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Dec. 18th, 2009

$57,077.60 -- That's What We're Paying Each Minute for the Occupation of Afghanistan

$57,077.60 -- That's What We're Paying Each Minute for the Occupation of Afghanistan
By Jo Comerford, Tomdispatch.com
Posted on December 17, 2009, Printed on December 18, 2009

$57,077.60. That\u2019s what we\u2019re paying per minute. Keep that in mind -- just for a minute or so.

After all, the surge is already on. By the end of December, the first 1,500 U.S. troops will have landed in Afghanistan, a nation roughly the size of Texas, ranked by the United Nations as second worst in the world in terms of human development.

Women and men from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, will be among the first to head out. It takes an estimated $1 million to send each of them surging into Afghanistan for one year. So a 30,000-person surge will be at least $30 billion, which brings us to that $57,077.60. That\u2019s how much it will cost you, the taxpayer, for one minute of that surge.

By the way, add up the yearly salary of a Marine from Camp Lejeune with four years of service, throw in his or her housing allowance, additional pay for dependents, and bonus pay for hazardous duty, imminent danger, and family separation, and you\u2019ll still be many thousands of dollars short of that single minute\u2019s sum.

But perhaps this isn\u2019t a time to quibble. After all, a job is a job, especially in the United States, which has lost seven million jobs since December 2007, while reporting record-high numbers of people seeking assistance to feed themselves and/or their families. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 36 million Americans, including one out of every four children, are currently on food stamps.

On the other hand, given the woeful inadequacy of that \u201csafety net,\u201d we might have chosen to direct the $30 billion in surge expenditures toward raising the average individual monthly Food Stamp allotment by $70 for the next year; that's roughly an additional trip to the grocery store, every month, for 36 million people. Alternatively, we could have dedicated that $30 billion to job creation. According to a recent report issued by the Political Economy Research Institute, that sum could generate a whopping 537,810 construction jobs, 541,080 positions in healthcare, fund 742,740 teachers or employ 831,390 mass transit workers.

For purposes of comparison, $30 billion -- remember, just the Pentagon-estimated cost of a 30,000-person troop surge -- is equal to 80% of the total U.S. 2010 budget for international affairs, which includes monies for development and humanitarian assistance. On the domestic front, $30 billion could double the funding (at 2010 levels) for the Children's Health Insurance Program and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

Or think of the surge this way: if the United States decided to send just 29,900 extra soldiers to Afghanistan, 100 short of the present official total, it could double the amount of money -- $100 million -- it has allocated to assist refugees and returnees from Afghanistan through the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.

Leaving aside the fact that the United States already accounts for 45% of total global military spending, the $30 billion surge cost alone would place us in the top-ten for global military spending, sandwiched between Italy and Saudi Arabia. Spent instead on \u201csoft security\u201d measures within Afghanistan, $30 billion could easily build, furnish and equip enough schools for the entire nation.

Continuing this nod to the absurd for just one more moment, if you received a silver dollar every second, it would take you 960 years to haul in that $30 billion. Not that anyone could hold so much money. Together, the coins would weigh nearly 120,000 tons, or more than the poundage of 21,000 Asian elephants, an aircraft carrier, or the Washington Monument. Converted to dollar bills and laid end-to-end, $30 billion would reach 2.9 million miles or 120 times around the Earth.

One more thing, that $30 billion isn\u2019t even the real cost of Obama\u2019s surge. It\u2019s just a minimum, through-the-basement estimate. If you were to throw in all the bases being built, private contractors hired, extra civilians sent in, and the staggering costs of training a larger Afghan army and police force (a key goal of the surge), the figure would surely be startlingly higher. In fact, total Afghanistan War spending for 2010 is now expected to exceed $102.9 billion, doubling last year's Afghan spending. Thought of another way, it breaks down to $12 million per hour in taxpayer dollars for one year. That\u2019s equal to total annual U.S. spending on all veteran's benefits, from hospital stays to education.

In Afghan terms, our upcoming single year of war costs represents nearly five times that country\u2019s gross domestic product or $3,623.70 for every Afghan woman, man, and child. Given that the average annual salary for an Afghan soldier is $2,880 and many Afghans seek employment in the military purely out of economic desperation, this might be a wise investment -- especially since the Taliban is able to pay considerably more for its new recruits. In fact, recent increases in much-needed Afghan recruits appear to correlate with the promise of a pay raise.

All of this is, of course, so much fantasy, since we know just where that $30-plus billion will be going. In 2010, total Afghanistan War spending since November 2001 will exceed $325 billion, which equals the combined annual military spending of Great Britain, China, France, Japan, Germany, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. If we had never launched an invasion of Afghanistan or stayed on fighting all these years, those war costs, evenly distributed in this country, would have meant a $2,298.80 dividend per U.S. taxpayer.

Even as we calculate the annual cost of war, the tens of thousands of Asian elephants in the room are all pointing to $1 trillion in total war costs for Iraq and Afghanistan. The current escalation in Afghanistan coincides with that rapidly-approaching milestone. In fact, thanks to Peter Baker\u2019s recent New York Times report on the presidential deliberations that led to the surge announcement, we know that the trillion-dollar number for both wars may be a gross underestimate. The Office of Management and Budget sent President Obama a memo, Baker tells us, suggesting that adding General McChrystal\u2019s surge to ongoing war costs, over the next 10 years, could mean -- forget Iraq -- a trillion dollar Afghan War.

At just under one-third of the 2010 U.S. federal budget, $1 trillion essentially defies per-hour-per-soldier calculations. It dwarfs all other nations' military spending, let alone their spending on war. It makes a mockery of food stamps and schools. To make sense of this cost, we need to leave civilian life behind entirely and turn to another war. We have to reach back to the Vietnam War, which in today's dollars cost $709.9 billion -- or $300 billion less than the total cost of the two wars we're still fighting, with no end in sight, or even $300 billion less than the long war we may yet fight in Afghanistan.

[Note: Jo would like to acknowledge the analysis and numbers crunching of Chris Hellman and Mary Orisich, members of the National Priorities Project's research team, without whom this piece would not have been possible.]

Jo Comerford is the executive director of the National Priorities Project. Previously, she served as director of programs at the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts and directed the American Friends Service Committee's justice and peace-related community organizing efforts in western Massachusetts.
� 2009 Tomdispatch.com All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/144642/

Dec. 17th, 2009

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-Peter K. Niven

Dec. 14th, 2009

Are Americans a Broken People? Why We've Stopped Fighting Back Against the Forces of Oppression

Are Americans a Broken People? Why We've Stopped Fighting Back Against the Forces of Oppression
By Bruce E. Levine, AlterNet
Posted on December 11, 2009, Printed on December 14, 2009

Can people become so broken that truths of how they are being screwed do not "set them free" but instead further demoralize them? Has such a demoralization happened in the United States?

Do some totalitarians actually want us to hear how we have been screwed because they know that humiliating passivity in the face of obvious oppression will demoralize us even further?

What forces have created a demoralized, passive, dis-couraged U.S. population?

Can anything be done to turn this around?

Can people become so broken that truths of how they are being screwed do not "set them free" but instead further demoralize them?

Yes. It is called the "abuse syndrome." How do abusive pimps, spouses, bosses, corporations, and governments stay in control? They shove lies, emotional and physical abuses, and injustices in their victims' faces, and when victims are afraid to exit from these relationships, they get weaker. So the abuser then makes their victims eat even more lies, abuses, and injustices, resulting in victims even weaker as they remain in these relationships.

Does knowing the truth of their abuse set people free when they are deep in these abuse syndromes?

No. For victims of the abuse syndrome, the truth of their passive submission to humiliating oppression is more than embarrassing; it can feel shameful -- and there is nothing more painful than shame. When one already feels beaten down and demoralized, the likely response to the pain of shame is not constructive action, but more attempts to shut down or divert oneself from this pain. It is not likely that the truth of one's humiliating oppression is going to energize one to constructive actions.

Has such a demoralization happened in the U.S.?

In the United States, 47 million people are without health insurance, and many millions more are underinsured or a job layoff away from losing their coverage. But despite the current sellout by their elected officials to the insurance industry, there is no outpouring of millions of U.S. citizens on the streets of Washington, D.C., protesting this betrayal.

Polls show that the majority of Americans oppose U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as the taxpayer bailout of the financial industry, yet only a handful of U.S. citizens have protested these circumstances.

Remember the 2000 U.S. presidential election? That's the one in which Al Gore received 500,000 more votes than George W. Bush. That's also the one that the Florida Supreme Court's order for a recount of the disputed Florida vote was overruled by the U.S. Supreme Court in a politicized 5-4 decision, of which dissenting Justice John Paul Stevens remarked: "Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year's presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the nation's confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law." Yet, even this provoked few demonstrators.

