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The Lineup: Week of Dec. 12-17, 2011

December 12, 2011 ·

In this week's OtherWords editorial package, Sam Pizzigati lists the 10 greediest Americans of 2011 and Khalil Bendib's cartoon illustrates how hard it is for Newt Gingrich to keep denying that he's a lobbyist. Get all this and more in your inbox by subscribing to our weekly newsletter.

If you haven't signed up yet, please do. This holiday season, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to OtherWords. Our services are free for newspapers, new media, and engaged citizens, but our operations do require funding to carry out. Any amount you can give will be used wisely and effectively to help us continue providing the best op-eds, columns, and cartoons. You can make a one-time or a recurring donation on our website.

  1. The 10 Greediest Americans of 2011 / Sam Pizzigati
  2. Wealth is the Gift that Keeps on Giving / Mariko Chang
  3. Ratcheting up the Rhetoric on Iran / Chris Toensing
  4. Occupy the Food System / Jim Goodman
  5. The Rich are Profiting Like It's 1929 / Donald Kaul
  6. Influence Peddler for President / Jim Hightower
  7. We're Not Even Paving a Road to Nowhere / William A. Collins
  8. GOP Closets / Khalil Bendib

GOP Closets, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib.

No Execution For Mumia Abu-Jamal

December 10, 2011 ·

This post originally appeared on Amnesty International USA's website.

Mumia Abu-Jamal will no longer be facing execution.  He should be getting a new trial.

In October, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to reinstate the death sentence that had been overturned by a lower court. So Philadelphia prosecutors threw in the towel on Dec. 7, announcing that they will not seek a new death sentence in Abu-Jamal’s case, instead allowing his sentence to be automatically commuted to life without parole.

But, over ten years, ago, Amnesty International concluded in its report, “The Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal: A Life in the Balance” that Mumia Abu-Jamal’s original trial utterly failed to meet international fair trial standards.

Among other things, Amnesty’s report highlighted the prosecution’s use of peremptory strikes to dismiss African American jurors during trial; inadequate defense representation at trial and during the sentencing phase; the prosecution’s use of Abu-Jamal’s political statements to argue for a death sentence; overt hostility of the trial judge and the appearance of judicial bias during appellate review; the close political relationship between the Fraternal Order of Police and the (elected) Pennsylvania judiciary; and law enforcement’s unseemly agitation for execution throughout the process

Given these fundamental flaws, it would have been unconscionable to put Mumia Abu-Jamal to death.  So the Philadelphia District Attorney did the right thing there. But Mumia Abu-Jamal should also get a new trial.

Durban Diary: The Waiting Game

December 9, 2011 ·

NGO events: part of COP17 waiting game. Photo by WWFCOP17. It’s 2:30pm in Durban, South Africa, and I’m rushing back and forth from meeting to meeting in the convention center waiting for the final plenaries of the UN climate negotiations to start.

There’s a particular arc to the climate negotiations I’ve noticed – at least in the last five that I’ve attended. The first week is a lot of meetings with government delegations to discuss the issues we’ve been following all year, meetings with our colleagues to figure out our strategy for getting what we want out of the climate talks. NGOs release their reports, advocacy groups try to crank out suggestions for countries’ to introduce in the official negotiating sessions. There are lots of side events, panel discussion, receptions with free wine and eats.

In the second week there’s a bit of a lull, the doors on government meetings swing shut on most conversations and we’re left waiting outside meeting room doors trying get a scrap of paper here and a snippet of intelligence from a friendly government there. 

By midway through the second week the high level ministers start arriving. Security gets tighter. Actions by youth, indigenous people, activist groups pop up here and there and are quickly shut down by the UN secretariat. Generally there are marches ‘outside’ that very few on the ‘inside’ even hear about (the exception was, of course, the demonstration by hundreds of thousands of people in Copenhagen in 2009).

