warrants for Lily and Lizzie, all to deter and intimidate critics of a savage industry that funds politicians and the lobbyists that direct them.

Substantial attention has been paid over the last several years to the “revolving door” that runs Washington — industry executives being brought in to run the agencies that regulate their industries, followed by them returning to that industry once their industry-serving government work is done. That’s how Wall Street barons come to “regulate” banks, how factory owners come to “regulate” workplace safety laws, how oil executives come to “regulate” environmental protections — only to leave the public sector and return back to lavish rewards from those same industries for a job well done.

Though it receives modest attention, this revolving door spins faster, and in more blatantly sleazy ways, when it comes to the USDA and its mandate to safeguard animal welfare. The USDA is typically dominated by executives from the very factory farm industries that are most in need of vibrant regulation.

For that reason, animal welfare laws are woefully inadequate, but the ways in which they are enforced is typically little more than a bad joke. Industrial farming corporations like Smithfield know they can get away with any abuse or “mislabeling” deceit (such as misleading claims about their treatment of animals) because the officials who have been vested with the sole authority to enforce these laws — federal USDA officials — are so captive to their industry.

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“If you torture a single chicken and are caught, you’re likely to be arrested. If you scald thousands of chickens alive, you’re an industrialist who will be lauded for your acumen,” Kristof wrote in one 2015 column. He described the savagery of the process used to slaughter chickens by the millions and scornfully dismissed industry’s claim that no abuse or mistreatment was found by their auditors.

In a column the year before, Kristof detailed the barbarism and misleading claims that chickens are “humanely raised” at Perdue Farms — the company USDA Secretary Perdue helped to expand — and concluded: “Torture a single chicken and you risk arrest. Abuse hundreds of thousands of chickens for their entire lives? That’s agribusiness.”

And that’s to say nothing of the other significant costs from industrial farming. There are serious health risks posed by the fecal waste produced at such farms. And the excessive, reckless use of antibiotics common at factory farms can create treatment-resistant bacterial strains capable of infecting and killing humans. There is also increasing awareness that industrial farming meaningfully exacerbates climate problems, with some research suggesting that it produces more greenhouse gas emissions than all forms of transportation combined.

[…]

Some progress is indeed undeniable. Laws are being re-written to recognize that dogs and other pets are more than property; places such as Sea World and Ringling Brothers’ circuses can no longer feature imprisoned animals forced to perform; and some states are enacting laws criminalizing the worst extremes of animal cruelty.

One U.S. Senator, Democrat Cory Booker of New Jersey, has placed animal rights protections as one of his legislative priorities. Booker, who has been a vegetarian since college and recently announced his transition to full veganism, has sponsored a spate of bills to fortify the rights of animals: from banning the selling of shark fins to limiting the legal uses of animals for testing to requiring humane treatment of animals in all federal facilities.

[…]

In general, the core moral and philosophical question at the heart of animal rights activism is now being seriously debated: Namely, what gives humans the right or justification to abuse, exploit, and torture non-human species? If there comes a day when some other species (broadly defined) — such as machines — surpass humans in intellect and cognitive complexity, will they have a valid moral claim to treat humans as commodities whose suffering and death can be assigned no value?

The irreconcilable contradiction of lavishing love and protection on dogs and cats, while torturing and slaughtering farm animals capable of a deep emotional life and great suffering, is becoming increasingly apparent. British anthropologist Jane Goodall, in the preface to Amy Hatkoff’s groundbreaking book “The Inner World of Farm Animals,” examined the science of animal cognition and concluded: “Farm animals feel pleasure and sadness, excitement and resentment, depression, fear, and pain. They are far more aware and intelligent than we ever imagined … They are individuals in their own right.”

All of these changes have been driven by animal rights activists who, often at great risk to themselves, have forced the public to be aware of the savagery and cruelty supported through food consumption choices. That’s precisely why this industry is so obsessed with intimidating, threatening, and outlawing this form of activism: because it is so effective.

Dissidents are tolerated to the extent they remain ineffectual and unthreatening. When they start to become successful — that is, threatening to powerful interests — the backlash is inevitable. The tools used against them are increasingly extreme as their success grows.

To call the FBI’s actions in raiding these animal sanctuaries a profound waste of its resources is both an understatement and beside the point. The real short-term goal is to target those most vulnerable — volunteer-supported animal shelters — to scare them out of taking care of rescued animals. And the ultimate goal is to fortify and intensify a climate of intimidation and fear designed to deter animal rights activists from reporting on the horrifying realities of these factory farms.

There is a temptation to turn away from and ignore this mass suffering and cruelty because it’s so painful to confront, so much more pleasant to remain unaware of it. Animal rights activists are determined to prevent us from doing so, and we should all feel gratitude for their increasing success in making us see what we are enabling when we consume the products of this barbaric and sociopathic industry.

