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What's the Big Idea?

Mar 18, 2017
The American political landscape is in ruins.

Our federal government and most of our states are controlled by forces determined to reverse the political, economic, social, and environmental gains achieved since the end of the Civil War.

A klepto-plutocracy is primed to destroy the remains of the middle class through fiscal policies and anti-worker legislation that will have us looking back fondly on the economic inequality of today.

Mindless abuse of the environment in this hypercritical period may well tip us past the point of no return in our struggle to maintain a climate that will support our species.

Our geopolitical affiliations are in tatters, with the repudiation of long-standing commitments to cooperation among the world’s democracies; with unwinnable wars raging across the globe and on into a second and third generation; and with a turning of our back on a world more in peril and in need of our example and our help than at any time since the end of the second world war.

And where is the opposition? Nowhere. There is no voice, outside those in the marginalized alternative media, that come near to expressing the perilous state in which we find ourselves. The Democratic party pursues a business-as-usual course (yes, even Bernie) that is positively zombie-like in its mindlessness. The mainstream media has been bullied into acquiescence with the false equivalency absurdities that have discombobulated our moral compass.

And even among the voices of loudest protest, where is the Big Idea? Where is the bold proposal—the tectonic shift in our national conscience and consciousness—that will bring us back into a decent comity to assuage the desperation of those millions whose extreme economic insecurity put this fraud in the White House and their sworn enemies in control of Congress and, soon, the Supreme Court? And where will they turn when their hopes are dashed? When their paychecks, if they are lucky enough to have one, shrink even further from provision of a decent living. Them? Rather, I should say us, as we are all threatened.

Only a Big Idea will save us—and the world—from even further dissolution of the grand American experiment. Only a new social contract, that puts people first—their jobs and their educations—will reverse the desperation that has brought us to this point. And where is that Big Idea? Amidst the carping, the protesting, and all our impotent handwringing, where is the Big Idea?

tags: Governance

Other Voices

Feb 12, 2017
I have run across a couple of essays I admire recently and want to pass along. They are both written by men described as “conservative,” which I do not consider myself to be; however, I expect labels such as these are not of much use any longer. We are bereft of any but self-serving leaders who are bankrupt of ideas of a scope and daring to bring us together; and our two political parties have deteriorated into a grotesque set of identical twins.

First some outtakes from “How to Build an Autocracy, by David Frum, March 2017 Atlantic. You can read the full piece HERE.

“[T]he proper functioning of the law depends upon the competence and integrity of those charged with executing it. A president determined to thwart the law in order to protect himself and those in his circle has many means to do so.

“. . .A culture that has accepted that graft is the norm, that rules don’t matter as much as relationships with those in power, and that people can be punished for speech and acts that remain theoretically legal—such a culture is not easily reoriented back to constitutionalism, freedom, and public integrity.

“. . .[E]xactly how much damage is allowed to be done is an open question—the most important near-term question in American politics. It is also an intensely personal one, for its answer will be determined by the answer to another question: What will you do? And you? And you?

“. . .If the story ends without too much harm to the republic, it won’t be because the dangers were imagined, but because citizens resisted.

“. . .And the way that liberty must be defended is not with amateur firearms, but with an unwearying insistence upon the honesty, integrity, and professionalism of American institutions and those who lead them. We are living through the most dangerous challenge to the free government of the United States that anyone alive has encountered. What happens next is up to you and me. Don’t be afraid. This moment of danger can also be your finest hour as a citizen and an American.”


Next is Andrew Sullivan, “The Madness of King Donald,” New York Magazine, dated February 10, 2017. You can read the full piece HERE.

“With someone like this barging into your consciousness every hour of every day, you begin to get a glimpse of what it must be like to live in an autocracy of some kind. Every day in countries unfortunate enough to be ruled by a lone dictator, people are constantly subjected to the Supreme Leader’s presence, in their homes, in their workplaces, as they walk down the street. Big Brother never leaves you alone. His face bears down on you on every flickering screen. He begins to permeate your psyche and soul; he dominates every news cycle and issues pronouncements—each one shocking and destabilizing—round the clock. He delights in constantly provoking and surprising you, so that his monstrous ego can be perennially fed. And because he is also mentally unstable, forever lashing out in manic spasms of pain and anger, you live each day with some measure of trepidation. What will he come out with next? Somehow, he is never in control of himself and yet he is always in control of you.”

Read them and weep.

tags: Governance

An Open Letter to My Reps

Jan 31, 2017
To Senators Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders, and Representative Peter Welch:

We are in the hands of a rogue government led by a mentally ill narcissist with the emotional maturity of a seven year old. He has his hands on the Big Button and could end civilization in twenty minutes. Any act of cooperation, collaboration, or collusion with this administration on the part of any of you will destroy your credibility, as it has Elizabeth Warren’s. I know re-election is at least as important to you as the maintenance of civilization, so I ask you to take what I am saying very seriously.

You should oppose, without comment, all legislation proposed by the White House or the Republican congressional majority, even in the unlikely event you agree with it.

You should, also without comment, vote against all nominees at all levels of the Executive Branch, even in the unlikely event you think they may be qualified, and you should not confess, as at least one of you did in the case of Sessions, that you have given any of them even a moment’s thought.

You should stop posting your outrage on Twitter. I know you think it sounds like reasoned and reasonable discourse, and perhaps it would be under different circumstances, but the fact that you aren’t simply answering this madness with a horse laugh or an obscenity plays into the hands of this pugnacious and dangerously out-of-touch individual and his power-drunk minions.

And you should let the country know that you are opting out of any involvement in a dysfunctional government led by a man who probably shouldn’t be allowed to roam the streets unattended. You should identify the naked emperor for what he is and then get on with the real business which history has suddenly conferred upon you.

You should (and here comes the hard part) fashion a New Deal for the American people, one which will convince the economically desperate sixty million who voted for Trump that you have heard them, and that real help is on the way. No half measures will do. The status quo is dead. What is called for now is Drama with a capital D. See alltogethernow.org if you would like one idea of what to do; however, whatever you propose must be a game changer on the same level as that which is proposed there.

And then get on the phone. Bring together, as loud vocal proponents of your New Deal, the ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Sierra Club, Glenn Greenwald, Amy Goodman, Black Lives Matter, Jerry Brown, Greenpeace, the SCLC, Warren Buffet, Hollywood, the AFT and the NEA, your family, my family, all those nurses in California, Cornel West, Noam Chomsky, Matt Taibbi, Naomi Klein, ThinkProgress, Edward Snowden, TalkPoverty, The Intercept. Keith Olbermann, Jon Stewart, the Onion—well, you get the idea: EVERYONE of a like mind, because we can ONLY take this on together. Then get back on the phone to the VFW, the American Legion, the other 24 veterans' organizations listed on Google, the Boy Scouts of America, and any other not-so-like-minded organizations that nonetheless would like to think the best of the U.S. and bring them on board as well. Remember above all else, we can only do this with a plan that will fix the economic train wreck we have been hurtling toward for the past 40 years.

That wreck is here, it has happened, it isn’t going away, our country hastens toward ruin, and there is no going back to November 7.
tags: Governance

What Happened?

Jan 24, 2017
In case you’ve been asleep since last August, when the mainstream media were predicting Hillary would be a shoo-in against the Donald: Good Morning!

Here’s what happened: Sixty million people, in desperation over their economic plight (37.4 percent of the labor force have no work and over half who do don’t earn enough to live on) voted their despair and put a scoundrel and buffoon in the White House rather than continue to support the status quo. Those of us who didn’t vote for him are just as responsible as those who did, having silently acquiesced in the hijacking of our nation over the past 35 years by the forces of unregulated capitalism and overweening greed.

Racism, abortion, immigration—these are all smokescreens for what is really going on—the emptying of your pockets by the super-super-rich, who are simultaneously killing the American Dream and threatening all human life with nuclear or climatic disaster.

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. But don’t look for a second coming to save you. This one’s up to you, Charley, and you and you and you. Ralph won’t save us; Bernie won’t save us; Elizabeth won’t save us: the status quo and all its traditional players are finished.

What will save us, if we’re lucky, is a daring New Economic Policy that will credibly revive for all Americans the ideals of equal opportunity and self-reliance upon which this brave new world was originally founded. And to my mind, this means jobs for all at wages that support a decent living. Promise the American people this and make them believe you can deliver, and in 2018 we can elect a veto-proof Congress that can set about making it happen.

Anything less, anything smacking of “business as usual,” is doomed to failure. And failure today carries a cost none of us wants to think about.

tags: Governance

Let Me Ask You

Dec 24, 2016
Let me ask you a couple of questions:

Do you think an adult living legally in the United States of America, between the ages of 18 and 65, who is ready, willing, and able to work should be able to get a job?

Do you think an adult living legally in the United States of America who is working full time should earn enough to live on?

If you answered “Yes” to either or both of these questions, then you need to be made aware of the extent to which you are living in a country where this is decidedly not the case, and then you need to answer a third question: What are you going to do about it?

The lack—not the love—of money is the root of all evil, and that evil displayed itself in spades on November 8.

Our actual unemployment rate is not four point something, it is 37.4%. That is the percentage of the labor force—Americans 16 years and over—that wasn’t employed in November 2016. In 1998, that number was 32.8%, and it has gone up in 16 of the 18 years since. You can look it up at the Bureau of Labor Statistics (data.bls.gov). In numbers, that is 119.2 million Americans who don’t work.

Of those who do work, more than half earn less than enough to live on. More than half! Read earlier blog entries here for citations you can look up to verify these numbers.

I don’t object to the rich. God love them, they’ll always be with us. But I do object to the poor. There is no excuse for poverty in the richest nation in history, never mind that that poverty has been increasing frighteningly since the Great Recession, as more and more multi-billionaires find more ways to squeeze the American workers—or do without them altogether—to enrich themselves beyond even their own wildest dreams.

And speaking of dreams. The American Dream must not be allowed to die. It will take the world with it, if it does. The next four years may not be dispositive of that question, but if we are not working from now until then to assure its survival, I am not at all sure it will survive.

Our traditional political parties are bankrupt of ideas. The Republican party has given itself over wholeheartedly to a reactionary and mean-spirited plutocracy. The Democratic party has self-destructed on the bifurcating influence of a misguided neoliberalism. Money dominates all.

Only a new, third party can save us. And it can happen. If Donald Trump can be elected president, anything can happen. But it will take a party that represents the beliefs of a large majority of Americans. To my mind, those beliefs include equity, opportunity, self-reliance, and independence. And none of those ideals is possible without assuring every American a job that pays enough to live on.

That is the first, non-negotiable, plank of the American Dream Party platform. More on the other planks next time.

tags: Governance

Stump Speech

Oct 09, 2016
My fellow Americans,

Good [morning | afternoon | evening].

I stand before you a rather odd duck: A politician without portfolio, a candidate for no office. I speak to you today not for my sake, but for the sake of my country.

I am not currently living in my country.

My country does not let bosses pay their workers less than a living wage, then force the rest of us to make up the difference.

My country does not educate its African-American citizens in inferior schools, then bedevil them throughout their lives with discriminatory hiring, housing, and policing.

My country does not become entangled in ruinous military adventures that deplete our public treasury of trillions of dollars while overflowing the private coffers of the obscenely wealthy.

My country does not kill, maim, and traumatize generations of its youth in order to bolster tyrannies which, if they were not our allies, would be our deadliest of enemies, opposed to all we stand for.

My country does not minimize, sexualize, or traumatize its female majority with boorish characterizations, substandard pay, and physical violence in order to assuage male insecurity.

My country does not risk the future of humanity in the face of the overwhelming evidence of imminent environmental apocalypse.

My country is not governed by men and women who are servants of big money, subservient to a tiny fraction of our population to the detriment of the rest of us.

No.

In my country everyone who can work has the opportunity to do so at a living wage, with only two expectations: That they perform their job to the best of their ability and that they be good citizens.

In my country, those who can’t work are cared for in a humane and benevolent environment designed to give them the fullest life possible.

In my country, the education of every single one of our young citizens is everyone’s priority and everyone’s most important task, as it is everyone’s only realistic hope for the future of our species.

In my country we acknowledge our racist tendencies and struggle mightily every day to overcome them, knowing that discriminating against a fellow human being is the worst thing you can do to them, short of depriving them of their life.

In my country, foreign relations are made for the purpose of promoting democracy, not commerce, and those nations that are not ready, willing, or able to entertain the prospect of endowing themselves with the blessings and responsibilities of self-determination may be tolerated without being welcomed into the community of a free people.

In my country, men are the equal of women.

In my country, our technological ingenuity is focused on the task of developing renewable energy sources for all our needs as soon as possible. And if it is not possible to do this within a decade or two, we will nevertheless turn our backs on the burning of fossil fuels and make do with whatever benefits may be had from the energy we can produce.

In my country, no special interest ever takes precedence over legislation to promote the good of all the people all the time.

In my country, there is inequality, but there is no poverty.

In my country, there are no hungry children.

In my country, we are all created equal and endowed with rights that may not be attenuated by reason of race, creed, class, income, gender, age, sexual orientation, or any other compartment into which the small-minded among us try to maneuver those of us whom they think of as threatening.

This is the country I hope to live in some day. So if my country is your country, let us make it our country. There is only one way to do that.

You know what it is.

tags: Governance

Does Someone Need to Shoot Donald Trump?

Sep 17, 2016
With the exception of Donald J. Trump, Hillary Rodham Clinton is the weakest candidate for president we have seen in our lifetime. She is an inept campaigner, cold as the proverbial well-digger’s knee, and widely mistrusted and disliked. She carries baggage that would floor anyone even moderately capable of being ashamed of themselves: her emails, the Libyan debacle, Bill, quarter-million-dollar speeches, habitual warmongering. And finally, it seems apparent she is not well. Should she have to drop out before the election, and should her running mate take her place at the top of the ticket, he has neither name recognition nor much of a track record in politics, and would seem to be unelectable given a choice between a celebrity and someone no one has ever heard of. Biden? Perhaps, but how can they justify a candidate who hasn't even campaigned?

This week in The New Yorker, John Cassidy asks, “The Big Question About Donald Trump’s Rise in the Polls.” In the piece, Cassidy mentions several recent polls which show Trump fast approaching Hillary’s numbers and, in one terrifying case, overtaking them. Cassidy’s Big Question is essentially, “Can he maintain this new momentum and carry himself into the White House?”

But we can’t have Donald Trump in the White House. So my Big Question is, “Does someone need to shoot him?” Or poison him, or strangle him, or toss him off a high bridge?

Now, before the Secret Service gets all bent out of shape, recall Trump has made more than one lightly veiled allusion to the desirability of someone offing his opponent. So tit for tat.

Of course, I don’t believe anyone needs to shoot Donald Trump. Or should. Any halfway competent opponent would have made mincemeat of this lightweight long since. And he’s no Hitler, as I have said elsewhere in this blog. However, in the White House, he is a menace to us all, to our pocketbooks, our health, our domestic tranquility, and to our lives. With his testy and dummkopf finger on the button, he could easily bring on the End Times.

At the very least he will preside over four years of political chaos in which the modest gains of the Obama years will disappear; Supreme Court justices even loonier than Clarence Thomas will be appointed; Black Lives will Matter not at all, never mind brown ones or, for that matter, any white ones not intimately associated with the inner sanctum. The world economy will stagger under his ignorant fumbling; our alliances will unravel; our climate will deteriorate further; and income inequality will soar.

If this sorry excuse for an American faces the Chief Justice on January 20th and mouths the oath of office, the office will never be the same and, in a way, perhaps, America will have fulfilled its destiny, after all.

tags: Governance

Goldman Sachs vs. the Yahoos

Jul 23, 2016
As we pause between the clumsy dud of a Republican convention last week and what will probably be a clumsy dud of a Democratic convention next week, let us contemplate what we will face on the day after the 102 endless days between Hillary’s investiture on July 28 and Election Day.

Someone on that parlous day will be President-Elect and, barring human or divine intervention, it will be either Donald J. Trump or Hillary Rodham Clinton.

As Bertie Wooster would, and probably did, say: The mind boggles.

I said my piece regarding Mr. Trump in Look Who’s (Maybe) Coming on April 28. Here, I will only remind you of Trump’s failures, as a husband (three wives), a businessman (four corporate bankruptcies), a writer (someone else scribbled all that nonsense), and a speaker (just listen). That Trump has never held elective office and now aspires to lead the free world by, presumably, the seat of his pants, speaks to his overweening arrogance, ambition, and asininity.

And then there is Hillary, who will probably win, because who can imagine we have produced sufficient Yahoos over the past few generations to actually propel this hateful and know-nothing narcissist into the Oval Office.

Hillary promises business as usual, which has got us where we are today and she will be frogmarching us for four years further down the now familiar path toward the destruction of our species. Her puppet masters have long been outed, and the corporatocracy will not count their pennies as they finance the necessary destruction of her loose cannon of an opponent. (Happily, the Yahoos are broke.)

With Hillary, we can look forward to increased income inequality, further degradation of the climate, employment anxiety for additional millions, and many more executive branch military adventures. Hillary never saw a war she didn’t like and is even today no doubt champing at the bit to start a few more splendid little conflicts here and there. After all, what’s good for Lockheed-Martin . . . .

Having taken the pledge (see my November 2014 entry), I have no stake in the coming debacle. No candidate has come forward with real solutions to the existential problems we face, so I will be sitting out this election, and almost certainly any others in the limited time remaining to me. I invite you to join me on the sidelines.

To paraphrase George Carlin, if you don't vote, you have every reason to complain about what those who did stuck you with.

tags: Governance

Political Revolution?

Feb 11, 2016
Political revolution? As we bask in the short interval between Bernie’s New Hampshire rout of the Democratic establishment this week and the unknowable future in Nevada, South Carolina, and beyond, perhaps we can pause a moment to contemplate the possibility.

I have written in this space of my reservations regarding Bernie’s agenda, particularly his flagship issue of income inequality. His plan for a $15-per-hour minimum wage in a few years is hopelessly inadequate.

However, it is inarguable that he has hit the nail on the head regarding the ills America faces. And, incredibly, the electorate is responding to his message. Incredible, because most candidates never shut up about how exceptional and wonderful and perfect America is compared to the rest of the dreary, ill-informed, and dysfunctional world. Newsweek, too, had a piece following the NH primary which noted how very unusual this campaign round is in that regard.

I have also written in this space, “We will take our country back by ballot or by bullet. I cannot see any third alternative, and bullets are notoriously unpredictable. People are making noises about third parties, but nothing significant has been launched that I know of. Now is the time.”

This was way back in October 2011, when there was no hint of a Sanders candidacy. I wrote quite a lot about third parties back then because I could not imagine the coming of a candidate from either major party (could you?) who would espouse systemic reform to the extent that Bernie has.

So perhaps we do have a political revolution in the making. We certainly have as much of one as I am likely to see in my few remaining years. The establishment, as we have seen, will stop at very little to put the kibosh on that revolution, as they must. Establishments don’t make revolutions, people do.

So thank you, Bernie, for the frisson of hope you gave us this week. If the ball keeps rolling, well and good. If it falters, if the misrepresentations, belittlement, threats, and prognostications of doom from the establishment pundits, pols, and plutocrats combine to sufficiently intimidate and frighten the sovereign voters of this great nation, well, no one will be surprised.

But we’ll always have New Hampshire.

tags: Governance

Keeping the Waltons Out of the Poorhouse

Apr 18, 2015
A new study by the Center for Labor Research and Education at UC/Berkeley quantifies the amounts spent by federal and state governments on four of the most costly public assistance programs. The researchers gathered data on expenditures for Medicaid/CHIP, Temporary Aid to Needy Families, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Between 2009 and 2011, $152.8 billion per year was spent on just these four programs. And the most shameful fact, which was no surprise to me, was that over half of that state and federal money—56%—went to working families.

You and I help support millions of underpaid workers while their employers, people like the heirs of Sam Walton, become multi-billionaires. Much of those billions going into their pockets are dollars you and I have worked hard to earn. How is it we can be played for such suckers?

The report also repeats some familiar and equally dismal facts: Real hourly wages for the median American worker increased by only 5 percent between 1979 and 2013. And for the bottom 10% of workers, the wages were 5 percent lower. Furthermore, wages for the bottom 70% of workers were either flat or in negative territory between 2003 and 2013. The rich are getting fabulously richer, the poor are getting poorer, and you and I are struggling hard to stay where we are.

There is something very wrong with this picture. We have two options: solve the problem or watch it get worse. Powerful forces in American politics are at work to guarantee the latter. If no one emerges to challenge the essentially identical economic programs of the current left and right, things will only get, in the words of Kurt Vonnegut, “unimaginably worse.” Just how bad do they have to get?

The solution is a simple one: Jobs for all, at a living wage, and end the many inefficient, ineffective, and humiliating programs masquerading as “safety nets” for the poor. All they do is sustain poverty and allow a capitalistic system run amok to maneuver more of us into that category.
tags: Governance

Of Cartoons and Carnage

Jan 11, 2015
Leaving aside for the moment the wisdom of printing unfunny cartoons whose only point seems to be to express one’s elitist contempt for another’s deity, let us contemplate the awful events of the last week.

