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Ring of Fire 3/22/15

00:51 - “Republican Treason and Endless War.” Howard Nations will tell us about the letter that 47 Republicans sent to Iranian officials trying to undermine president Obama, and the push for ground troops to fight ISIS. #RepublicanTreason

10:56 - “The Arbitration Trap – Your Rights Are Gone.” David TeSelle will discuss the new CFPB report that explains why mandatory arbitration is destroying the rights of consumers. #ReadTheFinePrint

22:23 - “Big Oil’s Bomb Trains.” DeSmogBlog contributor Justin Mikulka will tell us about the continuing dangers of big oil’s “bomb trains” and why so little is being done about the growing threat. #BombTrains

31:42 - “Has The Tort Reform Fight Been Won?” Will Atkinson will explain how tort reform efforts have destroyed state economies, as well as the lives of consumers living in tort reform states. #TortReformFail

39:52 - “The Republican Super PAC Super Scam.” Pap with Amanda Marcotte.

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Elizabeth Warren: Student Loan Debt is an Economic Emergency, and It’s Getting Worse

This post originally appeared on RingofFireRadio.com

Earlier this week, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) introduced legislation that would allow people with outstanding student loan debt to refinance at the interests rate approved last year for new borrowers.

The Bank on Students Emergency Loan Refinancing Act, co-sponsored by Rep. Joe Courtney (D-CT), would give those borrowers with outstanding debts, some of which have interest rates of up to seven percent, to refinance at the 3.86 percent rate approved for borrowers during the 2013-2014 school year.

“Since last year, nearly a million more borrowers have fallen behind in their payments,” said Sen. Warren. “Nearly a million more are watching their balances get bigger, not smaller. Nearly a million more are sweating out how they are ever going to repay their student loan debt.”

“Last year, student loan debt was an economic emergency,” Warren continued. “And now, one year later, the emergency is getting worse. Just look at the numbers: students are now struggling with a hundred billion dollars more debt than a year ago. Since last year, total student loan debt has jumped to $1.3 trillion, and the debt is crushing young people.”

Warren pointed out that last year the federal government was projected to take in tens of billions of dollars in profits from the high interest rates on student loans.

“One year later, interest rates on new loans are even higher,” said Warren. “And even with millions of people struggling to pay, even after accounting for administrative and other costs, the federal government is still raking in huge profits on the student loan program.”

When Sen. Warren tried to push a similar bill last year, the Republicans refused to even debate the bill.

“Republicans said there were other, better ways to tackle the student debt, but the Republicans did nothing,” said Warren. “Nothing except fillabuster the only student loan bill on the table. So tens of millions of borrowers got nothing. No help at all.”

Watch Sen. Warren’s full introduction of the bill.

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Money May Keep Sanders Out in 2016

This post originally appeared on RingofFireRadio.com

Most modern democracies embrace some form of socialism. Not so in the USA, where capitalism has become tantamount to religion and the capitalists have a stranglehold on the political process. Ironically, the U.S. Congress’ single democratic socialist and foremost champion of progressive causes may wind up being silenced and marginalized by the same forces he has stood against for four decades.

Yet today’s candidates of all stripes have little choice but to go to those forces for the massive amounts of money required to mount a campaign anymore. Never one to compromise his ideals, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont  continues to bite the hands that now, thanks toCitizens United, feed the entire political process. According to his campaign adviser, Tad Devine, this will likely hamstring any attempt Sanders makes to win the Democratic nomination for 2016.

At the same time, front-runners Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush plan on raising in excess of $1 billion for their respective campaigns – even as self-styled kings Charles and David Koch have vowed to drop at least that much of their own vast fortune in order to buy the election.

There is another troubling aspect to this, making it into a problem that literally feeds on itself. It’s about “name recognition.” As we have seen in pop culture, quality has little to do with what succeeds and what fails. As professional promoters often point out, it’s about “branding” and people’s perceptions. If the media gods have judged that someone – such as Dennis Kucinich or Bernie Sanders – is not a “serious” candidate, it really doesn’t matter what the message is or what the real issues are about.

Both Kucinich and Sanders understand the real problems facing this country – but because they are not considered “serious” candidates by the media Powers That Be (not to mention their outspoken stance against the same power elite that control the money), it is difficult for them to raise campaign funds. In turn, their voices are drowned out by the large, expensive bullhorns to which the corporate and financial elite can easily buy limitless access.

Combine this with the “dumbing down” of entire generation who lives on the 21st Century version of “bread and circuses,” the future of American democracy looks grim.

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Adding Injury To Insult

This post originally appeared on RingofFireRadio.com

As if one of the wealthiest corporations on the planet paying poverty wages wasn’t bad enough, McDonald’s (one of several franchises being represented in a lawsuit against the city of Seattle over its recent mandate to raise wages to $15 an hour) apparently believes itself to be exempt from regulations of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Remember Ketchup As a Vegetable?

