On the 15th floor of a building in Manhattan (8/19), the Jeremy Hammond Defense Committee and an organization called Free Barret Brown held a benefit attended by about 75 people.

Hammond and Brown are representative of a new kind of political prisoner in the US. Brown is an investigative journalist whose work has appeared in Vanity Fair, the Guardian and Huffington Post. He became interested in the Internet group Anonymous. Hammond is an information activist who allegedly obtained emails belonging to the private intelligence firm Stratfor, ultimately providing them to WikiLeaks. Brown currently sits in federal prison in Texas and Hammond is imprisoned in New York.

Michael Ratner, President Emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights, said that Brown is in prison for committing “acts of journalism.” Known for his incisive reporting about the relationship between government and private security and intelligence contractors, Brown worked on something called Project PM, which was intended to probe those links.

Most people would agree that it is unconstitutional for the government to harass, intimidate or persecute its citizens because of their political opinions or lawful political activities. But what if the government outsources the harassment?

Hammond took a plea bargain of 10 years for intrusion into Stratfor, as well as other government, law enforcement and other corporate websites. Brown faces 105 for 17 charges. Brown allegedly posted a YouTube video threatening one of the FBI agents who was pursuing him. One might ask why threatening an FBI agent should earn one any more time than threatening anyone else.

The emails which Hammond gave to WikiLeaks provide evidence of a conspiracy against the rights of a variety of political activists, including people who protested Dow Chemical for the role played by Union Carbide, a subsidiary of Dow, in the 1984 methyl isoocyanate chemical disaster in Bhopal, India, in which some 8,000 people died. Stratfor also allegedly violated the rights of Occupy activists, who were spied on by the Texas Department of Public Safety.

The journalist Glenn Greenwald was targeted for reputational damage by the computer security firm HB Gary, according to emails obtained by Anonymous. A Washington, D.C., law firm retained by Bank of America contacted HBGary and asked it to help after it emerged that WikiLeaks was in possession of a Bank of America hard drive.

Journalist Alexa O’Brien prerecorded a message to the assembled guests. Along with Kevin Gostzola of Firedoglake.com, she has been doing very detailed coverage of the Bradley Manning case from Ft. George Meade, Md.

Icelandic parliamentarian and onetime WikiLeaks associate Birgitta Jonsdottir in a video message encouraged attendees to “fight with your keyboards.”

Attorney Margaret Ratner Kunstler, widow of famed civil rights lawyer William Kunstler, spoke in support of Jeremy Hammond. Hammond himself phoned in to the benefit from prison and also wrote a statement which was read to the group by a friend of his.

There was an auction of artworks by Shepherd Fairey.

Money raised during the benefit was split between two funds, each supporting one of the two prisoners. (D.H. Kerby)

READY OR NOT, OBAMACARE IS ON THE WAY. Health insurance marketplaces, also known as exchanges, on 10/1 will start enrolling Americans who don’t get insurance through their employer, for coverage to start on 1/1/14. Open enrollment will run through March 2014. There has been much misinformation spread by opponents of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, but there are at least five things we know about Obamacare — and one thing we don’t, Jonathan Cohn noted at TheNewRepublic.com (9/6).

1. Thanks to Obamacare regulations on insurers, the “sticker price” of coverage will go up. Non-group coverage today is usually pretty cheap. One reason is that it frequently has big gaps in coverage—no benefits for maternity or prescription drugs, for example, or deductibles that reach into five figures. Another reason is that insurers charge more, or deny coverage to, people with pre-existing medical conditions. Obamacare prohibits those practices.

2. Thanks to Obamacare’s subsidies for poor and middle-class Americans, relatively few people will pay the full sticker price. Under the law, subsidies are generally available to anybody with income that is less than four times the poverty line—which is about $46,000 a year for an individual and $94,000 a year for a family of four. Most Americans make less than that. The amount will vary by income, with poorer people getting more assistance. But among those families receiving assistance, the subsidies will be worth an average of $2,600 per year, according to another recent Kaiser Family Foundation study. (In states where Republican governors and legislators are blocking the expansion of Medicaid to cover families that earn less than the poverty level, those families and the hospitals that serve them will get no help.)

