Friday, July 20, 2012

Left Side of the Aisle #66 - Part 4

Global warming: Drought, storms, and ever-increasing data

Global warming is back in the news. The US is seeing wildfires, freak storms, thousands of temperature records being broken. The last 12 months in the US made up the hottest 12-month stretch on record; the first 6 months of 2012 were the hottest consecutive 6 months on record.

The average US temperature for each of the last 13 months has ranked in the top third of its historical distribution. In other words, June 2011 was in the top third of hottest Junes on record, as was July 2011, and August 2011, and September, and so on. This is the first time that has happened in the recorded history of weather data. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, the odds of this occurring randomly are 1 in 1.6 million.

In fact, it's been so hot that we even had events like the one in the picture, with a jet getting trapped at Reagan airport outside DC because it had been so hot that that the tarmac softened and the plane sank four inches down. It had to be towed out of the depression before it could take off.

We're also had the worst droughts in over 50 years, as the map below shows. Some 56% of the land surface of the continental US was designated to be in some form of drought at the end of June. Now, to be fair, I have to note that this is not as bad as dust bowl of '30s but again, it is the worst in over 50 years - and it ain't over yet.

According to a Washington Post-Stanford University Poll in June, over three-fourths of Americans now accept that human activity is at least partly responsible for the rising temperatures and yes, something needs to be done about it, a finding echoed by an editorial in the Sat Lake City Tribune, headlined "A hotter West: Climate change effects undeniable."

Now, as I've said many times before, one hot spell no more proves global warming than one cold snap disproves it. Assigning a particular weather event to global warming is problematic at best. But what we're seeing here is not a single event but an increasingly long string of a variety of events. Each on them on its own proves nothing - but taken together, they make up a massive amount of data persistently, consistently, insistently, pointing in the same direction: We are screwing with the climate to our own pain and harm.

What's more, the latest State of the Climate report out of NOAA notes that scientists are increasingly able to assign probabilities to weather events, that is, not to say "yes this weather event would have happened even without global warming" or "no it wouldn't have happened except for global warming," but to express how likely that event would be. For example, a La Niña year can produce a heat wave in Texas. Now, due to climate change, such a La Niña-driven heat wave is 20 times more likely than it was 50 years ago. Unusually warm Novembers in Great Britain are now 60 times more likely than they would have been 50 years ago, while cold Decembers are half as likely.

Take another look at that drought map. Again, this is not the worst drought on record - but droughts like this, of this severity, are now much more likely than they were 50 years ago. We simply are more likely to experience more droughts, more freak storms, and more record high temperatures than we have been in the recorded history of weather data.

As Deputy NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan said when releasing the new State of the Climate report, “Every weather event that happens now takes place in the context of a changing global environment."

That report, by the way, used 43 separate climate indicators to track and identify changes and trends in global climate. Each indicator includes thousands of measurements from multiple independent datasets and was compiled by 378 scientists from 48 countries around the world. Think about the weight of that data and that range of expertise the next time some nanny-nanny naysayer wants to go on about something they read somewhere on the Internet.

And that report, that State of the Climate report, does cover the world. And in fact, worldwide, 2011 was the coolest year since 2008, with temperatures held in check by back-to-back La Niñas, which produce cooler-than-average water temperatures in the eastern equatorial Pacific and so bring cooler temperatures to various regions. Despite that double dip cool-it-down effect, temperatures worldwide remained above the the 1981–2010 average and 2011 was among the 15 warmest years on record.

One last thing to give you some bad dreams. Even with La Niña conditions occurring during most of the year, the 2011 global sea surface temperature was among the 12 highest years on record. Ocean heat content, measured from the surface to 2,300 feet deep, continued to rise since records began in 1993 and was at a record high.

Why are the air and surface temps not even higher than they are? Because, as the graph to the right shows, most of the warming has gone into the world's largest heat sink: the oceans. At some point - and some fear it is fast approaching - the oceans will have absorbed all they can. Future warming will then go into the land surface and the air, having nowhere else to go. And then you will see the temps really climb.


Left Side of the Aisle #66 - Part 3

Outrage of the Week: NYPD falsely links Occupy to unsolved murder

The week's Outrage of the Week brings together two things, both of which I have talked about before but neither of them recently: the New York City Police Department and Occupy.

The NYPD and the city government are really full of themselves with regard to terrorism. As evidence of their supposed brilliance, the NYPD, its allies, and the media have repeatedly said the department has stopped or helped stop 14 terrorist plots against New York since September 11. The figure has been cited repeatedly in the media, by New York congressmen, and by the police commissar - er, commissioner - himself.

It's crap. Of the 14 supposed plots - as published by the NYPD - only three involve actual terrorist plots involving New York. And one of them, the 2010 Times Square bombing, the cops didn't even prevent: It just failed. The bomb didn't go off. Of the other two, one was uncovered by US intelligence and the other by British agents - in fact, in that one the plot involved blowing up airliners over the Atlantic (so no, not aimed at New York) and the only connection to New York was that one of those arrested carried flight information about flights into and out of the city, among other places.

Of the other 11 cases, there are three in which government informants played the major role, even to the point of creating the plot in order to ensnare people. Four more are cases whose credibility or seriousness has been questioned by law enforcement, including ones in which federal prosecutors wouldn't even bring charges. And the last four cases each involved an idea for a plot which never got beyond talk, including one - a proposal to bring down the Brooklyn bridge by cutting the supporting cables - which was abandoned before the cops even knew about it.

That's the record the NYPD thumping its chest about. Which definitely would be Clarabell territory but in this case it just forms the backdrop. I've gone after the NYPD before, for example, for its racist stop and frisk policy, its intrusions into privacy, and its illegal harassment and arrests of Occupy protesters.

But now, the New York cops have gone completely over the top and around the bend in their attempts to smear and discredit dissenters from the Wall Street barons who are the actual rulers of their city.

