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Over the weekend I edited a short fundraising video for organizations that help victims of human trafficking. These are all religious institutions and the women interviewed were all nuns. One from NYC, one from London, and one from Mombasa, Kenya.

Human trafficking is the 2nd largest crime industry in the world, only behind drug trafficking. It generates hundreds of billions of dollars in profit – at the expense of human lives. And it is also the fastest growing “industry” in the world today. In 2012 it was estimated that as many as 20.9 million people around the world were victims of human trafficking. Imagine what those numbers are in 2017. Human trafficking includes sexual exploitation (including sexual slavery), forced labor, organ harvesting. The International Labour Organization (a United Nations agency) last compiled their statistics in 2012. Some excerpts:

90% are forced to labor for private economies or corporations

22% are in forced sexual exploitation

55% are women and girls & 45% are men and boys

26% are under the age of 18

Sister Jane Kimathi, from Mombasa, speaks of victims as young as 4 years old, forced into prostitution. Many, she says, come to their safe houses unable to speak because of the trauma. Some stay with the Sisters for as long as two years, as they try to rehabilitate them and find new homes. While their order is Catholic, they welcome all victims and their prayer room is nondenominational. She mentioned that Mombasa is a popular tourist destination. But the “tourist destination” designation is people who come there specifically searching for young children to abuse. Because of the many conflicts in Africa, the number of refugees spikes the numbers of slaves. They are people looking for ways to support their families. Nobody is looking for glamour or prestige in the sex trade, Sister Kimathi says. “It’s poverty and desperation.” Some of the children were sold by their parents into slavery. Some are orphans and some are runaways who were promised happiness by relatives, who then exploited them.

It’s a story the Sister from New York, Joan Dawber, picks up on. Sister Joan runs safe houses in Queens. She described one woman’s story: She came to New York to be a student, sponsored byp1562069350-3 an extended family. When she arrived, the family forced her to become their slave. She never attended school. She was forced to take care of the family, including raising their young children. She was forced to eat off the floor. Not just having her plate on the floor, she didn’t have a plate. Whatever food she was allowed to eat was put on the floor. If she was hungry and snuck any food out of the fridge, she was punished. She was her family’s slave in Queens, NY for five years. Her salvation came in the form of a neighbor who suspected something odd based on the young woman’s behavior in public. She tried to speak to her repeatedly, ask her how she is, only to have the young woman run away. Eventually the neighbor gave the woman a cell phone with pre-programmed numbers for the police and safe shelters. The young woman finally found courage to escape, using the cell phone to call for help. She has since finished school and lives in New York.

Sister Dawber points out that human trafficking exists in every state of the USA. It is not an issue that only happens out there somewhere. It exists all around us. It could be the waitress in a restaurant, or a manicurist at the nail salon. They could be of any age and any race. It can be almost impossible to know that this person ringing up our groceries is indentured to someone.

Sister Lynda Dearlove runs a safe house in London. Their organization primarily helps prostitutes. The interesting thing is that their mission isn’t strictly to “rescue” the women from prostitution. It is to offer them a safe home and counseling when in need. Many only come to sister-lynda-dearlovespend the night, take a shower and eat. Some then return to the streets. The Sisters there never force anyone to stay. Many women have been coming to them for years for a night or two of peace. The Sisters hope that by offering women a shelter and offering them counseling they can help them enable themselves. Sister Dearlove passionately says that the can not force anyone to do anything. The best they can do is show the women that there is hope and they need to find it for themselves. Maybe not today, but possibly tomorrow. “They are valued and they are loved, and if anything happens to them we want them to know that we will miss them.” She says that people blame women for becoming prostitutes and that it is one of the biggest challenges we as a society face: The need to understand that if any of these women choose prostitution it is only because they are fleeing abuse, or drugs, or so many other possible traumas. Many are trying to support families and stay alive. They must never be judged or condemned, she says. They must be offered hope.

