Jul 31, 2008
We are reminded of the observation someone once made about Ginger Rogers: She did everything Fred Astaire did, but she had to do it backwards wearing high heels and a dress.
Our favorite New York Times columnist, and one of our heroes, is Nicholas Kristof. Like others of his colleagues we read—Friedman, Herbert, Dowd, even Brooks from time to time—Kristof does everything they do, but he does it in terrifying locales, under horrible conditions, and at enormous personal risk. His heart is with the poorest of the poor, the most maligned, abused, forgotten (but for him) peoples on earth, from Darfur’s beleaguered refugees to enslaved, pre-pubescent girls in southeast Asian brothels. They are his cause and we are those to whom he has pled his cause year after year. All we need do is listen.
For his bravery, for his eloquence, for his dedication and his persistence, for the causes he espouses which—whether we acknowledge it or not—are our causes, we award Nicholas Kristof our second “Golden A” for Achievement.
Jul 30, 2008
I just finished an extraordinary book, which I should have read years ago. In fact, I should have been in it!
Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 by Taylor Branch, won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1989. It is, quite literally, a blow-by-blow recounting of the early years of the greatest struggle of our time—the struggle for equal justice for all in America. Now I was a nine-year-old midwesterner in 1954, so I probably shouldn’t blame myself for not being in on the inception of the civil rights movement. However, I was 17 in 1963 and should at least have been in Washington, D.C., listening to the “I Have a Dream” speech which climaxes this volume.
Of course, 1963 wasn’t the end of the civil rights movement, not even the beginning of the end, though it may have been, to quote Churchill, the end of the beginning. King’s role would go on for another five years, until his assassination on the balcony of that infamous Memphis motel on April 4, 1968. Branch’s magnum opus goes on as well, in two more volumes, Pillar of Fire (1963-65) and At Canaan’s Edge (1965-68).
The highlights of this first tome (it is over 1,000 pages) are familiar to any literate, engaged American: Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott; early voter registration drives; Birmingham with its fire hoses and police dogs; the assassination of Medgar Evers; and, of course, the huge March on Washington, the largest and most peaceful demonstration in D.C. history.
However, it’s the infinite, day-to-day details which Branch covers that most impressed, moved, and horrified me. The jailhouse beatings of the female Freedom Riders; J. Edgar Hoover’s obsessive and underhanded pursuit of King and his inner circle; the Kennedys’ vacillations and betrayals. And through it all, the enormous cast of characters besides King which he brings to vibrant life. They risked (and too often lost) everything to put an end to lives that were scarcely an improvement over slavery.
The depth and breadth of hatred, brutality, and injustice which southern politicians, law enforcement officials, and average citizens have visited upon their black brothers and sisters is sickening to behold, and there can be only one possible explanation for it in my view: They must be so unable to get past what they have done to black people that it makes them all crazy.
Meanwhile,2 Luis Ramirez, a 25-year-old father of two, was beaten to death by six white teenagers in Shenandoah, PA, in front of eyewitnesses who were able to—and did—identify them all. It happened a little over two weeks ago. No charges have been filed. [Update, August 1, 2008] Three teens have been charged in the beating death, including 16-year-old Brandon J. Piekarsky, 17-year old Colin Walsh, and 18-year-old Derrick Donchack.2.1 In addition, 23-year-old Joseph McTiernan has been charged with giving Donchack alcohol before the crime was committed.2.2 [Update, August 19, 2008] Two of the teens will be tried for third-degree murder and ethnic intimidation. A third teen will be tried for aggravated assault and other charges.2.3 (Update, September 6, 2008) A fourth juvenile (unnamed as of yet) has been charged with aggravated assault, ethnic intimidation, and related counts.2.4
Meanwhile,3 a handcuffed African-American named Baron Pikes was shot nine times with a taser gun by white police officer Scott Nugent in Winfield, Louisiana. Pikes was unconscious for the eighth and ninth shots, which killed him. It happened six months ago. No charges have been filed. [Update, August 1, 2008] “Winn Parish [LA] District Attorney Chris Nevils announced Monday that the grand jury is scheduled to convene on August 12 and begin hearing evidence in the death of 21-year-old Baron Pikes.”3.1 [Update, August 14, 2008] The grand jury indicted Nugent for manslaughter yesterday.3.2 It makes one wonder what it takes to be guilty of murder in Louisiana. It probably has something to do with your color. [Update, September 13, 2008] The Winnfield Civil Service Board upheld the firing of Scott Nugent and the Pikes family has filed wrongful death suits against Nugent, the city of Winnfield, and other parties.3.3.
Meanwhile,4 there is good reason to suspect that 19-year-old Pfc. LaVena Johnson was beaten, raped, and murdered by one or more American contractors in Iraq. The Army has ruled her death a suicide. It happened over three years ago. No independent investigation has been launched. No charges have been filed. [Update, August 1, 2008] According to Truthdig.com, a 15-person civilian task force was named early in 2008 to look into allegations of sexual assault of military personnel. However, the panel has yet to meet.4.1
How long, Oh Lord, how long?