3. Remember that averages mask a lot of variation. How much you pay for insurance will depend on your income, because of the subsidies. It will also depend on your age, because the law permits insurers to vary premiums by as much as factor of three. But there’s another, huge factor: Geography. Every state has its own market with different insurers and different providers. Among the states that have made public filings so far, Oregon and Virginia have some of the cheapest premiums, while Rhode Island and Vermont have some of the most expensive. Even within states, prices can vary by location. In New York, for example, coverage in Manhattan will cost more than coverage in Binghamton.

4. Expect some “premium joy” and some “rate shock.” Older and sicker people will tend to pay less money in premiums next year, because the law limits the ability of insurers to charge these people more. People who can barely pay their premiums now may also pay less next year, because they’ll be getting those subsidies. These people will experience what Princeton economist Uwe Reinhardt has dubbed “premium joy.” People who benefit from today’s pricing practices—younger, healthier, and generally male—will tend to pay higher premiums in the new system. And at higher incomes, they won’t get big subsidies to offset the price. These people will experience what conservatives call “rate shock.”

5. So far, Obamacare premiums appear lower than experts predicted. This (among other things) is what the Kaiser report showed. And it’s a legitimately big deal, for a few reasons. When the Congressional Budget Office calculated how much the law as a whole would cost, its experts made an assumption about how much insurance would cost—and then used that to figure out how much the federal government would have to spend on subsidies. If the real cost of insurance turns out to be lower than CBO expected, then the federal government won’t have to spend as much on subsidies, and it will end up saving more money. So far, that’s precisely what has happened.

No less important, low premiums are a sign that the system is working like it’s supposed to work: Insurers, eager to get new customers, are competing with one another by keeping prices low. As Paul Krugman noted (9/5), conservatives should take some delight in that. 

That leaves one big question, Cohn said: “How many people will pay more and how many will pay less than they are paying for insurance today? Or, to put it a little more crudely, are there more winners than losers? Here no consensus exists.” But the experts Cohn trusts most think the majority of people will end up paying less than they do now, as long as you account for subsidies, Medicaid and the ability of young adults to enroll in special catastrophic plans or stay on their parents’ policies.

He concludes, “One of the most important takeaways from the Kaiser Foundation report is that, overall, prices on the non-group market look pretty comparable to the cost of insurance that most employers provide for their employees. And for people receiving substantial subsidies, the monthly premium payments will be really low: In several states, bronze plans will be available for less than $100 a month for a single, non-smoking 25-year-old making $25,000 a year. But even cheap insurance can seem expensive when you’re struggling just to pay other bills. How you react to the new prices will depend a lot on how much you value protection from financial shock and access to medical care—and whether you care about paying a modest penalty for having no insurance.

“Here in this space, and elsewhere in the media, we’ve argued about this topic, too. I’m sure we’ll keep at it. But, at this point, it’s a bit like arguing about the point spread ten minutes before kickoff. In October, Obamacare’s insurance marketplaces will be ready for business and a five-month open enrollment period will begin. People shopping for insurance aren’t going to pay attention to what the policy wonks say. They will focus on the numbers and plans in front of them—how much they cost, what they’d be getting in return, and whether they think it’s a worthwhile purchase. Only then will we start to know, with any certainty, how well this part of Obamacare is working.”

For more information on the Affordable Care Act, see healthcare.gov.

AFL-CIO SLAMS PRIVATE PRISONS, SUPPORTS ALT LABOR, PLEDGES NEW PUSH FOR ORGANIZING. The AFL-CIO national convention in Los Angeles adopted resolutions slamming “the big business behind mass incarceration,” promising intensified collaboration with alternative labor groups and granting its leadership new oversight tools designed to spur more effective organizing by its 57 unions, Josh Eidelson reported at The Nation (9/10).

“Politicians and employers want to divide us,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told delegates in a keynote address (9/9). “They want to tell us who can be in the labor movement and who can’t. We can’t let them.”

