Archive for October, 2013

The Halloween costume

October 31, 2013


Click on Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for more Zach Weiner cartoons.

The Halloween concert

October 31, 2013

hauntedorchestra-blogClick on INCIDENTAL COMICS for more drawings by Grant Snider.

Victim’s grandchild: ‘I no longer love blue skies’

October 31, 2013

The video above is from a documentary film called Unmanned about drone strikes on civilians in Pakistan.  The Rehman family, shown in that video, also is shown below when they came to Washington, D.C., this week to testify before Congress.

The family of a 67-year-old midwife from a remote village in North Waziristan told lawmakers on Tuesday about her death and the “CIA drone” they say was responsible. Their harrowing accounts marked the first time Congress had ever heard from civilian victims of an alleged US drone strike.

Rafiq ur Rehman, a Pakistani primary school teacher who appeared on Capitol Hill with his children, Zubair, 13, and Nabila, 9, described his mother, Momina Bibi, as the “string that held our family together”.  His two children, who were gathering okra with their grandmother the day she was killed, on 24 October 2012, were injured in the attack.

“Nobody has ever told me why my mother was targeted that day,” Rehman said, through a translator. “Some media outlets reported that the attack was on a car, but there is no road alongside my mother’s house. Others reported that the attack was on a house. But the missiles hit a nearby field, not a house. All of them reported that three, four, five militants were killed.”

Instead, he said, only one person was killed that day: “Not a militant but my mother.”


Nabilia, the 9-year-old girl, said she is afraid to go to school because of drones overhead.  Good for Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) for arranging for this testimony to be heard.  It’s too bad that only four other members of the House of Representatives heard it.

Killer drones are justified on the grounds that they are a more precise method of killing than the alternatives—dropping napalm or cluster bombs from airplanes, or invading with ground troops.  But the issue is not the method of killing.  The issue is the killing of civilian bystanders in nations with which the United States is not at war.  The significance of drone technology is that it makes killing so easy and so seemingly free of consequences.

It would be interesting to know whether this 67-year-old grandmother was killed because a drone went astray, or because of mistaken identity, or because some drone operator simply didn’t care.   No matter which is these possibilities is the correct one, they indicate something seriously wrong with the U.S. use of drones.


Were the U.S. and Russia at the brink of war?

October 31, 2013
Naval standoff in September, 2013.  Source: Zero Hedge

Naval standoff as of Sept. 9, 2013. Source: Zero Hedge

An independent journalist named Israel Shamir claims that, just as in the Cuban missile crisis, the United States and Russia were eyeball-to-eyeball over Syria.  But this time it was the United States that blinked.

The most dramatic event of September 2013 was the high-noon stand-off near the Levantine shore, with five US destroyers pointing their Tomahawks towards Damascus and facing them – the Russian flotilla of eleven ships led by the carrier-killer Missile Cruiser Moskva and supported by Chinese warships.  Apparently, two missiles were launched towards the Syrian coast, and both failed to reach their destination.

It was claimed by a Lebanese newspaper quoting diplomatic sources that the missiles were launched from a NATO air base in Spain and they were shot down by the Russian ship-based sea-to-air defense system.  Another explanation proposed by the Asia Times says the Russians employed their cheap and powerful GPS jammers to render the expensive Tomahawks helpless, by disorienting them and causing them to fail.  Yet another version attributed the launch to the Israelis, whether they were trying to jump-start the shoot-out or just observed the clouds, as they claim.

Whatever the reason, after this strange incident, the pending shoot-out did not commence, as President Obama stood down and holstered his guns.

via Israel Shamir: American Hegemony is Over

Exactly what happened is highly uncertain.  Shamir’s account rests on highly circumstantial evidence, which could be wrong.  But what is known is that Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian fleet to the Mediterranean and there also were Chinese ships there.  The downing of the Tomahawk missiles has been reported by two different sources.

There was a very real danger of armed conflict between Russian and U.S. forces, and Russia’s nuclear arms make it the only country in the world that could be an actual threat to the United States.  I give President Obama credit for having enough realism to not push things to the brink.

There was a period, following the breakup of the Soviet Union, when the United States was so dominant that our leaders did not have to take the views of other nations’ leaders into consideration.  Not only is that era coming to an end, but the consequences of U.S. government actions during that time are starting to catch up with us.


Airlines squeeze passengers to add seats

October 30, 2013


Growing industries increase their profits by improving their products and attracting more customers.  Declining industries increase their profits by finding ways to squeeze more profit out of existing customers while they can.  Which kind do you think is becoming more common?