1A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens, quoted on Quotationsbook.com (Accessed July 26, 2008)
2Friend of Mexican Immigrant Beaten to Death in Pennsylvania Gives Eyewitness Account of Attack, Democracy Now!, July 24, 2008 (Accessed July 26, 2008)
2.1Now that Shenandoah teens are charged, reactions vary, Pottsville, PA, Republican Herald, July 27, 2008 (Accessed August 2, 2008)
2.2Man charged with furnishing alcohol to Shen[andoah] beating suspects, Pottsville, PA, Republican Herald, August 1, 2008 (Accessed August 2, 2008)
2.3Judge Reduces Charges in Killing of Mexican Immigrant. from Democracy Now, August 19, 2008 (Accessed August 19, 2008)
2.4Juvenile charged in fatal immigrant beating, from the Morning Call, September 5, 2008 (Accessed September 6, 2008)
3Death by Taser: Police Accused of Cover-Up in Death of African American Man Shocked Nine Times While in Handcuffs, Democracy Now!, July 24, 2008 (Accessed July 26, 2008)
3.1Grand jury to probe taser death, WDAM-TV, July 28, 2008 (Accessed August 2, 2008)
3.2Ex-officer faces charges in Taser death from the Eugene, Oregon, Register-Guard, August 14, 2008 (Accessed August 14, 2008)
3.2Civil Service Board upholds firing of Winnfield Officer in Taser case, from thetowntalk.com, September 12, 2008 (Accessed September 13, 2008)
4Suicide or Murder? Three Years After the Death of Pfc. LaVena Johnson in Iraq, Her Parents Continue Their Call for a Congressional Investigation, Democracy Now!, July 23, 2008 (Accessed July 26, 2008)
4.1Sexual Assault in the Military: A DoD Cover-Up?, by Col. Ann Wright, in Truthdig.com, August 1, 2008 (Accessed August 2, 2008)
Jul 29, 2008
In a move sure to have international consequences, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) today apprehended, detained, and extraordinarily rendered the Earth’s climate to an undisclosed location on the former planet Pluto, 93 million miles from CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.
The move followed the nonrelease of a classified report by the National Intelligence Council (NIC). ATN did not obtain notice of the report, without a summary of its findings, from The Earth Institute (EI) at Columbia University (CU), which didn’t report on data unavailable from a contributor to the NIC report, the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN), another arm not affiliated with Columbia University (CU). Whew!
The study does not explore how climate change “could threaten U.S. security in the next 20 years by not causing political instability, mass movements of refugees, terrorism, or conflict over water and other resources.”
Following no announcement of the extraordinary rendition, a spokesperson for the CIA did not add, “This climate is not going to change. The American people may be sure we’ll see to that!”
All of this is true, by the way, so don’t bother going to Snopes.com to find out if it’s an Urban Legend. Would I lie to you?
Jul 28, 2008
Yesterday, in the piece on LaVena Johnson, we had occasion to mention Democracy Now!, an alternative media news source which—let’s face it—is as skewed to the left as Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and others of their ilk are skewed to the right. However, whereas the latter are profit-based, laughingly biased, anti-intellectual, bottom-feeding hypocrites (people as intelligent and well paid as they are can’t possibly entertain the beliefs and opinions they lavish on the poor, angry folk who make up their audience), Democracy Now! is non-profit, meticulously fair, intelligent, and heartfelt. They deserve our attention and support.
Their web site is at the link below. They have both audio and video podcasts available on their site or through iTunes (where I receive both versions to tote around on my iPod). Their one-hour Mon-Fri newscast is also available on over 700 radio stations and through a couple of satellite feeds. Amy Goodman is the principal host, teaming late in the week with Juan Gonzalez, who is also a columnist for the New York Daily News. Neither is as somber as their picture would lead you to believe.
Where have you gone, Walter Cronkite? In 1983, 50 corporations controlled the vast majority of U.S. media.1 In 2004, that number was down to five. They are Time Warner, Disney, News Corporation (Rupert Murdoch's fiefdom), Bertelsmann of Germany, and Viacom (formerly CBS). General Electric’s NBC is a close sixth. To anyone paying attention, the quality of our mainstream media’s news reporting has deteriorated to the point where we hear less and less about things that matter, while more fluff and outright propaganda become our daily fare.
As journalist A.J. Liebling so sagely noted, “Freedom of the press belongs to those who own one.” Thanks to the Internet, anyone who has a point of view to put forward (lunatic or otherwise) can have a global presence for next to no cost. This is our answer to the decline of mainstream media, and Democracy Now! is a premier exemplar of the new powers granted us all by the Internet. There are others, and I will note some of them in future ATN entries. If you have a favorite news blog or alternative news site, podcast, or other media, let us know.
See Also, American Carnival: Journalism under Siege in an Age of New Media, by Neil Henry.
1Media Reform Information Center (Accessed July 26, 2008)
Jul 27, 2008
She died a suicide in her barracks, says the Army. However, credible evidence exists that 19-year-old Army Pfc. LaVena Johnson died of a rape, a beating, and a gunshot wound to the head in the tent of a KBR contractor in Iraq. Now, three years later, her grieving parents are still seeking some measure of justice, applying to Representative Henry Waxman to hold hearings into their daughter’s death before his House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
What I can do. What you can do.
