Saturday, April 29, 2006

 

Hell on Earth

Chernobyl was the world's worst environmental disaster. Twenty years on, John Vidal reports on the clean-up, the false medical records, the communities that refused to leave and the continuing cost to people and planet
by John Vidal

Twenty years ago today, Konstantin Tatuyan, a Ukrainian radio engineer, was horrified when Reactor No 4 at Chernobyl nuclear power complex exploded, caught fire, and for the next 10 days spewed the equivalent of 400 Hiroshima bombs' worth of radioactivity across 150,000 sq miles of Europe and beyond. He was just married, and he and his young family lived in the town of Chernobyl, just a few miles from the reactor.


Candles burn in front of a Chernobyl monument during a remembrance ceremony at Mitino cemetery outside of Moscow April 26, 2006. Mourners bearing candles marked the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster on Wednesday, honouring those who died from its effects as leaders pledged to ensure it would never happen again. REUTER/Thomas Peter
Like 120,000 people, the family was evacuated, but Tatuyan volunteered to become a "liquidator", to help with the clean up, believing that his knowledge of radiation could save not just him but many of the 200,000 young soldiers and others who were rushed in from all over the Soviet Union. "We felt we had to do it," he says. "Who else, if not us, would do it?"

Tatuyan spent the next seven years in charge of 5,000 mostly young army reservists - drafted in from Azerbaijan, Lithuania, Chechnya, Kazakhstan and elsewhere in what was the Soviet Union - working 22 days on, eight days off, digging great holes, demolishing villages, dumping high-level waste, monitoring hot spots, testing the water, cleaning railway lines and roads, decontaminating ground and travelling throughout some of the most radioactive regions of Ukraine, Belarus and southern Russia.

He survived the worst environment disaster in history, he says, because he knew the danger and could monitor the radioactivity that varied from yard to yard and from village to village depending on where the plume descended to ground level, and on where the deadly bits of graphite from the core of the reactor were carried by the wind.

He took precautions but he also kept meticulous - albeit illegal - records of his own accumulating exposure. Every year the authorities told him he was "fit for duty", and when he left Chernobyl they gave him a letter saying he had received just under the safe lifetime dose of radiation. He knew he had received more than five times that amount.

What he saw in those years, he says, appalled him: young men dying for want of the simplest information about exposure to radiation; the wide-scale falsification of medical histories by the Soviet army and the disappearance of people's records so the state would not have to compensate them; the wholesale looting of evacuated houses and abandoned churches; the haste and carelessness with which the concrete "sarcophagus" was erected over the stricken reactor; and, above all, the horror of seeing land almost twice the size of Britain contaminated, with thousands of villages made uninhabitable.

It was sometimes surreal, he says. He had people beg him to leave their homes or villages contaminated because that would guarantee them a pension; he recalls how several carriages of radioactive animal carcasses travelled for five years around the Soviet Union being rejected by every state, returning to Chernobyl to be buried - train and all. He helped fill a 4 sq mile dump with radioactive lorries, cement mixers, trains and helicopters. He knows where the Chernobyl bodies are buried, he says, because he was the grave digger. "We made up the response as we went along," he says. "It was hell."

Optimistic

Tatuyan has now retired, an invalid. He says he surely saved many lives and made great parts of the Ukraine semi-habitable, but the price is a heart condition, an enlarged thyroid, diabetes, pains in the right side of his body, breathing difficulties and headaches. But he is optimistic and, like several million people across Ukraine, Belarus and southern Russia, says he now looks at his life in terms of the time before and after Chernobyl. Most of his team of liquidators are dead; the rest, like him, are ill.

Tatuyan is now 56, and his children and country are proud of him. For him, the effect of the radiation on the environment was shocking. "The first thing we noticed was that many miles of trees in the forest turned red," he says. "They had to be cut down and buried. All the animals left. The birds did not come back for four years. It was strange not hearing them.

"In the winter of 1986/87, there was an infestation of mice because the crops had not been harvested. So the population of foxes increased. Most of them had rabies, and hunters were called to come and kill them. The wild pigs came back first. Then the wolves. Because people were evacuated, thinking they would be gone for only a few days, they left their dogs. But the dogs then crossed with the wolves and were not afraid of humans. It was very dangerous."

Today, the forest is moving in on the modernistic town of Pripyat, built for the reactor workers just a few miles from the plant. According to ecologists, weathering, decay and the migration of radionuclides down the soil have already led to a significant reduction of the contamination of plants and animals. Some scientists are upbeat. Biodiversity, says the Institute of Ecology in the Ukraine, has increased due to the removal of human influence. Moose, wild boar, roe and red deer, beavers, wolves, badgers, otters and lynx have all been reported in the area, and species associated with humans - rats, house mice, sparrows and pigeons - have all declined. Indeed, of 270 species of birds in the area, 180 are breeding.

But it is not as simple as that. Other scientists report mammals experiencing heavy doses from internally deposited Caesium-137 and Strontium-90 radioactive fallout. One study has found mutations in 18 generations of birds; another that radioactivity levels in trees are still rising. Contamination has been found migrating into underground aquifers.

Levels of Caesium-137 are expected to remain high all over Europe for decades, says the United Nations. In parts of Germany, Austria, Italy, Sweden, Finland, Lithuania and Poland, levels in wild game, mushrooms, berries and fish from some lakes are well over a safe dose, as they are in all the most affected regions of Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. In Britain, there are still restrictions on milk on 375 hill farms, mainly in Snowdonia and the Lake District. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of square miles of agricultural land still cannot be used for farming until the soil has been remediated.

Humans have fared badly. In the past few weeks four major scientific reports have challenged the World Health Organisation (WHO), which believes that only 50 people have died and 9,000 may over the coming years. The reports widely accuse WHO of ignoring the evidence and dismissing illnesses that many doctors in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus say are worsening, especially in children of liquidators.

The charge is led by the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences, which last week declared that 212,000 people have now died as a direct consequence of Chernobyl. Meanwhile, a major report commissioned by Greenpeace considers the evidence of 52 scientists and estimates the deaths and illnesses to be 93,000 terminal cancers already and perhaps 100,000 deaths in time. A further report for European parliamentarians suggested 60,000 deaths. In truth no one knows.

More than 500km from Chernobyl, the peasant farmers of the village of Boudimca, one of the most affected in Ukraine, refuse to leave, despite the fact that many of their children are suffering from acute radiation diseases. Every child in Boudimca has a thyroid problem - known as the "Chernobyl necklace". The villagers are attached to the land. "We would prefer to die in our own land rather than go somewhere else and not survive," says Valentina Molchanovich, one of whose daughters is in hospital in Vilne with radiation sickness. "We understand the paradox, but we prefer to stay."

Though they live simple lives - each family has a cow, ducks and a few chickens - they suffer all the ailments of stressed out western executives: high blood pressure, headaches, diabetes and respiratory problems. They know that the berries and the mushrooms they have always lived on are contaminated. "We are just so used to living here," says Molchanovich. "My parents lived here. We build our houses together. We are a very tight community."

But others are, literally, dying to leave the village. Mikola Molchanovich, a distant relation, is the father of Sasha, a 12- year-old girl who this month was also being treated for constant stomach aches in a children's hospital in Rivne. He says: "My wife is in hospital giving birth, my son is in another hospital being treated for radiation sickness. My sister has 30,000 becquerels [units of radioactivity] in her body. Some people have 80,000, or more.

