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Lee Drutman on Gun Control Politics, Pat Elder on School Militarization

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Enough Is Enough (cc photo: Elvert Barnes)

(cc photo: Elvert Barnes)

This week on CounterSpin: “A ‘gun-free’ school is a magnet for bad people” is a real statement from the actual president, in response to a horrific event in which a 19-year-old shot and killed 17 people at his former high school in Parkland, Florida. Which suggests that waiting for Trump to act to prevent gun violence should be no part of an effort to prevent gun violence.

If Americans really want to stop being “the only country where this happens,” which keeps officially claiming there’s “no way to prevent” it, it will require not just deep examination of the multiple roots of mass violence of this sort, but also an approach to political processes that keeps its eye on the prize of real change. We’ll talk about possibilities of movement on the issue of gun control and about some of the other cultural aspects of this violence, whose examination has to be part of getting beyond this cycle of mass shootings and ‘thoughts and prayers’ and more mass shootings.

Lee Drutman is a senior fellow in the Political Reform program at New America and author of the book, The Business of America is Lobbying. He wrote “Parkland could be a turning point for gun control” for

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We’ll also hear from Pat Elder, author of the book Military Recruiting in the United States and director of the National Coalition to Protect Student Privacy, which resists the militarization of schools.

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And Janine Jackson takes a quick look at recent coverage of inequality and “the market.”

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Policy Choices, Not ‘the Market,’ Produce a ‘Small Number of Very Wealthy People’

NYT: The Destructive Dynamics of Political Tribalism

Amy Chua (New York Times, 2/20/18) writes that “by their very nature, markets and democracy coexist in deep tension,” because “capitalism creates a small number of very wealthy people, while democracy potentially empowers a poor majority resentful of that wealth.”

It is amazing how frequently we hear people asserting that the massive inequality we are now seeing in the United States is the result of an unfettered market. I realize that this is a convenient view for those who are on the upside of things, but it also happens to be nonsense.

The latest nonsense-pusher is Amy Chua, who warns in a New York Times column (2/20/18) about the destructive path the United States is now on, where a disaffected white population takes out its wrath on economic elites and racial minorities. The key part missing from the story is that the disaffected masses really do have a legitimate gripe.

We didn’t have to make patent and copyright monopolies ever longer and stronger, allowing folks like Bill Gates to get incredibly rich. We could have made Amazon pay the same sales tax as their mom-and-pop competitors, which would mean Jeff Bezos would not be incredibly rich. We could subject Wall Street financial transactions to the same sort of sales taxes people pay on shoes and clothes, hugely downsizing the high incomes earned in this sector. And we could have rules of corporate governance that make it easier for shareholders to rein in CEO pay.

None of the rules we have in place that redistribute upward were given to us by the market. They were the result of deliberate economic policy. (Yes, this is the topic of my [free] book Rigged: How Globalization and the Rules of the Modern Economy Were Structured to Make the Rich Richer.) It is understandable that the losers from this upward redistribution would be resentful, and they likely are even more resentful when the beneficiaries of the rigging pretend that it was just a natural outcome of the market.

You can send a message to the New York Times at (Twitter:@NYTOpinion). Please remember that respectful communication is the most effective. Source:

Painting an Israeli Attack on Syria as Israeli ‘Retaliation’

Examples of Israeli "retaliation."

Reuters, Vice and LA Times write about Israeli “retaliation.”

Israel claimed that it intercepted an Iranian drone in Israeli airspace on Saturday, February 10; Iran denied that it had a drone there. Israel then bombed a Syrian airbase, saying it was the command-and-control center from which Iran had launched the drone. The Syrian government shot down an Israeli jet that had bombed the base, and Israel subsequently launched more airstrikes against Syria.

Reuters (2/13/18) described the latter airstrikes as Israel having “retaliated” for the downing of its aircraft. Vice (2/13/18) too characterized them as “retaliatory”; the Los Angeles Times (2/11/18) did the same three times. These word choices wrongly imply that Israel was acting defensively, when it was Israel who fired the first shots in the weekend’s exchanges: These outlets were saying that Israel was “retaliating” against Syria for defending itself against an ongoing Israeli attack.

“Retaliation” is an exculpatory term. To say that a party is “retaliating” is to say that their actions are an understandable response to another party’s provocation. As FAIR’s Rachel Coen and Peter Hart (Extra!, 5–6/02) wrote more than a decade and a half ago, the term “lays responsibility for the cycle of violence at the doorstep of the party being ‘retaliated’ against, since they presumably initiated the conflict.” In this case, casting Syria and Iran as the aggressors rests on the dubious assumption that flying a drone over Israel—if Israel’s charge is accurate—is more aggressive than Israel dropping bombs on Syria.

CNN: Israel: Jets Faced Heavy Syrian Anti-Aircraft Fire

Painting warplanes carrying out an aggressive bombing raid as victims.

It also rests on the flawed assumption that the timeline of hostilities between Israel and the Syrian government began on Friday, February 9. However, despite the Associated Press’s untenable claim (2/10/18) that “Israel has mostly stayed out of the prolonged fighting in Syria,” Israel admits to having bombed the Syrian government and its ally Hezbollah nearly 100 times since the war in Syria began in 2011 (Reuters, 2/6/18). If Brigadier General Amnon Ein Dar, the head of the Israeli Air Force’s Air Division, is to be believed (Ynet, 2/11/18), the Israeli military has “carried out thousands of missions in Syria in the last year alone.”

A Washington Post article (2/10/18) made the similarly dubious assertion that “Israel has largely stood on the sidelines of the Syrian conflict over the past seven years.” In the next paragraph, though, the author acknowledges that “Israel has conducted dozens of covert airstrikes against [the Syrian government-aligned] Hezbollah weapons convoys in Syria,” and the piece goes on, in a spectacular display of self-contradiction, to note that “Israel has carried out a number of significant attacks in Syria in recent months.”

