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Wringing Out the Old

Dec 31, 2008
We are today leaving behind not just another year, but an era. Whatever comes next, even if only more of the same, cannot be worse than what has gone before.

We have witnessed eight years of the vilest administration our country has ever known, far outdoing in its cupidity, its viciousness, its arrogance, its corruption, and its lawlessness the worst excesses of any that came before it.

We have witnessed a baseless, futile militarism that has sapped our treasury for generations to come.

We have witnessed trillions in giveaways to the wealthiest while watching trillions of our own wealth dissipate in an economic collapse caused by those same individuals.

We have witnessed a stripping away of our fundamental constitutional rights and a debasement of our national honor before the world from which we may never fully recover.

We have witnessed levels of poverty, ill health, and ignorance unheard of in—and inconceivable to—the rest of the industrialized world.

And we have tolerated it all with barely a squeak. Our mainstream media are silent. Our politicians are silent. There have been few marches, no sit-ins, rare civil disobedience. The middle-aged women of Code Pink have taken it on the chin for the rest of us, and the truth is only heard on the fringes—from Ralph Nader, from Dennis Kucinich, from Democracy Now. Even our grassroots organizations—MoveOn.org and their spawn—are falling in behind a man who has not endorsed one single plank of a progressive platform.

Foreclosures proliferate, unemployment soars, salaries are in freefall, the market loses 40% of its value taking our 401(k)’s with it. If General Motors goes bankrupt, it will cut a swathe through what remains of American manufacturing that will reduce us to the banana republic New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has already accused us of being.

So where do we go from here? On to 2009. And a nation that once thought itself the last best hope of the world has become the world’s great oppressor and its own worst enemy. Who would have thought on that clear blue Tuesday morning in September that we could ever bring ourselves to this?

However, tomorrow, like today and yesterday, belongs to us, and a brighter day will be ours. This is what a progressive agenda means—that progress is not only possible but inevitable. We are not Rome, where men and women were torn apart for sport, or medieval Spain, where they were torn apart for God.

We are better than that, and if we can only call upon our wiser, kinder natures, the anomaly of the past eight years—the horror of it—may, will, must one day join brutish Rome, inquisitorial Spain, and all the horrors we have inflicted upon each other, join them all in the trash bin of a history we will have finally, joyously overcome.

And that will be a Happy New Year.
tags: History | Governance

Revisiting Public-Private Partnerships

Dec 30, 2008
We have written about public-private partnerships (PPPs or P3) before (see Water, Incorporated, Interstate, Inc., and Public-Private Partnerships). In the coming collapse, government on all levels will be sorely tempted to turn over public assets to private business in exchange for a fat check up front. In most cases, they will be making a serious mistake.

No state is more likely to succumb to the fat check temptation than California, and it is good to see that Los Angeles at least is aware of some of the pitfalls and is proceeding with something akin to responsible conduct. The Office of the City Controller has funded a study by The PFM Group entitled Special Study to Assess Opportunities to Develop Public-Private Partnerships (.pdf, 96 pp., 888Kb).

The study takes a stab at covering all the bases that need to be considered by a municipality when it is contemplating turning over to private enterprise an asset or service heretofore provided by the public sector. It has a clear bias toward favoring PPPs. This document is nonetheless important for anyone to read who may become involved in the near future with the questions it addresses, and that probably includes most of us who try to keep an eye on what our town, state, and federal government are up to in advancing PPPs. A section entitled “Addressing Misconceptions Regarding P3s” includes the following:

PPPs negatively impact labor. ... The concern of many labor representatives is that a P3 concession will result in lost jobs, lower wages, reduced benefits, and loss of job security. However, in many P3 arrangements, contracts have been structured such that all previous government employees are assured a job position with the same level of salary and benefits.”1 Then later, when the paper provides a case study of an existing contract for custodial services that saved L.A. County a lot of money, “the commission concluded that the savings from contracting was attributable to reduced labor costs, as contractors pay lower wages and sometimes employ fewer workers.”2

Exactly. Too often PPPs are merely ill-disguised attempts to, once again, deprive the working man and woman of a decent salary in order to put more dollars into the pockets of the bosses. In 2007, 39.8 percent of public sector workers enjoyed union membership coverage, while only 8.2 percent of private nonagricultural workers were covered.3

We are in a race to the bottom in this country, with a war on unions and an unrestricted globalization that is exporting good-paying jobs as well as doing an end run around decades of struggle for labor and environmental protections.

And let us not forget: We privatize our health care in this country, and it costs us twice what other industrialized countries pay while delivering an inferior product. Federally managed Medicare and Medicaid, on the other hand, are delivered with much greater efficiency and less cost than the health care most of the rest of us receive. Let that be a lesson to us.

Also Noted: See the Rand report, A Call to Revitalize the Engines of Government (.pdf, 28 pp., .2Mb), by Bernard D. Rostker. This call for a return to common sense concludes, “The new administration should not try to fool the American people, perpetuating the myth of smaller government by not counting the hordes of service contractors its engages. Clearly, there are things that should be contracted and that the government need not and should not undertake, but the unfettered use of contractors has skyrocketed and must be brought under control.”
1 Special Study to Assess Opportunities to Develop Public-Private Partnerships, pg. 11, accessed December 27, 2008 (as were other footnoted items in this posting)
2 Op. cit., pg. 35
3 Index of Tables: Union Membership and Coverage, from Georgia State University
tags: Governance | Labor | Business

Poverty Redux—America’s Children

Dec 29, 2008
Yesterday, we addressed poverty in America in general terms. When we focus on children, the situation is considerably more bleak.

The Children’s Defense Fund, in its State of America’s Children 2008 Report (.pdf, 80 pp., 807Kb), provides a damning indictment of our treatment of our children. Its Highlights (.pdf, 2 pp., 139Kb) provide numbers which ought to enrage and awaken every American to action:

  • America lags behind almost all other industrialized countries on key child indicators.
  • We are the worst among industrialized nations in relative child poverty, the gap between rich and poor, teen birth rates, child gun violence, and the number of imprisoned persons.
  • An American child is born into poverty every 33 second, and 5.8 million live in extreme poverty.
  • 8.9 million children are uninsured and every 18 minutes a child dies before its first birthday.
  • The average cost of child care in two-thirds of the states is greater than the annual tuition at a four-year public college.
  • Head Start and Early Head Start enroll only a fraction of eligible children (50 to 66 percent and three percent respectively).
  • Though white and black teens are about equally likely to use drugs, black juveniles are arrested twice as frequently for these offenses and are incarcerated at five times the rate of whites.
We may have more billionaires than anyone else, but we are 25th in infant mortality and in 15-year-olds’ math scores. Sixty percent of our high school graduates do not read at grade level, and only the U.S. and Somalia—Somalia!—have failed to sign the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child.

“Give me the child for seven years,” the Jesuits have been quoted as saying, “and I will give you the man.” Give up a child to hunger, poverty, ignorance, and violence during its formative years, and at 18 what sort of emancipated adult can we expect to unleash upon the public?
tags: Poverty | Youth

Table of Contents

Poverty in America

Dec 28, 2008

Because it is likely politically infeasible to revise the current poverty measure in a way that results in substantially higher poverty thresholds or rates, the first criticism should be addressed by adopting a new basic income adequacy standard, one that is not labeled a poverty measure.1
In other words, since it is politically inconvenient to call a spade a spade, let’s call it a manual fill relocation instrument instead. If we adopt enough euphemisms, we might be able to eliminate poverty altogether in this country.

Perhaps we are being too hard on a report just published by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) entitled Measuring Poverty and Economic Inclusion: The Current Poverty Measure, the NAS [National Academy of Sciences] Alternative, and the Case for a Truly New Approach (.pdf, 47 pp., 918Kb), by Shawn Fremstad.

However, the report does seem to come up with some odd conclusions out of the blue, e.g., “To be consistent with public opinion, an at-risk-of-poverty or economic-inclusion standard should be set at roughly 60 percent of median income.”2 Why 60 percent? Why not 55 or 65 percent? How can this method be justified in a period (such as the present) when median income is arguably decreasing, with members of the middle class falling into poverty every day? And why should a poverty threshold be set relative to others’ median income rather than to a precise figure, adjusted for geographic differences, below which an income is inadequate to provide the necessities of life?

The report is nonetheless worth reading, if only to understand how poverty has been measured over the years, and to appreciate the agonizing contortions our government has gone through over the years to minimize the number of poor we acknowledge in our society. The bottom third of workers in the U.S. fall below poverty—excuse us, economic-inclusion—levels. That is one out of three, not one out of ten or one out of fifty—numbers which a fabulously wealthy country might actually be proud of.

And the report’s “bottom line” is stark and unambiguous: “[B]oth the current and [proposed] poverty measures are set far below the minimum amount that most Americans believe is needed to ‘get along’ in their local communities.”3 In other words, things are even worse than we have acknowledged.
1 Measuring Poverty and Economic Inclusion, p. 3
2 Ibid.
3 Op. cit., p. 4
tags: Poverty

Table of Contents

Obama the Man

Dec 27, 2008
Barack Obama, we know, is a half-Negroid, half-Caucasian man. He is a married man. He is an eloquent man.

We wonder whether he is also a wise man. We wonder whether he is wise enough to understand, unlike many of his recent predecessors, that he is subject to the laws of the land, and that to place himself above those laws is to guarantee the failure of his administration (see, e.g., Nixon (Watergate); Reagan (Iran/Contra); Bush 2 (torture, domestic spying, unilateral baseless warmongering)).

We wonder also whether he is a man who is as intelligent as the press and his résumé credit him with being. We wonder whether he is smart enough to understand that our nation has been on the wrong track for thirty years and that the way back to the right track will require wrenching change that will be most disruptive to the richest and currently most powerful segment of our society. We wonder whether he is smart enough to engage, enlist, and utilize the support of the American people in this daunting task.

And we wonder whether he is a good man. In our time, Carter and Eisenhower were good men. The rest were an unhappy mix of conniving, murderous, solipsistic, serial adulterers who were in over their heads and easy pawns for the corporatocracy that has controlled our country since Vietnam. The leadership of the free world requires a man with a conscience, a man capable of empathy, a man whose heart is in the right place. Because finally a sea change in American politics and American life are going to require, above all else, a good man at the helm. Wisdom, intelligence, and eloquence may be mustered to serve ends good or evil. But only a good man can lead us from the darkness we find ourselves in today to the light of a renewed American promise.
tags: Obama | Governance

We Can Do It!

Dec 26, 2008
Are unions dead in this country? Are over a hundred years of courageous labor struggles—struggles the working men and women had to wage against their own government as much as against their bosses—now history, only history?

Thirty-five years ago, a quarter of all nonagricultural workers in the private sector were unionized; in 2007, that number was down to 7.5 percent. In private manufacturing, the picture is worse, going from 39 percent unionized workers in 1973 to just over 11 percent today.1

Meanwhile, when the auto industry collapses, it’s the greedy workers’ fault. Cut their pay, cut their benefits, whittle them down as close to nothing as we can. Is education in trouble in this country? Then it’s the greedy teachers’ fault. Bust their selfish union, destroy public education in the only country that attained greatness through that institution.

Bob Herbert wrote in his column this week, “The economic downturn, however severe, should not be used as an excuse to send American workers on a race to the bottom, where previously middle-class occupations take a sweatshop’s approach to pay and benefits.“2

Yet that is exactly what is happening, as is explicated in Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.3 Whether they use the worst days of the Iraq war to hand over Iraq’s oil reserves to Shell and BP; take advantage of the Southeast Asian tsunami to auction off the beaches to tourist resorts; or “capitalize” on the tragedy of Katrina to destroy public housing and public education in New Orleans, the corporatocracy that controls this nation uses every disaster to further line its pockets at the expense of the population.

The current fiscal crisis is the biggest disaster of them all, and everywhere we look, we see the corporatocracy taking advantage of it, from the massive giveaways to the banking executives, to the pressures on working and middle-class Americans to take less and less of a piece of the pie that they have fought for and earned over and over. Have we made concessions until we are blue in the face? New hires at the Big Three are now paid slightly over $14 an hour.

Is there a silver lining? The tiniest one imaginable. The only year between 1973 and 2007 when union membership increased rather than fell was 2007, when it went up one tenth of one percent.

The ball is in our court. The vote is in our hands. This country can devote itself to the well-being of the greatest number, rather than the fewest. It can be done. It must be done. We can do it.
1 Index of Tables: Union Membership and Coverage, from Georgia State University, accessed December 23, 2008, as are the other sites in these footnotes.
2 A Race to the Bottom, by Bob Herbert, from the New York Times, December 22, 2008
3 The Shock Doctrine, from Amazon.com
tags: Labor | Business

Table of Contents

Hunting for Health

Dec 25, 2008
As if our health care system weren’t in enough of a shambles, look out now for a sharp increase in “health tourism,” the international hunt for the best, most affordable health care. Traffic to Southeast Asia in pursuit of medical procedures is expected to grow 20 percent a year, to become a $4 billion industry by 2012.

Deloitte Consulting has concentrated its study on Southeast Asia, though doubtless many of their findings pertain to the entire globe. Medical Tourism: The Asian Chapter (.pdf, 413Kb) reports that medical procedures in SE Asia often cost only 20 to 30 percent of what they cost in the U.S. (including transportation and accommodation), and countries such as Singapore, Thailand, India, and Malaysia are busily acquiring state-of-the-art medical equipment and facilities in order to present a credible face to the world as an alternative source of medical care.

Heart bypass surgery costs $80,000 to $130,000 in the U.S. and only $6,700 to $9,300 in India. If you were a candidate for such a procedure, among the 100 million un- or underinsured Americans, relatively sure you would receive excellent treatment in a modern facility, perhaps even operated on by a U.S. physician, what would you do?

We know we pay twice as much in this country for medical care that is of significantly less quality than that of the rest of the civilized world. (See our various posting on health care.) If our entire medical industry is not to be threatened with imploding through domestic and international pressures, the Obama administration must confront its weaknesses. When it does, we are confident that the need for universal, single-payer, federally managed health care will carry the day.
tags: Health

Table of Contents

Table of Contents May-December 2008

Dec 24, 2008
Here is a listing, in reverse chronological order, of All Together Now in 2008. Each line consists of three parts:

  1. Publication date
  2. Title (as a link)
  3. Item tags
You can display any item by clicking on the link. Click the Table of Contents tag in the left-hand column to display this and subsequent Tables of Contents.

December 2008
12/31/08 Wringing Out the Old History Governance
12/30/08 Revisiting Public-Private Partnerships Governance Labor Business
12/29/08 Poverty Redux—America’s Children Poverty Youth
12/28/08 Poverty in America Poverty
12/27/08 Obama the Man Obama Governance
12/26/08 We Can Do It! Labor Business
12/25/08 Hunting for Health Health
12/24/08 You Can Look It Up! Table of contents
12/23/08 More Talk Working together Congress
12/22/08 Can We Talk? Congress Working together
12/21/08 Slouching Toward Accountability Economics Governance Business
12/20/08 The $100 Billion Misunderstanding History Militarism Obama
12/19/08 Guys in Ties Congress Business Media
12/18/08 Voting Counts and Counting Votes Politics States
12/17/08 All Aboard the Ostrich Express Environment Greenhouse gases and global warming Governance
12/16/08 Skewed Priorities Business Labor
12/15/08 Health Care in Hard Times Health
12/14/08 All Together Now Working together
12/13/08 Only Connect! Working together Governance
12/12/08 GAO, Way to Go! Congress Governance
12/11/08 Euros and Euro Happiness People Human nature Europe
12/10/08 How We Got Here and Where We’re Going Economics Governance
12/9/08 Attitude Adjustment History Working together
12/8/08 Whither Education? Education Obama
12/7/08 Civics Lesson Governance Congress History
12/6/08 No Child Left Hungry Food and agriculture Poverty Youth
12/5/08 Stealing, Lying, and Cheating Youth Human nature
12/4/08 Fear Itself Militarism Obama
12/3/08 Great Expectations 2: Foreign Affairs Working together Politics Obama
12/2/08 Great Expectations 1: The Domestic Scene Politics Obama
12/1/08 Noted with Interest, November 2008 Noted with interest

November 2008
11/30/08 Sick to Think of It Health
11/29/08 Sick Transit Transportation Economics
11/28/08 The First Step Governance Politics
11/27/08 Laying Waste to Conservatism Governance Politics
11/26/08 Center Stage Governance Politics
11/25/08 The War on Tenure Teaching Education
11/24/08 Separate and Unequal History Working together Politics
11/23/08 City Lights Economics Employment Politics
11/22/08 What’s Logic Got to Do With It? Youth Health
11/21/08 ...and Pulled Out A Plum Governance Reference People
11/20/08 The See-Through Government Governance Obama
11/19/08 Poor No More; No More Poor Poverty Politics Labor
11/18/08 The High Cost of Winning Politics Congress
11/17/08 What Now, Where Now, How Now? Obama Governance Working together
11/16/08 Now is the Hour Governance Education Economics
11/15/08 Double Up and Win Labor Poverty Governance
11/14/08 Lonely House ATN Working together Human nature
11/13/08 A Puzzling Proposition ATN
11/12/08 Farewell to All This Politics Governance
11/11/08 The Worm in Teacher’s Apple Education Governance
11/10/08 Your Tax Dollars at Work Employment Governance
11/9/08 Toward a New Parent-Teacher Association Education
11/8/08 We’ll Drink to That! Water
11/7/08 The Next Step Education
11/6/08 Our Better Selves Politics Governance Obama
11/5/08 The Day After Militarism Nuclear Politics
11/4/08 Election Day Politics
11/3/08 And the Envelope, Please… Politics Obama Nader
11/2/08 Out on a Limb Politics Obama
11/1/08 Noted with Interest, October 2008

October 2008
10/31/08 Let Us Now Praise ... Sarah Chayes Golden A Business Human rights
10/30/08 Panic Time Education
10/29/08 No Swimming, No Fishing, No Drinking Water Politics
10/28/08 Breathing Room Environment Congress
10/27/08 Nice Work If You Can Get It Congress
10/26/08 Fooling All of the People Politics Human nature
10/25/08 All Aboard! Transportation
10/24/08 The Un-Quick Fix Education Science Business
10/23/08 Plus Ça Change, Plus C’est La Même Chose Computers Governance
10/22/08 Looking for a Few Good People Politics
10/21/08 Why Johnny Still Can’t Read Education
10/20/08 Ailing America Heath Governance
10/19/08 Chump Change Governance Working together
10/18/08 Pro and Con Health Youth
10/17/08 Party Time Politics
10/16/08 What Matters? Labor People
10/15/08 Cities on the Hill Poverty Politics
10/14/08 No Rest for the Weary Retirement Employment Economics
10/13/08 With Liberty and Justice for All Human rights
10/12/08 To Be or Not To Be Human rights Health Law
10/11/08 Don’t Know Where, Don’t Know When Militarism
10/10/08 Corruption and Poverty: Perfect Together Politics
10/9/08 No Voter Left Behind Politics
10/8/08 Appalled Politics Obama Nader
10/7/08 Going Soft on Terrorism Terrorism
10/6/08 A Rising Tide that Lifts Only Yachts Economics Politics
10/5/08 No Sex, Please, We’re Abstaining Health Youth
10/4/08 The End of Poverty Employment Poverty
10/3/08 A Royal-ty Beating Politics Business
10/2/08 Vox Populi, Vox Dei Economics Politics
10/1/08 Noted with Interest, September 2008 Noted with interest

September 2008
9/30/08 Let Us Now Praise ... Ralph Nader Golden A Nader Politics
9/29/08 It Can Happen Here; It Is Happening Here Economics Politics
9/28/08 Outta My Way, Smokey! Environment Law
9/27/08 Voters in the Hands of an Angry God Religion Politics Taxes
9/26/08 Green is Gold Energy Economics Environment
9/25/08 Capitalism and the Future of Democracy Economics Politics
9/24/08 Where Will It All End? History Law Terrorism
9/23/08 The IQ Wars, or, My Guy’s Dumber Than Your Guy Politics
9/22/08 Obama Among the Ruins Economics Politics
9/21/08 Stand Up and Be Counted Politics
9/20/08 2015? 2060? Ever? Poverty Working together United Nations
9/19/08 You Can Look It Up Media Politics
9/18/08 Global Swarming Environment Greenhouse gases and global warming
9/17/08 Nation Building Begins at Home History Working together
9/16/08 The Social Animal Politics Brooks
9/15/08 Doing Good by Doing Better Volunteerism
9/14/08 Getting Anti-Terrorism Right Working together Terrorism United Nations
9/13/08 The Globalization of People Immigration Working together
9/12/08 Playing the God Card Politics Religion
9/11/08 September 11, 2001 History
9/10/08 The Race Is On! Politics
9/9/08 Farewell, Fannie and Freddie! Economics Business Politics
9/8/08 Software for Hard Times Computers Education Working together
9/7/08 Give Them Your Tired Human rights Immigration
9/6/08 The Media Are the Message Media Politics Internet
9/5/08 The Problem with Pork Politics Congress
9/4/08 Soaking the Poor Poverty Business
9/3/08 School Choice; Choice Schools Education
9/2/08 Donkey Days Politics Obama Nader
9/1/08 Noted with Interest, August 2008 Noted with interest

August 2008
8/31/08 Let Us Now Praise ... Paul Farmer Golden A Poverty Health
8/30/08 Having It Both Ways Health Retirement
8/29/08 Teen Angst Youth Education
8/28/08 Water, Water, Anywhere? Water Health Greenhouse gases and global warming
8/27/08 Exit Strategy Politics Environment
8/26/08 No Laughing Matter Politics Science
8/25/08 Not Another Piece About Health Care! Health Politics
8/24/08 And Miles to Go... Transportation Oil and gasoline
8/23/08 Public-Private Partnerships Businesss Politics
8/22/08 Write Your Legislators! Politics
8/21/08 A Half a Million Cheers for Peru! Education Computers Poverty
8/20/08 Yes, Virginia, There Is a 2009 Politics
8/19/08 Driven to Despair Oil and gasoline Transportation
8/18/08 Reefer Madness, 2008 Law Food and agriculture Human rights
8/17/08 Stifle Yourself EPA
8/16/08 We Who Hesitate Environment Greenhouse gases and global warming
8/15/08 Supply-Side Hooey Economics Politics
8/14/08 Watching the Watchdogs Business Economics
8/13/08 Feelin‘ Poorly Health
8/12/08 The Trouble with Kiva Microfinance Poverty Economics
8/11/08 Interstate, Inc. Politics Business Transportation
8/10/08 No Respect Militarism Politics
8/9/08 $6,393,094,000,000.00 Militarism Economics
8/8/08 Count Me Out Militarism Politics
8/7/08 Solidarity Now! Labor
8/6/08 All for One Health
8/5/08 The Workman Is Worthy of His Hire Economics Labor
8/4/08 Numbers Don’t Lie Politics Nader Obama
8/3/08 Here They Stand Politics Obama Nader
8/2/08 Dear Barack Politics Obama
8/1/08 Noted with Interest, July 2008 Noted with interest

July 2008
7/31/08 Let Us Now Praise ... Nicholas Kristof Golden A Kristof
7/30/08 “So far like the present...” History Martin Luther King Law
7/29/08 Climate Extraordinarily Rendered to Pluto Environment
7/28/08 Democracy Now! Or Never? Media
7/27/08 A Daughter’s Death Militarism Human rights
7/26/08 Who Needs Poverty? Poverty Economics
7/25/08 Drugs on the Market Health Politics
7/24/08 Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? Economics Politics
7/23/08 A Call to Eyes, Part 2 ATN Volunteerism
7/22/08 The Limits of Sovereignty Politics Human rights
7/21/08 Park Central Environment Politics
7/20/08 Twice Around the Block Environment Green living
7/19/08 Food Fight Food and agriculture Poverty
7/18/08 Bathtub Redux Taxes
7/17/08 Blow Wind, and Crack Your Cheeks Wind Electricity CRS
7/16/08 StateScape States Reference
7/15/08 King Coal Coal Electricity Environment
7/14/08 Exit Strategy Militarism Politics
7/13/08 Nor Any Drop to Drink Water Health
7/12/08 The Doctor Is Out Health
7/11/08 Something of Values Human rights History
7/10/08 Getting Your Goat Poverty Philanthropy Kristof
7/9/08 The Matter of the Meat Food and agriculture Health Environment
7/8/08 Park in the Dark Environment Coal Solar
7/7/08 The Numbers Game Economics States Reference
7/6/08 Water Incorporated Water Politics Business
7/5/08 Take My Money—Please Economics Retirement
7/4/08 Hart-Felt Politics
7/3/08 Weather Report Environment Greenhouse gases and global warming Water
7/2/08 Bathtub Logic Economics Politics Taxes
7/1/08 Noted with Interest, June 2008 Noted with interest

June 2008
6/30/08 Let Us Now Praise ... Greg Mortensen Education Health Golden A
6/29/08 The Big Squeeze Population
6/28/08 Off the Charts Health
6/27/08 Locked Out Education
6/26/08 Nader v. Obama, Part 1 Politics Nader Obama
6/25/08 Mind Your Own Business Environment Greenhouse gases and global warming Economics
6/24/08 A Call to Eyes ATN Volunteerism
6/23/08 Election 2008 Politics Herbert
6/22/08 Failing the Failed States Economics Politics
6/21/08 Take a Deep Breath Environment EPA Greenhouse gases and global warming
6/20/08 Hats Off to Cap-and-Trade Environment Greenhouse gases and global warming Economics
6/19/08 Reference: Congress Reference Politics
6/18/08 Going Under: A Nation in Debt Economics
6/17/08 The Next Wave Electricity Waves
6/16/08 The High Cost of Poverty Poverty
6/15/08 Getting the Job Done. Not. Poverty Food and agriculture
6/14/08 Give and Take Philanthropy
6/13/08 Let’s Get Organized! Politics
6/12/08 The Once and Future Nation? Education History
6/11/08 Just for Fun: M.C. Escher at the National Gallery Computers Education
6/10/08 Want Job Security? Go Green! Employment Green living
6/9/08 Get on the Bus! Transportation Economics
6/8/08 Soldiers in the War on Poverty Poverty
6/7/08 One Life to Live Health Politics
6/6/08 Well, Blow Me Down! Energy Electricity Wind
6/5/08 We Are One Human rights
6/4/08 State of Play Computers Education
6/3/08 Microfinance Meets the Market Economics Microfinance
6/3/08 In the Drink Environment Greenhouse gases and global warming Water
6/3/08 The World Food Crisis Food and agriculture
6/2/08 Peak Fish? Food and agriculture Oceans
6/2/08 Will We Every Learn? Militarism
6/1/08 Announcing ATN Martin Luther King ATN

May 2008
5/31/08 SEED Money Education Friedman
5/30/08 Hey, Teach! Education Teaching
5/29/08 What’s the Matter with Kids Today Volunteerism Kristof
5/28/08 Heavy Weather Environment EPA Greenhouse gases and global warming
5/27/08 Green Houses Environment Green living
5/26/08 Fill ’Er Up! Energy Oil and gasoline
5/25/08 The Killing Fields Law Death penalty
tags: Table of Contents

More Talk

Dec 23, 2008
Yesterday, we wrote about a topic which may have struck you as being of fairly marginal interest to a limited number of people—the problems citizens and congressional representatives are finding in sharing communications back and forth in the age of the Internet and instant and easy communication. However, we believe these are issues of enormous importance to the future ability of progressives to press their agenda.