On March 28, Occupy staged a protest against New York City fare hikes and service cuts in its public transit system by chaining open gates at 20 subway stations across the city, so anyone could walk in for free. Well, just over a week ago, on July 10, the NYPD announced that a DNA sample taken from a chain at one of those sites matched a sample found at the scene of the unsolved brutal murder of a Juilliard student named Sarah Fox in 2004. And that, you have to understand, is how the police presented it: The unsolved murder of Sarah Fox has been linked to Occupy via DNA.

And that, of course, is how the media presented it: the New York Observer, The Gothamist, the Daily Mail (UK), Associated Press, the Village Voice, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Wall Street Journal, CBS New York, NBC New York, Gawker, every single one of them carried exactly the sort of headline the cops wanted: Every one of them had a headline along the lines of "DNA evidence links murder to Occupy Wall Street." Every one of them.

None of them even mentioned until at least several paragraphs into the story that the cops have no idea who the DNA on the chain came from and that in fact it could have come from anyone who touched that chain - which means it could have just as well been a rider with no connection to the protest at all. And not one of them mentioned the possibility of error except to deny it or mentioned the possibility of a contaminated sample at all. All that despite the fact that a report from the New York Civil Liberties Union a year before pointed to independent research showing, quoting,
an unexpectedly high incidence of error and fraud in the collection, handling and analysis of DNA evidence: mislabeling of samples, cross contamination of samples, misinterpretation of results, misrepresentation.
The research showed these problems in labs across the country, including those in New York City.

Nearly 24 hours after these screaming headlines, the story had a different take; investigators were reporting that “contamination at a city laboratory could have led to the match between DNA found at the murder scene of a Julliard student eight years ago and a chain used at a recent Occupy Wall Street protest.” In fact, a source who had been briefed on the investigation told the New York Times that both samples - the one from 2004 and the one from the chain - came from a Police Department employee who works with the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

So there was no reason to connect any Occupy protester to the murder and even less than no reason to connect the movement as a whole to it. Yet, bluntly, that is exactly what the cops did. Consciously. Deliberately. And that is what the media went along with and amplified. Either consciously and deliberately or as the worst of incompetent, lazy, butt-kissing buffoons.

Now, some people will see the updates. And some of those will go "Oh, I see." But how many thousands will not? How many thousands will recall only the lurid headlines and - thanks to the lies of the cops and the complicity of the media - come away with the notion in the back of their minds that Occupy is harboring murderers?

It is an absolute outrage. The Outrage of the Week.


Left Side of the Aisle #66 - Part 2

Clarabell Award: CNN hypes Iranian missiles

The Clarabell Award, which has become a regular feature of Left Side of the Aisle, is given for that week's act of Truly Meritorious Stupidity. This week, however, there was just too much stupidity; maybe it's the heat or something. In any event, I couldn't pick one. So I have a winner plus two runners-up.

The second runner-up comes about as the result of an article in Esquire magazine by Tom Junod entitled “The Lethal Presidency of Barack Obama.” It's about the Obama administration reserving to itself the right to create kill lists without oversight, outside input, any minimal transparency, or even acknowledgment about these policies even when they target and kill innocent people. I've talked about this issue several times.

Junod said in response to the article, he received a telephone call from someone he describes as “a person with intimate knowledge of the executive counter-terrorism policies of the Obama administration.” State secrecy, the man on the phone said, exists to protect two essential things: the sources and methods of the intelligence community (an assertion which is not under challenge and is irrelevant to the issue), and something he called "the requirement of non-acknowledgement." State secrecy, that is, is vital because it enables the government to lie through its teeth to everyone, including the US public. The state must be able to keep things secret so that the state can keep things secret.

That's like someone proving the sky is green by saying it must be green because it's the sky and the sky is green, therefore, the sky is green. How more clownish can you get?

Well, maybe this much more, our first runner-up. Witless Romney has been struggling to explain how it is that, according to him, he had no connection to Bain Capital after 1999 even though documents over the following three years list him as CEO, Chairman, President, and sole stockholder of the company and show that he took a six-figure salary, signed corporate documents related to major and minor deals, and attended board meetings for at least two Bain-affiliated companies.

On July 15, senior campaign adviser Ed Gillespie went on CNN’s “State of the Union” and took another shot at climbing out of this deepening hole but instead produced this gem of clownishness: "He [that is, Romney] took a leave of absence [in 1999] and in fact he ended up not going back at all, and retired retroactively to 1999 as a result."

Got that? He "retroactively retired." What a great concept. "Gee officer, sorry but you can't give me a speeding ticket. I retroactively turned off this road a mile back so I'm not actually here." "Retired retroactively." A phrase that will outlive its clown originator.

Okay, now here's this week's winner of the Clarabell Award for Truly Meritorious Stupidity. I gave this the award because of the importance of the issue.

To start, you need to know that the Pentagon is sending the aircraft carrier USS John Stennis to the Persian Gulf region four months ahead of schedule and intends for it to be there twice as long as originally planned. There is ongoing, even increasing, tension in the region as Israel threatens pre-emptive airstrikes against Iran's nuclear facilities, Iran responds by threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, and US officials continue to make dark references to "Iran’s nuclear weapons program" even though our own intelligence agencies say there isn't one.

Late last week, on CNN’s The Situation Room, host Wolf Blitzer reported on what he described as “an ominous new warning coming in from the Pentagon" about Iran's missile program. It turned out that the "ominous new warning" was actually an unsubstantiated Pentagon claim - the Pentagon being the people I call The Fear Merchants - from three years ago.

But this is the award winner. Blitzer then turned to CNN’s Pentagon correspondent, a guy named Chris Lawrence, who dutifully parroted the Pentagon claims about how Iranian missiles are getting more accurate and more deadly and then said this:
Iran already has a missile that could reach the US if it could put it on a ship and move it to within 600 miles of the American coastline.
What the hell kind of argument is that? I have a rock I could throw all the way to Iran if I could get to within 100 feet of its border. How incredibly clownish is that argument? Especially considering that back in November, when Iranian leaders were boasting about their navy, the Pentagon mocked idea that the Iranian navy could get anywhere near the us - and CNN obediently quoted its "experts" ridiculing the very notion that now the network finds so threatening.

