Big Institutions: Immunities, Impunities and Insanities

One of the first times I used the phrase “institutional insanity” was in 1973 to describe the behavior of scientist Dixy Lee Ray, chairperson of the presumed regulatory agency, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). I pointed out that her personal and academic roles were quite normal. But her running of the AEC—pressing for 1,000 nuclear plants in the U.S. by the year 2000 (there are 99 reactors left in operation now), and going easy on a deadly, taxpayer subsidized technology that was privately uninsurable, lacked a place to put its lethal radioactive wastes, a national security risk, replete with vast cost over-runs, immunities and impunities shielding culpable officials and executives, should a meltdown occur and take out a city or region (all to boil water to produce steam to make electricity)—was a case study in “institutional insanity.”

Both the AEC and its successor, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), captured by the atomic energy industry, operate this way to this day, no matter the near misses, the spills, growing corporate welfare outlays, and the inadequate maintenance of aging nuclear power plants.

Our moral and ethical codes and our civil and criminal laws were originally designed to hold individuals accountable. The kings of yore operated under a divine right of being above the laws.

With the rise and proliferation of ever more multi-tiered governmental and corporate bureaucracies, methods of immunity, impunity and secrecy were built into these structures to shield them from moral/ethical codes and laws. Increasingly, we are ruled by no-fault big corporations and their no-fault toady governments.

Some comparisons are in order. If your neighbor entrusted you with her savings and paid you a fee for doing so, you then purchased stocks for her account while you’re selling them for your account, deceiving the cheated neighbor in the process, would you escape the law? That is just some of what the Wall Street Barons did on a massive scale about ten years ago. No one was prosecuted and sent to jail for this corporate crime wave.

Suppose you hired a security person for your defense who, at the same time, wasted your money and couldn’t account for your payments because his books were unauditable. Would you keep doing business with him? Wouldn’t you demand an audit? Well on a hugely larger scale, this is the Pentagon contracting system and your tax dollars. Why not demand that the defense department stop violating federal law, as it has since 1992, and provide Congress with auditable information so that its accounting arm, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) can audit the notoriously porous Pentagon books.

Suppose the head of your neighborhood association kept sugar coating problems, kept lying to you, kept describing conditions that weren’t so and kept doing things that would enrich himself in conflict with his duties. Would you keep supporting him in that position? Probably not. Well, that is your president, day after day.

What if your neighbor kept dumping polluted water and solid waste pollutants on your lawn and all around your house? Would you demand that your town or city stop this contamination, or sit quietly and accept this abuse because you don’t believe in regulation? Well, Trump’s EPA wrecker, Scott Pruitt, is busily weakening environmental protections and even taking away environmental crimes investigators and forcing them to be his personal security guard.

Let’s say your farmers’ market vendors sensed that you were very dependent on the food they provide and they proceeded to triple the prices, it’s not difficult to predict your reactions. Yet that is what the drug companies have done with many of your important medicines over the past 10 years. Yet where are the outraged demands for the government to have the power to negotiate volume discounts, facilitate generics, restrain prices for drugs rooted in your taxpayer funded research by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and allow imported competition from Canada?

You get into a bus or cab and the driver regularly cheats you into paying several times more than you should pay and then covers it up. When you find out about it, all hell breaks loose next time you confront him. What about Wells Fargo bank—they knowingly created unauthorized, false credit card and auto insurance accounts, wrongly billing customers millions of times. Imagine: no criminal prosecutions yet, no wholesale resignation of the well-paid Board of Directors, and very few customers are leaving the bank. Wells Fargo keeps reporting great profits while hassling victims into settlements. What’s one takeaway? The bigger the crook, the bigger is our surrender. Too big to fail or jail!

The neighbor in charge of the rural, communal drinking water well knows it’s being contaminated by a party that was his previous employer and expects to be hired back by his old boss. Your children as well as their parents are at risk. Well, welcome to Trump’s deregulations of food, drug, auto pollution, and workplace investor safety. They’ve come from the industries’ payroll and expect to come back with a big raise.

There are just a few contrasts between individual and institutional crimes and wrongdoing and our different responses toward them. Facebook, Google and Equifax can misuse your personal information to your perceived disadvantage and they repeatedly get away with it.

The White House under Bush/Cheney can unconstitutionally ignite wars, lie to the people about the reasons, produce millions of casualties and untold destruction of innocent peoples’ homelands, get re-elected and later retire with huge speech fees without being chased by the “sheriffs.”

It is doubtful whether you would allow your hamlet’s political leaders to get away with such violent assaults, even if they wanted to do so.

If our moral/ethical/legal codes cannot reach up to the tops of these institutions on behalf of wronged, injured individuals and communities and societies, we’ll get what we’ve been getting, which is worse and worse immunities/impunities with each passing decade.

Isn’t this a fault/no fault paradox worth thinking about?

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The Censorious Vortex Of The ‘Flash News’ Barons

For decades, the factors that decided what noteworthy stories would not find their way into print or on the air came down to the media’s ignorance, laziness or from advertising restraints. How else can one explain the many years that passed before the tobacco, auto and junk food industries became the subject of regular consumer reporting? For too long, the explosive material for good journalism in these and other areas had remained hidden in plain sight.

With the intensification of soundbite journalism, fueled by audiences’ increasingly short attention spans, Twitter addiction, the stupefaction of video culture and a willful disregard of both history and contemplation, a new form of censorship has emerged. The domination of “breaking news” — increasingly defined by episodes of violence, natural disasters and celebrity/political outrages and lurid scandals — is rampant.

When any one of these sensationalized episodes is seen as the “big story,” its massive over-coverage crowds out much of what normally would be communicated through the media. At their most frenetic periods, Fox News and CNN represent the worst of these lucrative culs de sac.

More and more, this phenomenon of fewer and fewer types of stories crowding out diverse and crucial reporting has become contagious. Our self-selecting social media bubbles further isolate us by validating, but not challenging, our opinions. Sunday morning network television “news” shows display the same subject, the same invited guests that were in that week’s newscasts. It has become almost impossible to introduce any subject matter, especially fresh disclosures and reports, outside of this tightening circle of opinion oligopolists.

