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The Race Is On, and On, and On

Apr 30, 2009
The Federal Election Commission (FEC) has reminded us, exhausted as we all may be from a two-year campaign that seems to have ended only yesterday, that we are indeed in another—indeed always in another—election cycle. The convenient maps they have provided at their web site provide a reminder—as if we needed one—of what this 2009-2010 campaign is really about. (Hint: The same as the last one.) The amount in parentheses is the cash on hand in the candidate’s campaign war chest as of Mar 31, 2009.

Peter Welch (House D-VT) ($599,252)1
Peter ran for his first re-election to the House in 2008, unopposed in the primary, and with no Republican on the ballot.

Patrick Leahy (Senate D-VT) ($1,694,964)2
Leahy will almost certainly run for his seventh term in the Senate with no credible opposition.

Elizabeth Kirsten Gillibrand (Senate D-NY) ($2,202,825)
Gillibrand was only recently named to the Senate to fill Hillary Clinton’s seat.

Barbara Boxer (Senate D-CA) ($4,622,086)3
Well, it's a big state, and Boxer has three opponents who together have amassed a whopping $48,279. Can you say “incumbent advantage”?

Senate Dems and Reps together ($38,184,318)

House Dems and Reps together ($63,384,619)
So there is over $100 million in war chests already for an off-year election, 581 days from Election Day. Recall that the overwhelming majority of campaign financing comes from lobbyists and special interests and only 10 percent from contributions under $200.4 That great bookmarklet discussed yesterday, Know Thy Congressman,5 provides the top 10 contributing groups and the top 10 contributing institutions for all sitting senators and representatives. There, you will find an unending parade of lawyers and law firms, real estate interests, securities and investment houses, lobbyists, and “health professionals.”

Is there any hope for progressive change, when this kind of money supports the status quo?
1 Peter Welch, from OpenCongress.org, accessed Apr 27, 2009.
2 Patrick Leahy, from OpenCongress.org, accessed Apr 27, 2009.
3 Barbara Boxer, from OpenCongress.org, accessed Apr 27, 2009.
4 The First Step, ATN, November 28, 2008.
5 Political Hacks, ATN, Apr 29, 2009.
tags: Politics | Business

Political Hacks

Apr 29, 2009
The Sunlight Foundation is a non-profit, non-partisan organization with the mission of using the Internet to make information about Congress and the federal government more meaningfully accessible to us. See Party Time and Fifty-State Project. Follow them on Twitter.

They have just awarded prizes in their first Apps for American Government Mashup Contest and the winners are pretty cool. (A “mashup,” by the way, is a procedure that combines web-based resources to provide additional, new, or value-added services.)

Filibusted (Grand Prize, $15,000)
Filibusters are the bugaboo of the current Senate, since 60 votes are required to impose a time limit on a debate (cloture) and get on with the vote, and the forces mostly favoring Obama’s agenda currently have only 58 votes, 59 if Al Franken ever gets seated. This site aggregates information from GovTrack.us and Sunlight Labs, another service of the Sunlight Foundation, to bring us news of fresh filibustering, naming the senators who are bottlenecking legislation. Visit the site for updates and to read their blog or, more conveniently, follow them on Twitter.

Legistalker (Second Price, $5,000)
This project was created specially for the contest by Forum One Communications, and aggregates data from Twitter, YouTube, Capitol Words (another Sunlight Foundation project), and hundreds of news sources. Click a button to see the latest Tweets and uploaded YouTube videos generated by U.S. legislators, or news items regarding them. Set up your own “"Stalk List” to zero in on the legislators you want to follow.

Hello, Congress (Third Prize, shared)
A somewhat bewildering site, ostensibly created to serve congressional delegations. Each senator and representative has their own page where they and their staff can request research, search a briefing room of over 2000 documents and talking points, and track the priorities of their constituents. Constituents, meanwhile, sign up at something called White House 2, where they can endorse or oppose various policies. Their positions are then aggregated for their legislators on the legislators’ Hello, Congress, pages. Clever! And some interesting numbers, which lead one to believe the site has been peopled, so far, by the usual suspects: hotheads and ideologues. If the general public eventually embrace it, it could become a useful tool for our legislators.

Know Thy Congressman (KTC) (Third Prize, shared)
Get web savvy fast and impress your friends. KTC is an implementation of bookmarklets, handy little bits of code that can automate all sorts of things inside your Web browser. The KTC bookmarklet will look up useful information regarding legislators when you come across their name on a web page. Simply highlight the name, click the KTC bookmarklet (which the site will show you how to easily install), and voilá, you will see a handy insert providing a raft of useful and juicy data on the legislator (including their primary donors). Use it with some regularity, and you will find yourself learning a lot about our gang in Washington.

