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A Closer Reading of Obama's Terrorism Speech

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(NNPA) I read the speech. I read it carefully. Again, an excellent speech; as a result, you have to read it closely to see what it is actually saying and what it is not saying.

The Obama administration is saying that the formal war against terrorism will come to an end…eventually. It is saying that the war was justified. It is also saying that the war against Iraq was misplaced, a point that the administration has been saying for a while.

Yet it is also saying that the U.S.A. went to war with a network. Let’s be clear that Al Qaeda is a very loose international network of terrorists. Are they deadly? Of course, but so is the Mafia. The notion of going to war with a network has always been problematic, particularly when that war justified targeted assassinations, bombings and invasions of various countries. It also became problematic when there was such a loose definition as to what constituted terrorism and, therefore, who actually is a terrorist and who supports terrorism.

This goes to a point that the president did not cover. The “war against terrorism” was never clearly defined as a war against Al Qaeda, though most people thought that that was the essence of it. Under the rubric of “terrorism,” all sorts of organizations were grouped, including groups that are engaged in military insurgencies but not terrorism, such as the Communist Party of the Philippines and their military wing, the New People’s Army. Also included in that list of terrorists has now been former Black Panther, Assata Shakur.

In other words, the war against terrorism has been used as a means of targeting a wide spectrum of individuals and organizations that have crossed paths with the U.S.A., irrespective of whether they have ever engaged in the targeted killings of civilians in order to advance a political agenda.

The president never renounced this.

The Obama administration felt compelled to speak out on its approach towards combating terrorism in part because of the growing storm around drone attacks. As I have said previously, drones are a weapon but the attacks could just as easily be happening as a result of piloted aircraft or snipers. The issues that this—and the former Bush administration—keep side-stepping have included the sovereignty of other countries; the failure to actually apprehend alleged terrorists and instead rely on targeted assassinations during which civilians have frequently been killed; and the question of whether targeted assassinations can be used within the borders of the U.S.

Like many people, I would like to believe that a new day is upon us. I would not hold my breath. This administration has been very hawkish on certain key international matters, including targeted assassinations. The long-term consequences of such hawkishness will probably be additional “blow back,” that is, actions taken against people in the U.S. as retribution.

We in the U.S.A. must speak up and demand clear and alternative policy rather than eloquent speeches. It will also necessitate that we stop cowering every time we hear the “T” word—terrorism.

Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum, and the author of “They’re Bankrupting Us” – And Twenty Other Myths about Unions. Follow him on Facebook and www.billfletcherjr.com.

Don’t let Bank Payday Exploit Seniors and Social Security

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(NNPA) The term “payday loans” often evokes images of stores with garish neon signs; but these products have moved into the banking sector that is supposed to be more respectable. About half a dozen banks now push payday loans, though they give them more enticing names such as “Ready Advance” or “Easy Advance.” Yet there is nothing easy about a loan with a triple-digit interest rate and terms designed to entrap.

Responding to public concerns and new research, federal banking regulators recently issued proposed rules and called for public comment on reining in bank payday lending.

Thus far, consumer advocates and lawmakers at both the state and federal levels have spoken up. The issue is generating even more notice because bank payday loans hurt senior citizens disproportionately. According to research by the Center for Responsible Lending (CRL), more than one in four bank payday borrowers are Social Security recipients.

Florida’s U.S. Senator Bill Nelson and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts together called for regulation that would specifically protect America’s older consumers. In a joint letter to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), the Senators cited their committee work as well as recent research by CRL.

“As Chairman and member of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, we take very seriously our responsibilities to seniors and elderly consumers who expect and deserve fair and transparent financial services,” said the Senators.

They added, “Social Security was created to provide seniors with financial support to help them cover basic living expenses not for banks seeking new sources of revenue by exploiting retirees with limited means. Therefore it is critical that banks be discouraged from using government benefits as proof of income, and we would hope such a provisions would be included in the final guidance.”

Earlier this year, CRL released new research that refuted the claim by participating banks that their payday loan products are only for short-term emergencies and carry marginal risks. Actual borrower experiences revealed a far different experience. Instead, the typical bank payday borrower:

Is charged an annual percentage rate (APR) that averages 225-300 percent;
Took out 19 loans in 2011, spending at least part of six months a year in bank payday debt; and
Is twice more likely to incur overdraft fees than bank customers as a whole.

At that time, CRL advised, “More than 13 million older adults are considered economically insecure, living on $21,800 a year or less. Senior women in particular face diminished incomes because of lower lifetime earnings and therefore lower Social Security and pension benefits.”

Although Florida is often characterized by its large senior population, the most recently available U.S. Census data reveals that elderly poor live in many locales. More than one in five elderly residents in Boston, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles and three of New York City’s boroughs are also poor. Nationwide, the worst concentrations of elderly poverty were found in the Bronx at 38 percent and Manhattan with 30 percent.

