Monday, May 31, 2010

Truth In Advertising

(Copped from Economist's View, who found it at Information Processing.)


This is apparently a hoax. I still think it's the best gallows humor I've seen in a long time. Bravo to the the perpetrator!


Sunday, May 30, 2010

Sunday Poetry: John McCrae

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

--John McCrae

Some Good Advice

One of my favorite blogs is Ronni Bennett's Time Goes By. It's one of the most informative blogs on elder issues, which is Ronni's primary focus. Anyone over 50 or related to someone who's over 50 can find a lot of useful information on "what it's really like to get older."

Yesterday, Pulitzer prize winning journalist Saul Friedman (a member of the team Ronni has put together) weighed in on Social Security and the ongoing attempt by our owners to dismantle the program and put all of that money into Wall Street instruments. He gives some good advice on what to do about the latest move by the yahoos and details the actual facts about one of the most efficient and effective programs around.

First, find out if you have an IRA or other retirement saving accounts with a bank or brokerage or investment house that has been calling for the privatization of Social Security. If so, transfer the account (without penalty) and tell the broker why.

Nothing gets the attention of the money-people faster than the withdrawal of an account, no matter how small. If enough people with IRAs (and lots of people have them in addition to any 401k account at work) start getting cranky about the machinations of the people who are supposed to be working for their customers instead of against them, it might let out a little air in that balloon.

Mr. Friedman also has a few choice words on the stale baloney being passed out by the yahoos as "facts" concerning the imminent bankruptcy of the program and its potential effect on the federal budget:

...since the fixes of 1983-4 by the Reagan administration and Alan Greenspan’s commission, Social Security has run a surplus every year, enough to guarantee benefits for the huge boomer generation. Even this year and next, when high unemployment forces the program to pay out more than it takes in in payroll taxes, Social Security will still run surpluses of more than $100 million.

That should lead defenders to their main point, which they should repeat like a mantra: Aside from its administrative costs, Social Security’s benefits for 50 million Americans does not contribute even one dollar to the federal deficit. Let me repeat for reporters who are too lazy to understand Social Security: Aside from its relatively small administrative costs (which are in the Social Security Administration’s budget), Social Security adds nothing to the deficit.
[Emphasis in the original]

Does the program need tweaking? Of course it does. What program, whether public or private doesn't from time to time?

Mr. Friedman has some good advice on this point as well, backed up by the opinions of people who actually know something about money and how it should be used:

... if Congress abolished the $106,800 cap on the wages subject to payroll taxes, the entire $5.3 trillion shortfall would disappear. Obama has suggested raising the cap to $250,00. Interestingly, several of the nation’s more honorable billionaires, like Warren Buffet and Bill Gates - junior and senior - have called for an end to the cap, noting that they are paying no more in Social Security taxes than a well-paid secretary.

That shortfall, by the way, is not looming. The CBO predicts it will occur 75 years from now. Mr. Friedman's point is that we can fix it now with a simple raising of the cap on earnings.

I've decided that the next time some loafer-wearing, Mercedes-driving, fast-talking yahoo tries to tell me that I'd be better off with a privatized social security plan I'm not going to throw a shoe at him. I'm going to place one that I'm wearing firmly and resoundingly on his backside. And then I'm going to empty a whole can of whup-ass on his head. Thanks to Mr. Friedman, I've got the requisite ammunition to do so.

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Sunday Funnies

(Political cartoon by Jim Morin / The Miami Herald (May 28, 2010) and featured at McClatchy DC. Click on image to enlarge.)


Saturday, May 29, 2010

Bonus Critter Blogging: Lynx

(Photograph by Norbert Rosing and published at National Geographic. Click on image to enlarge.)

Rich Man's War, Poor Man's Fight

The opinion piece written by Douglas L. Kriner and Francis X. Shen and published in today's Los Angeles Times confirms what a lot of people have long suspected: wars are actually fought by the economically disadvantaged, and the casualty rate reflects that. Using the data and conclusions from their recently published book, Casualty Gap, the authors point out the inequalities in the way the US wages war and what it means.

Over the last six years, we have studied this inequality by collecting and analyzing data on the hometowns of more than 400,000 members of the armed forces who died in World War II, Korea, Vietnam and Iraq. By integrating these records with census data, we demonstrate unambiguously that, beginning with the Korean War, disadvantaged communities have suffered a disproportionate share of the nation's wartime casualties, while richer communities have been more insulated from the costs of war. Furthermore, the data suggest that this "casualty gap" between rich and poor communities has reached its widest proportions in the ongoing conflict in Iraq. ...

Nationally, in the Korean, Vietnam and Iraq wars, communities in the lowest three income deciles suffered 35%, 36% and 38% of the casualties, respectively. Yet communities in the top three income deciles sustained significantly fewer casualties — 25%, 26% and 23% of the casualties, respectively.

More advanced statistical analyses, which account for a variety of other important factors, also offer strong evidence of casualty gaps between communities with different levels of income and education. In Los Angeles, for example, citywide almost 27% of residents hold a college degree. By contrast in the specific L.A. neighborhoods that have lost a young man or woman in Iraq, less than 12% of residents graduated from college. Similarly, in New York City, the citywide average median family income is nearly $42,000, while the average in neighborhoods that have experienced an Iraq war casualty is $34,000, 19% lower.

The authors point out that the military has always depended on the poor to fight wars, and the military has made certain that it has a steady stream of willing fighters by offering some pretty attractive incentives: a job during a time of a high jobless rate, a shot at a decent education via the G.I. Bill, even a fast track towards citizenship for those born elsewhere. Essentially, serving in the military becomes a shot at upward mobility for young men and women who see no other way. The price for the ticket into our society, however, can be extremely steep, as the families of the 6,000 men and women killed in Iraq and Afghanistan will attest this Memorial Day.

In the mean time, however, the US has a standing army, one ready to be shipped to wherever the politicians/corporatists want to meddle next. And we allow them to do so, often unquestioningly. It is at this point that Kriner and Shen surprised me by pointing out that it doesn't have to remain this way.

What would happen if the nation openly acknowledged the casualty gap? Would citizens rethink questions of war and peace? To find out, we conducted a series of original public opinion survey experiments with nationally representative samples of Americans. We found that citizens informed about the existence of a casualty gap were significantly more likely to oppose ongoing military operations and less willing to support future ones than were their peers who were not informed about casualty inequalities. For example, in evaluating a hypothetical military mission to halt Iran's nuclear weapons program, respondents told about casualty inequalities in the Iraq war said they would tolerate 40% fewer casualties to achieve the mission's goals than would their peers who were not given this information.

These experimental results suggest that if Americans were to learn of wartime inequalities, the public would become more circumspect about future military action. However, the casualty gap is not part of our national dialogue. The reason is clear: Casualty inequalities challenge our fundamental American values. Bringing a frank and honest discussion of the casualty gap into the public sphere could significantly alter the tenor of political discourse in Washington.
[Emphasis added]

While the syntax in the quoted section gets downright murky, the point is that knowing that the poor are disproportionately represented in the casualty numbers would cause most Americans to be less likely to support the kind of war-making our nation has engaged in, especially in the last 50 years. If that is true, and I have enough optimism left in the sense of fairness most Americans have to believe that it is true, then the fact that the casualty gap is not part of our national discourse is shameful.

The authors have given us the ammunition to force the discussion. It's time we used that ammunition. We've kept our powder dry for just about 50 years too long.

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Friday, May 28, 2010

Friday Cat Blogging

Odd Bedfellows

The first major move of the new government in Great Britain is a surprising display of good sense: the coalition government has decided to abolish the move to a national identification card (the British version of "Real I.D.").

Britain's new government announced Thursday that its first major legislation will be a bill to scrap a controversial and costly plan to introduce national identification cards.

"ID cards will be gone in a 100 days," Home Secretary Theresa May said at a news conference.

May said the government would save more than $1 billion in the next decade by canceling the cards and the corresponding national registry. The cards contain biometric data, photographs and fingerprints.

"But this isn't just about saving money," May said, "It's also about principle.... We did believe there was a liberties argument for not enforcing ID cards on the British people."

That the first reason given for abolishing the program is cost is certainly no surprise. It's the first things conservatives worry about. We've seen that here as Congress foisted yet another unfunded mandate on the states when it passed the "Real I.D." bill, and governors began to howl. Of course, American conservatives at the time put up with the move for some of the reasons that British conservatives did: both were horrified at the influx of immigrants and both were in the midst of pushing the fear of terrorism meme on their citizens. US Republicans also added a dash of voter fraud to the mix as the threat of a Democratic victory approached.