Israel has also supported the Syrian armed opposition for years, the Wall Street Journal (6/18/17) reported, supplying fighters with food, fuel, medical supplies “and money payments to commanders that help pay salaries of fighters and buy ammunition and weapons.” According to the Journal, the Israeli army “is in regular communication with rebel groups,” and Israel “has established a military unit that oversees the support in Syria—a country that it has been in a state of war with for decades—and set aside a specific budget for the aid, said one person familiar with Israeli operation.” There is even reason to believe that Israel has had an alliance with the Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria (Middle East Monitor, 5/26/15; Electronic Intifada, 6/16/15). None of the articles cited here on the February 10 clashes mentioned this important backdrop.

Turning an Occupation Into a ‘Border’

Golan Heights (cc photo: Kyle Taylor)

The Golan Heights, an Israeli-occupied part of Syria. (cc photo: Kyle Taylor)

Coverage of these events also failed to correctly describe the status of the Golan Heights, a piece of land that is central to the Israeli/Syrian conflict. Israel occupied the territory in the 1967 war, fought off a Syrian effort to reclaim it in 1973, and illegally annexed it in 1981. Israel has sought to take advantage of the war that has devastated Syria for nearly seven years by, as Matt Broomfield writes in the Electronic Intifada (11/11/16), planning a fivefold increase in the number of Israeli settlers in the Golan, allocating $108 million for 750 new Israeli agricultural projects in the territory, and significantly expanding military forces along the boundary between Syria and the area under Israeli control.

The New York Times (2/10/18) made two references to “the Israeli-held portion of the Golan Heights,”  a rather anodyne depiction of territory that is internationally recognized as Syrian, but which Israel seized by force of arms and claimed for itself.

The Washington Post (2/10/18) said that “Israel shares a contentious border with Syria—the Golan Heights.” But the Golan isn’t “a contentious border”; it’s a territory that, despite Israeli claims to the contrary, unambiguously belongs to Syria under international law.

A CNN report (2/11/18) closed by saying that “authorities also accused Syria in November of violating the 1974 ceasefire agreement [with Israel] by “conducting construction work” in the northern part of the Golan Demilitarized Zone.” While it’s unclear which authorities are being referenced, this passage neglects to mention that by late 2015, Israel had built 30 settlements, housing 20,000 settlers, in the Golan, or that a year later it announced plans for 1,600 new homes in the territory, “construction work” that has been roundly condemned by “authorities” like the United Nations.

Moreover, 20,000 Syrians live in the Golan, and many are directly harmed by Israeli policies. According to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), Israel’s discriminatory land, housing and development policies in the territory have made it hard for Syrians to get building permits, leading to increasingly overcrowded Syrian towns and villages. The UNHRC also points out that Israel has demolished a Syrian home, and that a number of Syrian homeowners have reportedly received demolition notices.

This larger context of Israel’s Syria policies would have helped news readers make sense of what occurred on February 10, but it was absent. Given that Israel had just launched an airstrike on a Syrian base, has apparently bombed Syria close to 100 times in the past six years, has carried out perhaps 1,000 attacks against it in the last year, has backed an armed insurgency against the Syrian government, and has stolen and illegally colonized Syrian land while oppressing and dispossessing Syrian civilians, it is far more accurate to say that Syria retaliated against Israel on February 10. Source:

Next on NPR: Some Think You Should Put Out Fire With Gasoline

NPR: After Parkland Shooting, Conservative Media Criticize Calls For Stricter Gun Laws

After yet another school massacre, NPR News (2/19/18) turns to gun expert Rush Limbaugh: “We need concealed carry in these schools.”

If a measles epidemic were sweeping the nation, with a mounting death toll of children, it’s unlikely that NPR News would respond by bringing on Jenny McCarthy to explain why vaccination wouldn’t save lives. And if they did feature her or other anti-vaccination voices, you can be fairly sure that NPR would follow up with experts expressing the scientific consensus that vaccines do in fact limit the spread of infectious diseases.

But when it came to reporting on the epidemic of mass shootings, All Things Considered (2/19/18) gave a platform to the gun debate’s equivalents of anti-vaxxers, in a segment that gave no scrutiny to their claim that more guns are the solution to gun violence.

NPR quoted Rush Limbaugh on Fox News Sunday (2/18/18): “The solution, to me and I know this is going to cause all kinds of angst, the solution is we need concealed carry in these schools.” And Fox‘s Tucker Carlson (2/15/18): “Tragedies like this happen for a reason, and it probably doesn’t have a lot to do with guns.”

Regular people, too, gave their opinions on what causes shooting massacres: “We took prayer out of the school system,” says one Manuel Garcia of North Carolina. “And this is why all this is happening.” If we can’t put God back, at least we could put guns in: “I feel like they should put guns in the classrooms now with the teachers,” NPR quotes Fort Lauderdale “stay-at-home mom” Sabrina Belony. “I feel like teachers should be trained to be armed for something because teachers lost their lives trying to protect his class.”

The only response to this in the All Things Considered segment is a paraphrase of the perspective of students who survived the Parkland massacre: “They say the real problem is that weak gun laws allowed one deeply troubled teen to buy a semi-automatic rifle legally.”

This is what passes for objectivity in establishment media: a willful denial that there is any way to answer questions that people feel strongly about. In fact, the question of whether more guns result in less violence is one researchers have studied—not as much as they could have, granted, given the NRA-imposed limits on gun research—and other media outlets have reported the answers they’ve found.

Scientific American: More Guns Do Not Stop More Crimes, Evidence Shows

You don’t have to be Scientific American to look at the science behind gun claims.

In a piece headlined “Guns Do Not Stop More Crimes, Evidence Shows,” Scientific American (10/1/17) quoted physician and gun researcher Garen Wintemute’s summary of the state of the evidence: “There are a few studies that suggest that liberalizing access to concealed firearms has, on balance, beneficial effects. There are a far larger number of studies that suggest that it has, on balance, detrimental effects.” In “No, More Guns Won’t Prevent Mass Shootings,” NBC (11/6/17) cited Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research:

The more guns are readily available, the more shootings occur. That’s what the latest research shows. When states make it more easy for people to carry guns, the number of incidents of aggravated assault grows.