Notice the near maniacal focus on Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign, which amplified his insults, falsifications, howls of outrage and damaging rhetoric. Shut out was any attempt by civic groups to widen the election period’s public discussions of important topics that were taken off the table by the two parties and unchallenged by a dittohead media.

When I ask modestly liberal syndicated columnists why they are not writing about what in earlier times would have been their chosen stories, they tell me that editors demand that they address what has already been “in the news.”

I began to notice our various citizen groups experiencing difficulty in getting “newstime” or “newsprint” because their subjects—clearly newsworthy and affecting people directly—weren’t already in the corporate news media by some high profile story. Among the many severely neglected topics are looted pensions, food and auto safety, hospital malpractice, a predatory pharmaceutical industry, massive billing frauds, the dark sides of corporate welfare, an unauditable Pentagon budget and the devastation caused by stock buybacks. The paucity of “beat” reporters due to ever-winnowing newsroom populations has worsened this spreading blackout. Meanwhile, thousands of commercial radio stations using our public airwaves for free are increasingly syndicated and automated.

This contagion has spread to public radio and public broadcasting. They too have to be, to use the current euphemism, “contemporary.” More experienced and thoughtful perspectives, expressed in paragraphs rather than Tweets, are not “contemporary.” Former regular guests on NPR and PBS, if they are not part of the commentariate for the day’s “breaking news” are no longer regular. Even the prime national and state programs for NPR and PBS are falling in line. Check out the exclusion on Charlie Rose and Judy Woodruff’s Newshour.

Last year, the mass media declined to cover any part of eight days at our “Breaking Through Power” convocations at Constitution Hall in Washington, DC. These were gatherings of more accomplished civic doers and advocacy leaders—many having fundamentally shaped our country for the better— mobilizing around more reforms and redirections than ever brought together in modern American history. They came prepared to share their compelling stories, warnings and plans for action with an eager press. They were not seen as breaking news and therefore “not contemporary” (see breakingthroughpower.org).

Even the estimable Minnesota Public Radio has narrowed its vision. I had complained about the cessation of interviews for my books, reports and commentaries in recent years. Nancy Cassutt, executive director of news and programming for Minnesota Public Radio explained: “we prefer to pick show topics using our editorial judgment about what is in the national conversation, once we do that we search for the voices with diverse opinions and backgrounds to build the show.”

Unfortunately it is not Minnesota Public Radio that determines what is in the national conversation. That choice comes from a very select group of producers, editors, performers and corporate advertisers from Washington, DC and New York City.

In today’s media ecosystem, I could not, for example, have been invited on Meet the Press to introduce my charges against the auto industry’s unsafe vehicles. Scientist Michael Jacobson could not have gotten national media for his revelations concerning the lethal effects of sugar, fat and salt in processed, non-nutritious foods. Likewise Dr. Sidney Wolfe could not have reached millions of people through national news networks and the Phil Donahue Show to alert the public about dangerous medicines. Because they were able to reach and inform the public, their groups expanded and changed America for the better.

Alas, no more such access. The fractured, increasingly cluttered and trivialized Internet is no substitute. The trends are getting worse, especially for younger people. Enough of us, individually or in new organizations, must reclaim the use of our FCC-licensed public airwaves, demanding conditions for serious programming in our community cable contracts and creating a climate for reading and contemplation in our educational institutions.

Remember the high points of American history. Major justice movements were achieved with one percent or less of the population serving as active citizens reflecting majority public opinion. That is what will lead to a more serious media and redefine for them what is truly “contemporary,” because what is portrayed as “contemporary” in the media should reflect the necessities of the people, and not the whims of media executives and advertisers.

If you want a different example of what is newsworthy, tune in to my weekly radio show, the Ralph Nader Radio Hour.

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Destructive Stock Buybacks—That You Pay For

The monster of economic waste—over $7 trillion of dictated stock buybacks since 2003 by the self-enriching CEOs of large corporations—started with a little noticed change in 1982 by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) under President Ronald Reagan. That was when SEC Chairman John Shad, a former Wall Street CEO, redefined unlawful ‘stock manipulation’ to exclude stock buybacks.

Then after Clinton pushed through congress a $1 million cap on CEO pay that could be deductible, CEO compensation consultants wanted much of CEO pay to reflect the price of the company’s stock. The stock buyback mania was unleashed. Its core was not to benefit shareholders (other than perhaps hedge fund speculators) by improving the earnings per share ratio. Its real motivation was to increase CEO pay no matter how badly such burning out of shareholder dollars hurt the company, its workers and the overall pace of economic growth. In a massive conflict of interest between greedy top corporate executives and their own company, CEO-driven stock buybacks extract capital from corporations instead of contributing capital for corporate needs, as the capitalist theory would dictate.

Yes, due to the malicious, toady SEC “business judgement” rule, CEOs can take trillions of dollars away from productive pursuits without even having to ask the companies’ owners—the shareholders—for approval.

What could competent management have done with this treasure trove of shareholder money which came originally from consumer purchases? They could have invested more in research and development, in productive plant and equipment, in raising worker pay (and thereby consumer demand), in shoring up shaky pension fund reserves, or increasing dividends to shareholders.

The leading expert on this subject—economics professor William Lazonick of the University of Massachusetts—wrote a widely read article in 2013 in the Harvard Business Review titled “Profits Without Prosperity” documenting the intricate ways CEOs use buybacks to escalate their pay up to  300 to 500 times (averaging over $10,000 an hour plus lavish benefits) the average pay of their workers. This compared to only 30 times the average pay gap in 1978. This has led to increasing inequality and stagnant middle class wages.

To make matters worse, companies with excessive stock buybacks experience a declining market value. A study by Professor Robert Ayres and Executive Fellow Michael Olenick at INSEAD (September 2017) provided data about IBM, which since 2005 has spent $125 billion on buybacks while laying off large numbers of workers and investing only $69.9 billion in R&D. IBM is widely viewed as a declining company that has lost out to more nimble competitors in Silicon Valley.

The authors also cite General Electric, which in the same period spent $114.6 billion on its own stock only to see its stock price steadily decline in a bull market. In a review of 64 companies, including major retailers such as JC Penny and Macy’s, these firms spent more dollars in stock buybacks “than their businesses are currently worth in market value”!

