Tuesday, September 29, 2009

ENVIRONMENT - Fate of the Planet

"Cassandras of Climate" by PAUL KRUGMAN, New York Times
Every once in a while I feel despair over the fate of the planet. If you’ve been following climate science, you know what I mean: the sense that we’re hurtling toward catastrophe but nobody wants to hear about it or do anything to avert it.

And here’s the thing: I’m not engaging in hyperbole. These days, dire warnings aren’t the delusional raving of cranks. They’re what come out of the most widely respected climate models, devised by the leading researchers. The prognosis for the planet has gotten much, much worse in just the last few years.

What’s driving this new pessimism? Partly it’s the fact that some predicted changes, like a decline in Arctic Sea ice, are happening much faster than expected. Partly it’s growing evidence that feedback loops amplifying the effects of man-made greenhouse gas emissions are stronger than previously realized. For example, it has long been understood that global warming will cause the tundra to thaw, releasing carbon dioxide, which will cause even more warming, but new research shows far more carbon locked in the permafrost than previously thought, which means a much bigger feedback effect.

The result of all this is that climate scientists have, en masse, become Cassandras — gifted with the ability to prophesy future disasters, but cursed with the inability to get anyone to believe them.

And we’re not just talking about disasters in the distant future, either. The really big rise in global temperature probably won’t take place until the second half of this century, but there will be plenty of damage long before then.

For example, one 2007 paper in the journal Science is titled “Model Projections of an Imminent Transition to a More Arid Climate in Southwestern North America” — yes, “imminent” — and reports “a broad consensus among climate models” that a permanent drought, bringing Dust Bowl-type conditions, “will become the new climatology of the American Southwest within a time frame of years to decades.”

So if you live in, say, Los Angeles, and liked those pictures of red skies and choking dust in Sydney, Australia, last week, no need to travel. They’ll be coming your way in the not-too-distant future.

Now, at this point I have to make the obligatory disclaimer that no individual weather event can be attributed to global warming. The point, however, is that climate change will make events like that Australian dust storm much more common.

In a rational world, then, the looming climate disaster would be our dominant political and policy concern. But it manifestly isn’t. Why not?

Part of the answer is that it’s hard to keep peoples’ attention focused. Weather fluctuates — New Yorkers may recall the heat wave that pushed the thermometer above 90 in April — and even at a global level, this is enough to cause substantial year-to-year wobbles in average temperature. As a result, any year with record heat is normally followed by a number of cooler years: According to Britain’s Met Office, 1998 was the hottest year so far, although NASA — which arguably has better data — says it was 2005. And it’s all too easy to reach the false conclusion that the danger is past.

But the larger reason we’re ignoring climate change is that Al Gore was right: This truth is just too inconvenient. Responding to climate change with the vigor that the threat deserves would not, contrary to legend, be devastating for the economy as a whole. But it would shuffle the economic deck, hurting some powerful vested interests even as it created new economic opportunities. And the industries of the past have armies of lobbyists in place right now; the industries of the future don’t.

Nor is it just a matter of vested interests. It’s also a matter of vested ideas. For three decades the dominant political ideology in America has extolled private enterprise and denigrated government, but climate change is a problem that can only be addressed through government action. And rather than concede the limits of their philosophy, many on the right have chosen to deny that the problem exists.

So here we are, with the greatest challenge facing mankind on the back burner, at best, as a policy issue. I’m not, by the way, saying that the Obama administration was wrong to push health care first. It was necessary to show voters a tangible achievement before next November. But climate change legislation had better be next.

And as I pointed out in my last column, we can afford to do this. Even as climate modelers have been reaching consensus on the view that the threat is worse than we realized, economic modelers have been reaching consensus on the view that the costs of emission control are lower than many feared.

So the time for action is now. O.K., strictly speaking it’s long past. But better late than never.

Of course, witnessing what is happening today of what WAS the GOP, we know they are too busy making crosses to burn to pay attention. Then again, these people don't believe in science; that liberal, commie, conspiracy scheme to take over America.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

HEALTHCARE - A View From Oregon

"The Way We Die Now" by Timothy Egan, New York Times

PORTLAND, Ore. —– In the last days of her life, Annabel Kitzhaber had a decision to make: she could be the tissue-skinned woman in the hospital with the tubes and the needles, the meds and smells and the squawk of television. Or she could go home and finish the love story with the man she’d been married to for 65 years.

Her husband was a soldier who had fought through Europe with Patton’s army. And as he aged, his son would call him on D-Day and thank him – for saving the world from the Nazis, for bequeathing his generation with a relatively easy time.

That son, John Kitzhaber, knew exactly what his mother’s decision meant. He was not only a governor, a Democrat who served two terms in Oregon as it tried to show the world that a state could give health care to most of its citizens, but a doctor himself.

At age 88, with a weak heart, and tests that showed she most likely had cancer, Annabel chose to go home, walking away from the medical-industrial complex.

“The whole focus had been centered on her illness and her aging,” said Kitzhaber. “But both she and my father let go that part of their lives that they could not control and instead began to focus on what they could control: the joys and blessings of their marriage.”

She died at home, four months after the decision, surrounded by those she loved. Her husband died eight months later.

The story of Annabel and Albert Kitzhaber is no more remarkable than a grove of ancient maple trees blushing gold in the early autumn, a moment in a life cycle. But for reasons both cynical and clinical, the American political debate on health care treats end-of-life care like a contagion — an unspeakable one at that.

Nobody was more frustrated than John Kitzhaber as the health care debate got hijacked over the summer by shouters and misinformation specialists. And no politician is more battle-scarred on this issue. He looks, at 62, still the Western man, with his jeans, his shag of gray hair, the face weathered by days spent trying to lure steelhead to the surface in the Rogue River. It has been his life work to see if at least one part of country could join the family of nations that offers universal coverage.

With his mother’s death in 2005, Kitzhaber lived the absurdities of the present system. Medicare would pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for endless hospital procedures and tests but would not pay $18 an hour for a non-hospice care giver to come into Annabel’s home and help her through her final days.

“The fundamental problem is that one percent of the population accounts for 35 percent of health care spending,” he said. “So the big question is not how we pay for health care, but what are we buying.”

He is not, he says, in favor of pulling the plug on granny. The culture of life should be paramount, he says, following the oath he took as a doctor. But Oregon, years ahead of the rest of the country, has talked and talked and talked about this taboo topic, and they’ve voted on it as well, in several forms. They found — in line with national studies — that most people want to die at home.

In addition, Oregon was the first state to allow terminally ill patients to take medications to end their lives. The fear was, Oregon would become a death magnet, drawing suicide tourists and put itself on a slope to euthanasia. But it has not worked out that way. Since the change in the law in 1997, only about 33 people a year with terminal illnesses have ended their lives by their own hand with a doctor’s prescription.

In last year’s presidential campaign, Kitzhaber tried to make health care the top domestic issue. After the campaign, he was on the short list to become President Obama’s secretary of health and Human Services. Now he’s running, next year, for a third term for governor.

He was appalled when Sarah Palin and Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa started stoking fears of nonexistent death panels. At last, public officials were talking about death — but only to scare the elderly and win political points.

More sensible voices have since joined the debate, asking how we reform a system that lavishes most of its benefits on a cure for the “disease” of aging. President Obama has talked about squeezing billions of waste, fraud and abuse from Medicare. But he has yet to admit the obvious: those savings can only come from changing the way the system treats dying people.

About $67 billion — nearly a third of the money spent by Medicare — goes to patients in the last two years of life. The need to spend less money at the end of life “is the elephant in the room,” Evan Thomas wrote in “The Case for Killing Granny,” the cover story in last week’s Newsweek. “Everyone sees it but no one wants to talk about it.”

John Kitzhaber, M.D., politician, and son who watched both parents die in a dignified way, cannot stop talking about it. His parents’ generation won the war, built the interstate highway system, cured polio, eradicated smallpox and created the two greatest social programs of the 20th century — Social Security and Medicare.

Now the baton has been passed to the Baby Boomers. But the hour is late, Kitzhaber says, with no answer to a pressing generational question: “What is our legacy?”

POLITICS - Democratic Lack of Backbone

"The public knows the GOP is fibbing" by Gene Lyons, Salon.com

Only Republicans really buy the anti-healthcare reform lies. So why are some Dems settling for such an awful bill?

"I can't tell you how many foreign leaders who are heads of center-right governments say to me, I don't understand why people would call you socialist. In my country, you'd be considered a conservative." -- President Obama, Sept. 20, 2009

There have always been two basic arguments for health insurance reform: one based in morality, the other self-interest. For a documented 45,000 persons to die prematurely in America each year because they can't afford proper care is a national disgrace. Almost everybody apart from "conservatives" whose moral imagination is limited to judging other people's sex lives understands that.

The current cruel, wasteful system is indefensible. Surely that's why almost three-quarters of physicians polled by the New England Journal of Medicine favor genuine reform. About 63 percent of doctors surveyed nationwide support a public option; 10 percent would prefer a single-payer system, basically Medicare for everybody.

For all the hullabaloo, it appears alarmist rhetoric hasn't scared ordinary people as much as it has cable TV anchors. A Bloomberg poll asked which right-wing objections people found legitimate, and which were "scare tactics." Basically, voters rejected GOP rhetoric almost 2-to-1. About 63 percent think Sarah Palin's "death panels" are a distortion, versus 30 percent who fear them. It's 61 to 33 percent on the claim that health reform means government-paid abortions, 58 to 37 percent on the false claim that illegal aliens will get subsidized insurance, etc.