The convention backed closer cooperation between the AFL-CIO and “worker centers” that organize and mobilize workers who lack collective bargaining rights, and a greater role for Working America, the AFL-CIO’s own affiliate for non-union workers. The vote represented the latest ratification of the federation’s increasing work with such “alt-labor” groups, whose growing ranks include both workers (like taxi drivers) who lack the legal right to unionize, and others (like restaurant workers) who so far haven’t wrested union recognition from their bosses.

AFL-CIO delegates also passed a resolution—essentially ignored in mainstream pre-convention press—authorizing a more active federation role in overseeing unions’ efforts to win collective bargaining for more workers. Under the resolution, which passed—to the surprise of some—without vocal opposition, each union in the AFL-CIO will be required to submit an annual confidential organizing plan to AFL-CIO President Trumka which “will include areas of focus, resource commitments, strategies and tactics and projected timeline.” Based on the plans, the AFL-CIO leadership will then, “prioritize strategic and material assistance,” and identify potential conflicts or cooperative opportunities between unions; the AFL-CIO is also directed to develop “incentives for compliance.”

Kate Bronfenbrenner, who directs labor education and research at Cornell University, told Eidelson the AFL-CIO Organizing Committee in the early ‘90s made a similar pledge but there was no enforcement. Still, she said, what’s, “different about this time is that they actually had a new strategy” for the federation to play the kind of active role in coordinating affiliates’ organizing campaigns that is sometimes played by state or local labor councils. She predicted that the extent to which individual unions provided honest information in the plans pledged under the new resolution would depend on each union’s seriousness about organizing, level of trust in Trumka and level of distrust of other AFL-CIO unions that could seek to organize the same turf. “I think the actively organizing unions will do it,” she said. Whereas, “If they’re not organizing, then what interest would they have in participating in it?”

BORDER CROSSING IS BACKDOOR FOR UNWARRANTED SEARCHES. When federal investigators were unable to turn up evidence that David House, a fundraiser for the legal defense of then-Pfc. Bradley Manning, had done anything wrong and they couldn’t get a warrant to search his house or his computers, they just waited for him to take a vacation in Mexico. Upon his return, border security detained House and seized his phone, camera and laptop without a warrant. Immigration authorities copied House’s data and sent it to the Army Criminal Investigation Command, which conducted a detailed search of his files. After 10 months, no evidence of wrongdoing was found, the New York Times reported (9/10).

“While many travelers have no idea why they are singled out for a more intrusive screening at a border, one of the documents released in Mr. House’s settlement shows that he was flagged for a device search months before he traveled to Mexico,” the Times reported.

“It is clear from these documents that the search of David House’s computers had nothing to do with protecting the border or with enforcing immigration laws,” said Catherine Crump, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented House along with the Massachusetts ACLU. “The government used its broader powers at the border to conduct a search of House’s devices that no court would have approved.”

Kevin Drum noted at MotherJones.com (9/10), “This is all pretty outrageous, and House sued the government with the help of the ACLU. This means that we get a look at some of the documents in the case, which you can read at <https://www.aclu.org/HouseDocuments>. It turns out that although the most striking feature of the case is the almost unbounded power of the immigration service to detain and harass innocent travelers, the most striking feature of the documents is their demonstration of the immigration service’s almost unbounded technical incompetence when it comes to forensic analysis of computer equipment.” (One of the problems was that House uses a Macintosh computer, so they had to bring in a specialist.)

As part of the settlement, the government agreed to destroy all copies of the data taken from House, and update his file so he will not automatically be detained when he returns to the US after traveling abroad, which has happened repeatedly since 2010.

UAW, VW TALKS COULD INTRODUCE NEW LABOR MODEL. Volkswagen is working with the UAW on unionizing in Tennessee and building a German-style works council at the plant in Chattanooga, the New York Times reported (9/6). Key Tennessee elected officials oppose the idea, but if it sticks, it might influence other German automakers in Southern states.

Volkswagen has agreed not to oppose unionization at the Chattanooga plant, which makes Passats, the Times reported.

VW would be the first German automaker to have such a council at a US plant. A works council is a group of employees that includes white- and blue-collar workers that meets with management on issues like working conditions and productivity. In order to avoid violating American labor laws, the plant would first have to be formally unionized, the company said.