Yeas and Nays (Third Prize, shared)
Whereas KTC was a snap to install (a quick drag-and-drop), Yeas and Nays, a mashup that allows you to call one of your congressional representatives from any web page, requires a bit more dedication. You need the Firefox browser (definitely worth the switch from Internet Explorer), then you will install Greasemonkey, a Firefox add-in that allows you to run what are called user scripts, one of which is Yeas and Nays from ShiftSpace. The Yeas and Nays link takes you through these steps quite painlessly. Once installed, the little applet allows you to call your congressional rep from any web page (as well as providing a number of other web page add-on capabilities), provides talking points to help you express your opinion regarding the issue at hand, and, at your option, will record your call and make it available to other visitors to that page (who have ShiftSpace installed). Web Two Point Wow!

e-Paper Trail (Third Prize, shared)
Subtitled “Watch over your representatives,” e-Paper Trail provides a three-way look at Congressional activity. “Bills and Resolutions” graphically displays Democratic/Republican splits on recent House and Senate votes, and shows how your representatives and senators voted. “From the Floor” provides recent statements/speeches presented by your congressional representatives. “Head to Head” compares the voting history of any two House members of your choice. Text alerts are available for your mobile phone. These old eyes wonder, however, why the designers of this web site decided on such light, thin headline and body text.
These mashups illustrate how far and how fast Internet web site development is progressing. Combined, they provide quick and timely access to the D.C. goings-on that so vitally affect our interests. Kudos to Sunlight Foundation for sponsoring this contest, and to all the participants.
tags: Internet | Politics | Reference

Poor and Poorer

Apr 28, 2009
The method our nation uses to define and identify families living in poverty is flawed and obsolete, and, because it radically underestimates the income necessary to purchase basic necessities, it provides misleading intelligence regarding the numbers of our fellow citizens who are without those basic necessities.

A three-page report from the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP), entitled Measuring Poverty in the United States, admirably summarizes what’s wrong with the way we measure poverty:

  • The official measure is the same across the continental U.S., even though cost of living varies considerably among the 48 states and between urban and rural communities.
  • The official measure is based on outdated assumptions, one being that families spend about a third of their income on food. Today, that proportion has dropped to around one-seventh.
  • Income is counted before subtracting payroll, income, and other taxes, overstating income for some families.
  • On the other hand, the federal Earned Income Tax Credit is not counted either, underestimating income for other families.
  • In-kind assistance such as food stamps and Medicaid is not counted.
  • Work-related expenses, such as child care and transportation, are not included in the list of basic necessities upon which the poverty levels are based.
NCCP, with guidance from other entities, has produced very conservative budgets which provide more realistic estimates of the needs of families. These budgets assume provision of employer-sponsored health care even though most employers of the poor do not provide health care, and they do not include investments in the future, such as savings to purchase a home or send a child to college. Even without these expenses, which most Americans would consider essential, these budgets indicate that a family requires anywhere from two to three times the amount the federal government says is required to meet basic needs.

The federal poverty threshold for a family of four in 2008 is $21,200. The NCCP figures range from $43,376 for a family of four living in rural Iowa to $67,692 for a family living in New York City.

According to the U.S. Census, almost 24 million Americans in 2006 subsisted on family incomes under $15,0001 (the current federal minimum wage of $6.55 per hour provides $13,624 in gross income to a full-time American worker). Extrapolation from these 2006 Census Bureau figures indicates that over 40 million Americans were then subsisting on less than the conservative NCCP minimum. This was before millions lost their homes and their jobs and everyone saw a significant decline in family wealth after the onset of the recession in December 2007.

It is not unreasonable to estimate from these figures that nearly one in three Americans are, or will soon be, living below an income level necessary to provide basic necessities. Only systemic change, wrought by an attitude adjustment of historic proportions, restoring the people to the center of American governance, can save us.
1 Income, Expenditures, Poverty & Wealth: Household Income, from the U.S. Census Bureau, accessed Apr 25, 2009.
tags: Poverty | Governance

Words of Wisdom and Warning

Apr 27, 2009
We torture.

Reclaiming America’s Soul, by Paul Krugman, from the New York Times, Apr 23, 2009
“[N]ever before have our leaders so utterly betrayed everything our nation stands for.”

The Torture Moment, by Arianna Huffington, from the Huffington Post, Apr 24, 2009
“Since when is adhering to the laws that govern us a left-wing ‘point-of-view’?”

The Dubious C.I.A. Shortcut, by Philip Zelikow, from the New York Times, Apr 23, 2009
“[T]he methods of torment do not stack up well against proved alternatives that rely on patience and skill.”

Torturers Should Be Punished, by Amy Goodman, from truthdig.com, Apr 21, 2009
“Though [Obama] may occupy the most powerful office on Earth, there is a force more powerful: committed people demanding change. We need a universal standard of justice. Torturers should be punished.”

Time to Come Clean, by Nicholas D. Kristof, from the New York Times, Apr 26, 2009
“[T]oday’s revulsion at waterboarding is broad but fragile. And that makes it essential that the United States proceed with an independent commission to investigate harsh treatment and tally its costs and benefits.”

We Don’t Torture, with Jon Stewart, from the Daily Show, Apr 21, 2009
“We Don’t Torture. Three words that aren’t said enough, that symbolize America... No matter how bad it gets, no matter how ruthless our enemies, we don’t torture. Now, whether or not that statement is true isn’t the point. The point is, don’t f***ing worry about it.’

How can anyone who claims to be an American; who remembers—or lives among those who remember—Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot; who lays claim to being a human being with some vestige of imagination or empathy; how can we (because this includes you and me) live with this awful knowledge, that we have torn bodies, ruined lives, driven our fellow creatures to madness and suicide, in a decade-long vengeful holocaust of ineffectual bestiality that has placed us in the company of the worst monsters in history? How can we know this, and not be on the streets with pikestaffs and pitchforks, howling for the restitution of justice and the restoration of our morality?