When people become broken, they cannot act on truths of injustice. Furthermore, when people have become broken, more truths about how they have been victimized can lead to shame about how they have allowed it. And shame, like fear, is one more way we become even more psychologically broken.

U.S. citizens do not actively protest obvious injustices for the same reasons that people cannot leave their abusive spouses: They feel helpless to effect change. The more we don't act, the weaker we get. And ultimately to deal with the painful humiliation over inaction in the face of an oppressor, we move to shut-down mode and use escape strategies such as depression, substance abuse, and other diversions, which further keep us from acting. This is the vicious cycle of all abuse syndromes.

Do some totalitarians actually want us to hear how we have been screwed because they know that humiliating passivity in the face of obvious oppression will demoralize us even further?


Shortly before the 2000 U.S. presidential election, millions of Americans saw a clip of George W. Bush joking to a wealthy group of people, "What a crowd tonight: the haves and the haves-more. Some people call you the elite; I call you my base." Yet, even with these kind of inflammatory remarks, the tens of millions of U.S. citizens who had come to despise Bush and his arrogance remained passive in the face of the 2000 non-democratic presidential elections.

Perhaps the "political genius" of the Bush-Cheney regime was in their full realization that Americans were so broken that the regime could get away with damn near anything. And the more people did nothing about the boot slamming on their faces, the weaker people became.

What forces have created a demoralized, passive, dis-couraged U.S. population?

The U.S. government-corporate partnership has used its share of guns and terror to break Native Americans, labor union organizers, and other dissidents and activists. But today, most U.S. citizens are broken by financial fears. There is potential legal debt if we speak out against a powerful authority, and all kinds of other debt if we do not comply on the job. Young people are broken by college-loan debts and fear of having no health insurance.

The U.S. population is increasingly broken by the social isolation created by corporate-governmental policies. A 2006 American Sociological Review study ("Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over Two Decades") reported that, in 2004, 25 percent of Americans did not have a single confidant. (In 1985, 10 percent of Americans reported not having a single confidant.) Sociologist Robert Putnam, in his 2000 book, Bowling Alone, describes how social connectedness is disappearing in virtually every aspect of U.S. life. For example, there has been a significant decrease in face-to-face contact with neighbors and friends due to suburbanization, commuting, electronic entertainment, time and money pressures and other variables created by governmental-corporate policies. And union activities and other formal or informal ways that people give each other the support necessary to resist oppression have also decreased.

We are also broken by a corporate-government partnership that has rendered most of us out of control when it comes to the basic necessities of life, including our food supply. And we, like many other people in the world, are broken by socializing institutions that alienate us from our basic humanity. A few examples:

Schools and Universities: Do most schools teach young people to be action-oriented -- or to be passive? Do most schools teach young people that they can affect their surroundings -- or not to bother? Do schools provide examples of democratic institutions -- or examples of authoritarian ones?

A long list of school critics from Henry David Thoreau to John Dewey, John Holt, Paul Goodman, Jonathan Kozol, Alfie Kohn, Ivan Illich, and John Taylor Gatto have pointed out that a school is nothing less than a miniature society: what young people experience in schools is the chief means of creating our future society. Schools are routinely places where kids -- through fear -- learn to comply to authorities for whom they often have no respect, and to regurgitate material they often find meaningless. These are great ways of breaking someone.

Today, U.S. colleges and universities have increasingly become places where young people are merely acquiring degree credentials -- badges of compliance for corporate employers -- in exchange for learning to accept bureaucratic domination and enslaving debt.

Mental Health Institutions: Aldous Huxley predicted today's pharmaceutical societyl "[I]t seems to me perfectly in the cards," he said, "that there will be within the next generation or so a pharmacological method of making people love their servitude."

Today, increasing numbers of people in the U.S. who do not comply with authority are being diagnosed with mental illnesses and medicated with psychiatric drugs that make them less pained about their boredom, resentments, and other negative emotions, thus rendering them more compliant and manageable.

Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) is an increasingly popular diagnosis for children and teenagers. The official symptoms of ODD include, "often actively defies or refuses to comply with adult requests or rules," and "often argues with adults." An even more common reaction to oppressive authorities than the overt defiance of ODD is some type of passive defiance -- for example, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Studies show that virtually all children diagnosed with ADHD will pay attention to activities that they actually enjoy or that they have chosen. In other words, when ADHD-labeled kids are having a good time and in control, the "disease" goes away.

When human beings feel too terrified and broken to actively protest, they may stage a "passive-aggressive revolution" by simply getting depressed, staying drunk, and not doing anything -- this is one reason why the Soviet empire crumbled. However, the diseasing/medicalizing of rebellion and drug "treatments" have weakened the power of even this passive-aggressive revolution.

Television: In his book Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television (1978), Jerry Mander (after reviewing totalitarian critics such as George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Jacques Ellul, and Ivan Illich) compiled a list of the "Eight Ideal Conditions for the Flowering of Autocracy."

Mander claimed that television helps create all eight conditions for breaking a population. Television, he explained, (1) occupies people so that they don't know themselves -- and what a human being is; (2) separates people from one another; (3) creates sensory deprivation; (4) occupies the mind and fills the brain with prearranged experience and thought; (5) encourages drug use to dampen dissatisfaction (while TV itself produces a drug-like effect, this was compounded in 1997 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration relaxing the rules of prescription-drug advertising); (6) centralizes knowledge and information; (7) eliminates or "museumize" other cultures to eliminate comparisons; and (8) redefines happiness and the meaning of life.

Commericalism of Damn Near Everything: While spirituality, music, and cinema can be revolutionary forces, the gross commercialization of all of these has deadened their capacity to energize rebellion. So now, damn near everything \u2013 not just organized religion -- has become "opiates of the masses."

The primary societal role of U.S. citizens is no longer that of "citizen" but that of "consumer." While citizens know that buying and selling within community strengthens that community and that this strengthens democracy, consumers care only about the best deal. While citizens understand that dependency on an impersonal creditor is a kind of slavery, consumers get excited with credit cards that offer a temporarily low APR.

Consumerism breaks people by devaluing human connectedness, socializing self-absorption, obliterating self-reliance, alienating people from normal human emotional reactions, and by selling the idea that purchased products -- not themselves and their community -- are their salvation.

Can anything be done to turn this around?

When people get caught up in humiliating abuse syndromes, more truths about their oppressive humiliations don't set them free. What sets them free is morale.

What gives people morale? Encouragement. Small victories. Models of courageous behaviors. And anything that helps them break out of the vicious cycle of pain, shut down, immobilization, shame over immobilization, more pain, and more shut down.

The last people I would turn to for help in remobilizing a demoralized population are mental health professionals -- at least those who have not rebelled against their professional socialization. Much of the craft of relighting the pilot light requires talents that mental health professionals simply are not selected for nor are they trained in. Specifically, the talents required are a fearlessness around image, spontaneity, and definitely anti-authoritarianism. But these are not the traits that medical schools or graduate schools select for or encourage.

Mental health professionals' focus on symptoms and feelings often create patients who take themselves and their moods far too seriously. In contrast, people talented in the craft of maintaining morale resist this kind of self-absorption. For example, in the question-and-answer session that followed a Noam Chomsky talk (reported in Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky, 2002), a somewhat demoralized man in the audience asked Chomsky if he too ever went through a phase of hopelessness. Chomsky responded, "Yeah, every evening . . ."

If you want to feel hopeless, there are a lot of things you could feel hopeless about. If you want to sort of work out objectively what's the chance that the human species will survive for another century, probably not very high. But I mean, what's the point? . . . First of all, those predictions don't mean anything -- they're more just a reflection of your mood or your personality than anything else. And if you act on that assumption, then you're guaranteeing that'll happen. If you act on the assumption that things can change, well, maybe they will. Okay, the only rational choice, given those alternatives, is to forget pessimism."

A major component of the craft of maintaining morale is not taking the advertised reality too seriously. In the early 1960s, when the overwhelming majority in the U.S. supported military intervention in Vietnam, Chomsky was one of a minority of U.S. citizens actively opposing it. Looking back at this era, Chomsky reflected, "When I got involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement, it seemed to me impossible that we would ever have any effect. . . So looking back, I think my evaluation of the 'hope' was much too pessimistic: it was based on a complete misunderstanding. I was sort of believing what I read."

An elitist assumption is that people don't change because they are either ignorant of their problems or ignorant of solutions. Elitist "helpers" think they have done something useful by informing overweight people that they are obese and that they must reduce their caloric intake and increase exercise. An elitist who has never been broken by his or her circumstances does not know that people who have become demoralized do not need analyses and pontifications. Rather the immobilized need a shot of morale.