By the time you reach the end of the second week, there’s a palpable sense of frenzy in the air. People are running back and forth in the halls waiting for some thing to happen. Anything.

But you wait.

And you wait. And you wait. And you wait. 

Eventually, after all the deals have been struck behind close doors, poor countries have sold their future for a handful of magic beans, and the US is duly satisfied that nothing agreed upon will upset its position at the top of the economic food chain, the negotiations resume.

Then governments make statements, deliberate various versions of draft decisions, and release a significant amount of hot air until around 2am. In a final crescendo, countries start lining up like well behaved infantry ready to get behind any solution that brings an end to the talks so they can get the hell out of here and go to bed.

And then that’s it. We go back to our hotels exhausted wondering why our governments won’t take the climate crisis seriously enough to do anything meaningful to stop it. We try to convince ourselves that there are ‘hooks’ all over the decision taken that will help us reduce greenhouse gas emissions either at home or multilaterally, or that there’s way to use the final outcome to raise some money for those communities who are already reeling from drought, floods, landslides, heat waves, wild fires, and sea level rise.

So that’s where I am right now. Sitting on the floor, tied to an electrical outlet to power my computer, waiting for the plenary doors to open, and wondering if my government – or any of the other governments present here – will do anything of consequence to make sure our future is one of ecological stability instead of planetary chaos.

Durban Diary: Climate Reality Check

December 8, 2011 ·

International climate negotiations, like those now grinding through their second week in Durban, South Africa, are generally rife with spin and counter spin. Governments, media, business groups – even non-profits – vie to get their messages to trump the rest.

Protesters have made their presence known at Durban. Photo by powless.The messaging frenzy at this year’s climate talks is over whom to blame for a lack of serious action to match both the need to reduce greenhouse gas pollution by least 85% by mid-century and the need for financial support in developing countries to deal with the realities of a warmer world.

The latest strategy from the press and some development and environment groups seems to be calling countries now emerging on the economic scene climate villains while giving truly recalcitrant countries like the US – which still has no hope of climate regulation at home – a pass.

Call me naïve, but do headlines like “Durban climate talks 'roadmap' held up by India” really reflect the forces pushing an alarmingly insufficient response to an increasingly imminent planetary emergency?

Let's have a reality check. 

Although it’s home to only 4 percent of the world’s population, the United States is responsible for 29 percent of carbon emissions over past 150 years, triple China’s share. On average, each person in the US emitted 720 tons of CO2 per year from 1960 to 2005. That’s almost fourteen times India’s per capita emissions and ninety times the per capita emissions of people Kenya during the same period.

Meanwhile in India 400 million people lack access to electricity.

According to a 2005 World Bank estimate, 42 percent of the Indian population fell below the international poverty line of US$ 1.25 a day (PPP).  

The 2011 Global Hunger Index (GHI) Report ranked India 15th among countries facing serious problems with hunger. It also reported that between 1996 and 2011 India’s GHI actually increased – one of only three countries in the study to do so. The other 78 of the 81 developing countries studied actually improved conditions related to hunger.

India is also one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change. During last year’s climate talks in Cancun, the World Food Program released a food insecurity and climate change map that gave India its highest rating.

Yes, global emissions need to peak as soon as possible. And, yes, we’re seeing the opposite happen. It’s an alarming fact that between 2009 and 2010, global emissions increased a record 6 percent. It’s just as alarming that the US – the country now blaming the big emerging economies for blocking progress on a climate deal – increased it’s emissions from the year before by 200 million tons. India’s increase was 150 million tons, which is a lot – but consider that India is home to about 900 million more people than the US!

For hundreds of millions of poor Indians, the right to develop is the right to survival. And part of developing means, realistically, growing emissions – unless there’s massive support from rich countries in the form of money and clean technology. 

Increasing greenhouse gas pollution in the United States is about spreading icing on the already rich cake of overconsumption.