The civil liberties issue was well-down the list on reasons to end the controversial British plan, but that was one issue on which both the Tories and the Liberal Democrats could agree. There is no such agreement in this country. Instead, the Republican and Democratic Party leaders are quite happy with "Real I.D.", as is, apparently, the White House. While the time line for full compliance has been extended to give the states a little breathing room, there is no movement for cancelling this odious plan. We in the United States will still, at least at some point and in some states, have to show our papers on demand.

Sucks, doesn't it.


Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Passive Voice

Once again Tim Rutten has written a noteworthy column. Today's essay explores the manner in which President Obama and his administration are addressing the latest disasters to strike the country: BP's Gulf oil spill and Arizona's anti-immigration law. Mr. Rutten quite correctly notes the point at which a devotion to process melds into impotent passivity.

President Obama and his administration currently face two pollution problems — a physical one in the Gulf of Mexico, where oil continues to spew unchecked from a damaged well, and a political one involving immigration policy and originating in Arizona.

In both instances an exaggerated deference to process bordering on passivity risks creating an impression that the White House is running behind critical domestic events and, worse, detached — even indifferent — to the human toll of inaction.

With regard to the gulf oil well blowout, it's true that Obama inherited from previous administrations a vestigial regulatory system and an utter lack of contingency planning for such an emergency. It's also true that the federal government has to rely on the oil industry for technical expertise in these cases. At the same time, the White House has been exceptionally slow about demonstrating that it's using its legal authority to effectively monitor the pace and intensity of that technology's application. ...

In Arizona, meanwhile, the consequences of the president's failure to push for comprehensive immigration reform, as he promised in his campaign, have been compounded by the Justice Department's sloth in challenging that state's recently enacted anti-immigrant legislation. ...

Given the fact that federal preemption of immigration regulations is an established legal principle and that the statute runs only 10 pages, how long can that take? Last week, Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. admitted to a congressional committee that he still hadn't read SB 1070.

As a consequence, Arizona's legislative jihad against immigrants continues apace. The state has banned ethnic studies from its secondary schools and, now, state Sen. Russell Pearce, SB 1070's author, says he'll push to deny U.S. citizenship to children born in Arizona to immigrant parents without papers. That's just one more insult to the Constitution. After all, the language of the 14th Amendment is explicit: "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside."

What is so amazing about this hand-wringing inaction is that Mr. Obama inherited the expanded powers of the Bush "unitary executive" presidency as well as the problems hidden in the downgraded regulatory agencies, yet he continues to move slowly, tentatively, as if he truly believed that one man can do little in the face of such momentous events. If he does hold such a belief, then he truly is the wrong man for the job and we were misled.

There is plenty the President of the United States can do and should be doing in each of these disasters. With respect to the oil spill, Mr. Obama could declare a national emergency and commence fining the oil company, the rig owner, and the contractor who did shoddy work on the cement which most experts believe set off the tragic chain of events. He could stop deferring to the CEO of BP as the only source of expertise in the event. He could convene a real commission of experts called from the universities of this country and the rest of the world who know what should be done and has to be done to stop the leak and to clean up the mess and then empower them to do what it takes.

With respect to the anti-immigrant law in Arizona, Mr. Obama could honor not only his campaign promise to push for immigration reform which regulates the flow of immigrants to this country and which deals fairly and compassionately with the millions already here, but also the oath he took on January 20, 2009 to protect and defend the Constitution by asserting the federal preemption of the issue. The suit against Arizona's law should have been filed the minute after Governor Brewer signed the state bill into law.

Instead, Mr. Obama sits back, uttering a few civilized growls when pushed, and waits for both scenarios to play out. Either he is unwilling to anger those he perceives as the real powers, or he is stupid. Neither stance is appropriate for the leader of a nation.


Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Here's An Idea For The Ages

OK, I admit it: I laughed loudly at 3:30 AM at Dana Milbank's latest column. I also admit that I never expected snark of this calibre from Mr. Milbank, but I suppose the subject matter inspired him far more than even he expected.

Here's the skinny: the GOP has introduced a new web site for the November elections. There's nothing funny about that in and of itself, but it's how they set that web site up that pretty much ensured hilarity. I'll let Dana tell it:

Republicans want to take over the House in the fall, but there's a problem: They don't have an agenda.

So on Tuesday, they set out to resolve that shortcoming. They announced that they would solicit suggestions on the Internet, then have members of the public give the ideas a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down. Call it the "Dancing With the Stars" model of public policy.

Republicans were very pleased with their technological sophistication as they introduced the Web site, America Speaking Out in a ceremony at the Newseum. Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who created the program, said that to get software for the site, "I personally traveled to Washington state and discovered a Microsoft program that helped NASA map the moon."

The technological sophistication allowed Rep. McCarthy to select a program which filters out naughty words. OK, that's good. Unfortunately, the web site doesn't come with any means to moderate the comments. Naturally, the comments have been astonishingly funny. I suspect some of the comments are a tribute to this country's current educational system. I suspect far more are the result of that grand internet tradition of trolling, something the technologically sophisticated McCarthy is apparently unaware of.

I suggest that you click on over and view some of those ideas being promoted by the visitors to the site, but you'd better hurry. As soon as enough Republican leaders read those comments or read Mr. Milbank's column, the site will be taken down, or at least modified with some safeguards, including registration.

In any event, other than being appalled at the laziness of the Republican party ("Um, the dog ate our agenda. Could you voters please help us out and give us one?"), I am mostly grateful that it gave me a reason to laugh. I haven't had too many of those moments lately.


Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Things That Make You Go Wow!

How about a little good news for a change.

In the midst of the tragedy playing out on the Gulf Coast, a small California college announced the roll out of an energy saving plan based on some new solar technology.

From the Los Angeles Times:

The sprawling solar installations gobbling up California's deserts have a new competitor, one that claims to generate more energy at lower costs while using less open space.

Known as concentrator photovoltaics, or CPV, the technology is featured in an installation that will be revealed Tuesday at Victor Valley College.

The school's new 1-megawatt plant, on a six-acre dirt plot in Victorville, will provide around 30% of the campus' power.

The $4.5-million facility will be the largest of its kind in North America. The system is expected to pay for itself within five years through energy savings and government incentives, school officials said. ...

Concentrator photovoltaics convert sunlight into electrical energy using the same process as conventional crystalline silicon or thin-film panels. But CPV uses mirrors to concentrate the sun onto tiny high-efficiency solar cells.

The project is being built by SolFocus, Inc., located in Mountain View, California. One of the company's marketing executives explained why their technology is even better than "conventional" photovoltaic systems:

SolFocus is pitching its technology as less disruptive to the environment. The Victorville facility took just two months to build compared with years for other large solar installations. The system also requires relatively little water to keep the panels clean, and 97% of the materials can be recycled, said Nancy Hartsoch, the company's vice president of marketing and sales.

And that's not the end of the story. Victor Valley College intends to use the new facility not only to provide energy to the campus but also to train interested students in photovoltaic technology. The school hopes to expand that mission with a center which includes other forms of renewable energy, including wind energy.

We can overcome our ridiculous dependence of the fossil fuels that are choking us and the planet, and moves like the one taken at Victor Valley College in support of firms like SolFocus are wonderful ways to get us headed in the right direction.

It's been a while since I've been able to smile reading the news. This article hit the spot.

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Monday, May 24, 2010

Things That Make My Heart Hurt

One of the arguments that kept cropping up during the health care reform debates was that the US has the finest medical care delivery system in the world and we shouldn't tamper with that. Socializing medicine would ruin us and cause total death and destruction. We've got the best and don't need anything else.

Well, I chose not to be in denial then, nor am I so inclined at the present. Still, the news contained in this article hit me like a ton of bricks. When it comes to maternity deaths, the US is a third-world country.

Each day in the U.S., two women die of problems related to pregnancy or childbirth. The numbers have been rising, for reasons that are not entirely clear. After plunging in the 1900s, maternal mortality rates in California tripled between 1996 and 2006, from 5.6 deaths per 100,000 births to 16.9.

Nationally, the rate, defined as deaths from obstetrical causes within one year of giving birth, rose from 7.6 per 100,000 to 13.3 per 100,000.

