Rachel's Democracy & Health News #857
Thursday, June 1, 2006
From: Rachel's Democracy & Health News #857 ..........[This story printer-friendly]
June 1, 2006
THE CONTEXT OF OUR WORK: SLOW ECONOMIC GROWTH, PART 1
[Rachel's introduction: As we all struggle to create a decent, peaceable world where everyone has enough of what they need, our work takes place within contexts that are often invisible. One such context is the slowed rate of economic growth since the 1970s. It explains much of what's in the news each day.]
By Peter Montague
In the U.S., what we call "the system" is beset by multiple crises.
** The end of cheap oil is coming.
** Global warming is upon us.
** Water shortages are worsening in the U.S. and globally.
** Rising inequality divides the top 2% from the rest of us.
** The rising cost of medical care and the high cost of medical insurance weigh on the minds of most people.
** The promise of secure retirement is fading for many aging boomers (which of course affects their children).
** The social safety net created after the Great Depression is being shredded bit by bit year after year.
** Families and indeed the nation are deeply in debt.
** Widespread insecurity afflicts large portions of the populace (good jobs disappearing, debt rising, the children's future uncertain).
** A serious time crunch has beset many families.
** Some ecological limits have appeared on the horizon (no place left to throw away toxics; cost of some resources critical rising, etc.).
** The political party that controls the White House, the Congress, and much of the judiciary now owes its electoral success to a large group of people who believe the world is going to end soon, which may make earthly problems seem unimportant to many of them. For the first time in American history, a religious party now controls the government.
Perhaps the future is bright
Perhaps "the system" will navigate through all these interlocking crises without encountering any serious economic difficulties, but perhaps not. It seems possible that as the combined effect of all these problems grips the nation more tightly, economic growth-rates may slow down further, dipping below their current levels.
Unfortunately, we are already getting a preview of how "the system" will respond to slowing growth. The rate of economic growth (measured by GDP) has been slowing for the past 35 years,[2,3,4,5,6] and the system's response has not been pretty. Without going into a lot of detail, I believe much of what passes for "the news" each day can best be explained as "system responses" to slowed growth.
For the 100 years spanning 1870 to 1970, the U.S. economy (measured by gross domestic product, or GDP) grew at an average annual rate of 3.4% per year. Since 1970, the U.S. economy has grown just 2.3% per year.[5,pg.5] This may seem like a small difference, but it really isn't because the effects are cumulative, year after year. The difference between two percent and three percent isn't one percent -- it's fifty percent.[5,pg.7; 6,pgs.63-75]
Here's another way to look at it: if the U.S. economy had grown at 3.4% per year since 1973, instead of 2.3%, the additional wealth created during the two decades 1973-1993 would have added up to an extra $12 trillion (adjusted for inflation) -- enough to replace every factory in the U.S., including all capital equipment, with a modern new factory; or enough to pay off the entire government debt plus all home mortgage debt plus all credit card debt.[5,pg.5]
If economic growth had maintained its historical level since 1970, the average family in 1993 would have had an additional $5,500 to spend each year. Over the 20 years, 1973-1993, the average family would have had at least an additional $50,000 of income -- enough for a young couple to buy a first home, a low-income family to maintain health insurance, or for someone to go to college. State and local governments would have collected an additional $900 billion in taxes during the 20 years -- to support schools, libraries, parks, public transit, emergency services, police and fire protection, affordable housing, local economic development, and so on. [5,pgs.10-11]
The U.S. is not unique. The trend of declining growth-rates can be seen in all the wealthy nations of the world, the 29 members of the OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development]. During each passing decade since 1970, growth in OECD countries has declined, compared to the previous decade.[6,pg.38] The trend of slowing growth doesn't affect just the average family. Even more importantly, it affects the super rich -- in the U.S., the one percent of us who own 50% of all private wealth, or, more broadly, the 5% of us who own 2/3rds of all private wealth.
Understandably, the wealthiest few expect a decent return when they invest their capital, and slow growth makes decent returns hard to find.
What is a decent return on investment? Here's one way to answer that question. When the President's Office of Management and Budget (OMB) considers a new regulation (for example, to control mercury emitted by power plants) the agency asks whether the benefits justify the costs. They say to themselves, "This regulation will cost industry X dollars per year. How much wealth could those dollars create if they were invested with a return of Y percent per year? In that equation, OMB now sets Y equal to 7 percent. OMB assumes a typical business investment should yield a 7% annual return.
Of course in recent years, many investors have been looking for 20% annual returns so 7% may seem puny by comparison. Still, 7% is twice the long-term historical rate of return on investment (measured as growth of GDP) and three times the average rate of return since 1973. So modern owners of capital expect decent returns that far exceed historical averages. Therefore they are likely to be unhappy if their return merely meets the historical average, and doubly dissatisfied with returns 30% below the historical average (e.g., 2.3% instead of 3.4%). They naturally believe they deserve better -- America deserves better -- the world deserves better -- and they believe government should help boost their returns one way or another. After all, capitalism as we know it would stop working if capitalists stopped investing, so providers of capital deserve a decent rate of return, they might argue, and they would have a point.
According to the hypothesis I'm describing here, five features of modern life have caused the downturn in economic growth in the U.S. (and in the rest of the industrialized world):
(1) Saturation of effective consumer demand; those who can afford to buy stuff already have about as much stuff as they need or can afford; indeed, to pump up demand further, U.S. industry now spends $250 billion each year on advertising.
(2) A reduced demand for fixed investment (such as factories) and working capital (money to meet business expenses and expand operations).[3; 6,pgs.37-39] It's getting harder to find safe, productive places to put capital to work these days, partly because of saturated consumer demand and partly because there's a glut of capital.
(3) The proportion of people in the labor force can't increase much beyond where it is today; all the able-bodied are pretty much already working or looking for work; the rest are children, elderly or disabled.