Click on The Incredible Shrinking Plane Seat for a Wall Street Journal article on how the airlines do the latter.

The world scene: Notes & links 10/30/13

October 30, 2013

The World’s Billionaires List in Forbes

Billionaires: Decline of the West, Rise of the Rest by Robin Broad and John Cavanagh for Triple Crisis.

Forbes magazine’s annual list of the world’s billionaires indicates there are still more billionaires in the United States than in any other country, but the rest of the world is catching up.  China has the second largest number of billionaires and Russia has the third, followed by Germany, India, Brazil and Turkey.

The new list reflects the growth of the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China)  relative to the United States, western Europe and Japan.   Broad and Cavanagh wrote that it also reflects growing inequality throughout the world.  The world’s richest man, Carlos Slim of Mexico, has a net worth of $73 billion, equal to 6.2 percent of Mexico’s GDP.  The third richest is Amacio Ortega, the Spanish retail king, who accumulated a fortune of $57 billion in a country where a fourth of the work force are unemployed.  If you’re wondering, the world’s second richest billionaire is Bill Gates and the fourth richest is Warren Buffett.

The Most Important Labor Strike in the World Is Happening Right Now by David Callahan for Common Dreams.

Millions of workers across Indonesia are on strike, demanding a higher minimum wage (it is now about $200 a month) and a universal health plan.  This is important for U.S. workers because Indonesia, the fourth most populous nation in the world after China, India and the United States, is a giant sweatshop which helps depress wages worldwide.

The sooner Indonesia follows the path of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, and develops a sizable middle class, the better not only for Indonesia, but for the United States, because Indonesia will become more of a potential market for U.S.-made goods and less of a magnet for how-wage employers.   Labor unions historically have helped bring wage-earners into the middle class.

Will the House of Saud pivot to China? by Pepe Escobar for Asia Times

Turkey’s Choice: Chinese Missile Defense or NATO? by Semih Idiz for Al-Monitor Turkey Pulse.

The Turkish government is negotiating to obtain a missile defense system from the Chinese Precision Machinery Import and Export Company, which also supplies military technology to Syria, Iran and North Korea.  The Turks said the Chinese bid is lower and offers technology transfer withheld by Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and other western bidders.  This is another example of the fact that China is now a global power, and not a regional east Asian power.


The investment theory of the 2012 elections

October 29, 2013

Thomas Ferguson is a political scientist whose writings changed the way I think about politics.  His “investment theory of political parties” is that candidates for office are like entrepreneurs, wealthy corporate interests are like venture capitalists who provide capital, and the voters are like customers being sold the product.

Ferguson says the public gets to decide who wins, but the “investors” get to decide who runs.  That’s why elected officials normally pay more attention to the people who finance them than the people who vote for them, and why politicians so often do the opposite of what they promise and what their constituents want.

Ferguson and two other scholars, Paul Jorgensen and Jie Chen, recently did a study of the 2012 election campaign which bears this out.  What was noteworthy, they wrote, is that the strong support Obama got from Silicon Valley companies.  Romney got more support from big business as a whole, but Obama got as much or more from the telecommunications, software, web manufacturing, electronics, computer and defense industries.

All these industries, as they point out, are deeply involved with the National Security Agency, as suppliers of technology, as sub-contractors and as aiders and abettors of surveillance.  The overseas businesses of Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Skype, YouTube and other companies have been gravely damaged by Edward Snowden’s disclosures of how they work with the NSA to spy on foreign governments, businesses and citizens.  No wonder Obama regards Snowden as Public Enemy No. 1.


Death and indentured servitude in Qatar

October 29, 2013

The natural gas fields controlled by tiny Persian Gulf kingdom of Qatar make it the richest nation in the world in income and production (GDP) per person.  Its rulers have ambitious plans to make it a business and tourism center for the Middle East and the world.  The prestige of Qatar is symbolized by the fact that it will be host to soccer’s World Cup in 2022..

Yet Qatar’s riches rest on the labor of non-citizens, most of them migrant laborers who have no rights, and work in dangerous and unhealthy conditions for poverty wages, which sometimes are withheld from them.

Only about 250,000 people, all of them native Qataris, are citizens.  Most of the rest of Qatar’s estimated 2 million residents are migrant laborers, who comprise 94 percent of the country’s work force.  The kingdom is busy constructing stadiums, hotels and other facilities for the 2022 World Cup, and another 1 million new migrant workers are expected in the coming decade.

