Friday, January 30, 2009

Something Like This

Only the crescent moon was a straightened smile, and Venus was bright just below it: that's what I saw early Thursday night (this photo is from 2007; I'll keep looking for one from this week). I kept it in sight for some 45 minutes as I drove south--it always seemed to be right in front of me, in the blackness above the thin ribbons of fog. When I got home just after 11 they were gone, but it was a cold clear night, very black sky, very white stars, and as I gazed up at Orion's belt---a shooting star!

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Rainbow Bridge

Another sunny day, with a full rainbow arching the sky yesterday. Enjoying today what dooms tomorrow? "I have committed enough errors to make me want to mend them, write/some more in my notebook, where there's faith in the future. Who hasn't erred/in the past does not need this faith."--poet Mahmoud Darwish, translated by Fady Joudah, in the American Poetry Review.

Made of Money

Update: On Thursday, as reported by the NY Times:" President Obama branded Wall Street bankers “shameful” on Thursday for giving themselves nearly $20 billion in bonuses as the economy was deteriorating and the government was spending billions to bail out some of the nation’s most prominent financial institutions. “There will be time for them to make profits, and there will be time for them to get bonuses,” Mr. Obama said during an appearance in the Oval Office with Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner. “Now’s not that time. And that’s a message that I intend to send directly to them, I expect Secretary Geithner to send to them.”

The following made the Rescued Diary list at Daily Kos Thursday.

The median household income in the U.S. is about $50,000. That means about half of households make more, and half make less. So a family bringing in $50,000 a year would need to work for 20 years to have made a million bucks.

But a million ain't what it used to be when John Beresford Tipton was transforming lives with a check for it in the 1950s, although if somebody now gave that family of today a million bucks all at once, it would still be quite a lot.

But let's say $10 million, which would require that family to work for 200 years. Or, if they are the latest in a long line of working people who made $50,000 a year (even though a generation ago that would be way above the median income), $10 million would be roughly equivalent to 20 years of their income, plus 20 years of their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, etc. back to, say 1809, when the family could have started its climb to fortune by working for, oh, Thomas Jefferson. If they were white.

But $10 million won't even buy you a really big house anymore, so what you want is $100 million. For that, you'd need to work for 2,000 years, or you could pool the total income of five families for 20 generations, and start saving every last cent in the year 1409.

At this point my calculator is no help, so check my figures. Let's look at just one year. $100 million equals the income of 2,000 median incomes. $110 million, $120 million, $170 million-- each increase of ten million dollars adds another 200 people. Until at $200 million, equal to 4,000 median family incomes. $210 million, $250 million, $290 million--$300 million, $350 million, $400 million, $440 million, $500 million, double that, it's 20,000 people.

Right now the city of Pittsburgh has a population of just over 300, 000. If all the professional athletes were out of town (which they probably are, since the Steelers are in Tampa for the Super Bowl), and if every family left made the median income, it would take roughly the city of Pittsburgh and a suburb or two to pay for: not the year's income for Wall Street executives, not the equivalent of their stock options and investment income, but just for the bonuses they got in 2008.

Employees at financial companies in New York collected $18.4 billion in bonuses in 2008. Bonuses paid while many of these firms were taking taxpayer money, to bail out companies and banks that failed so badly that they've sent the world into the worst economic times since the 1930s Great Depression.

For that they collected bonuses that add up to more than the total that 13 state governments were compelled to cut from their budgets in 2008 ($3.6 b) and 22 states so far in 2009 ($12.2b.) Those cuts mean layoffs, cuts in medical care, libraries closed and college tuitions raised. It is in fact more than all the state revenues of Maryland or Connecticut, Indiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Virginia, Washington or a whole host of less populous states.

While hundreds of thousands of people have lost their jobs just in the past several months, the Wall Street bonuses were about the same this year as in the market boom year of 2004. This past year they lost about $35 billion. But no problem. They got more than half of it for themselves, as an extra. A reward.

Wall Streeters aren't the only ones. The Times: "Outside the financial industry, many corporate executives received fatter bonuses in 2008, even as the economy lost 2.6 million jobs. According to data from Equilar, a compensation research firm, the average performance-based bonuses for top executives, other than the chief executive, at 132 companies with revenues of more than $1 billion increased by 14 percent, to $265,594, in the 2008 fiscal year."

So how do these Wall Streeters feel about draining this wealth from the country--from killing the economy and then robbing its corpse? These bonuses were actually down from the biggest recent year of 2006. On Wall Street, where money is the ultimate measure, some employees apparently feel slighted by their diminished bonuses. A poll of 900 financial industry employees released on Wednesday by, a job search Web site, found that while nearly eight out of 10 got bonuses, 46 percent thought they deserved more.

