Monday, July 31, 2006

Court docs: '04 GOP convention protests blocked for political reasons?

Recommended at Daily Kos and Booman Tribune. Front Paged at ePluribus Media

Each day brings us another sad example of how our rights in this country are being suppressed, eroded or disregarded. Sometimes it is in the name of "fighting terrahTM", sometimes it is in the name of "following the rule of law" and more often than not we actually find out that it is really in the name of "putting on a pretty face for political purposes".


Today is one of these times. According to today's NY Times, court documents in the lawsuit over the denial of permits for peaceful protests during the 2004 GOP Convention here in NYC, Bloomberg and his office were less concerned with the potential destruction of the Great Lawn or public safety than they were over the political fallout of massive protests against the Republicans and their failed warmongering policies.


Of course, this also begs the question of whether all of the false arrests that were made (which have already started to result in settlements with plaintiffs) were truly "unfortunate accidents" or whether there really was an underlying motivation to keep as many protesters, first amendment be damned, out of the spotlight and portray the "everything is just peachy - nothing to see here - move along" fa├žade that was the ugly invasion of NYC by the dirty icky republicans.


The four new documents released today are on the Partnership for Civil Justice website and seem to indicate that both "Mayor Mike's" and other City officials' reasons and testimony regarding the denial of permits were either false or contradictory to prior assertions and evidence.


If you remember back to the summer of 2004, a judge blocked the protest on the Great Lawn because:

"This court cannot blind itself to the daunting security concerns facing this city during the Republican National Convention," U.S. District Judge William Pauley III ruled Monday. "There are serious questions whether the Great Lawn can safely accommodate the proposed rally at this point."


Of course, this disregards the fact that there have been numerous concerts on the same Great Lawn which held hundreds of thousands of people. Of course, this also goes hand in hand with the "free speech zone" caged society that has been shoved down our throats.


A brief synopsis of three of the four newly released items is below:


New Documents Reveal that NYC's Mayor Moved to Block Protest in Central Park During RNC


These documents include emails and legal memoranda regarding the denial of permits for political demonstrations during the GOP convention. One of the most damning is this email dated April 30, 2004 which includes the following:

It is very important that we do not permit any big or political events for the period between August 23 and September 6, 2004. This is the blackout of permits from PD for the Republican National Convention. It's really important for us to keep track of any large events (over 1000 people) and any rallies or events that seem sensitive or political in nature.


Mayor Bloomberg's Sworn Statement in Conflict With Documentary Evidence


These documents provide background with respect to Bloomberg's sworn testimony that he had "no knowledge at all" regarding the permit application for a civil rights, anti-war rally on the Great Lawn during the RNC, by the National Council of Arab Americans and the ANSWER Coalition. What they also show is his ongoing involvement, both personally and through his office, with respect to emails, meetings, denial letters that were to be issued with respect to the permits and the potential recourse by the groups whose request was denied. A snippet from an email from Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe to Mayor Bloomberg which was released:

"Following your call, spoke with Ray [Kelly, Commissioner of Police] about 10 minutes ago. Coincidentally, our lawyer and Chief McManus and the Law Dept. are meeting at this very minute to agree on the language and strategy of the letter rejecting the Arab-American rally on the Great Lawn . . . I assume the rejection letter will go out today. I will let you know."


Not really good to be caught, um, "stretching the truth", especially when there are so many documents that show otherwise.


City's Representations for Denying Protest Permits During the RNC Proven False


The assertions made by representatives of the City under oath with respect to damage to the Great Lawn, the requirement of tickets to any formal gathering, as well as the denial of a permit due to the "lack of a rain date" were all proven to be false.


In fact, there is testimony by the same official which contradicts earlier testimony with respect to whether there would be damage to the Great Lawn. There are assertions by the Parks Commissioner claiming prior testimony about the requirement of tickets to be false:

[u]nder examination at deposition, Commisioner Adrian Benepe admittted that it "is not accurate" to represent that "Since the renovation of the Great Lawn, events have been ticketed.". Benepe also conceded that most large events are not ticketed.


We also have the following testimony contradicted by numerous documents as well as admissions by city officials:

City attorneys told the Court that "We have not allowed any large event on the Great Lawn in the absence of a rain date since its renovation. So we're not treating this group any differently than we've treated anyone else. We've treated the Philharmonic that way . . ."


Lastly, looking to the ever important covering of the political ass, we have documents released from just after the Convention that show the real intent that underlied the denial of permits:

just after the convention ended, Parks Department officials told the organizer of a commemorative event for John Lennon that they could not offer access to the Great Lawn because, as one marketing official wrote, "we had to admit that it was going to be difficult right after all our problems with the rally requests for the park and right before Mike's re-election."


"There are practical and political reasons for this decision," said an e-mail message to the organizer, "which follows, as you know, very closely on the heels of the court cases during the RNC."


Lovely. Just lovely. This is your republican party at work. Suppressing our rights to save their political careers. Playing politics with the Constitution. Lying under oath.


Had enough?

Sunday, July 30, 2006

When the going gets tough, cowardly Bush clears brush

Recommended at Daily Kos and Booman Tribune

On the heels of what will be yet another month-long vacation for Dear Leader, unless he decides to cut it short this year (after all, he is the Decider), it is as good a time as any to point out that we are likely in for some other major disaster.


After all, pretty much every year, when shit met fan, Bush went AWOL (just like when he was in the National Guard). Or maybe, Bush went AWOL and then shit met fan. Either way, it is a very telling statement about this complete failure of a president and waste of precious oxygen and space when you look at his vacationing and complete disregard for the catastrophic events that seem to occur around the time that Bushie heads for the Crawford brush to play cowboy.


This may be the best insight into the priorities of the man who bears a tremendous share of the responsibility for this world teetering on the edge of Armageddon (or the raptureTM if you are a "true believer"). And it shows how much of a cowardly charlatan Bush really is and how ill-equipped he is to deal with, well, anything.

It has been reported that Dear Leader has taken the most vacation days of any president ever, clocking in at nearly a full year's worth of vacation less than five years into his prez-nitcy. But it isn't just the sheer amount of vacation days he has taken. And it isn't just the fact that he has taken all of these vacation days in an era where many people don't get to take any vacation days. Or when millions of people can't even take a paid sick day. All while, in many instances, having to work more than one full time job. Without health care coverage.


No, it is the fact that during these 4 and 5 week long vacations, as well as the other times he spends a week or so at his "ranch", it is generally at a time when major crises need to be dealt with, terror warnings are issued, natural disasters are occurring (with plenty of warning time as well) and arrogance or contempt is shown for anyone who dare suggest that maybe it isn't such a good time to be ignoring the horrors created and going on around the globe.


We all know about the August 6, 2001 Presidential Daily Briefing that was ignored, because the already-a-failure-of-a-president-eight-months-into-his-presidency Bush was too busy on vacation. Of course, this essentially set the stage for the worst lies and fraud ever perpetuated on the American public, as well as the entire world. Let's look back to George Tenet's testimony before the 9/11 Commission:

CIA Director George Tenet was on the stand. Timothy Roemer, a former Democratic congressman, asked him when he first found out about the report from the FBI's Minnesota field office that Zacarias Moussaoui, an Islamic jihadist, had been taking lessons on how to fly a 747. Tenet replied that he was briefed about the case on Aug. 23 or 24, 2001.


Roemer then asked Tenet if he mentioned Moussaoui to President Bush at one of their frequent morning briefings. Tenet replied, "I was not in briefings at this time." Bush, he noted, "was on vacation." He added that he didn't see the president at all in August 2001. During the entire month, Bush was at his ranch in Texas. "You never talked with him?" Roemer asked. "No," Tenet replied. By the way, for much of August, Tenet too was, as he put it, "on leave."


Mind you, this was the longest presidential vacation in over thirty years at the time.


During 2002 and 2003, Bush took basically all of August off again, and spent much of August 2002 campaigning around the country. And what was going on during August 2002? Well for starters, that is when Darth Cheney started his campaign to invade Iraq. As for 2003, we now know that "operation treason by outing a covert CIA operative and her front company" was in full swing as well.


Also in 2003, who can forget the blackout that knocked out power in much of the Northeast, at a time when much of the reality based community was still unsure of whether this was a terrorist attack on the national power grid. And what did Bush do when word got out that FirstEnergy (a top Bush contributor) was likely at least partially to blame? Just what he does best - nothing.

An Ohio-based energy conglomerate has been identified as responsible for the massive power blackout that shut down much of the Midwest and Northeast -- but the Bush administration isn't taking notice. FirstEnergy's strong ties to the president may help explain why the company may be let off the hook for depriving millions of power during the blackout.