After the Newtown massacre, Salon‘s “The Answer Is Not More Guns” (12/17/12) quoted University of Washington epidemiologist Fred Rivara: “There is no data supporting [the] argument that the further arming of citizens will lessen the death toll in massacres like the one this week in Connecticut.” Mother Jones (12/15/12) pointed out, based on its database of mass shootings, that despite a 50 percent increase in the number of private guns since 1995 and numerous laws making it easier to carry a concealed weapon, there are virtually no cases of an armed civilian stopping a shooting spree.

NPR didn’t cite any evidence, or ask any experts to weigh in on conservatives’ claim that more guns are the solution to gun violence. It’s a strikingly irresponsible approach to covering a deadly epidemic.

You can contact NPR ombud Elizabeth Jensen via NPR’s contact form or via Twitter@EJensenNYC. Please remember that respectful communication is the most effective. Source:

WSJ’s Epic Distortion of Colombian and Venezuelan Refugees

WSJ: Venezuela's Misery Fuels Migration on Epic Scale

The Wall Street Journal (2/13/18) writes that the 550,000 Venezuelans in Colombia “mirror the 600,000 Syrian asylum seekers in Germany”—ignoring the 3.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, the 1 million in Lebanon, the 650,000 in Jordan….

A Wall Street Journal article by Juan Forero (2/13/18) ran with the headline “Venezuela’s Misery Fuels Migration on Epic Scale.The subhead stated,Residents Flee Crumbling Economy in Numbers That Echo Syrians to Europe, Rohingya to Bangladesh.”

Forero’s article quoted a UN official: “By world standards, Colombia is receiving migrants at a pace that now rivals what we saw in the Balkans, in Greece, in Italy in 2015, at the peak of [Europe’s] migrant emergency.” Further on, Forero says, “The influx prompted Colombian officials to travel to Turkey last year to study how authorities were dealing with Syrian war refugees.”

Two enormous problems with the way Forero and his editors have framed this article should immediately stand out:

  1. Colombia’s population of internally displaced people is about 7 million, and has consistently been neck and neck with Syria’s.  According to the UNHCR, as of mid-2016, Colombia is also the Latin American country which has the most number of refugees living outside its borders: over 300,000, mainly in Venezuela and Ecuador. Forero and his editors picked the wrong country to compare with Syria.
  2. Greece and Italy do not share a border with Syria, nor do the Balkans as they are generally defined. Colombia and Venezuela, by contrast, share a very long border.  Forero’s comparison, therefore, excludes states that border Syria. Three of those bordering states—Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey—collectively absorbed 4.4 million Syrian refugees by 2016; five years after war broke out in Syria, Turkey alone took in almost 3 million.

It’s very important to expand on the first point.  Colombia is a humanitarian and human rights disaster, and has been for decades, in very large part due to its close alliance with the United States. Thanks to Wikileaks (CounterPunch, 2/23/12), we know that US officials privately acknowledged estimates that hundreds of thousands of people were murdered by right-wing paramilitaries, and that the killings have nearly wiped out some indigenous groups. Those genocidal paramilitaries have worked closely with the Colombian military that Trump Chief of Staff John Kelly praised in 2014 as a “magnificent” US partner.  “They’re so appreciative of what we did for them,” raved Kelly.

Colombian military police (cc photo: Pipeafcr/Wikimedia)

Colombian military police (cc photo: Pipeafcr/Wikimedia)

Praise for Colombia’s government has also come from the liberal end of the US establishment, albeit with much more subtlety than from Kelly. In 2014, a New York Times editorial (9/21/14) stated that “Colombia, Brazil and other Latin American countries should lead an effort to prevent Caracas from representing the region [on the UN Security Council] when it is fast becoming an embarrassment on the continent.” So to Times editors, Colombia is a regional good guy that must lead its neighbors in shunning Venezuela.

Colombia’s current president, Juan Manuel Santos, was minister of Defense from 2006 to 2009. From 2002 to 2008, the Colombian military murdered about 3,000 civilians, passing them off as slain rebels. As human rights lawyer Dan Kovalik explained (Huffington Post, 11/20/14) , the International Criminal Court (ICC) “concluded that these killings were systemic, approved by the highest ranks of the Colombian military, and that they therefore constituted ‘state policy.’” The murders occurred with the greatest frequency between 2004 and 2008, which Kovalik observed “also corresponds with the time in which the US was providing the highest level of military aid to Colombia.”

If Colombian and US officials evade prosecution for all of this, it will be with the help of corporate media—as well as the severe limitations powerful governments impose on international bureaucracies like the ICC. Kovalik remarked:

You might say, no official of the US can be prosecuted by the ICC because the US has refused to ratify the ICC treaty. While this may appear to be true, this did not stop the ICC from prosecuting officials from the Sudan—also not a signatory to the ICC.

The closest Forero came in his article to even hinting at any of these gruesome facts was when he wrote that “Colombia has long had troubles of its own, including integrating former Communist guerrillas from a civil conflict that only ended recently.”  The “conflict” has not exactly “ended,” given that 170 leftist political leaders and activists were assassinated in 2017.

Putting aside Forero’s epic distortions by omission regarding Colombia, what about his reporting about migration from Venezuela? He wrote:

Nearly 3 million Venezuelans—a tenth of the population—have left the oil-rich country over the past two decades of leftist rule. Almost half that number—some 1.2 million people—have gone in the past two years, according to Tomás Páez, a Venezuelan immigration expert at Venezuela’s Central University.

In April 2002, Páez signed his name to a quarter-page ad in the Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional that welcomed the dictatorship of Pedro Carmona, then head of Venezuela’s largest business federation, who was installed after a US-backed military coup briefly ousted the late President Hugo Chavez. I’ve written before (ZNet, 1/16/17) about Western outlets—New York Times (11/25/16), Reuters (10/15/14) and Financial Times (8/22/16)—citing Páez without disclosing his anti-democratic record.

