Thursday, March 25, 2010

Footnote to the preceding

Updated I need to mention two other areas where the health bills fall short which I could (and perhaps should) have included but also stand on their own apart from the bill, so I'm doing it here.

The first is reproductive health care; more bluntly, the right to abortion. Start from the fact that the Hyde amendment has for years required that there be no federal funding for abortion.

The issue came up with regard to the health bill because of the Stupid - the Stup - the Stupak amendment, which would essentially make it impossible for any woman who could not pay for an abortion out of pocket to get one. It remained in the version of the bill passed by the House, apparently because the leadership concluded either through a good deal of vote-counting or a simple failure of nerve that they couldn't pass the bill without him and his Gang of 12 or however many it was.

That language was "softened" in the Senate to the Nelson amendment, which required a very strict separation of funds and accounting such that, for practical purposes, for a woman to get abortion coverage in her health insurance she'd have to send two checks, one for the policy and another for what would amount to an abortion rider. After some more bluster from Stupak, he was bought off with a presidential proclamation affirming that the Nelson amendment would be enforced. (And, let it be said, got called "baby killer" and received a fax of a noose and gallows for his trouble.) So the Nelson language is now law.

Legally, the language of the Nelson amendment is no more restrictive than that of the Hyde amendment. So did the anti-choice crowd get nothing for their efforts?

Not exactly. While legally there is no meaningful change, practically is a different matter. By putting extra accounting burdens on insurers who will now be required to segregate funds in a way familiar to nonprofits but alien to them, the bill creates an incentive for those insurers to simply drop abortion coverage since they may well decide the market isn't big enough to justify the hassle - especially because it's possible that a significant number of women, faced with the need to make an additional payment for coverage, will simply forgo it because who plans to need an abortion?

The result could easily be to have fewer companies offering the coverage with those that do charging higher prices, limiting access to the ability to pay for an abortion in two ways. So again, while as a legal matter nothing has really changed, as a practical matter it is possible that access to abortion could soon become available only to those women who can pay for one out of pocket.

The other issue is immigration. As an overall issue that quite frankly is too big for me to get into on the fly here but with regard to the immediate issue, I say it is unconscionable that the bill bans undocumented immigrants from being able to buy insurance on the so-called exchanges, even if they pay the full cost with their own money.

As Jon Walker at FDL pointed out on Monday, this is fiscally irresponsible because taxpayers wind up picking up the tab for any uncompensated care at emergency rooms that people without insurance may require. But beyond that, it is absurd, it is inane, it is I say again unconscionable, to go even beyond denying people access to the protections of health insurance to actively preventing them from having such access based solely, solely, on an accident of birth and a desire for a better life.

And for what? For election year posturing? To look "tough" on "illegal immigration" lest there be some attack ad about being what, a "foreigner-lover?" (With the appropriate whispered substitute for "foreigner.") What price conscience?

Updated with this personal addendum, required because I've been getting some grief in comment threads other places in talking about this:

Making the factual statement that "the Hyde amendment has for years required that there be no federal funding for abortion" does not mean I endorse the Hyde amendment! I do not! So stop being so god damn stupid! I was addressing my dismay at how the health care bill effectively further limits access to abortion.

I've had occasion many times in the past to warn people that I strive to say what I mean and only what I mean. I do not always succeed, of course, but the result is that presuming what I think about something I haven't addressed is often a fool's errand. And I've seen several fools of late.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Regular length observation

So, with a perhaps historic number of invocations of the word "historic," the bill is law. Whoopie.

I'm not surprised something passed; I've been saying since at least the beginning of November that "we will get a health care bill - the absence of the word 'reform' is deliberate - this session of Congress" because, as I said a month later,
too many have too much invested in getting something passed to keep them from making whatever damn fool change or further surrender disguised as "compromise" will be necessary to do it.
But I simply can't get excited about it, for all the reasons I've tried to explain before now. Not only is this bill not good enough, it's not even as good as its proponents proclaim. And despite all the "first step" rhetoric, it does more to impede real reform than it does to advance it.

No, of course I'm not saying that there is nothing good in the bill; don't be a jackass. The ban on lifetime limits, for example, is a good thing - assuming the reconciliation bill, which removes the Senate bill's exemption for employer-provided health plans, is passed as I expect it will. (Lacking that change, the limit essentially only applied to new coverage, not any coverage you already had.) For a prime example of something good, I think the expansion of community health centers is great. In fact, I think that provision does more to expand access to health care - and, as we often forget, it is access to health care, not access to health insurance, that is the real issue - than pretty much anything else in entire bill. (And I admit to a certain dark pleasure in seeing so many of the bill's supporters, including some of the most strident, now saying "Well, it's not perfect, of course, but you know...," now casually admitting to shortcomings whose existence or relevance they previously vociferously denied.)

But you don't get to pass just the good parts of a bill, you pass the whole thing and it's the whole thing, the whole package, on which judgment must be passed. And on the whole, the bad parts of this clearly outweigh the good - especially since the "good" isn't what it's cracked up to be, as the unfairly-maligned Jane Hamsher* (Remember when she was the big hero as one of those live-blogging the Scooter Libby trial?) pointed out recently.

I've gone through a lot of these same points before, so just to cite a few specifics:

- Even judging by insurance access, the bill falls seriously short: The plan will leave nearly half of the currently uninsured (24 million of 54 million) still uninsured nearly 10 years from now with no plan to get them coverage.

- It does not control costs: The CBO score from November indicated essentially zero effect on premiums in 2016 and the CMS said in December that it would reduce overall spending on health care by a minuscule 0.3%.

- It does not make health care more affordable; rather, it simply forces people, many of them already struggling to keep body and soul together, to buy insurance which they may not be able to use because they can't afford the deductibles. (Parenthetical personal note by way of illustration: Because of our own particular circumstances of income and mandates, my wife has been forced onto a plan which demands a deductible of over $9,000 in a six-month period before she obtains any benefits. No, that is not a typo, an exaggeration, or a joke. Well, it is a joke - just not the good kind.)

- It does not stop rate hikes. At all.

- It does not stop recissions.

There's an additional point about recissions. Hamsher notes that there is no functioning or proposed enforcement mechanism to control the insurers. But she does not mention that the bill - unless it was changed at the last minute - allows for your policy to be canceled in the event of fraud or willful misrepresentation. That has been the law since 1996! Insurance companies still cancel policies by finding some excuse, some detail, they can claim amounts to fraud or misrepresentation. Just what is to prevent them from continuing to do exactly that?