CNN: not only clowns, clowns in service to those pushing us to another insane war.


Left Side of the Aisle #66 - Part 1

Tim Geithner and LIBOR

The LIBOR scandal, which so far has been largely confined to the UK, could jump across the pond and right into the lap of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner.

As I explained last week LIBOR is in effect the interest rate at which the biggest banks can get short-term loans from each other. It's importance is that many other interest rates are pegged to it. It directly affects some $10 trillion in economic activity and indirectly affects as much as $800 trillion, right down to things like home mortgages and student loans. And there is clear evidence that those banks have been manipulating the rate to their own advantage. One - Barclays - has already reached a settlement of over $500 million and several other major banks both here and abroad are being investigated in several countries.

Between 2003 and when he joined the Obama administration in 2009, Tim Geithner was director of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, usually just called the New York Fed. It is regarded as the most powerful of the regional banks that make up the Federal Reserve system. There have been increasing questions about what the Fed knew or didn't know, did or didn't do, in relation to LIBOR during the time Geithner was in charge of the New York Fed.

Under pressure, the New York Fed released a bunch of documents related to those questions. They show that more than four years ago, in December 2007, a time - again - when Geithner was in charge there, Barclays bank told the New York Fed that, in general, LIBOR submissions appeared unrealistically low. A few months later, in April 2008, a New York Fed analyst asked a Barclays employee in detail about the extent of problems with LIBOR. “We just fit in with the rest of the crowd if you like,” the bank’s staffer said. “We know that we’re not posting an honest LIBOR. And yet we are doing it, because if we didn’t do it, It draws unwanted attention on ourselves."

The response of the New York Fed representative to this confession of lying and assertion of lying on the part of all the others? Sympathy and understanding:

"You have to accept it," the representative of the New York Fed says. "I understand. Despite it’s against what you would like to do. I understand completely."

It's hey, y'know, ya gotta do what ya gotta do for your own short-term interests and the rest of world will just have to suck it up and deal with it.

According to the Fed's documents, in the first part of 2008 a summary of this admission circulated through the US government, including the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department. As a result, on June 1 of that year, Geithner sent a memo to the governor of the Bank of England, one Mervyn King, suggesting six reforms of LIBOR. King responded that Geithner’s recommendations “seem sensible” and passed them on to the British Bankers’ Association, which actually gathers the data on which LIBOR is based and does the daily calculation.

But here's the thing: While the Fed claims it continued to follow developments in LIBOR after that time, it offers little documentation of that interest, beyond a handful of phone calls. There is no evidence that Geithner's recommendations were acted on - in fact, they never were - or that the Fed pushed for their adoption. Which is why, in late October 2008, months after Geithner's memo to King, a Barclays employee could tell a New York Fed representative that LIBOR rates were still "absolute rubbish."

And here's the big thing: Mervyn King, addressing Parliament on July 17, said he had not been sent any of the evidence of misreporting that the Fed had gathered. “The New York Fed did not raise any evidence of wrongdoing with regards to LIBOR,” he said. Which could be discounted as self-serving - he is, after all, a banker - except for the fact that there is no evidence either in Geithner's memo or anywhere else that the Fed or anyone else in the US government told British regulators that they had evidence of deliberate manipulation of LIBOR. They wrote up their little memo - and then they dropped it.

And what is their defense? Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke told the senate Banking Committee on Tuesday that the central bank did all it was required to do. To put that more clearly, in the face of a confession that a major international interest rate benchmark was being manipulated, they did the minimum required by law - more precisely, they did as little as possible.

So what's going to come of all this? I think here, in the US, almost nothing. Maybe some fines, maybe a resignation or two, but no real change. Here's why: The O gang is not going to go after this because to do so would mean going after their own guy, Geithner, And while you think the GOPpers would pounce on this, what with Geithner being Obama's Treasury Secretary and all, but I expect they won't - because you have to remember that Geithner's wrongdoing was in ignoring the wrongdoing of others. So to really go after Geithner, they would have to go after the banks. And that I just don't see them doing.


Left Side of the Aisle #66

Left Side of the Aisle
for the week of July 19-25, 2012

This week:

Tim Geithner and LIBOR

Clarabell Award: CNN hypes Iranian missiles

Outrage of the Week: NYPD falsely links Occupy to unsolved murder

Global warming: Drought, storms, and ever-increasing data,0,7227437.story

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Left Side of the Aisle #65 - Part 4

And Another Thing: Higgs boson found; so what?

This has been all over the news, so I bet you've heard about it even if you didn't understand it - which wouldn't be surprising because the people in the media telling you about it probably didn't understand it, either.

On July 4, two teams at the European Organization for Nuclear Research - known as CERN after the acronym formed from its French name - announced that after years of smashing subatomic particles together at nearly the speed of light they had found a new elementary particle which was, in the cautious words of scientists, consistent with the characteristics predicted for the Higgs boson.

Put another way, they had all but certainly found what had come to be nicknamed the "God particle" because of the way it cements the standard model of subatomic physics.

Simply put, even overly-simply put, there are two types of subatomic particles: fermions, usually associated with matter, and bosons, which are the force carriers between other particles. An electron is a fermion; a photon, which can be thought of as a particle of light, is a boson.

Here was the issue: There is a whole zoo of subatomic particles, but they could be organized into groups based on related characteristics. So scientists had this nice - rather complex, but still organized - pattern of the relationships among various families of particles and the individual particles that make up those families. Each particle has its own characteristics. But a question remained: Why did they have those particular characteristics? All fermions, for example, are essentially point particles - they essentially have zero volume. So why do they - and how can they - have different masses? Where does mass come from?

