Thursday, March 06, 2014

Scam Inc: How Government Pays for Privatization and Other Matters

Probably the biggest scam this side of Wall Street banking is privatization.  Promoted in the Reagan years as giving the private sector the chance to cut costs and be efficient in what normally was done by the public sector, the result time after time has been that a few folks are getting rich by privatizing prisons, the military and now higher education--all primarily with tax money.  Notes an opinion piece on the New York Times site:

"The worst problems, though, occur at for-profit schools like those run by the Apollo Group (which owns the University of Phoenix), the Education Management Corporation or Corinthian Colleges. These schools cater to low-income students and veterans, but too often they turn hopes for a better life into the despair of financial ruin.

Nearly all of their students take out loans to attend, and the amounts are staggering. Among holders of bachelor’s degrees, 94 percent borrow. They take on median debt of $33,000 per student, compared with just $18,000 at the nonprofits and $22,000 at the publics. The for-profit graduates have trouble finding jobs that pay enough to afford their debts, and 23 percent of borrowers default within three years, compared with just 7 percent from nonprofits and 8 percent from publics."

 So how do they stay in business?  Like those big "security firms" and prisons, they are lapping it up at the government trough.

"Congress, by loosening regulations, permitted for-profit colleges to thrive on the government’s dime. These schools, which enroll nearly a tenth of college students, use nearly a quarter of federal student aid dollars allocated through Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965, and they account for nearly half of all student loan defaults. A 1998 rule allows them to gain up to 90 percent of their revenues from Title IV alone — a figure that does not include their substantial use of military education money. Even during the 2008 financial downturn, the top publicly traded for-profits enjoyed growth. Their upper management and shareholders benefit at the expense of American taxpayers and students."

Other matters:

The Obama Derangement Syndrome Comes Home: This demonization of President Obama has its most obvious and unprecedented consequences in foreign affairs, as Josh Marshall noted.  But it has become the excuse for Republicans to avoid dealing with domestic issues like immigration reform, as Kevin Drum writes in Mother Jones.

However, there's some statistical evidence that while President Obama's reelection has made mad-dog GOPers even madder, it has (temporarily, I would guess) deflated officially designated hate groups.

Paul Ryan has been caught cooking the research to support his war on the war on poverty.

On the subject of poverty and the Rabid Right, is there an alternative brewing within US conservatism?  Or was listening to the Dalai Lama just a stunt?

Speaking of cooking the research, a catalog of Putin's lies about Ukraine.  Nevertheless, Josh Marshall warns that fears of at least some members of the new government aren't baseless: there is a strong fascist faction.  But Marshall's chief conclusion is that Putin is showing weakness, not strength.  As well as showing his true KGB colors.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

We Have Met The Enemy...

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
by Elizabeth Kolbert
Henry Holt

I have to confess that I had an advance copy of this book for months before I could bring myself to begin reading it. Over the past few years I’ve read and reviewed a stunned procession of books on the climate crisis (most of them after Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change in 2006) and I wasn’t looking forward to another voyage circling the abyss.

Fortunately, Elizabeth Kolbert is an engaging, absorbing writer, and given this subject, she pretty much has to be. It also helped me in particular that after an introductory chapter of reporting on the extinction of frog species in central America, she deftly summarized the history of extinction as a scientific concept, focusing on the 18th and 19th century, a period in the earth sciences I find fascinating.

These first chapters establish two key facts: that the reality of extinction—the relatively sudden erasing of entire species—has only recently been recognized (there were doubters even 50 years ago), and that actual extinctions are normally very rare: new species appear more often than one goes extinct. “Probably one amphibian species should go extinct every thousand years.” But the scientist she follows has seen several, and she herself has essentially witnessed at least one.

Life forms adapt to their environment, and in the normal course of things, they have time to adapt to environmental changes. “...conditions on earth change only very slowly, except when they don’t.” When something big and unusual happens fast, extinctions occur, and the bigger and more lethal the event, the more extinctions. The asteroid collision that led to the dinosaurs’ demise in the Fifth Extinction is the most dramatic. Sometimes they are slower but inexorable, affecting one species after another.