In short, hardcore opposition is mainly confined to the Republican "base," itself increasingly confined to the South. Why has Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, started making conciliatory noises? Consider these remarkable statistics from a Research 2000 poll: Voters in the Northeast overwhelmingly dislike congressional Republicans. The party's favorability rating there is a minuscule 7, yes 7, percent. Moreover, it's a paltry 13 percent in the Midwest; 14 percent in the West. Only in the South is the GOP politically relevant, with a 50 to 37 percent advantage over Democrats.

Hence the odds of Obama's signing what the New Republic's Jonathan Chait correctly calls "one of the towering social reforms in American history" appear excellent. Ending the game of health insurance roulette that keeps workers unsure their coverage will actually exist when they need it, and fearful of losing their jobs lest illness or injury lead to bankruptcy, would be a significant moral achievement.

Chait, however, also thinks progressives should shut up and accept a deeply flawed bill. He fails to grasp why some suspect Democrats could be slow-walking into political disaster. See, that's where the self-interest side of the argument comes in. Because the widely publicized bill proposed by Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., not only won't get Republican votes, it would also do little to restrain galloping cost increases. That's why insurance and pharmaceutical lobbyists love it.

Instead, Baucus' bill would force millions of working Americans currently without coverage to spend up to 13 percent of their annual income on private health insurance policies they can't afford.

Have these abstemious "centrists" on the Senate Finance Committee been hitting the medical marijuana stash? A surer way to stoke a right-wing populist rebellion can't be imagined. Like Politics Daily's David Corn, "I feel as if I'm watching a cheesy horror flick and some poor unsuspecting person is about to open the wrong door -- and you want to scream, 'Hey, don't open that door!'"

Democratic bloggers boast about how brilliantly Obama schooled George Stephanopoulos on ABC News' "This Week." The host wondered whether a government mandate requiring people to buy health insurance wasn't a steep tax increase. Obama argued semantics. "For us to say that you've got to take a responsibility to get health insurance is absolutely not a tax increase."

No, Mr. President, it's not. Technically speaking. But it's thousands of bucks out of the pockets of people who've already decided they can't afford insurance. Sure, some are improvident deadbeats willing to take their chances, visit the emergency room as necessary, and stick everybody else with the bill. But most just can't find the money.

See, the argument from self-interest starts with the realization that Americans already spend almost twice as much per capita for healthcare as the citizens of any other country. And that most of the difference goes to outsize corporate profits. Insurance and pharmaceutical executives aren't wicked, but corporations can be as amoral as sharks.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean insists that the bill simply must include a competitive public insurance plan: "Because it's the only thing that works ... If controlling costs, which is part of the president's agenda, is going to happen, you have to have a public option. If you want to get some people insured by 2010, which I think is essential for the future of the Democratic Party, you have to have a public option."

Is that because Dean's a left-wing ideologue?

No, it's because he's a doctor.

In my opinion, the Democratic Party has suffered from a streak of cowardice for a long time. They *tend* to avoid political risk rather than stand on ethical principle.

As I've said before, affordable healthcare for ALL American citizens is a moral and ethical principle in my book, and should be provided by ANY democratic free society.

POLITICS - Roots, Current GOP Style

"Roots of Right-Wing Populist Rage --Christian Right" by Chip Berlet, Talk To Action

Listening to the rhetoric and reading the placards at recent right-wing events has led many progressive observers to conclude that "these folks are nuts!" Well, they are no more crazy or ignorant than most Americans (stifle that giggle), but they do live inside a bubble.

We all live inside our own bubbles in terms of where we get our information. If you grew up listening to right-wing libertarian talk radio and conservative Christian televangelism programs you might be able to break out of that that bubble, but it is difficult, and the exception, not the rule.

Sure, many of the ideas in the Political Right ignore about 50 years of social science--but not in their book--literally not in the books they read. Or the TV they watch. Or the radio they listen to. Or the magazines, newsletters, and direct mail that arrive in their mailbox. And this is what it is important to understand. These folks are no more crazy or ignorant than we are, but their "fact" base is produced in a parallel political universe.

The 2,000 or so folks at the 2009 Values Voter Summit this past weekend in Washington, DC share a set of ideologies with minor variations and differing combinations. While most of these folks have economic libertarian beliefs, they differ in form and focus from secular economic libertarians. I'll cover the "Free Market" sector of the populist right in another post.

Conservative Christian evangelicals allied with the Christian Right represent about 15% of the electorate. Most of them also have apocalyptic beliefs about the second coming of Christ, and many of those see it as an impending event they will witness in their lifetime. That explains why 15% of Republicans in New Jersey say they think it is possible that President Obama is the Antichrist (one of the signs of the arrival of the prophesied End Times); while 14% are absolutely sure Obama is the Antichrist.

For those Conservative Christian evangelicals with this specific set of apocalyptic beliefs, stopping Obama is a mission from God; and also a test of faith which might determine whether or not they go to Heaven or get Raptured.

Conservative icon Phyllis Shlafly received the Values Voter Summit major award at the concluding banquet. It recognized her role in creating the contemporary conservative movement. Schlafly's ideology is rooted in that of the Old Right, based on the policies of President William Howard Taft who served from 1909-1913. After WWII, in the 1950s, Schlafly organized conservative women to roll back the liberal policies of the Administration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-1945). She also backed the failed Republican Presidential candidacy of Sen. Barry Goldwater in 1964. When the New Right began to emerge in the late 1970s with major support from veterans of the Goldwater campaign, Schlafly, a devout Catholic anti-communist, helped bridge the gap between the Old and New Right, as well as between conservative Catholics and conservative Protestants.

What books did the Old Right bring into the New Right? Several authors were named at the Values Voter conference. In addition to Schlafly, authors W. Cleon Skousen and Fred Schwarz were mentioned from the podium. In terms of the contemporary Christian Right, these authors along with Gary Allen, John Stormer, Tim LaHaye, Larry Abraham and a few others wrote the books that contain the basis for almost all the Values Voter rhetoric, slogans, and workshop sessions decried as lunatic by the Left over the past week.

The best known book was Phyllis Schlafly's A Choice, Not an Echo which suggested a conspiracist theory in which the Republican Party was said to be secretly controlled by elitist intellectuals dominated by members of the Bilderberger banking conference, whose policies were designed to usher in global communist conquest. Schlafly's husband Fred had been a lecturer at author Fred Schwarz's local Christian Anti-Communism Crusade conferences and training seminars. The title "A Choice, Not an Echo" became one of Goldwater's campaign slogans.

Schlafly elaborated on the theme of the global communist conspiracy and its witting and unwitting domestic allies in a number of books. The Gravediggers, was a Schlafly book on military preparedness co-authored with retired Rear Admiral Chester Ward. Ward, a member of the National Strategy Committee of the American Security Council was also a lecturer at the Foreign Policy Research Institute which formulated many benchmark Cold War anti-communist strategies.

The Gravediggers claimed U.S. military strategy and tactics promoted during liberal Administrations (both Democratic and Republican) were actually consciously designed to pave the way for global communist conquest. The Gravediggers was also tailored to support the Goldwater campaign. Schlafly and Ward also wrote Strike from Space, which later formed the basis of President Reagan's missile defense program. Schlafly was appointed by Reagan to his National Security Task Force, and she worked with retired General Daniel O. Graham to promote space-based missile defense.

For over 50 years ultra-conservative Christians have been reading these types of books which lay out arguments that lie at the roots of contemporary right-wing populist rage. These are not marginal or "fringe" figures. They have played a major role in Republican Party politics and governance for over 30 years. Dismiss them at our own risk.

Bold emphasis mine

WORLD - Our Aussie Friends, in the Wind

"Sydney dust blanket causes highest air pollution on record" by ARJUN RAMACHANDRAN, Sydney Morning Herald 9/23/2009

Excerpt

The dusty blanket that wrapped itself around Sydney this morning pushed air pollution levels to 1500 times their normal levels - the highest on record, a climate scientist says.

Sydneysiders woke to a red dawn this morning as a thick dust storm caused havoc with transport and raised health fears.

The size of the dust cloud surprised weather experts, who say it has covered half of NSW.

Dr John Leys, principal research scientist with the NSW Department of Climate Change and Water, said initial estimates showed the dust plume stretched 600 kilometers along the NSW coast from Sydney to the Queensland border this morning, dumping up to 75,000 tonnes of dust per hour into the Tasman Sea.

"It's traveled about 1500 kilometers to get to Sydney," Dr Leys said.

Chris Eiser, manager of atmospheric science at the department, said measurements taken in Sydney today showed the highest level of particle concentration on record.

A normal day would see around 10 micrograms of particles per cubic metre of air and a bushfire might generate 500 micrograms.

Today, levels soared to 15,400 micrograms per cubic metre of air at one location.

"During a dust storm, that’s when we get our highest levels historically and this is the highest we’ve measured in Sydney," Mr Eiser said.


Bureau of Meteorology regional director Barry Hanstrum said it was unusual to see such a wide area covered by dust.