1) Watch and listen to the interview with Johnson's parents and others conducted by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!
2) Sign a petition to Waxman which has been produced by colorofchange.org, a grassroots Internet organization seeking justice for all “colors” in America.
And Mothers: don’t let your daughters go to war. If they’re young and vulnerable and patriotic, there is much they can do on the home front without sending them into a lawless1 nest of predators.2
1An End to Iraq Contractor Immunity?, by Patrick Cockburn, on counterpunch.org, June 20, 2008 (Accessed July 26, 2008).
2The Women's War, by Sara Corbett, The New York Times, March 18, 2007 (Accessed July 26, 2008).
Jul 26, 2008
Human capital is our most precious resource, and we waste it at our peril. Human capital will solve the energy crisis, cure disease, end global warming, and establish universal justice and peace. And if human capital doesn’t do these things, some other force will, to the everlasting regret of the few of us who survive.
This is why we must end poverty and ignorance throughout the world. Not because it is good or even right to do so—although it surely is both. But because it is essential that we liberate as much human capital as possible, to take on these species-threatening challenges.
So, how do we do it? The United Nations Development Programme has some sound suggestions for ways to begin eradicating poverty. In their report, “Creating Value for All: Strategies for Doing Business with the Poor,” they summarize the product of research based on 50 case studies involving efforts to engage the world’s poor in economic activity, as clients and customers on the demand side, and as employees, producers, entrepreneurs, and business owners on the supply side. Their argument:
[T]he poor harbour a potential for consumption, production, innovation and entrepreneurial activity that is largely untapped. This report ... gives many examples of firms that—by doing business with the poor—are generating profits, creating new growth potential and improving poor people’s lives. The report’s main message: Business with the poor can create value for all.As a rising tide lifts all boats, finding ways and means to bring the poor into the global economic marketplace will not only raise them from the devastations of extreme poverty, but will benefit the “first world” with new markets, new partners, and newly liberated minds. Freed from the daily exigencies of want, those minds will turn to learning and labor, becoming active contributors to the pool of human capital upon which all our futures depend.
Jul 25, 2008
An interesting concatenation of reports came across my radar on the same day recently:
Jul 24, 2008
I hate debt. Other than a small mortgage, which we only have because it provides a tax deduction, my wife and I don't carry any consumer debt. I don’t even use a credit card anymore (which I used to pay off every month). Now, it’s strictly the debit card. I’m not looking for a medal. I’m describing a personality quirk. Debt makes me nervous.
A recent, really scary article by Gretchen Mortenson in the New York Times reminded me why. “Given a Shovel, Americans Dig Deeper Into Debt” describes the hapless story of Diane McLeod, a middle-class woman from a thrifty home who ended up jobless, homeless, penniless, and under a mountain of debt. Some of the numbers in the story are terrifying: Americans carry $2.56 trillion in consumer debt, up 22 percent since 2000. The average household’s credit card debt is over $8,500, up 15 percent since 2000. But the numbers aren’t as scary as the reasons behind them.
Why all this growth in consumer debt? To paraphrase Field of Dreams, if the opportunity to borrow is there, they’ll come. And it is there aplenty following all the banking and investment deregulation that has gone on since the Reagan years, through Clinton, and bigtime during Bush. What it essentially comes down to is risk reduction. Lenders no longer have to assess the risks involved in lending—which used to be their primary responsibility—because they can lay off a loan as soon as they make it, and well before it goes bad, by packaging it into bundles of securities which are then resold and off their books. Along the way, lenders can assess all sorts of fees that make up for the initial come-on of unrealistically low interest rates.
McCain, who has confessed to a weak head for economics1, would have this situation continue. Obama has not, as yet, come out with an economic plan that does much to reverse the scandalous lack of regulation, or to restore the accountability, of lending institutions.
Money is a drug. And if our banks are going to stand on every street corner and whisper, “Psst! Want a taste?” to passersby because they stand only to reap the profits and are uninvolved in the consequences, then we need to treat them as we treat other such predators.
See also Going Under: A Nation in Debt
1"The issue of economics is not something I’ve understood as well as I should," quoted in “Responding to Recession,” by Paul Krugman, The New York Times, January 14, 2008 (Accessed July 20, 2008)
Jul 23, 2008
Hello, out there!
If you are reading this, and if you enjoy ATN and understand its potential value, perhaps you will consider joining our select ranks. If you could take on the task of reading one report associated with an area of your interest (see tags to the left), then writing up an ATN entry for us to consider publishing, you would be doing us all a big favor, including yourself.
I say “for us to consider publishing” because, let’s face it, the Internet is a reflection of the world, and both are full of questionable characters, so I have to put in that proviso. However, I am pretty sure that if you are clicking with ATN, your contribution will not only be published but will be of great value to us all.
Here’s all you need to do: Send me an email and tell me what “tag(s)” you are interested in, and I’ll get back to you with your “assignment.” In the alternative, feel free to suggest your own assignment, but let me give you the go-ahead before you actually write up the piece.