Kolbert chronicles the five known mass extinctions, though their causes are not all known. The general cause of the ongoing Sixth Extinction is the human species and what it is doing to planet Earth.

On our present track, global heating alone could easily cause the extinction of half the species on the planet, sealing their fate before this century is half over. A more optimistic estimate is one fourth.

But that’s not the only ongoing cause. By transporting species to places they could not normally go (deliberately, as Europeans did when they brought plants and birds to America, or accidentally in the holds of ships and jumbo jets) humans can introduce a foreign species that eradicates the native plants or animals, eventually causing the local ecology to crash and other dependent species to go extinct. Or they bring diseases that local life can’t resist, such as the infestations currently killing off those frogs in central America, and bats by the millions in New England.

Species have been hunted to extinction, their forest environments cut down, and now more often so fragmented by development that they can’t survive. Some of the same industrial age changes in the atmosphere responsible for the climate crisis are implicated in changes in the chemistry of the oceans, perhaps the most dangerous threat of all. Even when there is not a causal link, there is a “dark synergy” with climate change that amplifies mortal threats to life forms well beyond individual species.

Kolbert travels to scientific research stations, interviews and experiences and writes very well about it all. She’s good with apt similes and observations, and doesn’t shy from setting up a giddy turn of phrase, like “rickety spelunkers.” Within the broad effects she describes differences and specifics that scientists study, fascinating as the best nature writing can be.

She follows extreme efforts to save the last remnants of some species, even as the evidence grows that humans were responsible for killing off entire species long before the first cotton gin, including other humans whose genes we still carry, such as the Neanderthal.

Scientists know of key species such as corals that face extinction (threatening an estimated nine million other species), but there are some that are not understood but still may eventually lead to ecologies crashing. The list of species going extinct range from the very small (some of which will not even be catalogued by science before they disappear forever) to trees, amphibians and mammals, including all the great apes, “except us,” at least for the foreseeable future.

A Sixth Extinction might become as profound as the Fifth, in which case the planet will someday be populated by the descendants of the few species that might survive (rats are a good candidate.) In geological time, that may not mean much. “...a hundred million years from now, all that we consider to be the great works of man—the sculptures and the libraries, the monuments and the museums, the cities and the factories—will be compressed into a layer of sediment not much thicker than cigarette paper.” But it's something else to know it is happening now, and will become increasingly obvious during the lives of our immediate descendants. (Though the book's illustrations are few, they are helpful. That there aren't more and glossier could be considered a blessing.)

Whether the human species will outlive the Sixth Extinction it caused is an open question, with lots of doubters. What is even more likely to end is the 10,000 year old experiment called civilization, and the potential for it to redeem recurrent slaughter, mindless cruelty and oppression by growing into consciousness as well as knowledge, in time to save itself and the life of this world. I don’t know if civilization’s achievements are any solace, any more than good writing redeems its subject. But we’re grateful for it now.

Obama Derangement Syndrome Goes Offshore

Here's Josh Marshall on the GOPers like Senator Lindsay Graham:

"Do you remember when President Bush's political adversaries starting ragging on him during the first days after 9/11? Or during the first days of the invasion of Iraq? Me neither. Whatever you think of the holder of the presidential office, if you are actually concerned about the nation's welfare you don't go on TV mocking him and saying he's weak."

This is something I understood even as I criticized those Bush policies before the Iraq invasion, for example.  It's one thing for independent voices, citizens, to dissent.  It's another for high federal officeholders to mock the President, especially when they know that by mocking him for being weak, they are weakening him in this crisis.

The President is not just their political opponent, he is the head of state, particularly in international situations.  Some in Congress argued passionately against Bush policies--against the Patriot Act in 2001, and against the Iraq war before it began, and later.  But not in these crucial moments or situations.

That's not even considering that their charges are outlandish, and their opposition to what President Obama is actually doing and saying without substance.

Michael Cohen goes into this further.

Update: Josh Marshall, trained as a research historian, had this more comprehensive post on Wednesday, with links to other analyses of the Ukraine situation. 

Monday, March 03, 2014

The Dreaming Up Daily Weekly Quote

"Noise protects us from painful reflection. Noise is so insistent, so overwhelmingly real, that everything else becomes a pale phantom.”

C.G. Jung