"It's a very unusual event to see a blanket of thick dust like this cover such a large area of NSW," Mr Hanstrum said.

"We see [dust storms] fairly regularly but what we don't see is dust this thick make it across to the coast.


"More than half the state at midday today is under this cloud and the dust is starting to spread north and east and is likely to affect parts of Queensland as well in the next 24 hours."

The haze would not disappear until the low pressure system over Sydney - which brought the dusty winds - moved out to sea, most likely in the evening.


"We should see an improvement in the Sydney area later today but it will be slow, and overnight and into tomorrow we'll see a return to more typical conditions for this time of year," Mr Hanstrum said.

"As the low pressure system moves away, then it will continue to transport the dust out to sea.

"And as winds become more south-westerly, it will bring air from further south and that area wasn't affected by dust storms."

Josh Fisher, meteorologist from weatherzone.com.au, said there was a "ridge of high pressure ... edging east" that was also causing winds to ease.

Most dust would be carried out to sea by the low pressure system, but some would settle to the ground, Mr Hanstrum said.

He also described how the dust cloud this morning had morphed from crimson red about dawn, through orange and yellow and into a paler grey late this morning.

"With the low sun angle first thing in the morning, it's a bit like the angle of the sun at sunset ... you see a reddish tinge in the sky.

"As it got higher in the sky the colour of the dust cloud changed. Now currently it's a grey pall that's over the city and that's because the sun is pretty well directly overhead."


The dusty cloak would keep temperatures in the low 20s today, Mr Fisher said.

"The dust haze will work to keep temperatures lower and, as it clears, the winds are going to turn more south-westerly, bringing in cooler air and some cloud cover with that.

"We'll see temperatures struggle to reach 20 degrees today."

See full article with video and pics.

POLITICS - Fux News Gets Caught

"Fox becomes the scandal" by Jed Lewison, Daily KOS 9/21/2009

On Friday, Media Matters released a video showing a Fox News producer stage-managing a 9/12 protest crowd.

The video -- which shows a producer waving her arms in the air, encouraging a crowd of 9/12 protesters to make noise for a live shot -- provides some of the clearest evidence yet of Fox's central role in manufacturing anti-Obama dissent.

The video isn't really a surprise: anyone whose watched coverage of protests can see that Fox is sympathetic to the protesters, but this video offered a rare behind-the-scenes glimpse of Fox actually fueling the fire of the very same crowds they claim to be covering.

By any sort of journalistic standards, the producer's behavior was unethical in the extreme, yet Fox has refused to fire her. To mitigate any potential damage from the tape's release, Fox did claim that the producer had been "disciplined" -- but she still has a job.

The fact that Fox is willing to keep the producer on their payroll shows that they don't really care that she tried to stoke up the crowd -- what they care about is that she was caught. That, in turn, reinforces what everybody should already know: Fox News has no journalistic integrity of which to speak.

I agree, we all know how this producer got disciplined, "You idiot, didn't you realize you were being taped!"

Fox News is not in the business of journalism, it IS in the business of Extreme Conservative Propaganda.

HEALTHCARE - Another Shot Over the Bow

"White House targets insurers over healthcare premiums" by Patricia Zengerle, Reuters

The White House kept insurance companies squarely in its sights Tuesday in the push for healthcare reform by releasing research showing that health insurance premiums have risen far faster than inflation in every U.S. state.

U.S. states have experienced premium growth of 90 percent to nearly 150 percent in the past decade, while wages have risen 38 percent and inflation by 28 percent, the report by the White House's National Economic Council said.

"In every state, premiums have increased faster than wages and in every state, family budgets are consumed by an increasing share of healthcare premiums," the report said.

Vice President Joe Biden spoke Tuesday to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, in remarks highlighting the report.

"The status quo of rising premiums is simply unsustainable for families, for businesses, for state budgets, and for our national economy," Biden said.

President Barack Obama has pushed for a sweeping healthcare overhaul that he says would rein in costs, create competition for insurers and expand coverage to many of the 46 million uninsured people living in the United States. The overhaul of the $2.5 trillion industry is his top domestic policy priority.

Brian Deese of the National Economic Council said Obama's reform plan would include tighter regulation of insurance companies.

"As of 2008 ... fewer than half of states required a full review when insurers wanted to increase premiums at the state level," Deese told reporters on a conference call, "... even if it's all going mostly to profits."

Obama's healthcare reform effort has been besieged by critics and slowed by battles in Congress, where elements of the insurance and healthcare industries have lobbied against parts of it and Republicans and some conservatives in Obama's Democratic Party have expressed reservations about the expensive plan's cost and timing, given the recession.

Robert Zirkelbach, spokesman for America's Health Insurance Plans, an association representing 1,300 U.S. health insurance firms, said the criticism is misdirected, and that health insurance premiums track the ever-rising costs of healthcare.

"We agree that rising healthcare costs need to be addressed as part of comprehensive healthcare reform," he said, adding that the insurance industry is a supporter of many aspects of reform, but has been targeted recently as the White House pushes its plans for an overhaul.

The U.S. Senate Finance Committee began consideration of its long-delayed version of a healthcare reform bill on Tuesday, with costs and affordability topping the list of concerns for Democrats who control the panel.

In his remarks, Biden noted that premiums in Alaska increased 145 percent in 10 years while wages grew 35 percent, and in Florida premiums rose 121 percent while wages increased 43 percent. He said Michigan had the smallest gap, 37 percent.

**
Hay, Obama can't do that! Our poor, struggling, healthcare companies will go under!
** Sarcasm OFF **

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

POLITICS - Afghan Strategy Reevaluation

"Obama Is Considering Strategy Shift in Afghan" by ER BAKER and ELISABETH BUMILLER, New York Times

Excerpt

President Obama is exploring alternatives to a major troop increase in Afghanistan, including a plan advocated by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. to scale back American forces and focus more on rooting out Al Qaeda there and in Pakistan, officials said Tuesday.

The options under review are part of what administration officials described as a wholesale reconsideration of a strategy the president announced with fanfare just six months ago. Two new intelligence reports are being conducted to evaluate Afghanistan and Pakistan, officials said.

The sweeping reassessment has been prompted by deteriorating conditions on the ground, the messy and still unsettled outcome of the Afghan elections and a dire report by Mr. Obama’s new commander, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal. Aides said the president wanted to examine whether the strategy he unveiled in March was still the best approach and whether it could work with the extra combat forces General McChrystal wants.

In looking at other options, aides said, Mr. Obama might just be testing assumptions — and assuring liberals in his own party that he was not rushing into a further expansion of the war — before ultimately agreeing to the anticipated troop request from General McChrystal. But the review suggests the president is having second thoughts about how deeply to engage in an intractable eight-year conflict that is not going well.

Another example of Obama is not I-am-never-wrong/never-change Bush.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

POLITICS - Business's New View on Climate Change

"Firms Start to See Climate Change as Barrier to Profit" by Juliet Eilperin, Washington Post

Excerpt

As the real-world impacts of climate change begin to materialize and regulation of greenhouse gases appears more likely, corporate America has begun to grapple with a challenging question: How do you quantify the risks associated with climate change?

The answer depends on one's perspective. But companies are beginning to show increased willingness to disclose the extent to which they're contributing to global warming and what they're doing to keep it from harming their business.

"If we don't move now, it just becomes more expensive, more complicated and a bigger risk," said Brad Figel, director of government affairs at Nike, at a Capitol Hill briefing last week sponsored by Oxfam America.

On Monday, the Carbon Disclosure Project is set to release a report surveying the climate policies of the majority of the S&P 500, in which 52 percent of respondents said they've set emissions-reduction targets for the companies, compared with 32 percent last year. Many of these groups also see global warming as a threat to their bottom lines -- including 84 percent of financial-sector respondents -- citing concerns including a potential shortage of raw materials and supply-chain disruptions because of severe weather.

When it comes to climate, corporations "are demonstrating they are willing, ready and able to engage with it," said Carbon Disclosure Project chief executive Paul Dickinson. "We are moving, without any doubt, into a carbon-constrained world," he added.

The Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers say that some of the prescriptions to address climate change, such as the climate bill passed by the House in June, present more risks to the economy than global warming does.

But a number of companies have split with the chamber to back the House bill and are taking steps to curb their own carbon footprints.

POLITICS - Banks As Robber Barons, Again

"Democrats Target Bank Overdraft Charges" by Binyamin Appelbaum & Nancy Trejos, Washington Post

Excerpts

A backlash is brewing on Capitol Hill against banks that charge large fees for overdrafts without asking or telling customers, the latest sign that the financial crisis is shifting the balance of power from banks toward borrowers.

Banks struggling to survive have become increasingly reliant on the fees, which could total $38.5 billion this year.

But congressional Democrats, who pushed through new restrictions on credit cards this spring, now are promising a crackdown on overdraft fees, using words like "criminal" and "rip-off" to describe the practice of letting people overspend and then charging them fees without warning. Most overdrafts are now incurred on debit card transactions.

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) plans to introduce legislation requiring banks to get permission from customers, rather than allowing overdrafts automatically. If customers decline and then try to overspend, the transaction would be rejected. A similar bill is pending in the House.

Dodd dismissed concerns about the impact on ailing banks.