The Higgs boson was the hypothetical answer to that question. The Higgs boson - named for Peter Higgs, the British physicist who came up with the idea - would make up the Higgs field, which permeates all of space. Different particles would interact differently with the Higgs field, some more strongly than others. The more strongly a given particle interacted, the more energy it would take to move it through the field. Since the amount of energy it takes to move something, that is, to overcome its inertia, is the measure of mass, the Higgs field would be why things have mass and why different things have different masses.

That hypothesis specified the characteristics the Higgs boson would have to have in order to fit the idea. And it is a particle with those characteristics which researchers at CERN now believe they have found. The picture, by the way, is of one of the experimental results - such pictures being part of the data to be analyzed - that gave the scientists cause to think that.

Years ago, Bill Cosby, back when he was funny instead of an obnoxious old man shouting "get off my lawn," had a comedy album called "Why Is There Air?" In a way, this is like that: It's one of those fundamental "why" questions, ones sometimes so basic we don't think to ask them. Why is there mass? Now scientists think they know. And how cool is that.


Left Side of the Aisle #65 - Part 3

Outrage of the Week: Medals for "bravery" for drone pilots

The Pentagon is considering creating a new medal. It's to be called the Distinguished Warfare Medal. While it hasn't been approved yet, the Army Institute of Heraldry, which is responsible for designing medals, has already submitted six alternate designs.

Big deal, a new medal. So what's the outrage? It's this:

The medals are specifically intended to be awarded to those who pilot predator drones to attack targets in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere. That is, to be given to "pilots" who sit in bases literally thousands of miles from the conflicts, thousands of miles from any possibility of injury beyond a hand cramp or a calloused thumb, thousands of miles away from the death and destruction they cause which to them appears only as a grainy video on a computer screen - and now they are to be rewarded, it appears, for what, their bravery? Apparently so:

Writing in the May-June issue of the Air & Space Power Journal, Air Force Maj. Dave Blair wondered how much difference there is in terms of risk "between 10,000 feet and 10,000 miles." According to him, an "aircraft that scrapes the top of a combat zone, well outside the range of any realistic threat" is deemed in "combat" because, well, it entered a combat zone. But a Predator drone firing a missile is considered mere "combat support." And it's just not fair, it seems, that the drone pilots, the joystick jockeys, sitting at their computer screens killing people by remote control while wondering whether to have pizza for dinner, it's just not right that they aren't regarded as in actual combat, as in the thick of things, as right on the front lines with the grunts in foxholes.

Years ago, in fact a few decades ago, the military started talking about "the electronic battlefield." The headquarters of the Army's "electronics warfare command" was at the military base just down the road from where I lived. Some people started worrying about wars of robots, others about how increasingly isolating people from the effects of their actions desensitizes them to those effects making them easier to impose. Making, that is, wars easier to start. It's taken some time, but we surely are seeing that now, as those who kill computer images at a distance are to be regarded as engaging in work that is not even merely necessary, but somehow courageous.

But as Glenn Greenwald said
If the mere act of taking steps that will result in the death of others makes one "brave," consider all the killers who now merit that term: dictators who order protesters executed, tyrants who send others off to war, prison guards who activate electric chairs.
Consider, too, that when one of these drones succeeds in killing someone, it 's referred to - this is the actual military term - it 's referred to as a "bug splat."

Human being referred to as "bugs" to be squashed and the people who do the squashing in complete safety from thousands of miles away to be rewarded for their "bravery."

A week doesn't seem enough for that level of outrage but it's all I have. The Outrage of the Week.


Left Side of the Aisle #65 - Part 2

LIBOR scandal: What it is, why it matters

There's some big important news of late about which you might not have heard because it's just beginning to penetrate the US mainstream media. Some of the big newspapers - the New York Times and so on - have had some stories, but TV, from where most people get their news, doesn't seem to have paid much attention to it. It's big news around the world, but as is all too common, we don't hear about it because we're more focused on what Kate Moss is up to. So you might not have heard about this - or, if you have, you probably didn't get it explained properly because the people explaining it probably didn't really understand it themselves.

It's about something called LIBOR - the London Inter-Bank Offered (or Offer or Offering or Overnight) Rate. Each day, each of a consortium of now 18 international banks submits to the British Bankers Association, a trade group, an estimate of the interest rate at which they think their bank could borrow short-term from other banks. The association throws out the four high and the four low submissions and averages the rest to create the daily LIBOR.

It is, in other words, a measure of the interest rates that global banks charge each other for short-term borrowing, without any guarantees against default, such as those offered in the United States by the FDIC. The idea is that without such guarantees, it's a reflection of the actual market cost of such loans. It's monitored by government agencies, such as the Federal Reserve in the US and the Financial Services Authority in the UK, but it isn't regulated by anybody.

Why is LIBOR important? Because it provides the baseline for the interest rates on a variety of other loans and transactions. It directly affects around $10 trillion in loans and it's estimated by the Wall Street Journal that it indirectly affects $800 trillion in economic activity, everything from derivatives of multiple sorts down to interest received on savings accounts and paid on student loans, business loans, and adjustable-rate mortgages, all pegged to LIBOR. As a comparison, if you have a credit card with a variable rate, you've probably noticed that the rate is pegged to the US prime rate. These other transactions, and therefore their costs, are pegged to LIBOR in the same way, rising and falling with it.

So this is a big deal. It's an important number. In fact, The Economist calls it "the most important figure in finance."

And evidence is emerging that it has been manipulated by the banks for years for the benefit of - guess who - the banks.

So far, the scandal has been limited to Barclays, a big and old - 300 years old, in fact - London-based bank that just paid $453 million to US and British bank regulators. It's top executives have been forced to resign amid revelations of its traders’ emails, which give, in the words of former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, "a chilling picture" of how easily they got their colleagues to rig (or at the very least try to rig) interest rates in order to make big bucks. Because of the daily flow and flux of derivatives trading, even small changes in interest rates could turn into major amounts of cash. In 2007, for instance, the gain (or loss) that Barclays stood to make from normal moves in interest rates over any given day was $40 million. A day.