The gist of the problem is that representatives and senators are being inundated with communications, many of which are solicited, aggregated, and communicated to Congress by special interest advocacy groups. Congressional staffers now spend an inordinate amount of time managing and responding to these communications.

Technology is the answer here, and rather than rely upon the disparate six or eight commercial products which now dot the Washington landscape, we believe the parties involved—citizen and advocacy groups and congressional offices—should cooperate to produce an open source software solution that would satisfy 95 percent of the players involved. We believe the following are among the requirements and features of such a product:

  • The system would cost between $25 and $30 million to develop and would take from two to four years;
  • The resulting collection of software applications, which would run on Macintosh, Windows, and Linux operating systems, would be free to all parties.
  • Although the “open source” software would be available to any developer to enhance, official enhancement releases would be managed by the World Wide Web Consortium or similar standards-setting body in much the same way the W3 manage HTML and CSS updates.
  • Standardized back-end database procedures would nevertheless allow for a continuing rich variety of front-end web designs and applications.
  • The software would allow for the production, management, and automation of two-way communication via email, postal mail, fax, Instant Messaging, voice, and other emerging media.
  • The system would be built with open source tools where appropriate.
  • The system would result in at least a 50 percent savings in staffers’ involvement with constituent communications.
Having been involved with computers, software, and programming since the early 1980s, we know this system can be built along the lines, and within the constraints, noted above. We could manage such a development effort ourself, and so could many others.

The level of constituent communications will continue to grow at a very fast pace, particularly that which is initiated and managed by advocacy groups. Those groups and congressional offices must harness tools to cope with these communications. They deserve the same level of acknowledgement and influence as more traditional one-to-one communications. The only way to accomplish this, and to avoid a continuing struggle amidst a Babel of conflicting standards and procedures, is for the parties to work together to forge a solid system that answers all their requirements.

It can be done. It must be done.
tags: Working Together | Congress

Can We Talk?

Dec 22, 2008
Good question.

The Congressional Management Foundation (CMF) has been asking it vis-a-vis Congress for almost ten years, and their enlightening answer may be found in their report, Communicating with Congress: Recommendations for Improving the Democratic Dialog (.pdf, 3.5Mb).

The good news: The Internet has made it far easier for citizens to communicate with their Congressional representatives. The bad news: The Internet has made it far easier for citizens to communicate with their Congressional representatives. The result: A huge increase in communications to Congress, by both citizens and grassroots advocacy groups, has resulted in the expenditure of a great deal of effort on the part of both senders and recipients in trying to manage—and in some cases, to thwart—the efforts of the other. Sophisticated software tools to efficiently deal with these communications has yet to be developed.

Until it is, CMF has several recommendations for each participant. Among them, for the individual citizen:

  1. Develop a good understanding of how Congress operates.
  2. Contact your representatives only once per issue.
  3. Limit each message to one issue.
  4. Use consistent email and postal addresses.
  5. Be concise and clear.
  6. Make a specific request, and refer to the number of the pertinent bill if you can.
  7. Be respectful, as difficult as that may be from time to time.
The 84-page report fleshes out these recommendations a great deal, of course.

We were most interested in CMF’s recommendations for grassroots advocacy groups. We are involved with many of them (see our listing of several at What Now, Where Now, How Now?) and have signed many a petition they have organized to forward to Congress. We want those communications to be effective. Here are some of CMF’s recommendations to them:
  1. Send every communication with the knowledge, consent and action of the citizen. (As far as we know, all the groups we are involved with do this.)
  2. Encourage citizens to personalize their messages in some way. (This also is common with the groups mentioned in the posting noted above.)
  3. Communications should only come from constituents.
  4. Notify citizens to whom their communications are being sent. (There is room for improvement with our groups here.)
  5. Identify the organization behind a grassroots campaign.
  6. Grassroot organizations should develop a better understanding of Congress.
  7. The purpose of a campaign should be to influence public policy, not overwhelm an office.
Recommendations to Congress include:
  1. Allocate more funds for Members’ staffing.
  2. Adapt to the new communication environment.
  3. Collaborate with advocacy/interest groups to identify solutions and solve problems. (Of course!)
  4. Fully utilize email to respond to constituents.
  5. Provide separate web forms for constituent service requests.
  6. Provide answers to legislative inquiries online.
  7. Diligently maintain your constituent database.
Optimizing citizen/representative communications is a huge challenge and a top priority of our new information age. The issue is of major public importance and should be publicly funded. We take part in enough advocacy group outreaches to Congress to know that if we are to avoid a Babel of conflicting technologies, increased animosity between the parties, and continuing bottlenecks to having our combined voices heard in Congress, then all parties must dedicate themselves to working together to craft the effective solutions that are available to us through technology.
tags: Congress | Working Together

Slouching Toward Accountability

Dec 21, 2008
Yes, Virginia, there is a Congressional Oversight Panel (COP) charged with trying to figure out what the Treasury Department is doing with your $700 billion bank bailout. Though they don’t have many answers at this point, they have at least come up with a few relevant Questions About the $700 Billion Emergency Economic Stabilization Funds (.pdf, 1.3Mb). This initial panel report was released on December 10, 2008. They intend to issue monthly reports and we will update this ATN item with links to those reports as they are released.

Among partial answers received from Treasury so far is a confirmation of our worst fear that Treasury has administered the program without seeking to specifically monitor the use of funds supplied to the banks, but instead relying on “general metrics” that will evaluate the overall economic effects of the disbursed funds. As the report notes, “Using general metrics could be a substitute for using no metrics at all, thus committing taxpayer resources with no meaningful oversight.”1

Here are the ten questions the panel hopes to answer in the coming months:

  1. What is Treasury’s strategy?
  2. Is the strategy working to stabilize markets?
  3. Is the strategy helping to reduce foreclosures?
  4. What have financial institutions done with the taxpayers’ money received so far?
  5. Is the public receiving a fair deal?
  6. What is Treasury doing to help the American family?
  7. Is Treasury imposing reforms on financial institutions that are taking taxpayer money?
  8. How is Treasury deciding which institutions receive the money?
  9. What is the Scope of Treasury’s statutory authority?
  10. Is Treasury looking ahead?
Good questions. We look forward to some good answers.

Update: The Treasury Department on December 30, 2008, sent this response (.pdf, 15 pp., 410Kb) to the Congressional Oversight Panel, answering their ten questions. “But for mine own part, it was Greek to me.”
1 Questions About the $700 Billion..., pg. 20.
tags: Economics | Governance | Business

The $100 Billion Misunderstanding

Dec 20, 2008
The Pentagon Papers revealed the debacle that was the Vietnam war, and now the New York Times and the online journalism web site ProPublica have published what should be an equally incendiary document, Hard Lessons: The Iraq Reconstruction Experience, written by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction following several years of interviews and study.

The bottom line? The reconstruction effort in Iraq has wasted over $100 billion, much of it American taxpayer money, through a combination of poor or nonexistent planning, disruptions caused by the insurgency, turf wars among uncoordinated participants, and fraud: “[A] massive waste of taxpayer dollars.”1

ProPublica provides particularly useful Excerpts from the 513-page report. They reveal that reconstruction was inadequately planned for before the invasion and ineptly pursued afterwards. In what appears to be full-fledged bureaucratic panic, agencies and offices opened and closed; administrators came and went; huge projects lay dormant halfway to completion and completed projects were not sustained; turf wars between Defense, State, USAID, the White House and others resulted in huge wastes of time and money. And through it all, an insurgency which to this day holds sway throughout Iraq played havoc with the few coordinated actions the various offices and authorities managed to mount during their short tenures.

The Inspector General concludes, “Why was so large a reconstruction program pursued in so insecure an environment? Others will have to provide that answer.”2

Obama has pledged (sort of) to disengage us from this Slough of Despond. However, he has also pledged to get us more involved in the slough to the east in Afghanistan, boosting both military and reconstruction efforts in an environment which is proving even more intractable than Iraq. If pursued, this unilateral, military response to an essentially multilateral situation calling for international policing efforts, particularly in a region which has proven time and again to be unmanageable by history’s very best managers, will be a morass into which will sink Obama and all his hope for change.

“Hard Lessons” is a road map to disaster. Nothing in the manner we have pursued our efforts in Afghanistan to date, and nothing in the announced plans of the new administration, give us reason to believe we are not still on that road.
1 Hard Lessons, pg. iii.
2 Ibid.
tags: History | Militarism | Obama

Guys in Ties

Dec 19, 2008
We don’t see a lot of neckties in Vermont, where we live, or New Hampshire, where we work. We guess Jim Douglas probably wears a tie—probably to bed—but he’s our governor, and he’s in that crowd we’re talking about.

We see all these guys in ties these days, strutting before cameras, taking questions, not taking questions, rationalizing away the acts that have impoverished millions, brought industries to their knees, murdered innocents: greedy guys, corrupt guys, unapologetic, unashamed, unindicted.

We see these guys in ties, and we’re tempted to hide the silver, check for our wallet, lock up our daughters. When we see the odd guy wearing a tie up here in northern New England, we think, what are you trying to get away with today? Whose pension are you going to loot, which union are you going to bust, what sick old person are you going to screw over? We just can’t see guys in ties anymore without wondering what they’re up to. No good, we’re pretty sure.

What is it about that silly sliver of senseless cloth they all wear down their fronts, like badges of mastery, like cryptic IDs in a secret society of despoilers, like a fancy shield against anyone thinking they’re just nasty little schoolyard bullies, narrowminded, grasping, and despicable.

Guys in ties.
tags: Congress | Business | Media

Voting Counts and Counting Votes

Dec 18, 2008
Most states (48 of 50 and the District of Columbia) award all their electoral votes in a presidential election to the candidate who wins the majority of votes in their state. This results in serious disincentives for any candidate to campaign in those states that are safely in the camp of one party or another and, when you think about it, in equally serious disincentives for voters in those states to get out and vote.

These disincentives provide an argument for those who would do away with the Electoral College in favor of a popular vote for president, an even better argument than the one opposing the Electoral College because it favors small states.

FairVote.org provides hard numbers to back up these disincentive claims in their press release, 2008's Shrinking Battleground and Its Start [sic] Impact on Campaign Activity.1 They find:

  • Over half the presidential campaign events (57 percent) in the last month of the campaign took place in only four states (OH, FL, PA, VA) and virtually all the events during that period took place in only 18 states.
  • Over half the spending (54.5 percent) in the last two weeks of the campaign went to those same four states, and virtually all the spending during that period went to only 17 states.
  • Fourteen of the states where the outcome was not in doubt saw a drop in numbers of voters from the 2004 election.
  • The number of states which can be considered competitive battleground states for presidential elections have been cut in half since 1960, from 33 to 16.
A popular vote for president would almost certainly result in wider campaigning and, in tight election years, higher turnout. The problem, of course, will be in getting the states, particularly the ones with lower population, to give up the edge they enjoy under the Electoral College system. That system is a “child” of the federal system the Founding Fathers kludged together at the Constitutional Convention, where the individual states insisted on retaining significant powers. While there are good arguments for doing away with these “states’ rights” powers—they were, after all, largely responsible for the southern states thinking they could get away with secession in 1860-61—good arguments, as we all know to our loss, don’t always carry the day.

Several states (NJ, MD, IL, and HI) have exercised their power in an end run around the Electoral College. They have signed on to the National Popular Vote (NPV) bill, which says they agree to assign all their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote in all 50 states and the District of Columbia once the number of participating states represents a majority of the Electoral College.

If you believe the president should be elected by a majority or plurality of the popular vote, you may want to encourage your state legislature to sign on to the NPV bill.
1 Accessed December 14, 2008
tags: Politics | States

All Aboard the Ostrich Express

Dec 17, 2008
We can breathe easy. Global warming, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and Al Gore are all washed up. This thanks to a minority report from the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. The ranking minority member of the committee is James M. Inhofe (R-OK), who has allegedly found 650 scientists around the world who are prepared to dispute the existence of global warming or any man-made crisis having to do with the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. He takes the whole silly notion to task in a 231-page report (including a reprint of a previous report), clumsily though comprehensively entitled U.S. Senate Minority Report: More Than 650 International Scientists Dissent Over Man-Made Global Warming Claims. Scientists Continue to Debunk “Consensus” in 2008.

Inhofe, who has characterized the Red Cross as a “bleeding heart,” and out-conservatived the Bush Administration, the Pentagon, and the American Petroleum Institute in blocking ratification of the International Convention on the Law of the Sea,1 has put our tax dollars to work in an attempt to head off cap-and-trade legislation which the Obama administration hopes to initiate early on in 2009.

We’ll update this posting with the expected refutations of Inhofe’s report in future days and weeks. In the meanwhile, the pertinent point, and one which does not bode well for the coming administration and the 111th Congress, is the enormous powers which may be wielded by a single senator and, more importantly, by the minority party in the Senate. We have seen thirty years or more of polarized partisan politics in our federal government, which has effectively removed what is intended to be the people’s voice from influence over our economic well-being. We are only beginning to suffer the consequences.

We fear a continuation of the polarization, already seen in the Senate Republicans’ stonewalling of the auto industry bailout. Should Obama, the Great Conciliator, not find a way to move sufficient numbers of Republicans into his camp, we could easily see a continuation of the status quo, which has wiped out trillions in retirement savings, forced millions into foreclosure, swelled enormously the ranks of the unemployed, and brought us to the brink of a global depression.
1 Enemies of Science: Senator James M. Inhofe, from ScienceWeek, undated (accessed December 13, 2008)
tags: Environment | Greenhouse Gases and Global Warming | Governance

Skewed Priorities

Dec 16, 2008
The first ripples are spreading from the center of the financial debacle.

It looks like the White House will have to do an end run around its own party to bail out the auto industry,1 in hopes of saving three million jobs.2 Senate republicans have blocked a Congressional plan to provide a few billion in loans to the industry,3 a plan that even included turning the industry on its head and handing over future business decisions to a “Car Czar” to be appointed by Bush. The Republicans in the Senate wouldn’t buy it without enormous concesssions in pay and benefits from the unions, which have already done more than their part to sustain their industry.

And where is the justice or equity in seven hundred billion taxpayer dollars hastily handed over unconditionally to Wall Street following its shameful despoliation of world finance, and not one dime to bolster an admittedly flawed industry, but one upon which depends a significant percentage of working Americans?

And then there is Republic Windows and Doors.4 When Bank of America pulled the plug on the Chicago company’s line of credit, the owners told the unionized workers the 40-year-old company would close its doors in three days and, gosh, they didn’t think they had the money for the 60-day severance or accrued vacation pay the law required them to provide the workers. So the workers staged a six-day sit-in at the factory. Three-way negotiations among the union, the company, and the banks resulted in the offer of loans sufficient for the company to pay its obligations to the workers. Whether they will or not, however, since the company filed for bankruptcy on December 12, may still be in doubt. Workers are scandalously far from the front of the line of creditors in bankruptcy proceedings. Meanwhile, Republic has renamed itself Echo, moved to Iowa, and opened its factory with nonunion labor.

That the Republic workers’ sit-in to obtain rights assured them by law should be described in the Times as “risky,” “militant,” and “potentially dangerous,” speaks volumes to the skewed priorities that result in a system where capitalism is the master and not the servant of the people.

We need to get money into the pockets of regular Americans, not continue to pick those pockets for the benefit of the superwealthy. Everyone knows this, but as of last weekend, no one in Washington had done anything about it.
1 White House Ready to Aid Auto Industry, by Stephen Labaton and David M. Herszenhorn, from the New York Times, December 12, 2008 (accessed December 13, 2008)
2 Over 3 million jobs would disappear if U.S. auto-makers go bankrupt, from Economic Policy Institute, December 3, 2008 (accessed December 11, 2008)
3 Senate Abandons Automaker Bailout Bid, by David M. Herszenhorn and David E. Sanger, from the New York Times, December 11, 2008 (accessed December 13, 2008)
4 Even Workers Surprised by Success of Factory Sit-In, by Michael Luo and Karen Ann Cullotta, from the New York Times, December 12, 2008 (accessed December 13, 2008)
tags: Business | Labor

Health Care in Hard Times

Dec 15, 2008
Sixty-one percent of the nonelderly employed receive their health insurance through an employer. It is estimated that for every one point increase in the unemployment rate, 1.1 million adults will lose their health insurance coverage.1 With accelerating layoffs, many of us are now contemplating the awful eventuality of simultaneously losing our jobs and our health insurance. When that happens, options are limited to COBRA, Medicaid/SCHIP, and private insurance.

The Kaiser Family Foundation, through its Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured, has produced a report entitled Health Coverage in a Period of Rising Unemployment (.pdf, 288Kb), by Karen Schwartz. It is a guide to the pluses and minuses of those three options and, unfortunately, one that you may wish to bookmark for future reference. Our conclusions:

  • COBRA is no bargain, even if you are lucky enough to qualify for it;
  • If you have to go with a private insurance carrier, make sure you are a 20-year-old nonsmoking male who jogs five miles a day;
  • Medicaid may be available for dependent children (through SCHIP), less available for their parents, and almost certainly not available for childless adults;
  • Not being insured while unemployed can hurt your coverage once you go back to work.
The provision of health care in this country is not only expensive, less effective relative to other civilized countries, and impenetrably complicated, it is also cruel, with the full force of its shortcomings affecting those least able to withstand them—the poor, the unemployed, and the elderly.

Universal. Single-payer. Federally managed. Now.
1 Health Coverage in a Period of Rising Unemployment, from the Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured, undated, accessed December 9, 2008
tags: Health

All Together Now

Dec 14, 2008
Actions we have taken to promote progressive change.

Your participation, in these or other efforts, will double the impact chronicled below. Bookmark this link in order to return to this posting to note future additions.

  • Jan 31, 2009: Signed a letter to President Obama, facilitated by Food and Water Watch, urging him not to appoint Judd Gregg as Commerce Secretary. Gregg favors ocean farm fishing, which is very harmful to wild fish. See: Ocean Fish Farming Harms Wild Fish, at Science News.

  • Jan 31, 2009 (busy day): Signed a petition to U.S. Senators, facilitated by Food and Water Watch, urging our senators to restore funding slashed in the House for urgently needed water and wastewater infrastructure development and repairs.

  • Jan 31, 2009: Signed a petition, facilitated by Credo Action, urging our Representative to co-sponsor H.R. 104, a bill to establish a criminal investigation into acts committed by the Bush Administration.

  • Jan 31, 2009: Wrote to the White House urging the president to cease his support of tax cheats and promoters of genocide, and suggesting Howard Dean for Secretary of DHHS.

  • Jan 31, 2009: Wrote a letter to Hillary Clinton and Susan Rice facilitated by Amnesty International, urging them to open an investigation into possible war crimes in Gaza based upon Amnesty’s on-the-ground findings.

  • Jan 30, 2009: Wrote a letter to our congressional delegation facilitated by the National Parks Conservation Association in support of the $2.25 billion investment in parks which is part of Obama’s stimulus package.

  • Jan 28, 2009: Signed a ColorOfChange petition urging the D.A. in the Oscar Grant case to prosecute a second officer for assault.

  • Jan 26, 2009: On reading the news that Biden thinks the banks will need more than the $700 billion authorized so far, we wrote our senators and representative in Washington adamantly opposing more bailout money until the country learns what was done with the first $700 billion and its effect, and until respected independent economists such as Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz call for additional assistance.

  • Jan 25, 2009: Donated a few dollars to the Vermont Progressive Party after writing them up for the Jan 27 ATN item.

  • Jan 24, 2009: Signed a Credo Action petition urging Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) to suspend his delaying tactics regarding Eric Holder’s confirmation as Attorney General. Sen. Cornyn is concerned that the administration may seek to prosecute those who ordered or carried out torture in the last administration and is apparently seeking guarantees that it will not.

  • Jan 23, 2009: Signed an Amnesty International petition thanking Obama for signing the order to close Guantanamo and urging him to name a commission of inquiry to investigate and hold accountable any criminal acts committed there over the past eight years. Donated a few dollars to Amnesty (tax-deductible).

  • Jan 16, 2009: Signed a Food Democracy Now petition, urging the Dept of Agriculture Secretary-Designate to appoint Under Secretaries from a list of 12 candidates who favor sustainable agriculture.
    Update Feb 28, 2009: One of the Sustainable Dozen, Kathleen Merrigan, was named Deputy Secretary of Agriculture. Further Food Democracy Now met with Secretary Vilsack on Feb 24, 2009, and presented him with 87,000 signatures on a petition supporting sustainable agriculture. You can sign HERE.

  • Jan 15, 2009: Signed an Amnesty International petition to our congressional delegation, asking them to do whatever they can to end the disaster in Gaza.

  • Jan 14, 2009: Found an Obama Inaugural Bash to attend on the MoveOn.org site. We were happy to see they were coordinating this organizational effort with TrueMajority, ColorOfChange, and other grassroots groups. We Shall Overcome—Together!

  • Jan 14, 2009: Donated $50 to Greg Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute. This donation was gathered in a Pennies for Peace cup at our office.

  • Jan 13, 2009: Signed a ColorOfChange.org petition demanding CA Attorney General Jerry Brown take action against the BART officer who killed Oscar Grant in cold blood. Twelve days have gone by and the officer has not been, arrested, charged, or even questioned.
    Update Jan 15, 2009: Johannes Mehserle was arrested and charged with murder on Wednesday, Jan 14.

  • Jan 8, 2009: Signed a Democracy for America petition urging the new chair of the Democratic National Committee to retain the 50-state strategy which has been so successful.

  • Jan 3, 2009: Signed an Amnesty International petition to Sec. of State Rice expressing concern for the humanitarian disaster in Gaza.

  • December 30, 2008: Donated a few dollars (tax-deductible) to three organizations badly hurt by Bernard Madoff, The Brennan Center for Justice, Human Rights Watch, and the Center for Constitutional Rights. The contributions, made through MoveOn.org, were matched 2 to 1 by a pair of philanthropic agencies.

  • December 29, 2008: Signed an Avaaz.org petition for a cease fire in Gaza.

  • December 22, 2008: Signed an Avaaz.org petition for radio campaign in Zimbabwe. Donated a few dollars to help buy radio time there (deductible).

  • December 19, 2008: Filled in a survey for The Nation magazine, urging them to concentrate on three priorities: income, education, and health care.

  • December 18, 2008: Signed a ColorOfChange petition to the Louisiana legal authorities urging them to investigate vigilante killings of blacks post-Katrina.

  • December 16, 2008: Registered for, set up, and announced an Obama Health Care Community Discussion for Dec. 28.

  • Dec 15, 2008: Nominated topic for Moveon.Org to concentrate on in 2009.

    Donated a few dollars to Democracy Now! and Food&WaterWatch (tax-deductible).

    Signed a J Street petition urging the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organization to condemn the recent violence, including two shootings, of Jewish settlers against Palestinians.

  • Dec 11, 2008: Signed petition from Food Democracy Now to Obama regarding the importance of reform in our nation’s agricultural practices and encouraging him to name a reformer as Secretary of Agriculture.

    Signed an Amnesty International petition urging Obama to take action to protect women and girls from sexual violence in the Congo.

  • Dec 10, 2008: Signed Amnesty International petition to our representative, encouraging him to co-sponsor HR.5927, the International Violence Against Women Act; and signed their Universal Declaration of Human Rights pledge.

    Sent a note to Chancellor Merkel in Poland, through Avaaz.org, urging her to stop stonewalling a proper European agreement on GHG emissions.
    Update, Dec 15, 2008: Chancellor Merkel scaled back elements of her opposition that would have resulted in greater GHG emissions, thanks in part to 200,000 worldwide signatories of the petition.

  • Dec 9, 2008: Sent messages to Vermont’s congressional delegation encouraging them to pursue a progressive agenda in the 111th Congress, and referencing two ATN postings, Great Expectations 1: The Domestic Scene and Great Expectations 2: Foreign Affairs.

  • Dec 8, 2008: Signed a National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) petition to Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne, opposing the sale of oil and gas leases on land adjoining two national parks and a national monument. Light, air, and noise pollution are among the threats these leases pose. The opportunity came through email from NPCA, and we were able to take part in the petition with two mouse clicks.
    Update: On December 10, 2008, the Bush administration abruptly dropped its plan to site new coal-burning electricity generating plants near national parks.

tags: Working Together | Aux Barricades!

Only Connect!

Dec 13, 2008
We need to act.

We need to find ways to raise our voices in support of the progressive agenda or we are going find ourselves—and that agenda—out in the cold. We do not fail to sympathize with those who say it is early innings, he is not even president yet, give him a chance. However, our early misgivings regarding an Obama presidency (see our previous postings on Obama), together with the parade of Clinton retreads and right-of-center cabinet and White House appointments1 he has made so far, does not fill us with hope for change. Rather, these appointments require what filmmaker Eugene Jarecki calls “vigilant public attention.”2

Only connect!, adjured E.M. Forster,3 and this is the key to action. The American people—you and I— need to get back in the face of our public servants. We need to find the time to act, to contact our representatives, to join our voices to other organizations which are advancing the agenda. Thankfully, opportunities to do so efficiently and effectively are cropping up all over the place, mainly through the Internet.

Tomorrow, we will initiate a posting that relates what we are doing to press for a progressive agenda. We will update that posting and provide a link to it so that you can return to it from time to time to see what new efforts have been made by one person. It may provide ideas for you, although its primary intent is to move you to set aside a few minutes a week to take part in an effort which, without us and millions like us, is almost certainly doomed to fail. We also want to hear what you are doing (use the Webmaster link under Contact Us in the right-hand column). We will pass on good ideas you tell us about, and we will take part in those efforts ourself.

Obama is not enough. Hope is not enough. The buck stops with us.
1 Name by Name, Obama’s Cabinet taking shape, by the Associated Press, December 8, 2008, accessed, as are other references today, on December 9, 2008
2 Keeping Track of Change, by Eugene Jarecki, from Truthdig.com, December 5, 2008
3 Howard’s End, E.M. Forster, chapter 22, from Wikiquote, undated
tags: Working Together | Governance

GAO, Way to Go!