Top executives at FirstEnergy rank among the Bush campaign's top fundraisers. FirstEnergy President Anthony Alexander was a Bush Pioneer in 2000 - meaning he raised at least $100,000 - and then served on the Energy Department transition team. H. Peter Burg, the company's CEO and chairman of the board, hosted a June event that raised more than half a million dollars for Bush-Cheney '04.


What about 2004? Well, 2004 marked the 38th time that Bush vacationed in Crawford since he took office. And in one of the most laughable responses to his many vacations, this was the defense:

The White House points out that even at his ranch, the president receives a daily national security briefing - and can confer with top aides back at the White House by way of a secure video hookup.


Oh joy. He gets a daily national security briefing. Just like in August 2001. We know how much he paid attention to that one. Of course, we can't forget the horrific tsunami that dared to interrupt Georgie-boy's December 2004 vacation. And sadly, no matter how hard we try, we can't forget the absolutely disgusting, piss poor, too-little-too-late effort to pledge aid, make a formal statement, or you know, actually be a friggin leader in a time that millions of people around the world rallied to help millions of people around the world in a time where one of the worst natural disasters ever occurred.


Contrast that with the vacation that he gleefully (and with much pomp) cut short a few months later to sign the "Terry Schiavo legislation" in one of the most disgusting displays of a government shoving their noses into people's private lives and decisions.


And of course, we have 2005, when we saw his 49th visit to Crawford as "war preznit" and at a time when things were really starting to go south quickly in Iraq and Afghanistan. But not only did we have that pesky Cindy Sheehan camping out in protest, we also had that surprise of a Hurricane destroy the Gulf Coast (good pictorial over at thinkprogress.org) while Condi shopped and saw a Broadway show, Brownie and Chertoff completely fail in every way possible and Dear Leader decide to campaign for the dismantling of Social Security, eat cake with John McCain, play guitar and have a grand old time.


Of course, no one knew that a hurricane hitting New Orleans was a likely major disaster or that anyone could have anticipated a breach of the levees.


Which brings us to 2006. Civil war in Iraq. Afghanistan on the verge of anarchy, according to a UK general. Israel and Lebanon trading rockets, bombs and missiles. Hurricane season upon us. Russia and Venezuela shutting the US out on oil deals. Gas prices through the roof, despite record profits by oil companies. A heatwave threatening much of the country and causing a large number of deaths.


Must be time for Bush to run off squealing like a stuck pig. Just like the coward that he is.

Friday, July 28, 2006

This country has become an effing disgrace

Recommended at Daily Kos, Booman Tribune and My Left Wing

I don't even know where to begin with my absolute contempt for what I have read over the past few days. And I won't even talk about the death and destruction that Dear Leader and the neocon war criminals have wreaked or contributed to in the past two weeks alone.


No, what I want to direct my disgust at are the numerous things that I have seen lately - whether it be domestic policies, the absolutely horrible position that Bush and Condi's antics (because you can't call them "actions") have put us in around the world, and the horrible reflection this is on our once-proud country and its beliefs.


Not only do we have the world's other countries dissing us left and right, we have them working with each other in a manner that is purposely against the United States - largely if not completely because of the arrogant, lying, chest thumping, hypocritical and contradictory actions that have been taken by our so-called "leaders" who sadly are calling the disastrous shots (literally and figuratively) which will ensure that this country falls further and further behind, alienates more and more of our former allies and leaves us looking like the countries whose throats we are trying to force democracy down.


Let's start on the oil and gas front.


We already know how high the gas prices are here and that people were pawning their possessions in order to pay for gas. We already know that ExxonMobil earned over $10 billion last quarter. So what does this past week tell us? Well, for starters, anyone that thought Bush's little "tit-for-tat" with Pootie-poot wasn't going to come back and bite us in the ass, you are sadly mistaken.


According to the UK Guardian Observer from earlier this week, Putin has decided to shut out the US oil companies from the growing and lucrative gas/oil market in Russia. And what was one of the big reasons? Putin was pissed that the US fought Russia's bid to join the World Trade Organization, which he felt was an embarrassment to him, even moreso since the G-8 was in Russia around the same time:

President Vladimir Putin is set to keep US oil companies out of a lucrative gas field in the latest sign of the deteriorating relationship between Moscow and Washington.


The Russian leader is expected to favour Norwegian companies and reject bids by America's Chevron and ConocoPhillips after failing to secure backing from the United States for his country's attempt to join the World Trade Organisation.


The tit-for-tat snub will be a blow to US companies scrambling for access to Russia's huge gas reserves at a time of high energy prices. It comes after Putin failed to resolve differences with US President George Bush over trade and human rights at the G8 conference in St Petersburg last week.


---snip---


'There is very little chance the American majors will win that tender now,' a Russian oil analyst said yesterday. 'Putin was hoping WTO membership would be wrapped up in time for St Petersburg. The failure to do that is a blow to his prestige.'


But why stop there? We already know that Hugo Chavez has decided to stop selling and distributing CITGO gas to around a dozen states. And now, we find that Chavez has a new best friend in Putin. Yup. Chavez will be in Russia to discuss joint venturing in the oil and gas industry, as well as boosting military trade:

Venezuela currently accounts for 15 percent of U.S. crude oil supplies. But Chavez, a staunch U.S. opponent, is eager to steer oil supplies toward other countries, including oil-thirsty China.


---snip---


"Russia produces very high-quality pipeline pipes and has a tremendous experience in laying pipelines. The Venezuelans probably can't do it themselves and they're certainly not going to get much help from the Americans," Kraus says.


---snip---


Finally, Kraus says, a partnership with Russia is a "political statement" for Chavez: "the Venezuelans want to decrease their dependence on the United States."


A pipeline deal with Russia is likely to anger Washington, which has already voiced strong concerns over the planned sale of Russian military aircraft to Venezuela.


"We certainly hope that the Russians will reconsider this sale," a U.S. State Department spokesman said, referring to the aircraft deal. "We don't think it's in the best interest of Russia or Venezuela."


I'm sure that both Venezuela and Russia are real concerned with they US position that this is not in their best interest. What is most maddening about this is how much of a bind the US population is in with respect to gas, energy and the heatwave (but no, there is no global warming, of course).


But that isn't even close to all that we have seen which is a colossal embarrassment and black eye for US.


Even worse is the fact that yet another report was released by a UN Rights Panel slamming the US yet again for secret prisons, torture as well as not allowing detainees due process.

"The committee is concerned by credible and uncontested information that the state party has seen fit to engage in the practice of detaining people secretly and in secret places for months and years on end," according to the 12-page UN Human Rights Committee report.


The committee, which held a two-day hearing last week on U.S. compliance with the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, said such practices also violated the rights of detainees' families.


---snip---


The panel said it was also concerned that the United States, for a period of time, authorized the possible use of interrogation techniques including prolonged stress positions and isolation, sensory deprivation, hooding, exposure to cold or heat and sleep and dietary adjustments.


And what is the response? Crickets. Silence. "A response will be forthcoming". So now, we don't even care to respond to charges of torture or violations of the Geneva Conventions. How any of these mental midgets representing the US expect anyone to have anything other than contempt and disgust for anything that comes out of our mouths is beyond me. And if they don't care and are paying lip service, then they most certainly are violating their oath to this country and the Constitution.


What else?


Well, today's NY Times is reporting on how Arab countries are now lining up behind Hezbollah, with our War On TerrorTM buddies Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt even pretending that they don't know us.

The Saudi royal family and King Abdullah II of Jordan, who were initially more worried about the rising power of Shiite Iran, Hezbollah's main sponsor, are scrambling to distance themselves from Washington.


An outpouring of newspaper columns, cartoons, blogs and public poetry readings have showered praise on Hezbollah while attacking the United States and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for trumpeting American plans for a "new Middle East" that they say has led only to violence and repression.


Jeez - where will we send detainees to be tortured now?


And through all this, what is Dear Leader doing? Well, hard stuff like hosting the cast of American Idol at the White House and then his annual vacation.


What a fucking joke. Actually, it isn't funny - it is pathetic, sad and an embarrassment to anyone that has any sense of compassion, intelligence or a conscience.

Leaked: Secret global warming propaganda from coal industry

Recommended at My Left Wing and Booman Tribune

You gotta love thinkprogress.org.


In the latest of the pathetic but unfortunately too predictable lies by big industry against global warming, a secret memo by the coal industry has been leaked regarding the latest "propaganda-thon" against the harsh reality of global waming.


