Friday, March 28, 2014

152.7 - And Another Thing: ripples in spacetime

And Another Thing: ripples in spacetime

So we'll finish up this week with an edition of And Another Thing. This is where we talk about stuff that's not political; usually it's some cool science stuff.

I was going to do this last week but I didn't have enough time so I'm doing it now even though the news is a couple of weeks old because it is just too cool to let pass.

You've undoubtedly heard about this big breakthrough, about seeing "the beginning of time." You may have been unclear as to what it means. I read several articles and some were written by scientists, very familiar with the territory, who because they were so familiar with it wrote way too far over the heads of most people. Other articles seemed - well, I'm sure you've had the experience of reading something someone wrote and you can just tell that while they can say the words they don't have a real understanding of the topic. So the coverage was either too complex or too basic.

I hope to come somewhere in between.

There is a scientific theory about how the universe began. Understand, a scientific theory is not a guess, it's not an opinion, it's not just someone's idea, it's something that explains different phenomena and has been confirmed by observation, including observations that it predicted in advance would be made.

This theory about how the universe began became known as the Big Bang.

There were problems with the original Big Bang theory, things it struggled to explain. What those issues were isn't relevant here, what's important is that they were there.

In 1979, an astrophysicist named Alan Guth proposed the Inflationary Universe model of the Big Bang, which served to address those problems. The original idea of the Big Bang was that the universe at one point was incredibly dense and hot and expanded outward from there. The Inflationary model proposed that in the first incredibly short fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a second of the universe, it expanded incredibly rapidly, then slowed down to a more moderate rate of expansion such as we see now.

The Big Bang theory got its biggest confirmation in the early 1990 by the COBE satellite, COBE standing for COsmic Background Explorer, and an image produced from the data gathered is the one you see here.

The image is of space, not Earth. And the variations in color are a graphic representation of tiny variations in the temperature, in the energy, that is coming at us from all directions, that energy being the cosmic microwave background. You could, if you wanted, liken it to a constant hiss everywhere in the universe (except, of course, it doesn't actually make a noise).

The point here is that this background "noise" filling the universe was a precise prediction of the Big Bang theory, down to the level of the energy detected. Which means the Big Bang fulfilled one of the base requirements of a valid theory: It predicted the results of future observations.

The COBE image was later supplanted by a more detailed image from data obtained by the Wilkerson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, or WMAP.

Here, however, is where an issue arises. These images graphically display tiny fluctuations in cosmic microwave background from a point in time about 380,000 years after the Big Bang. They are - again, you could think of it this way - kind of like the afterglow of the Big Bang.

We cannot see further back in time. This is not a technical constraint; if the theories are right, it's a physical constraint.

So when they say that scientists have seen "the beginning of time," that's not technically accurate.

But what we can do is consider our theories about the Big Bang, consider what is predicted, and examine the data we have about the cosmic microwave background, that is, to take what we know and what we predict in order to make further observations looking for evidence about the beginning of time, to look for the telltale signs of those first instants.

That's what the scientists involved did. And the image shows what they found.

Doesn't look like much does it? No, it doesn't. But those lines indicate or more accurately represent changes in light.

See, one of common predictions of Einstein's General Theory of Relativity is that gravity bends light. This has been proved multiple times; in fact, it's so well-established that astronomers use it as a tool. According to theory, the Big Bang should have produced gravitational waves that would polarize light, gravitational waves rippling through the universe like ripples on a pond.

That's what those lines represent: the polarization of light under the influence of gravity.

So this is actually what they found: They found ripples in spacetime, ripples imposed on the infant universe by gravitational waves.

Ripples in spacetime dating from roughly a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang.

Ripples in spacetime that are a "smoking gun" for inflation.

Ripples in spacetime that offer insight into fundamental physics, including the idea that the four fundamental forces of the universe - electromagnetism, gravity, and the weak and strong nuclear forces - were all united as a single force at the Big Bang.

Ripples in spacetime that by showing the existence of gravitational waves provide proof for the last, great, untested prediction of Einstein's General Theory of Relativity, which was those very gravitational waves.

Ripples in spacetime, that is, that provide backing for three separate scientific theories all related to the fundamental nature of the universe.

And ripples in spacetime that represent the first real data we have - not conjecture, not hypotheses, not mathematical calculations, but actual data - about the first trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second in the history of the universe.

And if you don't think that's cool, there is no hope for you.


152.6 - Outrage of the Week: hang-ups about coat hangers

Outrage of the Week: hang-ups about coat hangers

Now we go to our other regular feature, the Outrage of the Week.

The DC Abortion Fund is a non-profit in Washington DC that helps local low-income women afford abortion care because, they say, "we believe that a woman’s right to healthcare should not depend on her wallet."

For the past four years, the group has been giving out coat hanger pendants to its donors. Why? Because the wire coat hanger has been a symbol of the reproductive rights movement for decades.

Before 1973, before Roe v. Wade, before abortions could be legally obtained, desperate women would go to desperate lengths to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. Women would consume Lysol or other household poisons in the hope they would cause them to abort. They would stick knitting needles, Coke bottles, and, yes, wire coat hangers into their cervixes to end a pregnancy. The accounts of the women who were disabled or sterilized or bled to death from botched illegal abortions were legion.

I have said on more than one occasion in discussing abortion rights that I remember the symbolism of a wire coat hanger and I have no desire to return to those days.

So for four years, the DC Abortion Fund has been giving out coat hanger pendants to donors.

So just recently, the right wing noticed. And on cue, Pavlov's dogs went berserk.

The pendant was called "sick," "evil," "disgusting," "horrific," "despicable," "grotesque," "repulsive," "ghastly," while the folks who wear them are "monsters" who "love to wear death on their necks."