Qatar’s labor system resembles the indentured servitude that existed in Britain’s American colonies during the 17th and 18th centuries.  The video above shows their working conditions.  Workers can come to Qatar only if they have a Qatari sponsor.  Once in Qatar, they cannot change jobs, get a driver’s license, rent an apartment, open a back account or leave the country without the sponsor’s permission.  This leaves them with no recourse if they’re not paid their wages.

A majority of Qatar’s migrants are from the Indian subcontinent, many of them from the Himalayan nation of Nepal, and many of the rest are from the Philippines and Indonesia.  When you have a tiny elite of rich people ruling over a large number of impoverished laborers, this is a bad situation.  When the elite are of a different nationality, culture or religion from the laborers, it is an unstable situation.

The United States military has a big stake in the region.  Qatar hosts the U.S. headquarters and principal air base for the Middle East region.  I would hate to see the U.S. government helping the Qatari government put down an uprising of its people.


Where America’s gourmet coffee comes from

October 29, 2013


Hat tip for this chart to Inspired Acceptance.

Attack of the killer jellyfish: It’s not a joke

October 28, 2013


As I read about how killer jellyfish are spreading over the oceans and crowding out other forms of marine life, I feel (not for the first time) as if I were a minor character in a bad science-fiction disaster story.

But killer jellyfish are no joke.  Jeffyfish can survive where other species do, many have deadly stings and they prevent the other species from coming back once they establish their dominance.


What’s behind the plague of jellyfish.  Click to enlarge.  Source:

Click on the following links for more.

Jellyfish are taking over the seas and it may be too late to stop them by Gwynn Guilford for  Hat tip to Barry Ritholtz’s The Big Picture.

Korea’s plan to shred a jellyfish plague with robots could spawn a million more by Christopher Mims for

They’re Taking Over! by Tim Flannery for the New York Review of Books

Jellyfish surge in the Mediterranean threatens environment — and tourists by Giles Tremlett for The Guardian.

Deadly jellyfish to bloom in north Australian waters by Carolyn Herbert for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation

Jellyfish clog pipes of Swedish nuclear reactor forcing shutdown by the Associated Press.

Raising Medicare eligibility age is a bad idea

October 28, 2013


Raising the Medicare eligibility age is a proposed solution for a nonexistent problem.

Medicare trustees in 1990 forecast that the Medicare program would become insolvent in 13 years.  It was still solvent 21 years later, and they still were making the same prediction.  The 2013 projection of the Congressional Research Office, not shown above, pushes back the insolvency date to 2026—still 13 years in the future, still as far away as ever.

Insolvency would mean that there would be no reserves in the Medicare trust fund to pay benefits.  When those reserves are exhausted, the CBO estimates that Medicare would still be able to pay 87 percent of authorized hospital benefits out of income; if nothing changed.  Payments of hospital benefits would decline in the next 20 years to 71 percent of benefits.  Physician, outpatient and prescription drug benefits have their own revenue streams, and wouldn’t be affected.

Why does the insolvency of Medicare continually recede into the future?  It is partly because of the growth of the economy.   The key to keeping Medicare, and also Social Security, solvent is not by chipping away at benefits.  It is by promoting a full-employment, high-wage economy.


The other reason that increasing the Medicare eligibility age is a bad idea is that, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, it would result in a net increase in costs to the public as a whole. Individuals and their employers would have to spend more, and more people would be eligible for Medicaid and for subsidies under the Affordable Care Act.

The above chart is based on analysis in 2011.  The Congressional Budget Office recently the net federal savings in raising the Medicare eligibility age would be much less than shown on the chart.  The saving would about $1.9 billion a year, not $5.7 billion.

While $1.9 billion is a lot of money, the United States is a nation of more than 300 million people, which means the saving comes to less than $65 per person.  I agree that would be an amount worth saving, if not for the fact that it is offset by increased costs and hardship to the American public as a whole.


Liberals still losing: Links & comments 10/28/13

October 28, 2013

Liberals in Washington can’t win for losing.   While President Obama and the congressional Democrats did stand firm against the blackmail threat of a government shutdown and debt default, merely keeping the government functioning is not a great triumph.  While the Democrats control the White House and the Senate and the Republicans only control the House of Representatives, it is the Democrats who act as if they are a defeated minority.

