Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Cost of Hollow Government

CBS organized a kind of economic town hall meeting with President Obama and has most of it piecemeal (with a commercial for every piece) on its website.  This is a question from a laid-off federal government worker (the National Zoo) that more than anything I've seen makes concrete the fact that loose talk and action affecting government programs have consequences for real people.  As President Obama said before--and says again here--these people have families and homes, children and lives just like those employed in the private sector.  They aren't aliens.  As he points out here, while the number of private sector jobs have been growing (however slowly) for at least a year, the unemployment rate stays high because government jobs are being lost at every level.  In most cases these people perform useful and needed services, and are often not compensated accordingly even in the best of times.  Now they are literally being called "waste."  It's the human as well as social cost of political cynicism.

The Mystery of Health Insurance

Even given the political polarity at work, it's been hard for me to comprehend the virulence of the opposition to health care reform that can improve the situation even a little.  The health insurance situation is so bad and affects so many people that reform should be universally welcomed.  Why especially is anyone more afraid of what the government might do as opposed to what health insurance behemoths are already doing?

And according to the New York Times, still doing:

 The nation’s major health insurers are barreling into a third year of record profits, enriched in recent months by a lingering recessionary mind-set among Americans who are postponing or forgoing medical care.... Yet the companies continue to press for higher premiums, even though their reserve coffers are flush with profits and shareholders have been rewarded with new dividends. Many defend proposed double-digit increases in the rates they charge, citing a need for protection against any sudden uptick in demand once people have more money to spend on their health, as well as the rising price of care...

Some observers wonder if the insurers are simply raising premiums in advance of the full force of the health care law in 2014. The insurers’ recent prosperity — big insurance companies have reported first-quarter earnings that beat analysts expectations by an average of 30 percent — may make it difficult for anyone, politicians and industry executives alike, to argue that the industry has been hurt by the federal health care law."

Much of the article is about how people are denying themselves medical care because of cost, even the cost of driving any distance for tests, because of gas prices on top of deductibles.  This is making health insurance even more profitable for these conscienceless companies.  Yet they can't break the habit of raising rates.  And these are the institutions that people trust?

Buying the Future

The graduation season focuses attention on the perils of universities these days.  Some worry that too many students are on drugs.  Now there's reason for everyone to worry that too many universities are on Koch.

Two Florida newspapers charged that the Florida State University economics department  "had accepted a $1.5 million grant from a foundation controlled by petrochemical billionaire Charles Koch on the condition that Koch’s operatives would have a free hand in selecting professors and approving publications."

NPR's All Things Considered picked up the story, and quoted officials as denying that Koch has a role in selecting faculty, but even in a short and shallow report, otherwise shows how the department bends over for the Koch agenda.

Think Progress, however, notes that Koch has been busy buying the educational future:. As reporter Kris Hundley notes, Koch virtually owns much of George Mason University, another public university, through grants and direct control over think tanks within the school. For instance, Koch controls the Mercatus Center of George Mason University, an institute that set much of the Bush administration’s environmental deregulation policy. And similar conditional agreements have been made with schools like Clemson and West Virginia University. ThinkProgress has analyzed data from the Charles Koch Foundation, and found that this trend is actually much larger than previous known. Many of the Koch university grants finance far right, pro-polluter professors, and dictate that students read Charles Koch’s book as part of their academic study."

Think Progress implicates Brown University, West Virginia University, Utah State and Troy University as well.

Starving government so it no longer has the resources to act in the public interest is the not so secret agenda of the GOPer coalition of the predatory capitalist right and the religious right--a coalition that's become so intertwined that a lot of folks personify both and may even believe they are the same thing. We're seeing this in many areas, and now it's becoming noteworthy in higher education--the last area of education in which the U.S. still holds world prominence, though admittedly more for a few elite institutions than the general makeup.  When you starve these institutions, interested above all in self-preservation, then support has to come from somewhere.  Increasingly, it's coming from billionaires with either or both motives for that agenda, which are linked not only by the profit motive but by opportunities to create a political climate favorable to that agenda.

All of this complements other efforts, from state governments and municipalities mandating what can and cannot be taught in schools regarding (for example) evolution and climate change, to the somewhat buffoonish but still troublesome efforts of people like Michelle Bachman and Mike Huckabee to rewrite history so it comports with Rabid Right ideology.

It's not that universities have heretofor been pure.  The Pentagon and military contractors have financed entire schools for years.  This is just more clearly ideological and political, and aimed at controlling what is taught and what is not.  Except for certain schools sponsored by Christian organizations, colleges and universities have officially and for the most part functionally upheld universal standards against impositions and dictates from outside.   

