Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Coretta Scott King Dies at 78 on Yahoo! News

Coretta Scott King Dies at 78 on Yahoo! News

Read the entire article at:  

Coretta Scott King, who turned a life shattered by her husband's assassination into one devoted to enshrining his legacy of human rights and equality, has died.

Flags at the King Center were lowered to half-staff Tuesday morning.

"We appreciate the prayers and condolences from people across the country," the King family said in a statement.

"It's a bleak morning for me and for many people and yet it's a great morning because we have a chance to look at her and see what she did and who she was," the poet Maya Angelou said on ABC's "Good Morning America."

"It's bleak because I can't --- many of us can't hear her sweet voice but it's great because she did live, and she was ours.

Former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, the civil rights activist who is close to the King family, broke the news on NBC's "Today" show: "I understand that she was asleep last night and her daughter (Bernice King) went in to wake her up and she was not able to and so she quietly slipped away.

She was a supportive lieutenant to her husband, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., during the most tumultuous days of the American civil rights movement.

She goaded and pulled for more than a decade to have her husband's birthday observed as a national holiday, then watched with pride in 1983 as President Reagan signed the bill into law.

The first federal holiday was celebrated in 1986.

"I'm more determined than ever that my husband's dream will become a reality," King said soon after his slaying, a demonstration of the strong will that lay beneath the placid calm and dignity of her character.

Summarized by Copernic Summarizer


Coretta Scott King Dies at 78 on Yahoo! News

Coretta Scott King Dies at 78 on Yahoo! News

Read the entire article at:  

Coretta Scott King, who turned a life shattered by her husband's assassination into one devoted to enshrining his legacy of human rights and equality, has died.

Flags at the King Center were lowered to half-staff Tuesday morning.

"We appreciate the prayers and condolences from people across the country," the King family said in a statement.

"It's a bleak morning for me and for many people and yet it's a great morning because we have a chance to look at her and see what she did and who she was," the poet Maya Angelou said on ABC's "Good Morning America."

"It's bleak because I can't --- many of us can't hear her sweet voice but it's great because she did live, and she was ours.

Former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, the civil rights activist who is close to the King family, broke the news on NBC's "Today" show: "I understand that she was asleep last night and her daughter (Bernice King) went in to wake her up and she was not able to and so she quietly slipped away.

She was a supportive lieutenant to her husband, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., during the most tumultuous days of the American civil rights movement.

She goaded and pulled for more than a decade to have her husband's birthday observed as a national holiday, then watched with pride in 1983 as President Reagan signed the bill into law.

The first federal holiday was celebrated in 1986.

"I'm more determined than ever that my husband's dream will become a reality," King said soon after his slaying, a demonstration of the strong will that lay beneath the placid calm and dignity of her character.

Summarized by Copernic Summarizer


Exxpose Exxon

The morning of January 30th, oil giant ExxonMobil announced its record-breaking profits for 2005 to the public -- $36.13 billion!  That is the largest profit ever recorded by any corporation in America.

In response, the ExxposeExxon.com campaign has created a short, funny video lampooning Exxon's unfortunate combination of huge profits and tiny social conscience. 

Click the link below to check it out:  http://www.ExxposeExxon.com/movie (and don't forget to turn on your speakers!)

Please share the laughs by forwarding it on to all your friends and family.

The movie is funny, but ExxonMobil’s policies are not. Sadly, ExxonMobil’s profits have come at a huge cost -- both to consumers like you and me and to our environment. 

Recent reports show that 2005 was the warmest year on record!  The debate among scientists is no longer over whether or not global warming exists but over whether or not it's too late to stop a massive, catastrophic climate shift.

Yet, ExxonMobil uses its billions to actively sabotage efforts to slow global warming and to lobby Congress in support of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and off of America’s majestic coasts.  Instead, ExxonMobil should invest in energy efficiency and renewable energy such as wind and solar power.

The good news is that we have a chance to change for the better the way ExxonMobil does business in 2006.  ExxonMobil CEO Lee Raymond retired in December after a long and extremely costly run. This month, Rex Tillerson took over as ExxonMobil’s new CEO.

You can help ExxonMobil change direction by asking Rex Tillerson to make the company a responsible corporate citizen that respects consumers and the environment.

Click here to watch our funny one-minute movie and then take action by emailing CEO Rex Tillerson.

Once you've watched the video, help increase the pressure on ExxonMobil's new CEO by taking one more minute to forward the movie to as many people as you can. 

Word of mouth will be crucial to our ability to influence ExxonMobil's new head honcho, Rex Tillerson.  If we hope to catch Rex's attention, we are going to need a lot of people to watch this little movie and send him a message. After all, Rex is a busy man with a multibillion dollar company to run. 

So please take a minute right now do whatever you can to help us spread the word about http://www.ExxposeExxon.com/movie.  Forward this message to your friends, family, and colleagues. Write about it on your blog. And do anything else you can think of! 

With your help, we can convince ExxonMobil to change its policies for the better.

Thank you again for all your help.


Katelyn Sabochik
Online Campaign Manager

Climate Expert Says NASA Tried to Silence Him

Climate Expert Says NASA Tried to Silence Him
Read the entire story at: http://www.commondreams.org/headlines06/0129-01.htm

The top climate scientist at NASA says the Bush administration has tried to stop him from speaking out since he gave a lecture last month calling for prompt reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases linked to global warming. 

The scientist, James E. Hansen, longtime director of the agency's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said in an interview that officials at NASA headquarters had ordered the public affairs staff to review his coming lectures, papers, postings on the Goddard Web site and requests for interviews from journalists. 
Dr. Hansen said he would ignore the restrictions.  "They feel their job is to be this censor of information going out to the public," he said.

Dean Acosta, deputy assistant administrator for public affairs at the space agency, said there was no effort to silence Dr. Hansen. He added that government scientists were free to discuss scientific findings, but that policy statements should be left to policy makers and appointed spokesmen.  Mr. Acosta said other reasons for requiring press officers to review interview requests were to have an orderly flow of information out of a sprawling agency and to avoid surprises.

Dr. Hansen strongly disagreed with this characterization, saying such procedures had already prevented the public from fully grasping recent findings about climate change that point to risks ahead.
Dr. Hansen, 63, a physicist who joined the space agency in 1967, directs efforts to simulate the global climate on computers at the Goddard Institute in Morningside Heights in Manhattan.

Since 1988, he has been issuing public warnings about the long-term threat from heat-trapping emissions, dominated by carbon dioxide, that are an unavoidable byproduct of burning coal, oil and other fossil fuels.

He has had run-ins with politicians or their appointees in various administrations, including budget watchers in the first Bush administration and Vice President Al Gore.

White House officials were interested in his findings showing that cleaning up soot, which also warms the atmosphere, was an effective and far easier first step than curbing carbon dioxide.

In several interviews with The New York Times in recent days, Dr. Hansen said it would be irresponsible not to speak out, particularly because NASA's mission statement includes the phrase "to understand and protect our home planet."