The World Bank has compiled data over the years on the numbers of Venezuelan-born people living abroad. The numbers point to far smaller migrations than Páez has estimated:

Population of Former Venezuelan Residents Living Abroad

Data in table can be found here, here, here and here.

During the years Chavez was in office (1999–2013), the World Bank’s figures tell us Venezuelans living abroad increased by about 330,000. By 2013, Páez was estimating that about 1.3 million had left—about 1 million more than World Bank estimates. Would journalists ignore data published by the World Bank in favor of estimates by Páez if he were a staunch supporter of the Venezuelan government?

During those 1999–2013 years, the World Bank figures also say that the number of Colombian-born people living in Venezuela grew by 200,000. Forero’s article implies that migration from Colombia to Venezuela ended in the “late 20th century.”

The World Bank has not updated migration data past 2013, but there is no doubt there was a huge increase in migration from Venezuela since its economy entered into a very deep crisis starting in late 2014. (For an overview of the important role of US policy in creating the crisis and now deliberately making it much worse, see my op-ed, “US Policy a Big Factor in Venezuela’s Depression”—Tribune News Service, 2/2/18.)

According to a Colombian university study of Venezuelan migration to Colombia, it averaged about 47,000 per year from 2011–2014, then increased to 80,000 per year in 2015–16.

US government data show migration from Venezuela to the United States increasing from about 7,000 per year before 2013 to 28,000 per year by 2015, including Venezuelans who have entered without authorization.

Venezuelan Born Population in the United States

Numbers in the table can be found here and here.

From 2000 to 2013, the United States was the destination for about 30 percent of Venezuelan-born people who left to live abroad, according to the World Bank figures. If the Colombian university study and US government data are accurate, then the United States has been the destination for about 20 percent of Venezuelan migrants after 2013. That would mean about 140,000 Venezuelans per year were leaving to live abroad by 2016.

That is not remotely comparable to the 5 million Syrians who fled the country in the first five years following the civil war—and that doesn’t include over a million per year who fled their homes inside Syria (the internally displaced).

That Forero would even try to force this comparison into his article speaks volumes. It’s not hard to guess why it was made, given that US has bombed Syria regularly and has had Venezuela’s government in its crosshairs for almost two decades.

You can send letters to the editor of the Wall Street Journal at Please remember that respectful communication is the most effective. Source:

Media Embrace New ‘Reform’ Group as Bulwark Against Guaranteed Healthcare

USA Today: Our Broken Healthcare Policies Are Hurting Instead of Helping Americans

Andy Slavitt in USA Today (2/6/18)

In recent years, there has been rapid growth in support for Medicare for All, a single-payer healthcare system that would guarantee the universal medical coverage that the Affordable Care Act failed to achieve with its passage in 2010. Sixty-four percent of Democrats support single-payer healthcare, while over half of Americans believe that the government should be responsible for ensuring coverage, according to surveys by Pew Research Center.

Sen. Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All Act (SR 1804) has been cosponsored by 16 senators, while former Rep. John Conyers’ Expanded and Improved Medicare for All Act (HR 676) has received endorsements from the majority of the Democratic caucus, amounting to 120 cosponsors. Numerous advocacy groups have been campaigning to make Medicare for All a signature part of the upcoming Democratic Party election campaigns in 2018 and 2020.

However, a new bipartisan, nonprofit advocacy group called the United States of Care looks as if it will attempt to throw a wrench into these plans, and corporate media have hurried to give them a platform.

Andy Slavitt, former head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in the Obama administration, pro–Affordable Care Act activist, announced the creation of the USoC in an opinion piece for USA Today (2/6/18). Slavitt also has a long resume in the private sector: He was the founder of healthcare tech startup investor HealthAllies, a former UnitedHealth Group executive, a Goldman Sachs investment banker and a consultant for McKinsey & Co. The group also received a write-up in Axios (2/6/18) as well as a glowing profile from Bloomberg (2/6/18), which played up the group’s interest in promoting an “opening for bipartisan policy-making.”

Former Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a former heart surgeon known for his anti-science, anti-choice views, his advocacy for Medicare privatization and his misleading diagnosis in the Terri Schiavo case, also published an opinion piece in Forbes (2/6/18) to showcase the goals of the new group. Both Frist and Slavitt serve on the board of directors for the USoC.

Each of these articles is peppered with consultant doublespeak. In USA Today, Slavitt outlined his hopes to have the United States of Care rise above partisanship and unite Americans “in a common goal of putting the health of our nation over politics.” Never mind that with healthcare spending in the US amounting to more than one-sixth of GDP (and growing), any healthcare initiative is inherently political. Other wealthy countries spend roughly three-fifths as much as the US does on healthcare as a percentage of GDP, while maintaining better health outcomes, and in most cases guaranteeing free coverage paid for by the government.

Neither the USA Today piece, the Forbes piece nor the United States of Care website mentions single-payer, Medicare for All or anything related to government-guaranteed universal healthcare. The Bloomberg write-up mentioned Sanders’ Medicare for All bill in the context of USoC’s hope of “heading off increasingly volatile swings in health policy when political fortunes shift in Washington.” In other words, universal guaranteed coverage is not a goal, but a danger that USoC hopes to fend off.

In place of single-payer’s universal tax-funded health insurance, Slavitt’s USA Today op-ed and Frist’s Forbes piece op-ed uses the favorite catchphrases of the corporate approach to health: “access to healthcare” or “access to affordable care.” These buzzwords perpetuate the right-wing narrative that treats healthcare as a commodity rather than a human right, consigning it to a market that will inevitably leave people who can’t afford it uninsured.

Frist declares that a mission of the USoC is to find points “on which a majority of Americans agree.” If this were really true, why would government-guaranteed universal care in the form of single-payer, Medicare for All, or at the very least a public healthcare option, not fit this definition? If a majority of Americans support universal healthcare, why doesn’t the USoC?