"This is our community; my parents lived and died here. We used to be able to collect 100kg of mushrooms a day - the whole village would collect them. Some of our cows have leukaemia. The people who moved away from the village are healthier and better. I would go if I had the chance. But I am trapped. I cannot sell my house because it is contaminated. People are becoming weaker. We cannot feel it, we cannot see it, yet we are not afraid of it.

Situation worsening

"Everyone who helped on the clean up is now ill," says Tatiana, a senior doctor at the Dispensary for Radiological Protection at Rivne. "The situation is worsening. In 1985, we had four lymph cancers a year. Now we have seven times that many. We have between five and eight people a year with rare bone cancers, when we never had any. We expect more cancers, and ill health. One in three pregnancies here are malformed. We are overwhelmed."

A doctor in the local region's children's hospital says: "The children born to the people who cleaned up Chernobyl are dying very young. We are finding Caesium and Strontium in breast milk and the placenta. More children now have leukaemias, and there has been a quadrupling of spina bifida cases. There are more clusters of cancers. Children are being born with stunted growth and dwarf torsos, without thighs. I would expect more of this over the years."

Tatuyan is now an environmentalist, convinced that nuclear power is no answer. "I go to the forest with friends to care for the deer," he says. Tonight, he and the other liquidators will meet and celebrate the 20 years. "When we meet we make the same toast. We say: 'Let's meet again alive.'"

SocietyGuardian.co.uk © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006


Saturday, April 22, 2006

 

We Are Globalized, But Have No Real Intimacy with the Rest of the World

ncreased contact with other countries has led many to believe that the western model should be applied everywhere
by Martin Jacques

I have just read Ruth Benedict's The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. It is a classic. Published in 1947, it analyses the nature of Japanese culture. Almost 60 years and many books later, it remains a seminal work. Like all great works of scholarship, the book manages to transcend the time and era in which it was written, aging in certain obvious respects, but retaining much of its insight and relevance. If you want to make sense of Japan, Benedict's book is as good a place to start as any. Here, though, I am interested in the origins and purpose of the book.

In June 1944, as the American offensive against Japan began to bear fruit, Benedict, a cultural anthropologist, was assigned by the US office of war administration to work on a project to try and understand Japan as the US began to contemplate the challenge that would be posed by its defeat, occupation and subsequent administration. Her book is written with a complete absence of judgmental attitude or sense of superiority, which one might expect; she treats Japan's culture as of equal merit, virtue and logic to that of the US. In other words, its tone and approach could not be more different from the present US attitude towards Iraq or that country's arrogant and condescending manner towards the rest of the world.

This prompts a deeper question: has the world, since then, gone backwards? Has the effect of globalization been to promote a less respectful and more intolerant attitude in the west, and certainly on the part of the US, towards other cultures, religions and societies? This contradicts the widely held view that globalization has made the world smaller and everyone more knowing. The answer, at least in some respects, is in the affirmative - with untold consequences lying in wait for us. But more of that later; first, why and how has globalization had this effect?

Of course, it can rightly be argued that European colonialism embodied a fundamental intolerance, a belief that the role of European nations was to bring "civilized values" to the natives, wherever they might be. It made no pretense, however, at seeking to make their countries like ours: their enlightenment, as the colonial attitude would have it, depended on our physical presence. In no instance, for example, were they regarded as suitable for democracy, except where there was racial affinity, with white settler majorities, as in Australia and Canada. In contrast, the underlying assumption with globalization is that the whole world is moving in the same direction, towards the same destination: it is becoming, and should become, more and more like the west. Where once democracy was not suitable for anyone else, now everyone is required to adopt it, with all its western-style accoutrements.

In short, globalization has brought with it a new kind of western hubris - present in Europe in a relatively benign form, manifest in the US in the belligerent manner befitting a superpower: that western values and arrangements should be those of the world; that they are of universal application and merit. At the heart of globalization is a new kind of intolerance in the west towards other cultures, traditions and values, less brutal than in the era of colonialism, but more comprehensive and totalitarian.

The idea that each culture is possessed of its own specific wisdom and characteristics, its own novelty and uniqueness, born of its own individual struggle over thousands of years to cope with nature and circumstance, has been drowned out by the hue and cry that the world is now one, that the western model - neoliberal markets, democracy and the rest - is the template for all.

The new attitude is driven by many factors. The emergence of an increasingly globalized market has engendered a belief that we are all consumers now, all of a basically similar identity, with our Big Macs, mobile phones and jeans. In this kind of reductionist thinking, the distance between buying habits and cultural/political mores is close to zero: the latter simply follows from the former. Nor is this kind of thinking confined to the business world, even if it remains the heartland. This is also now an integral part of popular common sense, and more resonant and potent as an international language because consumption has become the mass ideology of western societies. The fact that television and tourism have made the whole world accessible has created the illusion that we enjoy intimate knowledge of other places, when we barely scratch their surface. For the vast majority, the knowledge of Thailand or Sri Lanka acquired through tourism consists of little more than the whereabouts of the beach.

Then there is the phenomenon of Davos Man, the creation of an overwhelmingly western-weighted global elite, which thinks it knows all about these things because it describes itself as global and rubs shoulders on such occasions with a small number of hand-picked outsiders. Nor should we neglect its media concomitant, the commentariat - columnists who wax lyrical on these things even if their knowledge of the world is firmly bounded by the borders of the west. A couple of days at a conference in Egypt, India or Malaysia makes instant experts of them. So is much of modern western opinion made.

The net effect of all this is a lack of knowledge of and respect for difference. Globalization has obliterated distance, not just physically but also, most dangerously, mentally. It creates the illusion of intimacy when, in fact, the mental distances have changed little. It has concertinaed the world without engendering the necessary respect, recognition and tolerance that must accompany it. Globalization is itself an exemplar of the problem. Goods and capital may move far more freely than ever before, but the movement of labor has barely changed. Jeans may be inanimate, but migrants are the personification of difference. Everywhere, migration is a charged political issue. In the modern era of globalization, everything is allowed to move except people.

After three decades of headlong globalization, the world finds itself in dangerous and uncharted waters. Globalization has fostered the illusion of intimacy while intolerance remains as powerful and unyielding as ever - or rather, has intensified, because the western expectation is now that everyone should be like us. And when they palpably are not, as in the case of the Islamic world, then a militant intolerance rapidly rises to the surface. The wave of Islamophobia in the west - among the people and the intelligentsia alike - is a classic example of this new intolerance. When I wrote a recent article for these pages on the Danish cartoons, arguing that Europe had to learn a new way of relating to the world, I got nearly 400 emails in response. Over half of these were negative and many were frightening in their intolerance, especially those from the US, which were often reminiscent in their tone to the worst days of the 1930s.

We live in a world that we are much more intimate with and yet, at the same time, also much more intolerant of - unless, that is, it conforms to our way of thinking. It is the western condition of globalization, and its paradox of intimacy and intolerance suggests that the western reaction to the remorseless rise of the non-west will be far from benign.

· Martin Jacques is a senior visiting research fellow at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore.


Thursday, April 20, 2006

 

War Crimes and the Struggle for Truth

Medialens

An ancient Roman aphorism made a crucial point: “The senators are good men, but the senate is a beast.” In the same way, no matter how deeply media corporations may be compromised by profit-orientation and links to establishment power, some journalists will always be willing to respond reasonably to criticism.