The boys and young men who have paid with their lives for their desperate acts have their roots, even if they were born in a civilized country, in uncivilized ones. They or their immediate forebears hail from North Africa or the Middle East, from failed states ruled over by tyrants, where “democracy” and a “liberal education” are as unknown as they were in the Dark Ages. They find themselves in a land that has no decent education or work for them; where day to day they struggle for subsistence, never mind inclusion or respect, in the midst of an obscene level of plenty; where any role models they can find fill them with hatred for the Other and a lunatic dependence on a willful misinterpretation of their deity.

And, for the most part, they are poor. Oh, yes, Mohammed Atta apparently was middle class and bin Laden was from a wealthy family. Spare me the “Yeah, but”s. This is poverty we are speaking about. Poverty of knowledge, poverty of experience, poverty of exposure, and just plain poverty. It is hopelessness, and not the siren call of an adoring deity, that delivers these young people to their early demise.

And it is anger. They see the West and our militarized over-reaction to matters appropriately left to the police. They know about the Afghan wedding parties, the Afghan children, the Afghan, Iraqi, Syrian, Pakistani, Yemeni, Somali, and other civilians slaughtered by our soulless drones, and every infant death produces a dozen more of them ready to die in order to avenge our brutality. Would it be any different with us, if the drones were dropping their fire on St. Louis?

The Forever War. It is enormously profitable for the American military-industrial complex. How much does a small-diameter bomb cost? $50,000. $100,000? Try $250,000, brought to the drop point by a plane that costs $68,000 an hour to operate.

How does it end? Who can tell? Easier to say how it will go on, because it will. And once again, it comes down to those two vital areas: education and adequately remunerative employment. We must pledge ourselves to the liberal development of every one of our human resources here in the West. No child can be left behind to be forged in the furnace of ethnic hatred and pseudo-religious fundamentalism. And we must guarantee every adult a decent job at a living wage. We must reverse the alienation and disenchantment which is turning more and more of our fellow human beings, here and abroad, into instruments of death.

And we must stop supporting tyrannies, even the creeping tyranny of the one-percenters that threatens our own democracy here at home.

It can happen if the people can be brought to realize it must happen. And that must happen soon, because already it is almost too late.

tags: Governance

Noted with Interest, November 2012

Nov 08, 2012

* NEW * Obama and progressives: what will liberals do with their big election victory?
By Glenn Greenwald. Step One, according to Glenn: Gut Social Security. From The Guardian, Nov 7, 2012. Accessed Nov 8, 2012.


tags: Governance

If You Are Thinking of Voting for Obama

Oct 14, 2012
Never mind all that nonsense about “the lesser of two evils.”

What you see, and have seen for four years, is what you got—a stooge of the corporatocracy, bailing out banks for criminal activity that brought the world to its knees and using their victims’ money to do so; a militarist willing to murder hundreds of thousands of innocents, squander our wealth, and traumatize a generation of our young people in pursuit of a handful of the guilty; a prosecutor of an endless war on drugs that fills our prisons with children, supports industries that feed on death and violence, and makes failed states out of our struggling southern neighbors; a rabid pursuer of whistleblowers, like Bradley Manning, who have revealed secrets that ought never to have been secret; finally, in the words of Ralph Nader on election night 2008, an Uncle Tom.

Yes, I embraced “hope and change” in 2008 and will always regret I didn’t vote for Nader. And I do not know how anyone as intelligent as Obama could have been so ineffectual in wielding the power inherent in the most powerful position in the world. His ineffectuality was either intentional or it is yet another lesson in the limits of power, a lesson we have failed to learn again and again since WWII.

Vote for him if you like, but it makes you one of them.

In the alternative, break loose from our failed two-party system. In fact, there aren’t two parties anymore. There is a Taliban-like fundamentalist right posing as Republicans and snatching up the support of a population whose education has been so neglected for fifty years that they are a broiling mélange of anger, ill health, and ignorance. And there is a so-called Democratic party assiduously protecting the right of a few to steal the wealth of the many.

Of course, most of you won’t break loose, and we will almost certainly have another four years of Obama, a polarized Congress, and the status quo. We will enrich the rich, wage wars that profit only the warmongers, punish the weak, ravage the environment, and abuse and neglect our own.

And bin Laden wins.
tags: Governance

Angle of Decline

Sep 24, 2012
The countdown begins. The beauty pageant shifts into high gear. The pundits, the pollsters, and the pols strut their stuff in a dumbshow to convince us there is some kind of contest going on.

But the contest is over, the prizes have been handed out, and the winners are safe in their gated communities, laughing up their silken shirtsleeves at the suckers who put them there. You. And me. And Joe the Plumber.

We have stood by as our democracy was co-opted by an oligarchy more greedy, more shameless, more effective—and more empowered by the establishment—than any nineteenth century robber baron could have dreamed. And we have watched our economic system ruined by a small cabal of the filthy rich. Even more than our lost democracy, posterity may well mourn the criminalization of capitalism, and the havoc it wrought on a civilization so in need of its strengths.

Because as democracy plays out a pitiful last act, pandering to the groundlings while its makeup fades under the unforgiving lights, capitalism has departed the stage, stepped into a waiting limo, and left democracy and its audience far behind.

So enjoy the next 40 days or so, the debates, the tweets, the contortions of the mainstream media to make a cliffhanger out of a no-brainer. The only issue to be resolved on November 6 is our angle of decline over the next four years: steep or steeper.
tags: Governance

Gore Vidal, Prophet

Aug 29, 2012
Gore Vidal has joined the company of Martin Luther King and Howard Zinn. Another of my heroes is gone; I can’t think of any I have left now.

No one spoke truth to power with the humor, the eloquence, the urgency, the contempt, the rage—or the prescience—of Gore Vidal, and we suffer grievously without his voice.

I just finished his Collected Essays, 1952-1972. These few outtakes should impress you as much as they did me with his gifts of wit and prophecy. Long before we were what we are and had found the voice in which many of us are speaking today—before Vietnam, before Watergate, before Reagan—he was one of us, showing the way:

Here he is discussing the causes for the decline in the reading of novels, a plaint heard over and over in this collection:

“Nevertheless, appalling education combined with clever new toys has distracted that large public which found pleasure in prose fictions.”
“A Note on the Novel,” New York Times Book Review, August 5, 1956.
One of his most famous assertions, spoken not altogether with tongue in cheek, is one to which I have often related while composing the nostrums that litter this blog:
“I am at heart a propagandist, a tremendous hater, a tiresome nag, complacently positive that there is no human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise.”
“Writing Plays for Television,” New World Writing #10, 1956.
Vidal was master of the Parthian shot, a final little twist of the knife at the conclusion of an already damning progression of put-downs. Having misspent several years, off and on, in the theatre, I can attest to the truth of this one.
“After the script was ready [for his Broadway play Visit to a Small Planet] there were the usual trials, delays, problems of temperament; each participant convinced that the others had gone into secret league to contrive his professional ruin (and on occasion cabals did flourish, for the theater is a child’s world).”
“Visit to a Small Planet,” The Reporter, July 11, 1957.
We finally “got it” in the Great Recession; Vidal got it almost 50 years ago:
“In public services [as a portion of our foreign aid], we lag behind all the industrialized nations of the West, preferring that the public money go not to the people but to big business. The result is a unique society in which we have free enterprise for the poor and socialism for the rich.”
“Edmund Wilson, Tax Dodger,” Book Week, November 3, 1963.
The futility of reversing a status quo that is destroying our country, the world, and the hopes of future generations was expressed succinctly by Vidal a few short years after Eisenhower’s famous warning regarding the military-industrial complex:
“Between the pork barrel and the terrible swift sword, Pentagon, Congress, and industry are locked together, and nothing short of a major popular revolt can shatter their embrace.”
“Edmund Wilson, Tax Dodger,” Book Week, November 3, 1963.
Vidal captures the essential lunacy—and tragedy—of the impulse toward religion and religious fundamentalism:
“And those who take solemnly the words of other men as absolutes are, in the deepest sense, maiming their own sensibilities and controverting the evidence of their own senses in a fashion which may be comforting to a terrified man but disastrous for an artist.”
“Norman Mailer’s Self-Advertisements,” The Nation, January 2, 1970.
Attending Eleanor Roosevelt’s funeral, he makes this final observation:
“As the box containing her went past me, I thought, well, that’s that. We’re really on our own now.”
“Eleanor Roosevelt,” The New York Review of Books, Nov 18, 1971 (p. 424)
And so we are.

The last word, in another election year we find ourselves anticipating with dread:
“Persuading the people to vote against their best interest has been the awesome genius of the American political elite from the beginning.”
“Homage to Daniel Shays,” The New York Review of Books, August 10, 1972.

tags: Governance

Grampa at the Ramparts

Jul 29, 2012
Lest the first month since I began this blog in May 2008 go by without an entry, I hasten to write this one to my limited but select readership. I have spent the last 28 days in Grand Manan, New Brunswick, fixing up a fixer-upper, and ignoring the world’s woes in deference to more personal ones involving faulty plumbing, sagging decks, and paint.

I come home on Saturday to a story in our local newspaper, in the Perspectives section—sort of like the op-ed page in the Times. It features a photo of a dozen people holding up pictures of solar panels. As the story will tell us, they are protesting the continued operation of our local nuclear power plant, Vermont Yankee. The average age of the protestors is 60 or 70. They are protesting a situation the worst aspects of which will probably impact not them but their children and grandchildren, conspicuously absent from the photo.

The headline reads "Renewables Won't Replace Yankee," and the article is written by a standard corporate stooge, this one having worked for 25 years for an electric utility before settling in to a comfy sinecure with a local right-wing don’t-think tank. She qualifies her headline in the second paragraph, when she says that it is "simply not true [that Vermont Yankee will be replaced with renewables], at least in the foreseeable future." [Emphasis added] No one in their right mind expects renewables to fill the gap left by the closing of this ancient, leaking nuclear disaster waiting to happen. In the meanwhile it is managed long-distance by a cabal of perjured executives backed by a federal regulatory commission owned lock, stock, and barrel by the corporatocracy. Vermont wanted to close Vermont Yankee, thought it had the power to do so, and voted overwhelmingly to do so, only to be slapped down by that federal body in servile obsequiousness to its monied masters.

Now old people who should be on the back porch enjoying an iced-tea and a good book are out braving midsummer sunstroke and the scornful but oh-so-well-funded nonsense like this article while their offspring doodle away on Facebook, oblivious to peak oil, climate change, the ozone layer, the third of Americans who are diabetic or prediabetic, the $15.8 trillion we are in debt, our state of endless war, and an economy that has seen a decline in the number of people adequately employed every month for the last four years.

Such obliviousness is not sustainable.
tags: Governance

Platform for a New Century

Oct 17, 2011
The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement will fade away and fail unless a political structure is born from this social uprising. Chris Hedges, whose writings I admire as much as I do those of anyone commenting on the American political scene today, says the political process is dead, and street action is the only way to bring about change. He’s wrong.

The OWS movement is being tolerated now by a regime which has nothing at present to lose by its tolerance. The movement has stopped traffic a few times for a few hours. But it hasn’t stopped the momentum toward global hegemony which the corporatocracy has been pursuing for 30 years and which, at this point in time, is all but in the bag.

We will take our country back by ballot or by bullet. I cannot see any third alternative, and bullets are notoriously unpredictable. People are making noises about third parties, but nothing significant has been launched that I know of. The time is now.

A third party needs a platform that sets forth a substantively and substantially new direction for our nation. It must appeal to a broad range of constituents, including fiscal conservatives, libertarians, and Tea Partiers as well as the millions of liberal Americans who have become disaffected by a co-opted Democratic Party.

A third party needs to go after 435 House and 33 Senate seats first. Congress makes the laws, and presidential politics in America has been turned into little more than a smokescreen to keep our attention off the prize.

And a third party must put America back to work, in our factories and schools, on our infrastructure, and in the powerhouse laboratories where the entrepreneurial ingenuity of the American imagination will forge a new age of clean energy, world peace, and global liberty.

Here are ten planks in a platform for a New Century:

1. Assured employment opportunities at a living wage for everyone between the ages of 18 and 65.
2. An educational system second to none, with recognized national standards and public support; enhanced compensation for educators, with escalators for service and merit; and public support for post-secondary technical, occupational, and public university education.
3. Publicly supported universal health care.
4. A balanced federal budget.
5. Energy independence in 25 years via conservation, targeted taxation, and vigorous research and development of renewable energy sources to halt and reverse the damage to the environment caused by the burning of fossil fuels.
6. A capitalist economic structure regulated to serve the interests of the people, the nation, and the world. Globalization? Yes. But not at the expense of hard-won protections for workers and the environment.
7. A simplified tax system that enhances the competitiveness of U.S.-based businesses and reverses the unprecedented income inequality which has burgeoned over the past thirty years.
8. A redirection in our response to global terrorism from military action and occupation to a revitalized international police effort. Future executive branch military action will require a formal declaration of war by Congress.
9. Term limits for elective federal offices and regulations closing the revolving door between government and corporate affiliation.
10. A commitment to personal freedoms for the individual, when those freedoms do not directly and demonstrably impinge on the freedoms of others.
tags: Governance

Death by a Thousand Cuts

Mar 10, 2011
The anti-labor activities in Ohio and Wisconsin in recent days are the tip of the iceberg—the tip that the mainstream media has seen fit to cover. Here are some dramatic numbers which are a harbinger of perilous times to come:1

  • Twenty-three percent of the jobs lost during the recession were low-wage jobs, while 49 percent of the jobs gained in the last “recovery” year were.
  • Forty percent of the jobs lost in the recession were high-wage jobs; and an even less favorable number gained in the last year were—only 14 percent.
  • One in five who are working part time want full-time work.
  • Six percent of the significant productivity gains seen in the last 18 months were shared with workers. In past recoveries, that figure has averaged 58 percent.
Worker participation in unions in the private sector has dropped from over 35 percent at its peak in the 1950s (even that but a modest one in three) to 6.9 percent today—essentially no one. Although there are many more workers in the private sector, there are more public sector workers who are unionized—at least for now.2 Shameful legislation in Wisconsin and Ohio have established the momentum to whittle away at public sector union representation.

But then, what is a union today? The Transportation Security Administration workers (the ones who pat you down at airports) recently gained the right to vote for union representation and will be doing so through April 19. The union representation they are voting for, however, will not allow them to strike, engage in slowdown activities, or bargain for wages.3 This is a union?

This is death by a thousand cuts. The radical right—I would not grace them with the name of Republicans and besmirch the party of Lincoln, TR, Eisenhower, and even the felon Nixon, who had more decency than they have—the radical right are on the ascendant everywhere, including the White House.

And we put them there. The fault lies squarely with the American electorate, with you and me.

And that is the source from which our redemption will come. We, the people, will reclaim our nation’s pre-eminent place among history’s grandest experiments, or, along with the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome, we will fade into the back pages of history. Knowing the world as I know it today, I don’t want it to be denied America’s example, the America I know we have in us, the America I have lived, and hope to live again.4
____________________
1 Jobs returning—but good ones not so much, by Zachary Roth, from Yahoo! News, Mar 9, 2011.
2 Union Membership in U.S. Fell to a 70-Year Low Last Year, by Steven Greenhouse, from the NYTimes, Jan 21, 2011.
3 Screeners Under Obama May Give Federal Unions Biggest Vote Win in Years, by John Hughes, from Bloomberg.com, Mar 9, 2011.
4 Are America’s Best Days Behind Us?, by Fareed Zakaria, from Time Magazine, Mar 3, 2011.
tags: Governance

The Age of Anxiety

Feb 26, 2011
The exciting, terrifying, edge-of-our-seats news from the Middle East these days has demonstrated to me something which I hadn't realized before. Governments not only should derive their legitimacy (their "just powers") from the consent of the governed (see the Declaration of Independence), but they can only derive their legitimacy from that consent.

The consent may be granted grudgingly; it may be obtained for a time criminally and fraudulently via a police state system of spies, torture, and murder; but when it is withdrawn, that government is finished.

Who knows what will come of the incredibly brave actions, the sacrifice, the turmoil that is overwhelming the Middle East these days? As Chris Hedges has written1, whatever comes of it will almost certainly not be to the benefit of the United States. We have partnered with these departing tyrants, have supported them, have bankrolled them, have too often set them on their thrones ourselves, in blatant disregard of our own avowed principles.

Whatever outcomes we may dread—civil wars, a resurgent fundamentalist Islam, a disrupted oil industry; other outcomes, just as likely, we may hope to see emerge—a democratic awakening; a flowering of Arab and Muslim culture in the hothouse atmosphere of freedom; a new populism—disappearing in our own culture—which celebrates the common man and woman and understands that 95 percent of us are not put on this earth to enrich the other five.

I find it all incredible and wonderful and worrisome. These departing tyrants are OUR tyrants. We believe that their oil is OUR oil. Iran is playing around with their warships approaching Israel. The spectre of Armageddon is not entirely out of the question.

The Chinese curse, May you live in interesting times,2 has been pronounced upon all our heads, and the Age of Anxiety3 is back.
____________________
1 What Corruption and Force Have Wrought in Egypt, by Chris Hedges, from Truthdig.com, Jan 30, 2011, accessed Feb 26, 2011.
2 May You Live in Interesting Times, from Wikipedia, accessed Feb 26, 2011.
3 The Age of Anxiety, from Wikipedia, accessed Feb 26, 2011.
tags: Governance

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

Jan 09, 2011
The employment report that came out last Friday is a beautiful example of how to lie with statistics. The big number announced was the drop in the unemployment rate from 9.8 to 9.4 percent. The nation added 103,000 jobs in December and it is generally conceded that we need to add 100,000 to 125,000 jobs each month “just to keep up with population growth and keep the unemployment rate from rising.”1

So how did the measly increase of 103,000 jobs in December result in the largest drop in the unemployment rate in months? It is because the unemployment rate is based on a fiction the Department of Labor calls the “labor force,” which consists of the number of people who are employed or who are looking for work. An estimated 260,000 unemployed people gave up their long pursuit of employment in December, and that would seem to be the sole reason the unemployment rate dropped so precipitously.

For better or for worse, that number is the one which people latch onto when assessing the general state of our economy, and now we can see how misleading it is. To not count among the unemployed those who have given up looking for work is not simply a statistical failing, it is a moral failing. It is, however, a particularly canny political strategy, as now the nation is under the impression that unemployment—the single greatest threat we face today—is suddenly on a speedy and healthy mend, when nothing could be further from the truth

Give us an unemployment rate that includes all those who want to work but are unemployed, then include those who are working part time but want to work full time, and the millions of employed who are working for less, sometimes considerably less, than a living wage, and you will see a number that will strike terror into your heart. And in 2011, when many unemployed will begin exhausting their 99 weeks of compensation and will be desperate to take on any work at any pay, that number will begin to skyrocket.

America as the economic powerhouse of the world is history. The only question now is how fast and how far we descend in the coming decade into a second-rate, two-class society consisting of the few super-rich and the rest of us. A paradigm shift in priorities on the order of A New American Vision points a way out of our predicament. This, or something equally radical, is all that can reverse the trends of the past thirty years. And if we don’t get started on this now, it may well be too late.
____________________
1 CPBB Statement: January 7, 2011, by Chad Stone, accessed Jan 8, 2011.
tags: Governance

Strawberry Fields or Killing Fields?

Dec 26, 2010
There will be no more California strawberries in this house. Their Department of Pesticide Regulation recently (at the tail end of Republican Schwarzenegger’s last term as governor) approved the use of methyl iodide as a pesticide for their state’s strawberry fields. California’s own Scientific Review Panel stated that “methyl iodide is a highly toxic chemical” whose use “would have a significant adverse impact on public health.”1

But this is how it happens in a corporate-dominated society. If Arysta LifeScience Corporation, the largest private pesticide company in the world according to the Pesticide Action Network (PAN),1 wants to spray a carcinogen all over your strawberries, infecting the workers who plant and pick them and, potentially, the groundwater which millions of Californians depend on, then by god Arysta will do it. They will get the Bush administration’s EPA to sign off on its use, they will hire PR and lobbying firms to buy off our elected representatives, and they will convince you, with lower prices and massive advertising campaigns, to ignore your and your children’s best interests and buy their poison by the truckload.

The Scientific Review Panel’s findings and other documents related to this scandal, may be found at the PAN link below. Read them and weep. Then write the new governor and the EPA, both of whom have indicated they may reverse the decisions allowing this travesty in public health.
____________________
1 Pesticide Action Network North America
tags: Governance

The Business of America Is Work

Dec 18, 2010
People have to work. They have to work for their bread. They have to work for their self-esteem. They have to work in order to take their place in a society which requires their portion of labor and which is only able to underwrite their idleness to a limited extent before it begins to crack apart.