It's hard for me to understand, to grasp, the utter, stultifying, abysmal, depths of the ignorance of these people. It was clear in reading the comments, the reactions, the blather and braying, it was clear that these people have no idea, not a clue, not the vaguest notion, of what it is they are talking about.

They flip from screeching to scowling and back again, they pound and pontificate, they mewl and moan, they deride and denounce, and through it all it's clear that they have no idea what the symbolism of the wire coat hanger represents. They have no idea what it means.

And they have no interest in finding out. They don't want to know, they don't want to be told, they refuse to be told. Those few brave souls who ventured into the comments sections of places like National Review Online who tried to point out the the coat hanger was the symbol of a time to which we do not want to return were either ignored, attacked with irrelevancies, or called liars by people who insisted - seriously, literally - that women did not die from abortions before Roe v. Wade.

The appalling ignorance, the repellant bone-headed insularity - It's beyond my vocabulary to find the proper words. Because it's not stupidity, it's not. It's not that they can't know, it's that they refuse to know. They actively refuse to know, to understand.

And part of the reason they refuse to know is that they are so convinced that they already do know, they already do know everything there is to know. It's like a version of something called the Dunning-Kruger effect. This is an actual, demonstrated, psychological principle where people who are really incompetent at something have more confidence in their abilities than those who actually are competent at it, because the competent people tend to be aware of the limits of their knowledge or abilities and the really incompetent people... aren't. So they consistently think they are better at or know more about something than they truly do.

And so here we have the multitudes of mouth-breathers who biliously bloviate about the sanctity of life even as they would condemn women to the mercies of back-alley butchers because they are convinced beyond convincing that the clock of history began in 1973 and abortions did not exist before then.

Happily, the DC Abortion Fund is not backing down. Val Vilott, executive director of the group, noted that its coat hanger pendants predate most of the people on its board. She then said that
We're going to provide funding regardless of what the conservative media has to say about the pendants. The coat hangers aren't going anywhere, and we're not going anywhere.
Congratulations to her and to the group. But fact remains that the people who in their insistent ignorance, their determined denial, their absolute avoidance, of the most basic facts of the history of the issue called the pendants "sick" and "evil" and "disgusting," the idea that we are supposed to regard these as reasonable sentiments, that we are supposed to regard these as reasonable people making reasonable arguments with who we can reasonably reason....

That's just the Outrage of the Week.


152.5 - Update: fighting wage theft

Update: fighting wage theft

Just before we go to break, a quick update.

Last week, I spoke about low-wage workers opening a new front in their fight for a living wage, that of filing suits against McDonald's and a number of its franchisees, charging them with wage theft - that is, of not paying people money or giving them benefits which they've rightfully earned.

Well, this week I can report there has already been some progress on the issue. Although not directly related to those suits, the progress is related to the fight against wage theft.

Seven McDonald’s franchises in New York City, all owned by a single person, will pay nearly $500,000 to employees who were victims of wage theft. More than 1,600 current and former employees will receive payments. The settlement was reached by state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

This comes six weeks after the Legal Aid Society won a three-year legal battle against a Domino’s franchisee, also in New York City, over charges of wage theft resulting in a nearly $1.3 million settlement for the workers involved.

Meanwhile, New York City Public Advocate Letitia James has announced proposals to crack down on wage theft in the fast food industry in the city.

Admittedly, this is all happening in New York City. But even so, these events are helping to bring to light the fact that wage theft has become almost a normal feature of too many low-wage workers' lives and too many low-wage industries, not just fast food. It's a small start - but it's a start.


152.4 - Clown Award: State Sen. Richard Ross and Robert Leclair

Clown Award: State Sen. Richard Ross and Robert Leclair

Now it's time for one of our regular weekly features, the Clown Award, given as always for meritorious stupidity.

Well, I thought I had my clown, but a last-minute shift has put a different contender - in fact, two different contenders - in the top spot. So this week, the big red nose goes to the winning pair of Massachusetts State Sen. Richard Ross and former Wrentham selectman Robert Leclair.

I was going to give the award to South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley - Queen Nikki, as an on-line friend calls her - who recently told an automotive conference that manufacturers with unionized workforces should stay the heck out of South Carolina.

Yes, she said that, in so many words: "It's not something we want to see happen," she said. "We discourage any companies that have unions from wanting to come to South Carolina because we don't want to" - still quoting - "taint the water."

So what could top that?

Ross did it by introducing a bill that would prohibit a divorcing parent from having sex in their own home. It says, quoting:
In divorce, separation, or 209A proceedings involving children and a marital home, the party remaining in the home shall not conduct a dating or sexual relationship within the home until a divorce is final and all financial and custody issues are resolved, unless the express permission is granted by the courts.
Ross has gruffly and grandly defended himself, noting that the bill was filed, as it says, "by request" from a petition filed by Leclair. Under Massachusetts' sometimes arcane procedures, any citizen can petition their representative to introduce a bill. The legislator who introduces it does not necessarily agree with the bill, which they can indicate by noting the bill was introduced "by request." Ross says he doesn't agree with this one and accuses those who have laughed at his actions of failing to understand the democratic process.

        Ross                       Leclair        
But ya know what? I don't buy it. Especially because a) Ross is from Wrentham, Massachusetts, as is Leclair and they are both former Wrentham selectmen. I don't know if they were on the board at the same time, but it still means that they ran in the same political circles in the same town. And b) this is not the first time Ross has introduced this bill for Leclair, having done so at least once before, in 2011.

So no, Sen. Ross, I don't accept that this is all about "respecting the democratic process" instead of being about clownishly wasting the time of the legislature and the legislative clerk by introducing a patently stupid bill that even you say is going nowhere and is not only inane but lacks both enforcement provisions and penalties, in order to show some love to a political crony.