On March 30, a Media Lens reader challenged the BBC’s World Affairs Correspondent, Paul Reynolds, about his article reviewing the possibility of a US attack on Iran. Our reader, noting that Reynolds had made no mention of the illegality, or otherwise, of a US attack, asked:

“How can you find space to discuss the operational considerations of a mission but not the implication for international law?” (Darren Smith, email forwarded, March 30, 2006)

Within a matter of hours, the following paragraph had been appended to Reynolds’ article on the BBC website:

“Of course, the legality of any attack would be hard to justify. The British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told reporters this week: ‘I don’t happen to believe that military action has a role to play in any event. We could not justify it under Article 51 of the UN charter which permits self defence.’” (Paul Reynolds, ‘Will US use Iran military option?’, March 30, 2006; http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/4860492.stm)

One reader, writing one reasonable and rational email, had made a difference. Paul Reynolds told us:

“I often respond to readers’ suggestions and this was one such. As was obvious, the piece was more about the military and political issues but I did feel on reflection that I should not leave out legality entirely.” (Email, March 31, 2006)

This willingness to respond honestly to criticism is admirable.

In February, the Observer journalist Mary Riddell described how “Britain is embroiled in two… ill-judged interventions” in Afghanistan and Iraq (Riddell, ‘The soldier’s song has become a lament,’ The Observer, February 5, 2006). When a reader challenged this description of what, in fact, are major war crimes, Riddell responded:

“Many thanks. Apologies for my understatements; you’re quite right to point them out.” (Forwarded, February 26, 2006)

The BBC also deserves credit for a film broadcast by Newsnight on March 29: ‘Soldiers: Coming Home.’ The film followed members of Iraq Veterans Against The War on their “Walkin’ to New Orleans” protest march against the Iraq war (see: http://www.ivaw.net/).

A veteran on the march, Jody Casey, was asked if the US military had been concerned about the people of Iraq. He replied:

“Oh no. Definitely that was not a concern at all… I was not concerned about them at all.”

Asked if this was simply his personal view, or the view of the military in general, Casey responded:

“No! I mean that’s why they call them ‘Hajji’ [the Iraqi equivalent of ‘Gook’]. I mean you have got to de-sensitise yourself from them: ‘They’re not people they are animals’. [There was a] total disregard for human life.”

The veteran described how Iraqi civilians discovered in the vicinity of detonated Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) were routinely shot:

“I have seen innocent people being killed. IEDS go off and you just zap any farmer that is close to you… hit him with the 50 [heavy machine gun] or the M-16 [rifle]. Overall there was just the total disregard – they basically jam into your head: ‘This is Hajji! This is Hajji’. You totally take the human being out of it and make them into a video game… If you start looking at them as humans, and stuff like that, then how are you gonna kill them?”

Former soldiers claim that this attitude extends up the chain of command, right to the top. In April 2004, the Daily Telegraph reported great unease among senior British army commanders in Iraq at the “heavy-handed and disproportionate” military tactics used by US forces who, they said, viewed Iraqis “as untermenschen. They are not concerned about the Iraqi loss of life… their attitude toward the Iraqis is tragic, it is awful”. (Sean Rayment, ‘US tactics condemned by British officers,’ Daily Telegraph, April 11, 2004)

An apparent example of the kind of indiscriminate killing described by Casey was reported in The Nation on April 12:

“On November 19, after a roadside bomb killed Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas, 15 Iraqi civilians – including seven women and three children – were allegedly shot and killed by a unit of US Marines operating in Haditha, Iraq. Then, this past Friday, a battalion commander and two company commanders from the same unit were relieved of their duties.

“We also know that the Marine Corps initially claimed that the 15 Iraqi civilians were killed by a roadside bomb. But in January, after Time magazine presented the military with Iraqi accounts and video proof of the attack’s aftermath, officials acknowledged that the civilians were killed by Marines but blamed insurgents nonetheless who had ‘placed noncombatants in the line of fire.’

“However, video evidence shows that women and children were shot in their homes while still wearing nightclothes. And while there are no bullet holes outside the houses to support the military’s assertion of a firefight with insurgents, ‘inside the houses… the walls and ceilings are pockmarked with shrapnel and bullet holes as well as the telltale spray of blood.’” (Katrina vanden Heuvel, ‘Haditha, Iraq,’ The Nation, April 12, 2006; http://www.thenation.com/blogs/edcut?bid=7&pid=76825)

One eyewitness told Time: “I watched them shoot my grandfather, first in the chest and then in the head. Then they killed my granny.”(Quoted, Hala Jaber and Tony Allen-Mills, ‘Iraqis killed by US troops “on rampage”,’ Sunday Times, March 26, 2006)

This is how the incident was originally reported in the Mirror:

“Elsewhere, an ambush on a joint US and Iraqi patrol north-west of Baghdad left 15 civilians, eight insurgents and a US Marine dead. An improvised explosive device was detonated next to the Marine’s vehicle in Haditha on Saturday.” (Brian Roberts, ‘Brit toll rises after roadside blast kill soldier,’ Mirror, November 21, 2005)

The most shocking revelation in the Newsnight film concerned the carrying of shovels and AK-47 rifles on US patrol vehicles – these were regularly dumped beside bodies to give the impression that they had been planting roadside bombs. Casey explained the orders he had been given:

”’Keep shovels on the truck and an AK, and if you see anybody out here at night on the roads, shoot them. Shoot them, and if they weren’t doing anything, throw a shovel off.’ At that time when we first got down there, you could basically kill whoever you wanted – it was that easy…

“You’re driving down the road at 3 in the morning, there’s a guy on the side of the road, you shoot him… you throw a shovel off.”

The IVAW website contains a harrowing interview with Iraq veteran, Doug Barber, who subsequently took his own life. Asked if he had seen any Iraqi civilians being killed, Barber replied:

“You know, I didn’t see any get killed, but we heard about it on a daily basis. I knew some guys in our unit had gone through it. They had experienced a situation where they were ambushed and had to open up, uh, open fire, on these people. The guys in the unit that had to open fire, well it really messed them up. It really messed them up bad, it really got to them.

“We would hear about our own friendly fire from the helicopters and some other combat units would hurt or kill civilians, things like that we knew were going on all the time.” (Jay Shaft, ‘Interview with Spc. Douglas Barber- OIF Vet suffering from PTSD’, December 3, 2005; http://groups.google.com/group/Coalitionforfreethoughtinmedia /msg/2fe6cd944011c4b5?dmode=source)

The killings at Haditha have generated some media coverage – there have been eight mentions in national British newspapers. One-off horrors of this kind are generally covered in brief and in isolation. During the Vietnam War, the US massacre of up to 500 civilians at My Lai eventually received substantial media coverage. To this day, My Lai continues to be presented as an isolated incident. In reviewing Haditha, the Daily Mail wrote, for example: “It has chilling echoes of America’s darkest hour in Vietnam [My Lai].” (Charles Laurence, Daily Mail, March 22, 2006)

But in fact My Lai, part of Operation Wheeler Wallawa, was unusual only in that it was reported. Newsweek journalist Kevin Buckley wrote:

“An examination of that whole operation would have revealed the incident at My Lai to be a particularly gruesome application of a wider policy which had the same effect in many places at many times. Of course, the blame for that could not be blamed on a stumblebum lieutenant. Calley was an aberration, but ‘Wheeler Wallawa’ was not.” (Quoted Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman, The Political Economy of Human Rights, Volume 1, South End Press, 1979, p.317)

By contrast to coverage of the incident at Haditha, Newsnight’s even more disturbing eyewitness accounts – suggesting the routine killing of civilians – have generated no response in the media: not one article discussing these reports has appeared in any newspaper since the film was shown.

