2014: The Year We Wish Could Be Redone

© Josh Sager – January 2015

At the end of every year, I have a custom of reviewing the political and social events that had an impact on our society. The purpose of this review is very simply to cement the events of the year in my mind and to ensure that I don’t keep making the same mistakes over and over again. I think that this is an important practice for everybody and would suggest that everybody who reads this do something similar in their areas of interest.

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Put simply, 2014 was not a good year to be a progressive or supporter of social justice in the United States. A series of brutal, demoralizing, and heinous events dominated the news and there were few truly positive stories to balance them out.

In the following article, I will give a short accounting of some of the most important events that occurred last year, along with their ramifications.

  • The 2014 Midterm Election Results

Depressingly enough, arguably the least negative event on my list is the 2014 midterm tsunami for the GOP. During the 2014 election, the GOP captured the Senate, widened their lead in the House of Representative, and won a series of state legislative posts. In addition to these gains, GOP extremists like Governors Rick Scott (whose company pled guilty to largest Medicaid fraud in US history) and Scott Walker (who accidentally kissed the ass of a reporter pretending to be a Koch brother) were re-elected.

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Of the new GOP politicians who were elected, there were a few highlights. A self-proclaimed exorcist was elected to the CO state legislature; Iowa is sending a woman to Washington who ran a campaign based upon anti-UN conspiracy theories and the idea that she knows how to cut pork because she castrated hogs on her family farm; North Carolina elected a man who proposed “blitzing” Mexico with our military to punish them for illegal immigration. These are just a few of the science-denying, frothing-nuts conspiracy theorists and corporate tools who will be populating our government for the next few years—at best, we can hope that gridlock and extremism will prevent them from getting much passed, but I am not optimistic.

Obama and the Democrats have been disgustingly willing to capitulate and throw progressive policies overboard in pursuit of an impossible, center-right “compromise” and I don’t see this changing with them in the minority.

  • The Torture Report

Last month, the Senate released its final report summarizing the findings of its investigation into torture by the US government. In this report, it was not only confirmed that the US tortured detainees, many of whom were found to be totally innocent, but that the methods of torture were even more hideous than previously thought.

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The Bush Administration committed the war crime of torture with malice of forethought and hired two psychologists to design the regime of techniques. In addition to the water-boardings and beatings that we already knew about, detainees were forcibly rectally infused (essentially anal rape via rubber tube and pressurized liquid), forced to stand on broken feet in stress positions, subjected to isolation and hypothermia (which killed at least one detainee) and sustained periods of loud music (including hours-long repetitions of the meow mix song). Additionally, they suffered threats to their families and mock burials, where they were forced into coffins and made to think that they would be buried alive.

Torture is a war crime under international laws that the US has ratified—in fact, it was our efforts that led these laws to be passed in the first place. As such, Obama has no legal excuse for not packing up the Bush cronies and shipping them to The Hague to face a war crimes tribunal. Unfortunately, Obama has been a coward and has refused to face domestic political backlash to do the right thing and follow the law. The only result of this will be a repeat of the torture crimes in the future, as the precedent set here is that torture is a policy disagreement, not a war crime.

  • ISIS

During 2014, a terrorist group called the Islamic State cemented its hold over a region in both Iraq and Syria. These terrorists are so extreme that Al Qaida not only renounced them for their brutality against civilians, but has also acted as in intermediary between ISIS leaders and US military officials during hostage negotiations. When Al Qaida becomes a hostage negotiator for the USA, you know that the other side is absolutely off the batshit scale.

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ISIS has attempted to commit genocide against the Kurds, specifically a minority group called the Yazidi sect, to ethnically cleanse their region of all “apostates” (essentially, anybody who isn’t as extreme as they are) and to repel the secular militaries of Syria and Iraq. While pursuing these goals, ISIS has murdered thousands of POWs, enslaved hundreds of women, buried or burned people alive, crucified Muslim moderates, and decapitated several American aid workers and journalists.

In short, ISIS is truly evil, and represents a threat that must be dealt with. They have acted as a magnet for Islamist extremists across the west and numerous European, American, and Australian citizens have either joined their ranks or been caught trying to do so. Because of this western appeal, destroying ISIS is particularly risky, as it threatens to fragment these extremists and redirect their attention from securing the Middle East to attacking the people in the west who they blame for their defeat.