Note: Sister Dearlove was appointed a member of the Order of the British Empire in 2010.

This is an open thread. What’s on your mind fellow Widdershins?

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Happy Memorial Day, Widdershins. We always remember our veterans here, so once again, today and every day, thank you for your service. I hope today finds you happy and healthy, especially with the state of VA health care in this country. (Shamefully, although the Republicans seem to suddenly have discovered the issue now that they see it as a way to attack Obama, the VA has been backed up, overloaded and underfunded for many years now. If the Repubs had acted like a political party hired by the American people to accomplish things, instead of a campaign organization bent on sweeping that scandal under the rug, we might be much farther down the road to fixing this problem.)

It is said that World War II was the “last good war.” War is never good, of course, but Americans were able to fully emotionally support the country’s painful and horrible military efforts to remove the cancer of Hitler’s Germany (and its allies) from the world. It was a virtuous war because: 1) Japan declared war on us before we entered the fray; 2) the mission was clear;  3) the enemy was pure evil; and 4) the sacrifices were deemed worthy. As we’ve discussed many times here, none of the current wars we are fighting (Iraq, Afghanistan) fall into that category. (Sorry guys, until there is not one American soldier in either country, I won’t say those wars are over.)

However, just as there are now non-traditional enemies which are not heads of state like Hitler and Hirohito, (i.e., non-state actors like Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups), could there now be non-traditional wars, and by extension, non-traditional good wars?

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oligarchy

Oldsmobile, er country.  And I think you know it and I know it.  But in case you needed to have that sneaky feeling confirmed, two researchers at Princeton Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page  pretty much confirmed that our democracy doesn’t really exist anymore.  Welcome to the oligarchy.  And if you are unfamiliar with the term, let me give you a definition of it.

noun, plural ol·i·gar·chies.

1.

a form of government in which all power is vested in a few persons or in a dominant class or clique; government by the few.

2.

a state or organization so ruled.

3.

the persons or class so ruling.
We all pretty well know who those folks are:  the Kock Bros. for instance, definitely the oil companies, Big Pharma, Big Insurance companies and the like.
Asking “[w]ho really rules?” researchers Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page argue that over the past few decades America’s political system has slowly transformed from a democracy into an oligarchy, where wealthy elites wield most power.
Further, when you look at the over 1800 “policy initiatives” they looked at, and when you look at their starting point, you start to see it all coming together.
Using data drawn from over 1,800 different policy initiatives from 1981 to 2002, the two conclude that rich, well-connected individuals on the political scene now steer the direction of the country, regardless of or even against the will of the majority of voters.
Let’s see here:  When did Ronnie Raygun get elected to office?  Oh yes.
Ronald Wilson Reagan (/ˈrɒnəld ˈwɪlsən ˈrɡən/; February 6, 1911 – June 5, 2004) was the 40th President of the United States (1981–1989).
So are any of us really surprised that the dismantling of our government started when Raygun went in?  Of course I’m not.  As the two write:
“The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy,” they write, “while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”
(bolding mine)
And here’s another little eye-opening (for some) tidbit that they found:
As one illustration, Gilens and Page compare the political preferences of Americans at the 50th income percentile to preferences of Americans at the 90th percentile as well as major lobbying or business groups. They find that the government—whether Republican or Democratic—more often follows the preferences of the latter group rather than the first.
Gilens and Page say this is nothing new that could possibly be attributable to the recent decisions by the Supremes in Citizens United and McCutcheon.

As the data stretching back to the 1980s suggests, this has been a long term trend, and is therefore harder for most people to perceive, let alone reverse.  (B&I mine)

“Ordinary citizens,” they write, “might often be observed to ‘win’ (that is, to get their preferred policy outcomes) even if they had no independent effect whatsoever on policy making, if elites (with whom they often agree) actually prevail.”

 

So you know all of the online petitions we get in our email and are asked to sign so they can then be presented to some congress critter?  Now you know how much of an impression they really make.

