Wednesday, June 30, 2010

What Michael Said

Michael Hiltzig, business columnist for the Los Angeles Times, like Paul Krugman, who occupies a similar chair at the New York Times, is dismayed by the sudden and disastrously timed push for fiscal austerity by the federal government. Both fear that the move away from stimulus policies is a recipe for not just the prolongation of economic recovery but also for its death.

Hiltzig's most recent column was written after he and other colleagues from LAT met with Lawrence H. Summers, director of President Obama's National Economic Council. He came away with some depressing news.

Gross domestic product is rising, but the annual growth rate in the first quarter of this year, 2.7%, is slower than that of the previous quarter (5.6%). It's also slower than the rate needed for job growth to keep pace with population growth (3%) or the 5% needed to bring down the unemployment rate, which is 9.7%.

The economy has added jobs since the beginning of the year, but employment in May was still below the level of May 2009. ...

Long-term unemployment has become "a particularly disturbing feature of this recession," Summers says.

"There is evidence that people who have been out of work for a year tend to have a difficult time returning and often drop out of the labor force," he says. "That is going to cast a shadow for some significant interval."

It is the effect of this jobless "recovery" on the public that clearly worries Mr. Hiltzig most, as well it should. It should worry all of us because of the way it is playing out:

Nor has there been a reversal in the trend toward increasing income inequality in the United States. In 1979, the top 1% of U.S. households earned eight times as much as the middle 20% and 23 times as much as the bottom fifth; by 2005, the Congressional Budget Office found, the upper crust touched 21 times as much as the middle class and 70 times as much as the bottom.

This phenomenon "has a broadly corrosive social impact in terms of our not being one America," said Summers, echoing the economist Benjamin M. Friedman, who observed in 2006 that the 1950s and '60s, when median family income doubled, brought us such progressive social developments as the civil rights movement.

Over the succeeding decades the social fabric has frayed, Friedman wrote. Public opinion has turned sharply against immigration and affirmative action, and attacks on welfare recipients display "a vindictive spirit that was highly uncharacteristic of the United States in the postwar era."

This "corrosive social impact" has surged over the past two years. Other states are threatening to join Arizona in its unconstitutional drive against immigrants. Alleged Democrats such as Dianne Feinstein of California recently expressed the view that the unemployed should just get a job rather than count on the extension of benefits. Tea Partiers are rallying not against a federal government which bailed out the banksters but against a federal government which passed a health care bill that would extend health care to those who can't now easily afford it.

Yet the White House and other world leaders continue to push for fiscal austerity. All apparently believe that joblessness means less tax revenues so governments must stop spending money, rather than realize that if joblessness were reduced tax revenues would rise and offset deficits.

As a result, Mr. Hiltzig fears things will not only not get better, but will in fact get considerably worse:

The deficit-cutting craze of the modern day threatens another such double dip. Its promoters say they're out to protect long-term economic prospects, but without a short-term recovery there may not be a long term to protect. If they get their way, we may not feel the consequences of their error before it's too late to fix.

And that is a scenario I do not want to contemplate.


Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Who Could Have Imagined?

Angelenos recently learned that willful government stupidity is not limited to the federal and state levels. Local governments are just as capable of being shortsighted and mean spirited when it comes to providing services to the poor and vulnerable. The latest revelation has come with the discovery that the new Los Angeles County-USC medical Center, opened in November, 2008, was built to hold fewer beds than the one it replaced, and that mistake is costing money and lives.

From the Los Angeles Times:

Even before the doors opened on the $1.02-billion Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center many observers warned that the new hospital was too small. Now, more than a year and a half of experience appears to confirm it. ...

...County- USC officials have increased patient transfers to other hospitals. Despite more than 2,000 such transfers since the November 2008 move into a building with 224 fewer beds, chronic, severe overcrowding is routine at the county's flagship public hospital. Few long-term options to relieve the burden are available.

Last month, the hospital's emergency room was overcrowded about 80% of the time, with conditions considered severe or dangerous for half of the month, according to the county's own standards. ... department officials, physician and hospital trade groups and independent consultants all urged that the new hospital be built to hold 750 beds. Advocates said that capacity was needed to allow the county to provide life-saving care to anyone unable to afford it, as required by California law.

The new hospital was to replace one which had been damaged in the Northridge earthquake because the "fixes" after that disaster took place were no longer holding the old place together. Unfortunately, several factors were in play at the time the new hospital was being considered by the County Board of Supervisors. That august body was having budget problems at the time, and doing a real replacement -- bed for bed -- was deemed too expensive. The facts that the population of the county was increasing, as were the numbers of uninsured, weren't given much priority.

Additionally, the supervisor who was pushing hardest for the new hospital, Gloria Molina, was beginning to aggravate the rest of the Board by her strident and "hardball" advocacy for the poor in her district and around the county. The "fiscally prudent" supervisors found a way to push back the pushy broad, and push back they did. As a result, the ER and hospital are dangerously overcrowded and patients are slipping through the cracks and out the door feet first.

Because times are are even worse now than they were when the hospital was being planned, a fix doesn't seem imminent or even possible:

County health officials cannot say whether transferring out indigent patients costs the county more than if it had built a 750-bed hospital. Schunhoff said the county has hired a consultant to determine whether the county's hospitals are at an appropriate size.

Molina said she believes the only long-term solution is to expand County-USC. But she said, "I don't think we would have the money."

The health department faces a nearly $600-million deficit unless it can secure more federal funding. It is still working to reopen an emergency room and inpatient services in Willowbrook, at the site of the former Martin Luther King Jr.-Harbor Hospital.

That's the ticket: hire a consultant and pay a lot of money to find out that the County Board of Supervisors screwed up a few years ago when it decided to build a smaller hospital for the indigent.

Heckuva job, fellas.

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Monday, June 28, 2010

Recommended Reading

James Carroll has an intriguing column up in the Boston Globe, one that had me scratching my head for quite some time. His thesis is that because of a decade of being at war, we, as a society, are suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. It is clear from his essay that he is not speaking metaphorically, that he believes that we are all manifesting symptoms of this psychological disorder.

In describing what he calls “PTSD and the ruins of character,’’ psychiatrist Jonathan Shay cites an official definition of the disorder as it affects individuals. The characteristics include “a hostile or mistrustful attitude toward the world; social withdrawal; feelings of emptiness or hopelessness; a chronic feeling of being ‘on the edge,’ as if constantly threatened; estrangement.’’ The catastrophic experience of war, to put it most simply, can completely change the personality.

But it is impossible to read that catalogue of symptoms belonging to traumatized persons and not recognize notes of the contemporary public scene in the United States. Political discourse — “hostility, mistrust’’ — suffers from the same ruins of character. A general “social withdrawal’’ into the solipsism of, say, Twitter is matched in the blogosphere by infinite self-expression for its own sake. “Hopelessness’’ attached to economic dislocation goes even deeper than worries about mid-life job loss or the vocation stymied at graduation. There is no “emptiness’’ to compare with the loss of a feel for the purposefulness of work. ...

But looming over all unease is the shadow of American wars that are, at best, hard to justify, difficult to understand, and steadily going, by every measurement, from bad to worse. The generals buckle. The president mystifies. Troops come home in bags or wheelchairs. Individual PTSD is back. An ever-growing population of far-off strangers equates America with Satan. The killers among them are empowered. And how could our quietly traumatized nation not be screaming, even if, at this point, the nation is still only screaming inside?

My first inclination was to dismiss Mr. Carroll's column as interesting, but overblown, with rhetoric a bit too purple for my tastes. Yes, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have had an impact on the nation in many complicated ways. The drain on our treasury is the most obvious one: if we hadn't spent billions upon billions on wars we didn't need to engage in, and shouldn't have by any measure, our economic collapse might not have been quite as severe. If we hadn't authorized the use of military force after 9/11, there wouldn't have been the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay with all the shameful horror that involves. Still, the profound uneasiness of the American populace is not simply the result of two misbegotten wars running at the same time on parallel tracks.

That said, I also decided that Mr. Carroll is on to something if one shifts his assertions a bit. The wars themselves then became symptoms of the psychological malady we seem to be suffering. Yes, the 8 years of the Bush administration did unspeakable damage to our democracy, but the wars were only part of that White House's agenda: the de facto suspension of our Constitution played a large role, as did the hastening of the transfer of power from the electorate to the monied interests, a transfer that has been going on far longer than the Bush era, also played a significant if often ignored (deliberately forgotten) role.