“VW workers in Chattanooga have the unique opportunity to introduce this new model of labor relations to the United States, in partnership with the UAW,” the union’s president, Bob King, said (9/6). None of the foreign carmakers with auto plants in the South are currently unionized.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (R) has been outspoken in opposing any union inroads at the Volkswagen plant, warning that it would undermine his state’s efforts to attract investment. On 9/3, for example, he said, “We have heard from other folks that we’re recruiting that that would dampen their enthusiasm with Tennessee.”

JOBLESS RATE DOWN BUT ECONOMY STILL GRIM. Employers added 169,000 jobs to non-farm payrolls in August, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said (9/6), while the unemployment rate dropped to 7.3%, the lowest since December 2008. On the surface, these numbers didn’t seem too bad: Economists, on average, had expected to see 180,000 new jobs and the unemployment rate holding steady at 7.4%.

But Mark Gongloff, chief financial writer for HuffingtonPost.com, noted that the drop in unemployment was due largely to people giving up looking for work, which takes them out of the official labor force, so they’re no longer counted as unemployed. The labor-force participation rate, the percentage of working-age people either working or looking for work, dropped to 63.2% from 63.4% in July, the lowest rate since 1978.

“The US job market is turning ugly, exposing the folly of the Fed’s plan to tighten monetary policy and Congress’ hellbent march toward another destructive budget battle, Gongloff wrote. “Policy makers should be doing more to boost an economy that remains stubbornly mediocre. Instead, leaders in Washington are getting ready to make things worse.”

The left-leaning Economic Policy Institute estimates that the economy has about 8.3 mln jobs fewer than it should, given the size of the population. At the current pace of job growth, that gap won’t be closed until 2021, the EPI estimates. “The jobs report released today underscores the fact that we still need all macroeconomic guns blazing to boost the economy,” wrote EPI economist Heidi Shierholz.

A Congressional resolution to bankroll government spending expires at the end of September, and the Treasury Department has warned that it will hit the “debt ceiling” in mid-October, meaning it can no longer pay its old debts without Congressional approval, Gongloff noted. Republican lawmakers have vowed they won’t raise the debt ceiling or approve new funding for the government without deep cuts in government spending.

Similar fights in the past have led to the US credit rating being downgraded in August 2011 and the destructive fiscal-cliff fight of last winter. The “solution” to the fiscal-cliff battle included a payroll-tax increase and the draconian budget cuts of “sequestration,” both of which have slowed down the economy and curbed job growth.

CORNYN LED GOP CHANGE OF HEART ON SYRIA. In March, Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) appeared at an event in Atlanta and publicly endorsed US intervention in Syria, Steve Benen noted at Maddowblog.com (9/6). Then, President Obama expressed support for military strikes in Syria, at which point Cornyn reconsidered. “Indeed, in a curious twist, the Texas Republican said this week ‘many questions are still left unanswered,’ which led to a meeting with the president in the White House (9/3) in which Cornyn asked no questions,” Benen noted, citing a report in the *Dallas Morning News*.

On 9/5, Politico reported, “If the vote [for the Syria air strike] were held today, Sen. Cornyn would vote no,” said Megan Mitchell, a spokeswoman for Cornyn.

The immediate significance of this is that Cornyn is the first leading congressional Republican to express opposition to authorizing the use of force, Benen noted. In the House, the top two GOP leaders — House Speaker John Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor — endorsed the resolution earlier this week, while in the Senate, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is too afraid to say much of anything.

Kevin Drum commented at MotherJones.com (9/5), “There’s obviously a bit of hypocrisy on both sides in this affair, but I have to say that watching Republican pols and conservative pundits get on their high horses about Syria has been pretty nauseating. These are guys who mostly have never met a war they didn’t like, and until a few months ago were practically baying at the moon to demand that that President Obama stop diddling around and get serious about aiding the rebels and taking out the monstrous Bashar al-Assad. But now? Butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths as they talk piously about the value of multilateral support; the need to give diplomacy a chance; the perils of regional blowback; the lessons of Iraq; and the fear of escalation if Assad retaliates. You’d think they’d all just returned from a Save the Whales conference in Marin County.

“There are some Republicans who are perfectly serious about their desire not to get entangled in yet another Middle Eastern conflict. But most of them couldn’t care less. Obama is for it, so they’re against it. It’s pretty hard to take.”