The nine page memo, from the International Rural Electric Association (but also supported by Koch Industries, the National Association of Manufacturers and others in the industry), talks of funding a movie to counteract An Inconvenient Truth, provides handy charts and misleading statistics as well as containing a call for scientists that will be ready to "stand up to the alarmists".


I shit you not.


In the typical "are you going to believe me, your friendly neighborhood polluter or your own lying eyes" attack, the memo all but comes out to say that any legislation with respect to a "carbon tax" or something along these lines would hurt profits. But wait, there is more. I'll give you a few choice quotes from the article:

We here at IREA believe that it is necessary to support the scientific community that is willing to stand up against the alarmists and bring a balance to the discussion.


---snip---


Although our preference would be for the issue to simply go away, that is not going to happen. There are too many special interests involved.


---snip---


[quoting Aaron Wildavsky, Political Science Professor at Berkeley] Global warming is the mother of all environmental scares. Warming (and warming alone) through its primary antidote of withdrawing carbon from production and consumption is capable of realizing the environmentalists' dream of an egalitarian society based on rejection of economic growth in favor of a smaller population, eating lower on the food chain, consuming a lot less and sharing a much lower level of resources much more equitably.


---snip---


An army of scientists and researchers are determined to make man-made global warming a threat in order to continue obtaining their funding.


---snip---


Realizing that this issue is not going to go away, the next best solution in our opinion is for any carbon reduction to be voluntary and let technological advances solve the issue, if it even exists.


Let's just stop there for a second and soak that in. The ultimate in special interests in the global warming "debate" is saying that this issue won't go away because of too many special interests. BWAHAHAAAAHAHAH!!!!


The only problem with finding anyone in the scientific community that is willing to "stand up to the alarmists"? Um, how about, there is no one. Well, except for one Patrick Michaels, whose impressive resume includes the following:


  • Claimed that Kyoto is an EU conspiracy to hurt smaller countries (even though the US is one of only two developed countries to not be a part of it)


  • Based a number of papers on the lack of a trend in global warming. However, he conveniently stopped his data at 1996.


  • Has been called "one of a very small minority of nay-sayers who continue to dispute the facts and science about climate change in the face of compelling, overwhelming, and growing evidence.", "being noted rather for his shrill op-ed pieces and indiscriminate denunciations of virtually every finding of mainstream climate science." and "Many of the supposedly factual statements made in Michaels' testimony are either inaccurate or are seriously misleading." by leading climate scientists, a Harvard professor with expertise in climatology and the President of Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security.


We already know that there are way too many people that are otherwise intelligent (not to mention all those who are, shall we say, less than intelligent) who still think that "the jury is still out" on global warming. This latest bullshit shoveling will likely be forceful, large, and certainly stinky. With so much at stake, as people are starting to finally wake up from their 6 year coma, as An Inconvenient Truth continues to play in more and more theaters around the country, and more people start to make changes, even small changes, in their lives and daily routines, we are going to be bombarded with absolute nonsense.


There is more information and analysis over at desmogblog.com, which is a blog dedicated to "Clearing the PR Pollution that Clouds Climate Science". A nice quick smackdown of the "experts" touted in the leaked memo from desmogblog:

The "Vampire Memo" from the Intermountain Rural Electric Association (IREA) draws on the work of such industry-funded skeptics as Pat Michaels, Fred Singer, Robert Balling and Craig Idso -- as well as such ideologues as Richard Lindzen and William Gray who have long been laughingstocks in the community of mainstream climate scientists.


The sad thing is that I just had two discussions on global warming with otherwise intelligent friends of mine who are still in the "it is still up for debate" column. And these people aren't typical believe-what-fox-tells-me people either. More than half of the articles and releases that are in the media still are full of lies. Hell, our own Congresscritters refuse to believe (or choose not to believe) the harsh truth. All of the major misinformation campaigns are backed by the oil, coal or other invested industries/lobbyists.


And it looks like we have to get ready for the next one.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Great article calls BS on holy Joe's 'blame the bloggers' meme

Recommended at Daily Kos and Booman Tribune

It really is too bad that nobody really reads the New York Observer. Because the latest edition has a great article that calls bullshit on Lieberman (as well as the wingnuts and the talking meatsticks) in their "woe is me, those evil lib'rul bloggers want to ruin me for no reason" line of garbage.


Titled Lieberman's Allies Blame the Bloggers, the article effectively lays out a number of reasons why this is such a farce of an argument, how pathetic of a response is, and frankly, how much Lieberman is missing the point of what CT voters (as well as many people in the US in general) want from their elected officials.


The article is written by Joe Conason, whose pretty impressive resume includes writing and appearances for The Nation, Guardian, Salon.com, Air America and The American Prospect. And man, does it start off with a bang:

The conventional narrative of what may become Joe Lieberman's final campaign for public office--parroted faithfully by pundits and politicians who admire the Connecticut Senator--is a moving tale of courageous dissent in the very maw of fanatical extremism. It is the story of a supremely decent public servant, purged by party activists with a mean-spirited, shortsighted, single-issue obsession. And it is a fable with a familiar moral, supposedly proving once more that the Democratic Party cannot be trusted to protect America.


Compelling as this account of the beleaguered Democrat's travails may sound, it is very much like his position on the war in Iraq: wrong, superficial and divorced from reality.


According to the standard version, Mr. Lieberman is the victim of ferocious "liberal bloggers" from around the country. Dispersed across the United States, these meddling left-wing activists somehow conspired to launch Ned Lamont's primary challenge, and then somehow mesmerized voters, perhaps via the Internets, to reject the Senator they had chosen three times before. Combining Internet technology with progressive ideology, the miasmic and unwholesome blogosphere now threatens to swallow poor Joe in a cloud of angry, buzzing bytes.


Damn. Not a pretty thing to be reading if you are part of Team Lieberman's sinking ship. But the article isn't really a slam against Lieberman's blind hypocrisy as it is a knock on the "lazy journalists and anxious consultants" for failing (possibly willfully?) to dig past the very superficial surface of this primary battle. It talks about Lamont launching his campaign only after trying to get others to run against Lieberman, how Lamont didn't need the "bloggers" for our fundraising power, how these same band of "crazy liberal activists" also support Jim Webb and Bob Casey (ok, not as much but still....) and aren't targeting Hillary in a primary election.


Hell - it even gives props to the big orange sandbox by name:

As for the liberal bloggers, they seem considerably more calm and pragmatic than their distraught critics. If the legions of Daily Kos are truly hell-bent on an ideological purge, why would they endorse Senate candidates Jim Webb, the "Reagan Democrat" and former Republican Navy Secretary running in Virginia, and Bob Casey Jr., the "pro-life Democrat" running in Pennsylvania? For the same reason they haven't targeted Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, another blue-state centrist with a pro-war record--because they prefer races that can be won.


The article finally moves on to the real reasons for the intense opposition to Lieberman - not only by us "evil angry fringe activists", but by voters in general. From Joe's staunch support of the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq, to the parroting of the Administration's talking points, to his cozying up with the neoconservative war criminals - his position is so accurately noted as being out of line with the "strongly negative" view of the occupation of Iraq. Unfortunately, it doesn't go much more into all of the other positions and reasons why Joe must go, but the thrust of the article wasn't going in that direction anyway.


What Conason does do is shatter the myth that is being peddled about how this is not Joe's fault. How Joe was so wrongfully targeted by unappreciative rabble rousers. How this is not about "the bloggers" but is about Joe and Joe's positions. And Conason ends his article just as he started it - with a smack at Lieberman's lack of recognition of what is going on in the real world:

The American public now understands that the Bush administration deceived them about its reasons for invading Iraq...They are beginning to understand that his belligerent foreign policy has been a sham, and that his management of the war on terror has been a shame.


Unfortunately for Mr. Lieberman, he understands none of those things. He doesn't comprehend that a war costing thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars is not just a "single issue." He doesn't realize that repeating White House talking points about the war is not going to win him any votes this year. He has left the reality-based community for the never-land of neo-conservatism--and if he loses, that will be why.


Well, it will be one of many reasons why he loses. And it certainly is refreshing to see the press outside of Connecticut pick up on how this asinine "woe is Joe" defense truly is. And how a once proud and formidable Senator manages to sink to a new low with each passing day.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Stem cell research is pro life. Period.