Children Are Dying Daily

But this is hardly surprising, given the almost complete indifference of so many British journalists to the fate of Iraqis. Also ignored by the media was last week’s report that, “The mortality of children in Basra has increased by nearly 30 percent compared to the Saddam Hussein era,” according to Dr Haydar Salah, a paediatrician at the Basra Children’s Hospital. Dr Salah added:

“Children are dying daily, and no one is doing anything to help them.” (IRIN, ‘Doctors, NGOs warn of high infant mortality in Basra,’ April 11, 2006; http://www.reliefweb.int/rw/RWB.NSF/db900SID/LSGZ-6NRGZK? OpenDocument&rc=3&emid=ACOS-635P5D)

The causes are water-borne diseases and a lack of medical supplies. Marie Fernandez, spokeswoman for European aid agency Saving Children from War, reported:

“For weeks, there were no I.V. [intravenous] fluids available in the hospitals of Basra. As a consequence, many children, mainly under five-years old, died after suffering from extreme cases of diarrhoea. Hospitals have no ventilators to help prematurely-born babies breathe.”

Fernandez added that, for the last three years, the Maternity and Children’s hospital in Basra has not received any cancer drugs from the health ministry:

“In all of Basra, a city with nearly two million inhabitants, there’s no radiotherapy department available.”

This was reported by the UN’s Integrated Regional Information Network but has not been covered since by a single British newspaper. Recall that the protection of the civilian population of Basra is the legal responsibility of the British occupying forces. Why is the catastrophe befalling the children of Basra not filling the front pages of the Guardian and Independent? Why are government ministers not being called to account? Where are the demands for increased medical assistance and supplies from one of the world’s wealthiest countries? Where are the campaigns for donations and support? Is this not a clear example where even minimal media compassion would actually save lives?

In similar vein, a recent survey conducted by London-based Mercer Human Resource Consulting ranked Baghdad as the worst city in the world in terms of the quality of living, with a total score of 14.5. Other cities at the lower end of the scale were Brazzaville in the Congo Republic (30.3), Bangui in the Central African Republic (30.6) and Khartoum in Sudan (31.7).

Fadia Ibraheem, a senior official at the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs in Iraq, said:

“We have to admit, this city is getting worse everyday in regard to the quality of life. As long as US troops remain, the city will continue to deteriorate.” (‘For quality of life, Baghdad ranks last in world, survey finds,’ April 11, 2006, http://www.irin.org)

We can be sure that the better, more compassionate journalists are doing what they can to bring these horrors to the attention of a deceived British public. But the struggle is uneven – major corporate media have everything to gain from the current insane but lucrative status quo. And that status quo inevitably requires the West’s projection of military power for profits and control. The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman put it well:

“The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist. McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the F-15.” (Quoted, John Pilger, ‘The New Rulers of the World’, Verso, 2001, p.114)

SUGGESTED ACTION

The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. When writing emails to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

We have written to Paul Reynolds to congratulate him on his willingness to respond honestly to criticism. We have also congratulated Newsnight editor Peter Barron for his film providing a small glimpse of the suffering in Iraq.

Write to:

Paul.Reynolds-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk

and

peter.barron@bbc.co.uk

Email: editor@medialens.org

The first Media Lens book has now been published: ‘Guardians of Power: The Myth Of The Liberal Media’ by David Edwards and David Cromwell (Pluto Books, London, 2006). Described by John Pilger as “The most important book about journalism I can remember”, at time of writing (April 19), there have been no mentions or reviews in any mainstream British newspaper. For further details, including reviews, interviews and extracts, please click here:

http://www.medialens.org/bookshop/guardians_of_power.php

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Wednesday, April 19, 2006

 

All we are saying...


Monday, April 17, 2006

 

US Firms Suspected of Bilking Iraq Funds

Millions missing from program for rebuilding
by Farah Stockman

WASHINGTON -- American contractors swindled hundreds of millions of dollars in Iraqi funds, but so far there is no way for Iraq's government to recoup the money, according to US investigators and civil attorneys tracking fraud claims against contractors.

Courts in the United States are beginning to force contractors to repay reconstruction funds stolen from the American government. But legal roadblocks have prevented Iraq from recovering funds that were seized from the Iraqi government by the US-led coalition and then paid to contractors who failed to do the work.

A US law that allows citizens to recover money from dishonest contractors protects only the US government, not foreign governments.

In addition, an Iraqi law created by the Coalition Provisional Authority days before it ceded sovereignty to Iraq in June 2004 gives American contractors immunity from prosecution in Iraq.

''In effect, it makes Iraq into a 'free-fraud zone,' " said Alan Grayson, a Virginia attorney who is suing the private security firm Custer Battles in a whistle-blower lawsuit filed by former employees. A federal jury last month found the Rhode Island-based company liable for $3 million in fraudulent billings in Iraq.

Even the United Nations panel set up to monitor the use of Iraq's seized assets has no power to prosecute wrongdoers.

''The Iraqi people are out of luck, the way it stands right now," said Patrick Burns, spokesman for Taxpayers Against Fraud, a watchdog group that helps US citizens file cases such as the Custer Battles action.

Iraqi leaders, paralyzed by political deadlock in forming a new government, have so far made no formal complaint about funds that were paid out to dishonest contractors. But US officials say the need for Iraq to recoup the stolen money has become more urgent as it faces a budget shortfall of billions of dollars.

The problem has become so acute that an interagency working group, which includes officials from the State Department and the Department of Justice, has been set up to try to come up with a mechanism to return the funds, according to two US officials who are involved.

The issue dates to the earliest days after the March 2003 invasion, when US officials thought Iraqi money would cover the costs of reconstruction. As the Coalition Provisional Authority took control just after the fall of Saddam Hussein, it seized Iraq's oil revenues, money found in bank accounts and in Hussein's palaces, and the balance from the UN's oil-for-food program.

The coalition ultimately controlled more than $20.7 billion in Iraqi funds. The money was deposited into an account called the Development Fund for Iraq, or DFI, which was set up, in the words of the US administrator at the time, L. Paul Bremer III, ''for the benefit of the Iraqi people."

The fund represented the first cash reservoir US officials turned to as they worked to rebuild roads, bridges, and clinics. It carried fewer restrictions than the $18.4 billion in US funds appropriated around that time for reconstruction because those funds could only be used in ways designated by Congress.

But the Coalition Provisional Authority lacked basic controls and accounting procedures to keep track of the billions in Iraqi money it was doling out to contractors, according to a series of audits issued in 2005 and 2006 by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, a temporary office set up by Congress to oversee the use of reconstruction funds. One review of the files relating to 198 separate contracts found that 154 contained no evidence that goods or services promised by contractors were ever received, according to an April 2005 audit by the inspector general.

In some cases, contractors were paid twice for the same job. In others cases, they were paid for work that was never done.

In June 2004, the Coalition Provisional Authority handed power and control of the DFI back to an Iraqi government. By then, the coalition had spent or disbursed about $14 billion of the Iraqi fund on reconstruction projects and on the administration of the government, according to the audits.

Among the contracts paid for out of the Iraqi fund was Halliburton's controversial no-bid contract to restore Iraq's oil infrastructure, worth $2.4 billion. The Pentagon's auditors found $263 million in excessive or unsubstantiated costs for importing gasoline into Iraq, but the Pentagon said in February that it had agreed to pay a Halliburton subsidiary all but $10 million of the contested charges.