For each death, experts estimate, there are about 50 instances of complications related to pregnancy or childbirth that are life-threatening or cause permanent damage. According to a study published last year, such "near misses" — including kidney failure, respiratory distress syndrome, shock and the need for blood transfusions and ventilation —rose 25% from the late 1990s to 2005.
[Emphasis added]

Yes, that's right: the maternal death rates have tripled in California and nearly doubled across the US. While the "experts" aren't sure why this sudden surge has occurred, they do have some ideas. Women are having babies later in life, even in their 40s. The rate of potential complications rises with such pregnancies. However, there are other reasons which appear to explain the increase, and these have nothing to do with the age of the mother:

Some experts implicate the rise in rates of cesarean sections, which account for one-third of all births — up from one-fifth in 1997. Although many are done to save the life of a mother and her baby, perhaps half are elective, meaning the surgery is medically unnecessary. After one C-section, cesareans are typically recommended for subsequent pregnancies.

Yet these are major operations and "should not be taken lightly," said Dr. Michael Lu, a UCLA associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology. Each additional cesarean increases the risk of placental complications that threaten the lives of mother and baby.

The induction or prompting of labor by medication, which is sometimes medically advisable but more often performed for the doctor's or patient's convenience, has climbed so steeply — it now occurs in 22% of births — that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists felt compelled to advise its members last year to avoid inductions before 39 weeks' gestation.

When labor is induced a week or so before the due date, the uterus may not be ready, leading to prolonged labor. After delivery, the exhausted muscle may not contract properly to stop bleeding. Blood can no longer clot and becomes the consistency of water.

Staffing of maternity wards is also a serious problem, said Nan Strauss, a senior researcher at Amnesty International and a coauthor of the organization's March report on maternal deaths.

Most of these problems could be corrected. Doctors could delay a round of golf. Mothers and fathers could be more patient. Hospitals could staff appropriately. If these elements are the reasons women are dying in or shortly after childbirth in this country then there is something seriously wrong with this country and with our health care system.

Yes, childbirth is a natural phenomenon and has been going on for a long time, but it's never been easy and it's never been safe. We could do better, obviously, and we'd better do better before more children have to grow up without a mother.

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Sunday, May 23, 2010

Sunday Poetry: Dahlia Ravikovitch

The Fruit of the Land

a farewell song to the good old days

You asked if we’ve got enough cannons
They laughed and said: More than enough
and we’ve got new improved anti-tank missiles
and bunker busters to penetrate
double-slab reinforced concrete
and we’ve got crates of napalm and crates of explosives,
unlimited quantities, cornucopias,
a feast for the soul, like some finely seasoned delicacy
and above all, that secret weapon,
the one we can’t talk about.
Calm down, man,
the intel officer and the C.O.
and the border police chief
who’s also a colonel in that hush-hush commando unit
are all primed for the order: Go!
and everything’s shined-up like the skin of a snake
and we’ve got chocolate wafers on every base
and grape juice and Tempo soda
and that’s why we won’t give in to terror
we will not fold in the face of violence
we’ll never fold, no matter what
‘cause our billy clubs are nice and hard.
God, who has chosen us from all the nations,
comforteth with apples
the fighting arm of the IDF
and the iron boxes and the crates of fresh explosives
and we’ve got cluster bombs too,
though of course that’s off the record.
Serve us bourekas and cake, O woman of the house,
for we were slaves in the land of Egypt
but never again,
and blot out the remembrance of Amalek
if you can track him down, and if you seek him in vain,
Blessed be the tiny match
that a soldier in some crack unit will suddenly strike
and set off the whole bloody mess.

--Dahlia Ravikovitch

Say What?

Candidates traditionally pull "facts" from their nether parts and usually get away with it. Oh, some elements of the mainstream media make a big to-do about fact checking, but that fact-checking too often involves nothing more than a little "gotcha" journalism. Occasionally, however, more responsible elements of the press do their jobs fairly and actually get the truth out there without any accompanying greasy smile. The Sacramento Bee has been doing just that in the California GOP gubernatorial primary race.

Now this race between Meg Whitman and Ted Pozner has turned toxic, so reportage has been filled with a lot of outrageousness. Still, the Bee has managed to do some very reliable reporting, but then McClatchy papers usually do. Today the Bee took a look at one of Meg Whitman's assertion and found it mostly wanting when it comes to any connection to consensual reality:

Stopping illegal immigration "is absolutely essential because the costs are enormous," Whitman said. "I don't know if you know this, but 30 percent of the state prisoners are probably illegal immigrants. We don't get reimbursed for those monies. And it's putting a burden on every element of the state budget." [Emphasis added]

No, that is not true, as the article points out:

Thirty percent is an inaccurate percentage. The California Department of Finance puts the percentage of undocumented inmates at about 11 percent of the total prison population, or about 19,000 out of 170,000. ...

Finance spokesman H.D. Palmer said the 11 percent figure has been steady for several years. These are prisoners who are on hold for deportation proceedings once sentences are served. Some legal immigrants who have lost their legal status because of a felony conviction might also be included in the numbers.

In 1994, the federal government started the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program, or SCAAP, to reimburse state and local municipalities for the costs of incarcerating illegal immigrants convicted of certain crimes. Claims for reimbursement are based on per-diem costs for inmates and prison guard salaries.

11% is not 30%. That's a huge discrepancy, even if one uses "rounding off" rules. Further, the state isn't left holding the bag entirely. However, the Bee didn't leave the field after finding a "gotcha" moment. Instead, it did point out something those of us in California and other states with huge immigrant populations know. The reimbursement offered by the federal government comes nowhere near what it costs to incarcerate those who've come to California from other countries and have committed crimes. In fact, the state of California has borne nearly 90% of the costs of holding undocumented criminals.

In other words, this was a fair appraisal of Meg Whitman's comments, and I find that noteworthy.

Beyond that, however, was the fact that Meg Whitman felt perfectly confident in lobbing these "facts" in Roseville, California. She expected, and received, a favorable reception for citing them. If it hadn't been for the Bee article her numbers would have stood unrebutted. Meg Whitman might have supplanted Sarah Palin as the tighty-righty's hero, replacing the Mama Grizzly with the Pander Bear. This time the free press worked.

I am grateful.

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Sunday Funnies

(Political cartoon by Joel Pett / Lexington Herald-Leader (May 18, 2010) and featured at McClatchy DC. Click on image to enlarge.)


Saturday, May 22, 2010

Bonus Critter Blogging: Golden Lion Tamarin

(Photograph by Mark W. Moffett and published at National Geographic.)

Newt's Very Own Tea Party

American politics never ceases to fascinate me. I suppose that's why I changed my mind about taking the weekend off from any kind of blogging or internet discourse. I'm tired, I can't shake this cold, and my tiny apartment is in desperate need of a thorough cleaning, yet here I am before dawn on a Saturday, crouched over my laptop, trying to make some sense out of some of the latest news about my country. What changed my mind? The latest effort from Los Angeles Times columnist Tim Rutten, who has been on a roll lately.

Mr. Rutten's subject is Newt Gingrich. That in itself is curious. I mean, here we have this long list of newcomer characters to contend with -- Sarah Palin and Rand Paul among them -- and Rutten focuses on a guy who was forced out of his position as Speaker of the House by his own party more than a decade ago. Yet, as Mr. Rutten reminds us, Newt never really left the scene completely.

Ever since he resigned his speakership and House seat in disgrace nearly 12 years ago, Newt Gingrich has prowled the margins of electoral politics like a wolf, hungry and opportunistic.

He's tried on a variety of ideas and ideological colorations in those intervening years, but this week, with the publication of his new book, "To Save America: Stopping Obama's Secular-Socialist Machine," he explicitly linked his fate to the "tea party" movement. Given the fact that Gingrich has said he is weighing a presidential bid, it's a safe bet that others, similarly ambitious, will carefully watch how he fares.

"[L]ike a wolf, hungry and opportunistic:" what a perfect description of Newt Gingrich. It captures the character of the former Speaker colorfully, but precisely. That's why I wasn't too surprised to hear about Mr. Gingrich's choice of contextual backdrop for his latest attempt to climb back into the spotlight. I don't think Mr. Rutten was all that surprised either. What Rutten points out, however, is that this choice is one that may prove to be untenable in the long run:

Gingrich clearly thinks the political winds have shifted. Just last fall, he recalled that Ronald Reagan worked with many people with whom he disagreed, and he argued that anyone leading the effort to recapture Congress and the White House "had better be prepared to run a coalition that is pretty big, because this is a country of 305 million people." Now, he's gambling that there's a base to be had in the tea party movement; that pragmatism has been discarded for the view that anyone who supports the Democrats is part of the ungodly socialist conspiracy — or its dupe.