Dec 12, 2008
No one is closer to the federal government than the Government Accountability Office (GAO), a nonpartisan agency that works for Congress. They:

  • audit agency operations to determine whether federal funds are being spent efficiently and effectively;
  • investigate allegations of illegal and improper activities;
  • report on how well government programs and policies are meeting their objectives;
  • perform policy analyses and outline options for congressional consideration;
  • issue legal decisions and opinions, such as bid protest rulings and reports on agency rules.1
The GAO has produced a web page entitled Serving the Congress and the Nation. It contains information on:
  • the 13 “Urgent Issues” it believes the new administration needs to address in its first year;
  • agency-by-agency issues;
  • management challenges across the government;
  • major cost-savings opportunities;
  • upcoming reports on major issues;
  • the long-term fiscal outlook;
  • working with GAO.2
Though not as noisy and dramatic as some watchdogs, the GAO is probably closer to the pulse of the federal government and to the real needs of the nation than any other. The GAO is the primary fact-finding and fact-reporting agency of the Congress and as such their voice will be ignored at their peril by the incoming administration and the new Congress.
1 About GAO, accessed December 7, 2008.
2 Serving the Congress and the Nation
tags: Congress | Governance

Euros and Euro Happiness

Dec 11, 2008
What do you know? The European Union actually cares about the quality of life of all its people, and not just the enrichment of a tiny few at the expense of the rest. Eurofound, the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, was founded in 1975 “to contribute to the planning and design of better living and working conditions in Europe.” Eurofound researches these conditions across the 27 European Union countries (including three current candidate countries), tries to identify what works, and passes along that understanding to labor, employers, and governments.

Their Second European Quality of Life Survey (.pdf, 416Kb) has just released its first findings. The full report will be available in spring 2009. The survey sought data on general life satisfaction and happiness relating to family, work, and social life. Among interesting findings we may wish to take to heart:

  • Earning disparities are lowest in the countries that show the highest general satisfaction and happiness.
  • The country with the highest household income (Luxembourg, with over twice the average EU income), comes in sixth out of 27 on the scale of general satisfaction/happiness.
  • The country with the highest general satisfaction/happiness (Denmark) comes in ninth in household income.
A decent income is essential for happiness; however, people in countries with higher incomes and, especially those in countries with high income disparities, show markedly less life satisfaction and happiness than people in countries where household income is lower and more equalized across the population.

The happier populations are in countries, primarily in Scandinavia, where government of, by, and for the people is working. They should be models we seek to emulate in the hard times to come.
tags: People | Human Nature | Europe

How We Got Here and Where We’re Going

Dec 10, 2008
How we got here? Simple:

  • The Clinton administration passed the Financial Services Modernization Act, eliminating New Deal barriers against mergers of commercial and investment banks.1
  • The Clinton administration passed the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, which banned government regulation of the new derivatives market.1
  • The commercial side of the newly merged banks lured millions of first-time home buyers with mortgages whose initial terms were too enticing to resist, knowing their investment side would re-package and re-sell the mortgages in derivative bundles, eliminating risk to the original lender.
  • While housing values increased, banks around the world rushed to purchase these derivatives, without understanding them or the risks involved, heeding only the apparent increases in their value. They borrowed money to purchase these derivatives, often as much as $30 for every dollar they put up of their own.
  • Bankers were able to show huge short-term “book” profits from these derivative sales, earning themselves gigantic bonuses.
  • Housing values leveled off at the same time the rosy mortgage terms expired, and people who should never have qualified for mortgages suddenly found themselves unable to pay them.
  • Those derivatives purchased by banks around the world, on borrowed money, lost their value, often ruining the banks (Washington Mutual and others), crippling the largest financial institutions in the country and around the world, and, oh yes, incidentally sending millions of homeowners into foreclosure and out onto the streets.
Then came the financial bailout, which put cash back into the banks, and which the investment side would not allow the commercial side to lend, causing the credit crunch (still unresolved, as no requirement that they should actually do anything with the money was made of the banks receiving the $750 billion in taxpayer bailout funds).

Where we’re going? Not so easy to say:
  • We’ve stopped spending, we know that. November, including Black Friday, totted up the lowest sales in 30 years.2
  • Jobs are dropping like flies. Not since December 1974 (Nixon was president!) have we lost more jobs than we did in November (533,000).3
  • Being a consumer society and one which has dropped manufacturing jobs in favor of service jobs, those first two numbers do not bode well for the future. If we don’t spend, we don’t work.
  • This graphic from the Bureau of Labor Statistics is a little scary. Note the increasing rate of decline in employment during this recession, and note how long it took during the last recession in 2001 for employment figures to get back to the pre-recession level (three+ years).
What brings us out of recessions? Typically, wars or large infusions of government spending matched with tax cuts. With an over ten-trillion-dollar deficit (four trillion of which was added by the Bush administration), more trillions in bailout commitments made and commitments to come which have so far shown little effect on the economy, and no end in sight to two ruinously expensive wars, how much further in the hole can we expect our government to go before the underlying strength of our economy suffers serious and lasting damage? Hopefully, a good bit further, as there is really no alternative in sight.

Let us not forget how we got here—through an unholy alliance of our federal government and narrow corporate interests consumed with greed. We have yet to bring either to account. We have yet to elect representatives who have pledged to do so. Hope is not enough.
1 Change We Can Bank On, by Robert Scheer, from Truthdig.com, November 18, 2008, accessed December 6, 2008.
2 November retail sales are worst in 30 years, by Jayne O'Donnell, from USA Today, undated, accessed December 6, 2008.
3 U.S. Loses 533,000 Jobs in Biggest Drop since 1974, by Louis Uchitelle, from the New York Times, December 5, 2008, accessed December 6, 2008.
tags: Economics | Governance

Attitude Adjustment1

Dec 09, 2008
The Family of Man began as a family, huddled in a dark cave against the forces of a malevolent Nature, including—especially—the family in the cave next door. Reason was on our side, however, and reason, telling us there was strength in numbers, created the tribe. When agriculture settled us down ten thousand years ago, tribes became settlements, which became towns, cities, city-states, and, finally, countries, constructs, again, whose primary purpose was enhancing security for a larger base of the population.

Of course, along the way tribe fought tribe, Sparta fought Athens, England fought France, and complicated ad hoc alliances came and went in support of ever widening and, ultimately, global conflicts. Yet the quest for physical and economic security was always at the heart of those conflicts, even when they seemed to be initiated for purposes of conquest and empire.

The country is no longer the most-evolved unit in this search for security. Economic alliances such as NAFTA and political ones such as the European Union have gone beyond largely symbolic attempts at multinational cooperation most recently embodied in the United Nations. These alliances seek to knit countries together firmly enough in cooperative endeavors to render it unlikely they will ever again have at each others’s throats in battle.

We now find ourselves at a point in our evolution as a species where “two roads diverge in a yellow wood.” As separate countries with a limited number of extended alliances, many of us are powerful enough, should another conflict arise between us, to destroy civilization. Even absent such conflict, we face environmental threats to our security that could be equally devastating.

It seems to us that a great reckoning is at hand. Will we be capable, once again, of making the same attitude adjustment we have made countless times in the past, the adjustment that saw us lay down our arms and join an erstwhile enemy in order to defend against the greater danger perceived emanating from another quarter? Will we be able to do so when that greater enemy is ourselves? And if we do not, will not our own natures, or the Nature we have so abysmally abused, step in and write the final page in the chronicle of human history?

These are the questions to which the progress of civilization has brought us. These are the questions which will be answered. The 21st century will see the Family of Man become one family, or the 22nd will belong to the flora and fauna over which we enjoyed a short and unhappy dominion.
1 Our illustration: Family of Man, by Georg Schmerholz, 1976
tags: History | Working Together

Whither Education?

Dec 08, 2008
New York Times columnist David Brooks is consistently wrong about life in general, but he is often quite perspicacious when it comes to some of the specifics.

His December 5, 2008, column Who Will He Choose?, concerns Obama’s still-to-be-announced pick for Secretary of Education, a selection we consider more important than the ones he has made so far.

Two camps vie for Obama’s allegiance, according to Brooks. In one camp are the radical reformers, epitomized by Michelle Rhee (whom we wrote about in The War on Tenure), and in the other are those representing the establishment view with the “superficial reforms” characteristic of that camp.

Brooks’s insight comes when he notes Obama has skillfully straddled both camps, practicing what he memorably calls “dog-whistle politics” which sends out reassuring signals that only one side or the other can detect. This, of course, was characteristic of Obama’s entire campaign: He managed to make many of us who were not on the same sides of issues believe we detected signals in his language assuring us he was supporting our priorities.

Progressives have now had a cold shower of reality administered to them through Obama’s choices to date. The posts of Education and Labor are yet to come. They are, in our view, the most important, affecting as they do all Americans in areas—income and education—as much in need of radical reform as any in our system.

Brooks’s money seems to be on Arne Duncan,1 a Chicago reformer, for Education, a selection which he says “will be picking a fight with the status quo.” However, if there are any fans of the status quo still about in the land, they are staying silent in the closet. Even the Establishment knows we are in trouble, and it will take a full spectrum of reforms, as well as, perhaps, a partial systemic collapse, to pull us out of the doldrums into which our education system has been mired for the past two generations.
1 Arne Duncan, from Wikipedia, accessed December 6, 2008
tags: Education | Obama

Civics Lesson

Dec 07, 2008
Okay, college grad, think yer pretty smart? Try this Civics Quiz on for size. It comes from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) an organization which seeks “to enhance the rising generation’s knowledge of our nation’s founding principles.” They have their work cut out for them.

In 2006 and 2007, they tested 14,000 freshmen and seniors at 50 colleges and universities nationwide on the basics of their American heritage, and in both years they failed, scoring less than 55 percent on average.1 This year, in an attempt “to learn more about the real-world consequences of this collegiate failure,” they tested a broader cross-section of Americans of all ages and backgrounds, asking them 33 basic questions about the history and operation of American democracy, the Civics Quiz mentioned above which you are invited to take. The bad news:

  • Seventy-one percent failed, with an overall average score of 49 percent.
  • College adds little to civic knowledge.
  • Television, including TV news, dumbs down America.
  • Elected officials score five percentage points lower than non-officeholders.
  • Fewer than half of all Americans can name all three branches of the federal government.
Sixty percent is passing. Good luck.
1 Summary, from ISI, accessed December 3, 2008
tags: Governance | Congress | History

No Child Left Hungry

Dec 06, 2008
One of the themes emerging from All Together Now is the pragmatic basis of the Golden Rule. It is to our advantage that we treat others as we would be treated. To treat them less well, to refrain from relieving them of their poverty, ignorance, or disease when it is within our power to do so, works to our immediate, ongoing, and serious disadvantage.

The Progressive Policy Institute knows whereof we speak. In one of their latest “Memos to the President,” Ending Child Hunger in America (.pdf), by Joel Berg and Tom Freedman, their recommendations are firmly grounded in the logic of our first paragraph. The bad news:

  • One in six children in America live below the poverty line.
  • Food prices increased four percent in 2007, over one and one-half times the annual average in the previous 15 years.
  • Eighty-four percent of food banks were unable to meet demand in 2007, with increases in clientele as high as 20 percent.
  • Food insecurity costs us $90 billion a year in lost productivity, health care costs, and substandard educational performance.
Their five recommendations to end child hunger in America:
Provide all children with a free school breakfast
Only one in five children eligible for free school breakfasts actually receive them, for a variety of reasons. Feed all the children instead. The benefits are many and the results (already tried in some districts) are astounding.
Improve program efficiency and accountability
There is a plethora of food-related federal programs that could be combined, resulting in a more efficient and inexpensive system that would reach more eligible families.
Support working families
“One of the best ways government can help working families is to make sure that work pays a decent wage.” Hear, hear!!
Reward best practices in the states
Reward these testing grounds with cash bonuses for the most effective programs to reduce child hunger, prompting a competition across all 50 of them.
Provide real ammo to the armies of compassion
They are out there, in the trenches, and in touch with where the need is highest. Partner with these secular and religious-based groups; they will be the soldiers who will win your war against childhood hunger.
An admirable goal: No hungry child in America ever again following an Obama administration.

Admirable and eminently achievable.
tags: Food and Agriculture | Poverty | Youth

Stealing, Lying, and Cheating

Dec 05, 2008
Apparently, these ethical qualities are as American as apple pie, hence our illustration today. The Josephson Institute has released its latest biennial report from its Center for Youth Ethics, entitled The Ethics of American Youth. It’s not a pretty picture.

Over a third of high school boys (35 percent) and a quarter (26 percent) of girls admitted having stolen something from a store in the past year, each number up three percentage points from two years ago. Almost all high school children (83 percent) have lied to a parent in the past year about something significant. And cheating in school is up four percentage points (to 64 percent) from 2006. And the numbers may even be worse, since fully a quarter of the 30,000 respondents confessed to lying on one or two of the questions during the survey!

Not to worry, however, since our pedagogical emphasis on nurturing self-esteem has been one of the educational success stories of the past generation. Despite their cheating hearts, fully 93 percent of respondents said they were satisfied with their personal ethics and character, and 77 percent said that “when it comes to doing what is right, I am better than most people I know.”

Before we lapse into Paul Lynde1 mode,2 however, let’s take a few deep breaths and look for some perspective.

Speaking only for ourself, we lied like a rug when we were in high school. We lied about everything to everyone. When we turned 21, we swore off lying, not because it was wrong, but because we refused to continue to be so diminished in our own eyes by our constant lies. We have pretty much kept to that determination throughout a longish adulthood.

We stole from stores a time or two, probably before we were actually in high school, and even committed a few misdemeanor-level vandalisms during the difficult transition from innocence to experience. But that was then and this is now and it is inconceivable to imagine we would steal again from any motivation but the direst want. The fact that we don’t recall cheating in school may probably be laid to the fact that we never sat close enough to the ones who were smarter than we were in order to crib off their papers. And cheating in school always struck us as rather like cheating at solitaire. Finally, what’s the point?

We generally consider that seven-year-old children have reached the Age of Reason,3 before which a child has no real concept of the difference between objective right and wrong. However, to understand that right and wrong exist is not the same thing as to have the capacity to subordinate one’s own interests to ethical considerations. That takes much longer, which is why society doesn’t emancipate its children until they are considerably older.

We take some reassurance in the fact that there is such a significant disconnect between teen behavior and their own self-conception. We do learn right from wrong at seven, and we do struggle for years to bring right and wrong into alignment with our own needs and inclinations—many of us ultimately failing, of course. However, believing that we are essentially such admirable boys and girls cannot, in the end, but help to make us so.
1 Paul Lynde, from Wikipedia, accessed December 2, 2008, as are other footnoted sources today.
2 “What’s the Matter with Kids Today?,” from Bye Bye, Birdie
3 The Age of Reason, by Adele M. Brodkin, from Scholastic, July 1, 2006
tags: Youth | Human Nature

Fear Itself

Dec 04, 2008
They’re at it again. The headline in our local daily this morning reads, “U.S. Bio Attack in Next 5 Years Likely.”1

When outright oppression and domestic terror is off the table (although we might ask José Padilla2 to comment on that), fear is what best controls populations and renders them docile in the face of political tyranny. Cheney/Bush effectively played the fear card throughout their administration, even continuing to prevail in every area of their agenda after the Democrats assumed control of Congress in 2007.

Today the torch of fear is being passed to the next administration. The story noted above related to a report from the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism being presented today to Joe Biden, Obama's VP and First Hawk in an administration that is becoming filled with hawkish officials: Clinton, Gates, Rice.

In a pair of stories also in today’s paper,3 Obama formally introduces his choices for several high-level cabinet and White House positions. It is distressing to note that the position of Secretary of State is consistently characterized as being part of Obama’s “national security team.” National security has become a codeword for doing anything we want to anyone we like at anytime we choose, and damn the consequences. And to stamp our already hawkish-enough Secretary of State-designate with this codeword is to taint the position with unduly militaristic connotations and to downplay its true value as a great nation’s primary representative—and reassurance—to a fearful and needy world.

So it looks like it’s “Speak loudly and wield that big stick,” while scaring the pants off the populace in the home front. In other words, business as usual. And as Obama backs off his pledge to withdraw all combat troops from Iraq in 16 months (the pledge now downsized to a “desire”4), we may anticipate endless war through another administration.

This is change? This is hope?
1 You can read it here: Panel: Bio attack likely in next 5 years, from Yahoo News (Associated Press), Accessed December 2, 2008, as are other footnoted sources today.
2 José Padilla (prisoner), from Wikipedia
3 You can read it here: Obama Names Team to Face a Complex Security Picture, by Karen DeYoung and Michael D. Shear, from the Washington Post, December 2, 2008
4 Obama moves from electioneering to governance with nominees, by Peter Baker, from The International Herald Tribune, December 2, 2008
tags: Militarism | Obama

Great Expectations 2: Foreign Affairs

Dec 03, 2008
First, let us stop calling these affairs foreign. Globalization and its discontents, the Internet, the climate crisis, have inextricably intertwined the affairs of nations, making us finally realize the interdependence of all peoples which has always been a fact of life, though rarely acknowledged.

And then let us get on with the business of nurturing our planet and all its people. The progressive agenda of the first Obama administration must include the following:

A National Renunciation
America must renounce its “go-it-alone” bully-boy stance. We cannot lead from a position of moral poverty. Torture, extraordinary rendition kidnappings, abuse of constitutional rights, all must be abjured for good and all, and systems put in place to assure that these offenses will not come again to haunt the world. Full disclosure to the American people, and to the world, of the enormities of the past eight years must be forthcoming, whether conducted through a Truth and Reconciliation-type commission or through criminal investigations and prosecutions.

A League of Nations
America must rejoin and reinvigorate the community of nations, and in doing so it must voluntarily renounce a portion of its sovereignty for the common good. The neocon notion of a Pax Americana has been thoroughly debunked and must be discarded. We must imbue and empower the international community, through the United Nations and other organizations, with an energy and an agenda and a sense of urgency, and we must act together to bring clean water, plentiful food, higher education, peace, and social justice to a world hungry for all of these. We must stop exploiting, and start enabling, all of humanity. Our common future depends on it.

War No More
War is obsolete. The military adventures of the executive branch which the world has suffered over the past sixty years have only bolstered this argument. The more significant ones—Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan—have all been losing propositions for the simple fact that we have not had to win them, and our adversaries have. Should a war we have to win ever be allowed to break out again, it will almost certainly destroy civilization. We must back off from our dependence on militarism by disarming, beginning with a full retreat from the threat of nuclear holocaust, and moving on from there to disallow armed conflict between and within nations. We must give peace a chance.

Ending Terrorism
Wars are fought between nations and to characterize efforts against terrorism as a “war” misuses and abuses that term. Terrorist activity warrants police action, not wars, although those actions may need to call upon military support and be international in scope. However, we also need to understand—and even empathize with—the root causes of terrorism. They have as much to do with failed states, our instinctive inclination to bolster political tyrannies, and the expropriation of natural resources as they have to do with fundamentalist religious beliefs.

An Economic Attitude Adjustment
Capitalism is the de facto winner in the modern struggle for economic supremacy. However, in winning the day, capitalism has become civilization’s master rather than its servant. This has to be reversed. Industry exists for the betterment of the individuals who buy and build its products, not the other way around. Just as we have decided, in assessing the needs of individuals, what is too little, we must decide what is too much, understanding that there is only one pie. While there will remain room for differences in wealth, those differences have reached grotesque proportions in the past thirty years, to the deprivation and horror of countless billions. We are one people on one earth, and our survival is not optimized by a system of exploitation and oppression, but by one of cooperation and mutual support.
These are the paths of the progressive agenda, toward a sustainable world where “One for all and all for one” is understood to be not simply a moral imperative, but a logical one, the one best suited to realizing a paradise on earth, and to averting the spectre of hell, to the brink of which the unbroken series of catastrophes we call human history have brought us today.
tags: Working Together | Politics | Obama

Great Expectations 1: The Domestic Scene

Dec 02, 2008
Most progressive pundits we follow (among them Jeremy Scahill1, Naomi Klein, Robert Kuttner2, and Robert Scheer3) are bummed out by the selections Obama has made so far for his White House staff and cabinet. And indeed, one cannot but sigh in despair at the right-of-center Democrats (and Republicans!) paraded across Change.gov, Obama’s web site, which is looking increasingly like an ingeniously designed propagandistic puff piece. What could be worse than a George W. Bush? A George W. Bush with a brain.

Kuttner reminds us that Obama will be the president, not Larry Summers, Hillary Clinton, or Robert Gates. Cold comfort, we fear. As noted last week in Center Stage, the progressive agenda has moved to the center of American politics, or the center has moved toward progressive solutions to the serious challenges we face. With that in mind, here are five exigent items on the domestic agenda we expect the Obama administration to engage from a progressive standpoint:

Income Inequality
We expect the tax cuts for the wealthy to be repealed and a living wage assured for all full-time workers. We expect the capital gains tax to be raised to a reasonable level, and we expect Social Security to be withheld on wages higher than the current maximum, which, at $102,000, is ridiculously low. We expect any economic bailout or recovery plan to be accountable to the people and to be crafted in such a manner as to benefit the greatest number. We expect an end to poverty for all working individuals and families in America.

A Dysfunctional Education System
We call for a national commission on educational reform that will be encouraged to throw out all the “sacred cows” and conventions in PreK-16 public education developed since the 19th century. It will consist of the widest possible spectrum of educational reformers who have displayed success in the field, many of whom we have featured here on All Together Now (see, for example, The War on Tenure, The Next Step, and SEED Money). It will be empowered to put forth a comprehensive set of recommendations for reinvigorating American education from the ground up, recommendations which the Obama administration will commit to implementing expeditiously. We are bleeding oceans of human capital, and the bleeding must be stopped.

Health Care
Implement a single-payer, federally managed health care system (Medicare for all), containing the best features of the dozens of such systems which have been in operation for more than a generation in the rest of the civilized world. To do less is to thwart the people’s will and to continue a system where the many exist only to enrich the few—a bankrupt system which must end.

Voting Rights and Wrongs
Impediments to the franchise are a scandal in this country. We must pass laws that will assure the public that everything possible is being done to enable every eligible voter to exercise the franchise, easily, efficiently, and with a high degree of assurance that their vote is being properly counted.

Social Realism
Social issues such as premarital sex and the taking of illegal drugs need to be confronted in a rational manner. When they are, we will realize that education is the key to solving these issues. Teens will engage in sex and people will take mind-altering substances. They always have and they always will. We need to stop punishing ourselves for these human inclinations and rather do what is necessary to protect ourselves from their less fortunate consequences. Our current responses to these perceived social ills, including abstinence-only indoctrination and more and longer incarcerations, are positively insane.
These are the domestic issues on which we will judge the first Obama term. If they are not pursued with vigor, we will have no interest in a second.
1 Agents of Change or Hawks, Clintonites and Neocons? from Democracy Now, November 20, 2008 (Accessed November 30, 2008)
2 Naomi Klein, Robert Kuttner and Michael Hudson Dissect Obama’s New Economic Team & Stimulus Plan, from Democracy Now, November 25, 2008 (Accessed November 30, 2008)
3 Obama Chooses Wall Street Over Main Street, by Robert Scheer, from truthdig.com, November 25, 2008 (Accessed November 30, 2008)
tags: Politics | Obama

Noted with Interest, November 2008

Dec 01, 2008
Here are a few items noted with interest over the past month:

Average Income in 2006 Up $60,000 for top 1 percent of households, just $430 for bottom 90 percent.
For the fourth straight year, income gains at the top outpaced the rest of the population. Since 2002, the average income of the top 1 percent has risen 42 percent, while that of the bottom 90 percent (where you and I live) has risen 4.7%. (From Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, October 22, 2008. Accessed October 26, 2008)

New Judicial Watch/Zogby Poll: 81.7% of Americans Say Political Corruption Played a “Major Role” in Financial Crisis
It is interesting to note this figure is almost exactly the same as the number of Americans who think the country is on the wrong track. (From Judicial Watch, October 21, 2008. Accessed October 26, 2008)

New August Data Show Americans Drove 15 Billion Fewer Miles Than a Year Ago
This report bewails the drop in tax revenue used for road building and repairs. We had an answer for that long ago (see Driven to Despair), but we haven’t run across anyone taking us up on it. (From U.S. Department of Transportation, October 24, 2008. Accessed October 28, 2008)

Mid-Life Suicide: An Increasing Problem in U.S. Whites, 1999-2005, by Guoqing Hu, et al. (.pdf)
Whites, aged 40-64 are responsible for annually raising the U.S. suicide rates between 1999 and 2005 by 2.7 percent for men and 3.9 percent for women. They are the only racial or age group showing an increased rate over this period. In 2005, suicide claimed 32,637 lives in the U.S. and was the fourth-leading cause of death for people aged 10-64 years. (From American Journal of Preventive Medicine. Accessed November 15, 2008)

Immigrant-Owned Businesses Contribution To The Economy Detailed In New Report
This first-ever study of business ownership rates among immigrants has some surprising numbers, revealing immigrants are real powerhouses behind American business. (From The Small Business Administration. Accessed November 15, 2008)

AARP's Longevity Calculator
Find out your prospects for living forever. No fudging, now. (From AARP. Accessed November 17, 2008)

2008 Premature Birth Report Cards: The Nation Gets a “D”
What grade does your state get? Ours is the only state that received as high a grade as a “B” (From The March of Dimes. Accessed November 17, 2008)

Dynamic Maps of Bank Card and Mortgage Delinquencies in the United States
Find out where your county, state, and country stand in the current credit squeeze. (From Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Accessed November 18, 2008)

Obama Makes Best Case for Public Financing,
An excerpt from Obama’s The Audacity of Hope, noted by Daryn Cambridge, November 18, 2008, makes the argument for getting big corporate and lobbyist money out of politics. The question is how? (From Common Cause. Accessed November 22, 2008)

tags: Noted with Interest

Sick to Think of It

Nov 30, 2008
Our employer-based health insurance (in healthy New Hampshire) has gone up over 40 percent in three years, roughly four times the increase in the Consumer Price Index.1 At that cost—about twice what the rest of the civilized world pays—we receive medical care that is significantly, demonstrably, shamefully inferior.2 We rank 26th in child mortality. Our maternal death rate is also high, and rising.3 We lag behind 16 other countries in longevity.4 America’s poor health, and poorer health care, cost us billions in lost productivity every year.