One in every four American workers is not working now—at all or enough or at a sufficient wage to qualify them as adequately employed. They are threatening to become a permanent underclass of un- and underemployed Americans. The middle class who are employed are losing ground, losing hours, losing wages, forced by globalization to drift ever nearer to the status of the third-world neo-slave labor force that is inundating our globe with cheap goods and environmental degradation.

If we are to avoid social cataclysm, work must become the top priority in America. And the only way to do that is to guarantee every American worker a job at a living wage.

The recent tax cut legislation passed by Congress is another poison pill dropped into the social brew. That brew has been poisoned for thirty years by the nonsense of trickle-down economics, as enormous fortunes have been made by brigands with whom the robber barons of the 19th century would have been ashamed to associate. The legislation will have little or no effect on employment, which can only be bettered by finding our way back to a vibrant, productive economy. If we have to jump start that economy by governmental intervention to put people—all people—back to work, then so be it.

The fact that we should never have allowed ourselves to reach the point where such action is required is beside the point. We are there. Americans in vast numbers are losing their homes, their jobs, and their savings, and with home, job, and savings go their self-esteem and their connectedness to community. As we enter the third year of economic bust in America, huge numbers of the unemployed will begin to exhaust their 99 weeks of unemployment compensation. Cold and hunger will then visit America to an extent not felt since the first half of the 19th century. Few who feel this cold and hunger will be unjustified in believing their social contract has been broken, and we may look for a rapid decline in social order, a ramping up of police state repression, and a swift decline into third world status ourselves.

This need not be, howsoever present policies seem to be condemning us to this fate. We, the people, remain the masters of our fate. And while that is still so, we must act, with speed, decisiveness, and a spirit of cooperation not seen since the founding fathers came together from disparate political spheres to establish this grand experiment in the first place.
tags: Governance

The Ostrich Syndrome

Dec 11, 2010
We’re all ostriches, our heads in the sand, hoping the threat goes away, hoping it’s not the threat we know it is, hoping someone else will do something about it before we have to because, frankly, we don’t have a clue about what to do.

Robert Reich’s piece in the Huffington Post the other day1 laid it out: The Republican worldview, that government needs to get out of the way and let the free market reign, has captured critical brainshare and momentum in American politics. This has happened despite the fact that this same too-free market has manipulated millions of households into foreclosure and thrown one of ten Americans out of work. Before this worldview is revealed as the disaster it is, Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid could become historical curiosities; the economic powerhouse of the American middle class wither away; and society revert to that horrible Hobbesian vision where the life of man is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Now is the time to realize this and now is the time to act. There are two directions those actions can take: violent or nonviolent.

Violent acts consist of a spectrum from mild gestures of civil disobedience (marching, public interferences, tax strikes) to armed insurrection. Today, except for ill-disguised celebrity love-ins at the Lincoln Memorial, large (or small) public demonstrations seem beyond our capacity, and individual acts of rebellion are too isolated, infrequent, and obscure to matter. Armed insurrection would plunge us into a future where the only certainty I can imagine is that our glorious experiment in democracy would suffer a sea change into something as bad as the worst excesses of history have visited upon our species.

Nonviolent action is still possible and always preferable to the cost, pain, and uncertainty of violence. Our political structure, though tattered and almost wholly co-opted by the corporatocracy, nonetheless remains accessible to us. We can still elect a Kucinich or a Feingold (I am becoming increasingly disenchanted with my own Bernie Sanders whose recent “filibuster” seems to have been a mere publicity stunt).

In order to work within the political structure, however, I see no alternative to the daunting task of fashioning a second party. And I am not being cute when I say that. It is clear that the Republican and Democratic parties have converged into a single handmaid of the corporatocracy, and that we are as much under the thumb of a one-party system here as are the hapless Russians.2 Our new party must have a new American vision, one that understands how to strike the proper balance between self-reliance and government involvement in the lives of its citizens. I believe I began to outline that vision in my Nov 13, 2010, piece, “A New American Vision.” It is time to begin the hard task of building our new party by discussing this vision, adapting it, honing it, advertising it, slowly winning adherents, and then finding, supporting, and electing representatives at all levels of government who adhere to these new American principles. I believe they are, in essence, the old American principles we have long valued and little practiced.

I also believe that this year, this month, this week, with this pivotal piece of legislation pending before a lame-duck congress, that this is the hour we will look back on one day as the point where “two roads diverged in a yellow wood.” We are almost certainly going to take the wrong road. The crucial question will be, how far down that road will we go before we realize our mistake, and how much will it cost us to turn around and find our way back?
____________________
1 Why the Obama Tax Deal Confirms the Republic Worldview, by Robert Reich, from The Huffington Post, Dec 8, 2010. Accessed Dec 9, 2010.
2 Elections in Siberia Show Russia’s Drift to Single Party, by Clifford J. Levy, from the New York Times, Dec 10, 2010. Accessed Dec 11, 2010.
tags: Governance

The Great 2010 Boondoggle

Dec 09, 2010
Many are the voices,1,2 all urging the same thing: “Give him a break, he’s doing the best he can.” Meanwhile, for the progressive base, currently led by Bernie Sanders and his filibuster threat, this is the last straw.

The “package,” which would add nearly a trillion dollars more to the deficit before the next election3, represents a huge giveaway to the super-rich and peanuts to the poor. It will further solidify a permanent underclass of unemployed Americans, extending their puny benefits for another 13 months, while retaining for the plutocracy their ability to continue scrambling for an ever larger portion of the pie.

The long death march of Social Security takes another giant step forward, as a third of the payroll deduction is slashed for one year, a cut which the corporatocracy will almost surely try to make permanent, as the Bush tax cuts are shaping up to be.

The capital gains and dividends giveaway—they are taxed at 15%, only about half the 25-28% the middle class pay on their income—will be extended another two years.

Blood in the streets is postponed by extending unemployment benefits to a chunk of the 15.1 million idle Americans. That largess accounts for only $56 billion of the $900 billion price tag on the package, as 7 million unemployed were facing no income and virtually no prospects of work in 2011.

This “center” cannot hold, and should a filibuster fail to materialize or fail to be effective against this boondoggle, then look for things to begin falling apart in 2011. Whether it take the form of China calling in our markers, a third conflict initiated against Iran, a descent into anarchy via the reinvigorated Republican assault on government, or something unexpected and out of the blue, yet it will come.

Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich has provided one of the clearest and most comprehensive explanations of what is happening, and why the current tax “compromise” has to be where we draw the line in the sand.4
____________________
1 No Deficit of Courage,by Jon Meacham, from the NY Times, Dec 8, 2010, accessed Dec 9, 2010.
2 Falling Off the Bandwagon, by Gail Collins, from the NY Times, Dec 8, 2010, accessed Dec 9, 2010.
3 Tax Deal Suggests New Path for Obama, by David M. Herszenhorn and Jackie Calmes, from the NY Times, Dec 6, 2010, accessed Dec 9, 2010.
4 Why the Obama Tax Deal Confirms the Republic Worldview, by Robert Reich, in the Huffington Post, Dec 8, 2010, accessed Dec 9, 2010.
tags: Governance

The Wall Street Way

Nov 27, 2010
We live in an Ayn Rand/Milton Friedman world now. Dog eat dog. Every man for himself. Greed is good. A world where selfishness has become a moral imperative. And we see where it has gotten us. Income inequity of medieval proportions. One out of four or five Americans out of work or working part time or for peanuts or well below their level of education and expertise. A financial sector as out of control as any rogue nation or organized criminal enterprise. Obesity and diabetes epidemics, particularly among our children, threatening to blow health care costs into the stratosphere. Social, economic, and political systems in the hands of an international corporate plutocracy hellbent on destroying those systems, humanity, and the earth itself in pursuit of ever higher profits.

This is where the Chicago School has brought us, and there is no arguing with the numbers or the damage already done.

So why not jettison this twisted perversion of Darwinism, and instead promote a system with a moral imperative exactly counter to the failed policies of the last thirty years. This system says, in essence, “We will all be better off if we all are better off.”.

I am sick when I think of the scores of children who have died while I write this short piece1. I know that had these children been spared, educated, and allowed to engage with the family of man into adulthood, this world would be so much richer, in its art, its science, its humanity.

Instead, we live in a world where the few squeeze the many, gutting our hard-won middle class standard of living in order to fill pockets already overflowing with ill-gotten gains. There is a better way, working together for the benefit of all. Most of us are ready to make do with a little less, and a few must make do with a lot less (they will still enjoy levels of wealth way beyond their needs), in order that all of us have enough. FDR said it best: “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”.

If this is true—and Jesus, Moses, and Mohammed are with me in believing it is—then in pursuing policies exactly in contradiction to this path, our world is heading for trouble. Progressives recognize this; Tea Partiers recognize this, though they ascribe it to the wrong reasons. Greg Mortenson, Paul Farmer, Sarah Chayes, and hundreds of lesser known toilers in the most bereft corners of the world recognize this. If there is a people anywhere on our globe more capable of recognizing this, and acting on it, than those of us here in the U.S., I don’t know who they are.

If not us, who? If not now, when?
____________________
1 Today, over 22,000 children died around the world, from GlobalIssues.org, accessed November 27, 2010.
tags: Governance

A New American Vision

Nov 13, 2010
A government of, by, and for the people puts the people first, and molds its social, political, and economic institutions to serve the people, and not the other way around.

I propose a New American Vision where everyone works who can, and where all earn a living wage doing so. The ragged, heartless, and inefficient vestiges of the social “safety net”—food stamps, WIC, TANF, UI, CHIP, Medicaid, etc., etc.— can then be dismantled, with custodial care retained only for the very tiny minority who are not able to work.

I propose a New American Vision where a balanced federal budget, if necessary by Constitutional amendment, and a strong defense—the strongest in the world—are top priorities. In that context, I propose a six-month withdrawal from the hopeless military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan/Pakistan. The efforts we are making in these countries cannot succeed through military force and must be handed over to a re-energized and adequately funded international police force.

I propose a New American Vision that harnesses our considerable resources in a concerted effort to develop clean, renewable energy. None but the most craven corporate lackeys will deny we will run out of nonrenewable resources this century. We must tax those remaining barrels of oil, gallons of natural gas, and tons of coal to finance the American innovative powerhouse that alone can show the world the way to safe, clean energy.

I propose a New American Vision that reinvents capitalism to serve the people, and not vice versa. This should begin with a sharply reduced corporate income tax and a more progressive personal income tax to counteract the unprecedented income inequality which has been allowed to metastasize over the last 30 years. Certain capitalist enterprises which tend to work against the interests they purport to serve, such as the medical and pharmaceutical industries, should be nationalized. In the context of a capitalism that serves the people, America will do business with any nation that strives to preserve the human rights and labor and environmental protections we have fought for so long and which are so vital to our society. It is unconscionable that we should do an “end run” around those rights and protections by exporting our manufacturing and other industries to nations which, far from sharing those values, are publicly and violently opposed to them.

I propose a New American Vision where federal elective offices immediately are assessed a five percent pay reduction and term limits are established for House and Senate seats—four terms for the former and two for the latter. A professional American political class is inimical to a people’s liberty, and a much higher number of our citizenry should and must become involved in our representative form of democracy.

Finally, I propose a New American Vision where, to quote the Constitution (10th Amendment), “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Those powers reserved to the people should be those powers over one’s individual behavior which do not adversely impact on the rights of others, including the power to ingest whatever substances one desires, the power to determine one’s own end of life, the power to marry whomever one chooses, etc. Regarding the latter, discrimination against any individual on the basis of their variation from some imagined “norm” is, to my mind, about as heinous an offense against another human being as can be conceived—it is a kind of murder, and it should be dealt with, wherever it appears, in as harsh and condemnatory a manner as possible.

And once our own house is in order, we can see ahead to a New World Vision, where a child doesn’t die every few seconds of starvation and polluted water; where war becomes a miserable memory; where the boundless potential of human capital is given a global opportunity to flourish; where, gradually, we re-learn to live in harmony on our one tiny world.

This is a New American Vision for we, the people, who have been given dominion over this fragile world and who must decide, and soon, whether that dominion will serve all the people and the generations to come, or be sacrificed to our dark side and to the blind greed of a few.
tags: Governance

Up from Slavery

May 12, 2010

A recent daily quotation from the upper right-hand corner of this page was from FDR, and it read:

The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.

This is, in a way, the only message of All Together Now. We are an advanced society, with wealth to spare and all the comforts of modern life, yet we are confronted with challenges that cannot be overcome without wide agreement and cooperation on many issues. Our first imperative, indeed, our only imperative, is to arrange our society in such a way that everyone who today has too little has enough. Instead, we are hellbent in the opposite direction, with fewer and fewer hoarding more and more, and with more Americans falling into poverty every year.

Make no mistake, the plutocrats have their hands in your pockets bigtime. What started with the Reagan Revolution thirty years ago has accelerated into a massive transfer of wealth from the middle class to a tiny plutocracy at the top, where in 2007 one percent of the American population owned 35% of the nation’s wealth, and the top 20 percent owned 85 percent of it, leaving 15% for the bottom 80 percent. And in terms of strictly financial wealth, which leaves out home equity values, the bottom 80 percent have only a seven percent share in the pie. And those numbers have gotten consistently worse since 1980, except for a brief respite during the Clinton administration.1

How has it happened? Primarily through the exploitation of disaster capitalism, so brilliantly explicated by Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. The Asian tsunami, Katrina, 9/11, the world economic collapse of 2008 now wending its crippling way through Europe, all have been grist for the mill of the disaster capitalists. They have used every tragedy to press forward with the neo-liberal agenda of privatization, warmaking, and an all-out assault on social equity programs.

It would be one thing if the 2008 global collapse lowered all boats in anything like equal measure. It did not. It is estimated that there has been an astounding 36.1 percent drop in the wealth of the median household since the peak of the housing bubble in 2007, while the wealth of the top 1 percent of households dropped by just 11.1 percent.1 In other words, the economic collapse was just another disaster in aid of a huge transfer of wealth to the top.

Two more sobering statistics: 94 percent of the wealth created between 1983 and 2004 went to the top 20 percent of the population, the bottom 80 percent receiving only six percent. And in Europe, the ratio of executive/CEO pay to factory worker pay is about 25:1. In 1960 in the U.S., that ratio was 42:1; in 2000 it reached its high of 531:1. That is $531 paid to a CEO for every dollar earned by the one doing the actual work. This is not social injustice; this is brigandage.

Read the front page tomorrow, and see if more than half the stories there don’t, in the end, come down to some scheme that will end up diminishing the wealth of the poor and middle class while enriching the multi-billionaires who are destroying our world and our society. The Wall Street “crash,” that brought windfall profits and obscene bonuses to the executives who caused it; the oil spill in the Gulf that has destroyed thousands of small businesses, wreaked havoc on a large chunk of the American environment, and brought the company that built the rig $270 million in insurance profits2; the euro crisis in Greece that is being used to justify an assault on poor and middle class wages, pensions, and social services3,4; endless wars that empty the public coffers, bankrupting our children and grandchildren while filling the pockets of private enterprise profiteers with our hard-earned treasure. The list goes on and on.

It will end. It will end at the ballot box or it will end in the streets. But it will end. Let us hope it ends at the ballot box where, indeed, it still can end, our current crop of despicable politicians notwithstanding. We still have the power. We must wake up, organize, and take back our country. There are worthy organizations working toward that end, many of which have been mentioned on this site. However, our work starts with the neighbor next door, down our street, in our communities. Find your kindred spirits. Meet, discuss, plan, and act. You have nothing to lose but your chains.

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1 Who Rules America?, by Professor G. William Domhoff, Sociology Department, University of California at Santa Cruz, September 2005, updated April 2010, accessed May 10, 2010.
2 Rig firm’s $270m profit from deadly spill, by Danny Fortson, from the TimesOnline (UK), May 9, 2010, accessed May 12, 2010.
3 Greek cabinet discusses pension and wage reform as civil service strike looms, from the AP, Feb 9, 2010, accessed May 12, 2010
4 Euro-Bankers Demand of Greece, by Michael Hudson, from Eurasia Review, May 11, 2010, accessed May 12, 2010.
tags: Governance

One for One and All for None

Mar 14, 2010
Update (March 14, 2010): Enfield voters, at their annual town meeting, voted overwhelmingly to support seven local nonprofits.

Originally published January 30, 2010
The headline in my local paper this morning: “Enfield: No Money for Nonprofits.”

The New Hampshire community of 4850 people has decided, “for philosophical reasons,” to drop nine social service agencies from its annual budget, saving approximately $50,000 from town expenditures of around $5,780,0001 (less than one percent). Services provided by the agencies include, in part, mass transit, mental and physical health assistance, senior citizen programs, support for victims of domestic abuse, and poverty alleviation. By anyone’s estimation, the nine agencies provide the town of Enfield with far more than $50,000 worth of important social services.

Stories such as these, as well as too many we are reading in the national press, show the extent to which the social contract is fraying. In hard times, panic trumps intelligence, and the middle class in America has been undergoing harder and harder times since the beginning of the Reagan Revolution. Somehow, in our panic, the myth that government is evil and needs to be curtailed has taken hold of the popular imagination. But government is as old as the day the first two families moved into the same cave and found they needed to forge a social contract in order to preserve internal peace and fend off external aggression.

To be sure, that government is best which governs least. However, government is the glue that binds us together and delivers, as effectively, efficiently, and economically as possible, those services which are necessary to preserve internal peace and fend off external aggression. Among those efficent services are public insurance programs which, upon superficial examination, seem to take from all to benefit the few—public education, for instance. Upon closer examination and better understanding, however, we find these programs benefit all of us some of the time, some of us all of the time, and, indeed, some benefit all of us all of the time in that they relieve us of burdens which, were they to fall upon us individually, would be disastrous.

Those social service agencies in Enfield are examples of these public insurance programs. For a relative pittance, we can, for instance, assure the services of a visiting nurse, for ourselves or a loved one, should such visits become necessary. Should they become necessary without investing that pittance, provision of such services could easily be insupportable. To argue that the public as a whole should not support these services because everyone does not use them is to miss the point entirely—of insurance, of government, of the social contract we adhere to for purposes of living together in society.

It is with profound sorrow that we here at All Together Now witness our nation’s social contract disintegrating, when we know that the time has never been more ripe for listening to our better instincts and, together, forging a new nation dedicated to the health, happiness, and well being of all its people.
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1 Enfield, NH, from NH.gov, accessed Jan 30, 2010.

tags: Governance

One for the Good Guys

Mar 04, 2010
Update: March 3, 2010: Let the Rehabilitation Begin!
The first piece on saving Vermont Yankee to appear in the Times2 did so barely a week after the Vermont Senate vote to deny Entergy their bid for a 20-year extension to operate the plant. The focus this time: What will become of poor, doughty Vernon, VT, when the plant shuts down in 2012?

Originally published February 26, 2010
The corporatocracy which, today, controls the nation’s social, political, and economic life, for the apparent sole purpose of filling top management’s pockets (customers, stockholders, and workers be damned), took a small hit a couple of days ago when the Vermont Senate voted 26-4 to deny Entergy a 20-year extension to run the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant. It is the first time in 20 years that the public or its representatives has decided to close such a facility.1

By all accounts, including Entergy’s, Vermont Yankee (VY) is a mess. The 38-year-old plant is leaking radioactive tritium, one of its cooling towers collapsed in 2007, plant owners lied—excuse me, misspoke—in testimony before two state panels regarding the condition of the facility, and Entergy has been attempting to elude their decommissioning responsibilities by selling off VY and a few other aging facilities to a new corporate entity of their own devising.

One VT senator, otherwise relatively sympathetic to the nuclear industry, opined to the effect that Entergy could not have done a better job of shooting themselves in the foot had their upper management been infiltrated by anti-nuclear activists.

Entergy vows to fight on, and I am sure they will have powerful backers. Check with us in March 2012 to see if VY will really have to close its doors. Knowing the state of the nation, my heart is with the people of Vermont, but my money is on Entergy.

No one wants to see the lights go out, and nuclear energy is undeniably essential to avoiding that event today. However, it is a suicidal means of generating electricity, and our leaders must not only set a priority on promoting the necessary development of green technologies, but they must be seen to be doing so. In that context, Obama’s recent boosterizing of the nuclear industry was yet another disappointment to his quickly vanishing base.
________________________________
1 Vermont Senate Votes to Close Nuclear Plant, by Matthew L. Wald, from the New York Times, Feb 24, 2010, accessed Feb 25, 2010.
2 Town Finds Good Neighbor in Nuclear Plant, by Katie Zezima, from the New York Times, Mar 3, 2010, accessed Mar 4, 2010.
tags: Governance

The Way We Live Today

Feb 27, 2010
Update (Feb 27, 2010): As reported in the Pakistan Daily Times,2 a number of lawyers have allegedly threatened to “burn alive” any lawyer who would dare to defend the family of Shazia Masih. Leaving for the moment why the family should need defending more than the man in whose custody Shazia died, the article points up the hypocrisy emanating from a body which only recently gained worldwide admiration for their brave stand for justice.