This economy, this society just can't afford these people anymore. Nationalize the banks and fire them all. For those who used government money, prosecute them to the full extent of the law, however inadequate that might be.

But there's a larger lesson. This society built on money is bankrupt, in just about every way. We can no longer live as though we are made of money.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

More Lies and Lying Liars

Republicans--but not only them, also the gullible or worse in the media --have been promoting viral lies this week, two in particular.

The first is that 61 men released from Guantanamo have already returned "to the battlefield" as terrorist fighters. Where did this number come from? The charitable guess would be up somebody's ass. Here's how Keith Olbermann summarized it on Monday's Countdown:

Out of those 61 alleged recidivists, only 18 are actually even confirmed by the Pentagon in their definition of the term. The other 43 are simply, quote, “suspected.”

But quite how the Defense Department managed to suspect or even confirm recidivism remains unclear considering that a report from Seton Hall University pointed out, that the Pentagon does not actually keep track of released prisoners and their whereabouts, and that the Obama administration is just beginning to realize that there are almost no records of any kind about the detainees still at Gitmo.

And the official number of recidivists fluctuates while appearing to be inconsistent with other Defense Department data. The Seton Hall report also pointing out that some of those who, quote, “returned to the battlefield” have, in fact, done little more than utter anti-American comments or appear in a documentary about Guantanamo.

But then, this is the kind of thinking that gets Quakers and vegans spied on by Homeland Security and other federal thugs for terrorism, because they opposed oh say the Patriot Act, or the Iraq war, or they just weren't sufficiently reverent towards Fearless Leader G.W. Bush. That, combined with the laziness and incompetence that also results in this (Olbermann continued):

As for those 245 or so prisoners still in Gitmo, the “Washington Post”
is reporting that man of them have no comprehensive case files, that the
information and evidence against them is, according to a senior
administration official, quote, “scattered throughout the executive branch”
which means it takes weeks or will, or even months just to find out the information to begin the case-by-case review ordered by President Obama last week."

The purpose of these bogus figures was to cast President Obama as a terrorist tool for daring to close Gitmo. But before the truth could quite catch up with these lies, the Republicans were pushing another lie, this time to oppose President Obama's economic recovery package.

It's not going to stimulate the economy fast enough, they said, because this here Congressional Budget Office Report says so. It says it will take years. How many years depended on who was talking, but that didn't stop the media from jumping on the bandwagon--to the tune of at least 81 times, not just on Fox but on MSNBC, CNN and broadcast networks.

With all those important folks saying it, who could contradict it? Oh I don't know, how about the Congressional Budget Office. And they didn't have a minor quibble with the interpretation of the numbers or anything. They had a major quibble with the idea that they'd issued a report at all, because...they hadn't. Someone from the CBO put it this way: "We did not issue any report, any analysis or any study.”

Now it may be too much to ask media reporters to actually read the reports they report on, but I'd feel better if they actually looked at the cover sheet, or otherwise verified that it in fact existed.

Otherwise the Republican habit of lying is never going to be broken. And this country will continue to be governed by lies, laziness and bullshit.

By the way, according to Budget Director Peter Orzag--who happened to be the director of the Congressional Budget Office until he took this job quite recently--three-quarters of the recovery money will be spent in the next year and a half.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Meet Zosteropidae, also known as "white eyes," that scientists say has branched off into more species faster than any other birds. They don't seem to know why. Handsome bird, though--could that have something to do with it? Click photo to enlarge.

From Peril to Progress

President Obama began the week by officially and aggressively changing U.S. policy on the Climate Crisis.

Placing the crisis in the context of the need to not only stimulate the economy but to create a new future-oriented economy by addressing renewable energy needs and opportunities, the President spoke plainly about the Climate Crisis:

These urgent dangers to our national and economic security are compounded by the long-term threat of climate change, which if left unchecked could result in violent conflict, terrible storms, shrinking coastlines and irreversible catastrophe. These are the facts and they are well known to the American people -- after all, there is nothing new about these warnings.

Year after year, decade after decade, we've chosen delay over decisive action. Rigid ideology has overruled sound science. Special interests have overshadowed common sense. Rhetoric has not led to the hard work needed to achieve results.

Now America has arrived at a crossroads. Embedded in American soil and the wind and the sun, we have the resources to change. Our scientists, businesses and workers have the capacity to move us forward. It falls on us to choose whether to risk the peril that comes with our current course or to seize the promise of energy independence. For the sake of our security, our economy and our planet, we must have the courage and commitment to change.

It will be the policy of my administration to reverse our dependence on foreign oil, while building a new energy economy that will create millions of jobs. We hold no illusion about the task that lies ahead. I cannot promise a quick fix; no single technology or set of regulations will get the job done. But we will commit ourselves to steady, focused, pragmatic pursuit of an America that is free from our energy dependence and empowered by a new energy economy that puts millions of our citizens to work.