  • Ebola

When Hollywood imagines an apocalypse virus, they often borrow on the reality of the hemorrhagic fevers—highly infectious diseases that cause bleeding and death. Ebola is one such virus, albeit one that is actually not much of a threat to a developed nation.

In 2014, Ebola ravaged portions of eastern Africa, killing thousands and infecting thousands more (we really don’t have accurate estimates at this time). One such infected individual traveled to the United States before he knew that he was infected, where his case set off a nation-wide media panic.

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Unfortunately, the first Ebola fatality in the United States was a case of massive mismanagement by the Dallas hospital that not only failed to diagnose the infection, but also failed to follow rudimentary hygienic procedures (they had stacks of soiled material piled up in the patient’s room at some points) which are designed to stop infections from spreading. These oversights caused a nurse working at the hospital to be infected, but, fortunately, she survived.

Put simply, Dallas’s response to Ebola was pathetic and indicative of the truly poor medial infrastructure in some areas of the country. First responders were not briefed on safety protocols, nurses were not following proper procedure in asking new patients about their travel history, and public officials failed to rapidly track potential infections. In comparison, New York had numerous rapid response teams, fully briefed in security protocols and stocked with hazmat supplies—additionally, they ran dozens of dry-runs, where individuals would go to emergency rooms and give a plausible set of symptoms and travel histories for an Ebola patient, just to determine whether the hospital was properly handling all potential infections.

  • Police Brutality

During 2014, the terms “hands up, don’t shoot” and “I can’t breathe” gained gruesome and significant meaning in the American psyche. The Michael Brown shooting and Eric Garner chokehold murder are just two of the most highly-publicized examples of lethal police violence this year.

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In response to police violence, massive protests broke out across the nation and thousands marched for change. These marches were repressed in some areas (ex. Ferguson) by police officers wielding military equipment and tear gas, creating the perception that the police are an occupying force who can kill minorities or abuse with impunity.

While police violence is in no way a new or unusual phenomenon, I think that 2014 was the year where things broke. Not only did we see police officers choke a man for selling cigarettes on camera and shoot an unarmed teenager, but there was no justice in either case—the prosecutor’s offices threw both cases, essentially presenting defense cases to the grand juries in order to ensure that the police officers never even saw the inside of the court room. The rage stemming from these incidents doesn’t appear to have dissipated in the past few months and I see a period of extreme unrest coming up in the future.

The Garner and Brown murders may have been the most publicized cases of police violence, but they were no alone. Two other examples of police murder that stand out include the murder ot Tamir Rice, where a black child was executed in a drive-by by a mentally unstable police officer for holding a toy gun and the murder of John Crawford, a black man who was killed by police in a Walmart for the crime of holding a toy gun that the store was selling.

  • Net Neutrality Under Fire

While no decision has been reached on this issue, 2014 could very well be the year that killed net neutrality in our nation. We are currently awaiting decision from the FCC on whether they will continue to regulate the internet as though it is a public utility (where no company can increase or decrease information transfer speeds based upon how much a company pays) or whether they will follow the demands of the internet providers and deregulate the industry.

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Unfortunately, Obama appointed Michael Wheeler, the ex-top lobbyist for the cable industry as the head of the FCC, putting him in the position to tip the scales in favor of the industry and away from a free internet. Given his past comments, it is likely that he has already made up his mind on this issue and that we will soon get notice that our internet is no longer protected from corporate abuses.

Net neutrality is vital for a free flow of ideas, as allowing those with money to buy preferential access to the net allows them to suppress any idea that competes with them. For example, if Comcast wanted to eradicate competitors for a video streaming site that they create (ex. Netflix, YouTube, etc.), they could throttle access to the competitors, thus slowing them down and making their product better by comparison.

NYPD Officers Assassinated by New Yorker in Revenge for Eric Garner’s Murder

© Josh Sager – December 2014

Last Saturday (12/20/14), a New York resident named Ismaaiyl Brinsley executed two police officers—Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos—at point-blank range while they sat in their parked police cruiser. As far as we can tell, this was not a result of a personal grudge between Brinsley and the officers, but rather a random act of anti-police violence by Brisley.

