Economy

How Bill Gates set the stage for Modi's COVID-19 disaster in India

While the incompetence of the Indian government is starkly visible in its handling of the second wave of the COVID-19 crisis, its performance has been far worse on the vaccine front. The BJP-led government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which seems to believe in the ideology of free-market capitalism, thinks that the market will magically produce the number of vaccines the country needs. This would explain why it has starved seven public sector vaccine manufacturing units—according to an April 17 article in Down to Earth—of any support instead of ramping up much-needed vaccine production.

The rights to produce the public sector vaccine, Covaxin, which has been developed by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and National Institute of Virology (NIV), in collaboration with Bharat Biotech, have been given to the private company partner on an exclusive basis. The Indian government also believed that Serum Institute of India, another private sector company and the world's largest vaccine manufacturer, which has tied up with AstraZeneca for producing Covishield, would make vaccines according to the country's requirements without any prior orders or capital support. The government did not even see the necessity to intervene and prevent India's new Quad ally, the U.S., from stopping sending India supplies of the required raw materials needed by India for manufacturing vaccines.

The sheer negligence by the government is further highlighted by the fact that even though India has about 20 licensed manufacturing facilities for vaccines and 30 biologic manufacturers, all of which could have been harnessed for vaccine manufacturing, only two companies are presently producing vaccines. That too is at a pace completely inadequate for India's needs.

India has a long history of vaccine development, which can be traced back to the Haffkine Institute for Training, Research and Testing, in Mumbai, in the 1920s. With the Patents Act, 1970 and the reverse engineering of drugs by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) laboratories, the country also broke the monopoly of global multinationals. It is this change, fought for by the Left, that led to India emerging as the largest generic supplier of drugs and vaccines in the world and becoming the global pharmacy of the poor.

Bill Gates recently spoke to Sky News in the UK regarding India and South Africa's proposal to the World Trade Organization on the need to lift intellectual property (IP) protection for COVID-19 vaccines and medicines during the pandemic. Gates claimed that IP is not the issue and that "moving a vaccine… into a factory in India… It's only because of our grants and our expertise that can happen at all." In other words, without the white man coming in to tell India and other middle-income countries how to make vaccines and provide them with his money, these countries would not be able to make vaccines on their own.

This is a rehash of the AIDS debate, where the Western governments and Big Pharma argued that developing generic AIDS drugs would lead to the manufacturing of poor-quality drugs and theft of Western intellectual property. Bill Gates, who built his fortune on Microsoft's IP, is the leading defender of IP in the world. With his newfound halo as a great philanthropist, he is leading Big Pharma's charge against the weakening of patents on the global stage. The role of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a major funder of the World Health Organization, is also to dilute any move by the WHO to share patents and knowledge during the pandemic.

Indian companies are the largest manufacturers of existing vaccines by volume in the world, according to the WHO's Global Vaccine Market Report 2020. When it comes to measuring vaccine manufacturing by value, however, the global share held by multinational corporations or Big Pharma is much bigger than that of India. For example, as per the WHO report, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), with 11 percent of the global market by volume, generates 40 percent of the market by value, while Serum Institute with 28 percent of the market by volume has only 3 percent of the market by value. This shows that the patent-protected vaccines with monopoly pricing get much higher prices. This is the model that Bill Gates and his ilk are selling. Let Big Pharma make the big bucks even if it bankrupts the poorer countries. The Western philanthropic money of Gates and Warren Buffett will 'help' the poor Third World to get some vaccines, albeit slowly. As long as they get to call the shots.

The Modi government's approach to vaccines is based on the central pillar of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh ideology—which serves as the ideological parent of the ruling BJP—that the task of the state is only to help big capital. Anything else including planning is seen by the right wing as socialism. In the case of vaccines, it means not to make any attempt to get the companies, both in the public and private sectors, to make necessary preparations for a quick vaccination program: to put in the money and provide the necessary supply chain. Instead, the government believed that India's private pharmaceutical industry would do all of this on its own.

It forgot that the Indian pharmaceutical industry was the product of public domain science—the CSIR institutions—the public sector and nationalist companies like Cipla. They all came out of the national movement and built India's pharmaceutical industry. It is institutions like the Haffkine Institute under Sahib Sokhey's leadership and the Center for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) built under the leadership of Dr. Pushpa Bhargava that led to India's vaccine and biologics capacity. It is on this base that India's vaccine manufacturing capacity rests.

It is not niji (private) companies that built the vaccine capacity in India, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi claims. The private sector companies rode on the back of public sector science and technology that was built in the country between the 1950s and the 1990s.

The Indian government recently opened up vaccinations for all adults in the country on May 1. To vaccinate all the eligible population—above 18 years of age—India would require about 2 billion doses of the vaccine in order to give the required two shots per person. To plan for the production of an order of this size, apart from technology and capital support, India also needs to plan for the complex supply chain that is required for production. This includes raw materials and intermediate supplies such as filters and special bags. There are at least 37 "critical items" that are currently embargoed by the U.S. from exports under the Defense Production Act, 1950, a relic of the U.S.'s Korean War.