Today, I'm announcing the first steps on our journey toward energy independence, as we develop new energy, set new fuel efficiency standards, and address greenhouse gas emissions. "

In reversing the Bush order that prevented California from implementing standards to reduce carbon emissions, Obama said: "The days of Washington dragging its heels are over. My administration will not deny facts, we will be guided by them. We cannot afford to pass the buck or push the burden onto the states. "

On the U.S. role in the global effort to address the Climate Crisis, he said:" we will make it clear to the world that America is ready to lead. To protect our climate and our collective security, we must call together a truly global coalition. I've made it clear that we will act, but so too must the world. That's how we will deny leverage to dictators and dollars to terrorists. And that's how we will ensure that nations like China and India are doing their part, just as we are now willing to do ours.

It's time for America to lead, because this moment of peril must be turned into one of progress. If we take action, we can create new industries and revive old ones; we can open new factories and power new farms; we can lower costs and revive our economy. We can do that, and we must do that. There's much work to be done. There is much further for us to go.

But I want to be clear from the beginning of this administration that we have made our choice. America will not be held hostage to dwindling resources, hostile regimes, and a warming planet. We will not be put off from action because action is hard. Now is the time to make the tough choices. Now is the time to meet the challenge at this crossroad of history by choosing a future that is safer for our country, prosperous for our planet, and sustainable."

Stories on the detailed proposals and reactions to them can be found here, here and here. Other steps were taken as well: Secretary of State Clinton named an experienced climate change envoy to the next round of international talks on the Climate Crisis, and the Environmental Protection Agency has hired a Climate Crisis advisor, a lawyer who argued successfully before the Supreme Court that the EPA has the authority to regulate carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson named the Climate Crisis as the agency's number one priority.

All of this is happening as the challenges ahead continue to prove grim. In a study sponsored by the Department of Energy, scientists conclude that climate change already underway is irreversible for the next 1,000 years, and will be considerably worse if steps aren't taken to cut emissions of greenhouse gases.
A separate study using computer simulations suggests that the Climate Crisis could deaden the planet's oceans for 100,000 years. "What mankind does for the next several decades will play a large role in climate on Earth over the next tens of thousands of years," said geochemist Gary Shaffer of the University of Copenhagen.

But the effects of past greenhouse gas pollution aren't so far in the future. Here in northern California, the winter rains haven't come, and the San Francisco Bay area is facing the possibility of water shortages and rationing this summer. The region has already experienced two years of drought, and other areas in the West have suffered under drought conditions for much longer.

While specific changes in rainfall can have other or many causes, the pattern indicates a Climate Crisis connection. Some of the problem has to do with the change of when seasonal phenomena (like rain) begin and end--in effect, the seasons themselves. This affects the entire ecosystem sooner or later, and now it is noticeably causing more of our trees to die. Trees are dying faster than ever in the old-growth forests of California and the mountains of the West, a phenomenon scientists say is linked to rising regional temperatures and the destructive forces of early snowmelt, drought, forest fires and deadly insect infestations brought on by global warming," according to the SF Chronicle. "Over the past 17 years in some regions - and 25 to 37 years in others - the death rates of mature trees have doubled, the scientists said, raising concerns that the problem goes well beyond the death of trees alone."

Inaugural Memories

Top photo: President Obama, returned from the last Inaugural Ball. Bottom: the First Family joins the crowd singing "Shout!" at the gala preceding Inauguration Day.
It was only a week ago. But while Washington is moving fast through issues and personalities, others are just catching up to what happened on Inauguration Day.

There are lots of accounts online. This one, about a young family in the right place at the right time to benefit from the kindness of the First Lady and the crowd, was on the Daily Kos rec list for a day. Another in the SF Chronicle, by the daughter of one of the Tuskeegee Airmen who attended is one of many that focuses on what the day meant and will always mean to African Americans. She also relates something that isn't usually part of the story about this all black combat unit in World War II that proved that skill and heroism are equal opportunity virtues:

" In another chapter in their story, my father and 100 other Tuskegee Airmen refused to sign an order establishing a whites-only officers club. They were placed under house arrest and faced a charge of treason, punishable by death. They were eventually released, but a letter of reprimand saying they were a disgrace to their country and their race stayed in their files for 50 years. Their protest, called the Freeman Field Mutiny, was later credited by historians as contributing to the desegregation of the armed forces."

So in the midst of our self-congratulations, let's remember how close and how easy such cruel abuses are.