...Though the tea party may appear to Gingrich like an inchoate upwelling of rage ripe for leadership, the movement already is riven with ideological eccentricities that long have lurked on the shadowy margins of our politics.

And that's going to be a problem for Newt: he'll have to share that spotlight with the likes of Sarah Palin and Rand Paul. Tim Rutten ended his column by alluding to the old story of the lady riding the tiger. My take is that Newt will get off the tiger when it becomes clear that the Tea Party is really just a transient, invented-by-cynics and driven by media fascination, empty phenomenon. Newt isn't stupid. He's just "hungry and opportunistic." And crass.

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Friday, May 21, 2010

Friday Cat Blogging


The Sacramento Bee published an interesting commentary yesterday. Written by Senior Editor Dan Morain, the opinion piece explores the enormous amount of personal cash being expended by the two wealthy Republicans running for governor of California.

Whitman, the former eBay chief executive, has spent roughly $70 million and finds herself on a downward spiral against Poizner, the wealthy entrepreneur whose spending is approaching $30 million. Most of their money has been used to mercilessly attack each other.

Whitman remains the favorite. But the latest poll by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California shows Whitman's once massive lead over Insurance Commissioner Poizner has taken a dive in the GOP primary race for governor.

In two months, her lead, once 50 percentage points, has tumbled to nine points, 38 percent to 29 percent. Her support was, as they say, a mile wide and an inch deep. ...

Even among rich candidates, Whitman's campaign is extreme. Spending somewhere in the vicinity of $400,000 a day, she has walled herself off in an extreme way, precluding serious questions by voters or reporters, unlike Poizner.

Poizner is spending his personal wealth, too, but he engages, appearing at rallies and lingering to answer their questions.

$100 million, just for the primary.

Republican theorists are a little nervous about all this, fearing that the public, including registered Republicans, are turned off by the buying spree. One measure of that disgust is the fact that mail-in ballots, the mainstay of Republican campaigns, are way down, and the primary is less than two weeks away.

Meanwhile, Democratic candidate Jerry Brown is just sitting back, raising money, making a few appearances, continuing his work as the state's Attorney General. At one point, Meg Whitman had the lead over Mr. Brown statewide, but that lead didn't hold. He is now back in the picture, and latest polls shows him ahead of Whitman 42 percent to 37 percent, with 21 percent undecided.

What is interesting about all of this is that also on the ballot for the June election is a proposition backed by both the governor and the state legislature which would allow for a pilot test on public financing of elections (see the Los Angeles Times article on that here). The test program will only involve the Secretary of State position, and will be financed by increasing reporting fees for lobbyists (how's that for justice!). If the proposition passes, and it might, California might start moving away from boutique elections in which only the wealthiest of citizens can buy into the government.

What a welcome development that would be.

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Thursday, May 20, 2010

Post Election Hash

I am bemused, once again, by the mainstream media's take on Tuesday's elections, especially since most of the pundit's projected winners crashed and burned. This article from the Los Angeles Times is typical of the weak analysis being offered. The very first line is a dead giveaway of what I consider to be a faulty conclusion:

Republicans got a wake-up call this week.

Oh, did they now... I'm not so sure. Let's parse some of the evidence offered to support the implied thesis that the National Democratic Party "won".

Democrats nominated probably their strongest Senate contender in Pennsylvania, where Rep. Joe Sestak eliminated party-switcher Arlen Specter. ...

Mr. Sestak, long a registered Democrat ran against the "Democrat" selected by the White House and the Democratic leadership as the preferred candidate. Arlen Specter, who was a Republican until it became clear that he would lose to a more reliably conservative candidate, was promised support by the party leaders, including President Obama, if he would switch parties and give Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid the sixtieth vote Mr. Reid so desperately wanted.

No one connected with the deal bothered to check with the state party leaders or with the voters to see how they would react to this cynical maneuver. Joe Sestak's victory makes that clear. The peasants, as they are wont to do every once in a while, rebelled. Polls just before the election had it close enough that the White House suddenly disappeared from the campaign. As it turns out, the polls were wrong as well. Sestak's margin of victory was pretty clear.

And then, there's Kentucky:

...In Kentucky's Senate contest, Democrats drew their preferred opponent in state "tea party" founder Rand Paul (though he could be underestimated in the fall as he was this spring.) [Emphasis added]

Interesting bit of parenthetical hedging there, yes?

Rand Paul, son of the former presidential candidate Ron Paul, is as libertarian in his orientation as his father. His victory buoyed the Tea Partiers enough that they will be pouring energy and money into his campaign until November. Given the over-all pissiness of the voters this year, Mr. Paul might turn out to be a formidable candidate, especially in that conservative state. The Republican establishment might not be happy, but the Democratic establishment shouldn't be any too thrilled either.

Finally, the election that LAT and most other media centers consider a crucial tell: the Pennsylvania special election to fill the late Jack Murtha's House seat.

Probably the most significant outcome, however, was the Democratic victory in a special House race in rural Pennsylvania. The district — anti-abortion, gun-loving, wary of Washington — is precisely the sort of place Republicans need to prevail to win back the House.

But Democrat Mark Critz, running on a parochial platform of job creation, easily defeated GOP businessman Tim Burns, who sought to turn the contest into a referendum on Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco).

Now, I happen to agree that the Republicans should have won this seat, at least in theory, but the man who did win just happened to be an aide to Rep. Murtha. Murtha, a conservative Democrat, kept winning because he kept on the right side of his constituents' values and kept bringing home the bacon. Rep. Murtha was the master of pork. It didn't matter who was in the White House or who the Speaker of the House was. He brought projects and jobs home to Pennsylvania. It makes sense that one of his own staffers had a sizable leg up. Tim Burns didn't take that into consideration and ran on a questionable thesis.

If the election results on Tuesday night showed anything (and I'm not certain it did), it was that the voters right now are in an ornery mood, and they are not interested in being manipulated by the current owners of government. If that holds true through November, well, anything can happen. Both parties should be nervous.

And I find that refreshing.

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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Nothing New Makes The News

The Party of No continues to thwart any meaningful legislation from the Senate (otherwise known as the World's Most Exclusive Country Club). Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) was the culprit this time.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) was seeking the unanimous consent of the Senate to move forward on the Big Oil Bailout Prevention Act, which would retroactively boost the legal cap of $75 million on how much companies must pay for economic damages.

But Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) blocked the effort, saying it would make drilling too expensive for smaller companies. "Big Oil would love to have these caps there so they can shut out all the independents," he said, echoing the argument of Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who halted an identical move last week.

The legislative maneuvering came as federal officials expanded the no-fishing zone to nearly a fifth of the Gulf of Mexico. The closure now totals 45,728 square miles, extending southeast from the blowout site.

And your point, Sen. Inhofe? I mean, if an oil company can't afford to pay the cost of willful incompetence, then maybe they shouldn't be allowed to drill for oil. The size of the company doesn't matter, the results of its cost cutting when it comes to critical safety elements should. Even at $10 billion, the cap is suspiciously low. This latest disaster is going to cost far more than that.

BP has pledged to pay all "legitimate" claims of economic damage despite the current cap of $75 million. But Democratic lawmakers want to see a $10-billion cap set into law, just in case BP resists paying what is expected to be billions of dollars in claims.

The April 20 BP blowout is expected to cause billions of dollars in damage to fisheries and tourism, which would be covered by the bill.

That's just part of the damage, the calculable part. There's also the incalculable part: the loss of species, the ruination of the estuaries, the degradation of the environment.

Sen. Inhofe and his oil drilling buddies should be glad that there are few real progressives in the Country Club, people who would insist on there being no cap and who would insist on criminal sanctions and a corporate death sentence for any company found to have intentionally cut corners to make a few extra bucks.

A pox on all of the oil grubbers.

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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Honestly, I Am Not Snickering ...

...No, really. I am always pleased when the youth of our nation finally effin' GET IT.

Young Bobby Jindal, the Republican governor of Louisiana, the guy who gave a mostly dull speech on limiting the size of government as the GOP's response to President Obama's first address to a joint session of Congress, has come out swinging on the Gulf spill disaster.

He has been in motion non-stop since the disaster started unfolding, pestering the federal government for supplies and assistance and personally visiting the scenes of the disaster. He has also touted plans to trap the oil before it fouls the beaches and estuaries along the coast.

The "burrito levee" and the "boudin bag" are part of a vast effort, overseen by Jindal, to hold back a slick that is already spitting tar balls onto the state's coast. He also has a plan to create more Louisiana, building new barrier islands in the oil's path.