(4) The rate of growth of productivity of workers (the rate at which output per hour grows) has slowed in recent decades;[6,pgs.63-75]
(5) Some ecological limits have come into view -- for example, toxic industrial chemicals are now found everywhere on earth, from the tops of the tallest mountains to the bottoms of the deepest oceans and everywhere in between, including human breast milk. We can no longer convincingly argue that we can throw away unwanted industrial byproducts without affecting living things, so our byproducts must now be managed at considerable expense.[10,11]
The system has responded to these realities in the following ways:
System response No. 1: Easing Credit
No need to belabor this. Credit card debt, home mortgage debt and the national debt have all skyrocketed in recent years.[12,13] Debt is beneficial for those with money to lend, especially credit card debt, which now garners doubt-digit returns. As in no previous generation, young people now leave college (and even high school) saddled with debt. As Kevin Phillips has pointed out, we are witnessing the "financialization" of the U.S. economy. In the year 2000, moving money around became a larger portion of GDP (20%) than manufacturing (14.5%).[1,pg.265; and see pgs. 265-346]
System response No. 2: Promoting International Capital Flow
This is what the corporate "globalization" project is about -- removing barriers for people with money to invest in cutting down the rain forests in Indonesia or setting up a cyanide-leach gold mine on native land in South America or northern Canada. Globalization is about clearing the decks for capital to cross borders unimpeded, in search of a decent return.
System response No. 3: Reduced Restrictions on Financial Firms
Banks, savings and loans, and brokerage firms used to be rigidly segmented by law; now all their functions have been legally merged. The savings and loan bailout in the '80s was the first result; the "dot.com" bubble of the late '90s was the second; the Enron-Worldcom- etc. debacle was the third. There is no end in sight.
System response No. 4: Disinvest in Public Infrastructure (roads, bridges, tunnels, airports, wastewater treatment plants).
"Our infrastructure is sliding toward failure and the prospect for any real improvement is grim," says William Henry, president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, releasing the society's 2005 Report Card for America's Infrastructure at a news conference in March. Of course this is a short-sighted policy, but almost by definition the search for decent return on investment focuses on the next quarter, not the next decade or two.
System response No. 5: Expand the Defense Budget
Defense is the only national industrial policy that almost everyone will agree to, or at least acquiesce to, perhaps for fear of being labeled unpatriotic. Foreign enemies are the ultimate consumers of our military preparations, so in the face of flagging demand for toasters and SUVs our economy now arguably requires a growing supply of foreign enemies. As the President himself said shortly after he committed the U.S. to a perpetual war against evil-doers world-wide, "Bring 'em on." War is good business, with future prospects that seem to grow brighter each passing day.
System response No. 6: Cut Taxes for the Wealthy
Cut income taxes, estate taxes, capital gains taxes, and corporate taxes to benefit the wealthiest Americans, shifting more of the tax burden onto the middle class and the working poor.
System response No. 7: Tax Evasion and Tax Cheating.
Both are now rampant and have been the subject of several recent books offering abundant detail. Meanwhile federal authorities turn a blind eye.[18,19]
System response No. 8: Creation of New Industries:
Space exploration, laser-weapons-in-space, casino gambling, the pornography industry, the recreational drug industry (and its conjoined twin, the prison industry) -- all demonstrate America's "can do" entrepreneurial spirit in the face of slowed growth.
System response No. 9: Diminishing Social Investments
Slowed growth requires that the economic pie be divvied up in new ways. Therefore, all social investments have been put on the chopping block -- veterans' benefits, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, education loans, Head Start, public lands, water and air quality, charity hospitals, Amtrak, the infrastructure of roads, tunnels, bridges, and entire government agencies (the Internal Revenue Service, the Department of Education, the Department of Health and Human Services, among others) and so on and so forth. There is no end to the proposed cuts. Nothing is sacred except of course Defense (and more recently its domestic twin, Homeland Security) where the bipartisan sense of entitlement to insider gains has developed over decades of exemplary military-industrial cooperation.
Cutting the social safety net has the salutary effect of disciplining the workforce to accept lower wages, longer hours without overtime pay, increased workload on the job, reduced vacations, diminished health, elimination of pensions, and so on. (See System Response No. 12, below.)
As a result of these changes, the main historical difference between the two political parties disappeared at least two decades ago. The Democrats now find, for the first time in living memory, that they have no political agenda of their own. As a result, voter disaffection has risen to historic proportions. Cynicism spreads like kudzu. Political apathy then cements the status quo in place.
System response No. 10: Expanding and Discrediting Government
Given the need to distribute the economic pie in new ways, discrediting government has become a necessary political goal because government has occasionally intervened on behalf of "the little people" against "the big people."
Traditionally, government has made modest attempts to level the playing field for everyone, in keeping with the slogan, "With liberty and justice for all." Without basic economic security for families and individuals, neither liberty nor justice is possible.
To his credit, George W. Bush has provided real innovation here. Previous Republican theorists wanted to shrink government so small you could drown it in a bathtub. Mr. Bush recognized that a large inept government was far more useful that a small government, from the viewpoint of those aiming as a matter of high principle and national necessity to transfer a larger portion of the pie from working people and the middle class to the super rich.
The federal response to Katrina was perfect -- a huge bureaucracy that utterly failed. What better way make people think that government is hopeless, that taxes are a waste? Who wants more of a corrupt, bungling bureaucracy that is indifferent to human suffering? Drowning such a creature in a bathtub seems too kind.
Meanwhile, insiders who know how to work the system -- for example, Halliburton, Raytheon, and Boeing -- are earning record returns, and two important public purposes are thereby fulfilled: rates of return on invested capital are pushed upward, at least for a well-connected few, at the same time government is disgraced and discredited. Voters, dismayed, stay home in droves, so the status quo is doubly secured.
Thanks to this President's extraordinary vision and leadership, it may take decades to restore confidence in government as the leveler of playing fields, if it can be done at all.
System response No. 11: Cut wages for workers.
Over the past 30 years, this has been accomplished in the U.S. by a variety of creative techniques, and it must be considered the centerpiece of the ongoing effort to redistribute the pie, to maintain investors' portions at fair, historical levels or better.