On April 16, Adar Poonawalla, head of the Serum Institute of India, had taken to Twitter to ask U.S. President Joe Biden "to lift the embargo of raw material exports out of the U.S. so that vaccine production can ramp up."

If India puts together the production capacity of the Serum Institute, Bharat Biotech, Biological E, and Haffkine Bio-Pharmaceutical Corporation Limited, and the five other companies that have signed up to manufacture Sputnik V, developed by the Gamaleya National Center of Epidemiology, India could have planned for an annual production capacity of more than 3 billion doses. If it also included the public sector units idling under the Modi government, India could have easily boosted its vaccine manufacturing capacity to 4 billion doses and produced the necessary 2 billion doses and more in 2021. It would then have made it possible for India to completely vaccinate its target population and yet have enough left to meet its export commitments including for the WHO's Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT)-Accelerator program and its vaccines pillar of COVAX. What is missing is a planning commission that could plan this exercise and create the political will to carry it forward. Not a vacuous Niti Ayog—the public policy think tank of the Indian government—and an incompetent government.

Instead, the Modi government did not even bother to place an order with the Serum Institute until January 11, and that too for a measly 11 million doses. The next order of 120 million Covishield and Covaxin doses was placed only in the third week of March when the number of cases had reached a daily caseload of nearly 40,000, and India was well into its deadly second wave. The government seemed to bank on its belief in the magic of the capitalist market, which it thought would solve all its problems, without any real effort on the center's part.

India and South Africa have asked the WTO to consider waiving the rules relating to intellectual property during the pandemic, and further sought that knowledge, including patents and know-how, should be shared without restrictions. This proposal has been backed by the WHO and has huge support among most countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The holdouts predictably are from the rich countries that want to protect the global vaccine market for their Big Pharma companies. Under pressure from the global community and the bad optics of the U.S. hoarding vaccines, the Biden administration has finally just decided to accept South Africa and India's initiative of a temporary patent waiver, after stonewalling it in the WTO until now. But this waiver is restricted to vaccine patents only and does not extend to other patents or associated intellectual property as South Africa and India's proposal had suggested. This is still a victory for the global public health community, though only a first step.

While India is spearheading the need to share know-how with all companies capable of manufacturing vaccines, it still has explaining to do as to why it has given an exclusive license to Bharat Biotech to manufacture a vaccine developed with public money and in public institutions like ICMR and NIV. Why is it not being shared under a nonexclusive license with both Indian companies and those companies outside India? Instead, ICMR is receiving royalties from Bharat Biotech from sharing its know-how exclusively with Bharat Biotech. Under public pressure, ICMR is now sharing its know-how with the government of the Indian state of Maharashtra's public sector Haffkine Bio-Pharmaceutical Corporation Limited, while giving Bharat Biotech six months' lead time with financial support money from the central government.

Modi had dreamed that India would be the vaccine arm of the Quad. He forgot that in order to compete with China, India needs a vaccine production base that not only takes care of its vaccination needs but also fulfills all its external commitments. China can do this because it has developed at least three vaccines already—from Sinopharm, Sinovac, and CanSino—that have been licensed to others. Their production is now being ramped up, and China is the largest supplier of vaccines to countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. And it has also managed to control the spread of the COVID-19 virus, unlike India.

This is where the Modi government has failed and failed badly. An incompetent, vainglorious leadership, combined with the RSS belief in magical capitalism, has led to the disaster that we are now facing.

This article was produced in partnership by Newsclick and Globetrotter. Prabir Purkayastha is the founding editor of Newsclick.in, a digital media platform. He is an activist for science and the free software movement.

Rep. Elise Stefanik called out for her 'wildly inaccurate' claim in first speech after joining GOP leadership

U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY), a Trump acolyte, was just elected to replace booted House Republican Caucus Chair Liz Cheney. In her first speech minutes after securing her new leadership position Stefanik delivered a "wildly inaccurate" claim, CNN reported.

"We see the worst jobs report in over 20 years," Stefanik said.

"I just want to note something also that was just wildly inaccurate," CNN's Poppy Harlow said on-air after the speech. Stefanik was "talking about the economy, blasting this economy, saying we just got 'the worst jobs report in 20 years.' That is not true, not even close to true, we'll keep monitoring this we'll be right back."

One year ago America, under Stefanik's top supporter, President Donald Trump, America did see "the worst jobs report in U.S. history."

Listen to Stefanik's speech:

Millennials have battled one economic challenge after another — and the ‘pandemic recession’ has only made things ‘more tenuous’: journalist

Generation gaps have existed throughout U.S. history. Some members of the World War I Generation complained bitterly about the teenagers of the 1930s — now hailed as "The Greatest Generation" by Tom Brokaw — and their affection for swing bands and pop crooners, not unlike the Baby Boomers of 2021 who call right-wing talk shows and attack Millennials as spoiled, sheltered and entitled. But journalist Annie Lowrey takes a totally different view of Millennials in an article published by the Atlantic on May 13, focusing on the economic challenges and difficulties that so many Millennials have faced during their adult lives.