"People out there are getting whacked," he said. "They should have the right to say, 'Deny me the transaction.' "

Because most overdrafts are now prompted by debit card transactions, consumer advocates argue that the industry in effect has created a new kind of unregulated credit card. But the Federal Reserve ruled in 2004 that banks were providing a service rather than a loan, and therefore the customer's decision to spend the money was sufficient to indicate approval. The Fed did require banks to detail the fees on the customer's next statement.

This is typical "buyer beware" attitude of corporations. The corporate world has no responsibility to warn customers.

Historically this is not the case, there was a day when if you did not have enough collateral you did not get a loan. Now days they will offer loans to anyone, even if their existing debt is 10 times their income.

One has to wonder how dense the people who run banks are, that they do not recognize that they got into trouble BECAUSE of their current loan policies.

Monday, September 21, 2009

TECH REPORT - Electric Bikes

"Electric bikes start to gain traction" by Bill Rigby, Reuters

Excerpt

Ever wondered what it would be like to have Lance Armstrong pedal your bike for you? Well now you can find out, sort of.

About 15 companies are now offering bicycles with an electric power option -- as opposed to a purely engine-powered moped -- for around $1,000 to $4,000 -- and they are catching on with some green-thinking commuters.

The latest electric bikes from Giant, EcoBike, Currie Technologies and Ultra Motor, among others, can deliver around 500 watts of power at the flick of a wrist or a turn of the pedals. That is roughly what Armstrong could generate over shorter races in his prime.

The result is that you zip up hills or hustle along the street, silently passing all, but the most competitive two- wheelers.

One of the top sellers in the emerging market is the A2B, made by London-based Ultra Motor (pic gallery).

"Some people buy the bike to commute, other people purchase the bike to use as a replacement for short automobile trips," said Paul Vlahos, vice-president of sales for the U.S. arm of Ultra Motor.

POLITICS - Danger of a One-Party System on the Horizon?

"Grand Old Party in danger of being the Game-Over Party" by Marilou Johanek, Toledo Blade

Excerpts

A one-party system is not in anyone's best interest. But fear is on track to utterly derail the GOP and push it to irrelevancy.

When the face of the GOP becomes contorted through apocalyptic rhetoric, dark delusions, and ugliness aimed at anyone different, the country as a whole will recoil.

In the end, what Americans want is not a mob of screaming ditto-heads assembled to vent anger about a disjointed litany of issues from abortion to term limits to financial bailouts and the legitimacy of President Obama's election.

No, what the nation wants are sensible, practical solutions to its problems. It needs Republicans, whether far right or moderate, to be part of the conversation about critical issues from health-care reform to getting out of Afghanistan.

We need their ideas, their dissenting voices, to strengthen the process of constructing rational plans for the greater good. It's a lot easier to scream and shout in nebulous protests or raise the tangled specter of socialism or Nazism than to engage in the hard work necessary to make tough choices and good decisions.

But nothing stays the same forever and change in America will happen with or without Republican input. The longer the GOP allows itself to drift without a rudder in the insanity of the moment, the longer it will take to gain the trust of voters who know the difference between noise and noble.

If Republicans don't want to be marginalized into extreme movements like the John Birchers or worse, they need to say more than no and do more than maintain the status quo. They need to stop being intimidated by those who are paid well to stir up public misgivings for broadcast ratings, or accept the certain death of their party in 20 years.

Regressive nonsense doesn't cut it in the 21st century. Right-wingers have had their fun with noisemaking, scorch-and-burn tantrums to rally the core, provoke the perplexed, and orchestrate an uprising against everything and everybody. Now it's time for conservatives with a conscience to get serious and come to work for their party and country.

Bold emphasis mine

POLITICS - "Working Stiffs" Being Abused

"Working Class Zero" by Timothy Egan, New York Times

Excerpt

Mark Williams, a Sacramento talk radio host, was speaking to CNN on behalf of the demonstrators — many of whom carried signs comparing Obama to a witch doctor, an undocumented worker or a Nazi — when he played the blue collar card.

Who is Williams? A garden variety demagogue who calls Obama “an Indonesian Muslim turned welfare thug” and the Democratic party “a domestic enemy” of America. He also refers to the president as “racist in chief.” That says all you need to know about leaders of the Tea Party movement.

Williams repeatedly invoked the “working stiffs” who feel left out. Working people are always the last to get aboard the gravy train, and the first to be used in campaigns that will not advance their cause. And with these demonstrators, and the hucksters trying to distract them from real issues, history repeats itself.

Where was the Tea Party movement when the tax burden was shifted from the high end to the middle? Where were the patriots when Wall Street, backed in Congress by Senator Phil Gramm of Texas, rewrote securities laws so that the wonder boys of Lehman and A.I.G. could reduce home mortgages to poker chips at a trillion-dollar table?

Where were the angry “stiffs” when the banking industry rolled the 2005 Congress into rewriting bankruptcy law, making it easier to keep people in permanent credit card hock?

Where were they when President Bush started the bailouts, with $700 billion that had to be paid on a few days’ notice — with no debate — to save global capitalism?

They were nowhere, because they were clueless, just as most journalists were.

But now, at a time when a new president wants to reform health care to fix the largest single cause of middle-class economic collapse, he’s called a Nazi by these self-described friends of the working stiff.

“A working class hero is something to be,” John Lennon, that product of ragged Liverpool, sang just after leaving the Beatles. “Keep you doped with religion and sex and T.V.”

As someone who had a union card in my wallet before I owned a Mastercard, I don’t share Lennon’s dark view of blue collar workers. But as long as they can be distracted by people who say all government is bad, while turning a blind eye to manipulation at corporate levels, they’re doomed to shouting at phantoms.

One more detail caught my eye in these new economic reports on the lost decade. People in their prime earning years — age 45 to 54 — took the biggest hit in the last years of the Bush Administration, their median income falling by $5,000. And the region that suffered most — the South.

Older southern whites — that’s who got hit hardest by the freewheeling decade now fading. They should be angry. But they’re five years too late.

POLITICS - How to Drive GOP Warmongers Crazy

"Obama abandons missile defense shield in Europe" by Luke Harding & Ian Traynor, Guardian UK

US president shelves scheme in Poland and Czech Republic, citing new intelligence on threat from Iran

Barack Obama has abandoned the controversial Pentagon plan to build a missile defense system in Europe that had long soured relations with Russia.

In one of the sharpest breaks yet with the policies of the Bush administration, Obama said the new approach would offer "stronger, swifter and smarter" defense for the US and its allies. He said it would focus on the threat posed by Iran's short- and medium-range missiles, rather than its intercontinental nuclear capabilities.

Obama announced the reversal officially at a news conference today. "This new approach will provide capabilities sooner, build on proven systems to offer greater defenses to the threat of attack than the 2007 European missile defense programme," he said.

He phoned the leaders of Poland and the Czech Republic last night to tell them he had dropped plans to site missile interceptors and a radar station in their respective countries. Russia had furiously opposed the project, claiming it targeted Moscow's nuclear arsenal.

The change of tack had been prompted by advances in missile technology and new intelligence about Iran's existing missile capabilities, Obama said.

The US president said "updated intelligence" on Iran's existing short- and medium-range missiles showed they were "capable of reaching Europe". He added that the US would continue its efforts to end Iranian attempts to develop an "illicit nuclear programme".

He said: "To put it simply our new missile defense architecture in Europe will provide stronger, smarter, swifter defenses of American forces and America's allies."

During a visit to Moscow in July Obama indicated he was ordering a 60-day review of the scheme. According to today's Wall Street Journal, the findings, to be released next week, conclude that Iran's long-range missile programme is progressing more slowly than previously thought. Citing US officials, the paper said the White House believes Iran's short to medium-range programme poses a more potent and immediate danger.

In his press conference today, Obama made a point of rejecting Russia's objections to the missile defense shield. "Its concerns about our previous missile defense programmes were entirely unfounded," he said.

The Russian response suggested Obama's decision would not be met by any swift or generous concessions. A foreign ministry spokesman, Andrei Nesterenko, described the move as "obviously a positive sign for us" but made clear the decision had been a unilateral one taken by Washington alone. He suggested there had been no deals with Moscow on Iran or other issues. "That would disagree with our policy of resolution of any problems in relations with any countries, no matter how difficult or sensitive they may be."

The US decision will cheer many in government in western Europe who believed the scheme was an unnecessary provocation to the Russians. But today the Czech Republic and Poland expressed disappointment at the White House's decision to reverse track after six years of difficult negotiations. Senior sources in Warsaw and Prague said they would insist on the Americans honoring pledges they made to the NATO allies in return for agreeing last year to the plan for missile defense deployments.

Alexandr Vondra, a former Czech deputy prime minister and ambassador to Washington intimately involved in the negotiations with the Americans, said he was surprised. "This is a U-turn in US policy," he said. "But first we expect the US to honor its commitments. If they don't they may have problems generating support for Afghanistan and on other things."

Under the Bush administration the Pentagon spent years planning and negotiating to place 10 silos with interceptor rockets in northern Poland and to build a large radar station south of Prague to defend against a perceived ballistic missile threat from Iran.

The central European countries were keen to acquire the US installations and other military hardware as partial security guarantees against a resurgent Russia. Moscow claimed the project was aimed against Russia and threatened to deploy short-range nuclear weapons in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, which sits inside the European Union.

Obama's climbdown is likely to be seen by Russia as a victory for its uncompromising stance.