Originally published Feb 6, 2010.
She is about 6 in the picture here. She was 12 when she died, probably of a combination of a skin disease, torture, and poverty. She was earning $8 a month—minus the employment agency’s commission—working 12 hours a day cleaning floors, cars, and toilets for a fatcat lawyer, to help her family pay off its debts. Her employer claimed that her 17 injuries “caused by blunt means” were the result of a fall down stairs. The case is pending.

This is how we live today, and if the world can’t manage a massive attitude adjustment, things are going to get worse and worse. Pakistan may “seethe”1 all it wants at the death of Shazia Masih, but Pakistan killed that little girl as surely as if her execution had been inscribed in its nation’s statutes.

All over the world, nations are abusing and exploiting and terrorizing their own. The U.S. not only does it at home, but exports their terror to the entire globe. A small global contingent of fabulously wealthy individuals have co-opted their body politic, and are destroying the golden goose in a headlong dash for more and ever more lucre.

That this world was made for all; that each life is precious and must be nurtured and given every opportunity to make its unique contribution to the future; that poverty, want, and ignorance are eradicable; that vast inequities in income breed violence on a scale the world can no longer afford to contemplate; these are attitudes which the world must adopt or we are doomed.

How far we are from adopting these attitudes is starkly clear in the Times story, the horror of which is repeated millions of times over across the world every day.
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1 Bruised Maid Dies at 12, and Pakistan Seethes, by Sabrina Tavernise, from the New York Times, Feb 5, 2010, accessed Feb 6, 2010.
2 View: Reassessing the lawyers’s movement, by Ayesha Ijaz Khan, Feb 26, 2010, accessed Feb 26, 2010.
tags: Governance

An Open Letter...

Feb 08, 2010
...to our 535 esteemed legislators:

Today, the Association for Computing Machinery (the world’s largest group of computer professionals) announced the winners of the 2010 ACM International Collegiate Programming Competition.1,2 And guess what? The only non-Russian, non-Chinese school in the top ten was the University of Warsaw (Poland, not Indiana). That’s right. Not only did we not finish in the money, we didn’t even finish with honor.

If you cannot see that these results are the canary in the coal mine, auguring disaster for the future of American innovation and competitiveness, then you are even more clueless than you have led us to believe over the past year. While states are busily disordering their legislative framework in a headlong rush for $4.35 billion in federal support, the pittance for which they are competing3,4; while a lone representative (enabled by the Speaker) threatens to destroy the most successful program of technological innovation in history in order to keep her re-election campaign chest stocked with corporate lucre5,6; our nation has gone from an overwhelmingly dominant position in computer science only a few years ago to tying for 14th place with the likes of the Belarusian State University and the Universidade Federale de Pernambuco.

While you Lilliputian Neros fiddle, Rome burns. If we can’t compete with Russia or China in computers, we can’t compete in biomedicine, weaponry, space applications, finance, manufacturing, entertainment, or any of the other industries which, today, are absolutely dependent on computing know-how. And if our programming and computing skills are not up to those of our two giant totalitarian antagonists, then our national security and our hope for spreading democracy across the globe are in dire peril as well.

This is the pass to which you have brought us, and we have no one to thank but ourselves for not taking you all by the collar and heaving you out that magnificent panelled doorway into a snowdrift.

Update: We are responding! See Want a job? Get a computer science degree. Enrollment in computer science is back on the way up!
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1 Chinese and Russian Universities Claim Nine of Top Ten Spots..., accessed, as were all items footnoted in this entry, Feb 8, 2010.
2 Results World Finals 2010.
3 Race to the Top funding faces obstacles, by James Rufus Koren and Canan Tasci, from the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, Feb 7, 2010.
4 Pressing for changes to charter school laws, by Nicole Fuller, from the Baltimore Sun, Feb 7, 2010.
5 SBIR Insider Newsletter, by Rick Shindell, Jan 11, 2010.
6 Full Disclosure: I work for a company that contributes its expertise to the SBIR program.
tags: Governance

The Coming Constitutional Crisis

Jan 02, 2010
Vermont is at it again.

Hard on the heels of becoming the first state to enact a statute allowing homosexual unions, we are now mounting a credible campaign to bring single-payer, government-administered health care to all our citizens. Bills have been introduced in both houses of the legislature (H.100 in the House1 and S.88 in the Senate2). With coordination from the Vermont Workers’ Center (VWC)3, the grassroots are gathering to demand passage of the bill (the House and Senate versions are essentially the same, unlike the games-playing variations between versions in D.C.).

Should Vermont pull off this cheeky maneuver, and the feds pass a health care proposal requiring every citizen to purchase, either directly or through their employer, health care coverage from private insurers in perpetuity, we can anticipate a Constitutional crisis of dramatic proportions. The graybeards of the Supreme Court will find their strict constructionist, states-rights positions sorely tried as they are called upon to prop up the corporate hegemony which Vermont’s action will have threatened.

The feds, of course, will believe themselves to have any number of prerogatives available to them for purposes of slapping down the upstarts; however, I would not sell Vermonters short in their readiness to dig in their heels. We have not sacrified disproportionately high numbers of our men and women to our nation’s conflicts because we’re pussies4,5. And the last time the nation fumbled the Vermont ball, in 1777, we declared our independence for 14 years6. Those who forget history may be condemned to see it repeated.

On January 6, VWC and supporters of the legislation will meet at noon at the Statehouse in Montpelier to present thousands of postcards in support of single-payer health care to legislators on the opening day of the new session. There is still time to sign these postcards online7. Then, on January 12, from 6-8pm, hearings on H.100 and S.88 will begin.

Should the legislation pass, the two houses have veto-proof majorities which have already overridden two vetoes (unprecedented!) by our lame-duck Republican governor. Can you say “hat trick“?

What fun! Happy New Year.
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1 H.100: An Act Relating to Health Care Financing and Unviersal Access to Health Care in Vermont
2 S.88: An Act Relating to Health Care Financing and Universal Access to Health Care in Vermont
3 Vermont Workers’ Center
4 Effects of the World Wars on Vermont
5 CARSEY STUDY: War Death Rate Higher Among Soldiers from Rural Areas
6 Vermont (Wikipedia)
7 Healthcare Is A Human Right Postcard
tags: Governance

America, Wake Up!

Dec 25, 2009
America, wake up!

It is way past time to put your invective away, disown the cynical manipulators who stir you up to such passionate intensity, and focus on the facts: Your economic situation hasn't improved in 40 years; you've got a miserable standard of health care which no European or Canadian would tolerate for five minutes and for which you pay through the nose; your kids are fat and stupid from playing video games and eating nothing but sugar, salt, and fat all day; their schools are little better than prisons; one in six of you is under- or unemployed; the debt you have so massively and eagerly incurred has made billionaires out of a handful of the most evil bastards you could ever hope to imagine; and your world is melting faster than the Wicked Witch of the West.

Obama has delivered nothing but a measly stimulus package and a handful of cash for clunkers, while strapping your children and grandchildren with over $13 trillion in debt and Wall Street guarantees. It has become impossible to imagine a life for them free of endless domestic and international conflict, a 19th century standard of living, and an environment that will produce pandemics and mass starvation.

You are being played for a sucker by the likes of Glenn Beck and Barack Obama both. Go back to the Federalist Papers, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution. Remember what this country is about. It is about opportunity and freedom, it is about the individual, it is about all the people, not the tiny few who have bought off the government, enslaving the people and robbing us of both opportunity and freedom.

And once you come to your senses, don’t get mad, get even. It’s easy: Elect representatives who represent us, not them.
tags: Governance

Nation of Sheep

Dec 24, 2009
It would have taken but one brave senator to scuttle a health care “reform” bill that, as Howard Dean and others have concluded, will do more harm than good. Besides delivering us all for perpetuity into the kindly hands of the health insurance industry—or face a fine for trying to opt out—it will still, apparently, leave at least 17 million Americans uninsured. It purports to close two loopholes—pre-existing conditions and dropped coverage—that insurance companies have heretofore enjoyed in denying coverage. We shall see to what extent those loopholes really are closed.

One brave senator might have sent—may still send—a resounding message through the corridors of power in Washington, D.C., that the people will not be held hostage to the corporatocracy. I thought that that senator may have been from my own state of Vermont; however, Bernie Sanders voted for the Senate bill along with the other 58 democrats and one other “independent”—Joe Lieberman. He explains himself in a great interview on MSNBC’s Morning Joe show1, where he claims that the provision of a $10 billion program to institute community health centers partly persuaded him to support the bill. We all know what a drop in the bucket $10 billion is, and I was disappointed to hear him grasp on to this straw as a reason to keep from withholding his support.

The most telling comment in the interview comes about halfway through (4:30), when Sanders states outright a truth that should have us all in the streets howling for blood: “Big money interests control the United States Congress.” Others have said the same thing recently. And if that is not a sufficiently sad and infuriating fact to bring the American people to their feet in an outpouring of activism and protest, then what is?

In his just-published novel, Ralph Nader has concluded that a popular social movement is now impossible to mount and that “Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!” His utopian novel has the likes of Warren Buffet and George Soros joining forces to wrest our nation from runaway capitalism and restore it to the people. After Nader’s dismal showing in a third run for president in 2008, it is not surprising to see one of America’s true heroes reaching for a desperate solution. Fiction is fiction, however, and a far likelier scenario for the future may be a cheery comment Kurt Vonnegut made a few years before his death: “Things are going to get worse and worse, and they’re never going to get better again.”
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1 Sanders’ Honest Assessment of the Health Reform Bill—MSNBC’s Morning Joe
2 Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!
tags: Governance

Unhealthy Care

Nov 10, 2009
If you have not read Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, then waste no time, click on this link, and buy it now, or run out to your local library for a copy.

Read but a small portion of it and you will understand why our elected representatives could pass a health care “reform” bill last weekend that 1) requires every man, woman, and child in our country to purchase coverage from a corporate health insurance provider for the rest of our lives; 2) does not allow states to craft their own public, single-payer option; 3) protects patents for many of the most important drugs of the future from ever expiring and allowing the manufacture and sale of less expensive generics; and 4) denies coverage for vital and legal medical procedures to the population which needs them most.

We can only hope that the Senate introduces sufficient additional horrors into this bill to assure its failure. In other words, the best health care reform we can hope for now is no health care reform. Because this is not reform. This is Disaster Capitalism at its worst, a huge windfall for the corporatocracy, paid for by the poor and the middle class, yet again.

Klein’s book lays out the pattern and policy of torture—physical, social, and economic—pursued by the corporatocracy, and abetted by their minions in the government, since the end of World War II. The goal: to enrich the few at the expense of the many. And it has been working like a charm, in case you hadn’t noticed. Her book, thoroughly supported with references, is an eye opener of extraordinary proportions. No one who reads it will ever feel the same about our country. And having turned its last page and set it down, you will be forced with a choice: hope or despair.

I still believe there is hope. However, it must manifest itself soon in real action by the American people to reclaim our national ideals. If we aren’t up to the task, more than this nation will suffer the consequences. Our species will self-destruct, and those surviving will not miss us.
tags: Governance

Czar This!

Jun 06, 2009
The Obama administration should stop calling people czars: the drug czar,1 the cyber czar,2 the Great Lakes czar,3 the pay czar,4 the car czar.5 By some accounts, there are now 20 or more “czars” running around Washington,6 czaring it up and giving us all a false sense of security: After all, if a czar is in charge, something must be getting done.

There are at least two objections to the utilization of this designation:

First, czars—and we are speaking of the real thing now—were among the most despicable villains in history, whether we called them czars, kaisers, or, to go back to the original, Caesar himself. The Russian czars (later deeming themselves emperors as well)—Ivan, Catherine, Peter, Alexander, Nicholas, et al.—were among the cruelest, greediest, and most self-indulgent monarchs in the unhappy human panoply of absolute rulers.

And in that “absolute” lies the second objection. Czars were absolute rulers, with life-and-death power over their wretched populations, subject to no checks and balances to their boundless presumptions. Our czars, in contrast, are frauds, holding little or no power over even their carefully delimited corner of the political world. They are straw men (and notice they are all men, nary a czarina in sight), propped up to deflect attention from the real center of power (the Oval Office) and to give the impression, as noted above, that powerful forces are at work cutting through the red tape and bureaucracy of the normal D.C. slough to bring swift and certain resolution to knotty problems of policy and politics, when nothing could be further from the truth. They are, rather, mere P.R. bandaids slapped onto wounds too complicated and difficult of resolution for us to contemplate in the light of day. Turn those wounds over to a czar, however, and we can all rest easy.

If only it were that simple, and if only czars—ever champions of the status quo—could be counted on to foster change for the common good.
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1 US drug czar calls for end of “war on drugs,” by Andy Sullivan, from Reuters, Jun 5, 2009, accessed, as all notes in this item, Jun 6, 2009.
2 Obama Set to Create “Cyber Czar” Position, by Siobhan Gorman and Yochi J. Dreazen, from the Wall Street Journal, May 29, 2009.
3 President Obama names Great Lakes czar to oversee cleanup efforts, by Tom Jackson, from the Sandusky Register Online, Jun 6, 2009.
4 All Bow to the Pay Czar, by Caitlin McDevitt, from Reuters, Jun 5, 2009.
5 Barney Frank: Car Czar, from the Wall Street Journal, Jun 5, 2009.
6 Here a Czar, there a Czar, everywhere a Czar Czar..., from TheCitizen.com, undated.
tags: Governance

Memorial Day

May 25, 2009
Make no mistake. We are on the wrong track. This is no lone voice crying in the wilderness. Eighty-two percent of Americans during the last year of the Bush Administration1 and 56 percent of Americans still today2 agree.

The formation of a new political party is an idea that can only be entertained in the most extreme of circumstances. When a people’s elected representatives have ceased to represent the people; when inequities in opportunity, education, and income have metastasized beyond anything ever tolerated by a free society; when basic guarantees of liberty such as due process and an independent judiciary have been set aside in the name of expedience and fear; when a global economic system is crippled by a corporatocracy answerable only to itself; when military solutions are applied to social, political, and economic problems which military solutions cannot solve; and when an imbalance of such startling proportions raises the executive branch not only above the other two branches but above the rule of law itself;

Then, the contemplation of a new political party, one which engages the best wisdom of both conservative and liberal traditions; which invokes the wise counsels of our brilliant Founders; which, for all the abominations we have visited upon the colored races of the earth, yet understands the special nature of America’s origins and our purpose; the contemplation of such a new political party becomes not only a daring leap of faith but an urgent necessity in the face of an intolerable status quo.

With the waning of the Republican Party and the unwillingness of the Democratic Party to answer to the demands or to meet the needs of the people, the time has come for the formation of a new political party. We encourage the legions of individuals, groups, organizations, and interests who today are working for a strong, sane, and compassionate America to band together to form a political party in support of a new breed of candidate, one devoted to harnessing the promise and power of America for the betterment of all humanity.

This is our right and our responsibility. This is the time. The future awaits our courage.
____________________
1 Bush Hits New Low as “Wrong Track” Rises, by Gary Langer, from ABC News, May 12, 2008, accessed May 24, 2009.
2 Three in Five Americans Give President Obama’s Job Performance Positive Ratings (.pdf, 6 pp. 323Kb) from a Harris Poll, May 21, 2009, accessed May 24, 2009.
tags: Governance

The End of America

May 24, 2009
I have just finished a short (155-page) book which every American should read: The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot,1 by Naomi Wolf2. This “Citizen’s Call to Action” painstakingly documents the ten steps nations take toward what Wolf terms a “fascist shift.”

She sets forth examples of the worst regimes of the 20th century: Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, Mussolini’s Italy (where fascism was invented), and Pinochet’s Chile. Then, in ten central chapters, Wolf shows how America is following in the footsteps of those regimes every step of the way:





  1. Invoke an External and Internal Threat
  2. Establish Secret Prisons
  3. Develop a Paramilitary Force
  4. Surveil Ordinary Citizens
  5. Infiltrate Citizens’ Groups
  6. Arbitrarily Detain and Release Citizens
  7. Target Key Individuals
  8. Restrict the Press
  9. Cast Criticism as “Espionage” and Dissent as “Treason”
  10. Subvert the Rule of Law
Her examples are documented in 14 pages of endnotes. The actions and positions America has taken since 9/11—and continues to take in the Obama administration— parallel in a stark and irrefutable manner the worst extremes of the regimes that brought us the bloodiest century in human history. Her call to action is a nondenominational one:
[W]e on the left must snap out of our “it’s-all-the-WTO-the-two-parties-are-the-same” torpor; and we on the right must snap out of the “if America does it, it is right” torpor as well.

We all have to reengage in an old-fashioned commitment to democratic action and believe once again in an old-fashioned notion of the Republic. We need you to help lead a democracy movement in America like the ones that have toppled repressive regimes overseas.

We can’t, as a nation, switch on the metaphorical iPod and go for a run, somehow expecting a magical shift in the winds.
In my view, the greatest political and social danger we face today is that due process and habeas corpus have become optional for the executive branch (see #10 above). The Bush administration established and the Obama administration has preserved3 the notion that anyone—American citizen or otherwise—may be arrested and imprisoned forever with no access to a lawyer or to family and with no trial, on the president’s sole authority. If this idea doesn’t scare the pants off you, well, it is probably because you think you are a good American and it can’t happen to you.

You, above all others, need to read this book.
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1 The End of America at Amazon.com, accessed May 24, 2009.
2 Naomi Wolf, from Wikipedia, accessed May 24, 2009.
3 Obama’s Detention Plans Face Scrutiny, by Evan Perez, from the Wall Street Journal, May 22, 2009, accessed May 24, 2009.
tags: Governance

Earmarks

May 07, 2009
According to Wikipedia, “In US politics, an earmark is a congressional provision that directs approved funds to be spent on specific projects or that directs specific exemptions from taxes or mandated fees.”1

Earmarks are a subject politicians love to go on about when they are attacking the other side; however, they are an equal opportunity provision protected by the appropriations privilege granted to the legislative branch in the Constitution (Art. 1, Sec. 9). Earmarks circumvent the usual procedures involved with federal allocations of funds, including congressional debate (although requested earmarks are not always received), competitive bidding, and Executive branch oversight of expenditures. Until recently, congressional legislators could anonymously request and receive these special appropriations; since the 110th Congress (2007-2008), they have had to post their requests on their web sites.

Earmarks, or “pork,” as they are usually referred to in the media, constitute about two percent of the federal budget—not terribly significant, but neither is it a trivial figure. We wrote about earmarks last September at The Problem with Pork, where we said, “[T]he waste of a three-trillion-dollar mistake in Iraq dwarfs the cumulative effect of a hundred years’ worth of earmarks.”

In April, 2009, New Hampshire representative Paul Hodes introduced H.R. 2038 (linked via GovTrack.us), which would “prohibit an authorized committee of a candidate who is a Member of Congress from accepting contributions from any entity for which the Candidate sought a Congressional earmark.” The bill seeks to disconnect earmarks from campaign contributions, which, to the extent they are connected, could well (and should) expose a legislator to the charge of accepting bribes. The bill has been referred to committee (the House Committee on House Administration). The majority of bills never make it out of committee. We will be watching this one and, should some version of it be enacted into law, we will post it on Happy Daze.

Meanwhile, with an assist from Know Thy Congressman, which provides information on the number of earmarks requested and received by each congressional member (and the total amounts involved), and a trip to members’ websites, here are some data regarding our congressional delegation. If you would like to compile data regarding yours, send it to us, and we will add it to this posting.

Vermont
Sen. Patrick Leahy: 109 earmarks requested ($458M); 93 received ($221M)
Sen. Leahy’s FY2010 requests: About 120 ($Many Millions).
A hat tip to Bill Allison at Real Time Investigations, a project of the Sunlight Foundation, for digging up these (and Sen. Sanders’s) requests. Their offices never got back to us after multiple requests.

Sen. Bernard Sanders: 44 earmarks requested ($325M); 40 received ($125M)
Sen. Sanders’s FY2010 requests: About 60 ($Many Millions).

Rep. Peter Welch: 24 earmarks requested ($38M); 24 received ($38M)
Rep. Welch’s FY 2010 requests: 29 projects (c.$29M)

The Sunlight Foundation has provided a visualization of earmarks from 2005, which will show you how they were proportionally distributed that year among the states, among federal agencies, and among recipient organization types (for-profit, non-profit, etc.).

Are earmarks pork? When they are used as a means of rewarding a constituent for their support, they are worse than pork, they are a crime. If they award projects to specified contractors without competitive bidding, they may be circumventing rather strict federal regulations. If, however, the earmarks support intelligent, forward-looking projects which benefit all or a large segment of a state’s population, supporting economic, social, and environmental progress, then we may say earmarks constitute one important, and constitutionally legitimate method by which the country’s business is conducted.

Earmarks are probably here to stay. H.R. 2038 and other measures must ensure that they are employed appropriately and for the common good.
____________________
1 Earmarks (politics), from Wikipedia, accessed May 5, 2009.
tags: Governance

Flashbacks

May 06, 2009
Two previous ATN items came to mind this week, as further developments transpired in each.

