Obama Determined to Cut Social Security

Despite campaign promises to preserve Social Security and ever refrain from cutting benefits Barack Obama seems bound and determined to do exactly that.  As part of negotiations over the debt ceiling Republicans led by Speaker John Boehner are insisting on trillions of dollars in cuts to entitlement programs such as Social Security.  This social extortion shouldn’t be tolerated and such baseless activity denounced and condemned.  Instead President Obama, the pragmatic deal maker, is willing to cut any deal possible so he can go to the people next year and claim he accomplished something.  Never mind his accomplishment would be hugely unpopular and something Republicans, with their unlimited corporate campaign coffers, would hang him with, he is blindly walking down a blind, dark alley in which he and the American people will get mugged once again by conservatives.

Cutting Social Security benefits in the name of deficit reduction is like cutting off your leg because of a tooth infection.  One has nothing to do with the other.  Social Security not only doesn’t contribute a dime tot he deficit it has a $2.6 trillion surplus.  Those funds are dedicated to providing future benefits for Baby Boomers now beginning to retire.  The system is fully funded through 2037 and even then, with no alterations, would pay 77% of current benefits.  Lifting the cap on income taxable for Social Security fully funds the program for the foreseeable future and even strengthen benefits.

As Americans have been screwed out of their pensions then robbed of their 401(k) investments by Wall Street dependence on Social Security is more important than ever.  We should increase benefits rather than decreasing them.  Following two years of no cost of living adjustments while health care, prescriptions and energy are rapidly escalating for seniors and the disabled, plans are to change the way COLA’s are calculated to severely cut future benefits.

I’ve been on Social Security Disabilty for roughly eighteen years.  At first my monthly benefit was $600 and over the years the COLA’s have brought it to about a grand.  Meanwhile the $20 it used to cost to fill my tank is $38, heating oil costs a thousand bucks per fill, food is way up and I can’t even afford a Medicare supplement plan any longer.  Rent is beyond any expectation since the average apartment is $750/month.  With the average Social Security check around $1,050 how does anyone afford food?  This is why we refer to the Simpson/Bowles Deficit Commission as the Cat Food Commission.  No one on Social Security is going to be eating anything but pet food in a few years.

If the chained COLA cuts go through the cost of living increases will cut $1,000/month from each check in twenty years.  Because women outlive men this will hurt them disproportionately.  Without COLA’s I’d be living in abject poverty because of the increases in costs of basic necessities.  Add to that the fact seniors and the disabled have high health care demands, costs which escalate far faster than even the current COLA’s calculate, the loss of traditional pensions and the raiding of 401(k)’s to survive during these recession riddled times and future seniors will all be living in abject poverty.  All this to “save” a deficit problem created by tax cuts for the rich, unfunded wars and the deregulation of the financial industry.

Shouldn’t the burden be falling upon those who have benefited from that government largesse instead?  The Bush tax cuts drilled a giant hole in the deficit.  Eliminating the cap on Social Security earnings so hedge fund managers earning a billion bucks a year (and paying a 15% tax rate) pay FICA on all of their earnings would solve all future funding issues.  Since Social Security contributes NOTHING to the deficit cuts to future benefits does NOTHING to solving the deficit.  This is merely an extortion plan to eliminate the safety net for needy Americans and provide yet another giant sellout for Wall Street at our expense.

The wars of choice in Iraq and Afghanistan have contributed mightily to the deficit along with a $700 billion per year Pentagon budget.  We can safely secure our nation and provide for our defense for $100 billion.  That leaves $600 billion a year towards deficit reduction.  Properly regulating Wall Street and restricting the gambling nature of out of control bankers betting against our economy and creating huge Ponzi schemes will save us from future calamities where we lose our homes and retirement accounts.  The loss of revenue from the economic collapse as people lost jobs created massive holes in the budget.  Cutting Social Security does nothing to correct any of the factors which contributed to the deficit.

Senators Bernie Sanders and Sheldon Whitehouse participated in a conference call this morning criticizing the President on the issue.  Asked if he would filibuster any bill in the Senate Sanders said he would do anything within his power to stop it from being passed.  He also said the damage politically to Barack Obama next year would be significant.  His only saving grace would be the sorry state of the Republican field.