In the years directly after the Nazis and Fascists, and while the Soviet Union was being heavily critiqued, much was made in the U.S. about the difference between education and propaganda.  A lot of it turns out to be self-serving, but we did get a sense of the difference.  The counter-factual was propaganda, and all you had to do was prove it wrong and it could not masquerade as education.  Conversely, if something is called propaganda and it turns out to be true, it's education.  In today's world, it doesn't necessarily work that way anymore.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

The New Terrorism

They won't attract the attention of Navy Seals, but they are more than metaphorically the most dangerous remaining terrorists threatening the U.S.  The GOPer congressional leadership is threatening to hold the United States hostage unless their demands are met, to the tune of two trillion dollars.

What makes meeting their demands impossible, even apart from the likely hacking away at Medicare and/or Social Security and/or Medicaid, is that their proposals are based on faulty economic premises (Bloomberg: Boehner's Views on Economy Contradicted By Indicators), and would not actually cut the deficit but--in the very headline of Ezra Klein's piece in the Washington Post : "Boehner's debt-limit demands would increase the deficit."  Notably:   "Extending the Bush tax cuts over the next 10 years, which Boehner favors, will increase the deficit by twice as much as the $2 trillion in spending cuts he's calling for will reduce the deficit."

While President Obama has reportedly instructed negotiators (for the Dems, the chairs of relevant financial committees; for the GOPers, two purely political operatives with no economic experience or expertise) to keep an open mind, just what can be done to satisfy irrational demands built on faulty premises and non-factual assertions?  And it's not just a matter of politics, or even a few days of government shutdown to make a point--costly as that would be.  It is reneging on past obligations, including huge amounts spent by the Bush administration and authorized by the GOPer controlled Congress.  It makes America a deadbeat nation, and since it's never happened, nobody knows how bad it could be or for how long.  But there's quite a lot of agreement across the political spectrum of economists--just shy of the unhinged right--that it would be a huge disaster with continuing damage.   

Meanwhile, polls show huge majorities against the GOPers main policies: ending Medicare as we know it, and refusing to restore taxes on the extremely rich. 

So the world watches this hostage crisis unfold, as an entire country and the global economy as we know it threatened by political terrorists. 

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Instant Komic

It's an instant icon apparently, that Situation Room photo, so of course it's being creatively parodied.  Wired collected contributions, and from their selection and others posted in the comments, I've chosen my top three.  It takes some detachment--maybe too much--from what's actually happening in this photo, to make sport of it.  But I must admit, these make me laugh.


Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Why Help in a Crisis, When You Can Manufacture Your Own?

He forced House GOPers to vote to end Medicare as we know it, which turned out to be as spectacularly unpopular as conventional wisdom said it would be.  Now fresh on the heels of that disaster, freshman Speaker of the House John Banal is freshly threatening to hold the full faith and credit of the United States hostage to his impossible demands.

Banal announced to a Wall Street audience on Monday that his GOPers won't vote to raise the U.S. debt ceiling unless Dems and President Obama agree to budget cuts--not in the mere billions--but in the trillions. Such cuts would inevitably involve Medicare and/or Social Security.  Dealing with those programs has befuddled policymakers of both parties for decades.  But Banal demands that this be done in the next few weeks, or he'll turn the United States of America into the biggest deadbeat on the planet.

Of course he will not even discuss revenue increases: restoring sane tax rates on the rich or withdrawing arm-twisted handouts to oil companies now soaking Americans for every cent they can get at the pump.

There are only a few conclusions to make from this.  First, that Banal is a deeply stupid man.  Even if it's a bluff or "tactic," his threat is apt to panic already nervous markets.  And if he is not a deeply stupid man, then his intent is to cause economic havoc for possible political advantage, which makes him evil as well as stupid.

photo from CBS News
Meanwhile, add the Midwest to the regions requiring federal assistance because of extreme weather, as record flooding proceeds--including the highest flood crest in the history of the Mississippi River.  Why deal with an actual crisis when you can manufacture one, and be its star?

Monday, May 09, 2011

2 Things From 60 Minutes

President Obama talked about the Osama bin Laden operation for more than 30 minutes to 60 Minutes on Sunday.  Two thoughts were most prominent in my response when I saw it later online.

First, the most amazing part of this operation--which nobody seems to be talking about--is that it was kept secret.  For months.  Nobody leaked, not even after a few drinks at the Correspondents dinner.

One way it was kept so secret, President Obama revealed, was that very few people knew.  Some of his aides--maybe even some in that now famous photo-- didn't know about it until it was pretty much happening. 

Michelle didn't know.  And, oh yeah, the Pakistanis.  (Another thought, not the second one, an ancillary thought, is that evidence that bin Laden was confident in his Pakistani protection was that he was evidently completely surprised by, and unprepared for, the raid.)

