An Abuser of Human Rights Shouldn’t be Appointed CIA Director

The CIA has a grotesque past, from helping to install dictators in various countries to leaving explosives under an American school bus for a week. It doesn’t need to be made worse by appointing a known torturer, especially when torture is a war crime and has shown to not even be effective.

On Capitol Hill, President Trump’s nominee to head the CIA, Gina Haspel, repeatedly refused Wednesday to call the CIA’s post-9/11 treatment of prisoners “torture,” and declined to state whether she believes torture is immoral. CIA Deputy Director Haspel’s comments came in testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee as she made her case to become CIA director.

Haspel is a 33-year CIA veteran who was responsible for running a secret CIA black site in Thailand in 2002, where at least one prisoner was waterboarded and tortured in other ways during her tenure. Haspel also oversaw the destruction of videotapes showing torture at the black site.

Another Warning About the Threat of a U.S. War With Iran

Going to war with Iran — a serious possibility and a very unwise idea.

“Don’t do it,” declare our allies, Britain, France, and Germany—signatories to the Iran accord along with China and Russia. “Don’t do it,” say former secretaries of state and secretaries of defense from both Republican and Democratic administrations. “Don’t do it,” says Trump’s own Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis, and Trump’s chief of staff, General John Kelly.

All of the above say Iran is in compliance with the accord’s demand to stop its nuclear arms program and allows thorough inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. All parties agree that if Trump disrupts this accord, even more havoc will break loose in that volatile region. This is what both Israel and some Persian Gulf nations may desire, as long as the U.S. bears the burden of this reckless action and plunges into another deep quagmire to add to those in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan.

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Both Trump and Netanyahu paint Iran as the most dangerous terrorist state in the world. Really? It wasn’t the Iranian regime that illegally cost over one million Iraqi civilian lives and blew that country apart. It was George W. Bush and Dick Cheney becoming major war criminals whose actions cost the lives of over 5,000 American soldiers, injured or made sick well over 100,000 more, and wasted trillions of dollars continuing to this day.

Iran wants its sphere of influence. The country has memories. For example, in 1953, the U.S. overthrew Iran’s democratically elected prime minister and reinstalled the dictatorial Shah who ruled despotically for the next 26 years. In 2002, George W. Bush targeted Iran, Iraq, and North Korea, referring to them as the “axis of evil.” Iran saw what he did to Iraq and didn’t want to take chances by surrendering its security perimeter.

The U.S. has Iran militarily surrounded on its eastern, western, and southern borders. Israel has working spies in Iran, creating secret sabotage and mayhem. Israel, which has illegally bombed civil war-wracked Syria (no threat to Israel) dozens of times, has recently hit locations known to have Iranian advisors to Bashar Assad, Syria’s ruler, while fighting ISIS, along with U.S. forces there. Iranians have been killed in these raids.

So who is the aggressor here? Unlike Israel’s many invasions and military incursions, Iran, a poor country, has not invaded any country for over 250 years. Iraq’s dictator invaded Iran in 1980, with U.S. backing, costing Iran an estimated 500,000 lives.

[…]

Will enough American people, including knowledgeable retired national security and military officials, stand up to stop this slide toward another conflagration that will likely produce blowback in the U.S.?

Campaign Finance Reform — 75% Approval

The dreaded extent of money in politics shows itself.

Amidst a widely-shared recognition that the country is effectively being run by powerful special interests, a new poll out Friday shows that more than 3 out of 4 Americans now support serious campaign finance reform as a way to mitigate the corrupting influence of money in the nation’s democracy.

The results of the extensive Pew Research Center survey, released Thursday, reveal Americans “see the country falling well short in living up to” democratic ideals and values, and believe core changes are needed in the political system.

Seventy-six percent say the government is run by a few big interests, a level unchanged since 2015. Just 21 percent say the government is run for the benefit of all.

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The new survey also shows widespread backing of campaign finance reform.

Over three-quarters of Americans—77 percent—say that there should be limits on the amount of money political candidates can spend on campaigns. There is strong support from both Democrats (85 percent) and Republicans (71 percent).

A majority of Americans—65 percent—say they believe new campaign finance laws would be effective in limiting the amount of money in political campaigns.

The Bernie Sanders Media Network is Doing Well

An encouraging sign that issues of real importance are gaining more attention, especially considering the outsized influence corporate mass media still has in promoting nonsensical trivialities.

The Vermont senator, who’s been comparing corporate television programming to drugs and accusing it of creating a “nation of morons” since at least 1979 — and musing to friends about creating an alternative news outlet for at least as long — has spent the last year and a half building something close to a small network out of his office in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill.