Among the restrictions, according to Dr. Hansen and an internal draft memorandum he provided to The Times, was that his supervisors could stand in for him in any news media interviews.

In one call, George Deutsch, a recently appointed public affairs officer at NASA headquarters, rejected a request from a producer at National Public Radio to interview Dr. Hansen, said Leslie McCarthy, a public affairs officer responsible for the Goddard Institute.  McCarthy said Mr. Deutsch called N.P.R. "the most liberal" media outlet in the country.  "I've heard Hansen speak many times and I've read many of his papers, starting in the late 70's.

Where scientists' points of view on climate policy align with those of the administration, however, there are few signs of restrictions on extracurricular lectures or writing.

Summarized by Copernic Summarizer


Monday, January 30, 2006

The Truth About the State of Our Union

Gauging the "State of The Union" is all about determining on whose "state" you are reporting. If you are among the thousands of layed-off automotive, airline and manufacturing workers; one of the thousands who've seen your pension plan dissolved; one of the thousands who've seen your job outsourced overseas, a displaced resident of the gulf coast; a person choosing between paying for heating oil or food; or, one of the thousands of working uninsured the state of the union is pretty bad. But if you're a US Oil Co., a pharmaceutical company, a defense contractor, a contractor using cheap illegal immigrant labor, a company that supplies trailers to FEMA, a CEO of the Fortune 100 or a Friend of George's things are looking very, very good indeed. plk

The Truth About the State of Our Union
by Dennis J. Kucinich

Published on Friday, January 27, 2006 by CommonDreams.org

On Tuesday night President Bush will stand before the Congress and the nation, to deliver his annual State of the Union address. We are sure to hear a rosy tale of an economy on the rebound, a blossoming democracy in Iraq, a terror network on the run, and a Gulf Coast region rebuilding better and stronger than ever before. As is most often the case with this Administration, the rhetoric does not match reality.

The facts are clear. Our economy is struggling and leaving tens of millions of Americans behind. According to the non-partisan National Journal, since President Bush first stood before Congress and the nation in 2001, the median income in this country has decreased, the jobless rate has jumped from 3.9% to 4.9% and the number of families living in poverty has increased from 8.7% to 10.2%. Our trade deficit has doubled. Inflation has gone up. Personal bankruptcies have gone up. Consumer debt has gone up. College tuition has gone up. And, the price of gas has gone up. All the while, this Administration has turned a $128 billion federal budget surplus into a $319 billion deficit.

Today, almost 6 million more Americans do not have any health insurance than when President Bush took office. In total, over 45.5 million Americans, or over 15% of our total population, have no health care coverage at all.

During his 2003 address, President Bush told the nation that Saddam Hussein "had biological weapons sufficient to produce over 25,000 liters of anthrax", "materials sufficient to produce more than 38,000 liters of botulinum toxin", "as much as 500 tons of sarin, mustard and VX nerve agent" and "upwards of 30,000 munitions capable of delivering chemical agents".

Today, almost three years after the start of the President's war of choice, we know Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction, had no connection to al-Qaeda and posed no threat to our nation. Yet, our armed forces are bogged down in the middle of civil war that our own generals say cannot be won by military force. Our presence in Iraq is counterproductive and has cost the lives of over 2,200 US troops and $250 billion.

President Bush has delivered four State of the Union addresses since the attacks on our nation on 9/11. In four speeches, the President has never once mentioned Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the terror attacks on this nation. The status of the FBI's most wanted man apparently is not important to the state of our union. Yet, in the same four speeches, President Bush has mentioned Saddam Hussein 24 times, and Iraq 78 times.

President Bush used the opening of his 2003 State of the Union to praise the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. This year our nation, and the world, saw the result of the failure of this massive reorganization of our government. As Katrina rolled ashore, destroying large cities and small towns in four states, it was FEMA, once an independent cabinet level agency--but now rolled into Department of Homeland Security--that failed to react. The searing image of thousands of Americans stranded without food and water dying on American streets will be the lasting legacy of the Department of Homeland Security, not a reorganized government "mobilizing against the threats of a new era" as the President described in his speech.

In his 2004 and 2005 addresses, the President spent a considerable amount of time advocating policies that would roll back much of the social progress made since the New Deal. In 2004, the President touted a Medicare prescription drug bill that will fatten the pockets of the pharmaceutical industry, endangering the future finances of the entire Medicare program, while leaving seniors confused and empty handed as they try to fill their prescriptions under the new plan. In 2005, the President used his address to promote his plan strip seniors of the guaranteed promise of Social Security, and replace it with a risky scheme to gamble their future in the stock market.

What the President has in store for his message this year is not known yet. But, we do know the President Bush will speak in glowing terms about the state of our union. The truth is the state of our union is in great peril. This Administration is conducting a war with no end in Iraq, illegally spying on Americans at home, overseeing an economy that is increasingly leaving more and more Americans behind and abandoning Gulf in their hour of great need.

If recent history is any precedent, then next week we should see more of the same old dance around reality that has been the hallmark of President Bush's annual address.

Since being elected to Congress in 1996, Kucinich has been a tireless advocate for worker rights, civil rights and human rights. He represents Ohio's 10th District.


Sunday, January 29, 2006

Welcome to the Year of the Fire Dog!

It's a year where loyalty is king and helping the underdog is rewarded.
In a Dog Year, all of the Chinese animals can reap great rewards by tapping into Dog traits. Compassion, openheartedness, and a positive attitude are the traits to look for. In the business world, teamwork pays off and being an integral part of the pack gets you noticed. And don't even think about anything sneaky or subversive! You can be sure that anything less than complete honesty will be sniffed out right away. Anyone exhibiting bad behavior can expect to be sent to the doghouse without a second thought. By the same token, love others fully, come rain or shine, unless someone gives you a strong reason not to.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Schieffer reported Rumsfeld's rejection of Democratic study on military strain, omitted Pentagon-funded study with similar conclusion


Schieffer reported Rumsfeld's rejection of Democratic study on military strain, omitted Pentagon-funded study with similar conclusion


On the January 25 broadcast of CBS' Evening News, anchor Bob Schieffer reported that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld "took strong issue today with former Clinton administration officials who say the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have stretched the U.S. military to the near breaking point." But Schieffer failed to note that, at the same press conference, Rumsfeld also rejected the findings of a Pentagon-funded report that came to a similar conclusion.

Schieffer highlighted comments Rumsfeld made at a January 25 press conference, where he objected to a report released by the National Security Advisory Group, an organization headed by William J. Perry, secretary of defense under President Clinton, that includes other members of the Clinton administration. Titled "The U.S. Military: Under Strain and at Risk," the report warned that "[t]he Army and the Marine Corps cannot sustain today's operational tempo indefinitely without doing real damage to their forces."