Recommended at My Left Wing

Ok, listen up wingnut jackasses. Like my buddy (yes, I have a wingnut buddy, but he is really more of the "friend of a friend" type...) who just the other day told me how noble Dear Leader's veto of federal funding for embryonic stem cell research because it would not be "ending a life" to do so. This same guy is staunchly "pro-life<sup>TM</sup>" as well but isn't 100% behind BushCo all the time.


Anyway, and here is the good part, once I realized that these were embryos that were going to be destroyed anyway and nobody was "being killed" in order to use the stem cells (oh yeah, and that the ones Bush previously "approved" were no good anyway), he actually was in favor of it. Not necessarily federal funding, but embryonic stem cell research. Which was a huge step and a big start.


And that brings me to an article in the new Newsweek by Jonathan Alter, It Was The Veto of A Lifetime. The article makes a great point, which is a fairly obvious one to people like us, but not to our thickheaded friends over in koo-koo-bananaland. The veto contradicts everything that "pro-life" is about.


Alter also introduces (at least to me) a great term that should be hung around the necks of anyone that dared to vote against this: "anti-cure" vs. "pro-cure". My point however, is that the volatile mix of hypocrisy and sheer stupidity makes these 37 peaheads in the Senate and these 193 mental midgets in the House lower than pond scum if they dared to ever utter the words "I am pro-life".


Hell, even Dr. Cat Killer Frist knows the promise that embryonic stem cell research holds. As Alter says:

At least some of the 193 House members and 37 senators who voted against the bill--almost all of them Republicans--may well lose their seats on this issue, if not this November then in 2008 or 2010. Once the "pro-cure" movement clarifies and penetrates, it will be awfully hard to stand firm against saving the lives of your constituents. More immediately, embryonic-stem-cell research splits the GOP down the middle, with many in the party who oppose abortion (like Sens. John McCain, Orrin Hatch and Bill Frist) supporting it.


I wrote a diary last week about the whole "culture of life" nonsense and this is in the same vein. "We only care before you are born and not again until you are about to die".


Another completely moronic argument that we have to be subjected to on this is nailed by Alter:

Because this was Bush's first veto--itself a newsworthy event--he found it harder to ignore the obvious questions: If destroying an embryo is "murder"--the Bush position, according to his spokesman--how can he support the existence of fertility clinics, which routinely throw out thousands of surplus embryos?


But double standards are just A-OK if you are a Republican (they should have an acronym for that....) "Pro life" but you can kill abortion doctors and bomb abortion clinics. "Pro life" but abortions are illegal even in the instance of rape or mother's health. "Pro life" but send them overseas to die in a war based on lies with not enough armor or equipment. "Pro life" but burn cities with illegal chemical weapons. "Pro life" but leave thousands of people stranded with no food, water or assistance while the entire Gulf Coast drowns. "Pro life" but no health insurance for nearly 50 million.


Well, excuse me, but fuck that shit.


Either you are for saving lives or you are not. Either you are pro-cure or you are anti-cure. You can't be one without the other. Not unless you are (1) a stupid friggin moron or (2) a lying hypocritical jackass. So stop this insanity. "Code words" or empty phrases aren't going to cut it. As Alter's closing so perfectly points out:

It is now almost five years since Bush's August 2001 stem-cell "compromise," which allowed for work on 60 existing cell lines. When most of those lines turned out to be unworkable or irrelevant to cures for humans, he didn't let the new facts affect him. In that sense, the whole issue is emblematic of what's wrong with the Bush presidency: his inflexibility, obsession with his conservative base, religious arrogance and contempt for scientific consensus. Most of all, last week's decision betrayed his oft-stated belief in the sanctity of life. The question, as in all moral issues, is whose life? I'll choose yours or mine over a piece of protoplasm no larger than the period at the end of this sentence.


"Pro-life", my ass. Just shut the hell up already.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

The incredible shrinking middle class

Class warfare. Certainly a hot topic in the left blogosphere. Whether it be the plight of the minimum wage worker or the cuts to health insurance, income and wage disparity or any of the other issues we talk about here, it is an issue of much importance.


Sadly, there has been little reporting in this area outside of our own lives, anecdotal experiences and stories, and a few studies released with little fanfare. In fact, this was a discussion that I was having with the missus earlier today with respect to the "hot job market" and declining wages, raises and standard of living for many in the "middle class".


And, ironically enough, today's NY Times and LA Times are reporting on the ever-shrinking middle class in large cities.


Earlier in the week, I did a diary that highlighted a recent Brookings Institution study with respect to lower income families having to pay more for everyday services and necessary items. Sadly, it got lost in all of the "I am...." diaries, but the findings in these two articles compliments the sad and unfortunate reality that the Brookings study found.


Wayne State University demographers recently conducted a study with respect to the middle class, the disparity between the wealthy and the lower income class as well as the shifting economic demographics in a number of large cities around the country. And the Brookings Institution released a report late last month which looked at the shrinking middle class over the thirty year period covering 1970 - 2000. The Wayne State University study was incorporated into or at least formed the basis of part of the Brookings report and was not released in a separate report.


The results are sobering.



Above is a graph from the Brookings study indicating the percentage decrease in the middle class within the 100 largest metropolitan areas, as compared to 1970. Now, it is tough to find a complete "apples-to-apples" comparison, but Brookings generally has done a good job in their research.


From the NY Times article:

[s]ociologists and many economists believe that there can be non-economic consequences for cities that lose a lot of middle-income residents. The disappearance of middle-income neighborhoods can limit opportunities for upward mobility, the authors of the Brookings study said. It becomes harder for lower-income homeowners to move up the property ladder, buy into safer neighborhoods, send their children to better schools and even make the kinds of personal contacts that can be a route to better jobs. The Brookings study, which defined moderate-income families as those with incomes between 80 and 120 percent of the median for each area, found that the percentage of middle-income neighborhoods in the 100 largest metropolitan areas had dropped to 41 percent from 58 percent between 1970 and 2000. Only 23 percent of central city neighborhoods in 12 large metropolitan areas were middle income, down from 45 percent in 1970.


Meanwhile, New York University researchers reported last month that the number of apartments affordable to households making 80 percent of the median household income in New York City dropped by a fifth (over 200,000 households) between 2002 and 2005.


The article also discusses the potential for this demographic shift to not have much of an economic impact in the short term if labor and services is still available. However, that seems to be pretty shortsighted to me. Rightfully so, as the article continues with the warnings above, as well as the observation that such a reduction in the middle class only creates a larger "haves vs. have nots" situation when it comes to public vs. private schooling, options for shopping or other services.


Not surprisingly, this is confirmed by the other Brookings study released this week which I referenced above.


From the LA Times article:

Demographers at Wayne State University in Detroit recently found Greater Los Angeles to be the most economically segregated region in the country. The study found only about 28% of its neighborhoods to be middle-class or mixedincome, compared with more than half of those in Nashville, Pittsburgh, Seattle and Portland, Ore.


More than two-thirds of L.A.-area residents live in neighborhoods that are solidly rich or poor, according to the analysis, which is based on 2000 census data. That share has been steadily growing for three decades, said one of the study's authors, George Galster, a professor of urban affairs at Wayne State.


"The situation in L.A. is certainly at the extreme of American cities," Galster said, adding that every one of the 100 metropolitan regions he looked at has grown more economically segregated over the last 30 years.


While the LA Times article was more slanted towards the fact that LA topped the list of "most economic disparity" and some of the things that LA is trying/should try to do in order to reverse this trend, there were a few insightful comments with respect to the overall impact of the shrinking middle class:

More broadly, Berube maintained, the shrinking of mixed or middle-income neighborhoods limits the ability of low-income residents to move up economically without leaving the region. It can even contribute to civic instability.


"People in the middle are an important social glue for a city," he said. "To some extent, they serve to mediate the interests of low-income versus high-income, to help forge compromise."


As far as the numbers go, the Brookings study indicated the following:

Analysis of 1970 to 2000 decennial census data for families and neighborhoods in the 100 largest metropolitan areas, and in the cities and suburbs of 12 selected metropolitan areas, finds that:

  • Middle-income neighborhoods as a proportion of all metropolitan neighborhoods declined from 58 percent in 1970 to 41 percent in 2000. This dramatic decline far outpaced the corresponding drop in the proportion of metropolitan families earning middle incomes, from 28 percent in 1970 to 22 percent in 2000.


  • Between 1970 and 2000, lower-income families became more likely to live in lower-income neighborhoods, and higher-income families in higher-income neighborhoods. Only 37 percent of lower-income families lived in middle-income neighborhoods in 2000, down from 55 percent in 1970.