It is as if our own government has declared war on us, its citizens, the ones who allegedly are the real source of power. That we are not the source, and perhaps never were, and that we are subject to the whims and desires of those who own everything in the country including us is deeply unsettling.

The mark of a good essayist is that he/she challenges the reader to consider matters in ways that the reader would never have otherwise. In this respect, James Carroll has succeeded brilliantly. I urge you to click on over and read the column in its entirety.

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Sunday, June 27, 2010

Sunday Poetry: Galway Kinnell

The Olive Wood Fire

When Fergus woke crying at night.
I would carry him from his crib
to the rocking chair and sit holding him
before the fire of thousand-year-old olive wood.
Sometimes, for reasons I never knew
and he has forgotten, even after his bottle the big tears
would keep on rolling down his big cheeks
- the left cheek always more brilliant than the right -
and we would sit, some nights for hours, rocking
in the light eking itself out of the ancient wood,
and hold each other against the darkness,
his close behind and far away in the future,
mine I imagined all around.
One such time, fallen half-asleep myself,
I thought I heard a scream
- a flier crying out in horror
as he dropped fire on he didn't know what or whom,
or else a child thus set aflame -
and sat up alert. The olive wood fire
had burned low. In my arms lay Fergus,
fast asleep, left cheek glowing, God.

-- Galway Kinnell

(Found at Poets Against The War.)

Another New Deal

Over at Watching America there are still some articles on BP's Gulf spill and the fallout from that. The G20 meetings are still going on, so there isn't too much reported at this point. There is, however, an interesting article from Rumania's Curierul National written by Marcel Răduţ Seliste, which compares the last depression and this one and comes to the conclusion that apparently the world has learned nothing from that historical period.

The effects of the current crisis are much more serious not only in content, but especially in their reproduction by state institutions that would normally have been required to correctly identify and counteract them. The U.S. and the capitalist countries of the European Union responded to the first wave of bankruptcies and financial bottlenecks by allocating immense sums from national reserves for the recovery of the economic entities guilty of triggering the crisis in the first place, i.e., banks, insurance agents, mortgage companies and major corporations. In a damaging and futile gesture, pearls were cast before swine. The outrage and indignation provoked in American public opinion made history when in November 2008, executives from General Motors, Ford and Chrysler went to Washington in private luxury planes to ask the government for billions of dollars of aid to refinance the companies they run. [Emphasis added]

It is at this point that Mr. Seliste zeroes in on what the world, particularly the US should be doing but isn't. He reminds us that FDR pulled the US out of the Great Depression by implementing programs that put a choke chain on Wall Street and other financial entities and that put Americans back to work:

The New Deal represents a set of socio-economic measures adopted by the American legislature and implemented by the government at the initiative of President Roosevelt. Among the most important we find the establishment of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, an entity through which liquidity was provided to the financial system; the adoption of the Securities Exchange Act, through which stock market transactions were drastically regulated and which established a legal framework for loans that banks could provide for such transactions; and the adoption of the Glass-Steagal Act, which separated investment banks from commercial ones, disciplining the capital market. Faced with terrifying rates of unemployment, the U.S. government established the Civilian Conservation Corps, which employed young people between 18 and 25 years of age in community work (land improvement, construction of roads and highways, etc.). Approximately 2 million Americans were enrolled in this program, and hundreds of national development sites were established. [Emphasis added]

And it worked.

What we got, on the other hand, was a half-vast stimulus package, much of the money for which is still being held onto by the states as their leaders squabble on how to spend it. We found trillions to bail out the banksters, but we couldn't find any money to stop foreclosures. Now, we can't even extend the unemployment benefits of those out of work since the start of the economic disaster because Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats are wringing their hands over deficits.

None of this is, of course, "new" news: such luminaries as Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman have been ranting about this for 18 months at least (see here for one example).

No one in Washington or in Toronto are listening, however, nor are they apt to until things get so bad that the mood of the commoners shifts from depressed to furious and the mob-mentality takes over. I figure that just might happen long about the first Tuesday in November, if we're lucky.

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Sunday Funnies

(Political cartoon by Lee Judge / The Kansas City Star (June 24, 2010) and featured at McClatchy DC. Click on image to enlarge.)


Saturday, June 26, 2010

Bonus Critter Blogging: Gentoo Penguins

(Photograph by Gordon Wiltsie and published at National Geographic. Click on image to enlarge.)


I must admit that I was quite surprised to find this article in the NY Times. It's been so long since the msm referenced the closure of Guantanamo Bay I had assumed that it was a dead issue, as in "ain't gonna happen," that it was just one more of those typical campaign promises made by typical politicians who will say anything to get elected. The media considers that kind of subject newsworthy only when re-election time comes around.

Although the timing is puzzling, the article certainly is informative.

When the White House acknowledged last year that it would miss Mr. Obama’s initial January 2010 deadline for shutting the prison, it also declared that the detainees would eventually be moved to one in Illinois. But impediments to that plan have mounted in Congress, and the administration is doing little to overcome them.

“There is a lot of inertia” against closing the prison, “and the administration is not putting a lot of energy behind their position that I can see,” said Senator Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and supports the Illinois plan. He added that “the odds are that it will still be open” by the next presidential inauguration.

And Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who also supports shutting it, said the effort is “on life support and it’s unlikely to close any time soon.” He attributed the collapse to some fellow Republicans’ “demagoguery” and the administration’s poor planning and decision-making “paralysis.”
[Emphasis added.]

I hate it when I have to admit I agree with Sen. Lindsey Graham. His assessment, however, is accurate. I understand that President Obama's administration has been hit with crisis after crisis, but come on! The President of the United States should be able to multi-task. The rest of us sure have to if we want to keep our heads above water these days, and we do it without a staff of hundreds.

What is so maddening about this issue is that the White House knows that closing this symbol of our national shame would be one way to enhance our national security, even if it doesn't have the spine to admit that everything about this prison camp is morally wrong.

The White House insists it is still determined to shutter the prison. The administration argues that Guantánamo is a symbol in the Muslim world of past detainee abuses, citing military views that its continued operation helps terrorists.

“Our commanders have made clear that closing the detention facility at Guantánamo is a national security imperative, and the president remains committed to achieving that goal,” said a White House spokesman, Ben LaBolt.

If that is the case, then why isn't President Obama jawboning Congress the way he did on healthcare reform, on bailing out the banksters, on promoting the Afghanistan surge, and, more recently, on financial reform? Is he that afraid of Congress and of Republicans?

Or is it more than that? There does seem to be some evidence of that.

Instead of pushing to close Guantanamo Bay, he has apparently decided that it was successful enough to open a branch office prison camp in Afghanistan and to continue the Bush administration policies with respect to fighting the release of those Gitmo detainees who never should have been detained in the first place.

Nope. No changes here. I don't see any under the sofa either.

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Friday, June 25, 2010

Friday Cat Blogging

Doin' The Math

It's amazing what a little sunlight can do. Today's Los Angeles Times reports that another health insurer has had to pull back from planned premium hikes for individual policies:

A second insurance company in California has killed plans for double-digit rate hikes for individual policyholders because of errors in its filing that would have inflated premiums, state regulators said Thursday.

Connecticut-based Aetna Inc. had sought an average 19% increase in rates for its 65,000 individual customers, but pulled back after multiple math errors in its paperwork were found by its own staff and by an independent consultant working for the state.

For years, insurance companies have been free to raise rates for health insurance with little or no recourse for their policy-holders, and they took full advantage of the ride. They were free to charge what the market would bear. All an insurer had to do was submit a report noting the rate increases to the insurance commission. Nobody apparently ever actually read the report or checked the computations contained in the report to justify the rate hikes.

It wasn't until their gross over-reaching was noted by articles published in the Los Angeles Times and other newspapers that the public got the message that, once again, the free market was ripping them off. The bad press came at just the right time: health care costs and what it was doing to the economy became the focus of the nation for over a year. Horror story after horror story made front pages and got serious minutes on the evening news. Those filed reports suddenly got read by the commissions. They did the math and found the "errors".

Consumers, however, still aren't in the clear when it comes to the insurance companies' rapaciousness. Most state insurance commissions, including California's, don't have much power to regulate premiums.

Even with the new disclosure requirements, regulators have limited authority to block rate increases. They can do so only if insurers fail to spend at least 70% of their premiums on medical claims.

In Aetna's recent rate filing, the insurer said its plan met the 70% minimum. But once the errors were identified, medical-claim spending fell below the 70% requirement. The proposed rates were higher than they should have been, officials said. Aetna notified regulators of its mistakes this week, about the same time the state's consultant reported the problems.
[Emphasis added]

A move is afoot in the California legislature to give the Insurance Commission a little more power to regulate premiums, and that's a start. So is the new federal insurance law which mandates an 80% threshhold for premium dollars spent on medical claims.