Techniques for cutting wages now include:
a. As labor productivity has increased in recent decades (meaning, more output per person-hour of work), modern owners have simply refused to pass the increased income on to workers in the form of wage increases. This is a new trend of the past 30 years, but unmistakable. Productivity has continued to rise during the past 3 decades (though more slowly than historical average rates), but wages have stagnated and in many cases declined. The owners are simply keeping more for themselves. This approach has both simplicity and transparency to commend it.
b. Keep the minimum wage low, rising at a rate that fails to keep up with inflation. The minimum wage sets the floor beneath all wages, so if it fails to rise with inflation, all wages will tend to stagnate or decline. This has been accomplished through exemplary bipartisan consensus. Congress last raised the minimum wage in 1997 (to $5.15 an hour, an annual income of $10,300).
c. Eliminate existing labor unions and prevent the formation of new unions. Unionized workers earn, on average, 21% more per hour than non-union workers. Perhaps more importantly, organized workers have come to expect somewhat safe and modestly healthful working conditions, a modicum of medical benefits, overtime pay, 2-week paid vacations, and perhaps, in extreme cases, even retirement benefits. When growth is slow and owners are feeling that their return on investment is unfairly pinched, unions are seen as standing in the way of efforts to redistribute the pie upward. So unions must go. It's now so blatant that Human Rights Watch issued a stinging report in 2000 accusing the U.S. of repeated intentional violation of the internationally-recognized human rights of its workers.
d. Eliminate defined benefit pensions, and, in an increasing number of instances, eliminate pensions entirely, as was done recently at United Airlines with the good help of a Reagan-appointed federal judge. Efforts to eliminate pensions entirely are gathering steam, as one would expect if my hypothesis about the bipartisan response to slow growth is correct.
With the average age of the population rising, the reduction or elimination of retirement benefits (such as Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and private pensions) may at first blush seem like a political powder keg. Perhaps the thinking among the leaders of both parties is that an elderly, destitute population will remain so frightened and disoriented that it cannot effectively make its political will felt. In any case, efforts to eliminate retirement benefits seem to be proceeding apace and working well. As the man who jumped off the skyscraper said as he fell past the 20th floor, "So far so good."
e. Increasingly, the U.S. workforce has been put into direct competition with low-wage workers in Third World countries. Without strict oversight and enforcement of a kind never yet seen anywhere in the world, this sort of competition inevitably creates a "race to the bottom" for wages, working conditions, and environmental standards simultaneously -- all of which are ways to "externalize" costs of production and thus to move a larger, fairer portion of the pie into the domain of the investor class.
f. Reduce the availability of health insurance. In 2003, 45 million Americans had no health insurance, up 1.4 million from the year before and up 5.1 million from the year 2000.
System response No. 12: Promote rapid technical innovation
Business and government together are constantly searching for "the next big thing," hoping to induce rapid technical innovation. It's the star wars missile defense shield; no, it's biotechnology; no, it's nanotechnology; no, it's really "synthetic biology" -- the creation of entirely new life forms never previously known on planet earth. Of course, by definition, rapid innovation and deployment are incompatible with thoughtful consideration of likely consequences prior to deployment. However, ill-considered deployment has been the norm for 180 years, so it is now thought to be "business as usual" and is easily justified as the price of progress. Rapid innovation churns the economy and creates manifold opportunities for decent return on investment -- particularly during the early stages of a new product or process. It is only later that trouble becomes apparent and profits decline, at which point government typically steps in to pick up the pieces and shield investors from the consequences of their impetuous zeal. (Think Superfund. Think nuclear power.)
Despite official protestations to the contrary, U.S. government policies generally encourage industrial enterprises to "externalize" the costs of their damage to nature and human health, and this trend has accelerated in recent years as economic growth has slowed. The truth is, many industrial operations simply cannot afford to internalize their costs and at the same time provide a decent return, so they MUST externalize their costs. They don't really have a choice, given the pressing need for decent return on investment.
[To be continued next week.]
 Among other sources, see Kevin Phillips, American Theocracy; The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money. New York: Viking, 2006. ISBN 0-670-03486-X. According to Phillips, roughly 55% of those who voted for Mr. Bush in 2004 believe that the world will end in the battle of Armageddon, as described in the Book of Revelation. As Phillips says (pg. vii), "... the last two presidential elections mark the transformation of the GOP [the Republican Party] into the first religious party in U.S. history." Phillips is a well- known Republican.
 Bernstein, Michael A., and David E. Adler. Understanding American Economic Decline. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. ISBN 0-521-45679-7.
 Bjork, Gordon C. The Way It Worked and Why It Won't; Structural Change and the Slowdown of U.S. Economic Growth. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1999. ISBN 0-275-96532-5.
 Cohen, Richard and Peter A. Wilson. Superpowers in Economic Decline; U.S. Strategy in the Transcentury Era. N.Y.: Taylor and Francis, 1990. ISBN 0-8448-1625-6.
 Mardick, Jeffrey. The End of Affluence; The Causes and Consequences of America's Economic Dilemma. N.Y.: Random House, 1995. ISBN 0-679-43623-5.
 Shutt, Harry. The Trouble with Capitalism; An Enquiry into the Causes of Global Economic Failure. London: Zed Books, 1998. ISBN 1-85649-566-3.
 Data on our growing inequalities of wealth are available from several sources, but my current favorite is Gar Alperovitz, America Beyond Capitalism; Reclaiming Our wealth, Our Liberty and Our Democracy (Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2005); see pgs. 204-206. See also 6.] Chuck Collins and Felice Yeskel, Economic Apartheid in America (New York: New Press, 2000) with revised and corrected data available here. See also, for example, Edward N. Wolff, Top Heavy; the Increasing Inequality of Wealth in American and What Can Be Done About It (New York: The New Press, 2002). Another excellent book is Michael Zweig's, The Working Class Majority; America's Best Kept Secret (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2000); ISBN 0-8014-3637-0.
 "EPA Revises Regulatory Reviews To Discount Long-Term Benefits," Inside EPA, October 8, 2004.
 Floyd Norris, "Too Much Capital: Why It Is Getting Harder to Find a Good Investment," New York Times March 26, 2005, pg. C1.
 Peter M. Vitousek, and others. "Human Appropriation of the Products of Photosynthesis," Bioscience Vol. 36 No. 6 (June, 1986), pgs. 368- 373. Available here.
 Peter M. Vitousek and others, "Human Domination of Earth's Ecosystems," Science Vol. 277 (July 25, 1997), pgs. 494-499; available here. And see Jane Lubchenco, "Entering the Century of the Environment: A New Social Contract for Science," Science Vol. 279 (Jan. 23, 1998), pgs. 491-497, available here.