Today, however, analysts pointed out the decision would help Obama secure Moscow's co-operation on a possible new sanctions package against Iran and would further his desire to "reset" relations with Moscow following a dismal period under the Bush administration.

It would significantly boost the chances of a new treaty on strategic nuclear arms reduction between Washington and Moscow, they said. Both the US and Russia have agreed to come up with a successor treaty to Start 1 by December, when the current agreement expires.

"Hardliners in Russia don't want an agreement on Start. It will be very difficult now for Russia to avoid an agreement," said Ruben Sergeyev, a defense analyst in Moscow. "It [the decision to drop the US shield] creates a very positive ambiance, despite the fact it was really an artificial thing."

The decision strengthens Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, who is due to make his first presidential trip to the US next week for the G20 meeting in Pittsburgh. The Obama administration has been keen to boost Medvedev's standing and authority at home, seeing him as a more moderate and less hostile interlocutor than Putin.

Today the NATO secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said Obama's decision was "a positive step". Rasmussen said he had been briefed by the US envoy to NATO about it.

But the timing of the announcement is regarded as disastrous by the Poles. Eugeniusz Smolar, a former chief of Warsaw's Centre for International Relations, said: "We are disappointed." But he added that the Polish government had been assured by the Americans that promises of training with Patriot missile batteries and help in modernizing the Polish military remained valid.

A few weeks ago, in a cri de coeur to Washington, several senior eastern European officials and public figures wrote a public letter to Obama complaining that their security interests were being ignored by the west to improve relations with Moscow.

Rasmussen, in his first big speech, is to call tomorrow for a new relationship between the western military alliance and Russia, taking more account of Moscow's security and strategic interests.

Russian experts said Obama's decision could only be seen as an unambiguous concession to Moscow, adding that it would severely disappoint the new NATO countries of eastern Europe. Yevgeny Miasnikov, a senior research scientist at Moscow's Centre for Arms Control, said the US administration would now consider ways of assuaging the Poles and Czechs, which might include providing Poland with Patriot interceptors capable of shooting down short- and medium-range missiles.

"Obama has taken a step in the direction of improving US-Russian relations. This will definitely help build a partnership," Miasnikov said. "Russia will also now make some concessions, maybe on strategic talks over nuclear arms reduction or maybe over Iran.

"Moscow will try to catalyze the process of improving US-Iranian relations and will facilitate dialogue between the two sides. I don't think threatening Iran is the way to solve this problem."

Aha yes. Fresh look by a President who is willing to listen to the other side.

Especially considering we have trouble getting our own domestic policies in order, let alone policies affecting other nations.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

NAVY - US Navy Leader in Hybrid Transportation

(first-of-its-kind mating of gas turbine engines and electric motors)

"Navy goes green with new hybrid ship" by Steve Liewer, San Diego Union-Tribune

USS Makin Island expected to save millions in fuel costs

Like virtually all Navy vessels, the new amphibious assault ship Makin Island is painted haze gray.

But Capt. Bob Kopas, commander of the ship, sees nothing but green — the color of environmental friendliness.

The Makin Island pulled into North Island Naval Air Station yesterday afternoon following a two-month journey from Northrop Grumman's Ingalls Shipbuilding yard in Pascagoula, Miss., and around the southern tip of South America.

About 1,200 family members welcomed the ship and its 1,023-member crew to its home port. The Makin Island will be commissioned here Oct. 24.

Kopas said the ship saved 900,000 gallons of fuel, worth more than $2 million, on its maiden cruise because of a first-of-its-kind mating of gas turbine engines and electric motors. The motors are used at low speeds — roughly 75 percent of the time — and the engine kicks in at high speeds.

“We're like a big hybrid car,” Kopas, who lives in San Diego, said as the ship neared the coastline. “I love it.”

The Navy predicts it will save $250 million in fuel costs over the life of the ship. Some analysts foresee the Makin Island heralding a shift to a fuel-efficient, all-electric fleet.

“It's a watershed for the Navy,” said Scott Truver, an independent naval analyst based in Washington, D.C. “It's a generational change.”

Makin Island is the first Navy vessel to combine gas turbines with auxiliary motors that run off the ship's electrical grid.

The technology has been used in the civilian world for years, said Joe Carnevale, senior defense adviser for the Shipbuilders Council of America. Many cruise ships have run entirely on electrical power for the past 20 years.

For the Navy, shifting to a “green” propulsion system was a complicated process because classes of ships are built over two or three decades. Altering something as basic as the power plant is expensive.

“Going in and changing out the propulsion system is a pretty big deal,” Carnevale said. “The Navy (fell) behind the commercial world.”

Truver believes the Makin Island marks the beginning of a transformation to electric-powered ships. It may mirror the gradual switch to electric automobiles in the civilian world — if vehicles such as General Motors' Chevrolet Volt are successful.

“This is the thin edge of the wedge for propulsion systems,” Truver said. “It's not a technical challenge. It's a political challenge.”

The Makin Island is the last of eight Wasp-class flattop amphibious assault ships delivered since 1989, all built for the job of carrying Marines to distant war zones. It's by far the most technologically advanced amphibious assault ship and, at $2.5 billion, the most expensive.

Construction started in 2004, but delivery was delayed by about two years after Hurricane Katrina laid waste to the Gulf Coast in 2005. Last year, much of the ship had to be rewired because of mistakes by inexperienced shipyard workers hired after the storm.

“It's like birthing a baby,” said retired Vice Adm. John Nyquist of Coronado, a member of the Makin Island's commissioning committee.

Early on, engineers decided to scrap the steam-powered boilers that employ World War II-era technology in favor of the modern, but initially costlier, gas turbine engines installed for years on the Navy's smaller cruisers and destroyers.

“Steam boilers are difficult to maintain,” said Nyquist, who served as assistant chief of naval operations for surface warfare during the 1980s. “They're a whole lot of work. You have to clean the watersides and firesides the old-fashioned way.”

Dumping the boilers means his engine room is cooler, quieter and requires fewer sailors, said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Constantino Constantino, an engineer aboard the Makin Island.

“I used to have 25 people. With this (ship), I only have about 10,” said Constantino, 47, of San Diego. “It's a big difference.”

All of the ship's systems are run by a computer network that checks every component and alerts sailors if something is wrong.

Instead of running around checking engine-room gauges, Petty Officer 1st Class Eli Bardowell watches a computer screen in his air-conditioned space.

“It saves us a lot of trouble-shooting,” said Bardowell, 32, of Port Maria, Jamaica. “It's a lot of fun because it's something different.”

In another nod to environmentally friendly technology, the Makin Island features four reverse-osmosis water-purification systems. Each holds 50,000 gallons, dwarfing the capacity of other ships. There's plenty of water, and that means no more of the Navy's infamous short showers.

“Water is not a problem,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Nicholas Ayres, 30, of Holden, Mo., who maintains the system. “We have on-demand hot water. You don't have to wait to get a hot shower.”

The Makin Island's skipper is looking forward to showing off his new ship in San Diego.

“Everybody's going to want to come and see this,” Kopas said. “We're gonna be the new boy on the block.”

Monday, September 14, 2009

POLITICS - More on the Slide of the GOP Into Extremism

"The extreme Republican Party" by Neal Gabler, Boston Globe

BACK IN 1970 when Richard Nixon nominated a little-known district court judge named Harold Carswell for the Supreme Court and Carswell’s opponents branded him “mediocre,’’ Republican Senator Roman Hruska of Nebraska famously rose to Carswell’s defense. Even if he were mediocre, Hruska said, “mediocre people are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they?’’ With that ringing endorsement, Carswell’s appointment was soundly defeated by the Senate, but not even Hruska could have foreseen how his prescription would be adopted by our political system.

Let’s not mince words here: We now have an entire political party that is not only dedicated to the mediocre. It is dedicated to the nearly deranged.

We are long past the time when we can pretend there are two serious political parties in this country - one right of center and one left of center. That is the situation in virtually every other industrialized country. England has its Tories and Labor, France its Gaullists and its Socialists, Germany its Christian Democrats and its Social Democrats. These parties generally don’t agree on policy; they are, after all, political adversaries. But they are all serious, they all represent large constituencies and interests, and they all operate from a set of shared values, not least of which is that the other side is not treasonous or evil or ill-intentioned; it just has different prescriptions for solving problems. Typically, the differences between right and left in these countries are fairly small because in most democracies most people agree on the really big stuff. Even Tory leader David Cameron has vigorously defended England’s National Health Service.

But that is not the case here. We have one party that is severely compromised by its ties to big money, and another party that is just plain nuts. There is no other way to parse it. According to recent polls, a majority of its followers either believe that President Obama was born in Kenya or aren’t sure, believe there is no such thing as global warming, believe that the House health care bill calls for death panels to euthanize senior citizens, and believe that Obama is responsible for our economic woes (61 percent!). The only bright side is that according to a recent Pew poll, only 23 percent of Americans identify themselves as Republicans, which makes them not only a fringe in beliefs but also, thankfully, in numbers.