See the original “Call to Eyes” below for more information.
And Welcome Aboard!
Jul 22, 2008
Just how sovereign is a “sovereign” nation? How far can it go in allowing—or colluding in—the exploition and brutalization of its people before intervention is justified, or even required, by outside powers? This is a question that has been pondered for a long while. In 1948, the U.N. General Assembly ratified the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide1, which is one of the few instances where the international community has placed formal limits on state sovereignty.
Although this resolution is only one among many others which sustain the sovereignty of nations against outside interference, the tide is beginning to turn, and it is becoming an increasingly acceptable stance that national sovereignty involves responsibilities as well as rights.
The House of Commons Library, the British equivalent of the U.S.’s Congressional Research Service, has produced an admirable paper entitled “Reinventing Humanitarian Intervention: Two Cheers for the Responsibility to Protect?” The paper summarizes the historic debate on national sovereignty, and shows how the crises in the 1990s in Somalia, Rwanda, and Kosovo led to the development of the “Responsibility to Protect (R2P)” doctrine.
For an old unreconstructed one-worlder like myself, comments like the following are music to my ears. They come from members of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), whose work led to the R2P document:
Jul 21, 2008
The 340,000-member National Parks Conservation Association finds itself approaching with high anxiety the centennial of American national parks (Yellowstone was the first in 1916). Their report, “The State of Our National Parks: A Resources Index,” summarizes the results of the first 54 resource assessments of individual national parks. This first-ever scientific assessment of the condition of our national parks rates the system’s natural resources (wildlife, ecosystem health, air and water quality) at 70 points (out of 100) and its cultural resources (historic buildings, cultural landscapes, and museums) at only 61. Both scores are in the low “Fair” range, with the cultural resource score bordering on “Poor.”
As with so many federal programs in the current administration, the parks system is being starved for funding, which manifests itself in many ways, especially in the inability to hire sufficient professional staff to care for the natural and cultural resources. Other stressors include outside forces such as air pollution, global warming, and overpopulation.
Our national parks represent our attitude towards ourselves as a people, and that attitude is deteriorating. We need to find our way back to ourselves as a great nation with enormous responsibilities to the world, and with the means and the humanity to meet them. Instead, we IM and twitter all day and strut our stuff on MySpace and Facebook to an audience of one, and we’re more isolated and alone and lonely than we’ve ever been, tiny pods of consumerism that have lost the joy and the energy of community.
As our parks go, so goes our nation.
Jul 20, 2008
Now here’s a great Web 2.0 site. You input a recyclable you don’t know what to do with—old paint cans, batteries, cell phones— and enter your zip code or city and state, and the site directs you to locations where you can recycle it. You can specify a range of 5 to 100 miles from where you are. The program displays address, phone, hours of operation, web site, and a map and directions to the recycling location(s).
If your library or other favorite local nonprofit collects cell phones or other recyclables as a fund raiser, tell them about this site. It’s easy to add their location. Click the “Contact Us” link at the bottom of the Home Page, then the “Submit/Update a Recycling Location” link.
The site also has a raft of tips and information regarding recyclables. Good job, Earth911!
Jul 19, 2008
Forget space. Food is the final frontier.
I picture the last cornfield in Kansas. In its center, the last stalk of corn stands forlornly bearing its last shrunken cob. From the south comes a four-year-old sub-Saharan African, due, in 3.6 seconds, to be the next statistic to die of starvation. From the west comes Dick Cheney’s chauffeur. If he can get his hands on that cob and get it over to the Halliburton Ethanol Refinery in Dubai he’ll be able to transport his boss another 30 yards before they have to abandon their stretch limo. From the east come the billion people who have gone to sleep hungry every night of their lives and who will never enjoy an 18-course meal such as the G-8 “leaders” had on the last night of their recent junket. And from the north, on a tall hill, sit I, sit you, as in our dreams of apocalypse we are the only ones spared, so now we recline on a woolen blanket, a chicken leg in one hand and a cold brewski in the other, witnessing the gala scene playing out below.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has released its latest report on world hunger, “Food Security Assessment, 2007.” The food and fuel price hikes we’ve experienced lately are the worst of bad news for the 70 lower income countries, where the number of “food insecure” people—those consuming less than the nutritional target of 2,100 calories a day—rose from 849 million in 2006 to 982 million. It is expected that the next decade will bring even worse news.
Largely owing to the U.S.’s efforts, through its surrogate “international” bodies, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, indigenous agriculture in many developing countries has been radically altered, and all capacity for self-sustaining food growth subsumed in an economy devoted to mining or the cultivation of one or a few luxury exportables. Expensive imports of basics, especially grain, must then be purchased merely to feed the people in a substandard manner.
From January 2007 to January 2008, global food prices increased 33% and petroleum 70%. Meanwhile the price of minerals—often the principal export of developing countries—actually went down a few percentage points.
We’re looking at massive starvation worldwide in the next ten years, with the accompanying social unrest—even here—that it will bring. We can sit on our hilltops and watch the show, or we can find it in our hearts, and in our self-interest, to do something about it.
