National Topics

The Trump administration tried to pay a Germany-funded drug maker to give the U.S. exclusive rights to a COVID-19 vaccine, according to media reports.

According to The Guardian, "Trump offered $1 billion to Tübingen-based biopharmaceutical company CureVac to secure the vaccine 'only for the United States'."

The Guardian quoted original reporting from the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag.

The moved reportedly incensed German officials.

"We cannot allow a situation where others want to exclusively acquire the results" of German researchers, foreign minister Heiko Maas was quoted as saying.

A study has found that publicly funded incentives such as property tax abatements and investment tax credits are "linked with worse overall fiscal health" for the state and local jurisdictions that employ them.

The study, from researchers at North Carolina State University, took a comprehensive look at all incentives offered in 32 states from 1990 to 2015.

Report: "You Don't Always Get What You Want: The Effect of Financial Incentives on State Fiscal Health" (North Carolina State University)

Have you ever been interviewed for an exit poll after you've voted? Do you know anyone who has?

If you answered "no" to these questions, you might wonder about the reliability of the exit polls that major news outlets keep quoting.

Though we've heard much about the kinds of voters that supposedly voted for Trump or Clinton in the recent election, we hear little about the sources of this info.

Take a listen, then, to a presentation by Sumi Cho, a law professor at the DePaul University College of Law.

Cho, who teaches courses on racism and employment discrimination, criticizes dominant exit poll surveys, saying that they aren't designed to represent certain demographics—such as immigrant voters.

In her comments, Cho:

  • Describes the practices of mainstream pollsters that bias exit poll results.
  • Says that mainstream pollsters capture too small a sample, so overlook the diversity of views within particular communities.
  • Says that the dominant exit polls over-represent Republican voters.

Cho spoke in the Nov. 11, 2016 Webinar, "Social Justice SOS: What Happened, What's Coming and Why We Must Join Together Against Hate," presented by the African American Policy Forum. Length 4.3 minutes.

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In his 2016 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama urged Congress to pass a 12-nation trade agreement called the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).1

The text of the TPP, which member nations began crafting in 20092, became available in November, 2015. The contents should trouble taxpayers.

A provision that's arguably one the worst for taxpayers is that which protects the profits of foreign investors.

Under the TPP, a foreign corporation's investors can sue state and local governments in the U.S. for any circumstances—such as, say, pollution limits—that interfere with the corporation's profits.

Moreover, the corporation can do this outside of our judicial system: Our courts have no jurisdiction, thanks to a TPP scheme called investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS).

Imagine, if you will, that a Japan-based company sets up manufacturing in Chicago. The company's manufacturing process produces toxic waste, which the company dumps into the city's sewer system—at a level exceeding limits set by Illinois and Chicago's environmental regulations.

Then, say that local government moves to stop the company's illegal dumping. Under TPP, the company's investors may sue to block the government's enforcement—claiming that the enforcement adversely affects their profits.

In such a suit, the TPP trumps our constitutionally guaranteed right of due process in a court of law. Instead, according to investor-state dispute settlement rules, the suit is adjudicated by an ISDS "tribunal" composed of several private "arbitrators" appointed under the TPP. The arbitrators, unlike U.S. judges, aren't bound by precedent or judicial ethics.3 The tribunal may award damages to the investors, paid for by U.S. taxpayers.

At the very least, awards in such cases would make citizens, not polluters, pay. At the worst, the threat of damage awards would choke off new or more stringent environmental safeguards.

And even if investors sue a local government unsuccessfully, we taxpayers still must pay for our government's lawyers. So we always lose.

Think this scenario is just hypothetical? It's already happened. The existing North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) contains an ISDS provision—and Canadian energy company TransCanada has used it.