Republicans haven’t always been like this. For most of our history, America was pretty much like our European allies. We had two sensible parties with different traditions, constituencies, and orientations. The Democrats were the party of Jefferson, Jackson, and Franklin Roosevelt. They saw themselves as representing the common man against larger economic interests, favoring, in the now-common characterization, equality over liberty. Republicans were the party of Hamilton, Lincoln, and McKinley. They saw themselves as representing business interests that would unleash the nation’s entrepreneurial energies, favoring liberty over equality. It was a nice balance, and it served the country surprisingly well for nearly two centuries.

Still, both of these descriptions were caricatures. In reality, the parties were large, unwieldy, and contradictory. Each was forced to include many interests in its big tent, which is why each tended to the center rather than to the extremes. Historically, Democrats were both the party of the minorities and of Southern racism. Republicans were the party of untrammeled free enterprise but also, with Theodore Roosevelt’s ascent to the presidency, of regulation that sought to limit big business and foster competition. Democrats had those Southern racists along with their Northern liberals. Republicans had their progressives along with their conservative business Brahmins. Some of the biggest political donnybrooks were intra-party, not inter-party. TR had to leave the GOP because he thought it too solicitous to big business.

The post-TR Republicans of the 1920s were certainly conservative, and by the 1930s most of them were obstructionist. The majority closed ranks against the New Deal, even voting against Social Security. They weren’t any more enthusiastic about Harry Truman’s social agenda or Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Bob Dole, onetime GOP Senate leader and presidential candidate, used to brag that he voted against Medicare when he sat in the House. But Republicans were not entirely unregenerate. Senate minority leader Everett Dirksen, with some blandishments from LBJ, did support the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act the following year, telling colleagues that the party’s future was at stake if it opposed the legislation. Both bills passed overwhelmingly.

How the GOP went from a right-center party that joined Democrats in supporting civil rights to an extreme right-wing party that has its own leaders declaring Obama wants to kill old people is a long, sad story that has been told brilliantly by the political historian Rick Perlstein in his books “Before the Storm,’’ which describes Barry Goldwater’s hijacking of the party for being too moderate, and “Nixonland,’’ which describes how Richard Nixon settled on the electoral strategy of “positive polarization’’ - shattering the longstanding consensus by pitting Americans against one another for his own political gain. Even so, while Nixon talked like an extremist, he governed like a centrist. His health care initiative was far more liberal than anything Congress is currently considering.

But all that was above the radar. Even Republicans would happily concede that they had taken a turn to the far right, justifying the change from moderation not only on the grounds of ideological purity but also on the grounds that the Democrats had turned to the far left - a patently false accusation. What is under the radar is something more recent and more terrifying for the health of our political system: The Republican Party has become a small minority of out-of-mainstream people (think Representative Joseph Wilson’s outburst to the president this week) but, by virtue of its history, of the media attention it receives, and, frankly, by default, it still occupies a central place in our political life. In any other Western democracy it might have become a far-right splinter party. In America, we don’t really have splinter parties. When one of our parties goes crazy, it doesn’t slide to the margins.

Republicans used to boast that it was the Democrats who were out of touch with ordinary Americans. So what to make of this: Democrats and Independents more or less agree on a whole range of issues from global warming to health care to Obama’s performance in office to the place of Obama’s birth. It is the Republicans who are out of touch with everyone else. How out of touch? Seventy-one percent of all Americans believe in global warming, only 49 percent of Republicans. Forty-seven percent of all Americans believe that global warming is a result of human activity, only 27 percent of Republicans. By a recent Rasmussen poll, 55 percent of all Americans now oppose health care reform, but 87 percent of Republicans oppose it, 74 percent of them strongly. And depending on the poll, President Obama’s favorability rating is anywhere from 50 percent to 58 percent; fewer than 10 percent of Republicans approve of him.

These are gaping disparities, more so when one remembers that the overall numbers include Republicans, so that the chasms are even greater between rank-and-file Republicans and everyone else, or that media attention to Republican opposition to global warming, health care reform and President Obama obviously helps drive the numbers in their direction.

Conservative intellectuals like former Bush speechwriter David Frum and Sam Tanenhaus realize that this is an untenable situation. (Even some rank-and-file conservatives realize it; only 41 percent of conservatives now identify themselves as Republicans.) The country needs a serious right-of-center party - one that has real ideas, one that can engage in a serious debate with the Democrats, one that has a sense of a larger national purpose beyond winning the next election, and one that can actually attract more Americans to its banner because it has earned their trust, not because it knows how to polarize.

Maybe Democrats should be happy that Republicans have been reduced to a lunatic fringe. But the lunatics still have their seat at the table, and someday they may be sitting at its head again. What then?

(My favorite phrase, "We now have an entire political party that is not only dedicated to the mediocre. It is dedicated to the nearly deranged.")
"Buffett tells Dems rich need to pay more" by Alexander Bolton, The Hill 9/10/2009

Warren Buffett, the renowned investor and the world’s second richest man, told Senate Democrats that wealthy Americans need to pay higher taxes, giving Democrats something to mull as they address healthcare reform and soaring federal deficits.

Senate Democrats met with Buffett for more than an hour over lunch Thursday, peppering him with questions about the economy, said lawmakers in attendance.

“He said rich people are not paying enough taxes,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.). “It was interesting to see someone who is such an aggressive capitalist, who believes so much in our capitalist system, saying we’ve got the scales way too heavily toward people who are very, very wealthy.”

Buffett told lawmakers that because of the cuts to the capital gains tax passed under former President George W. Bush, he pays taxes at a lower rate than some of his company’s employees.

It is an argument the investor has made before. Buffett said he paid a 16.5 percent tax rate on all his income because the tax rate on investment dividends and long-term capital gains is only 15 percent.

By contrast, a single employee at Buffet’s firm, Berkshire Hathaway, who earns between $33,000 and $83,000 must pay a 25 percent federal income tax rate.

Sen. Ben Nelson, a centrist Democrat from Nebraska, said he wasn’t sure whether Buffett’s chat would embolden his colleagues to raise taxes.

“I don’t know that people will move toward tax increases,” he said in reference to healthcare reform funding. “Tax is still for a four-letter word, and I think there are other ways to pay for this than raising taxes.”

In 2003, Congress cut the capital gains tax from 20 percent and created a separate 15 percent tax rate for dividends. Before then, dividends were taxed at the ordinary income rate, which is 35 percent for top earners.

Both tax cuts are due to expire at the end of next year.

Senators were eager to hear from the famous “Oracle of Omaha” as they struggle to solve the nation’s economic woes, which have helped drive Congress’s approval ratings to new lows.

Buffett told lawmakers that the long-term economic outlook of the nation was strong but declined to predict when the recession would end.

“People wanted to know what was going to happen in the next six months and he said, ‘I can’t tell you,’ ” recalled one participant.

Buffett told lawmakers that improving education and ensuring broad opportunity would help the nation grow economically over the next decade, but what most perked up some ears was what he had to say about taxing the rich.

Sen. Byron Dorgan (N.D.), chairman of the Democratic Policy Committee, who invited Buffett to the lunch, said colleagues wanted to hear the wisdom of an economic genius who draws 30,000 people to Berkshire’s annual meeting in Omaha, Neb. Buffett has met with Senate Democrats several times over the past few years.

“There were a lot of questions about the economy and his assessment of financial regulation,” said Dorgan.

Buffett shared with lawmakers his “common-sense approach to capitalism,” said one attendee.

He told lawmakers that they should overhaul the nation’s financial system in a way that allows investors to do well but also imposes a sense of responsibility on Wall Street.

Buffett supported President Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential election but has since criticized some of the president’s policy proposals. Earlier this year he called a cap-and-trade proposal to limit greenhouse gas emissions a “regressive” tax.”

Buffett has also urged Democrats to scale back their policy agenda to focus on fixing the economy.

The billionaire investor called the Employee Free Choice Act a “mistake.” The legislation, which would overhaul labor laws, is a priority of unions and many liberal Democrats.

But Buffett and Senate Democrats put aside their policy differences on Thursday to focus on the nation’s sluggish economy.

He gave a pep talk to some lawmakers who are wondering if the nation’s best economic days are past.

“He’s a real optimist and thinks this is a great country and our best days are ahead of us,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

One lawmaker who attended the meeting said that Buffett gave the audience a lesson on the economic history of the world, touting the U.S. system as one that unlocks individual potential, striking a contrast with totalitarian countries that limit economic freedom.

Lawmakers said it was refreshing to hear a positive assessment of the nation’s economic system after listening to months of criticism from the left about capitalist excess and the inability of markets to self-regulate.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said the cap-and-trade proposal did not come up.

Many senators saw their own portfolios shrink as stock markets plunged over the last year, and no doubt would have liked to hear some personal stock advice from the market guru.

But Buffett said lawmakers didn’t invite him to ask for stock tips.

“They didn’t ask for any, they must have known how my recent ones worked out,” said Buffett, who has lost about $25 billion in wealth because of the recession, according to Forbes.com.

He declined to otherwise comment on his discussions.

Here is one of the Very-Rich who is NOT subservient to Greed, as many other are.

POLITICS - Hate-Filled Political Discourse

"Shields, Brooks Reflect on Health Care Speech, Reform Push" PBS Newshour (transcript)

Excerpt on The state of political discourse

JIM LEHRER: He was pushing an envelope that was already going there, is what you're saying.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I mean, and it's obvious, if you hang around Congress, the conversations you hear are just of that nature.