Sooner or later, however, the public has to realize that the provision of health care should not be governed by the profit-motive. When that happens, we'll all have a shot at being healthy.

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Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Consequences of Stupid

Earlier this month I posted on the potential effects of parents' decisions not to vaccinate their children from diseases that we could wipe out. Over the last two days, both the Los Angeles Times and the NY Times have published articles on the consequences of the failure to properly vaccinate infants and children. The stimulus for such coverage was the announcement by officials in California that an epidemic of pertussis ("whooping cough") has struck the state.

First, from the Los Angeles Times:

Whooping cough is a bacterial disease that infects the respiratory system. There have been 910 confirmed cases of the highly contagious disease in California between Jan. 1 and June 15. During the same time last year, 219 cases were confirmed.

The high season for pertussis is July and August (because of the hot weather), so the figure will probably rise to thousands of cases in short order. While there have been only five deaths so far (infants), that figure will also climb. The disease is highly contagious, which makes the spread of the disease to even higher figures predictable.

The NY Times article cites statistics which back up the threat of that spread:

Periodic outbreaks of pertussis are not uncommon. The disease is endemic worldwide, and some 5,000 to 7,000 cases are reported in the United States in a normal year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Epidemics occur every three to five years in the United States, with the most recent in 2005, when there were more than 25,000 reported cases nationwide, and nearly 3,200 in California, where 7 people died.

The NY Times article, while noting the need for "booster" shots for families of infants (the initial vaccination loses its potency within 5 years), also gets a cheap shot in on Mexican immigrants, quoting one California official who suggests that a lot of the cases were among that demographic. Oddly, that same article fails to note that many non-Mexican and non-poor parents are refusing to get their children vaccinated because of a misguided belief that vaccinations cause autism (see my earlier post, linked to above). If you're going to blame those from countries that don't promote child health care the way this country claims to, then at least a nod in the general direction of those parents who should know better should have been made.

Either/or, one thing is clear: it's going to be a dangerously long and hot summer, and infants and children are going to suffer.


Wednesday, June 23, 2010

3-Card Monte

Michael Hiltzig continues hitting them out of the park from his business column in the Los Angeles Times. This time the subject is Social Security and the perennial attacks on one of the most successful federal programs in our history.

It's no surprise that the current crop of Republican candidates are taking aim at the program: their theory is that the government shouldn't be doing things that the private sector can do while making a profit. In other words, social security should be privatized (or, in keeping with politicians' love of euphemisms, "personalized"). That means betting on the honesty and integrity of Wall Street with money for retirement. We've recently seen what a good idea that was.

It's at this point that Mr. Hiltzig takes off:

In the past, one could count on the Democratic Party to stand firm against attacks on this most successful government program. There's reason to wonder whether this is still the case.

The instrument causing Social Security advocates anxiety today is the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, which President Obama created in February to address the long-term budget deficit. Everything, including so-called entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security, should be on the table, he said, prompting some progressives to worry that he's plotting to offer Republicans cuts in Social Security in exchange for their agreeing to tax increases.

Created while Obama was still in his foursquare bipartisanship phase, the panel includes such Republican deficit hawks in sheep's clothing as Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire and Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin.

Then there's the panel's Republican co-chairman, former Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming. Like Newt Gingrich, Simpson is one of those relentlessly partisan political insiders who casts an inexplicable charm over Washington denizens on both sides of the aisle.

Judging from a videotape of an impromptu interview following a recent commission meeting, Simpson has assiduously turned himself into a repository of every asinine misconception ever uttered about Social Security. Over the years I've accumulated a large collection of half-truths and outright lies purveyed about this program, but Simpson came up with a couple I'd never heard before.

While there is at least one sensible member of this misbegotten commission, Alice Rivlin, that isn't much, given the fact that the man who created the commission happens to be a Democrat who was elected by liberals who worked hard for him based on a whole lot of promises that have been conveniently swept aside because of ... well, pick the excuse of the day.

As a result, Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid are on the table when it comes to fiscal responsibility and the Pentagon's budget isn't. You see, Social Security has now been hung with the label "entitlement."

What utter nonsense.

When people like Simpson, Gregg, and Ryan denigrate Social Security as an "entitlement" program, check your wallet. You're entitled to Social Security because you've paid for it throughout your working life, not because you think you're entitled to get something for nothing.



Monday, June 21, 2010

Smoke And Mirrors

I have always been puzzled by the fact that contracts are considered sanctified, but only some of the time. Consumers can't wriggle out of credit card debt or insurance contract exclusions. However, when the contract is between an employer (private or governmental) and a union, that contract can be modified if the employer wants to improve its bottom line.

After years of building cars the American public suddenly decided it couldn't afford anymore, the automakers, with federal government assistance, looked to the workers to give up its benefits. In California, state workers took a 14% pay cut via the three-days-a-month unpaid furlough imposed by Governor Schwarzenegger. Now he wants to cut their pay another 5% and he expects the unions to agree to a reduction in pension benefits for new hires (several unions have already acquiesced).

Yes, California still has a severe budget deficit and the new budget (due June 30) is nowhere near in place. So the governor has been busy looking for ways to close the gap and his target is unsurprisingly the union worker and the poor and vulnerable. Steve Skelton, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, has a sound analysis of just how dishonest the governor's dog-and-pony show is.

In truth, California's budget nightmare stems from a devil's brew of sins: lack of discipline on both spending and tax-cutting in the past; an outdated and unreliable tax system too susceptible to economic booms and busts; the unhealthy dependence of local governments on Sacramento; and a dysfunctional state budgeting process that requires a gridlock-generating two-thirds majority vote. ...

The unions represent about 10% of the governor's workforce, including firefighters, Highway Patrol officers, health and welfare personnel and psychiatric technicians.

The pacts return pensions for future employees to roughly the levels that existed before then-Gov. Gray Davis and the Democratic Legislature boosted benefits substantially in 1999. And that rollback is long overdue.

But the grand savings? All of $72 million a year. And only $43 million of that helps the general fund.

So the contracts negotiated in the past are simply being rolled back by the governor, one way or the other. The people who provide the government services are being asked to feel the pain and the blame the governor and state legislators are deflecting their way.

Union workers, however, aren't the only ones who will be suffering. Social services to the poor and vulnerable are also being cut, in some cases (welfare) cut out completely under the governor's plan.

So lawmakers need to whack away at spending. But some cuts result in no savings or actually increase costs — if not for the state, for local governments.

If Schwarzenegger, for example, succeeds in his effort to close down the state's main welfare program — a $1.2-billion savings — that "clearly would have a significant impact on the counties," [H.D.] Palmer concedes.

That's because counties legally must provide the safety net of last resort for the poor with their general assistance programs. Dan Carson, deputy legislative analyst, estimates there'd be a cost shift to the counties of "at least $1 billion" if the Legislature accepted Schwarzenegger's proposal. Which it won't.

So who escapes the governor's budget chainsaw?

Businesses. Monied interests. The wealthy.

As I noted on Saturday, Michael Hiltzig nailed it with respect to the state's treatment of business:

Meanwhile, corporate welfare programs such as tax breaks for some of our largest companies and "incentives" for our largest industries are to survive. To his credit, Schwarzenegger has proposed delaying some new corporate tax breaks.

Apparently there's welfare, and then there's "welfare."

Guess which one wins. Again.

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Sunday, June 20, 2010

Sunday Poetry: Claudia Sukman

Left, Behind

Private Smith looks down
Sees a blank space next to his right leg
He has been told he lost his left leg
He doesn’t remember exactly how
There are blank spaces inside his head, too

Pvt. Smith often considers where his leg might be right now
Perhaps on a soccer field
The white hairy leg, weaving up and down the soccer field with finesse and abandon
Kicking goals
Smashing the ball past the goalie into the net
Cheered on by “oles” and “hurrahs”
From an adoring crowd of limbs: lefts, rights, arms, legs, hands, feet
Separated from their owners by landmines and roadside bombs,
Eyes, ears, a few toes,
The occasional whole head

His leg could be hiking some Southwest canyon trail
He pictures his leg, leaning casually on a walking stick,
Sunglasses and water bottle nearby,
Posing for the photo op, a baseball cap rakishly tilted to the left

Sometimes he sees his leg lying naked in a city street,
Rained on
Touching trash,
Gnawed at by feral cats,
Slobbered over by yappy little designer dogs.