The Glorious, Futile Progressive Policy Agenda by Molly Ball for The Atlantic.

butwewon'tThe writer mocked the “fever dream bizzaro world” of a conference convened last Thursday by the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.  Among the “irrelevant pipe dreams” were a higher minimum wage, investing more money in education, infrastructure and scientific research and doing something about climate change.  She did not advance any arguments as to why these are bad ideas.  She merely took for granted that they are politically unrealistic.

Washington is still stuck in the wrong conversation by Ryan Cooper for the Washington Post.

Obama’s Top Economic Adviser Tells Democrats They’ll Have to Swallow Entitlement Cuts by Joshua Green for Boomberg Businessweek.

Sell-Out Alert: 9 Democrats Already Caving to GOP on Social Security Cuts by Steven Rosenfeld for AlterNet.

Maybe they are.  The default baseline position is the budget sequester, which locks in reductions in government spending across the board, which means less for scientific research, less for repairs of roads and bridges, less for school lunches and food stamps.  It’s hard to see how the Democrats can get out of this without giving up even more on historic liberal programs, such as Social Security and Medicare.

And they may not see this as a dilemma.  President Obama has long hinted at his willingness to cut Social Security and Medicare.  This may have been a factor in the Republican resurgence in 2010.

President Obama’s top economic adviser appears to think that the economic recovery depends on restoring business “confidence” and confidence can be restored only by cutting social safety net programs.  And a significant number of Democrats in the Senate are willing to go along with this.

So the Democratic program consists of Obamacare, reductions in other social programs and a moderate increase in taxes for rich people.  I think most voters are looking for a program that will address falling wages and long-term unemployment, even though that may seem like an “irrelevant pipe dream” to Washington insiders.

Let’s Get This Class War Started by Chris Hedges for Common Dreams.   Hat tip to Mike Connelly.

President Obama early in his term of office told a group of Wall Street bankers that he was the only one standing between them and the people with pitchforks.  I think it is time to join the people with pitchforks.

There is a deeply entrenched financial and corporate oligarchy who for the most part do contribute anything anywhere near equal to what they take, whose interests do not coincide with the public interest and who do not feel any responsibility for the common good.  It is time to break their lock on government and end their special privileges.

When Malala met Obama…

October 27, 2013


Click on Ted Rall’s Rallblog for more cartoons.

Nine life lessons from Australia’s Tim Minchin

October 27, 2013

Tim Minchin is a highly regarded Australian musician, composer, songwriter, actor, comedian and writer.   I’d never heard of him until I came across this summary on the Inspired Acceptance web log of Minchin’s nine life lessons.  They are from an address he gave to the University of Western Australia in Queensland on receiving an honorary degree.

1.  You don’t have to have a dream.  Work on whatever is in front of you.  Be careful of long-term dreams.  If you focus too far in front of you, you won’t see the shiny thing out of the corner of your eye.

2.  Don’t seek happiness.  Happiness is like an orgasm.  If you think about it too much it goes away.  Keep busy and aim to make someone else happy and you may get some as a side effect.

3.  Remember it’s all luck.  Understanding that you can’t truly take credit for you successes, nor truly blame others for their failures will humble you and make you compassionate.  Empathy is intuitive but it is also something you can work on intellectually.

4.  Exercise.  Take care of your body, you’re going to need it.  Most of you Mob are going to live to nearly 100 and even the poorest of you will achieve a level of wealth that most humans throughout history could never dream of.  And this long, luxurious life of yours is going to make you depressed.  But don’t despair.  Tthere is an inverse correlation between exercise and depression. Run!

5.  Be hard on your opinions.  We must think critical and not just about the ideas of others.  Be hard on your beliefs. Take them out on the verandah and hit them with a cricket bat.  Be intellectually rigorous.

6.  Be a teacher.  Teachers and the most admirable and important people in the world.  Even if you’re not a teacher, be a teacher.  Share your ideas.  Don’t take for granted your education. Rejoice in what you learn and spray it.

7.  Define yourself by what you love.  We have a tendency to define ourselves in opposition to stuff. But try to also express your passion for things you love.  Be demonstrative in your praise of those you admire.  Be pro-stuff, not just anti-stuff

8.  Respect people with less power than you.  I don’t care if you’re the most powerful Cat in the room. I will judge you on how you treat the least powerful… So there!

9.  Don’t rush.  You don’t need to already know what you’re going to do with the rest of your life.  Most people I know who were sure of their career path at 20 are now having mid-life crises.

Click on Tim Minchin – Occasional Address to read the full text.