Jul 18, 2008
Our July 2, 2008, piece, entitled “Bathtub Logic,” showed how the neo-cons at the federal level were trying to extend their tax-cutting obsession by undercutting the taxing prerogative of states and localities. The same group that brought us that news, The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), now warns us of another such ploy currently being pursued in both houses of Congress. The “Business Activity Tax Simplification Act (BATSA)” (Senate Bill S. 1726; House Bill H.R. 5267) would deprive the states of significant corporate taxes which they now levy on businesses which are based out-of-state but do business within their borders.
Corporations which are not physically based in a state nevertheless have such a significant presence—employees conducting business, inventories stored in third-party warehouses, etc.—that they are subject to current laws which grant states and localities the right to tax a fair share of their profits and assess other levies. BATSA will eliminate many of those rights, costing the states up to $3 billion annually within a year or two of its enactment.1 The shortfall will have to be made up somehow, with the burden falling, naturally, on the increasingly burdened, increasingly vanishing, middle class.
And really, now, the “Tax Simplification Act”? Doncha love the spin they put on these things, even—especially—in the names they give them?
1Congressional Budget Office estimate, 2006.
Jul 17, 2008
Wind power currently provides a meager 1% of U.S. electricity needs. The U.S. Department of Energy would like to see that number increase to 20% by 2030. The Congressional Research Service (CRS), a legislative branch agency within the Library of Congress, has released a report entitled Wind Power in the United States: Technology, Economic, and Policy Issues.
The CRS is a non-partisan research service that produces reports for members of Congress and their committees. Their reports are not automatically made available to the public, and there is some controversy over whether they should be and, if so, through what venue. The CRS spends $100 million of taxpayer money each year enlightening Congress, and some of those taxpayers believe they are entitled to a peek at the non-classified results. At present, the reports come to us through a variety of individuals and services, including (to name but two) OpenCRS, a project of the Center for Democracy & Technology, and the Federation of American Scientists through their Secrecy News Blog or at their page dedicated to CRS reports.
The 53-page report is a good starting point for understanding where we have been, where we are, and where we are going with wind power. The essential challenge of the technology involves the capture, storage, and distribution of the electricity produced, though various other issues—aesthetic, economic, and political— also provide tough nuts to crack on the way to making wind a significant contributor to our enormous electricity needs. However, it's not a question of if but of when it will do so, and now is a good time to get a working knowledge of the issues involved.
Jul 16, 2008
This fee-based site nevertheless provides a wealth of free information on state legislative activity:
Jul 15, 2008
In 2007, the U.S. produced 1,145,600,000 tons of coal. That's over 2 trillion pounds of the stuff, and we've been digging more or less that amount out of the earth for years. We burn most of it, primarily to produce electricity, sock some of it away against a rainy day, and export a bit.
Appalachia still produces a hefty portion of our coal (377 million tons in 2007), but a lot more of it comes from the Western states (621 million tons), with the rest coming from in between.
In 2007, we relied on coal-burning plants to generate 50% of our electricity; nuclear power and natural gas generated about 20% each, and the rest was generated by hydro (6%) and "petroleum and other," (3.6%) where I guess they tuck away solar and wind. It is sobering to realize how little of what we depend on so heavily comes today from renewable sources such as hydro, wind, and solar.
Meanwhile, scores of new coal-fired electricity generating plants—perhaps the worst contributors to global warming—are in various stages of production, including over 100 in proximity to our national parks, as reported in this July 8 ATN News Item.
These numbers come from the Energy Information Administration (EIA), an arm of the Department of Energy. You can read the 2007 report, and access earlier ones, at the link below.
Jul 14, 2008
“Quickly, Carefully, Generously” is a report of the Task Force for a Responsible Withdrawal from Iraq and was released in June 2008. The Task Force, initiated by the Project on Defense Alternatives (PDA) at the Commonwealth Institute of Massachusetts, consisted of 14 experts from a variety of U.S. academic and NGO venues (and one from the University of London).
They set forth a number of initiatives similar to those recommended by the Iraq-Study Group (also called the Baker-Hamilton Commission) in December 2006, and I expect it will receive as much respect and will have as much influence on the progress of the conflict as that one did. In brief, both reports advise we begin a phased withdrawal of combat troops and engage Iraq's neighbors (especially Iran and Syria) in multilateral discussions regarding the future of the area. In addition, the PDA Task Force recommended a more substantial role for the U.N., and it set out various procedures and programs that should be instituted to make up for the damage we have done to the country, its people, and the region.
Having lived through the debacle of Vietnam (and still reeling from the realization that I am actually witnessing another such mega-misadventure in my lifetime), I entertain few illusions regarding a well-ordered—or early—retreat from this Slough of Despond. We are all aware of McCain's plans to stay in Iraq for a hundred years; and Obama is also—tragically, albeit characteristically—retreating from his hard line for withdrawal which earned him such adulation during the primaries.1
Still, the report is worth reading, if only to fantasize what it would be like for a great nation, a rich nation, a democratic nation, to do the right thing, admit the error of its ways and make just recompense. However, even if such a fantasy were practical and achievable, I wonder whether Iraq is salvageable at all as a separate entity, given the brutality, sectarian conflict, and stores of bitterness and rancor it has accumulated, under Saddam Hussein and afterward.