I’m not going to badmouth signing online petitions because there is a feeling of satisfaction in doing so, but just don’t hold your breath that anything will change unless somehow the “elites” somehow agree with the thing being petitioned.

There was a 2nd article at TPM

Where Sahil Kapur spoke to Martin Gilens about the study he participated in.  I’m going to paste in part of the interview here for us.

TPM: Let’s talk about the study. If you had 30 seconds to sum up the main conclusion of your study for the average person, how would you do so?

Gilens: I’d say that contrary to what decades of political science research might lead you to believe, ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their government does in the United States. And economic elites and interest groups, especially those representing business, have a substantial degree of influence. Government policy-making over the last few decades reflects the preferences of those groups — of economic elites and of organized interests.

TPM: You say the United States is more like a system of “Economic Elite Domination” and “Biased Pluralism” as opposed to a majoritarian democracy. What do those terms mean? Is that not just a scholarly way of saying it’s closer to oligarchy than democracy if not literally an oligarchy?

Gilens: People mean different things by the term oligarchy. One reason why I shy away from it is it brings to mind this image of a very small number of very wealthy people who are pulling strings behind the scenes to determine what government does. And I think it’s more complicated than that. It’s not only Sheldon Adelson or the Koch brothers or Bill Gates or George Soros who are shaping government policy-making. So that’s my concern with what at least many people would understand oligarchy to mean. What “Economic Elite Domination” and “Biased Pluralism” mean is that rather than average citizens of moderate means having an important role in determining policy, ability to shape outcomes is restricted to people at the top of the income distribution and to organized groups that represent primarily — although not exclusively — business.  

And this was my favorite of the interview:

 

TPM: How does a system like this perpetuate itself when after all it’s ordinary voters who cast their ballots and elect their leaders. Theoretically they can change it in a heartbeat. Why don’t they?

Gilens: That’s a very good question. I don’t have a complete answer for you. Part of it clearly is that while politicians need votes while in office, they need money to obtain and retain office. So they need to balance the activities that will benefit them in terms of money with the activities that’ll benefit them in terms of votes. Voters are not particularly effective at holding politicians accountable for the policies they adopt. Voters also have a limited choice set when going into an election. We find that policies adopted during presidential election years in particular are more consistent with public preferences than policies adopted in other years of the electoral cycle.  (again bolding and italics mine)

The entire interview is really an eye-opener and I strongly suggest you go to TPM and read it. Gilens does hand the rich and elite a few smackdowns but is somewhat gloomy about what any different outcomes might be or how they might come about.  I have downloaded the report of the study that these two conducted and I’ll try to upload it and find a place for it on the blog.

Gilens and Page only had documents and info on “policy initiatives” going back to the Ronnie Raygun era, but I’ll bet it has been going on longer than that.  Paddy Chayefsky may have had an inkling about it when he wrote Network.

 

This is an open thread but do check out the two linked articles at TPM.

 

Addendum:  I did get the study uploaded.  It’s on the right side under Activism.  Look for Gilens and Page…
It is in pdf format and should open separately.

 

 

 

Good afternoon Widdershins.

My general rule is to steer away from stories of a local flavor since they represent limited interest, but there are exceptions. This is one of them since this story perfectly illustrates a point worth considering.

Coal Miner

Without the intricacies and political intrigue, here is the gist: The Kentucky General Assembly just met. During the session, a law was passed at the behest of the coal barons to reduce the number of yearly mine inspections. The mine owners waxed poetic and yearned for a time when they had a friendlier, more cooperative relationship with mine safety inspectors — unlike the overzealous Obama mine inspectors.

The crescendo of this kinder, gentler love affair sprinkled with coal pixie dust was 2006. It was the halcyon days where mine inspectors could be counted upon to do the “right thing” when it came to the owner’s quest to dislodge those clumps of black gold. Sadly, it wasn’t such a joyous time for the miners.