 Gretchen Morgenson, "After the Debt Feast Comes the Heartburn," New York Times Nov. 27, 2005, pg. 3-1.
 See Kevin Phillips, American Theocracy; The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money. New York: Viking, 2006. ISBN 0-670-03486-X. See Part III, "Borrowed Prosperity," pgs. 265-387.
 http://www.precaution.org/lib/06/prn_generation_of_debtors.06 0523.htm
 "Crumbling Infrastructure Erodes Quality of Life in U.S.," Environment News Service March 10, 2005.
 William Rivers Pitt, "The Thing We Don't Talk About," Truthout.org June 23, 2005.
 Robert Johnson, "Little Dogs Don't Pay Taxes," New York Times, August 1, 2004, Sunday Business Section, pg. 2.
 Donald Barlett and James B. Steele, America: Who really Pays the Taxes? (New York: Touchstone, 1994; ISBN 0-671-87157-9).
 Donald Barlett and James B. Steele, The Great American Tax Dodge; How Spiraling Fraud and Avoidance Are Killing Fairness, Destroying the Income Tax, and Costing You (Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press, 2002; ISBN 0520236106).
 Economic Policy Institute, The State of Working America 2004/2005, September 5, 2004.
 Lance Compa, Unfair Advantage; Workers' Freedom of Association in the United States Under International Human Rights Standards (New York: Human Rights Watch, August 2000). ISBN 1-56432-251-3.
 See, for example, Eduardo Porter and Mary Williams Walsh, "Benefits Go the Way of Pensions," New York Times February 9, 2006; and see Mary Williams Walsh, "The Nation: When Your Pension is Frozen," New York Times January 22, 2006; and Mary Williams Walsh, "Whoops! There Goes Another Pension Plan" New York Times, September 18, 2005, pg. 3-1; and Mary Williams Walsh, "How Wall Street Wrecked United's Pension," New York Times July 31, 2005, pg. 3-1.
 Robert Pear, "Health Leaders Seek Consensus Over Uninsured," New York Times May 29, 2005, pg. A1.
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May 30, 2006
TYRANNY OF THE CHRISTIAN RIGHT
[Rachel's introduction: An article about Christian nationalism may seem far afield from "environmental health." That is, until you realize that the U.S. is now controlled by a political party that derives its electoral strength from an unlikely coalition of Christian nationalists and plutocrats (the wealthiest 2% of Americans). As Republican Kevin Phillips points out in his new book, American Theocracy, about 55% of Republicans who voted in the last presidential election believe the world is going to end soon in a bloody conflagration -- and if that's the case, why spend time worrying about the natural environment or human health?]
By Michelle Goldberg
Whenever I talk about the growing power of the evangelical right with friends, they always ask the same question: What can we do? Usually I reply with a joke: Keep a bag packed and your passport current.
I don't really mean it, but my anxiety is genuine. It's one thing to have a government that shows contempt for civil liberties; America has survived such men before. It's quite another to have a mass movement -- the largest and most powerful mass movement in the nation -- rise up in opposition to the rights of its fellow citizens. The Constitution protects minorities, but that protection is not absolute; with a sufficiently sympathetic or apathetic majority, a tightly organized faction can get around it.
The mass movement I've described aims to supplant Enlightenment rationalism with what it calls the "Christian worldview." The phrase is based on the conviction that true Christianity must govern every aspect of public and private life, and that all -- government, science, history and culture -- must be understood according to the dictates of scripture. There are biblically correct positions on every issue, from gay marriage to income tax rates, and only those with the right worldview can discern them. This is Christianity as a total ideology -- I call it Christian nationalism. It's an ideology adhered to by millions of Americans, some of whom are very powerful. It's what drives a great many of the fights over religion, science, sex and pluralism now dividing communities all over the country.
I am not suggesting that religious tyranny is imminent in the United States. Our democracy is eroding and some of our rights are disappearing, but for most people, including those most opposed to the Christian nationalist agenda, life will most likely go on pretty much as normal for the foreseeable future. Thus for those who value secular society, apprehending the threat of Christian nationalism is tricky. It's like being a lobster in a pot, with the water heating up so slowly that you don't notice the moment at which it starts to kill you.
If current trends continue, we will see ever-increasing division and acrimony in our politics. That's partly because, as Christian nationalism spreads, secularism is spreading as well, while moderate Christianity is in decline. According to the City University of New York Graduate Center's comprehensive American religious identification survey, the percentage of Americans who identify as Christians has actually fallen in recent years, from 86 percent in 1990 to 77 percent in 2001. The survey found that the largest growth, in both absolute and percentage terms, was among those who don't subscribe to any religion. Their numbers more than doubled, from 14.3 million in 1990, when they constituted 8 percent of the population, to 29.4 million in 2001, when they made up 14 percent.
"The top three 'gainers' in America's vast religious marketplace appear to be Evangelical Christians, those describing themselves as Non-Denominational Christians and those who profess no religion," the survey found. (The percentage of other religious minorities remained small, totaling less than 4 percent of the population).
This is a recipe for polarization. As Christian nationalism becomes more militant, secularists and religious minorities will mobilize in opposition, ratcheting up the hostility. Thus we're likely to see a shrinking middle ground, with both camps increasingly viewing each other across a chasm of mutual incomprehension and contempt.
In the coming years, we will probably see the curtailment of the civil rights that gay people, women and religious minorities have won in the last few decades. With two Bush appointees on the Supreme Court, abortion rights will be narrowed; if the president gets a third, it could mean the end of Roe v. Wade. Expect increasing drives to ban gay people from being adoptive or foster parents, as well as attempts to fire gay schoolteachers. Evangelical leaders are encouraging their flocks to be alert to signs of homosexuality in their kids, which will lead to a growing number of gay teenagers forced into "reparative therapy" designed to turn them straight. (Focus on the Family urges parents to consider seeking help for boys as young as five if they show a "tendency to cry easily, be less athletic, and dislike the roughhousing that other boys enjoy.")