JIM LEHRER: Do you feel the same way?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it's a coarsening of our political language, our political life. I think it's a coarsening of our national life. I mean, I think we see things on television and public entertainment that we didn't see a generation ago.

But I think it is true, and it's reached the point where if you and I -- you're my political adversary. You're not simply wrong; you have to be evil. You know, you don't have any moral standing. I mean, that -- and that's -- rather than prove you wrong or encourage you to come to my side, my approach is to demonize you and destroy you. And I really think that it's a tragic -- a tragic reality.

JIM LEHRER: That's new? You think that's a new problem?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it has developed, and I think it has not stopped. I mean, I was hoping that the president -- it was part of Barack Obama's theme. And I don't think he can be accused of that at all, but it was part of his campaign theme. And it did touch people. People did respond to it.

DAVID BROOKS: I would just say, it's cyclical. I mean, we have periods of high polarization in American history. I mean, Alexander Hamilton was shot by a political opponent. That's reasonably polarizing. Abraham Lincoln, a polarizing period. Then we have had a high polarizing period.

I personally think we've now sort of bifurcated, where a lot of the country has lost some of the polarizing zeal, but there are minorities on each side who are watching Fox or MSNBC who are still in that high polarizing mode, and there are incentives for them to stay there.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

OPINION - Play Time

"Let the Children Play (Some More)" by Stuart Brown, New York Times

Excerpt

Here on the balmy central coast of California and all across the country, kids are heading back to school. The classes are larger, the No Child Left Behind mandates remain in place and, despite advice from the nation’s secretary of health and human services and others, recess and physical education (not to mention art and music instruction) have in many schools been cut back or eliminated. While most of our backpack-laden kids are eager to catch up with friends they haven’t seen over the summer, the general feeling is that “playtime is over.”

Even if summer does not bring children a complete release from their over-organized, cell-phone-computer-TV-and-video-game-saturated lives, it does offer most a bit of free “goof-off” time – the sort that leads to physical activity and elective, self-organized play, often in short supply during the school year. Still, it’s not enough. Goof-off time shouldn’t be limited to summer vacation: it’s important all year.

For most American children in the not-so-distant past, “going out to play” was the norm.

This is something I totally agree with.

This old-fogy can remember my childhood when it WAS normal for neighborhood kids to get together for a baseball or basketball game, WITH NO ADULT SUPERVISION.

Yes there was Little League, but in the daily life kids just getting together on their own was prevalent. This is VERY important because it's how we learned how to work things out for ourselves. How to get along together, even deal with bullies.

In today's overly-supervised childhood this is sorely missing. Then you add the over-zealous parents, shouting and even fighting, over a Little League game; OR pushing their kids into this or that activity (often over scheduled) WITHOUT really considering if their child wants to do that, you have to wonder. Just what are we doing to our kids?

ECONOMY - Things Looking Up?

"U.S. Chamber sees end to economic downturn" by Ian Swanson. The Hill

The worst recession in decades is clearly coming to an end, but job losses will continue to hamper the economy, the nation’s largest business lobby predicted Thursday.

The U.S. economy will grow at a rate of 2.5 percent to 3 percent in the third quarter, U.S. Chamber of Commerce chief economist Martin Regalia told reporters.

The Chamber’s forecast is for the economy to continue to grow at that rate through the first half of 2010 as the effects of the $787 billion stimulus package make its way through the economy.

“I think we are out of this economic downturn,” said Regalia, who described the recession as the worst one the U.S. economy has faced since the Great Depression. He said the National Bureau of Economic Research months from now will probably pinpoint the recession as having ended in the third quarter.

But Regalia warned it could take years to create enough jobs for the economy to get back to its standing before the recession began in December 2007.

The nation’s unemployment rate stands at 9.4 percent but is expected to rise when the August jobs report is released on Friday. Regalia said the unemployment rate will likely near or top 10 percent in the next few months.

He also said it will take time to find jobs for the unemployed because of the explosion in “marginal” workers who do not work full-time, and “discouraged” workers who have left the labor markets. Such people are unemployed, but are not looking for work and so are not counted in the unemployment rate. The Chamber estimates there are 800,000 such people in the country.

The recession has cost the nation about 7 million jobs, and the economy needs to create about 1 million jobs annually. Regalia said he’s seen projections that it will take five years for the economy to create the 12 million jobs necessary to meet that demand.

“This is a daunting task,” Regalia said, and will force the economy to grow beyond average expectations.

All of this suggests a tough climate for lawmakers headed to the polls in November 2010. While the economy is likely to be in recovery mode, unemployment rates would linger.

Regalia credited the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program for stemming the financial crisis and preventing the banking system from following investment banks into oblivion. He also said the stimulus, while not as “concise” as the Chamber would have preferred, is helping to bridge the economy to the point where the private sector will continue to grow.

Congressional Republicans and Democrats are engaged in a public relations battle over the stimulus, with the GOP describing it as a failure and Democrats hailing its benefits.

The record U.S. budget deficit is also expected to be an issue in 2010, and Regalia warned that U.S. debt levels are unsustainable. He predicted tensions between the Federal Reserve and White House will grow next summer as the Fed faces pressure to end its intervention in the economy to prevent inflation. That could slow economic growth, to the disadvantage of Democrats in power.

The Fed deserves tremendous credit for a series of unprecedented steps to stifle the recession, Regalia said.

Regalia said the Chamber supports Obama’s decision to renominate Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke to a second four-year term, and he urged Congress to move his confirmation “in short order.”

The Chamber is not predicting that the economy will slide into a downturn again next year, and instead forecasts growth in the second half of 2010 of less than 2 percent. However, Regalia said a “double-dip” recession is still possible, and warned the economy could be negatively impacted by the uncertainty of healthcare and climate change legislation.

He also argued against policies favored by the president and Democratic Congress that would increase taxes on businesses or on upper-income taxpayers. Regalia argued this will not bring in the additional revenue the government needs because of the downturn, and will instead stifle the economy.

The Chamber supports moving immigration legislation that would set up a temporary-worker program and provide a pathway to legalization for illegal immigrants. But Chamber Vice President Randy Johnson said he did not think Congress would take up an immigration bill in 2010, and said politically it would be more likely a bill would be considered in 2011.

Please note the qualifiers in this message from "The Chamber." We all need to remember that "full" recovery will take more time, and that Crystal Balls are notoriously inaccurate.

POLITICS - The GOP Exclusion Rule

"Republican failure" Editorial, Las Vegas Sun

GOP leaders allow thousands to be excluded from receiving unemployment aid

More than $3.1 billion in stimulus money has been left unspent by 23 states because they have failed to expand benefits for people out of work, according to the Labor Department.

As USA Today reported Tuesday, states must expand the benefits to qualify, including offering benefits to part-time workers who lose their jobs. The National Employment Law Project estimates that the states’ failures mean that nearly 350,000 Americans are not receiving benefits.

Republican governors or lawmakers in the 23 states have either declined to make the changes as required by federal law to be eligible or have declined funding. (Because of its Democratic-controlled Legislature, Nevada is thankfully not one of the 23 states.)

Texas Gov. Rick Perry has been among the Republican critics of the stimulus. His state has left more than $555 million on the table because of his refusal to change Texas’ unemployment requirement. Perry says his state would have to raise taxes once the stimulus money runs out.

Maurice Emsellem of the National Employment Law Project said the increase in benefits the federal government is calling for “is not the straw that breaks the camel’s back to determine whether taxes are going up.”

Instead, he said, the stimulus money could push off tax increases because it boosts the amount of money in state unemployment trust funds. Many states automatically raise unemployment taxes when their funds are depleted. For example, unemployment taxes will go up in Alabama, Florida and Indiana — all of which refused the federal unemployment money. Texas also may see a tax increase.

In other words: Not only are thousands of people excluded from receiving unemployment benefits because of the Republican position, but unemployment taxes go up as well.

This is the result of far-right ideologues running the Republican Party. They love to inflame the base with their rhetoric, but the bottom line is this: Their ideas hurt people.

This is due to the GOP's deep-seated belief that the unemployed are just people too lazy to get a job. "Are there no workhouses?"

Thursday, September 03, 2009

ENVIRONMENT - Tipping Point, Happened in 2007

"Arctic climate change may be forcing faster warming on entire globe" by Bob Weber, The Canadian Press

A new report says Arctic climate change is happening faster than anyone anticipated and may soon be forcing more rapid warming on the rest of the planet.

"It is a tipping point," said Craig Stewart of the World Wildlife Fund, which was to release the report Wednesday in London.

The report is an attempt to update the work of scientists involved in the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as world leaders prepare to gather in Copenhagen next December to discuss how to deal with the issue. The conclusion of many of those same top researchers is that changes are occurring much more quickly - especially in the Arctic - than was believed even two years ago.

"We thought by 2050, multi-year (sea) ice would be cut in half," said Stewart from Ottawa. "Well, it happened in 2007."

But the biggest worry is the so-called methane hydrates - a strange, slushy form of methane frozen in ice molecules that exists in vast volumes in permafrost and continental shelves around the circumpolar globe. Cold and high pressure have so far kept that methane - a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide - out of the atmosphere.

Underground methane, however, has recently been observed bubbling up in Arctic Russia.

"There is so much methane under the permafrost and under ocean floor sediments that the carbon in that methane is the equivalent of all the coal, oil and gas combined worldwide," said Stewart.