Some memories of the day are already tagged to what's happened since, as in Bob Herbert's NYTimes column, that offers this evaluation: "But I’ve seen charismatic politicians and pretty families come and go like sunrises and sunsets over the years. There was something more that was making people go ga-ga over Obama. Something deeper. We’ve been watching that something this week, and it’s called leadership. Mr. Obama has been feeding the almost desperate hunger in this country for mature leadership, for someone who is not reckless and clownish, shortsighted and self-absorbed."

By now we've also heard some accounts from people we know: Mike, my friend from PA, the daughter of Margaret's walking buddy, etc. They confirm some of the public accounts--of a certain amount of chaos, some of it dangerous, but also the pervasive feeling in the crowd of strangers that in the end was almost magical. Not just the emotions associated with what they were witnessing, by a connection of kindness, oneness and good feeling--and I suspect a lot of mutual amazement concerning each other--among these suddenly intimate strangers.

I was in the crowd for an Inauguration long ago: for JFK's when I was 14. Even though by pluck and happenstance I got to be one of the first non-dignitaries to shake the new President's hand, I recall another event in Washington that seems closer to what I sense those who attended Obama's Inaugural felt. It was the March on Washington a few years later, the great Civil Rights march.

There was a feeling among participants that day that began the moment we got off the train. There weren't quite so many of us--only 300 thousand or so--but to that point we were about the biggest crowd the Washington Mall had ever seen. And it was heat rather than cold that pervaded that August day. But there was such a feeling that it seemed almost otherwordly, an out of body experience. I'm guessing that was closer to last Tuesday's experience. If it is, the memory of January 20, 2009 will remain with those who were there for the rest of their lives.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Republicans Revert to Lies

It may be the New Age of Obama, but Republicans can't break their old habits, including the one they used most often to rule for 8 years: lying.

Right now they're getting their mugs on TV and filling their media blather with lies about the Obama economic recovery and stimulus package, and those who support it. In recent days, two economists called them on it.

Paul Krugman wrote about the plausible sounding lies GOPer lawmakers are telling any camera or microphone that sits still long enough. Some of it is the usual lying with selective misuse of statistics. Some of it involves assertions that have proven not to be true, such as tax cuts (especially if not exclusively to the wealthy) stimulate the economy better than spending programs. Krugman doesn't think these Republicans themselves even believe this. "The point is that nobody really believes that a dollar of tax cuts is always better than a dollar of public spending."

Some of the lying is word play. Programs that create jobs and perform necessary public work is demonized as "pork." Republicans complain that Obama's choices can't be proven to be the best ones. That's just a non sequiter.

Beyond stuffed shirt lawmakers, there's the roiling windbags of the right, and economist Robert Reich is fighting back at them. On his blog, Reich wrote:
"In the last few days, manifestly distorting my words and pulling them out of context, you have accused me of wanting to exclude white males from jobs generated by the stimulus package. Anyone who takes a moment to examine what I actually said and wrote knows this to be an absurd misrepresentation of my position (see this). My goal is and has always been to create as many opportunities for as wide a group as possible, and not exclude anyone from access. There is and has never been any ambiguity about this. The hate mail I have received since your broadcast suggests that the mischievous consequences of your demagoguery are potentially dangerous, in addition to being destructive of rational and constructive political discourse. I urge you to take responsibility for your words. Words and ideas have real world consequences, and you have demonstrated a cavalier disregard for both."

We've had decades of this kind of toxicity ruling the roost. It's going to take time to get beyond them, but that's part of what President Obama meant when he said in his Inaugural that it's time to put away childish things.

Why We Need It Now

President Obama's Weekly address (about 5 minutes), concerning the need for his economic recovery legislation. Transcript here.

More details on the plan were released, according to the New York Times: "According to the report, the Obama plan would double the generating capacity of renewable energy over three years, enough to power six million American homes. It would retrofit two million homes and 75 percent of all federal buildings to better protect against the weather, saving low-income homeowners an average of $350 a year in utility costs and the government $2 billion a year.
The White House also envisions using loan guarantees and other financial support to leverage $100 billion in private sector investment in so-called clean energy projects over three years. The plan would lay 3,000 miles of new or upgraded transmission wires for a new electric grid.
The plan would help 8.5 million Americans keep health care coverage by providing workers who lose insurance with tax credits to pay for continuing coverage under the federal law known as Cobra, and by expanding
Medicaid coverage for low-income Americans who lack access to Cobra. The Medicaid formula would be adjusted to protect 20 million Americans whose coverage might be in jeopardy because of state budget shortfalls.
The plan would modernize 10,000 schools, improve security at 90 ports and build 1,300 wastewater projects. It would bolster Pell Grants to help seven million students and offer a new tax credit for four million college students. And it would increase food stamp benefits for 30 million Americans and increase
Social Security benefits $450 for 7.5 million disabled and elderly people."