As for Leclair, this former head of a fathers' rights group who went through his own bitter divorce, he actually claims that this bill is not inane, that it's a serious attempt to address domestic violence and is really ticked off that no one is taking it as seriously as it deserves.

Actually, Mr. Leclair, I think we're taking it exactly as seriously as it deserves.

Sen. Richard Ross and former Wrentham selectman Robert Leclair: The reasons are different, but you are both clowns.


152.3 - RIP: Fred Phelps

RIP: Fred Phelps

I have an RIP this week. I'm going to mention this only because I know I'll be expected to.

The notorious and gross bigot Fred Phelps, the founder of the notoriously and grossly bigoted Westboro Baptist Church, which isn't part of any Baptist convention and isn't really a church but more like a family cult, has died at the age of 84.

There has been a lot of reaction both harsh - although not as harsh as his not-a-church was about those people its members hated so deeply that it's hard to imagine actually living that way, in that constant state of rage and fear - but there has been reaction both harsh and forgiving.

One example of the forgiveness was when after Phelps' death the not-a-church picketed a concert by New Zealand singer Lorde and some folks counter-protested with a sign reading simply "sorry for your loss."

I never have celebrated the death of a human being and I will not start now, not even in the case of someone as deeply loathsome as Fred Phelps, but I have to admit I can't muster that sort of compassion for those who remain devoted to his despicable legacy - especially when their own compassion seems utterly absent.

Y'see, in response to that sign, one of the not-a-church picketers said "I have no idea what they're talking about." Apparently, his death was not a loss for them. Perhaps that was because he was excommunicated from the church last August when he called for "kinder treatment of fellow church members" in the wake of an internal power struggle. He was already dead to them.

So I leave it to others to say "forgive and forget." Because I can't forgive, at least not yet. I do, however, find Fred Phelps eminently forgettable.


152.2 - The little Thing: Whodunit?

The little Thing: Whodunit?

There's a sort of footnote to the previous item, an example of what we here call The Little Thing, where something in a story, some detail, that is mostly overlooked, is in some way significant or revealing. Usually, it's something that annoys or frustrates me, but this time it's different.

There was a horrendous story that came out of California the end of last week. Police in Salinas found three starving children, ages 3, 5, and 8, in a squalid home. All three exhibited bruises and signs of other physical as well as emotional abuse. The oldest, a girl, was chained to the floor. Police described her as looking "like a concentration camp victim." The couple living in the home were both arrested on charges of felony child cruelty, false imprisonment, and other charges.

A story that leaves you both horrified at the treatment of the children and grateful they were saved.

Here's the little thing: The Associated Press had a 14-graph story on the case. It wasn't until the 11th graph that it was mentioned that the couple involved was two women in a domestic partnership.

You know - you know - that not that many years ago, that fact would have been in the lede, screaming about "children trapped in a lesbian love nest." Now it's something just routinely mentioned in passing. Consider it another sign of progress.


152.1 - Good News: Michigan is the latest to fall

Good News: Michigan is the latest to fall

I'm going to start, as I always try to do, with some good news. This week, the good news comes out of Michigan.

Last Friday, March 21, US District Court Judge Bernard Friedman struck down Michigan's state constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, ruling, as several other federal judges have recently, that such a ban violates the US Constitution's requirement for equal protection under the law.

Friedman refused to stay the effect of his decision, allowing some same-sex couples to begin getting married last Saturday. Clerks in at least four Michigan counties issued more than 300 marriage licenses and presided over more than 100 weddings before a Appeals Court granted a temporary stay, putting a halt to further weddings.

At a hearing on Wednesday, March 26, the Appeals Court extended that stay to cover the time needed for the state to appeal Judge Friedman's decision. It's actually pretty typical for such stays to be issued; in fact, it usually would be done by the trial judge, so the ruling comes as no surprise.

What was interesting is that it was a split 2-1 decision. The majority relied on the fact that the Supreme Court had stepped in to issue a stay on an earlier case out of Utah and so decided that, okay, that's what we have to do. But the dissenting judge noted that the Supreme Court had issued the stay without comment, so there is no actual legal guidance for the Appeals Court to follow. So she applied a traditional four-factor test and said on that basis that she would have denied the request for the stay. What's interesting is that one of those factors involves "a strong or substantial likelihood of success on the merits," that is, the likelihood of winning on appeal - which means that she was saying that based on the record to date she believes there is little chance that Michigan will succeed in getting Judge Friedman's order overturned. Which is itself good news.

Speaking of that decision, it was a keeper. I talked about this case three weeks ago. It's an important one because those trying to defend the indefensible tried a new tack. The administration of Michigan Governor Rick Snidelywhiplash apparently realized the arguments other states have used, which pretty much came down to "we've always done it this way" and "same-sex marriage is icky," weren't going to fly. So they argued that it was all about the welfare of children, claiming that kids thrive best when raised by a married mommy and daddy, so same-sex marriages can and should be banned.

Beyond being an obvious non sequitur, I said in discussing the case that
one obvious and should be fatal flaw in [the state's argument] is that the presence or lack of children or of the intent to be parents has never been related to recognition of the right to get married.
Judge Friedman made the same point in his ruling, saying that the state's arguments are "belied" by its own marriage requirements, which, he wrote,
do not include the ability to have children, a requirement to raise them in any particular family structure, or the prospect of achieving certain "outcomes" for children.
I also noted that
Michigan's case was not helped by the fact that one of its two key witnesses was sociologist Mark Regnerus ... whose claim to have shown that children are better off with opposite-sex parents than with same-sex parents has been dismissed by the America Sociological Association as fundamentally flawed....
Friedman was ever harsher, calling Regnerus’s testimony "unbelievable and not worthy of serious consideration" and that his study "was hastily concocted at the behest of a third-party funder" who "clearly wanted a certain result, and Regnerus obliged." Friedman labeled Regnerus’s contention that the source of the funding did not affect his impartiality as a researcher, "unbelievable."

