Failed Empire

Chronicling the collapse of a failed society

Monthly Archives: April 2011

Fukushima Media Blackout Inspires Heroic Citizen Activism

Seven weeks after the disastrous earthquake and tsunami that ravaged Japan and precipitated the worst nuclear catastrophe in history, the media blackout continues.  The crippled Fukushima reactors persist in spewing radioactive waste in the surrounding environment, but apart from occasional blips in the mainstream media we have little indication as to the real extent of the danger.

Today, for instance, we have the following dramatic headline from Bloomberg News:

Radiation Readings in Fukushima Reactor Rise to Highest Since Crisis Began
Radiation readings at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi station rose to the highest since an earthquake and tsunami knocked out cooling systems, impeding efforts to contain the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl.

Two robots sent into the reactor No. 1 building at the plant yesterday took readings as high as 1,120 millisierverts of radiation per hour, Junichi Matsumoto, a general manager at Tokyo Electric Power Co., said today. That’s more than four times the annual dose permitted to nuclear workers at the stricken plant.

But beyond that cursory blurb we have very little in the way of concrete information.  It’s worth noting that the permalink for the above story is entitled “Tokyo water radiation falls to zero for first time since crisis.”  Isn’t that a bit twisted, considering the ramifications of the headline?  Yes, it might be true that iodine-131, cesium-134 and cesium-137 have fallen to undetectable levels in Tokyo’s water supply, but isn’t the real story the fact that they were even there to begin with?  Shouldn’t a responsible media cover the potential health consequences of any of these radioactive elements being found – at any level – in the public drinking supply?  And these radioactive materials were found in the drinking water of Tokyo, then aren’t they still being found in localities nearer to Fukushima?

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America’s For-Profit Health Care System: #1 in Costs, #36 in Results

Take a moment to examine the following chart, which displays approximate per capita health care costs for 16 developed nations:

Of course the first thing that one notices is the fact that the United States is the biggest spender per capita – the biggest in the world, to be precise.  The U.S. total is more than 50% higher than number 2 Norway, and twice the average of the remaining 15 countries in the chart.  A common – and perhaps natural – assumption is that we pay more because we get more.  After all, the American medical system is the best in the world, right?

Measuring the performance of a nation’s health care system is a relatively tricky endeavor, but in my mind one need only look at the absolute bottom line: life expectancy.  What, after all, is the purpose of health care if not to maximize the number of years of life?  And here is where we find a shocking realization – shocking, that is, to most Americans:  life expectancy in the United States is lower than every other country in the chart.  And not just these fifteen countries –  the U.S. ranks behind or ties with no less than 37 countries, including, of all places, Cuba and the U.S. territory Puerto Rico.  That’s right, folks:  Puerto Rico has a higher life expectancy than the United States.

But look more closely, and the absurdities continue to mount.   Read more of this post

Tax the Rich: Government Should Not Exist to Aid the Wealthy

Continuing with the taxation theme, I found one comment in the discussion following “Save the Rich, Pay Your Taxes” to be extremely relevant.  A reader named Nicholas posted the following:

The average rich person will derive an enormous benefit from government spending compared to the janitor. It’s thanks to public subsidies that most industries are even profitable in the first place. Capitalism works by externalizing costs, socializing losses and privatizing profits. “Private” enterprise is possible at a profit because the public sector (and/or future generations) carry most or all of the costs of pure research, technological development, infrastructure, educating the “human resources,” health and environmental impacts.

The government, moreover, provides direct subsidies and/or bailouts and/or massive contracts to many large corporations, again with the greatest benefit accruing to the rich. The only reason someone can make more than a million dollars a year is thanks to a complex economy that would collapse without the infrastructure and services provided by the public sector.

Oh, and did you notice that in 2008 the unregulated private system that ran exactly by the rules that the capitalists desired failed miserably and 100 percent predictably, and then blackmailed the public sector into rescuing it? This cannot be emphasized enough: In 2008, capitalism failed. By its own rules. And then terrorized the world into rescuing it. And now continues to plunder it.

The janitor is likely to get nothing from the “defense” budget, the wars, the overseas bases, the black budget, or the interest on prior debt (most of it accumulated due to “defense” and war spending or to rescue the banksters). These are already most of the discretionary budget. These end up benefiting shareholders in the big corporations before the janitor gets any (and if he owns a couple of shares of the right item, then bully for him and his negligible windfall).