In the great tradition of the Reagan years, the management at McDonald’s “restaurants” consider mustard and mayonnaise to be first aid ointments. It’s not a joke. In a press release from the website FightFor15.org, a McDonald’s worker from Chicago described her experience:

“My managers kept pushing me to work faster, and while trying to meet their demands I slipped on a wet floor, catching my arm on a hot grill…the managers told me to put mustard on it, but I ended up having to get rushed to the hospital in an ambulance.”

This worker’s story is not unusual. At least 80% of McDonald’s employees report suffering moderate to severe burn injuries. Of that 80%, 6 out of every 10 workers suffered multiple injuries. 1 in 3 report that the first aid kit (mandated under OSHA regulations) is either not readily accessible, lacking supplies – or missing altogether.

And what of safety equipment? Dream on, folks – you think this is a four-star French cafe? (Incredibly, there are 1200 McDonald’s outlets in France – but in order to survive in that country, the corporation was forced to adapt to French eating habits and preferences…and you’d better believe working conditions are better as well.)

Actually, McDonald’s and most other “fast food” franchises have far more in common with an automotive assembly line than any sort of upscale dining establishment.

A Bit of History

The concept of “fast food” in the United States goes back over a century, but arguably, the first modern “fast food” chain was A&W (of root beer fame), which began franchising in 1921. 19 years later, two brothers in San Bernardino, California, created a kitchen and food service method modeled on the same assembly lines pioneered by Henry Ford.

The brothers’ names? Richard and Maurice McDonald.

In 1954, a salesman for milkshake blending machines visited the McDonald’s operation in order to learn why the brothers had ordered a dozen machines (most eating establishments and soda fountains had one or two at most). When the dust settled from that visit, the McDonald’s had a partner in that visiting salesman, who went by the name of Ray Kroc. He opened the first McDonald’s franchises in his home state of Illinois shortly thereafter. By 1961, Kroc was in a position to buy out the McDonald brothers – and the modern McDonald’s Corporation was born.

It’s Not All Bad

For better or worse, this food service business model has become almost ubiquitous. However, some present-day fast food restaurants treat employees far better than others. Not surprisingly, these tend to be either small, independent family businesses or more localized chains, such as the Pacific Northwest’s Burgerville or the Southwest’s In-N-Out Burger. Both of these companies have always paid starting employees more than minimum wage and provide low-cost, full medical and dental benefits. Current and former employees give the companies high marks when it comes to worker satisfaction, despite the fast-paced and stressful nature of the job.

So….what is it about these issues that McDonald’s doesn’t get?

Ronald Could Learn a Thing or Two

On 16 March, 28 complaints from workers having suffered burn injuries were filed with OSHA. This issue – now attracting national attention – is quickly becoming part of the fight for higher wages among these workers from across the nation. Demonstrators in the San Francisco Bay area and elsewhere in the country are gathering outside of McDonald’s stores, not only demanding $15 an hour, but speaking out about unsafe working conditions as well.

A spokesperson for McDonald’s told USA Today that alleged safety violations would be investigated, but added that the media should to be aware that said allegations were “part of a larger strategy” on the part of “activists” who were targeting the company.

According to the allegations, as managers exert extreme pressure on employees to work faster and “more efficiently,” basic, common-sense safety precautions are ignored. One of these is to wait for cooking oil to cool down before emptying fryers for cleaning. At least one employee was instructed to line a cardboard box with plastic, fill it with ice, and dump hot cooking oil into it so the fryer could be cleaned faster and the used product disposed of sooner.

After all, profits are at stake. Franchisees are themselves under intense pressure from the corporate office, which sends out inspectors regularly to make certain they are toeing the line. (Conformity appears to be the main concern, here; safety is low on the priority list.)

It must be paying off for someone. Despite a great deal of bad press in recent years, McDonald’s – a global corporation with 36,000 locations worldwide – has been seeing a modest increase in sales. In 2012, the corporation had revenues of $27.5 billion, a little over 3% over the prior year. That averages just under $764,000 per restaurant.

In-N-Out, which has a mere 232 locations in five Western states, made an estimated $625 million that same year. But that represents an income of nearly $2.7 million per restaurant – about 350% better than McDonald’s.

One significant difference between the two restaurant change is that the global corporation must grow and expand at all costs. If that means cutting corners and gaming the system, so be it. If workers get hurt and customers get sick, well, that’s just part of the cost of doing business.

It is what the late author and social critic Edward Abbey described as “the mentality of the cancer cell.”

The regional chain, which was founded in 1948, has an entirely different business philosophy. Central to In-N-Out’s philosophy is treating employees well and sharing the corporation’s success with the workers who make it possible. According to Wall Street wisdom, anything that cuts into the profit margin and prevents constant, rapid expansion is bad business.

Yet In-N-Out is doing phenomenally well by all standards. McDonald’s, which follows Wall Street convention, is facing charges for violating labor regulations, armies of angry, dissatisfied employees demanding a greater share of the wealth they work to generate – and a rapidly tarnishing public image.

And in the meantime, McDonald’s employees continue to suffer unnecessary, painful, on-the-job injuries. One hopes that OSHA officials will take these complaints seriously and give the Golden Arches a good, hard, detailed once-over.