Which means, ultimately, that this was double good news: The decision was not only a blow for marriage justice, not only a blow in favor of same-sex couples, but also a blow in favor of same-sex parents, as Friedman declared that "the evidence adduced at trial disproved [the] premise" that children in same-sex households fare any worse than children in opposite-sex households.

In his conclusion, Judge Friedman wrote:
In attempting to define this case as a challenge to “the will of the people,” state defendants lost sight of what this case is truly about: people. ... Today’s decision ... affirms the enduring principle that regardless of whoever finds favor in the eyes of the most recent majority, the guarantee of equal protection must prevail.
Right on, my brother.


Left Side of the Aisle #152

Left Side of the Aisle
for the week of March 27 - April 2, 2014

This week:

Good News: Michigan is the latest to fall

The little Thing: Whodunit?

RIP: Fred Phelps

Clown Award: State Sen. Richard Ross and Robert Leclair

Update: fighting wage theft

Outrage of the Week: hang-ups on coat hangers

And Another Thing: ripples in spacetime

Thursday, March 20, 2014

151.7 - Everything You Need to Know: what's wrong with the economy

Everything You Need to Know: what's wrong with the economy

Now for one of our occasional features, called Everything You Need to Know. It's where you can learn a lot about something very, very quickly.

In this case, it's understanding what's wrong with the economy in just two sentences.

1. There are something over 1 million Americans who work full-time - that is, 35 hours a week or more, year-round - at no more than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

2. The entire earnings of all those people in 2012, combined, amounted to a little more than half of the bonuses paid to Wall Street workers that same year.

And that is Everything You Need to Know.


151.6 - Outrage of the Week: fraud about prosecuting mortgage fraud

Outrage of the Week: fraud about prosecuting mortgage fraud

Four years ago, with the debris from the 2008 financial meltdown still clogging our streets and our lives, with millions losing or facing losing their homes, foreclosures at record levels, much - most - of it due to outright criminality on the part of the major players in the mortgage industry heavily engaged in robo-signing, doctoring, or even forging documents, in that atmosphere, Barack Obama, the Amazing Mr. O, promised to crack down on mortgage fraud. At a mortgage fraud summit in 2010, Attorney General Eric Holder declared that “In cities across the country, mortgage fraud crimes have reached crisis proportions. But we are fighting back.”

It was all bullshit and lies. According to a report by the Justice Department’s inspector general, the Obama administration has made mortgage fraud its lowest priority and has closed hundreds of cases after little or no investigation.

The White House claims that the government is holding people responsible for the collapse of the financial and housing markets, but the report shows that the FBI considered mortgage fraud to be its lowest-ranked national criminal priority. In several large cities, including New York and Los Angeles, agents either ranked mortgage fraud as a low priority or didn't even rank it at all.

And this was despite receiving significant additional funding from Congress to pursue exactly those sorts of cases.

What's more, the claims the administration made of progress and aggressive pursuit of violaters were repeatedly inflated or just nonsense.

For example, Holder said in 2012 that prosecutors had charged 530 people over the previous year in cases related to mortgage fraud. It turned out it was 107. And most of them, it appears to me based on a web search I did, were smaller players, not the big boys.

Holder also claimed that those cases involved fraud that had cost homeowners more than $1 billion. It turns out that actual figure was more like $95 million, less than one-tenth as much. Which is what happens when you focus on the smaller players rather than the big boys.

As if that wasn't enough, the Justice Department kept repeating the inflated figures for months after it was obvious, after they knew, they were wrong.

Why has the DOJ had such a hands-off approach to the too-big-to-fail crowd? Well, you already know the answer but let me tell it to you this way.

The blogger Digby noted the other day that "everybody's having lots of fun" looking over recently-released transcripts of meetings of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors in 2008. One thing that became clear from those transcripts is that the Fed really just didn't know what was going on around it. For example, at a meeting on March 18, 2008, just days after the collapse of Bear Stearns, the first sign of the coming apocalypse, concerns that US banks were undercapitalized were dismissed. In fact, Tim Geithner, who was then the president of the New York Fed and vice chair of the Fed’s Board of Governors, said that the real problem was people suggesting there was a problem.

Move forward seven or eight months to find the world financial system in free-fall as undercapitalized banks and other financial institutions fall like dominoes. Then move forward a couple of months more to January 2009, with the crisis unabated, and who does the newly-elected Barack Obama want to be his Treasury Secretary? Who was "the only man" who could save us all? Tim Geithner, the man who said the only problem was saying there was a problem.

Why has the White House gone so easy on the big boys and the big banks? Why has Obama been such a lamer on mortgage fraud? Because he's on their side. And don't you forget it. It's the Outrage of the Week.


151.5 - Clown Award: Wyoming

Clown Award: Wyoming

The update about the Keystone XL pipeline takes us right to the Clown Award, given weekly for an act of meritorious stupidity. This week, the big red nose goes to an entire state: Wyoming.

There is this thing called the Next Generation Science Standards, or NGSS, intended to establish benchmarks for science education in schools that would be uniform across the country. They were developed with input from 26 states.

NGSS has been controversial in some of the expected places. For example, in Kentucky a Baptist minister complained that it presents quoting "the rich man’s elitist religion of evolution" as fact and said the standards are a "fascist method [that] teaches that our children are the property of the state.” Despite that, Kentucky adopted the standards, one of 10 states to do so, so far.