The special inspector general's investigations have resulted in the arrests of five suspects on criminal charges and is investigating 60 more cases involving alleged fraud and corruption in Iraq involving both US and DFI funds, according to James Mitchell, a spokesman for the inspector general.

In addition, at least seven more cases against contractors have been filed in US civil courts under the federal False Claims Act, according to two private lawyers who have personal knowledge of the suits. The act, which dates to the Civil War, allows citizens to sue on behalf of the government when they suspect fraud in federal contracting. The cases are currently under seal until the Justice Department investigates them to determine whether the government will join the suit.

The cases eventually could help the US Treasury recover hundreds of millions of dollars from corrupt contractors, according to Grayson, the attorney suing Custer Battles, the first such case to reach the courts and become public.

But the False Claims Act has not helped Iraq. Last month, a federal judge in Virginia ruled that it only protects the US government from fraud and that the United States suffered no direct economic loss from fraud involving Iraqi funds.

The result is a victory for American taxpayers, but a loss for Baghdad: In the first phase of the fraud claim involving Custer Battles, the jury ruled in March that the company should pay triple damages to the US Treasury for the $3 million it was paid for delivering a fleet of trucks that didn't work and old, spray-painted Iraqi cranes that were passed off as new imports. But the company, which has denied the charges in court and in other statements, does not have to repay any of the $12 million that came from the Development Fund for Iraq on the same contract, according to the judge's ruling.

Grayson said the injustice surrounding wasted Iraqi funds has helped fuel the insurgency.

''The DFI was essentially treated as a 'slush fund' for various quasi-military projects, run by US contractors over whom Iraqis had no control," he said. ''Like a colonial power, the Bush administration took Iraq's oil money, and wasted it. The Iraqis well know that. That's one reason why they're shooting at US soldiers."

Representative Henry A. Waxman, Democrat of California, has urged the administration to repay Iraq for the money paid to Custer Battles. ''This was Iraqi money, and it should be returned to the Iraqi people," he said in a statement.

The Justice Department, which is pursuing criminal cases against contractors, says there is a chance that Iraq eventually could receive some restitution.

In February, Robert J. Stein Jr., a North Carolina man who issued contracts on behalf of the Coalition Provisional Authority, pleaded guilty to conspiring with at least three others to steal more than $2 million from the Iraqi fund. The money, earmarked for refurbishing a police academy and library in the town of Hillah, was spent on expensive cars, machine guns, jewelry; hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash was also smuggled into the United States.

As part of a plea deal, Stein has agreed to pay $3.6 million in restitution, but Bryan Sierra, a spokesman for the Department of Justice, said it is too early to say whether Iraq will receive the money as part of that deal.

''It is possible that some of the money could go back to the Development Fund for Iraq," he said. ''But that hasn't been determined yet."

© Copyright 2006 Boston Globe


Wednesday, April 12, 2006

 

The Daily Drip of Special Favors for Special Interests

by Molly Ivins

We need to keep up with the daily drip, that endless succession of special favors for special interests performed by Congress, or we’ll never figure out how we got so far behind the eight ball. While the top Bushies lunge about test-driving new wars (great idea—the one we’re having is a bummer, so let’s start another!), Congress just keeps right on cranking out those corporate goodies.

Earlier this month, the House effectively repealed more than 200 state food safety and public health protections. Say, when was the last time you enjoyed a little touch of food poisoning? Coming soon to a stomach near you. What was really impressive about H.R. 4167, the “National Uniformity for Food Act,” is that it was passed without a public hearing.

“The House is trampling crucial health safeguards in every state without so much as a single public hearing,” said Erik Olson, attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “This just proves the old adage, ‘Money talks.’ The food industry spared no expense to ensure passage.”

Thirty-nine attorneys general, plus health, consumer and environmental groups, are opposing the law. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the food industry has spent more than $81 million on campaign contributions to members of Congress since 2000.

The bill would automatically override any state measure that is stronger than federal law, the opposite of what a sensible law would do. The NRDC says state laws protecting consumers from chemical additives, bacteria and ingredients that can trigger allergic reactions would be barred, and that includes alerts about chemical contamination in fish, health protection standards for milk and eggs, and warnings about chemicals or toxins such as arsenic, mercury and lead. Happy eating, all.

Here’s another little gem, one of those “it was after midnight and everyone wanted to go home” deals. Just a no-cost sweetener to encourage oil and gas companies to drill in the Gulf of Mexico—and who needs more encouragement these days than the oil companies? The poor things are making hardly any money at all. Just have the federal government waive the royalty rights for drilling in the publicly owned waters. Turns out this waiver will cost the government at least $7 billion over the next five years.

I roared with laughter upon reading that Texas Rep. Joe Barton had assured his colleagues the provision of energy bill was “so non-controversial” that senior House and Senate negotiators had not even discussed it. That’s one of the oldest ploys in the Texas handbook of sneaky tricks and has been successfully used to pass many a sweet deal for the oil industry.

“The big lie about this whole program is that it doesn’t cost anything,” Massachusetts Rep. Edward Markey told The New York Times. “Taxpayers are being asked to provide huge subsidies to oil companies to produce oil—it’s like subsidizing a fish to swim.”

Then there are daily drips so strange it’s hard to tell if members of Congress are clear on what they’re doing. You may have heard that more and more corporations are backing out of their pension obligations and dumping the responsibility on an under-funded federal agency.

So the push is on to get companies to pony up for the pension agency. According to the Financial Times: “Employers will be able to slash their contributions to under-funded pension schemes by tens of billions of dollars over the next five years under proposed legislation before Congress that was expected to have the opposite effect. The legislation was proposed by the White House last year to lessen the risk of a taxpayer bailout of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., a federal safety net for pension schemes.”

Brilliant. Anyone know how the White House went from protecting the Benefit Guaranty Corp. to slashing corporate contributions by tens of billions? Did they send Michael “Brownie” Brown to do the job?

Long ago, Abraham Lincoln wrote, “Corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money-power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in few hands and the republic is destroyed.”

Molly Ivins is the former editor of the liberal monthly The Texas Observer. She is the bestselling author of several books including Who Let the Dogs In?


 

For Hoops


Saturday, April 08, 2006

 

Fantasies in Green

Tony Juniper

April 4, 2006

From Global Echo Britain’s non-governmental groups will be joining forces this week to call for new laws to protect people and the environment from the impacts of big business. But why are we bothering to do that when so many companies tell us that they’ve gone green and are helping to end poverty?

If you listen to some corporations, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the normal rules of business have been suspended. Instead of simply being concerned with making profits, companies are now also interested in helping development and protecting the planet. Phew, that’s a relief then.

If only.

The impression of a change taking place in the priorities of business has been nurtured through the new fashion of so-called corporate social responsibility – or CSR. This process is meant to examine a company’s impacts, and set out actions to deal with them. Crucial to success is transparency and honest reporting by firms.

CSR is voluntary, however, which means companies don’t need to do it if they don’t want to. Even if they do, the standards employed are highly variable. After many years of campaigning, it is has become clear to me that the firms who most enthusiastically embraced CSR were those with something to hide. But shouldn’t we at least welcome CSR as a start?

Consider this. Of some 60,000 multinationals in the world today, only 3% even bother to do a social and environmental report, let alone take any action to reflect its findings. What about the 97% who don’t do a report at all? Even those that say they have embraced CSR as a management tool there is a great deal to be concerned about.