The wealthiest nation in the world—until recently, at any rate—owes itself an obligation to remove health care from the rough-and-tumble of the marketplace, where supply and demand and the profit motive reign supreme, at the expense of high-quality care. There are enough national health care systems in the world now that we can study them all and pick and choose the best features of each in crafting our own. To maintain the status quo, even with a tweak here and a tuck there, is indefensible, given the cost and the inferior product our health care system provides.

Barack Obama never mentioned single-payer, federally managed health care in his campaign. We hope it was because he knew it would lose him much-needed dollars from the insurance industry and, possibly, a few thousand votes. But single-payer, federally managed health care is the only sensible solution, it is what the people want, and it will be a defining test of Obama’s presidency for him to move Congress toward this long overdue goal in his first term.

The New America Foundation has given us a grim glance at the future in their report, The Cost of Doing Nothing. If you think things are bad today, wait a very few years, less than a decade, when half of us will be spending 45 to 60 percent of our income just for health insurance and related deductibles. It makes you sick to think of it.

The 21st century will witness a revolution in medical care. For the sake of equity and economy, for the sake of sanity and American productivity, we must stop funding it with a 19th century model.
1 Consumer Price Index, from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor (Accessed November 25, 2008)
2 Click here to display the health-related items on All Together Now, for this and other pertinent statistics.
3 Maternal Mortality Rate in U.S. Highest in Decades, Experts Say, from Medical News Today, August 29, 2007 (Accessed November 25, 2008)
4 Infant Mortality and Life Expectancy for Selected Countries, 2007, from Infoplease (Accessed November 25, 2008)
tags: Health

Sick Transit

Nov 29, 2008
As did John McCain, we confess to a lack of perfect understanding of the “dismal science” of economics. We are more or less at one with Mr. Micawber, who summed up all fiscal wisdom thus: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”1

Though economists pretend to more complications in their calling than this, it all comes down to the same thing: Live within your means or pay the consequences. Thus far, many domestic enterprises which have failed to live within their means, which concocted exotic and opaque financial instruments and bought them with—horrors!—borrowed money, have failed to pay any consequences; however, we Micawber types know those consequences are coming, don’t we?

As we say, the ins and outs of the dismal science are a closed book to us. With a ten trillion dollar national debt, four trillions of which were added by Bush in the largest increase under any U.S. president,2 we suspect much misery lies in wait just over the horizon.

For 32 metropolitan transit agencies, that horizon is now. In a deal too complicated to describe here, but which is admirably explicated in the Tax Foundation’s Fiscal Fact No. 153, Transit Agencies in Bind Due to SILO Deals and AIG Collapse, those agencies—very likely including your bus and subway provider—may be in for many billions in contract termination fees demanded by foreign banks. The perfect storm of economic collapse has rippled across the landscape, with a great deal more damage impending than we are advised of on the nightly news.

The transit agencies have now gone to Congress looking for—what else?—their own bailout.3 They are going to have to stand at the end of a long and very unruly line.
1 David Copperfield, chapter 12, by Charles Dickens (Accessed November 25, 2008)
2 Bush Administration Adds $4 Trillion to National Debt, by Mark Knoller, from CBS News, September 29, 2008 (Accessed November 25, 2008)
3 Transit Agencies on Capitol Hill to Lobby for Bailout, from Tax Foundation, November 19, 2008 (Accessed November 25, 2008)
tags: Transportation | Economics

The First Step

Nov 28, 2008
As we contemplate the coming of the era of change promised by Obama, the Center for American Progress, along with the New Democracy Project, is in the process of producing a book-length, comprehensive set of recommendations, called Change for America: A Progressive Blueprint for the 44th President. The complete Table of Contents of its 46 chapters include sections on The White House, Economic Policy, Domestic Policy, and National Security Policy.

The fact that the preface and first chapter are written by John Podesta, the co-chair of the Obama-Biden Transition team (and a Chief of Staff in the Clinton administration), bodes well for attention being paid to this work by the new administration. It may even be, to a certain extent, what it is called: a blueprint for Obama’s presidency. In either case, progressives should pay attention to its contents, and we will feature some of them in future postings.

Today, we feature a chapter written by Michael Waldman, the Executive Director of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. Waldman’s chapter, Renewing Our Democracy (.pdf), deals with voting issues, the Brennan Center’s specialty, and he makes the following recommendations, which he says “will help permanently enlarge the constituency and coalition for progressive politics”:

  • No voter should be disenfranchised for lack of appropriate paperwork, and the government should issue free IDs if necessary.
  • Enact a national universal voter registration law and help fund the states to make the transitional changes required. Same-day registration should be allowed in all states.
  • Enact whatever laws are required to ensure that electronic voting machines work as they are supposed to work, including required audit trails and other measures.
  • Restore voting rights to prisoners upon their release.
  • Provide the Election Assistance Commission with sufficient funding so that makers of electronic voting machines, for instance, do not get to choose the labs that certify their products.
  • Reform congressional campaign funding, which still comes overwhelmingly from lobbyists and special interests, with only 10 percent coming from contributions of less than $200. Enacting the Fair Elections Now Act, providing public financing for congressional elections, would amplify the voices of the people, counterbalancing big money’s overwhelming influence. If we cannot get big money out, get more small money in, and make it matter by providing matching federal funds.
  • Reform the Federal Election Commission, removing it from the political arena.
  • End gerrymandering.
  • End the Electoral College and elect that candidate president who receives the highest popular vote count.
The universal franchise—the right of all adult citizens to vote—is the essential, defining characteristic of a democracy. Our laws must cease their emphasis on disabling that right, and must be crafted to enable it as widely and efficiently and effectively as possible.
tags: Governance | Politics

Laying Waste to Conservatism

Nov 27, 2008
If we need a historic record of the rapine of the Bush administration, we need go no further than Representative Raul M. Grijalva's (D-AZ) report emanating from his National Parks, Forests and Public Lands Subcommittee within the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee, entitled A Report on the Bush Administration Assaults on our National Parks, Forests and Public Lands (A Partial List) (.pdf).

It opens, “Over the last seven and a half years, the Bush Administration has pushed a concerted strategy of reducing the protections for our public lands, parks and forests, and opening up these lands for every type of private, commercial and extractive industry possible.”

Grijalva’s list includes the despoliation of our national parks through mining; lowering air quality standards; wild animal slaughter; intrusive use of recreational vehicles; and undermining the National Park Service work force through outsourcing, politicization, wrongful terminations, and staffing cuts. The neoconservative calls to “starve the beast” of government by cutting funding has led to woefully inadequate budgeting for land and water conservation and maintenance, and deteriorating historical artifacts. The oversight responsibilities of the Bureau of Land Management have been undermined by rules streamlining development; by the hiring of “consultants” employed by oil and gas companies; by rendering voluntary many corporate cleanup responsibilities; by stifling public input; by pandering to the off-road vehicle industry which is creating legal and environmental chaos on public lands; by public land giveaways. The list goes on and on.

2008 is the 150th anniversary of the birth of President Theodore Roosevelt, who was in office one hundred years ago, and who was the greatest conservation president in the history of our republic. In fact, he practically invented the conservation movement in the U.S.1 He was also a Republican.

True conservatives are concerned about conservation—the two words share etymological roots, after all. They do not manufacture every opportunity possible to rape the landscape for the short-term gain of their masters, at the expense of the people, future generations, and the precious land itself.

The shame attaching to the Bush administration for the unconscionable abrogation of its responsibilities is exceeded only by our own shame at having let them get away with it. One can only wonder which body—them or us—history will judge more harshly.
1 Theodore Roosevelt, Conservationist, from Wikipedia (Accessed November 22, 2008)
tags: Environment | Politics

Center Stage

Nov 26, 2008
By the time we read David Brooks’s latest column in the New York Times, The Insider’s Crusade (November 21, 2008), the paper wasn’t accepting any more comments, having already taken in 580 of them. We weren’t surprised by the deluge of heated responses, having been chafing at the bit to add one of our own.

Brooks, in a rare display of ecumenism, was caught praising Obama’s selection of high-level advisors and cabinet secretaries, seemingly—and disingenuously—against his will, having first cast a smarmily disparaging eye upon the intellectual prowess evinced by their plethora of ivy league degrees.

We weren’t tempted, as many responders were, to toss our variation of “Ah, ha!” at Brooks, being about as appalled as he seemed to be impressed by the selections so far. We are beginning to wonder, with all the Clintonistas on board, whether the whole campaign season wasn’t a vast charade from the beginning, with the object of bringing back the “first black president” for another go-round.

Let the inveterate Republicans pretend their reluctant confessions of admiration for this parade of Clinton-era insiders and party hacks. It was Brooks’s parting shot that caught our attention and raised our dander. He wrote, “The events of the past two weeks should be reassuring to anybody who feared that Obama would veer to the left....”

Excuse us, Mr. Brooks, but your inability to discern the shifting sands of the political spectrum from your cozy sinecure in the rightmost sector has blinded you to the fact that the progressive agenda in this country has moved to the center. To wit:

Most Americans think our nation is on the wrong track.1

Most Americans are opposed to continuing the war in Iraq and think America cannot win it.2

Most Americans want single-payer health insurance.3

Most Americans prefer investment in new energy technologies over exploration and drilling for more oil.4

We could add that most Americans want abortion to remain legal5 and the church to stay out of politics.6

If Obama is prepared to govern from the center, then these are the issues and the positions he will espouse. To the extent his administration waffles from these positions, to that extent will he be moving to the right and be in breach of his many pledges to serve the people.
1 Poll: Most Americans Think U.S. on Wrong Track, from CBS News, January 13, 2008 (All accessed November 21, 2008)
2 Poll: Less than half of Americans think U.S. can win in Iraq, fro CNN.com, March 13, 2007
3 Doctor’s Orders: Health Coverage for Everyone, by Daina Saib, from Yes! Magazine, Fall 2008
4 Poll: Americans Don’t Think More Drilling Will Lower Gas Prices, by Timothy B. Hurst, from Red Green and Blue, July 25, 2008
5 Abortion and Birth Control, from PollingReport.com
6 The Separation of Church and State: U.S. Public Opinion Polls, from ReligousTolerance.org
tags: Governance | Politics

The War on Tenure

Nov 25, 2008
A war on teacher tenure is about to break out.

Doug Ross, Superintendant of the high-functioning Detroit charter school, University Preparatory Academy, has said getting rid of tenure is one of two necessary steps to effective education reform, as we reported in The Next Step. Michelle Rhee, the hard-driving chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public schools, and an alumna of the forward-looking Teach for America program, has put her money (obtained from private foundations) where her mouth is, suggesting she will offer teachers pay raises as high as $40,0001 if they will give up their tenure rights.

There probably isn’t a public school principal in the nation who couldn’t point to one or more tenured members of their staff they would fire in a New York minute if they could. In fact, most people involved in public schools—students, other teachers, staff, and paraprofessionals—know who these bad apples are, typically teachers who have been around forever, have long ago lost their taste for children and teaching, and are just coasting along on decades-old lesson plans, or no plan at all.

The problem is that public schools are public and, as such, are inextricably a part of the political process. Teachers’ unions fought long and hard for tenure as a means of protecting their membership against arbitrary and politically or financially based firings that had little or nothing to do with performance. Additionally, classroom performance is devilishly difficult to assess in an ongoing, comprehensive, and objective manner.

Inarguably, our schools—and our children—are in deep trouble. Graduation rates below 50% plague inner-city schools, and the national graduation rate of around 68.6% (2006)2 is nothing to brag about when most decent-paying employment requires more than a high school education. Today’s children are the first generation in America less likely to graduate from high school than their parents,3 and school systems around the world are beating our pants off, particularly in the vital areas of science and math.

Were tenure to disappear tomorrow, we would be no closer to solving these problems. It will take a full-court press on the failures of the public school system—cultural, societal, parental, and political, as well as professional failures—to bring American schools closer to the standards set today in Asian and some European systems.

The Seed School model, which removes inner-city children from their blighted environment, may be what is required on a massive scale to save many of our children. For others the intensive attention paid to students in schools such as Ross’s noted above or the schools DuFour, et al., write about in Whatever It Takes: How Professional Learning Communities Respond When Kids Don’t Learn may be what is required. Certainly, we must recruit and retain the highest level of professionals to staff our systems, and we must pay Michelle Rhee-like salaries to do so.

Title II is a federal program that allocates $3 billion annually to promoting teacher and principal quality. The Education Sector, in its recent report, Title 2.0: Revamping the Federal Role in Education Human Capital (.pdf), recommends a reallocation of those funds to bring, in some cases, revolutionary reform to teacher recruitment, retention, and compensation.

Finally, however, we must confront the failure of the 150-year-old public school model itself—the custodial, plant-based, hierarchical, curriculum-centered (rather than student-centered), technologically backward model that is no longer sustainable in, or relevant to, a 21st century world.
1 A School Chief Takes on Tenure, Stirring a Fight, by Sam Dillon, from the New York Times, November 12, 2008 (Accessed November 21, 2008)
2 Public High School Graduation Rates, from the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (Accessed November 21, 2008)
3 Counting on Graduation (.pdf), by Anna Habash, from the Education Trust, quoting OECD, Education at a Glance 2007: OECD Indicators, Indicate A1, Table A1.2a (Accessed October 29, 2008)
tags: Education | Teaching

Separate and Unequal

Nov 24, 2008
Zionism, like apartheid, is a lost cause, and it is only a matter of time before it is consigned to history. Whether the Israeli people will take themselves down with it remains to be seen.

Author Joel Kovel, in his book, Overcoming Zionism (Pluto Press, 2007), argues that “only a single-state secular democracy can provide the justice essential to healing the wounds of the Middle East,”1 and we agree.

Kovel traces the history of Zionism, from Theodore Herzl to the present, and shows how its essentially racist policies are aimed not so much at subjugating the Palestinian people as they are at driving them entirely from the lands the Zionists believe is theirs by God-given right. An ardent advocate for acknowledging our common humanity, Kovel is essentially a “One-Worlder,” who understands that nationhood is a two-edged sword which, in its exclusionary, xenophobic, and inherently expansionary roles impedes the cause of world peace.

We know from hard-won experience that separate is inherently unequal. The walls must come down, the borders must be erased, the people must learn to live in a single, secular state. Impossible? Not so impossible as maintaining the status quo or forging an unjust, unequal, and futile two-state solution.

Thankfully, Zionism is a fading ideal in Israel, where the majority of the population now favor peace. They will move even closer to it when they realize they cannot live separate from the people they displaced. Can it happen? Can the Berlin Wall collapse without a single shot being fired? Can apartheid disappear without a drop of blood being spilt? Can America put a Black man in the White House?

Anything can happen.
1 Overcoming Zionism, Product Description, from Amazon.com (Accessed November 19, 2008)
tags: History | Working Together | Politics

City Lights

Nov 23, 2008
If the Obama administration doesn’t hit the ground running, it won’t be because the cities are dragging their feet. For a measly $24.5 billion (a tenth of the amount Treasury Secretary Paulson has already handed out to banks and investment houses, although we still do not know who has gotten what, and it hasn’t made much of a difference, has it?), the cities are ready to go with 4,591 infrastructure projects in 153 cities and in ten different categories, including energy, transit, highway, airport, Amtrak, water/wastewater, public safety, and school and public housing modernization.

In a press release from the United States Conference of Mayors, they state the projects are ready to go and could be started and completed in 2009. The projects would create more than a quarter of a million good-paying jobs.1

For a complete list of projects, costs, and employment figures, see the conference’s report, Ready-to-Go Projects (.pdf).

A boost to our sagging infrastructure and some major relief for our soaring unemployment! We hope Obama is listening, and we hope Paulson hasn’t emptied the whole $700 billion purse into his cronies’ pockets by January 20.

Update, Jan 13, 2009: The Conference of Mayors has released its third report. It now has over 15,000 ready-to-go projects in 641 cities capable of producing over 1.22 million jobs.2
1 Press Release (.pdf), November 14, 2008 (Accessed November 18, 2008)
2 Press Release (.pdf), December 19, 2008 (Accessed January 13, 2009)
tags: Economics | Employment | Politics

What's Logic Got to Do With It?

Nov 22, 2008
Post hoc ergo propter hoc is a logical fallacy that says, “Since that event followed this one, that event must have been caused by this one.”1 The usually level-headed Rand Corporation has fallen into this common error in its latest study on teenage pregnancy, which, in their news release, claims it is the “First to Link Viewing of Sexual Content on Television to Subsequent Teen Pregnancy.” This is not to say that watching a lot of sex on television does not lead to a tendency to become pregnant. However, it is just as logical to conclude that a tendency to become pregnant leads to watching a lot of sex on television.

We don’t personally know the current state of sexuality on television, being blissfully unencumbered by that annoyance; however, we are pretty sure it can’t hold a candle to the current state of sexuality on the Internet. There, if you can Google it, you can find it, in full-screen video. And we are sure it is having a far more profound effect on teen sexual activity than watching Tony Soprano climb on top of some pneumatic extra on HBO.

Among more certifiable truths regarding teen sexuality are these: Teen births declined precipitously from 60 births per 1,000 teens age 15 to 19 in 1991 to 40 in 2005. There was a slight increase in 2006.2 The abortion rate has also enjoyed significant declines since 1990, as we noted in No Sex, Please, We’re Abstaining. We expect when the new administration scuttles the ridiculous “abstinence only” sex education requirements associated with federal support of various family planning programs here and abroad that the abortion rate will be reduced even more dramatically.

The fact of the matter may just be that all this sex we are awash in is doing us more good than harm! A recent study published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence3 finds that “teens who have sex at an early age may be less inclined to exhibit delinquent behavior in early adulthood than their peers who waited until they were older to have sex.”4 Sex may even help these teens in developing better social relationships in early adulthood.

I whispered, “I am too young,”
And then, “I am old enough”;
Wherefore I threw a penny
To find out if I might love.
“Go and love, go and love, young man,
If the lady be young and fair.”
Ah, penny, brown penny, brown penny,
I am looped in the loops of her hair.

O love is the crooked thing,
There is nobody wise enough
To find out all that is in it,
For he would be thinking of love
Till the stars had run away
And the shadows eaten the moon.
Ah, penny, brown penny, brown penny,
One cannot begin it too soon.5

1 Post hoc ergo proper hoc, from Wikipedia (Accessed November 16, 2008)
2 Teenage Birth Rate Rises for First Time Since ’91, by Gardiner Harris, from the New York Times, December 6, 2007 (Accessed November 16, 2008)
3 Rethinking Timing of First Sex and Delinquency, by K. Paige Harden, et al., from Journal of Youth and Adolescence, volume 37, number 4, April 2008, pp. 373-385 (Accessed November 16, 2008)
4 Early Teen Sex May Not Be A Path To Delinquency, Study Shows, from ScienceDaily, November 14, 2007 (Accessed November 16, 2008)
5 Brown Penny, by William Butler Yeats (Accessed November 16, 2008)
tags: Youth | Health

...And Pulled Out a Plum

Nov 21, 2008
Speaking of transparency in government (which we were speaking of only yesterday in The See-Through Government), the Government Printing Office provides a great online resource containing way more information than you will ever need on who’s who in appointed (non-competitive) positions in the Executive and Legislative branches and various independent agencies of the federal government—the “plums,” in other words.

As we noted a few days ago, in Your Tax Dollars At Work, there are over 2.7 million federal employees. Many of them are civil servants in competitive positions, of course, but this resource is useful in finding out who is really running things, or disrupting them every four years, depending on your point of view.

Pay codes are noted, and you can check the 2009 Government Pay Schedule for help in decoding them. Bookmark for future reference. Also of great value is The Prune Book, which contains detailed job descriptions of agency heads and major subordinates.

Now, let’s see if Obama includes email addresses in the next edition.
tags: Governance | Reference | People

The See-Through Government

Nov 20, 2008
Is anyone paying attention? Probably not, since our government has been moving rapidly from a right-to-know to a need-to-know basis for the past eight, 30, 200 years or so. And for the past eight at least, our government has decided we need to know pretty much nothing beyond the barest and most mundane matters.

Former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, “Secrecy is for losers.” A democracy requires an informed citizenry to function properly, yet as far back as the Continental Congress and Constitutional Convention (both held outside public view), our federal government, especially the Executive branch, has preferred to act under a cloak of secrecy from the public it represents. According to Bill Moyers, “LBJ had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the signing ceremony” for the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in 1966 and Gerald Ford, with the urging of a trio of characters in his administration named Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Scalia, actually vetoed FOIA amendments in 1974 (and saw his veto easily overridden by Congress).

Now, scores of organizations and individuals across the political spectrum, spearheaded by OMBWatch, have joined forces as the “21st Century Right to Know Project.” They have produced a comprehensive report detailing secrecy in government, together with 70 recommendations to the Obama administration for opening up government to public scrutiny, entitled Moving Toward a 21st Century Right-to-Know Agenda (.pdf).

Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests can take decades to fulfill.1,2 And secrecy comes in many flavors, including utilizing multiple levels of classification of documents, misleading the public and Congress, punishing whistleblowers, censoring scientists, and violating the Constitution with warrantless surveillance or detentions, all of which have been defining characteristics of the Bush administration. The report reveals many other such ploys.

At Change.gov the Obama administration is already displaying a greater level of transparency than we have been used to in recent times. Let’s ramp up our attention level now, both to become better informed about those who exercise real power over our economic and social futures, and to make sure this trend toward transparency continues.
1 40 Years of FOIA; 20 Years of Delay, from the National Security Archive, July 2, 2007 (Accessed November 16, 2008)
2 Freedom of Information Delays Take Years, by Richard Wolf, from USA Today, June 18, 2007 (Accessed November 16, 2008)
tags: Governance | Obama

Poor No More; No More Poor!

Nov 19, 2008
We’re sorry, but we’re going to keep harping on poor people until we get rid of them.

Poor people cost us money. When they get sick, they jack up our health insurance premiums with their uninsured visits to emergency rooms; when desperation drives them to crime, they fill our overfull prisons; they are responsible for scores of expensive local, state, and federal safety-net-type programs, from food stamps to SCHIP to WIC to you-name-it; and too many of them vote Republican which, as we know, costs us all real money.

A short report from the Working Poor Families Project entitled Still Working Hard, Still Falling Short explodes many of the myths surrounding working poor families, and reports how their numbers have skyrocketed during a period of solid economic growth.

A low-income working family (LIWF) is defined as a married-couple or single-parent family with at least one child under the age of 18 earning less than 200 percent of the poverty income threshold as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau. In 2006, that was $41,228 for a family of four. It is worthwhile to remember that the poverty income threshold is higher than a full-time job earns at the federal minimum wage, never mind 200 percent of that threshold. And 22 percent of all jobs, more than one in five, pay less than the poverty income threshold.

  • The number of LIWFs increased by 350,000 between 2002 and 2006.
  • During that period, the economy added 4.7 million jobs paying at the poverty-threshold level.
  • Almost half of all jobs require more than a high school education, and 88 million adult workers are not ready for these positions.
  • Myth: LIWFs are slackers. Truth: The average annual work effort of LIWFs is the equivalent of 1.25 full-time jobs.
  • Myth: LIWFs are headed by single parents. Truth: 52 percent of LIWFs are headed by married couples.
  • Myth: LIWFs are headed by immigrants. Truth: 69 percent of LIWFs have only American-born parents.
  • As a Vermonter, we are proud to see that Vermont ranks number 1 in income equality between the top and bottom income quintiles.
Although many states are implementing innovative policies involving skills training and financial aid, we believe the federal government should cut to the chase, end poverty among working Americans overnight, and save us all a ton of money. See our November 15, 2008, item, Double Up and Win for the magic formula.

And once we have money in American pockets and at least a high school diploma on every wall, the Republicans will have to stop relying on the ignorant poor to win elections; return to the core values of the party of Lincoln, T.R., and Eisenhower; and perhaps reclaim a degree of respect within the framework of American politics.
tags: Poverty | Politics | Labor

The High Cost of Winning

Nov 18, 2008
Money in politics. Whether viewed as the 800-pound gorilla or the elephant in the room, it is the animal we seem doomed to have to live with. Try as we might, we cannot tame this beast, which grows more voracious at each election cycle. We recall being appalled at the $60 million Nixon’s re-election committee raised in 1972. Today, that’s chump change even in 2008 dollars, as the presidential campaigns for the first time this year passed the billion-dollar mark in revenues raised.1

The Campaign Finance Institute has given us a revealing “First Look at Money in the House and Senate Elections”—a first look because a few races are still unresolved. Among the most notable results:

The High Cost of Winning
Winners in the House races raised an average of $1,282,597 in 2008, twice the amount raised ten years ago. On the Senate side, winners raised $5,507,146, a third more than was raised by winners ten years ago.

When You Gotta Go, You Gotta Go
In the House race, 15 Democrats and 4 Republicans defeated incumbents, and they did so even though they raised, on average, around $400,000 less than their incumbent opponents. Nevertheless, 377 other House incumbents won re-election, outraising their upstart challengers two-and-a-half to one. Similarly on the Senate side, the two incumbents who lost (both Republicans—Sununu (NH) and Dole (NC)) outraised their Democratic challengers almost two to one and still failed to retain their seats. Twenty-four incumbents won in the Senate, outraising their challengers by over three-and-a-half to one. Incumbency may be an advantage, but it is an expensive one.

Landslide or Squeaker?
Results in the races for open seats (no incumbent) in the House and Senate may be a good indication of just how profound the move to the left was in this election. Was Obama’s commanding electoral count (about 365 to McCain’s 162) reflected in Democratic successes in runs for open seats? In a word, no. Of five open seats in the Senate, three were won by Democrats and two by Republicans. Of the 33 open seats in the House, Democrats won a slim majority of 17; Republicans, 16. The three Democratic senators had to raise an average of $10 million dollars for those seats; the two Republicans only $3.3 million. Put those laurels back in the closet. We can’t rest on them yet.

A Little Help From Our Friends
Figures above reflect monies raised by candidate campaigns. Add to the mix the “independent expenditures” by national party committees in the 2008 Congressional general election alone, which amounted to $204,261,538. The Democratic committees outspent the Republicans two-and-a-half to one. The lion’s share of the $36 million spent by the Republican Senatorial Committee—$23,683,935—went to two definite losers, Sununu and Dole, and two potential losers (results are not yet in), Coleman (MN) and Smith (OR). The Democratic Senatorial Committee spent $42,817,912 on those races.
We may as well reconcile ourselves to the sorry fact that money in politics is here to stay, at least until some smart lawyer can disassociate campaign contributions from freedom of speech to the satisfaction of five Supreme Court justices. Until that day, let’s remember the power of the little guy in politics. If the roughly 125 million people who voted in the 2008 presidential election each contributed a mere $15 to a national campaign finance fund, it would raise as much money as all the federal races combined, and that includes candidate and party revenues. As these funds come from small, individual donations over time, perhaps our elected officials will voluntarily spend less time cuddling up to the fat cats and corporate hegemonists and pay more attention to the people they are supposed to represent.