On the other hand, Ayes and Olenick analyzed 269 companies that “repurchased stock valued at 2 percent or less of their current market value (including Facebook, Xcel Energy, Berkshire Hathaway and Amazon). They were strong market performers. The scholars concluded that “Buybacks are a way of disinvesting – we call it ‘committing corporate suicide’—in a way that rewards the “activists” (e.g. Hedge Funds) and executives, but hurts employees and pensioners.”

Presently, hordes of corporate lobbyists are descending on Washington to demand deregulation and tax cuts. Why, you ask them? In order to conserve corporate money for investing in economic growth, they assert. Really?! Why, then, are they turning around and wasting far more money on stock buybacks, which produce no tangible value? The answer is clear: uncontrolled executive greed!

By now you may be asking, why don’t the corporate bosses simply give more dividends to shareholders instead of buybacks, since a steady high dividend yield usually protects the price of the shares? Because these executives have far more of their compensation package in manipulated stock options and incentive payments than they own in stock.

Walmart in recent years has bought back over $50 billion of its shares – a move benefitting the Walton family’s wealth – while saying it could not afford to increase the meagre pay for over one million of their workers in the US. Last year the company bought back $8.3 billion of their stock which could have given their hard-pressed employees, many of whom are on welfare, a several thousand dollar raise.

The corporate giants are also demanding that Congress allow the repatriation of about $2.5 trillion stashed abroad without paying more than 5% tax. They say the money would be used to grow the economy and create jobs. Last time CEOs promised this result in 2004, Congress approved, and then was double-crossed. The companies spent the bulk on stock buybacks, their own pay raises and some dividend increases.

There are more shenanigans. With low interest rates that are deductible, companies actually borrow money to finance their stock buybacks. If the stock market tanks, these companies will have a self-created debt load to handle. A former Citigroup executive, Richard Parsons, has expressed worry about a “massively manipulated” stock market which “scares the crap” out of him.

Banks that pay you near zero interest on your savings announced on June 28, 2017 the biggest single buyback in history – a $92.8 billion extraction. Drug companies who say their sky-high drug prices are needed to fund R&D. But between 2006 and 2017, 18 drug company CEOs spent a combined staggering $516 billion on buybacks and dividends – more than their inflated claims of spending for R&D.

Mr. Olenick says “When managers can’t create value in the business other than buying their own stock, it seems like it’s time for a management change.”

Who’s going to do that? Shareholders stripped of inside power to control the company they own? No way. It will take Congressional hearings, a robust media focus, and the political clout of large pension and mutual funds to get the reforms under way.

When I asked Robert Monks, an author and longtime expert on corporate governance, about his reaction to CEOs heavy with stock buybacks, he replied that the management was either unimaginative, incompetent or avaricious – or all of these.

Essentially burning trillions of dollars for the hyper enrichment of a handful of radical corporate state supremacists wasn’t what classical capitalism was supposed to be about.

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Needed: An Educational Institute To Extend Dick Gregory’s Legacies

On hearing about the loss of Dick Gregory, at age 84, political analyst and former White House counselor Bill Curry said, “He was the first successful black comedian who insisted on having opinions.”

Until Dick Gregory—with his pioneering, satiric, audacious humor on stage and on national TV, which made white audiences laugh their way into reality—African-American comedians were expected “to do minstrel skits in baggy pants and outsize shoes and use slapstick humor,” in the words of Mel Watkins, author of On the Real Side: A History of African American Comedy.

Breaking through the national media in the early 1960s—from Time Magazine to the famous Jack Paar’s TV show, Tonight—Dick Gregory showed America that he could connect comedy with a myriad of important social justice causes even at the expense of his career.

Watkins describes Gregory well: “He was sharp. He was urbane. He smoked a cigarette onstage. He was very calm in demeanor but very outspoken in what he said … He brought in current political and social issues into his comedy—which was astounding to most white Americans at that time. It was during a time when blacks were considered incapable of doing this.”

Before an audience of white southern business executives, he hit at segregation, saying “I know the South very well. I spent 20 years there one night.” Unruffled by hecklers shouting racial epithets at one night club, he responded calmly that his contract with the club stipulated a $50 bonus each time someone used ‘the N word’ and invited the audience to keep on saying it. Moreover, he titled his 1964 memoir, Nigger: An Autobiography—coauthored with Robert Lipsyte—so that every time the slur was spoken, it was advertising the book which became a bestseller.

In a 2000 interview with NPR, a serious Dick Gregory said this about ‘the N word’: “Let’s pull it out of the closet, let’s deal with it, let’s dissect it. It should never be called ‘the N word.’”

One of his classic jokes that showed his wit, timing and imagery went like this: He walked into a restaurant in the segregated South where a waitress declared “We don’t serve colored people here.” Mr. Gregory replied: “That’s alright, I don’t eat colored people. Just bring me a whole fried chicken.”

But the former high school and college track star, Army veteran and father of 11 children was much, much more than a searing comedian whose humor exposed deeper truths behind inhuman conditions around the country and the world. No one showed up at more rallies, demonstrations, pickets, conducted more fasts, was arrested for non-violent protests more times—sometimes beaten and spat upon—over half a century, than this wiry, bearded advocate for a world without malice and hate.

The last time I saw Dick Gregory was in 2014. We were participating in a rally for D.C. statehood with Mayor Vincent Gray. I came to the stage and tapped him on the shoulder saying, “Mr. Gregory, is this your first protest?” He turned around and, for an instant gave me a quizzical, speechless expression, before we both broke out laughing.

In a long, front-page obituary recognizing his impact, the New York Times’s Clyde Haberman writes: “There seemed few causes he would not embrace. He took to fasting for weeks on end, his once robust body shrinking at times to 95 pounds. Across the decades, he went on dozens of hunger strikes, over issues involving the Vietnam War, the failed Equal Rights Amendment, police brutality, South African apartheid, nuclear power, prison reform, drug abuse and American Indian rights.” His commitment to civil rights did not keep him from being an opponent of all injustices, such as mass hunger and lack of universal access to health care.

Indeed, Mr. Gregory battled on all possible fronts. In 1967 he ran for mayor of Chicago to challenge longtime Mayor Richard J. Daley for his harsh crackdown on peaceful protesters. A year later he traveled the country running for president against Richard Nixon. He joined causes with John Lennon, and In 1980 he went to Tehran to try and free the U.S. Embassy officials being held by the new revolutionary regime that toppled the U.S.-backed dictator. He fasted down to 97 pounds before being compelled to leave the country.