In January of this year, TransCanada announced that it would sue the U.S. government for halting construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. The company argued that it's been "unjustly deprived of the value of its multibillion-dollar investment by the U.S. administration's action" that blocked an important piece of its pipeline network. TransCanada seeks $15 billion in compensation—an amount that includes the profits that the company expects it would've gotten in future years.4

And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Existing trade agreements that the U.S. has with other countries have resulted in governments paying investors almost $4 billion in ISDS awards, according to Lori Wallach, Global Trade Watch director for Public Citizen.5 The TPP will boost the number of foreign investors that can use ISDS to extract payments from U.S. taxpayers.

Concerned citizens, though, have a vehicle for stopping the TPP: Congress.

After President Obama formally signs off on the TPP for the United States (which he's expected to do in February), Congress must then approve the deal. In the meantime, members of the public can weigh in with representatives and senators—many of whom have already signaled their opposition to the TPP.

1. The 12 proposed nation signatories (the TPP calls them "Parties") are Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, United States, and Vietnam.

2. "Timeline of the Trans-Pacific Partnership," Public Knowledge, June 27, 2012.

3. In fact, President Obama signaled his administration's contempt of courts years ago: In a March, 2012 speech at Northwestern University law school, then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said "'Due process' and 'judicial process' are not one and the same . . . The Constitution guarantees due process, not judicial process."

4. "TransCanada’s $15 Billion Lawsuit Against U.S. on Keystone XL Presents Strong Case," Eric Zuesse, Global Research, January 8, 2016.

5. "Lame White House Response to Sen. Warren's Warning about TPP Investor Privileges," Lori Wallach, Huffington Post, May 2, 2015.

There was a local angle in recent news about the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

It has to do with Democratic Rep. Mike Quigley of Chicago. Quigley was the only House Democrat from Illinois to vote for authorization of Fast Track authority, also known as Trade Promotion Authority, regarding the TPP.

Most of the reporting we've seen for and against the TPP—including Quigley's own newspaper op-ed piece—focuses on how many U.S. jobs the TPP will create or destroy. Not as widely reported are other, potentially more insidious aspects of the TPP—which we know about thanks to leaks of TPP documents from Wikileaks and others.

According to the leaks, the TPP would:

  • Empower foreign firms to sue U.S. governments if regulations interfere with the firms' "expected future profits." Foreign corporations could bypass domestic courts and sue U.S. governments before a tribunal of private lawyers not answerable to the U.S. legal system. This so-called investor-state dispute settlement process could thwart our protections against environmental, food safety, banking, and manufacturing misdeeds, and award our tax dollars to corporations for violating laws that interfere with their profits.
  • Require the U.S. to let foreign countries import foods that violate U.S. food safety laws. Foreign entities could challenge U.S. safety rules on pesticides, labeling, or additives as "illegal trade barriers"—forcing the U.S. to allow the import of unsafe food.
  • Undermine efforts to re-regulate the financial sector. The TPP would (a) keep countries from outlawing particularly risky financial products; (b) prohibit policies that keep banks from growing "too big to fail;" (c) make it easier for banks to make hedge-fund-style bets with depositors' savings; and (d) prohibit financial transaction taxes, which provide significant revenues in dozens of countries world-wide.
  • Force the U.S. to waive "Buy American" procurement policies for all firms operating in TPP countries, offshoring our tax dollars to create jobs abroad.

Interestingly, it seems that not even Congressional opponents to Fast Track press these arguments.

Georgia Green Party co-chair Bruce Dixon tells progressives why they shouldn't support Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.

In this audio excerpt from the 5/11/15 episode of Black Agenda Radio, Dixon argues that "Democrats in denial" who put time and money into Sanders' campaign will actually benefit the final, corporate-approved Democratic candidate—which won't be Sanders.

Dixon spoke at the May 2015 Electoral Action Conference. Length 5.5 minutes.

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6/16/15 update

In this 5/26/15 video debate from The Real News Network, researcher Ashley Smith and People's Action Campaign spokesman Jacob Swenson-Lengyel debate whether Sen. Bernie Sanders' decision to run as a Democrat is the best way to advance a progressive platform.