Shell is a well-known CSR proponent, famously claiming that there is no choice between profits and principles and yet the reality of its social and environmental impacts just won’t go away. That company has also misled its shareholders, inflating its oil and gas reserves, which had the effect of increasing the value of the company to investors. Right now, Shell is involved in operations that are likely to hasten the extinction of the last population of western Pacific grey whales. It is illegally flaring gas next to communities in Nigeria and is aggressively seeking out the new fossil fuels that will accelerate climate change. If that is CSR, I shudder to think what they would be up to if they were irresponsible.

Tesco, along with many other UK companies, uses palm oil in a wide range of products. This is a vegetable fat derived from oil palms. Plantations of this crop are being aggressively expanded into areas of pristine rainforests across south-east Asia, including through the last frontier regions of Borneo and Sumatra. The rapid loss of the forests that is directly caused by palm oil expansion is leading to the extinction of many species. The orang utan is one species that will disappear if something isn’t done soon to tame this rapacious industry. Palm oil expansion is also causing conflicts with forest people and human rights abuses. Some palm oil is produced in a more sustainable manner, but Tesco and other high-profile CSR advocates who use it in their businesses couldn’t tell you where theirs comes from. Surely having basic information about the source of palm oil would be a basic first step for a food company embracing CSR?

I think its fair to say that, despite CSR having become highly fashionable, a very great deal remains wanting to ensure that companies do not pursue profit at the expense of the greater good. That’s why at Friends of the Earth we are campaigning for new laws to require company directors to take steps to minimise their environmental impacts. We also want to give people new rights to challenge irresponsible firms in the courts here in the UK if there is no access to justice in countries outside the UK and where people are being affected by British-based firms. We also want the government to reverse its recent decision to cut back on the official environmental reporting requirements for companies. We are not alone; the Trade Justice Movement and Corporate Responsibility Coalition have joined forces on this agenda, uniting many millions of supporters of the country’s leading environmental, development and human rights groups.

The response from the government and bodies like the CBI are quite predictable. They say that companies should not be bound with more red tape, and that it is up to the market to determine what ethical, environmental and human rights standards should be adopted by companies. The market means you and I. Fair enough, up to a point. But what point?

Think for a moment about the palm oil trade that is annihilating the rainforests. When you go shopping, how will you decide which products have sustainable palm oil in them compared to the stuff that has been produced with environmental damage and worker abuses? Palm oil is in soup, bread, cakes, crisps, shampoo and a great range of other everyday buys you make at the shops. You can walk round Tesco all day trying to find out what are the best ethical buys, but only a tiny minority of products give you any information: a few fair trade lines, some energy efficiency information and some low-profile sustainable timber labelling is about it. What about the thousands of product lines without any environmental or social impacts information?

The logic that suggests we should use our purchasing power to secure the environment is very strange indeed. If we can’t tell what the impact of a particular product is, how can we avoid it? In any event, if we were told the market should decide on health and safety standards there would be an outcry. In that case, companies have quite rightly been given a broad duty to ensure consumer health and safety. Why not a similar responsibility toward the environment and human rights?

We have been lulled into a dream-world where it is claimed that corporations will be good to the environment and people as a matter of voluntary choice, and when they are not they will be punished by you and I as we make consumer choices. What absolute tosh.

It is time to leave the dream-world behind and to embrace reality. The place to do that is in the new company law reform bill that is now being put through parliament by the government. We want to see new legislation introduced to this bill that sets out duties that will elevate looking after people and the environment to the same level as making profits. There is already provision in the bill to make it clear that it is the legal duty of company directors to maximise profits for shareholders, and that needs to be matched with comparable duties to protect the environment we all depend on, and to safeguard the interests of people affected by a company’s operations.

When Sir Phillip Watts misled the shareholders of Shell about the company’s oil and gas reserves, he fell on his sword. When the company’s directors create a mistaken impression about its environmental and social performance, well that’s just a normal part of doing business. Because business won’t change on its own, the law must change to require it. If you agree, join the campaign for company law reform. The governments bill is the place to campaign for real solutions to corporate abuses of people and the planet. We won’t get another chance like this for decades, so let’s make the most of it.

 

Kick it Over! – The Rise of Post-Autistic Economics

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The university-aged children of France’s ruling class ought to have been contentedly biding their time. They were, after all, destined to move into the high-powered positions reserved for graduates of the elite École Normale Supérieure (ENS). “The ENS is for the very good students, and the very good students aren’t afraid to ask questions,” says Sorbonne economist Bernard Geurrien.

He was addressing a conference on the disconnect between mainstream neoclassical economics instruction and reality. Economics has an ideological function, he told them, to put forth the idea that the markets will resolve everything. In fact, he added, economic theory absolutely doesn’t show that.

A group of economics students, their worst fears confirmed, approached Guerrien eager to “do something.” A week later, 15 of them gathered in a classroom to hash out a plan of attack. Someone called the reigning neoclassical dogma “autistic!” The analogy would stick: like sufferers of autism, the field of economics was intelligent but obsessive, narrowly focussed, and cut off from the outside world.

By June, their outrage had coalesced into a petition signed by hundreds of students demanding reform within economics teaching, which they said had become enthralled with complex mathematical models that only operate in conditions that don’t exist. “We wish to escape from imaginary worlds!” they declared. Networking through the internet and reaching the media through powerful family connections, they made their case.

“Call to teachers: wake up before it’s too late!” they demanded. “We no longer want to have this autistic science imposed on us.” They decried an excessive reliance on mathematics “as an end in itself,” and called for a plurality of approaches.

With that, ‘autisme-économie,’ the post-autistic economics (PAE) movement, was born.

Their revolutionary arguments created an earthquake in the French media, beginning with a report in Le Monde that sent a chill through the academic establishment. Several prominent economists voiced support and a professors’ petition followed. The French government, no doubt recalling the revolutionary moment of May 1968, when students led a 10-day general strike that rocked the republic to its foundations, promptly set up a special commission to investigate. It was headed by leading economist Jean-Paul Fitoussi, who also traveled to Madrid to address Spain’s nascent “post-autistic” student movement. Fitoussi’s findings: the rebels had a cause. Most important to the PAE, Fitoussi agreed to propose new courses oriented to “the big problems” being ignored by mainstream economics: unemployment, the economy and the environment.

A backlash was inevitable. Several economists (notably the American Robert Solow from MIT), launched a return volley. What followed was an attempt to discredit the PAE by implying that the students were anti-intellectuals opposed to the “scientificity” of neoclassical economics. The accusations didn’t stick: the dissenters were top students who had done the math and found it didn’t add up.

Gilles Raveaud, a key pae student leader, along with Emmanuelle Benicourt and Iona Marinescu, sees today’s faith in neoclassical economics as “an intellectual game” that, like Marxism and the Bible, purports to explain everything, rather than admitting there are many issues it hasn’t figured out. “We’ve lost religion,” says Raveaud, “so we’ve got something else to give meaning to our lives.”

Benicourt described his hope for PAE as follows: “We hope it will trigger concrete transformations of the way economics is taught . . . We believe that understanding real-world economic phenomena is enormously important to the future well-being of humankind, but that the current narrow, antiquated and naive approaches to economics and economics teaching make this understanding impossible. We therefore hold it to be extremely important, both ethically and economically, that reforms like the ones we have proposed are, in the years to come, carried through, not just in France, but throughout the world.”

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Raveaud and Marinescu, key French PAE student leaders, visited the Cambridge Workshop on Realism and Economics in the UK. “It must have been the right time,” says Phil Faulkner, a PhD student at Cambridge University. That June he and 26 other disgruntled PhD students issued their own reform manifesto, called “Opening Up Economics,” that soon attracted 750 signatures. Economics students at Oxford University, who had been at the same workshop, followed with their own “post-autistic” manifesto and website. Similar groups linked to heterodox (as opposed to orthodox) economics began emerging elsewhere in Europe and South America.