DOCTORS AREN’T FLEEING MEDICARE. The claim has become a staple of Republican efforts to undermine the Affordable Care Act and transform Medicare into a system in which future elderly receive vouchers to purchase health insurance in the private market, Jon Perr noted at DailyKos.com (9/4). “We are starting to see physicians turn away from taking patients who are on Medicare,” the GOP.gov website warns, with “more and more physicians are choosing to opt out of Medicare altogether.” In July, the Wall Street Journal dutifully picked up that cudgel, cheering one “doctor goes off the grid” while fretting “more doctors steer clear of Medicare.”

There’s only one problem with the conservative claim that America’s doctors are fleeing Medicare—and Medicare patients—in massive numbers. Perr wrote. As a new study from the Department from Health and Human Services reveals, it’s simply not true.

The New York Times (9/1) explained that analysts looked at seven years of federal survey data and found that doctors are not fleeing Medicare in droves; in fact, the percentage of doctors accepting new Medicare patients actually rose to 90.7% in 2012 from 87.9% in 2005. They are not shunning Medicare patients for better-paying private patients, either; the percentage of doctors accepting new Medicare patients in recent years was slightly higher than the percentage accepting new privately insured patients.

Medicare patients had comparable or better access to medical services than the access reported by privately insured individuals ages 50 to 64, who are just below the age for Medicare eligibility. Surveys sponsored by the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, an independent agency that advises Congress, found that 77% of the Medicare patients — compared with only 72% of privately insured patients — said they never had an unreasonably long wait for a routine doctor’s appointment last year.

As USA Today detailed, the growing population of Medicare beneficiaries—now some 49 mln Americans—has an expanding number of physicians serving them. “In 2007, about 925,000 doctors billed Medicare for their services. In 2011, that number had risen to 1.25 mln.”

“Overall, the clients we deal with have good access to physicians,” said Joe Baker, president of the Medicare Rights Center, a non-profit advocacy group for older Americans and people with disabilities. “We find the physicians who don’t take Medicare don’t take other insurance, either, but it’s not a problem we see regularly.” A 2005 study found that less than 1% of providers eligible to opt out of Medicare did so.

VIRGINIA ORDERS VOTER PURGE. Two months before Virginians choose between two polar opposites — Terry McAuliffe and Ken Cuccinelli — for their next governor, 57,000 Virginians may be removed from the rolls in a statewide purge. The list of 57,000 suspected duplicate registrations was given by the state Board of Elections to county registrars in August, Scott Keyes reported at ThinkProgress.org (9/5), and the registrars sent the suspect voters a notice that their registration has been cancelled effective immediately. If the cancellation is in error, the letter says to contact the registrar and get it worked out. One Accomack County voter, writing on the blog Blue Virginia under the pen name rodentrancher, said after living and registering in South Carolina in 2009, she had moved to Virginia last year and re-registered there. Even so, her file was flagged as a duplicate and she received a letter informing her that her registration was cancelled. If she hadn’t seen the letter or had the foresight to call the county registrar who sent her a new registration form, she would have been effectively disenfranchised from the November election.

In the 2009 election, approximately two million Virginians cast a ballot. If all 57,000 registrations that were flagged are ultimately cancelled, that would represent approximately three percent of all votes, a potentially decisive factor in a close election.

N.C. ELECTIONS BOARD UPHOLDS STUDENT BID FOR OFFICE: In a decision that holds important implications for student voting rights statewide, the North Carolina State Board of Elections overruled a local elections board that barred Montravias King — a student at historically black Elizabeth City State University — from running for local office because he registered to vote at his campus dormitory, Sue Sturgis reported at SouthernStudies.org (9/3).

In August, local Republican Party official Richard “Pete” Gilbert challenged King’s candidacy for a council seat, arguing that because his dorm address was only temporary he did not meet the residency requirements to run for city office. Voting rights advocates pointed out that North Carolina’s residency requirements for running for office and voting are the same.