In It Can Happen Here; It Is Happening Here back in September 2008, we highlighted the extreme secrecy of the Bush Administration and noted how that secrecy, combined with the unholy alliance and mutual dependence of government and industry, threatened to morph our free democracy into a fascist state. Paranoid conspiracy theory? Perhaps. However, since then, there are at least three disturbing developments that continue to lead us in that direction:

  • The Obama administration persists in invoking the state secrets privilege to quash judicial proceedings against long-term detainees. Our independent judiciary, surprisingly enough, appears to be finally taking a stand against this abuse of power.1
  • A U.S. Army unit (the Infantry Unit’s 1st Brigade Team) has been training for domestic operations since at least last October. The Army Times newspaper initially reported the unit “may be called upon to help with civil unrest and crowd control,” and later issued a “clarification,” saying, “This response force will not be called upon to help with law enforcement, civil disturbance or crowd control.” Read more about the issue on Democracy Now.2
  • This week, the Washington Post reported that a domestic facility, the Murtha Airport in Johnstown, PA, has been “upgraded” to the tune of $30 million in order to “handle behemoth military aircraft and store combat equipment for rapid deployment to foreign battlefields.”3 With over 700 military bases in foreign lands, 38 of them considered large or medium-sized,4 it is difficult to understand the necessity of storing additional major weapons systems in the heart of the heartland for overseas deployment.
Between these revelations and the worrisome aspects of the Patriot Act regarding domestic surveilliance, one can only wonder whether our government is developing contingency plans to stifle dissent by military force.

* * *

On a brighter front, the speculations in R.I.P. G.O.P. are appearing less speculative all the time. This once-proud party of Honest Abe, T.R., and Ike, has, since the era of Nixon and the “southern strategy,” been co-opted by the lunatic fringe at the far right of American political discourse. The party’s inability to shake loose from the extremism represented by the Grover Norquist mentality5 is rapidly turning them into a fringe party. Recent developments haven’t helped them:
  • Arlen Specter (R-PA), fearing defeat in a Republican primary next year, followed 200,000 of his constituents to the Democratic Party. Should Al Franken ultimately be seated—which looks increasingly likely—the Republicans will lose their ability to kill legislation through the filibuster.
  • In the heavily Republican 20th congressional district in New York, Democrat Scott Murphy narrowly defeated Republican James Tedisco in a race for the seat vacated by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who was named to replace Hillary Clinton as New York’s junior senator.6
  • Republicans come third in party preference polls, after Independents and Democrats.6
  • Only 23 percent of voters self-identify as Republicans, down from 30 percent six years ago. Meanwhile, during that same period, while those identifying themselves as Democrats crept up from 33 to 35 percent, self-identified Independents matched, in reverse, the Republican slide, increasing their numbers from 30 to 36 percent, advancing ahead of both parties.7
Have we had enough of mismanagement, towering deficits, runaway and futile militarism, corporate malfeasance, and rampant and crippling inequality, such that the party that was primarily responsible for bringing on all this may be fading from the political landscape, as the solidly centrist Obama Democrats capture the imagination and fealty of the people?

As the number of Independents indicates, that centrism is not good enough for millions of us who would advocate for greater systemic change in American politics. It is time for America to take the leadership in crafting a just, equitable, peaceful, and democratic world. The era of dog-eat-dog competition is over and the time has come to harness capitalism for the benefit of a new, cooperative, agenda favoring an end to the specter of nuclear winter, vast global inequality, and environmental degradation.

Today’s administration represents the viewpoint of the American center. The Republicans are fading into a grumbling fringe. The time is ripe for a new political party advocating higher and grander ideals that are technologically feasible and urgently needed in the face of all our challenges. The problem is how to forge those Independents—now in the majority—into that party. Ideas?
____________________
1 Overusing “state secrets privilege,” Editorial from the Los Angeles Times, May 2, 2009, accessed May 2, 2009.
2 Is Posse Comitatus Dead? US Troops on US Streets, from Democracy Now, Oct 7, 2008, accessed May 2, 2009.
3 Murtha Airport Got Military Upgrades, by Carol D. Leonnig, from the Washington Post, Apr 30, 2009, accessed May 2, 2009.
4 737 U.S. Military Bases = Global Empire, by Chalmers Johnson, from AlterNet.org, Feb 19, 2007, accessed May 2, 2009.
5 Grover Norquist, from Wikipedia, accessed May 2, 2009.
6 The Republican Party needs a leadership shake-up at all levels, by John LeBoutillier, from newsday.com, Apr 30, 2009, accessed May 2, 2009.
7 GOP Party Identification Slips Nationwide and in Pennsylvania, from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, Apr 29, 2009, accessed May 2, 2009.
tags: Governance

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.
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1 Income, Expenditures, Poverty & Wealth: Household Income, from the U.S. Census Bureau, accessed Apr 25, 2009.
tags: 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: Governance

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: Governance

Two Americas

Mar 30, 2009
We live in two Americas now.

In the first, a few people take home in one year far, far more than you and all your neighbors put together will earn in your entire lifetime of work. These lucky few own many homes and, if asked just how many in an unguarded moment, may not even be able to recall the correct number. They jet between their homes in luxurious private or chartered aircraft, and their primary care physicians are affiliated with no HMO and you may be sure they still make house calls. These people have bought, paid for, and own the government and, when they screw up, their government does everything it can to prevent their suffering the consequence of their blunders.

The other America is in thrall to this First America. They (we should say “we”) live within a narrow and shrinking range of incomes, from those of us able to save something toward our children’s education and our own retirement, to those who live from payday loan to payday loan, and whose meagre minimum wage is under constant assault from First America's inducements to shop, gamble, drink, play, and borrow. Though both Americas have shared a recent decline in their net worth, ours is catastrophic and essentially uncushioned by government assistance; theirs affects their lifestyles not one whit, and their government is bankrupting itself, and us, to minimize their losses.

The First America is a parasitic America whose parasitism has been perfected over the past thirty years and is now so thoroughly interwoven in our society and our economy as to be virtually inextricable from the body politic. It has done a wonderful job of frightening those whom its educational system has rendered stupid, has co-opted many others, and ignores the rest of us since, for all our bluster, what, after all, can we do when the foxes own the henhouse?

Parasites, of course, eventually kill their hosts, and First America will be no different. If this crisis doesn’t do it—and none of the more dire indicators has improved in Obama’s first months in office—then the next one will.

As we asked in last Thursday’s entry, how could we have come to such a pass? There are scores, if not hundreds, of organizations opposed to the road down which our hapless nation is traveling. There are dozens of eloquent voices in opposition to the corporate takeover of America. However, like the blind men and the elephant, they are each involved in a separate piece of the problem and their efforts are uncoordinated.

Our nation’s salvation lies in finding, funding, and electing a new generation of untouchable politicians to represent all the people and our aspirations for a just and equitable society, for an end to militarism, for a return to the principals and ideals that will restore us to our place at the forefront of the struggle to bring freedom from oppression and want to all the peoples of the world. To that end, we must bring all those organizations and voices together as one. They all have their fervid constituents, and together we can take back America.

Divided, we haven’t a chance.
tags: Governance

Down the Garden Path

Mar 26, 2009

There is no doubt the government is taking a risk. The question is how best to do it.
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner1

Recipe for disaster: Induce Joe Hedgefund to buy a package of mortgages for more than they are worth by loaning him over 90 percent of the purchase price, and require no security on the loan except for the real estate behind those mortgages. If Joe subsequently concludes his heavily leveraged purchases aren’t increasing in worth fast enough to justify the scheduled payback, he will default on the loan, we get the white elephant real estate, and he walks away scot free. Sound familiar? It is more or less what has happened—and is happening— to millions of hapless homeowners over the past decade with one crucial difference—the latter are being foreclosed upon and rendered homeless.

The banks that do agree to sell their toxic paper at a 50 percent discount will enjoy a huge infusion of cash which, paradoxically, will leave them even poorer, having to write off the other 50 percent. This will require them to increase their cash reserves (with the sale money), reinforcing their reluctance to start lending again, which was the putative reason for adopting this meshugener scheme in the first place. If we are misreading the Times story referenced below, please write and tell us how.

Because if we are not, you are about to witness the greatest plundering of the public coffers in the history of the world. The trillion plus the government is ready to hand out to a handful of rogue banks will represent a redistribution of wealth that will make the cash sucked to the top during the last thirty years look like chump change.

And the money is coming from everywhere, including the TALF2 program, initially designed to make loans to real people and real businesses. Yet another trillion may be plundered from there.

Meanwhile, the interest rate on these loans has not been set and the question of how the American people will profit “if the troubled assets rise in value above the prices paid to acquire them” has also not been made clear. Neither interest rate nor rising property values will much matter, however, in a scenario that will probably see all that money disappear into a half a dozen banks, with little or no effect on the credit freeze.

They have fed us their bread and paraded their circuses before us, and we have gone, willing sheep, to the slaughter of our own best interests. Millions have lost their homes. We have all lost a large chunk of our retirement savings. The best and the brightest of our children, burdened by usurious and inescapable student loans, will work their entire lives for the corporatocracy. And our grandchildren’s financial security is now being stolen by these closed-door, weekend decisions that cost us trillions with every new-hatched scheme.

In the matter of the initial bank and A.I.G. bailouts, the Obama administration could credibly plead to no greater crime than accessory after the fact. They have no such defense this time around. Who could have imagined that we would come to such a pass?
____________________
1 U.S. Expands Plan to Buy Banks' Troubled Assets, by Edmund L. Andrews and Eric Dash, from the New York Times, Mar 23, 2009, accessed Mar 24, 2009.
2 Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility, if you really want to know.
tags: Governance

A Trillion Here, A Trillion There

Mar 25, 2009
The $780 billion in bank bailouts and the $180 billion in the A.I.G. bailout having failed to deliver one degree of thaw to the credit freeze, the government will now step in and supply up to $1 trillion to purchase bad mortgages and related paper—the famous “toxic assets”—from those same institutions which have been so busy incurring our impotent wrath by distributing big bonuses from our wallets.1

The $1 trillion will be made available as loans to hedge funds and other cowboy financial investment institutions, providing them with up to 97 percent of the money necessary to purchase, at auction, packages of these troubled assets. The buyers won’t be required to put up any collateral other than the toxic assets themselves, and the government refuses to say how much interest they will charge the investors or reveal other details of the plan. The potential payoff—interest on the loans and participation in the profits from resales—could be many years down the road.

To date, investors haven’t been willing to pay more than about 30 cents on the dollar for these assets, and the banks haven’t been willing to sell them for less than 60 cents. The banks’ participation in this plan will be voluntary, so it is difficult to see how a significant portion of the assets will change hands, even when the buyers are purchasing them with borrowed money (ours). It is also difficult to believe that even if the banks do get these assets off their books that they will suddenly be willing to start performing their primary function of granting loans as opposed to bucking up their reserves, adding to their empires through the purchase of smaller and even more troubled institutions, handing out more bonuses, etc., etc., which is all the bailout money has prompted them to do. (Note to Obama: Why not take the $1 trillion and start making low-interest loans direct to the individuals and businesses that need them rather than handing over all that cash to the same reckless gamblers who landed us in this economic hellhole?)

Meanwhile, Glass-Stegall, like Generalissimo Francisco Franco, is still dead. And no significant regulation legislation is pending before either house of Congress. The foxes (Summers, Geithner) are still in charge of the henhouse, transparency continues to elude an administration which has gone hoarse guaranteeing it, and if there is a light at the end of this tunnel, let us hope it is not the 3:10 from Yuma, bearing down on what little remains of our hopes, our dreams, and our 401k’s.
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1 Toxic Asset Plan Foresees Big Subsidies for Investors, by Edmund L. Andrews, Eric Dash, and Graham Bowley, from the New York Times, Mar 20, 2009, accessed Mar 22, 2009.
tags: Governance

Ruining Your Health

Mar 18, 2009
Health insurance is so expensive that 46 million Americans (15 percent of us) can’t afford it. The government provides it at a deep discount for many millions of others who are elderly, disabled, or veterans.

Health insurance expends huge amounts on administrative costs and profit-taking, far more than the government does in managing Medicare and Medicaid.

Health insurance costs as much as it does because the companies that offer it spend large amounts of money trying to avoid covering people likely to need coverage and fighting to avoid paying for the services required by those who have it.

Health insurance is history in the rest of the industrialized world, where single-payer universal health coverage has been happily in place for as long as 60 years.

So of course the change artists in our current administration are backing a very clever idea for providing universal health care: require everyone to have health insurance.

Obama’s recent health care conference was not even going to include a single voice for single-payer, until the outcry was so loud that Representative Conyers was invited. Still, you will find little or no mention of this rational solution in the news media. The blackout is all but complete (except on Democracy Now, of course1).

The element in Obama’s plan most likely to provide real relief for Americans—the devising of a national health insurance provider to compete with private insurers—is almost certain to go down in defeat, despite the fact that over 70 percent of Americans favor it2,3. And we will be left with a system that costs employers more, that costs the insured more, that continues a vastly inefficient and inequitable system, and that will leave more, not fewer, Americans uninsured.
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1 As Obama Hosts Summit on Healthcare, Marginalized Advocates Ask Why Single Payer Is Ignored, from Democracy Now, Mar 6, 2009. All notes accessed Mar 12, 2009.
2 Poll Excludes Single-Payer Healthcare; Respondents Implicitly Endorse It Anyway, by Jerry Policoff, from OpEd News, Mar 12, 2009
3 Poll: 73% of Voters Think Health Care Reform Must Include Choice of a Public Health Insurance Plan, by Robert Creamer, from the Huffington Post, Mar 10, 2009
tags: Governance

Scot Free

Mar 17, 2009
Bernard Madoff lived in his penthouse apartment for several months following his confession to masterminding what is probably the biggest single-handed swindle in history.1

Bank executives at Merrill Lynch pulled in $3.6 billion in bonuses in 2008, a year when the firm lost $27 billion and was sold at bargain basement rates soon after the checks cleared.2

And Jose Padilla, U.S. citizen, was kidnapped, incarcerated, and tortured—excuse us, interrogated harshly—for three and a half years before he was turned over to the legal system and, ultimately, sentenced to 17 years in prison.3

Now, the individuals responsible for that, from Bush on down, as well as those responsible for Abu Ghraib, extraordinary rendition, waterboarding, destruction of evidence, and domestic warrantless wiretapping are about to get the same kid glove treatment Bernie and the boys and girls at Merrill Lynch received. They are about to be whitewashed through a “Truth Commission” in the Senate, led by Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy, which will probably immunize most of the players in order to get their testimony, rendering them free of the threat of prosecution.

And prosecution is what these people deserve and must receive, if we are to look ahead to a nation once again of laws and not of men (or, rather, one man). Until they are prosecuted, we remain in Bush/Cheney territory, regardless of who is in the White House. It is clear from Leahy’s manner, halting over his lukewarm and canned announcement,4 that he is out of touch with the will of the people.

Indeed, the Obama administration has failed to take one principled stand against the enormities of the Bush administration’s destruction of the U.S. Constitution. Instead, we merely hear what we heard from Bush: “The U.S. does not torture.”

Meanwhile, Guantanamo remains open, with worse things happening there than ever;5 the administration continues to scuttle legal proceedings by invoking specious “state secret” privileges;6 international kidnappings and transport to third countries (renditions) are not off the table.7 Sadly, we could go on and on.

This is not change. This is not an administration we can believe in. And we are saddened even more to see our own senator leading a toothless panel of inquiry that may very well render many of the worst villains in American history beyond the reach of the law.
____________________
1 Madoff’s Future: Where the Case Is Likely to Go, Steven M. Davidoff, from the New York Times, Mar 11, 2009, accessed. as were all notes in this item, Mar 11, 2009
2 Nearly 700 at Merrill in Million-Dollar Club, by Michael J. de la Merced and Louise Story, from the New York Times, Feb 11, 2009
3 Padilla Sentence to 17 Years in Prison, by Kirk Semple, from the New York Times, Jan 22, 2008
4 Lawmakers Debate Establishing “Truth Commission” on Bush Admin Torture, Rendition and Domestic Spying, from Democracy Now, March 5, 2009
5 Administration Draws Fire for Report on Guantanamo, by William Glaberson, from the New York Times, Feb 23, 2009
6 Obama Backs Off a Reversal on Secrets, by John Schwartz, from the New York Times, Feb 9, 2009
7 Obama’s Interview Aboard Air Force One, from the New York Times, Mar 7, 2009
tags: Governance

Bob and IRV

Mar 13, 2009
We wrote about Burlington, VT, progressive mayor Bob Kiss in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang on Feb 12. He was in a tough five-way race for a second term, despite the fact that he had a sterling first term in Burlington. He didn’t raise taxes in two of his three years in office, and he presided over an economy that saw much bigger wage gains and private-sector employment increases than the rest of the state. Nevertheless, credible Republican, Democrat, and Independent candidates all ran against Kiss. One can imagine the Democrat and, perhaps, Independent candidates acting as spoilers for Kiss’s candidacy, helping the Republican into office. Nevertheless, Kiss won by a majority 51.5 percent versus 48.5 percent.1

How so, you say, with five candidates? It was thanks to the wonder of Instant Runoff Voting, or IRV, which was applied for the second time in the Burlington election. With IRV, voters not only pick the candidate of their choice, they also state a second-place preference. When the votes are first counted, if no candidate wins a majority, IRV kicks in. The candidate with the lowest number of votes is dropped from the race and, in the recount, the stronger candidates retain their first-place votes and also pick up a vote for the ballots from the dropped candidates where they were listed as the second choice. In this way, Kiss, who polled 28 percent of the vote to the Republican’s 32 percent in the first round, picked up enough of the second-place votes from the Democrat’s and other ballots through successive rounds of instant runoff counts to win the majority.

IRV not only avoided the spoiler effect, it also conveyed a second blessing on the campaign. Fearful of losing the second-choice status on votes cast for their opponents, the campaigners were careful to conduct a civil, respectful campaign that managed to focus on the issues and not on personalities.

Both Obama and his erstwhile opponent McCain have come out in support of Instant Runoff Voting, which has been around in Australia and Ireland for years and is now spreading throughout the U.S.

Congratulations to Bob Kiss, and to the voters of Burlington for their farsighted wisdom in adopting the eminently sensible IRV.
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1 Kiss re-elected by narrow margin, by John Briggs, from the Burlington Free Press, reprinted on FairVote, accessed Mar 8, 2009.
tags: Governance

Talking to the Taliban

Mar 11, 2009
The Taliban stone people to death. They harbored bin Laden while he hatched his lunatic scheme that succeeded so well. They blew up those ancient giant buddhas that stood watch over the Bamyan Valley for so many centuries. They are particularly fearful of women and when they were calling the shots in Afghanistan for a few years in the mid- to late-90s, they would not let women be treated for medical problems, let alone pursue an education.

Now, a New York Times story1 is floating the notion of talking to the Taliban, or at least to portions of it which we believe can be split off from the more militant and intransigent elements. It is worrisome to read that the administration’s thoughts on the matter are just as inchoate and hesitant as their cogitations regarding Iraq and the fiscal situation. Good intentions and a refreshingly revised estimation of America’s place in the world are no substitute for a firm sense of purpose and a clear direction in times of extraordinary crisis. Look for others to soon begin tossing around words like “floundering” and “waffling” when describing the new administration’s lack of resolve and public head-scratching over the admittedly intractable challenges it faces.

The problem, in our eyes, is not that the administration is incapable of seeing its way clear to taking a proper position in the face of its challenges. Rather, the facts of Realpolitik2 in this day of the ascendant corporatocracy argue that militarism and corporate profit must be the first consideration of an administration and legislative body that owe their very existence and makeup to those elements. And so the banks are isolated from their blunders while the people line up at the unemployment office; and our children continue to suffer and die for another useless 18 months while $200 billion more is squeezed out of a war lacking any definable tactic, strategy, or point.

But talk? Of course. Talk to anyone who will talk to us. Talk all day. Talk all night. When you are talking to someone, you are almost never shooting at them, and that can only be a good thing. Because war is not the answer, it is never the answer, unless the question is one of survival.
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1 Dreaming of Splitting the Taliban, by Helene Cooper, from the New York Times, Mar 7, 2009, accessed Mar 7, 2009
2 Realpolitik, from Wikipedia, accessed Mar 7, 2009.
tags: Governance

Hey, Buddy, Can You Spare a Job?

Mar 10, 2009
How do 2,789,000 job losses over the past seven months morph into 3,460,000? Well, we couldn’t say, exactly, but they did. Every month since August 2008, the Labor Department has revised its initial announcement of job losses, and the revisions have always been higher, on average by 112,000.1 You would think that the obviously imperfect art of calculating job losses, if conducted in anything like an atmosphere of political neutrality, would occasionally be too high initially, and subsequently be revised downward. Such is not the case recently, however, and on March 6, 2009, we found ourselves with 671,000 more of us out of work than was initially reported.

However you explain the rocky path to calculating unemployment, we are losing a half a million jobs a month on average, and more than 650,000 a month over the last quarter. “These jobs aren’t coming back,” opines John Silvia, chief economist at Wachovia.2 “A lot of production either isn’t going to happen at all, or it’s going to happen somewhere other than the United States. There are going to be fewer stores, fewer factories, fewer financial services operations.”