  • The proportion of neighborhoods that were middle-income shrank faster than the proportion of families that were middle-income in each of 12 large metropolitan areas examined. Among the 12 metro areas, Los Angeles-Long Beach, Baltimore, and Philadelphia experienced much more dramatic declines in middle-income neighborhoods than San Antonio and Louisville.


  • Only 23 percent of central-city neighborhoods in the 12 large metropolitan areas had a middle-income profile in 2000, down from 45 percent in 1970. A majority of families (52 percent) and neighborhoods (60 percent) in these cities had low or very low incomes relative to their metropolitan area median in 2000.


  • A much larger proportion--44 percent--of suburban neighborhoods in the 12 metropolitan areas had a middle-income profile in 2000. Yet this proportion fell over the 30-year period, too, from 64 percent in 1970, accompanying a smaller decline in suburban middle-income families. Suburban middle-income neighborhoods were replaced in roughly equal measure by low-income and very high-income neighborhoods.


The hard numbers are there. The stories are out there. The population is feeling the squeeze. The gap has gotten wider - no matter how you slice the numbers. Wages. Income. Ability to afford healthcare. Ability to afford food, medicine, gasoline. Ability to get a good affordable education. And if this trend doesn't reverse itself soon, than what does that say for our country's future?

Saturday, July 22, 2006

"They would've grown up to become terrorists anyway"

Recommended at Daily Kos, Booman Tribune and My Left Wing

I'm embarrassed. And disgusted.


Embarrassed and disgusted to know people (and even be related to people) that have taken this twisted point of view to justify the killing of innocent children in Iraq. Or innocent Palestinian children. Or any innocent children for that matter.


How does someone that otherwise can be so sane and rational turn to such a hateful, bigoted, racist person when it comes to this? How can anyone EVER justify killing innocent people, especially children? This is something that should be so basic, so fundamental to someone that once those eight words are uttered to me, the conversation is over and my view of these people (and unfortunately a good level of respect for people that I otherwise held in pretty high regard) is shot to shit.


And the worse thing about all this is that I have been seeing and hearing this line of crap way too many times lately.


Now, to step back from any discussion of who is right and who is not right, I think that no matter which side is doing the killing, it is inexcusable. This has nothing to do with "us or them". This has nothing to do with "pre-emptive strikes". This has nothing to do with "protecting America", "self-defense" or "spreading freedom and democracy". And it certainly has nothing to do with "winning the hearts and minds".


"War is hell. They would have grown up to become terrorists anyway."


It was a few weeks ago when I first heard that statement when discussing little Ricky's pathetic announcement of the "discovery" of all them WMDs, the firebombing of Fallujah with illegal chemical weapons ordered right after the 2004 election, the bombings of wedding ceremonies and Rumsfeld's de facto ordering of torture of many in Iraq and Afghanistan who certainly weren't associated with ANYTHING terrorist related. I'm too embarrassed to even say who the conversation was with but suffice to say that it was someone I have known my entire life, am otherwise very close with (short of our political leanings) and had the utmost respect for.


"Screw them. They want to kill Jews so they probably would have grown up to be a suicide bomber anyway."


A friend of mine who is around 15 years older than I am (I am 35), Jewish (as am I) and unlike me, is a blindly staunch supporter of Israel and its' policies towards Palestinians as well as Iran, Lebanon and Syria said that to me around a year ago. He was talking about the Israel/Palestine violence around the same time that Ahmadinejad said that Israel should be wiped off the map.


In one situation, I ended the discussion entirely and had to write an email a few days later to explain why I did so, and have this comment stuck in the back of my head. In the other situation, I just sat quietly until my train arrived and haven't really spoken to him all that much since.


Which, frankly really sucks.


What floors me the most about these statements isn't even the disgust that I felt at the time I heard those words. It is the fact that this is quite possibly the most ass-backward line of thinking when it comes to talking about ways to achieve some acceptable level peace and security in the Middle East.


How the fuck, any way you look at it, would killing innocent children lead to anything other than royally pissing off those associated with and affected by these victims? And don't you think they would want to take revenge? Or not see your cause in a favorable light? An eye for an eye, right? Payback. Just like Team America did after 9/11, right?


I expect this talk from lunatic wingnuts. I expect this talk from people who are clearly unstable. I expect a statement like the following from foaming-at-the-mouth right wing talking meatsticks:

In Iran, lovely television shows directed at small children teach these children that it is a joy to become a suicide bomber in defense of Islam. The children are taught that Allah will be pleased with them if only they die killing the enemies of Islam.


But I would never expect that talk from someone who, before "9/11 changed everything" would have been just as disgusted with that statement as I am. Or someone with any real understanding of the way that people interact, and who is otherwise intelligent and compassionate.


As much as I don't want to believe it, is it really getting to the point where any sense of rational thought is completely thrown out the window? Have we really gotten to where horrific acts and murdering innocent people, hell, innocent children are being brushed aside and justified with callous, thoughtless dismissals? Or could it get even worse if the violence continues to escalate in the Middle East, in Iraq and once again in Afghanistan, which a UK General now says is "close to anarchy"?


Because that is a very dangerous way to think.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Terrorism expert: Al Qaeda has regrouped, is on the march

Front paged at ePluribus Media

Well, this can't be good news. At Tuesday's Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing regarding Islam and the West, terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman of the RAND Corporation testified on Al Qaeda and his testimony wasn't of the warm and fuzzy type.


In discussing Al Qaeda, counterterrorism efforts in the US and the UK, as well as the "propaganda war" and the current situation with respect to terror groups, Hoffman painted the administration's rosy outlook on defeating and destroying Al Qaeda as false.


Quite the contrary, according to Hoffman, whose comments indicate that Al Qaeda is actually thriving in its ability to adapt and regroup after the initial blows it suffered in Afghanistan. Needless to say, this is as much an indictment of the Republican Congress and Administration's approach to counterterrorism and their dangerous incompetence in this area needs to be exposed so we can actually use our counterterrorism resources effectively.


The full testimony is linked above, and to give a bit of background on the RAND Corporation, the following should help:

The RAND Corporation is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis.


For nearly 60 years, decisionmakers in the public and private sectors have turned to the RAND Corporation for objective analysis and effective solutions that address the challenges facing the nation and the world. These challenges include such critical social and economic issues as education, poverty, crime, and the environment, as well as a range of national security issues.


RAND researchers and analysts continue to be on the cutting edge of their fields, working with decisionmakers in both the public and private sectors to find solutions to today's difficult, sensitive, and important problems. The high caliber or our researchers is well-known, as evidenced by the many Nobel Laureates who have been affiliated with the RAND, either as employees, consultants, or in an advisory capacity.


So, they are pretty good at what they do.


As for the testimony, there is a good synopsis here. Hoffman talked about the UK counterterrorism efforts, and the fact that while they are one of the best in the world, they were still clueless to the UK-based Al Qaeda cell that carried out the London bombings last year. In fact, his testimony has the following quotes from UK counterterrorism officials, both made this year about the London bombings:

"We were working off a script which actually has been completely discounted from what we know as reality." (Andy Hayman, Assistant Commissioner of Specialist Operations, Scotland Yard)


"I think the more we learned over this period of several years, the more we began to realize the limits of what we knew . . ." (Tom Dowse, Chief of the Assessments Staff)


Hoffman goes on to describe Al Qaeda as being broken down into four categories:


(1) Al Qaeda central, which is the remnants of the pre-9/11 leadership and some other high level Al Qaeda officials;

(2) Al Qaeda associates and affiliates, which consists of other terrorist groups who have benefited from Bin Laden's support at one time or another;

(3) Al Qaeda locals, which have some direct contact at some time or another, and may or may not have former terrorism experience; and

(4) Al Qaeda network, which are "homegrown radicals" with no real connection to Al Qaeda but believe in "the cause".


His testimony goes on to discuss the "wishful thinking" approach taken by the US and the UK in the aftermath of 9/11 with respect to terrorist attacks - and uses the UK example that I cited above as one in making the point of how the "just because you don't want to believe it doesn't make it so" approach taken is false (and to me it sounds pretty dangerous).


Some of his quotes with respect to the US are as follows:

"Today, al-Qaida has not only regrouped, but it is on the march," said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at the Rand Corp. "Al-Qaida is now functioning exactly as its founder and leader, Osama bin Laden, envisioned it."


---snip---


"Today, al-Qaida is also frequently spoken of as it if is in retreat: a broken and beaten organization incapable of mounting further attacks on its own and instead having devolved operational authority either to its carious affiliates and associated or to entirely organically produced, homegrown, terrorist entities. Nothing could be further from the truth," Hoffman told the committee.