Or in a window display of a tattoo parlor,
Love for Mom and country proudly inked in primary colors,
A parade of unrepentant eagles and all- forgiving Madonnas circles his flesh,
Embossing it like a spiral cut Easter ham

Then other times Private Smith thinks of nothing at all.

--Claudia Sukman

(Found at Poets Against the War.)

Through A Glass Darkly

I was quite surprised during my visit to Watching America at finding so many articles on BP's Gulf oil spill. The one which caught my attention was an editorial-like piece from Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung written by Moritz Koch. Mr. Koch points out the clear connection between the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and the disaster on Wall Street. His analysis is devastating and right on the money.

...The bitter truth is that many officials in responsible supervisory agencies prefer searching the Internet for porno clips to looking over the shoulder of investment bankers and oil managers. The neglect of American civil servants connects both crises much more than any other pattern that could be found during a trip down abstraction lane. The financial crisis and the oil spill are the results of a gross violation of state responsibilities; a violation, however, that happened with intent and arose from ideological calculations. Thus, the violation was not an accident and did not result from carelessness. It was politically intended.

The Republicans, who ruled Washington until the end of 2008, had blind faith in the self-regulation of markets. Bureaucratic obstacles were deliberately smoothed out to exhaust all potentials for growth. While financial institutions were allowed to bring an increasing number of complex derivatives on the market, authorities permitted oil companies to drill deeper and deeper and did not waste a single thought on the “what if’s.”

The administration under George W. Bush refused to see reason. Regulation authorities were condemned to idleness and those inspectors who took their jobs seriously were worn down. ...
[Emphasis added.}

Mr. Koch has assessed the situation accurately, in my opinion. He even has a little sound advice for the current administration:

President Barack Obama has to enforce the return to basic governmental functions, politically and culturally. He has made some progress concerning the SEC: the agency has regained its self-esteem under new leadership and has even dared to sue the powerful investment bank Goldman Sachs. Nuisances at the MMS continue, however. The president, who appeared helpless over the last few weeks, now has to demonstrate strong leadership. He certainly cannot count on any help from the opposition. The Republicans have continued to radicalize, driven forth by the fundamentalist Tea-Party-Movement. Nothing bears witness to this as much as the comment that Rand Paul, the founder of right-winged government critics and Republican candidate for the Senate, made about the oil spill: “Sometimes accidents happen.”

Two things struck me about this remarkable essay. First, I don't have any optimism when it comes to the Obama administration when it comes to forging ahead to clean up the messes he has admittedly inherited. He is not a progressive and is beholden to some of the same ideals of the previous two administrations: the business of America is business, and business will take care of things if allowed to do so freely. We see where that got us, but what we won't see is any movement away from this paradigm even though it is clearly and demonstrably wrong.

Second, this editorial could have and should have been published by any number of the major newspapers and media outlets in the United States, yet it was not. The most we have gotten is some nervous hand-wringing and some photos of oily pelicans. Oh, the MMS employees caught surfing porn sites instead of doing their jobs will get their chops busted, but only with respect to their accessing pornography and not for being in bed (in some cases literally) with oil company lobbyists and executives.

I don't know which disgusts me more: the failure of my government to do its job or the failure of the free press to do theirs.

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Sunday Funnies

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

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Bonus Critter Blogging: Pandas

(A re-run, because I needed a little break.)

Of Sacred Cows And Sick Children

Business columnist Michael Hiltzig has a really feisty column up today, one that kicks ass and takes names. It focuses on what really is behind a great deal of California's budget mess.

I believe we can all agree on the root cause of the state's $20-billion budget gap.

It's welfare: all those millions of taxpayer dollars going to recipients who line up for their government handouts instead of competing in the marketplace on a level playing field like the rest of us, who don't pay their fair share of taxes and who get protected by a politically powerful lobby.

Yes, I'm talking about the business community.

For all the hand-wringing by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger about how there's almost nothing left to cut in the state budget except services to children, the aged and the destitute, hundreds of millions of dollars are spent every year on handouts to business. That's despite the lack of evidence that some of these programs keep employers in the state, lure employers from out of state or are cost-effective in any general way.

The governor is asking the Legislature to take such draconian steps as eliminating CalWORKS, the state's principal family welfare program (serving 1.1 million children), and downsizing child care and mental health programs.

Meanwhile, corporate welfare programs such as tax breaks for some of our largest companies and "incentives" for our largest industries are to survive. To his credit, Schwarzenegger has proposed delaying some new corporate tax breaks.


Mr. Hiltzig points to the movie industry tax breaks and "enterprise zones" as two of the most egregious of the programs which cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars without proof that such concessions do any good with respect to employment. Then he moves on to the unsupported assumption that California is anti-business and these programs are necessary to change that image:

The chief mechanism for corporate welfare in California is the tax system. Some industries whacked hard by other states are untouched by California — this is the only major oil-producing state that doesn't levy a severance tax on oil taken from the ground, even though such a tax could yield billions of dollars a year.

Despite this state's reputation for being tough on business, other states rely far more on business taxes than we do. According to a survey by the accounting firm Ernst & Young, California ranked 35th in terms of business' share of state and local taxes in 2007. (That is, in 33 other states and the District of Columbia, business carried a higher burden relative to individual taxpayers than in California.) Measured by business taxes as a percentage of gross state product, California ranked 32nd.
[Emphasis added]

Yet Gov. Schwarzenegger has decided that the next budget cuts will be to programs that provide needed services to the poor and elderly. Taxing the membership of the Chamber of Commerce fairly is off the table.

How unsurprising.


Friday, June 18, 2010

Friday Cat Blogging

(Photograph by Bryan Patrick and published in the Sacramento Bee.)

Business As Usual

One would think that in the midst of the horrifying disaster in the Gulf of Mexico that BP and other oil companies would lay low this election season, but one would, of course, be wrong. There are still politicians running for office, which means there are still politicians to be bought.

Lobbyists for BP hosted at least 53 fundraising parties for lawmakers and candidates in recent years -- four of them since the explosion and oil spill at a BP-run oil drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico, according to a watchdog group's analysis.

Lobbyists typically represent multiple clients, and it is unknown how many of the events were intended to advance BP's interests. The numbers are based on fundraiser data compiled by the Sunlight Foundation, which collects information from anonymous donors and lobbyist reports. The list is incomplete, and it is possible the lobbyists held other fundraisers as well.

The silly caveats contained in the second paragraph of from this WaPo article aside, it's clear that candidates from both parties and their funders are in full campaign mode, the crises facing the nation be damned. It's business as usual.

What is especially maddening is that apparently both the candidates and the money baggers for the oil companies and the other corporations think that no one can do anything about it. After all, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.) (who got over $27,000 from BP and its affiliates) got only a slap on the wrist from his party's leaders for apologizing to BP, probably more for the poor framing of his remarks than for the message.

David Donnelly, of the Campaign for Fair Elections, said he wasn't surprised that fundraisers were held by the lobbyists of BP and other oil firms.

"The fundraising season in Washington never ends, even when there are disasters like in the Gulf Coast and when the economy crashes. Members of Congress still have to look for money," Donnelly said. ...

"It's amazing that Rep. Barton would stand up for a multinational corporation that has wrecked the livelihoods of so many people along the Gulf Coast," Donnelly said. "Comments like this make all Americans question whether Congress represents them or the special interests funding their campaigns."

I think we're past the point of questioning, Mr. Donnelly. We're at the confirmation stage. Thanks to our Supreme Court and our election system, the business of government has indeed become business.

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Thursday, June 17, 2010

Lame Duck Still Flying ...

... in a private jet.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has only six months left in office, but he's still having fun. He'll soon be traveling to Asia on a trade mission which is being financed by a large Asian company.

On Thursday, the state Fair Political Practices Commission implemented a $420 limit on private contributions to nonprofits like the one the governor has used for years to pay for private jets and luxury hotel rooms on trips to Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Any such contribution earmarked to benefit a particular public official is subject to the new cap.

But the rule can easily be circumvented with a small tweak in the fundraising process: If the person or group giving to the nonprofit doesn't identify the public official the check is meant to benefit, the $420 cap does not apply.

Schwarzenegger's Asia trip will be paid for by the California State Protocol Foundation, a nonprofit run from the offices of the Chamber of Commerce in Sacramento, using "general donations," said Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear.

The $550,000 gift to the foundation by the Alibaba Group, one of Asia's leading e-commerce companies, will help cover the September trip to China, South Korea and Japan, McLear said. ...