"Millennials, as just about everyone knows at this point, are a generation delayed," Lowrey explains. "The pandemic recession has led not-so-young adults to put off having kids, buying a house, getting married, or investing in a car — yet again. But today's economic conditions are not just holding Millennials back. They are stratifying them, leading to unequal experiences within the generation as well as between it and other cohorts. Marriage is a prime example."

During the post-World War II America of the 1950s and 1960s, it wasn't uncommon to find 24-year-old men who never went to college but were homeowners who could support a stay-at-home mom and two or three children with their paychecks. Now, even for college-educated couples, owning a home or having kids means both parents working full-time — that is, if they can even afford a mortgage or kids.

"Millennials are getting hitched later in life than people in prior generations did," Lowrey observes. "The average age at first marriage has steadily climbed over the past half century, from 23 to 30 for men and from 21 to 28 for women. As a result, Millennials are less likely to be married than Gen X-ers or Baby Boomers were when they were the same age; the marriage rate among young adults has fallen 14 percentage points since 1990."

Describing "the Millennial experience," Lowrey points out that "Millennials, in particular women, who have completed college are tending to get married older."

"Millennials who did not attend or complete college are often opting not to marry at all," Lowrey observes. "Three decades ago, the marriage rate was above 60% for all adults older than 25. Now, it is roughly 65 percent for those with a college degree and 50% for those who finished only high school."

Lowrey continues, "The same kind of trend is affecting childbearing. Data compiled by the economist Caitlin Myers and published in The New York Times shows a sharp parenthood bell curve in the 20th Century: Women would start becoming mothers in their late teens and stop becoming mothers in their early 30s. Now, that curve is flatter and wider, with two spikes: one around 20 and one around 30. Many more women are choosing to become parents in their late 30s and early 40s."

Lowrey adds, "Millennials are getting hitched later in life than people in prior generations did. The average age at first marriage has steadily climbed over the past half century, from 23 to 30 for men and from 21 to 28 for women. As a result, Millennials are less likely to be married than Gen X-ers or Baby Boomers were when they were the same age; the marriage rate among young adults has fallen 14 percentage points since 1990."

Some Millennials, of course, are doing extremely well — Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, for example. But then, some people who are born and raised in Bolivia — one of the poorest countries in Latin America — are multi-millionaires. It's important to look at the big picture, and one of the trends that Lowrey discusses in her article is inequality among Millennials. With Millennials, the rich are getting richer while the poor are getting poorer.

"Less recognized is that Millennials are also experiencing great wealth stratification," Lowrey notes. "The very wealthiest Millennials are doing better than people at the same age decades ago; Mark Zuckerberg is far richer than Bill Gates was when he was 36, for instance. The Millennial top 10% — who grew up in relatively wealthy families and went to selective colleges — are doing just fine. But poorer Millennials — particularly those without a college degree — remain far, far behind. The St. Louis Fed researchers found that the typical Millennial without a college degree has nearly 20% less wealth than would be expected."

The "Millennial experience" Lowrey describes is a long way from the negative stereotypes of Millennials promoted by 70-year-old MAGA Republicans who call right-wing AM radio talk shows to praise former President Donald Trump and complain about their grandchildren. Of course, not all Boomers are MAGA reactionaries by any means. There are still plenty of liberal and progressive Boomers who are fighting the good fight, from Sen. Elizabeth Warren to New York Times columnist Paul Krugman to Rep. Maxine Waters.

Lowreys ends her article on a somber note, pointing out that the COVID-19 pandemic was yet another financial kick in the pants for Millennials.

"Millennials are not just a generation delayed, but a generation for which the whole idea of a milestone, or a marker of adulthood, has become weirder and less exact," Lowrey laments. "And the pandemic has only made things more tenuous and more stratified."

Biden's jobs plan wins big support in small business survey — even on raising taxes

President Joe Biden has proposed raising the United States corporate tax rate from 21% to 28%, although he has suggested that he is willing to compromise and raise it to 25% instead if necessary. And according to a new survey by the organization Small Business for American's Future, most small business owners in the United States are in favor of a corporate tax hike.

The survey was conducted from April 17 to May 5, and 1,052 small business owners participated. Small Business for America's Future found that eight in ten of them supported Biden's American Jobs Plan, and 67% of the participants favored raising corporate taxes in order to pay for it.

According to Small Business for America's Future, "76% of small business owners think the American Jobs Plan will boost the economy, and 72% say it will help small businesses specifically; 51% of small business owners say raising taxes on Americans making more than $400,000 would not harm small businesses."

The United States' top corporate tax rate was lowered to 21% from a top marginal rate of 39% when former President Donald Trump signed the Republican-sponsored Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 into law. Democratic critics of the law argued that it was nothing more than a gift for the wealthiest Americans, and Small Business for America's Future's survey found that most small business owners believe that large corporations are undertaxed in the United States.