The Afghan attack "pulverized" al-Qaida, Hoffman told United Press International Wednesday.


"I think we did do that, but this is a movement with enormous regenerative capacity -- its message resonates, and it's not wanting for volunteers," Hoffman said. "They've adapted and adjusted to even our most consequential countermeasures."


In the ensuing four years since the attack, the organization has evolved into what bin Laden set out to create: a fractured, worldwide movement inspired by bin Laden and united by a single vision, as well as a central organization that continues to direct the implementation of terrorist attacks.


"To the idea al-Qaida is on the run -- how can that be if al-Qaida was directly responsible for the most consequential terrorist incident of the last year? (The London bombings) was not Sept. 11 but it was still a very significant attack," Hoffman said. "It's wishful thinking."


Hoffman does talk about a "new counterterrorism strategy" by talking about how the current "kill them all before they kill us all" approach won't work. And frankly, isn't that an obvious one? Like there is a finite number of people out there that are devoted to this cause, and the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq, the saber rattling with respect to Iran as well as the perception (and I don't want to go further than this here) about the US support for Israel against Palestine and Lebanon haven't created more animosity towards the US and its policies?


His suggestions include looking at this from something other than a military solution - to create a "global counterinsurgency" that looks beyond next week or month to the "next generation".

Such an approach would a priori knit together the equally critical political, economic, diplomatic, and developmental sides inherent to the successful prosecution of counterinsurgency to the existing dominant military side of the equation.


Such a new approach would necessarily be built upon a more integrated, systems approach to a complex problem that is at once operationally durable, evolutionary and elusive in character. Greater attention to this integration of American capabilities would provide incontrovertible recognition of the importance of endowing a GCOIN with an overriding and comprehensive, multidimensional policy. Ideally, this policy would embrace several elements: including a clear strategy, a defined structure for implementing it, and a vision of inter-government agency cooperation, and the unified effort to guide it. It would have particular benefit with respect to the gathering and exploitation of "actionable intelligence." By updating and streamlining interagency counterterrorism and counterinsurgency systems and procedures both strategically as well as operationally between the Department of Defense, the Department of State, and the intelligence community, actionable intelligence could likely be acquired, analyzed and disseminated faster and operations mounted more quickly. A more focused and strengthened interagency process would also facilitate the coordination of key themes and messages and the development and execution of long-term "hearts and minds" programs.


So on one hand, this is some sobering news about the lack of a plan to deal with Al Qaeda, the capabilities of Al Qaeda, and the absolute mess that this administration and the neocons have put this country, and the world in. However, this also gives another expert's view on how to better deal with this mess that has been made.


Either way, the obvious takeaway here is that Bush, the neocons and the Republicans haven't gotten the slightest clue as to what they are doing, what they are facing, how to get out of this mess and how to make us safer.


Which makes it all the more imperative to get this message out and get competent people in charge.

USDA programs: multi-million dollar scams and billions in pork

Recommended at Booman Tribune. Front paged at ePluribus Media


In all of the billions of dollars wasted by government giveaways, as well as the millions of dollars scammed from government programs, there are a number of programs run by the US Department of Agriculture ("USDA") over the past few years which have not only cost taxpayers billions of dollars in unnecessary programs but also have left open the potential (which has been taken advantage of) for scams that netted the "scammers" millions of dollars, also at taxpayer expense.


To give credit where credit is due, the Washington Post has been running a number of articles over the past few weeks with respect to some USDA programs that are particularly egregious. And it only makes me wonder how much in healthcare, education, the deficit, hell, even true homeland security or any other necessary programs would benefit from a few extra hundred million dollars.


Anyway, I wanted to highlight a few of the programs since I don't think that anyone here has covered the immense waste from these programs. The amount of waste and abuse here is just staggering.


The first program, as reported by WaPo earlier this month, involves a farm subsidy program that paid out a total of $1.3 Billion (yes, that is a "B") to people that don't farm.  Yes, you read that correctly.  And the more ironic thing about this program is that one of the recipients of the subsidy actually tried to give the money back since he did no farming, but was told that it would likely go to other landowners who, incidentally don't farm either.

Nationwide, the federal government has paid at least $1.3 billion in subsidies for rice and other crops since 2000 to individuals who do no farming at all, according to an analysis of government records by The Washington Post.


Some of them collect hundreds of thousands of dollars without planting a seed.


That $1.3 billion dollar number relates to payments made since 2000.  Additionally and ironically, the farm industry as a whole had near record profits in 2005, yet there was nearly 50% more in aid given out under this program than there was given to families on welfare.  Some of the money obviously goes to people who qualify for the funds AND actually do some farming, but a good percentage of this money goes to people who happen to own land that was once used for farming.  

The Post's nine-month investigation found farm subsidy programs that have become so all-encompassing and generous that they have taken much of the risk out of farming for the increasingly wealthy individuals who dominate it.


The farm payments have also altered the landscape and culture of the Farm Belt, pushing up land prices and favoring large, wealthy operators.


The system pays farmers a subsidy to protect against low prices even when they sell their crops at higher prices. It makes "emergency disaster payments" for crops that fail even as it provides subsidized insurance to protect against those failures.


And it pays people such as Matthews for merely owning land that was once farmed.


It's a long article with a lot of information and examples, but since it is a few weeks old, and there are other programs that I want to highlight, I'll just say that it a farcical program that is indicative of the Republican Congressional agenda (this program was overhauled in 1995 after the Republicans took control of Congress).


The next program, one of two that were highlighted in yesterday's WaPo, involves drought aid that provides money to those who didn't suffer from a drought.  This program was rammed through Congress in 2002, and was expanded further in 2003 when some people complained that they weren't receiving money for non-drought related disasters.  And what was that old tired meme about Republicans not wanting to expand government programs?  I guess it is all good when it goes to people that don't need the money as opposed to, oh, say healthcare, the environment, education, the deficit or true homeland security initiatives.  


This program was called the Livestock Compensation Program, and was initially a noble program designed to provide limited assistance to ranchers and dairy farmers who were affected by droughts.  But, as indicated above, "drought assistance" quickly grew to a $1.2 Billion (again with a "B") program that provided over $600 million to those who lived in areas that had little to no drought.  Even better was the verification system that the government had in place for this program:

In all, the Livestock Compensation Program cost taxpayers $1.2 billion during its two years of existence, 2002 and 2003. Of that, $635 million went to ranchers and dairy farmers in areas where there was moderate drought or none at all, according to an analysis of government records by The Washington Post. None of the ranchers were required to prove they suffered an actual loss. The government simply sent each of them a check based on the number of cattle they owned.


At first, livestock owners were required to be in a county officially suffering a drought to collect the money. But ranchers who weren't eligible complained to their representatives in Washington, and in 2003 Congress dropped that requirement. Ranchers could then get payments for any type of federally declared "disaster." In some cases, USDA administrators prodded employees in the agency's county offices to find qualifying disasters, even if they were two years old or had nothing to do with ranching or farming.


In one county in northern Texas, ranchers collected nearly $1 million for an ice storm that took place a year and a half before the livestock program was even created. In Washington state, ranchers in one county received $1.6 million for an earthquake that caused them no damage. In Wisconsin, a winter snowstorm triggered millions of dollars more. For hundreds of ranchers from East Texas to the Louisiana border, the shuttle explosion opened the door to about $5 million, records show.


Again, a long article with a lot of examples and information, so I will keep it brief here.  One more thing to point out - this program appears to have been created in order to help John Thune (R-SD) in his 2002 Senate bid against Tim Johnson.


Two more programs that I wanted to call attention to:  the first one is the 2003 Catfish Feed Assistance Program.  This program, again with a noble name and a shiny ribbon on it, provided millions to catfish farmers for "losses due to disasters and adverse weather conditions".  However, no farmer had to prove any loss occurred, and the program was inserted in to a war appropriations bill by Senator Thad Cochran (R-MS) whose state just happened to receive the most (over 50%) of the funds from this program.  Oh yeah - the program was inserted because of the "increased price of catfish feed in 2002", although the prices of feed in 2002 was near a 10 year low.


Under the 2003 Catfish Feed Assistance Program, announced in August of that year, commercial catfish farmers in Mississippi, Arkansas and a handful of other states got government credits for feed equal to $34 per ton.


All they had to do was apply at their local feed mill. The amount they received was based on how much feed they had purchased at the mill in 2002 -- not any actual losses.


