The Expanding World of Poverty Capitalism

From NYT “Opinion” August 26, 2014 by Thomas Edsall:

In Orange County, Calif., the probation department’s “supervised electronic confinement program,” which monitors the movements of low-risk offenders, has been outsourced to a private company, Sentinel Offender Services. The company, by its own account, oversees case management, including breath alcohol and drug-testing services, “all at no cost to county taxpayers.”

Sentinel makes its money by getting the offenders on probation to pay for the company’s services. Charges can range from $35 to $100 a month.

The company boasts of having contracts with more than 200 government agencies, and it takes pride in the “development of offender funded programs where any of our services can be provided at no cost to the agency.”

Sentinel is a part of the expanding universe of poverty capitalism. In this unique sector of the economy, costs of essential government services are shifted to the poor.

In terms of food, housing and other essentials, the cost of being poor has always been exorbitant. Landlords, grocery stores and other commercial enterprises have all found ways to profit from those at the bottom of the ladder.

The recent drive toward privatization of government functions has turned traditional public services into profit-making enterprises as well.

In addition to probation, municipal court systems are also turning collections over to a national network of companies like Sentinel that profit from service charges imposed on the men and women who are under court order to pay fees and fines, including traffic tickets (with the fees being sums tacked on by the court to fund administrative services).

When they cannot pay these assessed fees and fines – plus collection charges imposed by the private companies — offenders can be sent to jail. There are many documented cases in which courts have imprisoned those who failed to keep up with their combined fines, fees and service charges.

“These companies are bill collectors, but they are given the authority to say to someone that if he doesn’t pay, he is going to jail,” John B. Long, a lawyer in Augusta, Ga. active in defending the poor, told Ethan Bronner of The Times.

February 2014 report by Human Rights Watch on private offender services found that “more than 1,000 courts in several US states delegate tremendous coercive power to companies that are often subject to little meaningful oversight or regulation. In many cases, the only reason people are put on probation is because they need time to pay off fines and court costs linked to minor crimes. In some of these cases, probation companies act more like abusive debt collectors than probation officers, charging the debtors for their services.”

Human Rights Watch also found that in Georgia in 2012, in “a state of less than 10 million people, 648 courts assigned more than 250,000 cases to private probation companies.” The report notes that “there is virtually no transparency about the revenues of private probation companies” since “practically all of the industry’s firms are privately held and not subject to the disclosure requirements that bind publicly traded companies. No state requires probation companies to report their revenues, or by logical extension the amount of money they collect for themselves from probationers.”

Human Rights Watch goes on to provide an account given by a private probation officer in Georgia: “I always try and negotiate with the families. Once they know you are serious they come up with some money. That’s how you have to be. They have to see that this person is not getting out unless they pay something. I’m just looking for some good faith money, really. I got one guy I let out of jail today and I got three or four more sitting there right now.”

Collection companies and the services they offer appeal to politicians and public officials for a number of reasons: they cut government costs, reducing the need to raise taxes; they shift the burden onto offenders, who have little political influence, in part because many of them have lost the right to vote; and it pleases taxpayers who believe that the enforcement of punishment — however obtained — is a crucial dimension to the administration of justice.

As N.P.R. reported in May, services that “were once free, including those that are constitutionally required,” are now frequently billed to offenders: the cost of a public defender, room and board when jailed, probation and parole supervision, electronic monitoring devices, arrest warrants, drug and alcohol testing, and D.N.A. sampling. This can go to extraordinary lengths: in Washington state, N.P.R. found, offenders even “get charged a fee for a jury trial — with a 12-person jury costing $250, twice the fee for a six-person jury.”

This new system of offender-funded law enforcement creates a vicious circle: The poorer the defendants are, the longer it will take them to pay off the fines, fees and charges; the more debt they accumulate, the longer they will remain on probation or in jail; and the more likely they are to be unemployable and to become recidivists.

Read the entire article here.

The Economic Value of Treating Workers Humanely

From today’s NYT ‘Taking Note” Blog by Carol Giacomo:

There has been so much regression on democracy and human rights in Myanmar recently that many people, this editorial page included, have suggested the United States must consider reinstating broad sanctions.

On Thursday, however, there was a positive step forward – an agreement between the two countries to work together to strengthen labor rights and improve labor conditions in Myanmar.