Before the shooting, Brinsley posted numerous anti-police sentiments online—including an Instagram post that morning which said that he was going to put “wings on pigs today” in retaliation for the Eric Garner killing.

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After the shooting, Brinsley was pursued by police down into a nearby subway station, where he turned the gun on himself and took his own life. The gun was recovered at the scene and there is virtually no doubt that he is guilty.

In response to the shooting, the police have railed against Mayor De Blasio and the protesters who flooded the street after the refusal of the grand jury to indict the police officer who murdered Eric Garner with an illegal chokehold (at least, according to police regulations and the medical examiner).

My Analysis

First and foremost, I have a lot of sympathy for the police officers who were killed and condemn any violence against any group, including the police. The police are a necessary part of any society and should not face the threat of such extreme violence while doing their jobs.

That said, the police have long failed to realize that people can only be pushed so far before something snaps (that “something” usually being the least balanced and rational people in society). For years, the NYPD have “stopped and frisked” minorities with impunity while completely disregarding the feelings of the community. This long-term tension set the stage for conflict with police, while the recent cases of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice created a powerful catalyst for extreme reactions—in short, many Americans have lost faith in the justice system being fair to people like them and are no longer willing to take it lying down.

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The failure of prosecutors to even get indictments when police have killed young black males, under extremely suspect circumstances (when over 95% of indictments go through), has given the perception that police officers have the right to kill at will. In this situation, people who are both disenfranchised and without a good degree of impulse control can become extremely dangerous to anybody who they can blame for their helplessness.

In short, when people don’t have faith that they can get justice, they often turn to blind and destructive revenge—this can take the form of riots, the murder of police, vigilante justice, or even assassination attempts against lawmakers.

“A riot is the language of the unheard.”

            –Martin Luther King Jr.–

If police departments don’t want this kind of violence to be directed at random police officers in the future (not excusing the perpetrators of that violence), they must take steps to punish those who abuse their power. The perception that the police are an occupying force rather than a protective force will inevitably lead to more violence and the only way to fix such a perception is by ensuring that police officers who break the law are punished within the law. Officers who murder citizens should face a jury of their peers, rather than a fixed grand jury that renders a secret preemption of a fair trial.

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Additionally, the idea that the NYPD is blaming De Blasio for this shooting, simply because he has shown a willingness to call them out when they violate peoples’ rights, is both wrongheaded and an offensive attempt to turn a tragedy into a political weapon (a la neocons using 9/11 to attack Democrats). People aren’t angry at the NYPD because De Blasio pointed out that the NYPD is abusing their authority—they already knew that because they were living it. This effort by the NYPD to tar De Blasio with blame this murder is an attempt to turn this tragedy to a previous political effort and is an offense to the memory of the dead officers.

The Cromnibus is a Bipartisan Goody Bag to Lobbyists

© Josh Sager – December 2014

Sometimes, when looking at Washington politics, I am reminded of the warning Dante put at the gate to hell: “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.” Modern politics is so filled with unforced errors, corruption, ignorance, and flat stupidity that hope is often just a form of naiveté.

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Unfortunately, we are getting a perfect illustration of this in the imminent passage of the “Cromnibus” (a combined continuing resolution and omnibus budget), that gives a myriad of gifts to corporations and banks, while funding the government at Ryan-budget levels. In short, it is a goody bag for big-money that perpetuates the austerity politics for the average American.

Currently, the Cromnibus is sitting on the president’s desk and he appears likely to sign it either today or tomorrow. While several very outspoken critics of the bill are making efforts to raise public awareness of the damaging provisions of the Cromnibus, the American public appears to be largely ignorant of the under-the-table jab they are about to experience.

Here are a few of the worst provisions buried deep in the Crominbus:

Banking Deregulation

Buried four pages from the end of the 1500+ page Cromnibus, is a provision that would repeal the provision of Dodd Frank that prevents banks from using your money to gamble—nobody knows exactly who put this provision in, as there was no debate on it, but we do know that it was literally written by CitiGroup lobbyists.