We are in a perfect storm of collapse. Businesses have no access to the lifeblood of credit in the face of the banking industry’s self-destruction and the ineffectiveness of the trillions in federal handouts and guarantees. Millions of unemployed cinch their belts another notch, and those who are still pulling a paycheck save more of it in order to bolster their decimated retirement accounts. Spending declines precipitously (17 million cars sold in 2007 and are now selling at an annual pace of 9 million).2 As spending declines, more businesses lay off more workers, spending declines further, and where does it end? If allowed to continue, nowhere pretty.

Let’s do some math. Assume there are five million people seeking work. If the government provided a job for all of them at the average weekly wage of $615.00,3 it would cost $3.075 billion a week, or $159.9 billion for one year (with much of it coming back as income tax and FICA). That is only 20 percent of the $785 billion stimulus package (universally acknowledged to be inadequate), and way less than the government has lavished on the banks to no apparent purpose. And jobs—not hedge funds, collateralized debt obligations, investment banker bonuses, unemployment compensation extensions, tax credits for home improvements, or subsidized COBRA premiums—jobs are the bedrock of any economy. Getting money into people’s pockets next week: This is where the administration should be focused.

Or this vicious circle we find ourselves in will widen, accelerate, and take us all down.
____________________
1 Will Job Numbers Keep Being Revised Down?, by Floyd Norris, from the New York Times, Mar 6, 2009, accessed Mar 7, 2009.
2 Job Losses Hint at Vast Remaking of Economy, by Peter S. Goodman and Jack Healy, from the New York Times, Mar 6, 2009, accessed Mar 7, 2009
3 The Labor Picture in February, from the New York Times, Mar 6, 2009, accessed Mar 7, 2009
tags: Governance

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

Mar 09, 2009
During the campaign, it was 16 months and we’re outta there! Last week it was 18 months (on top of the one that has passed already, for a grand total of 19) and we’re outta there!1 The long national nightmare of a misbegotten military adventure, founded on a lie, costing 35,000+ casualties2 and three trillion dollars, mismanaged for six endless years, would finally be over.

All right, we were patient. We were coming to understand that this was a careful, deliberate, thoughtful president, unlike the loose cannon that had been caroming off the Oval Office walls for the past eight years. If he wanted to extend combat operations all the way to August 2010, what the hey, we would be patient and see how it went.

Then our brain kicked in. That additional detail in the Obama plan which would leave 35-50,000 troops in Iraq with combat capability after the end of “combat operations ” in August 2010 did not quite scan on our logic receptors. Furthermore, whoever heard of unilaterally setting a schedule for the end of a war a year and a half in advance? The fact that we can pretend to do so reveals just what a phony war this is. And what have we not accomplished in six years that we hope—or need—to accomplish in the next 18 months? No one has told us. And if we are still going to be fighting in 18 months, how can we possibly hope to put up a good front with fewer than a third of our present contingent, when that contingent has been inadequate to the task so far?

Our inevitable conclusions fill us with fear and trembling: As in their responses to the collapse of the world’s economies, so in the matter of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the present administration is floundering, directionless, and fully as oblivious to the needless suffering and the clear will of the people as the past one. Its proffered solutions so far lack both boldness and sufficient adequacy of scope.

The only thing we have to fear is the fearfulness of the administration itself, which “paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” What are they afraid of? Of failure. Of angering their corporate paymasters. Of admitting the error even of the error-ridden ways of their predecessors. And so their reactions to these crises are meek, inadequate, temporizing, and ultimately doomed to failure.

How desperately we hope we are wrong!
____________________
1 6 Years In, Troops Glimpse Real Path Out of Iraq, by Steven Lee Myers, from the New York Times, Mar 6, 2009, accessed Mar 7, 2009.
2 Iraq Coalition War Casualties, accessed Mar 7, 2009
tags: Governance

Setting the Agenda

Mar 03, 2009
We pass on a recent email from Moveon.Org regarding Obama’s budget. The cards are on the table; the battle is about to be joined; your children’s future rests in the balance. Here is what MoveOn has to say:

Want to see what change looks like? Real change?

Well, here it is. Last week, President Obama unveiled his budget—his blueprint for America— and it’s ambitious, amazing, and unapologetically progressive. As Paul Krugman said, it will set America on a “fundamentally new course.”1

President Obama called his budget “a threat to the status quo,” and trust me, the status quo noticed. Oil companies, big banks and insurance companies are already mobilizing to stop it.2

Unfortunately, most folks don’t realize how far-reaching and progressive the plan is—that’s where we all come in.

Here are 10 really incredible things about Obama’s plan. Check them out and then send them on to your friends and family so that millions of people will have the information they need to fight to make this vision a reality.

10 things you should know about Obama’s plan, but probably don’t

The plan:
  1. Makes a $634 billion down payment on fixing health care that will go a long way toward paying for a more efficient, more affordable health care system that covers every single American.3
  2. Reduces taxes for 95% of working Americans. And if your family makes less than $250,000, your taxes won’t go up one dime.4
  3. Invests more than $100 billion in clean energy technology, creating millions of green jobs that can never be outsourced.5
  4. Brings our troops home from Iraq on a firm timetable, finally bringing the war to a close—and freeing up almost ten billion dollars a month for domestic priorities.6
  5. Reverses growing income inequality. The plan lets the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans expire and focuses on strengthening the middle class.7
  6. Closes multi-billion-dollar tax loopholes for big oil companies.8
  7. Increases grants to help families pay for college—the largest increase ever.9
  8. Halves the deficit by 2013. President Obama inherited a legacy of huge deficits and an economy in shambles, but his plan brings the deficit under control as soon as the economy begins to recover.10
  9. Dramatically increases funding for the SEC and the CFTC—the agencies that police Wall Street.11
  10. Tells it straight. For years, budgets have used accounting tricks to hide the real costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Bush tax cuts, and too many other programs. Obama’s budget gets rid of the smokescreens and lays out what America’s priorities are, what they cost, and how we’re going to pay for them.12
This is the change we voted for. President Obama has done his part, now we need to do ours.

Please pass this message on to your personal network.

Thanks for all you do,

—Daniel, Tanya, Peter, Justin, and the rest of the team

P.S. Turns out there are more than 10 amazing things in Obama’s budget and we couldn’t resist sharing just a few more.
  1. Stops unnecessary government subsidies to big banks, health insurance companies and big agribusinesses.13,14,15
  2. Expands access to early childhood education and expands schools by investing in programs that make sure every child has a qualified, strong teacher.16
  3. Negotiates for better prescription drug prices using Medicaid’s tremendous bargaining power.17
  4. Expands access to family planning for low-income women.18
  5. Caps the pollution that causes global warming, and makes polluters pay to support clean energy innovation.19
____________________
1 Climate of Change, The New York Times, February 27, 2009
2 Obama Calls His Budget Sweeping, Needed Change, The New York Times, February 28, 2009
3 Obama Offers Broad Plan to Revamp Health Care, The New York Times, February 26, 2009
4 Obama Expects Fight Over $3.55 Trillion Budget Plan, Bloomberg News, February 28, 2009
5 Energy Budget Is Sunlight After Eight Years of Darkness, Center for American Progress, February 26, 2009
6 The Economic Cost of War in Iraq and Afghanistan, The New York Times, March 1, 2009
7 Tax Cuts, The New York Times, February 26, 2009
8 Energy Budget Is Sunlight After Eight Years of Darkness, Center for American Progress, February 26, 2009
9 Student Loans, The New York Times, February 26, 2009
10 Obama unveils budget blueprint, CNN, February 26, 2009
11 Obama budget would books SEC, CFTC, FBI, Reuters, February 26, 2009
12 Obama’s budget, Los Angeles Times, February 27, 2009
13 Student Loans, The New York Times, February 26, 2009
14 Health Insurance Stocks Dive on Medicare Advantage Cuts, The Wall Street Journals, February 26, 2009
15 Agriculture, The New York Times, February 26, 2009
16 Investing Wisely in Our Children, Center for American Progress, February 26, 2009
17 Obama Offers Broad Plan to Revamp Health Care, The New York Times, February 26, 2009
18 Obama Offers Broad Plan to Revamp Health Care, The New York Times, February 26, 2009
19 Setting Green Goals, The New York Times, February 26, 2009
tags: Governance

The Bush Legacy of Shame

Feb 25, 2009

I’ll be long gone before some smart person ever figures out what happened inside this Oval Office.
President George W. Bush1

A government and its laws and regulations are the arrangements a people make in order to live in peace and prosperity with one another. Those arrangements may benefit the few, as in third world countries and the United States over the past thirty years, or they may be so arranged as to assure the greatest good for the greatest number, as in most modern Western European democracies and the rest of the English-speaking world.

The Bush Legacy: An assault on public protections from OMB Watch documents the shocking extent to which the Bush administration dismantled government and endangered the American people, for the purpose of advancing a failed political ideology while empowering the corporatocracy that today still retains its stranglehold on U.S. policy and procedures.

According to the report, the administration:
  • Watered down or repealed many Clinton-era regulations.
  • Filled regulatory positions with anti-regulatory ideologues taken from the industries they were charged with regulating.
  • Suppressed science and their own scientists when either interfered with right-wing ideology or threatened to increase safety regulations.
  • Issued a raft of “midnight regulations” in the closing weeks of their administration, most of them de-regulatory in nature. Though other administrations have issued such last-minute regs, few or none have issued such extensive numbers of them or have done so in such a cynical manner.
  • Fundamentally changed the method by which rules and regulations are generated by rule-making agencies, to the detriment of transparency and in the service of ideology over the regulatory responsibilities of the agencies.
  • Enabled a level of intimate association between the executive branch and special interests that a former Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security described as “almost incestuous.”
  • Under the pretense of national security, increased the level of secrecy in government to an extent never approached in the past, by weakening the Freedom of Information Act and deleting thousands of pages of information from the Internet.
  • Delayed regulatory action to the detriment of consumer and worker safety and endangered species, and, ultimately, caused the collapse of the global financial system.
  • Set up program assessment procedures which overrode congressional intent, advanced ideological ends, and penalized programs for following legal requirements.
  • Incapacitated government by slashing taxes, raising the deficit to historic levels, and exempting traditional avenues for the public to seek justice in cases of corporate malfeasance.
  • Disabled proper bidding and oversight of contractor services while vastly expanding the privatization of those services.
  • Left senior positions in many agencies vacant, or appointed unconfirmed interim personnel, effectively suspending agency operations.
  • Made so many appointments while the Senate was in recess, in an end run around the confirmation process, that the Senate was forced to remain in pro forma session to counter the procedure.
You will find it hard to believe much of this report (e.g., that the FDA continued to use a study it knew to be fraudulent in defending the release of a dangerous drug). It is all well documented and referenced, however.

The road back from a dangerously fascistic past eight years will be a long one. Tomorrow, we will propose one vehicle—call it a bandwagon—you may wish to climb aboard in order to begin that perilous and uncertain journey.
____________________
1 See the report referenced in the text above. All the quotations and contentions are scrupulously reference in footnotes.
tags: Governance

What’s It Worth to You?

Feb 24, 2009
We have recently noted with some despair the unfortunate tendency of state governors to jump at layoffs as the first, and too often only, remedy for budget problems.1 A recent report from the Pew Center on the States entitled Trade-Off Time: How Four States Continue to Deliver, shows that some states are applying far more savvy methods in order to get more bang from the taxpayer’s buck and to minimize layoffs and tax increases.

The featured states—Indiana, Maryland, Utah, and Virginia— are leading the nation in what would seem to be common sense methods of measuring the performances of government programs and using those measurements to determine where to concentrate their resources. As the man said, common sense isn’t all that common, especially in politics. Other states and, for that matter, families fretting over their own budget challenges, can take a lesson from the solid results these states have attained through careful evaluation of their programs:

  • “[T]he Virginia Department of Corrections replaced private food service contracts at several prisons when data showed that the services could be provided more cheaply in-house for a total annual savings of $851,000.” (So much for the wonders of privatization.)
  • With a far-seeing eye toward future crime and social service costs, Virginia also determined the cost-effectiveness of investing in prekindergarten.
  • Utah requires new programs to have measurable goals to gauge progress, and when those goals are not met, the program is killed or altered. A $300,000 program to help businesses recruit new employees was radically cut and retargeted when it failed to show measurable success.
  • Utah Governor Jon Huntsman challenged agencies to cut energy use 20 percent by 2015. The ensuing change to a four-day week with 10-hour days is expected to save the state $3 million in energy costs and save the employees $6 million in commuting expenses.
  • In Maryland, a statistical management system in Baltimore that generated $350 million in savings and won an Innovations on American Government Award from Harvard, has been expanded to the state level. Among other advantages, the state saved $1.5 million by closing an under-capacity juvenile justice detention center and transferring part of the funds to more effective community-based programs.
  • Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, a former director of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, has created a state-level version of the OMB that requires measurable goals from all government departments. Child services received additional funding when studies indicated the funds would lower instances of child abuse and neglect, and those goals are being carefully monitored. Other programs costing $1.5 million were cut because they did not provide explicit, measurable goals.
Not every government service is easily reducible to statistically measurable goals. Some, for instance the benefit of state subsidization of local libraries, is difficult to quantify, until such subsidies stop and local libraries cut staff, services, collections, and hours. Sometimes simple maintenance of the status quo is a measurable and desirable goal.

Nevertheless the idea of measuring the “Return on Investment” is a necessary and valuable one when contemplating any expenditure—federal, state, local, or around the kitchen table. Try it before your next discretionary purchase. If you can’t quantify the benefit, or, in the case of a jelly donut there is a negative benefit involved, maybe you will want to think twice about it.
____________________
1 The Golden Rule, Explained
tags: Governance

The Gathering Storm

Feb 23, 2009
Seventeen thousand more soldiers are bound for Afghanistan, to join the 36,000 already there.1 Sixty-one people were killed by unmanned drone aircraft attacks over three days last week in Pakistan.2 Twenty-thousand California state workers have received notice they may be losing their paychecks this spring, while thousands more are out of work starting today after 270 state-funded transportation projects were abruptly cancelled.3 And our new top spook, Dennis Blair, a man with an odious past,4 has decided the global economic crisis is more dangerous than terrorism and, if allowed to deepen, “would contribute to unrest and imperil some governments.”5

It is apparent that Obama has chosen the Colin Powell doctrine of overwhelming force over the Rumsfeld slam-bam-thank-you-ma’am army, and that a reign of terror is about befall another long-suffering people led by a corrupt puppet regime. It will last for years, millions will die, and the very best the most Pollyanna-ish among us can hope for at the end of it all is a mangled sort of status quo ante.

Simultaneously, domestic challenges are testing our people as they have not been tested since the 1930s and possibly since the Civil War. As the middle class failed to take the draft to their bosom in the 60s, they are going to be equally unsympathetic toward the disappearance of their wealth, the new and unwelcome experience of hunger, and the knowledge that they have lost their country to a rapacious plutocracy. One day soon, they will hear the bell, they will know for whom it tolls, and they will rise.

Meanwhile, the forces of repression are moving into place. An Army unit has been stationed inside the U.S. to control “civil unrest.”6 Protesters at the Republican Convention are being tried as terrorists.7 And a man whose priorities have never included deference to the hierarchy of command or squeamishness about slaughtering unarmed innocents huddled in a church,8 a man whose most pressing concern today is “unrest,” is at the head of our national intelligence network.

A perfect storm of militarism, domestic unrest, and the criminalization of dissent is gathering. If the spectre of fascism hovered over the Bush presidency, it has come to walk the earth in the second month of an administration swept to power on what are increasingly coming to appear to be fraudulent promises of hope and change.
____________________
1 Putting Stamp on Afghan War, Obama Will Send 17,000 Troops, by Helene Cooper, from the New York Times, February 17, 2009, accessed, as were other notes in today’s entry, on February 18, 2009
2 US Drone Attacks Kill 61 in Pakistan, from Democracy Now, February 16, 2009
3 Schwartzenegger set to sack 20,000 workers in California, from The Australian, February 18, 2009
4 Blair Denies Backing Indonesian Atrocities in East Timor, from Democracy Now, January 23, 2009
5 Global Economy Top Threat to U.S., Spy Chief Says, by Mark Mazzetti, from the New York Times, February 12, 2009
6 ACLU Seeks Answers on Reports of Domestic Army Deployment, from Democracy Now, October 22, 2008
7 RNC Protesters Tried on Terrorism Charges Despite Acknowledgment They Didn’t Commit Alleged Acts, from Democracy Now, February 18, 2009
8 Report: Intel Nominee Adm. Dennis Blair Knew of ’99 East Timor Church Killings Before Crucial Meeting, from Democracy Now, January 22, 2009
tags: Governance

Getting Ours

Feb 18, 2009
It is over 1,000 pages and we admit we haven’t read it all (who has?); however, the Obama stimulus package is probably law by now (we are writing this on Sunday, February 15, and Obama is expected to sign it on Tuesday). So you may be wondering the same thing we are: “What’s in it for me?” If you, like us, are among low- to moderate-income Americans, there is quite a lot in it for you, as well as for the states you live in, most of which are hurting badly. The people at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities have read it and and have offered the following summary1 of the high points for those of us who are suffering most. Click on the footnoted links to read more on each subject:

  • Provide Medicaid relief to the states: $89 billion over nine calendar quarters.2
  • Help state and local governments avert budget cuts: $39.5 for education budgets, $8.8 billion for other key services, and $5 billion in incentive grants.3
  • Education: $44.6 billion to the Department of Education for Title I, Special Education, Pell Grants, and other national educational assistance purposes.4
  • Unemployment Insurance: $25/week increase in unemployment benefits. Eighteen million people are expected to benefit from this provision.5
  • Child Care: $2 billion to states to subsidize child care for low-income working families or low-income families in which the parents are engaged in education or training.6
  • Child Support: $1 billion to suspend a 2006 provision that would have reduced this support by 20 percent.7
  • Training and Employment Services: $3.95 billion for job training and employment services for dislocated workers, youths, and adults.8
  • Food Stamp (or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance) Program: $20 billion, most of which ($19 billion) would be used to increase maximum food stamp benefits by 13.6 percent. Fourteen million households will benefit.9
  • Emergency Shelter Grant Program: $1.5 billion for states (25 percent) and localities (75 percent) for homelessness prevention, emergency shelters, and street outreach.10
  • Child Tax Credit: Lowering the income threshold for eligibility for this tax credit will essentially increase the benefit currently received in low-income families, as well as increase the numbers of eligible families. It is estimated this benefit will total approximately $14.8 billion.11.
  • Making Work Pay Tax Credit: No figure was provided for this centerpiece of the tax relief provision of the stimulus package. However, most workers not claimed as a dependent on someone else’s tax return will be eligible for a tax credit (reduction) of $400.12
Most independent economists (Stiglitz, Krugman, etc.) believe this stimulus package is about one-third as large as it needs to be in order to be effective. It is nevertheless being widely characterized as “the largest economic rescue program since Franklin Roosevelt launched the New Deal.”13

Effective? A New Deal? Time will tell.
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1 American Recover and Reinvestment Act of 2009: State-by-State Estimates of Key Provisions Affecting Low- and Moderate-Income Individuals, dated February 13, 2009, accessed February 15, 2009, as were all other footnoted items today
2 Temporary Increase in State Aid (.pdf, 27kb, 2 pp.)
3 State Fiscal Stabilization Fund (.pdf, 39kb, 2 pp.)
4 Education (.pdf, 22kb, 1 p.)
5 Unemployment Insurance (.pdf, 10kb, 1 p.)
6 Child Care (.pdf, 10kb, 1 p.)
7 Child Support (.pdf, 70kb, 2 pp.)
8 Training and Employment Services (.pdf, 26kb, 2 pp.)
9 Food Stamp Program (.pdf, 31kb, 2 pp.)
10 Emergency Shelter Grant Program (.pdf, 27kb, 2 pp.)
11 Child Tax Credit (.pdf, 11kb, 1 p.)
12 Making Work Pay Tax Credit (.pdf 53kb, 1 p.)
13 DemocracyNow.org, February 13, 2009
tags: Governance

The Golden Rule, Explained

Feb 16, 2009
We harp. We know we harp. We can’t help it. Some people just don’t get it.

This morning (Feb 13), New Hampshire’s Democratic governor, John Lynch, announced 300 layoffs of state employees. What are the likely consequences of these layoffs? Presumably there will be longer lines at the Department of Motor Vehicles, and other government services will deterioriate. For the unlucky 300, the consequences will be a good deal more dire. Most people live from paycheck to paycheck. When that spigot abrubtly turns off, they will immediately dip into your pocket and mine to claim unemployment compensation.

In New Hampshire, benefits range from $32 to $427 a week for up to 26 weeks.1 For those earning from $2,800 to $41,500 a year, that benefit will be slightly more than half their gross pay. For those earning more, it will be less.