"It makes so much sense. It's so obvious. We gotta do it," Jindal said into his headphones. His call for a major government response stands in apparent contrast to his previous calls for small government.

That's also quite a contrast to the position held by Haley Barber, another governor in the path of the oil spill. Gov. Barber doesn't see any problem and invites people to come down and, well, water ski in the water now fouled by the oil.

Now, I suppose one could argue that Gov. Jindal is simply doing a little bait-and-switch, that when the excrement hits the fan in his state, he's perfectly happy to have big government take care of the problem caused by the excesses of unregulated capitalism. I'm not so sure about that. I think he's finally beginning to see the larger picture:

As they flew, Jindal laid out the state's plans -- the boudin and the burritos and the sandbags -- to a collection of local officials strapped in around him. After he had finished, [New Orleans Mayor Mitch] Landrieu spoke up.

"At the end of the day, they've gotta cap this well, period," he said. "And they better hurry."

"Amen," the governor said.

Welcome to adulthood, Bobby.

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Monday, May 17, 2010

California's Woes

George Skelton has an interesting column in the Los Angeles Times this morning. His thesis seems to be that Governor Schwarzenegger's first moves after winning the recall election pretty much dictated how the rest of his stay in office would evolve. By cutting the vehicle license tax and borrowing $15 billion right at the start of his first term, he ensured that there would be budget problems down the road. The state has had to pour more money into local governments which had already banked the vehicle license tax and the state is still paying $1.2 billion a year for that loan, even though the money was spent years ago.

But Mr. Skelton also notes that the now lame-duck governor shouldn't shoulder all the blame for the sick-unto-death state of the state. His laundry list pretty much captures what ails California:

In Sacramento, Democratic legislators have been too cozy with public employee unions. Republicans have been too rigidly anti-tax.

Legislators of both parties are handicapped by term limits.

The two-thirds vote requirement passing budgets and raising taxes creates gridlock and pork payoffs.

The boom-or-bust tax structure is broken and needs an overhaul.

Roughly 70% of the hemorrhaging general fund flows to local governments and schools. Sacramento hasn't stopped bailing them out since Proposition 13 slashed their property tax revenue 32 years ago.

The bottom line is a projected $19.1-billion state deficit for the fiscal year starting July 1, with no politically acceptable means of filling the hole in sight.

I think Mr. Skelton's list is pretty complete. I am, therefore, amazed that there are any candidates running for governor this election cycle. Who in their right mind could possibly want to inherit the problems that the next governor will surely have to face?

The two main Republicans running have zero experience in government (Meg Whitman) or very little experience in government (Steve Poizner, the Insurance Commissioner). Both tout their highly successful business careers as evidence of their fitness for public office. Both promise to run the state as they would a business, as if governments and businesses were identical entities with identical tasks and goals. We've seen how that worked out for Governor Schwarzenegger.

The only Democrat running for the job is a former governor (who did, on balance, a pretty good job for the state his first time around): Jerry Brown, currently the state's Attorney General. He's been able to sit quietly while the GOP candidates slug it out in the primary campaign, but at some point after the primary he is going to have to come out with some specific proposals of his own to end the serious trouble the state is in.

In six weeks the state's fiscal year ends pretty much the way it started: red ink everywhere with almost no hope that a budget will actually be in place before the end of the summer. All sides in the debate have staked out untenable positions. The governor wants to end welfare (something even the Republicans in the legislature are hesitant about). The Democrats won't touch the issue of public employee pensions. The Republicans won't even consider a tax hike. Meanwhile, state unemployment is still in double digits, which means tax revenues are down, so there isn't even any wiggle room for the state.

So what will happen? At this point my crystal ball suggests we are in for more bleeding as everybody decides to once again kick the can down the road in the hopes that the economy will finally turn around.

Helluva way to run a state.

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Sunday, May 16, 2010

Sunday Poetry: Emily Dickinson

"Hope" is the thing with feathers


"Hope" is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—

And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard—
And sore must be the storm—
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm—

I've heard it in the chillest land—
And on the strangest Sea—
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb—of Me.

--Emily Dickinson

Homeboy Industries

I know this is a local story and probably won't mean much to most people outside the Los Angeles area, but it should. It's about a highly successful gang intervention program that provides services to 12,000 young men and women a year as they try to move away from their gang membership. It's about giving those young people hope by giving them a job. It's about a Roman Catholic priest, Father Gregory Boyle, who believes that these kids just need a break and some guidance to become productive and useful members of their community and who designed a program 18 years ago to do just that.

His plan was simple: put the kids to work in their own company. With the help of the business community, Father Gregory started up a couple of now very successful businesses. Homeboy Bakery (which makes some damned fine bread), Homegirl Cafe (which is located in the Homeboy Center near downtown (and which has a shot at opening a second site at LAX), and Homeboy Graphics (which is a silk screening operation).

Unfortunately, right now, Father Gregory's program is having the same financial problems that other charities are having as donations drop with the economy.

Here's what Tim Rutten had to say about Homeboy's problems:

Homeboy, which occupies a strikingly vibrant headquarters near Union Station, operates successful cafe, bakery and silk-screening businesses. It also provides job training, work, counseling, educational programs, legal assistance and tattoo removal to 12,000 young men and women formerly involved in gangs from all over Los Angeles County. It is what every social service organization purports, or aspires, to be: an effective program with a soul.

However, as the demands for its services have risen, Homeboy has been pinched by the general drop in charitable contributions that have followed from the grim economy. Since last fall, when the organization's problems surfaced, Boyle and his staff have been relying on a stream of small donations to cobble together their payroll. On Thursday, they had to lay off 330 of the 427 people they employed. Boyle and his staff will continue to work without pay, and the profitable cafe, bakery and silk-screen businesses will go on as usual.

Essentially, Homeboy needs $5 million in what amounts to bridge funding to carry it through until, as planned, the growing revenues from those successful businesses can support the rest of the program. This is an organization that has saved thousands of lives and demonstrably contributed not only to the lives of the young people it serves but also to our collective public safety. That's why Boyle and his work are supported strongly by both Police Chief Charlie Beck and Sheriff Lee Baca. What, moreover, is $5 million in a city that spends $25 million annually on gang intervention programs of dubious efficacy? What is it in a city with eight billionaires and millionaires by the thousands?

$5 million seems like a lot of money, but as Mr. Rutten points out, the City of Los Angeles pays out five times that amount each year in gang intervention programs, most of which don't work. Recently, a huge amount of money was raised by wealthy donors to keep the Museum of Modern Art afloat. The same thing happened when it looked like the landmark Hollywood sign was going to be torn down. Surely the lives of these young people are just as valuable as those things.

Tim Rutten certainly thinks so, because he decided to make a phone call to former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan, a very wealthy man. Mr. Riordan, who made his fortune as a venture capitalist, enthusiastically took the call and promised to corral some of his friends to help make up the Homeboy shortfall. If he's successful, then the program will continue to operate and to grow. These kids will make it, and Los Angeles will be the better for it.

And that just might take the edge off my cynicism when it comes to the wealthy because it will mean that they finally realize that they too have to be good citizens, that they too should use a portion of their wealth to help their communities and their fellow citizens to grow and to prosper.

By the way, Tim Rutten: I usually object to a journalist, even a columnist, inserting himself into the news instead of just reporting it. Not this time. This time I am grateful for the practical display of humanity you showed.

Good on you.


Sunday Funnies

(Political cartoon by Joel Pett / Lexington Herald-Leader (May 9, 2010) and featured at McClatchy DC. Click on image to enlarge.)


Saturday, May 15, 2010

Bonus Critter Blogging: Parrot Fish

(Photograph by Tim Laman and published in National Geographic. Click on the link to learn more about this fascinating fish which changes its color and markings and even its gender. It's one of the critters threatened by the Gulf oil spill.)

Some Things Can't Be Compromised

One of the things about the Obama administration that has disturbed me greatly is the drive for "bipartisanship," which is newspeak for "Give the GOP what it wants." While I do admit that there are often grounds for compromise on some issues, I have trouble with a strategy that opens the negotiations with a compromise position (vide, healthcare reform). More importantly, certain issues cannot and should not be compromised. Constitutional rights are just such issues, and any attempt to water them down should be vigorously opposed by Americans.

In a commentary written for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram and featured at McClatchy DC, Bob Ray Sanders makes just that argument with respect to pre-Miranda questioning, and does so with passionate, patriotic fervor.

Under the "pubic safety" exemption that grants pre-Miranda questioning in special cases, Holder suggested possibly limiting the rights of terrorism suspects even if they are American citizens like Shahzad.