The generosity of private donors has allowed Schwarzenegger and members of his staff to fly to China, Europe and the Middle East on private jets — his preferred method of travel — without spending taxpayer money. The journeys, often with California business leaders in tow, benefit the state's economy without burdening the budget, McLear said.
[Emphasis added]

Now that's an interesting way to justify bought access to the governor, isn't it?

Nope, won't cost the state a dime, this nice little vacation to Asia promoting California business, at least not until the next tax increase on corporations comes up or a change in health and safety regulations is being formulated.

The Governator isn't even pretending any more.

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Wednesday, June 16, 2010


I knew it wouldn't last. After a couple of weeks of producing some reasonably rational and timely editorials, the center-left editorial board of the Los Angeles Times issued a real clunker yesterday. The subject is the move by the Obama administration to continue the deplorable practice of imprisoning without trial those deemed by the government to be terrorists. The government even came up with a new euphemism for this constitutional travesty: "Preventive Detention." Really takes the sting out of the action, doesn't it?

Oh, the editorial starts off well enough, noting that by any name such behavior is unacceptable under our system, but it drops right of the cliff soon enough:

Imprisonment without trial violates the most fundamental principles of American due process and can be countenanced only under our traditionally accepted practice of holding enemy combatants as prisoners of war until a cessation of hostilities. Such cases should be exceedingly rare and subject to stringent outside review. The recommendations of an interagency task force convened by Obama that were recently made public fail to meet that standard.

The task force recommends that the administration detain 48 prisoners without trial. And although those inmates have the right to challenge their confinement in federal court, judges lack guidance about whether and on what grounds they should order any prisoner's release.

The task force's report confirms the popular assumption that some suspects can't be put on trial even if they have committed terrorist acts, because evidence was gathered on a battlefield and "was neither garnered nor preserved with an eye toward prosecuting them." Others, while active in Al Qaeda, couldn't be tied to specific plots. The report says that the principal obstacles to prosecution are not tainted evidence (presumably obtained by torture) or a desire to protect sources. ...

As the history of Guantanamo demonstrates, there is the possibility of error, exaggeration or mistaken identity. What's more, in a conflict that, unlike past wars, is open-ended, we're concerned that people could end up being held for years, theoretically even for life, under this plan. The task force notes that there will be periodic reviews by the executive branch, but we believe that there must be oversight of detention decisions by an independent body. And the burden should rest on the government to demonstrate that there is a high risk of imminent harm to Americans that the detention is meant to prevent.
[Emphasis added.]

OK, the editorial gets the point that indefinite detention is a bad thing, but then equates the GWOT to a real war, instead of the hyperbole used by the government to justify over-reaching and dictatorial behavior (as in the "War On Drugs"). What is even worse, however, is the swift move at that point to call for a system which would in fact govern "preventive detention."

Obama's decision to hold some prisoners without trial creates a dilemma for those who oppose preventive detention: Allowing the status quo to continue is unsatisfactory, but action by Congress or the high court to provide judicial review would institutionalize a practice abhorrent to fundamental American principles. We uneasily would choose the second course, but only if the courts subject the executive branch's decisions to searching and sustained scrutiny.

Look, either the US Constitution is the ultimate law of the land which applies evenly and across the board or it really is "just a piece of paper." There is no choice to make, easily (which the Obama administration has done) or uneasily (which the editorial board just did). Fire is hot all the time, not just when it is convenient.

Detention without trial is wrong and it is unconstitutional.



Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The First Refuge Of Scoundrels

As someone nearing the age to qualify for Medicare and Social Security, I was more than a little nervous by the formation of the Simpson-Bowles Commission on the deficit. It was only too obvious that two of the major targets for reducing spending were not the Pentagon and Corporate Welfare, but rather Medicare and Social Security, the two most effective and efficient government programs around. That's why I was cheered by economist James K. Galbraith's comments in this morning's Los Angeles Times.

In American public discourse, national security is the first refuge of scoundrels. For six decades good and dreadful ideas alike have been buttressed by claims that they will help make us secure. President Eisenhower used the claim to promote spending on highways and education. President George W. Bush used it to justify wiretapping and torture.

Now deficit hysterics have started trilling the national security song to justify a coming attack on Social Security and Medicare. ...

The National Security Strategy doesn't mention either Medicare or Social Security by name. But the code words "medium-term deficit reduction" are there, and they are today's stand-in for cuts in those programs. "Everything must be on the table," we're told, as the Simpson-Bowles commission prepares to explain why Social Security and Medicare must be cut.

But why? Social Security and Medicare are not broken. They are successful, popular programs that protect America's elderly from poverty. Cutting them would be devastating. Today, at a time when people have lost jobs, investments and equity in their homes — the very things that an aging population counts on for economic stability — Social Security and Medicare are more important than ever. They are the most important bulwarks of middle-class life in America. And we can afford them. A rich nation can always afford modest retirement benefits and decent healthcare for its old. Cutting them would be, in fact, totally inconsistent with the spirit of the National Security Strategy, which correctly equates human security with national security around the world.

The facts are that Social Security and Medicare both work, and will continue to work with only minor tweaking. Social Security is still in the black, and would remain in the black for many decades by removing the ceiling on contributions. A tax on the rich? No more so than a tax on the poor and middle class. I prefer to think of it as an offset for the tax cuts the rich got under the last administration.

Medicare is one of the most efficiently run programs in the government. In fact, administration costs are far below those of private health insurance programs. Root out more of the fraud perpetrated by private businesses dealing with Medicare, and it too will continue to work well until the next time the conservatives want to pass the gravy to their corporate masters.

Blaming these two social programs for the current budget deficits is foolish. Professor Galbraith, who makes a pretty good argument for deficit spending right now in the rest of his opinion piece, nails the real villains for our current economic woes:

The real cause of our deficits and rising public debt is our broken banking system. The debts our economic leaders deplore were largely due to the collapse of private credit, and to the vast giveaways the federal government made to banks to prevent their failure when credit collapsed. Yet those rescues have failed to reanimate private credit markets and job creation, as the latest employment reports show. And so long as that failure persists, public deficits and rising public debt must remain facts of life.


If the Simpson-Bowles Commission wants to suss out some ways to save money, I'd suggest they take a look at what we are spending for two wars we didn't need or want. They might also take a look at the subsidies given agricorps or tax breaks given large industries. Let's let our owners share some of the pain.

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Monday, June 14, 2010


Well, here's some interesting news. It seems that Afghanistan has some natural resources that the US has just discovered.

The United States has discovered nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan, far beyond any previously known reserves and enough to fundamentally alter the Afghan economy and perhaps the Afghan war itself, according to senior American government officials.

The previously unknown deposits — including huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and critical industrial metals like lithium — are so big and include so many minerals that are essential to modern industry that Afghanistan could eventually be transformed into one of the most important mining centers in the world, the United States officials believe.

Of course, the Russians knew about the reserves back when they were mired in Afghanistan. The US knew about the reserves since at least 2007, although a dollar figure wasn't assigned until just recently. That said, it's still difficult for me to believe that the US was totally in the dark about the extensive mineral wealth that war-torn nation is sitting on until just recently. Certain decisions, among them the ramping up of US forces in Afghanistan, could clearly be explained by the knowledge of the rainbow future of that small nation.

Of course, the good news for Afghanistan is that its economy can move from dependence on poppies and international handouts to mining and manufacturing. The bad news for Afghanistan is that its economy will be moving from dependence on agriculture to international mining interests blowing its mountain tops off and polluting its water. And the US is already assisting the Afghans in making that transition.

Watching how this plays out is going to be interesting, but one thing is clear: our troops won't be coming home from Afghanistan any time soon.