There are other areas where the bill falls short of its advertising. One such not on Hamsher's list is that while it's true that after 2014 you can't be denied coverage or charged more for a pre-existing condition, but until then, you can - and there's no indication that at that time those rates would be cut to those others pay on a policy you already have. So expect a lot of approvals for people with pre-existing conditions with jacked-up rates over the next few years, with people continuing to pay those higher rates even after 2014. Even after that time, you can be charged up to triple based on your age and 50% more if you smoke. (So much for community rating.) And you'll have no choice but to pony up because, of course, you get penalized if you don't have insurance. Unless, that is, you decide you'd be be better off just paying the penalty - which still leaves you worse off than you were, paying a penalty and still having no coverage.

And again, that's not even the bad stuff, that's just some of the "not as good as advertised" stuff.

The bad stuff comes in two broad categories, the practical and the political, if you will, which then can be combined into one overriding concern: It will, as I have said before, as I said at the top here, do more to impede real reform than to advance it. First consider the practical aspect, expressed clearly in the words of Dr. Marcia Angell, former editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine:
What this bill does is not only permit the commercial insurance industry to remain in place, but it actually expands and cements their position as the linchpin of health care reform...Not only does it keep them in place, it pours about $500 billion of public money into these companies over 10 years....
(Thanks to Tim at Green Left Global News & Info for the link.)

All while continuing the industry's incredibly bizarre anti-trust exemption. That is, it actually increases the power and control of the health insurance industry, creating an even bigger barrier to be surmounted before real reform could be achieved.

It wasn't just the insurance industry that cemented its place: The deal the White House cut with the pharmaceutical industry last spring, in which the drug pushers agreed to $80 billion in savings for seniors over 10 years in return for no drug reimportation, no shorter pathway to generic biologics, and, most importantly, no Medicare drug price negotiation (which together could have saved nearly $400 billion over that same time) is pretty well known. More recently, we have confirmation that Obama struck a similar deal with lobbyists for the hospital industry in which he promised, despite his what were apparently persistent lies in public, that a public option would not be part of a final bill.

That overlaps the political part of the problem: The bill strengthens the position of the existing players on the supplier side and creates no counterbalance on the consumer side. Meanwhile, there are already moves, of which I'm sure you're aware, to challenge the plan in court and the GOPpers are planning to run on a platform of repeal. That the court cases are likely to fail and that even David Frum thinks it's "a good bet that conservatives are over-optimistic about November" changes nothing: Taken together, this still means that in the short run and in fact for some time to come (especially if the persistently-pessimistic Digby is correct) any available energy will go into defending what is rather than into improving it.

So in the short term we are going to hear a chorus of "Health care reform? We did that! Stop looking backward! We need to go forward! So move along! Don't harsh my buzz, dude!" Over the next couple of years we're going to get lectured on how "The program isn't even in force yet and you're attacking it, siding with the right wing! What's the matter with you?" After 2014, that will shift to "It's just getting started! Give it a chance! What, are you rooting for it to fail, you closet right-wingers?" And in 2019, when the plan is supposed to be "fully in force," we'll be told - if anyone is still talking about it - that those of us pointing to the failures of the system, to the tens of millions still without coverage and the scores of millions still without access to care, to the continuing need for actual reform, are "impractical dreamers" who believe in "magic ponies."

And no, don't bother telling me about the "pathway to state-level single payer." Yes, there is a waiver provision for states to opt-out if they can show they can provide the same or better care for no more money than the structure under the bill. But the waiver is nothing short of bogus. First, it's not available until 2017, meaning that in order to do this states would have to set up exchanges, run them for three years, they take them apart again for a new system. It's doubtful any state would want to or be in a position to take on that extra expense.

Just as serious if not more so, the waiver would require the approval of the Secretaries of HHS and the Treasury - but to waive ERISA, which bars states from telling employers and unions what kind of insurance to offer, you need the approval of the Secretaries of Labor and the Treasury. That is, this "pathway" does not allow for waiving the requirements of ERISA, thus leaving any state which did try to opt out in favor of a single-payer plan vulnerable to suits by the insurance industry, not to mention any business interests in the state which may oppose the idea.

(As a parenthetical sidebar, I don't think Bernie Sanders, whose proposal this was, intended to create a bogus option. But he did anyway.)

So the bottom-line fact is that those who imagine that a Congress which won't even acknowledge the existence of the idea of a national health care system, that for year after year after year has refused to even consider single-payer and declared it "off the table" at the start of the current debate, that slapped down even the great-sounding but actually rather lame "Medicare for all," who imagine that that Congress is now going to embrace anything like that because this half-assed thing was passed first and will do it in the face of an administration that is committed to keeping even the wimpiest version of a "public option" beyond the pale, an administration lead by a president who, I said nearly a year ago,
is trying to resolve the crises and shore up the institutions while changing as little as possible about the logic or principles on which they're based,
a president who has shown by his willingness to cut deals with lobbyists that he will forsake public interests for the sake of private interests, if they believe that this bill will be used as a "foundation for change" rather than a ceiling for it, if they believe that its very existence will not be used as a basis to delay and dismiss calls for real reform for the next couple of decades, then I say they are the ones who genuinely believe in "magic ponies."

And if time proves me wrong, throw this back in my face. I guarantee you that in that event I will be a little embarrassed - but not the least bit unhappy.

*If she's going to be maligned for something, it should be for her involvement in "Natural Born Killers."

Footnote A: In that November 1 post linked at the top, I said in reference to a coming health care bill that
[i]t increasingly looks like it will be a bill that will require people to buy insurance, will put no restrictions on the insurance industry (which is more than happy to do away with pre-existing condition exclusions for the sake of getting tens of millions of new customers) but will instead provide the industry billions in indirect taxpayer subsidies through subsidized premiums, provide no meaningful competition, create a "public option" not worth having, undermine state-level drives for single-payer, set back real reform by at least a decade, and 10 years from now will still leave 18 million uninsured and an unknown additional number underinsured, all of them without access to adequate health care.
It actually turns out that there is no "public option" and there will be 23 million still uninsured rather than 18 million - but other than that, I think I did pretty good.

Footnote B: I think I should explain why I labeled "Medicare for all" as "rather lame." Medicare is a good program, valid on its own merits, but contrary to frequent assertion it is not a real single-payer program - not when many of those covered under Part B have secondary supplemental insurance and Part D is a mish-mosh of private plans. People covered by Part B often find that after deductibles and co-pays, Medicare actually pays only half the bill. Again using my wife as a case in point, we calculated that allowing for her eight regular medical visits and related tests a year, after allowing for deductibles, co-pays, and the costs of Part B premiums, it was cheaper to pay out of pocket than to have the insurance. "Medicare for all" is a decent enough slogan, but as an actual program it is not a substitute for genuine health care reform.