United States of Care website

United States of Care website

Tellingly, the group’s donors are not listed on their website. However, some of the group’s board members and founders council members signal how they plan to approach healthcare policy. In addition to Slavitt and Frist, they include:

  • Jim Douglas, former Republican governor of Vermont from 2003—11, who pioneered the Republican strategy of cutting health benefits by turning federal funding for Medicaid into a block grant.
  • Trevor Fetter, former president of Tenet Healthcare, a Fortune 500 hospital management group that was accused of tax evasion during Fetter’s tenure, who has been fined by the Justice Department for hundreds of millions in Medicare fraud, and has paid out more than $300 million to settle complaints of unnecessary surgery.
  • Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a Bush administration Congressional Budget Office director, who opposed the Affordable Care Act when it was up for debate in 2010.
  • Dave Durenberger, a former Republican senator from Minnesota (now an independent) and board member of the National Coalition on Healthcare, a nonprofit similar to the United States of Care that likewise advocates “accessibility” and “affordability” of care.

Also included on the board and founders council were executives from medical services giants like BlueCross/BlueShield, Kaiser Permanente, Trinity and Molina. Noticeably absent from their board and founders council were any nurses, whose union is one of the few health industry groups that has expressed support for Medicare for All.

While Slavitt, in a Twitter conversation with podcast host Katie Halper, explained that he was “not out to derail anything,” he also uneasily danced around the question of support for single-payer—on the grounds of political pragmatism—in a recent CNN interview (6/8/18). Regardless, the warm reception USoC has gotten so far from corporate media suggests that popular support for universal healthcare programs like Medicare for All will be met with undue skepticism and hostility from political and media establishment alike in the upcoming 2018 and 2020 elections. Source:

Christine Hong on North Korean Peace Threat, Lee Fang on Opioid Lobby

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NBC depiction of North Korean Olympic cheerleadersThis week on CounterSpin: What do you do with a press corps that pauses from raising alarms about North Korea’s warmongering to raise alarms about North Korea’s peacemongering? Signs of rapprochement between North and South Korea at the Pyongyang Olympics have led to media accounts warning Americans not to fall for peace-offensive “propaganda.” But: we are in favor of lowering tensions on the Korean peninsula, right? Right? We’ll talk about the prospects for war, and for peace, with North Korea with Christine Hong, associate professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz and an executive board member of the Korea Policy Institute.

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Prescription pain medicationAlso on the show: A Senate committee investigation has just concluded that advocacy groups that got money from pharmaceutical companies, like the makers of OxyContin, then promoted opioids like OxyContin as safe, lobbied to change laws aimed at curbing their abuse and sought to protect doctors charged with overprescribing them. Better late than never, but CounterSpin listeners were onto this story at least two years ago, when we spoke with reporter Lee Fang. We’ll revisit that relevant conversation.

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US ‘Stumbled Into Torture,’ Says NYT Reporter

NYT: That Time the C.I.A. Tried to Recruit Me

Jennifer Lawrence does not actually come up in New York Times reporter Scott Shane’s reminiscence (2/14/18).

As part of a promotion for the upcoming “Look, Evil Russians!” film Red Sparrow (hyping Hollywood films is apparently a thing reporters do now), New York Times national security reporter Scott Shane (2/14/18) wrote a synergistic Cold War 2.0 essay about the CIA’s alleged attempt to recruit him. It included a rather jarring—if not risible—paragraph summarizing Shane’s years of reporting:

All these years later, I assume my name appears in multiple files at the CIA, the National Security Agency and perhaps other corners of the sprawling security bureaucracy, with gripes and comments related to my coverage of how America stumbled into torture; how drone strikes went wrong; espionage cases; WikiLeaks cables; Snowden documents; Russian hackers and the Shadow Brokers; and probably stories I’ve forgotten.

Two clauses stand out for their confident attribution of benevolent motives to US foreign policy. First, there’s the idea that “America stumbled into torture,” rather than planned, plotted and spent over 15 years carrying out a policy of torture. This pretends that the US’s massive global torture regime—which involved drownings, beatings, sleep deprivation and sexual humiliation, among other techniques, along with “extraordinary rendition” to allied countries for less refined torture methods–was something other than a deliberate policy initiative.

As FAIR (6/22/17) noted last year, corporate media routinely assert that the US “stumbles,” “slips” or is “dragged into” war and other forms of organized violence, rather than planning deliberate acts of aggression. For reporters in foreign policy circles, the US only does immoral things on accident—unlike Official Bad Countries, which do them for calculated gain when they aren’t motivated by sheer malice.

The second clause, claiming that “drone strikes went wrong,” is a passive way of suggesting that civilian deaths are an unforeseen accident rather than a predictable consequence baked into the cake of the US’s permawar on terror. The US doesn’t murder civilians, it simply launches missiles at unknown and faceless brown people in Yemen and Afghanistan, and sometimes the missiles “go wrong.” While Shane has certainly reported on these respective crimes (as he proudly notes), he has done so in a similar, limited fashion that treats them as unfortunate mishaps, rather than intentional features of a violent empire.

For an essay that is more or less Shane patting himself on the back for holding power to account instead of becoming a spook, his instinct to assume noble intentions on the part of these spooks is a telling indication of the broader ethos of corporate media’s national security reporting: Criticism is welcome around the margins, so long as motives are never challenged.

h/t @_personero

You can send a message to the New York Times at  (Twitter:@NYTimes). Please remember that respectful communication is the most effective. Source:

US Media Turn to ‘Superhero’ Pence to Combat Korean Olympic Peace Threat

North Korea, like virtually every country on earth, is using the Olympics this week as an opportunity for political theater, and this has greatly upset many in US media. Ostensibly this is because North Korea, marching with South Korea in the opening ceremonies and sending a squadron of cheerleaders to the Winter Games, is getting a pass on human rights abuses. But if one scratches the surface of the widespread outrage, it’s clear the real objection is that North and South Korea are having bilateral peace talks without the permission of—much less the participation of—the United States.

Atlantic: Can North Korea Be Stopped?

Not shown: the US military, whose budget is roughly 100 times the size of North Korea’s.