Well, last year, a committee of Wyoming educators recommended that the state adopt the Science Standards and the state Board of Education began holding hearings last November. Again, the usual crazies were out, denouncing the idea of presenting scientific facts as facts. Doing so was an "atheistic" attempt to impose a "particular political view."

But then the state of Wyoming went beyond that to something unprecedented in the argument. Just under two weeks ago, the legislature passed and the Governor approved a budget that would bar the state not only from funding but even from reviewing the Standards. It was literally a case of closing their eyes, putting their fingers in their ears, and going "nah-nah-nah-I-can't-hear-you!"

Why? Well, there were some references to evolution in the complaints, but the real reason for behaving like a bunch of stubborn 6-year-olds was that the standards present global warming as fact. That was the only substantive objections raised. And that they just could not abide.

After all, Governor Matt Mead has said he's not sure there is such a thing as global warming - and of course, he knows more about it than 97% of the world's climatologists.

On the other hand, that's just run-of-the-mill stupidity. This is what gets the award:

State Rep. Matt Teeters, one of the authors of the provision banning review of the standards told the Caspar Star-Tribune that
[the standards] handle global warming as settled science. There’s all kind of social implications involved in that that I don’t think would be good for Wyoming.
What implications? Wyoming is the largest energy exporter among the states and Teeters said teaching global warming as fact would harm Wyoming’s economy. In other words, it doesn't even matter if it's true or not, we will not say it anyway.

State Board of Education Chair Ron Micheli agreed with Teeters, saying he doesn't accept that climate change is a fact and - here's the money shot -
[the standards are] very prejudiced against fossil-fuel development.
There you have it: The Wyoming Board of Education, the Wyoming legislature, and the Wyoming governor have joined forces to actively prevent school children from learning the scientific facts - facts - about something that will have far greater impact on their future than the status of Wyoming as an energy exporter because scientific truth is "prejudiced against fossil-fuel development" - and, one strongly suspect, the campaign donations from that industry.

The state of Wyoming: You are a clown.


151.4 - Update: Keystone XL pipeline

Update: Keystone XL pipeline

I've talked about the Keystone XL pipeline a number of times. Over the last month or so, I've gone after the State Department's Final Environmental Impact Statement, or FEIS, on the project; first for dodging the issue of the pipeline's impact on global warming, then for its lies and deceptions about the jobs it would but mostly wouldn't provide, then just two weeks ago about a scientific study showing just what the impact on climate change could be.

Now, another update about that same report.

It turns out that the development of the report was riddled with conflicts of interest.

We already knew that one contracting company which worked on the report had previously worked for TransCanada, the corporation that would build and own the pipeline. The issue was dismissed by an inspector general, who said this was all fine so long as the firm fully disclosed its ties to the industry and completed its work with TransCanada before undertaking the review - in other words, so long as I tell you I may well be biased, then I'm not biased. Or something.

By the way, that inspector general reached that conclusion even though the State Department had redacted the information from its report, thus serving to hide the contractor’s ties to the fossil fuel industry.

Now it develops that another firm contracted by the State Department to evaluate Keystone - specifically, to look at greenhouse gas emissions - also had ties to TransCanada. That company promised to take steps to "mitigate" any conflict of interest, but the State Department redacted that information as well, so what those steps might be and if they actually are adequate is unknown.

That same company, by the way, has also consulted to the American Petroleum Institute and to the fossil fuel industry generally. Which again, you wouldn't know from the State Department's report.

Just by the way, during the 90-day window for public comment on the report, there were over 1 million negative comments - and 60% of the positive comments were linked to people and organizations within the oil industry.


151.3 - Update: Ukraine

Update: Ukraine

Two brief updates before we go to break.

First, I talked last week about Ukraine. It's still not a topic well-suited to a weekly show, but I wanted to mention a couple of things quickly, almost like bullet points

- So the vote in Crimea was held and oh my what a shock, "the people" want to secede from Ukraine and become part of the Russian Federation. We're told. Just two days later, Russian President Vladimir Putin announces the annexation of Crimea.

The thing that struck me is the claim that 97% of voters wanted this, wanted immediate unification with Russia. Please. Nothing gets 97% of the vote in a legitimate referendum. Hell, I figure if you had a referendum on "Should people breathe air?" you still wouldn't get 97% "yes." So either that figure is a lie, only the desired votes were counted, or - most likely - no one else voted, knowing they would merely be lending credibility to a farce where the "choice" effectively was between "join Russia now" and "join Russia a little later."

- The Russian invasion and now annexation of Crimea is not universally popular in Russia: A protest in Moscow on March 15 against the invasion drew an estimated 50,000 people.

- The first blood has been shed: A Ukrainian soldier was killed when gunmen attacked a besieged military base near the capital of Crimea on March 18.

- Finally, I'm disturbed at the ease with which some folks on the left - my people - embraced the notion that all the troubles in Ukraine, all the protests that lead to the ouster of Viktor Yanukovich, were the result of the machinations of the US and/or but usually and the European Union. I'm disturbed by the ease with which some folks assume that people in Ukraine could not have had legitimate grievances and legitimate - or at the very, very least, honestly-held - fears. The ease with which some assume that all troubles, all conflicts, are the result of something we do, that we exercise extreme if not total control over events worldwide. Yes, we are a powerful nation, yes, we are very probably the most powerful nation, but we are not that powerful.

It's unfortunately easy to be blinded. It's easy to be so blinded by the historic wrongs committed by our own government, to be blinded by the evils that we have committed and still are committing, to become so blinded by what we as a nation have done and are going, that we become incapable of seeing that we are not the only ones who commit wrongs, that we are not the only ones who seek power, that we are not the only ones who look to influence and control events to their own selfish benefit. We've seen it before, we are seeing it again here.