Short observation

Until 1913, US senators were not elected, they were chosen by the various state legislatures. It took the 17th Amendment to change that to direct popular election.

Well, it seems that Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX, no surprise on either count), the man who proposed that anyone who supported the House health care bill should have to eat it before voting for it, is responding to the passage of a health care bill by calling for a Constitutional amendment to return to the old system of having state legislatures appoint senators.

Apparently believing that voters are just too stupid to be trusted with such a decision (which, considering he's from Texas, is - well, never mind), Gohmert, whose name I originally thought was the far more fitting Gomer, insists that direct elections of senators left "no check or balance on the Federal power grab for the past 97 years."

Well, Rep. Gomer - because you'll always be Gomer to me - I assume you would not demand that others live up to standards by which you yourself would refuse to stand. So I'll say this about your proposal: Eat it.

Quick observation

During a "press availability" - which is apparently a photo-op with statements but still no questions - with Rep. John Boner and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday, Nancy Pelosi said
We in Congress stand by Israel, something we have a joint bipartisan commitment - no separation between us on this subject. In Congress, we speak with one voice on the subject of Israel.
Isn't that the whole fucking problem?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Diogenes redux

Updated So Dennis Kucinich has switched his vote on health care deform.

I can appreciate how intense the political pressure was and as I said myself just the other day, if I were in Congress I would be 50-50 about my vote: Given that it's this (plus, one assumes, the tweaking - and face facts, it is no more than that - through reconciliation) or nothing, the question is which course, defeat or passage, holds out a better chance for actual, honest-to-gosh reform and actual, honest-to-gosh universal access and actual, honest-to-gosh "healthcare is a right."

While, as I've said to the point of boring people, I think the best outcome would be if the bill were defeated as the result of a loud, significant, progressive shout that it's just not good enough, I strongly suspect that rejecting the bill will be seen as the right wing having killed it. I sense that Kucinich was making some of the same calculations I did, as his references to attempts to "de-legitimize [Obama's] presidency" suggest he was thinking in terms of the bill's defeat being read as a right-wing victory even if it was progressives' votes that made the difference.

So I still think I would have voted "no" but I understand Kucinich's decision and can't really fault him for it. I admit to being a little disappointed but I can't be too disappointed because of the reasons I already stated.

(Parenthetically, I can't help but notice that despite the almost routine attempts by the media and much of what passes for the left in this country to dismiss him as irrelevant, the effort the White House put into lobbying him - including four one-on-ones with Obama who also staged a rally in Kucinich's district - shows how significant his vote is: As Kucinich himself said, if he can vote for this there's no reason anyone else can't. His "yes" becomes good political cover for other progressives who voted no the first time around to switch.)

What I'm more disappointed by is the fact that this is just another case where true progressives - Let me make a detour here to make it clear here that I emphatically reject the attempt by flaccid liberals to hijack "progressive" as their new self-description as they run away from their own label because they're too fucking wimpy to fight for it. I hold "progressive" to mean what it traditionally did, referring to that space that was to the left of "liberal" but short of "radical." Anyway, this was just another case where true progressives (and there are some in Congress, a couple of dozen, anyway) are not allowed even by those who should be their allies to vote their conscience, to stand on principle. Oh no, you must be, you must be, "pragmatic," you must bend, compromise and compromise again, you must settle, you must seek only what conventional wisdom says is doable right now, never more than that, and then you must negotiate back from there to even less, you must bend until you break - because to do otherwise is to be condemned as "irresponsible" or even "reprehensible," to be mocked as living in a fantasy world and believing in "magical ponies."

But as has been said many times, progress is not won by "reasonable" people pursuing "realistic" goals but by very unreasonable people who refuse to settle for what is attained conveniently or without undue fuss - and despite all the bluster and fluster over the last year, a health care "reform" bill that not only does not challenge but in fact cements the dominance of the health insurance industry and profit-driven medicine, that makes some adjustments in how we finance health care but does not challenge how we deliver it, is, yes, "without undue fuss." It is the "reasonable" people who make the incremental improvements - but only because, only because, the unreasonable people have carved out the space in which they can operate.

I intend to continue to be an unreasonable person.

Footnote: The quote about "de-legitimizing" Obama's presidency comes from a scuzzy piece by Dana Milbank, which link I used largely for the purpose of having this Footnote.

What a pathetic piece of pap Milbank regurgitated. Writing about Kucinich's press conference, he started with a reference to "leprechauns" and "lucky charms," moved on to "diminutive" and "little man," referred to a "six-inch box" on which Kucinich stood "so that his face would be above the microphone," then reprised "leprechauns" before closing with "the little guy."

His undisguised sneering didn't stop with physical references: There was the obligatory adjective "quixotic" when referring to Kucinich's presidential runs and, Milbank scornfully insisted, now as it was then, "It was all about him." And, "keeping the spotlight on himself," Kucinich "viewed the crowd with a satisfied smile," having "luxuriated in all the attention Obama had given him."

All that in little more than 800 words, even when the word count includes the quotes from Kucinich's statement that Milbank included because he thought they make Kucinich look foolish and self-absorbed.

He also included the obligatory reference to Kucinich having "lead [Cleveland] into default" when he was mayor while of course not mentioning how and why it happened or the personal price Kucinich paid or that his actions ultimately saved the city and its residents hundreds of millions of dollars over the following years.

Dana Milbank has become much better known for his smirk than his journalism - and, as this exercise in unjustified condescension shows, deservedly so.

Updated with Two More Footnotes: First is that Glenn Greenwald discussed - and largely agreed with - a piece by
Politico's Ben Smith [which] suggested that one important aspect of Rahm Emanuel's health care strategy -- to ignore the demands of progressives on the ground that they would fall into line at the end no matter what -- has been vindicated.
Despite some huffing and puffing from some quarters that "that's not fair!" I'd say it's not only fair, it's correct. My only criticism of Greenwald's piece is that it doesn't go far enough in exploring the price progressives pay - one extracted by liberals - when they try to stick to their principles and promises, a price that can go well beyond denunciations and name-calling. For example, as Jane Hamsher noted at Firedoglake,
[t]he alternative [to capitulating], as Dennis Kucinich found out, was to be hounded from office by liberal interest groups whose job is now apparently to play enforcer on the left so the President can follow through with his PhRMA and AHIP deals.
I'll also note that among the huffers and puffers was Markos Moulitsas, despite the fact that he was just on Countdown opining grandly about the progressive failure to gain anything in the bill - which he did just a couple of days after going on the same show to denounce Dennia Kucinich as "reprehensible" for not supporting the Senate bill. A case study in being irony-challenged.