The stresses these people will suffer will be many and varied. Some will not be able to keep up with their mortgages and will be tossed out of their homes (sound familiar?). The values of those houses, now white elephants owned by the bank, will drop through the floor. If the houses are on your block, your home value will decrease as well. If it decreases enough to make your home worth less than you owe on it, you may actually be well advised to abandon it, as at present you have no leverage (or government assistance) to renegotiate your mortgage.

Besides dipping into our pockets for cash benefits and decreasing the value of our prime asset, those 300 laid-off neighbors will cease enjoying the luxury of any discretionary spending, creating a ripple effect (or perhaps we should call it a non-ripple effect) across the immediate purview of their erstwhile economic landscape, increasing the downward slide of local restaurants, movie theatres, hardware and clothing stores, etc., etc. If the effect is great enough (and remember we are talking about 2.5 million of these hapless folks just over the past five months), then many of those establishments will close, further contributing to the downward momentum toward deflation and depression.

Since those who are pretty bad off to begin with (minorities, minimum-wage earners) are generally the first to get it in the neck during an economic downturn, some will become so desperate that they will be driven to extreme measures, becoming a physical threat to their neighbors and the general infrastructure. The court system will become clogged and jails will suffer further overcrowding, requiring yet more millions in public funds.

The Golden Rule—Do Unto Others As You Would Have Others Do Unto You—is not a touchy-feely, altruistic expression of noblesse oblige. It is a survival tactic. We are either in this together or we are in this alone. If we are in this together, we do everything we can to forestall layoffs, foreclosures, and closings, and that includes cutting back for a time on what we have in order to share the temporarily diminished pie. If we are in this alone, there is really only one thing we need to do.

Buy a gun.
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1 Amount and Duration of [Unemployment Compensation] Benefits, accessed Feb 13, 2009
tags: Governance

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

Feb 12, 2009
He is that rarest of creatures, a quiet politician. Almost clinically averse to blowing his own horn, Bob Kiss has managed three terms in the state legislature, and one as mayor of Burlington, without attracting nearly the attention his superlative governance has deserved. He has:

  • Maintained a flat municipal tax rate for the last two years of his three-year term;
  • Presided over a city economy where wages have grown 7 percent over three years, while statewide they have grown 4.6 percent;
  • Seen private sector jobs increase by 4.9 percent in Burlington while statewide they only grew one-tenth of one percent;
  • Increased reserves fivefold from $400,000 to over $2 million;
  • Managed to limit budget growth, which probably outstripped inflation in your town, to less than half the rate of inflation;
  • Saved the town pension fund $350,000 a year by sensible management;
  • Involved citizen participation in significant and substantive ways in the selection of a police chief, the planning of a major waterfront project, and the development of the town budget;
  • Initiated or supported a host of environmental improvement measures.
The true measure of a great Progressive political leader is how he manages in hard times. We hope Bob Kiss is re-elected on March 3. This is one dude we want to see at the wheel in a crisis.1
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1 Re-Elect Bob Kiss, accessed February 9, 2009
tags: Governance

An Open Letter

Feb 09, 2009
To: The Vermont State Legislature

Friends,

At a time of great and growing crisis, when we should be hanging together and helping one another, when an opportunity has been presented to advance the progressive goals of the Democratic and Progressive parties, and when those parties enjoy an overwhelming majority in both houses of the state legislature, we are greatly disappointed at your silence, and your timid acquiescence in the mean-spirited and bankrupt policies of our Republican governor. There are many ways we can support full employment in Vermont. There are many avenues to generating more revenue, and not in a burdensome manner to our residents. These are the times when government should expand its presence, open its doors to the people, and not cut them off and bury its head in the sand.

We must speak the truth. The Republican one-note obsession with cutting taxes is not only a failed policy, it is an evil one, designed for a single purpose: to transfer wealth to a few at the top while impoverishing the rest of us.

Vermont is perhaps the best situated of any state to show the nation that we can confront the challenges we face today and conquer them: that no Vermonter will go hungry or be forced from their home in hard times; that work will be found for any man or woman in need of it; that we will redouble our efforts to improve education, understanding that it is the key to our healthy future, and we will resist the calls to lay off teachers, close schools, and freeze local budgets; that if the nation cannot fashion a sensible universal health care program, then we will find a way to do so, as we found a way to insure our children.

This is a proper response to hard times. It is a brave response, and it is the response we expect from the Democratic and Progressive leaders we elected. You must stop colluding in the cynical exploitation of a crisis which is the knee-jerk reaction of the right. Times are good? Cut taxes! Times are bad? Cut taxes! This wicked mantra should have been thoroughly debunked by now. It threatens to turn our cherished nation into a banana republic.

So pull up your socks and get to work. The people of Vermont are ready to weather this storm, and together we stand. It’s time our representatives stood with us.
tags: Governance

Daschle: A Post-Mortem

Feb 07, 2009
The damage was done days before Tom Daschle, waking up and smelling the bitter scent of failure as did Caroline Kennedy a few weeks before, took himself out of the running for Secretary of Health and Human Services.1 The damage was done when Obama failed to pull the plug on the first tax cheat who was finagled into his cabinet. Timothy Geithner, now the overseer of your tax returns, was slipped under the oblivious radar of the Democratic Senate in a game plan which the Obama administration was quite prepared to repeat for the even more audacious, arrogant, and duplicitous Daschle.

Geithner was intimately associated with the gang of robber barons who paved the way for the present debacle, which more and more people are calling the early days of another Great Depression. In fact, Obama welcomed the prime mover of that debacle into the very heart of his administration. Lawrence Summers, the head of the White House Economic Council, persuaded Clinton to sign legislation toward the end of his second term that let loose the dogs of Wall Street and led directly to the mess we are in today.2 What can our new president be thinking? We wish someone could tell us.

The arguments the administration put forth in support of both these men, in spite of their glaring inadequacies, was that their unique expertise was required. In Geithner’s case, it is like saying the fox’s expertise is needed for guarding the henhouse.

And Daschle? Expertise from this career parasite? Rather, let us picture someone—a woman, say, sixtyish, a member of a minority, from a broken home. In her twenties, she worked as an LPN while she studied nights for her R.N. She put in a dozen years as a triage nurse at the V.A., with a couple of tours in Vietnam serving in a field hospital, while studying nights for her M.S.N. Then, around forty, she moved into the private sector to take an offer from a hospital to be Head of Nursing, while studying nights for her M.B.A. She moved into administration in her late forties and a few years later was named Chief Administrator of a well-known teaching hospital.

This is expertise. This is a real person from the real world. And we will bet there are a dozen or more out there who are not a bad fit for the above résumé. Where are these people, where is this expertise, in an administration consisting, primarily, of people who have been sucking at the public tit their entire careers and exhibiting but a pretense of expertise. They are nowhere. Instead, the administration is chock full of tax cheats, insiders, party hacks, and Clintonesque has-beens. How could such promise have turned so sour so fast?

Premature, you say? Excessively harsh? This web site will hold Obama’s feet to the fire until the progressive agenda his campaign promised begins to unfold. To date, it is nowhere in sight. Its fancy words and its crocodile tears do nothing to cover up its actions, which proclaim, to CEO and D.C. insider alike: Fear Not, For Here It Is Business As Usual. Well, out here, the muttering and the grumbling and the anger are on the rise. For as the bard so cogently observed, “Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.”3
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1 Daschle Ends Bid for Post; Obama Concedes Mistake, by Jeff Zeleny, from the New York Times, February 3, 2009, accessed, as were the other notes today, February 4, 2009
2 Runaway Wall Street, by Robert Scheer, from Truthdig.com, February 4, 2009
3 Sonnet 94, by William Shakespeare
tags: Governance

R.I.P. G.O.P.1

Feb 04, 2009
In 2006, the Republicans lost control of Congress. Last month they lost the White House. They retain but a tenous and undependable hold on the federal courts, and that is likely to slip further from their grasp over the coming years.

Now that they are absent from the shadowy and secretive corridors of power, we are able to see them for what they are: a spent force.

No Republican in the House voted for Obama’s stimulus package, despite that fact that its major flaw—a third of it is going to tax cuts—is in there expressly to court Republican favor. Their pet spokesman, Rush Limbaugh, can do nothing but express his fond wish that the Obama administration fail.2

The Republican Party made its bed during the Nixon and Reagan years, when it decided to herd the hateful, the stupid, and the lunatic into their camp, snapping up the solid South in the wake of the Voting Rights Act and thereafter courting NASCAR dads, religious radicals, and the vast armies of victims of a failed educational system. They abandoned their root principles of fiscal integrity and self-determination in favor of a tax-cutting mantra and juryrigging the system to produce a generation of the super-rich made wealthy at the expense of the people.

It worked brilliantly for thirty years, when, having destroyed the world’s economy, the party forced sufficient numbers of the American electorate to realize what was happening to them and to vote the villains out.

If Obama is able to name enough reasonable minds to federal benches over the next four to eight years (Bush is responsible for around 37 percent of sitting federal judges), and the gathering storm of meaningful educational reform takes hold during his administration, the ruined GOP may, owing to a declining constituency, fade from the political scene altogether. Then, considering the Democratic Party’s steady movement toward the right (viz., its militarism and continuing thralldom to the corporatocracy), the hour may be at hand for a truly Progressive Party to emerge, to revitalize our two-party system with real choices more in keeping with the beliefs, the aspirations, and the principles of the American people.

Note: Coincidentally, we found many of these thoughts echoed in Frank Rich’s column today,3 and highly recommend it to your notice.
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1 Our illustration today was borrowed from the bumper-sticker and T-shirt site, DeadElephant.ORG
2 Limbaugh v. Obama and Almost Everybody Else, by Pete Abel, from The Moderate Voice, January 21, 2009, accessed February 1, 2009
3 Herbert Hoover Lives, by Frank Rich, from the New York Times, January 31, 2009, accessed February 1, 2009
tags: Governance

The Exception Disproves the Rule

Jan 31, 2009
Perhaps we should have titled this item Ten Days That Shook the World—Not! At the risk of raining on anyone’s parade, we will point out the significant disconnect between words and deeds that has surfaced already in the Obama administration. None of the following items can be considered trivial, and all of them reflect a tendency on the part of our new executive to hedge, fudge, and otherwise compromise or abandon important principles. We will add to this listing of broken promises as time goes on, or delete them on the happy occasion of their being kept.


No Torture
Except it is unclear whether the CIA will keep it up1 and Obama can reinstitute it at will in the future, arrogating to himself, like his predecessor, the option of discarding the rule of law.2
No Lobbyists in Government
Except Raytheon's William Lynn gets to be a deputy Pentagon chief3 and Tom Daschle, despite earning $300,000 in income from health-related companies, gets to be Secretary of Health and Human Services.4
Close Guantanamo
Except not for a year, and not until we figure out what to do with the prisoners who are there,2 and please don’t mention the military prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan.1
Return the Rule of Law to Washington
Except if your nominees for Secretary of the Treasury and the Department of Health and Human Services are flagrant tax cheats,5,6 and your nominee for the nation’s top intelligence job has been accused by a respected, credible, and award-winning journalist of abetting genocide in violation of the expressed and unambiguous orders of his superiors.7
Transparency in Government
Except when it comes to making public the details about where the $700 billion bank bailout money went, what was done with it, and what effect it has had. It certainly has failed to ease the credit market, which is what it was intended to do.
What can one expect in the first ten days of a new administration which has spent most of that time patting itself on the back? A great deal more than this.
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1 Obama Orders Gitmo Closure, Bans Torture, from Democracy Now, Headlines, January 23, 2009 (accessed January 27, 2009)
2 Obama Issues Directive to Shut Down Guantanamo, Mark Mazzetti and William Glaberson, from the New York Times, January 21, 2009< (accessed January 27, 2009)
3 White House clears way for Pentagon deputy-senator [sic], from Forbes.com, January 23, 2009, accessed January 27, 2009
4 Daschle Knew of Tax Issues Over Car Use Last June. by Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Robert Pear, from the New York Times, January 31, 2009, accessed February 1, 2009
5 It’s Not Just Taxes, by Joe Nocera, from the New York Times, January 23, 2009, accessed January 27, 2009
6 Use of Free Car Lands Tom Daschle in Tax Trouble, by Robert Pear, from the New York Times, January 30, 2009, accessed January 31, 2009 (with a hat tip to CF for timely notice)
7 Admiral Dennis Blair Aided Perpetrators of 1999 Church Killings in East Timor, from Democracy Now, January 6, 2009 (and several subsequent programs), accessed January 27, 2009
tags: Governance

Let George Do It

Jan 30, 2009
And so George Mitchell, America’s Peacemaker, flies off to the Middle East, to confront a conflict perhaps less longstanding but no less intractable than the one for which he has been credited with resolving.

Indeed, in the intractable sweepstakes, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict wins hands down over Northern Ireland. One side sees nothing less at stake than its very survival, and the other nurses a not indefensible grudge against an injustice of towering proportions. It’s not going to be all Guinness and blarney this time around.

For one thing, in Ireland Mitchell only had to deal with one conflict; in the Middle East he has to deal with at least three: the Israelis and Palestinians each at war with themselves, and both at war with the other. For another, we recall neither the IRA nor the British articulating an ambition to exterminate the other side. In the Middle East, that is a heartfelt desire of a significant minority on both sides. Finally (and this is merely a personal opinion shared with hardly anyone but author Joel Kovel1 and various interviewees on Democracy Now), a two-state solution is bound to fail.

Point #1, and for this we recommend Colin Shindler’s latest book on Israel,2 any people that can field 21 political parties in its first election (12 of which qualified for the ballot)3 has to be a contentious one, and if most of Israel’s governments since independence in 1948 have not been made up of hastily assembled and fragile coalitions, it seems as if they have. The inability of Arabs to get along with one another is legendary.

The fact that many on both sides would like to exterminate the other is, perhaps, not surprising, given the context. Fatah felt the same way, until the day it didn’t and granted Israel’s right to exist. If Arafat’s PLO hadn’t been shot through with lassitude and corruption, HAMAS might not have prevailed in fair-and-square elections, and the situation Mitchell is confronting today would not be such a thorny one. But it is, and Hamas’s legitimacy must be addressed. Once again, as in Afghanistan, we seem to be on the side of the corrupt establishment in their penthouses and palaces, and opposed to the dusty freedom fighters who have only the people on their side. (We hasten to note that the Taliban is only accorded a slight edge in the people’s preference over the Karzai disaster, owing to the fact that they do occasionally supply some meager services along with the stonings and the acid attacks.)

Finally, separate is inherently unequal—a lesson we learned in America long ago. A two-state solution will leave the parties peering covetously over the fence at the grass on the other side. The only hope for these unhappy people is assimilation into a single state, inextricably amalgamating their political, social, and economic futures. Impossible, you say? Well, there you are wrong, because anything is possible.

Anything.
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1 Overcoming Zionism: Creating a Single Democratic State in Israel/Palestine, by Joel Kovel, 2007 (accessed, as were other footnoted items in this posting, January 26, 2009)
2 A History of Modern Israel, by Colin Shindler, 2008
3 Op. cit., pg. 66
tags: Governance

A Billion Here, a Trillion There

Jan 28, 2009
We consider ourself to be fiscally conservative. By that, we mean we believe we should pay as we go, exercise oversight and restraint on our expenditures, and practice thrift as a general rule. President Obama has made frequent mention of his determination to spend the taxpayer’s money with care and, when he discovers it is not being well spent, to act swiftly to minimize the waste and damage. These used to be good Republican principles and the fact that they aren’t anymore shows just how far the party has diverged from its core beliefs.

We hope Obama will not tolerate the egregious and irresponsible handling of public monies described in a recent report from the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. The report, Cost, Outcome, and Oversight of Iraq Reconstruction Contract with Kellogg Brown & Root Services, Inc. (.pdf, 61 pp., 2.1Mb), concerns one of many contracts, often awarded with no competition, that resulted in hasty, shoddy, incomplete, and unmaintained repairs to the Iraq infrastructure which the Bush administration foolishly attempted to deliver in the midst of a war. Its conclusion struggles to paint a bright face on disaster:

The lack of security, the absence of protection against infrastructure looting, and poor pre-war maintenance were the major contributors to the cost of this contract. What KBR improved was better than the pre-war facilities, but unless the Government of Iraq completes what KBR started and maintains what it provided, the value of KBR’s effort will be diminished and possibly lost.
The new administration is now preparing to spend up to a trillion dollars of public money on a fiscal stimulus package. It will be an early test of the Obama administration’s promises regarding fiscal responsibility, transparency, and accountability. We are sure we will not be alone in keeping our eye on all three aspects.
tags: Governance

Revolving Doors

Jan 26, 2009
On Day One last week, Obama slammed a couple of doors. Time will tell whether he locked them or not.

And it was none too soon, as was revealed in Revolving Doors, a report from Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) released on January 12, 2009. Their painstaking research into the activities of Bush 2 cabinet officials after leaving “public service” is harrowing, maddening, and finally nauseating. We knew there was a revolving door between federal government service and the corporate entities those servants had previously been charged with regulating. But this! To take but one example of the 24 presented in this report:

Spencer Abraham, Sec. of Energy, 2001-2005 (during Enron and the worst blackout in history). Shortly after his government service, he:

  • Joined the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank at Stanford, where he focused on high-tech and energy policy.
  • Was elected to the board of Occidental Petroleum ($60k/year and $2k for each meeting attended).
  • Founded The Abraham Group, to lobby the government on behalf of Trans Global Petroleum, earning $75,000.
  • Named non-executive chairman (?) of Areva, Inc., an atomic energy company.
  • Became an advisor to software provider Energy Solutions International.
  • Was elected to the board of directors of ICx, manufacturer of sensors for homeland and military security.
Read the report to discover the details of all Mr. Abraham did for these companies by lobbying the Department of Energy and other government bodies.

In addition, find out what some of your other favorite ex-Bushies have been up to in this 112-page exposé: John Ashcroft (Attorney General-10 pages); Paul O'Neill (Treasury-9 pages); Rod Paige (Education-7 pages); Colin Powell (State-4 pages); Tom Ridge (Homeland Security-11 pages); Donald Rumsfeld (Defense-11 pages); Tommy Thompson (Health & Human Services-9 pages); Christine Todd Whitman (EPA-8 pages); and several lesser lights.

Meanwhile, back in today’s White House, “Mr. Obama said no one would be given a job in any area where he or she had lobbied within the two preceding years, and if they left the White House before he did, they would have to agree not to work on those issues ‘as long as I am president.’”1

Was that a giant sucking sound we just heard, the sound of a million jobseekers taking back their résumés? Will the service actually be restored to “public service”? CREW’s report certainly does not give us cause for optimism, and no one is more adept at finagling loopholes than those crafty boys and girls on K Street. Stay tuned.
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1 On His First Full Day, Obama Tackles Sobering Challenges, by Brian Knowlton, from the New York Times, January 21, 2009 (accessed January 21, 2009)
tags: Governance

File and Forget

Jan 25, 2009
What are we paying these guys for?

Sixty-three Inspectors General (IGs) recently responded to an unprecedented government-wide request of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, chaired by Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-NY), regarding recommendations they had made to their agencies. IGs “conduct independent audits and investigations and make recommendations to protect the interests of taxpayers and improve the effectiveness of government.... Under the Inspector General Act, federal agencies are supposed to complete final action on IG recommendations within one year.”1

Rep. Towns and his committee were curious as to how many recommendations made by the IGs had not been implemented by their agencies during the Bush 2 era. The response so shocked them they had to write a report about it.1 Almost 14,000 recommendations by the IGs were ignored by the Bush 2 administration, recommendations that could have saved almost $26 billion in recovered or new revenues, and enhanced our security, health, and safety. That number represents 14 percent of recommendations made. A few examples:

  • The Social Security Administration could have saved $2 billion annually by ceasing to make payments of disability benefits to people who were no longer eligible for them.
  • The Department of Defense could have recouped $837 million in overpayments for telecommunications contracts.
  • The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) could recover $16 million in billings for base camp services associated with Hurricane Katrina. We wrote about the Government Accounting Office’s finding of $30 million wasted by DHS over Katrina services at Chump Change. Why the duplication of investigative effort on the part of the GAO, if nothing is going to be done about this sort of waste anyway?
Twenty-six billion dollars—$86 for every American man, woman, and child—may not seem like much, but put $26 billion into the hands of any progressive organization and watch them go to town.

Obama has pledged to go over the federal budget with a fine tooth comb, to root out waste and inefficiency, even going so far as to appoint Nancy Killefer his special watchdog for federal spending.2 Redundancy is also waste, and we hope Killefer will cast a questioning eye on her own budget as it overlaps with that of 67 IGs, the Government Accounting Office, the Office of Management and Budget, the National Economic Council, and who knows how many other executive bodies charged with attending to fiscal responsibility in our federal government.
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1 Inspectors General: Implementing thousands of open recommendations could save taxpayers almost $26 billion (.pdf, 16 pp., 214 Kb), from the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, January 2009, p. i, accessed January 10, 2009
2 Obama names special watchdog for federal spending, by Jennifer Lovin, AP White House Correspondent, from Yahoo! News, January 7, 2009, accessed January 10, 2009
tags: Governance

January 20, 2009

Jan 20, 2009
Today, we listen.
tags: Governance

Inauguration Eve!