But here's the thing, and here's where the scandal starts to grow real claws: Because of the way it's calculated - remember, the four high and low estimates get tossed and the rest averaged - there is no way that Barclays on its own could have affected LIBOR enough to make a meaningful difference. Only the collusion of the other banks involved or at least a significant number of them could have allowed for that. And Wall Street - including the usual suspects such as JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, and Bank of America - were right in there.

And in fact, over the past week-plus damning evidence has emerged out of the documents released as part of the settlement Barclays made with regulators. Those documents show that employees at the bank and at several other unnamed banks tried to rig the number repeatedly over a period of at least five years. Rigging the entire international system of finance for their own selfish short-term ends. Gee-what-a-shock.

Quoting Robert Reich again:
This is insider trading on a gigantic scale. It makes the bankers winners and the rest of us - whose money they’ve used for to make their bets - losers and chumps.
As if all that wasn't enough, there's a second, related scandal: Around 2007, when the whole rotten structure of derivatives of derivatives of derivatives was beginning to teeter like a two-foot-high stack of pennies, Barclays was submitting LIBOR figures clearly below what they should have been. That is, it was submitting interest rates that other banks would have charged them to loan money which were lower than what those other banks actually would have charged. What this did was make Barclays look less risky as a loan partner, less likely to default on its debts, that is, of better financial health, than it actually was. It was actively concealing its actual increasingly precarious financial condition. In its own defense, bank officials said they had to do this because all the other banks were doing it, and Barclays couldn't afford to be an outlier. By concealing their actual positions in this way, these banks delayed the financial collapse, but they did not prevent it. However, they did accomplish two things: They protected their bottom lines in the short term and insured the collapse would be even worse when it did hit, as it did in 2008.

There are now investigations going on in several countries, including Canada, America, Japan, the European Union, Switzerland, and Britain. The chief executive of a multinational bank said "This is the banking industry’s tobacco moment,” referring to the lawsuits and settlements that cost America’s tobacco industry more than $200 billion in 1998. It's the moment it all hits the fan.

Which has lead to some people defending the banks not just on the usual dismissive claims such as those made by the #2 person at the Bank of England that this is just a "minor scandal" and harrumphing about how that was all back then and everything is fine now, move along, nothing to see here - but on the jaw-dropping grounds that "the world cannot afford endless litigation against banks." It's too much of a threat to growth, to the world economy, to anything and everything we hold dear - we just can't afford to hold the banks responsible for their actions. Just like in 2008, just like multiple times before, we just have to suck it up, count our losses, and lick our wounds because the prospect of doing anything else is just too horrible to contemplate. It's "too big to fail" all over again; in fact, it's beyond that to "too big to challenge."

But as always, "too big to fail" should also mean "to big to exist." It's past time to just break the banks. It's time to take over the banks. Take them over not to resell them to some other set of supposedly more efficient masters but to turn them into public, nonprofit banks and credit unions. And if the banks and bankers don't like it? Tough. You've been stepping on our faces more than long enough. It's past time you got to see what the soles of our shoes look like up close.

A couple of quick footnotes to this:

Bob Diamond, the CEO of Barclays who was forced to resign, seemed shocked that he was out. An American by birth, he apparently expected to be subject to what New York Times reporter Gretchen Morgenson called "the American rules of engagement," where in the face of evidence of illegalities, top executives plead ignorance, kick out a few lower-level managers, maybe give up a bonus or two - and then ride out the storm. Regulators, if they act, just extract fines from the shareholders rather than criminal penalties from the real actors. UK regulators may have been asleep at the wheel, but once they woke up they seem a bit more interested in actually doing their jobs than our own regulators are here.

The other footnote also involved Diamond. In its settlement with regulators, Barclays accepted that its traders had manipulated rates on hundreds of occasions. Diamond retorted in a memo to staff that “on the majority of days, no requests were made at all” to manipulate the rate. Which, someone said, was rather like an adulterer saying it was all okay because he didn't cheat on his wife on most days.


Left Side of the Aisle #65 - Part 1

Clarabell Award: GOPper says people don't die from breast or prostate cancer

The Clarabell Award dishonoree of the week is one Chris Collins, the GOPper candidate for Congress from the 27th district of New York state.

In a recent interview with an online site called The Batavian, he explained - if I can thus abuse the word - he explained why he is against the health care law, so-called Obamacare.

Y'see, the reason health care is expensive these days has nothing to do with the health insurance industry or the exorbitant profits of BigPharma, or any of the rest; no, it has nothing to do with that.

It's because, quoting him, "People now don't die from prostate cancer, breast cancer and some of the other things." Really.

In fact, an estimated 577,000 people in the United States will die from cancer this year, including about 40,000 deaths from breast cancer and 28,000 from prostate cancer. That's according to the American Cancer Society, which also points out that uninsured people, who have less access to regular health care, are less likely to detect cancer in its early stages, making it far more expensive to treat.

When his Democratic opponent, incumbent Kathleen Hochul, pointed out those facts, Collins responded like the clown he is, accusing her of "politicizing cancer."

It was a sort of variation on my Rule #12 of rightwing debate, which noted how often rightwingers advocate violence and then when it happens, accuse anyone pointing to their words as "politicizing a tragedy." "Never, never, never," the rule declared, "admit any responsibility for the meaning or impact of your own words."

In fact, his statement was so thoroughly dumb that the editor of The Batavian took it upon himself to say on Collins' behalf that Collins obviously meant that fewer people die of prostate or breast cancer, not no one. Except that Collins had the opportunity to say that in his reply to Hochul - he could have easily said something just like that, like "Don't daft. That was obviously just hyperbole." But he didn't. So did he really mean fewer rather than none?

As if that wasn't enough, he went on to say in the original statement that "our healthcare today is so much better, we're living so much longer, because of innovations in drug development, surgical procedures," and other technological developments. Which is flat out wrong. Life expectancy as we normally express it is life expectancy at birth. The vast majority of the increase in that figure over the past several decades has not been in many more people living to a greater age, but in a reduction in infant and youth mortality. That is, it's not that people as a whole are living to a greater age but that more people are living to a given age. The things he cites have enabled us to live healthier longer, but not so much longer per se.