The other footnote comes from the same Jane Hamsher piece and is another entry for your Diogenes file:
Last July, in response to a campaign we launched the month before, 65 members of Congress pledged to vote against any bill that does not have a public option. At the suggestion of Rep. Donna Edwards, online supporters raised $430,000 to thank them. Dennis Kucinich was one of those members of Congress. ...

I spoke with Dennis following his speech [about changing his vote], and his campaign will return the money to those who have donated in support of his pledge to vote against any health care bill that does not have a public option.
Hamsher calls it "the honorable thing to do," which it surely is, and suggests the other recipients should follow suit. Let's see if any do.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The geek's alive! Alive!

A couple of science stories that have ranked high on my Kewl! meter lately:

- A report published a few issues back in "Current Biology"
argues that a population of birds [in central Europe] known as black­caps has split into two “reproductively isolated” groups in under 30 generations, despite continuing to breed in the same forests. In other words, the groups aren’t breeding with each other, setting the stage for them to evolve differently in the future.
What's more, the split was caused by humans. People began providing food in winter for the migrating birds, with the result that there's now a migratory divide, with some birds following one route and others another, influenced by the food. There are already visibile differences between the two groups:
“The new northwest migratory route is shorter, and those birds feed on food provided by humans instead of fruits as the birds that migrate southwest do,” [Martin] Schaefer [of the University of Freiburg] said. “As a consequence, birds migrating northwest have rounder wings, which provide better maneuverability but make them less suited for long-distance migration. They also have longer, narrower bills that are less equipped for eating large fruits like olives during the winter."
What is the importance of this?
“Our results now show that the initial steps of speciation can occur very quickly in a highly mobile, migratory bird,” and “it doesn’t have to take millions of years.”
And humans can directly influence that process. Eat it, creationists.

- The Fibonacci sequence is a well-known number progression where each number is the sum of the two preceding numbers: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, and so on. It's a progression widely found in nature and as it proceeds, the ratio between successive numbers in the sequence draws ever closer to the so-called "golden section" or "golden ratio," used since the Renaissance to compose paintings and in architecture to design visually-pleasing buildings. That ratio is 1:1.618.., the ellipsis at the end indicating that, like pi, the ratio does not have an exact value but continues indefinitely. An interesting aspect to this is that if two numbers are related by that ratio - that is, if a/b = 1.618 - then they are also related by their sums divided by the larger of the two - that is, (a+b)/a = 1.618.

Now, it develops that the same sort of symmetry can be found at the quantum level.
The researchers in the new study focused on the magnetic material cobalt niobate. It consists of linked magnetic atoms, which form chains like a very thin bar magnet, but only one atom wide. They are considered a useful model for describing magnetism at tiny scales in solid state matter.

When a magnetic field is applied to the chain at right angles to an aligned “spin” of its particles, the magnetic chain transforms into a new state called quantum critical, according to the physicists. This can be thought of as a quantum version of a fractal pattern, a pattern that looks the same at any scale.
Without getting further into quantum physics, suffice it to say that the researchers discovered that they could "tune" the string of atoms to act like a guitar string - or more precisely, a series of guitar strings - with the resonant frequencies (or "notes") related by the tension between adjacent atoms.
“The first two notes show a perfect relationship with each other,” [said Radu Coldea of Oxford University,] principle author of a paper on the findings [that appeared] in the Jan. 8 issue of the research journal Science.
That ratio is 1:1.618 - which is to three decimal places precisely the same as the golden ratio. It appears that the quantum state has a hidden symmetry, it's own underlying order - and it's a pleasing one.

- Okay, if this doesn't rank high on your Kewl! meter, I don't know what would.
The colour of some feathers on dinosaurs and early birds has been identified for the first time, reports a paper published in the research journal Nature....

An analysis concluded that Sinosauropteryx, a much smaller relative of Tyrannosaurus rex, sported bristles that were precursors of feathers in alternate orange and white rings down its tail. And the early bird Confuciusornis had patches of white, black and orange-brown colouring, scientists said. Future work is expected to allow precise mapping of colours and patterns across the whole bird. ...

The researchers from the U.K., China and Ireland reported identifying two kinds of melanosomes, or cellular structures, in the feathers of many birds and dinosaurs from northeastern China’s famous Jehol fossil beds.

Melanosomes are colour-bearing compartments within the cells of feathers and hair in modern birds and mammals, giving black, grey, and tones such as orange and brown. Because melanosomes are part of the tough protein structure of the feather, they can survive for hundreds of millions of years.
This also has a connection to evolution: The research clearly shows that feathers preceded birds, making it a clear case where something that already existed (feathers for display or heat regulation or perhaps another purpose) was adapted to an entirely different purpose (flight). It's another example of being able to answer the creationists' "How could that have just happened all at once," in this case related to birds, feathers, and flying, with "It didn't."

- Finally, there's this for all the exobiology fans out there.

The more we learn about how life can survive and even flourish in extreme environments and in places we thought it couldn't or wouldn't exist, the more we realize just how adaptable and tenacious life is - and therefore how the chances for life other than on Earth increase. And it seems we've done it again.

A NASA team drilled an eight-inch wide hole some 600 feet through the ice of western Antarctica and lowered a video camera and light down through it to get a first look at the underside of an ice sheet.

The temperature below freezing and no light reaches it. Scientists had figured nothing much more than a few microbes could live there.

Instead, to their surprise they saw a shrimp-like creature come swimming along and settle on the camera's cable. When the cable was pulled up they found a tentacle from what they think was a foot-long jellyfish.
"We were just gaga over it," [NASA ice scientist Robert Bindschadler] said of the 3-inch-long, orange critter starring in their two-minute video. ...

The video is likely to inspire experts to rethink what they know about life in harsh environments. And it has scientists musing that if shrimp-like creatures can frolic below 600 feet of Antarctic ice in subfreezing dark water, what about other hostile places? What about Europa, a frozen moon of Jupiter?

"They are looking at the equivalent of a drop of water in a swimming pool that you would expect nothing to be living in and they found not one animal but two," said biologist Stacy Kim of the Moss Landing Marine Laboratories in California....
Microbiologist Cynan Ellis-Evans of the British Antarctic Survey suggested the creatures might have swum in from far away and don't live there permanently, but Kim doubts it, noting the nearest open water is 12 miles away and the chances of two creatures just happening to be in the tiny amount of water examined seem quite small.
Yet scientists were puzzled at what the food source would be for these critters. While some microbes can make their own food out of chemicals in the ocean, complex life like the amphipod can't, Kim said.

So how do they survive? That's the key question, Kim said.