It beggars understanding.
tags: Militarism | Governance | Terrorism

Guest Editorial: Shai Agassi

Apr 24, 2009
We'll take the day off and let Shai Agassi talk to you about A bold plan for mass adoption of electric cars. This TED Talk will show you how whole countries will be driving emission-free electric vehicles by 2020. “Persuasive; Inspiring; Ingenious!”
tags: Electricity | Transportation | Environment

Fifty-State Project

Apr 23, 2009
The Internet offers a good assortment of tools to keep up to date on federal political matters. Thomas, a service of the Library of Congress, has the halls (and shenanigans) of the U.S. House and Senate pretty well covered from an official point of view, and we like Joshua Tauberer’s Govtrack.us, for the unofficial view. Joshua's site provides many tools to help us understand and keep up to date on pending and enacted legislation at the federal level. It will track bills, legislators, and other congressional matters you are interested in, emailing you updates as they occur.

However, if “all politics is local,” as Tip O’Neill maintained, then we need to keep as close an eye on our state reps as we do the boys and girls in D.C. Until recently, that wasn’t so easy to do. Now, a new start-up called the Fifty State Project is putting together what looks like an excellent resource for tracking state legislatures. Their goals:

  • Collect URLs of state legislature and legislative information pages
  • Obtain data for legislation in each of the 50 states
  • Grab legislation, creating the sponsor relationship between legislator and legislation
  • Grab legislator votes on all legislation
  • Build tools on top of the data to allow slicing and dicing for purposes of data processing
Though in its infancy, the Project already has links to most state legislation pages found at the above link, and a project status report blog which you can find HERE.

It only took us five clicks to go from the link above to an account of the Vermont State Senate vote (23 to 5) to override our grim governor’s veto of S.115, the act relating to civil marriage.

The project is managed by The Sunlight Foundation, a non-partisan non-profit dedicated to using the power of the Internet to catalyze greater government openness and transparency.

And kudos to them.
tags: States | Politics | Governance

Water Pressure

Apr 22, 2009
After oxygen, the first requirement for the sustenance of life is fresh water. It is a finite resource for which there is no substitute, and water is coming under dangerously high levels of competitive pressure, driven by increasing population and international development efforts. Seventy percent of fresh water is used for agricultural irrigation—at the front of the food chain, in other words, and in a position, should supplies fall, of directly impacting our ability to feed a population expected to grow from six to nine billion between 2000 and 2050. We have seen steep price increases in food in recent years, driven by population and development pressures, as well as the biofuel initiative, which is alone responsible for as much as 70 percent of the increase in corn prices.

Although we are on track to meet the Millennium Development Goal of clean drinking water for 90 percent of the world’s population by 2015, we are far behind on the goal to provide basic sanitation services, also heavily dependent on water. In this regard, 2.4 billion people—a third of the world’s population—are expected to be without access to basic sanitation in 2015. The economic and security ramifications of this are enormous.

Pressures such as these on a finite resource spell trouble. Get the full picture of where we are today and where we are going, in The 3rd United Nations World Water Development Report: Water in a Changing World. It is not a pretty picture, and if we don’t soon stop spending trillions to blow each other up and turn our attention and our resources to managing the basic water-related needs of the world, conflicts will arise in the next 50 years that will make the present hot spots around the world seem like friendly family squabbles.

For a look at the domestic scene, see Courting Disaster: How the Supreme Court Has Broken the Clean Water Act and Why Congress Must Fix It (.pdf, 2.1Mb, 44 pages), produced by a consortium of environmental groups.
tags: Water | Environment

United We Prevail

Apr 21, 2009
Human Rights First, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International are three worthy organizations all engaged in more or less the same endeavor—monitoring and fighting human rights abuses around the world. And there are many other such organizations.

MoveOn.org, Democracy for America, True Majority.org, and Credo Action are four worthy organizations all engaged in more or less the same endeavor—organizing voters to support progressive issues and candidates. November5.org and Accountability NOW are also engaged in these pursuits, although both seem to have been stillborn.

Food&WaterWatch and Food Democracy Now, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest are three worthy organizations that monitor and promote progressive food safety issues. Again, there are many others.

The Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Nature Conservancy are three of the better known organizations among scores of others advocating environmental protection and reform.

These groups all compete for the same support dollar within their spheres of interest, inevitably “balkanizing” themselves and their missions. What it seems to us we need in our struggle to bring about real progressive change is some amalgamating facility that will bring us together in a coordinated, targeted, and sustained effort. We believe that effort should be aimed at finding, funding, and electing a new generation of “untouchable” politicians committed to a progressive agenda, politicians who are not naive regarding the harsh realities of a dangerous world, but are committed to marshalling the resources of the Great Idea which is America to bring peace and plenty to a suffering planet.

We don’t know how to do this. A charismatic figure such as Martin Luther King could galvanize these groups, although no one of that stature has appeared since we lost Dr. King. To be sure, the forces of Darkness are masters at kludging a grabbag of conflicting interests into a formidable political force, and they are hard at work doing so today.

Time is short, as the world spins toward political, environmental, and economic disaster. Nuclear arms are proliferating; political repression is spreading; environmental degradation continues apace. Before our worser natures are caught up in a dog-eat-dog catalcysm of resource wars and fascist repression, we must empower our better natures to save the world, assured that it is entirely within our grasp to do so.
tags: Working Together

Reality Matters

Apr 20, 2009

People should remember that while they have the right to their opinion, they are not entitled to be taken seriously.
Bruce Bartlett, economist and former Reagan administration official (read his terrific take on today’s subject—tax tea parties—at Forbes.com, Apr 17, 2009, accessed Apr 18, 2009)

Last week, on Tax Day, a few thousand Americans answered the clarion call of their right-wing cable channels, bankrolled by some well-heeled ideologues posing as Republicans1 (we won’t call them Republicans. If these people are Republicans, then Lincoln, T.R., and Eisenhower are spinning in their graves.)