1"Obama fuels pullout debate with remarks," New York Times, July 4, 2008.
Jul 13, 2008
Millions of people die every year from preventable causes related to unsafe drinking water, inadequate sanitation, and insufficient hygiene. Most of them are children under five. They die by contracting diarrhoea (1.5 million deaths each year), through malnutrition (860,000 deaths), and a variety of others ailments and afflictions such as intestinal infections. It is estimated that improving water, sanitation, and hygiene has the potential to prevent at least 9.1% of the disease burden of the world.
This report, from the World Health Organization, entitled “Safer Water, Better Health: Costs, Benefits and Sustainability of Interventions to Protect and Promote Health,” contains an especially interesting section on the benefit-cost ratio—how much benefit the world will realize from how much cost. Providing universal access to improved water and improved sanitation and water disinfected at the point of use by 2015 would result in annual benefits of over $344 billion, at a benefit-cost ratio of 12 to 1. One trillion dollars every three years for one-twelfth the cost—now that's a benefit. What are we waiting for?
Jul 12, 2008
In 2007, more than 20% of Americans reported not getting or delaying needed medical care in the previous 12 months—up from 14% in 2003. The report is from the Center for Studying Health System Change, and is entitled “Falling Behind: Americans' Access to Medical Care Deterioriates, 2003-2007,” Though as usual the worst-served in the U.S. population were the low-income children, one surprising finding was that “insured people experienced a greater percentage increase in unmet medical needs compared with uninsured people—a 62 percent increase for the insured vs. a 33 percent increase for the uninsured.”
We spend per capita twice as much ($7,129) on health care in the U.S. than any other industrialized nation.1 And yet we are becoming more and more anxious about our health care as each year passes. Almost 50 million people—one-sixth of the population—is without coverage at all, and the rest of us are finding ourselves increasingly at the end of long waiting lists for specialist-based or even primary care.
Single-payer, government-managed health care is the only system that promises to deliver a reasonable degree of economy and efficiency to a system run wild. However, neither leading presidential candidate has come out for it, because, once again, it would involve going up against the very corporations that put them where they are—in their candidacies for the presidency. Though a majority of the public wants it, and many, if not most, doctors would welcome a system that wasn't burying them in administrivia, the corporatocracy will not allow it. How bad do things have to get? How high do our co-pays have to go? I guess we'll be able to watch and see, because there's no white knight on the horizon (except Nader, of course) willing to do battle with the medical establishment.
1Physicians for a National Health Program, http://www.pnhp.org/, accessed July 5, 2008.
Jul 11, 2008
People who don't know where their next meal is coming from tend to have different values from those who have never known hunger or any other deprivation. This would seem like a self-evident statement that wouldn't need 17 pages of single-spaced text detailing a 35-year study to bolster it. But that's the world of the think tank for you, and the results of the World Values Survey (WVS), “Changing Values among Western Publics from 1970 to 2006,” recently published in the journal West European Politics1 can pretty much be summed up by that first sentence.
The good news is that those changing intergenerational values are becoming more tolerant of diversity, more directed toward self-expression, and less materialistic. And people who hold those more liberal values are maintaining them as they grow older.
The bad news: Liberalizing populations are pretty much limited to North America and Western Europe and other places (Japan, Australia) where the standard of living for most people has managed to creep above the poverty line. Still, it is good to know that as affluence does afflict a people, it renders them, as a group, rather more than less tolerant—and tolerable—than they were before.
1Volume 31, Numbers 1-2, January-March 2008, pp. 130-146.
Jul 10, 2008
In his July 3, 2008, New York Times column, Nicholas Kristof (one of my heroes) related the wonderful tale of Ugandan Beatrice Biira. Her family received a goat from an international aid group and her life, and the lives of many around her, were thereby transformed. Says Kristof:
Beatrice’s story helps address two of the most commonly asked questions about foreign assistance: “Does aid work?” and “What can I do?”His column answers the first question, and he expands on an answer to the second in his blog, where he lists a number of organizations and specific projects worthy of our attention and support. I excerpt that list here and recommend you consider doing what Kristof, his parents, and too few of the rest of us do: forego one or two of those Christmas presents this year in favor of supporting the work done by these organizations. The ripple effect could save more lives than the fortunate folks who are the direct recipients of this aid. It could, in time, save us all.
Jul 09, 2008
Animal agriculture—the raising of animals for human consumption—has experienced “warp speed” growth over the last 50 years. From a former paradigm of small family farms with a few animals housed in traditional barns and stables, we've morphed to a system of “industrial farm animal production (IFAP)” where thousands of animals are warehoused in factorylike structures, force fed, heavily medicated, and rushed to market after a life that can only be characterized, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, as “poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
As Daniel Quinn has persuasively argued in Ishmael and other books, our problems began 10,000 years ago when we stopped hunting and gathering and settled down to planting. That ingenious move on the part of the species enabled rapid population growth, and subsequent improvements in agriculture encouraged additional population growth which brought additional improvements which brought additional growth, until we're so overpopulated we're running out of space to plant all those improved agricultural products. Enter the industrial farm animal production, and the unintended and dire consequences set forth in the report from the Pew Charitable Trusts Commission on Farm Animal Production, “Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America.”