In its comments to OCC, CRL advised, “Though the number of banks making payday loans remains small, there are clear signals that bank payday lending will grow rapidly without strong action by all the banking regulators. . . . At a time when older Americans have already experienced severe declines in wealth resulting from the Great Recession, banks take these borrowers’ benefits for repayment before they can use those funds for health care, prescription medicines or other critical expenses.”

It appears that Senators Nelson and Warren would agree.

“Left unchecked, deposit advances pose a significant credit risk to the banking system, particularly if offered by an increasing number of banks,” concluded the Senators. “In the aftermath of a debilitating financial crisis and the ensuing economic recession, it is critical that banks maintain high quality underwriting standards for all types of loans, including deposit advances.”

Charlene Crowell is a communications manager with the Center for Responsible Lending. She can be reached at: Charlene.crowell@responsiblelending.org.

Putting the IRS 'Scandal' into Perspective

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(NNPA) Like too many events since the beginning of the Obama presidency, various attacks on the administration by the Republicans end up being about less than what they at first seemed, though the hoopla that accompanies the initial charges is frequently deafening. Think about the attack on ACORN through a disingenuously edited video tape or the later attack on Shirley Sherrod, selectively using words from a speech of hers in order to convey a message that was not hers at all. The IRS “scandal” is another case in point.

The first bits of information to which we were exposed were aimed at leading us to believe that the IRS was attacking conservative groups. President Obama acted with outrage saying that such an alleged attack was inexcusable. But then, as each day has passed, additional information rises to the surface and the “scandal” becomes a bit more complicated. First and foremost, it now appears that the IRS did not target conservative groups alone. In fact, the conservative/Tea Party groups that were under scrutiny were only one third of the groups that were being challenged.

Other groups that were exposed to the same sorts of challenges included liberal and progressive organizations as well as a few organizations that were, apparently, not political at all. To the extent to which the conservative groups were being observed at all, it probably can be directly connected to the sudden rise of the Tea Party formations and their obvious political agenda.

While there are serious questions that need to be asked of the IRS regarding their methodology, there appears to be little evidence of the sort of anti-conservative witch-hunt that right-wing pundits suggest is underway. Those ultra-conservatives who are attempting to make the IRS “scandal” out to be something akin to Watergate have actually lost touch with both history and reality.

What may be more important in the midst of this “scandal” is the hypocrisy of those Republicans who are sounding the fire alarm. The NAACP’s former Board Chairman, Julian Bond, made this precise point. It was only a few years ago—under the George W. Bush administration—that the NAACP found itself under the gun with the IRS. Yet where were these Republican lovers of freedom? I remember very little coming from their side of the aisle protesting what was clearly a blatant political move by a Republican administration.

Let us not stop there. Various instruments of the US government that are supposed to exist for non-political purposes have at various times been used—under Republican and Democratic administrations—in order to suppress or discourage dissent. Worse, there have been institutions explicitly created in order to eliminate dissent entirely. One case in point of the latter is the infamous program of the FBI known as COINTELPRO (the Counter Intelligence Program). COINTELPRO was used in the 1960s and early 1970s as a means to infiltrate and disrupt social justice and social protest movement across the board, including but not limited to the Black Freedom Movement. The Republican Party was not at the lead in criticizing such programs.

This is all to say that before anyone jumps to conclusions, certainly in the midst of the IRS “scandal,” it is worth doing a bit more investigating. President Obama should do likewise. I appreciate his interest in demonstrating his fairness, but it is also worth his pointing out, in no uncertain terms, when and where the Republicans are manufacturing crises—whether with respect to the IRS or the budget deficit—in order to advance their own regressive agenda.

Just a thought.

Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum, and the author of “They’re Bankrupting Us” – And Twenty Other Myths about Unions. Follow him at www.billfletcherjr.com.

Homeowner Bills of Rights Emerge as Remedies to Foreclosure

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(NNPA) A few days ago, HUD released data showing that more 620,000 troubled homeowners received more than $50 billion in principal reductions and savings. These actions were the direct result of the National Mortgage Settlement, negotiated by America’s largest banks, state Attorneys General, and the Obama administration. Despite this success, the Congressional Budget Office recently reported that 13.2 million mortgages remain underwater, which is defined as owing more than the homes are now worth.

Earlier this year, the Center for Responsible Lending and its ally Consumers Union jointly offered state policy remedies known as Homeowner Bills of Rights (HBORs) that would protect homeowners, further reduce foreclosures and stabilize local housing markets. Key to these state initiatives is that homeowners gain a private right of action and the right to halt a foreclosure sale when a servicer breaks the law. The foreclosure cannot proceed until the servicer complies with the law. Other HBOR recommendations called for lawmakers to:

  • Ban ‘dual-tracking,’ the practice by mortgage servicers of pursuing foreclosures while at the same time processing a request for a loan modification;
  • Require lenders to establish straightforward timelines, clear procedures for homeowner outreach, detailed denial notices and an affidavit detailing the homeowner’s rights to appeal; and
  • Require lenders to engage in loss mitigation activities to prevent avoidable foreclosures.