So: indifferent to the needs of the poor, either unable to admit a mistake too dumb to realize it was one, and ignorant to boot. A triple threat. And a clown.


Left Side of the Aisle #65

Left Side of the Aisle for July 12-18, 2012

This week:

Clarabell Award: GOPper says people don't die from breast or prostate cancer

LIBOR scandal: What it is, why it matters

Outrage of the Week: Medals for "bravery" for drone pilots

And Another Thing: Higgs boson found; so what?

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Left Side of the Aisle #64 - Part 4

What is patriotism?

[Note: This was drawn largely from things I have written in the past, many of which have been posted here at Lotus before. So if you are one of my handful of long-time readers, you may well have come across much of this before. Sorry for the repetition, but this is sort of an annual "What patriotism means to me" thing I do around the Fourth pretty much every year.]

This show will be seen in the week following the Fourth of July. I hope you enjoyed your Fourth, I hope you got to see some fireworks or watch a parade or have a barbecue or just loll in your yard or chill on your couch with a cool drink. The Fourth is a time for fun and I hope you had your share.

It's also, of course, traditionally a day of patriotism, of celebrating our nation and our heritage.

Sadly, too many people, especially among politicians, make patriotism a matter of ostentatious display, of flag pins and the Star Spangled Banner and swirling music and fluttering flags. Next time you see a political debate, amuse yourself by noting how many of the men are dressed in red, white, and blue: red tie, white shirt, blue suit.

I say that patriotism measured in terms of wearing flag pins, of having your hand over your heart during the national anthem, and the like is worthless, dangerous, and shallow. It is a hollow "patriotism," a shell that prefers form to substance and too easily, as we too often have seen over the last several years, slides from "patriotism" into jingoism.

Now, don't anyone bother claiming I said wearing a flag pin or whatever is "hollow." I said no such thing and there is no reason why wearing a flag pin can't be an outward expression of an inner conviction. I said that a patriotism measured in those terms is hollow. And it is.

So here is my understanding of patriotism:

In addition to embracing the comment I read some years ago that "it is natural to have an abiding affection for the land of one's birth," I say being a US patriot means being dedicated to the ideals on which the country was supposed to have been founded and which, at its best moments, it strives to uphold in as full a measure as we can manage: Ideals such as "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," as the right to rebellion against oppression, as "promoting the general welfare," as political freedoms, as representative government "of, by, and for the people" - the ideal of, to sum up in a single phrase from the Preamble to the Constitution, an intent to "establish justice," a justice I say must include the economic and the social as well as the political if it is to have real meaning.

Patriotism, that is, lies in the devotion to the ideals, not in any symbolic outward expression of it.

Further, patriotism does not lie in support for or opposition to any particular party or policy except insofar as that support or opposition is an expression of that internal commitment to those ideals. An opponent of the Iraq war who was angered by the Executive branch's usurpation of power is much more patriotic than a war supporter who kept referring to the president as "the commander-in-chief" as if we were all soldiers expected to obey orders rather than citizens with the obligation held by any free people to "question authority."

I do not wear a flag pin. I do not put my hand over my heart during the national anthem (which, I'll note in passing, I was taught as a child was something that some folks did but was not required). I do not sing along with the national anthem. In fact - and I know this will provide ammo for some and lead others to say I undermine my argument, but I don't care, it's the truth - I don't even stand up for the national anthem. (Not intending to give offense thereby, I usually manage to be out of the room at the time.)

But if patriotism can be understood as embracing the ideals of our nation, as striving to hold this country to the highest of those ideals instead of the lowest of its prejudices, if it can be understood as committing to a notion of what the US, of what we as a people, can be and have at times approached being, then I submit that I am as patriotic as they come. And I have neither patience with nor tolerance for those who would make patriotism a matter of gestures and decorations rather than conviction. And I have even less tolerance for those who would insist on their own patriotism by impugning mine.

Even many professional grouches (like me) are actually unregenerate romantics whose sharp words are honed on the inexplicable, indefensible, yet utterly unshakable conviction that things not only should be but can be better than they are.

Some years ago, I wrote to a friend that "our strongest, surest beliefs are those we don't even know we have until we find them within us." That is, our deepest, most abiding beliefs and commitments are not born consciously of careful philosophical argumentation and reasoned analysis but grow naturally from our root moral and ethical convictions. That argumentation, those analyses, can give form to those convictions, they can provide them with substance and weight and direction, but they do not drive them - rather, they are driven by them.

So despite my tendency to argue my points rationally with facts and figures and references - one of my favorite quotes is "passion and substance are not mutually exclusive" - still it's important for me to drop away on occasion from "here's the data, here's the logic, here's the conclusion" to the fundamental, baseline, radical place where I can say, simply, "I believe."

I believe that life is our highest good and advancing life is our highest ideal. I believe whatever advances life, improves life, is an expression of our humanity, that self-awareness, that capacity for love, that reach for hope that separates us from the other animals of the Earth. I believe that which opposes life, which advances hunger, oppression, and violence, are a rejection of that quality, a rejection of our humanity. I believe that to be human is to reach for life, for our potential.

I believe in family, a broad, deep sense of family, of family as based on commitment, not on ceremonies, as based on ties the heart, not on ties of the blood. I believe we must reach beyond the personal to the public; beyond self to others; beyond us and them to we; beyond the individual to the community.

I believe we have social obligations, moral commitments to a type of extended family that includes strangers, people who we'll never see, never meet, never have any contact with, but with who we share a mutual obligation, a mutual moral duty, a community extending even to the community of humanity.