I would commend to everyone the wise insight of Joan Baez, who some years ago put it in context: "The US isn't the worst," she said. "It is, however, the biggest."


151.2 - Good News: it's a SNAP

Good News: it's a SNAP

Another bit of good news, this one relating to Food Stamps.

You know, I'm sure, that the reactionaries and the spineless in Congress came up with an agreement on taking food out of the mouths of poor people - that is, on cutting Food Stamps.

One of the ways they did that was by changing eligibility rules. One of the ways some states established of becoming eligible for Food Stamps was to be qualified to receive heating assistance under the Low Income Heating Assistance Program. Formerly, getting as little as $1 a year in heating assistance was adequate. Obviously, no one ever actually got just $1 a year in heating assistance; the point was, you got it: getting heating assistance was a qualifier for Food Stamps. It's a little more complicated than that in that it really relates to how much the state has to kick into the program for each recipient, but essentially, that was the deal.

(Oh and by the way, the program is now officially called SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, but I'm going to continue to call it Food Stamps because, well, because everyone does.)

The new law said it had to be at least $20 a year. In essence, that means that the states who use this standard would have to kick in an extra $19 per recipient (or recipient household) of heating assistance in order for those folks to still qualify for Food Stamps. As a result of that change, about 850,000 low-income families spread across 15 states and the District of Columbia stood to lose an average of $90 of food assistance per month. The reactionaries figured that the states would not be willing to take on the added costs related to fuel assistance in order to keep the Food Stamp benefits flowing to their states. For example, in Massachusetts about 163,000 families receive fuel assistance, so to keep Food Stamp benefits flowing for them, that state would have to come up with some $19 times 163,000, or a touch over $3 million.

Guess what. First Connecticut and New York, then Pennsylvania, Oregon, Montana, Rhode Island, and just this Tuesday, March 17, Massachusetts changed their standards to be in line with the new law, incurring a few million in added contributions to the state portions of the Heating Assistance Program but keeping multiple millions in Food Stamp benefits flowing into their states - and food into the mouths of the hungry. Again in the case of Massachusetts, that $3 million expense will protect $142 million in benefits.

And that really is good news. What would make this new better news would be for the other eight states still affected by the change - California, Delaware, Maine, Michigan, New Jersey, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin - to take the same steps.

Oh, and there's a side benefit to this good news: getting to watch Speaker of the House John Boner - Sir John of Orange - pop a gasket, declaiming that following the letter of the law to protect the hungry is, quoting, "cheating and fraud" and demanding that it must be stopped.

Because, y'know, just like Paul Rantin' told us, to have the government help you to not be hungry drains your soul.


151.1 - Good News: low-wage workers open another front

Good News: low-wage workers open another front

I've spoken on more than one occasion about the strengthening campaign among low-wage workers to obtain a living wage - in fact, I mentioned it just last week. Even as that campaign slowly gains strength, another front has been opened in the battle against the McDonald's-izing and Walmart-izing of the American work force.

That front is a counter-attack against wage theft, the illegal but all-too-common practice of employers cheating their workers out of rightfully-earned wages or benefits. How big an issue, how widespread is it? Consider this: The amount of illegally withheld wages recovered by the Department of Labor in 2008 - not the total amount illegally withheld, the total recovered - was over $185 million. By comparison, in 2009, the total losses from bank, convenience store, and gas station robberies combined was less than $57 million, considerably less than one-third as much.

Well, this week, workers in California, Michigan, and New York struck back. They filed a total of six new lawsuits against McDonald's, claiming they were systematically shorted on pay by the corporation and its franchisees.

The complaints charge, among other things, that McDonald's and certain franchisees violated minimum wage and overtime regulations, forced employees to work off the clock, and took illegal deductions for costs related to uniforms.

These suits could potentially involve and benefit tens of thousands of current and past McDonald's employees and in any event should bring more attention to just how common wage theft is for low-wage workers, particularly in the fast-food industry. In fact, just this pass summer there was a survey of 500 fast-food workers in New York City, 84% of who said they had experienced at least one sort of wage theft in the previous year.

One of the 27 named plaintiffs in the suits said “I knew I wouldn’t be making a lot of money, but I thought a well-known company like McDonald’s would treat me fairly - at the very least follow the law.”

He really should have known better.

By the way, as a footnote, wage theft does not affect only low-wage workers. A form of wage theft was in the news in January when the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals gave final approval for a class action suit against Apple, Google, Intel, and Adobe. The suit, which arose out of an earlier DOJ antitrust case, charges that the corporations agreed not to recruit each others' employees, to share wage scale information, and to punish violators of the agreement, thus illegally colluding to hold down the wages of their employees - those affected in this case being well-paid engineers - by limiting their career opportunities.

Did they know this was doing their workers dirt? Oh, yeah: In 2005, the year the agreement was made, Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, told his Senior VP for Business Operation Shona Brown to keep the pact a secret and only share information “verbally, since I don’t want to create a paper trail over which we can be sued later.”



Left Side of the Aisle #151

Left Side of the Aisle
for the week of March 20-26, 2014

This week:

Good News: low-wage workers open another front

Good News: it's a SNAP

Update: Ukraine

Update: Keystone XL

Clown Award: Wyoming

Outrage of the Week: fraud about prosecuting mortgage fraud

Everything You Need to Know: what's wrong with the economy

Friday, March 14, 2014

150.8 - Some thoughts on Ukraine

Some thoughts on Ukraine

Updated Okay. Ukraine.

I said last week I haven't talked about it and that I felt that I should. There are two reasons I haven't.

One is practical: This is the kind of setting where things happen fast and what I could tell you today could easily be obsolete by the time you hear it - in fact, it could be obsolete by the time I say it. It's a topic not well-suited to a weekly show.