"It's pretty amazing when you find a huge puzzle like that on a planet where we thought we know everything," Kim said.
Damn effing straight. Science is Kewl!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Hey Diogenes! Over here!

Put away the lamp: There is at least one honest person in Congress. His name is Dennis Kucinich.

Congressman Kucinich made a bit of news a couple of days ago when he said on "Countdown" that he would not change his mind about the healthcare deform bill: He voted "no" before because the bill lacked "a robust public option" and did nothing to control insurance companies - and as nothing was substantially different now, he would vote "no" again this time. In the face of all the pressure, Dennis Kucinich has chosen to do what lefties are not supposed to do, what we're often denounced by our own side for doing: He is standing on principle, thus opening himself to the condemnations of those "realists" who negotiate away a dollar in the hope of getting a nickel, all the while patting themselves on the back for their "pragmatism."

I think you can tell a lot about the atmosphere of a website by the reaction to the news. At Firedoglake the comments were generally although not exclusively supportive, as they were at Crooks & Liars. On the other hand, at TalkingPointsMemo the response was overwhelmingly negative - including calling him "a loser elf" at least twice. At DailyKos it wasn't much better and the entirely predictable "just like Nader" crap quickly emerged, a stance also embraced by Obamabot-in-Chief Markos Moulitsas. Moulitsas, who "Countdown" apparently regards as embodying the whole of the "left wing blogosphere," was brought on the show the next night seemingly for the specific purpose of denouncing Kucinich as "Nader-esque" (defined as "unrealistic" and "selfish," even though those two terms seem at odds with each other) and "reprehensible" - and to persistently mispronounce his name, putting the accent heavily on the first syllable.

Well, I am with Kucinich 100% on the principle: The bill - among other criticisms - is a giveaway to the insurance companies, does not protect consumers, will not lower or even control costs, foolishly and wrongly equates health insurance with health care (which means the claims of expanded access to care are clearly and I believe seriously inflated), and locks in the dominance of the insurance companies, thereby inhibiting future hopes for actual change. Bottom line, it sucks.

That said, I am - based on my own political calculations - 50-50 about the actual act of voting no. I have said on more than one occasion and in more than one place that I think the best outcome would have been for the bill to fail because a significant number progressives in the House and the Senate stood up and said they would not support the bill because "it's just not good enough!" But despite Kucinich's stand, drawn from his own conscience and judgment, if the bill fails it will not be seen as having failed because it sucked, not because it just wasn't good enough, but because the right wing killed it. As a result, I am honestly not sure if the better outcome at this point would be for the bill to pass and even further entrench the power and control of the insurance companies or for the bill to fail and to further entrench the idea - already embraced by some even before a failure has occurred - that actual health care reform can't be passed over the resistance of the right so forget about it for another 15 or 20 years. That is, one option makes genuine reform more difficult; the other makes people think genuine reform is more difficult. A true Morton's Fork.

But thinking it through as I write this, it seems to me now that if standing on principle and abandoning principle merely lead to variations on the same unfortunate outcome, hell, you might as well stand on principle and damn the vituperation. So yeah, I'd vote no.

Important Footnote: Whenever Kucinich comes under the baleful glare of the lefty blogosphere, there are sneering references to his "failure" as mayor of Cleveland. As I strongly suspect those come mostly from people who are too young to remember the events (which took place more than 30 years ago) and therefore actually have no idea what the hell they are talking about, a quick history lesson:

In 1977, Dennis Kucinich became the nation's youngest big-city mayor. The big issue during his term was the effort by banks and businesses to force the city to sell its municipal electricity authority, Muny Light - because those banks and businesses were invested in Muny Light's commercial competitor. Kucinich, who had been elected on a pledge to stop the sale, resisted.

Ultimately, in 1978 the banks tried to force the city to sell by calling the city's loans and refusing to extend credit without the sale of the utility. Kucinich didn't blink and the city went into default.

It cost him the mayor's office and almost his entire political career. But he did prevent the sale. And 15 years later, he was rehabilitated when city officials of Cleveland, which today still owns Muny Light (now called Cleveland Public Power), said Kucinich's decision had saved the city and its residents hundreds of millions of dollars over that time.

We all should be such "failures."

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The giant economy size, continued

Okay, so it's not tomorrow. Moving on....

In a comment on a post from the beginning of the month, Tim said
I don't mean to sound like a 'Socialist' or worse, a dreaded 'Marxist', but I don't really know any other way to say this: Most of us are forced to sell and rent something called labor to those who 'own' the means of production in order to survive.
Well, sounding socialist or Marxist or whatever makes it no less true. (And what's wrong with sounding socialist, anyway?) As I noted in the post from this past weekend to which this is a follow-up, an article at by Charles Hugh Smith, who writes on economics and market analysis, described the economic problems as "structural." And indeed they are. They are part and parcel of the way our economy, our society, is structured. And whenever we let down our guard, whenever we relax, whenever we pause in presenting a constant, active opposition to that structure, a continuing counterweight to its tilt, the inherent bias in that structure - a bias toward wealth over working and owners over workers, a bias toward concentration of ownership and wealth and therefore power, a bias toward increasing inequality - reveals itself.

Last September, management consultant Peter Cohan, also writing at (it's interesting how the financial pages often contain the most damning information), noted that in 2008, income inequality "pierced its previous record high."
Fresh census figures reveal that the ratio of the incomes of the top 10 percent of Americans - over $138,000 a year - to those at the poverty level - $12,000 - was 11.4 times. (The previous record was 11.22 in 2003.)
After referring to how well the richest 1% had done, he went on to say:
Too bad things were so much worse for the other 99 percent of Americans. With median incomes unchanged since 1997 and prices rising, consumers made up the difference by borrowing on their homes and credit cards. Then, at the end of the year, the current recession kicked off, throwing millions out of work. This drove median income down from $52,163 in 2007 to $50,303 in 2008, wiping out a decade's worth of gains and bringing median income down to its lowest level since 1997.
For his part, Smith expressed that same idea another, broader, way, presenting how income levels had changed over the 25-year span from 1975 to 2001. (The figures are all in 2001, inflation-adjusted, i.e., "real," dollars.)

The bottom 20% saw household income increase by 10.7% over that time (to a whopping average of $14,000 a year). For the middle 20%, the increase was 29.4%; for the top 20% it was 73.8%. For the richest 5%, the increase was 108%: Their household income more than doubled to an average of over $280,000 a year - or from about 10 times that of the lowest 20% to 20 times as much.