Public Institutions Undermined by Large Corporations

A recent article on the corporate state by Ralph Nader presents a somewhat legalistic view, but it does not note that the case for corporate personhood often cited is completely illegitimate. The case I refer to here is Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company, where a court reporter (who was a former corporate executive for the railroad industry) wrote the case’s headnote, even though the application of equal protection to railroads per the Fourteenth Amendment wasn’t addressed by the Supreme Court’s decision.

Again, the 1886 Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company has been used to affirm Constitutional rights for corporations all based on a court reporter’s headnote. This headnote statement has been used as a precedent for later decisions, despite it not being part of the dissenting or concurring opinions of the Justices and not being part of the Supreme Court’s ruling. That’s really absurd, and it represents a grotesque example of the law being used to reinforce the economic dominance of the corporate elite.

Remarkably, the artificial creation called the “corporation” has now achieved almost all of the rights of real people under our “We the People” Constitution that never mentions the words “corporation” or “company.”

Corporations cannot vote, at least not yet; only people can. That was seen as a major lever of democratic power over corporations. So what has happened? Commercial money to politicians started weakening the influence of voters because the politicians became increasingly dependent on the corporate interests that bankrolled their campaigns. The politicians use their ever-increasing corporate cash to saturate voters with deceptive political ads, and intimidate any competitors who have far less money, but may be far better representative of the public good.

To further shatter the principle of voter sovereignty, corporations have rewarded those politicians who construct restrictive political party rules, gerrymander electoral districts and obstruct third party candidate ballot access. By concentrating political power in fewer and fewer hands, corporate influence becomes more deeply entrenched in our democratic society. Politicians quickly learn that political favors will attract more corporate campaign cash and other goodies.

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Some fundamental questions are: Will we as citizens use our Constitutional authority to reclaim and redirect the power we’ve too broadly delegated to elected officials? Will we hold these officials accountable through a reformed campaign finance system that serves the people over the plutocrats? Will we realize that a better society starts with just a few people in each electoral district and never requires more than one percent of the voters, organized and reflecting public opinion, to make the corporations our servants, not our masters?

Gerrymandering Case Reaches the Supreme Court

Gerrymandering is rigging the political process to allow the politicians to pick many of their voters, a reversal of what the actual order should be in a real democracy. The U.S. (and a lot of other countries for that matter) are better described as plutocracies than democracies though.

Wisconsin-gerrymandering

The legal scholars and voting-rights activists who brought the case, now dubbed Gill v. Whitford, have asserted that Wisconsin’s state Assembly and state Senate district maps were rigged by Governor Scott Walker’s hyper-partisan legislative allies to lock in the majorities they gained in the wave election of 2010. Republicans gerrymandered legislative district lines so aggressively that in the next election, even as Wisconsin Democrats won 174,000 more votes than Republicans in races for state Assembly seats, Republicans won a 60-39 majority in the chamber.

The democratic disconnect illustrated by those numbers has strengthened the argument that the gerrymandering of district lines denies voters their right to participate in fair and competitive elections. And jurists have begun to accept that something must be done to make elections more reflective of the popular will. As the lead plaintiff in the Wisconsin case, longtime University of Wisconsin law professor William Whitford, says: “In a democracy citizens are supposed to choose their legislators. In Wisconsin, legislators have chosen their voters.”

Last year, a three-judge federal-court panel declared that the Republican maps were unconstitutional because they violated the Equal Protection Clause and freedom-of-association rights that extend from the First Amendment. For the first time in more than three decades, a federal court had invalidated legislative district lines because of partisan bias. Whitford has described the panel’s decisions in the case as “truly historic,” and said they “could have a monumental impact in ensuring that voters’ voices are heard across the nation, regardless of party.”

[…]

Now the Wisconsin case comes before the US Supreme Court and, despite that court’s conservative bias in recent years on voting-rights matters, Whitford and others are hopeful for its prospects. Why? Because Justice Anthony Kennedy, the key swing vote on the high court, has in the past stated that “If courts refuse to entertain any claims of partisan gerrymandering, the temptation to use partisan favoritism in districting in an unconstitutional manner will grow.” If Kennedy sides with more liberal members of the court, a blow could be struck against gerrymandering—not just in Wisconsin but, via the respect-for-democracy standard that could be set, nationally.

Money is Buying Judges in America

Of course, the corruption doesn’t stop at bought off politicians, as this Bloomberg report shows money corrupting court decisions. There’s a notable spike in the years after the Powell memo.

Intended to provide judges with outside perspectives, amicus briefs have proliferated in recent years. But sometimes these “friends” are the puppets of financial interests, and judges can’t always see who’s pulling the strings. When that happens, the briefs become a tool for well-funded litigants to try to tip the scales of justice.

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Judges have allowed non-parties to appear as friends of the court for more than a century. But the volume of amicus briefs at the Supreme Court has doubled over the past 20 years, and more than 90 percent of cases the court hears now attract at least one. In the federal appeals courts, the share of cases with at least one amicus brief has doubled since 2010, according to data compiled by LexisNexis.

Amicus Financial Corporate