Leading the charge were four pieces by Atlantic Media—an outlet that last year plastered the cover of its magazine (7–8/17) with a cartoonish depiction of a North Korean invasion one might see in a Tom Clancy video game:

  • The Olympics Are a Mass Propaganda Tool for Countries to Assimilate Their Citizens (Quartz, 2/7/18)
  • North Korea Is Sending Kim Jong-Un’s Sister to Attend the Winter Olympics (Quartz, 2/7/18)
  • At the Olympics, North Korea Executed a Propaganda Coup (Quartz, 2/9/18)
  • North Korea’s Undeserved Olympic Glory (The Atlantic, 2/9/18)

The first piece (Quartz, 2/7/18), ostensibly a broad overview on a history of “regimes” using the Olympics to cover up their crimes, began the trend of decrying North Korea’s Olympic participation, calling it a “repressive authoritarian state that keep their citizens in check with fear and unchecked power” and “gross human rights violations.” These abuses are presented as prima facie reason to bar North Korea from any participation in the Olympics, without any indication as to what human rights standard Olympic countries ought to meet.

The other two Quartz pieces and The Atlantic piece repeat the same line: North Korea’s human rights abuses are so great it should be barred from “propaganda” exercises, regardless of what the South Koreans think is in their best interests.

The Atlantic’s Uri Friedman (2/9/18), lacking any coherent reason to level outrage at the peace gesture, disclosed it just sort of made him feel bad:

There they were, the South and North Korean Olympic teams marching together in sparkling white jackets behind a flag symbolizing Korean unity, as the soulful notes of the Korean folk song “Arirang” played and top South and North Korean officials warmly greeted each other in the stands, during an Opening Ceremony in Pyeongchang extolling peace. It felt wonderful.

But it also felt … wrong.

Friedman seems chiefly aggrieved that South Korea’s athletes should have to dilute their moment of glory with North Koreans who were allowed to violate pointless formalities:

They shared that exceedingly rare moment with athletes and coaches from North Korea, which did nothing to organize the event, missed the registration deadline for sending a delegation, and boasts only two athletes who qualified for the competition on merit.

Oh no, not the registration deadline!

Like all these articles, Friedman’s assumes the South Koreans are at best naive children being duped, and at worst cynical enablers indifferent to human suffering. The idea that there are larger concerns at work—namely staving off nuclear holocaust—is never seriously addressed.

WaPo: Pence's Olympic Mission: Countering North Korean Propaganda

The Washington Post  (2/9/18) did not seem to be kidding when it called Vice President Mike Pence “a mild-mannered, if resolute, superhero.”

The Washington Post took this line even further in “Pence’s Olympic Mission: Countering North Korean Propaganda”  (2/9/18), painting Vice President Mike Pence, who sat staring stonily at the joint Korean procession, as a noble bulwark against unfettered North Korean propaganda and human rights abuses:

Vice President Pence was a man on a mission….

Thursday at Seoul’s Osan Air Base, Pence had transformed himself into something of an anti-propaganda warrior — a mild-mannered, if resolute, superhero who arrived in South Korea on the eve of the Winter Games to single-handedly rebuff North Korea’s public relations efforts….

Nearly every one of Pence’s actions during his five-day trip to Japan and South Korea this week—his public declarations, private murmurings and scripted meetings and visits—have been aimed at combating North Korea’s shiny propaganda with gritty talk of his own.

It’s hard to think of a better illustration of the concept of cognitive dissonance than the Washington Post unironically referring to Mike Pence as a “superhero” in an article about the dangers of propaganda.

To maintain the pretense of the US as noble arbiter of human rights and fighter of “propaganda,” the piece positioned Pence, the second-highest-ranking member of the Trump administration and its most frequent apologist, as somehow separate from the Trump administration: “Of course, as with most of his international travel, Pence’s goals were complicated somewhat by Trump.”  The more logical explanation—that Pence is simply wielding human rights concerns in service of Trump’s warmongering, not apart from or opposed to it—is never entertained.

The US role of international defender of rights is an axiom of US corporate media (, 5/17/17, 7/24/17, 10/23/17), even as Trump  dismisses the idea of US as human rights champion and loudly buddies up to the world’s most egregious offenders. The Post, unable to challenge the fundamental myth of US as shining beacon of freedom, therefore paints Pence not as a representative of Trump, but a mitigating presence, acting apart from his warmongering agenda.

Pence made clear that it isn’t peace he seeks from North Korea, but “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization.” Why they would or should do that while the president of the United States tweets out threats of nuclear genocide is more of a mystery.

The Post, like The Atlantic, doesn’t bother to interview any South Korean peace activists, or their newly elected left-wing President Moon Jae-in—who was ushered into office with an anti-Trump, pro-unification mandate. Instead, it engages in surface-level moralizing, seeking comment from hawkish Western think tanks like the Lockheed Martin–funded Center for Strategic and International Studies (, 5/8/17). Source:

There’s an Alternative to the Top-Down Capitalist Corporation’

Janine Jackson interviewed Richard Wolff about questioning economic fundamentals for the February 9, 2018, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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NYT: Stocks Fall to End a Bad Week, and a Boom Begins to Look Shaky

New York Times (2/2/18)

JANINE JACKSON: It’s hard to read headlines about panic and freefall in the stock market and not think you’re supposed to feel some kind of way; when you get explanations, like that of a recent New York Times story, that the market’s worst week in two years was sparked by concerns over increasing wages, it becomes less clear who or what we’re meant to be worrying about.

Corporate media talk a lot about the economy, but it’s a formulaic, jargony kind of reporting that rarely talks about people in any holistic way, and virtually never sets itself the question of how life could be better for more people with a differently organized economy.

Here to help us sort through recent economic news is Richard Wolff, emeritus professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and visiting professor, now, at The New School, He’s also founder of Democracy at Work and host of Economic Update, a national TV and radio program. He is the author of several books, most recently Capitalism’s Crisis Deepens: Essays on the Global Economic Meltdown. He joins us now by phone. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Richard Wolff.