So from my perspective here in the negotiating halls, India has good reason to insist that developed countries fulfill the existing mandate. The members of the Kyoto Protocol promised they would sign a second commitment period before 2012 ends, the US said it would take ‘comparable action’ to the developed countries that signed that treaty, and all developed countries agreed in 2007 in the Bali Action Plan to support developing countries pay for the greenhouse gas mitigating activities they promised to take on.

None of these have happened.

And why would anyone in their right mind agree to a new mandate that binds poor countries to do what rich countries – those who are most responsible for the climate crisis – refuse to do?

All governments need to significantly raise their level of ambition in the fight for climate stability. A global reduction in climate pollution and a domestic transition to a clean energy economy is good for India’s poor and for climate vulnerable communities around the world.

What we need in Durban is a commitment to complete the mandate that already exists. Countries must deliver a renewed Kyoto Protocol, and effective Green Climate Fund, and substantial money to fill it.

Many thanks to Dale Wen of the International Forum on Globalization for substantial contributions to this commentary.

Tis the Season to Be Jolly on Wall Street, Still

December 7, 2011 ·

Wall Street’s power suits aren’t humming along, this December, with all the holiday jingles. Bankers, traders, and law firm partners are quite frankly feeling kind of foul. End-of-year Wall Street bonuses, experts predict, are going to be down from 2010 levels — by as much, on average, as 35 percent.

Total 2011 pay for the typical bond-trading managing director at a top Wall Street securities firm will likely be off, says analyst Michael Karp, nearly 40 percent.

Bonuses might be reduced, but at $1.8 million on average, there's still plenty to be jolly about in Wall Street. Photo by Benjamin Dumas.But those typical managing directors should be able to survive the holidays quite nicely. Bonus cuts will leave average high-powered bond traders with $1.8 million for their daily labors in 2011. The average U.S. worker would have to labor 43 years — an adult lifetime — to take home that same $1.8 million.

In other words, by any real-world yardstick, Wall Street’s finest are doing just fine. And they owe their good fortune, blockbuster new research makes clear, to the generosity of Uncle Sam’s one and only central bank, the Federal Reserve.

During the financial meltdown, a new analysis of 29,000 pages of previously secret documents shows, central bankers at the Fed had $1.2 trillion in dirt-cheap loans shoveled out to the nation’s financial institutions, at the crisis peak, and overall committed an incredible $7.77 trillion, as of March 2009, to the financial rescue, taking into account guarantees and lending limits.

This massive wave of subsidies, note the Bloomberg news analysts who broke the story last week, amounted to a bailout over ten times larger than the $700 billion funneled to banks via the Treasury Department’s controversial Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP.

Bloomberg reporters had to win a court case to access the stunning new bailout data. How stunning? The $7.77 trillion the Fed committed to the nation’s financial industry, observes Bloomberg, equaled “more than half the value of everything produced” in the entire United States during the key crisis year.

To put the bailout in more homespun terms: The Fed provided banks the equivalent of over $25,000 per American.

The nation’s six biggest banks — J.P. Morgan, Bank of America, Citibank, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs, and Morgan Stanley — grabbed $460 billion of the secret loans. Morgan Stanley took in $10 billion in publicly visible TARP bailout dollars and $107 billion from the hidden Fed loan program.

All the TARP dollars came with modest strings on executive pay. To end run the strings, big banks rushed to pay back their TARP bailout and then loudly proclaimed themselves healthy and stable enough to resume business as usual.

Meanwhile, at that same moment, these “healthy” banks were taking advantage of the secret Fed loans to register billions in new profits — with no executive pay strings attached.

The Fed loans came with interest rates as low as 0.01 percent. The banks lent out these loan dollars at much higher rates and made, Bloomberg estimates, at least $13 billion on these transactions. That $13 billion, notes economist Dean Baker, essentially rates as a pure “gift” from taxpayers.

But the Fed's total giving to America's biggest banks has run much higher than that $13 billion. By backstopping big banks so energeticaly, former U.S. senator Ted Kaufman from Delaware points out, the Fed has served notice that the federal government would never let the big banks fail — and that notification continues to translate into favorable borrowing rates for the big banks.

