Archive for November, 2011

Covert U.S. propaganda for Uzbek dictator

November 30, 2011

David Trilling in Foreign Policy magazine described the Obama administration’s support for one of the world’s most cruel dictators.  His article told how the U.S. Department of Defense finances covert propaganda via the Internet in support of the Karimov regime through its subcontractor, General Dynamics.

Gas-rich Uzbekistan, the most populous of the formerly Soviet Central Asian republics, has been ruled since before independence in 1991 by strongman President Islam Karimov, who is regularly condemned in the West for running one of the world’s most repressive and corrupt regimes. 

Freedom House gives Uzbekistan the lowest possible score in its Freedom in the World report, while watchdog groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have reported on widespread torture and forced child labor. 

The respected Russian human rights group Memorial says Karimov holds more political prisoners than all other post-Soviet republics combined, often through an “arbitrary interpretation” of the law.  The overwhelming majority of those convicted are somehow linked to Islam.  Memorial has found that thousands of “Muslims whose activities pose no threat to social order and security are being sentenced on fabricated charges of terrorism and extremism.”

Nonetheless, with Pakistani-American relations at a desperate low, Washington now seems more eager than ever to make overtures to Tashkent. In the past, Karimov has responded to U.S. criticism by threatening to shut down the supply route to Afghanistan.  In 2005, after Washington demanded an investigation into the massacre of hundreds of civilians in the eastern city of Andijan, he closed the American airbase at Karshi-Khanabad. 

So Washington’s expressions of disapproval have given way to praise. In September, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton cautiously commended Tashkent for its “progress” on political freedoms, and, more significantly, President Barack Obama moved to end restrictions on military aid, in place since 2004. Then, during an Oct. 22 visit to Tashkent, Clinton thanked the Uzbek leader in person for his cooperation. A State Department official traveling with her said he believed Karimov wants to leave a democratic legacy for “his kids and his grandchildren.”

Source: David Trilling | Foreign Policy.

 This is an example of both the militarization of U.S. foreign policy and the privatization of the U.S. military.  Relations with Uzbekistan are a part of foreign policy and should be the responsibility of the U.S. Department of State, but this has been taken over the U.S. Department of Defense and a private armaments manufacturer.  Note, too, that the pro-Karimov propaganda is directed at the world public, including the American public, which is being led to believe it comes from an objective source.

All this is necessary, it will be said, in order for the United States government to project its power on a global basis—in other words, for empire.  But as the United States becomes an empire, it ceases to be a republic.

Click on Propagandistan to read the whole article.

Incidentally, General Motors Corp. has opened an engine plant in Uzbekistan.  It will employ 1,200 workers.  Click on GM Opens Plant Where Clinton Talked “Rights” for details.

Click on Choihona for news updates on Uzbekistan.

Click on Human Rights Watch for more on Uzbekistan.

Obama giving up on white blue-collar voters?

November 29, 2011

Thomas B. Edsall reported in the New York Times that President Obama has given up on trying to win the votes of white working people in 2012.  Instead, according to Edsall, he hopes to win re-election based on the votes of a coalition of educated white people and poor people who are mainly black and Hispanic.

For decades, Democrats have suffered continuous and increasingly severe losses among white voters. But preparations by Democratic operatives for the 2012 election make it clear for the first time that the party will explicitly abandon the white working class.

All pretense of trying to win a majority of the white working class has been effectively jettisoned in favor of cementing a center-left coalition made up, on the one hand, of voters who have gotten ahead on the basis of educational attainment — professors, artists, designers, editors, human resources managers, lawyers, librarians, social workers, teachers and therapists — and a second, substantial constituency of lower-income voters who are disproportionately African-American and Hispanic. … …

Now none of this comes from President Obama himself.  It is based mainly on a report by John Halpin and Ruy Texiera, two academics who work for the liberal Center for American Progress.  As a description of political reality, it seems on the mark, but not especially new.  A majority of white blue-collar voters turned against the Democrats in the days of George Wallace and Richard Nixon, and no Democratic Presidential candidate has been able to win them back.

As a practical matter, the Obama campaign and, for the present, the Democratic Party, have laid to rest all consideration of reviving the coalition nurtured and cultivated by Franklin D. Roosevelt.  The New Deal Coalition — which included unions, city machines, blue-collar workers, farmers, blacks, people on relief, and generally non-affluent progressive intellectuals — had the advantage of economic coherence.  It received support across the board from voters of all races and religions in the bottom half of the income distribution, the very coherence the current Democratic coalition lacks.

A top priority of the less affluent wing of today’s left alliance is the strengthening of the safety net, including health care, food stamps, infant nutrition and unemployment compensation.  These voters generally take the brunt of recessions and are most in need of government assistance to survive.  According to recent data from the Department of Agriculture, 45.8 million people, nearly 15 percent of the population, depend on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to meet their needs for food.