For communities of color, where the economic recovery has yet to be felt, HBORs are particularly important because of well-documented disparities in foreclosures. For example, Black Floridians risk of imminent foreclosures is doubled that projected for the entire state.

Earlier research by the Center for Responsible Lending found that more than half (52 percent) of the lost wealth resulting from living in close proximity to foreclosures was borne by minority census tract homeowners. In the District of Columbia and seven states –California, Florida, Illinois, Hawaii, Maryland, New Jersey and New York – an even greater share of lost wealth occurred in minority communities.

Additionally, African-Americans remain at a higher imminent risk of more foreclosures in Florida, New York, New Jersey, Ohio, and Illinois.

Several states have worked to advance HBOR reforms, including California, Minnesota and Nevada. California, the first state to enact an HBOR, took effect in January with a private right of action and rules for servicers foreclosing. In cases where the homeowners prevailed in legal disputes, the lender may become responsible for attorney fees and court costs.

Already, a California court recently ruled in favor of a state homeowner. A preliminary injunction halted foreclosure proceedings in the case of Singh v. Bank of America where the lender dual-tracked the homeowner.

In Minnesota, where there were three times more foreclosures in 2012 than in 2005, their HBOR gives borrowers a private right of action to stop a wrongful foreclosure sale. Through a bipartisan effort, the state’s House of Representatives unanimously passed the bill. With a companion version having already passed in the state’s Senate, Gov. Mark Dayton is expected to soon sign the measure into law.

In Nevada, a bill similar to that of California, aims to codify a single-point-of-contact with servicers, require civil penalties for banks that violate default procedures, and give borrowers a private right of action. The bill unanimously passed the state’s Senate and now awaits a vote in the Nevada Assembly.

Hopefully more states will embrace the emergence of HBORs. In a recent blog, Tracy Van Slyke, director of the New Bottom Line, summed up the status of economic recovery: “This work is not just about righting past wrongs. It’s also about the future of our retirement, our kids’ lives, and the kind of communities we want to live in and about our country’s economic future.”

Charlene Crowell is a communications manager with the Center for Responsible Lending. She can be reached at: Charlene.crowell@responsiblelending.org.

Discrimination against the Unemployed

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(NNPA) It will strike many of you as counter-intuitive, but there has been a rising phenomenon of unemployed workers suffering discrimination when they have sought work because…they have been unemployed. This is not an exaggeration. In fact, the situation is so serious that the City Council of New York passed an order prohibiting discrimination against the unemployed, an order that was vetoed by the mayor, but was then overridden by the Council.

Since the beginning of the Great Recession, the problem of discrimination against the unemployed has been gaining attention. It was so odd that few people actually took it seriously. After all, an unemployed person looking for work is what one would expect, right?

What has happened is something that is quite common within our economic system–capitalism. When there is an economic downturn, the labor market gets flooded with people who are looking for work. In that situation, employers often have the upper hand and start to cherry-pick from that available pool of workers. Instead of treating someone who has been out of work for a long time but has been seeking work as a committed and diligent worker, many employers treat them with suspicion, acting as if there was something wrong with the worker that kept them out of work. Instead of appreciating that there have been and are millions of workers who have been displaced, either due to temporary downturns or, as has been the case with many Black workers, as a result of structural changes in the economy, too many employers are prepared to write off the long-term unemployed as nonredeemable.

Most employers will not acknowledge that they are biased against the long-term unemployed when they deny someone a job. Instead, the job-seeker may not get an interview or may be politely dismissed. If you add onto that other factors, such as age, race, and gender, a long-term unemployed person can find themselves moved into the category of the permanently unemployed, with little chance of getting work.

Younger workers face the challenge of discrimination for being unemployed, but it plays itself out differently. A younger worker who has been the victim of long-term unemployment is frequently viewed as not serious and not willing to make sacrifices. I had a discussion with a wealthy businessman some time ago who was bemoaning what he saw as too many younger workers taking advantage of unemployment insurance in order to avoid starting at the bottom and working their way up. This sort of prejudice appears to be very common among many employers.

New York City took the right step in banning discrimination against the unemployed. Hopefully, other jurisdictions will do likewise. But at the end of the day, government intervention in another way will be essential. We not only need laws prohibiting discrimination against the unemployed; we need jobs for the unemployed. Government should be committed to both steps.

Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum, and the author of “They’re Bankrupting Us” – And Twenty Other Myths about Unions. Follow him at www.billfletcherjr.com.

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