But Schieffer failed to report that, at the same press conference, Rumsfeld was also questioned about a similar report written by former Army officer Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr. and funded by the Department of Defense. Krepinevich serves as executive director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Associated Press military writer Robert Burns first reported on Krepinevich's unreleased November 2005 study in a January 24 article. Burns wrote: "Stretched by frequent troop rotations to Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army has become a 'thin green line' that could snap unless relief comes soon, according to a study for the Pentagon." Krepinevich further concluded, in Burns's words, "that the Army cannot sustain the pace of troop deployments to Iraq long enough to break the back of the insurgency" and "suggested that the Pentagon's decision, announced in December, to begin reducing the force in Iraq this year was driven in part by a realization that the Army was overextended."

At his January 25 press conference, Rumsfeld also rejected Krepinevich's conclusions:

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, may I continue on along much the same line? There's another report on the table, one ostensibly ordered by the Defense Department and prepared by a retired military officer, which refers to a thin green line and says the Army is stretched so thin it's close to breaking. But the bottom line of this report, as I read it, is that the OPTEMPO (operational tempo) is so severe and so demanding on particularly the Army now in Iraq and Afghanistan that if we continue at this current OPTEMPO, we cannot outlast the insurgents. Can I get your specific reaction to that, please?

RUMSFELD: Well, it's just not consistent with the facts. I just came from the White House, where the president was meeting with eight or 10, 15 senators. And [Army chief of staff] Pete Schoomaker was with me, and someone asked that question. And Pete Schoomaker's answer was that it's just not correct; that he's seen a broken Army, he knows what a broken Army looks like, in the post-Vietnam period. There's no question that during the period of the '90s, a number of aspects of the U.S. armed forces were underfunded and there were hollow pieces to it. Today that's just simply not the case. Close to breaking is -- only someone -- I just can't imagine someone looking at the United States armed forces today and suggesting that they're close to breaking. That's just not the case.

From the January 25 broadcast of CBS' Evening News:

SCHIEFFER: Defense Secretary Rumsfeld took strong issue today with former Clinton administration officials who say the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have stretched the U.S. military to the near breaking point. At a Pentagon news conference, Rumsfeld called that misdirected, and he praised the military as, quote, "enormously capable and battle-hardened."

The Wheels of Justice Turn Exceedingly Slow

Remember Enron?
Public Agenda Alert -- Jan. 25, 2006
* Public Agenda Alert - Enron Trial Opens Next Week
* Behind the Headlines: Hamas Wins Palestinian Election
* Enron Trial Opens Next Week

Next week, former Enron executives Ken Lay and Jeffrey
Skilling go on trial for their role in the collapse of
the high-flying energy company. Enron, at one point
the nation's seventh-largest company, was the most
notorious in a series of corporate scandals that rocked
the business world in the past four years.

In the years since the scandal broke, the public remains
skeptical of the business world in some ways. Half say
wrongdoing among corporate executives is a widespread
problem and people are divided on how effective tougher
penalties will be. Majorities say they are dissatisfied
with the size and influence of major corporations.
And few Americans give business executives high ratings
for honesty and ethical standards. On the other hand,
large majorities believe the success of American business
has a lot to do with the strength of this country.
Relatively few say they have a negative view of the
accounting profession. And in their experience, majorities
believe their employer is loyal to them.

In Public Agenda's focus groups on this issue, we've found
that average citizens seem to define business ethics differently
than corporate executives. Citizens believe preserving jobs
should be a major ethical priority for business and layoffs
should be a last resort.

In contrast, most business leaders told us that sometimes
layoffs are an inevitable part of staying competitive. When
executives talked about ethics, they were concerned about the
damage recent scandals have done to business' reputation and
the need to restore public trust.

Download our report, "A Few Bad Apples: An Exploratory Look
at What Typical Americans Think about Business Ethics Today,"
prepared in collaboration with the Kettering Foundation:

Read our Red Flag on Trust in Business:

Read The New York Times special section on Enron:

Read the Washington Post's article on corporate reform since
Enron's collapse:



ABC left unchallenged administration's discredited claim that NSA surveillance might have identified 9-11 terrorists


ABC left unchallenged administration's discredited claim that NSA surveillance might have identified 9-11 terrorists


The January 25 broadcast of ABC's World News Tonight uncritically reported President Bush's discredited claim that the National Security Agency (NSA) might have identified some of the 9-11 terrorists before the attacks if his warrantless domestic surveillance program had been in place. Bush, during a January 25 speech, became the latest member of his administration to advance this argument. However, as Media Matters for America has previously documented, the 9-11 Commission and congressional investigators found that the Bush administration knew about two of the hijackers more than one year before the attacks, but that "bureaucratic problems -- not a lack of information -- were primary reasons for the security breakdown."

This debunked claim has previously been offered by Vice President Dick Cheney and Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the deputy director of national intelligence and former head of the NSA. A January 24 Washington Post article subsequently refuted their assertions, noting:

Hayden echoed a claim earlier this month by Vice President Cheney that, if the NSA program had been in place prior to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, "it is my professional judgment that we would have detected some of the 9/11 al Qaeda operatives in the United States."

Like Cheney, however, Hayden did not mention that the NSA, CIA and FBI had significant information about two of the leading hijackers as early as January 2000 but failed to keep track of them or capitalize on the information, according to the Sept. 11 commission and others. He also did not mention NSA intercepts warning of the attacks the day before, but not translated until Sept. 12, 2001.

In contrast to ABC anchor Elizabeth Vargas, who merely repeated Bush's contention with a clip of his speech during the January 25 broadcast of World News Tonight, CBS Evening News national security correspondent David Martin devoted an entire report to the question: "Could the eavesdropping program have somehow stopped or impeded the 9-11 terrorists?" Martin pointed out that Hayden "offered no specifics" to support his claim and interviewed 9-11 commission members Tim Roemer and Bob Kerrey, who both faulted the administration's suggestion that more information might have prevented the attack.

Conservative radio host Michael Reagan also reiterated Bush's assertion on the January 25 edition of Fox News' Hannity & Colmes. Reagan repeated the Bush claim and added that the problem may also have been "Jamie Gorelick [former deputy attorney general under President Clinton]and that big wall she put up," referring to the purported "wall" between intelligence and law enforcement agencies that some claim prevented the sharing of information related to the 9-11 attacks. Media Matters has debunked the claim that Gorelick either constructed or strengthened the decades-old "wall."

From the January 25 broadcast of ABC's World News Tonight:

VARGAS: President Bush today made the most dramatic link yet between the September 11th attacks and his controversial domestic spying program. During a visit to the ultra-secret National Security Agency, the president said, had the eavesdropping program been in effect prior to 9-11, the hijackers might have been stopped.

BUSH [video clip]: We know that two of the hijackers who struck the Pentagon were inside the United States, communicating with Al Qaeda operatives overseas. But we didn't realize they were here plotting the attack, until it was too late. We must be able to connect the dots before the terrorists strike, so we can stop new attacks.

VARGAS: The president maintains he has not broken the law by authorizing eavesdropping without a warrant inside the U.S. Next month, a Senate panel will hold hearings into the program.