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The Republican Strategy: Scare Americans To Death

This post originally appeared on RingofFireRadio.com.

One of the only things that the Republican Party actually excels at is telling the American public WHAT they need to be afraid of. At the heart of all of their messaging is FEAR. The Republican Party needs the American public to be afraid, because they know that fear leads people to make irrational decisions – like voting Republican – so they’ve mastered psychological manipulation and they use it to their advantage.

Ring of Fire’s Farron Cousins explains how this works with attorney Howard Nations.

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Candidates Kiss the Koch Ring

This post was originally posted on RingofFireRadio.com

After the Supreme Court’s democracy-mugging decree that let corporations dump unlimited amounts of money into our elections, a guy named Larry sent me an email that perfectly summed it all up: “Big money has plucked our eagle!”

Thanks to the court’s freakish Citizens United ruling, the Koch brothers have already amassed an unprecedented $900-million electioneering fund for the 2016 cycle, making them the godfathers of tea party Republicanism.

Thus, such presidential wannabes as Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and Scott Walker are shamelessly scurrying to kiss the Koch ring and pledge fealty to the brotherhood’s extremist plutocratic agenda.

But big money isn’t only corrupting candidates. It’s also greatly diminishing voter participation in what has become a made-for-TV farce.

The biggest chunk of cash spent by Koch, Inc. will go right into a mind-numbing squall of nauseatingly negative ads. They won’t explain why we should vote for so and so, but instead will trash the candidates the Koch syndicate opposes.

Worse, voters won’t even be informed that the Kochs paid for this garbage, since the Supreme Court says they can run secret campaigns, laundering their money through front groups to keep voters from knowing what special interests are really behind the attacks.

We saw the impact of secret, unrestricted corporate money in last year’s midterm elections. It produced a blight of negativity and a failure to address people’s real needs.

All that made for an upchuck factor that kept nearly two-thirds of the people from voting. Worst of all, it gave us a Congress owned by corporate elites.

The Koch machine spent about $300 million to get those results. This time, they’ll spend three times more.

This article was written by Jim Hightower and is published here by permission.

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John Oliver: Millions Still Lack Equal Voting Rights

This post originally appeared on RingofFireRadio.com.

This past week marked the 50th anniversary of the Selma march. While some feel that voting rights discrimination is a thing of the past, it is not. American territories have very restricted voting rights, despite having populations much larger than many American states. Why? The short answer: racism.

Watch John Oliver explain why this is such a problem and how ridiculous it is that the problem still exists.

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Russell Brand: Which Really Kills More? ISIS or Climate Change

This post originally appeared on RingofFireRadio.com.

Right wing media has made a lot of the president’s statement in a Vox interview where he said that the media sensationalizes the threat of terrorism while downplaying the true threat of climate change.

Russell Brand looks at the numbers behind that statement in this clip. Spoiler alert: climate change kills way more people than ISIS.

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Sen. Chuck Grassley to Hospitals: Quit Suing Poor Patients or Start Paying Your Taxes

As a result of a report from ProPublica and NPR which revealed that nonprofit hospitals have been the seizing wages of and suing low-income and working-class patients who can’t pay their bills, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) sent a letter to a Missouri hospital telling them to stop.

In the letter to Mosaic Life Care, a St. Joseph, Missouri non-profit hospital, Sen. Grassley pointed out that the hospital “is required to offer community benefit in exchange for its tax exempt status.”

“However,” continued the senator, “a recent news article has given me cause to believe that Mosaic’s financial assistance, billing, and collection practices may fail to live up to the community benefits standards and/or fail to adhere to the additional requirements for charitable hospitals.”

The report from ProPublica and NPR featured a family who has been having its wages seized by Mosaic for almost 10 years, but still owes $25,000 “and feels trapped — in part because [Mosaic] is charging 9 percent interest on that debt.”

Mosaic uses Northwest Financial Services, a for-profit debt collection agency, when patients are unable to pay their bills and sues them because of that failure to pay in full.

“Between 2009 and 2013, Northwest filed over 11,000 lawsuits against [Mosaic] patients,” wrote Grassley. “During that time, Northwest garnished the pay of approximately 6000 patients and collected at least $12 million from them.”

Mosaic “has sued more of its patients than any other hospital in Missouri.”

Because Mosaic charged patients who were eligible for financial assistance full price for their medical care, in addition to the fines and late fees for being unable to pay, Grassley said it appears “Mosaic may not be meeting the requirements to be a nonprofit, tax exempt hospital. In fact, Mosaic made a $45 million profit last year.”

Mosaic, and probably countless other hospitals, have been taking advantage of not only their patients, but the tax system as well. Hospitals like this are given nonprofit, tax exempt status so that they can offer care to the most disadvantaged patients. By charging full price and not paying their own taxes, Mosaic has been trying to have its cake and eat it too.

Americans should not have to choose between paying medical bills and feeding their families, something that these corrupt hospitals have been forcing them to do. Hopefully the attention brought by the ProPublica/NPR report, combined with the efforts from Sen. Grassley will change this broken system.

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