The demonstrations went on despite the findings of a new Gallup poll: For pretty much the first time in over 50 years, a solid majority of Americans—61 percent—consider their tax burden to be fair, and three percent think it is too low.2

In reality, if we may introduce such an alien concept among the rants and half-baked opinions upon which our actions and much of our media coverage is based, all but the very wealthiest Americans are enjoying an historic low in their federal tax burden, now hovering near its lowest level in three decades.3

And that’s a fact. That is reality. And reality matters. Neither Times story we noted above saw fit to mention this fact, although it is inarguably pertinent to both. We don’t care much about facts in this country. We care about our fuzzy feelings and our borrowed opinions. We don’t care for facts, are not in command of many, and are eager to forget the ones of which we are inconveniently aware when they collide with those feelings or opinions.

And this is more than a problem. This is what is going to bring us down. Oscar Wilde said “America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without a period of civilization in between.” And it is the anti-intellectual streak in America that has made us this way—our unwillingness to discover, acknowledge, or confront facts before adopting a viewpoint which often is in complete and dangerous ignorance of reality.

Getting our facts straight is the first of All Together Now’s three missions. Although we have attempted to do that for almost eleven months, when we witness such acts as the tea parties of last week, we despair of success. Though reality may matter to you and to me, it matters not at all to close to half the American electorate. And should the Obama administration stumble as it attempts to return America to a rational equilibrium, those who would deny or ignore reality will be back calling the shots, in 2012 if not before.
1 Tax Day Is Met with Tea Parties, by Liz Robbins, from the New York Times, Apr 15, 2009, accessed Apr 16, 2009
2 Hold the Tea: Americans Fine with Taxes, by Robert Mackey, from the New York Times, Apr 14, 2009, accessed Apr 16, 2009.
3 Americans’ Tax Burden Near Historic Low, by Lori Montgomery, from the Washington Post, Apr 16, 2009, accessed Apr 16, 2009.
tags: Politics

The Starting Gate

Apr 17, 2009
From “No Child Left Behind,” we are now on to the “Race to the Top,” the Obama administration’s initiative to improve preK-16 education in America. Students who may be considered “at risk” in our system—lower income students and students of color—now comprise almost half the total student body in our public schools, forcing us to confront the substantial inequities in educational opportunities provided to this population.

The Education Trust, an independent nonprofit organization whose mission is to make schools and colleges work for all of the young people they serve, has provided useful data compilations on all 50 states and D.C.1 These data provide a “starting gate” from which we may compare the progress made (or not) in the coming years. The data include demographic information, scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests which are taken annually by 4th and 8th graders, high school graduation rates, and information regarding resources (teachers, curriculum, funding) available to high- and low-income students.

Their handy state maps2 provide links to full reports on each state and a national summary report, as well as a Quick Look Chart, a one-page table showing the progress (or lack of same) in closing educational gaps over the past ten years or so.

Check out how your state measures up; note (in the national summary report) the alarming extent to which we are failing half our children today; then prepare to take your part in attacking a problem which must be solved if America is to retain relevance, let alone pre-eminence, in the 21st century.
1 Education Watch: Tracking Achievement, Attainment, and Opportunity in America’s Public Schools, accessed Apr 12, 2009.
2 Links to Education Watch 2009 State Summary Reports, accessed Apr 12, 2009.
tags: Education

It's Off to Work We Go

Apr 16, 2009
Unemployment and excessive inequality are capitalism’s principal faults, according to John Maynard Keynes. These faults have become glaringly obvious in the past thirty years, when the gap between the lowest paid workers and the highest has increased tenfold or more.1 The employment crisis is more than evident to the 5.1 million who have become unemployed during the current downturn toward depression, joining millions of others who are working part time against their will or have given up looking for work altogether. Some estimate the true unemployment rate at more than 15 percent.2 Our voice, raised perhaps monotonously often in favor of the establishment of an immediate and significant federal jobs program, on a par with the Works Progress Administration or the Civilian Conservation Corps, has now been joined by the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College, in a report entitled The Social and Economic Importance of Full Employment, by L. Randall Wray.

The popular view holds that in a capitalist economy, a hefty contingent of the unemployed keep down the pressure for wage increases by those who are working, since there are plenty of others ready and willing to take their jobs. In addition, too-low unemployment, because it forces employers to pay higher wages to attract the best workers from a shrinking pool, is inflationary. The popular view is not only an immoral view but, according to the Levy Institute, an incorrect one as well. The Institute argues for the government taking on the role of employer of last resort (ELR), hiring “any workers not needed in the private sector or by existing government operations.”

The report goes on to refute the arguments against a federal ELR program, and offers suggestions for useful types of work, including the sort that Roosevelt provided in the 30s.