Bruce E. Levine is a clinical psychologist and his latest book is Surviving America\u2019s Depression Epidemic: How to Find Morale, Energy, and Community in a World Gone Crazy (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2007). His Web site is www.brucelevine.net
� 2009 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/144529/

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-Jim Leftwich & Jukka-Pekka Kervinen


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-Peter K. Niven


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-Peter K. Niven

Dec. 11th, 2009

Supreme Court's Ruling Would Allow Bin Laden to Donate to Sarah Palin's Presidential Campaign

Supreme Court's Ruling Would Allow Bin Laden to Donate to Sarah Palin's Presidential Campaign
By Greg Palast, AlterNet
Posted on December 11, 2009, Printed on December 11, 2009

I thought that headline would get your attention. And it's true.

I'm biting my nails waiting for the Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which could come down as early as Tuesday. At issue: whether corporations, as "unnatural persons," can make contributions to political campaigns.

The outcome is foregone: the five GOP appointees to the court are expected to use the case to junk federal laws that now bar corporations from stuffing campaign coffers.

Technically, there's a narrower matter before the court in this case: whether the McCain-Feingold Act may prohibit corporations from funding "independent" campaign advertisements such as the "Swift Boat" ads that smeared John Kerry. However, campaign finance reformers are steeling themselves for the court's right wing to go much further, knocking down all longstanding rules against donations by corporate treasuries.

Allowing company campaign spending will not, as progressives fear, cause an avalanche of corporate cash into politics. Sadly, that's already happened: we have been snowed under by tens of millions of dollars given through corporate PACs and "bundling" of individual contributions from corporate pay-rollers.

The court's expected decision is far, far more dangerous to U.S. democracy. Think: Manchurian candidates.

I'm losing sleep over the millions -- or billions -- of dollars that could flood into our elections from ARAMCO, the Saudi Oil corporation's U.S. unit; or from the maker of "New Order" fashions, the Chinese People's Liberation Army. Or from Bin Laden Construction corporation. Or Bin Laden Destruction Corporation.

Right now, corporations can give loads of loot through PACs. While this money stinks (Barack Obama took none of it), anyone can go through a PAC's federal disclosure filing and see the name of every individual who put money into it. And every contributor must be a citizen of the USA.

But, if the Supreme Court rules that corporations can support candidates without limit, there is nothing that stops, say, a Delaware-incorporated handmaiden of the Burmese junta from picking a Congressman or two with a cache of loot masked by a corporate alias.

Candidate Barack Obama was one sharp speaker, but he would not have been heard, and certainly would not have won, without the astonishing outpouring of donations from two million Americans. It was an unprecedented uprising-by-PayPal, overwhelming the old fat-cat sources of funding.

Well, kiss that small-donor revolution goodbye. If the Supreme Court votes as expected, progressive list serves won't stand a chance against the resources of new "citizens" such as CNOOC, the China National Offshore Oil Corporation. Maybe UBS (United Bank of Switzerland), which faces U.S. criminal prosecution and a billion-dollar fine for fraud, might be tempted to invest in a few Senate seats. As would XYZ Corporation, whose owners remain hidden by "street names."

George Bush's former Solicitor General Ted Olson argued the case to the court on behalf of Citizens United, a corporate front that funded an attack on Hillary Clinton during the 2008 primary. Olson's wife died on September 11, 2001 on the hijacked airliner that hit the Pentagon. Maybe it was a bit crude of me, but I contacted Olson's office to ask how much "Al Qaeda, Inc." should be allowed to donate to support the election of his local congressman.

Olson has not responded.

The danger of foreign loot loading into U.S. campaigns, not much noted in the media chat about the Citizens case, was the first concern raised by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who asked about opening the door to "mega-corporations" owned by foreign governments. Olson offered Ginsburg a fudge, that Congress might be able to prohibit foreign corporations from making donations, though Olson made clear he thought any such restriction a bad idea.

Tara Malloy, attorney with the Campaign Legal Center of Washington D.C., is biting her nails awaiting the decision. If Olson gets his way, she told me, corporations will have more rights than people. Only United States citizens may donate or influence campaigns, but a foreign government can, veiled behind a corporate treasury, dump money into ballot battles.

Malloy also noted that under the law today, human-people, as opposed to corporate-people, may only give $2,300 to a presidential campaign. But hedge fund billionaires, for example, who typically operate through dozens of corporate vessels, could, should Olson prevail, give unlimited sums through each of these "unnatural" creatures.

And once the Taliban incorporates in Delaware, they could ante up for the best democracy money can buy.

In July, the Chinese government, in preparation for President Obama's visit, held diplomatic discussions in which they skirted issues of human rights and Tibet. Notably, the Chinese, who hold a $2 trillion mortgage on our Treasury, raised concerns about the cost of Obama's health care reform bill. Would our nervous Chinese landlords have an interest in buying the White House for an opponent of government spending such as Gov. Palin? Ya betcha!

The potential for foreign infiltration of what remains of our democracy is an adjunct of the fact that the source and control money from corporate treasuries (unlike registered PACs), is necessarily hidden. Who the heck are the real stockholders? Or as Butch asked Sundance, "Who are these guys?" We'll never know.

Hidden money funding, whether foreign or domestic, is the new venom that the court could inject into the system by an expansive decision in Citizens United.

We've been there. The 1994 election brought Newt Gingrich to power in a GOP takeover of the Congress funded by a very strange source. Congressional investigators found that in crucial swing races, Democrats had fallen victim to a flood of last-minute attack ads funded by a group called, "Coalition for Our Children's Future." The $25 million that paid for those ads came, not from concerned parents, but from a corporation called "Triad Inc."

Evidence suggests Triad Inc. was the front for the ultra-right-wing billionaire Koch Brothers and their private petroleum company, Koch Industries. Had the corporate connection been proven, the Kochs and their corporation could have faced indictment under federal election law. If the Supreme Court now decides in favor of unlimited corporate electioneering, then such money-poisoned politicking would become legit.

So it's not just un-Americans we need to fear but the Polluter-Americans, Pharma-mericans, Bank-Americans and Hedge-Americans that could manipulate campaigns while hidden behind corporate veils.

And if so, our future elections, while nominally a contest between Republicans and Democrats, may in fact come down to a three-way battle between China, Saudi Arabia and Goldman Sachs.

Greg Palast is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Best Democracy Money Can Buy." Palast investigated Triad Inc. for The Guardian (UK). View Palast's reports for BBC TV and Democracy Now! at gregpalast.com.
� 2009 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/144502/

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-Jim Leftwich & Jukka-Pekka Kervinen


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-Peter K. Niven

Dec. 8th, 2009

Has the GOP Collapse Begun? Hypothetical "Tea Party" Outpolls Republicans

Has the GOP Collapse Begun? Hypothetical "Tea Party" Outpolls Republicans
By Adele M. Stan, AlterNet
Posted on December 8, 2009, Printed on December 8, 2009

Establishment Republicans, take notice. The Tea Party is about to steal your thunder.

According to a poll by Rasmussen Reports, likely voters in the 2010 congressional elections would rather cast a ballot for a candidate bearing the Tea Party brand than one on the Republican line.

In a national survey of likely voters, Rasmussen asked respondents to choose their favored political party for the congressional contests in what pollsters call a generic ballot. In a three-way contest, Democrats fared best, with 36 percent, while a hypothetical Tea Party came in second at 23 percent, and Republicans pulled up the rear with 18 percent. But there is one wrinkle in the Tea Party triumph scenario: There is no political party called the Tea Party, which leads to questions as to whether Rasmussen is trying to stir the pot of simmering Republican Party politics.

Although the poll results look awful for Republicans, the absence of an actual established political party called the Tea Party makes the GOP the likely host party for Tea Party-endorsed candidates. While this could lead to some losses in 2010, the net effect will likely be to move the establishment GOP further to the right-wing Tea Party agenda of small government, lower taxes, union busting and virtually no social safety net.

Because there's no political party yet formed under the Tea Party banner, Tea Party movement groups are supporting primary challenges to establishment Republican candidates, such as Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who faces challenger Marco Rubio in the GOP primary for a U.S. Senate seat. Tea Party activists could also, as they did with the Conservative Party in New York State during a special election last month in the state's 23rd congressional district, work with an established third party in areas where the Republican Party machinery is locked up.