External audio: The Real News Network debate on Bernie Sanders' candidacy (length 12.5 minutes)

In a recent interview, a former Goldman Sachs investment banker said Detroit's financial crisis has been partially manufactured by financial institutions, and by their governmental and legal cohorts.

The interview aired Saturday, December 7, 2013, on WNUR-FM's "This Is Hell." Host Chuck Mertz interviewed lawyer Wallace Turbeville.

Turbeville described how Detroit's debt is overstated, why pensions aren’t the budget problem that many believe, and how the city’s emergency manager has, himself, created new emergencies.

The raiding of Detroit's assets and of municipal employees' pensions provides a template for what could happen in other U.S. cities.

Audio: Interview with Wallace Turbeville

"I don't think you can use the word 'crisis' to describe" Illinois' pension-funding problem.

So said Illinois Senate President John Cullerton on Sunday, Sept. 20, 2013, on WGN radio's "The Sunday Spin" show.

Cullerton spoke of the pension fixes that the state legislature has considered this year, and still might pass. He estimated that those fixes, mostly in the form of cuts to pensioners' benefits, "will save annually anywhere from $750 million to $1.5 billion." However, Cullerton said, Illinois will lose about $5.4 billion in annual revenue when the state's personal and corporate income tax rates go down in 2015.

A partial transcript of WGN's interview with Cullerton appears below.

The Chicago Sun-Times, in an Oct. 23 editorial, called Cullerton's assessment "nonsense."

If state legislators heed Cullerton, wrote the Sun-Times, Illinois will lose something "the state needs most—a bill that significantly reduces pension costs."

In contrast, a recent report identifies a different source of states' budget woes: corporate tax subsidies.

The report, written by David Sirota and published by the Institute for America's Future, says that "the amount states and cities spend on corporate subsidies and so-called tax expenditures is far more than the pension shortfalls they face."

The report says that proponents of pension reductions claim "that cutting retiree benefits is the solution [to state revenue shortfalls] rather than simply rolling back the more expensive tax breaks and subsidies."

According to data collected by The New York Times and cited in the report, Illinois governments spend at least $1.5 billion annually on tax subsidies, including:

   • $874 million in sales tax refunds, exemptions, or other sales tax discounts

   • $452 million in corporate income tax credits, rebates, or reductions

   • $11.9 million in personal income tax credits

The Times analysis identified the four corporations receiving the largest subsidy amounts: Sears, Google, Archer Daniels Midland, and Chrysler.

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Partial transcript of WGN Radio's interview of Illinois Senate President John Cullerton on Sept. 20, 2013

[Sen. Cullerton said that he supported the pension reform bills passed earlier this year by the Illinois House and Senate, respectively. And he spoke optimistically of a proposed "compromise" bill currently under consideration by the legislature's bipartisan pension reform committee.]

"It's not that we owe a hundred billion dollars to somebody right now. It's just that folks don't wanna put as much money into pensions. They'd rather spend it on something else. Or they'd rather have their taxes lowered.

"And these pension bills that we're gonna vote on—and hopefully pass, and I'm supportive of it—the overall effect is gonna allow us to lower our income tax about a quarter of one percent. So if we pass the bill it'll be easier to lower our income tax by a quarter of one percent; if we don't, it'll be more difficult. And that's really what it's about.

"Now, I wouldn't call that a crisis. I think that people should put that in perspective."

"[The current income tax rate is] 5 percent for individuals, going to 3.75 [percent in 2015], and the corporate is 7, it goes to [5.25]. That, on an annual basis, is a drop in revenues of about $5.38 billion . . . and these pension bills that we've talked about will save annually anywhere from $750 million to [$1.5 billion]. So you're still gonna have real huge cuts we'll have to make if we don't raise that income tax higher than what they're scheduled to go down to.

"The pension reform, then, is about tax reduction, not about the solvency of the pension fund or about diverting money to spend more money on education."