If unemployement continues to rise at anything like the rate we have seen in the last six months, we will approach Great Depression levels of actual unemployment (25 percent or more) before the end of the year. The time is now to institute a federal ELR program. It is not only morally imperative for a civilized nation to guarantee employment to anyone willing and able to work, it may be our last hope to avoid massive civil unrest and a prolonged worldwide depression.
1 Income inequality in the United States, from Wikipedia, accessed Apr 11, 2009.
2 Shocking truth: The real unemployment rate is is much higher, by Steve Crist, from the Burlington (VT) Examiner, Apr 7, 2009, accessed Apr 22, 2009.
tags: Employment

The Brain Drain Comes Home

Apr 15, 2009
In a service-based, high-tech world, it’s smarts that keep one country ahead of another, and the U.S. has always prided itself on both local and imported smarts to keep us on top. Our wild west form of democracy rewards the entrepreneurial spirit and, for all our fiscal problems and other societal drawbacks, we do provide a rich, laissez-faire environment for developing individual initiative.

Our imported smarts include such worthies as the large contingent of former Nazis, Werner von Braun among them, whom we spirited to our shores at the end of WWII to help us with our nuclear and space programs. We also depend on capturing and retaining students from abroad who come here to study in our famed graduate schools. Together with those we bring here on our H1-B program1 (and applications for that important resource are falling2), these graduate students—among the best and the brightest from their native lands—often find the allurements of our open democracy preferable to returning to countries with significantly fewer opportunities, and are enticed to stick around, ultimately winning a green card and citizenship.

That pool of potential smarts is drying up, however, according to a report from the Council of Graduate Schools.3 Following a precipitous 28 percent drop in the number of graduate school applications from foreign students during the chaotic early days of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, subsequent rates of growth in applications have declined for the last three years, from 12 percent growth in 2006 to 4 percent in 2009.

India and South Korea are among the countries with the steepest decline in applications, having entered minus territory for the first time in 2009 (-9 percent and -7 percent, respectively). We have only held to positive growth in 2009 thanks to increased applications from China (16 percent) and the Middle East and Turkey (20 percent).

Is the bloom off the American rose? Let us hope not. Whether the 21st century will be another American century, a Chinese century, or some other century, it will for certain be a century in which high-tech smarts will drive the advancement of industry and of society. In all the realms of pure and applied science, we will move further toward understanding our world in this century than we have in all the previous ones combined.

Whether that understanding will be put to the service of a saner, more just and equitable world, or merely further the exploitation and misery so prevalent today will depend upon who harnesses those smarts, and our hopes still reside at home. For all our crimes and our shortcomings, and they have been as heinous and as unforgivable as any people’s in history, American exceptionalism is real, and the world knows it.

We expect the drop in the growth of graduate school applications is fallout from the Bush years, when the administration did everything it could to destroy our exceptionalism. It didn’t succeed, and if Obama can fulfill even a portion of his promise, we expect America to return to being the star that burns the brightest in the eyes of a world seeking peace and justice.
1 H1-B visa, from Wikipedia, accessed Apr 11, 2009.
2 Demand for H1-B visas tumble, by Patrick Thibodeau, from Computerworld, Apr 8, 2009, accessed Apr 13, 2009.
3 Growth in international applications slows for 3rd straight year, Apr 7, 2009, accessed Apr 11, 2009.
tags: Education

Happy Daze (April 2009)

Apr 14, 2009
Owing to the fact that even our spouse won’t read us anymore because we’re too depressing, we are introducing a new feature this month: Happy Daze.

Happy Daze will compile only good news on a monthly basis, rather like Aux Barricades! lists action ideas, and Noted with Interest provides monthly short takes of interest. Happy Daze is devoted to reminding us that good things do happen, progress is being made, and that even Armageddon may, at times, seem to have a silver lining. Send us happy news we missed and we will add it to our monthly listings. Here comes April (so far):

Law Enacted: S.383: Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP)
“[G]rant[s] the Special Inspector General (SIG) authority to conduct, supervise, and coordinate an audit or investigation of any action taken with regard to the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) that the SIG deems appropriate.” Read the bill summary HERE. (From Govtrack.us. Accessed Apr 26, 2009)

Gay Rights Groups Celebrate Victories in Marriage Push
Yes, our very own boys and girls in the Vermont legislature overrode our grim governor’s veto, for only the second time in history and by only one vote, but we’ll take it any way we can get it. Look for the rest of the states to fall in line at an increasing rate. (From the New York Times, Apr 7, 2009, accessed Apr 8, 2009.)

Peru’s Ex-President Convicted of Rights Abuses
So 70-year-old Alberto Fujimori is looking at 25 years in a Peruvian prison, after being convicted of murder, aggravated kidnapping, and crimes against humanity. We have written about Peru before, in A Half a Million Cheers for Peru. Could this South American land be quietly re-forming itself into a just and compassionate society? (From the New York Times, Apr 7, 2009, accessed Apr 8. 2009.)

Growth in Prison and Jail Populations Slowing: 16 States Report Declines in the Number of Prisoners
Perhaps we are weaning ourselves from a tendency to throw every hungry shoplifter and weekend toker into the hoosegow for long stretches. (From the Department of Justice, Mar 31, 2009, accessed Apr 12, 2009.)

tags: Happy Daze

About Face(book)

Apr 13, 2009
Miss Manners had a letter that caught our interest last week.1 A woman wrote in regarding Facebook. She had responded to postings from two of her “friends” on the “social networking” site. In both instances, the writers of the original postings told the letter writer, more or less, to mind her own business. Miss Manners’s response was, as usual, right on point:

“Your friends are turning into virtual friends… The model for this, as Miss Manners is not the first to observe, is the celebrity. They “do” publicity through trusted chroniclers—in this case themselves—but are huffy about their “privacy” when they manage to attract someone’s interest… Miss Manners is afraid you must note whether their confidences are being made to you as a friend or the wide world of virtual so-called friends who are not expected to show interest. Or you could make new friends who value real friendship.”
Facebook and MySpace are, in reality, antisocial networking sites where individuals can strut their stuff before a captive aggregation of friends and acquaintances, with the implicit understanding that their observations are to be taken at face value, sans comment, contention, or even commiseration, except of the most cursory sort. Far from encouraging close relationships, these sites offer arms-length protection from the true interactions of friendship, and merely abet and exacerbate a disturbing isolationism, so necessary in turning us all into corralled consumers for the corporatocracy.