How much money do you think Karl Rove and his Crossroads GPS super PAC would spend to portray Obama as the man who killed Social Security?  The GOP spent massive amounts criticizing Democrats in 2010 for cutting future benefits in Medicare and won control of the House with the message.  They’ll conveniently ignore the fact they insisted upon these cuts and held our economy hostage in order to force them.  Stupid Americans, brainwashed by incessant ads on TV, will willingly go to the polls and vote Republican then watch in horror as what is left is decimated.  Democracy is a wonderful thing:  you deserve what you get and you get what you deserve.

Mortgage Relief for the Unemployed

The Obama Administration announced a mortgage relief program for homeowners who are unemployed yesterday.  In a conference call they unveiled the program designed to assist those out of work to remain in their homes and forestall the inevitable foreclosure process for up to a year.

Today, the Obama Administration announced adjustments to Federal Housing Administration (FHA) requirements that will require servicers to extend the forbearance period for unemployed homeowners to 12 months.  The Administration also intends to require servicers participating in the Making Home Affordable Program (MHA) to extend the minimum forbearance period to 12 months wherever possible under regulator and investor guidelines.  These adjustments will provide much needed assistance for unemployed homeowners trying to stay in their homes while seeking re-employment. These changes are intended to set a standard for the mortgage industry to provide more robust assistance to unemployed homeowners in the economic downturn.

This is yet another crumb offered to placate those working Americans victimized by the massive pyramid schemes concocted by Wall Street which collapsed the global economy.  While Wall Street gamblers got trillions in emergency assistance Main Street homeowners got the shaft.  Those same huge banks seized seven million homes and raided retirement accounts of another eight billion dollars.  In return average people are getting crumbs such as this forebearance help.

Boehner Cuts Jobs Then Asks “Where are the jobs?”

With news today the economy created 18,000 new jobs last month John Boehner jumped all over the President saying it wasn’t enough.  Of course under George W. Bush we lost 700,000 jobs per month but suddenly creating them isn’t enough.  I’ll agree that 18,000 isn’t enough but let’s examine who is responsible for this anemic growth:  Speaker John Boehner.  It was the GOP which shrunk the stimulus plan and forced a major portion of it to go to tax cuts instead of job creation.  It was the Republicans, and Boehner specifically, who extorted major government spending cuts costing thousands of jobs this year.  It is the Republicans who have insisted there be no further job creation bills passed by Congress.

John you cannot have your cake and eat it too.

The Gun Culture in the Berks County Sheriffs Department

Berks County Deputy Sheriff Kyle Pagerly was laid to rest yesterday.  Police and fire persons from the region convened at Reading’s Sovereign Center to pay their respects to a fallen comrade, a fellow officer, a young man in the prime of his life who was killed attempting to arrest a young radical determined to die violently.

Law enforcement officials are investigating how Matthew M. Connor obtained a weapon he was legally prohibited from having.  This prompts me to question an out of control gun culture inside the Berks County Sheriffs Department.  I’ve been working on an extensive investigation of Eric Weaknecht’s operation for months and have heard from five different sources about shocking violations of the law there.  I certainly hope Kyle Pagerly didn’t die because of them.

When PFA orders are issued by a court of law the recipient of the Protection From Abuse order must surrender all of their firearms to the Sheriffs Department.  Unless you’re a personal friend of Sheriff Weaknecht however.  I have been told by multiple sources that he has restored dozens of weapons to personal friends although they are the subject of a PFA.  How long until someone is killed due to his negligence?  

More disturbingly weapons have gone missing from the Berks County Sheriffs armory.  Following the expiration of PFA orders some residents have gone to the armory to reclaim their weapons only to find some missing.  My sources tell me that the Sheriff and his Chief Deputy Tony Damore “confiscate” guns they’re especially fond of for their personal collections.  This is outright theft.  

Fortunately for prisoners detained yesterday Deputies from Lancaster County manned the Central Processing Unit so all the members of the Berks Sheriffs Department would be free to attend the services for Pagerly.  This meant no prisoner was shackled then tasered for the personal enjoyment of Berks Sheriffs Deputies.  Multiple sources have informed me this happened under Sheriff Weaknecht’s watch and that a video of one such torture session exists.