"If that methane gets released, that will become the single greatest driver of climate change anywhere in the world."

Sea levels are also being increasingly affected by Arctic climate change.

In 2007, scientists were unsure if the Greenland ice cap was diminishing and thought Antarctic ice might actually be increasing in volume.

They now know Greenland is losing enough ice every year to supply 280 cities the size of Los Angeles with water, and the rate is increasing. Antarctica loses almost as much.

That has led researchers to sextuple their estimates of sea level rise, to 1.2 meters by 2100. About one-quarter of the earth's population lives in low-lying coastal regions.

The North also has the power to change weather patterns around the globe. Major weather patterns such as the North Atlantic Oscillation, which affect both storms and precipitation throughout Asia, Europe and North American, are strongly influenced by what happens in the Arctic.

"Evidence for responses of atmospheric circulation to declining sea ice extent is just beginning to emerge," the report says.

Sea water once covered by ice becomes warmed by the sun, changing ocean currents that begin in the Arctic. Those currents are also affected by meltwater flooding into the oceans, altering its salinity.

Ocean currents - major climate determinants in coastal regions - have yet to show significant climate-change impacts, but scientists are growing more concerned about the possibility.

"The Arctic does have a huge influence on global circulation patterns," said Stewart. "The ability for the Arctic to essentially serve as a refrigerator for the planet is key to our existing climate."

Stewart said it's sometimes tough to get people to connect the dots between a collapsing ice shelf at the other end of the planet and their morning weather forecast. But the Arctic's influence on the south is both real and only imperfectly understood, he says.

"It's not all about warming, it's all about change - weather change. It will make life more unpredictable and more expensive."

Stewart said the report, peer-reviewed and written by some of the world's top climate researchers, is intended to inform the debate leading up to the Copenhagen meeting. Members of the world's 20 leading economies meet later this month to try to hammer out financial commitments to deal with climate change.

"The meetings begin now," said Stewart. "We want to make sure the latest information is in their hands."

POLITICS - The Healthcare Wars

"Twenty-six Lies About H.R. 3200" by Brooks Jackson, Lori Robertson and Jess Henig, with D’Angelo Gore; FactCheck

Excerpts

A notorious analysis of the House health care bill contains 48 claims. Twenty-six of them are false and the rest mostly misleading. Only four are true.

Our inbox has been overrun with messages asking us to weigh in on a mammoth list of claims about the House health care bill. The chain e-mail purports to give "a few highlights" from the first half of the bill, but the list of 48 assertions is filled with falsehoods, exaggerations and misinterpretations. We examined each of the e-mail’s claims, finding 26 of them to be false and 18 to be misleading, only partly true or half true. Only four are accurate. A few of our "highlights":

  • The e-mail claims that page 30 of the bill says that "a government committee will decide what treatments … you get," but that page refers to a "private-public advisory committee" that would "recommend" what minimum benefits would be included in basic, enhanced and premium insurance plans.

  • The e-mail says that "non-US citizens, illegal or not, will be provided with free healthcare services" but points to a provision that prohibits discrimination in health care based on "personal characteristics." Another provision explicitly forbids "federal payment for undocumented aliens."

  • It says "[g]overnment will restrict enrollment of SPECIAL NEEDS individuals." This provision isn’t about children with learning disabilities; instead, it pertains to restricted enrollment in "special needs" plans, a category of Medicare Advantage plans. Enrollment is already restricted. The bill extends the ability to do that.

  • It claims that a section about "Community-based Home Medical Services" means "more payoffs for ACORN." ACORN does not provide medical home services. The e-mail interprets any reference to the word "community" to be some kind of payoff for ACORN. That’s nonsense.

Analysis

This chain e-mail claims to give a run-down of what’s in the House health care bill, H.R. 3200. Instead, it shows evidence of a reading comprehension problem on the part of the author. Some of our more enterprising readers have even taken it upon themselves to debunk a few of the assertions, sending us their notes and encouraging us to write about it. We applaud your fact-checking skills and your skepticism. And skepticism is warranted.

A few readers alerted us to the fact that a state representative in North Carolina, Rep. Curtis Blackwood, published a version of the e-mail in a newsletter to constituents, telling them that while going through e-mail, he came across "some interesting information on the Democrats’ big health care bill, H.R. 3200. … While this is federal legislation and not state, the topic is of enough significance that I thought many of you would be interested in reading it." We’d refer Rep. Blackwood to our special report on viral messages titled, "That Chain E-mail Your Friend Sent to You Is (Likely) Bogus. Seriously."

We can trace the origins of this collection of claims to a conservative blogger who issued his instant and mostly mistaken analysis as brief "tweets" sent via Twitter as he was paging through the 1,017-page bill. The claims have been embraced as true and posted on hundreds of Web sites, and forwarded in the form of chain e-mails countless times. But there’s hardly any truth in them. We’ll go through each of the claims in this message:

What follows is a page-by-page (including page numbers) analysis of the claims in email showing the real FACTS, including those that ARE true (all 4).

This email is NOT about what is good for ordinary Americans. It IS about what is good for $Big$ Pharma & Health Insurance companies, AND sticking with the GOP's anti-government psychosis (especially when someone else is in charge like Obama).

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

POLITICS - Rebirth of Reform?

"Change, Not a Restoration: The Death of Conservatism and Rebirth of Reform" by John R. Bohrer, Huffington Post Blogs

The tide is about to turn in the debate over health care reform. The lies and the screaming that captured the discussion in August have a lot of Republicans thinking they've got the Democrats right where they want 'em.

They are wrong. And they are wrong because their castle is built upon a pile of sand... a pile of crazy, crazy sand.

Sam Tanenhaus talked about it earlier today on Morning Joe. Discussing his new book, The Death of Conservatism, Tanenhaus warned that today's Republican Party is more about radicalism than conservatism. He recalled how in the 1950s, William F. Buckley, Jr., began pushing the lunatics and extremists out of the conservative movement in order to legitimize and strengthen their argument. This preparation allowed them to pounce when the time was ripe in the late 1960s.

This is why supporters of health care reform are about to experience a second wind. Because while the mobs, the conspiracy theorists and the lie-pushers look like they're winning the debate for the Republicans, they are actually setting them up for a big fall.

For the discussion will inevitably move past what the protesters think the dreaded 'Obamacare' will do (Kill grandma!!!), to ask A) why they feel this way and B) what's their alternative?

The crazy-crazies can only answer the first question. A lot of ink has been spilled debunking the lies; not as much attention has been focused on explaining why some so easily believe them. Confronted with explaining how any sane person could believe 'President Obama's bureaucrat army will kill grandma,' they'll spin into whatever tizzy best suits them, be it Kenya, Communism, black nationalism, Nazism -- who knows what. Their explanations are way, way out of the American mainstream, and frankly, creepy.

So that leaves the response of the reality-based Republican community (a rapidly shrinking field). These people have enjoyed the hysterics of the last month, happy to see Obama and the Democrats sweat. At the same time, they seem somewhat embarrassed by the most heinous lies and would love to fast-forward fourteen months to when they can reap the benefits and regain power. For the time being, they will explain their opposition to health care reform as based on bigger deficit projections or excessive harm to the insurance industry.

Though no matter what they say, it will miss the mark. David Brooks points to Obama losing support among independents, supposedly frightened of debt tied to his health care reform. What Brooks does not acknowledge is that they're not so much opposed to reform as they are confused as to what it will do. It's hard not to be confused with so many lies being so carelessly tossed around.... But once the din dies down, and the conversation moves on to the why and the what behind the opposition, Republicans are in for a rude awakening.

Because people want change -- not a restoration.

And here the Republican Party is utterly unprepared. Their alternatives are lousy because their party has spent no significant time honing and improving their failed ideas from when they were recently in power. Nor, as Tanenhaus suggested, have they pushed the lunatics and extremists away from the debate; if anything, they've pushed them to the front.

In so many ways, you have the case of an opposition party that is not yet ready to be an opposition party. The smash-it-up approach may have worked for August, but it has done nothing to improve the Republicans' capability to offer cohesive, plausible alternatives.

At least ones that are not a return to the policies of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.

AMERICA - A Commitment We Must Make

"Let's Be Clear: 'No Torture' Is A Commitment We Must Make" by Jack Healey, Huffington Post Blogs

Excerpt

Governments need to lead the nation the way good drivers operate a vehicle (you may not talk on your cell phone while driving). To avoid trouble, one must look ahead as well as in the rear-view mirror. To neglect either direction will invite serious trouble.

Eric Holder has called for a limited review of the past regarding torture accusations of the CIA. A good decision but not a great decision. Let me try to tell you why.

Governments that torture will inevitably inherit the hatred of people everywhere, and appropriately so. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Geneva Convention is clear in its statement of No Torture. Any government that does not keep that standard before their soldiers, intelligence people and prison guards risks the friendships that decency brings.

Not looking in the mirror when there has been a pattern of torture, or even the torture of one person, is immature denial of a dark past that should not occur again. There needs to be a review, a probe, and a study.

Violators must be chased in each case. I have met more victims of torture and heard more stories than one man should hear. And what I see time and again is this:

First, victims of torture want the torture to stop and second, they want to know who gave the orders.

Of course, don't tell that to the power-and-money-before-ethics Whitemen's Club at the GOP.