The new initiative, which is backed by the International Labor Organization, was announced in Yangon during a visit by Mike Froman, the United States Trade Representative.

It will involve American and Myanmar officials, other interested governments, businesses, workers and labor groups such as the ILO in developing a multi-year strategy on reforming Myanmar’s labor laws. The intent is also to help the country and its people develop the skills and the systems needed to ensure reforms are consistent with international standards and that they are put into effect.

For instance, Myanmar has recently allowed the formation of labor unions and there are now more than 1,000 of them. But given that the country was ruled by a military junta until 2011, there is little understanding of how workers, government officials and employers should interact or even how to set a minimum wage. The new initiative is expected to address that.

The agreement suggests that Myanmar officials, eager to draw foreign investment into their country, and foreign businesses, eager for a new market, see an economic value in treating workers humanely and respectfully.

It seems no coincidence that the initiative was unveiled at the same time as a $480 million solar power project, financed in part by American investors, that is expected to provide Myanmar with up to 12 percent of its power.

In a statement, Gap Inc., one of the American companies taking part in the initiative, said that “as the first American retailer to begin sourcing from Myanmar, we understand that we have a responsibility to ensure that our vendors provide a safe, healthy and fair workplace for workers.”

If Myanmar’s government, still heavily influenced by the military, is serious about this new commitment, it could be an important turning point. But in recent months there has been more backsliding than forward movement in Myanmar’s transition to a democratic society. So skepticism is warranted.

And even if this initiative bears fruit, the country still faces many serious challenges given the human rights abuses against the Rohinga, a Muslim minority group; the efforts to close off elections to opposition candidates; and attacks on press freedoms. Re-imposing sanctions must remain an option.

What Standards of Child Labor Should Apply Overseas?

From today’s NYT “Room for Debate”:

Child labor is condemned as immoral and exploitative, but despite pledges to crack down, international corporations continue to struggle to prevent minors from being hired at their contract manufacturers overseas. Some say such rules prevent poor families from improving their lives.

Should Western child labor standards apply in developing countries?

Read different perspectives on this debate here.

MI workers resist “right-to-work” law

Michigan lawmakers began debate today on controversial “right to work” legislation that would forbid requiring workers to pay union dues. The legislation is expected to pass despite widespread protests in and around the state capital. If it passes MI will be  the 24th state with such laws that limit union participation as a condition of employment.

Two years ago Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker proposed other controversial legislation limiting the bargaining power of public employee unions as a cost-cutting measure. The measure passed despite opposition from both unions and the public, but Walker was punished for it in a brutal recall election he barely survived. Similar legislation failed to pass in Ohio a year later as anti-union sentiment continues to thrive in a difficult economic climate.

So-called “right to work” legislation is anything but employment guarantees and workplace protections. In fact, by diluting the power of unions to maintain “closed shops” with employers, such legislation actually diminishes the individual and collective voice rights in labor contracts, making it easier for employers to pay weak wages, provide little benefits, and terminate employees on demand.

The recent movement to pass “right to work” laws has been backed by corporate and industry lobbying efforts in conjunction with the Republican Party and groups such as the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation. The wisdom of such legislation is questionable in the long run as the wages of American workers continue to decline and the cost of employment benefits are increasingly placed on the shoulders of employees. In the short term support for this misnamed legislation has received a boost from calls for austerity against big government. However, it isn’t big government spending that is to blame for the sluggish economic recovery, but declining revenues tied to a tax base that has significantly shrunk in the wake of the recession.

Once again it appears that workers with good paying jobs will pay the price of corporate and political corruption, and unfortunately many Americans are helping to destroy these jobs by backing right-wing policies against workers‘ rights.

NYC fast food workers stage walk out, fighting for rights to unionize

Dozens of fast food workers at some of the country’s largest chains, including McDonald’s, Taco Bell, and Domino’s, walked off the job today in a coordinated campaign to highlight low wages and encourage unionization. The campaign is backed by community groups, civil rights groups, religious leaders, and a labor union, the Service Employees International Union.

Workers are protesting what they said are low wages and retaliation against those workers who have backed unionization among the thousands of fast food worker in New York City. Coordinators claim this is the first multi-restaurant strike by fast food workers in American history, and promised further action as unions make in-roads into the traditionally anti-union fast food industry.

Over the decades there have been efforts to unionize single fast-food restaurants or chains, but there has never before been an effort to unionize multiple restaurants at one time. The new campaign states advocates raising low wages and reducing the disparities of income inequality.