Christian nationalist symbolism and ideology will increasingly pervade public life. In addition to the war on evolution, there will be campaigns to teach Christian nationalist history in public schools. An elective course developed by the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, a right-wing evangelical group, is already being offered by more than 300 school districts in 36 states. The influence of Christian nationalism in public schools, colleges, courts, social services and doctors' offices will deform American life, rendering it ever more pinched, mean, and divided.
There's still a long way, though, between this damaged version of democracy and real theocracy. Tremendous crises would have to shred what's left of the American consensus before religious fascism becomes a possibility. That means that secularists and liberals shouldn't get hysterical, but they also shouldn't be complacent.
Christian nationalism is still constrained by the Constitution, the courts, and by a passionate democratic (and occasionally Democratic) opposition. It's also limited by capitalism. Many corporations are happy to see their political allies harness the rage and passion of the Christian right's foot soldiers, but the culture industry is averse to government censorship. Nor is homophobia good for business, since many companies need to both recruit qualified gay employees and market to gay customers. Biotech firms are not going to want to hire graduates without a thorough understanding of evolution, so economic pressure will militate against creationism's invading a critical mass of the public schools.
Taking the land
It would take a national disaster, or several of them, for all these bulwarks to crumble and for Christian nationalists to truly "take the land," as Michael Farris, president of the evangelical Patrick Henry College, put it. Historically, totalitarian movements have been able to seize state power only when existing authorities prove unable to deal with catastrophic challenges -- economic meltdown, security failures, military defeat -- and people lose their faith in the legitimacy of the system.
Such calamities are certainly conceivable in America -- Hurricane Katrina's aftermath offered a terrifying glimpse of how quickly order can collapse. If terrorists successfully strike again, we'd probably see significant curtailment of liberal dissenters' free speech rights, coupled with mounting right-wing belligerence, both religious and secular.
The breakdown in the system could also be subtler. Many experts have warned that America's debt is unsustainable and that economic crisis could be on the horizon. If there is a hard landing -- due to an oil shock, a burst housing bubble, a sharp decline in the value of the dollar, or some other crisis -- interest rates would shoot up, leaving many people unable to pay their floating-rate mortgages and credit card bills. Repossessions and bankruptcies would follow. The resulting anger could fuel radical populist movements of either the left or the right -- more likely the right, since it has a far stronger ideological infrastructure in place in most of America.
Military disaster may also exacerbate such disaffection. America's war in Iraq seems nearly certain to come to an ignominious end. The real victims of failure there will be Iraqi, but many Americans will feel embittered, humiliated and sympathetic to the stab-in-the-back rhetoric peddled by the right to explain how Bush's venture has gone so horribly wrong. It was the defeat in World War I, after all, that created the conditions for fascism to grow in Germany.
Perhaps America will be lucky, however, and muddle through its looming problems. In that case, Christian nationalism will continue to be a powerful and growing influence in American politics, although its expansion will happen more fitfully and gradually.
The country's demographics are on the movement's side. Megachurch culture is spreading. The exurbs where religious conservatism thrives are the fastest growing parts of America; in 2004, 97 of the country's 100 fastest-growing counties voted Republican. The disconnection of the exurbs is a large part of what makes the spread of Christian nationalism's fictitious reality possible, because there is very little to conflict with it.
A movement that constitutes its members' entire social world has a grip that's hard to break. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt put it this way: "Social atomization and extreme individualization preceded the mass movements which, much more easily and earlier than they did the sociable, non-individualistic members of the traditional parties, attracted the completely unorganized, the typical 'nonjoiners' who for individualistic reasons always had refused to recognize social links or obligations."
America's ragged divides
Those who want to fight Christian nationalism will need a long-term and multifaceted strategy. I see it as having three parts -- electoral reform to give urban areas fair representation in the federal government, grassroots organizing to help people fight Christian nationalism on the ground and a media campaign to raise public awareness about the movement's real agenda.
My ideas are not about reconciliation or healing. It would be good if a leader stepped forward who could recognize the grievances of both sides, broker some sort of truce, and mend America's ragged divides. The anxieties that underlay Christian nationalism's appeal -- fears about social breakdown, marital instability and cultural decline -- are real. They should be acknowledged and, whenever possible, addressed. But as long as the movement aims at the destruction of secular society and the political enforcement of its theology, it has to be battled, not comforted and appeased.
And while I support liberal struggles for economic justice -- higher wages, universal health care, affordable education, and retirement security -- I don't think economic populism will do much to neutralize the religious right. Cultural interests are real interests, and many drives are stronger than material ones. As Arendt pointed out, totalitarian movements have always confounded observers who try to analyze them in terms of class.
Ultimately, a fight against Christian nationalist rule has to be a fight against the anti-urban bias built into the structure of our democracy. Because each state has two senators, the 7 percent of the population that live in the 17 least-populous states control more than a third of Congress's upper house. Conservative states are also overrepresented in the Electoral College.
According to Steven Hill of the Center for Voting and Democracy, the combined populations of Montana, Wyoming, Nevada, North and South Dakota, Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Alaska equal that of New York and Massachusetts, but the former states have a total of nine more votes in the Electoral College (as well as over five times the votes in the Senate). In America, conservatives literally count for more.
Liberals should work to abolish the Electoral College and to even out the composition of the Senate, perhaps by splitting some of the country's larger states.(A campaign for statehood for New York City might be a place to start.) It will be a grueling, Herculean job. With conservatives already indulging in fantasies of victimization at the hands of a maniacal Northeastern elite, it will take a monumental movement to wrest power away from them. Such a movement will come into being only when enough people in the blue states stop internalizing right-wing jeers about how out of touch they are with "real Americans" and start getting angry at being ruled by reactionaries who are out of touch with them.
After all, the heartland has no claim to moral authority. The states whose voters are most obsessed with "moral values" have the highest divorce and teen pregnancy rates. The country's highest murder rates are in the South and the lowest are in New England. The five states with the best-ranked public schools in the country -- Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, New Jersey and Wisconsin -- are all progressive redoubts. The five states with the worst -- New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, Mississippi and Louisiana -- all went for Bush.