Small Business for America's Future found that "72% of small business owners in the survey believe that the current tax code favors large corporations" and that "75% of small businesses do not believe that large corporations pay their fair share of taxes." And according to the organization, "76% agree that small businesses are harmed when corporations use loopholes to avoid paying taxes."

In an official statement, Anne Zimmerman — who co-chairs Small Business for America's Future — said, "Main Street small business owners clearly want an infrastructure plan that will propel them forward as they recover from the pandemic, and a tax code that works for them, not large corporations. Not only does the American Jobs Plan leave the vast majority of small business taxes unchanged, it leaves corporate taxes lower than they were just three years ago. Small business owners see this plan as a big win."

Biden warned against repeating Obama's 'fatal political mistakes' with Republicans

After President Joe Biden met with the Democratic and Republican leaders from both chambers of Congress on Wednesday to try to "reach a compromise" on his infrastructure plan, climate justice advocates urged the administration to "avoid the fatal political mistakes of the Obama era: not acting at the full scale of the economic crisis in an effort to be bipartisan, and falling short in delivering on promises made."

"We are up currently against the ticking time bomb of an unrelenting climate crisis and an economic crisis wearing down working people," Ellen Sciales, Sunrise Movement's press secretary, said in a statement. "Each day the process of passing an infrastructure package is delayed by performative negotiations with the GOP—who are clearly disinterested in working with Democrats—another day goes by that we are not healing our planet or getting people good jobs to support their families."

Underscoring the GOP's intransigence, Sciales proceeded to offer examples of congressional Republicans' deep-seated antagonism toward Democratic lawmakers.

"When Mitch McConnell says '100% of my focus is on stopping this new administration,' believe him," Sciales said of the Senate minority leader, a Kentucky Republican. "The GOP has made it clear that they are a party bent on upholding manipulative and violent politics, and proved it when not a single Republican senator voted for the popular, much-needed Covid relief package."

Moreover, Sciales said, Wednesday's vote ousting right-wing Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) from a GOP leadership role for her refusal to go along with former President Donald Trump's reckless lie that the 2020 presidential race was "stolen" from him "is just another stark reminder that the Republican Party has devolved to a delusional, dangerous group that cannot even acknowledge the simple reality that Biden won the election."

"These are not people we should pretend will work with us in good faith," she added, echoing a point made last week by Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.).

Indeed, as Common Dreams reported last month, Republican lawmakers have already vowed to oppose Biden's $2.3 trillion American Jobs Plan and $1.8 trillion American Families Plan—the White House's two-pronged approach to improving the nation's physical and social infrastructure—as long as the spending proposals include even modest tax hikes on the richest Americans and corporations.

The American Jobs Plan would increase the corporate tax rate, close offshore tax loopholes, and disincentivize outsourcing jobs. The American Families Plan would increase the marginal tax rate for households with annual earnings above $400,000, increase the capital gains rate for the wealthiest Americans, and provide the Internal Revenue Service with sorely needed resources to crack down on rampant tax evasion.

In addition to their opposition to raising revenue through progressive tax reform, the GOP has also claimed that only a small portion of Biden's proposed investments can be considered "real" infrastructure, drawing rebukes from progressives.

While they have denounced Republican lawmakers for being unwilling to raise taxes on the wealthy to fund a post-pandemic economic recovery, Senate Democrats will need to win over at least 10 Republicans or use the restrictive budget reconciliation process to pass an infrastructure package if they keep refusing to heed growing calls to eliminate the 60-vote legislative filibuster.

Republicans don't appear to have budged as a result of Wednesday's talks. For the first time in his presidency, Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris hosted McConnell, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for an in-person meeting in the Oval Office.

Afterward, McConnell told reporters that the two camps still needed to "define what infrastructure is," and reiterated that Republicans are "not interested" in reversing the 2017 tax cuts for the rich, suggesting that little progress was made during the nearly two-hour long discussion.

In her statement, Sciales stressed that "Biden can't get distracted by this false idea of bipartisanship when there's so much at stake. He must learn from the Obama-era mistakes and act urgently, without compromising with the Republican Party of violence."

Alluding to left-wing criticisms of Biden's infrastructure proposal—which falls far short of progressives' demands for $10 trillion of investments in green jobs, renewable energy, clean transit, sustainable housing, and the care economy this decade—for being "woefully" insufficient, Sciales emphasized that "Biden's infrastructure package is already a compromise."

"It can't be watered down further, especially to cater to a party that is fueled by the profits and donations of fossil fuel executives and that'd rather ensure billionaires get tax cuts than make sure working people get paid a living wage," she added.

Sunrise's call for Biden to forego negotiations with Republicans in order to prioritize delivering material gains to working-class Americans—as promised to the millions of voters who gave Democrats unified control of the legislative and executive branches of the federal government—comes just two days after members of Sunrise embarked on a 400-mile march from New Orleans to Houston to pressure the White House and Congress to rapidly and adequately confront the climate emergency.