So to our few friends on Facebook: Au revoir. You know where to find us.
1 A Slap in the Facebook, by Miss Manners (Judith Martin), quoted in the Washington Post, Apr 8, 2009, accessed Apr 8, 2009.
tags: Human Nature | Media

The Road to Hell, Part 2

Apr 10, 2009
We love capitalism. We think it the optimal engine for economic growth and for democratizing prosperity, way better than communism, fascism, feudalism, or any of the other isms that have been tried and have failed over the course of the last thousand years.

However, capitalism is oblivious to any but its own imperatives, and therefore needs to be monitored, regulated, and contained, lest it lay waste the very soil in which it thrives. A corporation is not a human being, and when we granted corporations personhood in the 1886 Supreme Court case, Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad,1 we took the first step down a road that has brought us, today, to an economic meltdown that increasingly appears capable of outdoing the Great Depression.

Two subsequent blunders have succeeded that first one. The hard-won labor and environmental protections enacted during the first 70 years of the last century were cast aside by the rush to globalization enabled by NAFTA and other open and not-so-open international trade agreements. And finally, the economic protections put in place during the New Deal were dismantled during the waning days of the Clinton administration, largely at the urging of individuals now directing Obama’s economic policies.

Make no mistake, this has been an equal opportunity dismantling of a government of, by, and for the people, and a wholesale handover to the corporations by the real axis of evil: the military/industrial/beltway complex. The Democrats are as fully responsible for our current plight as the Republicans, and perhaps even more so.

Unrestrained capitalism is a monster, as ravenous, insatiable, and pitiless as a starving wolf. It will subordinate, subjugate, and ultimately consume any resource available to it, human or environmental, to meet its sole objectives: growth and profit.

Capitalism subordinated to the service of the people can make this earth a paradise for all living things. However, when all of life is subordinated to the service of capitalism, as has essentially been the case since the Reagan administration, there will be nothing to hand on to our children but a vast and barren wasteland, overseen by the tattered remnants of a fascist police state, in which their lives will be brutish, violent, and short.

We are already well down that road.
1 Corporate personhood debate, from Wikipedia, accessed Apr 4, 2009.
tags: Economics

The Road to Hell, Part 1

Apr 09, 2009
Back in Resting on One’s Laurels on Feb 6, we noted that our web host claimed we had 10,183 unique visitors to our site in January. We doubted it then, and perhaps they have come to their senses, because they recorded far fewer unique visitors—5,860—for March. Consulting our yokefellow regarding possible reasons for the precipitous decline, she remarked, “I don’t read it much myself anymore. It’s so depressing!”

We are less concerned about our site being depressing than we are about its being wrong. We often hope we are wrong, having predicted only yesterday, for instance, the end of Western civilization.

But there is no letup in sight for job losses, bank bailouts, or maniacs on shooting rampages (five in the last month, not counting the two murderous attacks in Oakland and Pittsburgh that together killed seven policemen). And now the right is arming, as reported by Charles M. Blow in his latest column in the Times.1 They are being nudged toward violence by the increasingly shrill and irresponsible media and even by the occasional politician (e.g., see Minnesota Republican Michele Bachmann’s rant2). Background checks for gun purchases are up almost 30 percent from a year ago, with 5.5 million requests from November to February alone.

Obama needs to lay off the victory laps in foreign lands and start dealing with a deterioriating domestic scene that neither the three-trillion-dollar bank bailouts nor the puny stimulus package are going to affect much. He will end up by addressing what he should have addressed from the very beginning—the wretched state of the American family under the thumb of the corporatocracy.

The right are voicing hysterical declarations to “take back America,” while it is still very much in their hands and under their control. A few touchy-feely pronouncements regarding torture, stem cells, and abortion will not hide the fact that we live under a government of, by, and for the corporations. And we are witnessing what that means when such a situation is allowed to run its course.

How the demise of democracy may finally come about will be the subject of our entry tomorrow.
1 Pitchforks and Pistols, by Charles M. Blow, from the New York Times, Apr 3, 2009, accessed Apr 4, 2009.
2 Michele Bachmann: I Want People “Armed and Dangerous” Over Obama Tax Plan, by Rachel Weiner, from the Huffington Post, Mar 23, 2009, accessed Apr 4, 2009.
tags: Economics

Jobs Now!

Apr 08, 2009
More bad news in March: 663,000 more people lost their jobs. Buried under the fold in the Bureau of Labor Statistic’s monthly report,1 was the not unexpected revelation that January’s job loss figures had been revised upward from 655,000 to 741,000. We noted the BLS’s habitual tendency to come in with unrealistically low estimates of job losses in Hey, Buddy, Can You Spare a Job? So we will probably have to wait a couple of months to find out the true damage in March.

