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Blackwater employees go to prison, their boss remains free and rich

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In The Intercept Jeremy Scahill has a good report on the Baghdad massacre of civilians done by the Blackwater employees:

A federal jury in Washington, D.C., returned guilty verdicts against four Blackwater operatives charged with killing more than a dozen Iraqi civilians and wounding scores of others in Baghdad in 2007.

The jury found one guard, Nicholas Slatten, guilty of first-degree murder, while three other guards were found guilty of voluntary manslaughter: Paul Slough, Evan Liberty, and Dustin Heard. The jury is still deliberating on additional charges against the operatives, who faced a combined 33 counts, according to the Associated Press. A fifth Blackwater guard, Jeremy Ridgeway, had already pleaded guilty to lesser charges and cooperated with prosecutors in the case against his former colleagues. The trial lasted ten weeks and the jury has been in deliberations for 28 days.

The incident for which the men were tried was the single largest known massacre of Iraqi civilians at the hands of private U.S. security contractors. Known as “Baghdad’s bloody Sunday,” operatives from Blackwater gunned down 17 Iraqi civilians at a crowded intersection at Nisour Square on September 16, 2007. The company, founded by secretive right-wing Christian supremacist Erik Prince, pictured above, had deep ties to the Bush Administration and served as a sort of neoconservative Praetorian Guard for a borderless war launched in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

While Barack Obama pledged to reign in mercenary forces when he was a senator, once he became president he continued to employ a massive shadow army of private contractors. Blackwater — despite numerous scandals, congressional investigations, FBI probes and documented killings of civilians in both Iraq and Afghanistan — remained a central part of the Obama administration’s global war machine throughout his first term in office.

Just as with the systematic torture at Abu Ghraib, it is only the low level foot-soldiers of Blackwater that are being held accountable. Prince and other top Blackwater executives continue to reap profits from the mercenary and private intelligence industries. Prince now has a new company, Frontier Services Group, which he founded with substantial investment from Chinese enterprises and which focuses on opportunities in Africa. Prince recently suggested that his forces at Blackwater could have confronted Ebola and ISIS. “If the administration cannot rally the political nerve or funding to send adequate active duty ground forces to answer the call, let the private sector finish the job,” he wrote.

None of the U.S. officials from the Bush and Obama administrations who unleashed Blackwater and other mercenary forces across the globe are being forced to answer for their role in creating the conditions for the Nisour Square shootings and other deadly incidents involving private contractors. Just as the main architect of the CIA interrogation program, Jose Rodriguez, is on a book tour for his propagandistic love letter to torture, Hard Measures: How Aggressive CIA Actions After 9/11 Saved American Lives, so too is Erik Prince pushing his own revisionist memoir, Civilian Warriors: The Inside Story of Blackwater and the Unsung Heroes of the War on Terror.

While the Blackwater verdict is an important and rare moment of accountability in an overwhelmingly unaccountable private war industry, it does not erase the fact that those in power—the CEOs, the senior officials, the war profiteers—walk freely and will likely do so for the rest of their lives.

What is so seldom discussed in public discourse on the use of mercenaries are the stories of their victims. After the Nisour Square massacre, I met with Mohammed Kinani, whose 9-year-old son, Ali, was the youngest person killed by Blackwater operatives that day. As he and his family approached the square in their car: . . .

Continue reading.

He includes this brief movie:

Written by LeisureGuy

23 October 2014 at 4:43 pm

The NY Fed looks increasingly like a criminal organization, facilitating bank scams

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Written by LeisureGuy

23 October 2014 at 4:09 pm

Capitalism vs. The public

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Sometimes the drive to charge people for everything—particularly those who have fallen on hard times—is somewhat sickening.

Here are some examples:

How Insurers Are Trying To Get Around Obamacare And Avoid Covering Sick Patients

That article explains the primary tactics and provides more detail under three headings:

1. Offering skimpy plans to workers that don’t cover all their needs.

2. Making drugs too expensive for sick patients to afford.

3. Forming narrow networks to discourage sick people from enrolling.

Of course, these things could be easily fixed were it not for the absolute opposition of the GOP, which does not want healthcare to work.

A Dallas Company Finds Profit in Video-Only Jail Visitations. The article begins:

There’s nothing nice about jail. The food stinks. There’s nothing to do. People are in a bad mood. The best you can hope for is to get out quickly with minimal hassle. One of the few things you have to look forward to is a visit from a friend or a loved one—a brief face-to-face connection to remind you that the world is waiting on the other side of the glass. But some Texas jails are eliminating in-person visitation and requiring instead the use of a video visitation system sold by Dallas-based Securus Technologies. Critics say it’s an outrageous profiteering scheme that has no policy rationale and could actually deteriorate security at jails.

Securus markets its video system as a cost-saver for jails and a convenience for family members who live far from their incarcerated loved ones. But the structure of the deals suggests there are powerful financial incentives for jails to curb or eliminate face-to-face visitation. Securus charges callers as much as a dollar a minute to use its video services, and jails get a 20 to 25 percent cut. For big-city jails, that could mean millions in extra money. . .