In New York's special election, former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, in a direct challenge to GOP leaders, swooped in to the race, throwing his endorsement behind a third-party candidate, Doug Hoffman, in favor of the candidate selected by the local Republican Party, Dede Scozzafava, who was deemed too liberal on fiscal matters and her support for organized labor. As chairman of FreedomWorks, a Washington lobbying group involved in organizing the Tea Party disruptions of congressional town-hall meetings this summer, and sponsor of the Tea Party September 12 march on Washington, Armey's endorsement brought with it legions of Tea Party activists working on Hoffman's behalf, and the "me-too" endorsements of potential presidential hopefuls Sarah Palin, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, as well as a flurry of television ads sponsored by the Club for Growth.

Unable to compete, Scozzafava withdrew from the race and endorsed Democrat , who won. But for Armey and his Tea Party activists, the loss was a win. The Republican Party was effectively put on notice that unless they toe the Tea Party line, they're going to suffer the consequences. " We'll probably be getting more political in targeted races," said Adam Brandon, FreedomWorks vice president of communications.

Although Tea Party movement leaders like to present their movement's challenge to the GOP as something born outside the beltway, this is really a fight between establishment Republican figures. In addition to Armey, who served as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's Number Two during those heady days of the Republican congressional majority that impeached President Bill Clinton.

At the Washington, D.C., premiere of "Tea Party: The Documentary" -- an event sponsored by FreedomWorks, Armey was joined on the stage by a handful of Republican members of Congress for a series of laudatory remarks about the Tea Party movement. Taking part were Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, Rep. Tom Price of Georgia (who also chairs the right-wing Republican Study Committee), Rep. Joe "You Lie" Wilson of South Carolina, and South Carolina's junior senator, Jim DeMint, who promised to make health-care reform President Barack Obama's "Waterloo". DeMint pleased the premiere attendees by saying, seeing all the campaign dollars reaped by Wilson after he heckled the president during a joint session of Congress, he wished he had done some heckling himself.

But DeMint is more than a Tea Party crowd-pleaser; he's positioning himself as a kingmaker. In Florida, where GOP leaders rushed to the side of Gov. Charlie Crist when he announced his 2010 run for an open U.S. Senate seat, DeMint endorsed primary challenger Marco Rubio, another favorite of the Tea Party crowd. DeMint's endorsement comes with more than kind words for the challenger; DeMint's PAC, the Senate Conservatives Fund, has money to spread around on behalf of challengers like Rubio. Charlie Crist's big sin in the eyes of the Tea Party crowd is neither his early career ambivilence on outlawing abortion or charges that he is secretly gay, but rather his appearance with Obama in support of the president's stimulus package. Dick Armey also endorsed Rubio.

"You will see in this movement, I think we're going to focus on a handful of [Senate] races like Connecticut, getting geared up, Nevada, getting geared up, Florida, supporting Rubio in the primary over Crist, and possibly even Rand Paul..in Kentucky," said Adam Brandon, vice president of communications for FreedomWorks.

Brandon took his own vacation time, he said, to work for Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman in the special New York State congressional election. More recently, he said, Dick Armey met with the president of the Connecticut chapter of the Tea Party Patriots, Bob MacGuffie, who authored a memo on how to disrupt congressional town-hall meetings. In Connecticut, Democrat Chris Dodd is expected to face a tough re-election fight. "[W]e sat down, and we talked strategy in the Connecticut race, and I am so excited about Connecticut," Brandon said. (The FreedomWorks spokesman was quick to note that this was the first time that Armey and MacGuffie had met; when the MacGuffie memo was distributed this summer through a network involving FreedomWorks activists, Armey was a accused of being in league with the Connecticut activist. Brandon insists the two were not collaborating on the town-hall tactics.)

In Nevada, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is expected face a tough re-election battle. Tea Party activists in that state are touting the candidacy of Republican Danny Tarkanian, who currently leads Reid by seven points in a Rasmussen poll. Still, polling among Republicans for the Senate primary race finds the Tea Party candidate tied with former state GOP Chairwoman Sue Lowden, the establishment party candidate.

Kentucky libertarian Rand Paul, son of Texas Congressman Ron Paul, is giving his primary opponent a run for his money in the Republican primary for the seat being vacated by Jim Bunning. The AP reports that Paul is showing naysayers, who gave him little chance in defeating Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, giving him a second look, now that he has collected $1.3 million in campaign donations, largely through internet fundraising. Even with the backing of establishment Republican figures, Grayson is tied with Paul in the fundraising department.

Pennsylvania's Tea Party activists have a special dislike for Sen. Arlen Specter, who switched to the Democratic Party last year after having spent most of his career as a Republican. While Spector appears to be well-positioned to fend of a challenge from his left -- he'll likely face a primary challenge from Rep. Joe Sestack -- he's running neck-and-neck with his likely Republican opponent, Tea Party favorite Pat Toomey, who addressed an event sponsored by another Tea Party-allied lobbying group, Americans for Prosperity, this summer.

Yet for all this Tea Party activity, the Rasmussen poll found that only 12 percent of Democratic voters were "closely following" the movement, and half of all Democrats had no opinion of the movement. Independents -- a group that broke for Democrats in the 2008 elections -- seemed most inclined to throw in with the Tea Party candidates, which could deprive the margin of victory to Democrats facing close races in 2010.

"We're going to have a big year," says Tea Party activist and FreedomWorks spokesman Adam Brandon.

Adele M. Stan AlterNet's Washington bureau chief.
� 2009 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/144433/

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-Jim Leftwich & Jukka-Pekka Kervinen


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-Peter K. Niven

Dec. 6th, 2009

America Without a Middle Class -- It's Not Far Away As You Might Think

America Without a Middle Class -- It's Not Far Away As You Might Think
By Elizabeth Warren, AlterNet
Posted on December 5, 2009, Printed on December 6, 2009

Can you imagine an America without a strong middle class? If you can, would it still be America as we know it?

Today, one in five Americans is unemployed, underemployed or just plain out of work. One in nine families can't make the minimum payment on their credit cards. One in eight mortgages is in default or foreclosure. One in eight Americans is on food stamps. More than 120,000 families are filing for bankruptcy every month. The economic crisis has wiped more than $5 trillion from pensions and savings, has left family balance sheets upside down, and threatens to put ten million homeowners out on the street.

Families have survived the ups and downs of economic booms and busts for a long time, but the fall-behind during the busts has gotten worse while the surge-ahead during the booms has stalled out. In the boom of the 1960s, for example, median family income jumped by 33% (adjusted for inflation). But the boom of the 2000s resulted in an almost-imperceptible 1.6% increase for the typical family. While Wall Street executives and others who owned lots of stock celebrated how good the recovery was for them, middle class families were left empty-handed.

The crisis facing the middle class started more than a generation ago. Even as productivity rose, the wages of the average fully-employed male have been flat since the 1970s.


But core expenses kept going up. By the early 2000s, families were spending twice as much (adjusted for inflation) on mortgages than they did a generation ago -- for a house that was, on average, only ten percent bigger and 25 years older. They also had to pay twice as much to hang on to their health insurance.

To cope, millions of families put a second parent into the workforce. But higher housing and medical costs combined with new expenses for child care, the costs of a second car to get to work and higher taxes combined to squeeze families even harder. Even with two incomes, they tightened their belts. Families today spend less than they did a generation ago on food, clothing, furniture, appliances, and other flexible purchases -- but it hasn't been enough to save them. Today's families have spent all their income, have spent all their savings, and have gone into debt to pay for college, to cover serious medical problems, and just to stay afloat a little while longer.

Through it all, families never asked for a handout from anyone, especially Washington. They were left to go on their own, working harder, squeezing nickels, and taking care of themselves. But their economic boats have been taking on water for years, and now the crisis has swamped millions of middle class families.

The contrast with the big banks could not be sharper. While the middle class has been caught in an economic vise, the financial industry that was supposed to serve them has prospered at their expense. Consumer banking -- selling debt to middle class families -- has been a gold mine. Boring banking has given way to creative banking, and the industry has generated tens of billions of dollars annually in fees made possible by deceptive and dangerous terms buried in the fine print of opaque, incomprehensible, and largely unregulated contracts.

And when various forms of this creative banking triggered economic crisis, the banks went to Washington for a handout. All the while, top executives kept their jobs and retained their bonuses. Even though the tax dollars that supported the bailout came largely from middle class families -- from people already working hard to make ends meet -- the beneficiaries of those tax dollars are now lobbying Congress to preserve the rules that had let those huge banks feast off the middle class.

Pundits talk about "populist rage" as a way to trivialize the anger and fear coursing through the middle class. But they have it wrong. Families understand with crystalline clarity that the rules they have played by are not the same rules that govern Wall Street. They understand that no American family is "too big to fail." They recognize that business models have shifted and that big banks are pulling out all the stops to squeeze families and boost revenues. They understand that their economic security is under assault and that leaving consumer debt effectively unregulated does not work.