Just as an example, that "referendum" in Crimea on the question of leaving Ukraine for Russia is taking place on March 16. Depending on when in the week you see this show, it may have already happened. In fact, you may already have the results, since the results of "voting" that takes place under military occupation tend to come out rather quickly because of the lack of genuine need to count the ballots.

But there's another reason, a more important reason: I don't feel qualified. I don't feel I know enough about the players, the personalities, the politics; I don't know enough about the conditions, I don't know enough about the underlying issues that provide the context in which events occur.

I don't know enough to tell you anything that would be of use to you in understanding the situation.

I do know some things:

I know for one that Ukraine in some ways reminds me of the Roman god Janus, the god of beginnings and transitions. Janus is usually depicted as having two faces, with the idea that he is looking to the future and the past simultaneously. Ukraine also, in that sense, has two faces, except that it's not looking to the future and the past but to the east and the west. It's looking in two directions simultaneously.

The eastern and southern part of Ukraine look more toward Russia; in fact, a good number of people in that area are ethnically Russian and a number of them speak Russian. The western part looks more toward Europe. This has been the basic division, with one part of the country looking one way and the other part of the country looking the other way.

Specifically in the Crimean peninsula, which is the focus of the current tension, a majority of the people - a small majority, but still a majority - are ethnically Russian.

This doesn't mean that those people want to leave Ukraine and join Russia: There is, after all, no contradiction between seeing yourself as ethnically Russian but nationalistically Ukranian. In fact, a poll taken before the Russian invasion said that a majority in Crimea are against uniting with Russia and support for that idea continues to drop the further you move away from Crimea.

But whether or not you want to leave Ukraine, that ethnic identity can and does affect whether you would prefer to see closer cultural, economic, even military, ties with Russia or whether you'd prefer closer cultural, economic, military, ties with the European Union.

Also, Crimea is a place Russia has long felt to be part of Russia. And Russia regards the area as militarily and strategically important. The Black Sea, where the Crimean peninsula is, provides Russia's only realistic water access to the Mediterranean. So the Russians regard this as strategically vital.

Another thing I know is that the protests that brought down President Viktor Yanukovich were sparked by genuine outrage over his cancelling of an agreement involving trade with Europe in favor of a deal with Russia and those protests included, especially in the early going, many progressive people and groups genuinely concerned about the future of political freedom in Ukraine - but it's also true that the protests, especially in the later stages, also included a number of extreme right-wing individuals and parties, including the overtly anti-Semitic party Svoboda.

That's pretty much all I know. That's pretty much it.

Even at that, I'd be willing to speculate that this little bit is more than at least 90 percent Americans know. And that's all surface stuff; that doesn't get into the underlying issues that provide the context for events. It's all surface stuff. But even at that, it's more than most of us know.

Because - and if you want, you could consider this the Outrage of the Week - in foreign affairs and even in domestic affairs, but right now I'm concerned with foreign affairs, in foreign affairs we as a people are uninformed, misinformed, and malinformed. And we won’t be able to understand things like the events in Ukraine, understand what's going on, understand what we should or even can do - which quite frankly in the case of the Russian seizure of Crimea is probably nothing - but we won't have any chance of understanding events, again of what we should do and what we can do, until we change that fact of our profound insularity and ignorance about the world beyond our borders.

And there's one other thing. Something else. Something I don’t need to know underlying facts to know, something I don't need to know the context to know.

I don't need that context to know that military invasions are wrong. I don't need that context to know that seizure of land by military force is wrong. That military occupation is wrong. That it is unethical, it is immoral, it is cruel.

I don't need to know all of the details of the history of Ukraine and the complicated ethnic divisions and ties that drive the protests and drive the counter-protests. I don't need to know any of that to say that what Russia did is morally, ethically, and politically wrong.

And if there is something that can be done within the realm of economics or politics, if there is something that can be done to express a national and an international contempt for this, it should be done.

It should be done.

Update:  I suspect that at least some people are going to question that poll I mentioned saying a majority of the residents of Crimea are against joining with Russia, especially since The Week is not the most reliable source and the link it provided was to a page in, I believe, Ukrainian. This appears to be the English version of that page, describing the poll and its results. Also, both and a guest post at the Washington Post's Monkey Cage blog have referred to the poll.


150.7 - Clown Award: Rep. Paul Ryan

Clown Award: Rep. Paul Ryan

Now for one of our regular features, the Clown Award, given as always for meritorious stupidity.

Well, he's been the clown before, I'm sure he will be again, but this week the big red nose goes to the man who in the right wing passes for an intellectual: Rep. Paul Ryan.

CPAC, as you may know, is the Conservative Political Action Committee and it recently concluded its yearly confab, which is a must-go for anyone who hopes to win the favors of the fanatical right-wing yahoos who populate the most activist part - and therefore a politically-potent part - of the Republican Party. So basically it was a week of seeing who could toss the most and reddest meat to the mouth-breathers in the audience before at the end of it all Rand Paul of course won the presidential straw poll, just like his father, Ron Paul, always did in years past.

The thing is, however, the GOPpers, or at least the nominal leaders of the party, have finally realized they have an image problem. So they've started to talk about, for example, "reaching out to minorities." They do seem to have a problem getting the hang of it: The picture on the right is of the attendance at the panel on minority outreach.

But they keep on plugging away at it at this image campaign. On another front, they've heard of this "income inequality" business. They don't quite know what to make of it; they think it's just more whining from those lazy takers, but some of them figure they need to have something to say.

This is where Rep. Paul Rantin' comes in, who at least realizes that GOPpers have to at least look like they care about the poor. So in his speech at CPAC he went on about how completely Republicans understand the American people, while "the left" is offering people "a full stomach and an empty soul."