If not, we’re going to have to take it to the polls, find candidates who will represent us, and throw the blackguards out.
1 Banking on Becoming President, from OpenSecrets.org (Accessed November 15, 2008)
tags: Politics | Congress

What Now, Where Now, How Now?

Nov 17, 2008
Okay, our guy is busily naming his inner-circle aides (too many of whom are right of center) and floating ideas for cabinet secretaries (too many of whom are right of center). He has received thousands of job applications, met with Bush, started a commendable web site (change.gov), gone puppy shopping, and is generally getting himself ready for the big day.

What about the rest of us?

How do we continue that great leap of faith that brought us to the polls on November 4, audaciously hoping for change? Because if Obama’s past actions and present maneuverings are any indication, he is going to have to have a lot of help, with much pressure and many loud voices brought to bear, to move him toward doing the right things—and there are so many right things that need doing.

Frankly, we are not sure how best to organize the progressive voice we want speaking loudly and clearly to the White House. However, we do know the Internet is a powerful organizational tool, and we have been taking advantage of the Information Superhighway to speak truth to power for some time now, singly and in unison with many others. Here are a few ways we have found to participate and support the cause; you might look to “climb aboard” the Obama Express by joining one or more of these groups, too. We will bring others to your attention as they come to ours:

The granddaddy of online progressive membership sites. MoveOn is also first out of the gate with a planned activity. They are organizing local get-togethers this Thursday for people to celebrate Obama’s victory and to “brainstorm ways to work together locally to take advantage of this new opportunity for progressive change.” They boast 4.2 million members in their 10th year.
Founded by Howard Dean and chaired by his brother, Jim, DFA has 725,000 members and was instrumental in identifying, targeting, and supporting many key congressional races in 2008.
Founded by Ben Cohen of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, TrueMajority’s central objective is to “increase America’s investment in programs that benefit our children (like schools, health care, HeadStart) by cutting Cold War weapons systems and shifting our savings.”
Born out of the Katrina disaster, ColorOfChange.org “is comprised of Black folks from every economic class, as well as those of every color who seek to help our voices be heard.... We will do all we can to make sure all Americans are represented, served, and protected—regardless of race or class.”
ActBlue is a fundraising organization that uses the tools of the Internet to raise small amounts from many donors to advance progressive goals. Since 2004, they have sent more than $82 million dollars to 3200 candidates and committees from more than 420,000 donors. A central spot to find your candidate or cause and donate a few dollars.
Avaaz is international in scope, and has attracted 3.2 million members worldwide in just over a year. Their “simple democratic mission [is] to close the gap between the world we have, and the world most people everywhere want.”
Filmmaker Robert Greenwald is the brains behind this very busy site. “Using cutting-edge new internet video campaigns, Brave New Films has created a quick-strike capability that challenges corporate media with the truth and empowers political action nationwide.”
Although J Street, like most everyone else, supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestine conflict (we are among the minority that think only a one-state solution can endure), they are still worthy of our attention. “J Street represents Americans, primarily but not exclusively Jewish, who support Israel and its desire for security as the Jewish homeland, as well as the right of the Palestinians to a sovereign state of their own.... J Street supports diplomatic solutions over military ones....”
We know this group only through one of its clients, OilChange. It is an organization that provides e-advocacy tools to progressive non-profits, essentially providing many of the sophisticated communication, fundraising, and action tools that are found in the larger sites noted above. What a great idea!
These sites all reach out to their membership via email, providing us with news and with opportunities to sign petitions, take part in local activities, and communicate targeted appeals to our congressional representatives and the executive branch. If you know of others like them, let us know. We support all the above sites with our attention, our participation, and a few of our dollars. Those few dollars from a few million people will ultimately break the back of corporate sponsors and free our representatives to represent us and not them.

So climb aboard and get involved. As Obama said, his victory only provides an opportunity for change. The progressive agenda has moved to the center in America. The majority want universal single-payer health care, an end to militarism and the corporate/military hegemony, fiscal equity for working people, world-class education for all children, and a peaceful and just world.

However, the forces of darkness are still with us, and you may assume that without you, without me, without us, none of this will happen.
tags: Obama | Governance | Working Together

Now is the Hour1

Nov 16, 2008
A new political dawn is breaking in America. A black Democrat is on his way into the White House with a large mandate—and expectation—for change.

How did it all happen? A look at three selected national maps will tell a large part of the tale. Open these in separate tabs or windows, so you can go from one to the other. (Hint for Internet Explorer or Firefox users: right click the links):

The first two maps provide a graphic view of the “blue-ing” of America between the 2004 and 2008 elections. However, note where the holdouts—the rock-hard Republicans— reside. Other than the sparsely populated upper midwest and western states, they tend to be in the used-to-be solid South and Alaska (it was expected McCain would win his home state of Arizona).

Now compare this map to the third one, showing rates of high school graduation in the 2004-2005 school year. There are exceptions, to be sure; however, there is a clear correlation between many red states and, in this case, the white states with the lowest graduation rates. Virginia and North Carolina broke away from the solid South this year, and neither state is white. A recent New York Times article sheds light on why this happened, noting that Virginia and North Carolina “made history last week in breaking from their Confederate past and supporting Mr. Obama. Those states have experienced an influx of better educated and more prosperous voters in recent years.... Southern counties that voted more heavily Republican this year than in 2004 tended to be poorer, less educated and white....”2

So there it is and there is our cue for the future: If we want to break the modern red-state dominance over our political system, a dominance that has brought us vast inequities in wealth, lost wars, corporate hegemony, a damaged reputation, a tattered Constitution, and a failed economy; a dominance which today we can only hope we have begun to reverse, then we have to get money into the pockets of working men and women, and we have to provide our nation’s children with a proper education.

A living wage and universal quality education. These must be our priorities in the coming days and years, not misusing our wealth in bailing out banks, propping up failed industries, or committing atrocities against medieval civilizations in order to steal their resources.

We are a nation in the enviable position of being able to end ignorance and want within our borders and in our time. Now, together, we must find the will to do so.
1 A Christmas Carol—Ignorance and Want. Our illustration is taken from the scene in the Alistair Sim Christmas Carol where the Ghost of Christmas Present opens his robe to reveal two starving children, whom he names Ignorance and Want, huddled at his feet. View the scene on YouTube by clicking the link.
2 For South, a Waning Hold on National Politics, by Adam Nossiter, from the New York Times, November 10, 2008 (Accessed November 11, 2008)
tags: Governance | Education | Economics

Double Up and Win

Nov 15, 2008
Do the math.

$6.55 x 40 hours x 52 weeks = $13,624.

If Obama wants to stimulate the economy, he can do a far better job of it than by sending middle class Americans another rebate check, lowering their taxes, raising taxes on the rich, freezing mortgage foreclosures, paying businesses $3,000 for every new domestic hire, or bailing out General Motors. These are all ideas that have been floated recently and it is not to say that some of them aren’t excellent ideas that should be implemented on January 21, if possible (others aren’t and shouldn’t). However, we have an even better idea. On top of immediately infusing a big percentage of the work force with some disposable income, our idea will right a long-standing wrong and eliminate working class poverty in America overnight:

Double the federal minimum wage.

It is immoral to pay a full-time worker less than a living wage. This is the meaning of 1 Timothy 5:18: “For the Scripture says, ... ‘The laborer is worthy of his wages.’”1

For additional statistics regarding the minimum wage, poverty thresholds, and a living wage, click the Poverty or Economics tags in the left-hand column.

We can fiddle with the obscene wealth of the top one percent and fuss with bailouts and middle class tax cuts until the cows come home. But if we want to take a giant step toward redistributing wealth appropriately in this country, we should start by respecting the value of our labor. It matters not whether you flip burgers, clean toilets, or manage a hedge fund. Full-time labor is worthy of a living wage, and the 25 percent of the population currently earning less than that—yes, one out of every four workers!—should demand it, and those of us earning more should stand in solidarity with them.

Anything less in the richest country in the world is bad politics, bad governance, and just plain wrong.
1 Parallel Translations, at Biblos.com, quoting the New American Standard Bible. See also Matthew 10:10 and Luke 10:7.
tags: Labor | Poverty | Governance

Lonely House

Nov 14, 2008

Lonely house, lonely me;
Funny, with so many neighbors
How lonely it can be.
Lonely street, lonely town
Funny, you can be so lonely
With all those folks around.

We are becoming a lonely nation. The number of Americans who said they have no close confidants tripled between 1985 and 2004. The US Census estimates that 30 percent more Americans will live alone in 2010 than did so in 1980.1 There are almost twice as many single-parent households today than there were in 1970, with only about two-thirds of 73 million children living in a household with two married parents.2

Hannah Arendt had a theory that totalitarian governments wanted their subjects to be lonely. Isolating the populace was a political maneuver, fostering in them an inability to act because there is no one to act with.3 Fear, of course, isolates people as well, and the fear card has been played with a vengeance for the past eight years.

The automobile has taken us away from each other, and if we know our neighbors’ names we rarely know much more about them. Grandma is in the nursing home, the kids are upstairs at their computers, and Dad just fell asleep in front of the TV. Consumerism, generally practiced alone with earbuds intact, has replaced the ice cream social, tag, and a host of other opportunities to mingle with our fellows.

The Internet is supposed to change everything, but has it? Facebook and MySpace strike us as intensely, excruciatingly lonely endeavors, with millions of mostly young voices crying for attention in the void of cyberspace. Political organizing—MoveOn.org’s four million members being the prime example—has resulted only in daily email monologues from the organizers, isolating us the more by their incessant din and appeals for money.

This state of affairs is of great moment to us at All Together Now. Our theme, after all, is in our name. Our species’ gregariousness is a survival mechanism; we dominate life on this planet through our ability to communicate and cooperate. As our inclinations to do either begin to fade, or are inhibited through the machinations of the few, the stability of our species and our planet is endangered. Obama, like Bush before him, has promised to bring us together. Such a promise, even if kept this time around, is not enough. Only we can bring ourselves together—back together. As we struggle to do so, ATN will be here to cheer us on, to mark our triumphs, and to facilitate the process in whatever ways we can.

I guess there must be something I don't comprehend;
Sparrows have companions, even stray dogs find a friend.
The night for me is not romantic;
Unhook the stars and take them down.
I'm lonely in this lonely house
In this lonely town.4

1 Lonely Together, Caleb Crain, from The National, October 30, 2008
2 Single-Parent Households Showed Little Variation Since 1994, Census Bureau Reports
3 Hannah Arendt: Prophet for Our Time, by James M. Campbell (All footnotes accessed November 6, 2008)
4 Lonely House, lyrics by Elmer Rice, music by Kurt Weill, from Street Scene. The link will take you to one of many YouTube performances, this one by tenor John Longmuir.
tags: ATN | Working Together | Human Nature

A Puzzling Proposition

Nov 13, 2008
If you like challenging puzzles (or have a friend who does), do yourself (or them) a big favor and buy The DC Puzzler: The Book of Mystery-Theme Double-Crostics. Proceeds will support expenses for this web site.

Click here for a sample puzzle, then print out the resulting page in landscape.

Double-crostics superficially resemble crossword puzzles, but are both more fun and more challenging. And they actually have a purpose: the working out of a funny, profound, moving, or merely diverting quotation by a noted author. The book contains full directions on solving double-crostics.

Our puzzles introduce a new wrinkle to the old format. Each puzzle has a theme suggested by something in the quotation, and the theme is hidden throughout all the other parts of the puzzle. Discovering the theme then becomes a useful—and sometimes necessary—component in solving the puzzle.

This volume (we have others in the works) contains 60 puzzles, each with a different quotation from one of the 56 short stories and 4 novellas in the Sherlock Holmes canon. But don’t worry—you don’t have to know anything about Holmes in order to solve the puzzles and enjoy the quotations (well, it might help a little on a couple of them).

Send a check made out to Dale Copps for $14.95 for each copy desired and mail it to:

Dale Copps
22 Day Street
Windsor, VT 05089

And Happy Puzzling!

tags: ATN

Farewell to All This

Nov 12, 2008
We write this piece five days before the election, although it will not appear until eight days after it is over. Today, the radio, newspapers, television, and Internet are abuzz with efforts by the Republicans to limit the Democratic vote: to purge voter rolls1; to intimidate new, elderly, and minority voters2; to deny paper ballot alternatives where electronic voting machines have proven defective3,4; to ensure long lines in Democratic districts5; to fool the unwary into turning up to vote on Wednesday6; to produce ballots so confusing as to guarantee many voters won’t vote for the candidate of their choice.7

If we cannot agree that we should make every effort to find, register, and bring to the polls all qualified voters;

If we cannot agree to invite, welcome, and inform new, elderly, and minority voters;

If we cannot agree to offer every voter who is unsure of the reliability of electronic voting machines the alternative of a paper ballot;

If we cannot agree to provide sufficient voting booths or machines at every polling station, and to keep those stations open long enough for voters to cast their ballots efficiently and expeditiously;

If we cannot agree to vigorously pursue, prosecute, and imprison anyone guilty of dirty tricks intended to limit voter turnout;

If we cannot agree to produce simple, clear ballots that can be easily understood by any literate American;

If we cannot agree that the right to vote is the most precious and fundamental right a free people can bestow on themselves;

If we cannot agree on these principles, then we cannot agree on anything; our Constitution is a sham; “We the People” is a sham; and our promise to the world, to ourselves, and to our posterity is a cruel and malicious deception.
1 U.S. judge orders Colo. to stop purging voter rolls, from USA Today, October 31, 2008 (Accessed October 31, 2008)
2 Legislators voice concern about voter intimidation in St. Paul police pay campaign, by Mara H. Gottfried, from TwinCities.com (The St. Paul Pioneer Press web site), October 31, 2008 (Accessed October 31, 2008)
3 U.S. judge orders backup paper ballots in PA, from USA Today, October 29, 2008 (Accessed October 31, 2008)
4 Vote Flipping on Touch Screens in WV, from Bradblog.com (Accessed October 31, 2008)
5 Long lines, glitches reported during early voting, from CNN, October 28, 2008 (Accessed October 31, 2008)
6 Phony Flyer Tells Virginia Democrats to Vote Wednesday, November 5, by Karen Hatter, from NowPublic.com, October 28, 2008 (Accessed October 31, 2008)
7 Voting Rights Watch: Could confusing ballots swing the presidential election in NC?, from The Institute for Southern Studies, October 20, 2008 (Accessed October 31, 2008)
tags: Politics | Governance

The Worm in Teacher’s Apple

Nov 11, 2008
Here’s how bad it’s gotten. The United States is the “only industrialized country in the world in which today’s young people are less likely than their parents to have completed high school.”1 In other words, as far as educating ourselves, we peaked during the last generation and are now on our way downhill.

Furthermore, over one in three African-American and Hispanic students fail to graduate high school on time, and overall graduation rates for these populations are abysmal, in some cases under 50 percent.

The report from The Education Trust entitled Counting On Graduation indicates the wide range of expectations set by the states for graduation rates, and the ridiculously low goals they establish for improvements. This latter is owing to a weakness in the No Child Left Behind law which leaves to the states the setting of minimum graduation rate improvements to be met annually. In some cases, the annual targets, if met each year, would not raise graduation rates to their ultimate goals until sometime well after 2100.

The numbers game is not a game, and the next administration will, to our peril, treat education in as cavalier and cynical a manner as the last one has. Neglected human capital winds up in jail, on the streets, on the dole, and in emergency rooms, costing us enormous big bucks out of our pockets, not to mention the unwritten words, the unimagined artifacts, and the stillborn insights which, had we treasured and nourished one another’s potential as we ought, might have accrued to the welfare and delight of us all.
1 Counting on Graduation, by Anna Habash, from the Education Trust, quoting OECD, Education at a Glance 2007: OECD Indicators, Indicate A1, Table A1.2a (Accessed October 29, 2008)
tags: Education | Governance

Your Tax Dollars at Work

Nov 10, 2008
Over 19 million people work for local, state, and federal government in the U.S. That is over six percent of the total population—men, women, kids, retirees, everybody. And it is over 12 percent of the total civilian workforce of 154 million—one in every eight and one-third workers.1

Something just under 9 million government employees—almost half—work in local and state education.2 An additional 7.5 million work in local and state government, providing hospital and police services (slightly under 1 million each); corrections (three-quarters of a million); highways and public welfare (half a million each); and a host of other services at lesser numbers. Eight thousand state workers staff liquor stores.

The executive branch of the federal government accounts for the lion’s share of 2,713,000 federal employees, employing 2,649,000 of them, leaving only 30,000 and 33,800 employees for the legislative and judicial branches respectively.

We thought you might like to know why the other seven and one-third of us have to work so hard.
1 Economic Situation Summary from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, October 3, 2008 (Accessed October 27, 2008)
2 2007 Census of Governments Counts 16 Million State and Local Employees, from the U.S. Census Bureau, October 22, 2008 (Accessed October 27, 2008)
tags: Employment | Governance

Toward a New Parent-Teacher Association

Nov 09, 2008
“Research confirms what common sense suggests: parents are central to the educational success of their children.” This conclusion comes from One Dream, Two Realities: Perspectives of Parents on America’s High School, by John M. Bridgeland, et al., from Civic Enterprises in association with Peter D. Hart Research Associates and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The study was based on a survey of 1,006 parents of current or recent high school students from urban, suburban, and rural areas of the country. There are currently 25 million parents who have children in high school. The survey categorized high schools as high performing or low performing based on the proportion of students from those schools who went on to college. This is probably a more defensible criterion today than in the past. A high school education alone is simply not adequate to prepare a student for the demands of a high-tech, knowledge-based, 21st century world.

Among the findings:

  • Parents understand that this is a more demanding world than it was 20 years ago (61%). Parents with only a high school degree believe this to be true more often (71%) than do parents with a graduate degree (49%).
  • Parents share high aspirations for their children. Again, African-American parents and Hispanic parents consider going to college very important (92% and 90%) compared to 78% of white parents.
  • Parents know their involvement is important, those in low-performing schools (85%) even more than parents overall (80%).
  • Parents in low-performing schools, not surprisingly, feel more left out of the process then parents in high-performing schools. They feel their children aren’t being challenged or properly prepared for college, and the schools are not doing a good job of communicating or involving the parents or are doing so only superficially;
  • All parents want better access and participation in their children’s school lives than they currently have; they want earlier contact and more information during early high school years regarding what it will take to get their children into college; and they want a single point of contact at the school who will maintain close communication with them.
We have hands-on experience in the schools, as a high school teacher in a privileged suburb 35 years ago, and as a rural elementary school librarian in the 1990s. Parental involvement is a trickier proposition than this report sometimes illuminates. Today, dysfunctional families abound, particularly in urban and rural areas, and teachers who would love the opportunity of communicating with the parents of some of their children never see them throughout the entire course of the child’s high school education. The additional socializing responsibilities the schools have had to take on over the past generation reflect this decline of adequate nurturing in the home.

A comprehensive solution to increasing parental involvement must address this problem and must provide creative new methods to solve it. Parents must be encouraged, trained, engaged, and, yes, if necessary, required to be parents. Then the recommendations made by this study to create a truly cooperative environment involving students, teachers, parents, and school support personnel will have a chance of succeeding. And in those instances when proper parenting of a child is simply not in the cards—and there will be many such instances—society must be prepared to provide an alternative.

Side Note: When we were an elementary school librarian, we wrote a comprehensive K-6 curriculum for learning library skills, published it throughout the school, and sent it home, so students and parents understood what was expected. Every item in the curriculum included suggested parental activities to enhance the learning taking place in school. The published curriculum was a breath of fresh air for all who saw it, many of whom expressing surprise and gratitude at seeing and understanding for the first time the shape and process of a full-blown course curriculum. It was ultimately distributed to colleagues across the country. The learning environment, and just what goes on there, is often a great mystery to students and parents alike. Raising the veil on that mystery is a key component in acquiring the cooperation of all parties in this vital undertaking.
tags: Education

We’ll Drink to That!

Nov 08, 2008
The Southeast is experiencing a profound and extended drought, and the situation is not likely to improve. With a growing population and the impact of global warming on communities and their rivers, policymakers need to get clever about assuring a supply of clean water to present and future generations. After all, they aren’t building any new rivers, and rainfall has become quite erratic around the world.

This is one area where conservation will play a key role. Hidden Reservoir: Why Water Efficiency is the Best Solution for the Southeast, by Jenny Hoffner, from American Rivers, argues that water efficiency, rather than more dams and other costly alternatives, can assure cost-effective water supply to the Southeast. Their nine-point efficiency plan is one that should be considered nationwide:

  • Stop leaks. Fourteen percent of total water use is lost every day through leaks.
  • Price water right. A fraction of a penny per gallon increase in price can yield a 15 percent drop in consumption. Charge more to those who use above-average amounts of water.
  • Meter all water use. We can’t charge for consumption if we don’t know how much is being consumed.
  • Retrofit old buildings. If all U.S. households had water-efficient appliances, enough water would be saved to supply all eight southeastern states with their entire water supply. Rebates, free audits, and, if necessary, mandates can speed the process along.
  • Landscape to minimize water waste. Homes in the Southeast consume 30 percent of their water outdoors watering lawns and plants. Tampa Bay has reduced outdoor water use by 25 percent and can show the way.
  • Increase public understanding. We know nothing about our water. Such ignorance is a luxury we can no longer afford.
  • Build smart for the future. Half the homes that will exist in 2030 have not yet been built. As they are, enact new provisions that will make better use of water, including “dual plumbing” that will promote use of varying qualities of available water. Why spend a lot of money purifying water for drinking if it is just going down the toilet?
  • Return water to the river. There is a sustainable level of withdrawal from rivers; exceed it and the life and health of the river is threatened. Some water efficiency savings should be given back.
  • Involve water users in decisionmaking. Working together is the best way to insure the development of fair and effective water policy.
Water is the elemental resource and no power on earth can create more of it than there is. Efficient use is the key to water sustainability. Lose the key, and you open the door to resource wars, dried-up riverbeds, and disease.
tags: Water

The Next Step

Nov 07, 2008
Charter schools, vouchers, school choice, No Child Left Behind, blah, blah, blah. We are awash in jargon and unfunded mandates and a generalized sense of desperation surrounding the state of K-to-post-grad education in America, and with good reason. (See our Panic Time for a few good reasons.) The question is, “What Next?” Because the time for “next” is most emphatically now. As we contemplate a new administration in January, we have an opportunity for a new vision and a new direction in American education. There are people and programs that are already living that new direction, and we will go in search of them between now and inauguration day.

We start with the Progressive Policy Institute and its memo To: The Next President; Re: Closing the Graduation Gap by Giving Schools Greater Autonomy (.pdf), by Doug Ross, Superintendent of the University Preparatory Academy in Detroit, Michigan.

Detroit has an abysmal graduation rate of only 25 percent for its boys, and only 32 percent overall. Better inner-city schools catering to poor Black and Hispanic students still enjoy graduation rates hovering around 50 percent.

Ross’s charter school, on the other hand, which he helped start eight years ago, “graduated 93 percent of its entirely African-American, overwhelmingly poor senior class in June 2007, and enrolled 91 percent of those graduates in college or technical school.” They have now re-enrolled for their second year at rates above the statewide average for all freshmen.

How does he and the 50 other similarly constituted schools throughout the U.S. do it? Ross points to four characteristics they all have in common:

  • The schools take full responsibility for motivating urban students to learn, doing what it takes to create powerful relationships between students and teachers.
  • They create a school environment where achievement, aspiration, and hard work are socially valued, by obsessively emphasizing that all of their students will learn and that, of course, all will graduate and go on to higher education.
  • They make it their business to know how each student is doing academically and socially.
  • They do whatever it takes to make sure every student succeeds.
What does it require to empower schools to take on this intensive, hands-on approach? Two things, says Ross, both of which are political landmines: absolute autonomy, shifting power from the large central bureaucracies that currently direct every big-city school system; and the abolition of tenure as we know it, with the principal able to hire and fire at will.

Ross calls on the next president to speak up from his bully pulpit in favor of reform; to supplement the penalities in No Child Left Behind with positive reinforcements and more money; and to bring together coalitions of interested parties to devise strategies for overcoming bureaucratic opposition from local boards and teachers’ unions.

Ross doesn’t underestimate the challenges involved in turning American education upside down; however, he has seen the value of doing it first-hand, and his example deserves study and emulation.
tags: Education

Our Better Selves

Nov 06, 2008
With the election of Barack Obama, we have consulted our better selves and taken a step back from the brink. It is not a giant step, and it does not include an about-face.

We are ten trillion dollars in debt; two futile and unwinnable wars continue to rage while opportunities for effective resistance to our enemies are squandered or ignored; our vicious, inhuman, and unilateral militarism, which both Washington and Eisenhower warned us against, oppresses the world; one in every six Americans is without protection against ill health and the other five are abused by a hugely expensive, inefficient, and underperforming system; rampaging, unregulated capitalism dominates our economy and our elected officials, enriching a tiny few at the expense of American business, the American worker, our world, and future generations; and fewer children are graduating high school today than did their parents a generation ago.

Obama has done little to address these issues head on and, when he has, his responses have been equivocal and his proffered solutions inadequate or wrongheaded. He is surrounded by advisers from the failed Clinton administration, starting with his new chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel (whom Nader describes as a “militarist reactionary,”1) and he has alienated both the Muslim world and the American and Israeli Jewish majority yearning for peace by continuing our ham-handed defense of the increasingly isolated radical Jewish right. Through his votes he has explicitly supported domestic spying and implicitly corroborated in the war crimes and unconstitutional acts of the Bush administration.

And yet...and yet.

To be witness to the election of a smart, sane, compassionate African-American to the highest office in the land is the culmination of a dream which even Martin Luther King might not have imagined he would see had he been granted a normal lifespan. He would have been 80 years old on Inauguration Day.

With all due respect to the memory of Ronald Reagan, January 20, 2009, will bring us a true Morning in America, the first since that chilly day in March 1933.

As for what the rest of that day will bring us, that is up to us. It will bring us, as all days bring us, precisely and solely what we make of it.
1 Hold Your Heads Up High, an email communication dated and accessed November 5, 2008
tags: Politics | Governance | Obama

The Day After

Nov 05, 2008
Let us hope today, which we are writing about on October 25, is not as horrific an aftermath as that depicted in the TV film “The Day After” 25 years ago.1

We have lived under the threat of nuclear annihilation our entire life. How can this world continue to tolerate the anxiety and the threat of these weapons? Some signs point to the possibility that it cannot and will not continue to tolerate them. Most leaders of nuclear nations have expressed interest in reducing the world’s arsenal of nuclear weapons, and the U.S. is actively reducing our own.2 Nevertheless, much remains to be done to move efforts along aimed at zero nuclear weapons in a world where the global development of nuclear power for peaceful purposes is set to expand significantly in the next generation.