RICHARD WOLFF:  Thank you, glad to be here.

JJ: We hear, and we understand in a general way, that Wall Street is not the economy. But then, what is it? And what is its relationship to the life and livelihood of an average person?

RW:  There is a link, although it’s tenuous and shaped by many other factors, between the stock market, on the one hand, and what some economists call the “real economy,” on the other.

First of all, just to remember: The stock market is simply a place where people who own shares of stock buy and sell them to one another. And so what goes on there has to do with the interests of the people who own, buy and sell big blocks of shares. That right away tells you that the vast majority of the people of the United States are not immediately affected by the stock market because—just to give you one metric—1 percent of the shareholders own about two-thirds of all the shares. So it’s really a tiny number of people and institutions who do the bulk of the trading in the stock market, and they are influenced by many, many factors, only one of which is, “What’s going on on Main Street across the country?” So unless you are in the 1 percent and have a large portfolio, it’s called, of stocks, what goes on day by day there is really not terribly relevant to your life situation.

But of course there is a link, because in the end, these shares of stock that are being bought and sold are shares of ownership in the industries that function in the United States, for example. So it is of some relevance, because if the value of the stocks goes up or down, that will affect the decisions all kinds of people make about all kinds of other subjects, and that can impact your life, and so it becomes important.

US Debt Outstanding by Sector

Chart: Wikimedia

Let me just give you one quick example: Probably the single most important factor in plunging stocks down over the last few days, in the way that got all the headlines—one of those factors was the fact that over the last 30 years particularly, and even more over the last 20, the level of debt in the United States, borrowing, outstripped anything we have ever seen in a capitalist country, certain anything that’s ever happened in the United States. Individuals racked up debt on a scale we’ve never seen before. Credit card debt, mortgage debt, automobile loan debt, and the new one, college student debt. We have never had this kind of debt-ridden society before. Corporations did likewise. And the government borrowed.

You put all of those together, and we suddenly have, over the last 20 years, an economy where everybody is concerned, not only about how they’re doing in their particular economic activity, but how they’re doing in their level of debt. Are they earning enough to pay back the principal they owe, to pay the interest they owe? And when you then have a debt-ridden economy, and the beginnings of a trend towards rising interest rates, you can see the panic that can evolve, and that’s what we saw this last week, very great anxiety that rising interest rates, for all kinds of reasons, are going to put an awful lot of people, businesses and governments, who are are now deeply debt-ridden, into a kind of vise of having to pay more to carry that debt. And it’s not clear that they have any ability to earn more. So that means all kinds of consequences, so that what you see in the stock market is a bit of a foretaste, you might say, of trouble coming.

JJ: When you talk about debt, I can’t help but think that on an individual level, debt is so politically paralyzing; it really sort of shortens your horizon of what you think is possible for you to do in your life.

RW: Absolutely. I mean, I literally read, a few minutes ago, a very moving analysis from Europe. And it comes from an obstetrician, a woman doctor in Greece, who writes a beautiful kind of story, in which her practice in the hospital in Athens where she works is now a kind of a depressed area, because more and more of the young couples coming to talk to her, they cannot afford another child, or if they’re a younger couple without kids, they really are beginning to think that they are going to be childless, that they are not going to do it. And you can begin to see that something as fundamental as the literal construction of a family is being impacted, because the explanations these young folks are giving is that their job prospects, their income prospects and the debts they’re carrying combine to make a child, or another child, literally unaffordable.

JJ: As we look to make sense of this, to see why things are this way, we are forced back again on media. I mean, for most of us, the media is the interpreter for economic news; it’s the press that tell us what the economy means, and what indicators matter. Do you think they have us tracking the most meaningful things? Can a person make sense of what’s happening to them, and their broader society, economically, via the news media?

RW: No, to be honest with you, not only do I not think so, I think it’s almost the opposite. I guess the bottom line for me is that I’ve discovered that most of what goes into the major curriculum of economics in our society—which I have been a product of, and have in fact myself taught—is really not about how the economy works.

Most of what is taught to kids in colleges and universities is not what is going on, but it’s really an enormous rationalization, an enormous celebration, if you like, of the status quo. It’s so bad, this sort of celebrating our system, rather than helping people understand it, that the business community long ago, understanding what I’ve just said, said to itself, “Look, it may be very useful in our society to have economics departments celebrate how wonderful our economic system is. But when we actually get a young man or young woman who graduates and comes and works in our businesses, we don’t need a rationalization. What we need is a person who understands how it actually works.”

And they’re not getting that in economics departments. And so we have, in the United States, a very bizarre duality. Every major university in America basically has two economics departments. One is called “economics,” and there you learn how to love and celebrate and applaud the economic system we have.

The other one has a different name. It’s called a “business school,” and in that economics department, because that’s what it is, you learn marketing and accounting, and you learn how actual business economics works. And that crazy arrangement, which really is bizarre, comes out of this failure—and there’s no nicer way to put it—of the economics departments, over the decades, to face honestly what goes on in an economy, to switch instead to becoming a kind of PR department for the existing system.

So that when—and I’m sorry it’s taking so long—but then, when you get to a bad period of economic history, which is what I think we’re in, and we have been in now for quite a while, then you get to the current situation, which is: the media keep doing the effort to celebrate, when what the public really needs is an honest investigation of what’s going wrong, why so many people feel badly, why it’s correct for them to do so, why we are so indebted, for example, why it puts us at the knife edge, so that the stock market can go through these gyrations.

The people who want answers to those questions have to go out of the normal range of economics, because that, as a profession, really doesn’t know how to cope with that sort of question.

JJ: I guess that makes me think of the other question, which is that in media, we don’t see economics as a kind of contested realm. There really is only the system as we currently have it, and it makes it very difficult to think about making a fundamental change in that system. We don’t hear that there are economists who think: Actually, we should cancel student debt; that would be a great way to juice the economy.

RW: Absolutely, yes.

JJ: It’s not even presented as, like, an argument.