From the January 25 edition of Fox News' Hannity & Colmes:

REAGAN: And the president said today that, in fact, if this program had been in place prior to 9-11 -- and, remember, Jamie Gorelick and that big wall that she put up -- that in fact we might have been able to find out about 9-11 before it happened. There's no incompetence going on.

From the January 25 edition of CBS' Evening News:

BOB SCHIEFFER (host): These arguments over spying on Americans inevitably have raised the question no one can answer for sure, but it has stirred up a storm of opinions pro and con: Could the eavesdropping program have somehow stopped or impeded the 9-11 terrorists? Here's David Martin.

MARTIN: The man who ran the NSA on 9-11 has made the most powerful argument in favor of the controversial eavesdropping program.

HAYDEN [video clip]: Had this program been in effect prior to 9-11, it is my professional judgment that we would have detected some of the 9-11 Al Qaeda operatives in the United States.

MARTIN: General Michael Hayden offered no specifics, and Democratic members of the 9-11 Commission dispute it.

TIM ROEMER: Indicating that an intercepted communication would somehow identify and then stop or block parts of 9-11, I think is stretching this argument entirely too far.

MARTIN: Before the attack, the head hijacker, Mohammed Atta, exchanged e-mails with Ramsi bin al Shibh, a key Al Qaeda operative in Germany, using a simple code to discuss which targets to hit. None of those communications were intercepted, not because of legal restrictions on NSA, but because American intelligence didn't have a clue either man belonged to Al Qaeda.

BOB KERREY: They would have had to have known both -- been tracking those individuals. I'm not certain they did, under any circumstances.

MARTIN: Two of the hijackers were suspected members of Al Qaeda, but, again, the fact that the NSA did not intercept their calls had nothing to do with legal restrictions. They just slipped their CIA tail in Asia.

KERREY: We lost them. There was a breakdown in communication that, again, has nothing to do with the inability of getting an intercept permission to listen to people's communication.

MARTIN: Hayden stopped just short of saying warrantless eavesdropping could have broken up the 9-11 plot, but today, the White House claimed it might have. You can't prove any of that with what the 9-11 Commission found. David Martin, CBS News, the Pentagon.


Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Quote of the Day

"Nothing will ever be attempted, if all possible objections must first be overcome." -- Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) English Author

Monday, January 23, 2006

The Facts on the NSA Wiretapping Issue

NSA – Still Misleading

from Talking Points a publication of the American Progress Action Fund
January 23 , 2006

Karl Rove and the White House are trying to create partisan divisions where none exist. Instead of making excuses for why they haven’t captured Osama bin Laden, they should focus on doing it. That’s what the American people expect, and they expect their President will do it within the boundaries of the law.

  1. Wiretapping can be an important tool in fighting terrorists and President Bush has the full authority under existing law to do so. As the New York Times noted, "government officials are able to get an emergency warrant from the secret court within hours, sometimes minutes, if they can show an imminent threat." More importantly, Section 1805 of the FISA Act states that the government can begin a wiretap as soon as it determines a need and can wait up to 72 hours before obtaining a warrant.

  2. The White House is trying to falsely portray the controversy as a partisan battle. White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said, “…Senate Democrats continue to engage in misleading and outlandish charges about this vital tool….” The truth is, some of the harshest criticism of the program has come from leading Republicans, including Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter (R-PA), who said, “There is no doubt that this is inappropriate.” Also sending up criticism are Sens. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) and John McCain (R-AZ).

  3. In its rush to defend itself, the administration is contradicting itself on the role Congress played. The Bush administration has said that Congress granted it authority to conduct warrantless domestic surveillance when Congress voted to give the President authority to use force against al Qaeda following 9/11 (Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) disagrees, saying, "It didn’t in my vote"). But Attorney General Alberto Gonzales claimed that the administration didn’t go to Congress for the authority because it believed Congress would have rejected it.
To visit the Talking Points archives, please click here.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Grinch Giving

Grinch Giving
By Laura Donnelly

Published December 19, 2005

One of the most common justifications that's trotted out every time someone in Congress proposes a tax cut for rich Americans is trickle-down economics . This supposed economic phenomena, around since the Reagan area, posits that when the tiny percentage of very rich Americans receive tax breaks, the tend to use the money for things like investing, charitable giving and opening businesses—all of which produce benefits that trickle down and help middle- and lower-income citizens. But a new study on charitable gifts throws more than a trickle of cold water onto this theory.

The study, which was based on IRS data and was the first of its kind, found that middle-class Americans are much more generous with their charitable contributions than the super rich. Folks earning $50,000 to $100,000 annually give two to six times as much to charity than those Americans making more than $10 million. And taxpayers in the $200,000 to $10 million income range were less generous than middle-class people as well.

That kinda puts a wrench into the idea that everyone benefits when really rich people get a tax cut. And the study results are particularly relevant now, in the midst of a drawn-out battle in the House and Senate over cuts to social programs like Medicare and student loans to balance out tax cuts for the super rich. The study also pokes holes in the religious right's oft-cited post-Katrina argument that charitable groups (those associated with churches, in their plans) can help those in need more effectively than the government. While the generosity of millions of Americans in the wake of Katrina shouldn't be disparaged, it turns out it was probably the middle-class folks who carried the charitable burden—not the rich people who could most easily afford it.

Bottom line? The super rich don't need another tax cut. But regular Americans do need the proven programs that keep our country running: Medicare, food stamps, student loans, heating assistance

The Catch 22 of Disaster Emergency Assistance

If your world was turned upside down by a natural disaster would you be able to sort through the labyrinth described in the following New York Times article?  Or would this web of hope and rejection lead you to despair?


The past month and a half I have been struggling through the maze of reviewing Medicare plans for my mom and negotiating my own personal healthcare and financial issues.  Last week I reached my emotional precipice and had to take a week off to sort things out.   During this hurry-up and wait process, I had a chance to start catching up on a backlog of email and news articles.  Focusing on the struggles of the hurricane victims in the gulf coast, the earthquake victims in Pakistan, and the coal miners in West VA, helped me regain a perspective on my own comparably insignificant problems.   Yet after viewing a CNN news segment about a recent spike in the suicide rate in New Orleans I realize that my own experiences give me a glimpse into how the quagmire of bureaus facing many gulf coast residents can test the strongest faith and lead to feelings of hopelessness.  plk

Loans to Homeowners Along Gulf Coast Lag - New York Times
Published: December 15, 2005
Hundreds of thousands of Gulf Coast families, hoping to rebuild their homes after the hurricanes using low-interest government loans, are facing high rejection rates and widespread delays at the federal agency that administers the disaster loan program.

The Small Business Administration, which runs the federal government's main disaster recovery program for both businesses and homeowners, has processed only a third of the 276,000 home loan applications it has received.  And it has rejected 82 percent of those it has reviewed, a higher percentage than in most previous disasters, saying that many would-be borrowers did not have incomes high enough, or credit ratings good enough, to qualify. The rejections came even though the Federal Emergency Management Agency has referred more than two million people, many of them with low incomes, to the S.B.A. to get the loans.