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has produced a reported entitled Abolishing Nuclear Weapons: Why the United States Should Lead, by George Perkovich. Billed as “Foreign Policy for the Next President,” it sets out “four security interests that would be served by making the long-term project of abolishing nuclear weapons a central purpose of U.S. policy:

  • Preventing proliferation
  • Preventing nuclear terrorism
  • Reducing towards zero the unique threat of nuclear annihilation
  • Fostering optimism regarding U.S. global leadership
Should America one day return to rational governance, these goals could be met. The Carnegie report bears reading in order to understand the difficulties the country faces—internally and externally—in pursuing these goals.

Difficult or not, it is the ultimate responsibility of the nation that brought nuclear weapons into the world to see that they are ultimately removed.
1 The Day After (1983) (TV), from IMDB (Accessed October 25, 2008)
2 United States Reducing Nuclear Weapons at an Extraordinary Pace, by Jacquelyn S. Port, from America.gov, April 25, 2008 (Accessed October 25, 2008)
tags: Militarism | Nuclear | Politics

Election Day

Nov 04, 2008
One hundred and twenty-two million people—60.6 percent of eligible voters—voted in the 2004 election. Higher numbers are predicted for today, although they are unlikely to go as high as 200 million, which some have predicted.1

The 2000 election debacle resulted in the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002. This federal program provided money to the states which, constitutionally, are in charge of elections in this country The money was for purposes of improving the administration of federal elections. In some cases, it has been spent wisely and appropriately, and in other cases it has been spent to obfuscate, complicate, befuddle, and, finally, to disenfranchise those voters most likely to vote for progressive and Democratic candidates.2

Today, we find out whether the misappropriation of HAVA funds, together with the dirty tricks and voter intimidation tactics of the Republican Party and the racism marbled through the layers of our society will propel an unqualified and dangerous candidate into the White House.

Woe unto our nation—and our world—if it does.
1 Record Turnout Likely for 2008 General Election, by Meghan Loftus, from America.gov, October 2, 2008 (Accessed October 25, 2008)
2 Help America Vote Act, Criticisms from Wikipedia (Accessed October 25, 2008)
tags: Politics

And the Envelope, Please...

Nov 03, 2008
Tomorrow you will vote in the most important and momentous election in your lifetime. It is no exaggeration to say the future of our world hangs in the balance.

Some of you won’t vote for fear of being arrested if you show up at the polls, or you will go to the wrong address, or you will get tired of waiting for hours in line, or your ballot will be thrown out for any of a dozen reasons, or you won’t show up until the day after tomorrow because Democrats have been scheduled to vote on Wednesday owing to the expected heavy turnout.

We will never know how many hundreds of thousands of votes will be lost through these Republican shenanigans.

Our country is in the midst of a bloodless fascist takeover. A conspiracy of far, far right ideologues have gotten all the fools on their side, and when you do that, as Frank Dane said, you can be elected to anything. Particularly if you are ready, willing, and able to resort to any unethical and criminal act necessary to assure that election.

We have been agonizing over our vote for many months. The Republicans and Democrats have put up candidates whose positions on the vital issues of the day—the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the fiscal, health care, and educational crises; the erosion of our Constitutional rights—are essentially the same. That one of the candidates is an intelligent, articulate, and charismatic black man only adds to the frustration we feel at his illiberal and short-sighted policies.

In contrast, our views—as well as the majority views of the American public—have had a voice in Ralph Nader’s independent candidacy. Nader understands, as Eisenhower did, the peril of ceding our freedoms to a corporate plutocracy that has co-opted and now controls both major parties and, as a result, the political future of our country. If this stranglehold is not broken, and soon, America will cease even paying lip service to its ideals, let alone having the capacity to continue pursuing them.

Nader will not win tomorrow, because the fearful American population does not have the courage of its convictions. Instead, McCain or Obama will win, and when we contemplate the possibility of the former’s accession to the White House, we are filled with horror. Despite the apparent similarity of their views on the defining issues of the day, there is an enormous difference between the two men. To the extent McCain is not lock-stock-and-barrel a captive of the corporate plutocracy, he is an erratic, choleric, vengeful, and ignorant old man, sick in body and mind, and seconded by a vice presidential candidate unfit for public office. Although we believe he will be victorious tomorrow (see yesterday’s Out on a Limb), if we believed we played the smallest part in that victory, we could never live with ourselves.

Regretfully, we will vote for Obama.
tags: Politics | Obama | Nader

Out on a Limb

Nov 02, 2008
Writing this eleven days, and running it two days, before election, we don’t think one needs to go very far out on a limb to predict a McCain victory.

A full-court press against America’s right to vote—for the Democratic presidential nominee at any rate—will assure a close election goes to the Republican, as it did in 2000 and 2004. How do we know this? Let us count the ways (and many more have come to light than we summarize below):

  • An email circulating in Texas and targeting supporters of Obama advises voters to do just the opposite of what they have to do in order to vote for Obama when also voting the “straight party ticket.” New voters will be especially confused by this procedure.1
  • Mailings and robocalls in swing states are branding Obama a terrorist.2
  • Early voters have reported that voting machines are switching their votes from Obama to McCain and in some cases refusing to acknowledge a vote for Obama.3
  • North Carolina also suffers from the “straight party ticket” blues of Texas. In North Carolina, however, a vote for the straight Democratic party ticket does not include a vote for Obama. North Carolina voters must vote for both, while in Texas voting for both nullifies both votes.4
  • In swing state Virginia, an online questionnaire for students to determine their place of legal residence “actually may confuse, mislead, and intimidate student voters. It asks personal and irrelevant questions that may scare off voters likely to vote for Obama.”5
  • By putting voting machine makers in charge of secret procedures to certify their own products, serious defects have gone unannounced and unrepaired. Since the federal Election Assistance Administration took over the testing in 2005, not a single voting machine has been certified. Tens of thousands of computerized voting machines whose flaws have been demonstrated over and over will be in operation on November 4.6
  • Scores of laws and new “policies” regarding registration and IDs, together with widespread lack of understanding among the nation’s election officials, promise to disenfranchise thousands of poor, minority, and new voters in 2008.7,8
  • In a cynical attempt at taking the spotlight off truly criminal voter fraud activities, the administration has ordered its federal police to go after ACORN, the nonpartisan grassroots group that has registered hundreds of thousands of new voters, most of them poor and black and likely to vote for Obama. The occasional flawed registrations handed in by ACORN employees are openly acknowledged by ACORN, as are ACORN’s rigorous efforts to detect and flag them. Remember those eight attorneys general who were fired by the still-unemployed Alberto Gonzalez? They were fired because they could not find the actionable Democratic voter fraud their masters wanted them to find and to prosecute.9
  • For a roundup of several McCain party attempts at stealing the election, read the transcript from Amy Goodman’s October 22, 2008, Democracy Now! interview with Mark Crispin Miller, professor of media culture and communication at New York University. Miller offers proof that the 2004 election was stolen in Ohio and explains in detail the nuts and bolts of how it will be again in 2008, primarily through electronic vote fixing.10
  • Finally, Obama is black, and this country cannot forgive itself for what it did to the black race, and cannot free itself from its soul-withering racism. Miller dismisses the Bradley Effect—wherein voters lie to pollsters about their intentions in order to mask their racism—as simply the “narrative” Republicans will use to explain how Obama lost the election they are already in the process of stealing. However, we would not be surprised that when it comes down to the highest office in the land, the Bradley Effect will kick in on Tuesday with a vengeance. Unlike the allegations made by Miller, however, this phenomenon will be all but impossible to prove.
Tomorrow, we will pass along our choice for our next president.
1 Democrats cry foul over suspicious email, by Kelley Shannon, Associated Press, in the Dallas News, October 15, 2008 (This and other items accessed October 24, 2008)
2 Voters slam McCain Mailer, Robocalls Linking Obama to Terrorists, from FoxNews.com, October 17, 2008
3 N. Texas residents say machines switched Dem votes, by Libby Cluett, McClatchy-Tribune, on Chron.com (The Houston Chronicle), October 24, 2008
4 Straight-ticket omits presidential race, by James T. Hamilton, from the Charlotte Observer, October 7, 2008
5 Misleading VA Board of Elections Website Could Deter Student Voters, from Brennan Center for Justice, September 16, 2008
6 Warning on voting machines reveals oversight failures, by Greg Gordon, McClatchy Newspapers, on KansasCity.com, October 24, 2008
7 Voter ID battle shifts to proof of citizenship, Ian Urbina, from The New York Times, May 12, 2008
8 De facto disenfranchisement, by Erica Wood and Rachel Bloom, from Brennan Center for Justice, October 1, 2008
9 FBI investigating ACORN voter fraud claims, from Newsday, on the Los Angeles Times, October 17, 2008
10 Early voting sees reports of voter intimidation, machine malfunctions, from Democracy Now, October 22, 2008
tags: Politics | Obama

Noted with Interest, October 2008

Nov 01, 2008
Here are a few items noted with interest over the past month:

A Guide to the Housing Crisis: Ten Questions and Answers
Plain English straight talk about the financial collapse for which our grandchildren will still be paying. (From The Century Foundation. Accessed October 5, 2008)

Integrating Instruments of Power and Influence: Lessons Learned and Best Practices
Have we learned any lessons from Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan? If the multiple recommendations of this two-year study are taken seriously, perhaps we have. In its essence: less reliance on our military and more cooperation among all interested parties, especially indigenous ones. (From The Rand Corporation. Accessed October 5, 2008)

Nuclear Weapons Dismantlements Up 20 Percent
Betcha didn’t know we were taking apart out nukes. Bush, in a right move for a change, set a goal in 2004 of achieving the lowest number of nuclear weapons consistent with national security needs. By 2012, we will be down to one-quarter the number of nukes we had at the end of the Cold War. (From The National Nuclear Security Administration. Accessed October 5, 2008)

Public Transit Users Save $9,499 Household Annually, Up Over $250 From Last Year
Pretty amazing statistics, showing how urbanites can save real money using public transit. (From American Public Transportation Association. Accessed October 11, 2008)

Fact Sheet: Federal Employee Performance Appraisals to Include Information Sharing (.pdf)
After years of complaints about a lack of information sharing among intelligence agencies (NSA, CIA, DoD Intelligence, FBI), sharing skills have finally risen to the level of a requirement for government employment. They even have their own web site. We’ll just have to wait and see how it works out. (From Information Sharing Environment. Accessed October 11, 2008)

Ohio Middle Class Index: 8 Years of Failed Economic Policies (.pdf)
As Ohio goes, so goes the nation. This stark one-page summary of the beating middle class Ohioans have taken at the hands of the Bush administration should be in every voter’s pocket when they go to the polls on Tuesday. McCain just promises more of the same. (From Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH). Accessed October 11, 2008)

Is America Ready to Vote?: State Preparations for Voting System Problems in 2008
We’ve been keeping an eye on voter disenfranchisement issues here at ATN. See, for example, Stand Up and Be Counted and No Voter Left Behind. Now here is what may be the exhaustive final word from a trio of careful examiners of state-by-state voting issues. Make sure your polls are on the up and up come Tuesday. (From The Brennan Center for Justice (in association with Common Cause and Verified Voting). Accessed October 17, 2008)

In Their Own Words: Voices of Jihad—Compilation and Commentary
David Aaron has produced this compilation of original writings of radical Islam fundamentalists. (From the Rand Corporation, 2008. Accessed October 18, 2008)

tags: Noted with Interest

Let Us Now Praise ... Sarah Chayes

Oct 31, 2008

There’s a title of a book that has come into parlance now, Clash of Civilizations. There are a lot of people, I think, both in the west and in the Muslim world who believe in the clash of civilizations, who want to see the world as a place dominated by two irrevocably hostile blocks. I don’t want to live in that kind of world. I think that we live in an interconnected world full of rich, flawed, varied civilizations that are inextricably intertwined. So what I am doing in Afghanistan is working for that intertwined world.1
Sarah Chayes resigned her position as a reporter for National Public Radio in 2002. She had been covering the fall of the Taliban and the post-Taliban era in Afghanistan. She decided to stay in Kandahar and has since devoted her life to helping the Afghan people find a safe, profitable, and legal route toward self-determination and self-sufficiency. Her cooperative skin-care business, Arghand, established in 2005, has begun to wean local farmers from dependence on an opium crop, and is successfully exporting its natural products to the U.S. and Canada.

Articles by and about Chayes, and additional information and photos, may be found on her web site, SarahChayes.net “Chayes graduated in history from Harvard University in 1984, earning the Radcliffe College History Prize for best senior thesis written by a woman. She served in the Peace Corps in Morocco, then returned to Harvard to earn a master’s degree in History and Middle Eastern Studies, specializing in the medieval Islamic period. She was born in Washington DC, in 1962.”2

In his video interview with Chayes, Bill Moyers remarked, “There’s a thin line we sometimes walk, we human beings, between hope and folly. [Chuckling] Are you very close to that line?”

Chayes replied, “I don’t think that hope is relevant. I think determination is all that counts. You just have to try. It doesn’t matter if you hope you’re going to succeed or not. You have to keep trying.”3

For keeping on trying, in the midst of a dysfunctional society as dangerous as any on earth; for a determination to make a positive difference in that environment—whether that determination be hopeful or foolish; for her acumen in establishing a business pursuit perfectly suited to the conditions in which she has found herself; and for her belief in a world where we are all “inextricably intertwined,” we award Sarah Chayes our fifth Golden A for Achievement.

Update: View Sarah Chayes’s December 19, 2008, interview with Bill Moyers and read her concurrent guest blog on his site, Negotiating with the Taliban.
1 Bill Moyers Journal, February 22, 2008 (Accessed October 23, 2008)
2 Sarah Chayes, from Transom.org, undated (Accessed October 23, 2008)
3 Bill Moyers Journal, loc. cit.
tags: Golden A | Business | Human Rights

Panic Time

Oct 30, 2008
If anything illustrates the failure of American education over the past thirty years, it is the calibre of elected representatives we have seen passing through the portals of our legislative and executive offices, especially at the federal level. An ignorant electorate elects inappropriate representatives.

That a man of McCain’s temperament, age, health, and political outlook can be in the running for the presidency of what its citizens like to think of as the greatest country in the history of the world is sufficient argument by itself to condemn our educational system as bankrupt.

And indeed, education in this country is on a steady downhill skid. We are falling behind China and Korea in the highest levels of basic scientific research,1 and graduating too few engineering students.2 We are also lagging behind other western countries in numbers of our citizens graduating from post-secondary colleges and universities. Only three countries associated with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)3 have a higher rate of completing post-secondary education among 45 to 54 year olds than America (Russia, Canada, and Israel); however, nine countries have higher rates among 25 to 34 year olds, and others are catching up.4 High school graduation rates are lower than 50 percent in some inner-city schools.5

Meanwhile, low-end jobs are drying up as computers and robots take over more of the load. Manufacturing is disappearing overseas, taking with it the sorts of assembly line jobs that could be performed with only a high-school education.

Income, health, and education—these are the three pillars of modern civilization, and we are neglecting all of them. Our minimum wage is far below a living wage6; we expend twice what other OECD countries do for health care with signficantly inferior results7; and we fail to prepare our citizens for the demands of the 21st century world.

In turning over our polity to the rapacious instincts of an unregulated capitalism, we have betrayed the social contract that defines a just and democratic nation.
1 U.S. Innovation: On the Skids, by Gary Anthes, from ComputerWorld, October 21, 2008 (Accessed October 23, 2008)
2 Trouble on the Horizon, from the American Society of Engineering Education, October 2006 (Accessed October 23, 2008)
3 The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development is a member-funded organization comprising 30 countries. Russia and Israel are in the process of joining OECD, but are not yet full members.
4 Changing the Game: The Federal Role in Supporting 21st Century Educational Innovation, by Sara Mead (New America Foundation) and Andrew J. Rotherham (Education Sector), October 16, 2008 (Accessed October 23, 2008)
5 Big Cities Battle Dismal Graduation Rates, from CBS News, April 1, 2008 (Accessed October 23, 2008)
6 Minimum wage increasingly lags poverty line, from Economic Policy Institute, January 31, 2007 (Accessed October 23, 2008)
7 OECD in 2006-2007—Health spending and resources, from OECD (Accessed October 23, 2008)
tags: Education

No Swimming, No Fishing, No Drinking

Oct 29, 2008
The Clean Water Act is 36 years old this month. For those Americans who want government to get out of their faces, take note:

  • In 1972, only a third of our nation’s waters were considered swimmable, fishable, or drinkable. Today, two thirds are.
  • In 1968, sewage treatment facilities served 140 million Americans; today over 207 million are served by them.
  • In 1972, we were losing wetlands at the rate of 450,000 acres a year; in the 1990s those losses had slowed to one-fourth that rate.
However, the Bush 2 administration has done all it could to undermine the Clean Water Act and to reverse its successes:
  • The entirety of the Clean Water Act has been thrown into chaos through a pair of confusing, badly divided Supreme Court decisions.
  • The Bush administration has taken advantage of these decisions by issuing new regulations inconsistent with the goals of the Clean Water Act.
  • Despite the fact that the EPA and others estimate infrastructure repairs amounting to $200 to $300 billion are required in the next 20 years, Bush has requested annual cuts of 40 percent to the program that funds these repairs. For 2009, he has made the lowest request ever—only $555 million.
  • Through actions too numerous to mention here, the Bush administration has sought to undermine and reverse the efforts and successes of the last 36 years of the Clean Water Act.
Further details on this portentous anniversary and on Bush’s reckless acts of sabotage, may be found in Stagnant Waters: 2008 Clean Water Act Report, by the Majority Staff of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

When asked by Bob Woodward how history would judge his role in starting the Iraq war, Bush replied “History, we don’t know. We’ll all be dead.”1 We don’t think so. We think history will hop to it a bit more smartly than that, to relate the tale of an arrogant, ignorant, out-of-control administration and its all-out assault on America, its wealth, its stature, its promise. In fact, history’s first draft has already been written in a thousand op-ed pieces and scores of books.

History is now, and it has spoken.
1 We’ll All Be Dead, by Dr. Gerry Lower, citing “Woodward Shares War Secrets,” CBS News, 60 Minutes, April 18, 2004 (Accessed October 22, 2008)
tags: Water | Politics

Breathing Room

Oct 28, 2008
Can we agree we need to breathe, and that the air we need to do so comes from green things, the same things that, miraculously, absorb the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide that we exhale? And if we agree on this, how can we not agree to preserve our environment so that there are enough green things left in it to produce that loverly air?

Not everyone does agree, however, and it is quite distressing to see how closely the states that don’t agree1 match up with the states that are expected to vote for John McCain.2

The needs of a struggling world are slowly—inevitably—making themselves felt, however, even if not quickly enough for the League of Conservation Voters (LCV), the nonpartisan group advocating for sound environmental policies. Their 2008 National Environmental Scorecard shows significant gains over 2007, with 67 House and 27 Senate members earning scores of 100 percent versus 33 and 3, respectively, in 2007. The House shows some backsliding on the other end in 2008, with 70 House and 2 Senate members earning scores of 0 percent, as against 48 House and 9 Senate members in 2007.

Obama did not vote in nine of the 11 crucial environmental issues in 2008. His pro-environment vote in two of them therefore earns him an 18 percent score for 2008, although LCV gives him a lifetime score of 72 percent. McCain did not vote either way on any of the 11 issues, making him one of the two senators with a 0 percent score (the other, David Vitter [R-LA], voted against all 11 environmental issues). McCain’s LCV lifetime score is 24 percent.

What in the name of heaven is the matter with these Republicans?
1 National Environmental Scorecard, from the League of Conservation Voters (Accessed October 21, 2008)
2 Election Day Map Today, from Polltrack.com (Accessed October 21, 2008)
tags: Environment | Congress

Nice Work If You Can Get It

Oct 27, 2008
It is common knowledge by this time that middle-class incomes (the kind the two of us probably enjoy) have remained flat over the course of the Bush 2 administration, while the rich have gotten richer and the richest among the rich have become fabulously wealthy. To note but one startling statistic: In 2005, the poorest 20 percent of American households had $380 billion in income, while the top 1 percent had a $520 billion increase in income.1

Our national wealth is soaring to the top, and it is not trickling down.

But that’s old news. Some new news has just been reported by OpenSecrets.org the web site of the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), a watchdog group that tracks money in U.S. politics.

With a recession settling in, unemployment rising, a huge bailout emptying our children’s pockets of another $850 billion in public funds (ours were already empty), how are our brave and doughty legislators making out during this perfect economic storm? Just fine, thank you.

OpenSecret’s report title says it all: As Economic Storm Brewed, Congressional Wealth Grew 11% Last Year. McCain retained his position among the 61 millionaire senators and Obama joined that group for the first time in 2007. During these doldrum years for the middle class, the average member of Congress saw their net worth soar 57 percent between 2004 and 2007.

CRP works hard to provide data on Congressional members’ net worth, given that disclosure requirements are not as stringent as they should be. Look into their Personal Financial Disclosures Database and see how your congressional delegation is doing. We got more than one surprise from ours.

At the least, you may look with a more informed eye on their next appeal for a campaign contribution.
1 Report Says That the Rich Are Getting Richer Faster, Much Faster, by David Cay Johnston, from the New York Times, December 15, 2007 (Accessed October 21, 2008)
tags: Congress

Fooling All of the People

Oct 26, 2008
Sarah Palin actually warned us, in her debate with Joe Biden, that "I may not answer the questions that either the moderator or you want to hear, but I’m going to talk straight to the American people…"1

Without such forewarning, you might not have noticed, as you probably didn’t notice during the presidential debates, that the question asked of the candidates wasn’t always the question they answered.

A pair of studies by the Harvard Business School entitled Conversational Blindness: Answering the Wrong Question the Right Way reveals just how often this phenomenon occurs. In the first study, a questioner asks a question and the interviewee proceeds to answer some other unasked question, and we usually fail to notice! When the answer is to a similar question, most of us can’t even remember the original question.

More remarkably, the second study discovered that we will rate someone who provides a good answer to a question they weren’t asked more highly than we will rate someone who gives a poor answer to the question that was asked.

Maybe we’d better all have a closer look at those debates2,3,4,5. Sometimes the Straight Talk Express is the Fast Talk Express, and we’re the ones being taken for a ride.
1 Transcript of Palin, Biden Debate, from CNN, October 3, 2008 (Accessed October 21, 2008)
2 Full Vice Presidential Debate with Gov. Palin and Sen. Biden, from YouTube (Accessed October 21, 2008)
3 Third 2008 Presidential Debate, from YouTube (Accessed October 21, 2008)
4 Second 2008 Presidential Debate, from YouTube (Accessed October 21, 2008)
5 First 2008 Presidential Debate, from YouTube (Accessed October 21, 2008)
tags: Politics | Human Nature

All Aboard!

Oct 25, 2008
We know now that in the 1950s, when we started building all those interstate highways, we should have been concentrating on rails, not roads. By 1970, private rail passenger service threw up its hands in despair and was taken over by the government, becoming the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (known to you and me as Amtrak). At the time of takeover, half the passenger service routes were shut down.

Since then, our passenger rail service has been limping along on poor customer relations and deteriorating trains and rail beds, living off government subsidies, and suffering a lot of bad press. But guess what? Amtrak is doing just fine.

In fact, they recently posted their sixth straight year of gains and set a record for passenger trips. And their gains were not limited to popular routes. Every Amtrak train across the country saw increased ridership (over 28.7 million, 11.1 percent more than last year) and revenues ($1.7 billion, a 14.2 percent increase). Their News Release tells a tale of a mass transit system which may yet play an important role in saving us from ourselves. On almost every route, increased ridership numbers have been exceeded by increased revenues, indicating riders are flocking to rail service in spite of higher fares.

This land was made for railroads. And, finally, we seem to know it.
tags: Transportation

The Un-Quick Fix

Oct 24, 2008
The fiscal meltdown was a manifestation of a tendency that has increasingly infected American society, probably since the “Me Decade” of the 1970s—a growing inability to defer gratification. The masters of the universe who cooked their books during the 00’s did so in order to artificially boost their stock prices in the short run so they could claim huge performance-based bonuses. They invented impenetrable financial instruments they could quickly lay off in a deadly game of musical chairs, a Ponzi scheme they knew they were playing in a rush to claim nine-figure salaries. Their unwillingness to manage their companies with concern for anyone’s welfare—stockholders, customers, workers, or the company itself—in their mad dash for personal profit resulted in a cataclysm that has shaken the global economic system to its foundations.

Today, this unwillingness to defer gratification for the value of long-term goals is manifesting itself in one particularly unfortunate way, as noted by the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI) in their report, Short-Changing Our Future: America’s Penny-Wise, Pound-Foolish Approach to Supporting Tomorrow’s Scientists.

By now, our nation’s pitiful performance in educating a new generation of mathematicians and scientists is old news.1 We need more scientists with advanced degrees dedicating themselves to basic research; however, we are graduating fewer of them, and they are going over to industry, often with only a master’s degree, where they can make a good deal more money. Our technological future depends on basic scientific research, the kind that brought us fiber optics, the transistor, and the laser. Emerging high-tech sectors such as nanotechnology, biotechnology, and clean energy depend on basic research carried out by scientists with advanced degrees in settings that are financially secure. None of these conditions prevails today in America, largely because of our cultural affinity for the quickest route to the short-term payoff.

By the same token, dedicated postdoctoral academic researchers are paid so much less even than graduates with a master’s degree who choose to go into industry that one cannot blame the university “brain drain” entirely on the pursuit of the quick buck. The PPI’s report makes clear the urgent need we have to bolster our support of education at the high end, as we need to bolster it from preschool through college.

We cannot afford to continue luring our best and brightest to MBA degrees with starting salaries of $92,000 plus, while paying the pittance of $50,000 to postdoctoral research scientists in their mid-30s. If there is no one figuring out the ins and outs of the next generation of high technology products, all the MBAs in the world won’t be able to sell them.
1 Science and Math Education Needs an Overhaul, Say Candidates During Final Debate, by Sarah Lai Stirland, from Wired, October 15, 2008 (Accessed October 19, 2008)
tags: Education | Science | Business

Plus Ça Change, Plus C’est la Même Chose1

Oct 23, 2008
Harnessing computer power for purposes of enhancing information gathering and communications has revolutionized our lives and brought forth a brave new world in a far shorter time span than any comparable revolution—if there is any comparable revolution— in human history. Dramatic changes—in health care, in education, in practically every area of human endeavor—will continue to bombard us at a similar rate throughout the rest of our lives and this century. The shape and nature of the future from today’s embryonic perspective is unimaginable.