Sunday, June 13, 2010

Sunday Poetry: Khalil Nieves


my heart,
today reminds me of the first day of our honeymoon.
the olive flowers are blossoming.
rain falls lightly.

you asked to marry
when the blossoms came.
in the hills above our village.
rain fell lightly that night.

in different times,
we would go
once again
to the hills.
for our twenty-fifth anniversary.

only because of you,
i asked for permission from my keepers,
for a day,
or an afternoon.
just an hour.

but my captor’s laughter
was drowned out by the
screaming as the f-16 fighters
bombed gaza-
for the seventh straight day.

it is summer.
because of the heat
i daydream of
a cup of cold water
from the well for our olive trees,
and think of fahim pruning the olive trees in my absence,
as a lonely dove settles on the razorwire
that encircles muhammad, ali myself
and all of palestine.

muhammad had a picture of our flag
when the soldiers found it
they asked
where is this place?
then they began furiously beating him.

my heart,
surely it is time
ihklas is old enough to marry
and to go to the training camps.
today, muhammad received a letter
an israeli guard refused to let his wife pass
and she gave birth at the checkpoint.
the baby died.

it is fall.
ghazi, our imam
led us in prayers during our 11th ramadan here.
his daughter was not allowed to go for heart surgery.

it is winter.
i break the ice on our water jugs.
across the valley
the apartheid wall lengthens its shadow.

in the evening,
the soldiers cut down the olive trees

to warm themselves.


have already won
in this life
and the next.
have you not heard,
the meek shall inherit the earth.

you have trained torturers to break bone
have cast us into dark dank prisons
stolen the flower of our youth
broken our arms, legs, but never our hearts.
gathered armies to destroy our villages, towns, cities, and countries
but never our will.

from far distances you hurl artillery shells,
from the unseen drop burning bright steel cylinders,
yet, still we rise.

“do not say of those who are martyred that they are dead,
nay, they live.”

still we rise.
our children will take our places.
our grandchildren will read the history of these Dark Ages,
remember us in their prayers,
and our numbers will grow.

we have already won.

--khalil nieves

(Found at Poets Against the War.)


One of the real joys in following Watching America is that there is usually at least one article posted from the world press that captures an issue so well that I've had to shift my perspective to one more in touch with reality. This week there was such an article, this one from Spain.

“Israel will be the victim of geography and demography,” prophesied De Gaulle, indicating that Israel would not be able to resist the pressure of the surrounding Arab world, which has a much superior birth rate to its own. However, Israel has not only resisted both pressures but has accumulated victory after victory until it has converted itself into the premier power of the Middle East. No country in its surroundings, or all of them put together, can stand up to it.

That could carry Israel, paradoxically, to destruction. In order to continue using its power in all its forms and in occasions where it appears challenged, that same strength will turn against it. It is already happening. It is true that it would only take Israel’s enemies one battle to annihilate it, whereas Israel would have to eliminate all of them in order not to disappear. But in the global world in which we live, he who minds only his particular interests without keeping in mind those of the community will inevitably end up condemned to ostracism. Remember South Africa under apartheid. It is what Israel’s most sensitive spirits are warning against.
[Emphasis added.]

While the logic is a bit murky, the essence of the portion cited is that if Israel is not reined in, either by cooler heads in Israel or by pressure bought to bear by the rest of the world (in particular, by the US), it will indeed have to stand alone if the Arab world should finally decide that enough is enough. South Africa managed to avert violence in the overthrow of the apartheid government, in part because the burden of economic and social sanctions simply became too much to bear. The question now, however, is whether that kind of universal sanctioning can be accomplished with Israel, given the history of US subversion of any attempt to punish Israel for its egregious behavior.

José María Carrascal, the author of this opinion piece, offers a tentative answer to that question, one that both sides of the conflict should take hope from:

In a global world, there are no individual solutions, and the Palestinian problem has been poisoning international relations since the division of that territory. It is this that is impeding the rapprochement of the West and the spread of moderate Islam, this that makes it impossible for the Palestinian Authority to control its people and this that has converted Gaza into a small fort controlled by Hamas, a terrorist organization. “The flotilla was aiming to break the Gaza blockade,” claimed the Israeli government in order to justify its commandos’ assault of it. But the problem comes precisely from having Gaza blockaded. In the 21st century, a million and a half people cannot be locked inside a ghetto. Today, Gaza is a powder keg ready to explode, to the satisfaction of extremists.

Israel believed that, with the backing of the United States, it could resist the harassment coming not only from the Arab world but also from the entire world. Until now it has achieved that, thanks to the carte blanche offered by all American presidents to defend itself. But the United States has other priorities than the defense of Israel, and Obama has already shown interest in a more well-balanced Middle East foreign policy. ...

Without that carte blanche, Israel would have to come to terms with its neighbors and would have to cease the collective punishment of the Palestinians for the murderous behavior of the extremists. That collective punishment, whether in the form of the blockade (see this LA Times article on the impact of the blockade on all of the Palestinians in Gaza) or in the simple day-to-day harassment of Palestinians at the border (see this post at Dohiyi Mir for evidence of just how petty, yet violent, the IDF can be), is only pushing the Palestinians into the camp of the violent and the neighboring nations into the camp of the hotheaded war makers.

Mr. Carrascal's concluding remarks summarize just what kind of balance has to be struck:

I would say that the first party interested in finding a just and balanced solution to the Palestinian problem is Israel. Then, we are. The Jews can never return to being a wandering people without rights or a homeland in the world. Neither can the Palestinians.

From you lips, Mr. Carrascal, to the world's ears.

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Sunday Funnies

(Political cartoon by Joel Pett / Lexington Herald-Leader (June 10, 2010) and featured at McClatchy DC. Click on image to enlarge.)


Saturday, June 12, 2010

Bonus Critter Blogging: Kiwi

(Photograph by Shubhashish Dasgupta, My Shot, and published at National Geographic. That's an ostrich egg the kiwi is standing on.)

Cat Fight!

Poor Carly Fiorina: a few moments of unguarded chatter and she gets nailed for a rather bizarre comment on the hair-do of Sen. Barbara Boxer, her opponent in the race for the Senate. Most newspapers in California covered it. The New York Times put it on the front page. Talking heads talked about it on television. What's the deal?

Is it really important evidence of the candidate's frivolousness? Of her being more interested in style than in substance?

The center-left editorial board of the Los Angeles Times has its own theory, one that excuses the execrable behavior of the press in this nonsense:

Does anybody really care what Carly Fiorina thinks of Barbara Boxer's hair? Almost certainly not, and yet Californians kicked off the general election campaign this week with a spirited discussion of Fiorina's snarky critique of her rival — she blurted that Boxer's hair was "so yesterday" amid some babble about craving hamburgers and avoiding Sean Hannity. Her comments were captured by a live microphone and then made the rounds: They were front-page news in Friday's New York Times. ... seems more illustrative of a yearning among journalists — and voters — for moments of authenticity that have become so rare in politics. Driven by money and advertising, campaigns today are scripted and candidates guarded. Office seekers avoid spontaneous contact with constituents; they are shielded by police tape, velvet ropes, handlers and security guards. They stay relentlessly "on message" and, in the process, aloof.

Oh, please!

Have sober discussions of issues and stances on those issues become, well, "so yesterday" that journalists are just looking for a gotcha-moment to spice up their own boring lives of providing needed information for the electorate? If so, perhaps they ought to consider another career, maybe as paparazzi.

No, I think more is going on. After noting that California's GOP has finally admitted women to the ranks of candidates for major offices, something that party should be congratulated for, the press is now busy undercutting that advance by promoting a cat fight. "See, women are really all about hair-dos and fashion."

Instead of concentrating on Ms. Fiorina's stint as the CEO of a major corporation (which I think is fair game since she is running on her credentials as an astute businesswoman), the press has taken the low road. "Real" political leaders (i.e., men) drop the F-bomb in public. Women, God love 'em, talk about hair styles.

The silly season has just gotten sillier.


Friday, June 11, 2010

Friday Cat Blogging

Some Unsurprising News

For a couple of months now we have been assured that the economy is back on track and that things are improving here in the US. It certainly doesn't feel that way to most Americans, especially those who are unemployed, but it turns out that for some Americans, that rosy forecast is true.

Unemployment remains at near-record levels, and most Americans are struggling to rebuild their battered finances. But the country's wealthy are once again doing just fine, thank you.

No group was immune to the downturn. In 2008, as the financial crisis raged, the stock market hit bottom and the Great Recession ate into the economy, the number of millionaires in the United States plunged.

But last year the number of millionaires bounced up sharply, new data show.

And after that decline and rebound, the millionaire class held a larger percentage of the country's wealth than it did in 2007.
[Emphasis added]

So, how did this happen? Well, it's actually quite simple, so simple that even an economic dunderhead like I am can understand it. It all has to do with what different groups of people do with what money they have:

The rebound largely reflects the stock market's powerful surge from 12-year lows reached in March 2008. Even though the long bear market that began in late 2007 continued into early last year, the Dow Jones industrials gained 19% over the course of 2009.

As a result, the expansion of the portfolios of the rich resembled the quick recovery of the profits of Wall Street investment banks and the bonuses of their executives, both of which depend on the health of the stock market.

The boom didn't reach all parts of the population. For the middle class, home values account for a larger slice of a family's wealth than they do for the rich. And unlike stocks, home values remain at or near the lows they reached after a painful crash.