He understands, but resents, the comparison to the man who’s described the news media as the “enemy of the people.” His take is different, and he has his own plans. “[Am I concerned] that people might see me and Trump saying the same thing? Yes, I am,” Sanders conceded, leaning back in a leather chair in a conference room in his office on a recent Tuesday, as footage of Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony one building over played on TVs throughout his office. Wearing his standard uniform — long tie, jacket in need of a few swipes with a lint roller — he launched into the critique now familiar to anyone who’s watched one of his rallies. “My point of view is a very, very different one. My point of view is the corporate media, by definition, is owned by large multinational corporations: their bottom line is to make as much money as they can. They are part of the Establishment. There are issues, there are conflicts of interest in terms of fossil fuel advertising — how they have been very, very weak, in terms of climate change.” Needless to say, the content he produces is not sponsored by advertisers.

Sanders hosts an interview show (“The Bernie Sanders Show”) that he started streaming over Facebook Live on a semi-regular basis after his staff got the idea in February of 2017 to film the senator chatting with the activist Rev. Dr. William Barber. After they posted that simple clip and it earned hundreds of thousands of views with no promotion, they experimented with more seriously producing Sanders’s conversation days later with Bill Nye.

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Things escalated. Audio recordings of his conversations, repackaged as a podcast, have since occasionally reached near the top of iTunes’ list of popular programs. Sanders’s press staff — three aides, including Armand Aviram, a former producer at NowThis News, and three paid interns — published 550 original short, policy-focused videos on Facebook and Twitter in 2017 alone. And, this year, he has begun experimenting with streaming town-hall-style programs on Facebook. Each of those live events has outdrawn CNN on the night it aired.

“The idea that we can do a town meeting which would get a significantly larger viewing audience than CNN at that time is something I would not have dreamed of in a million years, a few years ago,” Sanders says.

[…]

“Because people turn on the television, and they’re working longer hours for lower wages, they don’t have health care, their kids can’t afford to go to college, and they’re watching TV: ‘Hey! What about me? You know, I don’t care that Trump fired somebody else today, what about my life or my kids’ lives?’ So what we do, is we look at media in a different sense, we try to figure out what are the issues that impact ordinary people, and how can we provide information to them?”

Cardi B is Correct About the Importance of Social Security

It’s good that a rapper like Cardi B is into studying politics, since you either turn on to politics or politics turns onto you.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) embraced a newfound ally this week when he tweeted his agreement with a statement made by rap artist Cardi B about strengthening Social Security.

In a recent GQ interview, Cardi B shared her interest in politics and her admiration for President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his establishment of a social safety net through the New Deal and laws like the Social Security Act of 1935.

“This man was suffering from polio at the time of his presidency, and yet all he was worried about was trying to make America great—make America great again for real. He’s the real ‘Make America Great Again,’ because if it wasn’t for him, old people wouldn’t even get Social Security,” she said.

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Sanders is a long-time advocate of strengthening the system which ensures a financial safety net for senior citizens—and on which Republicans could wage an attack this year, with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) claiming in December that the program is a major “driver of our debt,” just before the GOP pushed through a law giving tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans.

The Vermont senator introduced a proposal last year that would require Americans who make more than $250,000 per year to pay the same percentage of their income into the Social Security system as lower-income and middle-class households do, which would increase benefits for low-income seniors.

Balanced Budget Amendment Would be a Disaster

If you want to see how horribly austerity works for the general population, look what’s happened to Europe. Deficits create demand somewhere in the economy, and removing the ability to run them would be horrifying, especially in recessions.

The House is set to take up a balanced budget amendment this week, which would limit federal spending in each fiscal year to federal receipts in that year. Putting aside for a moment the chutzpah of House Republicans trying to pass a balanced budget amendment (BBA) just a few months removed from their passage of a $1.5 trillion tax cut that went largely to the richest households and big corporations, the simple fact is that the economic consequences of a balanced budget amendment range from extremely bad to catastrophic. The reason for this is that a BBA would amplify any negative economic shock to the economy and would thereby turn run-of-the-mill recessions into disasters.

When the economy enters a recession, government deficits increase as tax revenues decline and government spending on programs such as unemployment insurance increase. These “automatic stabilizers” are incredibly important as they cushion the blow to the economy from a recession. For example, researchers at Goldman Sachs found that the shock to private sector spending from the bursting of the housing bubble was larger than the shock that led to the Great Depression of the 1930s. Given this larger initial shock, why didn’t we have another Great Depression, with unemployment rates approaching 20 percent and beyond, in 2009–10? The simple reason is that the mechanical increase in the deficit from tax reductions and increased transfer payments absorbed a lot (not enough, but a lot) of this shock, and automatic stabilizers were either non-existent or a lot smaller in the 1930s. Having these programs in place to absorb recessionary shocks is one of the great economic advances of the past 80 years—and getting rid of them by imposing a BBA makes as much sense as outlawing computers or antibiotics.