The article concludes:

. . . A report released this morning by Grassroots Leadership and the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition found that disciplinary infractions, assaults and contraband cases all increased within the year after the video-only policy was put in place. The report concedes that the trends may be an aberration or temporary but cites social science and long-standing prison policies holding that visitations improves jail security and lowers recidivism rates. One studyof 16,420 offenders commissioned by the Minnesota Department of Corrections, for example, found that “prison visitation can significantly improve the transition offenders make from the institution to the community.” Even one visit lowered the risk that a person would re-offend by 13 percent.

“Video-only visitation policies ignore best practices that call for face-to-face visits to foster family relationships,” the report argues. “They advance arguments about security that are dubious, not rooted in research, and may be counter-productive.”

Grassroots Leadership and the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition report found 10 counties in Texas that have already deployed video-only systems, with more considering the option.

Because cutting taxes means less money for government services, many police departments look for other sources of revenue, such as civil asset forfeiture in addition to things like the cash-up-front video-only visitation system. Indeed, Ferguson MO’s criminal justice system had a nice little racket going, constantly extorting money from the poor.

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

One excellent way to destroy public education is to turn it over to private, for-profit companies. It may start okay, but pretty quickly the drive to grow profits will result in cost-cutting, and the schools will go downhill, short of teachers, short of supplies, short of maintenance, and so on. The article at the link is worth reading, particularly if you will at some point have children that will attend schools. Take a look at the start of that Pacific Standard article by Marian Wang:

In late February, the North Carolina chapter of the Americans for Prosperity Foundation—a group co-founded by the libertarian billionaire Koch brothers—embarked on what it billed as a statewide tour of charter schools, a cornerstone of the group’s education agenda. The first—and it turns out, only—stop was Douglass Academy, a new charter school in downtown Wilmington.

Douglass Academy was an unusual choice. A few weeks before, the school had been warned by the state about low enrollment. It had just 35 students, roughly half the state’s minimum. And a month earlier, a local newspaper had reported that federal regulators were investigating the school’s operations.

But the school has other attributes that may have appealed to the Koch group. The school’s founder, a politically active North Carolina businessman named Baker Mitchell, shares the Kochs’ free-market ideals.  His model for success embraces decreased government regulation, increased privatization, and, if all goes well, healthy corporate profits.

In that regard, Mitchell, 74, appears to be thriving. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.

The schools buy or lease nearly everything from companies owned by Mitchell. Their desks. Their computers. The training they provide to teachers. Most of the land and buildings. Unlike with traditional school districts, at Mitchell’s charter schools there’s no competitive bidding. No evidence of haggling over rent or contracts.

The schools have all hired the same for-profit management company to run their day-to-day operations. The company, Roger Bacon Academy, is owned by Mitchell. It functions as the schools’ administrative arm, taking the lead in hiring and firing school staff. It handles most of the bookkeeping. The treasurer of the non-profit that controls the four schools is also the chief financial officer of Mitchell’s management company. The two organizations even share a bank account.

“This isn’t as if one of the board members happens to own a chalk company where they buy chalk from, and he recused himself from buying chalk. This is the entire management and operation of the school.”
Mitchell’s management company was chosen by the schools’ non-profit board, which Mitchell was on at the time—an arrangement that is illegal in many other states. . .

Written by LeisureGuy

23 October 2014 at 4:03 pm

What if your own fate was decided by a court in a foreign land?

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Tim Johnson reports for McClatchy:

— Somewhere trapped in the earth below Francisco Pineda’s feet are an estimated 1.4 million ounces of gold, and he wants the ore to remain there.

He doesn’t want an Australian mining company to extract the metal.

“What will happen with the water? To separate the gold and silver, they’ll use cyanide. This will either filter into the water table or go into the river,” said Pineda, a stocky agronomist and environmental activist.

Those who share Pineda’s views don’t care if El Salvador remains the proverbial beggar seated on a bench of gold. They say their densely populated nation cannot absorb environmental distress from mining.

Yet the choice is not theirs.

The fate of the El Dorado gold mine won’t be resolved anywhere near this tiny Central American country. Rather, it’s being weighed by a three-judge tribunal on the fourth floor of the World Bank headquarters in Washington.

Last month, the obscure court heard eight days of arguments over whether an Australian firm,OceanaGold Corp., will get a green light for the El Dorado project, or in its lieu receive $301 million in compensation. Sometime early in 2015, the tribunal, known formally as the International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes, will issue its ruling.

The unusual jurisdiction is a sign of how international investment laws are empowering corporations to act against foreign governments that curtail their future profits, sometimes through policy flip-flops. Critics say it’s giving trade tribunals leverage over sovereign nations and elected leaders who presumably reflect the will of their people.

The lawsuit could put El Salvador in a dilemma: Either allow OceanaGold to mine or pay the $301 million the company says it would’ve earned from the gold.

“For us, it is very tough that three judges will be deciding this case. They’ve never been here. They’ve never asked us what we want. It is really ugly that someone is deciding our future without asking our opinion,” Pineda said.

Suspicions run deep over the project, which has spawned violence. Four mining opponents were killed from 2009 to 2011. None of the homicides has been fully resolved.