Remember, these are real dollars. So to put it a different way, in 2001 the richest among us could buy twice as much stuff as they could in 1975. For every quart of milk the poorest 20% could buy in 1975, they could buy 1.1 quarts in 2001. For every 10 pounds of Beluga caviar the rich could buy in 1975, they could buy more than 20 pounds in 2001. The haves have ever more and the havier your were, the havier you are.

That is the very essence of class warfare: "Them that has, gets." Yes, of course the rich and their acolytes among the politicians and media just love to accuse the left of engaging in the supposedly self-evidently evil of "class warfare" whenever such truths are told, but as I am far from the first to say, the reverse is true. There has been an unrelenting war waged by the rich against the poor and the middle class - what little of the latter remains today. Over the past 30-plus years, that war has been waged with particular virulence and effect as the resistance to it has been alternatively undermined, misled, and simply beaten down to the point of exhaustion.

There was a period of time - truly not that long ago - when income inequality was actually declining and economic growth was benefitting more than the few, a period running essentially from the end of World War II to the start of the Reagan administration.

The two graphs on the left make that abundantly clear. The top one (from a post at is based on an analysis of Census Bureau data by the Economic Policy Institute. The bottom one, also via, is from the Congressional Budget Office.

It's true that the measures are slightly different (changes in real income versus changes in after-tax income, with the latter lacking an indication it was adjusted for inflation), but even after allowing for that the difference is stark and undeniable: For more than three decades the many have gained little and the few have gained much.

Our current straits only emphasize the fact. Here is yet another item from, this one referring to a study done at the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University:
"A new report on the impact of unemployment and underemployment during the Great Recession suggests that higher-paid workers have enjoyed practically full employment during the worst economic conditions in 80 years, while the lowest-paid workers have suffered through an unemployment rate above 30%."
At this point it's necessary to be absolutely clear: This worsening inequality is not because workers have not been productive. In fact, productivity has soared of late:
The Labor Department revised upward its gauge of productivity growth for the fourth quarter of 2009 from an annual rate of 6.2 percent to 6.9 percent. Unit labor costs, it said, fell 5.9 percent, as compared to its original estimate of 4.4 percent....
For all of 2009, productivity rose 2.9%, the biggest increase since 2003.

Productivity, the measure whose increase was supposed to be the basis for improving wages and income for ordinary workers, has more become a measure of how the bosses use the crappy labor market to squeeze more work for no more (or less) pay out of those who still have jobs.

And let's also be clear that it is not because the rich, the highly-paid who have barely been touched by the recession, are "worth more." Quite the contrary, reported the Guardian (UK) a bit back:
Hospital cleaners are worth more to society than City bankers, according to a report that shows many low-paid workers increase the wellbeing of the nation more than the high-flying and much better-paid financial-sector staff.

The New Economics Foundation said today that a study of the social impacts of several jobs revealed that City workers, advertising executives and tax advisers destroyed value, while hospital cleaners, childcare workers and staff in the waste-recycling industry gave much more to the country than they took out.

The thinktank said it had found a way to calculate how much someone should be paid in relation to the value they create through a series of measures including conventional economic returns, environmental impacts, and knock-on effects for jobs and wellbeing in society.
No, worsening inequality is not because of slack workers - who are more productive than ever - and it is not because of the supposed greater contributions to society of the rich - who often destroy more value than they create. The inequality exists and persists because it is inherent in the structure of our economy. And it increases whenever we cease a relentless pushback against it - because such an increase is also inherent in that same structure.

That's why workers striving for better wages - or just to avoid seeing those wages shrink - are "selfish" or, at best, "unrealistic." That's why unions are "outmoded" if not "a threat to our way of life." That's why a company that undermines communities by shutting down facilities and demanding givebacks and throwing people out of work because they can get others somewhere else to work cheaper is simply engaging in "sound business practices" that it would be inane to ignore. That's why the unemployed poor are suspected of being "lazy" or preferring to "live off welfare" while the idle rich are venerated as deserving all they have. It is the nature of the beast, the beast of American capitalism - a beast that, as Michael Moore said in an interview with the Guardian,
"is an evil, and you cannot regulate evil. You have to eliminate it and replace it with something that is good for all people and that something is democracy."
Or, I would say more exactly, democratic socialism. I expressed some of my ideas of what that term means about a year ago but rather than going over that here I want to end with something I wrote in a post a few months before that one:
Look, the bottom line - a particularly apt reference here - is that what we have been through and are going through has proved that the "free market" is a failure. Without public oversight, without public regulation, without direct input and yes, direct aid from the public, the "free market" will regularly collapse into a greed-lined pit of its own making, dragging the dreams (as well as the homes, jobs, and savings) of many millions who bear none of the blame along with it.

We have two choices: We can accept that or we can turn away from it to an economy based on some version of democratic socialism. An economy, as again I said the other day, "built on need, not greed." ... I've long favored the idea of the I Ching that, as one form puts it, "the only ultimate answer is that there is no other ultimate answer." I don't believe in true utopias and no society, no social or economic system, is perfect. But dammit, some are better than others and democratic socialism is better than what we have.
And while I have been known to argue with myself from time to time, I can't argue with that.

Footnote: Earlier today, put up a piece on the "good news" that mortgages foreclosures were declining. Later on, the site had to put up a second article correcting the first as "misleading." The news was not as good as it seemed.

Indeed, the "good" news was that in February, the rate of foreclosure filings rose at the slowest rate since 2006. Foreclosures were still going up, there were still more and more properties under foreclosure, but that rate at which that number was climbing had dropped.

More bluntly, things are still getting worse, just more slowly. That is not good news. Any more than businesses dropping fewer jobs than expected was. Tell me about fewer people losing their homes, tell me about an increase in the number of jobs, and that will be good news. but don't tell me that things are getting worse but more slowly and expect me to cheer.

And another Footnote: Thanks to Avedon Carol for the link to the FDR footage; for a bit of background on how it came to light, check out the Guardian's interview with Michael Moore, linked above.

Saturday, March 06, 2010


I learned yesterday afternoon that Al Weisel, better known to most of us as the blogger Jon Swift, died last week at the age of 46.

His mom brought the news via a comment on his last post, written nearly a year ago. Her comment appears about 50 down in the list, so you'll have to scan some to read it.

In a double tragedy, he died of ruptured aortic aneurysms complicated by a stroke - which hit him on his way to his father's funeral. In a darkly ironic touch, that last post, perhaps the one that made him lose his spirit for blogging, was to note that a friend of his had suffered "a terrible loss": His son had committed suicide.

I have come across any number of people on the web who do humor or attempt the far more difficult feat of satire - and while I find some amusing, I never came across anyone who did satire better. He did it so well that his comments were regularly filled with outraged liberals and applauding conservatives - and indeed on discovering him you weren't sure if he was serious or not and often you had to read a few posts (maybe more) before you really felt confident that yes, this was satire.