How long will the ticking time bomb which is within this outlaw organization sit until it explodes?  When will someone die because the laws are not being followed?  Where did Matthew Connor obtain the gun used to kill a hero like Kyle Pagerly?  Where are the guns missing from the armory?  It is time the fanatical gun culture living within this renegade department is reined in before a Deputy falls as the result of someone’s retribution.  Reading doesn’t need to see more women killed because of domestic violence and it doesn’t need to watch as another young hero dies in the line of fire.

I emailed numerous questions in regard to this investigation directly to Sheriff Weaknecht last spring and he never responded.

News & Notes July 7, 2011

President Obama held a Twitter town hall yesterday and took questions from those who follow the White House.  I’m not at all sure how you answer questions about complex issues within 140 characters.  Speaker John Boehner chimed in with a question about jobs.  Yes John, why have you destroyed thousands of jobs this year through budget cuts when we should be creating them?

The president of Albright College is seeking to discipline a tenured professor who boycotted Gov. Corbett’s commencement speech.  So much for academic freedom at a school which seems to be glorifying a Governor who cut K12 education by over a billion dollars and cut assistance to state universities by over 50%.  Why would anyone in education support a Governor who has absolutely no commitment to education?

A federal appeals court ordered an immediate halt to enforcement of DADT yesterday.  Since the law has been determined to be unconstitutional by the Department of Justice the 9th Circuit says it now cannot be enforced.

88% of all income growth since 2009 has gone to corporate profits.  Business is in the midst of one of its biggest profiteering eras ever.  They have $800 billion in cash yet aren’t spending it to create jobs.  The Supreme Court, business’ best friend ever keeps giving them decision after decision, handing corporations more and more power of over us all and none of it is “trickling down” to the rest of us.  The biggest lie of all is that tax cuts create jobs.  They don’t.  Neither does “free trade.”

Neo-Nazi Glenn Beck finally went off the air at Faux News last week.  He won’t be missed.  I do think he’s correct about a coming insurrection though.  With drastic and widening gaps between the very rich and the rest of us a revolution may well be in our future.  The scandal plagued Rupert Murdoch “news” empire is crashing.

Scandal Plagued Murdoch Paper Closing

Amidst a phone hacking scandal threatening to bring down the British government Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World is closing.  It was announced today the Sunday edition will be the tabloid’s final issue.  As more and more leaked out about how the paper’s editorial staff and reporters hacked into celebrity’s telephones and intercepted communications the worst it got for the Fox News cousin in Britain.  This week it was revealed the paper hacked the phone of a young girl who had gone missing and were listening to the family’s messages to her.  Though murdered the family was led to believe, through the hacking, that she was still alive because News of the World staffers were deleting voice mails to make room for more.  The fact the messages were being deleted led the family to think she remained alive.  This may have been the worst part of this scandal.

The fact a former editor is now the communications person for the Prime Minister and was deeply involved in the illegal wiretapping threatens to collapse the government of David Cameron.  Murdoch also owns, of course, the Wall Street Journal and Fox News.

Orie Trial Documents Forgeries

The Secret Service has accomplished what the trial Judge said “even Ray Charles could see” which is that documents submitted by State Senator Jane Orie at her trial were forgeries.  The signature of her Chief of Staff Jamie Pavlot was copy and pasted and then Orie’s attorney presented them at trial and attempted to discredit the witness’ testimony based on that signature on the documents.  When Pavlot examined the documents and testified that it was NOT her signature a mistrial was later declared when the prosecution brought the matter tot he Judge.  Now Orie is attempting to prevent a retrial.  If it is proven the defense forged documents (I don’t see where the prosecution had motive since the point was to discredit one of its witnesses) Orie could face additional charges.

Declare Your Independence

As we gather round and celebrate our nation’s birthday let us pause to reflect on what has been done to America by conservatives determined to destroy it.  For thirty years economic policies have driven our jobs overseas.  Even now while President Obama says he wants to increase manufacturing jobs he is negotiating more “free trade” agreements with other countries.  These bleed our jobs and our lifestyles.  Obama may be a Democrat but he’s a financial conservative in the hold of Wall Street.  Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is leaving and will work for Goldman Sachs.  Surprise, surprise, he’s been working for them all along while we paid his salary.