By comparison, in 2006 almost two and a half times more miners were killed than in 2012, the most recent year available for comparison. According to the mine owners, the “Obama War on Coal” was rampaging in 2012 — even though more miners were working in 2012 than 2006. In addition, there were more injuries in 2006 than in 2012 when those jack-booted state inspectors were spending too much time nosing around in mines. Since unions were run out of eastern Kentucky, mine inspectors are the only people who understand safety applies to miners’ well-being more than it does to owners’ profiteering.

Placing your tag in case you don't come back...

Placing your tag in case you don’t come back…

Now switch your mind’s eye to Congress where coincidentally Rep. Hal Rogers, (5th KY) Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee holds a hearing about funding for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).  MSHA is responsible for enforcing mine-safety laws at the federal level. Rogers represents eastern Kentucky where the state has just curtailed state mine safety inspections.

Testifying before the Appropriations Committee, the mouthpiece of the Kentucky-based Coal Operators and Associates urged Congress to gut MSHA since “there is a complete secondary layer of inspection at the state level and states do things the right way.” The spokesman urged the reining in of MSHA since it was full of adversarial “rule sticklers” and couldn’t be counted on to be the “friendly” agency of 2006 gone by. When asked about instances of the adversarial nature, the spokesman gave not one example — not one — because conveniently, “operators fear retaliation” from MSHA.

Now keep both the Congressional and the Kentucky legislative hearings in mind as I tell you, both these hearings took place in front of the sobbing widows and children of dead miners. Dead miners like those killed in the 2006 explosion and fire in the Darby mine in Harlan County. Good old 2006, a time when the grief over killed miners could be eased by the friendliness of the infrequently visiting mine inspectors.

Coal awaiting its trip to China or India before it makes it way back by way of atmospheric carbon particulates...

Coal awaiting its trip to China or India before it makes it way back by way of atmospheric carbon particulates…

The agonizingly wretched part of this whole story isn’t just maximizing profits for coal operators. This whole charade is about making economically precarious mines more marketable to be sold to “wildcat local operators.” Large, publicly traded companies are reacting to the steep decline in coal demand by selling their mines to shoestring capitalized local operators. Fewer safety regulations equates to more marketability — no one wants a gift that eats.

Here’s the learning — the central motivation isn’t about miners living or dying or even mining itself — it is about reducing a budgetary line item at the expense of miners’ safety in order to make the mines more marketable and ultimately more valuable.

As repugnant as this example is, just look at the headlines in any newspaper. GM knew about the Ninety Cent ($0.90) ignition spring problem as early as 2001. Toyota knew about its sudden acceleration problem and decided to pay the settlements. The financial markets knew about the oncoming 2008 financial meltdown three years before it happened. As you are reading this, proprietary colleges owned by hedge funds are sentencing veterans and unsuspecting students to decades of exorbitant student loans. The list is endless or so it seems.

DilbertThere was a time when everyone believed in corporate responsibility, but it has been replaced by “moral hazard” — meaning a business person will take risks because the ultimate cost will not be felt by the individual or the company. In other words, because of insurance or quick profits or bailouts, executives will now gladly bite the hand feeding them. The time when corporations could be implicitly trusted to do the right thing has long passed.  This is but another all-too-often glossed over similarity to the Gilded Age.

What we have now are corporate oligarchs enslaved to “Occam’s Razor” — “After all other possibilities have been exhausted, the simplest explanation is most likely correct.” As a scientific postulate Occam’s Razor is true, but only if and only when, you have exhausted “all other possibilities.”

Occam's Razor

Today, whether it be the coal barons blaming meddlesome inspectors, GM fretting about a .90 cent ignition spring, or Wall Streeters banking their billions before an implosion, no one took the time to look at other possibilities — they merely took the simplest rhetorical answer and draped themselves in it. More likely than not, that rhetorical shroud consisted of “it’s the government’s fault” or “everyone else does it” or “what will it hurt to cut this corner?”  All quick and efficient enough to forestall any honest policy discussions.