CUNY sociology professor Ruth Milkman said, “These jobs have extremely high turnover, so by the time you get around to organizing folks, they’re not on the job anymore.”

 

While Occupy LA is the last to fall, focus on inequality will remain

The national dialogue started by Occupy Wall Street will continue, but the last of the encampments that have sprung up in big and small cities across America will be cleared out tonight.

Occupy LA the last to be evicted.

Last Friday, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Police Chief Charlie Beck held a press conference announcing the city of Los Angeles was issuing an eviction order for the lawn of City Hall where hundreds of protesters associated with Occupy Los Angeles have been camped since October. On Monday at midnight police began enforcing that eviction order, arresting dozens of protesters in a largely peaceful manner. This is in stark contrast to other cities and university campuses where police have used unnecessary and outrageous force to evict protesters from public spaces.

This signals the end of the first stage of this movement, to occupy these spaces in order to draw the nation’s attention to its unchecked economic and political corruption. Although media commentators, some members of the general public, and FOX News have nurtured doubts about the “focus” or the “message” of this movement, there can be no doubt that this Occupy Movement has restored the problem of economic inequality in the conscience of the nation.

The question now is what the second stage of this movement will look like. As protesters and sympathizers search for the means to continue raising consciousness about the problem of inequality, efforts must be made to create a national organization with state and local outreach. This should be done to counter the perception that the Occupy Movement is merely a bunch of malcontents, anarchists, and homeless persons without a message.

In reality, it is a movement made up of diverse Americans all of whom have been adversely impacted by an economic and political system that no longer serves the interests of the supermajority of its stakeholders. These Americans include young and old alike, whether they are homeless, poor, unemployed, or employed is irrelevant. The Occupy Movement represents the most authentic cross-section of America to date, and therefore speaks honestly to the very real problems that plague our friends, families, and fellow citizens.

We live in the wealthiest country in the world. Roughly speaking, that wealth is controlled by 1 percent of its citizens. Meanwhile, the lives and prospects of the remaining 99 percent continue to suffer and diminish in the face of permanent unemployment, massive credit card and student loan debt, and a democracy that has been hijacked by money and special interests. Despite attempts by corporate hacks and establishment apologists to discredit the Occupy Movement for lack of “focus” or “message” because it lacks “sexy” marketing, the nation owes these brave souls who have suffered derision, endured bad weather and faced the batons and pepper spray of police officers, for bringing the real problems of this country to the table.

OWS attempts to shut down Stock Exchange, hundreds arrested

Hundreds of protesters marched on Wall Street early this morning to prevent traders, financiers, and technocrats from reaching their jobs at the Stock Exchange. So far, 100 people have been arrested as the Occupy Wall Street movement vows to keep up its visible presence in New York, highlighting the greed and injustice of the American financial and political system.

84-year-old Dorli Rainey was brutally pepper sprayed by Seattle police, and has become a symbol of the brutal tactics used by law enforcement to suppress democratic dissent.

Protesters clogged the streets around Wall Street, blocking traffic and halting people from reaching the Exchange. Police in riot gear moved in quickly, telling the marching crowds to disperse or face arrest. When dozens of people began sitting down in the intersections, they were quickly arrested. Similar protests and marches are scheduled to continue throughout cities across the nation.

The tactics of law enforcement have come under increasing scrutiny as video footage is leaked to the public and press, showing police pepper spraying and beating otherwise peaceful protesters. In Seattle, the police are being heavily criticized for unjustifiably using pepper spray and truncheons on its own citizens including 84-year-old Dorli Rainey, who has come to symbolize the protest movements nationwide.

As law enforcement moves to evict occupiers in cities across the country, more attention should focus on police tactics, which all too often rely on the brutalization of citizens and the violation of their civil liberties. The police are supposed to “serve and protect,” but their role in suppressing these democratic protests raises the question whether they have become an instrument for the wealthy and powerful to preserve the status quo. Mayors, police commissioners, and officers who are implicated in these brutal tactics should be held accountable for their actions.

NYPD clears Occupy Wall Street encampment, hundreds arrested

The truth hurts us all.

Acting on behalf of the wealthy and powerful interests of Wall Street, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg defended his decision to clear out Zuccotti Park, where protesters have staged a camp out that has captured the attention of the nation in order to highlight the injustices and inequities of American-style capitalism.