The canard that the culture wars are a fight between "elites" versus "regular Americans" belies a profound split between different kinds of ordinary Americans, all feeling threatened by the others' baffling and alien values. Ironically, however, by buying into right-wing elite- baiting, liberals start thinking like out-of-touch elites. Rather than reflecting on what kind of policies would make their own lives better, what kind of country they want to live in, and who they want to represent them -- and then figuring out how to win others to their vision -- progressives flail about for ideas and symbols that they hope will appeal to some imaginary heartland rube. That is condescending.
Focus on the local
One way for progressives to build a movement and fight Christian nationalism at the same time is to focus on local politics. For guidance, they need only look to the Christian Coalition: It wasn't until after Bill Clinton's election exiled the evangelical right from power in Washington that the Christian Coalition really developed its nationwide electoral apparatus.
The Christian right developed a talent for crafting state laws and amendments to serve as wedge issues, rallying their base, and forcing the other side to defend seemingly extreme positions. Campaigns to require parental consent for minors' abortions, for example, get overwhelming public support and put the pro-choice movement on the defensive while giving pro-lifers valuable political experience.
Liberals can use this strategy too. They can find issues to exploit the other side's radicalism, winning a few political victories and, just as important, marginalizing Christian nationalists in the eyes of their fellow citizens. Progressives could work to pass local and state laws, by ballot initiative wherever possible, denying public funds to any organization that discriminates on the basis of religion. Because so much faith-based funding is distributed through the states, such laws could put an end to at least some of the taxpayer-funded bias practiced by the Salvation Army and other religious charities. Right now, very few people know that, thanks to Bush, a faith-based outfit can take tax dollars and then explicitly refuse to hire Jews, Hindus, Buddhists or Muslims. The issue needs far more publicity, and a political fight -- or a series of them -- would provide it. Better still, the campaign would contribute to the creation of a grassroots infrastructure -- a network of people with political experience and a commitment to pluralism.
Progressives could also work on passing laws to mandate that pharmacists fill contraceptive prescriptions. (Such legislation has already been introduced in California, Missouri, New Jersey, Nevada, and West Virginia.) The commercials would practically write themselves. Imagine a harried couple talking with their doctor and deciding that they can't afford any more kids. The doctor writes a birth control prescription, the wife takes it to her pharmacist -- and he sends her away with a religious lecture. The campaign could use one of the most successful slogans that abortion rights advocates ever devised: "Who decides -- you or them?"
A new media strategy
In conjunction with local initiatives, opponents of Christian nationalism need a new media strategy. Many people realize this. Fenton Communications, the agency that handles public relations for MoveOn, recently put together the Campaign to Defend the Constitution, a MoveOn-style grassroots group devoted to raising awareness about the religious right. With nearly 3.5 million members ready to be quickly mobilized to donate money, write letters or lobby politicians on behalf of progressive causes, MoveOn is the closest thing liberals have to the Christian Coalition, but its focus tends to be on economic justice, foreign policy and the environment rather than contentious social issues. The Campaign to Defend the Constitution intends to build a similar network to counter Christian nationalism wherever it appears.
Much of what media strategists need to do simply involves public education. Americans need to learn what Christian Reconstructionism means so that they can decide whether they approve of their congressmen consorting with theocrats. They need to realize that the Republican Party has become the stronghold of men who fundamentally oppose public education because they think women should school their kids themselves. (In It Takes a Family, Rick Santorum calls public education an "aberration" and predicts that home-schooling will flourish as "one viable option among many that will open up as we eliminate the heavy hand of the village elders' top-down control of education and allow a thousand parent-nurtured flowers to bloom.")
When it comes to the public relations fight against Christian nationalism, nothing is trickier than battles concerning public religious symbolism. Fights over creches in public squares or Christmas hymns sung by school choirs are really about which aspects of the First Amendment should prevail -- its protection of free speech or its ban on the establishment of religion. In general, I think it's best to err on the side of freedom of expression. As in most First Amendment disputes, the answer to speech (or, in this case, symbolism) that makes religious minorities feel excluded or alienated is more speech -- menorahs, Buddhas, Diwali lights, symbols celebrating America's polyglot spiritualism.
There are no neat lines, no way to suck the venom out of these issues without capitulating completely. But one obvious step civil libertarians should take is a much more vocal stance in defense of evangelicals' free speech rights when they are unfairly curtailed. Although far less common than the Christian nationalists pretend, on a few occasions lawsuit-fearing officials have gone overboard in defending church/state separation, silencing religious speech that is protected by the First Amendment. (In one 2005 incident that got tremendous play in the right-wing press, a principal in Tennessee wouldn't allow a ten-year-old student to hold a Bible study during recess.) Such infringements should be fought for reasons both principled, because Christians have the same right to free speech as everyone else, and political, because these abuses generate a backlash that ultimately harms the cause of church/state separation.
The ACLU already does this, but few hear about it, because secularists lack the right's propaganda apparatus. Liberals need to create their own echo chamber to refute these kind of distortions while loudly supporting everyone's freedom of speech. Committed Christian nationalists won't be won over, but some of their would-be sympathizers might be inoculated against the claim that progressives want to extirpate their faith, making it harder for the right to frame every political dispute as part of a war against Jesus.
The challenge, finally, is to make reality matter again. If progressives can do that, perhaps America can be saved.
Fighting fundamentalism at home
Writing just after 9/11, Salman Rushdie eviscerated those on the left who rationalized the terrorist attacks as a regrettable explosion of understandable third world rage: "The fundamentalist seeks to bring down a great deal more than buildings," he wrote. "Such people are against, to offer just a brief list, freedom of speech, a multiparty political system, universal adult suffrage, accountable government, Jews, homosexuals, women's rights, pluralism, secularism, short skirts, dancing, beardlessness, evolution theory, sex."
Christian nationalists have no problem with beardlessness, but except for that, Rushdie could have been describing them.
It makes no sense to fight religious authoritarianism abroad while letting it take over at home. The grinding, brutal war between modern and medieval values has spread chaos, fear, and misery across our poor planet. Far worse than the conflicts we're experiencing today, however, would be a world torn between competing fundamentalisms. Our side, America's side, must be the side of freedom and Enlightenment, of liberation from stale constricting dogmas. It must be the side that elevates reason above the commands of holy books and human solidarity above religious supremacism. Otherwise, God help us all.