Amidst increasingly trivial and frivolous (and not a little ageist) mass media, his formerly publicized fasts were increasingly ignored as were his other activism and actions. Unfazed, Dick Gregory became a five-day-a-week popular presence on the college campus lecture circuit and continued putting out albums and writing books.

Along with the white comics Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl, Mr. Gregory was all about breaking taboos, defying stereotypes and combating entrenched modes of oppressive power.

Unlike other high-profile comedians, Dick Gregory refused to deliver profanities or obscenities to get his points across or to provoke his audience’s attention. He was unique, using current events and social tensions to fuel his incisive imagination.

He still has millions of fans, most of them now over 45 and some with ample discretionary income, not to mention the affluence of the leading comics for whom he paved the way. Can a determined core of Gregory devotees organize to start a center or institute in his name to extend his examples of civic courage, remarkable communication skills, and the combination of humor and steadfast seriousness that induce people to listen and open their minds? Our tense, manipulated society needs the kind of clean, contemporary new satire that such an Institute, among other purposes, can engender with a new generation of comedians showing that “in humor there is truth.”

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What’s Obama Waiting For?

The most popular Democratic leader by far is still former President Barack Obama. Despite this popularity,  many of the signature accomplishments of his modest legacy are being brutishly unraveled – being repealed , suspended or slated for extinction – by the Trumpsters. Donald Trump seems to revel in the destruction of consumer, investor, environmental, work and public land protections and standards. Whether at the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration or the Securities and Exchange Commission, Trump’s big-business friends are running the very agencies tasked with regulating them.

Trump vehemently supports breaking the Iran nuclear accord – one of Obama’s highpoints that cooled off what could have been a rush to military conflict in that turbulent region. Abysmally ignorant about its contents, Trump is nonetheless impulsively determined to do just that in last year’s presidential campaign, alarming leading military experts.

What should Barack Obama be doing about the unfolding Trumpian nightmares dangerously enveloping so many defenseless and anxious Americans?  Tradition has it that outgoing presidents go quietly, do not assail their successor in office, if only because the latter is in a position to strike back. Already, Trump has been actively waging war against his predecessor’s legacy.

But there are many other ways in which Obama can respond without getting into a messy Twitter war with the unstable Tweeter-in-Chief. Granted, Obama is spending time laying the groundwork for his presidential library to preserve his past. It is the future of this country that needs his high profile attention. Word has it that he is working with his former Attorney General, Eric Holder, to get candidates and voters ready for next year’s crucial Congressional elections. If so, he needs to be more media-visible to get the attention of millions of people.

Here are some ways Obama can strengthen the people’s resistance to many of Trump’s destructive efforts which harm his own voters as well as those citizens who opposed his candidacy.

  1. He can raise funds to expand the staffs and programs of existing citizen organizations straining to preserve and defend conditions that help people from all backgrounds. Obama, as president, went to nearly five hundred major fundraisers outside Washington to court campaign donors. By contrast, fundraising for civic action groups, ranging from civil rights/liberties to consumer, environmental and health initiatives, will not be dissipated on gouging political consultants, empty television ads and cowardly candidates unwilling to speak truth to power.
  2. He can elevate already declared positions to block Trump and his Wall Street collaborators from words to action. For example, earlier this year over 100 outdoor-recreation companies – led by Patagonia and REI – paid for full-page advertisements telling Trump in no uncertain terms to lay off the public lands. Obama can nudge them to hire some full-time lobbyists on Capitol Hill to provide them with early alerts and guidance as the looming assault on national forests, wilderness areas and national parks gets underway. Big majorities of Americans agree with these companies, but they are not organized to focus on a handful of Senators and Representatives who need some firm education.
  3. Obama can help start new civic advocacy groups. He has close contacts with people who are very rich and share his views. For example, there needs to be new organizations filling important vacuums on such important matters as what the Trump FCC wants to do to the Internet (end net neutrality), to increase concentration of ownership in the mass media – which is already in a few giant corporate hands – and to deliberately ignore the 1934 Communications Act which conditions licenses on providing public interest programming.

There needs to be additional civic groups to propose good directions and to oppose Trump’s forthcoming reduction of taxes for the rich, and, very importantly, to organize prominent retired military, national security and diplomatic officials who are against aggressive wars and seek dynamic diplomacy to wage peace, and to move toward full Medicare for all with free choice of doctor and hospital – with more efficient and better outcomes.

The reality is that Barack Obama is a big draw. No one comes close to playing such a role. He can get big media, attract large audiences and raise large sums of money for the civic groups. The civil society has built and protected our democracy throughout history. Moreover, he can surely elevate public morale in an era of Trumpian gloom, flakery and attract new leadership to invigorate a leaderless Democratic Party down to the local levels.

If you agree, start petitions with your own ideas for Obama getting with America’s future and not just chronicling his eight year presidency’s past. His silent withdrawal has been astonishing and disturbing. He doesn’t yet realize what a historically crucial role he can play in the next few years.

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The 16-Year War In Afghanistan – Headlines Tell The Story

Since 2001 the US has been at War in Afghanistan – the longest war in US history. Headlines concisely tell the story of this cruel boomeranging quagmire of human violence and misery. Below are some newspaper headlines from 2010 to the present to show that a militarized foreign policy without Congress exercising its Constitutional duties and steadfast public engagement will drift on, costing our soldiers’ lives and limbs, nearly three-quarters of a trillion taxpayer dollars, hundreds of thousands of Afghani lives and millions of refugees, with no end in sight.