We’re number one! (and so are all the rest)

October 26, 2013


Select an area of the map and double click to enlarge it to read what each country leads in.

Click on DOGHOUSE DIARIES for the sources of the information and the basis of the comparisons.

Hat tip to Avedon’s Sideshow.

The corporate cash behind the surveillance state

October 25, 2013

bigbrotherThe high technology and Silicon Valley companies that supported President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign are also deeply involved with the National Security Agency and other surveillance programs.

Thomas Ferguson, Paul Jorgensen and Jie Chen, after analyzing campaign finance reports from 2012, concluded that although Mitt Romney received more contributions from big business overall, Barack Obama received equal or stronger support than Romney from the telecommunications, software, web manufacturing, electronics, computer and defense industries.

They pointed out in an article for AlterNet that these industries supply the technology that makes possible the NSA’s total surveillance programs, and provide many suppliers and subcontractors that operate the system.  And, as Glenn Greenwald and Edward Snowden disclosed, Google, Apple, Microsoft, Verizon and Facebook worked directly with the NSA to spy on the American and foreign public at large.

At the time President Obama took office, many of his supporters expected a radical change in course on national security policy. This did not happen.  For sure, limitations on some of the worst excesses were put in place, but there was no broad reversal.  The secret programs of surveillance expanded and … other policies … on indefinite detention, treatment of whistleblowers, and executive prerogatives relative to Congress stayed in place or broke even more radically with tradition.

Our analysis of political money in the 2012 election shines a powerful new light on the sources of this policy continuity.  We do not believe that it would be impossible to strike a reasonable balance between the demands of security and freedom that accords with traditional Fourth Amendment principles and checks abuses of government surveillance rapidly and effectively.  But a system dominated by firms that want to sell all your data working with a government that seems to want to collect nearly all of it through them is unlikely to produce that.

I thought that Silicon Valley entrepreneurs supported President Obama out of social liberalism or because they thought he was more modern in his thinking than John McCain or Mitt Romney.  Maybe they do.  But there is also this three-way relationship—the NSA funds high tech industry, high tech industry funds President Obama’s campaign, and President Obama supports the NSA.

Click on Who Buys the Spies for the complete article by Ferguson, Jorgenson and Chen on AlterNet.

Ian Welsh on the way of thinking we need

October 25, 2013

Ian Welsh

Ian Welsh, whose blog link is on my Blogs I Like page, wrote four excellent posts this week on the current economic and political situation and how we should think about it.

They are all worth reading in their entirety, along with the comment threads, but here are some highlights, with links.

The preferred business model today is to make it so that no one owns anything: everything is unbundled, instead of owning it, you lease or rent it and the moment you can’t pay it all goes away.  This is what “cloud” computing is about: a revenue stream. Lose your revenue, lose everything.  Ownership of DNA sequences, ownership of seeds, effective ownership of your intellectual property because it appears in someone else’s pipe (like Google using people’s endorsements without compensating them), you will own nothing, and all surplus value you produce in excess of what you need to (barely) survive will be taken from you.

To put it another way, the current business model is value stripping.

via Baseline Predictions for the next Sixty Odd Years.

We’re going to hit the wall.  We’re going to have fight a dystopic panopticon police state in which ordinary people are not allowed to own anything of real value, let alone keep any of the real value they create.  We’re going to do this while the environment comes apart, while we get battered by “extreme weather events”, droughts, water shortages and hunger.

That’s the baseline scenario.  That’s what we have to be ready to deal with, to change as much as we can, to radically mitigate to save hundreds of millions or billions of lives, and to make billions of lives good, instead of meaningless existential hells.

via Baseline Predictions for the next Sixty Odd Years.


School children in poverty

October 25, 2013


Nearly half of U.S. school children are poor.  That is to say, the Southern Education Foundation reported that 48 percent of American children attending public school in 2011 qualified for free or reduced-price school lunches based on their incomes.

I like maps and graphics as a way of presenting quantitative information.  The two maps above, based on the Southern Education Foundation’s report, tell me three things.

1.  The average well-being of the people of the United States declined during the past decade.

2.  The Sunbelt (the South and Southwest) does not set an example for the rest of the country.

3.  The United States should not cut back on programs that provide food to children, such as food stamps, subsidized school lunches and the WIC nutrition program for pregnant women and mothers of young children.

Click on A New Majority: Low Income Students in the South and Nation for the report.

Hat tip to occasional links and commentary.

