Al Jazeera America

Noam Chomsky: 'What Exactly Is the Threat of Iran?' - Video

Interviewed by Antonio Mora on Al-Jazeera America about the Iran deal, Noam Chomsky asks, "The real question is: Why is the [Iran] deal being pursued?”

The Government-Industry Conspiracy that Promotes Crap Food in School

People often ask me, “How does lobbying work?” Last week it was with fat and sugar, when the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) hosted its 32nd annual Capitol Hill Ice Cream Party. Some 6,000 bowls of ice cream were served up to Sen. Tom Harkin, Reps. Pete Sessions, Robert Aderholt, Jeff Denham, John Shimkus, Ron Kind and Lamar Smith, among others, according to Politico.

Schools are especially vulnerable to dairy industry influence. With the recent controversy over the sugar content of what the industry euphemistically calls flavored milk, marketers are desperate to maintain this lucrative market and captive audience. The USDA-supported milk checkoff program (fluid milk has a checkoff program separate from dairy products such as cheese and ice cream) promotes campaigns — such as Chocolate Milk Has Muscle and Raise Your Hand for Chocolate Milk — that tout the nutritional benefits of flavored milk. Milk checkoff educational materials and other forms of industry pressure have even been used to change the minds of some school officials who wanted to remove flavored milk.

Both the industry and government defend the dairy checkoff program by saying it’s paid for by farmers. While technically true, the federal government oversees and approves almost every aspect of the program. Far from being just a privately funded program, USDA employees attend checkoff meetings, monitor activities and are responsible for evaluation of the programs. The U.S. Supreme Court has even upheld the legality of the checkoff programs as “government speech,” finding that “the message ... is controlled by the federal government.”

Ironically, these funds are directly used to promote junk foods, which contribute to the diseases the federal government is allegedly trying to prevent. As Kiera Butler of Mother Jones points out in her recent coverage of my report, the USDA’s dairy checkoff program is in direct conflict with several federal nutritional tenets. For example, while the USDA says to “avoid oversized portions,” its checkoff program supports Taco Bell’s Cantina Double Steak Quesadilla, which has 750 calories and 29 grams of fat. The USDA also wisely recommends drinking beverages “without added sugars.” But its dairy checkoff program helped McDonald’s develop its McCafé Frappé Mocha, with 450 calories and an incredible 57 grams of sugar accounting for about half those calories. (The American Heart Association recommends (PDF) no more than 100 calories from added sugars per day for women and 150 for men.)

As a time when the nation is suffering from an epidemic of chronic disease due to poor diet, does it make sense for the federal government to tell Americans to avoid foods high in salt, sugar and saturated fat while engaging in the promotion of those foods? The federal government should stop mandating industry fees that undermine public health and end the dairy checkoff program.

Parke Wilde, a professor and food economist at Tufts University puts it this way: “The meat and dairy industries can do what they like with their own money. The public power of taxation should be used for the public good.” He also calls on the government to stop undermining public health, writing that checkoff messaging “should serve our stated public-health goals at a time when health care costs are threatening to bankrupt the government.”

A USDA representative told Mother Jones that “any changes in USDA’s authority over these programs would have to come from Congress.” Great idea. Maybe our representatives can get to work on that, right after they finish their ice cream.

This article originally appeared in Al Jazeera America on July 2, 2014.

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In Parts of the South, Glorifying Slavery No Longer Pays the Bills

 Three women from Michigan peruse the exhibits at the Natchez Museum of African-American History and Culture on a spring afternoon.

Natchez, African-American, Pilgrimage
In Natchez, where the Confederate flag still flies and the Old South is revived each year with the Spring Pilgrimage.
 Suzi Parker

Few tourists visit the free museum, although there is a growing movement to promote African-American history in Natchez, a town of 15,590 that sits on the banks of the Mississippi River. But it’s a struggle. Since the 1930s, Natchez has built its tourism business on the Old Confederacy through the Spring Pilgrimage.

The Pilgrimage focuses on Natchez’s palatial antebellum homes and a bygone way of life. Women, volunteering as tour guides, still wear hoop skirts, and the horrors of slavery are seldom mentioned. This genteel moonlight-and-magnolia history has become a point of contention for people here who think it’s time Natchez turned away from its Old South lore.

“Younger people don’t care so much about the past or the old stories,” said David S. Dreyer, a local historian who volunteers at the museum. “There are so many stories that haven’t been told here, but people might not get that with just the Pilgrimage. We need to find a way to tell new stories.”

Although only three people were touring the museum, Dreyer vigilantly told the story of African-Americans in Natchez through the decades, explaining that slavery and cotton allowed Natchez plantation owners to build some of the most palatial antebellum mansions in history.

antebellum, Old South, Natchez, Mississippi
Local historian David Dreyer holds up a cotton sack at the Natchez Museum of African American Culture and History.
Suzi Parker

He moved into Reconstruction, when the city had its first African-American mayor. It would be more than 100 years later, in 2004, when Natchez would elect another black mayor. Then again, Mississippi hasn’t elected an African-American to statewide office since the late 1800s.