As usual, we are only getting around to counting the costs of “progress” after we've begun paying them. The lengthy (124 pp.) and comprehensive Pew report covers just what those costs consist of, in terms of threats to our health; the impact on our poor, bedraggled environment; and the horrific consequences visited upon our fellow creatures in the cause of maximizing profits at both ends of the supply and demand chain. It summarizes a vast literature of research and the news it delivers is not good news. However, its recommendations to fix the system are as reasonable as they are thorough.
What I can do. What you can do.
First of all, we must elect representatives who will implement, through the passage of new laws, the recommendations set forth in the report. In the meanwhile, however, we can vote with our feet (and our mouths) by refraining from purchasing and eating animals and animal products which have not been produced in a humane manner. I believe only reputable third-party certification organizations may be trusted to provide standards that assure the humane treatment of farm animals. Thankfully, there are a number of them identified in the Pew report. (If you know of others, please tell me about them and I will add them to this list.) In future, I intend to require my retail providers (groceries and restaurants) to subscribe to one or more of these standards-defining and labeling bodies and will refrain from purchasing and consuming their products until they do so.
Jul 08, 2008
The Environmental Protection Agency is at it again, attacking our environment, proposing regulatory changes that will make it easier to build new coal-fired power plants near national parks. Over 100 of these mega-greenhouse-gas-polluters are in various stages of development now, and the National Parks Conservation Association wants you to know about it. Their new report, “Dark Horizons,” identifies the 10 national parks most at risk from these new plants.
An interactive map included on their web site shows in graphic and scary detail what will soon become obvious over all our heads. It's not enough that one in three national parks already has air pollution levels that exceed health standards. When 100 new plants come online, including eight just upwind of Mount Rushmore, we'll be lucky if we can tell one president from another in ten years.
Meanwhile, in May the federal government froze new solar development on public lands for two years. They give all sorts of reasons, and there are even some environmental groups that sympathize with those reasons to an extent. However, between the freeze and the upcoming end-of-year expiration of the federal solar investment tax credits, the fledgling industry, which was just starting to make real progress and attract major investment, is taking a one-two punch on the chin.
And here comes King Coal.
Jul 07, 2008
This is just a very useful and informative 463 pages full of numbers, assembled biennially by the American Association of Retired Persons (which seems now to be referring to itself, at least online, only by its acronym, AARP). This 2008 edition of the “State Handbook of Economic, Demographic, and Fiscal Indicators” provides “useful data on such topics as population, poverty rates, per capita state personal income, state and local revenues, expenditures, tax rates, and property tax relief programs. Gender and age comparisons are provided for some of the data.” The report facilitates state-national comparisons by setting some data numbers side by side. It also shows changes in some numbers over a period of a decade.
Among the items I found of interest:
Jul 06, 2008
Formula for making a lot of money: Get elected to a position of public responsibility, and collude with your fellow elected officials to neglect your responsibility until the disasters begin to mount, meanwhile investing in the private companies which will ultimately clean up your mess to their own—and your—very tidy profit.
Some services belong in the public sector, and none more so than the provision of clean water and wastewater disposal. That provision is threatened, however, as our aging and neglected national infrastructure deteriorates and industry pushes in to take over the costly task of restoring it. It is estimated we will have to spend up to $1 trillion between 2002 and 2019 to upgrade and repair 1.5 million miles of piping and treatment plants.1
In a report by the Food & Water Watch, a nonprofit consumer organization that works to ensure clean water and food, entitled “Costly Returns,” the group warns that “corporate advocates are deceitfully using the costliness of those [infrastructure] upgrades as ammunition to push elected officials into privatizing their water and sewer systems.” Many of those elected officials don't need much pushing, since they believe everything from Social Security to our armed forces should be privatized, the better to enrich themselves and their cronies.
The report shows in stark terms how undercutting the public good in the management of water services enhances corporate profits at the expense of the environment and the consumer. When the profit motive is substituted for the public good—whether in schools, prisons, libraries, or the delivery of essential public services—you can bet the public good is going to suffer. Profit and public services are incompatible and when they are brought together, the services will suffer for the benefit of the profits. We have seen it happen time and again; the present report documents several instances where large municipalities have rued the day they turned their water management over to the private sector, and have cancelled their contracts.
Our water is one of our collective responsibilities, and the public sector exists to fulfill those responsibilities, notwithstanding the cupidity of many of our current elected officials.
And if you can't drink to that, look for many a dry season ahead.
1 “Future Investment in Drinking Water and Wastewater Infrastructure.” Congressional Budget Office, Washington, D.C., November 2002, p.8.
Jul 05, 2008
Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean people aren't following you around.
Case in point: The Brookings Institution has just come up with a plan to grab my—and your—retirement nest egg. The plot is lovingly obfuscated in their recent publication, “Increasing Annuitization in 401(k) Plans with Automatic Trial Income.”