The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation has identified and summarized many of the areas where our lives have been most impacted in their report, Digital Quality of Life: Understanding the Personal and Social Benefits of the Information Technology Revolution. They offer policymakers ten key principles to follow to empower their citizens to take full advantage of the digital revolution. Information Technology (IT) has improved individual lives in areas including education, health care, personal safety, and accessibility for the disabled. Globally, IT plays crucial roles in challenges involving the environment, energy, transportation, and public safety, as well as enhancing government services on all levels. It has revolutionized access to information in developing countries, spurring them on to greater levels of economic growth and democratic self-determination.

And yet...and yet. For all its wonders—and we are keenly aware of them because we sit in front of a computer for at least five hours a day seven days a week—we wonder to what extent all this technology is really bringing us together. Though at long last, to quote the old AT&T ad, “We're All Connected,” the extent to which that connection has worked to bring us together for the betterment of our species and our planet remains conjectural.

Although Kiva has introduced thousands of social investors to struggling entrepreneurs in developing countries, Democracy Now! has brought us essential intelligence ignored by the corporate-dominated media, and MoveOn.org and other grassroots Internet organizers have utilized our connectedness to forge multi-million-member activist and donor networks, we wonder to what extent the world has moved closer to understanding that, beyond being connnected to one another, we are responsible for one another. Though preached by every religion, this imperative is not embodied in any official national mission statement, even insofar as it might pertain solely to a nation’s own people.

Our species will endure only if we pursue optimal conditions for all living things, in the mature knowledge that being our brother’s keeper is not some altruistic fantasy, but a condition of our own survival.
1 The more that changes, the more it’s the same thing.
tags: Computers | Governance

Looking for a Few Good People

Oct 22, 2008
We may not vote for Obama, but should he win the White House anyway, we would love to work for him.

Last weekend, Polltrack’s Presidential Race Map projected Obama winning 273 electoral votes on Election Day, three more than needed to win. We think it likely, in light of the Republican Party’s full court press to disenfranchise as many of the Obama electorate as they possibly can (they’ve had eight years and two presidential elections to hone their skills in this regard) that Obama will have to win by a landslide—perhaps by as much as 20 percentage points—if he is to squeak into the White House.

If he does, he is going to be looking for a lot of help. Despite surrounding himself with Clinton-era advisers during the campaign, we hope Obama will wield the proverbial new broom once in the White House. If he does, considering the stranglehold Republicans have had on the federal government for thirty disastrous years, he will need to look far afield to gather a new set of subordinates. Many of them will be pretty clueless regarding the ins and outs of D.C. politics. The IBM Center for The Business of Government has rushed in to fill the gap in this knowledge with The Presidential Transition, a guide for government executives.

They offer mini-essays on “Six ‘To-Dos’”:

  • Before Confirmation, Be Careful
  • Learn How Things Work
  • Act Quickly on What Can’t Wait
  • Develop a Vision and a Focused Agenda
  • Assemble Your Leadership Team
  • Manage Your Environment
Also, there are somewhat longer essays, by well-known Washington insiders and cognoscenti, on interacting with and managing stakeholders, including the White House, Congress, colleagues, constituencies, and overseers.

If Obama is the man we hope he is, and if he is elected, we expect an outreach well beyond the D.C. beltline for energized talent that can shape a new direction so desperately needed for our nation and our world.

Now, where did we put that résumé?
tags: Politics

Why Johnny Still Can’t Read

Oct 21, 2008
The decade has been obsessed with No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the educational reform legislation enacted in the early years of the Bush 2 administration. In a world with increasingly few opportunities for unskilled labor, it has become essential that, for the first time in our history, we must teach all children to a higher standard. NCLB promised to do that through the establishment of clear standards for teachers and students to meet; an exchange of greater funding for more accountability in the schools; and a mechanism in the short run to allow students to transfer out of failing schools.

Today, just about everyone is unhappy with NCLB, and for good reasons. Though billions in additional federal funding were authorized for the program, the amount was grossly insufficient to reach NCLB’s goals. Furthermore, far less than even the inadequate amount authorized has been appropriated, with a gap between the two reaching a cumulative $85.7 billion between fiscal year 2002 and 2009.

Standards for academic content and student performance are the linchpin of NCLB, and the program has failed to spur the states to develop clear standards upon which to test teacher, student, and school accountability. In fact, allowing all 50 states to develop their own standards has resulted in chaos and confusion. Performance standards are also at wide variance among the states and are often set at unreasonably low levels in order to better attain the unrealistic 100 percent proficiency required by NCLB. Tests are of low quality and poorly scheduled. And accountability measurements, which can contain sanctions quite damaging to a school, create significant fairness issues owing to the variability of standards and assessments.

Teaching to a single standard will ultimately favor teaching those students on the cusp of meeting those standards, short-changing those who are hopelessly behind or already performing beyond the standard. Also, though socioeconomic status is the most important predictor of student achievement, teachers in poor schools are held to the exact same performance standards as those in rich schools, with no additional resources committed to them.

The student transfer provisions of NCLB represent perhaps the weakest element of the program, with only about 1 percent of students eligible to transfer out of failing schools actually doing so. The problem is there is nowhere to go. By limiting transfers within school districts, most parents see little point in transfering their child from a failing school to a nearly failing school. Though NCLB encourages cooperative agreements between districts to allow students to escape from poor inner-city ones, virtually none of the country’s suburban school districts has agreed to do this. Indeed, NCLB acts as a disincentive to break down economic segregation in our schools.

These and other weaknesses of the existing program are set forth in Improving on No Child Left Behind: Getting Education Reform Back on Track, by Richard D. Kahlenberg, et al., and published by The Century Foundation. Kahlenberg’s first chapter is available free of charge and summarizes the issues discussed above. He suspects the deliberate underfunding and other flaws of NCLB may be a ploy on the part of the Republican administration to set up public schools for failure in order to advance an agenda for privatizing American education. Paranoia? Perhaps, but altogether in keeping with the radical right agenda for shrinking government and privatizing everything in sight.

Kahlenberg’s recommendations for getting NCLB back on track are good ones. However, they are going to cost money. As argued in yesterday’s ATN entry, so will ending poverty and providing national health care. In fact, these incentives are going to require a significant attitude adjustment in the minds of the public and our elected officials. The first step in that adjustment is understanding that attending to these matters will ultimately—and not too distantly—result in a higher standard of living for everyone, as we work together to finally realize the American dream.
tags: Education

Ailing America

Oct 20, 2008
A couple of health-care-related reports came to our notice this week, different but not entirely unrelated.

From the New America Foundation comes a report warning against implementing an insurance plan favored by some members of Congress and by John McCain. Across State Lines Explained: Why Selling Health Insurance Across State Lines is Not the Answer warns that the worst part of this plan is that insurance companies would only have to abide by the laws of the state in which they were headquartered, and not the laws of the states in which they were selling their insurance. Yes, that’s right: More veiled deregulation.

According to the report, insurers selling across state lines would have an easier time cherry-picking healthy customers to insure and charging higher premiums to the elderly or less-healthy populations—or refusing to insure them at all—resulting ultimately in increasing even more the 90+ million people currently un- or underinsured.

Americans have been speaking up for years for single-payer, Medicare-type health care.1,2 Neither of the main presidential candidates has come out for such a plan, beholden as they both are to the insurance companies. Meanwhile, health care premiums have doubled during the Bush 2 administration.3 It is time to support those politicians, and only those, who do favor what the American people want.

The other report may fall into the “Well, duh!” category. America’s Health Starts with Healthy Children comes to us from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The report, which examined children’s health in association with parental economic and educational factors, concludes, “Across the country and within every state, there are substantial shortfalls in the health of children based on their family’s income and education....”

In addition to having a general infant mortality rate worse than 41 other countries (including the Czech Republic, South Korea, and Cuba),4 the report finds that a greater proportion of children from poorer families enjoy less than optimal health than those from higher-income families. The gap is as wide as 44 percent to 7 percent in Texas, down to 13 percent versus 6.4 percent in New Hampshire.

Child obesity, neglecting to teach our children math and science skills, inequitable health care across economic lines, huge and growing income inequities, governmental inattention to the will of the people: these things must stop.

We must address the three pillars upon which our civilization and our collective well-being depend—income, health, and education—and we must end their inequitable distribution. The American people know how to do it, and are willing to make the necessary sacrifices. It is our one-party political establishment, and the hammerlock hold the corporations have over it, that are impeding change.
1 Growing Health Care Concerns Fuel Cautious Support for Change (.pdf), an ABCNews/Washington Post Poll, October 13, 2003 (Accessed October 17, 2008)
2 Single-Payer Health Care, from Wikipedia (Accessed October 17, 2004)
3 Employer Health Benefits 2008 Annual Survey, from the Kaiser Family Foundation (Accessed October 17, 2008)
4 Rank Order - Infant Mortality Rate, from the CIA World Factbook, October 9, 2008 (Accessed October 17, 2008)
tags: Health | Governance

Chump Change

Oct 19, 2008
We know we are talking in billions and trillions these days—an $850 billion bailout for the financial industry; a $10 trillion national debt. A few millions must seem like chump change. But when Americans are struggling on $6.55 an hour (the current minimum wage), government waste of even $30 million rises to the level of a national disgrace and we should be howling to the hills about it.

This is how much the Government Accounting Office (GAO) found the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) wasted in a few short months in Mississippi alone through ineffective oversight of a small portion of the contracts given out to deal with the Katrina disaster. We can only wonder in amazement how much of our money was wasted overall.

After four firms were paid billions of dollars to set up trailer sites in the wake of Katrina, through contracts awarded on a sole source, noncompetitive basis, the outcry was so great that FEMA solicited new bids for maintenance and deactivation of mobile homes and for site maintenance. These contracts are the ones the GAO investigated and found were responsible for $30 million in wasteful and improper or potentially fraudulent payments to the contractors over an eight-month period from June 2006 to January 2007.

Their report, Hurricane Katrina: Ineffective FEMA Oversight of Housing Maintenance Contracts in Mississippi Resulted in Millions of Dollars of Waste and Potential Fraud (.pdf) outlines in agonizing detail the failure of this “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva a job” agency to perform its role with anything like proper attention to its responsibilities to its employer—us. However, finally, it is the employer’s responsibility to prevent these abuses. Which of our representatives is most likely to do so?

McCain speaks of an across-the-board spending freeze for the federal government—an impossible aim if were even desirable, as anyone over the age of 14 must know. Obama speaks of a careful examination of each line item of the national budget, eliminating programs that don’t work and bolstering those that do. Neither speaks to the kind of regulatory oversight we must bring to bear on all levels of government spending. It is way too late when the GAO brings out its reports. By then, the money is irretrievably lost. Government expenditures must be determined to be legitimate at a point before the check is cut, and to do that will require the sort of government restructuring that only Nader is talking of, and he is not going to be elected.

The next four years will be a time of building, perhaps under a more or less benign and right-thinking Obama administration, perhaps under a chaotic, irascible, and frankly terrifying McCain administration. But build we must, from the grassroots up through all levels of our self-governance.

Strap on your toolbelt, and let’s get cracking.
tags: Governance | Working Together

Pro and Con

Oct 18, 2008
We’re pro-choice and anti-abortion. Abortion is a horrible experience for any woman to undergo; horrible for her mate, who is forced to be a hopelessly frustrated non-participant on the sidelines; horrible for families and friends. That it often is performed in consequence of a rape or an incestuous attack only makes it more horrible.

Happily, the numbers of abortions have been declining in America for the past generation, from a high of 1,429,247 in 1990 (that is 344 abortions for every 1,000 live births) to 839,226 in 2004 (or 238 for every 1,000 live births).1 That is still a hefty number—almost one abortion for every four live births. Too much suffering all around.

Most abortions in 2004 (33 percent) were performed on women in the 20- to 24-year age group. Sadly, 17 percent were performed on younger women and girls, most of whom had presumably not reached the age of independence. Over 4,300 abortions were performed on girls younger than 15. To speak of the decline of the family is almost to speak a cliche these days. And yet the numbers don’t lie. About half of all first marriages end in divorce, and the number goes up precipitously for second and third marriages.2 The percentage of single-parent households with children increased from 19.5 percent in 1980 to 28.3 percent in 2005. Drug law violations among delinquents have almost tripled between 1990 and 2004 and offenses against the public have more than doubled.3 Reported cases of child abuse (the tip of the iceberg if there ever was one) went up 30 percent between 1990 and 2005.4

So it was with some degree of anticipatory joy that the following press release caught our eye: The Effect of Parental Involvement Laws on the Incidence of Abortion Among Minors. “What!,” we exclaimed, ”There are laws now requiring parents to get involved with their children? What a great idea!”

Alas, no. The study, written by Michael J. New and published by the Family Research Council is merely another screed against abortion, this one posing as a scientific study. The “involvement“ is simply the levels of parental notification or consent required by various states when a child discovers herself to be pregnant, and the study purports to show how the more stringent the level of involvement is (on a scale from mere notification to two-parent consent), the lower the rate of abortion. Well, perhaps, but are we the only ones who find the following extract, with its multiple assaults upon a frightened, frantic fifteen- or sixteen-year old reduced to sciencespeak, overwhelmingly sad?

The regression results indicate that a number of different types of laws result in reductions in the minor abortion rate. Informed consent laws which provide women seeking abortion with information about public and private sources of support, health risks involved with an abortion, and fetal development reduce the minor abortion rate by 3.8 percent. This finding is statistically significant. The regression model finds that public funding restrictions reduce the minor abortion rate by 7.8 percent. This finding is also statistically significant. Finally, partial birth abortion bans have little effect on the minor abortion rate, a finding that is consistent with much of the academic and policy literature that has analyzed the effects of partial birth abortion laws.

Of more interest, however, are the effects of the parental involvement laws. The regression results indicate that the passage of a parental involvement law reduces the minor abortion rate by 13.6 percent....
Harangue them, impoverish them, outlaw them if they wait too long, and if that doesn’t do the trick, rat them out to Mom and Dad. But for goodness sakes, don’t teach them how to take care of themselves in the first place, don’t let them hear about, let alone acquire, condoms or birth control information, despite the fact that we had sex and 75 percent of them are going to have sex before they’re 21, and we know it.5

That one in five pregnancies is considered so unacceptable to the prospective mother that they end in the horror of abortion, that the majority of Americans—men, women, Democrats, Republicans—support abortion rights,6 that no country or culture or legal system has ever granted the fetus the status of a human being, that we live in a world of disappearing resources and exploding populations: None of this matters to the small minority of hysteriarchs infected with the idee fixe that a zygote is imbued with a soul, and are prepared to commit murder and mayhem to enforce their delusions on a healthier, smarter, and vastly more compassionate public.

Obama has said, “we can certainly agree that we should be doing everything we can to avoid unwanted pregnancies that might even lead somebody to consider having an abortion.” We are afraid the fanatics cannot agree to that; however, that is the goal: No unwanted pregnancies. We are on our way, down over 600,000 a year since 1990.

It can be done.
1 Reproductive Health: Data and Statistics (Abortion) from the Centers for Disease Control (Accesssed October 15, 2008)
2 Single-Parent Households: 1980 to 2005, from the U.S. Census Bureau (Accessed October 15, 2008)
3 Delinquency Cases Disposed by Juvenile Courts by Reason for Referral: 1990 to 2004, op. cit. (Accessed October 15, 2008)
4 Child Abuse and Neglect Cases Substantiated and Indicated— Victim Characteristics: 1990 to 2005, op. cit. (Accessed October 15, 2008)
5 No Sex, Please, We’re Abstaining, from All Together Now, October 5, 2008
6 Abortion in the United States: Public Opinion, from Wikipedia (Accessed October 15, 2008)
tags: Health | Youth

Party Time

Oct 17, 2008
Two hundred and fifty-eight parties have been thrown for members of the U.S. House Financial Services Committee so far in 2008. Many of them were hosted by lobbyists for the finance, insurance, and real estate industries, the very corporate giants that were bailed out in the recent rush to pour money into these industries without offering a penny of relief to homeowners and others strapped by usurious debt.

This report comes from The Sunlight Foundation, “co-founded in 2006 ... with the non-partisan mission of using the revolutionary power of the Internet to make information about Congress and the federal government more meaningfully accessible to citizens.”

Their press release, Financial Sector Fetes Lawmakers Making Bailout Decisions, says it collects hard-to-find information regarding these events—which slip under the radar of campaign finance laws—from sources whose anonymity is protected. From football games to beer-tasting events, the list goes on and on.
Sunlight’s web site rewards time spent plumbing its depths. We especially enjoyed the Earmarks Visualization page, showing in graphic detail how much each state benefited from those nasty giveaways. Guess which one enjoyed the highest per capita earmarks in 2005, more than three times the amount enjoyed by the state in second place? You got it. Alaska!
tags: Politics

What Matters?

Oct 16, 2008
A wise fellow once said, “Life is half over before we know what it is.” Unless we live to be 126, our life is probably something more than half over, and past time for a moment’s reflection. In our view, life’s essential question is, “What matters?” It is a question one can only answer for oneself.

So what matters for us? We would say:

  • Freedom to do as we please, and four healthy limbs and the education to enable us to do it.
  • Engaging and challenging work that we can drop for something else when it ceases to be one or the other.
  • Love: The incomparable miracle.
  • The capacity to enjoy a New England autumn, a good book, a good meal, a pretty melody, a pretty picture.
  • The understanding that the quality of our life is dependent on the quality of all other life on the planet, and the energy and the perseverance to inhabit that understanding with action.
  • The urge to delight, and the capacity to be delighted.

tags: Labor | People

Cities on the Hill

Oct 15, 2008
Our salvation, if we are to be saved, will rise up from the people, and will not trickle down from above. With a new administration on the horizon—whoever wins—that will retain the old links to their corporate masters, that will mortgage our future to its stubborn tunnel vision of dependence on military might, that will continue to erode constitutional rights in the name of national security, the time has come to begin the restructuring of our political system from the ground up.

It is therefore heartening to discover that lower levels of our governance structures—our state houses and municipal offices—are keenly aware of the problems we face and of their responsibility to take part in their amelioration. The National League of Cities, a lobbying organization representing 19,000 cities, villages, and towns, has published a report, Poverty and Economic Insecurity: Views from City Hall, revealing “that ninety percent of municipal leaders surveyed said that poverty has either increased or stayed the same in their cities over the past decade.”

The famous “War on Poverty” declared in the mid-sixties has been lost, as have our other wars launched since then. With a current poverty rate (12.3 percent) scarcely two points lower than at the “war’s” beginning (14.2 percent), and that based on outmoded calculation parameters which, if modernized, would almost surely indicate higher levels of poverty today, action needs to be taken on all levels to end this national disgrace. Happily, city leaders are taking responsibility:

  • Eight in ten municipal officals (81%) believe taking action to reduce poverty is a responsibility of city government.
  • Three in four city officials (75%) express interest in becoming a municipal leader on poverty.
  • Unhappily, three in four officials think poverty levels in their city will increase (43%) or stay the same (33%) over the next decade.
  • Over 70 percent say the Federal Poverty Threshold (which sets $17,170 as the threshold for a family of three) is higher in their cities, 30 percent saying it is $30,000 or higher.
  • Poverty, say most officials, is concentrated in single-parent families (73%) and confined to certain neighborhoods (65%).
  • When asked what strategies could work to alleviate poverty in their cities, and which of those strategies were their cities in a good position to implement, it is interesting to note the the most popular strategy (91%) was creating better lives for the next generation by improving schools, although only 57 percent felt this strategy was within their city’s capacity.
  • Effective strategies that were within their cities’ capacities were economic development to bring more jobs (89%/89%) and improving neighborhoods by making them safer, enhancing services, and improving infrastructure (86%/88%).
  • “While only three percent say the city has a comprehensive strategic, municipal plan to address poverty, a much larger proportion (28%) says this would be the most effective approach for their city.
Regarding their chances for re-election, only one percent of elected officials felt reducing poverty was the most important factor, while 68 percent felt that bringing about economic development was. To us, they are inextricably linked, together with a determination to see an end to the myriad social inequities that have stalled the war on poverty from its very inception.
tags: Poverty | Politics

No Rest for the Weary1

Oct 14, 2008
If we were to retire and begin collecting Social Security as early as we could (age 62), our payments would be just about enough to purchase health insurance. We probably wouldn’t need it for long since, absent any funds for food, we would starve to death before too long.

The boomer generation, of which we are among the earliest, is approaching retirement age this year, and they have saved, on average, only $38,000, not counting pensions, homes, and social security.2 Those with qualified retirement plans such as 401(k)’s, have an average retirement savings of $88,000. Still that is only enough to generate an annual retirement income of about $5,000.

With the current meltdown of the international financial system, retirement considerations are coming to the forefront of most older people’s attentions. AARP has published a report summarizing the results of a poll taken in September entitled Retirement Security or Insecurity?: The Experience of Workers Aged 45 and Older. The poll assessed people’s expectations regarding their retirement years in light of the current fiscal troubles. Some of the report’s findings, if you are in this particular boat at the present time, may sound familiar:

  • A majority (69%) are anticipating a lower standard of living when they retire, lower even than what they might have looked forward to before the current troubles began.
  • Most people (65%) expect to delay retirement and work longer.
  • Most people (58%) believe they are not saving enough for retirement.
  • Retirement plans offered by employers (e.g., 401(k)) are a powerful aid toward retirement savings. Sixty-three percent of workers whose employer does not offer such a plan would take part in one if their employer did. Furthermore, workers whose employer does offer such a plan are more likely to save outside of work as well (contributing to a Roth IRA, for instance), than workers who are not offered such a plan (59% to 51%).
  • Additional economic strains felt over the past 12 months have resulted in many having difficulty paying basic bills (56%); having to help a family member pay bills (47%); looking for additional work hours or better-paying jobs (24% and 18%); suspending retirement account contributions or prematurely withdrawing money from such accounts (20% and 13%); or having a family member move in with them (12%).
Meanwhile, the CEO of the bankrupt Lehman Brothers, Richard Fuld, walked off the pile of ashes of the company he was instrumental in destroying with almost a half a billion dollars in salary, stock options, and bonuses(!) received since 2000.3 Growing inequities in wealth, begun in the Reagan years and vastly accelerated during the Bush 2 administration,4 are making themselves starkly apparent in these hard times. Lower and middle class incomes have stagnated or deteriorated while the Fulds of the world, riding a tsunami of deregulation wrought by Democrats and Republicans alike, have plundered our national economic center and left the global financial scene in tatters.

We may be relatively certain the next administration will not fix this. The question is, what will the one after it do?
1 Our illustration is The Gleaners by Jean-Francois Millet. Click the link to see a larger copy.
2 Average Retirement Savings—All Measurements Lead to the Same Conclusion (Accessed October 11, 2008)
3 Lehman Brothers Boss Defends $484 Million in Salary, Bonus, by Brian Ross and Alice Gomstyn, from ABC News, October 6, 2008 (Accessed October 11, 2008)
4 Bill Moyers Talks with David Cay Johnston, author of Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense, January 18, 2008. This interview, conducted before it all hit the fan, is frightening in its prescience. (Accessed October 11, 2008)
tags: Retirement | Employment | Economics

With Liberty and Justice for All

Oct 13, 2008
With a preamble and 30 articles, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which is 60 years old this month, is considerably shorter, at 1,773 words, than the U.S. Constitution’s 4,449. Though Article 16, Paragraph 3 states “The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society...,” the UDHR actually enshrines the individual as the primary unit, insulating them even from the occasional tyrannizing of the family.

It only takes about ten minutes to read the UDHR and we should all read it at least once a year, if only to remind ourselves that human society and its institutions—its governments, its laws, its economic systems—exist to serve the individual and that all individuals must enjoy equal access to, and equal rights in, the services of those institutions. Too often, in reality, are we instead called upon to serve them, too often enslaved by tyrannies, too often exploited by oligarchies.

This is what has bothered us about JFK’s exhortation in his 1961 inaugural speech practically since we first heard it: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”1 No, no, no. Our country exists to ensure and protect our liberty and equality; it is a reflection of our collective will, and it is a fundamental fraud upon the public to imply our “country” requires anything of us except our constant vigilance in ensuring it perform its proper role.

To that end, we would recommend the establishment of a University Declaration of Human Responsibility to accompany and bolster the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Our declaration is in the singular, as it would only consist of one Article:

Article I. That every human being on the planet will engage in substantive lifelong action to realize the goals of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and will not rest until those goals are met.
1 The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition, 2002 (Accessed October 11, 2008)
tags: Human Rights

To Be or Not To Be1

Oct 12, 2008
Unwilling, we enter this world. Often even more unwilling, we leave it. Yet in 2005, 32,637 Americans left quite willingly,2 whether because they were in terrible physical or psychic pain or because they shared the sentiment of actor George Sanders, who at 65 left a suicide note that read, “Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck.”

Death is the great mystery, the “undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveller returns,”3 the universal fate of all living things: “born but to die.”4 No wonder it breeds such hopes of heaven and of reincarnation. No wonder religions deny its existence so vehemently one might think it is religion’s sole raison d’être to do so.

How willingly, thoughtlessly, copiously we send others to their deaths! And how assiduously we continue to inhibit ourselves from pursuing the bare bodkin when life becomes too terrible or too boring to endure. Suicide, once a felony throughout the U.S., is no longer a crime in any state. However, only in Oregon has suicide been promoted to a right, with assisted suicide legalized. And even there, the right to choose to end one’s life is hedged in by a long list of conditions and procedures.

The Canadian Library of Parliament has released a report, Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide: International Experiences, by Marlisa Tiedemann and Dominque Valiquet. A number of European countries allow euthanasia and assisted suicide. In each country, a great struggle over the legislation occurred between what we may call the Pro-Life and the Pro-Choice contingents. And in every case where the legislation was successful, conditions similar to those in Oregon are required for the act to be legal.

And why should that be so? Why should we not be freely and unconditionally able to choose a painless and peaceful leavetaking, having no choice in our coming hither, and our end so certain? “To cease upon the midnight with no pain:”5 a consummation, I would think, devoutly to be wished, and one which most people wish for. And yet we continue to deny it to ourselves. But we’re getting there. Oregon and a few nations have begun the journey toward death on demand.