The post is extremely well-written and contains a plethora of valid points about American-style pseudo-capitalism and the role of taxation in our society.  It is a common belief that poor people present a heavier burden to tax-payers than the wealthy.  Such a belief is entirely wrong, and ignores the reality of how tax revenue is collected and spent in the United States.

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A Word on America’s Convoluted Tax Code

My recent post “Save the Rich, Pay Your Taxes” engendered a massive amount of debate on what is obviously a highly polarizing issue.  Clearly, the notion of taxation in the United States is extremely contentious, and everyone – regardless of their level of knowledge of the issue – seems to have their own passionate view.

I do not claim to be a tax expert, nor do I claim to have all the answers.  But what is readily apparent is that the current tax code is broken, and I think most people would be able to agree with that statement.  Yes, there are undoubtedly examples of wealthy Americans paying a higher tax rate than working and middle class Americans.  And there are also many examples of impoverished and working class Americans who pay very little taxes — though again, given the nature of payroll taxes this is far less likely.

But the major problem I see is that it is even possible for wealthy people to pay lower tax rates.  Why are hearing these stories of millionaires paying tax rates of 14%, and in some cases as little as 1%?  If I heard that a teacher on $25,000 per year is paying just 10% in taxes, I wouldn’t feel the slightest concern.  But when I hear of someone earning hundreds of thousands – even millions – of dollars each year, is paying a similar figure, I become enraged.

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BP Disaster Highlights Urgent Need for Renewable Energy

One year later, has an excellent photo essay exploring the lingering devastation of the tragic BP disaster:

What is the cost of spilling almost five million barrels of oil into the ocean? How do you measure that cost? In GDP reduction? In lives affected? In environmental impact? And how do you measure the cost when long-term effects are impossible to calculate yet, and when a significant portion of the spilled oil is still unaccounted for? One year since the Deepwater Horizon platform exploded, killing 11 workers, there are measurable effects, and many more unknowns.

The stirring collection of photos includes several then-and-now pictures, comparing conditions in the immediate aftermath of the spill to those of today:

May 22, 2010

April 8, 2011

One of the first things one notices about the photos above is the dreary lack of color resulting from the erosion of the shore and the mass destruction of the marsh grasses and mangrove trees.  The once thriving marshland of the fragile coastal ecosystem has been utterly devastated by the spill and the myriad chemical dispersants released afterwards.  Dead dolphins and sea turtles continue to wash up on the shores of the Gulf coast, and the remnants of oil are still to be found virtually everywhere.

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Class Warfare in the Era of Conscious Evolution

In the classic novel The Time Machine, H.G. Wells envisioned a future in which humans had diverged into two distinct species:  the Eloi and Morlocks.  The Eloi were a species of great beauty but intellectual simplicity.  They spent their lives in a lighthearted stupor, laughing and dancing the days away without a concern for anything beyond the superficial pleasures of today.  The Morlocks, in contrast, were creatures of necessity.  They lived in dark subterranean dwellings, and lacked any of the positive traits – such as love and compassion – that we attribute to humans today.

Wells described the means through which the two species had come into being.  Essentially, the Eloi were descendants of an aristocratic elite, who through countless generations of easy, comfortable living had devolved into mindless – albeit attractive – creatures of superficial comforts.  The Morlocks had descended from the working classes of today, after generations of malnutrition, hard labor, and dismal living conditions.

The parallels between Wells’s vision of the future and the world we see today are striking.  Clearly, there is a large – and growing – divide between the wealthy elite of today and the ordinary, working and middle class masses.  The wealthy of today lead lives of leisure and luxury, while those at the bottom work dreadfully long hours and consume extremely unhealthy food, devoid of needed vitamins and nutrients.  Having spent some years in the trenches of the working class myself, I know all too well how desperate life can be.

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Save the Rich, Pay Your Taxes

As if anyone needed it, further evidence that the system is rigged heavily in favor of the rich:

Payroll taxes (deductions for Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment insurance) are mostly paid by the bottom 90 percent of earners. When they’re factored in on top of income tax, the gap between the tax rates at the very top and everyone else shrinks even more—so much that the effective tax rate for people earning more than $370,000 is nearly the same as for those earning between $43,000 and $69,000 a year.