---snip---


To be sure, some of the states had suffered drought, but not all. Moreover, feed prices for catfish in 2002 were among the lowest in a decade, according to federal data and agricultural economists. They didn't spike again until mid-2003.


Your Republican government expanding Congress at work.  Inserting a $34 million piece of pork into a WARTIME Appropriations bill that was based on false information and happened to benefit the author/Senator's home state to the tune of $19 million.  Hmmmmm....nothing to see here, right?


Lastly, as reported in today's WaPo, a program designed to provide farmers with powdered milk (from the Government's stockpile) ended up creating a scam that had the powdered milk going not to the farmers who actually needed it, but to others (even outside the US) at a healthy profit - netting millions of dollars to those who were selling and reselling the powdered milk to third parties, people in states where there was no drought and as stated above, even outside the US.  


Estimated cost to US taxpayers - $400 million.

They decided to dip into massive stockpiles of powdered milk that the agency had stored in warehouses nationwide as part of its milk price-support program. Livestock owners could get the protein-rich commodity free and feed it to their cattle and calves. The milk would help ranchers weather the drought while the government reduced its growing stockpile.


But within months, the program spawned a lucrative secondary market in which ranchers, feed dealers and brokers began trading the powdered milk in a daisy chain of transactions, generating millions of dollars in profits. Tens of millions of pounds of powdered milk intended solely for livestock owners in drought-stricken states went to states with no drought or were sold to middlemen in Mexico and other countries, a Washington Post investigation found.


In some cases, ownership of the powdered milk changed hands half a dozen times or more in a matter of days, with the price increasing each time. A commodity that started out being sold for almost nothing was soon trading for hundreds of dollars a ton.


---snip---


"The milk was being bought and sold, bought and sold. Some of it was probably ending up in dog food and pet food," said Matthew J. Hoobler, a Wyoming official who oversaw the distribution of more than 60 million pounds of powdered milk in that state. That trading was possible, he said, because "there was no enforcement."


The abuses of this program are being looked into (and have been for the past couple of years), however with the lax enforcement as well as the loopholes it is unknown how much (if any) of the money and the powdered milk will be recovered.


But it is another lesson in how quickly programs can spiral out of control when they are unchecked, not given enough thought when being implemented and when programs are needlessly expanded to cover people who have no business being covered.


Think about how many more people could have healthcare coverage with even a small percentage of the millions, make that billions of dollars wasted on people that don't need the money.


And the Democrats are the ones that are for bigger government giveaways?  

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Brookings study: lower income families pay more for services

Recommended at Booman Tribune. Front paged at ePluribus Media

Not that we need any more information that shows how much wider the gap is getting between the "haves" and everyone else, but alas, today brings us another study showing how much everyday purchases and services by lower income families cost more than the same (or similar) services and purchases by higher-income families.


We have seen a number of studies showing how the wage gap is widening, how executive pay as a multiple of average salaries is at ridiculous levels, how recent tax cuts benefit the wealthy much more than lower income and middle class families and how many services for lower and middle income families have been gutted recently.


And today, the Brookings Institution has released a report summarizing 13 major cities and the differential between the costs of everyday services and purchases by lower income families can cost thousands of dollars more per year than their higher income counterparts.


For those who are not familiar with Brookings, it has been around for 90 years or so, and in its own words:

For policy-makers and the media, Brookings scholars provide the highest quality research, policy recommendations, and analysis on the full range of public policy issues.


Research at the Brookings Institution is conducted to inform the public debate, not advance a political agenda. Our scholars are drawn from the United States and abroad--with experience in government and academia--and hold diverse points of view.


---snip---


Brookings traces its beginnings to 1916, when a group of leading reformers founded the Institute for Government Research (IGR), the first private organization devoted to analyzing public policy issues at the national level. In 1922 and 1924, one of IGR's backers, Robert Somers Brookings (1850-1932), established two supporting sister organizations: the Institute of Economics and a graduate school bearing his name. In 1927, the three groups merged to form the Brookings Institution, honoring the businessman from St. Louis whose leadership shaped the earlier organizations.


Anyway, back to their study, titled "From Poverty, Opportunity: Putting the Market to Work for Lower-Income Families". An Executive Summary of the 80 page report can be found here. The study covered national data, as well as data in Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Denver, DC, Hartford, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, New York, Oakland, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Seattle (links to the individual city summaries can be found here. It touched on services such as check cashing, loans, fees for expedited tax refunds, mortgages, car and homeowners insurance, groceries, furniture and other similar items.


Thankfully, the study isn't just all "doom and gloom" statistics. Since the title does mention the word "Opportunity", it also looks at ways for the public and private sectors to help lower income families increase their buying power, their cash and take home pay, reduce their bills, pay down debt and get their finances under control. The problem here, as is with anything relating to thinking outside the "I've got mine" mentality is that squeezing those extra few dollars from lower and middle income people for a bit more profit is still way more important to many people in a position to actually do something for the greater good.


While some of this is what we would expect on an overall basis, it is stunning to see the magnitude of the impact the fees, higher rates, financing plans and general costs are for things that many people take for granted. The most telling piece of information is as follows:

Reducing the costs of living for lower income families by just one percent would add up to over $6.5 billion in new spending power for these families. This would enable lower and modest-income families to save for, and invest in, incoming-growing assets, like homes and retirement savings, or to pay for critical expenses for their children, like education and health care.


I want to highlight three things briefly - (1) some of the details on the disparity between the lower income and higher income families relating to these services, (2) the reasons for the disparity and (3) some of the suggestions made to help these families.


General Cost Discrepancies


Without getting into each of the areas (and each of the localities), the study had some startling findings. For example:

4.2 million lower income homeowners that earn less than $30,000 a year pay higher than average prices for their mortgages. About 4.5 million lower income households pay higher than average prices for auto loans. At least 1.6 million lower income adults pay excessive fees for furniture, appliances, and electronics. And, countless more pay high prices for other necessities, such as basic financial services, groceries, and insurance. Together, these extra costs add up to hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars unnecessarily spent by lower income families every year.


With respect to the higher costs paid by lower income families, the study noted that most people that use check cashing services earn under $30,000 per year, and the fees for check cashing can be around 2% of the total. Contrasted with banks where there is a low (if any) fee for depositing or cashing checks if you have a bank account (which many lower income families do not have). Additionally, it touches on short term loans that are much more popular with lower income families - these fees can be up to 15% of the total loan as well (also much higher than a bank loan which many lower income families may not even qualify for).


When it comes to automobiles and car costs, the differences are glaring. Consider the following:

On average, lower income families who purchase cars in a lower income neighborhood pay $50 and $500 more, on average, to buy the exact same car as a consumer from a higher income neighborhood.


Nationwide, 4.5 million lower income consumers pay, on average, two percentage points more in interest for an auto loan than the average, higher income consumer.


Drivers from lower income neighborhoods in the 12 sample metropolitan areas pay between $50 to over $1,000 more per year in higher premiums for auto insurance than those living in higher income neighborhoods.


Other areas noted include home loans (around 1% higher in mortgage interest rates), home insurance (around $300 more per year in lower income neighborhoods), furniture and appliances (by shopping at "rent-to-own" places the costs could be significantly higher) and of course, groceries (on a "per unit" basis for similar items, since there is such an overall discrepancy in prices in general).


Reasons for the Disparity


I don't want to spend too much time on this, because some of it is obvious. Generally, the risks to companies include the higher likelihood to default on loans, lower credit scores, etc. Now, there is an obvious self-feeding cycle here that creates this situation, but it does exist.


Additionally, the "high fee" type of service institutions (like check cashing) tend to be more heavily concentrated in the lower income areas. The study noted that:

Today, over 23 percent of lower income households do not have a checking account, and another 64 percent do not have a savings account. Certainly, these millions of lower income consumers represent an unmet market demand. However, if the businesses that fill that void are primarily those that that tend to charge high fees or interest rates, then lower income consumers are not being exposed to a broader array of mainstream, competitively-priced products.


The last two reasons provided are ones where the most can be done to make the situation a bit better - unscrupulous business practices is higher in these areas, and the lower income families have less access to "good market information" related to many of these goods and services.


Obviously, there is some underlying issues that are way above "public and private sector" fixes as they are deeply rooted social and economic issues that are being hurt further by the Republican policies of the past few years. But as far as the things that can be controlled, Brookings has a few suggestions that it says won't cost too much to implement.