On their journey—which traverses the heart of the U.S. petrochemical industry as well as cities that have been hard-hit by the convergence of inequality and extreme weather—the economic and environmental justice campaigners are demanding that Biden include the Sunrise-backed proposals for "Good Jobs for All" and a Civilian Climate Corps in his infrastructure plan.

Senate votes to repeal Trump-era rule that helps predatory lenders trap vulnerable people in debt

The U.S. Senate on Tuesday voted largely along party lines to repeal a Trump-era rule that has made it easier for predatory payday lenders to dodge state-level interest rate limits and trap vulnerable, low-income people in debt.

By a vote of 52-47—with Sens. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) crossing the aisle in support—the Senate passed a Congressional Review Act (CRA) resolution that would undo the Trump administration's change, which financial industry watchdogs and consumer advocacy groups have taken to calling the "fake lender" rule.

A companion CRA resolution has been introduced in the House of Representatives, which has until the end of the legislative session to pass it.

Stressing the urgency of House action, Lauren Saunders of the National Consumer Law Center said the Trump-era rule is "doing active harm right now, defending a predatory business model that destroys small businesses, homes, and lives."

As just one egregious example, advocates have pointed to the case of a New York City restaurant owner who took out $67,000 in small business loans from World Business Lenders and is now facing an annual interest rate of 268%—far above the 25% maximum permitted under New York's criminal usury statute.

The Payday Loan Debt Trap Tracker estimates that flimsy payday lender regulations have cost consumers over $11 billion in fees since 2019.

"Congress must act," said Saunders, "because it could easily be two years or more before the rule could be repealed through rulemaking, and small business and families devastated by Covid, especially in Black and Brown communities, cannot wait."

One of the final acts of Trump's Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), the rule enables financial entities like payday lenders to rent a bank's name and charter in order to evade state laws barring non-bank institutions from charging exorbitant interest rates—a scheme known as "rent-a-bank."

"The payday lenders bring in customers willing to borrow money at high rates, and then ink a deal with a bank that will dole out the loan money to those borrowers," Hannah Levintova of Mother Jones explained. "The loan paperwork lists the bank as the originator of the loan. Once that paperwork is complete, the bank sells most of the loan back to the high-cost lender (or an affiliate). The result, then, is that the payday lender has masqueraded as a bank for the purposes of charging borrowers more money."

Rachel Gittleman, financial services outreach manager with the Consumer Federation of America, said in a statement Tuesday that the Senate's vote "shows bipartisan disapproval of the harmful rent-a-bank model that is being used by predatory payday and installment lenders to make triple-digit interest rate loans that are illegal across the country."

"Now," added Gittleman, "the U.S. House of Representatives must act to protect consumers, especially small business owners, still reeling from the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic."

White House looks to reassure gasoline panic buyers as Colonial Pipeline works to resume operations

As panic buying empties some East Coast gas stations due to consumer worry over the multi-day closure of the Colonial Pipeline, the Biden administration is feeling compelled to reassure the public that no, this still isn't a situation where you need to fill your kid's wading pool with gasoline and stand guard over it to protect yourself from roving gas gangs. There appears to be a good chunk of America that devotes themselves to finding small problems and turning them into big ones, and the people currently crowding into gas stations to fill red plastic tanks and pile them into their back seats are, unless their livelihood depends on their latest backyard monster truck rally going off without a hitch, probably them.

In a public statement, the White House detailed some of the steps being taken to speed up gas deliveries while Colonial Pipeline technicians restart things after a criminal "ransomware"-styled cyberattack. The Department of Transportation is allowing fuel companies to transport overweight loads on interstate highways in 10 states. The Environmental Protection Agency is granting emergency fuel waivers suspending gasoline blending rules. A move to temporarily waive Jones Act requirements, thus allowing foreign-flagged, foreign-crewed oil tankers to transport fuel from the Gulf Coast to Atlantic states is also being contemplated. Across the affected states, governors are also taking emergency measures—though some moves, like Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp's order temporarily suspending state gas taxes so as to knock prices back down, are perhaps of less value than others.

Again: It's not supply problems causing the current problems. It's neighborhood panic buying that's draining local gas stations dry in places like Georgia, the Carolinas, and Virginia. Your corner gas station gets the gasoline it sells you from scheduled, regular deliveries: If consumers are suddenly making a run on each station so as to beat a perceived future "crisis," there's simply not going to be enough delivery trucks available to keep those tanks full.

As for the cyberattack itself, even the criminal gang responsible for the breach of Colonial's systems seems alarmed and embarrassed by the level of chaos their attack has caused. (This is at least a decent public relations move on the part of the gang, now that they realize that even slightly interfering with the United States of America's domestic fuel supply is something U.S. governments regularly respond to by ordering airstrikes on the attackers and leaving it to others to sort out which bodies are which.) While Colonial wipes and reinstalls computer systems throughout their company to erase the ransomware and get operations back to normal, the episode is a grim warning that an intentional state-sponsored attack on American fuel pipelines, power plants, and other critical infrastructure is both a very real danger and is likely to be devastatingly effective.