Dreyer, who is white and an Indiana native, showed the group a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. near a wooden white cross, reminiscent of the kind that Ku Klux Klan members placed on Southern lawns in the 1950s.

“My parents were involved in the civil rights movement,” said Isabel Jackson, who lives in southwestern Michigan. “It was important for us to come here. We felt like we needed to see this part of the city’s history.”

The legacy

That history often gets overshadowed by the everlasting legacy of the Pilgrimage.

In 1931, the Natchez Garden Club hosted the state’s annual convention to highlight the town’s gardens. A late-season freeze killed the flowers, and the members scrambled for an alternative. The women decided to invite people to tour the antebellum houses. It was a success, and the city spent decades restoring the homes and branding itself with Southern belles and columned mansions.

Natchez, the PIlgrimage, antebellum
A 1955 photo shows a woman in a hoop skirt demonstrating an old water pump.
 Three Lions/Getty Images

Natchez, the oldest European settlement on the Mississippi River, is now one of the few places in the United States with more than 500 buildings that were built before 1860.

“Spring Pilgrimage gave birth to the idea that Natchez had something to offer to travelers from the region and around the world, as our history can be seen and appreciated by all,” said Emily Edwards, the general manager for Natchez Pilgrimage Tours.

Edwards said the Pilgrimage is still “the most beautiful and busiest time of year” in town.

“While not all history is pleasant, Natchez strives to be true to its history,” she said. “There is more to the Pilgrimage than just beautiful houses and antiques. Many houses pay homage to the families of the landowners and the African-American slaves that were such a huge part of their lives.”

Other than tours of historic homes, the pilgrimage season also hosts “The Tableaux,” a play created in the 1930s that depicts life in the Natchez area from 1716 to the Civil War. The Natchez Little Theater troupe performs a satirical comedy on the Pilgrimage, and “The Southern Road to Freedom” is a tribute to the African-American experience at a local church by the Holy Family Church Choir.

Longtime resident Elodie Pritchartt, whose great-aunt was a Pilgrimage founder, said the annual event had saved the town during some dark days.

“The pilgrimage, which depicts certain aspects of Natchez history, was not only built on history, but also shaped its history,” said Pritchartt, who writes about Southern life on her blog Shantybellum. “After Reconstruction and during the Depression, Natchez was dying on the vine. Aside from farming and the cypress lumber mill down on the river, there was little industry here.”

Forks of the Road

Now Natchez finds itself in a similar situation.

In the town’s hotels, its restaurants and even the historic homes, citizens, who won’t be quoted for fear of backlash, said that tourism is down from previous years. The recession hurt the city, as did the loss of a paper mill and smaller industries.

“In times past, smaller Southern towns could count on trading on their Civil War histories to lure visitors and tourism dollars,” said Susan M. Glisson, executive director of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. “But as the veneration of the war ebbs, as the demographics of the country change, that history no longer has the allure it once had.”

Natchez, Pilgrimage, slavery, Old South
A 2002 photo of the sign marking the site of the Forks of the Road, the only reminder of the South's second-largest slave market which operated in Natchez.
Ben Hillyer/The Natchez Democrat/AP

Ser Seshsh Ab Heter-C.M. Boxley, a Natchez African-American activist, said tourists don’t want the “whitewashed” version of the past. He has spent the past 20 years attempting to get leaders focused on the city’s rich African-American history, but it’s been a battle.

“What I do here isn’t about tourism, although tourism could be a benefit of it,” Boxley said. “I don’t do things in the interest to increase tourism attendance. The history of our ancestors who were enslaved cannot be trivialized into an economic, homogenized, sanitized image for tourism. These stories need to be told. But here in Natchez, it looks like white people did it all by themselves, and they aren’t ready to change.”

Boxley was instrumental in drawing attention to the Forks of the Road site, the nation’s second largest slave market during the 1800s, behind New Orleans. It has received international recognition by the United Nations because of its role in the international slave trade. Currently, a marker and kiosk along with a bench and a leaning cypress tree commemorate the site.

It could be so much more, though, Boxley said.

“There’s a preliminary report about tourism that says the Forks of the Road site is a great story,” he said. “But when you go there, there’s no experience. That’s needed, but we need the community behind it.”

That report by Berkley Young, a national tourism consulting group, recommended that the city leaders tap places where key moments in African-American history occurred. It also strongly suggested that the city choose a new convention and visitors’ bureau director from outside of Natchez. The most recent director left the position last month after 25 years.

'It's complicated'

Like many Southern towns, Natchez has long-unresolved racial problems that won’t be easy to change.

“As most people in the South will tell you, when you talk about race down here, it’s complicated,” Pritchartt said. “It’s not – pardon the expression – a black-and-white issue.”

Glisson said the William Winter Institute has received calls from some Natchez community leaders to facilitate discussions. But resistance — even at the cost of social and economic decline — has lingered.

“Natchez is a community that goes to great lengths to get business based on this Confederacy history,” Glisson said. “Racial issues need to be improved. We’ve had a couple of calls to help, but there hasn’t been follow-through on their end. Our process is, we don’t parachute in and save a town.”