I believe we must ultimately reject the right of so few to have so much when so many have so little, reject the power of so few to control so much when so many control so little. I believe in the right of every human being to a decent life free of hunger, fear, and oppression and I believe in the duty of every member of society to strive to guarantee that right to all others. I believe that while we should have no desire to place a ceiling over anyone’s aspirations, we should desire to put a floor under everyone’s needs.

I believe, ultimately, in justice: not in perfection or idealized utopias, but in human justice, one that rejects ascendancy of bombs over bread, of private greed over public good, of profits over people. A justice that centers on the preciousness of life. A justice that embraces the economic, the social, and the political. And finally, I believe in the indivisibility of that justice: It must be justice for “them” as well as for “us,” for enemy as for friend, or it’s not justice at all but mere favoritism.

I may sound like a philosopher, but what I’m interested in is change: not slogans, not philosophies, but getting-the-job-done type change. We have to be factual, practical, in our programs. As the Italian pacifist Danilo Dolci said, “Faith does not move mountains. Work, exacting work, moves mountains.”

But when I say “practical,” I don’t mean it in the sense of the liberals and the so-called progressives, those people who lower their sights, harden their hearts, darken their vision, and then congratulate themselves on their “realism.” You know the saying “I dream dreams of things that never were and ask Why not?” What we have to do is dream dreams of things that never were and ask “How?” How? What are the practical steps we can take right now, today? We have to approach the world with steel in our eyes.

But we can’t let the steel in our eyes cloud the dream. We have to hold to the vision of what we as a people, what we as a nation, can do, what we can be, and not settle, as so many do, for the mere hope that it will get no worse or even less, that it just get worse more slowly. Achieving wide-ranging justice will not be easy, cheap, or convenient - but it is possible and after all is said and done it is simply the right thing to do.

I have tried to be a steely-eyed dreamer with varying degrees of success; usually it was a little long on the steel and a little short on the dream, a position that makes unnecessary compromise a little too easy and risk a little too - well, risky.

I've come to a point in my life when I've begun to slow down. I haven't spent as much time on the streets as I did in earlier years - nor as much as I'd like to - and my energy level simply isn't what it was. I find it harder to keep my spirits up and many discouraged days I don't regret that I won't live to experience the world I see coming at such times.

And yet in spite of that, maybe even because of that, recently I have begun to look more the the dream than the steel. So despite it all, despite all logic, despite a mountain of evidence, and without any good reason, I still believe that things must be, can be, better than they are, that it is possible. I just do. And will.


Left Side of the Aisle #64 - Part 3

Clarabell Award: One Million Moms vs. Oreos

The Clarabell award going to be regular feature here at Left Side of the Aisle. It wasn’t supposed to be, it was supposed to be occasional, but now it's. There are just too many clowns out there. Actually, to be more accurate since I won't say there will be one every week, I shouldn't call it a regular feature but a frequent one.

This week's dishonoree is the organization One Million Moms, a paranoid, homophobic group of wackos who are convinced the gays are coming to get us all!

They really are a bunch of loony losers. There were the people who back in February called for a nationwide boycott of JC Penny because the chain hired Ellen DeGeneres as its spokeswoman in its commercials. This drive was so successful that in March, One Million Moms dropped the whole thing, saying "other issues" require the group's attention.

What "other issues?" Here are some:

- In February, they threatened Toys-R-Us with a boycott because the chain's stores carried the Archie comic with the same-sex wedding, which I mentioned a few weeks ago. I notice they didn't call for a boycott of Archie comics; I guess even they realized that was a lost cause.

- In April, they condemned Urban Outfitters for showing a lesbian couple in its catalog

- In May, they were busy slamming DC Comics and Marvel Superheroes for introducing gay characters into their storylines.

So I suppose it's really no surprise that just last week, this concatenation of flakes was all a-quiver over this:

It's exactly what it looks like: a rainbow Oreo cookie. More exactly, it's not an actual cookie, it's an image that was unveiled last weekend on Oreo's official Facebook page. It's an ad. But it was an ad that was done in support of Pride Month and no one, including Oreo, denies the broader meaning. It makes the point simply and clearly and the image has gone viral.

And One Million Moms just can't contain itself, ranting and raving about the imminent demise of human civilization - or, at least, American civilization which is after all the only one that counts. In a way, it's easy to feel sorry for One Million Moms; consider just recently: JC Penny, Toys-R-Us, Archie comics, Urban Outfitters, DC comics, Marvel comics, and now, even Oreo cookies bear the mark of evil! They must feel the world collapsing around them. Which, happily, it is.

One Million Moms, which is a part of the even more deeply disturbed American Family Association, helpfully notes Oreo's are made by Kraft Foods, which has other brands, including Cadbury, Maxwell House, and Nabisco. Thank you for that information, One Million Moms; I'll be sure to keep it in mind when I do my shopping.

That bit of helpful info, however, does not change the fact that you are complete and total clowns.


Left Side of the Aisle #64 - Part 2

Outrage of the Week: Access to health care "not the issue"

GOPpers have said repeatedly that Obamacare must be "repealed and replaced." But ask them "replaced with what" and the double-talk express gets rolling.

Sunday, July 1, Sen. Mitch "Fishface" McConnell was on "Fox News Sunday." Host Chris Wallace asked him how, if Obamacare is repealed, Republicans would provide health care coverage to the 30 million uninsured Americans who, it's estimated, would gain coverage through the new law.

Fishface answered "That is not the issue."

Incredulous, Wallace interrupted with "You don't think 30 million uninsured is an issue?"

In response, McConnell started spouting out bullet point sound bytes about how bad Europe is and how Obama wants the federal government take over all American health care. Which frankly, I wish it would - it's called a national health care system and could hardly be worse than what we have now.

Wallace pressed him on the issue of pre-existing conditions, asking how he would protect that group of people. McConnell dismissed the issue with a reference to state-level high-risk pools - which don't exist in every state, provide coverage with high premiums, waiting periods, and coverage exclusions, and now serve about 208,000 people - when there are about 25 million with pre-existing condition problems.