Now annuities, in and of themselves, are not evil. You have a certain amount accrued in your retirement accounts (IRAs, 401(k)s, pensions, etc.). When retirement comes, how are you going to assure that those funds are withdrawn in such a way that they will last as long as you do? One way is to purchase an annuity. For a set amount of up-front cash, the annuity provider will send you a monthly check for the rest of your (and your spouse's) life, however short or long that may be.
People don't buy annuities, according to the Brookings paper, for several reasons: they're too expensive, and potential customers are unfamiliar with them, biased against them, or too lazy to inform themselves. The solution: “[D]emand would increase and workers would be better off if market function improved and behavioral obstacles were circumvented or mitigated.” In circumvention of those pesky behavioral obstacles, the authors propose a sea change in 401(k) withdrawals that would see them automatically converted to two-year “trial” annuities, unless the retiree affirmatively opts out. At the end of the two-year period, the retiree would again have to affirmatively opt out in order to prevent the annuitization from becoming a lifetime commitment.
The current political climate, characterized in my view (as well as that of other eminently reasonable individuals) by corporate and executive branch gangsterism, would have us believe that we should make our own decisions regarding planning for retirement (i.e., privatize Social Security), until such time as we retire, when the pros will take over and relieve us of our funds as thoroughly, quickly, and automatically as possible. A default program such as that proposed by Brookings would provide a huge windfall for the corporate and Wall Street types who, for the past 30 years, have been busily sucking our nation's wealth up into the top one-tenth of one percent of the population.
Again, annuities are not evil, and they do offer a means—similar to Social Security benefits—of providing a dependable level of income over an unknown period of time. However, they are expensive (i.e., the lump-sum up-front purchase price does not currently translate into a very attractive monthly income, actuarially speaking). In other words, your peace of mind is bought at an unacceptably high price.
My alternative to the Brookings plan?: Let the greedy providers who are selling us these instruments look for less of a killing when they do so. How? Find a means to increase competition among providers, legislate for “plain English” prospectuses that don't require an MBA to understand; and then, perhaps, institute an opt-in plan for the automatic conversion of 401(k) payouts to trial annuities which this report describes.
Jul 04, 2008
I always liked Gary Hart, the politician undone by a photograph. His recent op-ed piece in the New York Times addresses the cycles American politics goes through, the swings from left to right, from conservatism to innovation, and speculates about the new cycle that, by anyone's calculation, is due—or overdue. He summarizes what the new cycle should stand for:
...the next American cycle should include, at minimum, three elements. National security requires a new, expanded, post-cold-war definition. America must transition from a consumer economy to a producing one. And the moral obligations of our stewardship of the planet must become paramount.He dares Obama to “use his campaign as a platform for designing a new political cycle and achieve a mandate for starting it.” I believe Obama offered that promise throughout the primary campaign. I also believe that that promise is beginning to crumble in one reversal, one retreat, one flip-flop after another. If Obama loses the base of the young, the progressive, and the politically alienated, he will not prevail in November. Nor will he deserve to.
Jul 03, 2008
The Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) is an international organization created by Canada, Mexico and the United States under the North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation (NAAEC). The CEC was established to address regional environmental concerns, help prevent potential trade and environmental conflicts, and to promote the effective enforcement of environmental law. The Agreement complements the environmental provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).What? There are environmental provisions in NAFTA? All right, strike the cynicism.
Jul 02, 2008
It was Grover Norquist who made the widely quoted quip, “I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”
But that was no quip, and if you want to know how serious these people are about starving government, take note of a bill now before the Senate, brought to our attention by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Ostensibly intended to provide some relief to homeowners during the current housing debacle, it “includes a provision that would allow non-itemizers to deduct property taxes up to an amount of $500 for an individual and $1,000 for a couple.”1 That's the first tax decrease provision.
But there's a catch, a very sneaky one, and it comprises the second tax decrease attempt. The deduction would be denied to any resident of a locality that increases its property tax rate between the time of the enactment of the bill and December 31 of this year. There are some exemptions to that provision, but in essence we see here a reaching down from the federal to the local level to turn off another spigot of taxation.
We all know how much depends on our local property taxes—schools, fire and police, libraries, local road maintenance, social services, and more. And when housing values fall, local property tax rates have to rise just to generate the same level of income.
This is more than an overreaching, tax-averse, corporate-dominated federal government power play. Local property tax rates are already a cause for contention in small communities. This legislation would set neighbor against neighbor and citizens against their own elected representatives. This legislation seeks to do an end-run around the states' prerogative to grant taxing power to localities, and to drown local government in the bathtub.
And where are the voices of the Democrats who gained a majority in Congress in 2006? As silent as they were when they granted Bush the funds to continue his war through the end of his term; as silent as they were when they extended his power to spy on Americans and indemnified his accomplices.
In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.____________________
[Martin Luther King, Jr.]
Jul 01, 2008
Here are a few items encountered over the past month which, though enlightening, didn't rise to the level of demanding a full entry in All Together Now:
Copyright © 2008 All Together Now.