Here we go – year by year:

2010

Setbacks in Afghanistan Aggravate Fissures Over Obama Administration’s Review Strategy, Magnifying Differences

US Money Financing Afghan Warlords for Convoy Protection, Report Says

Afghan Base Tests US Exit Plans

In Bank Scandal, Kabul Struggles to Recover Missing Money

Afghanistan Halts Taliban Peace Initiative

US Slows Troop Pullout in Afghanistan

2011

Six Children Are Killed by NATO Airstrike in Afghanistan

Airstrike Ravages US-Pakistan Ties

In Afghanistan, a Sweeping Ambitious Effort to Gather Biometric Data

US General Defends Afghanistan Night Raids

US Secretly Met Afghan Militants

American Soldier is Convicted of Killing Afghan Civilians for Sport

Karzai: Plot Had Roots in Pakistan

Afghans Say Assistance Will Be Needed for Years

US Faces New Afghan Test

Taliban Fighters Attack Afghan Government Center

US-Taliban Peace Talks Reached Tentative Accord

Outspoken Afghan Rights Official Ousted

US General in Afghanistan Says Troops May Stay Past ‘14

US Shift May Push Afghans Into Lead Role

US’s Afghan Headache: $400-a-Gallon Gasoline

Karzai Says Foreigners Behind Afghan Corruption

2012

Under Obama a Drone Network

Police Undermine Fight Against Taliban

Taliban Suggests Peace Talks with US

France Ponders Afghan Pullout

US Drone Strikes Are Said to Target Rescuers at Sites

US Seeks to End Afghan Combat Mission in 2013

US, Afghans in Taliban Talks

Airstrike Killed Children, Karzai Says

Afghanistan Targets Flight of Cash

Taliban Gaining More Resources From Kidnapping

Iran-Afghanistan-Pakistan Summit Closes

Quick US Exit Gains Support Among Afghans

GI Kills Afghan Villagers; Children Among 16 Dead

How to Get Afghans to Trust Us Once Again

New Poll Finds Drop in Support For Afghan War

General Says Afghans Need Big US Force Beyond 2012

Afghan Officials Stress Need for Long-Term Role for US

In Poppy War, Taliban Aim to Protect a Cash Crop

A Stable Afghanistan is Still Possible

No End to Drug Traffic in Sight as US Nears Afghanistan Exit

Afghan Army’s Defiance Grows

Afghanistan Slows Huge Cash Exodus

Afghan Refugee Children Perish in Harsh Winter

In Afghan War, Dooming History to Repeat Itself

US Begins Packing Its Afghan War Gear for the Movers

Report Questions Afghan Strategy

7 Officials in Afghan Investment Agency Quit, Protesting Graft

Afghans Protest Vengeful Militias

Afghans to Spy on own Forces

Taliban Hit a Region Seen as Safest for Afghans

Away from Kabul, Wide Rift Looms Between Afghans and Americans

[Taliban] Bomb Attack Outside Afghan Mosque Kills 41, Injures 56 on Muslim Holiday

Afghanistan Says US Broke Pact on Prisons

Administration Presses to Resume Peace Negotiations with Taliban

Afghanistan Seeks Taxes from Contractors to US

2013

Anti-Torture Efforts in Afghanistan Failed, UN Says

Afghan Amnesty Program Falls Short, Leaving Ex-Insurgents Regretful and Angry

Afghanistan Moves to Curb US Forces

US Faces Fire As It Pulls Out of Afghanistan

Afghan Leader Says US Abets Taliban’s Goal

General Says 20,000 Troops Should Stay in Afghanistan

For Afghans, Peace Appears More Distant Than Ever

11 Afghans are Kidnapped While Working to Clear Land Mines

Afghanistan’s Karzai says US wants to Keep 9 Bases

Karzai’s Office Gets Bags Full of CIA Cash

Report: Millions of US Assistance for Afghan Health Projects Being Wasted

Afghanistan Karzai Officials Meet Secretly with Taliban

Taliban are Said to Attack Afghan Police

Violent Censorship on Rise in Afghanistan

Taliban Attacks US Consulate in West Afghanistan

US Forced to Take Costly Route to Move Gear Out of Afghanistan

Afghans Demand that US Admit Military Errors

US, Afghans Near Security Accord

Afghans Flee Homes as US Pulls Back

US Trains Elite Afghan Units Before Exit

Afghans Look Warily at Future Without US

Attacks on Aid Workers Rise in Afghanistan UN Says

2014

Military Plans Reflect Afghanistan Uncertainty

Tensions Between Afghanistan and US Increase As Airstrike Kills Civilians

3 Reasons for Optimism on Afghanistan

Hard Talk Aside, Little Desire by the West to Leave Afghanistan

Aid Group Sees Daunting Obstacles to Health Care for Afghans

Foreigners in Afghanistan Consider Fleeing As Attacks Rise

Killing of US General Points to Afghan Troops Troubled Past

After Losing Province in 2010, Afghan Taliban Strike Back

Taliban Attacks Kabul Airport as Vote Recount Begins

2015

The Many Failures in Afghanistan

Afghan City’s Fall to Taliban Belies Earlier American Hopes

New Refugees in a Shifting Afghan War

Afghanistan, Taliban Begin Talks on Peace

Afghan Forming Militias to Fight Against Taliban

Taliban Talks Stir Hopes for Afghan Peace

Rising Dangers and Foreign Exodus Hollow Out Afghan Capital

Afghan Gas Station Cost Pentagon $43 Million

Afghan Forces Straining to Repel Taliban Attacks

Taliban Kill at Least 22 Afghan Police Officers

Afghan Province, Teetering to the Taliban, Draws in Extra US Forces

Afghanistan, Pakistan Seek to Restart Talks with Taliban

CIA Runs Shadow War Using Afghan Paramilitary Forces

2016

US to Fight Islamic State in Afghanistan

Taliban Step Up Urban Assaults, Testing the mettle of Afghan Forces

Another District in an Afghan Province Falls to the Taliban

Taliban Rejects Peace Talks with Afghan Government, Cites US ‘Occupation’

Afghan Troops Retreat Under Pressure from Taliban

From Cold War to Cold Shoulder: Russia Cools on Aiding US in Afghanistan

Afghan Refugees Shivering in Frigid Settlements

Exit Strategy for Afghanistan Fades

Taliban Militants Strike in the Heart of Kabul

Face-Off Between Strongmen Exposes Afghanistan’s Deep Political Riffs

Afghanistan’s Taliban Push into New Media

1,000 Afghans Each Day are Fleeing Their Homes

Huge Protest Against Afghan Government Brings Kabul to a Halt

Taliban Cut off Major Afghan Highway Linking Kabul to Northern Gateways

Number of Displaced Afghans Soars

US-Built Roads Take Afghanistan Nowhere

2017

US General Favors Boost in Troops in Afghanistan

Selling Trump a New Afghan Commitment

Taliban Tap New Income Stream: Collecting Bills for Afghan Utilities

U.S. Military Drops 22,000-Pound Bomb on Islamic State Forces in Afghanistan

America Keeps on Failing in Afghanistan

Taliban Seize Two More Afghan Districts in Sustained Fighting

A Peace ‘Surge’ to End War in Afghanistan

Blackwater’s Founder Wants Trump to Outsource the Afghanistan War

Joint Taliban-ISIS Attack Kills Dozens, Afghan Officials Say

Trump Finds Reason for the U.S. to Remain in Afghanistan: Minerals

No Way Out: Trump’s Crude View of Afghanistan Won’t Solve U.S.’s Longest-Running War

The final headline is as appropriate now as it was when it was printed in 2011: “Futility in Afghanistan.”