"There's a great, strong feeling out there in the general public. Ya know, there's 720,000 folks that are affected by the pensions—both retirees [and] actives. That's all of the teachers outside Chicago, that's all the university employees and community college employees, and all the state employees and the judges and the General Assembly. But there's, ya know, almost 13 million people here [in Illinois]. And a lot of folks don't have a defined benefit plan as we do. And, by the way, the inflation rate now is [1.5] percent; these pension [benefits are increased annually by] 3 percent. So there's a strong argument to lower these benefits—that's why I've supported this legislation.

"But just keep in mind: It's not going bankrupt. The money that we save by lowering those benefits is gonna be used to lower the tax rates.

"This would surprise people, I guess: We have a balanced budget in Illinois. Nobody would know that, right? We are not spending more money during this budget than we have taken in. We passed a budget that says you can only spend this much money and this is the amount of money that we take in."

"Let's talk about [the state's unpaid bills.] Within that budget we include money to pay down old bills, including pension obligation bonds that we borrowed—and thank god we did—for the two years we were in the recession. Because we borrowed money, we put it in the pension fund, we've earned 800 million more than what the interest rate has been.

"But we're also paying down bills to vendors. We've paid down [$3.5 billion] in the last three years, and by the time we get to the end of this fiscal year, we'll have about [$2.5 billion] in bills over 60 days out of a $71 billion budget. So we've made tremendous progress in that.

"Remember, just like anybody's home budget, they have to pay mortgage, they have to pay student loans . . . they don't pay 'em all off in the first year. But they keep on including in their budget enough to pay what they owe. That's what we've been doing."

"Businesses are not fleeing Illinois because our taxes are so high. The fact is that our state tax rate is lower than all the other states that surround us, and almost about the same as Indiana."

People keep asking me: "What did you think of the debate(s)?"
    My standard response: "I didn't watch it/them."
    Why? If you think of the breadth of possible discourse as a mile-wide landscape, the two parties "debate" in an area about a block wide.
    I recently listened to journalist Arun Gupta on Black Agenda Radio, and I think he summarized well:
  • Both presidential candidates have energy polices that conform to this slogan: "Drill, baby, drill!"
  • Neither party will cut the $1 trillion the U.S. spends annually on the military.
  • Despite the health-care hyperbole sounded by Republicans, the fact remains: Both Gov. Romney's Massachusetts health-care program and Pres. Obama's Affordable Care Act have their basis in a plan created by a health insurance-funded economist.
  • Obama has said that he and Romney agree on "what to do" with Social Security—namely, cuts or privatization, not something simple like an increase in the payroll tax cap.
  • Neither talks about the crisis in civil liberties. Two examples: the unprecedented prosecution of government whistleblowers, and the massive gathering of citizens' personal data by the National Security Agency.
  • We don't hear anything from either candidate about dealing with the ongoing home-foreclosure crisis, or any of the continued abuses by the banking and financial services industries ("Wall Street")—such as the refusal to renegotiate homeowners' underwater loans, despite record profits on the heels of a huge government bailout.
  • Speaking of records, what do the candidates have to say about addressing a record level of poverty? What do they say about a structural unemployment crisis? What solutions—beyond tax cuts (or repealing tax cuts), which won't even begin to solve the problem—do they propose?
    Enjoy the show.

Updated 18 August 2020

In 2006, Congress passed a law requiring the US Postal Service (USPS) to make annual $5.5 billion payments to a future-retiree healthcare fund—something no other government agency or private corporation must do. Two radio pieces nicely summarize how this act of Congress got USPS into its current financial mess, and how Congress refuses to take the simple step that would solve the problem:

An 8/1/12 Democracy Now piece:

An 8/10/12 Counterspin piece:

Document: Fact sheet on legislation to repeal the future-funding mandate, from National Association of Letter Carriers

At the Green Party's national convention, party members rail at a common belief: Voting for a third party (such as the Greens) in the presidential election helps Republicans win the White House. Length 3.9 minutes.

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