The better-off wing, in contrast, puts at the top of its political agenda a cluster of rights related to self-expression, the environment, demilitarization, and, importantly, freedom from repressive norms — governing both sexual behavior and women’s role in society — that are promoted by the conservative movement.

Source:  NYTimes.com.

Democrats for decades have failed to win a majority of white working people.  President Obama in the 2008 election won 43 percent of them, slightly more than John Kerry in 2004 or Al Gore in 2000.

The only way that President Obama could have reconstituted the New Deal coalition would have been to actually do something to put people back to work, stop the squeeze on wages and do something about abusive bank foreclosures.  Or, failing that, to be seen to be fighting for these goals against the opposition.

This he has not done.  He won’t even defend Social Security and Medicare.

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How the government subsidizes obesity

November 29, 2011

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This chart by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine show how the U.S. government subsidizes an unhealthy diet.   The U.S. Department of Agriculture subsidizes corn more than anything else, but the PCRM counts subsidies for the portion of the corn crop used for animal feed as a subsidy for dairy and meat.

Obesity is a big health problem in the United States.  Medical experts say obesity is the main reason why life expectancy is falling in certain U.S. counties, and, if it continues to worsen, may lower overall U.S. life expectancy.

One of the reasons why obesity is getting worse—not the only one, of course—is that federal subsidies make unhealthy processed foods cheaper than healthy unprocessed foods such as fruit and vegetables.  That is one of the reasons—not the only one, of course—why obesity so much more common among the poor than the affluent.

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Michael Pollan, in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, described a molecular analysis of a McDonald’s restaurant meal, which revealed almost every item was partly a form of corn, including the corn-fed beef and chicken and the soft drinks and condiments with high-fructose corn syrup.  The corn content was follows: Soda (100 percent corn), milk shake (78 percent), salad dressing (65 percent), chicken nuggets (56 percent), cheeseburger (52 percent) and French fries (23 percent).

Michelle Obama deserves credit for calling attention to the problem of childhood obesity.  President Barack Obama would deserve greater credit if he could break with the practice of past Presidents, both Republican and Democratic, and take a stand against corn subsidies.

Opposition to corn subsidies is an issue on which principled liberals and principled conservatives should agree.  The fact that their agreement does not change things shows how American politics is based on serving vested interests rather than conflicts of political principle.

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Can banks get away with breaking and entering?

November 29, 2011

Last year a company hired by JP Morgan Chase, without warning, broke into the home of a Florida woman named Nancy Jacobini while she was at home.  The bank apologized, but its contractor broke into the home a second time, which was after she filed suit in federal court.  The first time she was behind in some payments, but the bank had not foreclosed on her mortgage.

Jacobini’s lawyer Matthew Weidner said mortgage service companies across the country frequently break into people’s homes, change the locks and destroy and steal property—and local police do nothing about it.  Mortgage-holders do have a right to check up on property and enter abandoned property to make sure it is secure, but they do not have a right to enter a home with people in it without permission.  Nor do they have the right to damage someone else’s property.

A local police department conducting a raid on a drug house would have to get a judge to issue a warrant.  But big banks such as JP Morgan Chase and Bank of America, and their agents, act as if they are above the law.  Let’s hope they’re wrong.  A federal judge last week agreed to hear Jacobini’s case.

Click on Federal Judge Refuses to Dismiss Case Against JP Morgan Lender Processing Services for an account of the bank break-in on the Naked Capitalism web log.

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A crisis in democratic governance

November 28, 2011

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Where American life expectancy is declining

November 28, 2011

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Life expectancy, particularly for women, is actually declining in parts of Appalachia, the South and the Midwest.

From 1987 to 1997, there were 314 U.S. counties and county equivalents, out of 3,141, in which life expectancy for women failed to increase or actually declined.  From 1997 to 2007, there were 860 such counties, and 84 counties in which life expectancy for men was flat or declining.

The principal cause, experts say, is the increase in obesity among Americans, followed by increased smoking among American women.  Obesity is not a joke.  Michelle Obama deserves credit for focusing attention on this problem.

A team of writers in the New England Journal of Medicine said that unless current trends in obesity are reversed, American life expectancy will fall, and decades of gains in medicine and public health will be wiped out.

Unless effective population-level interventions to reduce obesity are developed, the steady rise in life expectancy observed in the modern era may soon come to an end and the youth of today may, on average, live less healthy and possibly even shorter lives than their parents.  The health and life expectancy of minority populations may be hit hardest by obesity, because within these subgroups, access to health care is limited and childhood and adult obesity has increased the fastest.

In fact, if the negative effect of obesity on life expectancy continues to worsen, and current trends in prevalence suggest it will, then gains in health and longevity that have taken decades to achieve may be quickly reversed.  The optimism of scientists and of policymaking bodies about the future course of life expectancy should be tempered by a realistic acknowledgment that major threats to the health and longevity of younger generations today are already visible.

Source: NEJM.

The bright side, they added ironically, is that the solvency of Social Security will cease to be an issue.

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True and false religion

November 27, 2011

True religion invites us to become better people.
False religion tells us this has already occurred.
    ==Adbul Hakim Murad

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Nine ways to cheer yourself up

November 26, 2011

The following bit of wisdom comes from Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, a book (which I haven’t read) about her experiences testing various theories on how to be happy.

Gretchen Rubin

1. Raise your activity level to pump up your energy.  If you’re on the phone, stand up and pace. Take the stairs instead of the elevator.  Put more energy into your voice.  Take a brisk 10-minute walk. Even better…

2. Take a walk outside.  Research suggests that light stimulates brain chemicals that improve mood.  For an extra boost, get your sunlight first thing in the morning.

3. Reach out.  Send an e-mail to a friend you haven’t seen in a while, or reach out to someone new.  Having close bonds with other people is one of the most important keys to happiness.  When you act in a friendly way, not only will others feel more friendly toward you, but you’ll also strengthen your feelings of friendliness for other people.

4. Rid yourself of a nagging task.  Deal with that insurance problem, purchase something you need, or make that long-postponed appointment with the dentist.  Crossing an irksome chore off your to-do list will give you a rush of elation.

5. Create a more serene environment.  Outer order contributes to inner peace, so spend some time organizing bills and tackling the piles in the kitchen.  A large stack of little tasks can feel overwhelming, but often just a few minutes of work can make a sizable dent.  Set the timer for 10 minutes and see what you can do.

6. Do a good deed.  Introduce two people by e-mail, take a minute to pass along useful information, or deliver some gratifying praise.  In fact, you can also…

7. Save someone’s life.  Sign up to be an organ donor, and remember to tell your family about your decision.  Do good, feel good―it really works!

8. Act happy.  Fake it ’til you feel it. Research shows that even an artificially induced smile boosts your mood.  And if you’re smiling, other people will perceive you as being friendlier and more approachable.

9. Learn something new.  Think of a subject that you wish you knew more about and spend 15 minutes on the Internet reading about it, or go to a bookstore and buy a book about it.  But be honest!  Pick a topic that really interests you, not something you think you “should” or “need to” learn about.

Source: Real Simple.

Click on The Happiness Project for  Gretchen Rubin’s home page.

Click on Gretchen Rubin’s secrets of adulthood for an earlier post of mine.

The Republican search for an alternative

November 25, 2011

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This graphic from Canada’s National Post. pretty well sums up the race for the Republican Presidential nomination to date.

I would have thought that Rick Perry, as the sitting governor of Texas, would have been the leading challenger of Mitt Romney for the Republican presidential nomination.  But the leading candidate now is Newt Gingrich, who holds the distinction of being the only Speaker of the House of Representatives to have been disciplined by a vote of the House, and one of 29 Representatives in American history to be censured or reprimanded by the House.

The House in 1997 voted 395 to  28 to reprimand Gingrich for misusing a tax exempt foundation for partisan Republican purposes and lying to the investigating committee about it.  He was charged with 84 ethics violations in all; in a kind of plea bargain, Gingrich agreed not to contest one of them and to pay a fine of $300,000 if the committee would drop the other 83, which involved, among other things, receiving improper gifts, contributions and support from GOPAC, the political action committee he once headed.

Soon after he resigned as Speaker, and then his seat in the House.

Gingrich as Speaker engineered a shutdown of the government in 1995 – a major step upward in the escalation of partisan political conflict.  I can’t take him seriously as a possible President.

But then, look at the others.

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Self-cloning computer virus infects drone control

November 25, 2011

A persistent computer virus was found a couple of months ago on the  computer systems ground pilots use to fly the Reaper and Predator drones over Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries.

The virus inflected the systems at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, which controls most of the drones worldwide.  It is what is known as a keylogger, a virus that stores every keystroke made on a computer and resists deletion.  Every time the virus is deleted, it simply makes a copy of itself.

A reporter for the Las Vegas Review-Journal said the virus is one commonly used to steal passwords and logins from on-line gambling games.  It isn’t spyware; it may well have gotten into the system by accident (!).  Air Force spokesmen say the virus hasn’t hindered drone missions or created any security leaks (that they know of).  And if mission control is compromised, the Air Force says, the drone has its own programming that will lead it to complete its mission.

But security breaches have happened in the past.  In 2009, video feeds from U.S. drone aircraft were found on Iraqi insurgents’ laptop computers.  Noah Schachtman and Nathan Hodge, of Wired magazine’s Danger Room, reported on the significance of this.

“Folks are not merely going to listen/watch what we do when they intercept the feeds, but also start to conduct ‘battles of persuasion’; that is, hacking with the intent to disrupt or change the content, or even ‘persuade’ the system to do their own bidding,” Peter Singer, author of Wired for War, tells Danger Room.

This has long been the nightmare scenario within Pentagon cybersecurity circles: a hacker not looking to take down the military grid, but to exploit it for his own purposes.  How does a soldier trust an order, if he doesn’t know who else is listening — or who gave the order, in the first place? 

“For a sophisticated adversary, it’s to his advantage to keep your network up and running.  He can learn what you know. He can cause confusion, delay your response times — and shape your actions,” one Defense Department cybersecurity official tells Danger Room.

Source: Danger Room | Wired.com.

I don’t know what is the more alarming thought—the possibility that a malicious hacker could take over control of U.S. flying killer robots, or the idea that the U.S. flying killer robots can operate without human control.  But evidently there’s no cause for alarm—for now.

Click on Computer Virus Hits U.S. Drone Fleet for a report on the self-cloning virus on Wired magazine’s Danger Room.

Click on Insurgents Intercept Drone Video in King-Sized Security Breach for Schachtman’s and Hodge’s full Danger Room report on how drone video feeds were found on Iraqi insurgents’ laptop computers.

Click on Creech virus a common ‘nuisance’ virus aimed at on-line gaming for the report in the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Hat tip to New Scientist.

The carbon footprints of nations

November 25, 2011

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Carbon emissions are one of the main contributors to global climate change.  If we don’t want the world to burn up by the time our grandchildren grow old, we have to get control of them.

This chart compares total carbon emissions by nations in the left chart, and carbon emissions per person in the right chart.  China and the USA, which have the two largest economies and are among the world’s largest nations in population (China No. 1, the USA No. 3, with India No. 2), put more carbon into the atmosphere than any other nations.  Yet if you look at it on a per-person basis, China is hardly noticeable while the United States is not greatly different from other industrial nations.

The biggest emitters on a per-person basis are small island nations such as Gibraltar, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Singapore, which can hardly be found on the left-hand chart, and some of the oil producing nations of the Persian Gulf, such as Qatar.

What happens when China’s and India’s carbon footprints are as high on a per-person basis as Hong Kong’s or Taiwan’s—let alone the USA’s or Europe’s?  How long does it take to burn up the planet?  How long does it take use up the world’s heritage of fossil fuels, even with deep water drilling and mountaintop removal?

And  if that is the case, how can we Americans preach to the people of China and India to restrict themselves when we are unwilling to restrict ourselves?  Barring discovery of some entirely new source of energy, our choices are a voluntary shift to renewable energy and greater energy efficiency, or radical climate change and a crash in our material standard of living.

The world’s future will be determined largely by the big industrial countries – the United States, China, Japan, India and the major European countries – but there is a lot of room for improvement in the small countries as well.

Click on Tracking Climate Change for the original infographic on the Miller-McCune web site.  Hat tip to Column Five Media.

Rochester’s Union Thanksgiving Service

November 24, 2011

Third Presbyterian

I celebrated Thanksgiving by attending an interfaith Union Thanksgiving Service this morning at Third Presbyterian Church here in Rochester, N.Y., with participating clergy from the home church, First Baptist Church, First Unitarian Church, First Universalist Church, Temple Beth El, Temple B’rith Kodesh, and Temple Sinai.

A Muslim representing the Islamic Center of Rochester preached the sermon, on the Quran’s teaching of the duty to be grateful for God’s blessings.  A member of Our Lady Queen of Peace Catholic Church played the organ.

Union Thanksgiving Services have been held in Rochester every year starting in 1874, when First Unitarian, First Universalist and Temple B’rith Kodesh held a joint Thanksgiving service.  Our claim is that it is the longest-running Union Thanksgiving Service in the United States.

The hosting of the services is rotated among the participating congregations, and the different parts of the service are rotated among the participating clergy.  Next year Temple B’rith Kodesh will host the service, and somebody from First Baptist Church will give the sermon.

One exception to the rotation is the Muslim call to prayer, which is part of each year’s service.  When done properly, it is very powerful and penetrating, and I can imagine someone on a minaret being heard for a mile or more.  This year’s caller was a college student, who wasn’t quite as powerful as some of the more experience callers in prior years.

Another thing we always have is the blowing of the shofar, or ram’s horn, which is part of Jewish worship.  This year the blower played a kind of tune on the shofar, which I’d never heard before and wouldn’t have been sure was possible.

Giving of thanks for blessings, and celebration of harvest-time festivals around harvest-time, are part of every religion and culture of which I know.  Knowing I live in a world where people are still killing each other in the name of religion, I feel good when I am able to attend an interfaith service such as this.

I wouldn’t be so bold as to claim that interfaith religious services happen only in America, but I think they represent what is good in American life—the willingness of people of diverse heritages to seek common ground.

“When you arise in the morning, give thanks”

November 24, 2011

Chief Tecumseh

I’ve always liked the following quote, which is attributed to Chief Tecumseh.

Live your life so the fear of death can never enter your heart. When you arise in the morning, give thanks for your life and your strength.  Give thanks for your food and the joy of living.  And if perchance you see no reason for thanks, rest assured the fault is in yourself.

I’m not sure the quote is correctly attributed, but I like it.

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“Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%”

November 23, 2011

What difference does it make that 1 percent of the U.S. population gets nearly 25 percent of the income and owns about 40 percent of the national wealth?  Quite a bit, according to Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize economist, when the 1 percent are steadily gaining and the vast majority are falling behind.

An economy in which most citizens are doing worse year after year—an economy like America’s—is not likely to do well over the long haul. There are several reasons for this.

  • First, growing inequality is the flip side of something else: shrinking opportunity. Whenever we diminish equality of opportunity, it means that we are not using some of our most valuable assets—our people—in the most productive way possible.
  • Second, many of the distortions that lead to inequality—such as those associated with monopoly power and preferential tax treatment for special interests—undermine the efficiency of the economy. This new inequality goes on to create new distortions, undermining efficiency even further. To give just one example, far too many of our most talented young people, seeing the astronomical rewards, have gone into finance rather than into fields that would lead to a more productive and healthy economy.
  • Third, and perhaps most important, a modern economy requires “collective action”—it needs government to invest in infrastructure, education, and technology. The United States and the world have benefited greatly from government-sponsored research that led to the Internet, to advances in public health, and so on. But America has long suffered from an under-investment in infrastructure (look at the condition of our highways and bridges, our railroads and airports), in basic research, and in education at all levels. Further cutbacks in these areas lie ahead.

None of this should come as a surprise—it is simply what happens when a society’s wealth distribution becomes lopsided.  The more divided a society becomes in terms of wealth, the more reluctant the wealthy become to spend money on common needs.  The rich don’t need to rely on government for parks or education or medical care or personal security—they can buy all these things for themselves.  In the process, they become more distant from ordinary people, losing whatever empathy they may once have had.  They also worry about strong government—one that could use its powers to adjust the balance, take some of their wealth, and invest it for the common good.

The top 1 percent may complain about the kind of government we have in America, but in truth they like it just fine: too gridlocked to re-distribute, too divided to do anything but lower taxes.

Source: Vanity Fair.

That’s why books like Thomas L. Friedman’s and Michael Mandelbaum’s That Used to Be Us are inadequate.  Friedman and Mandelbaum want a rising economic tide, but they don’t give any thought to whether it will lift all boats.

Child sex abuse and the Penn State scandal

November 22, 2011

As a nation, we Americans are hyper-conscious of child sex abuse.  School teachers tell me that they are told never to take a crying child into their arms to comfort them.  Touching a child for any reason leaves you vulnerable to accusations of fondling.  During the 1980s and early 1990s, operators of day care centers went to prison on charges of “satanic child abuse” which were totally without foundation.

Yet, at the same time, real abusers of children embedded within powerful institutions seem to go unpunished.  It is an open secret that rape of men is common in many American prisons, including juvenile detention centers; an estimated one in eight detained children suffers abuse in any given year.  Roman Catholic prelates for years protected and covered up for priests who abused young boys.  And now we have the Penn State scandal

Former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky has been indicted on 40 counts of child molestation of eight underage boys on or near university property from 1994 through 2009, and high-level university officials have lost their jobs for allegedly ignoring or covering up Sandusky’s activities.  Criminal guilt is for a judge and jury to decide.  All I will say is that the facts brought to light so far indicate that the Grand Jury had good reason to indict Coach Jerry Sandusky, and that school president Graham Spanier and head football coach Joe Paterno, regardless of what they knew, didn’t know or didn’t want to know, were responsible for what went on in their domains.

I don’t know what assistant coach Mike McQueary saw Jerry Sandusky doing with a young boy in a shower, but his action—leaving the scene and reporting to higher authority—conforms pretty much to what I remember being told in corporate training about sexual harassment.  I was told that you shouldn’t intervene yourself, but should report to the human resources department or other corporate authority.  When individuals act on their own, organizations are at risk for two things they try to avoid at all costs: (1) bad publicity and (2) lawsuits.

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An establishment view of U.S. economic woes

November 21, 2011

New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman and Johns Hopkins professor Michael Mandelbaum are nostalgic for the 1960s and 1970s, the days of their youth.  Despite all the turmoil of those years, Americans enjoyed the widely-shared fruits of a productive economy.  They wrote That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back as a recipe for bringing those days back.

I think their book is significant because it represents the consensus of a major part of the American business and political establishment, including President Obama.  All the public officials, business executives and academics whom they interview, except for a few spunky entrepreneurs, are members of that elite.  None speak for workers, for retirees or for the general public.

Although there is much in their book that is true and important, the truths they leave out are essential to understanding.  American prosperity of the 1960s and 1970s was based not only on a highly productive manufacturing economy, which they hope to restore, but also on a good social safety net, good public services, high wages and low unemployment, which they ignore.  They say nothing about what to do about Wall Street’s shift from investment in industry to exploitation of debt, or about the continuing upward redistribution of income to the top 1 percent.

They call upon American working people to work harder, pay higher taxes and be more creative while putting up with increasing stress, less job security, static income and less availability of medical care in retirement—which they have been doing for the past 10 or 15 years.  And, they say, everyone must, literally, be above average in creativity, or they are doomed to failure.

Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum

The main forces shaping the U.S. economy, the authors write, are globalization, the information technology revolution, budget deficits, energy consumption outrunning supply and global climate change.

They list five pillars of prosperity: (1) investment in public education, (2)  investment in a modern infrastructure, (3) attraction of talented and skilled immigrants, (4) investment in research and development and (5) reasonable regulation to protect the environment, ensure financial stability, encourage capital flow, protect intellectual property and encourage small business and venture capitalists.  They correctly point out that the United States needs nuclear power.  They say a United States of Deferred Maintenance cannot compete with a People’s Republic of Deferred Gratification.   I agree with all this.

One of their good insights is how, under certain circumstances, wise regulation can enhance the free market.  California’s high fuel emissions standards gave the auto industry an incentive to produce less-polluting and more fuel-efficient cars, which was done.  A carbon cap and trade system (first proposed by the elder President George Bush, by the way) would provide incentives for cutting back on fossil fuels and developing renewable energy sources.

The real causes of the deficit

All these things cost money, and they want to bring down the federal debt at the same time.  Where is the money to come from?  Not much from the military budget, because Friedman and Mandelbaum think the United States has a obligation to maintain sufficient military forces to police the world.  So, in their view, it will be necessary to raise taxes, and cut Social Security and Medicare.

Unfortunately, they say, Republicans are adamantly opposed to cutting taxes, and Democrats are opposed to making the elder accept lower incomes and less medical care.  In these and other respects, they think the two parties are equally bad.  The Democrats are bad because they defend the public employee unions, whose resistance to cuts in wages and benefits are a major problem, but Republicans also are bad because they refuse to accept the reality of global climate change.

This is a false equivalence.  Social Security is funded sufficiently to provide current benefits for decades, and only a few minor tweaks could maintain current benefits indefinitely  Medicare, for all its flaws, delivers health care more efficiently than private plans.  The best way to bring down Medicare costs is not to raise the eligibility age, but to create a single-payer system that does without private insurance companies and bargains with drug companies.  None of this is mentioned in the book.

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Doing what they were trained to do?

November 21, 2011

Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore City policeman who now teaches criminal justice at John Jay College in New York City, wrote that police are now told in training to use pepper spray and Tasers not just to protect themselves, but to enforce compliance with orders.

In the police academy, I was taught to pepper-spray people for non-compliance.  I.e.: “Put your hands behind your back or I’ll… Mace you.” It’s crazy.  Of course we didn’t do it this way, the way we were taught. Baltimore police officers are too smart to start urban race riots based on some dumb-ass training.  So what did we do to gain compliance?  We grabbed people.  Hands on.  Like real police.  And we were good at it.

Some people, perhaps those who design training programs, think policing should be a hands-off job.  It can’t be and shouldn’t be.  And trying to make policing too hands-off means people get Tased and Maced for non-compliance.  It’s not right.  But this is the way many police are trained.  That’s a shame.  (Mind you, I have no problem using such less-lethal weapons on actual physical threats, but peaceful non-compliance is different.)

Source: The Washington Monthly – Ten Miles Square.  (Hat tip to Ta-Nehesi Coates.)

Is this true?  Is this what police are told to do in training?  If that’s so, the policeman who sprayed the peaceful demonstrators was just doing what he was trained to do.  And it becomes easier to understand the numerous incidents of senior citizens, physically handicapped people and mentally retarded people being Tasered, sometimes fatally, when they pose no threat.

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The here and next

November 20, 2011

These are my sentiments in regard to my own life.  I have lived a fortunate life, and I love the life I lead now.   I wish I could say the same thing in regard to the United States as a whole.

My favorite planet

November 19, 2011

When I consider the state of politics and the economy, I feel depressed.  When I contemplate the state of science and the arts, I cheer up.

Michael Konig of Berlin made this video from still photographs taken by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration from the International Space Station.  It is a kind of interface of science and the arts.

Click on Earth | Time Lapse View from Space, Fly Over for background on this video, and Michael Konig, Berlin for his home page.  Hat tip to Jason Kottke.

GE Filed 57,000-Page Tax Return, Paid No Taxes

November 18, 2011

General Electric, one of the largest corporations in America, filed a whopping 57,000-page federal tax return earlier this year but didn’t pay taxes on $14 billion in profits. The return, which was filed electronically, would have been 19 feet high if printed out and stacked.

Click on GE Paid No Taxes for the full article in the Weekly Standard.  [Hat tip to The Big Picture]

[11/19/11]  One thing that could be done about things like this is require public corporations to state their profits in the same way in their tax returns and in their reports to stockholders.

[11/22/11]  Click on G.E.’s Strategies Let It Avoid Taxes Altogether for a New York Times article explaining how General Electric organizes its business to avoid paying taxes.

U.S. corporate taxes generally have been going down.  The graph below shows corporate taxes as a fraction of corporate profits.

Click on Corporate Taxation in America for the source of the chart and comment by Kevin Drum of Mother Jones.

A modest health care reform

November 17, 2011

When Washington Post reporter Thomas R. Reid visited a doctor’s office in France, he saw a chart on the wall of the waiting room listing the fee for every medical procedure.  But when he inquired about the cost of a medical procedure under the Washington Post’s health plan, he found that information was not available.  I don’t know the costs of my own medical procedures until after the fact; all I know in advance is my co-pay.

That was because health providers charge different fees, depending upon the health insurance plan and the bargaining power of the insurer.  The patients who are worst off are those who pay their own bills; they don’t have any bargaining power.

I think physicians and other health care providers should be required to have uniform fees for all patients, and to reveal these fees to anybody who wants to know.

Patti Singer had a good column in yesterday’s Democrat and Chronicle about the wisdom of having health insurance with as high a co-pay as you can afford.  The higher co-pay would normally be offset by the lower premiums.  But to make an intelligent judgment, you would have to know what you were being charged for various medical services.

Click on Pay as you go health plan may be for you for Patti Singer’s column.

Click on Why we pay so much for health care for my review of T.R. Reid’s book.

Legal protection for blogger/journalists?

November 17, 2011

My friend Anne, a former newspaper reporter and editor, e-mailed me this press release from the University of Iowa.

The line between journalist and blogger keeps getting thinner, and a University of Iowa College of Law legal analyst believes courts need to develop a way to determine which bloggers should have the legal protections afforded traditional journalists.

The analysis, by third-year law student Benjamin Wischnowski, notes that current judicial tests fail to properly identify those bloggers who should be protected by state shield laws that guard journalists in their news gathering.

“The concern is that shield laws present the risk of being under-inclusive by failing to protect bloggers who are legitimate news gatherers, but that they might also be over-inclusive and protect too many bloggers based on a vague, undefined notion of investigative reporting,” Wischnowski says.  “The fact that courts could reach these two contrary results leads me to conclude that courts need more concrete tests for dealing specifically with bloggers.”

… … He suggests courts adopt a test that determines whether a blogger’s work can be considered legitimate journalism by how well it capitalizes on the blog as a medium.  Namely, whether the blogger makes her story available for online editing by readers — a form of crowd-sourcing — and whether she collaborates with other bloggers or readers, for instance, through a comments section.

The court would then determine whether that level of interaction is enough for a reader to understand that the blogger is practicing journalism and disseminating legitimate journalism, or is merely publishing libelous or defamatory statements about another person or organization.  Shield law protections can then be extended if the blogger’s work is considered legitimate news reporting

Shield laws for bloggers are problematic for the same reason that shield laws for journalists are problematic.  They create rights limited to a category of people designated as journalists by some governmental or legal authority.  The great press critic, A.J. Leibling, wrote cynically that “freedom of the press belongs to those who own one,” but the benefit of the age of the Internet is that freedom of the press belongs to all.  Net neutrality is more important to bloggers than any shield law.

The press release distinguishes between legitimate bloggers and those who merely use the Internet to publish defamatory or libelous statements.  I know enough about law to know that shield laws do not shield you from libel or slander suits (nor should they).  Saying that you got your information from a confidential source is not a defense.

What is needed is legal protection for whistleblowers.  It should not be a crime to reveal secret corporate or governmental information, no matter what kind of a confidentiality agreement you’ve signed, if the purpose of the secrecy is to conceal wrongdoing from the public.

Click on Law school analysis suggests legal protection for blogger/journalists  for the full press release.

Remember Saul Alinsky’s Rule No. 7

November 16, 2011

In the years preceding the Civil War, the great Unitarian preacher, William Ellery Channing, criticized the abolitionists of his day for their harsh rhetoric and, as he saw it, counter-productive tactics.  They heard him out and replied that no doubt they were not campaigning as effectively against slavery as Channing could have, but, until he joined their cause, they would have to do as well as they could without him.

I am not part of the Occupy movement, although I agree with its goals, and possibly members of the movement feel the same way about unasked advice as the abolitionists did in Channing’s day.  Even so, I recommend that they consider Rule No. 7 of Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals.  That rule is as follows.

A tactic that drags on for too long becomes a drag.

Occupy Wall Street and the other Occupy groups have spent the past two and a half months drawing attention to income inequality in the United States by the simple method of camping out in public parks.

They have been surprisingly successful in raising the awareness of the American public.  The slogan, “We Are the 99 Percent,” was brilliant.  It focuses attention on a tiny elite control our economy and polity and operate it for their benefit, not ours.

The chart shows the number of hits in Nexis searches on the words “income inequality” in news stories.  The number rose from 91,000 just before Occupy Wall Street began to more than 500,000 now.  That is a good achievement for a movement that arose spontaneously without any central organization.

But at some point, especially with winter coming on, I think the Occupy movement is going to need an Act Two.  The longer the camp-outs last, the more vulnerable Occupy will be to infiltration by people who do not share its goals or respect its methods.  The longer they last, the more attention will be paid to questions of park permits and police behavior, and the less to the financial oligarchy that enriches itself by getting control of other people’s money.  The longer they last, the greater the cost to local communities who are, after all, members of the 99 percent.

And, at the end of the day, turf wars over use of public spaces do not threaten the financial and political elite.  They can wait in their warm rooms for the Occupy movement to grow weary.

Click on Rules for Radicals for Saul Alinsky’s complete list of rules.

Click on What Should Occupy Wall Street Do Next? for Elias Isquith’s suggestion on the League of Ordinary Gentlemen web site that the Occupy movement devote itself to registering voters and fighting voter disenfranchisement.

Click on Occupy the foreclosure crisis for Fred Clark’s suggestion on his slacktivist web log that the Occupy movement fight improper foreclosures and evictions.

Trashing the Occupy Wall Street library

November 16, 2011

The Occupy Wall Street Library before the eviction. AP photo in Los Angeles Times.

My friend Michael visited the Occupy Wall Street encampment in Manhattan some weeks ago.  He was much impressed by the friendliness and politeness of the occupiers, and their desire to explain what they were up to.

He also was impressed by the occupiers’ thirst for knowledge about the U.S. political and economic system, and by the impromptu library they organized of more than 5,000 books.  Meaningful knowledge isn’t easy to obtain if you rely on network television and the mainstream press for information, or if you don’t know where to look.  I’m often astonished at the lack of knowledge of history and government of even well-educated people, but few in our entertainment/advertising/media culture do anything to spread such knowledge.

Michael said he won’t easily forget the image of a librarian, standing in the rain under an umbrella, carefully classifying books under the Dewey decimal system.

I was outraged when I read that how the police marched in, gave the occupiers 10 minutes to leave, and then shoved all their property that they couldn’t carry away on foot, including the books, into a dumpster.

Then I read a news item saying that the New York Department of Sanitation said it had the books at one of its facilities and that they could be claimed by the owners.  But the fact was that most of the books were destroyed, or rendered unusable.

Occupy Wall Street is reconstituting the library.  What more eloquent symbol of the struggle between intelligence and brute force!

Click on Ex Libris: About those 5,554 books in the Occupy Wall Street Library for a full account of what happened.

Click on The Occupy Wall Street Library | The People’s Library at Liberty Plaza for the Occupy Wall Street Library’s web page.

The clampdown on Occupy Wall Street

November 16, 2011

The crackdown on the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York City early Tuesday morning appears to be part of a coordinated national crackdown.

If the Department of Homeland Security is involved in coordinating the crackdown, that is disturbing on a number of counts.  It shows that President Obama is on the side of Wall Street, and it shows that an agency purportedly set up to protect the American people from a foreign aggressor is being used against the people instead.

Over the past ten days, more than a dozen cities have moved to evict “Occupy” protesters from city parks and other public spaces.  As was the case in last night’s move in New York City, each of the police actions shares a number of characteristics.  And according to one Justice official, each of those actions was coordinated with help from Homeland Security, the FBI and other federal police agencies.

The official, who spoke on background to me late Monday evening, said that while local police agencies had received tactical and planning advice from national agencies, the ultimate decision on how each jurisdiction handles the Occupy protests ultimately rests with local law enforcement.

According to this official, in several recent conference calls and briefings, local police agencies were advised to seek a legal reason to evict residents of tent cities, focusing on zoning laws and existing curfew rules.  Agencies were also advised to demonstrate a massive show of police force, including large numbers in riot gear. In particular, the FBI reportedly advised on press relations, with one presentation suggesting that any moves to evict protesters be coordinated for a time when the press was the least likely to be present.

via Minneapolis Top News | Examiner.com.

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