Reprinted from Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism by Michelle Goldberg.
Copyright 2006 by Michelle Goldberg
From: New York Times .....................................[This story printer-friendly]
May 30, 2006
RISE IN RATE OF TWIN BIRTHS MAY BE TIED TO DAIRY CASE
[Rachel's introduction: Monsanto has always claimed that its bovine growth hormone (known variously as rBGH, rBST and bovine somatotropin), injected into cows to make them give more milk, would have no effect on humans drinking the milk. Now a study indicates that women who drink Monsanto-modified milk (about 1/3 of all milk in the U.S.) are five times as likely to give birth to twins (compared to those drinking normal milk). Twin births can endanger the health of both the mother and the babies.]
By Nicholas Bakalar
American women who eat dairy products appear to be five times as likely to give birth to fraternal twins as those who do not, according to a new study, and one explanation may lie in dairy products from cows injected with synthetic growth hormone.
Dr. Gary Steinman, an assistant clinical professor of obstetrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, reached that conclusion by looking at the medical records of 1,042 mothers who were vegans consuming no dairy products and comparing them with those of mothers who regularly ate dairy products.
His findings appear in the May issue of The Journal of Reproductive Medicine. Eating dairy products increases blood levels of insulinlike growth hormone, or I.G.F., and it is this increased hormone level that is associated with increased rates of multiple ovulation.
In a study published in 2000 and cited in the findings, vegan women had concentrations of I.G.F. that were 13 percent lower than those in women who regularly consumed dairy products.
Multiple births are associated with increased health risks for mothers and infants, but Dr. Steinman said he was not prepared to use these findings as the basis for advising women about diet before pregnancy.
"Since this is the first time diet has been implicated in an important role for determining twinning rate," Dr. Steinman said in an e-mail message, "it must be confirmed by others before rigid recommendations can be made concerning health care."
Insufficient diet in general lowers the rate of twin births, but Dr. Steinman said he had found evidence that the rate was directly related to levels of growth hormone.
"The more I.G.F., the more the ovary is stimulated to release additional eggs at ovulation," he said.
Animal studies, in rats and mice as well as in cattle, have convincingly demonstrated that increased serum levels of growth hormone are associated with increased ovulation.
All cow's milk has bovine growth hormone in it, naturally produced by the animal's pituitary gland. Many dairy farmers inject their cattle with recombinant bovine somatotropin, a synthetic version of the naturally occurring hormone. This increases size and milk production, but it has another effect: cows with higher growth hormone levels produce more twins.
The consumption of any dairy products increases blood levels of insulinlike growth hormone in humans, and consuming milk from cows that have been injected with synthetic growth hormone can have a correspondingly larger effect.
About one-third of American dairy cows are in herds where the hormone is used, said a spokesman for Monsanto, the only manufacturer of synthetic bovine growth hormone in the United States.
The evidence that eating dairy products increases the chances of multiple ovulation is suggestive, but not conclusive. Many factors, dietary and other, affect the rate of twin births. A study this month in Lancet, for example, suggests that the B vitamin folic acid may increase the survival of embryos in in vitro fertilization procedures, resulting in more twin births.
Fraternal twins run in families, so genetics also plays an important role. And the recent rise in the birth rate of twins is at least partly attributable to delayed childbearing, as older mothers are more likely to have twins.
The rate of twin births has also increased significantly since 1975, when assisted reproductive technology came into wide use. But these factors alone, Dr. Steinman said, do not explain the continuing increase in the rates in the United States since 1994, when recombinant bovine somatotropin was approved for sale.
In 2003, the United States had 3 sets of twins per 100 live births -- more than twice the rate of Britain, where growth hormone injection is banned. (Triplets and higher multiple births raise this figure to 3.18.)
Dr. Steinman suggested that one significant reason for the large difference was the recombinant bovine somatotropin.
"I am not claiming to be the first to show that variations in dietary amounts can affect the twinning rate," Dr. Steinman said. "What is new is specifying what in the diet may have this effect and how."
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company
From: Chicago Tribune ....................................[This story printer-friendly]
May 28, 2006
PRESSURE TURNED UP IN THE WAR ON WATER
Towns push to make service public again
[Rachel's introduction: Multi-national corporations are busy privatizing public water utilities across the U.S. They now control 15% of our water. With concerns over price gouging and poor service, communities in Illinois and elsewhere are starting to fight back.]
By E.A. Torriero
For many towns across the country, it once seemed like a good idea to have municipal water utilities in the hands of private companies.
Now, bristling against skyrocketing rates, spotty service and foreign ownership, a number of towns across Illinois and the U.S. are waging fierce battles to regain control of their drinking water. A host of them are fighting a German conglomerate that has snapped up more than 1,800 American water utilities.
The battle is intensifying in Illinois, where the German company RWE and subsidiary Illinois American Water own the water supplies for more than 1 million people in 125 areas of the state.
Responding to complaints, American Water held meetings last week in Homer Glen, Orland Park and Bolingbrook hoping to mollify angry customers. Instead, they tapped into a deep vein of frustration.
"Everything we hear is double-talk," said Debbie Litoborski of Homer Glen, who is fighting the company over an $800 water bill. "Should we call Germany to get the answers we need?"
In most of the country, including Chicago and many suburbs, water service remains a public utility. About 15 percent of America's water business, however, is in private ownership. Those ranks have tripled in the last decade as cash-strapped cities seek ways to upgrade aging water systems by turning to private firms.
Nevertheless, a showdown is brewing in Illinois as a half-dozen communities are plotting to take over water systems. If they succeed, Illinois American could lose as many as one-third of its customers.
Grass-roots groups are forming statewide to exchange battle plans, hold rallies and plot strategies. Busloads of angry suburban residents descended on Springfield this spring, demanding legislative help. In April, Urbana's Mayor Laurel Prussing flew 4,327 miles to chastise RWE executives and shareholders in Essen, Germany.
"I fired a diplomatic shot across the bow," she said. "I was there to show the flag and to let them know that Americans are offended by foreign intervention and corporate bullying. After all, it's our water, not theirs."