In fact, real estate and other hard assets, such as $200,000 cars, aren't reflected in Boston Consulting Group's report. Had they been, the financial condition of ordinary Americans would have appeared even worse.
[Emphasis added]

A person who is unemployed or underemployed is not going to be investing in the stock market. He or she is going to spend money on food and rent, perhaps even house payments. There isn't any margin for anything beyond trying to catch up on overdue bills. Asset growth is not an option for the lower and middle classes, at least not at this point in the recovery. At some point, this is going to be the kind of problem even the wealthy are going to have to face, especially if unemployment figures continue at or near double digits.

"The recession is going to end up accentuating the inequalities of income and wealth we've seen for 30 years," said Larry Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington. "This requires attention if we're going to see robust wealth growth going forward."

Our owners just might want to watch their backs.

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Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Best That Money Can Buy

Gail Collins has a terrific column up today which uses the backdrop of the California primary election results to discuss the role of big money in election campaigns, especially after the Supreme Court dropped the other shoe with respect to restricting publicly financed elections. Her analysis is, I think, right on the money (pun intended).

That said, however, there's a part of the California election results which appears to indicate that the victory of the owners was only partial. They actually lost on a couple of propositions being considered by the electorate. The center-left editorial board of the Los Angeles Times took a center-left look at the results and noted some of the reasons why the two corporate-funded propositions lost.

Props to California voters. They are smarter than most pundits and political consultants (and sometimes editorial pages) give them credit for being, as evidenced by two failed attempts to buy their votes in Tuesday's election.

The conventional political wisdom suggested that Propositions 16 and 17 would be tough to beat, given that their corporate backers — Northern California utility Pacific Gas & Electric and Mercury Insurance, respectively — poured buckets of money into deeply misleading ad campaigns. Opponents, meanwhile, raised barely enough to print lawn signs. Yet both measures lost by a margin of more than 4 percentage points.

The editorial is pretty straightforward in its attempt to suss out just why the two propositions failed. The "anti-incumbent" mood of the electorate wasn't in play. The public's distrust of corporations after what they did to the economy probably wasn't either. So, what then?

... Yet there are some truisms that help explain Tuesday's results, such as the one that suggests money is far less effective in passing initiatives than in defeating them. Voters are naturally skeptical of ballot measures, especially complex ones on such arcane topics as public electricity ventures (Proposition 16) and auto insurance discounts (Proposition 17). Ad campaigns can fuel that skepticism to make voters defeat even beneficial initiatives, but ads urging a yes vote are given more scrutiny, especially when they're funded by a single source.

While that wasn't the case for Proposition 8, the dreadful homophobic prop that passed a couple of years ago, I think that was the case this time around, and for one of the reasons discarded by the editorial: voters did indeed have access to information outside of the blitz of television commercials funded by the industries involved. Articles, columns, and editorials in newspapers statewide (including the L.A. Times) came forward with rational and factual information on just how duplicitous the prop-backers were being. And even though only 24.8% of California voters cast a ballot, the majority of them got it right.

I do take comfort in that small victory.

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Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Only The Very Wealthy Need Apply

Yesterday, the Supreme Court of the United States issued an order striking down a significant provision in Arizona's election law which enabled the less-than-wealthy to run for public office. Today, an editorial in the New York Times decried that order and what it portends for elections in the future all over the nation.

It seems likely that the Roberts court will use this case to continue its destruction of the laws and systems set up in recent decades to reduce the influence of big money in politics. By the time it is finished, millionaires and corporations will have regained an enormous voice in American politics, at the expense of candidates who have to raise money the old-fashioned way and, ultimately, at the expense of voters. ...

The [Arizona] system gives qualifying candidates a lump-sum grant for their primary or general election races in exchange for which the candidates agree not to raise large private contributions. If an opposing candidate is not participating in the system and spends more than the lump-sum grant, the participating candidate qualifies for additional matching funds.

It was those matching funds that produced a challenge from well-financed candidates, backed by the Goldwater Institute and other conservative interests. The candidates argued that the matching funds “chilled” their freedom of speech because they were afraid to spend more than the limit that triggered the funds. A lower court agreed with that pretzel logic, but last month a panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit disagreed. It said the speech of the plaintiffs had not been chilled. “The essence of this claim is not that they have been silenced,” the panel said, “but that the speech of their opponents has been enabled.”
[Emphasis added]

What the Supreme Court has done is to ensure that only the wealthy, primarily those with solid gold connections to the businesses which enabled that wealth, will successfully run for office. The people

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

More Shame

Yesterday was another bad-news day all the way around. By mid-afternoon all I wanted to do was go home so I could climb into bed and pull the covers and the pillows over my head. Perhaps the one item that especially punched my abdominal region was the news of a report which had issued suggesting that doctors and other medical personnel colluded with the Bush torturers by studying ways to make torture techniques more painful, and (presumably) more effective.

Even the New York Times was outraged by the "white paper" prepared by Physicians for Human Rights if today's editorial is any indication.

Now Physicians for Human Rights has suggested that the medical professionals may also have violated national and international laws setting limits on what research can be performed on humans. ...

The group’s report focused particularly on a few issues where medical personnel played an important role — determining how far a harsh interrogation could go, providing legal cover against prosecution and designing future interrogation procedures. The actual monitoring data are not publicly available, but the group was able to deduce from the guidelines governing the program what role the health professionals played, assuming they followed the rules. ...

The group concludes that health professionals who facilitated these practices were in essence conducting research and experimentation on human subjects. The main purposes of such research, the group says, were to determine how to use various techniques, to calibrate the levels of pain and to create a legal basis for defending interrogators from potential prosecution under antitorture laws. The interrogators could claim that they had acted in good faith in accord with medical judgments of safety and had not intended to inflict extreme suffering.

The report from Physicians for Human Rights is available for downloading here. It is far from complete or exhaustive, but it was hampered right from the start by the usual government response to requests for information. The papers sent to the group were heavily redacted by the official censors. Enough was there, however, for the group to reach at least some tentative conclusions. Medical personnel actively violated the Hippocratic oath to do no harm.

That the Bush government would subvert the physicians and other medical personnel for such horrifying human testing and that the physicians and medical personnel would acquiesce is bad enough. But there's more: no one in the all-new-and-improved government, whether in the White House or Congress, seems to care, which I, and the New York Times editorialist find just as profoundly disturbing.

The report from the physicians’ group does not prove its case beyond doubt — how could it when so much is still hidden? — but it rightly calls on the White House and Congress to investigate the potentially illegal human experimentation and whether those who authorized or conducted it should be punished. Those are just two of the many unresolved issues from the Bush administration that President Obama and Congressional leaders have swept under the carpet. [Emphasis added]

I have given up holding my breath waiting for this administration or this congress to do anything with respect to the crimes of the last administration and congress. Nearly 18 months into the new regime it has become clear that no one has the slightest inclination to delve into the most shameful period of our history.



Not likely.

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Monday, June 07, 2010

Off Key

Chris Ayres has a snarky commentary on Tony Hayward in today's Los Angeles Times. Ayres suggests that BP take a spare containment dome and drop it over its CEO before he does any further damage to the company's public image.

Here's what I consider to be the money passage in the piece:

Perhaps it's inevitable that any human being, no matter how skilled in communicating with the public, is going to err when faced with a calamity of the scale of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. But Hayward hasn't made just one or two off-key statements. Oh no. Like the oil spill itself, the torrent of Hayward's anti-charm has been a slow-motion disaster, at first seeming almost containable, but then accumulating hour after hour, day after day, week after week, until Toxic Tony became a black stain on the Gulf Coast in his own right. If only there were a berm that could keep him out at sea, away from the population.

"This is America — come on. We're going to have lots of illegitimate claims," he sneered to one British journalist, as if the deaths of 11 oil rig workers and the injuries of 17 others in a more reasonable country would simply be considered an acceptable cost of doing business. Then came the terrifying logic of: "The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume." This set the bar for future Haywardisms pretty high, but the BP chief hurdled it nevertheless with his assessment that "I think the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to be very, very modest."
[Emphasis added]

I happen to think that Mr. Hayward's gaffes are actually quite helpful in a twisted and perverse sort of way. He has managed to confirm what many of us have long suspected: that for corporations deaths and injuries are to be expected and computed into the cost of doing business in the US and around the world. Rather than work to prevent the loss of lives and livelihoods, major corporations are perfectly happy to allow for them in the business plan so that profits can be maximized. That the rest of us might be unhappy with such unholy computations doesn't matter. Only the bottom line matters to the Captains of Industry.