It was more than skill, it was artistry.

We have lost a voice for justice and an artist. The world is a bit darker today.

Footnote: My favorite comment at the site in response to the news:

"Rush Limbaugh lives. Jon Swift dies.

"There is no God."

Friday, March 05, 2010

The giant economy size

Updated So this is what it's come to:
The Labor Department released its employment summary today[, Friday,] and found that payrolls shrunk by 36,000 people in February, with the overall unemployment rate holding steady at 9.7%. In addition, December was revised upwards to -109,000, and January revised slightly downward to -26,000. Experts predicted a larger decrease in payroll, so this figure outperformed those expectations.
That is, the good news is that job losses were smaller than expected. I feel oh so encouraged.

The chart, via the above link at Firedoglake, graphing job loss and recovery for post-World War II recessions, dramatically shows just how bad it is (click on it for a better look): We've experienced the longest, deepest shrinkage in jobs in at least 65 years, one so deep and so long that of the other ten post-WW2 recessions, seven had already fully recovered this long after their start and two more were just short of doing do.

The numbers are disturbing even when you already know what they express. Between March 2008 and April 2009, the economy lost 8.4 million jobs. February was the 25th out of the last 26 months to show a decline in jobs. In 2009, the overall US economy shrank 2.4 percent - the worst year since the end of World War II. And those lost jobs aren't coming back any time soon:
Sizzling growth in the 5 percent range would be needed for an entire year to drive down the unemployment rate, now 9.7 percent, by just 1 percentage point.

For all of this year, the economy is expected to grow 3.1 percent....
Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s, estimates it will take five or six years to get back to prerecession job levels.

And that is based on accepting the official figures, which actually conceal some things: First, because of population and labor force growth, the steady unemployment rate means that more people are actually out of work: The total is just shy of 15 million now. Second, here's a different number:
When both unemployed and underemployed workers are counted, there still are 26.2 million people without full-time work - a 16.8 percent under-employment rate. In fact, the under-employment rate (which includes not just the officially unemployed, but also jobless workers who have given up looking for work and part-time workers who want full time jobs) worsened from 16.5 percent to 16.8 percent.
What's more, long-term unemployment - six months or longer - is the worst since the Great Depression: Some 40% of the unemployed have been without regular work for at least 27 weeks.

Numbers. One in eight Americans now receives food stamps, including one in four children. At the end of 2009, the US Conference of Mayors said cities reported a 26% rise over 2008 in the demand for food assistance, the largest such increase in nearly 20 years. The number of Americans ranked by the USDA as "food insecure," defined as having "limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways" (i.e., without stealing it or getting the necessary cash illegally), hit 49 million in 2008, a huge 36% increase over 2007. (That from "Hunger in America 2010," a report by Feeding America, which has seen a 46% increase in its client base since 2006. The Executive Summary is here and the full report is here; both are .pdf files. I'm indebted to Richard at American Leftist for the links.)

Numbers. One in 20 households is evicted every year; in mostly black communities the rate is one in ten. Some poor people in more expensive cities are spending 80 or 90% of their income on rent, leaving the prospect of eviction just one unexpected expense away.

Homeowners are faring little better: 860,000 properties were repossessed in 2009. And it's unlikely to get better this year. Nationally,
[m]ore than 11.3 million homeowners - nearly one-fourth of all Americans with a mortgage - owe more on their loan than their home is now worth, according to ... FirstAmerican CoreLogic. ...

The number of underwater mortgages increased by about 620,000 from the third quarter, the firm said. Another 2.3 million mortgages had less than 5% equity in their home, which could be wiped out if home prices fall further.
The National Association of Realtors just reported that pending home sales dropped by 7.6% from December to January and the Commerce Department says that sales of new homes fell by 11.2% between December and January to the lowest total in almost 50 years - making such a further decline in prices quite likely.

In six states, more than 20% of mortgages are underwater; in six more, it's 25%. In California, more than one-third of mortgagees owe more than their house is worth; in Nevada, it's a jaw-dropping 70%. Homelessness, particularly among families and particularly in the suburbs, is increasing.

Numbers. Average weekly earnings fell 0.4% in February. They fell 0.8% (after adjusting for inflation) across 2009.

Numbers. In 2009, bankruptcy filings in 2009 were up 32% over 2008 and are predicted to go higher this year. Filings in February were up by 9% over January and 14% over February 2009.

Numbers. Numbers. The data, the statistics, keep coming. Now, I'm well aware that I said in the previous post that the numbers about the economy "can't express the day-to-day stress" people are experiencing. And that's true. As stunning as the numbers are, and as much as such figures, properly projected in the imagination, might hint at the totality of that stress, they don't really describe what it's like at ground level. But sometimes, just sometimes, there comes a number that says something so clearly that it is like a shout in a library. This, I think, is one such and even though it comes from two months ago, to me it still rings across the whole economic front:
About six million Americans receiving food stamps report they have no other income, according to an analysis of state data collected by The New York Times. In declarations that states verify and the federal government audits, they described themselves as unemployed and receiving no cash aid - no welfare, no unemployment insurance, and no pensions, child support or disability pay.

Their numbers ... have soared by about 50 percent over the past two years. About one in 50 Americans now lives in a household with a reported income that consists of nothing but a food-stamp card.
About a fifth of those people, 1.2 million, are children.

Six million people. Two percent. One in fifty. Statistically, in the neighborhood where I live at least one family, maybe two, are in a condition of having no income, nothing to live on - as in nothing, nil, zilch, nada, goose egg - other than food stamps. I simply can't think about that without getting a knot in my stomach. That's real, that's here and now, and a measure of desperation far deeper than the straightforward fact of unemployment or the statistics about income levels.

Officials are quick to note that for any given family, this may be a short-term condition - but all that means is that for every family that locates some sort of aid or income, another family loses it. I'm not sure how that's supposed to be a whole lot better, especially when, as the same article notes,
tougher welfare laws [have] made it harder for poor people to get cash aid....

The main cash welfare program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, has scarcely expanded during the recession; the rolls are still down about 75 percent from their 1990s peak.
Tougher and harder to the point where ColorLines magazine (the link coming here via Democracy Now! via Susie Madrak at Crooks & Liars) reported a couple of weeks ago how poor people are selling their food stamps on the black market in order to have the cash "to pay for the rent, phone bill, detergent and tampons." Bluntly put, and as many predicted at the time only to be dismissed and mocked as doom-sayers by triangulating Democrats, "ending welfare as we know it" has lead to, in the face of economic decline, "expanding poverty as we knew it."