To a large degree, that high rejection rate appears to reflect a mismatch between existing government aid programs and the large number of low-income people affected by this year's hurricanes.  
Despite the widespread poverty in the most damaged regions, the Small Business Administration has not adjusted its creditworthiness standards, which are roughly comparable to a bank's.   In fact, the loans that have been approved appear to be flowing to wealthy neighborhoods in New Orleans but not to poor ones, according to a list of loans released by the government and mapped by The New York Times.

Agency officials say they are doing their best under difficult circumstances, noting that they recently approved $44 million in home and business loans in a single day.  They lay the blame for any problems on the huge size of the disaster and the small size of the agency, which has hired thousands of temporary workers to help process hurricane-related requests.  "We don't have tens of thousands of people waiting for a disaster," said Hector V. Barreto, the agency administrator.  Now we have 4,200 people working, most brand new."

As for the rejection rate, agency officials say the Small Business Administration's loan program could not risk taxpayer money by lending it to people with low incomes or poor credit.  "We're just dealing with the demographics in the area," said Herbert L. Mitchell, the associate administrator who runs the agency's disaster assistance program.

Both agency officials and some critics of the federal government say that many applicants do not really want loans, but must go through the agency's loan process - and be rejected - in order to be eligible for certain grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.  (FEMA does not dispute this but says it cannot give these grants to people who have enough money to take out loans. It gives other grants for home repair in certain circumstances, but only for up to $15,600.)

The slow pace of the agency's response to the hurricanes is a reason Representative Nydia M. Velázquez of New York, who is the senior Democrat on the House Small Business Committee, called on Mr. Barreto yesterday to resign. "We have reached a point where we need to get someone who can run the office in an effective way," Ms. Velázquez stated.  "He doesn't have what it takes at a moment of crisis."   In addition to the problems with the homeowners program, Ms. Velázquez cited the even slower pace of loans to businesses in the Gulf Coast States.  The Small Business Administration has also allowed large corporations to get $2 billion in federal contracts under the guise of being small businesses, she said, and morale at the agency is low.

Responding to the criticism, Raul E. Cisneros, the agency's director of communications, said in a statement: "Unfortunately, the current political environment in Washington, D.C., is not lacking for individuals who are anxious to throw stones. This administration is focused on helping the people of the Gulf Coast rebuild after these devastating hurricanes."  Mr. Cisneros said the agency had passed the billion-dollar loan approval mark five weeks faster than after the hurricanes in Florida last year.

But Republicans have also been critical of the agency's response.

To get Small Business Administration loans, homeowners must submit applications and give the agency access to tax returns so loan officers can see if applicants have enough income available to cover the debt.  The agency also sends out inspectors to check the damaged homes, and makes sure that the loans are not used for costs already covered by insurance.

Summarized by Copernic Summarizer


Saturday, January 21, 2006

A Little Tranquility In the City

Oh Wouldn't It Be Lovely.

Picture of a woman enjoying a rooftop garden in Tokyo

To get information on creating your own rooftop garden visit my other blog Get The Facts and Get Involved.  Posted by Picasa

Green Roofs

Want to combat rising energy costs and help improve the environment? What about a place for a little private time? Or a way to avoid nosey neighbors? Think about changing your roof? I've dreamed about doing this for a long time. plk

On green roofs
By Umbra Fisk
author of the column “Ask Umbra” on Grist Magazine
05 Dec 2005


Dear Umbra,

Our garage is in need of a new roof. We would like to build a "living roof" and are wondering where to start. Our long-term plan is to convert the space into an art studio, complete with insulation, electricity, and finished walls and floor. Do you have any pithy suggestions for us to consider while planning our roof, considering it will cover a finished room eventually?

Victoria, B.C.

Dearest Lesley,

Not only pithy suggestions, but perhaps the very cambium of your living-roof planning.

Background for other readers: a "living" or "green" roof is one covered with soil and growing plants. Here in Seattle we have some
municipal buildings with green roofs, and the Ford Motor Co. plant in Dearborn, Mich., has one. They're also on lots of less-famous buildings, including small structures owned by eco-nerds such as ourselves.

My neighbor happens to be a local green-roof builder, so I strolled over and pressed him to make pithy comments of his own. After first insisting on the impossibility of pithiness, he eventually warmed up and ranked the top reasons to have a green roof: looks good, longer lasting than a conventional roof, good for the environment, acts as an insulation layer, increases the value of your home. That last one seems a bit regional, but there is little doubt of the environmental bennies: Green roofs replace an impervious surface with a heat-absorbent, water-filtering surface. They save on heating and cooling energy use and bills. They are pretty, which is environmentally vital.

The very basic parts of a living roof are a waterproof membrane, a drainage layer, a layer of soil, and well-adapted vegetation (sedums are popular). So, as a completely hypothetical example: your garage is shingled, and fairly low pitch. You'd rip off the shingles to find the plywood underneath in good shape. Tidy up the plywood, removing pokey lumpy bits that could threaten the integrity of the membrane. Build a vertical parapet at the bottom edge, which will act as a soil dam (with holes for drainage). Attach the membrane to the roof without puncturing the middle or leaving open screw holes on the edges. Add at least three inches of soil, and plant small-rooted, native plants. Tend them for several years until they are established, et voila!

Living-roof trouble spots, to this researcher, appear to be the weight of the soil if you have a shoddy garage, the potential difficulty in finding and installing the membrane, and the up-front expense (but they do last longer). In sum, I think you should go for it, but do everything possible to find a local expert, or at least someone who can help you find and install the membrane. Start
on the web, and check with your local eco-building store or association, if you have one. If not, you may have to start one yourself.


The claims made in this column may not reflect the views of this magazine. Neither the magazine nor the author guarantees that any advice contained in this column is wise or safe. Please use this column at your own risk.


Check out:




The Rise of Spyware/Trojans Put Online Banking at Risk

The Rise of Trojans Put Online Banking at Risk

"Security improvements including two factor authentication on the Webservice Provider End may not improve the security of online users from phishing attacks!"

Sydney, Australia, January 18, 2006 -- The number of Spyware/Trojans that attempt to steal user names and passwords from a compromised computer increased drastically in 2005 – with more and more focusing on online banking information. (See e.g. PWSteal.Bankash.G(1)) This is backed by findings of the various Anti Virus Vendors that the trend continues to target smaller but specific groups rather than performing large scale phishing attempts (2)(3).

This fact, together with the findings of the AOL/NCSA Online Safety Study in December 2005 (4), that a horrific 81% of the home computers are lacking core protection (like Antivirus or Spyware Protection),suggests that 2006 will be ill-fated.

“While the Security Improvements of the online banks are greatly appreciated e.g. the two factor authentication, it is becoming obvious that none of the deployed systems can be a general solution of the underlying problem. It just makes the task a bit harder for the bad guys. Bank of America’s new Sitekey Feature for example does a good job protecting against old-style Phishing Attempts, however sophisticated Trojans can easily circumvent this security measure by additionally stealing the information of the corresponding cookie – which is an easy task to do!” said Alex Horst, Chief Security Architect.