Still, think about this.  This whole operation could have come to a sudden and ignominious halt if word had leaked, at any point from last August, but especially in the final week.  But it didn't.  A lot of people deserve credit for various elements of the operation, but this is all President Obama and the people he chose to trust.

The second thing is rhetorical in nature.  President Obama scored points with forthright answers, and even if you disagree, he gets points for that comment that people who disapprove of bin Laden being killed "need to have their heads examined."  But I detected an unfortunate addition to his rhetoric, and I think I know where it comes from.

President Obama used the word "obviously" about nine times in his interview.  Overuse of that word is a characteristic rhetorical tic of Leon Panetta, now CIA chief, soon to be Secretary of Defense.  He's had it since his White House days with Clinton, and it was particularly annoying when he was testing the waters for a possible electoral run (for Gov or Senator) from California.  Panetta uses the word "obviously" to preface his answers to a truly annoying degree.  "Obviously" is always slightly insulting to the questioner.  It seems arrogant, although it also seems defensive.  Mr. President, stop listening to Leon!  Or at least check yourself.  You don't want to pick up this bad habit.

Emerson for the Day

"That way of viewing things you know of, least insisted on by you, however, least remembered--take that view, adhere to that, insist on that, see all things from that point of view.  Will you let these intimations go unattended to and watch the doorbell or knocker?  This is your text.  Do not speak for other men; speak for yourself. They show you as in a vision the kingdoms of the world, and of all the worlds, but you prefer to look in upon a puppet-show...

Thoughts that blot out the earth are best conceived in the night, when darkness has already blotted it out from sight.  We look upward for inspiration."

Henry David Thoreau

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Happy Mothers Day

Sports Extra

In honor of the San Francisco Giants amazing 2010 season, Margaret got me a Giants calendar for Christmas--one of those daily calendars you tear off each day.  It's not a very functional calendar--they did away with the big number so it's pretty hard to find the date on it--but there's a piece of baseball trivia or a trivia question each day.  (Of course, there is no trivia in baseball.  There are only stats.)

Two stood out so far.  One was recent, on May 2.  First the background: striking out is pretty bad in baseball, especially with men on base or in a game-deciding situation.  But probably the worst thing a batter can do is hit into a double play.  That's a real downer.  You make not one out but two, and you erase somebody who might have scored a run.  It's a rally killer.  Okay, so guess who hit into more double plays than anyone?  Cal Ripkin, Jr.  The next five are Hank Aaron, Carl Yastrzemski, Dave Winfield, Eddie Murray and Jim Rice.  What else do they have in common?  They're all in the Hall of Fame, largely for their hitting. Pretty interesting, and you can choose your moral.

The other, from March, really fascinated me.  In the entire history of baseball, there was one hitter who hit two grand slam homers in the same inning of the same game.  And he hit them off the same pitcher.

What especially fascinates me is that this didn't happen in the 1890s but in 1999.  I know I'm not the fan I used to be but how did that get by me?  The hitter was Fernando Tatis of the St. Louis Cardinals.  The pitcher was Chan Ho Park of the Los Angeles Dodgers.  Tatis was the fourth batter in the 3rd inning, with all three preceding batters on base.  He hit a fast ball 450 feet.  By the time he came to bat again--in that same inning-- the bases were loaded again.  They'd been loaded for Mark McGuire,who had set the single season home run record of 70 homers the year before.  But he flied out, so Tatis came up with one out and the bases still loaded. On a 3-2 count Tatis hit a curve or (he said) a slider that made it into the seats.

This required such an improbable set of circumstances that it only happened once.  Yet I can't find a narrative of that inning, beyond what I've just strung together.  Tatis wasn't a home run hitter--just 5' 10.'' Still, he was batting cleanup, behind McGuire.  I'm still intrigued.

This was also so recent that until this year both men were still in the majors.  Tatis (who wore 23 for the Cardinals, Michael Jordan and Barack Obama's basketball number) played for several teams, often in a utility role, including some time in the minor leagues, and for awhile he was even out of baseball.  Today he's back with the New York Mets.  He hit another grand slam ten years later almost to the day of his two-slam inning.  The jersey he wore on that day in 1999 sold for over $10,000.

You might think that giving up 8 runs to the same guy in one inning would destroy a pitcher, but Chan Ho Park's career was just beginning.  He even pitched in the 2001 All-Star game (although he was the losing pitcher.) His career also took him to a number of teams.  After the Dodgers he played for the Texas Rangers, Mets, Houston Astros, the Dodgers again, the Phillies, the Yankees in 2010, finishing the season and his major league career with the Pittsburgh Pirates.  He plays now in South Korea, which is where he's from.  While with the Pirates, he became the winningest Asian pitcher in U.S. major league history.  But in addition to giving up those two grand slams in one inning, he also gave up two more historic homers in one game--Barry Bond's 71st and 72nd, that broke McGuire's single season record.