Obamacare: conservatism as the new liberalism

October 24, 2013


Even though I think the Affordable Care Act is a bad law, I’m opposed to most of the people who oppose the law.

Most opponents of the law are against it because they don’t agree with having the government guarantee a minimum level of medical care to all.  I’m opposed to the law because I don’t think it will come anywhere near to accomplishing that purpose.

Defenders of the Affordable Care Act point out that it originated as a conservative Republican plan, drafted by the right-wing Heritage Foundation and first implemented by Mitt Romney as governor of Massachusetts.

From my standpoint, that is the problem. I am a liberal Democrat who voted for Barack Obama in 2008, and I did not vote for him in order to advance a conservative Republican agenda.

I’m pretty sure that the Heritage staff did not offer up their plan because they felt an urgent desire to assure health insurance for everybody.  I think they proposed their plan as a way to avoid enacting Medicare-for-all, aka a single-payer plan.

The chief merit of the Obama / Heritage plan from the right-wing point of view is that it locks the for-profit insurance companies into the system and gives them a captive market, even though they add no value to medical care.  The threat of a universal system would be that there would be no role for the insurance cmpanies.

Back in 2008, the single-payer plan was the mainstream Democratic position. Both Hillary Clinton and John Edwards advocated it in their presidential campaigns.  Barack Obama offered a moderate compromise, a public option in which an affordable government insurance plan would be made available, which at the time that seemed reasonable to me.

But as soon as President Obama took office, he embraced the Heritage / Romney plan.   His staff ridiculed anybody who took his campaign promise seriously.

If Obama thought that this would bring the Republicans on board, he was sadly mistaken.  They reverted to what they really wanted all along, which is to do nothing or take away what we have.

In five years, the former mainstream liberal position has been taken off the table for discussion. The former mainstream conservative position has been redefined as the liberal position.  The extreme right-wing position which was not then on the table has been redefined as the mainstream conservative position.

Nobody really wanted Obamacare.  It was originally proposed as a lesser evil from the conservative point of view,  and it was enacted as being a lesser evil from the liberal point of view.   The right-wing Republican goal is to get rid of it altogether.   The liberal Democratic goal should be to replace it with something adequate.


The U.S. can do a lot better than Obamacare

October 24, 2013

The Affordable Care Act is a bad plan.  It may be a lesser evil than the system we had before, just as the system we had before was better than nothing at all, but it falls short of what Americans have a reasonable right to expect.

Obamacare creates a captive market for the for-profit insurance companies, which in themselves contribute nothing to the availability or quality of medical care.

It is a form of privatization of social insurance, which creates a bad precident—especially ominous in the light of President Obama’s repeated statements about the need to cut Medicare and Social Security.

By design, it does nothing to control some of the main things that make health care so expensive in the United States.  In addition to locking the insurance companies into the system, it allows pharmaceutical companies to charge Americans more than what they charge Canadians and Europeans for identical products.  And it complexifies the needlessly complex existing system.

Instead of providing a universal system, it creates a means-tested system where different people give different levels of health insurance, and some are still outside the system.

While the ACA provides subsidies to low-income citizens who can’t afford health care premiums, these may in the long run turn out to be mere pass-throughs that enable insurance companies to raise their rates, just as the Pell grants to college students eventually become mere pass-throughs to the colleges.

And while it assures insurance to many people who previously were denied it, I seriously question whether either competition or federal regulation will guarantee insurance premiums are affordable. Even if government regulators are serious about keeping insurance affordable, there are many ways for companies to game the system, by providing lower levels of care, asking higher deductibles and simply making it difficult to file claims (I have personal experience with the latter).

I do recognize that Obamacare has helped many people and even saved lives.   I don’t advocate wiping it off the blackboard and going back to the previous system.  But we Americans shouldn’t accept that this is the best we can do.


Saudi Arabia displeased with new U.S. policies

October 24, 2013

For decades the keystone of United States foreign policy in the Middle East has been the unwritten alliance with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

saudi-arabia-festivalThe deal was that Saudi Arabia would be a reliable supplier of oil to the United States and would recycle its oil income by investing in the U.S. economy and buying American weapons systems.  In return, the United States would support Saudi interests and defend the Kingdom from radical movements such as Al Qaeda and dangerous neighbors such as Saddam’s Iraq and the Ayatollahs’ Iran.

Now this alliance is falling apart over President Obama’s willingness to make peace with Syria and Iran.

I think this was bound to happen sooner or later.  The interests of a backward, theocratic monarchy are not the same as the interests of the United States.