Horst proceeds: “This problem will only be solved by integrating the home user’s computer into the overall security chain to make sure that no malicious software is running during an online banking session. The recent Windows WMF vulnerability – the worst ever found on the Windows platform – proves that online banks and other online business providers can not assume that the home user’s computer is safe, in fact, they must assume the opposite”

Paul Pepper, Managing Director – Esendex Australia says that “The TrustDefender Solution confirms to the user that they are genuinely connected to our site and confirms to us that the user’s computer is safe and secure and conforms to our security policies”

TrustDefender will launch its Secure Policy Engine in the first quarter 2006 where Online Businesses can define and enforce Security Policies for the home user’s computer – including only allowing specific software groups. Everything else – including possible malicious programs will be denied by default! A live demonstration is available at http://www.trustdefender.com/movies/gap-securelockdown.htm

For a free evaluation version of TrustDefender or for more information on protecting yourself against the increasing number of internet threats, please visit http://www.trustdefender.com


Media Contact
Ted Egan
Ph: +61 2 8221 9765
Web: www.trustdefender.com


Press Contact: Ted Egan
Company Name: TrustDefender
Email: email protected from spam bots
Phone: +61 2 8221 9765
Website: http://www.trustdefender.com

Friday, January 20, 2006

Uncle Sam Wants Your Kids

Mining for Kids: Children Can’t “Opt Out” of Pentagon Recruitment Database
by Kathryn Casa

Published on Tuesday, January 17, 2006 by the Vermont Guardian

Parents cannot remove their children’s names from a Pentagon database that includes highly personal information used to attract military recruits, the Vermont Guardian has learned.

The Pentagon has spent more than $70.5 million on market research, national advertising, website development, and management of the Joint Advertising Market Research and Studies (JAMRS) database — a storehouse of questionable legality that includes the names and personal details of more than 30 million U.S. children and young people between the ages of 16 and 23.

The database is separate from information collected from schools that receive federal education money. The No Child Left Behind Act requires schools to report the names, addresses, and phone numbers of secondary school students to recruiters, but the law also specifies that parents or guardians may write a letter to the school asking that their children’s names not be released.

However, many parents have reported being surprised that their children are contacted anyway, according to a San Francisco-based coalition called Leave My Child Alone (LMCA).

“We hear from a lot of parents who have often felt quite isolated about it all and haven’t been aware that this is happening all over the country,” said the group’s spokeswoman, Felicity Crush.

Parents must contact the Pentagon directly to ask that their children’s information not be released to recruiters, but the data is not removed from the JAMRS database, according to Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke, a Pentagon spokeswoman.

Instead, the information is moved to a suppression file, where it is continuously updated with new data from private and government sources and still made available to recruiters, Krenke said. It’s necessary to keep the information in the suppression file so the Pentagon can make sure it’s not being released, she said.

Krenke said the database is compiled using information from state motor vehicles departments, the Selective Service, and data-mining firms that collect and organize information from private companies. In addition to names, addresses, Social Security numbers, and phone numbers, the database may include cell phone numbers, e-mail addresses, grade-point averages, ethnicity, and subjects of interest.

She said the Pentagon spends about $500,000 annually to purchase the data from private companies, and has paid more than $70 million since 2002 to Mullen Advertising — a Massachusetts firm whose clients include General Motors, Hooked on Phonics, XM Satellite Radio, and 3Com — to target recruiters’ messages toward teens and young adults.

The Boston Business Journal reported in October that the Pentagon had spent a total of $206 million on the JAMRS program to date, and could spend another $137 million over the next two years.

Invasion of privacy?

The JAMRS program “provides the services with contact information on millions of prospective recruits annually … Beyond list management services, DM outreach initiatives include targeted fulfillment pieces directed at influencers,” according to the program’s password-protected website.

In real terms, what that rhetoric looks like at the other end can stack up to harassment, said Crush. “Kids have been relentlessly harassed,” she said, “things like persistent phone calls — and you can’t remove your phone numbers from their list because it’s the government; people being called on numbers that have been listed as private, or for emergency only; kids under 17 called at home, night after night, and not being given a realistic picture about life in the military, particularly during a time of war.”

Her organization contends that the Pentagon’s conduct is illegal under the federal Privacy Act, which requires notification and public comment whenever new data is being compiled on individuals by any branch of government.

The Pentagon maintains it has provided that notice, posted in the Federal Register on May 23, but LMCA and other JAMRS critics point out that because new data is being collected daily, JAMRS is failing to fulfill the notification requirements of the Privacy Act.

Last fall, 100 privacy and civil rights groups sent a letter to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld urging him to dismantle the database. “The Privacy Act requires that agencies publish in the federal register upon establishment or revision a notice of the existence and character of the system of records” 30 days before the publication of information, they noted. “The maintenance of a system of records without meeting the notice requirements is a criminal violation of the Privacy Act.”

But Barry Steinhardt, director of the ACLU’s Technology and Liberty Project in New York, said protection offered by the Privacy Act — the 1974 statute aimed at reducing the government’s collection of personal data on U.S. citizens — might be overestimated. “The federal Privacy Act is to some extent an over-hyped statute,” said Steinhardt. “It is largely a statute that requires notice; it doesn’t give you any substantive rights.”

Questions from Congress

Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-VT, said he had grave concerns about the legality of the database. “I think this is absolutely wrong,” he told the Vermont Guardian. “You have the law, and then you have an administration that says we don’t like the law so let’s find another way of doing it.”

“When my kids were in school I would have been really angry if this had happened,” said Leahy, whose youngest son enlisted in the Marines. “I would have been absolutely ripped if they would have gone into his high school or other records to contact him this way; I know nothing that allows it.”

“Data mining and proliferation of using databases are all concerns because it represents an administration that does not believe in checks and balances,” said Leahy. “Can you imagine our country if a Joseph McCarthy or J. Edgar Hoover has the electronic power these guys have today?”

Discomfort over the database extends to other members of Congress. Seven senators, including New York’s Hillary Rodham Clinton and Wisconsin’s Russ Feingold, both Democrats, sent a letter to Rumsfeld on June 24 asking him to “immediately cease creation of this database.”

“This personal information, which would be obtained from schools as well as from commercial data brokers, state drivers’ license records, and other sources, could then be used to formulate and execute a targeted ‘marketing’ campaign to identify and recruit individuals based on these personal factors,” they noted.

In his July 11 response, Undersecretary of Defense David Chu said the database was an important component in the nation’s volunteer military — one that enables the United States to avoid a draft.

“The department collects basic information on youth in response to a congressional mandate in 1982 that noted ‘it is essential that the Secretary of Defense obtain and compile directory information pertaining to students enrolled in secondary schools throughout the United States’ to support recruiting for the all-volunteer force and avoid conscription,” he wrote to the senators.