The United States has been sluggish, at best, in hardening critical infrastructure to defend against such attacks, and pipeline security is especially lax considering the nationwide chaos that could result from a breach that not just encrypted pipeline systems, but attempted to do real structural damage to the physical pumping operations themselves. Instead, the United States has relied on a generally unstated capability for mutual destruction—while domestic infrastructure can hardly be considered hardened against cyberattacks, the U.S. is equally capable of mounting such international attacks itself.

So far, though, it appears that Colonial may have dropped the security ball on this one, and for the same reason that Texas power generators found themselves frozen up and nonfunctional during that state's power emergency: There's no profit to be had in planning for rare emergency situations, so many companies don't bother unless they are forced by government regulation to do so. There will likely be new regulations written after this requiring pipeline operators to better secure communications and control systems, and those regulations will likely be fought tooth and nail, used as examples of "government overreach" that harms the private sector by stripping companies of their power to decide for themselves whether or not they want their systems held for ransom by one of the most-known criminal cyberattack schemes on the planet. To prepare for that future debate, it might be wise to start hoarding ibuprofen.

'Butt out': St. Louis paper slams Missouri GOP for 'meddling' in COVID relief funds after voting against extra cash

When Democrats in Congress passed the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 and President Joe Biden signed it into law, the funds were meant to help urban and suburban areas as well as rural areas. Large cities have different economic and budgetary needs than rural areas, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's editorial board — in a biting editorial published on May 10 — slams Republicans in the Missouri State Legislature who "want to meddle in how St. Louis and other cities" spend the money.

The Post-Dispatch editorial board explains, "St. Louis knows better than distant rural lawmakers how that money should be used…. A (Missouri) House (of Representatives) committee last week voted to create a new Local Accountability and Transparency Committee to oversee the Rescue Plan money that's going to cities, including the $517 million coming St. Louis' way. It's pending before the full House. While the committee couldn't block local spending, it would create an added layer of bureaucracy for cities in handling the money."

The editorial board finds it ridiculous that although the American Rescue Plan received no GOP votes in either the U.S. House of Representatives or the U.S. Senate, Republicans in the Missouri State Legislature in Jefferson City (the state capitol) want to dictate how St. Louis' government uses the money.

"The Biden Administration's American Rescue Plan is the $1.9 trillion program designed to boost America's economic recovery from the pandemic," the Post-Dispatch editorial board points out. "It put $2800 in the pockets of most American households, extends unemployment benefits, provides grants to small businesses, and provides billions to local governments to bolster education, housing, health care and other areas. Not one Republican in Congress voted for it, but now, their Jefferson City counterparts want to oversee it."

Although Missouri is a red state — former President Donald Trump lost the 2020 presidential election but carried Missouri by 15% — and its state legislature in Jefferson City is controlled by Republicans, St. Louis is heavily Democratic. St. Louis' mayor, Tishaura Jones, is a Democrat. And the Post-Dispatch's editorial stresses that Republicans in Missouri's state government fail to comprehend St. Louis' needs as a large urban center.

"Mayor Tishaura Jones said through a spokesman that St. Louis intends full public transparency with the money anyway and that the state is welcome to 'the same information we're providing the public,'" the Post-Dispatch's editorial board notes. "That's fine, but the fact remains that a state government with a history of damaging meddling in city affairs now wants to meddle in the use of money that Republicans as a party didn't want cities to have in the first place. The Legislature should butt out."

Report reveals how big corporations rigged rules to boost pandemic pay of CEOs as w​orkers suffered

Dozens of the largest low-wage employers in the United States manipulated their own rules during the coronavirus pandemic to hand wealthy CEOs substantial raises while their vulnerable frontline workers struggled to get by with inadequate paychecks, meager benefits, and flimsy on-the-job protections.

That's according to a new report (pdf) released Tuesday by the Institute for Policy Studies, which found that 51 of the nation's 100 biggest low-wage employers—including Tyson Foods, Coca-Cola, Chipotle, and YUM Brands—used numerous tactics to boost executive pay in 2020 while offering their workers few safeguards against the pandemic and resulting economic meltdown.

"Common manipulations included lowering performance bars to help executives meet bonus targets, awarding special 'retention' bonuses, excluding poor second-quarter results from evaluations, and replacing performance-based pay with time-based awards," the report notes. "Companies enlisted an army of 'independent' compensation consultants in an effort to give all this rule-rigging a veneer of legitimacy."

For example, the board of Chipotle—a company notorious for violating worker safety and health regulations—inflated CEO Brian Niccol's total compensation to $38 million in 2020 by "toss[ing] out the company's poor financial results from the peak shutdown period and exclud[ing] Covid-related costs, a bit of financial magic that artificially boosted Chipotle's operating income and helped give Niccola 136% raise."