Families are ready for change. According to polls, large majorities of Americans have welcomed the Obama Administration's proposal for a new Consumer Financial Protection Agency (CFPA). The CFPA would be answerable to consumers -- not to banks and not to Wall Street. The agency would have the power to end tricks-and-traps pricing and to start leveling the playing field so that consumers have the tools they need to compare prices and manage their money. The response of the big banks has been to swing into action against the Agency, fighting with all their lobbying might to keep business-as-usual. They are pulling out all the stops to kill the agency before it is born. And if those practices crush millions more families, who cares -- so long as the profits stay high and the bonuses keep coming.

America today has plenty of rich and super-rich. But it has far more families who did all the right things, but who still have no real security. Going to college and finding a good job no longer guarantee economic safety. Paying for a child's education and setting aside enough for a decent retirement have become distant dreams. Tens of millions of once-secure middle class families now live paycheck to paycheck, watching as their debts pile up and worrying about whether a pink slip or a bad diagnosis will send them hurtling over an economic cliff.

America without a strong middle class? Unthinkable, but the once-solid foundation is shaking.

Elizabeth Warren is the Leo Gottlieb Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, where she teaches contract law, bankruptcy and commercial law. Her latest book is All Your Worth.
� 2009 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/144388/

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-Jim Leftwich & Jukka-Pekka Kervinen


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-Peter K. Niven

Dec. 4th, 2009

"Tea Party: The Documentary" -- Attending a Bizarre Movie Premiere for Right-Wingers in Washington

"Tea Party: The Documentary" -- Attending a Bizarre Movie Premiere for Right-Wingers in Washington
By Adele M. Stan, AlterNet
Posted on December 4, 2009, Printed on December 4, 2009

The movement's stars were out in force at the Washington D.C., premiere of "Tea Party: The Documentary." Before the Wednesday night screening, presentations by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Senator Jim DeMint and Rep. Joe "You Lie" Wilson of South Carolina, Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and Rep. Tom Price of Georgia -- all Republicans -- got the half-full auditorium in the Ronald Reagan Building humming.

Price, who chairs the Republican Study Committee, presented each of the film's "stars" -- five movement participants characterized as "regular citizens" by director Pritchett Cotten -- with a plaque bearing the text of a resolution introduced in the House of Representatives thanking Tea Party activists for their participation in the September 12th march on Washington.

The film conveys the stories of five activists chosen to represent the movement's everyman and everywoman -- the kind of people who were motivated by Washington D.C.-based lobbying groups to shout down members of Congress at town-hall meetings in their districts this summer. "I think it's a compelling story," Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, told me after the screening. "Here's real people in it with real beliefs. It sort of debunks the whole astroturf thing."

What Astroturfing?

Kibbe apparently saw no irony in his comments, or in the fact that the premiere was sponsored by FreedomWorks, an organization chaired by Armey that's known as an astroturfing outfit for its campaign to foment discontent among those regular citizens nationwide. FreedomWorks was instrumental in orchestrating the disruption of town-hall meetings on health care reform called by members of Congress during the August recess. (You can find the FreedomWorks town-hall action kit here in a PDF file; this famous memo [PDF] on how to disrupt a town-hall meeting was distributed by the Tea Party Patriots Google Groups listserv, which was managed at the time by FreedomWorks staffer Florida State Chairman Tom Gaitens

Also involved in creating our summer of discontent was Americans For Prosperity, whose consultant, Joel Aaron Foster, wrote the script for the Tea Party documentary, and is listed as the press contact on the movie media kit [PDF]. Throughout the film, AFP's ubiquitous "Hands Off My Health-Care" signs, which feature a bloody handprint, bob up and down at Tea Party rallies. Despite circumstantial evidence that the two groups work together, I've never seen their two logos on the same event at the same time; they function like the alter-egos of some malevolent superhero. (UPDATE: FreedomWorks Press Secretary Adam Brandon told me that AFP was not invited to participate in the September 12 march because of AFP's support for the Troubled Assets Relief Program, or TARP.)

"Tea Party: The Documentary" may not earn a nod from Oscar, but it's a slickly produced piece of cinema that will likely serve as an effective organizing tool for FreedomWorks and other like-minded organizations -- and make a bit of dough for its producers, Ground Floor Video, the company owned by executive producer Luke Livingston, and Riddled With Bullets, director Cotten's production company. Ground Floor Video is selling DVDs of the film. When you consider that 70,000 people came to the march, and tens of thousands more are involved in the movement, DVD sales could yield a pretty penny. This is, after all, a movement that purports to be all about capitalism.

FreedomWorks' Kibbe is quick to say that the film is an enterprise separate from his organization, though FreedomWorks is listed as a "contributor" to the film, as are Americans For Prosperity, Tea Party Patriots and Tea Party Express.

The film's everyperson stars all hail from the Atlanta area, which is also home base to Americans For Prosperity President Tim Phillips, whose last gig was as a partner with Ralph Reed in the Atlanta-based Century Strategies, an astroturfing and lobbying group implicated in the Jack Abramoff bribery scandal. The main characters are identified on screen only by their first names. There's Jenny Beth -- that's Jenny Beth Martin, a former GOP consultant, who leads Tea Party Patriots, a group that names FreedomWorks as a partner on its Web site. Dr. Fred makes an appearance -- that's Dr. Fred Shessel, vice president of a group called Docs For Patient Care that opposes health care reform, and a partner in Georgia Urology. William Temple, an historical reenactor, provides what comic relief there is in the film. Temple was chosen to lead the 9/12 March dressed in full Revolutionary War regalia, which he also donned for the premiere.

A guy named Jack, a health insurance agent, plays the role of everydad in footage of him coaching his kids in baseball and dining with his family on spaghetti and Boston Tea Party lore. Then there's Dave, young and buff, described as a medical student and former fashion model. (Yeah, I know a lot of guys like that.) And don't forget Nate, whose everyman character is better described as onlyblackman. In one scene, Nate speaks mournfully of his loneliness in the movement, but declares his mission is to speak to black people about what's at stake in this fight, which is vaguely framed as a threat to the Constitution. He admits he voted for Barack Obama, but in a display of his remorse he is seen marching down Pennsylvania Avenue, amid a sea of white people, carrying an Obama-as-the-Joker sign. Nate was unable to make it to the premiere, we were told, because of an engagement at an Atlanta Tea Party event.

A Bomb Threat, a Bayonet and the Race Card

The film casts its characters as patriots, people buffeted by the whims of a powerful government. Making deft use of iconography, quick-cut editing and musical scoring, the film creates a narrative steeped in emotion. William speaks from a podium in his three-corner hat, a musket in his right hand capped by a gleaming bayonet. A scene of Jack weeping at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial during his September 12th visit to Washington is truly moving, and the documentation of the police response to a bomb threat reportedly made on the FreedomWorks offices the day before the march -- that would be September 11th -- is riveting.

I asked Kibbe if police had ever gotten to the bottom of the threat. "No," he said, "which means that they didn't get any leads, I assume." There were "a bunch of activists" in the office at the time, he said. "They were makin' signs and stuff, and [executive producer ] Luke [Livingston] was interviewing me -- it looks phony; it looks like it was all set up. So Luke was interviewing me, and some guy who works in my office had said, 'We just got a bomb threat.' You know, frankly, I didn't take it seriously. I thought it was just an obnoxious tactic. But, you know, the lady who answered the phone -- the guy was really obnoxious. She's a black lady; they used racial epitaphs [sic], swearing at her, and all that stuff. So he freaked her out, and before I even know it, they were all debating this, and they were like, should they call the cops, and the cops said they have to take it seriously. So they brought the dogs in, but obviously, there wasn't a bomb."

Jenny Beth is presented as just a regular mom, fallen on hard times and radicalized by news of the bank bailout. We learn that in a single year her husband lost his business, she had a miscarriage, and the couple lost their home to foreclosure. It's hard not to feel for them. But we're not told that the Martins sought bankruptcy protection -- a government bailout of their own -- or that they owed half a million in back taxes. Nor is Jenny Beth's background as a Republican consultant mentioned.

Dr. Fred is shown among a group of doctors who appeared on Capitol Hill in white coats to hold a grass-rootsy rally and lobby their congressional representatives. At one point they happen in on an event presided over by Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., that features speakers advocating for a single-payer health care system. Conyers suspends the agenda of his event to allow the doctors to plead their case against government-run health care. All is going well, it seems, until we see footage of the doctors, a dozen or so of them, leaving the room en masse. Conyers, we're told, has "played the race card" in a comment about why Republicans won't vote for his single-payer bill. But there's no footage of the offending statement.