We have one party that is an active, willing participant in this deceit and the other is just as guilty by acts of omission.  At the end of the day it makes little difference as to the party since the results are the same. Until our policies are dictated by something more than an intellectually corrupted and bastardized Occam’s Razor, we might as well enjoy being played for unknowing and trusting dullards.

This is an open thread.

 

Good afternoon Widdershins. For those tuning in for one of Fredster’s always insightful posts, you’ll have to suffer me today. Fredster’s computer is “CPU”ny and “app”opletic today and I’m subbing for him. He’ll be back in a day or so.

Personal religious ascendancy can be triggered by many things — it might be a burning bush, an archangel, a miracle, or something as mundane as a call to your corporation’s general counsel. It’s that last thing that spawned yesterday’s case before the Supreme Court, Hobby Lobby, et al. v. Sebelius.

You see, Hobby Lobby was already providing contraceptive coverage, even emergency “Plan B” contraception, to Hobby Lobbytheir employees until that fateful day when their General Counsel’s phone rang. It was the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a poseur victimhood factory, calling to ask if Hobby Lobby was interested in suing the federal government over the provisions of the Affordable Care Act.

Hobby Lobby, with its 500 to 640 stores and 13,000 to 28,000 employees (differing accounts give differing estimates), was soon joined by Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp., a Mennonite owned company from Pennsylvania with 950 employees. Both agreed to serve as the plaintiffs in this first blush attempt at endowing personal religious freedom upon corporations. I’m sure after a torrid tryst punctuated with passionate disdain for the ACA, Hobby Lobby, et al. v. Sebelius was conceived in the appropriate missionary style.

At the heart of this case is the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). RFRA itself was a congressional reaction to a prior Supreme Court case Congress wanted to rectify. That case was Employment Division v. Smith. Decided in 1990, the issue presented in Smith was whether or not Oregon could deny unemployment benefits to two Native American men who were fired for using peyote, even though peyote was part of their religious rituals.

ScaliaNone other than Justice Scalia wrote:

A person’s religious beliefs cannot prevent him or her from abiding by laws that are neutral and not aimed at restricting religious freedom.

After the Smith case, Congress wanted to ensure minority religions were protected and passed RFRA in response. The RFRA legislative history is without question — Congress wanted to protect individuals, religious institutions, and religious organizations. Nowhere within the legislative history does RFRA mention or even hint at for-profit corporations like Hobby Lobby.

In any discussion of RFRA, you might have heard the term, “shield versus a sword”. The Congressional Record is unambiguous about this point, RFRA was meant as an individual shield and not as a sword when it came to religious rights. Simply put, RFRA was meant to protect individual religious rights and not to be used as a weapon to force religious beliefs upon others.

In the words of a smart 17th century guy, “Therein lies the rub.” The question of the Hobby Lobby case is whether or not a corporation can force, through its actions and overwhelming economic power, its religious fervor upon its female employees when it comes to certain types of contraception — not all contraception mind you, just those types of contraception the billionaire Green family find objectionable.

 

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picketers2

Sorry this is a pic of just men

You would think that of any workplace in America, that MSNBC would be a bastion of liberal enlightenment when it came to workers being able to organize.  With the likes of Rachel Maddow, Al Sharpton, Chris Matthews, Chris Hayes and others, that being able to organize into a bargaining unit would be a piece of cake.  Eh, not so much.  Things are not all hunky-dory at MSNBC, NBC-Universal and Peacock Productions, which apparently is the company under which writers and producers produce a lot of the shows we see on MSNBC.