At the companies that altered their rules to reward top executives amid the deadly pandemic, CEO pay averaged $15.3 million in 2020, up 29% from 2019. By contrast, the report found that median worker pay at those companies fell by 2% to an average of $28,187.

"The 100 S&P 500 corporations we analyzed all paid median compensation under $50,000 in 2020," the analysis notes. "Some did offer frontline employees paid leave and small pay increases during the pandemic, usually around $2 per hour, but in nearly all cases this modest extra Covid-19 support was only temporary. The real largesse flowed only to C-suites."


Sarah Anderson, director of the IPS Global Economy Project and lead author of the report, said in a statement that "it's time for public policy to shift corporate America away from a business model that creates prosperity for a few at the top and precarity for so many of the rest of us."

"By inflating executive compensation while their workers struggled during a pandemic," Anderson added, "corporate boards have strengthened the case for tax penalties on huge CEO-worker pay gaps."

The report offers several recommendations for reining in massive and growing CEO-worker pay gaps, including passage of the Tax Excessive CEO Pay Act of 2021, legislation introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in March.

That bill would increase the corporate tax rate by 0.5% for companies that pay their CEOs over 50 times more than the median worker, and 5% for companies that pay their chief executives over 500 times more than the median worker.

"As millions of families struggle to keep food on the table during a global pandemic and economic crisis, it is more important than ever that we close the CEO-worker pay gap and ensure that companies pay their workers the wages they deserve," Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), a co-sponsor of the bill, said in a statement.

In a Tuesday blog post, Anderson noted that the measure "would generate an estimated $150 billion over 10 years that could be used to create good jobs and meet human needs."

"If the bill had been in place in 2020, Walmart, with a pay gap of 1,078 to 1, would have owed an extra $1 billion in federal taxes—enough to fund 13,502 clean energy jobs for a year," Anderson wrote. "Amazon, with a 1,596-to-1 pay ratio, also would have owed an extra $1 billion, enough to underwrite 115,089 public housing units for a year."

Biden actually has a plan to finally rebuild the American middle class

Nick Kessler lived paycheck to paycheck—eking life out of his bald tires, "praying to God nothing broke" at home—until he landed a union position at U.S. Steel in Granite City, Illinois, three years ago.

While that job changed his life, Kessler didn't stop there. He also took advantage of free training, provided under the United Steelworkers (USW) contract with the company, to advance to a highly skilled electrician's role that provides even more security for his wife and young son.

President Joe Biden's American Families Plan would make that kind of transformative opportunity available to all, giving millions of workers greater access to family-sustaining jobs while helping the nation rebuild the middle class.

Among many other provisions, Biden's plan would provide access to two years of tuition-free community college and training to every American.

It's essential that Congress now pass legislation that enacts the plan and paves the way for more Americans to obtain associate degrees, commercial driver's licenses or professional certifications in the skilled trades and other crucial fields.

"Your education is something nobody can ever take from you," said Kessler, a member of USW Local 1899, noting skills like his enhance his employment prospects no matter where he lives.

"The electricians and the plumbers and the carpenters and the welders are the ones that keep everything going," he observed. "The demand for the trades is the highest that it's been in years."

And the demand will only grow exponentially under the American Jobs Plan, the president's call to invest nearly $2 trillion in infrastructure, including roads and bridges, locks and dams, schools and airports, manufacturing facilities, the electric grid, new energy systems and communication networks.

These long-overdue infrastructure investments, long championed by the USW, will lift America out of the COVID-19 recession, rebuild the economy and strengthen the country for the next crisis.

The nation will need pipefitters, electricians, carpenters, welders and other skilled workers not only to construct roads and refurbish buildings but also to fill highly technical jobs like Kessler's in steel mills, foundries and other plants that manufacture the materials and equipment for infrastructure projects.

According to Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, "[t]he infrastructure plan would create or save 15 million jobs over 10 years." Workers could obtain the skills needed for many of those jobs with six months of training or less.

Providing workers with a pathway for that upskilling will be essential to meeting the nation's infrastructure needs. While union members often receive training benefits through their contracts, many Americans currently lack those opportunities.

Before joining the USW at U.S. Steel, for example, Kessler took electrician's classes at a community college but found the tuition too expensive to complete the program on his own.

Another steelworker, Erik Boyer, picked up mechanical skills as best he could while working on cars in his backyard.

Now, after accepting a job at Cleveland-Cliffs' New Carlisle Works in Indiana and testing into the mechanical program, Boyer will get the combination of classroom instruction and on-the-job training he needs to formalize and complete his education in a year to 14 months.

He knows many more Americans would consider careers in the trades if they knew that the jobs and training were available to them.

"That opens things up to a lot of people," Boyer, a member of USW Local 9231, said of Biden's college and training proposal. "It does provide answers to a lot of problems."

USW Local 14581 in Elkhorn City, Kentucky, operates an on-the-job training program with decades of success putting workers into family-sustaining highway construction jobs like truck drivers, carpenters, drillers, blasters and grader and roller operators.