In fact, according to a Brookings Institution analysis, between 2000 and 2008, poverty grew at twice the rate of the population as a whole. In 2008, some 39.1 million Americans lived below the poverty line. Add in the 52.5 million living in households with incomes between 100% and 200% of the federal poverty line, and you have a whopping 30% of Americans surviving on incomes no greater than two times the poverty line. (Thanks to Tim at Green Left Global News & Info for those links.)

And guess what, something else we always knew: The official numbers on poverty were designed to artificially reduce the reported poverty rate, which is actually higher. The government admitted as much on Tuesday, when by ditching a measure based on an emergency food budget in 1955 and adopting a more realistic measure of income and expenses in today's world, the "official" poverty rate jumped from 13.2% to 15.8% - from 39.8 million to 47.4 million people.

Enough numbers. I want to close with two thoughts: First is that the British-style crosswords that appear in The Nation have sometimes made use of a type of pun that is a play on sounds rather than words (I'm sure there's a term for it but I have no idea what it is), giving as a clue something like "quantities of anesthetics" with the answer "numbers" - the pun being that the word can be pronounced two different ways: the obvious one that refers to quantities and the less obvious one that refers to anesthetics, which can make you numb and therefore can be called "numbers" (with a silent b).

Numbers can overwhelm us, making it too easy to intellectualize, to separate ourselves from their meaning, such that they become mere statistics, figures to be parsed and played with but which have lost their connection to flesh-and-blood people. They become anesthetics and so the numbers become... numbers. We have to guard against that every day, every time. Numbers can tell stories, as all these here surely do, but only if we don't just gather, analyze, and recalculate them, only if we don't just read them with our eyes, only if we listen to them with our consciences.

The other thing is that in gathering data for this post, I was struck by a comment made by a columnist at After noting that "it's no wonder" that many American households "are often living paycheck to paycheck," he said:
While many may be tempted to launch a partisan tirade to "explain" these statistics, trends that stretch back decades are structural in nature.
Yes, they are. And that is exactly the problem. But yet again, that is a discussion for another day. Perhaps tomorrow, in fact.

Updated to add more figures on jobs, home sales, earnings, and bankruptcies, obtained via another link at Green Left Global News & Info.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Footnote and header

This is going to be one of those personal sidebars which you should treasure because they occur here pretty rarely. (Yes, that is sarcasm. Jeez.) Unlike some political bloggers, I do not post completely anonymously, but unlike some others, I reveal little of my personal life because I think it's not particularly relevant to what I'm writing about. On the other hand, this does sort of lead into something I have been planning to write about, so perhaps it can be justified on those grounds.

The thing is, and this is the footnote part, I know, obviously, I've been AWOL for a week now. I apologize for that. I simply have felt disconnected from the world at large, uninterested in events, and so tended to hear about them a couple of days after the fact, if at all. (Interestingly, I did continue to watch Countdown, Rachel Maddow, and "the guys" - Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert - pretty much every night, which only served to emphasize how much you do not learn from TV.) Perhaps it was just a bit of cocooning, but more likely it was just my emotional emphasis being placed elsewhere.

Start with the fact that I have been without full-time work for two years now. My particular field - in which I had worked pretty steadily for the preceding 20 years - is, oddly, rather specialized but also crowded. I am (and I say this with the ability to back it up) quite good at what I do but the simple truth is there are for all practical purposes no full-time openings here - and few enough anywhere else. Plus, we really really really do not want to move again.

So when my wife had to stop working because of her heart condition, our income took a really big hit as well as costing us our health insurance. The combination of her disability benefits and my seasonal work leaves us with an income about 160% of the federal poverty line. That qualifies us for some benefits.

We didn't apply for any right away, at least partly because, well, I admit to feeling this way more than my wife does, but the truth is, I don't feel poor. I have a roof over my head, enough food and clothing (perhaps too much of the former), a little money in the bank - I mean, I have high-speed internet and cable TV, f'r goo'ness sake. I am deeply aware, sometimes literally physically painfully aware, of how many are far worse off. Still, we are both aware of how much that we have, we have because it was secured before things went south for us and looking down the road we could see the bank account draining away so we decided to investigate and discovered that we do legitimately qualify for some programs of assistance.

So we went to one agency with all the documents they needed and after a brief interview - a relaxed and friendly one lacking any of the sense of condescension too often experienced by those in need - we were told how much aid we qualified for.

Quite literally, my jaw dropped and I said "You're kidding." It was far more than we expected, more even than we'd hoped. Which in a roundabout way is how this serves as a header to the following post. On the way home and for most of the evening, we were almost giddy. It was such good news that we had a "celebration." (Dinner out at a Chinese buffet. Big spenders.) The point here is, we, perhaps especially I, hadn't realized just how great the stress, how deep the worry, was until some of it was relieved.

We've all heard it said, I believe accurately, that the stress of financial worries drives more divorces than any other single cause. (Parenthetical note in case you're wondering, as I would be, we were in no danger of that.) It's also a truism that much of our sense of self-worth is tied up in our jobs, I personally think because they become the means by which we measure both how much we matter and how much we contribute. (I also think self-worth and jobs are too closely tied since, as should be clear, the jobs part is not always under one's control, but that's a discussion for another time.) The struggles that people are going through right now are more than financial, they are also physical, emotional, and in the broadest sense of the term, spiritual. But we have no easy way to express that on more than an individual level, no way to directly express the sum total of that struggle. So we resort to what we hope are illustrative examples, to anecdotes - which are then used as sources of mockery by rightwing dipwads who not only do not feel for others, they want to not feel for others.

Yes, we have the numbers expressing the economy, numbers depressing in and of themselves but which can't express the day-to-day stress of worrying about your next rent or electric or heat or phone bill, your next doctor's appointment, your next car repair, even your next (or your children's next) meal. It is when those numbers are taken in their deeper sense, as expressing the lives of those who are feeling distressed, disturbed, even defeated, who are frustrated by the present and fearful of the future, when they are no longer the calculations of economists but are felt as the pain of millions, that they achieve their true importance. The numbers are not only a measurement, they are a moral judgment about our society.

That is a cue for me to go off on the roots of the tea baggers, a movement populated largely by frustrated, frightened people looking for someone to blame for their feelings of loss and confusion who are being manipulated into directing that anger away from its rightful targets and toward convenient, traditional ones - but that, too, is a story for another day. As is something related which Glenn Beck said in his rant at CPAC. But I will get to it.

Passing Observation

It more and more seems to me that having some political or social commentary or opinion punctuated with the line "Think about it" is evidence that the author didn't.
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