Shanghai, People's Republic of China

Shanghai, People’s Republic of China

RW: No, you know, it’s always struck me as bizarre, even if you are a great lover of capitalism, our system, and you just think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread. Even if you’re like that, if that’s your point of view, the fact is that places, like, I don’t know, let’s pick one: the People’s Republic of China—for the last 25 years, that economy, which is organized in ways that are different from the one we have here in the United States, that People’s Republic of China has achieved the most rapid economic transformation from poor country to superpower economically, that we have ever seen in the history of the human race. OK…. That alone would mean we ought to be exploring, in our classrooms, in our media: What’s that about? How did they accomplish that? That’s something that most of the world’s people dream of, and so it’s an important matter.

And now you add another couple of other considerations. That it’s the largest country by population on this planet. And it is a superpower, has nuclear weapons and all of that. And you’d say, any rational person would understand: Of course we have to look at that model of how you do economics, how you organize an economic system, to ask the logical, rational question: not necessarily that we must copy them, but are there things about what they do, and how they organize, that we might be able to learn something from?

I like to point out to my students sometimes that the world’s largest debtor country is the United States, and that the largest creditor country of the United States is the People’s Republic of China. If nothing else, that should provide a hint—and I’m trying to be polite here—a hint that we ought to explore.

And your question is exactly right, because in 99 percent of the curricula of the United States in economics, there is nothing of the sort; there is no program, no course, certainly no sequence of courses (which is what you would need to do a proper exploration, over a year or two or three), there’s nothing of the sort. So that when I go and try to explain to people how that economy is different, I’m starting from scratch. They haven’t the faintest idea of what I’m talking about, and worse than that, they don’t know, in that they have no sense in their heads that there’s anything there they ought to have been taught, they ought to have learned, as just being a citizen and making rational decisions.

Another way to put it: We have an economic system in which the enterprises of this country are pretty much organized in the same way. At the top of each enterprise is an owner; the owner can be an individual, can be a family, can be a partnership. But most of the business in America is done by an owner that’s called a “corporation.” It has shareholders, the shareholders elect a board of directors, usually 15–20 people, and they operate the enterprise. There can be a few hundred employees, there can be a few hundred thousand employees, and everything in between. Now that’s a very interesting way of organizing business. Not the way feudal manors were organized, it’s not the way slave plantations were organized; it’s peculiar to capitalism.

But here’s a simple fact which ought to illustrate, in a sense, the question you’ve asked: This is an extremely undemocratic arrangement. What do I mean? Well, the number of people that make all the key decisions in American corporations, and by that I mean deciding what to produce, deciding how, deciding what technology to use, deciding the physical geographic location—will it be produced in Cincinnati or in Shanghai, etc.—and finally, what to do with the profits that the labor of all the people working there have helped to produce? All of those key decisions, that shape the lives of everybody involved in the company, and indeed everybody in the larger community, are made by tiny groups of individuals, the major shareholders, that 1 percent who own three-quarters of the shares, or two-thirds of them, and the boards of directors that they choose. This is a tiny minority sitting at the top of every corporation, looking and acting pretty much like kings and queens once acted when there were monarchies instead of democratic parliamentarian systems.

And we don’t question that, we here in America, with our commitment to democracy. We seem not to be able to ask the obvious question: If we like democracy, as we say we do, if we insist on some sort of accountability of the political leaders who make decisions that impact us, why in the world do we not make the same demand—democratic accountability—of the economic leaders in our society, the people who run these enormous corporations, that are the dominant economic factor in our society? And we don’t.

And the funny thing is that, of course, there is an alternative; just like there was an alternative to monarchy—namely, political democracy—there’s an alternative to the hierarchical, top-down capitalist corporation. And it has a number of names, because it’s very old; the one that’s being used much these days is “worker cooperative,” or “producer cooperative,” and the basic idea is, we would have a different economy if we organized our enterprises in an alternative way.

Namely, instead of hierarchical or vertical, with a tiny, unaccountable leadership at the top, we didn’t do that. We said, there is no leadership. Or to put it differently, if there is a leadership, it has to be elected by the workers in an enterprise; they have to have the right to recall these people. In other words, that the workers in a place have democratic rights in the workplace, that are roughly analogous to the politically democratic rights we have in the communities where we live. If you did that, all the decisions that we have lived with, and that have produced the economic problems with which this conversation began, would be different.

Richard Wolff

Richard Wolff: “Those are the people making the decisions, and they make them in their own interest, and the rest of us have to borrow money to send our kids to college.” (image: Democracy at Work)

Americans seem to be surprised, at least in my experience, to discover that we have a highly unequal distribution of wealth and income. Why we’re surprised by that is, for me, a mystery. If you allow the decisions on how to distribute the profits of an enterprise to be made by a tiny group of shareholders and the boards of directors they select, at the top of every enterprise, why are you surprised that they who have that power use it to distribute the bulk of the profits of an enterprise to themselves, in the form of dividends to the shareholders, and tremendous  pay packages to the top executives? Those are the people making the decisions, and they make them in their own interest, and the rest of us have to borrow money to send our kids to college.

In a democratically organized enterprise, where everybody in the enterprise has “one person, one vote,” they wouldn’t distribute it all equally; they would recognize some workers have greater skill or had to get more education or so forth and so on, but they would never in a million years give a handful of people tens of millions of dollars, and everybody else has to borrow money to send their kid to college.

If you really wanted to deal with the inequality in our society, which almost everybody says they do, well, investigating an alternative way to organize the economy is at least one of the ways that ought to be explored. But none of what I’ve just taken your time to explain is in our daily press, is in our media, is being explored in the media in such a way to stimulate people’s thinking about it, to present what the alternatives are, and to create that informed public, without which the claim to be a democratic society rings rather hollow.

JJ: We’ve being speaking with Richard Wolff; he’s emeritus professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, now visiting professor at The New School. He’s founder of Democracy at Work and host of Economic Update. Richard Wolff, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

RW: My pleasure, and also my appreciation for exploring precisely what it is that needs to be explored more. Source: