Archive for April, 2012

200 TARP banks behind on payments

April 30, 2012

It’s said that the bank bailout was a success because all the funds advanced under the Troubled Asset Relief Program have been paid back.  Well, not exactly.

Christy L. Romano, special TARP inspector general, recently reported to Congress than TARP is on track to lose $60 billion.  Taxpayers are still owed $118.5 billion, including $14 billion that has been written off or lost.

Click on Debunking Bailout Myths for details.

I don’t think anybody is going to go to debtors’ prison over this.

Debtors’ prisons in 21st century USA

April 30, 2012

When I was a boy in school, I was astonished to learn that there was such a thing as imprisonment for debt in 19th century Great Britain and the United States.  It didn’t make sense.  If somebody owes you money, how can they pay it back if they’re in jail.

Imprisonment for debt was abolished in the United States in the 1830s, but now it is making a comeback.  Here are some examples:

  • Breast cancer survivor Lisa Lindsay, a teaching associate in Herrin in southern Illinois, was sent a $280 medical bill in error and was told she didn’t have to pay it.  But the bill was turned over to a collection agency which got a court order, resulting in state troopers taking her from her home to jail in handcuffs.  She ended in paying $600 in collection and court costs just to settle the case.
  • Disabled roofer Jack Hinton, also an Illinois resident, was jailed for failing to make a $300 payment on an old debt to a lumberyard which he was under a court order to pay.  The judge said he was in defiance of the court court because he once had $1,000 in cash, although Hinton said he used the money to pay other bills.  Hinton’s wife got him out of jail by borrowing $300.
  • Jeffrey Stearns, owner of a concrete company in Hancock County, Ill., was arrested at his home for not paying $4,088 on a loan he took out to buy a pickup truck.  He was handcuffed in the presence of his four children and taken to jail, where he was strip searched and sprayed for lice.  He didn’t deny owing the money, but said he didn’t know he was being sued.

Iif you borrow money, you have a moral obligation to repay it, but I don’t believe this moral obligation overrides everything else in life, for example, the obligation to keep your children fed, clothed and sheltered.  If someone willfully refuses to pay their legitimate debts, creditors are entitled to garnish their wages or seize and sell their assets.  If someone owes more than they possibly can pay, then they can go through bankruptcy and pay what they can.  There is no need for imprisonment.

Technically none of these people were arrested for debt as such.  They were arrested for paying to obey court orders.  It amounts to the same thing.  In some states, courts and governments actively add to debtors’ burdens.  Alabama charges a 30 percent collection fee. Florida allows private collection agencies to add a 40 percent surcharge.  In addition, many Florida counties have private collection courts, which have the authority to send debtors to prison but there is no right to a public defender.

Another abuse is charging for access to the legal system.  Alex Tabarrok, who posts on the Marginal Revolution web log, wrote that some states charge fees for public defender services, pre-trial jail expenses and court costs even when the person is acquitted of the crime.   People can go to jail for not paying up, or they can lose their driver’s licenses—which is almost as bad as being in jail in terms of employment.

Click on Jailed for $280 and Welcome to Debtors’ Prison by CBS News and Debtors’ Prison for Failure to Pay for Your Own Trial by Alex Tabarrok on the Marginal Revolution web log for the sources of my facts and additional details.

Nonviolent resistance to Hitler?

April 29, 2012

On this web log, I favorably reviewed two of Gene Sharp’s manuals for nonviolent resistant to despots.  A friend asked if I think nonviolent resistance would have worked against Hitler.

His ideas rest on the truth that the power of a tyrant is the power to command the obedience of the people he rules.  To the extent that they cease to obey, his power disappears.  Gene Sharp cited examples of successful nonviolent resistance to Hitler, including Norwegian school teachers who successfully resisted demands that they teach Nazi doctrines, and German women married to Jewish men whose protests caused the German government to rescind orders to deport their husbands to death camps.

But nonviolent resistance would not work for peoples marked for extermination or ethnic cleansing.  this would not work for the Jews, gypsies and others marked for extermination.  Hitler did not wish to rule the Jews, gypsies and others marked for extermination.   He wished to eliminate them.  Nonviolent resistance would not have been an obstacle to that goal.

I am not a pacifist.  I understand that war is sometimes the least bad option.  I do not think that the line between nonviolent and violent resistance is always clear.  Many campaigns of mass defiance involve both.   A nonviolent struggle has the merit of being inherently democratic, in the way that many seizures of power in the name of liberation did not.  M.K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. had power that rested on the voluntary compliance of their followers.  Unlike the leaders of many supposed liberation movements, they didn’t kill people to keep their followers in line.

Click on The realism of nonviolent action for my review of Gene Sharp’s The Politics of Nonviolent Action.

Click on Gene Sharp’s revolution handbook for my review of his From Dictatorship to Democracy.

Click on Gene Sharp: A dictator’s worst nightmare for a good profile by CNN.  [Added 6/27/12]

Nuclear options, red and blue

April 27, 2012

American Extremists - Nuclear option (red edition)

American Extremists - Nuclear option (blue edition)

Click on American Extremists for more cartoons.

The essence of Obamacare

April 26, 2012

Click to view.

I don’t know whether the Affordable Care Act — also known as Obamacare — is a good thing or not.  It could be, but I’m not sure it will be.  But if the mandate that all individuals buy health insurance is declared unconstitutional, then Congress might as well repeal the whole law and start over.

The problem with U.S. health insurance is that we Americans spend more on medical care than the people of any other advanced nation and, in fact, our government spends more than the governments of most nations, and yet we have 47 million people uninsured.

Candidate Barack Obama proposed an alternative, which he called the public option.  The government would set up its own insurance plan which would accept anybody who applied.  The theory was that since (contrary to widespread belief) government systems are so much more efficient than for-profit systems, the public option could still compete even if it had to accept people with pre-existing conditions.  You could choose between a public option where 5 percent or so of premiums went to overhead, as with Medicare and Medicaid, or a for-profit system where more than 30 percent of premiums went to overhead and profit, or you could opt to pay your medical bills yourself (good luck on that!).

In office, President Barack Obama evidently decided that this was not politically feasible.  Instead he supported what became the Affordable Care Act requires everybody to buy health insurance, like it or not, just as state laws require every driver to buy automobile insurance.

For-profit insurance companies have an incentive to spend as little as possible on actual medical care.  The payout to patients is called the “loss ratio.”  The law attempts to get around this by means of regulation.  It requires insurance companies to spend 80 to 85 percent of what they collect in premiums on medical care or improved health.  There are many potential pitfalls in his, including decisions as to what expenses are included in the 80 to 85 percent.  But if this provision really is enforced, the Affordable Care Act could be an improvement over the existing system.

But the new law couldn’t work without the mandate that every individual be required to buy health insurance.  Otherwise the only people in the system would be poor, sick people, and premiums would have to be enormous.

Back in the glory days of Eastman Kodak Co., the Rochester, N.Y., was considered a model for health insurance.  Hillary Clinton came to Rochester to call attention to our good system.  What made it work was that Eastman Kodak Co. allowed its employees to be insured in a community-wide system.  Because Kodak employees were healthy and solvent, that lowered the overall cost of insuring the people of the community.  Later, when Kodak fell on hard times, the company withdrew and set up its own health insurance system.  And now, with the company in bankruptcy proceedings, many of my friends who’ve retired from Kodak are worried about whether they’ll keep their health insurance.  I think it is unrealistic and unfair to saddle private corporations with responsibility for public welfare unrelated to their business.  But that’s another story.

Click on Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act wiki for Wikipedia’s excellent explanation of the provisions of this complicated law.

Click on Medical Loss Ratio: Getting Your Money’s Worth on Health Insurance for an explanation of the Affordable Care Act’s provisions requiring 80 to 85 percent of premiums be used for actual medical and health costs.

Click on Supreme Court and Obamacare for an argument as to why the Affordable Care Act is constitutional.

Click on Obamacare Has Already Transformed U.S. Health Care for Business Week’s analysis of the impact of the Affordable Care Act.

Click on What Mitt Romney Would Do In Place of Obamacare for a speculative article analyzing Governor Romney’s campaign statements.

Click on Why I Do Not Like Providing Health Insurance to My Employees for an argument against employer-provided health insurance.

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The student loan crisis

April 26, 2012

This video is a good summary of the larger problem of higher education behind the student loan debt problem.  Nowadays young people believe that the only way to be able to earn a decent living is to have the credential of a college degree.  Employers use the college degree as a way to sort job applicants, even when you don’t really need to have taken college courses in order to qualify for the job.  But increasing the number of college graduates doesn’t, in and of itself, increase the number of jobs.  Instead it raises the hurdle to qualify for a good job.

The Foundation for Economic Education, which produced this video, is a right-wing libertarian organization which thinks government programs do more harm than good.  I don’t think that’s always true, but in this case I have to agree.  The Foundation is right to say that it was irresponsible in encouraging young people to take on debt regardless of their potential ability to repay.  It also is right to say that putting more cash in the hands of students does no good if that cash is absorbed by increased tuition.

Click on The Freeman | Ideas on Liberty for more from the Foundation for Economic Education.

The explosion in student loan debt

April 26, 2012

Speaking in North Carolina yesterday, President Barack Obama had this to say about student loan debt.

For the first eight years of our marriage, [Michelle and I] were paying more in student loans than what we were paying for our mortgage.  So we know what this is about.

And we were lucky to land good jobs with a steady income.  But we only finished paying off our student loans—check this out, all right, I’m the President of the United States—we only finished paying off our student loans about eight years ago.

via Obama for America 

Click to view.

That’s really something.  I never had to think about student debt when I sent to college in the 1950s.  In that era, public universities provided an affordable college education for everybody who was capable of doing college work.

President Obama, and also Governor Mitt Romney, favor extension of a 2007 law which freezes interest rates on subsidized Stafford student loans.  If the law is not extended, interest rates will rise from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent a year, with an added annual debt burden of nearly $1,o00 for the average new college graduate.

This will subtract $6 billion a year from federal revenues.  Romney said there needs to be an offset by cutting federal spending, but he didn’t say where.  Obama hasn’t said anything about the budget impact.

The real problem, as I see it, is that it doesn’t get at the real problem, which is the high cost of college tuition.  So long as college and university administrators are guided by economic incentives alone, making more money available to students will simply result in increases in tuition.

Nor does it address the debt burden of existing college graduates.  Note that the College Cost Reduction and Access Act was phased in slowly, so only a minority even of those who graduated after 2007 got the full benefit of the interest rate reduction.

Click on Student loan debt is growing at an accelerating rate for more facts and figures on student loan debt.

Click on Student Loan Debt Exceeds One Trillion Dollars for background from National Public Radio on extension of the College Cost Reduction and Access Act.  The charts I’ve found indicate that student loan debt actually is less than $1 trillion, but it is on track to reach that level.

Click on The next act in the student loan fight: Offsetting the cost of lower rates for background from the Washington Post on the budget impact of extending the law.

Click on Dissecting the Fight Over Student Loans for Talking Point Memo’s report on Democratic and Republican differences over how to handle the budget impact.

The Pentagon and American R&D

April 26, 2012

The U.S. Department of Defense designated the STC Center at Canandaigua, a branch of New York State University at Albany, as a “trusted foundry” for nanotechnology, the Democrat and Chronicle reported this morning.

Nanotechnology creates devices that operate at the molecular and cellular level.  It is a crucially important technology of the future, and has applications for medicine, electronics and much else.  It is good that the Pentagon sees the importance of supporting this domestic industry, and it is good that it has the freedom to invest in U.S. technology.

A great many important technologies have come out of U.S. military research and development, including nuclear energy, the Internet and robotics technology.  Still, I have misgivings about the military orientation of American R&D.   What happens to our R&D if the United States no longer finds itself engaged in perpetual warfare, and we cut out military down to the size of other great powers?

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Julian Assange has his own TV program

April 25, 2012

Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, now has his own TV program, The World Tomorrow, on the RT (Russia Today) 24-hour news network.   Despite his dangerous situation [1], he looks like he is having a good time.

His first program, shown above, was broadcast last week.  It was an interview with Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, with a video hookup between Assange in England and Nasrallah at a secret location in Lebanon.  The interview is shown above.  I thought Assange provided an interesting and informative look at a figure who is little-known in the United States.  I admire his journalistic professionalism and his interviewing technique.  Assange asked probing questions in a civil manner, then allowed his subject to answer without interruption.

His second program, shown below, was broadcast yesterday.  It was less successful, in my opinion.  It was a joint interview with David Horowitz, once a left-wing radical who supported the Black Panthers and now a right-wing Zionist, and Slavoj Zizek, once a dissident in Communist Yugoslavia and now a proponent of Communism 2.0, a new version without the mistakes of the old.  I imagine Assange’s idea was to have the two of them tell their stories, which would have been fascinating, but instead he allowed the program to be dominated by Horowitz’s ranting against the supposedly left-wing President Obama [2].  Horowitz wasn’t engaged in conversation.  He was playing for Team Right against Team Left.

Assange’s program will be broadcast on Tuesdays.  I intend to watch it on YouTube every Wednesday, and I will post a YouTube link to any program I find especially interesting.

Swedish television did an excellent documentary on Julian Assange in December, 2010, to which I linked in a post.  The documentary was taken down, but I found a new version, which I include in my links menu under Important Documentaries.  I also inserted the new version in the original post.

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Social Security fund insolvent? running dry?

April 24, 2012

SOCIAL SECURITY CLOSER TO INSOLVENCY: Government says trust funds will run dry in 2033.

That was the headline over the lede [1] story this morning in my local newspaper, the Democrat and Chronicle.  Stephen Ohlemacher, the Associated Press reporter, began as follows:

Social Security is rushing even faster toward insolvency, driven by retiring baby boomers, a weak economy and politicians’ reluctance to take painful action to fix the huge retirement and disability program.

The trust funds that support Social Security will run dry in 2033—three years earlier than previously projected—the government said Monday.

There was no change in the year that Medicare’s hospital insurance fund is projected to run out of money.  It’s still 2024. … …

But then when you get to paragraph six, you learn what “running dry” means.

If the Social Security and Medicare funds ever become exhausted, the nation’s two biggest benefit programs would only collect enough money in payroll taxes to pay partial benefits.  Social Security could only cover about 75 percent of benefits, the trustees said in their annual report.  Medicare’s giant hospital fund could pay 87 percent of costs.

In other words, Social Security and Medicare will not have run out of money when the funds “run dry”.  The two programs will have used up the surplus in the Social Security and Medicare trust funds that were created by increasing payroll taxes during the Reagan administration, in anticipation of the retirement of the Baby Boom generation.  There are different ways this could be handled, including a moderate increase in the ceiling for payroll taxes.  But Social Security and Medicare will not be broke.

The estimated date that Social Security and Medicare will exhaust their surpluses fluctuates a great deal from year to year, depending on changes in the current state of the economic and forecasts for the future.  By some past estimates, these funds should already have been exhausted.

There is a larger issue than the amount of Treasury bonds in the Social Security trust fund.   Financial assets are not wealth, whether they be Treasury bonds, corporate stocks or bank savings certificates.  They are claims on wealth.  The real wealth is the amount of goods and services that are produced in any given year.  If the working-age population is not producing enough to support themselves and us retirees as well, that is a problem, no matter what we have in our retirement accounts or the Social Security administration has in its trust fund.

The answer is to somehow get back to a high-wage, full-employment economy, where somebody in their 50s who loses their job is not unemployable.  We need both better productivity and a more widely-shared prosperity. If a quarter of the nation’s increase in wealth is flowing to the upper 1 percent of the population, as it is now, there is not much left over for 85-year-old widows who depend on Social Security.  And if productivity increases are not keeping up with the increase in the aging population, then there is less to go around.   Of course we can improve the demographic balance by increasing the number of working-age immigrants.

Click on Robert Greenstein for a sober statement on the Social Security trustees’ report by the founder and President of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Click on Paul Van de Water for a sober statement on the Medicare trustees’ report by a senior fellow for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Click on Let’s beef up Social Security benefits instead of cutting them for a column by economics writer Michael Hiltzik in the Los Angeles Times. [Added 4/25/12]

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A 40-hour work week improves productivity

April 24, 2012

Click to view.

Nowadays some professional people define a 40-hour work week as “part-time.”   In today’s job market, employees have little choice but to do whatever their employers demand.  But from a business efficiency standpoint, this may be a mistake.  Studies indicate that employee productivity is at its best when they work eight hours a day, five days a week.

That’s why Henry Ford implemented the eight-hour, five-day schedule in his factories.  He wanted his plants to operate 24 hours a day at maximum efficiency, and he found, by experimenting with different work schedules, that this was the best way to do it.

Sara Robinson, writing for AlterNet, cited a white paper by her husband, a software programmer named Evan Robinson, that made the case for the 40-hour week.

[The] paper he wrote for the International Game Developers’ Association in 2005 … contains a wealth of links to studies conducted by businesses, universities, industry associations, and the military that supported early-20th-century leaders as they embraced the short week.

“Throughout the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, these studies were apparently conducted by the hundreds,” writes Robinson; “and by the 1960s, the benefits of the 40-hour week were accepted almost beyond question in corporate America. In 1962, the Chamber of Commerce even published a pamphlet extolling the productivity gains of reduced hours.”

What these studies showed, over and over, was that industrial workers have eight good, reliable hours a day in them. On average, you get no more widgets out of a 10-hour day than you do out of an eight-hour day.  Likewise, the overall output for the work week will be exactly the same at the end of six days as it would be after five days. So paying hourly workers to stick around once they’ve put in their weekly 40 is basically nothing more than a stupid and abusive way to burn up profits.  Let ‘em go home, rest up and come back on Monday.  It’s better for everybody.

As time went on and the unions made disability compensation and workplace safety into bigger and bigger issues, another set of concerns further buttressed the wisdom of the short week.  A growing mountain of data was showing that catastrophic accidents — the kind that disable workers, damage capital equipment, shut down the lines, open the company to lawsuits, and upset shareholders — were far more likely to occur when workers were working overtime and overtired.

That sealed the deal: for most businesses, the potential human, capital, legal, and financial risks of going over 40 hours a week simply weren’t worth taking.  By World War II, the consensus was clear and widespread: even (or especially!) under the extreme demands of wartime, overworking employees is counterproductive and dangerous, and no competent workplace should ever attempt to push its people beyond that limit.

Sara Robinson wrote that the same is true of white-collar workers.

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When downsizing hurts profitability

April 24, 2012

When I reported on Eastman Kodak Co. for the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle in the 1990s, I talked to stock analysts who really did think that layoffs were a key to profitability, and applauded each of Kodak’s layoff announcements.  It is true, of course, that you can get a short-term kick to profitability by laying off some workers and making the rest work harder.  But you can’t, in the long run, have a profitable company that is understaffed, and whose workers are exhausted, resentful and scared.  This certainly wasn’t true in the case of Kodak. [1]

The New Yorker recently reported on Uniqlo, a Japanese retailer who recently opened a store on Fifth Avenue.  Uniqlo hired 650 people and pledged to keep employment at a minimum of 400.   The store chain is highly profitable just because it is fully staffed with a well-trained sales force.  This approach has wider application, the writer said.

A recent Harvard Business Review study by Zeynep Ton, an M.I.T. professor, looked at four low-price retailers: Costco, Trader Joe’s, the convenience-store chain QuikTrip, and a Spanish supermarket chain called Mercadona.  These companies have much higher labor costs than their competitors.  They pay their employees more; they have more full-time workers and more salespeople on the floor; and they invest more in training them. (At QuikTrip, even part-time employees get forty hours of training.)  Not surprisingly, these stores are better places to work. What’s more surprising is that they are more profitable than most of their competitors and have more sales per employee and per square foot.

The big challenge for any retailer is to make sure that the people coming into the store actually buy stuff, and research suggests that not scrimping on payroll is crucial.  In a study published at the Wharton School, Marshall Fisher, Jayanth Krishnan, and Serguei Netessine looked at detailed sales data from a retailer with more than five hundred stores, and found that every dollar in additional payroll led to somewhere between four and twenty-eight dollars in new sales.  Stores that were understaffed to begin with benefited more, stores that were close to fully staffed benefited less, but, in all cases, spending more on workers led to higher sales.   A study last year of a big apparel chain found that increasing the number of people working in stores led to a significant increase in sales at those stores.

The reasons for this aren’t hard to divine.  As Fisher, Krishnan, and Netessine show, customers’ needs are pretty simple: they want to be able to find products, and helpful salespeople, easily; and they want to avoid long checkout lines.  For a well-staffed store, that’s no problem, but if you don’t have enough people on the floor, or if they aren’t well trained, customers can easily lose patience. 

One of the biggest problems retailers have is what is called a “phantom stock-out.”  That’s when a product is in the store but can’t be found.  Worker-friendly retailers with more employees have fewer phantom stock-outs, which leads to more sales.  And happy workers tend to stick around, which saves the costs associated with employee turnover, like hiring and training.

Some 10 years ago, Darrell Rigby of Bain & Co. (Mitt Romney’s old company), wrote an article showing the stocks of downsizing companies perform worse than equivalent companies.   You might say, of course, companies that are in trouble will lay off workers.  But Rigby compared similar companies with equivalent sales growth, and the downsizing companies on average did worse.

That’s not to say layoffs are never justified.  Companies that are reorganizing, especially after a corporate merger, may need to eliminate duplicate jobs.  And of course a company that’s in trouble may have no choice but to lay off workers.  But normally downsizing for a company is like surgery for an individual.  You may have to do it, but you would avoid it if it wasn’t necessary.

Click on How Hiring Makes Uniqlo a Successful Retailer for the full New Yorker article.

Click on Look Before You Lay Off for the full Harvard Business Review article by Darrell Rigby.  The link will give you the main points of the article; to read it in full, you have to register with HBR.

Click on Ted Rall’s Rallbog for more Ted Rall cartoons and commentary.

[1]  To be clear, I don’t claim that layoffs were the source of Kodak’s problems and I don’t say layoffs are never necessary.

Obama’s flying killer robots

April 23, 2012

American Extremists - Dumbstruck

The Central Intelligence Agency wants authority to kill people in Yemen who behave suspiciously, even when they don’t know who they are, the Washington Post reported.   This is an extremely bad idea.

The CIA is seeking authority to expand its covert drone campaign in Yemen by launching strikes against terrorism suspects even when it does not know the identities of those who could be killed, U.S. officials said.

Securing permission to use these “signature strikes” would allow the agency to hit targets based solely on intelligence indicating patterns of suspicious behavior, such as imagery showing militants gathering at known al-Qaeda compounds or unloading explosives.

One of President Obama’s legacies is the embrace of flying killer robots as a means of waging war.   Its appeal is obvious.  It gives the illusion of impunity.  Somebody can sit at a console in, say, Nevada and direct a drone to kill a group of men in Pakistan or Yemen or some other country with which we’re not officially at war, without the risk of American casualties.  The President is able to pretend that these are not acts of war, and the American people, including self-described liberal Democrats, go along with him.

I can remember when we Americans had the same attitude toward nuclear weapons.  During the 1960 Presidential campaign, there was serious discussion among supposedly rational people of using nuclear weapons to prevent the tiny Chinese offshore islands of Quemoy and Matsu from being taken over by the Communist Chinese government.  Such talk was only possible because, it was assumed, the Chinese did not have the capacity to retaliate.  Of course everything changed when the Chinese Communists obtained their own nuclear weapons.

It is the same today with drone warfare.  This technology is not a monopoly of the United States.  I am sure that Iranian engineers are at this moment reverse-engineering the drone that fell on Iranian territory, and the Iranian government will have its own drones.  I am sure there are hackers who are working on ways to hack the drones’ guidance systems and turn them back on their launchers.  And I am sure that among the loved ones of people killed by drones, there are those that are capable of taking revenge on American soil.

I remember reading years ago about American troops offering to pay compensation for an Iraqi man killed as “collateral damage” in some offensive.  The teenage boy, who, as the oldest male, was the new head of the family, rejected the compensation.  I forget the amount; it was in the low five figures.  The boy said it wasn’t enough.  The Americans asked him what would be enough.  He replied, “Ten dead Americans.”

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“Dear Earth…”

April 22, 2012

Max Kapp was a Universalist minister who served a number of churches, including First Universalist Church of Rochester, N.Y., from 1938 to 1943.  He taught theology at St. Lawrence University and held positions in the Universalist Church of America and later the Unitarian Universalist Association.  But he was known for his sermons, meditations and poetry.  Here is a sample of his poetry.

For what my eyes have seen these many years
and what my heart has loved
and often I have tried to start my lines:
“Dear Earth,” I say,
and then I pause
to look once more.
Soon I am bemused
and far away in wonder.
So I never get beyond “Dear Earth.”

Click on Max Kapp for his entry in the Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biolgraphy.

There but for fortune…

April 21, 2012

Phil Ochs was one of the preeminent protest singers of the 1960s.   He’s virtually forgotten now.  As with many figures of that era, I appreciate him much more now than I did when he was alive.

Here are the lyrics to “There but for fortune,” which he composed in 1964 (I think).

Show me a young man, show me a jail.
Some me a pris’ner whose face has grown pale.

And I’ll show you a young man
with many reasons why
there but for fortune go you or I.

Show me an alley, show me a train.
Show me a hobo who sleeps in the rain.

And I’ll show you a young man
with many reasons why
there but for fortune, go you or I.

Show me the whiskey stains on the floor.
Show me a drunk as he stumbles out the door.

And I’ll show you a young man
with many reasons why
there but for fortune, go you or I.

Show me a country where the bombs had to fall.
Show me the ruins of buildings so tall.

And I’ll show you a young land
with many reasons why
there but for fortune, go you or I.

You or I.

A few comments:  I get annoyed when people tell me I am “privileged” because I am a straight, white, middle-class, right-handed, Anglophone male without any major physical disabilities, who had two loving parents who taught me to value education, work and consideration for others.  It is not as if I had any choice in these matters, or as if everything in life were handed to me on a silver platter, or as if bad things can’t happen to straight white Anglo males.  But the fact is that the world is not a level playing field, and I began life on the upside of the field and not the downside.

I had a good friend named Talva Chapin, who died recently at the age of 84.  She spent decades of her life as a volunteer teacher in New York state prisons, and, though a person of very genteel upbringing herself, formed friendships with supposedly hardened criminals.  She said that all of them or almost all of them suffered horrific abuse in childhood—savage beatings and worse—and grew up in a society of unremitting violence.  Hardly any of them were literate.  They were ignorant of the most basic facts about history and the world they lived in.

I believe that no matter how bad a situation you are in, you have choices.  I know of people who have been brutalized from early childhood on but somehow manage to make a good life for themselves, and of others who grow up with every seeming advantage who never amount to anything.  Still, if my own circumstances had been like some of Talva’s friends, I doubt if I would have survived, let alone done better than they did.   There but for fortune…

Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers: the Story of Success tells, among other things, about how success and failure is influenced by things I never would think about.  Almost all outstanding Canadian hockey players, for example, were born in January, February or March, and virtually none during the last six months of the year.  The reason is that the eligibility cutoff for age-class hockey is Jan. 1, and somebody born Jan. 2 could be playing alongside somebody born Dec. 31 of the same year.  The Jan. 2 player would be bigger and stronger and, because of his initial advantage, get more and better coaching, and that initial edge would carry on through life.  Gladwell called that “the Matthew effect” – “To them that hath, it shall be given.”

Or, as it was written in Ecclesiastes:

The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, not yet favor to men of skill, but time and chance happen to them all.

There but for fortune…

Click on Phil Ochs for a web page devoted to his work.

Click on Phil Ochs wiki for his Wikipedia biography.

Click on Blue in the Bluegrass for another version of the song.

Two years after BP oil spill, nothing changed

April 21, 2012

Two years after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, nothing has been done by Congress or the President to prevent another disaster.  In the video above, Robin Millican, an oil industry shill interviewed by Al Jazeera above, said the reason Congress has not acted on any of the 150 bills to improve oil safety is that the legislation is motivated by a desire to shut down domestic U.S. energy production.  The others interviewed were Michael Craig, an environmentalist, and Greg Palast, an outstanding but little-known investigative reporter.

I am worried about the conflict between the need for oil, gas and coal to fuel our vehicles and heat our homes, offices and factories and the risks to human health and the environment involved in the new technologies necessary to obtain these fossil fuels — deep ocean drilling, hydraulic fracturing and mountaintop removal.

Greg Palast said that, in the case of deep ocean drilling, there is no dilemma.  He said deep ocean drilling could be done with perfect safety if oil companies didn’t cut corners on safety—for example, by using a better cement than the quick-dry cement used in the Deepwater Horizon well, and by using a better blowout protector.  Other countries, such as Brazil, use better methods, he said.  Maybe he’s right.  I would like to believe he is right.

Palast just got finished writing an article about the coverup by BP, Chevron and ExxonMobil of an equivalent oil spill in the Caspian Sea two years before the Deepwater Horizon spill.  He found out about it by interviewing oil rig workers off the record, and confirmed it by consulting secret U.S. diplomatic cables posted by Wikileaks.  Palast said oil rig workers are afraid of being blacklisted by having their personnel files marked NRB (not required back).   The Wikileaks cables are among those for which Bradley Manning is being court-martialed for allegedly revealing.

Other reports tell of an epidemic of deformities among marine life in the Gulf.   Al Jazeera English tells of “horribly mutated shrimp, fish with oozing sores, underdeveloped blue crabs lacking claws and eyeless crabs and shrimp,” which interviewees link to the mutagenic toxic chemicals used by BP to disperse the spilled oil.

Click on Gulf seafood deformities alarm scientists for the report by Al Jazeera English.  I know I link to Al Jazeera a lot, but they do excellent work, and they don’t suffer from the inhibitions that many reporters for the U.S. networks do.

Click on Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Aftershocks on Louisiana Seafood for a report by a reporter for Outside magazine on his quest for some good gumbo in post-spill south Louisiana.

Click on Living With the Gulf Oil Disaster, Two Years Later for an interview with Bethany Kraft, deputy director of the Gulf restoration program of the Ocean Conservatory.  [Added 4/23/12]

Click on BP Covered Up Blow-Out Two Years Prior to Deadly Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and BP cover-up: Bush, Big Oil and Wikileaks for Greg Palast’s investigation of the Caspian Sea oil spill.

Click on Greg Palast | Investigative Reporter for his home page.  The reason he is so little known in the United States is that he does most of his reporting for British newspapers and broadcasters.

The mystery of Vladimir Putin’s wealth

April 20, 2012

Here is another excellent (if inconclusive) example of investigative journalism by Al Jazeera English.

Click on Vladimir’s Tale for more about Vladimir Putin.

Why care about Vladimir Putin?  He is the President of the Russian Federation, the only nation in the world that, because of its nuclear arsenal, is capable of threatening the existence of the United States.

The resurgence of U.S. oil and gas production

April 20, 2012

Source: New York Times

Last year, for the first time since 1949, the United States became a net exporter of liquid fuels — gasoline, kerosine, aviation fuel and diesel fuel— meaning that we now export more of these products than we import.  During the past few years, refined petroleum products have become the most valuable U.S. export.

In 1949, the United States exported 86 million barrels of liquid fuels and imported only 82 million barrels.  From 1950 through 2010, we imported more than we exported.  But for the first 11 months of 2011, we exported 848 million barrels of liquid fuels and imported only 750 million barrels.

We still are a net importer of crude oil, but that situation also is improving.  The United States now gets only 45 percent of its crude oil from imports, down from 60 percent about three-and-a-half years ago, thanks to increased U.S. production in the past few years.   Natural gas, which was in short supply a few years ago, is now in surplus.  As the New York Times reported:

Across the country, the oil and gas industry is vastly increasing production, reversing two decades of decline. Using new technology and spurred by rising oil prices since the mid-2000s, the industry is extracting millions of barrels more a week, from the deepest waters of the Gulf of Mexico to the prairies of North Dakota.

At the same time, Americans are pumping significantly less gasoline.  While that is partly a result of the recession and higher gasoline prices, people are also driving fewer miles and replacing older cars with more fuel-efficient vehicles at a greater clip, federal data show. … …

Not only has the United States reduced oil imports from members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries by more than 20 percent in the last three years, it has become a net exporter of refined petroleum products like gasoline for the first time since the Truman presidency.  The natural gas industry, which less than a decade ago feared running out of domestic gas, is suddenly dealing with a glut so vast that import facilities are applying for licenses to export gas to Europe and Asia.

National oil production, which declined steadily to 4.95 million barrels a day in 2008 from 9.6 million in 1970, has risen over the last four years to nearly 5.7 million barrels a day. The Energy Department projects that daily output could reach nearly seven million barrels by 2020. Some experts think it could eventually hit 10 million barrels — which would put the United States in the same league as Saudi Arabia.

via NYTimes.com.

If everything is going so well, why is gasoline above $4 a gallon and rising?  It is because the price of petroleum products is set in a world market, which Americans do not control.  The world market includes China, which now puts more cars on the road each year than the United States.  In fact, rising prices were a factor in the U.S. export success.   That is the free market in operation.  As the price of gasoline increases, we have an incentive both to use less and to produce more.

This turn toward energy independence happened during the Obama administration, but there is a certain paradox here.  President Obama ran on a promise to work to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy, and to limit energy consumption by means of a cap-and-trade scheme.  While these efforts may someday bear fruit, the current turnaround is based on fossil fuels.

As the New York Times article noted, President Obama has largely continued the policies of the George W. Bush administration—tax breaks for oil and gas companies, opening up federal lands for energy production and loose regulation of controversial practices such as hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas.  But the President is being attacked, and defended, as if he were the environmentalist he claimed to be.

The problem with all this is that the faster we burn through our oil and gas resources, the less there will be in the future.  If it were up to me, I would go slow.  Maybe, in time, there will be alternatives to destructive and risky processes such as deep water ocean drilling and hydraulic fracturing.  The oil and gas isn’t going to go away if we don’t use it right away.

Click on Inching Toward Energy Independence in America for the New York Times report.

Click on Gas, other fuels are top U.S. export for an Associated Press report.

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As time goes by

April 19, 2012

Click on Candorville for more of Darrin Bell’s cartoons.

Pepe Escobar on Obama and Iran

April 18, 2012

Pepe Escobar, an enterprising and outspoken reporter for the Asia Times of Hong KongSingapore, thanks that President Obama’s demands on Iran are like President George W. Bush’s demands on Iraq—something meant to provide a justification for war.  Click on Surrender now or we’ll bomb you later for his analysis.  I added Escobar’s columns to my ResourcesLinks menu.  He presents facts and ideas which you won’t get from most U.S. newspapers.  He is especially good on power politics in Central Asia, which he calls Pipelineistan.

Perilous journey

April 18, 2012

Last year I read a book entitled The Death of Josseline: Immigration Stories from the Arizona Borderlands about unauthorized immigrants and the Arizona borderlands.   The title referred to the death of Josseline Hernandez, a 14-year-old girl who was left behind to die on thirst and exposure in the desert when she was unable to keep up with the rest of her group of border crossers.

Josseline Hernandez was from El Salvador, not Mexico, and many of the other individuals mentioned in the book also were from Central America.  I wondered how this migrants made it across Mexico, a country which more restrictive on immigration than the United States.  This excellent Al Jazeera documentary tells how they do it.  Crossing Mexico is perilous.  Only about 40 percent of those who start out make it to the U.S. border, although some may succeed on a second or third try.

It stands to reason that a lot of people who cross the border without authorization probably do so for illicit reasons.  But I can’t help sympathizing with people who risk so much in order to gain a better life for themselves or their families.  All of us Americans, except for native Americans, the descendents of black slaves and the descendents of titled aristocrats, are descended from people like that.

Click on Death along the Arizona border for my review of The Death of Josseline.  The author, Margaret Regan, a reporter based in Tucson, describes the human side of unauthorized immigration very well, and does justice to the views of all concerned.

The profitable business of immigration detention

April 17, 2012

This documentary by Al Jazeera English shows how the growing crackdown on unauthorized immigration generates profits for the growing U.S. private prison industry.   The state and federal prison population doubled in the past 20 years, but the number of prisoners in private prisons increased 17-fold.  Prison industry is a profitable business, and includes contracting for the U.S. military.

Immigration detention is a growing part of this.  The American Civil Liberties Union reported that, according to one report, nearly half of immigration detainees are held in private prisons,  versus 6 percent of state convicts and 16 percent of federal convicts.  The Corrections Corporation of America, the largest U.S. private prison corporation in the United States, helped the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) draft Arizona’s 2009 law allowing police to lock up anyone who is without documentation to show they are a citizen or a legal immigrant, and lobbied for it, along with other private prison corporations.

The documentary shows people being held in detention centers for up to a year without a hearing.  I guess the idea is that if they were given a prompt hearing and deported, there would be nothing to discourage them from trying again right away.

I admit I don’t have a good answer to the question of unauthorized immigration.   I think it is intolerable to have a underclass within U.S. borders who are outside the protection of U.S. law, who are at the mercy of unscrupulous employers and government officials.  I don’t think it is feasible to hunt down and deport millions of unauthorized immigrants who are integrated into American society, even if the U.S. were turned into even more of a police state than it now is.   I doubt that the American economic and social structure could handle completely unrestricted immigration.  I don’t think repeated amnesties are the answer.

The implied answer of the champions of immigration rights quoted in the video is a kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”  I don’t think that is a good answer, but I don’t have a better one.   All I can say is that I think it is a bad idea to create a powerful vested economic interest whose profits are tied to maintaining the present bad situation.

Click on Banking on Bondage: Private Prisons and Mass Incarceration for an executive summary of the ACLU report.

Click on Immigration is a moral issue and The least bad option on immigration for earlier posts of mine on the unauthorized immigration question.

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Negotiations with Iran

April 16, 2012

Here is good news—maybe.   Representatives of Iran and of the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China agreed to meet in Baghdad starting May 23 to discuss Iran’s nuclear program.  The negotiations will be based on the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which Iran has signed, which gives countries the right to develop nuclear energy in return for renouncing nuclear weapons.  If Iran can demonstrate that its nuclear program is not a weapons program, then crippling economic sanctions can be lifted—maybe.

Click to enlarge

President Obama has said that he does not rule out an attack on Iran, but only after all efforts to achieve a diplomatic solution have failed.   If negotiations are successful, and Iran’s government really does demonstrate to the satisfaction of the U.S. negotiators that it renounces nuclear weapons, then Obama’s brinksmanship will have proved successful.

But given that the U.S. government attacked Libya after Col. Qadaffi renounced nuclear weapons, and given that the U.S. government refrains from attacking nuclear-armed North Korea, I doubt that I, if I were an Iranian leader, would be willing to give up the possibility of developing a nuclear deterrentThe main threat to Iran comes from Israel, and Israel is not a party to the talks.

Click on Agreement reached with Iran on formal talks in May for details from McClatchy newspapers.

Click on Did U.S. miss 2010 chance for Iran nuke deal? Turkey says yes for background from McClatchy newspapers.

Click on Iran nuclear talks: A positive first step? for Iranian and Russian as well as U.S. perspectives from Al Jazeera English.

Preliminary talks in Istanbul

Click on Israel’s Secret Staging Ground and False Flag articles by investigative journalist Mark Perry in Foreign Policy magazine about Israeli operations against Iran.

Click on What Iran Can Learn From Kazakhstan for the case for Iranian renunciation of nuclear weapons, and Uranium Double-Standard: The U.S., Kazakhstan and Iran for the case against Kazakhstan as a model.

One ironic aspect of all this is that the talks are being held in Baghdad because the Iranian government considers Iraq a friendly venue.  But that would not be the case had not U.S. military forces overthrown the regime of Iran’s arch-enemy, Saddam Hussein, and replaced it with government headed by Sunni Muslims friendly to the Sunnis of Iran.

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Gene Sharp’s revolution handbook

April 14, 2012

I just finished reading From Dictatorship to Democracy by Gene Sharp, the great strategist of nonviolent struggle.  Like the great Prussian military strategist, Carl von Clausewitz, his strategy and tactics are directed against the mind of the enemy.  An enemy is defeated when they are no longer willing to fight.  A government is defeated when people are no longer willing to obey it, and this can be accomplished, Sharp claims, without having to kill people in large numbers.

When I was a student at the University of Wisconsin in the 1950s, there was a story that at some point in the Russian history course taught by Professor Petrovich, he would throw a chair to the side of the room.   Supposedly he was making a point about revolution.   I took the course, and the chair-throwing apparently was an urban legend, but the point he made was an important one.

Revolution does not come, he said, when you have a privileged aristocracy, dancing to Strauss waltzes, who are suddenly overthrown by Jacobins or Bolsheviks, and here is where he would have tossed the chair to one side.  No, he said, revolution comes when a society is on the verge of collapse, and here he would have balanced a chair on one leg with one finger, and it loses its last support – here he would have let the chair fall.

That is surely true.  Governments can govern only because people obey them.  They fall when their people cease to obey them.  That is what happened to the King of France in 1789, the Tsar of Russia in 1917 and the Shah of Iran in 1989.   Gene Sharp says that the way to overthrow a despotic government is to undermine the public’s habits of fear and obedience, and to deprive it of the resources it needs to govern.

In From Dictatorship to Democracy, originally published in 1990, and The Politics of Nonviolent Action, published in 1973, he listed 198 different tactics by which this could be accomplished, including public protests, strikes, boycotts, civil disobedience and creation of parallel institutions.  Here are his broad principles.

Develop a strategy for winning freedom and a vision of the society you want.

Overcome fear by small acts of resistance.

Use colors and symbols to demonstrate unity of resistance.

Learn from historical examples of the successes of non-violent movements.

Use non-violent “weapons.”

Identify the dictatorship’s pillars of support and develop a strategy for undermining each.

Use oppressive or brutal acts by the regime as a recruiting tool for your movement.

Isolate or remove from the movement people who use or advocate violence.

via BBC News.

Back in the 1950s, I never would have thought these tactics would work against a ruthless totalitarian government such as the Soviet Union, which had the power to sniff out and suppress the slightest dissent.  I had to change my mind after the Soviet government did fall, simply because it lost the authority and power to compel obedience.   On the whole, nonviolent fighters have a better record of success than the advocates of terrorism and guerrilla warfare.

Sharp argued nonviolent struggle requires as much strategic planning and tactical discipline as military action.  Superior ethics and morality will not in themselves bring victory.  You need to be as tough-minded as the community organizer Saul Alinsky, who in his way was a master of nonviolent struggle.  But while there are many academies where you can learn military science, there are few academies where you can learn the strategy and tactics of nonviolent struggle.  I used to think proposals to establish a national Peace Academy or Department of Peace were naive, but I know think such proposals might be more than mere sentimental gestures.

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New links: Quotations, Waco

April 14, 2012

I’ve made some additions to my links menu.

Under Pages, I’ve restored my Favorite Quotations, which I once took down because it didn’t seem to get many views.  But a friend of mine said she missed it, so I put it back up.   There is a basic list of quotations in alphabetical order by source, and then new additions to the list at the top with the newest added first.

I’ve put up a new category, Important Documentaries, in which I have restored the link to Waco: the Rules of Engagement, about the tragic killing of members of the Branch Davidian cult near Waco, Texas, by federal agents in 1993.  I had taken down the link because it didn’t seem to get any views, understandably because it is two hours long.  But I put it back up because it is the best documentary motion picture I have ever seen, and because of the importance of the subject.  It shows that Americans killed by their own government basically for being unacceptably weird.  If the U.S. government was not waging a “war on terror,” it might be waging a war on cults or a war on militias.

The other link under Important Documentaries is a four-part BBC documentary, The Century of the Self, on how psychological knowledge has been used to manipulate society.  It, too, might be longer than many people would want to watch on a computer screen, but the producer, Adam Curtis, found a lot of interesting stuff I’ve never seen anywhere else, and connects disparate facts in a way I’ve never seen anybody else do.

I continue to update my Articles menu.  The three top items are new this week.