While we wait, let us note that almost three-quarters of a million people lost their jobs in the first month of 2009, and over 1.3 million have lost theirs since—numbers that should be striking a great deal more terror into the hearts of our body politic than they seem to be. The 1.2 to 3.3 million jobs the stimulus package is supposed to create over the next two years (according to the Congressional Budget Office2) already falls far short of the five million plus that have been lost during this recession already, and the monthly losses keep accelerating.

Also little acknowledged are the recent startling increases in bankruptcies,3 even in the face of steep eligibility requirements brought to us by our compassionate corporatocracy in the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005.4 Nearly 6,000 people filed for bankruptcy every day in March 2009, up 38 percent from a year earlier. If bankruptcy judges are afforded a measure of control over mortgage foreclosures and renegotiations, filings are expected to soar even higher.

These are not mere numbers, they are human lives, suddenly and violently wrenched from positions of comparative if shaky stability to wracking uncertainty and impending destitution. And it is happening to 700,000 more of us every month. What happened in Binghamton last week5 is only the most public, violent, and recent manifestation of the unravelling of our society.

Those of us still employed must come to the aid of those of us who are not. Jobs—lots of them and right away—must become our only priority. If we do not halt the hemorrhaging of employment in our society, all the bailed out bankers in the world will not save us from a rapid and precipitous descent into massive civil unrest that will threaten the very foundations of our civilization.

Bin Laden must be laughing up his sleeve in some hole in western Pakistan, as he contemplates the descent of his mortal enemies into the same primitive, lawless, and brutal existence in which his own world lays mired.
1 Employment Situation Summary, from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, March 2009, accessed Apr 4, 2009.
2 A Preliminary Analysis of the President’s Budget and an Update of the CBO’s Budget and Economic Outlook (.pdf, 1.5Mb, 56 pp.), March 2009, accessed Apr 4, 2009.
3 Downturn Pushes More Toward Bankruptcy, by Tara Siegel Bernard, from the New York Times, Apr 3, 2009, accessed Apr 4, 2009.
4 Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act, from Wikipedia, accessed Apr 4, 2009.
5 Shooting in Binghamton, N.Y., by Katherine Q. Seelye, from the New York Times, Apr 3, 2009, accessed Apr 4, 2009.
tags: Employment

The Least Among Us

Apr 07, 2009

And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
Matthew 25:40 (King James Version)

Arguably, the least of our brethren are our nation’s undocumented immigrants. We currently hold over 30,000 of them in jails, prisons, and other confinement structures, more than three times the number held just 10 years ago.1 They may languish there for months or even years without judicial review, in violation of international human rights standards.

Though every story is different, these people have fled from hopelessness in search of promise. They have braved perilous waters in unseaworthy ships or suffocation in closed vehicles traveling thousands of miles. Once here, they are forced to work for criminal employers at the lowest of wages, live in constant fear of harrassment and arrest without rights or public services, and survive at the mercy of a few friends and dumb luck.

And woe unto them if they are caught. Tossed into a legal gulag of Kafkaesque proportions, they may languish for years without access to representation or the judicial system, far from family and friends, and deprived of the simple due process guarantees we afford any petty criminal. Read Edwidge Danticat’s Brother, I’m Dying for an eloquent and detailed account of the hapless fate of just one of these individuals.2 Read Amnesty International’s report, Jailed Without Justice (.pdf, 662Kb, 56 pp.), to gain a fuller picture of just how far short we as a nation fall that prides itself on welcoming the downtrodden, in our treatment of “the least among our brethren.”
1 Immigrant Detention, from Amnesty International, undated, accessed Apr 4, 2009.
2 Brother, I’m Dying, by Edwidge Danticat, at Amazon.com, accessed Apr 4, 2009
tags: Immigration | Poverty

Aux Barricades! (April 2009)

Apr 06, 2009

Those who profess to love freedom, yet deprecate agitation, are those who want crops without plowing. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did, and it never will.
—Frederick Douglass, 1857
Follow us on Twitter.com for early notice of these Action Items, and click the Aux Barricades! tag in the left-hand column to display earlier Action Items. Send your Action Items to us and we will add them to this list.

  • Apr 28, 2009: Signed a Human Rights First petition to Obama, urging him to appoint a nonpartisan commission to investigate illegal acts of torture during the Bush administration and turn its findings over to the Justice Department for prosecution. You can sign HERE.

  • Apr 28, 2009: Donated a few tax-deductible dollars to Food&WaterWatch.

  • Apr 28, 2009 Signed a Credo petition to the Interior and Commerce secretaries, asking them to overturn Bush-era regulations that decimated protection for over 1,300 species. The deadline is May 9, and you can sign HERE.

  • Apr 28, 2009: Signed a Sierra Club petition to the EPA, urging them to take substantive action to regulate greenhouse gases and reverse global warming. You can sign HERE.

  • Apr 26, 2009: It's Roxana Saberi's birthday. Follow her struggle HERE. Join your voice and let the world know we are watching.

  • Apr 23, 2009: Signed a Food&WaterWatch petition to congress asking them not to force genetically engineered crops on countries and farmers that don’t want them. The Union of Concerned Scientists have recently found that these crops have not increased the yield of American corn and soybean farmers. You can sign HERE.

  • Apr 23, 2009: Signed a Credo petition to Chevron asking them to fire their general counsel, William Haynes, former Gen Counsel for the Pentagon, who was among the authors of the torture memos. You can sign HERE.