"If we are going to have a system that is capable of dealing in a public safety context with this new threat, I think we have to give serious consideration to at least modifying that public safety exception," Holder said. "And that's one of the things that I think we're going to be reaching out to Congress to do: to come up with a proposal that is both constitutional but that is also relevant to our time and the threat that we now face."

No! No! No!

The administration's new position borders on the worst kind of pandering and makes me wonder whom it's trying to appease. ...

Members of Congress must not let this administration or any other chip away at our constitutional rights under the guise of fighting a formidable enemy who hates us simply because of who we are and what we stand for.

If we give up our liberties in fear of what some crazed individual or group may do, then the terrorists win without even striking another blow.

I'm more fearful of losing my freedom than I am of any potential terrorist, no matter how great the threat.

So, Mr. President and Mr. Holder, just do your jobs of trying to protect our country without trying to accommodate your critics by tampering with the Constitution.
[Emphasis added]

Broadening that very narrow exception has the effect of saying that for some crimes there will be no constitutional protections, and the government will have the power to determine which crimes those are. Our founders knew this and designed the Bill of Rights to prevent just that kind of governmental behavior.

The assertion by the Attorney General that we need additional, extra-constitutional exceptions in cases of terrorism smacks of the Bush era in which the Constitution was considered just a piece of paper, quaint, but no longer relevant. If Mr. Holder and his boss truly believe that, then they have violated their oaths of office and should be removed from office forthwith.

As I have said many times, the only exceptional thing about this country is its Constitution, and it is indeed exceptional. To downgrade it for use only when it is convenient is a travesty and a tragedy, one that we cannot allow to happen on anyone's watch.

Well said, Mr. Sanders.

And thank you.

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Friday, May 14, 2010

Friday Cat Blogging

Old, Sick, And Poor

California's budget woes continue, which is, of course, no surprise. When raising taxes or fees is off the table and unemployment is still in double digits, balancing the budget gets tricky. Governor Schwarzenegger's solution for raising some money is to cut out home health care for the elderly and disabled. He tried cutting the program last year, but got slapped down by a judge for doing so. This time, rather than nibble at the edges of state run program, the Governator has decided to just end the program completely and to forgo the federal money that came with it.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is expected to present a revised budget plan Friday that would dismantle some of California's landmark healthcare programs after efforts to scale them back have been reversed by federal courts.

The rulings, issued mostly over the last two years, have already forced the state to unwind roughly $2.4 billion in cuts approved by the governor and Legislature and have alarmed other financially strapped states seeking ways to balance their budgets.

Schwarzenegger has lashed out at the federal judges, saying they've been "going absolutely crazy" and accusing them of interfering with the state's ability to get its finances in order. ...

Administration officials declined to reveal which specific programs the governor would eliminate. But officials involved in the budget process, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly, said they would probably include home healthcare for the elderly and disabled, a nearly $2-billion program that serves 440,000 Californians. Cuts that lawmakers and the governor made to the program in an effort to balance the budget have been blocked by legal rulings over the last year.

The court decisions restrict their ability to make cuts in the programs, officials said, but they don't preclude dismantling them. Abolishing home healthcare services would mean forfeiting the federal Medicaid money that helps fund them. But the money comes with requirements that the courts said California did not meet. The state would not have to follow the requirements if it did away with the program, and thus would no longer risk having its financial plans upended in court.

The fact that the program beneficiaries will now have to be placed in nursing homes at a much higher cost to the state than this program had been doesn't seem to bother the governor much, but then he's about to be termed out. He's perfectly happy to let Meg Whitman deal with it.

And it's not just in California that such cuts are considered acceptable. Minnesota's Governor Tim Pawlenty has taken the same hacksaw to that state's budget woes:

Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed a major health and human services spending bill Thursday, just hours after it cleared the House and Senate in a late-night session, but then hinted to reporters that he might be open to negotiations. ...

DFL legislators had expected the veto because, although the bill cuts $114 million from current spending in state programs, it also provides health insurance for about 82,000 poor childless adults through the state-federal Medicaid program -- a shift the governor has opposed. ...

House Speaker Margaret Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, was quick to call the veto an error: "With more than 240,000 Minnesotans out of work and the state facing a multi-billion dollar deficit, Gov. Pawlenty vetoed 21,000 [health care] jobs and pulled the plug on $1.4 billion in badly needed federal funding," said Kelliher, who is the DFL-endorsed candidate for governor.

There's never a good time to be poor in this country, but right now it's downright deadly.

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Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Country Club

The NY Times has a rather pointed editorial decrying the US Senate rule for allowing secret holds on presidential nominees. The problem has become acute as the Party of No continues to thwart President Obama's nominees to such critical positions as the federal judiciary:

The United States Senate was supposed to have dropped its insidious tradition that let members put endless secret holds on nominations and other important matters. The abuse continues, more murky than ever.

The reform, adopted three years ago, required senators to identify themselves within six days of blocking a nominee, and to state their objection. That stricture has been routinely violated with cheesy gamesmanship. Members — mostly in the Republican minority — pass secret holds among themselves to foil the time limit.

Right now there are 52 nominees on secret holds — all noncontroversial in committee debates. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat of Missouri, is so fed up that she is challenging her colleagues from the Senate floor to fess up. “If you’re gonna stall and block, let’s see who you are,” she demanded in one speech. Charles Grassley, a Republican of Iowa, echoed her, urging secret holders to “have the guts to go public.”

Sen. McCaskill has introduced a bill that would limit the secret part of the hold to only two days, but the editorial suggests that the bill has no chance of passing. How shameful is that?

The whole process stinks. As more than one Republican crowed not so long ago, "Elections have consequences." A new president, regardless of party, has a right to make nominations and the right to an "up-or-down vote," something the GOP has apparently forgotten in their zeal to halt any kind of meaningful governance by the current resident of the White House. Holds, secret or not, need to be removed from the arsenal of the obstructionists. Confirmation hearings and the debates that go with them should be sufficient to vet any nominee.

But, then, this is the US Senate: the most exclusive country club in the world. Such a change in the rules is, I guess, unlikely.

At least this time around.


Wednesday, May 12, 2010

MTA On Empty

Last month I posted on the proposed fare hikes for using public transportation in Los Angeles. MTA, the largest service provider in Southern California, projects an operating budget short-fall of about $181 million, and to stop the hemorrhaging intends to raise fares rather dramatically. David Lazarus, business columnist for the Los Angeles Times, took a look at those proposed hikes and suggests the MTA adjust its approach if it really does want to get out of the red zone.

Public transit systems throughout Southern California are preparing to jack up fares this summer. They could use the extra money — the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority alone is facing a $181-million budget shortfall.

But fare hikes aren't the whole solution to public transit's money woes. It's time that the dozens of city- and county-run systems that make up the region's transit network get together and hash out a plan to expand ridership, rather than repeatedly reaching deeper into the pockets of those who already ride the bus. ...

The problem is that most of these systems are focusing solely on short-term financial gain and all but ignoring long-term promotion of public transportation as a practical alternative to traveling by car.

As a result, their money troubles will almost certainly keep growing, our roads and freeways will become even more clogged, and L.A.'s pitiful status as the nation's smoggiest city won't change.
[Emphasis added]

As I noted in my earlier post, fares don't come close to covering the costs of a transportation system, and Mr. Lazarus agrees, but his point is that increasing the number of fares would be better than increasing the size of them.

Yet even at these levels, fares will account for only about 28% of total revenue needed to operate the system's buses and rail lines — one of the lower such percentages in the country.

By comparison, fares make up more than half of the operating budget for the Bay Area Rapid Transit network in Northern California and about 36% of New York's municipal system. The rest typically comes from state coffers.

Local transit systems apparently believe the answer to their cash crunch is to make existing riders pay more. I say the answer is getting more people to use public transportation.

He then proceeds to suggests ways the MTA could accomplish that. The trick, of course, is to make public transportation more convenient and more attractive than sitting in traffic, particularly during rush hour. For example, the use of transfers between buses, both within the MTA (a practice abolished in the '90s) and between the various agencies in the area (Santa Monica's Big Blue Bus, Culver City's lines, Foothill Transit, e.g.) would be a practical start. Instead, MTA and some of those other agencies want to end the practice entirely.

Coordinating schedules for the more populous routes would also help. Getting an early start doesn't mean much to a commuter who has to wait 20 minutes for the next bus or train because there is no rational connection between the schedules. Increasing the service on those lines would also make for the kind of ride that might tempt people from their cars. There is nothing worse than standing packed like kippers for another 20 minutes, especially if the commuter is carrying anything (briefcase, lunch, even a handbag).