Boxley said it will take a “revolution” to change Natchez and that, even with minorities in city government, little changes.

“We have people going around grinning and bearing it, both blacks and whites, like Old Man River,” he said. “Don’t say nothing, don’t do nothing, but they’re seeing that what used to work is dwindling because you have a smarter tourist. Those days of rolling out the hoop skirts are dying. They are gone with the wind.”

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Comcast's Costly Package

This article originally appeared on Al Jazeera America, and is reprinted here with their permission.

Corrupting influence

The reason companies even fathom proposing deals like these is also part of the reason the United States is lagging behind its economic competitors: U.S. campaign finance and lobbying rules favor big companies that seek to thwart rules requiring robust competition in the marketplace. This may be good for the companies in the short term. But what Washington and the state capitals overlook is that in the long run, competition benefits businesses, and reducing the amount of it ultimately hurts workers, consumers, innovation and the economy.

Last year Comcast was the seventh-biggest lobbyist in the United States, investing $18.8 million in influencing Congress and relevant regulatory agencies, according to disclosure reports collected by the Center for Responsive Politics. That was in addition to more than $100 million spent lobbying in the previous 15 years. This sum does not include Time Warner Cable’s lobbying. Comcast has given politicians $25.7 million in campaign contributions since 1990, of which $2 million was spent last year — again, not counting what Time Warner Cable spent to spread its own influence. If the takeover is approved by federal regulators, it will certainly show, once again, that investing in government policy can be exceptionally profitable.

Consumer lobbies, on the other hand, are few in numbers, lightly funded and often snubbed by lawmakers — a sharp contrast to the easy access to senators and representatives that Comcast’s donations afford the company in the capital. Many consumer groups, including Good Jobs First, the Consumer Federation of America, the National Consumer Law Center and the Utility Reform Network, struggle to keep their lights on while trying to restore rules that encourage competition or balanced regulation of utilities.

But forget the consumers. Forget the shareholders, even! The benefits of the Comcast–Time Warner merger would be stunningly profitable for one man. Comcast shares are worth $140 billion, and its billionaire CEO, Brian L. Roberts, votes one-third of them, more than enough to control the company.

When asked about the potential deal, Roberts told stock analysts the deal is “pro-consumer, pro-competition.”  Why that is, Roberts has not said. Perhaps that’s because the answer would violate basic economic theory.

Conflicts of interest

Comcast is currently mired in commercial conflicts of interest. In addition to its wires that distribute information, it owns NBCUniversal, which produces television news and entertainment shows, makes movies and owns amusement parks. Comcast also owns the Golf Channel, the E! network and interests in various sports programming as well as the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team. This means the company can effectively force competitors through its cable contracts to subsidize its own programming, weakening each competitor a little while building Comcast’s financial muscle.

Comcast favors rules under which businesses that want their data to move on the fastest Internet lanes would pay premium prices. This would squeeze profits at Amazon Prime, Netflix and other streaming services, ultimately reducing investments in diverse programming. Today Comcast must move all Internet traffic equally, but that regulatory requirement expires in 2018. Even if the merger were conditioned on a further extension, corporations, unlike people, can live forever, so any extension is almost beside the point.

The company’s power to raise prices at will is what economists call market power. It is part and parcel of monopolies. This power — and the weakening of competition — is why corporate monopolies are bad for economic growth and job creation but wonderful for the dominant company’s owners: It gives them power to extract more from customers while exerting power over workers and suppliers to push down their compensation. The smaller companies must comply or risk being crushed.

And inequality for all

The American Revolution arose in part from the Boston Tea Party, a protest against a tax exemption the British Parliament gave to the monopolistic British East India Company. Given this history, why do our political leaders embrace monopolies along with all the harm they cause? Because many Americans believe, wrongly, that the Boston Tea Party was a protest against high taxes and have forgotten history’s many harsh lessons about monopolies.

The rise of monopolies, duopolies and oligopolies in recent decades is a major reason corporate profits have soared while the median wage remains mired at the inflation-adjusted level of 1998. Today just 2,772 companies own more than 80 percent of the assets of all 6 million U.S. corporations, IRS data show.

Monopolies are also aided by the claim, now widely believed, that a larger federal government interferes with economic growth. In this case and many others, the opposite is true.

Congress has slashed staff and budgets for regulators whose duty is to challenge consolidations and devise rules that promote competition in the market. In this, anti-tax lawmakers have handcuffed Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” which is supposed to promote economic gain for all as each baker, brewer and butcher competes to advance his own prosperity.

Consolidation and the trend toward oligopolies, duopolies and monopolies isn't a problem that's exclusive to cable and Internet providers. From airlines, banking and burglar alarm monitoring to radio, railroads and sporting goods, competition-reducing consolidations are damaging our economy, as I have chronicled in my books and columns. The proposed Comcast merger is bad economics. But it is just part of a larger problem — one of corrupting corporate influence and misguided government policies.

If it’s not dealt with, this state of affairs will condemn us to remain in the economic doldrums for years or even decades, while other nations that enjoy faster Internet connections, better customer service and more innovative products than those of us served by the likes of Comcast sail past into greater prosperity.

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