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Dodd-Frank currently bans banks from using depositor money—which is secured by FDIC—to back risky derivative investments by the banks. It mandates that banks separate the federally insured money from the risky trades so that it is never necessary for the federal government to step in and bail out a failing institution, as was done in 2008.

If the Cromnibus is signed by president Obama, this rule will be repealed and banks will be allowed to gamble in risky financial instruments for a personal profit, while offloading the risks onto unsuspecting bank depositors. In effect, it will allow the banks to play roulette with your money, pocket all of the winnings, and make you pay when they lose.

Campaign Finance Deregulation

Campaign finance laws in the United States have been under attack for decades, culminating in a series of massive attacks on regulation in the last five years. Citizens United and McCutcheon alone caused massive damage, and have allowed big-money to flood our political system and buy our elections. Unfortunately, the Cromnibus has a short provision on page 1599 that continues this degradation of campaign finance laws by increasing the amount that any individual can donate to political parties ten-fold.

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Currently, individuals are only able to donate $32,400 to each federal party committee (ex. the DNC or RNC) per two-year election cycle—if the Cromnibus passes, this will be increased to $324,000 per election cycle.

This provision in the cromnibus only benefits the top .1% of donors (referred to as the mega-donor class) who donate huge quantities of money to politicians. The mean American salary is just over $60 thousand a year and this provision would allow the rich to donate over five times that sum to buy politicians out from under us.

Put simply, this provision (which, coincidentally, nobody knows the source of) was designed to foster increased corruption and the power of those with the money to buy the system.

Cutting Pensions

The Kline-Miller provision in the Cromnibus allows trustees of multiemployer pension trusts to cut earned pension benefits, after they are earned by the worker. In effect, it allows employers to promise certain benefits (salary, insurance, retirement, etc.) in exchange for an employee’s labor, only to renege on these promises years down the line by citing “insolvency” in their business model.

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In a rational world, the “property rights absolutist” crowd should be protesting in the streets about this provision—it represents a massive violation of contractual agreements and a dire threat to millions of workers. Unfortunately, these people are often terribly misinformed and the outrage over this provision has been largely non-existent.

While this provision is limited to multi-employer pensions, the precedent it sets is that workers can be lied to and given a bait-and-switch by employers that eviscerates their economic stability after they have worked decades to secure a comfortable retirement. This sets us down a very slippery slope that threatens every American worker.

Undermining Environmental Protection

The Cromnibus has several provisions that will make it harder for the government to protect our planet from corporate pollution.

First and foremost, it cuts the already-strained budget of the EPA by millions of dollars. This will make the EPA even less able to properly regulate polluting industries and will make it even more likely that polluters will fall through the cracks. We have seen several extremely damaging examples of what happens when polluters fall through these cracks (ex. the TX fertilizer plant that improperly stored chemicals, leading to a massive explosion or the MCMH spill in West Virginia that tainted the water source for millions of Americans) and can only expect to see more in the future.

In addition to this, the Cromnibus will undermine attempts to reduce the use of polluting coal-fired power plants, both domestically and abroad. This will worsen the climate change crisis for the entire world and will contribute to the spread of health problems that surround these power plants (ex. asthma, cancer and respiratory diseases).

Feeding the Military-Industrial Complex, Starving Troops

Approximately, 55% of the Cromnibus bill is allocated for military spending. Compared to the 2014 spending levels, this means that the military will be getting $3.3 billion in increased funds, ostensibly to fight ISIS across the Middle East.

One would think that our military budget would be increasing, if only because we have exited other theaters of battle (ex. Afghanistan and Iraq), but this is not the case. Our military arms dealers are the single largest lobbying group for our government, and they require an ever-increasing amount of funding to prop up their profit margin.

While military arms dealers and contractors are likely very happy about this increase in funds, the troops will not be sharing in this celebration. Despite the fact that the DOD asked for a 1.8% increase in troop compensation (not a very large increase, particularly considering that soldiers’ salaries currently start at $18,000/yr and max out at $35,500/yr), the Cromnibus only increases troop pay by a measly 1%.