The Cambridge rebellion “was prompted by frustration,” says Faulkner, but they hadn’t expected such a positive reception from fellow students. “If anyone were to be happy about the way economics had gone, we’d expect it to be PhD students, because if they were unhappy with it, they simply wouldn’t be here. In fact, that wasn’t the case.”

As expected, Cambridge ignored them. Their efforts, Faulkner explains, were meant to show support for the French students and to use their privileged position at the esteemed economics department to demonstrate to the rest of the world their discontent. Some of the signatories worried that speaking out could have dire consequences, and the original letter was unsigned. “I think it’s more future possibilities, getting jobs, etc., that [made them think] it might not be smart to be associated with this stuff,” says Faulkner. He says he already knew that his research interests meant he would have to work outside of the mainstream: “There was nothing to lose really.”

Edward Fullbrook, a research fellow at the University of the West of England, had already launched the first post-autistic economics newsletter in September 2000. Inspired by the French student revolt and outraged by stories emerging from American campuses that courses on the history of economic thought were being eradicated (which he viewed as an effort to facilitate complete indoctrination of students), Fullbrook battled hate mail and virus attacks to get the newsletter off the ground. Soon, prominent economists such as James Galbraith stepped up to offer encouragement and hard copy. The subscriber list ballooned from several dozen to 7,500 around the world.

Fullbrook edited The Crisis in Economics, a book based on PAE contributions, now being translated into Chinese. Textbook publishers, always hunting for the next big thing, have been inquiring about PAE textbooks. It makes sense, says Fullbrook, since enrollments in standard economics classes have been dropping, cutting into textbook revenues. In other words, students just aren’t buying it. Ironically, says Fullbrook, “Market forces are working against neoclassical economics.”

One of his contributors is Australian economist Steve Keen, who led a student rebellion in 1973 that led to the formation of the political economy department at Sydney University. “Neoclassical economics has become a religion,” says Keen. “Because it has a mathematical veneer, and I emphasize the word veneer, they actually believe it’s true. Once you believe something is true, you’re locked into its way of thinking unless there’s something that can break in from the outside and destroy that confidence.”

But the neoclassical model still reigns supreme at Cambridge. Phil Faulkner now teaches at a university college, but is limited to mainstream economics, the only game in town. “If you’re into math, it’s a fun thing to do,” he says. “It’s little problems, little puzzles, so it’s an enjoyable occupation. But I don’t think it’s insightful. I don’t think it tells these kids about the things it claims to describe, markets or individuals.”

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Sitting in an overcrowded café near Harvard Square, talking over the din of full-volume Fleetwood Mac and espresso fueled chatter, Gabe Katsh describes his disillusionment with economics teaching at Harvard University. The red-haired 21-year-old makes it clear that not all of Harvard’s elite student body, who pay close to $40,000 a year, are the “rationally” self-interested beings that Harvard’s most influential economics course pegs them as.

“I was disgusted with the way ideas were being presented in this class and I saw it as hypocritical – given that Harvard values critical thinking and the free marketplace of ideas – that they were then having this course which was extremely doctrinaire,” says Katsh. “It only presented one side of the story when there are obviously others to be presented.”

For two decades, Harvard’s introductory economics class has been dominated by one man: Martin Feldstein. It was a New York Times article on Feldstein titled “Scholarly Mentor To Bush’s Team,” that lit the fire under the Harvard activist. Calling the Bush economic team a “Feldstein alumni club,” the article declared that he had “built an empire of influence that is probably unmatched in his field.” Not only that, but thousands of Harvard students “who have taken his, and only his, economics class during their Harvard years have gone on to become policy-makers and corporate executives,” the article noted. “I really like it; I’ve been doing it for 18 years,” Feldstein told the Times. “I think it changes the way they see the world.”

That’s exactly Katsh’s problem. As a freshman, he’d taken Ec 10, Feldstein’s course. “I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that Ec 10 presents itself as politically neutral, presents itself as a science, but really espouses a conservative political agenda and the ideas of this professor, who is a former Reagan advisor, and who is unabashedly Republican,” he says. “I don’t think I’m alone in wanting a class that presents a balanced viewpoint and is not trying to cover up its conservative political bias with economic jargon.”

In his first year at Harvard, Katsh joined a student campaign to bring a living wage to Harvard support staff. Fellow students were sympathetic, but many said they couldn’t support the campaign because, as they’d learned in Ec 10, raising wages would increase unemployment and hurt those it was designed to help. During a three-week sit-in at the Harvard president’s office, students succeeded in raising workers’ wages, though not to “living wage” standards.

After the living wage ‘victory’, Harvard activists from Students for a Humane and Responsible Economics (SHARE) decided to stage an intervention. This time, they went after the source, leafleting Ec 10 classes with alternative readings. For a lecture on corporations, they handed out articles on corporate fraud. For a free trade lecture, they dispensed critiques of the WTO and IMF. Later, they issued a manifesto reminiscent of the French post-autistic revolt, and petitioned for an alternative class. Armed with 800 signatures, they appealed for a critical alternative to Ec 10. Turned down flat, they succeeded in introducing the course outside the economics department.

Their actions follow on the Kansas City Proposal, an open letter to economics departments “in agreement with and in support of the Post-Autistic Economics Movement and the Cambridge Proposal” that was signed by economics students and academics from 22 countries.

Harvard President Lawrence Summers illustrates the kind of thinking that emerges from neoclassical economics. Summers is the same former chief economist of the World Bank who sparked international outrage after his infamous memo advocating pollution trading was leaked in the early 1990s. “Just between you and me, shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging MORE migration of the dirty industries to the LDCs [Less Developed Countries]?” the memo inquired. “I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that . . . I’ve always thought that under-populated countries in Africa are vastly UNDER-polluted . . . ”

Brazil’s then-Secretary of the Environment, Jose Lutzenburger, replied: “Your reasoning is perfectly logical but totally insane . . . Your thoughts [provide] a concrete example of the unbelievable alienation, reductionist thinking, social ruthlessness and the arrogant ignorance of many conventional ‘economists’ concerning the nature of the world we live in.”

Summers later claimed the memo was intended ironically, while reports suggested it was written by an aide. In any case, Summers devoted his 2003/2004 prayer address at Harvard to a “moral” defense of sweatshop labor, calling it the “best alternative” for workers in low-wage countries.

“You can’t ignore the academic foundations for what’s going on in politics,” says Jessie Marglin, a Harvard sophomore with share. share didn’t want a liberal class with its own hegemony of ideas. It wanted “a critical class in which you have all the perspectives rather than just that of the right.” Without an academic basis for criticism, other approaches “aren’t legitimized by the institution,” she says. “It becomes their word versus Professor Feldstein, who is very powerful.”

Harvard economics professor Stephen Marglin, Jessie’s father, teaches the new course. A faculty member since 1967, Marglin was the tail end of a generation formed by the Great Depression and World War II. “This generation,” he says, “believed that in some cases markets could be the solution, but that markets could also be the problem.”

His new course still uses the Ec 10 textbook, but includes a critical evaluation of the underlying assumptions. Marglin wants to provide balance, rather than bias.