I respect President Obama for his willingness to pursue an independent policy, and I hope he succeeds.   He faces great obstacles.  Saudi wealth gives the Kingdom great influence in American politics, and Obama also faces opposition from Israel, the third member of the unwritten alliance.

The best policy for the United States to follow is friendship with all Middle Eastern nations who are willing to be friendly to the U.S. rather taking sides in conflicts within the region.


The oceans are sick and may be dying

October 24, 2013

Ivan Macfaydan, an Australian yachtsman, sailed from Melbourne to Osaka, and then to San Francisco.  When he took a similar voyage 10 years ago, the ocean was teeming with fish and the skies with sea birds.  Now all he saw was a dead ocean and the only thing he saw was garbage.

mike062620111An interview of Macfayden by an Australian newspaper has gone viral over the Internet.  It reads like the opening chapter of a Stephen King novel.

Scientists meanwhile report that marine life in vast areas of the world’s oceans are dying off and being replaced by jellyfish, a primitive organism that can survive conditions that kill more complex creatures die.  There is a 30,000-square-mile area off southern Africa completely covered by jellyfish, a “stingy-slimy killing field” where no other animal life can survive.

Biologist Lisa-ann Gershwin in a recently-reviewed book that the warming of the oceans, fertilizer runoff from farms, plastic pollution and acidification of the oceans all create an environment that is had for fish, whales, turtles and other higher forms of life, but highly suitable for jellyfish.  Unless something changes, jellyfish will rule the seas and other forms of marine life will disappear.

What is killing the oceans?  Here are some suspects.

Surexploitation_morue_surpêcheEn1Overfishing.  Macfayden encountered a big factory factory fishing ship on his voyage.  The ship’s machinery scoop up everything in the water around them, the crew picked out the tuna, and all the other fish and marine life were dumped.  This is worse than clear-cutting of forests.  This kind of fishing depletes not only the tuna or whatever other species of fish is the target, but it destroys the food chain that the fish need to survive.

The chart at the right depicts the destruction of the Newfoundland cod fishery.  Canadian writer Jacobs wrote that in 1976, Canada’s Department of the Environment responded to the declining catch by deciding to ignore “biological factors” and lift restrictions “in the interest of the people who depend on the fishing industry.”  As the chart shows, the catch increased slightly, then crashed completely.  Since the cod went away, she wrote, fisherman have been encouraged to concentrate on shrimp, crabs and other species lower on the food chain, which jeopardizes the recovery of the cod.

PlasticsInstead of decaying, plastic objects over time disintegrate into tiny pellets that fish mistake for food.  The fish swallow them, the plastic stuff sticks in their gullets or digestive systems, and they can’t digest anything else.  They starve to death.   Unlike with overfishing, cause and effect are not obvious.  Who would have thought that when I use a plastic disposable safety razor, I am contributing to the death of the oceans?

ocean-dead-zonesDead Zones. Excess fertilizer is carried off the land by rain and carried by streams to the ocean.  In the ocean it nourishes a huge growth of algae, and the decaying algae nourish a huge growth of bacteria.  The bacteria suck all the dissolved oxygen out of the water, and the fish die.   This has created huge dead zones is coastal waters and, some suspect, in the deep ocean as well.  Who would have thought that when a farmer in the Midwest grows corn for ethanol production, he could be contributing to dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico.

Other possible causes include the radioactive water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant meltdown, the warming of the oceans due to the greenhouse effect, the acidification of the oceans from burning of coal and fossil fuels and no doubt many other things, known and unknown.

We human beings think that the world’s oceans are so vast that they are in effect limitless, and that human activity will not affect them.  We now know this is a mistake.


Globalization and the world slave work force

October 23, 2013


About two-thirds of the world’s estimated 29.8 million slaves are forced laborers, working for private employers to supply materials and components for products sold in world markets.

Tim Fernholtz of the Atlantic gave some examples.

This summer, an Australian man imprisoned in China reported that prisoners were making headphones for global airlines like Qantas and British Airways. Some 300,000 sets of the disposable headphones were made by uncompensated prisoners who were forced to work without pay and regularly beaten. The index says that there are about 3 million slaves in China, in state-run forced labor camps, at private industrial firms making electronics and designer bags, and in the brick-making industry.