Maybe baseball lends itself to intriguing stories.  Otherwise I'm getting detached--in more ways than one--from media sports.  Right now the Lakers are in the process of dropping themselves out of the NBA playoffs in the second round.  Update: they did, in very ugly fashion. Some teams can look good losing but not the Lakers.  They're losing to a lesser team.  Only today did I by chance see something that seemed to explain it.  It seems (if it's true) that Pau Gasol (who is playing uncharacteristically badly) is upset over being dumped by his girlfriend, a situation in which Kobe Bryant's wife allegedly had a hand, so things are tense between Kobe and Gasol.  This comports with Gasol's mystifyingly bad play, the complaint by another player that the team isn't "communicating" on court, and Bryant's dismissal of that complaint.  (Gasol and Bryant were asked about the rumor and denied it.)

  So it's very unlikely Phil Jackson gets his threepeat to retire on, and the franchise will boot millions of dollars, possibly over the hurt feelings of a couple of multi-millionaire athletes.  As a contending team, the Lakers are toast for years to come. It's all too believable, maybe even all too human, but not exactly motivation to get invested in the games.  What's worse is it paves the way for the loathsome Miami Heat to win the championship.  Only the new Chicago Bulls seem remotely capable of standing in their way.

Guns at Home

Rachel Maddow visited Pittsburgh during last week's National Rifle Association convention.  She interviewed Ricky Burgess, City councilman from Homewood, one of Pittsburgh's mostly African American neighborhoods.  In this segment and another, he described in personal terms the impact of easily available guns on his life and the lives and life of his neighborhood.  Anything about Pittsburgh hits home to me, but this truly tragic situation affects everywhere in America, especially cities.  What is most disturbing to me--and to Burgess, I suspect--is that due to the NRA's monomanical efforts, the Pennsylvania legislature passed a law that forbids individual cities from passing their own gun control laws, to govern their own circumstances.  As Burgess points out, nobody is shooting rabbits or deer in Homewood.  They are shooting each other.  This is a very powerful video piece, as is the second segment at The Maddow Blog.

Maddow revealed one reason the NRA opposes any limitations on guns, ammunition, etc. at all--several of their board members are in the business of selling these items.  It's really all about money, not second amendment rights.  All of this forces my attention on what it is too depressing to see most of the time--this culture has lost all semblance of sanity on this issue.  The gun is the foremost symbol of power and even sexuality in this society--just walk down the aisles of a video store and look at the covers.   

Canada's Cold Update

Our northern correspondent has logged in via email with a link to this article ("Canada''s Cold New Dawn")  from the Guardian (UK) which explains the consequences of the parliamentary elections as kind of the Americanization of Canada with a polarized result: lots more seats for the farthest left party, and even lots more for the farthest right.  The upshot, quoting the article, is a "Canadian version of George W Bush, minus the warmth and intellect, is now prime minister." And he has a legislative majority.  Among expected changes:

Harper's Conservatives will pass an omnibus law and order bill within 100 days to make jail sentences mandatory for many offences, and begin building super-jails, copying a system that even its authors, the Americans, have begun to abandon. The huge purchase of fighter jets from Lockheed Martin, which was an election issue, will now go ahead – Harper says it will cost $9bn, government auditors say $39bn – as will massive military shipbuilding.

The Evangelist Christian right is at the heart of Harper's Conservative party, and after years of being shushed, it will now demand an end to a number of things, including abortion rights. Canada has no law against abortions, and they are available free.

Corporate taxes will be cut almost immediately, Bush-style. Political financing laws will change: parties now get money for each vote – but this will end under the Conservatives, whose plans also include loosening the section of the current law that sees corporations barred from donating to parties. Given further corporate tax-cutting and other Conservative measures, the party will have a huge advantage in terms of the amount it can solicit in corporate donations under a new political financing law.

All this presided over by a prime minister who sounds like an Evangelical Richard Nixon: "Harper himself is a famously strange man... Humourless and awkward in gait, he was once photographed shaking hands with one of his own children."

Our correspondent added an election analysis by Marc Zwelling that suggests the non-right didn't add numbers of votes but reallocated them to the New Democrats.  Plus he notes that the oil and gas industries are just as involved in Canada in their machinations on behalf of the right.

Update: Our correspondent adds (in the comments) that the Conservatives won 40% of the popular vote while the combined others, mostly to the left, got 60%.  But according to parliamentary district, the Conservatives won 54% of the seats.  He also wants you to see this video, for a reason I have yet to fathom.