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An Open Letter To OMB Director Mick Mulvaney

Dear Mr. Mulvaney,

I have been reading and listening to your remarks whenever reporters asks why you are pressing for unprecedented budget cuts in selected agencies and departments that serve people and their children who are impoverished or vulnerable to health/safety hazards, or with disabilities. Your two responses are that the programs aren’t working (with no evidence for such sweeping dismissals by one who is so privileged) and then you emphasize that you are looking out for the taxpayers who fund these programs (the taxpayers are taking good care of you!) Have you no empathy or compassion whatsoever?

But there is a more measurable inconsistency to your kneejerk ideology of corporate market fundamentalism. If you are really standing up for taxpayers, where are you on the bloated defense budget, whose military contractors and other waste have been exposed by regular internal, case-specific Pentagon audits, many GAO reports, solid investigative reporting and numerous high ranking military retirees? Don’t the taxpayers deserve your watchdog advocacy, especially since you support adding tens of billions more dollars to that runaway budget which, being unauditable, according to the GAO, is violating a federal statute enacted in 1990?

Second, what about the massive corporate welfare subsidies, handouts, giveaways and bailouts that keep much of government busy shelling our taxpayer money and tax expenditures? Why are you silent about this raid on the taxpayers, often associated with this waste, fraud and abuse, that amounts to hundreds of billions of dollars annually?

Then there is the well documented (GAO, Harvard Professor Malcolm Sparrow) commercial fraud on Medicare, Medicaid and other disbursing programs. Why are you silent, instead of standing up for taxpayers?

The answers could not be your lack of knowledge. The answers are that you will not speak truth to power, that you are a corporatist enmeshed in a hypocrisy that could be redeemable. This lack of modest courage distances yourself from realities on the ground such as your astonishing failure to accept the basis for the Meals on Wheels program serving older people living alone.

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We suggest your visiting some of these realities around the country so that you can accrete a measure of empathy, intellectual honesty and empirical nourishment. These people will receive you with courtesy and kindness as you survey their plight, their pain, their grit in the midst of conditions you cannot imagine back in your spacious Washington offices. Some of your cuts will affect veterans and their traumatized families coping with the results back home of illegal wars of aggression such as Bush/Cheney’s invasion and continuing quagmire in Iraq.

Let’s see if you at least have the willingness to press for the expedited auditing of the gigantic Pentagon budget and its large ‘defense’ contractors with their runaway cost overruns. The Department’s past Secretaries of Defense always keep promising that compliance with federal law – as do other departments and agencies – is coming in a few years. It is always in a few years. You are, after all, Director of the Office of Management and Budget. You cannot do your job with an unaudited Department of Defense budget. Recall, for example, the Department admitted some years ago to Congress that they could not account for $9 billion spent in Iraq in the year following that invasion.

You can choose not to respond to this letter, in which case you would be true to the characterizations described above. Perhaps you will respond to similar inquiries from members of Congress not enthralled by your high-velocity glibness that does not get down to facts on the ground.

Sincerely yours,

Ralph Nader

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Will The Federal Civil Service Defend Us?

As the Trump wrecking crew ramps up its destructive campaign against federal health and safety protections and social services for impoverished, disabled and vulnerable people (young and old) the latest targets of their ire are the federal civil servants who faithfully keep our government functioning here and abroad.

Mind you, the Trump wrecking crew is not going after gigantic corporate welfare programs, giveaways, bailouts and subsidies to big business. Nor are the Trumpsters going after wasteful, inflated government corporate contracts or massive billing frauds on Medicare, Medicaid or other government programs. These egregious examples of crony capitalism, so disliked by conservatives and progressives alike, seem untouchable. While disgraceful, this is not surprising; many of Trump’s nominees benefited mightily from this cronyism before coming to Washington and Trump still benefits due to his refusal to divest.

Given this state of corporatist mayhem, the important question is: Will the federal civil service hold against lawless, dangerous non-enforcement of the laws and arbitrary suspensions of ongoing programs to protect the people from corporate assaults on their safety and economic well-being?

These are tough times for career civil servants who have given their all to do the right thing and make government serve the people (if you doubt this, just read the new book American Amnesia by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson).

Consider civil servants’ anguish. If they keep doing their job, they’re going to be pushed to retire or be marginalized. If they do as they are illegally or wrongfully ordered to do, they are going against their conscience and undermining their oath of office.

The oath of office taken by federal civil servants is not to the president or to their cabinet secretary. It is to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. The Constitution defines the work role for federal employees (according to the Office of Personnel Management [OPM]) “to establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty.”

To further define their obligations, the Code of Ethics for U.S. Government Service has declared that civil servants must “put loyalty to the highest moral principles and to country above loyalty to persons, party or government department.”

Top civil servants are being told to freeze what they are doing or reverse course, suppressing science and take down scientifically informed websites (such as those on calamitous climate change) and suspend law enforcement –  all under the direction of Trump’s cabinet lackeys who are openly bent on serving the Fortune 500 corporations, not the Constitution. Many of these public servants are quitting rather than violate their code of ethics.

In March, as the EPA wrecking crew chief, Scott Pruitt, moved to let corporations pour more poisons into your air, water, soil and food, the head of the Environmental Justice Office, Mustafa Ali, quit. Last week, the highly regarded Elizabeth Southerland, the director of science and technology in the EPA’s Office of Water, resigned. She said that Pruitt and Trump, who are pushing a 31 percent cut in the agency’s already strained budget, are abandoning “the polluter pays principle that underlies all environmental statutes and regulations.”