Will Mr. Hayward, BP, and its devastating Gulf tragedy prove to be the final tipping point, motivating the rest of us to hit the streets and Congress in protest?

Probably not. Already the general population is salivating at the curiously synchronous announcements of abiotic oil and the earth's replenishing of oil fields long thought to be depleted. In other words, they are ready to climb back into their automobiles and to crank up the air conditioning for the summer. Our national leaders haven't bothered to step up and call for the end of energy wastefulness and over-reliance on the fossil fuels which will choke the life out of the planet and its inhabitants. As a result, when the dramatic pictures of oil soaked birds, dead fish, and tar balls on beaches from one end of the coast to the other fade, it will be back to business as usual.

There is some benefit to be being old. I won't have to be around to watch the further devastation. In the meantime, however, my heart hurts.

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Sunday, June 06, 2010

Sunday Poetry: Safaa Sheikh Hamad

Thus sang the troubadour

Coming from behind the sea of Atlas

Ships laden with cargoes of death

Hearts full of purulence

Minds that never cared about a soul

Led by the new Agamemnon

To smash Troy that never kidnapped Helen

Joy has been stripped off

Sadness hovered over the place

The vigilant watchman is sleeping with a whore

To live or to die is the same

For they both lost a meaning

The mad man in our village could not answer

Why we had to commit suicide

And give a cold shoulder to the godless heaven

Arabs of bad blood gave Agamemnon the sands

Ferdinand de Lesseps resurrected again

Had a toast of champagne with the new Pasha

Waved for the scum of the earth

Crossing Suez canal to the desert of Arabia

Sheikhs of Arabia drinking mugs of espresso

Whispered in each other`s ears the news from Cheney

Had a few words with the devil`s advocate

And decided to say “NO” while their “YES” had already pushed the button

The rains in Kirkuk washed the gloom of the earth

But rainbow never showed up

For the red prevailed

It is war , carrying an obsession of mongers

Many men will die, sang the troubadour,




Many men will die      

March was an eye witness

And its nineteenth was the first to burn.

My little sister woke up in the early morning

She said Mrs. Mallaby of the yesterday's bedtime story

Met her in a dream and was all alone

In her hundredth birthday,

There was no post card

No birthday cake with hundred candles

No umbrella for the rainy Sundays

No kitten mewed at her door.

March was an eye witness

And its nineteenth was the first to burn.


Cluster bombs

Scud missiles

White phosphorous

Were all death retailers in Mesopotamia

The little Umm Qasr under the flame

Reminded us of Leningrad

Sweeping the young dead bodies with a broom

Making heaps of souls

Preparing a meal for the ravens

Shock and Awe quaked the earth

Buttons unleashed death into the eyes

That is enough, said my friend and shut the radio off,

Tell them, I said to him

Tell them we had enough




Tell them the Tigris had enough bodies of assassinated dreams

Euphrates vomited the sense of clarity

Shatt-al-Arab wept the death of the palm trees

The Gulf engulfed all the bitterness

Hugged the two rivers

Buried the bodies of the dead

Washed their blood off the salty beaches

And listened to the troubadour

Who was still singing,

Many men will die.

Many men will die.

March was an eye witness,

And its nineteenth was the first to burn.

--Safaa Sheikh Hamad

(Published at Poets Against the War.)  

Colorful Alliance

I took a break from posting on articles put up at Watching America because the offerings had become less interesting and timely. I soon suspected that I had just gotten a little jaded, so I checked in again this week. I'm glad I did. The board contained an article on Arizona's loathsome anti-immigrant bill which presented an angle I hadn't considered.

It seems that those protesting the new law (scheduled to take effect July 29, 2010 unless a federal lawsuit prevails) requested that Native Americans join the cause. Many leaders, especially from the Navajo Nation, agreed to do so.

From Spain's El Pais:

...In this movement that defends the rights of illegal immigrants, one sees posters of Geronimo — the Apache rebel who fought over these deserts — overlapping posters of Zapata.

“They crossed the border because they were here long before the borders,"* explained Salvador Reza, one of the leaders of the mobilization against the SB 1070 law, which will go into effect starting July 29 if the global protests do not prevent it, and which will allow the police to stop and identify whomever they believe to be in the U.S. illegally. ...

...There are two sides to the conflict dividing the state and the country: those who support deportation of all illegal immigrants and those who fight for the civil rights they earned with their work. The Native Americans have chosen to support the latter side. The Navajo Reservation contains two of the most scenic sites in the United States: Monument Valley, with icebergs of red rock that stand in the middle of nowhere, where John Ford filmed masterpieces like The Searchers; and the Canyon de Chelly, a sacred site for the Navajos because it embodies their resistance to the white man and especially symbolizes their principal virtue: that they never gave in and that they keep on living there. A real lesson in life.

What a natural alliance! For the racist segment of Arizona, the Native Americans, like the Latin American immigrants, are objects of scorn and disrespect. They are not, after all, White. Of course, they are not actually Red, either, more like Brown, and that is the whole point. Their culture predates much of the Western European Culture currently running and ruining the planet with wars, pollution, and unfettered capitalism. While in many respects they are no more angelic than their White neighbors, they were here first, long before the White Man.

If President Obama and his Attorney General have any sense of decency, they too will join the alliance by pressing the constitutional issue in a lawsuit against the Arizona law first, and then demanding a rational immigration reform bill from Congress, one that honors the work and contributions of those immigrants already here, documented or not, by allowing them to remain in Arizona and every other state.

That approach would also honor the dream of another person of color, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was more interested in the contents of a person's character than in the color of that person's skin.

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Sunday Funnies

(Political cartoon by Tom Toles and published June 3, 2010 in the Washington Post. Click on image to enlarge.)


Saturday, June 05, 2010

Bonus Critter Blogging: Fox Squirrel

(Photograph by Bates Littlehales and published at National Geographic.)

That Other Energy Company

The BP-caused tragedy in the Gulf has replaced the Massey Energy-caused mining tragedy in West Virginia on the list of horrendous, death-dealing accidents which could have been prevented. I suppose that's understandable, given the wide area of impact and given the short attention span of the media. However, there is a small cadre of activists who are still challenging Massey Energy on its unholy practices, and, surprisingly, the Los Angeles Times has taken notice.

Although public scrutiny of Massey has focused on the April 5 mine explosion that took 29 lives — a congressional committee grilled company executives last month — the battle between the company and activists has largely escaped notice outside West Virginia. The conflict has dragged on for 16 months, and there is no end in sight.

The group Climate Ground Zero has performed 21 acts of nonviolent civil disobedience, including shackling themselves to towering draglines and bulldozers, canoeing across a toxic waste impoundment, and occupying a Massey subsidiary's office for 10 days. Most notably, members have camped out in trees to fight the practice of blowing up mountains to expose coal seams.

Coal giant Massey has labeled the protesters "criminals" and "environmental terrorists." The company is pursuing court injunctions against them and seeking financial damages. The group has not been cowed.

Activists say they are breaking the law to halt mining damage so grave it amounts to a crime. Mountaintop removal has left valleys and rivers clogged with debris, wells ruined and nearby homes uninhabitable.

The actions of Climate Ground Zero are impressive, especially given the power Massey Energy holds over West Virginia. As I noted in my April post (first link, above), Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy "...owns West Virginia's legislature, governor, and even the state's supreme court. Bought and paid for by generous campaign donations, the state wouldn't dare cross this major Republican player." The activists don't seem to mind that the odds are stacked against them, however. For the past sixteen months they have continued to cross every line Massey has drawn.

As the months rolled by, however, Massey and the public authorities have upped the ante considerably:

When arrests began, the activists were released without bail or were required to put up a modest amount. Now bail is set in the thousands and is often required in cash for offenses as minor as trespassing. Two activists spent two weeks in jail waiting for funds to be raised. Bail was initially set at $100,000 in the latest case.

Punishment has been increased as well. Although plea bargains have been accepted in most of the cases, none of which involved jail time, one activist with the temerity to demand her constitutionally guaranteed right to a jury trial was slapped with a sentence of 60 days in jail. Another activist, offered a plea bargain of only 30 days in jail, has also chosen to go to trial. There's no telling at this point what she will face for a sentence.

This may look like small change to those activists who were killed trying to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza, but the actions of Climate Ground Zero are cut from the same cloth and deserve the same respect. It would be nice if the media, whether the traditional main stream media or the new electronic media, would accord the West Virginia battle some attention.

The Los Angeles Times did just that, even if it wasn't front page news. For that I am grateful.

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