Ridership rose dramatically during the last surge in gasoline prices when driving became too expensive for most people. When those prices fell back below $3 a gallon, however, most of the new riders went back to their cars. Public transportation didn't learn from that lesson. Now, with gas back over $3 a gallon with promises of further rises premised on the Deepwater Horizon tragedy, MTA and its sister agencies need to reconsider their strategy for staying afloat.

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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Made In America ...

...or Why I Hate Wall Street Banksters.

This past weekend, the Los Angeles Times gave us the perfect example of why employment numbers are still down which is why economic recovery for most of us is still so far down the road as to be invisible.

...what makes [Yet-Ming] Chiang's ordinary-looking beige Toyota Prius even more special is that it's powered by a breakthrough battery that he invented and is working to turn into the kind of high-tech, green, "Made in America" product that many see as the key to the nation's economic future.

Safer and longer-lasting than conventional lithium-ion car batteries, the 52-year old MIT professor's invention packs 600 cells into a case the size of an airplane carry-on bag. His technology has transformed the batteries used in many cordless power tools.

So impressive was Mr. Chiang's invention that he received funding from the government to go into production here. Unfortunately, that seed money wasn't enough. Conventional investors on Wall Street weren't interested in building US plants to manufacture the new batteries to be used in cars as a replacement for gasoline.

The obstacles here are rooted in the sad history of manufacturing's decline in the United States: Despite the promise of Chiang's batteries, many on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley were incredulous when he and other leaders at A123 asked for capital to build factories in America — Asia, yes, but Michigan, why would you want to?

Even more daunting, nearly all of the world's battery manufacturing industry is in Asia, where plants can be built faster and supplies and equipment are much easier to get than in the United States. These days, it's hard to find Americans who even know how to build a battery factory.

That's why A123 had to give in and build its first plants in China, where the company could move into production quickly to show auto industry customers that it could deliver on future contracts.

The brilliant thinking of our owners was that it cost too much to build such a plant to manufacture the product here, where it would be used. Labor is much cheaper in China where wages are kept low to keep workers at poverty levels where they would be much less likely to be brazen enough to insist on safe working conditions. China also doesn't have those pesky regulations regarding hazardous waste disposal and other environmental protection requirements.

So Mr. Chiang had to build his first factory in China, where his ground breaking invention was quickly copied and produced by competitors, because China doesn't enforce intellectual property rights, especially those from other nations.

Mr. Chiang, a Chinese immigrant and naturalized citizen, however, refuses to be stopped. He's building his US plant and placing it in Michigan where there are plenty of people familiar with manufacturing in the auto industry, most of whom are currently unemployed. He's doing it for several reasons, some of which Wall Street couldn't possibly understand. He feels it's the right thing to do for his country and his fellow citizens. He can justify it to the money men by pointing out that shipping costs for his new batteries to the place where it will be used demand such a plant.

"Without question, we would rather have done it all in the U.S.," said Chiang, who left Taiwan as a 6-year-old with his family, earned degrees at MIT and has been a materials science professor there since the mid-1980s. "I'm an American citizen. We're an American company. It's an American-born technology."

Good on you, Mr. Chiang, and welcome to America. We need some in-sourcing.

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Monday, May 10, 2010

Still Locked Out

Back in February, I posted on the lock-out at the Rio Tinto borax mine in Boron, California. Well, three months later, the union workers are still locked out and the mine owners are still busing in "temporary workers." The Los Angeles Times has a follow-up article which examines just what the lock-out is doing to the union workers and to the small desert town in which they live.

Three months after a labor dispute led the world's second-largest borax mine to lock out 570 workers in this small Kern County town, the effects are being felt far and wide. Businesses are struggling to stay afloat. Families are trying to make ends meet without paychecks and health insurance. There appears to be little hope for a quick settlement. ...

Rio Tinto Minerals, the British-Australian conglomerate that operates the mile-wide strip mine, says it has lost 25% of the worldwide borax market and business must adjust to survive.

The company offered workers a new contract that included a 2% annual raise, a $4,000 signing bonus and an early-retirement package. In return, they demanded wholesale changes in the seniority system, the creation of more non-union jobs and the right to make some full-time jobs part time.

Over five months of talks, workers refused to accept certain proposals, especially those dealing with seniority.

Rio Tinto may have lost a segment of the market, but the corporation's bottom line was still healthy last year. Very healthy. Apparently the profits weren't as high as the company wanted so it went after the union, figuring if they could bust the union out of the picture, they wouldn't have to pay as much in wages and benefits. The easiest way to do that was to go after the seniority rules and to push for the right to hire non-union workers.

Seniority is the sticking point, and the union refuses to cave on that issue, and it is right to do so. Those who've been with the company the longest generally earn more than the newest employees. Protecting seniority means protecting wages and benefits for all of the employees, especially those who intend to stay with the company. It keeps those who have been well-trained around to help newer employees learn their jobs and how to do those jobs efficiently and safely. It stops the company from laying off the most experienced and, yes, most expensive employees so that it can hire new workers willing to work for less, not an unusual situation during periods of high unemployment.

What's at play here is some old-fashioned union busting, and the company hasn't done a very good job at hiding that fact. Three months in and not only the union workers are having difficulty scraping by. Local businesses are about to fold as well. The entire town is affected economically during the worst possible time. But the chaps in London just don't care. Multinationals never do, as we've witnessed time and again, especially in the last several months in West Virginia and the Gulf of Mexico.

After plunging most of the planet into an economic disaster, our owners are looking for the next, best way to make money. In Boron, apparently that way is on the back of workers.

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Sunday, May 09, 2010

Sunday Poetry: Robert Frost

Fire and Ice

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

--Robert Frost

Requiescat In Pacem: Donald Clark

The Los Angeles Times did a very good thing this morning. It published an article on the funeral of Donald Clark. Mr. Clark was one of the eleven men killed in the Deepwater Horizon explosion. His body has not been recovered, so a picture of him was placed on an easel for the funeral.

Somehow, in all the hubbub surrounding the ongoing disaster as the oil continues to flow from the broken pipe, as yet unslowed, much less stopped, we've lost sight of the fact that eleven men died, eleven men with families, with friends (some of whom also work on the oil rigs in the Gulf). They've been lost in the shuffle. The LAT article fixed that, at least a little. It gave us a name and it gave us some reasons why men go do the dangerous and arduous work on the rigs.

Clark knew his job was dangerous, his wife said, although he didn't talk much about perils with his family. "He loved his job; the only part he didn't like was leaving.... This is a rural area and the only way you could really make a decent living is to leave home."

Many in the town of 1,500, about four hours northwest of New Orleans, say that once jobs started to disappear, oil rig work — despite the long commute and 21-day shifts — seemed like a good opportunity. A lumber mill, hospital and nursing home had closed in recent years, and farm work doesn't pay the bills.

Mr. Clark had few options so he took what he had before him to care for his family. It is what good men do. It is what the miners lost in the methane explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine did. Dozens of men are dead just working for a living for companies more concerned with the bottom line than the safety of their employees.

British Petroleum and Massey Energy are the poster children of the New World Order. They are, as Avedon quite astutely noted, "our owners". Massey continues to operate mines which continue to pollute and destroy our environment and BP has been approved for planned rigs which will drill even deeper for the precious oil and natural gas which drives the economy and enriches the already wealthy.

And our Supreme Court has ripped the "fiction" from the legal fiction that corporations are artificial persons entitled to constitutional rights, so they can continue to buy our government agencies to protect their fiefdoms. Their new status, alas, does not extend to criminal prosecution. We cannot charge these miscreants with murder or even negligent homicide. We cannot apply the corporate version of the death penalty by lifting their license to do business in the US.

Sadly, I don't know that we would, even if the mechanism were in place. We all depend on cheap oil and gas. Our computers, our pill bottles, our cars, even our shopping bags require the oil to keep flowing. We haven't yet learned our lesson. Perhaps with a few more stories and more honesty from our press we might. The Los Angeles Time surprised me by giving us a taste of such honesty. I just hope we will get more than a taste in the coming days.

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Sunday Funnies

(Political cartoon by Mike Luckovich and published May 4, 2010 in the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Click on image to enlarge.)


Saturday, May 08, 2010

Bonus Critter Blogging: Reddish Egrets

(Photograph by Robert Sisson and published at National Geographic. Click on the link for pictures of other animals threatened by the Gulf oil spill.)