"No, it wasn't captured on the film," Dr. Fred Shessel told me after the screening. "But at the end of the -- at the point at which we left, he did sort of play the race card. And his comment was, the only reason the Republicans won't vote for his bill is because they want to embarrass the first African-American president. And we thought that was uncalled for, because this is really not about race. It's about people; it's about human beings, about patients and doctors. It has nothing to do with black, white, green, purple, yellow or any other color."

Yet one participant in the meeting, who asked not to be named, had no recollection of the doctors storming out of the event. In fact, he said, they hung around after the event was over, talking with Conyers and others.

But what of the movement's own race cards, I asked Shessel -- like some of the offensive signage seen at Tea Party events. "I personally have not seen anything that is racially motivated," Shessel replied. "All the signs I've seen have been about big government, about government interference in health care, about runaway spending. I've not seen -- if you have, I'd be happy to see that with you. But I've never seen one single thing that spoke of racism at all."

At a sign-making party shown in the movie that took place at the Hyatt Capitol Hill on the eve of the September 12th march, I personally saw handmade signs with sayings about Obama that featured a cartoonish monkey face. "Bad Change," one read. "Where's Your Birth Certificate?" asked another. These are not featured in "Tea Party: The Documentary." But displayed in one scene of the after-march rally at the Capitol building is a sign reading, "Long-Legged Mack Daddy" -- an apparent reference to a viral video of preacher James David Manning that, as AlterNet reported last summer, is a favorite among certain elements of the Tea Party crowd. Manning warns that "white folks are gonna riot in the streets, and I'm gonna join them." Throughout the video, the preacher, an African American, refers to Obama as a "half-breed Mack Daddy" and a "long-legged Mack Daddy" -- slang for a kind of megapimp.

Schmoozing With the Stars: Armey Speaks

After the screening, I caught a moment with Dick Armey, and asked him to answer the charges of astroturfing to which FreedomWorks has long been subjected. "It's just plain silly," he said. "I mean, first of all, it's ridiculous."

"But you guys have organized these folks, right?" I asked.

"No, it -- we never organized -- we organized the event here," he said, referring to the September 12th march. "But we did not make arrangements for a single individual to get here. We paid for the stage, we applied for the permits, we sent the word out that we're gonna have this event."

But what about the FreedomWorks Web site?

"Well, sure," he replied, "to let people know about it. But, you know, the astroturf malarkey that's coming from Speaker Pelosi is that we're hiring buses and that we're putting people on buses; we never paid for a single bus, nor assisted anybody gettin' on a single bus. It's absolutely ridiculous. I mean, I don't know what else, what other words I could say. I mean, the same thing at town-hall meetings, and up and down the line. You saw the documentation tonight, how the people are communicating with one another."

The movie shows Jenny Beth using Google applications to organize her Tea Party Patriots contingent, but her Google Groups listserv, according to TPM's Brian Beutler, was managed by a FreedomWorks staffer field organizer. And Pelosi's comments about astroturfers busing in protesters were directed at Americans For Prosperity's busloads of protesters at Michele Bachmann's anti-health care reform rally of November 5th, not the September 12th march.

Armey's contention that FreedomWorks wasn't organizing rallies was refuted unwittingly by one of the movie's stars. Explaining how he found his way to the Tea Party movement, Dr. Fred Shessel told me, "We first organized an organization in Atlanta called Docs For Patient Care, and as we began to extend out and network, we found out about Tea Party, we found out about FreedomWorks, and we organized a rally in Washington. FreedomWorks helped us organize that rally. So that's how we got hooked into the whole...network."

William Temple showed up at the Tea Party Patriots' Tax Day rally on April 15th, and he seems to have become an instant star, not least because of his 18th-century garb, and the complementary neo-British accent in which he speaks when portraying members of the Continental Army in historical reenactments. But once he arrived at Atlanta's Golden Dome, he said, he was truly moved by the numbers of people there, whom he characterized as both Democrat and Republican. Temple hails from a military family, and fought in Vietnam. Like many veterans of that war, he says he was literally spat upon when he returned stateside at the Oakland Airport.

He got a job with the Secret Service as a graphic designer, and went on to serve in two other agencies, retiring from the government in 2005. As a federal retiree, he receives his health care through the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, a cafeteria plan not unlike the insurance exchanges now proposed for the rest of America in the health care bills he opposes. Tall and striking, Temple is a charmer, yet seemingly earnest in his beliefs. An elder in his non-denominational church, which is predominately African American, he considers himself a student of the end-times. "I'm ready for the Upper-taker, not the undertaker," said, referring to the Rapture. "It could happen at any moment."

"Tea Party" star Jack the insurance agent is a small, fit, tightly wound man with a quick smile, who conveys emotional intensity. In the trailer for the movie, he says that he just wouldn't be able to live with himself if he didn't do something about the nation's terrible state of affairs. When I asked him for a comment for AlterNet, he asked if the site was conservative or liberal.

"Liberal," I replied.

"Great. Let's go, babe," he said. "Let's tear it up."

I asked him how he found his way into the Tea Party movement. "Originally, I don't know how I found out about the rally in--" He stopped. "I can't remember how I found out about the first rally that I went to," he said.

He contends that his career as an insurance agent has nothing to do with his opposition to health care reform. "I've been disgusted by what's going on in the government right now," he said. "I've been disgusted for a long time. Like I said earlier, I don't care if it's Bush or Clinton or the other Bush or Obama, or any of them."

He was reserving judgment he said, even for members of Congress who are allied with the Tea Party movement. "We'll see how they vote," he said.

He said he thinks he voted for Clinton, but his political thinking changed after his children were born. It was concern for their futures that prompted his ideological evolution, he said, and "things like the need for discipline."

After I shut off my recorder and turned away, he said, "Write something nice about me, Adele, or I'll stalk you." Then he smiled.

The Birth of a Movement -- and a Movie

The way the Tea Partiers tell it, the movement was born in February, with just a handful of tax-revolt "tea parties" convened in protest of President Obama's stimulus package. By March, FreedomWorks was applying for permits for the September 12th march, said Brendan Steinhauser, FreedomWorks' grassroots non-organizer, who is credited with the idea. (I can't call him an organizer if, as Chairman Armey says, they don't organize.)

"What I saw was hundreds of people like the five who were chronicled tonight," Steinhauser said, "and I saw them in D.C. and Atlanta and I saw them in various cities, and I saw the sentiment was there, they were all on the same page. They didn't know each other, but they were all moving in the same direction, and I think what we did is gave focus. We said, once we organize these first round of tea parties, I know everyone's gonna want to come to Washington."

Steinhauser is young and enthusiastic. "Everyone remembers the 1963 march on Washington -- Martin Luther King's famous march, where they had a quarter of a million people," he said. "And they went through the same stuff that we went through, in terms of the different organizations trying to figure out how to do this and that. And they'd all done their thing in their local communities, and they were ready to come to D.C. and make a very public statement." The press kit for "Tea Party: The Documentary" asserts that 1.5 million people showed up for the September 12th march; mainstream media put the number at 70,000 -- which is still quite impressive -- based on an estimate, according to this ABC News report, from the Washington D.C. Fire Department. (UPDATE: Although the ABC News report to which this link goes clearly states ABC's estimate as based on one from the D.C. Fire Department, nine days later, the Fire Department issued a statement saying it did not make that estimate.)

He says that the first "protest of the Obama administration," as he termed it, was a Tea Party in Ft. Meyers, Florida, on February 9th, which drew about a dozen people. Yet by March he was applying for permits for a massive march on Washington. Either he was extremely prescient about a groundswell of opposition to the newly elected president, or already had an organizing network in place -- or both.

It wasn't much more than a month after Steinhauser applied for his permits that filmmakers Livingston and Cotten began shooting footage. Livingston, the production company owner, knew Jenny Beth Martin, who organized the Tax Day protest in Atlanta that drew some 20,000 people to Atlanta's Golden Dome on April 15th -- the one that drew William Temple. Cotten and Livingston volunteered to shoot the event and run the Jumbotrons, Cotten told me, and from that moment on, they were already scouting talent for what would become "Tea Party: The Documentary." Between the April 15th event, and a rally against health care reform sponsored by Americans For Prosperity in Atlanta on August 15th, Cotten and Livingston found their talent. The forlorn Nate, the movement's emissary to black people, was found in the crowd at the August event. Dr. Fred Shessel was one of the speakers at the August rally (as were Dick Armey and Ralph Reed).

Pritchett Cotten, a fair-skinned man in his 30s who wears a narrow-rimmed felt hat, has worked with Luke Livingston and his Ground Floor video for about two years, he said, but until the Tea Party movie undertaking, the two teamed up only on commercials and corporate video for clients including Coca-Cola, Fox Theater, The Home Depot and Chick-Fil-A, Cotten said. He said the Tea Party movie offered him the opportunity to apply his skills as a narrative filmmaker to the documentary form.