Former Secretary of State (and Republican) Colin Powell, in an Op-Ed published in May for The New York Times, denounced the disabling proposed cuts that hollow out the work of diplomats and aid workers who advance peace and critical assistance to poor families in underdeveloped countries. He warned about creating “a vacuum that would make us far less safe and prosperous.” Almost certainly, in the coming months, scientists in the Food and Drug Administration will be told to back off and let inadequately tested drugs go to market for the drug industry’s gouging profits. Other civil servants will have their judgments repressed when they recommend recalling defective motor vehicles, prohibiting clear cutting in our national forests, enforcing civil and voting rights, removing certain pesticides from our food, issuing ready-to-go safety standards for travelers, enforcing safeguards for nursing home residents and implementing proper nutritional school meal recipes for children.

The Trumpsters actually want to have the best and most experienced public servants to quit. They are already retaliating against civil servants who speak truthfully of the harm to innocent people being caused by the grisly policies championed by the corporate paymasters.

Fortunately, there are outside groups already challenging in federal court the lawless Trump regime under the Administrative Procedures Act, the Freedom of Information Act and other violated federal laws. They are also defending harassed civil servants who try to bring their conscience to work.

These citizen groups – Public Citizen (see citizen.org), Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (see peer.org), The Government Accountability Project (GAP, see whistleblower.org), and numerous other organizations, including civil service retirees, are working daily to remind Trump’s tyrants that our country remains one under the “rule of law” on behalf of, by and for the people.

Those ideals need the cutting edge of organized citizens and the larger backing of focused public outrage putting heat on members of Congress. Both between and during elections, an organized and motivated public can put a stop to this vast takeover of our government by the avaricious corporate supremacists.

Remember, we vastly outnumber them. It’s easier than we are led to think when “we the people” decide to show up.

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Preparing For The Impeachment Of Scott Pruitt: An Open Letter To Members Of Congress

Dear members of Congress,

In his five months as EPA Administrator, former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt is an aggregating impeachable offense, ever giving fuller meaning to Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist 65 elaboration of what constitutes “high crimes and misdemeanors,” to wit: Impeachable offenses arise from the “abuse or violation of some public trust” and “relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself.”

Riding into office on the back of 14 lawsuits he filed against the EPA, Pruitt took his oath of office to uphold the laws of the land and promptly proceeded to do just the opposite. Using the mantra of “states’ rights” as his corporate fig leaf and wildly accusing EPA scientists of being unscientific, he has moved to “undo, delay or otherwise block more than 30 environmental rules,” according to the July 1, 2017 New York Times.

His tenure thus far at the EPA is the stuff of corporate wish lists: meeting privately with the worst industrial perpetrators of silent violence (charitably described as “pollution”) and huddling with industry lobbyists and corporate lawyers who are eager for Pruitt to dismantle his own agency ― the federal manager of environmental violence to air, water, soil and food.

Pruitt is rolling over and stifling the mission of EPA’s scientists, legal experts and other specialists to protect Americans families from pollution hot spots, which disproportionately affect low-income and minority communities.

Mr. Pruitt makes himself vulnerable, with all the ex parte contacts and corporate advisors to many serious offenses, including: a) violation of the procedures of the Federal Advisory Committee Act, b) conflict of interest rules, c) violation of both criminal and civil laws by the overreaching industry lobbyists who constitute Pruitt’s tight cadre of clenched-jawed political appointees. History provides precedents of how the boundless zealotry of new wrecking crews ultimately leads to self-inflicted wounds and scandals.

Under Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution, the president, vice president and all civil Officers of the United States “may be impeached and, if convicted by the Senate, shall be removed from office.” Scott Pruitt is in the category of a “civil Officer.”

Republicans in the House of Representatives are quite familiar with trying to impeach a civil officer. For many months prior to the November election, they were hounding, with baseless impeachment threats, John Koskinen, then-director of the IRS and one of the most honorable civil servants in a generation. So fervid and ill-tempered was their partisan zeal that they also took it out on the IRS’s budget, already lower than it was several years earlier, and cut it further to the bone. This fulminating vendetta, widely reported, has led to millions of taxpayers waiting on the phone with the IRS to get served or not be served at all. Most ironically, the Republicans assured that the woefully understaffed IRS could collect even less of the estimated $350 billion in annual unpaid taxes, thereby expanding the federal deficit they so often decry for political expediency.

Pruitt, like most captured corporatists, has ignored the objections to his policies from the 15,000 employees of the EPA, hoping that many will leave the agency and further weaken the environmental health and safety efforts that he abhors. He doesn’t want them around because he cannot rebut their scientific arguments for retaining existing standards, which would protect our environment from deadly toxins. He is also hostile to the “precautionary principle” which shifts the burden of proof to the progenitors of new chemical or particulate or gas into the environment.

When you go through the list of health standards slated for Pruitt’s abolition, you wonder whether there are any limits to his cold-blooded, corporatized agenda. So extreme is his corporate ardor that there will undoubtedly be lawless actions coming from his precipitous acts – which he rightly believes will not be subject to restraint from the Trump White House or the Republican-controlled Congress.

Pruitt’s fevered mind thinks like this: Climate change is a hoax. Methane gas, which is 40 times more harmful to global warming than carbon dioxide, should not be subject to the modest Obama-era required disclosures. The industries that are most responsible for pollution should be in charge of their own enforcement. The EPA’s already grossly inadequate budget should be cut further. Attempts to curb pollution in our air and waterways should be revoked. Pesticides like chlorpyrifos, found to be dangerous after years of study, should be pushed back for ‘reconsideration’ – in short to be shelved. Rules on methane leaks from drilling oil and gas wells should be obstructed through delays or revision.

Pruitt had a private meeting with corporate lobbyists at Trump International Hotel, which is a venue for recurring violations of the Emoluments Clause due to its Trump-enriching expenditures by foreign interests. That’s when you know that the officious Pruitt doesn’t even care about appearances, much less the perils of lawless and secretive influence-peddling that enriches President Trump’s investments.

With such arrogance, willful ignorance and a colossal incapacity to resonate with his agency’s mandated role to prevent cancer, respiratory diseases and human habitat destruction, Pruitt is heading for trouble.