Mayor Bloomberg claimed that conditions in the park had become intolerable, and that “public health and safety” determined his decision. However, he also announced that the park would reopen tomorrow morning, raising doubts that the conditions of the encampment in the public park were to blame. More likely, Bloomberg’s close ties with Wall Street pressured the billionaire to use his official position to deny the Occupy Wall Street movement its constitutional right to peaceably assemble.

This is not the first time Bloomberg has used the coercive powers of the state, as well as the notorious tactics of the NYPD, to deny democratic protesters their constitutional rights on the streets of the Big Apple. In 2004 his administration and the NYPD came under fire for mishandling the Republican National Convention protests around Madison Square Garden. Thousands of people were arrested in broad and unjustified sweeps of the city streets under the guise that “law and order” must be imposed in order to provide security against the threat of terrorism.

Many of those arrested were either innocent bystanders watching the protests from sidewalks, or people out shopping, or New Yorker’s walking home from work. I was personally jailed 46 hours, first at Pier 57 where a bus terminal was turned into a holding pen, and then at the city’s notorious central jail called “the Tombs.” The New York Civil Liberties Union and National Lawyer’s Guild later launched a class action suit against the city, which has been bogged down in a legal quagmire. Hopefully, the Occupy Wall Street movement will receive much needed legal aid from the armies of unemployed lawyers who have lost their jobs because of the greedy fucking pricks running Wall Street, our country, and the global economy into the ground.

Occupy Wall Street is a small movement fronting a gigantic cause for the rest of us. Mayor Bloomberg and has now established a precedent that other cities are likely to follow. In the name of “public health and safety,” the constitutional rights of Americans to protest government incompetence and inaction concerning the causes and consequences of the recession will be ignored and undermined. In the name of cleaning up some shit on the sidewalks, they will be asked to tolerate more shit flowing downhill as their incomes shrink and profits flow uphill.

The use of state violence to deny this constitutional right is a gross injustice that Americans are likely to tolerate, leaving them vulnerable, yet again, to future collusions between the state and wealthy individuals in which they bear the costs, socially, economically, and politically.

What is to be done? #occupycongress

UN moves against Qaddafi regime

Developments in the Libyan conflict moved quickly last week as the United Nations Security Council voted to impose a “no-fly zone” over Libya in order to help rebel forces there, who have had several setbacks at Kaddafi’s loyalist forces and mercenaries have driven them from previously kept rebel strongholds in the eastern part of that country.

President Obama announced that an international coalition led by France, UK, and America would impose the “no-fly zone” as well as target Kaddafi military forces that are targeting civilians. France and the UK took the lead on Saturday by immediately bombing military targets in Libya, including anti-aircraft missile sites and radar installations. In addition, U.S. military warships launched Tomahawk missiles at similar targets.

In less than 10 years now the U.S. has engaged in its third military action in the Middle East, raising questions about the coherence of its piecemeal response to ongoing crises in various Muslim countries as well as its long term strategy for promoting peaceful transitions to democratic regimes. For example, many people are asking why the U.S. is intervening in Libya but not in Bahrain or Yemen where authoritarian regimes have cracked down on pro-reform demonstrators and hundreds of protesters have been killed by military and police forces. On Sunday, demonstrators seethed with rage in Manama, Bahrain as the government  tore down the giant tower in Pearl Square, which had become the central battleground, and effective symbol, for protesters demanding democratic reforms.

The problem with asymmetries in U.S. foreign policy in the region was highlighted on Saturday as Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced that imposing a “no-fly zone” in Libya amounted to a war because it would require destroying key military targets, radar, and airfields. He also was skeptical of the usefulness of “no-fly zones,” but claimed that this would be the only limited the step the U.S. would take at this time, warning that no ground troops would be sent in to support the rebel forces. Gates stressed this was a conflict for the Libyans to solve, and that imposing a “no-fly zone” is to protect the mass murder of innocent civilians by loyalist forces of Kaddafi.

The situation in Libya is growing tense. Many fear that if Kaddafi is not deposed soon, the struggle will turn into a long and bloody one for control of different regions of Libya, exacerbating long and deep tribal and clan divisions. The best hope is that the international coalition provide support and aid to the rebel coalition in an effort to defeat Kaddafi’s loyalist forces before bloody civil war becomes a permanent part of Libyans’ lives.