New Bill to Lessen the Pain of the Dysfunctional U.S. Healthcare System is a Reminder of Its Critical Flaws

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has introduced a bill that attempts to “curb pain” emanating from the corrupted for-profit healthcare system of the United States. Among other things, the bill’s provisions would implement helpful but admittedly inadequate measures, such as making it illegal for insurance companies to revoke a patient’s plan during their course of treatment. There could of course be many reminders about the more critical flaws of U.S. healthcare made in relation to this.

For one, the U.S. spends about twice as much on healthcare compared to other wealthy countries such as Canada, Britain, and Germany. If that spending — which is annually $3.4 trillion ( about 18 percent of annual U.S. GDP) — was reduced by around half, it would be an enormous savings that (all else unchanged) would actually have the U.S. running substantial budget surpluses.

That isn’t to say that budget surpluses are necessarily good (budget deficits can be helpful and natural), but it’s to point out that subtracting the almost $700 billion ($5550 per U.S. household) in budget deficit totals that the U.S. ran in fiscal year 2017 from a $1.7 trillion in healthcare savings would still be about a trillion dollars of budget surplus. It’s strange how rarely this simple point enters the mainstream press, what with the irrational and even harmful attention corporate media such as the Washington Post has given to budget deficits. More importantly though, it’s over a trillion dollars that could be spent productively elsewhere in the economy instead of harmfully allowing health insurance corporations receive it.

Interestingly enough, Berkshire Hathaway, Amazon, and JP Morgan Chase announced plans earlier this year to jointly form a healthcare company for their employees that’s “intended to be free from profit-making incentives.” This is another revealing insight into why a for-profit healthcare system is too flawed to function well — building a healthcare system around corporate profits simply raises the costs too much. The executives at those three corporations aren’t the only parts of the business community to understand this as they seek to reduce their own expenses.

Businessman Warren Buffett has even admitted that single-payer is “probably the best” healthcare system for the U.S. He has made a comparison between U.S. healthcare in 1960 and in 2017 — in 1960, U.S. healthcare spending was only five percent of annual GDP, and almost 60 years later there’s been almost a four fold GDP-based increase in healthcare spending. This reveals again that the amount of resources being devoted to the overall mediocre U.S. healthcare system is excessive.

The for-profit element of the system has other consequences outside of direct economic costs though. One of them is unnecessarily lost lives, with strong evidence finding that over 20,000 people die a year in the U.S. due to being unable to afford health insurance. It is simply a major moral disgrace that world history’s wealthiest country suffers from such a problem.

Also disgraceful is the staggering number of medical bankruptcies per year in the United States. The amount of those per year has been estimated at hundreds of thousands in the U.S. alone (far more than other wealthy countries) and medical bills have been a leading cause of Americans filing for bankruptcy for years. All other OECD countries besides Mexico have universal healthcare and have a much more efficient healthcare system to prevent many of those problems to begin with.

For a practical example, Medicare (a predominantly single-payer healthcare service run by the government) has administrative overhead costs of about 1 to 2 percent, which is usefully contrasted to the 12 to 20 percent overhead costs typically run by the for-profit health insurance industry. This is because inefficiently having thousands of different healthcare payer plans necessitates higher bureaucratic costs with too much paperwork.

And another notable part of the high U.S. health costs is due to the ridiculous prices of prescription drugs there. In 2017, the U.S. spent $450 billion (2.4 percent of GDP) on prescription drugs, an amount that could almost certainly be reduced by about $370 billion ($2930 per U.S. household) by having prescription drugs sold without patent monopolies and other unjust protectionist measures. In a time when at least nearly one in five Americans are unable to afford their medications adequately, this proposal for savings should be considered much more.

It should also be noted what happens an extreme amount of undeserved resources are diverted to harmful corporations such as the pharmaceutical ones. Pharmaceutical companies — such as Purdue Pharma — have used their excess profits to manufacture an opioid crisis (to seek even more profits) through flooding economically downtrodden communities with highly addictive opioids. This has resulted in opioids becoming the leading cause of death for Americans under 50, and it’s also largely been what’s resulted in a decline in the average U.S. life expectancy rate, a phenomenon that’s probably otherwise unheard of in other wealthy nations in the 21st century.

In all, the U.S. healthcare system suffers from significant problems that will require more than tweaking around the edges to solve. Its system requires a major alteration, and the sooner that happens, the less health-based suffering among its people there can be.