Local President Gypsy Cantrell realizes that many more local residents would benefit from the program—now supported by government agencies and contractors—and hopes that funds from the American Families Plan will enable her to expand it.

Among other possibilities, she would like to establish a training center so she can begin offering classroom instruction, install equipment simulators and bring in retired union members to offer their expertise. She said some trainees, like carpenters, could even put their skills to use in community service projects as part of an enhanced curriculum.

"The need is there," Cantrell said, noting an expanded program would enable the local to provide skilled workers for new projects generated through Biden's infrastructure push.

Women and workers of color have long fought for equitable opportunities in the nation's economy, and the education benefits afforded by the American Families Plan would help to level the playing field.

An expansion of the Local 14581 training program, for example, would boost the union's longstanding efforts to place struggling residents like DeDe Wallace in family-sustaining jobs. Wallace's training as a grader operator enabled her to raise three grandchildren after her husband, Ricky, became disabled and later died.

"I don't know what would have happened to them if I hadn't been able to take care of them," Wallace, who retired in 2018, said of her grown and successful grandkids.

Because of his past struggles, Kessler appreciates what he has now all the more.

He's happy to be able to provide for his family. But he's also proud to wield skills essential to the nation's prosperity.

"It's a pretty great career," he said.

Tom Conway is the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW).

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

'Terrible economics': These states are declining federal unemployment funds. Experts say that's 'a huge mistake'

Residents in South Carolina and Montana next month will lose access to federal unemployment benefits over what those states' Republican governors call a "severe workforce shortage." Experts say the move by Montana's Gov. Greg Gianforte and South Carolina's Gov. Henry McMaster is a "huge mistake."

As ABC News reports, South Carolina and Montana are the first states "to end participation in the unemployment enhancement programs." That program offered U.S. workers access to extra unemployment funds as part of the American Rescue Plan signed by President Joe Biden in March.

In a statement announcing South Carolina's "return to pre-pandemic unemployment program," McMaster complained: "In many instances, these payments are greater than the worker's previous paychecks."

"What was intended to be a short-term financial assistance for the vulnerable and displaced during the height of the pandemic has turned into a dangerous federal entitlement," he said.

In an effort to incentivize Montanans, Gianforte is offering a one-time "'return-to-work bonus' of $1,200 will be paid to people who rejoin the labor force and maintain employment for at least one month," according to ABC News. That money will also come from the federally-funded American Rescue Plan.

But Economy Policy Institute senior economist Heidi Shierholz says McMaster and Gianforte are making "a huge mistake."

"The idea that states are just going to forego that and allow all that money to be sucked out of their economy is just terrible economics," Shierholz told ABC News. "I just deeply hope that you don't see more states following this path because it's a huge mistake."

Shierholz said the narrative of a "severe workforce shortage" driven by increased unemployment benefits is based on a false premise. Currently, federal unemployment benefits offer laid-off workers an additional $300 per week, down from $600 at the end of last of July. According to Shierholz, if money was the motivator, that decrease from $600 to $300 would have made a marked difference in the unemployment rate last year.

"You should have seen a bump up in employment, and you can't see that in the data so it just points to that it wasn't really causing the labor supply effect," Shierholz said. "It's just difficult to imagine that something half that big is having any effect now."

And Shierholz is far from the only expert who warns that hiring issues in South Carolina and Montana won't be solved by depriving residents of enhanced unemployment benefits.

ABC News reports:

William E. Spriggs, an economist and professor at Howard University, said in an interview with ABC News that there is no data to prove that unemployment checks are preventing Americans from returning to work.

"There's no job shortage, in terms of workers. There's a wage shortage," said Spriggs, adding that research shows many employers "want to pay rotten wages and have rotten hours."

Last week, the Washington Post published an analysis that likewise dispelled the framing of a "worker shortage" based on enhanced unemployment. "At the most basic level, people are still hesitant to return to work until they are fully vaccinated and their children are back in school and daycare full-time," the Post analysis declares.

Many Americans, the Post reports, are "re-assessing what they want to do and how they want to work, whether in an office, at home or some hybrid combination."

Still, McMaster and Gianforte are blazing ahead with plans to reopen their respective economies by depriving citizens (and their states) of extra funding during the worst public health crisis in a century. As ABC News reports, experts say "declining to take federal money is going to have a deep effect on the living standards of residents and their families, and likely will worsen those states' overall economies."

But for all the hand wringing about disincentivized workers by those states' Republican governors, Shierholz said the bottom line is "employers are just angry that they are unable to find workers at relatively low wages."

"The jobs being posted are more stressful, more risky, harder jobs than they were pre-COVID," she added. " ... When the job is more stressful, then it should command a higher wage."

Update Sun. May 9 | 9:25 AM EST —

WMC Action News reports that Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Friday also "ordered the state's Division of Workforce Services to end Arkansas' participation in federal pandemic unemployment programs." That order goes into effect on June 26; the federal unemployment benefit program will run until September.

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