"We really tried hard to make it kind of fit within the regular screenplay structural, three-act formula," Cotten explained, "which a lot of it has to do with keeping people engaged... it needs to have these things, character arcs and a dramatic structure."

FreedomWorks' Matt Kibbe has high hopes for the film's success in his organizing plans. "[M]oving forward," he said, "we want to connect people on more of a social basis. We want to create community. We want to make it fun to be active, and I think the left has done a much better job of this. Our side was always quite two-dimensional. We're like, 'Call your congressman; stop this health care plan.' Or, 'Show up and vote against that guy.' The problem with that is, the day after the vote people go home. There's no community in that."

Sounds like they plan to stick around.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the last name of the executive producer of "Tea Party: The Documentary." His name is Luke Livingston, not Littleton.

Adele M. Stan is AlterNet's Washington bureau chief.
� 2009 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/144336/

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-Peter K. Niven

Dec. 2nd, 2009

Waiting with 45,000 People Afraid of Losing Their Homes -- Ground Zero in America's Mortgage Meltdown

Waiting with 45,000 People Afraid of Losing Their Homes -- Ground Zero in America's Mortgage Meltdown
By Andy Kroll, Tomdispatch.com
Posted on December 2, 2009, Printed on December 2, 2009

At the end of a week in mid-October when the Dow Jones soared past 10,000, Goldman Sachs recorded "just another fantastic quarter" with a $3.2 billion quarterly profit, JPMorgan Chase raked in a cool $3.6 billion, and a New York Times headline declared "Bailout Helps Revive Banks, And Bonuses," I spent a Saturday evening with about 100 people camped out in a northern California parking lot. A passerby, stealing a quick glance, might have taken the crowd for avid concertgoers staked out for tickets. There was, however, no concert here -- just weary, huddled souls, slouched in vinyl folding chairs, covered by blankets, windbreakers, and knit hats against a late autumn chill.A ragged line of them wound through the lot outside the entrance to the Cow Palace, a dingy arena decades past its prime on the southern edge of San Francisco. These people, and thousands more like them who had streamed into the arena all day long from as far away as Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Las Vegas, were unemployed, broke, bankrupt, or at their wit\u2019s end. They were here waiting for help -- for their chance to make it inside the warm arena to participate in "America\u2019s Best Mortgage Program."

For these homeowners, the last shot at saving their homes -- and their personal version of the American Dream -- lay under the glow of the floodlights in a expanse where tiers of brown and yellow seats encircled a desk-lined floor more accustomed to livestock shows and rodeos. This was, in fact, the latest stop on the "Save the Dream" tour, a massive homeowner-relief event organized by a consumer advocate group, the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America (NACA).

The turnout was staggering: close to 45,000 desperate homeowners showed up during NACA's five-day stand at the Cow Palace for the chance to renegotiate their disastrous subprime mortgages or sky-high interest rates or interest-only payments. For them, this event beat any chance at a star-studded concert -- and best of all, it was free.

Inside, homeowners received housing-related financial advice and met with NACA\u2019s counselors, a stoic crew, always with coffee or energy drinks in hand and clad in red and yellow T-shirts with STOP LOAN SHARKS and SHARKS BEWARE emblazoned on their backs. Here, homeowners could have their income, taxes, and spending habits analyzed, and possibly walk away with a monthly mortgage payment that actually fit their situations. With that payment figure in hand, homeowners could then meet with representatives from their mortgage companies in the same arena and try to hammer out new terms on more affordable mortgages.

The process would save many of them thousands of dollars, defuse an explosive mortgage, even avert foreclosure. To boost morale, NACA officials occasionally ushered chosen homeowners to a makeshift lectern where each offered a glowing testimonial over a PA system to the work taking place. They spoke fervently of new fixed-interest loans and fought back tears, while thanking their counselors, friends, NACA, and -- regularly -- God.

"It\u2019s a beautiful thing," said Venus Roberts, a homeowner from Los Angeles who came away from the event with lower mortgage payments. I caught up with her in the arena\u2019s parking lot as she was heading for the Amtrak station and a train home. A small, floral-printed suitcase in tow, Roberts had arrived early Friday morning, waited all day long, and finally spent the night in a nearby hotel. Back in line Saturday morning, she finally saw a counselor. The wait, she assured me, couldn\u2019t have been more worth it. In the sort of reverential tone normally reserved for the miraculous, she avowed, "NACA is spreading the news that help is here."

Not everyone was so inspired. Near the tables behind which bank representatives were arrayed I spoke with Maria Hernandez of San Jose, who was fuming about her meeting with representatives from the bank Wachovia. Hernandez, haggard and emotional, struggled for words. "It was a\u2026 what\u2019s the word? A mockery. Yes, a complete mockery." Wachovia, she insisted, had failed customers like her, letting desperate people wait in line for days only to send them home essentially empty-handed. (No representatives of mortgage companies were made available for comment at the event.)

So impassioned was Hernandez that a small crowd of the frustrated and curious soon gathered around her. Even Bruce Marks, NACA\u2019s pugnacious CEO, stopped to hear Hernandez. "All this information is related to us, then we get to Wachovia, and for what?" she asked indignantly. "To just come back another day? Or have your kids in the van spend another night here?"

Most of the people I met at "Save the Dream," though, weren\u2019t either as elated as Roberts or as disgruntled as Hernandez; they were still in limbo, waiting in line, their futures hanging in the balance. That line began in the parking lot and, once inside, filled huge sections of the arena\u2019s seats where thousands of bleary-eyed homeowners, some there for up to 36 hours, waited to see a counselor or to meet with Spanish-speaking advisers. Those earlier in the process sat in yet another section of the cavernous arena before an initial orientation workshop, a sort of Home Economics 101 held in an adjoining annex.

Some of the homeowners I interviewed that Saturday had already been in line for 10 or 12 hours on the previous day, and had returned before sunrise once again to take up their posts. Some had slept under blankets in their seats; others clutched rolled-up sleeping bags clearly meant for an expected camp-out that night.

As I waded through the main seating area around midday, Ed Kidwell, a burly, boisterous truck driver from Fontana, California, sporting a University of Southern California hat, stopped me. Noting my camera and pad, he wrapped a big arm around my shoulder as if we were lifelong friends reuniting. \u201cI\u2019m just waiting for some good news to take home to take the stress off my wife and kids,\u201d he explained. Though dog-tired -- he\u2019d arrived in the wee morning hours -- Kidwell assured me he\u2019d do just about anything to get his mortgage fixed. As proof he offered to sing me a mortgage-themed song in the style of soul singer Sam Cooke. With a few thousand pairs of eyes trained on us, Kidwell promptly cleared his throat and belted out lyrics that featured some mix-and-match combination of the words "relief," "modification," "IndyMac," and "baby."

A man crooning about mortgage relief, retired couples camping in a parking lot for counseling appointments, 4,000 exhausted \u201cfans\u201d cheering announcements of 2% fixed interest rate loans as if they were so many slam dunks -- after a day at "Save the Dream," you\u2019d be forgiven for thinking that, when it came to working class and middle class Americans, the housing market and the American economy in general hadn\u2019t exactly improved since its implosion in the fall of 2008. Surveying the organized chaos in the Cow Palace, you might also be forgiven for thinking that all the talk of \u201crecovery\u201d was little more than that -- unless you happened to work for Goldman Sachs. Indeed, the beleaguered faces of the desperate homeowners at \u201cSave the Dream\u201d brought to my mind a famous Dorothea Lange photo of a Depression-era bread line in San Francisco\u2019s Mission District, an image captured 75 years earlier just miles from where I stood.

If you happened to be at the Cow Palace that Saturday, the daily news about the very financial players who had fueled the subprime debacle and the global economic collapse returning to their risky, overleveraged ways could seem little short of surreal. Here, after all, was a reasonable selection of what the media likes to call "Main Street" mired in debt, clinging to homes at the edge of foreclosure, struggling through a jobless "recovery."

A "recovery," that is, in which the true underemployment rate is 17.5%, average employee wages continue to drop, and the housing market is in shambles. The 937,840 foreclosure filings from July to September of 2009 set yet another industry record. So many people are returning to school that some community colleges have extended classes until 2 A.M. and are turning away hordes of new students. No one -- not a single person -- I interviewed at "Save the Dream" agreed with Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner or Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke that their country was on the economic rebound.

Mary McCleese, an Oakland resident, who was, at least for the moment, keeping her home thanks to NACA\u2019s help, was typical. "If you look around, you see how many people is out of work, number one, and you see how many people is in foreclosure or lost their homes or in default because they've lost their jobs," she said. "That tells you right there what the economy is doing."