Chu said the central database was designed to save the Pentagon money. “In the past, the data were compiled by each of the services independently. In order to achieve significant cost savings, the data are now purchased by the department, housed centrally, and sent out to the services. The services use these data to provide information and marketing materials to potential recruits.”

Leahy scoffed at such reasoning. “This is coming from a Pentagon that tells us they don’t have money to pay for body armor for our troops over in Iraq,” he said.

Chu also said the Pentagon had no intention of using the information for purposes other than targeted recruitment.

But according to the privacy group, BeNow, the direct marketing company chosen by the Pentagon to compile the data, is owned by the credit reporting company Equifax and does not have a privacy policy, “nor has it troubled itself to enlist in a privacy seal program regarding the handling of information collected for this purpose.”

The Pentagon proposes a wide range of “blanket routine uses” that allow an agency to disclose personal information to others without the individual’s consent or knowledge, the groups wrote in their letter to Rumsfeld. “The list of 14 DOD ‘blanket routine uses’ include: disclosures to law-enforcement; state and local tax authorities; employment queries from other agencies; and disclosure of records to foreign authorities. Although individuals can opt out of recruitment solicitations, they cannot opt out of this enormous database.”

In a separate statement, the Electronic Privacy Information Center said both the Privacy Act and the DOD’s own internal regulations require the agency to collect information directly from citizens when possible.

“The main commercial vendors that sell students’ data, American Student List and Student Marketing Group, were both pursued recently by consumer protection authorities for setting up front groups that tricked students into revealing their personal information,” according to the center.

What to do

The Leave My Child Alone coalition is urging the Pentagon to add an 800 number and online opt-out links to its websites. The group concedes, however, that given reports of massive security breaches at data firms, the fact that the information remains on file “hardly grants parents peace of mind.”

One California lawmaker is sponsoring state legislation that would require high schools to include opt-out information on the emergency forms that parents must fill out annually for school records. In one California school district that implemented such a policy, the number of families choosing to opt out went from 16 percent to 63 percent, Crush said.

Meanwhile, asked what parents could do about the Pentagon database, the ACLU’s Steinhardt said, “This is as much a political issue as anything else; it’s an issue to be decided in the Congress. A state like Vermont could take it up. It’s a perfect issue for a town meeting … calling on your senators to pass some legislation.”

Information and action

Parents seeking to determine whether information about their children is contained in the JAMRS database system should address typewritten inquiries to:
The Department of Defense
c/o JAMRS, Direct Marketing Program Officer
Defense Human Resources Activity
4040 N. Fairfax Drive, Suite 200
Arlington, VA 22203-1613

Requests should contain the child’s full name, date of birth, current address, and telephone number. Do not include a Social Security number.
To ask that your child’s name be added to the suppression files of the database, send a typewritten request to:
Joint Advertising and Marketing Research
& Studies Office (JAMRS)
Attention: Opt Out
4040 North Fairfax Drive, Ste. 200
Arlington, VA 22203-1613
Include the child’s full name, street address, date of birth, and telephone number. Do not include a Social Security number.

For more information: http://www.leavemychildalone.org/, www.jamrs.org/.

Vermont Guardian staffer Shay Totten contributed to this report.
© 2006 Vermont Guardian

The $$$ and Sense of War

A decade from now when our education system is ranked last in the developed world, New Orleans has 60% of its former population and reminds you more of Miami than the creole heritage that was the birthplace of jazz, the technological center of the world is in China, the US military is buying all of its planes from France, rolling brown-outs and black-outs are a common summertime occurrence, and we are still an oil dependant nation and gas is $7/gallon, some people will stand back and ask why we didn't invest in this country's future. plk

War's Stunning Price Tag
by Linda Bilmes and Joseph Stiglitz

Published on Tuesday, January 17, 2006 by the Los Angeles Times

Last week, at the annual meeting of the American Economic Assn., we presented a new estimate for the likely cost of the war in Iraq. We suggested that the final bill will be much higher than previously reckoned — between $1 trillion and $2 trillion, depending primarily on how much longer our troops stay. Putting that into perspective, the highest-grossing movie of all time, "Titanic," earned $1.8 billion worldwide — about half the cost the U.S. incurs in Iraq every week.

Like the iceberg that hit the Titanic, the full costs of the war are still largely hidden below the surface. Our calculations include not just the money for combat operations but also the costs the government will have to pay for years to come. These include lifetime healthcare and disability benefits for returning veterans and special round-the-clock medical attention for many of the 16,300 Americans who already have been seriously wounded. We also count the increased cost of replacing military hardware because the war is using up equipment at three to five times the peacetime rate. In addition, the military must pay large reenlistment bonuses and offer higher benefits to reenlist reluctant soldiers. On top of this, because we finance the war by borrowing more money (mostly from abroad), there is a rising interest cost on the extra debt.

Our study also goes beyond the budget of the federal government to estimate the war's cost to the economy and our society. It includes, for instance, the true economic costs of injury and death. For example, if an individual is killed in an auto or work-related accident, his family will typically receive compensation for lost earnings. Standard government estimates of the lifetime economic cost of a death are about $6 million. But the military pays out far less — about $500,000. Another cost to the economy comes from the fact that 40% of our troops are taken from the National Guard and Reserve units. These troops often earn lower wages than in their civilian jobs. Finally, there are macro-economic costs such as the effect of higher oil prices — partly a result of the instability in Iraq.

We conclude that the economy would have been much stronger if we had invested the money in the United States instead of in Iraq.

Spending up to $2 trillion should make us ask some questions. First, these figures are far higher than what the administration predicted before the war. At that time, White House economic advisor Lawrence Lindsey was effectively fired for suggesting that the war might cost up to $200 billion, rather than the $60 billion claimed by the president's budget office. Why were the costs so vastly underestimated? Elsewhere in the government, it is standard practice to engage in an elaborate cost-benefit analysis for major projects. The war in Iraq was a war of choice, an immense "project," and yet it now appears that there was virtually no analysis of the likely costs of a prolonged occupation.

Could we have fought the war in ways that would have protected our troops better and cost the country less? A Pentagon study apparently concludes that better body armor would have prevented many deaths and injuries. Penny-pinching in such matters during the rush to war has led to steep long-run costs for the nation and, tragically, for the individuals involved.

Even more fundamentally, there is the question of whether we needed to spend the money at all. Thinking back to the months before the war, there were few reasons to invade quickly, and many to go slow. The Bush policy of threatened force had pressured Iraq into allowing the U.N. inspectors back into the country. The inspectors said they required a few months to complete their work. Several of our closest allies, including France and Germany, were urging the U.S. to await the outcome of the inspections. There were, as we now know, conflicting intelligence reports.

Had we waited, the value of the information we would have learned from the inspectors would arguably have saved the nation at least $1 trillion — enough money to fix Social Security for the next 75 years twice over.

Linda Bilmes, a former assistant secretary of Commerce, teaches public finance at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. Joseph Stiglitz is a professor at Columbia University. He won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2001.