The State of Minnesota has shut down because conservatives refuse to raise taxes on 8,000 of its richest citizens.  Republicans in Washington walked out of debt ceiling negotiations because they refuse to raise taxes on the rich.  America will default and individual states also under this “Destroy America” agenda.  In 2012 the GOP will campaign on a slogan of American Exceptionalism.  The only thing exceptional about America has been her greed.  The only thing exceptional about conservatives is their hatred for this nation.

It is time for a new Declaration of Independence.  It is time the people, the workers, the downtrodden take control.  It is time to thow off the shackles of political parties beholden to the unlimited greed of the financial sector.  Stop using credit and debit cards and begin paying by cash.  Stop being a member of a political party and stop voting for corporate Democrats.  We can take our country back one vote at a time.

The Los Alamos Fire

As you all know I’m rather fond of New Mexico and travel there frequently.  I’ll be flying out again August 20th to Santa Fe.  As such I’m following the wildfires closely.  One in a canyon near Los Alamos is relatively close to Santa Fe and is producing smoke and ash throughout the region.  They evacuated the entire town of Los Alamos due tot he threat and residents are just beginning to return.  The strategic Los Alamos National Laboratory is the reason the town exists and is the center of American nuclear research.  My maternal grandfather helped build the initial labs there as part of The Manhattan Project so I visited the town a couple years ago during a visit.

Traveling the short distance from Santa Fe takes one past the San Idlefonso Navajo Pueblo where black on black pottery was made famous by Maria Martinez.  Here’s a picture of the village:

The Jemez Mountains stretch through this region going well west of Los Alamos:

The Rio Grande River, which begins in southern Colorado just north of there winds its way through the canyons.  

Just south of Los Alamos and also threatened is Bandelier National Monument.  The ancient Anasazi peoples lived there in famous cliff dwellings thousands of years ago.  They were the ancestors of today’s Navajo or Pueblo Indians.  Part of the park has already burned along with ancient sites sacred to the Santa Clara Pueblo tribe.

Global warming has been affecting New Mexico now for some time and the high desert is drier than ever which is fueling these fires.  The drier things are the more likely they are to burn.  This desert is 7,000 feet above sea level (Santa Fe is considerably higher than Denver) and water is a precious resource.  Climate change is bringing less and less rain to the Southwest.  When storms do come through lightning can precipitate fires.   You can follow the fire here.  

Government May Be Violating Tobacco Companies’ 1st Amendment Rights

by WALTER BRASCH

A controversial Supreme Court decision less than two years ago could have the unintended consequence of significantly reducing the government’s 46-year campaign against cigarettes.

In a 5-4 decision, largely along political lines, the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission (October 2009) that not only were parts of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (also known as the McCain-Feingold Campaign Reform Act) unconstitutional, but that corporations and political action committees enjoyed the same First Amendment rights as private citizens.

The government’s anti-smoking campaigns, most of them the result of a combination of executive department and Congressional action, essentially have three major parts: anti-tobacco advertising and public service messages, warning labels on cigarette packs, and the outright ban on several forms of tobacco company advertising.

Government Advertising

Because the First Amendment applies only to governmental intrusion upon free expression, when the government creates advertising (whether TV ads or pamphlets), there can be no significant First Amendment issues. There may be some recourse, however small, in suits against use of taxpayer funds for political purposes, similar to the government’s role during the George W. Bush administration in forcing anti-abortion education upon women and health clinics.

Labels

The anti-smoking campaign had begun with the 1964 Surgeon General’s report that there was a strong correlation between smoking, lung cancer, and chronic bronchitis.. The following year, Congress passed the Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act that required every cigarette pack to have a health warning: “Caution: Cigarette Smoking May be Hazardous to Your Health.” The Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act of 1969,  taking effect two years later, strengthened the wording on cigarette labels to: “Warning: The Surgeon General Has Determined that Cigarette Smoking is Dangerous to Your Health.”