II. Housing Meltdown, Ground Zero

About a week before the "Save the Dream" event, I rented a car and headed east from San Francisco toward Ground Zero of the subprime mortgage meltdown. Visiting one of the hardest hit cities in the country would, I reasoned, offer another measure of whether the "green shoots" of "recovery" were truly pushing up through the overleveraged earth -- better surely, when it came to ordinary Americans, than the rising price of AIG\u2019s stock or the Dow\u2019s ascent. While many cities can contest for the title of "most devastated by the meltdown," including metropolitan hubs like Las Vegas and Fort Lauderdale or suburban areas like Bakersfield, California, or Mesa, Arizona, it turns out I didn\u2019t have far to drive.

After all, Stockton, California, an arid, unremarkable city in the San Joaquin Valley, was only 80 miles away. A place for which "decimated" isn\u2019t hyperbole but a mathematical statement of fact, Stockton, with its population of around 300,000, recorded nearly one foreclosure for every 10 houses in 2008. As other towns like to call themselves "the artichoke heart of America" or "America\u2019s Bread Basket," Stockton could call itself the heart of America\u2019s subprime meltdown.

It\u2019s an hour-and-a-half drive from San Francisco to Stockton, up through the Altamont Pass with its rows of wind turbines, then down into the Central Valley\u2019s wide expanse and, via I-5, into the open streets of Stockton, a city that has often seemed to embody the vicissitudes of the housing crisis. In February 2008, for instance, national media outlets latched onto the story of a local man who, struck by the entrepreneurial spirit, started a business called Greener Grass Co. His service: Spray-painting the dead, burnt-out yards of foreclosed houses a hue of green so realistic that the local newspaper described the painted lawns as "good enough for a golf course or a professional football stadium."

When I pulled into Stockton last month, more than a year had passed since CNBC had pegged it the "Foreclosure Capital of the World" -- and painting lawns green was still de rigueur. Local government workers had now taken up the job. Dead lawns, the thinking went, signaled empty houses and so attracted trouble. Painting lawns, the city hoped, might dissuade people from breaking into deserted homes.

Around mid-morning, I pulled into the Little John Creek neighborhood near the airport on the city\u2019s southern outskirts, and one of the first things I saw was an abandoned house displaying their handiwork. The green was, in fact, a sickly teal hue and had been laid down in bizarre stripes on a dead lawn on Togninali Lane. It was, to say the least, a far cry from fairways, football stadiums, or even the perfectly real turf on neighboring lots where grass grew and people lived.

Here, the houses without occupants stood out like so many missing teeth in a wide smile. On just about every street, foreclosures dotted the landscape: stucco homes with sheriff\u2019s notices taped to front doors, FOR SALE signs askew in front yards, lawns burnt into suburban hay by the summer sun that had yet to receive their eerie coats of green. I parked near foreclosed house after house and walked up front paths and driveways to peer through windows and over backyard fences. Most of the homes were starkly empty, often gutted -- "trashed out" in industry parlance -- with not a trace of their former owners.

In a few, though, there were hints of lives lived and lost. A deflated basketball, a toy truck, and a skateboard sat in the backyard of a tan house with a two-car garage in Little John Creek, the back porch light still unnervingly aglow in broad daylight. At a nearby house, the front flower bed was filled with foreclosure-crisis detritus, including the business cards of realtors and mortgage specialists.

The half-dozen neighborhoods I drove or walked through in various parts of Stockton proved but repeats of Little John Creek, still littered with empty homes -- "decimated" -- more than a year after the financial meltdown occurred. Though Stockton\u2019s foreclosure rate has dropped from 9.5% of the city\u2019s houses in 2008 to 3.5% in the third quarter of 2009, that\u2019s nothing to brag about. It remains the fourth-highest rate in U.S. metropolitan areas.

Before arriving, I had envisioned the foreclosure crisis as a somewhat localized event with the majority of such homes in a limited number of lifeless neighborhoods. In Stockton, at least, the opposite was true: foreclosed homes were salt-and-peppered around the city. They often sat singly or in twos and threes among occupied homes in still lived-in neighborhoods, in cul-de-sacs where kids played basketball, on blocks where neighbors waxed their cars on a Sunday afternoon, or down streets where friends were barbecuing in open two-car garages.

The thought of an emptied-out neighborhood may pack a more visceral punch for a story, but from an economic or social standpoint, a mix of foreclosed and occupied properties is far more damaging to those still in their homes. A report from the Center for Responsible Lending estimates that foreclosures will cost neighbors $500 billion in home value in 2009, or an average of $7,200 for 69.5 million homes. A study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago also found that when foreclosures increase, so, too, does violent crime in neighborhoods.

For those who have clung to their homes in hard-hit areas, the value of those investments has plummeted, while the ability to sell and so move elsewhere -- to take a new job or live in a cheaper market -- is now greatly hindered. In other words, a crisis like this one in a city like Stockton is not easily escaped.

III. A Bubble Grafted onto Rubble

The billboards and roadside ads lining Stockton\u2019s streets like campaign signs repeatedly proclaim: "Mortgage Modification Works!" and "Call for Loan Modifications!" I counted five of them on one block alone, and together they created the impression that help had arrived. Yet I knew they were scams, with anonymous local phone numbers and little other identification, meant to relieve desperate homeowners in a city not lacking in desperation of whatever money they had left. The subprime meltdown, as it turns out, has been a boon for crooks preying on the vulnerable. (Not long ago, the FBI announced a nine-month mortgage fraud investigation in Florida involving 500 defendants and $400 million in loans.)

Outnumbering the scams three to one along Stockton\u2019s main thoroughfares were glossier professional ads. At almost every intersection they urged locals to take advantage of the federal government\u2019s recently extended $8,000 homebuyer tax credit. Never mind that this tax credit has been criticized by economists and experts alike who say it could create a new housing bubble amid the devastation. Even while the rubble of the subprime meltdown is still smoking, developers here in California\u2019s Central Valley are already dreaming again about speculation on new homes.

At one point, I followed a succession of these tax-credit come-ons out to a subdivision called Cobblestone Bay. There, at the city\u2019s edge, new homes with white picket fences are popping up at the edge of the undeveloped valley beyond. It was hard, having spent much of the day in foreclosure-riddled neighborhoods, to walk around this new development without a sense of d�j� vu. I couldn\u2019t shake the feeling that Cobblestone Bay was already being prepared for future foreclosure. All it lacked -- for the time being -- was the fake green lawns.

In fact, all the ad trails touting the $8,000 tax credit I followed led to subdivisions like this one, cookie-cutter communities lacking distinguishing characteristics that might remind you of California (rather than, say, Arizona or Florida). These were, of course, the very kinds of neighborhoods that were thrown up wherever land was cheap in the California boom construction years of 2005 and 2006, and the kinds of neighborhoods now in subprime ruin.

As my visit was ending and the sun disappearing behind the valley\u2019s edge, I made one last stop on the outskirts of town at the ornate entrance to a subdivision called Golden Eagle. It included, as its centerpiece, an impressive five-tiered water fountain, while large wrought iron gates depicting eagles-in-flight separated Golden Eagle from the surrounding neighborhood. Except there was no Golden Eagle -- just a single unfinished house on the weedy, 15-acre property. Construction equipment sat motionless on the dusty earth. A placard outside the gated entrance trumpeted grand expectations, but the new neighborhood looked stillborn.

I took down a phone number from the entrance placard and, later that week, called Golden Eagle\u2019s developer, a man named Tom Ruemmler. He told me that he had been on the project for more than three years, and envisioned it as a luxury, energy-efficient community for the green future. Ruemmler was no rube when it came to mortgages and the housing market: in the mid-1990s, he won a multi-million dollar mortgage-fraud whistleblower suit involving a Sacramento bank whose Stockton loan office he once managed.

Who, I asked him, would buy a custom, high-end, zero-energy, hypoallergenic home in a city leveled by foreclosures where housing prices have plummeted and nearly one in six people are unemployed? "I\u2019m dealing with a different clientele," he responded, bridling at the question. "I\u2019m dealing with probably one-fiftieth of one percent of the buying public." Did he honestly think he could sell 30 of these lots to such a small percentage of people in a place like Stockton? "Now is the time to build a custom home," he insisted. "Somebody out there is going to have money that has somebody in the family that has allergies." And out in the San Joaquin Valley, with a foreclosure on almost every block, he intended to find them.

Andy Kroll is a summer intern at The Nation. His writing has appeared at Campus Progress, CBSNews.com, and The Progressive Review. He can be reached at andykroll (at) gmail.com.
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