Business, As Usual

Avedon has taken to using the phrase "our owners" when referring to the moneyed class that appears to be in charge of just about everything that affects us, most particularly our government. I think she's right in her analysis, and as proof I offer this bit of news:

Since the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig exploded on April 20, the Obama administration has granted oil and gas companies at least 27 exemptions from doing in-depth environmental studies of oil exploration and production in the Gulf of Mexico.

The waivers were granted despite President Barack Obama’s vow that his administration would launch a “relentless response effort” to stop the leak and prevent more damage to the gulf. One of them was dated Friday — the day after Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said he was temporarily halting offshore drilling.

The exemptions, known as “categorical exclusions,” were granted by the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service (MMS) and included waiving detailed environmental studies for a BP exploration plan to be conducted at a depth of more than 4,000 feet and an Anadarko Petroleum Corp. exploration plan at more 9,000 feet.

I suppose that technically the spokesman for MMS was correct in noting that the granting of these waivers is not in conflict with the Interior Secretary's halting of offshore drilling. These are not drilling permits, which involve a separate process. No new permits have been issued. That said, however, environmental studies are an important and necessary part of the overall process, and waiving the requirement because there have been studies already done in the region (all before this latest tragedy) seems just a little ... oh, I don't know ... cozy for the multinational oil companies.

It's long been clear that the rapacious multinational corporations have a handy partnership with the MMS, but it takes a tragedy of this proportion to remind us of just who is in charge: the owners.

Avedon, as usual, is right.


Friday, May 07, 2010

Friday Cat Blogging

Say, What?

I noticed this link while scrolling through comments at Eschaton yesterday. Frankly, the post made me blink a few times.

Two weeks’ worth of proceedings in the pre-trial hearing of Omar Khadr found an unexpected meta-conclusion this afternoon as the public affairs shop in the Office of the Secretary of Defense banned four reporters from returning to Guantanamo Bay. Their offense: reporting the name of a witness whose identity is under a protective order.

The four journalists are Michelle Shephard of the Toronto Star, Steven Edwards of Canwest, Paul Koring of the Globe & Mail and Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald. They are not being thrown off the base, but, as of now, they are barred from returning. ...

While the judge in the case, Col. Patrick Parrish, issued an admonition yesterday for reporters to respect the anonymity of the classified witnesses, he did not rule that any reporter here had violated the protected order. The decision to block the four reporters from returning to Guantanamo Bay is a matter of policy from the Office of the Secretary of Defense. And those four are not the only ones within the press corps here to have reported Interrogator #1’s name.

Those four reporters comprise much of the institutional knowledge of Guantanamo Bay and the military commissions, as their colleagues widely acknowledge. Shephard has written the most comprehensive account to date of Omar Khadr’s life and experiences in detention at Bagram and Guantanamo Bay, in both her Star reporting and her book Guantanamo’s Child. Rosenberg is the single most diligent, consistent and experienced Guantanamo Bay reporter in the world, having carved out the Guantanamo beat steadily almost since the detention facility here opened in 2002 and traveled here more frequently than any other journalist. (I personally heard complaints about her from public affairs officers here five years ago — and those complaints amounted to whining about how dogged an investigator she was.) Koring and Edwards have also been invaluable resources about Khadr and Guantanamo to their colleagues these past two weeks.
[Emphasis added]

My first reaction was that the journalists screwed up big time. When the identity of a witness is sealed, the judge does so for some good reason, most often to protect the life of the witness. When that order is violated, the judge usually follows through with some pretty heavy sanctions. Reporters know this. Yet, in this case, no sanctions beyond an admonishment ("bad reporters! bad!") issued.

Additionally, these four reporters weren't the only ones to reveal the witness's name. In fact, I spotted the name while scanning the news on this "trial" across the internet. At the time, it didn't mean much to me because I was unaware that the identity was under seal. Since I don't regularly read any of the newspapers for which these four reporters work, I am certain that more than four reporters committed this grave sin.

Clearly something else is going on here, and I think the second paragraph nails the real reasons these four got swatted by the Department of Defense which is running these dog and pony show trials. These four have been doing their jobs too well, providing crucial news to their readers about Guantanamo Bay and the horrors committed there. Tired of being embarrassed, the Department of Defense lackeys finally got their payback.

Now, this isn't 2005, 6, or 7, when President Run Amok was busy trampling the Constitution. It's 2010. We were promised something different, and we expected it. That's why so many of us voted for Barack Obama.

Silly us.

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Thursday, May 06, 2010

One Toke Over The Line

I love a good fight. I especially love a good fight when one of the participants is a political leader we elected to do the job, so I was really pleased by the news that President Obama isn't quite finished with WellPoint.

From the Washington Post:

In a broader effort to combat "unjustified" premium increases, the administration also asked states to ensure their regulators have the authority to review rate hikes before they take effect. ...

"In light of this recent finding, I urge that, to the extent you have authority to do so, you re-examine any WellPoint rate increases in your state to determine whether any mistaken assumptions similar to those made in California were made in your state," Sebelius said in a letter to governors and state insurance commissioners. "Even small errors can mean unaffordable premiums for policyholders."

The "recent findings", of course, are those of the California Insurance Commission with respect to the huge premium hikes announced by Anthem Blue Cross (owned by WellPoint). The health insurer had justified increases of up to 39% on holders of individual policies based on cost projections which were "inadvertently" based on erroneous assumptions. When the commission's findings were announced, Anthem Blue Cross quickly backed off, but indicated that it would do some recalculations and announce the new hikes sometime this month.

Now, I suppose in the long run this fight is a foolish one. Health insurers will still be able to raise premiums, and at least some state insurance commissions don't have the authority to investigate such increases, but it still is nice to see the Obama administration slap a villain around rather than try to accommodate it.

Of course, also in the long run, such a fight would have been unnecessary if our health care wasn't dependent on the profitability of health insurers, i.e., if our health care was handled by a single payer system. But it isn't. That will be the next fight, one that I think we'll have to lead.

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Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Weak Tea

Politics is a funny sport, especially in California, as this Los Angeles Times article points out. This election year the GOP has "the wind at its back" (a dubious assertion, in my opinion), and yet it may have some problems in California because of the new healthcare law.

Republican candidates across the nation are confident that opposition to President Obama's healthcare law will deliver them electoral victories. But in California, the three GOP Senate candidates vying to take on Sen. Barbara Boxer face a much more daunting task: convincing a majority of Californians who support the bill that they are wrong. ...

Former Rep. Tom Campbell, Assemblyman Chuck DeVore and former Hewlett-Packard chief Carly Fiorina differ in their approaches to fixing healthcare, but all have said the measure is unconstitutional and must be repealed.

Their stance aligns them with the state's registered Republicans. In a recent L.A. Times/USC poll, 59% of registered Republicans surveyed said they would be less likely to support a candidate who supported the healthcare legislation.

But come November, the Republican nominee will need independent and Democratic voters if he or she is to defeat Boxer. About 46% of California voters surveyed in the same poll said they would be more likely to vote for a politician who had supported the health bill, while 29% said they would not. Just over half said they believed the country would be better off because of the package.

[The poll questions (and some graphics illustrating the responses) can be found here.]

What surprised me about the survey and the article is that slightly more than half of the state's electorate think the health care measure will improve things in the country and almost that many will translate that opinion into votes. Now, I think there are a couple of sections of the law that will be helpful for a lot of Americans, especially since the White House and Congress refused to even consider a single payer option, chief among them the section that forces insurance companies to accept people with preexisting conditions. The law itself, however, benefits insurance companies far more than it does the people who will have coverage.

What the Republicans are apparently emphasizing is the unconstitutionality of the law, specifically the requirement that everyone buy health insurance or face a fine. Shades of Evil Big Government!

At least at this point that doesn't seem to be working. Most states require car insurance before licensing any vehicle and there are some pretty stiff fines for failure to have insurance. In California, any traffic stop by the police means showing a driver's license AND proof of insurance. As a result, I think most people understand the concept and have found ways to live with it.

As to the Big Government issue, the recent tragedies in West Virginia and in the Gulf of Mexico have pretty much reminded the people of all states just how important the federal government is with respect to our health and welfare. Somehow that meme just isn't resonating the way the Republicans expected, especially among independents and conservative Democrats, even with all the media exposure of such movements as the Tea Partiers.

One thing is certain, however: election 2010 is bound to be an interesting one. Senator Boxer is certainly not a shoe-in this time around, but she's not yet ready to be counted out.

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