However, the labels had minimal effect on reducing smoking. In 1984, unwilling to face political consequences from an outright ban, such as it enacted against any form of marijuana, Congress passed the Comprehensive Smoking Education Act that required even stronger messages on each pack.

Last week, the Food and Drug Administration, acting within authority of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2010, ordered all cigarette manufacturers to include nine new designs on a rotating basis on all cigarette packs. The designs take up the top half, both front and back, of every pack. Several of the messages are medically-supported statements that tell users that cigarette smoking causes cancer. One of the graphics is a pair of cancerous lungs next to a pair of non-cancerous lungs. Another label shows a set of rotted teeth. Another shows smoke coming from a tracheotomy hole.

The FDA also requires that government-approved messages appear on one-fifth of every print ad.

Based upon interpretation of the Citizens United case, it would not be an unreasonable stretch to argue that the newly-required messages, with graphics and text, place an undue burden on a corporation’s rights of free speech by restricting their own message to less than half. Another argument could be made that by forcing the tobacco companies to accept pre-determined text and graphics is de facto government intrusion upon the rights of free expression.

Tobacco Company Advertising

The largest concern for First Amendment consideration is in the area of the federal government imposing restrictions upon advertising and information messages.

In 1967, the Federal Communications Commission, citing the Fairness Doctrine, required radio and TV stations that aired paid ads from tobacco companies to run anti-smoking ads at no cost. Unwilling to give up five to ten minutes a day to unpaid advertising, the stations began “voluntarily” dropping cigarette advertising.

The Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act, which had changed the text of warning labels, also banned cigarette advertising on radio and television. In a concession to the tobacco companies, Congress permitted the law to take effect on Jan. 2, the day after the televised football bowl games. The effect of the law was a loss to radio and television stations of about $200 million a year in cigarette advertising, and a significant increase in advertising in newspapers, magazines, and billboards-and not much reduction in smoking.

A 1991 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that the cartoon character Joe Camel, advertising mascot for Camel cigarettes, was recognized by 3- to 6-year-olds almost as much as they recognized Mickey Mouse and Fred Flintstone. The AMA charged that R.J. Reynolds, manufacturers of Camel cigarettes, had targeted children; the company denied the charges, but eventually settled the lawsuit for $10 million, the funds to go to anti-smoking campaigns.

In 1998, the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement was the result of years of litigation and negotiation between the four largest tobacco companies, which controlled about 97 percent of all domestic sales, and 46 state attorneys general; four states had already settled. That agreement exempted the companies from class-action tort liability by citizens filing against the companies for health effects from smoking. The federal government also agreed to provide subsidies to tobacco farmers to cover losses based upon reduction of demand for their product. In exchange, the tobacco companies agree to provide $365.5 billion, with most of the funds going to the states for anti-smoking campaigns, and to allow FDA regulation. Among other provisions, the tobacco companies agreed to cut back advertising and sponsorship of activities, especially those that targeted youth. Because this was a civil case settlement, First Amendment concerns were rendered moot.

However, the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2010 is a government-imposed control that brings to question distinct First Amendment concerns. That Act bans tobacco companies from sponsoring all sports and cultural events, which could loosely be interpreted as a violation of the right of association, not specifically mentioned in wording in the First Amendment but extended by the Supreme Court decisions involving First Amendment guarantees. The Act further bans tobacco companies from displaying all tobacco-related images, including their logos, on any apparel, and also requires most advertising to be black lettering on a white background. Both actions are probable First Amendment violations.

A critical side issue melds labels with the media. It would be nearly impossible for any medium to show anyone with a cigarette pack, whether in news or entertainment, without also showing the government’s message. Any attempt by the government to regulate what appears on screen or in print would violate the First Amendment.

Without the Citizens United decision, the government’s rights to regulate corporate advertising would probably not have significant basis for challenge. With that decision, tobacco corporate entities suddenly have a case.

[This column is meant to be a general overview and not a definitive analysis or detailed case study of possible First Amendment violations of government-imposed sanctions against tobacco companies. Dr. Brasch, professor emeritus of mass communications and journalism, is a specialist in First Amendment and contemporary social justice issues. His latest book is Before the First Snow: Stories from the Revolution.]