The big banks, for their part, have pooh-poohed all the hubbub about the enormous subsidies they’ve received. They’ve argued that no one should be bent out of joint, since the banks have paid their loans back.

The big banks, counters financial analyst Steve Randy Waldman, have definitely not paid back the lucrative freedom from downside risk that the Fed and Treasury Department have so graciously provided them.

signupIn financial markets, Waldman explains, “risk-bearing” has always been “the ultimate commodity.” The Fed and Treasury underwrote this risk-bearing — for big banks — at next to nothing. Middle class Americans, by contrast, have to pay for their own risk-bearing. They pay, for instance, their fire insurance bills year in and year out, without ever expecting that the Fed is going to foot the bill.

Massive federal bailout subsidies, adds analyst Les Leopold, have had another spin-off benefit. They've “allowed banks to step up their lobbying efforts.” These lobbying efforts, in turn, have saved the banks countless billions more.

One example: Bank political pressure has forged a federal housing crisis policy that protects banks from the “downside” of the crash of the housing market.

But the generosity of top federal officials to America’s banks has gone still further. We learned last week, notes Reuters analyst Felix Salmon, that Treasury secretary Hank Paulson was “giving inside information to his old Wall Street buddies” right as the financial crisis was unfolding, insider info that helped Goldman Sachs-connected hedge fund managers score millions in easy profits.

The bottom line of all this generosity? The total assets of America’s top six banks jumped from $6.8 trillion in September 2006 to $9.5 trillion in September 2011. The trading arms of big banks and other independent firms, the Washington Post reports, have generated over $83 billion in profit over the last two and a half years, $6 billion more than they generated over the previous eight.

Returns this massive, in turn, translated last year into the biggest bank compensation haul in history. Wall Street salaries in New York averaged $361,330 in 2010, five times the city's average private-sector pay.

And average Americans? Their economic status continues to slide. A new Rutgers University study out last week documents that just 7 percent of those Americans “who lost jobs after the financial crisis have returned to or exceeded their previous financial position.” Two million construction workers have lost jobs since the housing collapse began. The industry has hired back only 47,000.

That housing collapse keeps collapsing. Over a quarter of American mortgages, 28 percent, have now sunk “underwater,” up from 23 percent last year.

Some context for these numbers: The $107 billion in Fed loans that one bank alone, Morgan Stanley, pocketed in September 2008 would have been enough, notes Bloomberg, “to pay off one-tenth of the country’s delinquent mortgages.

So what ought to be done? For starters, former New York governor Eliot Spitzer urged last week, Congress ought to require banks to use the profits they made investing their almost interest-free money from the Fed “to write down the value of mortgages of those who are underwater.”

Nassim Nicholas Taleb — a New York University risk engineer, best-selling author, and a hedge fund investor — has a longer-term solution. He wants the feds to start regulating Wall Street pay. No one at a company that would require a taxpayer-financed bailout if it failed, says Taleb, should “get a bonus, ever.”

“Consider that we trust military and homeland security personnel with our lives, yet we don’t give them lavish bonuses,” he explains. “They get promotions and the honor of a job well done if they succeed, and the severe disincentive of shame if they fail.”

For bankers, Taleb adds, the opposite holds. They get “a bonus if they make short-term profits and a bailout if they go bust.”

Reforms like these still seem, at our current political moment, sheer fantasy. New research from the Center for Responsive Politics helps us understand one reason. Nineteen current members of Congress last year held personal investments in Wall Street’s most notorious bank, Goldman Sachs. These investments averaged well over three-quarters of a million dollars.

Nine of these 18 investors just happened to sit on the congressional committees that oversee the financial industry. Two of the 18 not on one of these committees just happened to be the two most powerful leaders in the House, speaker John Boehner and majority leader Eric Cantor.

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