Potential Solutions


As I stated above, the obstacles to make things easier and less costly for lower income families may not require a lot of costs, but it does involve a tremendous (but well worth it) effort by the public and private sectors. It may initially bring in less "fees and revenue" to some of the businesses who make their living on milking every penny from the lower income families, but even lowering the overall costs by 1% would infuse an additional $6.5 BILLION in spending power to these families. Obviously, this could have a huge positive impact on the economy as a whole, and especially on those lower income families who can save money, pay down their debt, or make more informed decisions as consumers.


There are three ways that the Brookings study indicates that this can work. These three ways are as follows:

In concert with community outreach efforts to dispel myths and misperceptions, political and community leaders need to engage the business community to take down the roadblocks to entry into lower income markets.


---snip---


Public and private leaders need to crack down on alternative, high-priced businesses that have blossomed in lower income neighborhoods.


---snip---


Public and private leaders need to promote consumer responsibility and empower lower income consumers with better market information.


The first way may be the easiest to tackle, while the second is likely the toughest. The study gave suggestion such as regulating the level of fees that can be charged for some of these financial transactions and services, as well as changing the local zoning and licensing laws to keep these types of business out, while inviting other businesses into these neighborhood.


Overall, while the findings from the study are fairly stunning in terms of the magnitude and overall commonality of the disparities from city to city, it is also promising in that there are some constructive (and fairly low cost) ways that this disparity can be decreased.


The problem, as with most things like this, is that it is hard work and takes a lot of coordination, effort and sacrifice. But the longer term advantages and savings are too great (as well as the consequences of doing nothing) to sit back and let this continue.


Hopefully, this will spur some cities to address these matters, as we know that the Republican policies are not going to do anything other than increase this problem.

Monday, July 17, 2006

"Culture of Life"? Aren't you forgetting THIS?

Recommended at Daily Kos and Booman Tribune

Well, we have been hearing how Bush is going to use his first veto to strike down bills allowing for the use of federal funds for stem cell research. Never mind the fact that a large number of Americans are in favor of embryonic stem cell research as I really don't want to talk about the merits of federal funding for stem cell research or get into a discussion of the "slippery slope" argument regarding cloning.


No, what I want to discuss is the "culture of life" meme that really only means "make a big stink about things related to before someone is born or when they are about to die, but you're on your own while on this earth". We hear "culture of life" as it relates to abortion, to euthanasia, to stem cell research and what/whoever else the lunatics on the right want to distract and divide the country over.

And since we are going to be hearing these three words ad nauseum again, I think it merits pointing out what is going on every day, right here in our own country, under our own eyes that should make anyone that utters those three words hide their head in shame.


Why not start with this little gem of an idea: Bush Administration Plans Medicare Changes. You know when there are "changes planned" for any program, that generally means gutting the program. And here is a perfect way, BushCo-style, to "solve" the Medicare issues:


The Bush administration says it plans sweeping changes in Medicare payments to hospitals that could cut payments by 20 percent to 30 percent for many complex treatments and new technologies.


The changes, the biggest since the current payment system was adopted in 1983, are meant to improve the accuracy of payment rates. But doctors, hospitals and patient groups say the effects could be devastating.


---snip---


Medicare pays more than $125 billion a year to nearly 5,000 hospitals. The new plan is not expected to save money, but will shift around billions of dollars, creating clear winners and losers. The effects will ripple through the health care system because many private insurers and state Medicaid programs follow Medicare's example.


Dr. Alan D. Guerci, president of St. Francis Hospital in Roslyn, N.Y., said the new formula would cut Medicare payments to his hospital by $21 million, or 12 percent. "It will significantly reduce payments for cardiac care and will force many hospitals to reduce the number of cardiac procedures they perform,"Dr. Guerci said.


A coalition of patient organizations, including the Parkinson's Action Network and the Society for Women's Health Research, told the government in a letter that the new system "could have a devastating impact on payment for critical treatments for seriously ill patients, with reimbursement for some essential procedures cut as much as 30 percent."


Well, that is just swell. The plan won't save money overall, but will shift money around to such a degree that doctors, hospitals AND patient groups are all concerned about the quality of care that will be given. Seems like that really does a lot to foster that whole "culture of life" thing, doesn't it?


So that is another smack in the face to the healthcare industry and to the hopes of many Americans who need certain medical procedures done, not to mention the doctors and hospitals, who would have to cut back on services.


OK, so that is healthcare - what about other areas where the "culture of life" is being subverted lately? What about affordable low income and public housing? Yup, massive cuts there as well. All those lower income people don't need a place for them and their family to live, right? After all, Barbara Bush and Tom DeLay thought the Katrina refugees were so much better off and having such a blast living on cots in Houston that this shouldn't matter either:

Already struggling to meet community needs for affordable housing, public-housing agencies now must deal with an unexpected 14.5 percent cutback in federal funding.


The shortfall amounts to hundreds of thousands of dollars for some agencies and likely will result in reduced services to needy tenants as the agencies leave jobs unfilled and consider layoffs.


The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recently announced a $600 million shortfall in the money it needs to fund public housing nationwide. As a result, it informed housing authorities they will receive 85.5 percent of the HUD money they had expected.


Officials at many of Central Florida's nearly two dozen public-housing agencies, which already faced lean budgets, say they may have to take drastic measures.


The article goes on to state that the cuts were largely do to HUD's being off by $300 million on their estimates to meet utility costs. The overall shortfall is over $600 million. Some of the services that need to be cut are security at housing for elderly people as well as repair services (which not only delay things for tenants but is also leads to longer vacancy times due to lack of staff to make appropriate repairs, leading to longer times on waiting lists). This also would cut funds for youth programs in public housing projects (per the article), which at least cuts down on teens being out on the streets or being prone to violence and gang activity. But who needs affordable housing and these services, right?


What about education? Certainly, a good solid education leads to better opportunities later in life, while a poor education leads to less opportunities for better jobs, the ability to go to college and to make a decent living (which still may not even be doable with a good education anymore). But we find that the Administration's ignoring of middle school and high school students has led to lower reading skills and levels. Now, there has been significant funding since 2002 for the lower grade levels, but we now have a problem with the middle school levels and the even high school graduates.

The Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington-based education policy research and advocacy group, estimates that as many as 6 million middle and high school students can't read at acceptable levels. It's an issue for students well above the bottom of the class. A report released in March that looked at the reading skills of college-bound students who took the ACT college entrance exam found that only 51 percent were prepared for college-level reading.


---snip---


In the past two years, at least a half-dozen major education associations have released reports on adolescent literacy, including the National Association of Secondary School Principals and the National Association of State Boards of Education. State and national test scores also paint a troubling picture of the reading skills of older students.


In Maryland, 33 percent of incoming high school freshmen will need extra help in reading, according to results from the 2006 Maryland School Assessments released last month. In Virginia, 24 percent of last year's freshmen needed additional support. And according to 2005 test results in D.C. public schools, 71 percent of middle and high school students needed special help with reading.


Now obviously, there are many different reasons for this, but we do remember what Dear Leader has said about his commitment to education. But what does it say for our future if a too large number of students are progressing through the school system without the proper tools to have a chance to succeed later in life? Doesn't sound too much like a commitment to a "culture of life" to me....


And here is another environmental one for you: Top panel urges EPA to reassess dioxin risks:

he cancer risk from the chemical dioxin -- present in some U.S. soil, food supplies and most Americans' bodies -- needs to be reassessed by the Environmental Protection Agency before it sets a new standard for cleanup, a U.S. scientific panel reported Tuesday.


Experts assembled by the National Academies' National Research Council confirmed many of the findings of a 2003 EPA report on dioxin, which found dioxin causes cancer and reproductive and immune-system disorders in humans.

---snip---


Even though the EPA draft report was made public three years ago, its findings were not reflected in policy.


---snip---


Dioxin and dioxin-like compounds stay in the environment, allowing them to build up in the food chain. Most Americans ingest dioxin when they eat fatty foods including beef, pork, fish and dairy products, and others are exposed to the chemical on the job or by accident, the National Academies panel noted.


The Boston-based Center for Health, Environment and Justice hailed the National Academies report in a statement and accused industries that use chlorine of stalling enforcement of higher cleanup standards.


I could go on and on. There are so many examples every single week that show the Republican-controlled Federal Government's policies (and the four examples above all can be addressed with proper Federal funding and implementation) and the disdain for the true "culture of life" that exists from the time that one is born throughout childhood, adolescence, working age all the way through the time that one is elderly. The cuts in program after program, the lack of attention and caring to the "culture of life" while one is actually alive and functioning on this earth speak volumes towards the callous and reckless endangerment of human life.


The "culture of life" meme must go. Or it must be thrown back in anyone's face who dares to utter those three empty words.