His brief tenure as EPA administrator has already been defined by intensive abuse of power and the public trust, undermining the legitimacy of our government and the rule of law.

Members of Congress – Democratic and Republican – must ensure accountability for this rogue administrator. Take close note of his non-compliance with the Administrative Procedure Act and keep in mind that political ideologies will not protect your children or vulnerable relatives and friends form environmental toxins. Conservative lungs and other bodily organs are as vulnerable to pollution-bred terminal ailments and the violent effects of climate change, as their liberal counterparts.

If there was ever a time for Congressional maturity and respect for one of our founding fathers’ favorite words – posterity – now is that time.

Let’s be clear about what is at issue here. Pruitt is extinguishing life-saving and disease-preventing health standards that were vetted in open procedures, that were open to input by the commercial interested affected – which usually leads to diluting the final regulation – and which have solid scientific basis to protect vulnerable populations. Consequently, Pruitt’s rollbacks, suspensions or delays, if allowed to persist and expand, will lead loss and deprivation of American lives, including children – the future of our country – thereby increasing healthcare costs, family anguish and other disruptions of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Pruitt and his cohorts are a clear and present danger to America. He will demonstrate in the coming weeks and months how deserving he is of impeachment in the House of Representatives and conviction in the U.S. Senate. That is, if he doesn’t resign or be forced to resign due to his own cruelty, recklessness and running afoul of the law.

Sincerely yours,

Ralph Nader

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Will A Mega-Billionaire Rescue America From GOP’s Insurance Mayhem?

Before recommending a practical way to reverse the devastating impact of Congressional Republicans’ attempts to strip tens of millions of Americans of health insurance coverage, and the non-stop anxiety and dread that comes with such cruel and vicious legislation, note the impact of having gerrymandered (the politicians pick the voters) Washington rulers.

The arrogant Republicans in Congress have good health insurance, life insurance, pensions, salaries and expense accounts paid by you the taxpayers. This perversely has led them to drop any empathy their residual consciences might have possessed before they came to Capitol Hill – many as millionaires.

At the same time, in a country that spends well over $3 trillion a year on “health care,” the GOP’s various bills leave millions of families fearing loss of insurance, reduced coverage, larger deductibles, unaffordable co-pays and inscrutable insurance and billing fine-print trap doors. This is producing serious fear, anxiety, depression and in many cases absolute terror for sick children and ailing parents.

We have the New York Times to thank for bringing this vast human toll, day after day, night after night, to their readers. In a recent article, reporter Jan Hoffman interviews people who are wondering “whether they would be able to continue screenings and treatment.” Hoffman writes that patients “are postponing” – so as not to set up a preexisting condition –  “or accelerating major medical decisions, weighing whether to move to more insurance-friendly states” and worrying about “their own inability to control critical matters in their own lives.”

“‘I’m so done,’ moaned Cathy McPherson, 58, a retired court clerk in Sonora, CA, with hypertension … It’s what I think about all the time and I am totally burned out. They go over and over it. Can you stop? Just stop it for a little bit?’”

The Times also interviewed a psychologist, Nancy Molitor in Wilmette, IL, who describes “escalating anxiety about health care for all her patients. Many want to spend entire sessions about how to handle the stress and the feelings of fear, powerlessness, rage and frustrated paralysis.”

Perhaps Meghan Borland, who, with her husband, owns a small business in Pleasant Valley, NY, gives voice to this preventable despair in the USA most pointedly. They have a 2-year-old daughter, Amelia, receiving chemotherapy for leukemia. Meghan said, “For months it’s been: Here’s a bill, we’ll vote. No, we won’t. Now it will change. Maybe not. Will that one person in the Senate vote or not? Except for us, this is not a game.”

Well it’s a stupid, but lucrative, ideological game for the Republicans, whose various factions juggle their corporate paymasters and reactionary dogmas, as they try to give the rich and powerful another $800 billion in tax breaks at the expense of millions of their neighbors’ lives and livelihoods.

Without health insurance, about 35,000 Americans die each year; many more stay sick or injured because they cannot afford insurance to get diagnosed and treated in time. About 30 million people fall into that helpless, hurtful category.

Those tens of millions more Americans who are underinsured can barely figure out where they are covered and how much they have to pay or go without.

For the most vulnerable of these Americans, the choice is morbidly clear: pay or die.

In Canada, everybody has a Medicare card to use a system that is simple, affordable, comprehensive and universal. They hardly see a bill. They have better health outcomes, cover everyone and spend less than half per capita than does the corporate dominated U.S. that excludes tens of millions of human beings from health care. Canadians do not have the anxieties, dread or fear of losing all their personal savings or bringing financial ruin on their families, as so many Americans do.

In Canada, no one has to decide whether to take or not to take another job based on health insurance factors. They are free to choose any physician or hospital – no narrow networks, with hidden charges, in that country.

In Canada, where there is public funding and private delivery of health care, profits are not the king, people come first. The large majority of citizens, liberals and conservatives, love their health care system, especially when they hear of the horrors going on south of their border in the U.S. (Canadians need to be more alert to corporate forces trying to undermine, restrict budgets and bad-mouth their system, which is a shining example of what is possible with equitable public investment in health care).

A majority of Americans, including a significant number of conservatives, favor single payer, full Medicare for all. So do a majority of physicians and nurses, currently in thralldom to corporatist dictates.

How to get there from here? Listen to Warren Buffett, the multi-billionaire and sage from Omaha; he favors full Medicare for all as being more efficient and humane (a single payer system has far less administrative costs and billing fraud). Then he tells us the pathway to turning this whole madness and mayhem around. To paraphrase what he once said, there are only 535 members of Congress (100 senators and 435 representatives), and we’re over 300 million people. Why can’t we control these legislators?

Imagine if a very rich, enlightened person pledged $1 billion dollars to fund the organizing of a few thousand serious volunteers in every Congressional District, each having four full-time advocates. Working with these volunteers, each dedicating 300 to 400 hours a year in Congressional watchdog associations,  this watchdog initiative would immediately represent a majority of Americans. Within 36 months, with a consequential election in 2018, our country would have comprehensive, universal, affordable, simpler single payer (full Medicare for all), saving lives, livelihoods and endless family anguish and fear.

That would be quite an historical achievement for any one of numerous billionaires each worth at least $10 billion. Any takers?

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