The company now at the center of the conflict, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 October 2014 at 12:14 pm

Posted in Business, Government, Law

Everyone In America Would Be Better Off If We Soaked The Rich

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Take a look at this chart, from a Slate article by Eliot Spitzer:

Marginal tax rates and GDP

Two things should be evident: the US marginal tax rate is currently VERY low (even compared with our own history, much less compared to developed nations in the EU), and that dropping the marginal tax rate has zero effect on GDP: the notion that we would get lots of economic growth from cutting taxes is quite clearly false—and always has been. (Kansas is finding that out now. Thanks, Kansas, for taking one for team.)

Obviously, without tax revenue, government expenditures must be cut—or, to put it more bluntly, government services that help the public will be shut down. (One could, of course, say that a lot of tax money is spent for the wrong things—e.g., the $7.6 billion totally wasted in trying to shut down the opium trade in Afghanistan: we spent $7.6 billion, and the trade increased. The money may as well have been burned. And let’s not even talk about the $2 trillion Iraq war, which opened the door to jihadist revolution now underway.)

But government revenues have indeed fallen, so government services are cut, favoring cuts to groups that have no lobbyists: the poor, minorities, the mentally ill (now sent to prison or shot), and so on. In the meantime, bank lobbyists (several of whom are former heads of the SEC) are berating the SEC for feebly attempting to enforce the law. Their chutzpah knows no bounds—banks are the NSA of money: they want to collect it all.

Bryce Covert has a modest solution, which he describes at ThinkProgress:

A 90 percent tax rate on the top 1 percent of American earners wouldn’t just significantly reduce income and wealth inequality and boost government tax revenues. It would also be the optimal level for Americans’ welfare, according to a new paper from economists Fabian Kindermann and Dirk Krueger.

They find that the top marginal tax rate that maximizes government revenues before being so high as to discourage the wealthiest from earning more is very high, or 95 percent on those who are among the top 1 percent of earners. They also find that a 90 percent tax rate on the richest 1 percent could significantly reduce the Gini index, a measure of income inequality, and wealth inequality would also steadily decline.

But these effects aren’t worth the policy change in and of themselves, they argue. In an email to ThinkProgress, Krueger wrote, “One could certainly reduce inequality in the economy to zero, by the government confiscating all income and wealth and redistributing it equally among all households… Of course people would stop working and saving and the outcome would be disastrous.” But the interesting finding in their paper is that the same tax rate that would maximize revenues and drive down inequality is nearly the same one that would make everyone better off, or what they call the optimal top marginal tax rate.

Everyone’s welfare is improved if a tax change allows the government to compensate them with enough wealth so that they are at the same level they were before the change, but the government still has money left over. “The more is left over, the better is the reform,” Krueger said. Everyone’s welfare improves or stays steady, including that of the 1 percent, under a 90 percent top tax rate. In fact, the welfare gains are “very substantial,” they note in the paper.

There are trade offs to such a policy change. . .

Continue reading.

I doubt this can happen: President Obama has demonstrated a strong commitment to protecting the banking industry and the wealthy in general—those are his donors. (I’m reminded of Roman Hruska, one-time Senator from Nebraska, who was known as “the defender of the strong.”)

UPDATE: Fort Lauderdale Votes To Make It Harder To Feed The Homeless, Joining Two Dozen Other Cities

Written by LeisureGuy

22 October 2014 at 12:10 pm

Justice delayed arrives at last: Blackwater guards convicted for their massacre of Iraqi civilians

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At long last there is some accountability.

The Washington Post report and the NY Times report. The NY Times report notes that some of the men escaped murder charges only because of prosecutorial incompetence.

 

Written by LeisureGuy

22 October 2014 at 10:37 am

Comcast, Net Neutrality, and a supine Congress

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Years ago (1964) a book was written about Congress titled Congress: The Sapless Branch, and that title rings true today. We have reached the point now where Congressional action contrary to the interests of large corporations seems increasingly difficult. T. C. Sottek writes in the Verge:

Here’s what’s happening right now on net neutrality:

The FCC’s comment period is over and 3.7 million people weighed in — that means even more people are concerned about net neutrality than Super Bowl XXXVIII: Wardrobe Malfunctiongate. And, yes, America, it’s totally reasonable and appropriate to be mad at the FCC. It has screwed up on net neutrality for years from cowardice and simply by using the wrong words. But Americans who want to protect net neutrality should also start being mad at Congress.

It’s Congress that has largely turned net neutrality regulation into a partisan charade that occasionally results in threats to the FCC’s budget and authority via Congress’ telecommunications benefactors. The FCC’s dithering on net neutrality has been enabled for years by this nonsense and it’s now reflected even by the agency’s bench, which seats some commissioners who have advocated stripping themselves of power to avoid going against corporate interests. Even the FCC’s chairman is intimately familiar with those corporate interests; Tom Wheeler is a former telecom lobbyist and was appointed by a president who promised that lobbyists wouldn’t run his administration in a distant magical time called “Before He Was Elected.”

If you want a clear example of Congress’ ineptitude on net neutrality, look no further than a letter sent to Comcast today by . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 October 2014 at 4:02 pm

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