As Martin A. Sullivan of recently calculated, a New York janitor making slightly more than $33,000 a year pays an effective tax rate of nearly 25%. And the effective tax rate for a resident of the Park Avenue building named after Helmsley, earning an average of $1.2 million annually? A cool 14.7%.

Bear this in mind as you witness the purely fabricated debate unfolding in Washington about our spiraling national debt and the necessity to make drastic cuts in domestic spending.  All the bogus statistics you hear about the wealthy being charged a higher income tax rate – while true in a very technical sense – are grossly distorted in order to portray an element of fairness which simply doesn’t exist in the U.S. tax system.  The bottom line is that working and middle class Americans pay a higher tax rate than the wealthiest individuals and corporations.

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Wealthiest Americans Enjoy Steep Decline in Tax Rate

It’s always a joy to read such heart-warming stories during tax season:

The super rich pay a lot less taxes than they did a couple of decades ago, and nearly half of U.S. households pay no income taxes at all.

The Internal Revenue Service tracks the tax returns with the 400 highest adjusted gross incomes each year. The average income on those returns in 2007, the latest year for IRS data, was nearly $345 million. Their average federal income tax rate was 17 percent, down from 26 percent in 1992.

Over the same period, the average federal income tax rate for all taxpayers declined to 9.3 percent from 9.9 percent.

Before going any further, it’s worth pointing out a few obvious facts.  First of all, citing a 9.3 to 9.9 percent tax rate as a national average is highly misleading.  Yes, the actual federal income tax rate might come to that amount, but in reality ordinary Americans are paying far more.  I am not a tax expert, but during my time working in the States (I’ve worked abroad since 2004), I was routinely paying what amounted to a 20-25% tax rate, once all deductions had been made.  Federal programs like Social Security are structured in such a way that blue collar and middle class Americans bear the brunt of the cost, in terms of percentages of salary deducted.  As a result, less affluent Americans typically end up paying a much higher rate than what has been suggested here by the extremely corporatist AP.

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Media Blackout of Fukushima Nuclear Disaster Continues Despite Grim Prognosis

Aside from an obligatory blurb announcing the disturbing – but hardly surprising – revelation that the crippled Fukushima reactors will remain out of human control for at least another 6 to 9 months, the media blackout continues:

(AGI) Tokyo – The Fukushima nuclear reactors will be stable within “6 to 9 months”, TEPCO forecasts. The Japanese utility giant that manages the ruined nuclear plant at Fukushima announced in a communique’ that the radioactive releases will be contained within 3 months, while the reactors’ cooling and the radiation control will be achieved in six to nine months.

The first priorities are to use nitrogen in order to avoid hydrogen explosions in Units One, Two and Three and to stop further radioactive water spills.

And that, apart from a generic recap of the history of the disaster (i.e., a giant earthquake and tsunami caused a partial meltdown – as if anyone forgot), is all we get.  Three highly damaged nuclear reactors steadily oozing out radioactive waste for at least three months, with an indication that things could take much longer, and no further analysis, commentary or context is offered.

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Surprised? Corporate Media Loves Teabaggers, Hates Progressives

The lack of news regarding progressive rallies is hardly news, but it is important that we continue call out the corporatist mainstream media on such absurdities:

 A sparsely attended Tea Party rally in Washington, D.C., on March 31 in support of federal spending cuts received generous media attention. One report (Slate, 3/31/11) suggested there was “at least one reporter for every three or four activists,” and a Republican politician joked that there might be more journalists than activists at the event.

An antiwar rally in New York City on April 9 was in some respects very similar. Protesters were speaking out on an equally timely issue (wars in Afghanistan and Libya), and connecting them to the budget and near-government shutdown in Washington.

The difference? The ratio of activists to journalists. The antiwar protest had thousands of attendees–and received almost zero corporate media coverage. …

We call on news media to explain the journalistic principle that makes thousands of progressive activists far less newsworthy than dozens of Tea Party protesters.

Obviously there is no “journalistic principle” which induces the corporate media to focus on the rallies of the extreme right while ignoring more progressive causes.  The very notion of “journalistic principles” fails to apply to the corporate media, because the corporate media is not in the practice of producing genuine journalism.  The MSM does not exist to educate the populace or contribute to the free spread of information in a democracy.  Instead, it exists merely to propagate the corporate agenda, which entails, of course, earning maximum short-term profits regardless of the long-term consequences.

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