Nationally, government and community takeover attempts against the subsidiaries of Germany's RWE have lasted years and cost taxpayers and consumers millions of dollars for legal challenges, referendums and public relations campaigns.
In most instances, American Water--RWE's U.S. arm and the largest private water company in the country--has won. In the last 15 years, it has sold only three operations because of hostile challenges.
Bought by RWE for $7.5 billion in 2001, American Water has 1,800 operations in 29 states and three Canadian provinces, serving 18 million and generating $2.2 billion in revenues.
To the company, the threats are government piracy to thwart free enterprise. The backlash has split towns, torn apart councils and spawned court fights that landed in state supreme courts.
"The communities lose and the company loses," said Joe Conner, a Tennessee attorney who has litigated the company's battles against several communities.
In Monterey, Calif., last year, the company went on a blitzkrieg advertising rush to defeat soundly a ballot issue calling for a public water utility purchase. In Chattanooga, Tenn., the company spent more than $5 million before fending off a city takeover in 2000. In Lexington, Ky., a bitter battle is now headed toward a November referendum.
In Illinois, in a blow to the company, state legislators passed a bill this session that would make it easier for communities to seize local water operations. The legislation is awaiting the governor's signature.
The Illinois challenges come at an especially delicate juncture for the company. Although American Water officials say none of the firm's individual units is for sale, RWE is pursuing a public stock offering for the whole of American Water.
If communities succeed in taking over even a few of its subsidiaries, the value of the public offering could be seriously eroded, company officials say.
In Illinois, the company defends its record despite two pending cases before the Illinois Commerce Commission and an aggregate complaint from the state attorney general over allegations of bad service and rate gouging in three Chicago suburbs.
In the last decade, water wars in Illinois have taken psychological and economic tolls. Seven years into its battle, Peoria decided last year against a water takeover after an appraiser put the price tag at a hefty $220 million. A few miles away, in Pekin, a takeover attempt was squashed when the Illinois Commerce Commission ruled in 2004 that Pekin was not capable of running the utility better.
Now, a half-dozen Illinois communities--Pekin, Champaign, Urbana, Homer Glen, Orland Park and Bolingbrook--are bent on forcing Illinois American to the bargaining table.
Consumers became riled in Champaign-Urbana last summer, when failed pumps led to impure water on five occasions. Then, firefighters arrived at a blaze in Champaign to find two of three hydrant covers stuck shut. Illinois American describes them as isolated incidents, but a backlash had begun.
On May Day, activists in Urbana staged a mock birthday party complete with cake and balloons for Donald Correll, American Water's chief executive. They sent Correll "greeting cards" demanding the company sell local operations at a reasonable price.
The company has been firing back with letters to consumers in Champaign-Urbana and telephone polls asking whether city officials' attentions should be elsewhere. They gathered central Illinois business leaders recently to warn that local officials were embarking on a costly fight.
"I'm sort of perplexed why we would want to go through this," said John Stewart, who runs an advertising business in Urbana and lives in Champaign. "It seems likely it would be a laborious process that could split the community, and nothing in the end would get accomplished."
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E.A. Torriero firstname.lastname@example.org
From: Center for American progress .......................[This story printer-friendly]
May 15, 2006
MIDDLE CLASS LOSING HOPE FOR THE AMERICAN DREAM
[Rachel's introduction: Corporate profits and employment are strong. Yet the American dream of a steady job with benefits like healthcare and vacation pay is growing more elusive for many people. While corporate executives are taking home record paychecks, the middle and working classes are treading water at best.]
Report Suggests Correlation Between Higher CEO Compensation and Declining Unionism
A recent report by John Burton and Christian Weller for the Center for American Progress describes how the dreams of upward mobility for middle-class families are plummeting due to stagnant wages and vanishing benefits, while corporate CEOs are enjoying record levels of compensation and corporations are reporting record profits.
The findings show compensation for CEO's is spiraling out of control:
** At the 350 largest public companies, the average CEO compensation is $9.2 million. Compensation for oil and gas execs increased by 109 percent between 2003 and 2004.
** In 2004, the average CEO received 240 times more than the compensation earned by the average worker. In 2002, the ratio was 145 to one.
** These levels of CEO compensation are not the norm for the industrialized world. Typically, CEO pay in other industrialized countries is only about one third of what American CEOs make.
** Highly-compensated CEOs are not being rewarded for performance with the interests of shareholders in mind, the "textbook" explanation of CEO compensation, according to an extensive body of research and reporting.
** After-tax profits are booming and corporate America can easily afford to offer fair wages and benefits to rank and file employees. Unfortunately, while CEOs have enriched themselves, middle-class families have taken hard hits to their paychecks, their health coverage, and their pension plans.
The study suggests a couple of factors which are contributing to excessive compensation. There is a negative correlation between executive compensation and unionization; reducing union workers results in higher pay for CEOs. The fraction of shares held by large institutional investors has a direct relationship with the fraction of executive pay in the form of stock options.
The report looks at the complexities for outsiders to assess the true level of compensation. It discusses the difficulties in understanding what a fair compensation package is due to the various forms of compensations and compensatory perks outside of a firm. It also looks at different forms of payments being made to CEOs as opposed to forms used by other firms.
The report also discusses the executive entitlement system in which the elite sub-culture of executives and directors are often unable to objectively assess the individual performance of their fellow elites and how this culture designs its own norms, hierarchies, and behaviors.
It points out that in 2003, if a CEO would have made only $2.3 million the average pay for worker should have been $51,148 (estimate by Sklar, 2004.) But as CEOs got richer, more families were falling into poverty. Median income declined by about $600 in inflation-adjusted dollars, or 1.2 percent between 2001 and 2003, according to Census data. In fact, from the end of 2003 through March 2005, inflation- adjusted weekly earnings for the "production non-supervisory worker" (this includes 80 percent of the American workforce) actually declined by 0.9 percent (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2005).
The report concludes, "As fair-minded people, Americans believe that there should be a correlation between the job well done and the reward. The trend in excessive CEO compensation reflects a culture of greed and a growing inequality that poses a threat to the viability of the American dream for many middle-class families. As a nation, we must move forward with a progressive vision that restores our values of hard work and fair play and insures that the promise of economic opportunity is extended to all."
Click here to view a copy of the report.
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