“I’m trying to provide ammunition for people to question what it is about this economic [system] that makes them want to go out in the streets to protest it,” he says. “I’m responding in part to what’s going on and I think the post-autistic economics group is responding to that. Economics doesn’t lead politics, it follows politics. Until there is a broadening of the political spectrum beyond a protest in Seattle or a protest in Washington, there will not be a broader economics. People like me can plant a few seeds but those seeds won’t germinate until the conditions are a lot more suitable.”

The revolution is spreading. A slogan emblazoned on a wall on a Madrid campus, where the PAE movement has been making inroads, makes its case: “¡La economia es de gente, no de curvas!” – “Economics is about people, not curves!”

Deborah Campbell

 

'The War is Illegal. I Can't Pay for a Government Killing Machine'

by Geneviève Roberts

A man has vowed to go to prison rather than pay taxes which he believes would fund a "blatantly illegal war" in Iraq.

Robin Brookes, 52, appeared at Swindon County Court for refusing to pay a £580 income tax bill. Describing an imminent seizure of his goods as "blood money", the doll's house designer, from Market Lavington in Wiltshire, said: "I don't want to break the law, and I want to contribute to education and health, the law and the police force, but I cannot pay for a government's killing machine.

"The Iraq war is illegal and it is against the will of the people, which was amply demonstrated by people marching in London. I have been withholding taxes since the March 2003 invasion."

Mr Brookes, who believes that 10 per cent of all tax is used by the Government to fund the military, was told by magistrates on Monday that bailiffs would seize his goods on 5 May unless he paid up.

Mr Brookes is withholding the £580 which, along with £550 that he has already been forced to pay, he says represents 10 per cent of all tax he has paid since the invasion.

His two children, Clare, 26, and Oliver, 25, were fully behind his stance, Mr Brookes said: "Having invaded and made a complete mess of Iraq, the British and American troops have no place there - we've totally messed it up and should get out. People live in fear of crime and kidnapping. To get one man [Saddam], there have been tens of thousands of deaths."

He would not put up any "physical resistance" when the bailiffs arrive and was happy to go to jail if they failed to recover enough property to cover the debt.

"Why should I worry?" he said. "It's the poor devils in Iraq I am concerned about. Their houses are bombed, they live in fear, their communities are in ruins. I don't seek to decide where the money should go. It could go on education or health or perhaps into a non-violent conflict resolution."

He appeared in court three years ago over his refusal to pay taxes. In October 2003, magistrates in Chippenham told Mr Brookes he was able to express his opinion through the ballot box and gave him three months to pay £550. Bailiffs seized the money from Mr Brookes' home, where he lives with his wife Gil, in January 2004. He had pinned the money to a board, over which he wrote a banner stating: "Every 10 seconds, Britain spends this much on occupying Iraq."

Mr Brookes is part of the "peace tax seven", a group of men and women who have all refused to pay their taxes towards what they believe is an illegal war.

They want a peace tax fund to be established into which pacifists can pay they taxes towards peaceful uses, such as education and health and non-violent conflict resolution.

"This is not about money, it is about conscience," Mr Brookes said. ""At best the money is simply wasted. A non-violent conflict resolution programme is urgently needed. I am appalled by the huge amount of money spent on the military, which is ultimately only going to create misery, death and destruction."

The group took their case to the High Court in June last year, and after being refused permission for a judicial review, they appeared at the Court of Appeal four weeks ago. If they are unsuccessful, they will take the case to Strasbourg.


 

The Danger of Hugo Chávez's Successful Socialism

by Ted Rall

When the hated despots of nations like Saudi Arabia and Kazakhstan loot their countries' treasuries, transfer their oil wealth to personal Swiss bank accounts and use the rest to finance (in the House of Saud's case) terrorist extremists, American politicians praise them as trusted friends and allies. But when a democratically elected populist president uses Venezuela's oil profits to lift poor people out of poverty, they accuse him of pandering.

As the United States and Europe continue their shift toward a Darwinomic model where rapacious corporations accrue bigger and bigger profits while workers become poorer and poorer, the socialist economic model espoused by President Hugo Chávez has become wildly popular among Latin Americans tired of watching corrupt right-wing leaders enrich themselves at their expense. Left-of-center governments have recently won power in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay. Chávez's uncompromising rhetoric matches his politics, but what's really driving the American government and its corporate masters crazy is that he has the cash to back it up.

In their desperate frenzy to destroy Chávez, state-controlled media is resorting to some of the most transparently and hilariously hypocritical talking points ever. In the April 4th New York Times Juan Forero repeated the trope that Chávez's use of oil revenues is unfair--even cheating somehow: "With Venezuela's oil revenues rising 32 percent last year," the paper exclaimed, "Mr. Chávez has been subsidizing samba parades in Brazil, eye surgery for poor Mexicans and even heating fuel for poor families from Maine to the Bronx to Philadelphia. By some estimates, the spending now surpasses the nearly $2 billion Washington allocates to pay for development programs and the drug war in western South America."

Chávez, the story continued, is poised to become "the next Fidel Castro, a hero to the masses who is intent on opposing every move the United States makes, but with an important advantage."

Heavens be! A rich country using its wealth to spread influence abroad! What God would permit such an abomination? Notice, by the way, that the United States funds "development programs." Oh, and it's a "drug war"--not a bombing campaign against leftist insurgents who oppose South America's few remaining pro-U.S. right-wing regimes.

Quoted by the Times--which editorialized in favor of and ran flattering profiles of the right-wing oligarchs who attempted to overthrow Chávez in a 2002 coup attempt--is "critic" John Negroponte, whose day job happens to be as Bush's Director of National Intelligence. Negroponte complained that Chávez is "spending considerable sums involving himself in the political and economic life of other countries in Latin America and elsewhere, this despite the very real economic development and social needs of his own country."

Pot, kettle, please discuss the $1 billion a week we're wasting on Iraq while people die for lack of medical care and schools fall apart right here in America. Maybe Chávez should have found a better use for the money he spent on Rio's Carnival parade. On the other hand, at least it didn't go to bombs and torture camps.

Televangelist Pat Robertson's 2005 call to assassinate Chávez was criticized only mildly by establishment media, and primarily on the basis that murdering heads of state violates a U.S. law. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice accuses Chávez of a "Latin brand of populism that has taken countries down the drain." Which ones? Certainly not Venezuela itself, where a double-digit-GDP boom leads the region and new houses, $10 billion per year is banked for future anti-poverty programs and schools are sprouting like weeds.

Loaded language unworthy of a junior high school newspaper is the norm in coverage of the Venezuelan president. "Chavez insists his government is democratic and accuses Washington of conspiring against him," the San Jose Mercury-News wrote on April 3rd. Why the "insists"? No international observer doubts that Venezuela, where the man who won the election gets to be president, is at least as democratic as the United States. The 2002 coup plotters gathered beforehand at the White House. Surely the Merc could grant Chávez's "accusation" as fact. The paper continued: "He says the United States was behind a short-lived 2002 coup, an allegation that U.S. officials reject." He also happens to be right, though it's hard to tell by reading that sentence.

Eighty-two percent of Venezuelans think Chávez is doing a good job. That's more than twice the approval rating by Americans of Bush. He roundly defeated an attempt to recall him. So why is Washington lecturing Caracas?

"The [Venezuelan] government is making billions of dollars [from its state oil company] and spending them on houses, education, medical care," notes CNN. And--gasp--people's lives are improving.

What if the rest of us noticed? No wonder Chávez has to go.

Ted Rall is the editor of "Attitude 3: The New Subversive Online Cartoonists," an anthology of webcartoons which will be published in May.


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