  • Owing to a very stupid slip of the keyboard, April’s Action Items, through the 22nd, have been lost. If you follow us on Twitter, you can see some of them.

tags: Aux Barricades! | Working Together

The Quiet Crisis

Apr 03, 2009
The nonprofit sector of the economy constitutes 11 percent of the workforce, more than the auto and financial industries combined. They are suffering a triple whammy in the present downturn: less foundation and individual giving; diminished support from states and localities that are themselves feeling the pinch; and dramatically increased demand from the populations they serve.

In The Quiet Crisis: The Impact of the Economic Downturn on the Nonprofit Sector (.pdf, 2.6Mb, 22 pages), a joint report by Civic Enterprises and the Democratic Leadership Council, the parameters of the problem are made starkly evident:

  • Churches saw a decrease of $3 to $5 billion in expected giving in the third quarter of 2008.
  • United Way saw an increase of 60 percent in the calls for basic services in 2008.
  • Chicago is trimming its Meals on Wheels budget by more than a third.
  • Arizona saw an increase of over 100 percent in the number of people who sought social services from 2007 to 2008.
  • Michigan suffered simultaneous increase in demand by 70 percent of its nonprofits while 50 percent say their financial support has declined.
The report makes four general recommendations:
  • Pass the Serve America Act, a $5.7 billion program that will increase the number of AmeriCorps volunteers from 75,000 to 250,000. The Senate passed their version of this bill last week.
  • Adopt a handful of tax incentives that will expand private giving and volunteering.
  • Establish a fund that would produce programs to improve nonprofit management and develop new ideas and pilot programs to improve existing systems.
  • Give nonprofit housing and financial institutions a prominent role in solving the nation’s massive mortgage and foreclosure problems.
Should this recession continue to worsen, look for massive layoffs in the nonprofit sector, with a resultant dropoff of assistance to those who need it most. It is incumbent upon those of us still employed to do what we can to bolster this segment of society. As it falters, so will we be called upon in a variety of unpleasant ways to absorb the consequences.
tags: Volunteerism | Employment | Economics

Noted With Interest, March 2009

Apr 02, 2009

Stjepan Hauser—Song to the Moon (Rusalka)
Cellist Stjepan Hauser plays a really lovely adaptation of Dvorak’s Song of the Moon on YouTube. Hat tip to EF. Accessed Mar 8, 2009.

Broken Government: An assessment of executive branch failures since 2000
All right, we want to look forward, like Obama. But historians need these reminders of the enormities of the Bush administration, especially when they are presented in such a comprehensive manner. From The Center for Public Integrity. Accessed Mar 8, 2009.

Reviving the Dream
An excellent column by Bob Herbert that came out the day after we wrote the item on the Employee Free Choice Act, and that speaks to the same concerns. From the New York Times, Mar 9, 2009. Accessed Mar 10, 2009.

The State of the Birds
Birds are bellwethers of our nation’s environmental health, and the news is not good from this first-ever comprehensive report. Accessed Mar 21, 2009.

America Is in Need of a Moral Bailout
“But unless we grasp the ‘societal play of forces that operates beneath the surface of political forms’ we will be cursed with a more ruthless form of corporate power, one that does away with artifice and the seduction of a consumer society and instead wields power through naked repression....” By Chris Hedges, Mar 23, 2009. From Truthdig.com. Accessed Mar 26, 2009.

Pew Report Finds Major Flaws in Pennsylvania’s Effort to Lease Turnpike
This report will help other states tread the perilous path to public-private partnerships. From The Pew Charitable Trusts. Accessed Mar 27, 2009.

Senator Cardin [D-MD] Introduces Bill that Would Allow American Newspapers to Operate as Non-Profits
An idea worth supporting? Could be. Non-profit newspapers could not make political endorsements, but otherwise would operate much as they do today. Advertising and subscription revenue would not be taxed, and contributions would be tax deductible. From Sen. Cardin’s web site. Accessed Mar 27, 2009.

Books Books Books
Below is a list of books that have come to our notice over the past month. All are recommended reading. The links take you to the Amazon.com page for each book.

tags: Noted with Interest

Dawn of a New Day

Apr 01, 2009
We took the day off yesterday (Friday, March 27) and we’re glad we did. We were home to receive a phone call from James Carmichael, an aid to Rahm Emanuel in the White House. Back in the heady days of the interregnum we had had the audacity to hope for a position in the new Obama White House and had applied for same on the Change.gov web site. Now they were finally getting back to us, and with an offer we are still finding it difficult to believe.

The Initiative for an Equitable Society will be a new cabinet-level department Obama will announce this week, if he hasn’t already. We were offered the position of Research Manager in the office, where we would oversee fact-gathering for upper management tasked, initially, with three assignments:

  1. Together with representatives of both houses of Congress, draft legislation establishing a national minimum wage at a level sufficient to support a family of four, proportionally weighted to the varying requirements among the states.
  2. Together with the Department of Education, identify effective national education innovators in preK-16 and gather them into a Presidential Commission tasked with preparing a blueprint, within 12 months, for reforming the American educational system. The administration guarantees funding will be available as well as their full support in generating any legislation which may be required.
  3. Together with the Department of Health and Human Services and the new Health Czar, evaluate existing universal, single-payer health care systems around the world, taking from each the features which work to the satisfaction of the populaces involved, and, within 12 months, craft a plan for such a system in the U.S.
Naturally, we accepted with alacrity and are off to D.C. later this month.

And if you believe all that, we have a lovely bridge in New York City we are prepared to part with at a very reasonable price.
tags: Working Together | Education | Health

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