Companies like Apple, Boeing and Intel—among thousands of others—have been under pressure to document that the tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold they use aren’t being mined by slaves in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a civil war has led armed groups seeking funding to force civilians to work. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission adopted a rule forcing American firms to trace the minerals they use to their origins, and while business lobbies have sued to overturn it, industry leaders have begun planning to file the first required reports in May 2014.

In the Asian seafood industry, migrant workers may become forced laborers who harvest and prepare mackerel, shrimp and squid bound for markets around the world.

Côte d’Ivoire is the world’s leading supplier of cocoa—some 40 percent of the global supply—and much of it is grown and harvested by some children engaged in forced labor. In 2010, Côte d’Ivoire said 30,000 children worked on cocoa farms, although Walk Free’s index estimates as many as 600,000 to 800,000. While this has been widely reported on since 2000, and the global response has been strong, compared to that of other allegations of forced labor, the problem has not really been solved. As of 2012, 97 percent of the country’s farmers have not participated in industry-sponsored campaigns against forced child labor. Mondelēz International, the world’s largest chocolate producer, which owns brands such as Milka, Toblerone and Cadbury, has struggled for years to take forced labor out of its supply chain. It committed $400 million to a program aimed at creating a sustainable cocoa economy last year, but its efforts have been ineffective so far.

The best way for us Americans and citizens of other wealthy countries to promote freedom and democracy is to stop our corporations and governments from supporting slavery and autocracy.   This seems do-able to me.


Big Brother scene: Links & comments 10/23/13

October 23, 2013

The United States is not a totalitarian country, but there are all-too-many Americans with a totalitarian mentality.

The US government’s secrecy problem just got worse by Elizabeth Goiten for Al Jazeera America.

A federal judge ruled that the U.S. government is justified in keeping information secret when its disclosure could be used as propaganda by terrorist organizations.  In other words, the worse the crime committed by the government, the more reason to keep it secret from the public.

In the long run, the best defense against anti-American propaganda is not to commit crimes and abuses of power.  This decision goes the other way.  It gives the government the legal right to enforce coverups.

We already know that the government classifies information as secret in order to cover up mistakes and wrongdoing.  This court decision says that the government has a legal right to do this.

Why I Will Never, Ever, Go Back to the United States by Niels Gerson Lohman.

A Dutch novelist describes his experience trying to cross from Canada into the United States—hours of questioning about his life followed by a determination that he should be barred from the USA because he had visited too many majority-Muslim countries.

Many foreigners report that the experience of entering the United States is much like entering the old Soviet Union before it fell.  Aside from the wrongness of giving low-level government employees such arbitrary power, is this the face that we Americans want to present to the world?

Authors Accept Censors’ Rules to Sell in China by Andrew Jacobs for the New York Times.

The Chinese government demands the right to censor and alter books by Americans before it will allow them to be translated and published in China.  Many (but not all) American authors go along with this for the sake of royalties in the huge Chinese market.

Support for Legalizing Marijuana Grows to Highest Point Ever in Gallup Poll by Ariel Edwards-Levy for the Huffington Post.

Gallup reported that 58 percent of Americans favor legalizing marijuana.  The war on drugs does great harm, especially to young black men in U.S. cities.  But there is a vested interest for continuing in the prison industry and especially among police departments that get income from property seizures in drug cases.


Slavery in the world today

October 22, 2013


Slavery is outlawed under international law and in most parts of the world, but there are still nearly 30 million slaves in the world today, according to the anti-slavery organization WalkFree.  These are literal, not metaphorical, slaves—forced laborers, child soldiers, forced prostitutes and others held in bondage.

Some are debt slaves, sold into slavery to pay their own or their parents’ debts.  Some are unauthorized immigrants, lured by false promises of a job and then trapped in a country where they have no legal rights.   Some are simply victims of force.

The map above shows the estimated number of slaves in each country.  Nearly half of the world’s slaves—an estimated 14 million people—are in India.   But few countries are completely without slaves, and the USA is not one of them.

The map below shows the estimated proportion of the population of each country that is enslaved—about one out of every 25 people in the nation of MauritiusMauritania, one out of 48 in Haiti.  The percentage of slaves in the United States is small, but that is still 60,000 people.  India is near the top in the prevalence of slavery as well as absolute numbers.


Click on Globalization and the world slave work force for a post on how global companies benefit from slave labor. [added 10/23/13]

Click on This map shows where the world’s 30 million slaves live | There are 60,000 in the U.S. for background by Max Fisher of the Washington Post.

Click on – The Movement to End Modern Slavery for more information and suggestions for action.   Hat tip to occasional links and commentary.