It seems that last year, nonfiction writers and producers decided to try to organize a union with P.P. and were trying to affiliate with the Writers Guild of America-East and that didn’t sit very well with the honchos at P.P. and NBC-Universal  (NBC-Universal is owned by Comcast).  After the writers and producers decided to try to organize, according to organizing director Justin Melito of the WGA-E, Peacock Productions  “responded with mandatory group meetings and one-on-one conversations in which managers pushed an anti-union line, and a spurious legal case that got the votes from a union election impounded (and thus left uncounted to date) by arguing many workers seeking union recognition were in fact supervisors and thus ineligible.”  Peacock’s view was that  producers were not eligible to join the union saying “We believe that Peacock’s producers hold meaningful supervisory authority, which, according to Federal Labor Law, excludes them from voting.”  With that line of argument, Peacock got the votes for unionization uncounted.  Producer/writer Steve Rizo was working for Peacock at the time and said that meetings with managers could get very intimidating.  Rivo said:

… that in meetings managers “specifically referred to possible outcomes of a pro-union vote, one of which included the possibility that Comcast … might just simply dissolve Peacock … It was made very clear to the whole company that the group of people who were interested in joining the Writers Guild could actually bring down the whole company.”

Peacock employee David Van Taylor said that “Some of it could be very intimidating,” and he told Salon that managers “said that they were worried – both in public meetings and in private meetings – that they would be shut down if a union passed here.”  Rivo also said that once his support for the WGA-E was known that “my assignments were not as forthcoming as they were before.”.  Van Taylor agreed with that:

“A pattern seemed to be developing where the people who had spoken up on behalf of the WGA-E were being last to be assigned to jobs or to have jobs.” Van Taylor said he and other openly pro-union workers heard that their co-workers were being criticized by management “just for like being friendly to us,” rather than shunning them for supporting the union.

Now you may be asking why workers like writers and producers might want to affiliate with a union and especially a wild, out-of-control group like the Writers Guild of America and Rivo (who has worked in the industry for 20 years) explained why:

“many formerly independent documentary producers are now working as weekly wage workers in the nonfiction TV industry,” and thus seeking contracts that guarantee pay, health coverage and residuals.

And Van Taylor explained his interest in the union:

he’d been spurred to get involved with the union by comparing the “sense of insecurity and lack of control” where he worked to the conditions for union members employed on fiction shows: “You can see that, you know, it’s possible to have a career as a freelance writer that’s not completely insecure and uncertain at all times.”

Now you may be asking what the hell all of this has to do with the “personalities” at MSNBC, the faces you see on the teevee, that have covered the workers’ protests in Wisconsin and other places where collective bargaining has been attacked.  Well you see, the behind-the-scenes workers asked some of their more well known coworkers to meet with them:  and they either declined (sometimes rather nastily) or said nothing.  All of them save for Chris Hayes.  Now you have to understand dear Widdershins…Chris Hayes is the one personality on MSNBC that gets under my skin at times and will make me grind my teeth!  He just, at times, works on my last nerve.  But now, I’ll have to change my opinion of him.

Salon contacted Ed Shultz about the workers’ attempts at organizing and apparently Schultz was irked because the AFL-CIO and Writers Guild used Move on to start a petition which you can see here.  The group wanted the signed petitions to be delivered to: Chris Hayes, Host of “All In with Chris Hayes”, Ed Schultz, Host of “The Ed Show”, Rachel Maddow, Host of “The Rachel Maddow Show”, Al Sharpton, Host of “PoliticsNation”, and Lawrence O’Donnell, Host of “The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell” and it asked that:

As an MSNBC host and a strong voice for labor and progressive causes, I’m calling on you to show your support for producers and associate producers at NBC-owned Peacock Productions who are being denied their right to organize. Please meet with these workers and take a public stand to support their right to organize.

When Shutlz was asked by Salon about the petition his reply was:

“Moveon.org has never been an ally of Ed Schultz, why should I help you with a story? Give me a reason.”

Well…okie dokie then.  So the only one who would meet with the employees was Chris Hayes.

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