Jan 19, 2009
When Reagan announced it was “morning in American again,” midway through his disastrous presidency, most of us knew even then that we had ventured into an era of unprecedented inequality, fiscal irresponsibility (he doubled the national debt), and criminality from our elected officials (google iran-contra).

We didn’t know it was the beginning of 30 years of mismanagement in high places, reckless deregulation, multiple assaults upon our Constitution, and runaway spending that would see the national debt increase tenfold.1

We didn’t know it would bring us to this Inauguration Eve on the brink of another global Great Depression.

We didn’t know the alliance of neoconservativism, religious fundamentalism, and a military-industrial complex that has conquered the world would leave our nation’s reputation in tatters, the world consumed in a frenzy of bloodshed, and a nation top-heavy with a few multi-billionaires lording it over 300 million increasingly impoverished, unhealthy, ill-educated, and desperate Americans.

Tomorrow, two roads diverge in that yellow wood.2 One, the main-travelled road, is the way blazed by Alexander, the Caesars, Genghis Khan, Napoleon, and Hitler—men who would dominate the world by flame and sword, who knew only death, who had no drop of humanity flowing through their cold, bloodless, grasping veins.

The other, the road less traveled, the road of love and of life, is the way blazed by Christ, the Enlightenment, Gandhi, and King. It is the road of human potential, it is the road that speaks to our better selves, the selves in awe of the majesty of life, of its infinite delights, of its tragic brevity.

Tomorrow, as a people of a once and (potentially) future great nation, we will choose one of those roads, and we will travel it together for many days to come. And though we think we may keep the first for another day, and though the choice may, indeed, come back to us again, one day it will not, and on that day the road we are on will be the road on which we will stay to the end, be it bitter or triumphant. We would be wise to live as if tomorrow is that day.
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1 United States National Debt: An Analysis of the Presidents Who Are Reponsible for the Borrowing, by Steve McGourty, accessed January 10, 2009
2 The Road Not Taken, by Robert Frost, from Bartleby.com (Accessed January 13, 2009)
tags: Governance

Formula for Failure

Jan 10, 2009
The latest word out of the mainstream media is that Obama will go ahead with a $300 billion tax cut for middle-class workers and small businesses as part of the new administration’s economic stimulus effort.1 That figure represents about 39 percent of the $775 billion his advisers are looking to inject into the economy. He is doing it at the behest of the Republican minority, and the figure would amount to about $500 each for us middle-class workers. That is $100 less than the utterly ineffective midsummer checks from Bush 2, and far less tangible, coming, as it will, in slightly reduced withholding of federal income taxes dragged out over a long series of paychecks.

The Republicans are also encouraging Obama to loan, rather than grant, relief money to the states, a move which would almost certainly be useless in helping to bring about an economic recovery, in fact, quite the contrary. This was argued very cogently a few days ago by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), which concluded, “The proposal reflects misperceptions about why states face large deficits, how state budgets and constitutions work, how states would use fiscal relief, and what will happen if they do not receive it.”2 CBPP notes the states’ shortfalls over the next two and one-half years are projected at $350 billion, close to the amount Obama plans to waste in tiny giveaways to taxpayers who don’t need it.

These Republican positions reflect the nefarious subtext of practically every Republican “proposal” we have heard for the last 30 years: Cut taxes, cut taxes, cut taxes, and don’t give anything to anyone but the filthy rich, especially any entity, such as the states, that serves the common good.

Having given in on the tax cut issue, it will be interesting to see if Obama gives in on the state loan issue as well. And if he does so on both, we shall see how quickly, readily, and collegially the Republicans fall into his camp and enable smooth passage of his stimulus passage. Our prediction? Don’t hold your breath.

In naming Hillary to the highest post he could bring himself to award her, in naming many another leftover Clintonite as well as a couple of Republicans to high-level positions in his administration, in handing over a hefty portion of his stimulus package to Republican ideology, Obama is apparently trying to please all of the people all of the time. He will not. He cannot. He has apparently never taken note of wise advice the journalist Herbert Bayard Swope passed along a while back:

I cannot give you the formula for success, but I can give you the formula for failure, which is: try to please everybody.
Well, perhaps not everybody. Now that Obama has named the unlikely Leon Panetta (ex-Chief of Staff to Bill Clinton) to head the CIA, his major appointments are complete. And where among the voices within his hearing is one clear call for the progressive change on which we all thought he ran?

Exactly nowhere.
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1 Obama Seeks Wide Support in Congress for Stimulus, by Jeff Zeleny and David M. Herszenhorn, from the New York Times, January 6, 2009, accessed January 7, 2009
2 Converting state fiscal relief to loans would render in ineffective as stimulus, by Iris J. Lay and Nicholas Johnson, from Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, January 7, 2009, accessed January 7, 2009
tags: Governance

Economy Redux—A Progressive View

Jan 08, 2009
Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine masterfully lays bare the tendency of the right to take advantage of disasters to advance their agenda. There is no reason why progressives can’t take a page from that playbook, and no time like the present.

The Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, together with the Bernard Schwartz Center for Economic Policy at the New School in New York, have published A Progressive Program for Economic Recovery & Financial Reconstruction (.pdf, 25 pp., 192Kb).

Yesterday, we noted the ways the bailout is going wrong, even failing to achieve its nonprogressive ends. This PERI report shows the way for the Obama administration to reverse these failings and instead achieve a successful financial recovery for progressive ends. Obama’s program, they say, “must promote a fundamental reversal of direction ... [F]inancial markets must ... serve the needs of society.” The report is an excellent summary of the progressive viewpoint toward markets and society. Following are a few of its recommendations, together with an estimated cost of some (see the report for details):

  • Keep state and local services flowing and state and local workers employed ($75 billion per year for 2 years)
  • Keep people in their homes ($3-400 billion over two years)
  • Invest in public infrastructure, education, and green spending initiatives ($300 billion)
  • Protect key industries such as the automobile industry ($100 billion)
  • Make government an employer of last resort
  • Reverse extreme inequality and restore family and community health
  • The Federal Reserve should support the fiscal expansion and be subject to more oversight
  • Promote international coordination of expansionary policies
  • Utilize leverage provided by partial ownership of financial institutions
  • Establish codes of conduct for all financial institutions receiving government aid (No, we haven’t!)
  • Empower financial regulators to identify and reduce fraud
  • Restructure the Troubled Asset Relief Program
  • Transform financial firm incentive structures that induce excessive risk taking
  • Prohibit the sale of financial securities that are too complex to be sold on exchanges
As with the health care system, more of the same—tweak it how you will—will not do. We need a wholesale attitude adjustment regarding our financial institutions and capitalism in general. They must be servants of the public good, not its masters. Whether the Obama administration is prepared to make that adjustment will be apparent in the opening days of the administration. Stay tuned.
tags: Governance

It’s the Economy, Stupid

Jan 07, 2009
We have been trying to make head or tail out of the financial debacle for weeks now.1 Two reports have been released in the recent past by the Treasury Department, attempting to explain what they have done with the money and with the power conferred upon them by Congress last fall. One report was sent to Congress2 and one to the Congressional Oversight Panel3.

We diligently attempted to read both of these reports but had to conclude, along with poor Casca, that “it was Greek to [us].” One recalls the “Plain English” laws passed a few years ago in the realm of public contracts (insurance, etc.), and wonder whether we should not pass one for the federal government. Obfuscation, of course, is an important tactic used by the guilty to hide their shame, and one can only conclude that the dense unreadability of these reports is intentional and so motivated. Our frustration level was so high that we send a heartfelt message to Paul Krugman begging him to read the reports and translate them for us common mortals.

In the meanwhile, the New York Times published a pair of op-ed pieces last Sunday entitled The End of the Financial World As We Know It, and How to Repair a Broken Financial World, by Michael Lewis and David Einhorn, which added some to our understanding of what went on and where we go from here:

  • The world has seen the last vestige of faith in the U.S.—that we at least knew how to handle money—destroyed in the recent cataclysm, and it has shaken the world to its foundations.
  • The Bernard Madoff scheme was suspected by many people, including those who benefited from it, many years before the scandal broke, and the S.E.C. was warned about it explicitly nine years ago. Their failure to do anything about it reveals the absence of check and balances in the system.
  • The system requires CEOs to manage for the short term, but our common welfare depends upon a healthy long-term financial establishment, and that is where regulation and oversight come in. Dismantle them, and the result is as predictable as it would be if you were to suspend all watchfulness and release all constraints on your infant or, more terrifyingly, on your teenage son. Say the authors: “The tyranny of the short term has extended itself with frightening ease into the entities that were meant to, one way or another, discipline Wall Street, and force it to consider its enlightened self-interest.”
  • The credit-rating agencies (e.g., Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s) failed to red-flag the increasing risk taken on by the issuers of bonds. The fact that those issuers pay for the operation of these credit-rating agencies may be part of the problem. “[R]ather than expose financial risk [the credit-rating agencies] systematically disguised it.”
  • The SEC is fraught with conflicts of potential interest and political sensitivities that keep it from doing its proper job. Its enforcement division is a revolving door into high-level positions at companies whose activities it is supposed to enforce.
  • “And here’s the most incredible thing of all: 18 months into the most spectacular man-made financial calamity in modern experience, nothing has been done to change ... any of the ... bad incentives that led us here in the first place.”
  • Meanwhile, the seven bailouts and six strategies entered into so far have not produced the confidence in the financial markets, or opened up capital for lending, which they were primarily intended to do.
  • A $306 billion giveaway in guarantees to Citigroup is equal to the combined annual expenditures of six federal departments.
  • The law of unintended consequences has hit the financial bailout program hard. While the miscreants are being rewarded, the innocents (small solvent companies) are being forced out of business by their creditors.
  • The authors suggest two solutions to the mess: “A) repair the social safety net, now badly rent in ways that cause perfectly rational people to be terrified; and B) transform the bailout of the banks into a rescue of homeowners.”
The authors suggest additional intelligent changes to the system, and conclude, “[T]here’s nothing all that radical about most of these changes. A disinterested person would probably wonder why many of them had not been made long ago. A committee of people whose financial interests are somehow bound up with Wall Street is a different matter.”

The moves the Obama administration makes on our financial establishment in its first days—its first hours—will tell the tale on whether regulatory renewal will be substantive and effective, or merely cosmetic. Stay tuned.
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1 See also How We Got Here and Where We’re Going and Slouching Toward Accountability.
2 Report to Congress Pursuant to Section 102 of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act (.pdf, 8 pp., 31.8Kb), Accessed, as were other footnoted items today, on January 4, 2009
3 Response to Questions of the First Report of the Congressional Oversight Panel for Economic Stabilization (.pdf, 15 pp., 115Kb)
tags: Governance

Day One

Jan 05, 2009
We would like to hear the following from the newly sworn-in Obama during his First Inaugural Address; however, we are prepared to be patient and to wait until January 21, after the Inaugural Ball is over and he has settled into the Oval Office for Day One. Nothing in this Seven-Point Plan for the 21st Century should be objectionable to any fair-minded American:

An End to Torture
As Commander-in-Chief, Obama issues an Executive Order that all prisoners held by the U.S. will be treated strictly according to the Geneva Conventions, and any evidence of faltering from this standard will result in prosecution of the individuals involved and their superior officers.
Zero Tolerance for Dictatorships
As the shaper of foreign policy, Obama announces a new dawn of democracy in America and throughout the world with a pledge to end U.S. support for illegitimate, tyrannical, dictatorial, or otherwise oppressive regimes that have not been chosen by the people in fair and democratic elections. Furthermore, he pledges our full support to those nations which do elect their governments through a fair democratic process.
Rejoining the Family of Nations
The new President pledges that the U.S. will rejoin the family of nations, pay past dues to the United Nations, and become a full partner in a global effort to bring peace, health, and prosperity to the world.
Reaffirming the Rule of Law
As the country’s chief law enforcement officer, Obama orders his Attorney General to open wide-ranging investigations into both Wall Street financial firms and the Bush White House to establish whether U.S. laws were broken and, if so, to press for full accountability through civil actions and criminal indictments.
An End to Poverty
Declaring that poverty is unacceptable in the richest country in the world, and that its continuation is a threat to our future security, Obama pledges to end poverty for working Americans during his first term.
An Educated Public
Warning of a precipitous decline in educational standards in the U.S., Obama pledges to raise high school graduation rates above 90 percent and provide post-secondary education opportunities to anyone who wants them.
Health Care for All
Noting the impending disintegration of a top-heavy health care system that is increasingly failing the American people, Obama pledges to bring universal, single-payer, federally managed health care, cradle to grave, to the American people during his first term.
This is change we can believe in, and change the majority of American people support. Nothing less will do.
tags: Governance

The High Cost of Medicare

Jan 04, 2009
And you thought it was free! Well, don’t feel bad—so did we.

In point of fact, it is likely your Medicare-based health coverage, in the absence of the passage of a universal health care plan similar to the bill currently before the House (H.R. 676), will cost you close to the amount you will be receiving from your Social Security benefits.

Medicare is divided into three parts:

Part A is for hospital insurance. It covers hospitalizations, skilled nursing facilities (a nursing home), and some home health care. Part A will be without cost for most Medicare beneficiaries (those with 40 or more quarters—ten years—of Medicare-covered employment, or a spouse with same), unless you actually need to use the service, in which case you will have to pay a $1,068 deductible for a hospital stay of 1-60 days. If you need to stay in a hospital longer than that, well, don’t ask. Additionally, without those 40 quarters of employment, your out-of-pocket cost for Part A (before the deductible) can be as high as $5,316 per year.1

Part B is for medical insurance. This covers physician services, outpatient hospital services, certain home health services, and durable medical equipment. In 2009, this will cost all Medicare beneficiaries $1,156.80. Again, if you actually need to see a doctor during this time, you will have a $135.00 deductible and, after that is expended, you will be liable for 20 percent of the cost of any additional Medicare-approved services.

Typically, according to a knowledgeable friend of ours with long experience in the health field, people purchase supplemental insurance to cover the Part A deductible and Part B deductible and 20 percent co-pay, at a cost of $3,000 to $4,000 per year.

Then comes Part D, the unkindest cut of all. Part D is for medications, and one has to go shopping for plans from various providers for Part D—back into the kindly hands of private insurance companies.2 In our sparsely populated, rural Vermont area, there are 47 contenders in the “Prescription Drug Plan” category and 9 in the “Medicare Health Plan Category” (we have yet to determine the difference). The 56 plans all have different combinations of monthly premiums, annual deductibles, and co-pays (what they call Drug Cost Sharing). Monthly premiums range from nothing to $111.40; annual deductibles from nothing to $295; and co-pays appear to be about 25 to 33 percent of the cost of the medications. But wait! The complication doesn’t end there. We mustn’t forget “The Gap.”

The costs above only pertain to the first $2,700 in medications you receive during a calendar year. Once you have reached that limit, you fall into the Gap and are responsible for the entire cost of the next $4,350 of your medications in that year, during which time you must continue to pay the monthly premium!

As with Parts A and B, there are numerous insurance companies eager to sell you policies to supplement possible expenses beyond the basic plan you select, although co-pays will probably still be required.

So there it is. The free government-sponsored Medicare you have been paying into during your working life, the benefits of which you have been looking forward to reaping upon a well-earned retirement, is going to cost you your Social Security check, deluge you in paperwork, torment you with multiple plans to select from (with a hefty penalty for dilly-dallying3), and altogether threaten to turn your golden years into dross.

Read H.R. 676 (linked above). It only takes a few minutes. It promises a universal health care system properly funded and administered for the benefit of the people rather than the corporations or the bureaucrats. If your representative is a co-sponsor (find out here), write them and tell them you are grateful for their support of this initiative. If they aren’t, write them and encourage them to get on board.

Single-payer, universal health care is a cherished right throughout the civilized world—except in the U.S. Bring it home in 2009!
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1 Medicare: The Official U.S. Government Site for People with Medicare (accessed, as all footnotes in this entry, January 1, 2009)
2 Medicare Prescription Drug Plan Finder
3 The New Medicare Part D and Its Penalties
tags: Governance

Unsafe at Any Age

Jan 03, 2009
See, here’s the problem in a nutshell, and since this nutshell is killing our children, perhaps we’ll be inclined to listen.

We import 90 percent of our toys now, and 90 percent of those imports come from China.1 Yet, while toy imports were increasing 562 percent between 1980 and 2008, the U.S. agency responsible for assuring their safety, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) was seeing its budget cut by a fifth and its staff reduced by nearly 60 percent. The CPSC has exactly zero full-time staff working at any of the 326 U.S. ports, and they concentrate their part-time efforts on only two of them, Los Angeles and New York, leaving the other 324 virtually unchecked.

Meanwhile, over a dozen trade agreements have promoted and protected the toy industry’s offshore production and lax safety standards.

Unsafe products are pouring into our country, produced in overseas sweatshops that enforce no labor or environmental protections. Public Citizen’s 2007 report (.pdf, 30 pp., 543Kb) details the major causes of toy recalls over a ten-year period, shows how corporations have created global supply chains to avoid product liability laws, and relates how U.S. CEO pay has skyrocketed over the same period.

Do we see a pattern here? Are we beginning to understand what is behind “Always Low Prices”? Do we see now why all those unruly young people show up at globalization conferences?

The 2008 report discovers a silver lining in the 71 newly elected senators and representatives who favor sane trade policies. Time will tell.

Meanwhile, google toys china and look out you don’t get buried in lead Mattel recall.
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1 Closing Santa’s Sweatshop (.pdf, 27 pp., 280Kb), from Public Citizen, December 2008, pg. 3 (accessed December 30, 2008)
tags: Governance

Ringing in the New

Jan 01, 2009
We cannot do better on this first day of what we hope will be a new era than to quote from an interview on Democracy Now! with a great American the day after he lost his third bid for the presidency. Ralph Nader, who has devoted his life to the public welfare—and with singular success—speaks directly to the progressive agenda; he speaks for you and for me; he speaks for the aspirations of the Founding Fathers and for an America that will finally fulfill its promise. His words should be emblazoned on the shields we carry with us into the battles to come in 2009:



Right after World War II, out of the rubble of World War II, Western Europeans, through a multiparty system, proportional representation, and through their stronger trade unions and cooperatives, demanded and received, for all their people, by law, full health insurance, decent wages, decent pensions, four weeks paid vacation, paid maternity leave, paid family sick leave, decent daycare, decent public transit and university-free tuition. Sixty-three years later, the Republican and Democratic parties haven’t delivered any of those by law for all our people. So I think the two-party duopoly is extremely ossifying, it’s extremely stagnant. It’s exactly what corporate power wants, because even when a more liberal party wins, they know how to block it, they know how to buy it, they know how to co-opt it. That’s what we’re looking at in this country. We are a country that lives under election laws that are the most obstructive against voters, most obstructive against candidates. Can’t even count the votes properly, can’t get candidates on the ballot. And what we have to do is go to the civic arena again and try to build up just old-fashioned-type power.

I just want to leave you with a comment, a very telling comment by Eugene Debs in the early 1920s at the end of the career of this great labor leader who fought segregation and fought the giant industrialists. He was asked, “What’s your greatest regret?” by a reporter. And Debs said, “My greatest regret? My greatest regret is that, under our Constitution, the American people can have almost anything they want, but it just seems like they don’t want much of anything at all.” What he was talking about is the lowest expectation levels of any society in the Western world. And we have to face—we have to face ourselves. And the issue in America today is the voter, the voter’s mind, the voter’s expectation, the voter’s determination, the voter’s resignation. The voters are what we have to examine now, why they continue to vote for candidates and for parties that go to Washington and betray them again and again and again, on behalf of the corporate supremacists, who—to whom they have delivered every department and agency in the federal government, including the Department of Labor. So go to november5.org, and see if you’re interested in this proposal for Congress action groups back home.1
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1 Independent Presidential Candidate Ralph Nader Discusses Future Obama Presidency and Two-Party Politics, from Democracy Now!, November 5, 2008 (accessed December 30, 2008)
tags: Governance

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: 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.”
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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

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: Governance

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.”
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1 Questions About the $700 Billion..., pg. 20.
tags: Governance

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.
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1 Enemies of Science: Senator James M. Inhofe, from ScienceWeek, undated (accessed December 13, 2008)
tags: Governance

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.
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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: 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.
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1 About GAO, accessed December 7, 2008.
2 Serving the Congress and the Nation
tags: Governance

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.
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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: Governance

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.
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1 Summary, from ISI, accessed December 3, 2008
tags: Governance

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

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.
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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

...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

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.
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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

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:

MoveOn.org
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.
DemocracyForAmerica.com
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.
TrueMajority.org
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.”
ColorOfChange.org
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.com
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.org
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.”
BraveNewFilms.org
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.”
JStreet.org
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....”
DemocracyInAction.org
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: Governance

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

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: Governance

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: 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: 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: Governance

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: Governance

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: Governance

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: 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

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