© 2006 Los Angeles Times

Thursday, January 19, 2006

A lesson in how one person can make a difference

Dear Readers,

There has certainly been a great deal going on in the world and I have been obviously absent from the discussion. However, after spending the past month and a half struggling with healthcare and financial organizations I truly feel a lot like Don Quixote. Normally, immersing myself in the news gives me a much needed respite but this time has been overwhelming. It's times like these that having a friend who supports your vision is worth more than a million bucks. plk

"It is incredible that an independent filmmaker can wield such power over the largest retailer in the world. But his example holds a lesson for us all – consumers, workers and voters – we have the power to change the way the world works."

Wal-Mart: the high cost of low price
Angela Saini
13 - 1 - 2006

The success of Robert Greenwald’s documentary on the American retail behemoth holds an inspiring lesson, says Angela Saini.

Work just isn't what it used to be. There was a time you could get up in the morning, go down to the office and be happy in the knowledge that you had a job for life, and you'd be home in time for dinner. Not any more.

Facing global competition, companies in the west have started chipping away at working conditions to lower costs. Freelance contracts, long and unsociable hours, low pay, and zero benefits are leaving millions of workers helpless.

Robert Greenwald captures the desperate situation in his latest film, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price. He tells the shocking tale of working conditions in America's biggest supermarket. Wal-Mart is the epitome of stack 'em high, sell 'em cheap warehouse-style chain stores, which are scattered across the country like Lego bricks in a playroom.

Greenwald's film comes hot on the heels of his last corporate attack, on Rupert Murdoch's Fox News. In Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism, Greenwald used news clips and interviews with ex-employees to mount an incredible attack on the broadcaster. His new film is structured in exactly the same way, and carries as much of a punch.

There is something bizarrely manic about the smiling faces in Wal-Mart's recruitment adverts. They are the same smiling faces that warn you in a company video, after you have been recruited, not to join a union. Wal-Mart's strict anti-union policy has been one of the reasons why it has managed to slash wages and gradually remove benefits like health insurance. Union membership is already low in the United States, running at just above 12% of all waged workers. But the casual nature of retail work, combined with a deliberate anti-union strategy, forces that proportion down to almost zero among Wal-Mart employees

Greenwald's documentary abounds with horror stories. Workers bitterly describe being forced to do unpaid overtime, being verbally and racially abused by colleagues, and earning barely enough to support themselves.

"For seventeen years, I was a good Wal-Mart soldier," says former manager Weldon Nicholson. "I did everything the company told me to, until my conscience got the best of me, and I couldn't stomach it anymore." Weldon's bosses forced him to quash any signs of unionisation and tamper with timesheets to cheat employees out of their salaries.

Edith Arana worked at Wal-Mart for six years, showing unflinching loyalty and working extra hours to impress her bosses. But she says she was repeatedly refused promotion because she was black. The list of Wal-Mart's failures grows longer by the minute. It seems that despite the smiling faces that greet you when you enter, every store must have a gang of grumbling workers, downtrodden and depressed.

But the impact of the supermarket chain transcends its giant walls. Greenwald's film also profiles the kind of wholesome all-American small family businesses that the US economic dream is built upon – all ruthlessly forced extinct by the arrival of Wal-Mart. War veteran and churchgoer Red Esry lost his grocery store ten years ago when Wal-Mart came to Hamilton, Missouri. "I don't mind competing, but only if it's on an even playing field, and Wal-Mart is not on an even playing field," he says, while his granddaughter weeps in the background.

Wal-Mart certainly seems to have an unfair advantage over competitors. The Walton family company has grown from modest beginnings in 1962 to become the world’s largest retailer – with sales of almost $300 billion a year and 1.6 million employees worldwide - and made its inheritors fabulously rich in the process. This size gives Wal-Mart unprecedented power over workers, suppliers and consumers – economies on such a scale that it becomes impossible for anyone to undercut them without making a loss.

As anyone who has ever been to a Wal-Mart supermarket will know, the lure is irresistible. Every brand and every product is available, and at the lowest prices: groceries, clothes, electrical goods, and many even have pharmacies and opticians. Who has time to trawl their local shops and markets, and who wants to pay more when they can pay less? It's a vicious temptation that has lead to the closure of thousands of local stores – stores that consumers didn't even know they wanted until they were gone.

Yet Greenwald's film also highlights the immense control that consumers en masse have over society. Choosing where to buy a product holds the same power in the capitalist domain as voting does in a democracy.

When that power is exercised it can have extraordinary results. The backlash against Wal-Mart has been like the one against McDonald's when Morgan Spurlock unleashed his blockbuster film Supersize Me. Consumers across the US have already blocked Wal-Mart stores from coming to their towns. Meanwhile aggrieved employees are bringing lawsuits for unpaid hours and race and discrimination are homes to this growing movement.

China gets the bug

As bad as life gets in the west, however, it doesn't compare to the awful conditions suffered by factory workers in the developing world. Even here, Wal-Mart has extended its finger. Such a large proportion of Wal-Mart goods are sourced from China that the company accounts for 10% of the US's entire trade deficit with China. There, far away from the comfort blanket of labour laws and human rights, thousands of low-paid young workers are struggling to scrape a living.

Greenwald's focus falls on Shenzhen, a city built on the site of a former fishing village and now a centre of teeming entrepreneurial activity. Princess, a young girl in a Wal-Mart factory there, earns a meagre $3 for a fourteen-hour day, some of which must be used to pay for her cramped dormitory accommodation. "Those profits you made and the wonderful life you made are the sweat, and tears and overtime work of Chinese people," says a worker.

China's only recognised trade union is the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), which has about 137 million members. For years, Wal-Mart refused to allow its workers in China to join it; in 2004 it relented under pressure. But more than a year later, the anti-union culture within Wal-Mart has discouraged most workers to sign up for fear of losing their jobs.

In a global economy there is the ever-present danger that jobs could be shifted to another corner of the world with even weaker labour laws and lower standards of living. The desperation of low-paid Wal-Mart workers in the US, and their even worst-off colleagues in China, shows that nobody is safe. The standardisation of labour rights across the world remains a far-off dream.

Robert Greenwald's film, campaigners hope, will force a greater change to Wal-Mart's labour practices and halt its race to the bottom. Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price has already been an underground sensation in the US, and small screenings have been organised in private homes, halls and colleges across the world.

"To all but a handful of anti-Wal-Mart activists, it simply will be irrelevant," a spokeswoman for Wal-Mart said in response to the film. Even so, Wal-Mart has created an entire website dedicated to correcting what it says are errors in Greenwald's film and defending the company's image.

It is incredible that an independent filmmaker can wield such power over the largest retailer in the world. But his example holds a lesson for us all – consumers, workers and voters – we have the power to change the way the world works.

This article is published under a Creative Commons license with the permission of Angela Saini, and openDemocracy.net. You may republish it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact openDemcracy.net for permission and fees.