The challenge to King was perceived as part of a broader rollback of voting rights in North Carolina, where the Republican-controlled legislature passed one of the nation’s most restrictive elections laws, which among other things imposes strict photo ID requirements while excluding the use of student IDs. In addition, several GOP-controlled local elections boards across North Carolina have recently considered actions that have been seen as efforts to prevent students from voting in the community where they attend school — a right that has been upheld by the US Supreme Court in a 1979 decision involving a historically black college in Texas.

Members of the state board raised concerns that if the challenge of King’s residency were allowed to stand, voting rights of the many military service members stationed in North Carolina could also be in jeopardy.

“The housing of students is not dissimilar to the military,” noted chair Joshua Howard, a Republican.

WARREN TO AFL-CIO: ‘OUR AGENDA IS AMERICA’S AGENDA.' Wall Street—one of her frequent topics—but the Supreme Court, citing an academic study that called the current Supreme Court'. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) minced no words speaking at the AFL-CIO’s convention in Los Angeles, taking on not just’s five conservative-leaning justices among the “top 10 most pro-corporate justices in half a century.”

“You follow this pro-corporate trend to its logical conclusion, and sooner or later you’ll end up with a Supreme Court that functions as a wholly owned subsidiary of Big Business,” Warren said, according to Politico.com (9/8).

Warren also addressed trade deals, an area of particular concern for unions:

“Wall Street, pharmaceuticals, telecom, big polluters and outsourcers are all salivating at the chance to rig upcoming trade deals in their favor,” Warren said. “I’ve heard people actually say that [trade deals] have to be secret because if the American people knew what was going on, they would be opposed.”

She continued: “I believe that if people would be opposed to a particular trade agreement, then that trade agreement should not happen.”

Despite the obstacles she laid out, Warren’s speech was a call to fight:

“Our agenda is America’s agenda. The American people know the system is rigged against them and they want us to level the playing field. That’s our mandate. That’s what we’re here to do.

“Now I’ve already fought—and lost—my share of battles in Washington and I’ve been around long enough to know Washington is a tough place. Real reform isn’t easy. But I also know this: We don’t fight, we can’t win. But if we fight, we will win. The budget, immigration, minimum wage—uphill battles? You bet, but however tough the challenge, however steep our climb, I am proud to stand with you, to march with you, to fight side by side with you.

“Our agenda is America’s agenda. Let me hear it: Our agenda is America’s agenda. And if we fight for it, we win. We win!” (Laura Clawson, DailyKos.com, 9/9)

TEXANS RAID ‘RAINY DAY’ FUND TO REBUILD ROADS. Texans used to make fun of neighboring states with substandard highway systems, but the Legislature’s refusal to increase the state’s fuel tax or road use tax on heavy vehicles has taken a toll on the roadways of which the state was once so proud.

The state Department of Transportation (DOT) in May considered allowing private companies to be “reimbursed” for financing and building tollways that are becoming increasingly common. That is a departure from past private tollway agreements that required the companies to put up the money at their own risk if the toll roads failed to produce sufficient revenue. After legislators, who were still in session, objected, the Transportation Commission, which is appointed by the governor, dropped the proposed bailout for toll-road operators.

Then, in July, just as DOT supporters in the Legislature were pushing a proposed constitutional amendment to allow the state to divert to the highway fund $1.2 bln a year in oil and gas severance taxes that otherwise would go to the state’s “rainy day” fund, agency officials said 83 miles of rural roads weren’t worth repaving at a cost of $40 mln. Instead, they proposed to convert them to “high-end unpaved” roads and reduce the speed limits to 30 mph.

Ben Wear of the Austin American Statesman noted (9/9), “You couldn’t hear this and not feel a little queasy. Taking state highways from asphalt to gravel inevitably felt regressive, borderline un-Texan.”

DOT took that action after the oil and gas lobby rejected the idea of imposing new fees on the big trucks that are causing the damage, Wear noted.

The Legislature in August approved the constitutional amendment that would allow the raid on the rainy day fund — the same fund that the Legislature in 2011 refused to tap to maintain public school or public health funding levels. Then, in mid-August, DOT floated the idea of turning back responsibility for maintaining 1,900 miles of urban highways to cities and counties, at a savings of $165 mln.

From The Progressive Populist, October 1, 2013



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