It strikes us that if the term “human rights” has any meaning at all, this right must surely be among them.
1 Our illustration is The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David. Click this link to view larger versions of the painting.
2 Suicide Statistics at Suicide.org (Accessed October 8, 2008)
3 Hamlet, by William Shakespeare, Act 3, Scene 1, lines 87-88.
4 Essay on Man, by Alexander Pope, line 10
5 Ode to a Nightingale, by John Keats, line 56
tags: Human Rights | Health | Law

Don’t Know Where, Don’t Know When

Oct 11, 2008
Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice, and some say under a gigantic mushroom cloud. We “saw in” the Atomic Age, born two months and a week after Nagasaki was destroyed, and we wouldn’t be surprised if we saw it out as well. Peacefully, if possible, but more likely in a holocaust that will leave the handful of survivors envying the dead.

Nine nations either have or are believed to have nuclear weapons today, and seven of them scare the pants off us: USA, Russia, United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel.1 We’re not nearly so concerned about those old foes the UK and France as we are about the other seven. The US has been rattling the nuclear sabre for over sixty years, and many of our fellow members of the nuclear club are failed states or on the verge of failure.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) maintains records in their Illicit Trafficking Database (ITDB) consisting of “incidents of illicit trafficking and other unauthorized activities involving nuclear and radioactive materials.” It’s the scariest database we know of, containing, as of December 31, 2007, over 1,300 confirmed incidents since 1993. Their ITDB Fact Sheet for 2007 shows illicit activity increasing, in some cases alarmingly, over the 14-year history of the ITDB. Russia and Germany seem to be the hotbeds of illicit activity regarding highly enriched uranium and plutonium.

One hundred countries participate in the ITDB, and it is good to see the list includes all the nuclear powers except North Korea. Still, given the prognosis for a future where resource wars will almost certainly play a role in international relations, the odds are altogether too great to merit debating if a nuclear incident is in our future. It is sadly much more to the point to wonder where or when it may occur.
1 List of states with nuclear weapons, from Wikipedia (Accessed October 7, 2008)
tags: Militarism

Corruption and Poverty: Perfect Together

Oct 10, 2008
What do the recently resigned Prime Minister of Israel and the longest-serving American senator have in common? Corruption. The latter is currently on trial and the former resigned in order to prepare for his likely day in court. Nothing saps a people’s self-esteem or optimism for the future so much as knowing they are governed by corrupt officials. Dante consigned traitors to the deepest circle in Hell and corruption in office is a kind of treason. It not only betrays an indifference to the policies and processes that brought the corrupt officials to their post, but it destroys the value of whatever purpose, integrity, or worth they might have brought to their position.

Corruption and poverty are the twin afflictions of the failed state, the extent to which one is present more often than not reflected in the extent of the other. Transparency International, its principal offices in Berlin, fights societal and political corruption in all its forms. Their 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index rates corruption in 180 countries, based on tabulations taken from up to 13 surveys and expert assessments. At least three were required for a country to be included in the findings, which rated countries from 0 (highly corrupt) to 10 (highly clean). Among the findings:

  • Denmark, Sweden, and New Zealand are tied at 9.3 for the least corrupt countries.
  • Somalia, at 1.0, is the most corrupt country.
  • Close behind Somalia, tied for next to last place, is Iraq (1.3), into which we are pouring $10 billion per month; Afghanistan is fifth from last place (1.5).
  • The U.S. is in 18th place, tied with Japan and Belgium at a rating of 7.3.
  • 72 of the 180 countries scored below 3.0; only 22 countries scored 7.0 or above.
China kills its corrupt officials, both in sport, in one of the most popular video games in the country, and, from time to time, for real.1 We can appreciate the sentiment, as much as we may deplore its application.
1 China enjoys anti-corruption game, from BBC News, August 2, 2007 (Accessed October 5, 2008)
tags: Politics

No Voter Left Behind

Oct 09, 2008
Here comes November 4th! Are we ready for what may be the biggest voter turnout ever1? No, we are not!

The Annenberg Public Policy Center has just released an Election Survey (.pdf) with some startling revelations:

  • Which candidate (Obama or McCain) is more likely to support free trade agreements like NAFTA? Only 28 percent correctly identified McCain.
  • Who is the candidate offering $2,500 to individuals and $5,000 to families to help buy life insurance? Almost twice as many people attributed this McCain plan to Obama, and only one in five correctly identified it as McCain’s.
  • Who wants to close Guantanamo? Forty-three percent said only Obama; only eight percent knew the truth: both McCain and Obama favor the idea.
  • Nearly two-thirds of respondents don’t know what it takes to override a presidential veto (a 2/3 vote of the House and Senate).
Perhaps what we need isn’t a poll tax so much as a poll test.

Here’s something for those of you responsible for running a proper polling station. The Brennan Center for Justice, together with Common Cause and the Verified Voting Foundation have assembled a Ballot Accounting Checklist (.pdf) representing “a minimum of what election officials should do to account for all ballots and votes cast on Election Day.” We especially favor the last recommendation: “Make all results public.”

And finally, from the Sentencing Project comes an update on disenfranchisement reform. We used to think convicted felons lost their right to vote forever. Such is far from the case, however. The report, Expanding the Vote: State Felony Disenfranchisment Reform 1997-2008 (.pdf) relates how 760,000 citizens have regained their right to vote, although five million others will continue to be ineligible to vote in November’s election. Furthermore:
  • Thirteen percent of black men are disenfranchised—seven times the national average.
  • 2.1 million disenfranchised persons are ex-offenders who have completed their sentences.
  • The state of Florida had an estimated 960,000 ex-felons who were unable to vote in the 2004 election.
  • Kentucky and Virginia are the only two states that permanently disenfranchise ex-felons.
  • Maine and Vermont are the only two states that allow current inmates to vote.2
Interestingly, another Brennan Center report (produced in conjunction with the American Civil Liberties Union), De Facto Disenfranchisement (.pdf) “reveals widespread misunderstanding among state election officials of laws governing the right to vote of citizens with felony convictions.” Should we have a close election again this year, look for a massive traffic jam of litigation.

In June 2008, Florida’s governor, Charlie Crist, said, “Once somebody has truly paid their debt to society, we should recognize it. We should welcome them back into society and give them that second chance. Who doesn’t deserve a second chance?”

Who, indeed? Maybe we can even grant that second chance to Florida.
1 Obama Campaign Sets Stage for Record Voter Turnout, by Katie Garrety, ABC News, August 18, 2008 (Accessed October 4, 2008)
2 Felony Disenfranchisement Laws in the United States (.pdf), from The Sentencing Project (Accessed October 4, 2008)
tags: Politics


Oct 08, 2008
We have a friend out on the west coast, a very funny and a very nice guy, who is appalled at our posts about Nader and our reluctance to commit ourself to voting for Obama.1 In a recent pair of emails, he reminds us that McCain is a loaded gun, with “a chip on his shoulder a mile wide” and spoiling for the sort of revenge that portends nuclear winter.

His running mate, Palin, is worse—an undereducated, religiously unbalanced redneck, with a 1 in 7 chance of finding her finger on the button in the next four years, should her ticket prevail in November. How could anyone fail to run to the nearest polling station and devote one’s franchise to defeating such a terrifying and homicidal ticket?

And we could not agree with him more.

In fact, we’ll go him one better. All Together Now is dedicated to the memory and the work of Martin Luther King, Jr.,2 whom we consider one of the great benefactors of the human race, a man of enormous courage, compassion, and vision, and a representative of a race so ill-treated by our own—to this day—that a thousand years of restitution would not entitle us to a moiety of forgiveness. That another black man—intelligent, eloquent, liberal, with a wonderful wife and two adorable children—is now heading up the ticket for the highest office in the land is the most gratifying miracle we have witnessed in our lifetime.

And yet we probably won’t vote for him. And why? Because he is wrong. He is wrong on domestic spying, he is wrong on the middle east conflict, and he is wrong on economic reform. We will not—we can not—vote for a man who condones the Bush administration’s gutting of the Constitution; who shares our nation’s tragic reliance on doomed militaristic responses to international challenges; who aligns himself with the corporations and their stranglehold on American society and all its institutions.

However, we have four weeks yet to listen between the lines to what Obama has to say. We realize his first duty is to get elected and that if he spoke with the voice that speaks in our heart—of universal brotherhood, of one world, of the need to transform our nation into a true representation of its highest ideals—he wouldn’t stand a chance. And we will try, we will try our damnedest, to vote for him.

If we have not found our way into Obama’s corner by election day, we will vote for Ralph Nader, the man who does speak with our voice. And it will be among the saddest days of our life.
1 Click the Nader, Obama, or Politics tag in the left-hand column to view pertinent posts.
2 Announcing ATN, June 1, 2008
tags: Politics | Obama | Nader

Going Soft on Terrorism

Oct 07, 2008
On the brink of an election where one major candidate has proposed the possibility of staying in Iraq for anywhere from a hundred to ten million years,1 and the other has retreated several steps from his primary-season promises,2 we may be certain there will be no disengagement of military force in Iraq during the next administration. Furthermore, both candidates have pledged to increase troop levels in Afghanistan.3, 4

And so the hemorrhaging of money and American lives, and the displacement, injuries, and deaths of countless civilians will continue into the foreseeable future. In a recent post,5 we noted that terrorist activity has been defeated by military force in only a scant seven percent of cases since 1968. Now from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace comes a paper entitled Saudi Arabia’s “Soft” Counterterrorism Strategy: Prevention, Rehabilitation, and Aftercare, by Christopher Boucek.

Following an upsurge in terrorist activity in 2003, the Saudi government concluded that “violent extremism cannot be combated through traditional security measures alone,” and they got busy implementing others. “Central to the Saudi strategy is the message that the use of violence within the kingdom to affect change is not permissible.” Their three-pronged strategy seeks to deter its people from becoming involved with militant Islam in the first place; to rehabilitate them when they do; and to facilitate their reintegration into society after their release from custody. The Ministry of the Interior oversees the program, and involves many other ministries and agencies, including Education and Labor.

Though we are no friend to dictatorial regimes that indulge in vicious public punishments of those who threaten it, we are nevertheless impressed by the intensive efforts adopted by the Saudis in attacking the root of the problem rather than futilely hacking away at its myriad shoots and branches. By alleviating poverty, reforming education, redesigning prisons to facilitate rehabilition, caring for families while one or more of their members are in the judicial system, and treating adherents to radical Islam as victims rather than transgressors, the Saudi methods have succeeded in almost eliminating recidivism.

It is too soon to evaluate the overall effectiveness of the program, but it has been impressive enough that variations of it have been initiated throughout the Middle East and even by American forces in Iraq.6

Side Note: Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements remains one of the most brilliant analyses of the personalities and motivations of those who align themselves with violent religious and nationalist organizations. In a day when we are burdened by a terrorist government within and many terrorist threats from without, every citizen of the world should read it.
1 McCain Said ‘100’; Opponents Latch On, by Kate Phillips, from the New York Times, March 27, 2008 (Accessed October 4, 2008)
2 Obama’s Non-Plan for Ending the War in Iraq, by Anthony DiMaggio, from Counterpunch.org, August 12, 2008 (Accessed October 4, 2008)
3 Obama, McCain Offer Quick Reaction to Bush’s Troop Leval Plan, by Alexis Matsui, from the Online NewsHour at PBS.org, September 9, 2008 (Accessed October 4, 2008)
4 McCain Wants More Afghanistan Troops, by Adam Aigner-Treworgy, from MSNBC.com, July 15, 2008 (Accessed October 4, 2008)
5 Where Will It All End?, All Together Now, September 24, 2008
6 Detainee Operations Changes Command Leadership, from the Multi-National Force Press Desk, June 8, 2008 (Accessed October 4, 2008)
tags: Terrorism

A Rising Tide that Lifts Only Yachts

Oct 06, 2008
Income and wealth disparity in this country has ballooned out of control since 1980. This may be the starkest way of illustrating this fact: The 40 percent of the population (you and me, probably) who were making between $50,000 and $100,000 in 1980 (in 2005 dollars) were still making between $50,000 and $100,000 25 years later. Those in the top five percent of the population, however, whose mean family income in 1980 was about $150,000, were making over $300,000 in 2005. The disparity between the top one-tenth of one percent and the rest of us is even more obscene. This small number of Americans—about 300,000— had more wealth in 2006 than the poorest 120 million Americans combined.1

Americans support these sorts of inequities apparently because we have become convinced that we are plausible candidates for enjoying this windfall in the future and to mess with the status quo could scotch our chances. Perhaps our national Horatio Alger myths, combined with the ubiquitous (and cruelly regressive) lotteries, have molded this attitude among our people. One wonders how many generations of such growing disparities, how many financial collapses, how many foreclosed mortgages it will take to snap us out our willful ignorance of the facts.

The Century Foundation has provided a graphic summary of income and wealth disparities in their recent report, A Rising Tide that Lifts Only Yachts (.pdf).

This country needs an attitude adjustment. We need to decide what is too little and what is too much, and then rebalance our resources so no one falls into either extreme. At one end, our minimum wage for a full-time worker needs to be adequate to feed, clothe, house, and insure a reasonably sized family. At the other extreme, we have to stop rewarding failed CEOs with $210 million golden parachutes.2 There is a happy medium within our grasp. A truly democratic nation’s role is to enable the greatest good for the greatest number, sacrificing none of its precious human resources to predatory capitalism, but harnessing that capitalism to raise a tide that will lift all boats.

Anything less is slow suicide, as the last few weeks have shown.
1 ’04 Income in U.S. Was Below 2000 Level, by David Cay Johnston, from the New York Times, November 28, 2006 (Accessed September 27, 2008)
2 Nardelli out at Home Depot, by Parija B. Kavilanz, from CNNMoney.com, January 3, 2007 (Accessed September 27, 2008)
tags: Economics | Politics

No Sex, Please, We're Abstaining

Oct 05, 2008
We wonder whether these Sarah Palin types who support abstinence-only sex education1 are serious, or are only being spoilsports. We could not find statistics on how many Americans favor abstinence-only sex education (which consists, essentially, of delivering three words, “Just say no!” in a frantic, hushed tone). We did find that over the past 20 years polls have consistently shown that 35 percent of adults say premarital sex is always or almost always wrong,2 so we can presume they are the ones whose voices are drowning out the rest of us these days.

More enlightening—and infinitely more entertaining—were the reliable statistics we found confirming that “almost all Americans have sex before marrying.”3 We are talking, like, 97 percent here. Essentially everyone.

When numbers like that come up against an “official” federal government policy of abstinence-only sex education,4 it is no wonder teens in the U.S. suffer from the highest birth rate and one of the highest rates of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) in the industrialized world.5

So here is a message to the roughly one-third of Americans who have had sex before marriage and apparently had such a horrible time of it they want to spare their children the experience:


Abstinence-only sex education doesn’t work. So says an article by Douglas B. Kirby, entitled The Impact of Abstinence and Comprehensive STD/HIV Education Programs on Adolescent Sexual Behavior, from the September 2008 issue of Sexual Research and Sexual Policy. The article concludes, “abstinence programs have little evidence to warrant their widespread replication....”

So let’s cut out the abstinence nonsense. If 97 percent of us are gonna do it—and 75 percent of us are gonna do it before we’re 216—let’s do it right—with understanding, with care, with as few unwanted pregnancies as possible, and with no STDs.

And the only way we’ll learn to do it that way is if we’re taught to do it that way.

Update: An article in the January 2009 journal Pediatrics reports that “The sexual behavior of virginity pledgers does not differ from that of closely matched nonpledgers, and pledgers are less likely to protect themselves from pregnancy and disease before marriage... Clinicians should provide birth control information to all adolescents, especially virginity pledgers.”
1 Palin on Abortion: I’d Oppose Even If My Own Daughter Was Raped, by Sam Stein, from the Huffington Post, September 1, 2008 (Accessed September 30, 2008)
2 Trends in Premarital Sex in the United States, 1954-2003 (.pdf), by Lawrence B. Finer, PhD, from Public Health Reports, volume 122, Jan-Feb 2007, pg. 74 (Accessed September 30, 2008)
3 Op. cit., pg. 73
4 Abstinence-only Education, from the Union of Concerned Scientists, undated (Accessed September 30, 2008)
5 Five Years of Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Education: Assessing the Impact, by Debra Hauser, from Advocates for Youth, undated (Accessed September 30, 2008)
6 Finer, op. cit., pg. 73
tags: Health | Youth

The End of Poverty

Oct 04, 2008
First things first. For adults in America, that means a living wage for full-time work.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) says that in 2008 if a family of four earns less than $21,200 they fall below the poverty threshold.1 Twenty-five percent of American workers earn less than that. So the first thing we need to do is raise the minimum wage for the primary wage earner in a household containing up to four members to at least $10.50, increasing it automatically each year by an amount reflected in the Consumer Price Index or the HHS’s Poverty Threshold, whichever is higher.

The minimum wage for secondary and tertiary wage earners in the household (the spouse and a teenage child, perhaps) can then be set at a lower rate, the tertiary perhaps as low as the current minimum wage of $6.55 per hour ($13,624 per year).

Adjustments in the minimum wage for smaller households could also be made. Whether higher minimum wages should be allowed for larger households would be a matter for debate. We believe no one should have more than two children at a time when the world is suffering from the strains of serious overpopulation. Consequently, we would not favor setting a higher minimum wage for households containing three or more children. Adjustments might be made for households containing adopted children or ones where elderly relatives are being cared for.

By setting a “living” minimum wage, most government programs supporting the poor (food stamps, Medicaid, SSI, WIC, school lunch, etc.) could be significantly reduced or suspended altogether, saving enough to perhaps provide some tax relief to employers faced with higher wage requirements.

Many of these statistics may be found in Low-Wage Workers in the United States: Status and Prospects, a September 2008 report from the Urban Institute.

The recommendations above would end poverty in America, at least for working Americans. We owe them—we owe ourselves—no less.
1 The 2008 HHS Poverty Guidelines (Accessed September 28, 2008)
tags: Employment | Poverty

A Royal-ty Beating

Oct 03, 2008
When minerals are extracted from federally owned lands, the businesses doing the extracting are required to pay royalties to the government, that is, to us. Such royalties comprise the second largest source of revenue for the federal government, after taxes. In fiscal 2007 alone, the government collected the equivalent of over $9 billion in oil and gas royalties.

We say “the equivalent” because around ten years ago, during the Clinton administration, the oil and gas industry managed to get a royalty-in-kind (RIK) program initiated by the Department of the Interior (DOI). In some of the key source areas of RIK revenues, over half are received “in kind.”

The recent disclosures regarding drug and sex scandals at DOI1 have ripped the lid off the Minerals Management Service, the office from which the scandals emanated. In the process, the shoddy practices regarding RIK collections and audits have come to light. Millions, perhaps billions, of dollars may have been underpaid by oil and gas companies during the life of the RIK program. The records are so opaque and incomplete that we may never know what happened to the money.

This all comes as no surprise to the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), which smelled a rat associated with the RIK program years ago and, since 1995, has published five reports on it. The latest, Drilling the Taxpayer: Department of Interior’s Royality-in-Kind Program, is the first to call for the abolition of the program altogether.

[I]n light of the proposed plan to expand the program yet again, and given the numerous damning reports about the RIK program and MMS’s inability to prove that it is beneficial to the taxpayers—even ten years after its first pilot program—enough is enough. The RIK program should be terminated, and the system should revert to collecting royalties through the royalty-in-value system.
Enron et al., tax cuts for the rich, Cheney’s secretive Energy Task Force, CEOs’ platinum parachutes, a collapsing financial system, and outright scandals such as the above: They all seem to point to a single-minded attempt to remove transparency and accountability from the American business sector, to the detriment of the people, the exhaustion of the people’s coffers, and the enrichment of a tiny few.

How many other such revelations, still obscured within the shadows of the most secretive administration in history, await the light of a new day and a new administration?
1 Sex, Drug Use and Graft Cited in Interior Department, by Charlie Savage, from the New York Times, September 10, 2008 (Accessed September 28, 2008)
tags: Politics | Business

Vox Populi, Vox Dei

Oct 02, 2008
We are writing this on the evening of Wednesday, October 1, 2008. U. S. senators are gathering to approve the Bush/Paulsen bailout plan to save the economy. The bill has been packed with extraneous provisions to induce the senators to vote for it, like enticing a child into an abyss with a bauble. The plan itself calls for turning over $700 billion of public money to an individual over whom there will be scant supervision, difficult if not impossible to impose. No one has defined exactly what the problem is or whether the plan is likely to solve it.

It comes on the heels of a half dozen extraordinary measures taken by the executive branch, which together have failed to forestall this massive federal intervention into, and disruption of, our economy. The measures have included the nationalization of Fannie and Freddie Mac, IndyBank, and AIG; the brokered sales of Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual to J.P. Morgan/Chase, Merrill Lynch to Bank of America, and Wachovia to Citigroup; and passive witness to the death of Lehman Brothers. Through it all, not a single criminal accusation, let alone a charge, has been leveled at the masters of the universe who created this mess.

There has been no debate on the nature or correctness of the plan, and no alternative method has been posed for alleviating the alleged stress on the credit markets. Mere dickering over details of the one idea on the table has failed to secure real oversight, adequate guarantees of public ownership of the entities which will be bailed out, or any relief for the struggling homeowners who were conned into mortgages they could not afford by the flim-flam boys posing as bankers and who are now in charge of the “recovery.”

Two days ago the House rejected the plan 228 to 205. The stock market dipped 778 points, then gained well over half of that back the next day. Today it was down twenty points. No foundations trembled.

The New York Times is in favor of the plan, as is their respected op-ed economic columnist Paul Krugman, both major party presidential candidates Obama and McCain, and apparently every pundit, policy wonk, and economist in the land. The people, however, are opposed, with their phone calls to legislators running 100 to one against its passage.1

Should this plan be passed by a Congress with a 15 percent approval rating,2 half that of the most unpopular president in history,3 in the sixth year of an endless war; our good name in tatters; the middle class losing ground while the richest live like emperors;4 prisons bursting with our young men;5 our elderly torn between buying their medicine and heating their homes;6 our youth directionless and stupid from years of repression, neglect, and disdain; our planet in a maelstrom of climatic change and degradation; should this plan be passed, starving our government of another trillion dollars and consigning our fate into the hands of foreign nations assuming this debt, then the papers, and the pundits, and the politicos take warning:

The voice of the people is the voice of god.

And it will have the final say.
1 Bailout Defeated, Blame Flies, Wall Street Tanks, by Karen Tumulty, from Time Magazine, September 29, 2008 (Accessed October 1, 2008)
2 Congressional Performance, from Rasmussen Report, August 27, 2008 (Accessed October 1, 2008)
3 Bush’s Approval Rating Drops to New Low, by Jeffrey M. Jones, from USA Today/Gallup Poll September 26-27, 2008 (Accessed October 1, 2008)
4 Income Gap is Widening, Data Shows, by David Cay Johnston, from the New York Times, March 29, 2007 (Accessed October 1, 2008)
5 New High in U.S. Prison Number, by N.C. Aizenman, from the Washington Post, February 29, 2008 (Accessed October 1, 2008)
6 Winter heat crisis looms, little relief seen, by Ben Rooney, from CNNMoney.com, September 2, 2008 (Accessed October 1, 2008)
tags: Economics | Politics

Noted with Interest, September 2008

Oct 01, 2008
Here are a few items noted with interest over the past month:

Bankruptcy Filings Near Million Mark for 12-Month Period Ending June 30, 2008
Business and non-business filings were up 28.9 percent from the 12-month period ending June 30, 2007; business filings were up 41.6 percent. (From U.S. Courts.gov. Accessed August 30, 2008)

Bringing Pell Grants to My Eyes
Just a great little essay on what it means to be a Democrat. (Free registration may be required.) (From The New York Times, Op-Ed Contributor Sarah Vowell. Accessed August 31, 2008)

Capturing CO2 from Coal-Fired Plants: Challenges for a Comprehensive Strategy
The world gets a quarter of its energy from coal, including almost half of its electricity. In a carbon-constrained future, carbon from coal must be captured and sequestered. Competing and conflicting political, technological, and economic factors combine to delay development of sequestration technology, as explained in this Congressional Research Services report. (From OpenCRS. Accessed September 2, 2008)

Father Knows Best
A funny antidote to the endless speeches of the Democratic and Republican conventions. By Matt Mendelsohn (From The New York Times, September 7, 2008 (free registration required). Accessed September 7, 2008)

FDIC Report Highlights Suggestions for Expanding Mortgage Loans to Low- and Moderate-Income Households
Hard to believe, but the FDIC is out there telling banks how to get back into the mortgage business, lending to low- and moderate-income customers. Their main suggestion: Don’t get greedy. Sell the customer a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage and make sure they can pay it back. (From Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Accessed September 8, 2008)

Virtual Fence for Mexico Border Is Put Off
The border fence is $400 million over budget, the wire mesh portion (the people-stopper) is costing $3.5 million more per mile than the $4 million it was expected to cost, the program is way late, and is about to shelve—in favor of the physical portion of the fence—the “virtual fence” portion Boeing is building at a cost that could reach $24 billion all by itself. Something there is that doesn’t love a wall. (by August Cole, from the Wall Street Journal, September 10, 2008, p. A3. Accessed September 10, 2008)

More to Give: Tapping the Talents of the Baby Boomer, Silent, and Greatest Generations
Local, state, and national guidelines and recommendations for putting more “Experienced Americans” to work as volunteers. (From AARP, in association with Civic Enterprises. Accessed September 12, 2008)

So far like the present...
Find updates here on three recent civil rights violence matters: Luis Ramirez, Baron Pikes, and LaVena Johnson. (From All Together Now, July 30, 2008.)

On Stupidity
College professor Thomas H. Benton presents a slew of recent books which he says suggests that it is time to reverse the customer-service mentality plaguing academe.(From The Chronicle of Higher Education. Accessed September 13, 2008)

CREW releases fourth annual most corrupt members of Congress report
See if yours made the top 20 this year. (From Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), September 12, 2008. Accessed September 14, 2008)

Employer Health Benefits 2008 Annual Survey
Employer-sponsored health insurance rose five percent in 2008 to $12,680 for family coverage. Employees on average pay $3,354 out of their paychecks to cover their share of the cost. (From the Kaiser Family Foundation and Health Research & Educational Trust. Accessed September 27, 2008)

Salaries Set for Fannie, Freddie CEOs
The base salary of $900,000 will probably exceed $1 million with bonuses. That is one-tenth of what the CEOs were receiving who drove Fannie and Freddie to bankruptcy. Still, it’s nice work if you can get it. (From AARP Bulletin Today. Accessed September 27, 2008)

FactChecking Debate No. 1
Check out the muddled facts in the first Obama/McCain debate. (From FactCheck.org. Accessed September 27, 2008)

tags: Noted with Interest

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