This debate has been going on for how long now? I mean about this particular piece of legislation, not the whole health care debate. More than three years, anyway. And after all that time, the blockheads that populate the right still don't have any alternative plans, any actual proposals to deal with the scores of millions of Americans who do not have access to health care.

Now we know why: For them, it's not an issue.

And that is a moral outrage. It's the Outrage of the Week.


Left Side of the Aisle #64 - Part 1


You probably wondered why last week I didn't mention the Supreme Court decision regarding the Affordable Health Care Act, aka Obamacare, aka the Health Insurance Industry Enrichment Act, which certainly was the big domestic news of the week. The reason is simple: The show is recorded on Wednesday and the decision came down on Thursday.

But now I will comment. First, though, I'm not going to re-fight the issue. I will note that by polls taken during the course of the debate, upwards of 20% of the public, over 1/3 of the opponents of the measure, were against the bill because it wasn't good enough, it didn't go far enough in regulating and controlling the insurance companies and drug companies, didn't go far enough toward a single-payer or a national health care system. I was among that 20%. But leave that aside: We have what we have and must make the best of it.

You surely know that SCOTUS upheld law by a margin of 5-4, basically because Chief Justice John Roberts was persuaded that the individual mandate, which requires individuals to have coverage or pay a penalty, could be regarded as a tax rather than as falling under Congress's authority to regulate interstate commerce. So he stood with the four moderate (I will not call them "liberal") justices - Breyer, Kagen, Sotomayor, and Ginsburg - to uphold the law on that basis. (Those four, by the way, agreed it could be seen as a tax but also said they would have upheld it under the Commerce clause.)

There are some odd things here. First odd thing and perhaps the most obvious is make-up of the majority. John Roberts making common cause with those other four is indeed odd. There has been lots of speculation about why. It's possible no one except Roberts knows for sure, but I can't help but speculate that he is having some concern about the legacy of "his" Court. We've had the Rehnquist Court, the Burger Court, the Warren Court, and so on; now we have the Roberts Court. This Supreme Court is all but universally seen as the most divided, the most philosophically riven, (and on our side seen as on the part of the right ideologically-driven) Supreme Court in memory, perhaps in the nation's history. It's just possible that Roberts, knowing that a decision to strike down the law would be seen as (and in fact would be) an ideological one, has begun to think that he doesn't want the image of a completely torn, divided Court to serve as his legacy. Only future decisions can indicate if that is true or not.

Another odd thing: The minority, consisting of four members of the court's reactionary wing - Thomas, Alito, Scalia, and Kennedy, whose reputation as a "moderate" or "middle-of-the-roader" has become quite threadbare - would have tossed out the "entire statute," the entire law, from beginning to end.

What's odd is that in arguing that, the minority argued that even constitutional provisions of the law must be ruled unconstitutional and dumped because "the Act’s other provisions would not have been enacted without" the mandate. That is, they are claiming they know that no part of the bill would have been passed absent the mandate, so even what's lawful must be tossed out, including provisions that had already gone into effect, which clearly do not rely on the mandate as it is not yet in force - all because these four know what bills Congress would or would not have passed under some different set of circumstances.

What's more, they go on to say the law "makes enactment of sensible health-care regulation more difficult." That is, this not the bill they would have passed - the "sensible" bill and how's that for right-wing corporate speak. And then they had the gall to accuse the majority of "vast judicial overreach," that is, in essence, accusing them of being "activist judges" who "legislate from the bench." Just unbelievable.

There's another part of the majority decision which got less initial attention but could have a major impact on those without access to health care but who at least had reason to hope that the bill would change that. The law calls for an expansion of Medicaid, the program designed to provide access to health care to the poor. That expansion would bring an estimated 17 million low-income people into the program.

The Court upheld the expansion but with a critical caveat: They ruled this is a new program, not merely an expansion of an existing one, and therefore the federal government may not threaten the states that don't comply with the expansion with the loss of their existing Medicaid funding. Essentially, the Medicaid expansion is now optional for the states, and a number of them under the reign of right-wing governors or legislatures are already making noises about refusing to participate.

That could leave millions of Americans with low incomes who do not qualify for Medicaid under their states' current policies stuck between a rock and a hard place: between the mandate to have insurance and fact they may not be able to afford it, with the penalty that could entail. Or, just as bad, with low-cost, high-deductible plans that do them no good because while they can afford the premiums, they can't afford the deductibles, leaving them worse off than before.

Some experts think the Medicaid expansion is a minor issue because the federal subsidies and incentives to take part in the expansion are strong enough that, in the words of Wharton School health economist Mark Pauly, "most people don't expect any of them to opt out unless they were ideologically driven." But that, of course, is precisely the point.

Two other things to note before I move on.

One, again, the minority said the Act "makes enactment of sensible health-care regulation more difficult." The whole sentence was:
It makes enactment of sensible health-care regulation more difficult, since Congress cannot start afresh but must take as its point of departure a jumble of now senseless provisions, provisions that certain interests favored under the Court’s new design will struggle to retain.
In context of whole law being upheld, that sentence makes no sense.

There was some delay in announcing the decision, and I wondered if there were arguments and negotiations until the last minute - because that statement and the discussion of which it was part would make sense if and only if the minority thought the majority was going to strike down the mandate while leaving the rest of the bill intact. I wonder if until very last minute, the minority didn't know what Roberts was going to argue.

The other issue is "state sovereignty," something also raised in the recent case about Arizona's "papers please" law. This emphasis is based on a view of the federal government as "one of limited powers." Not merely "limited" in the sense that there are limits, but "limited" in the sense of "narrow in scope," the sense, bluntly, of being weak. The Court’s right wing is clearly moving toward - some of them have already embraced - an extreme view of states’ rights of the sort that was one of the precipitating causes of the civil war. This bears close watching.


Left Side of the Aisle #64

Left Side of the Aisle for July 5-11, 2012

This week:


Outrage of the Week: Access to health care “not the issue”

Clarabell Award: One Million Moms vs. Oreos

What is patriotism?
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