A stomach full of a school lunch, it turns out. Rantin' told a story he said came from a member of the cabinet of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walkalloveryou. It was about
a young boy from a very poor family, and every day at school he would get a free lunch from a government program. But he he didn’t want a free lunch. He wanted his own lunch, one in a brown paper bag, just like the other kids. Because he knew a kid with a brown paper bag had someone who cared for him.
"This," Rantin' finished with a dramatic rhetorical flourish, "is what the left does not understand."

Now remember, this kid gets the free lunch because his parents don't have enough money to provide him sufficient and adequate nutrition. But according to Paul Rantin', that inability to provide a brown-bag lunch every day actually somehow proves that those parents do not love their child as much as those parents who are richer love their children - so that boy should go hungry every day because that somehow will fill his soul.

Because as we all know, the very bestest thing we can do for poor people is make them poorer.

Oh, but Paulie-boy doesn't stop there. No, because remember he has to show that right-wingers really really do care about doing something about poverty. They don't want children to go hungry, oh no no no. Because they are the ones who really care.

So he had this study done, a study of the past 50 years of anti-poverty programs. Lo and behold and hey waddaya know, the "study," a 200-page document released about two weeks ago, concluded that anti-poverty programs are counterproductive and ineffective, that they've created "the poverty trap," where, to refer to something Rantin' has said elsewhere, the safety net has turned into "a hammock, that lulls people into lives of complacency" rather than what they should have, which is lives of hard work and self-reliance and the soul-filling experience of an empty belly.

Except - don't be too shocked - the report uses misleading figures, distortions of data, and often ignores its own data.

Here's a big one: The report cites the poverty rate just before the Great Society programs of the early to mid-60s began and compares it to the official poverty rate now. It notes that the current rate is only about one and a-half or two percentage points below the other and claims that shows that poverty programs don't work.

But that is a false comparison. We now have programs that didn't exist then. To get a fair comparison, we have to say what the poverty rate in the US would be today if those programs did not exist, just as they didn't exist at that earlier time.

The answer is that the poverty rate would be almost double: 29% v. 16%, even higher than before the "War on Poverty" began and comparable to the worst part of the Great Depression. Put another way, the various anti-poverty programs have reduced, are reducing, poverty by 13 percentage points. With a current estimated population of something over 320 million, that means that there are nearly 42 million people in this country who do not live in poverty as the result of public programs.

What's more, the report's own conclusions regarding the effectiveness of anti-poverty programs ignore its own findings that numerous programs help the poor get through their lives or even keep them out of poverty. For one example, it notes that the Child Tax Credit keeps about 2.9 million people from falling into poverty, including about 1.5 million children.

I don't know what he hoped to achieve with this report, but there is one thing he surely didn't achieve: He didn't stop people from saying "Paul Ryan, you are a clown."


150.6 - Spying fan Dianne Feinstein objects to being spied on

Spying fan Dianne Feinstein objects to being spied on

I have to mention this quickly. I haven’t talked much about spying of late, not because there is nothing new to report but rather that in the short term other things seemed more important to address. But this I just had to mention now. I couldn't let it go by.

The Senate Intelligence Committee has been conducting a study of the CIA's use of waterboarding and other "brutal interrogation methods" (which they still refuse to call torture because it couldn’t be torture because we just don’t do that) - "brutal interrogation methods" used on terrorism suspects held at secret CIA prisons overseas after the attacks of 9/11.

The committee has been going over millions of documents given up by the CIA, which are now held on computers in a secure room in a secret site in northern Virginia. All very cloak-and-dagger.

Here's the thing: The committee has now accused the CIA of trying to undermine the study by, among other things, searching computers used by the staff of the committee - that is, essentially spying on the committee's work.

This is where it gets funny. Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the committee, has denounced this in no uncertain terms. She called it illegal, a violation of separation of powers, and unconstitutional. 

Dianne Feinstein has been biggest bootlicker, the biggest lackey, of the national security state in the entire damn Congress. She has repeatedly defended NSA spying - she said "it's called protecting America" - and has called Edward Snowden a traitor.

But when her committee is what’s being spied on, when it's her people that are monitored, when it's her computers that are the target, suddenly it’s “Illegal! Unconstitutional! Outrageous!”

The whole story will soon be online at [Unfortunately necessary note: not a real website.]


150.5 - Unintentional Humor: Military group celebrates 50th anniversary of Civil Rights Act - at Gitmo

Unintentional Humor: Military group celebrates 50th anniversary of Civil Rights Act - at Gitmo

Next up, another quick example of what I call unintentional humor, where something that's not supposed to be funny just is.

The Black Heritage Organization, a group of African-American soldiers and officers within the US military, held its annual Black History Month banquet on February 22. It was described as "residents and military members coming together to help celebrate the 50th anniversary of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964."

It was called "a night filled with food, fun, and fellowship," with a report on the event adding that "the collection of diverse attendees was a testament that America is headed in the right direction."

The banquet was held at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba. They held it at Gitmo.


150.4 - Good News: NSA fails in attempt to block satire of its logo

Good News: NSA fails in attempt to block satire of its logo

Finally, we have another bit of court-related good news. This involves Dan McCall, an artist and satirist from Minnesota. A couple of years ago he reacted to the increasing revelations of spying by the NSA by producing a more truthful version of the NSA's logo, one that started appearing on t-shirts, coffee mugs, and other items. and is reproduced just below.

The NSA was not amused. So is had the Justice Department hit him with a cease and desist notice, claiming copyright infringement.

A lot of people might have folded under that kind of threat, understandably so, but McCall didn't. Instead, with the help of the Public Citizen Litigation Group, he fought back in court, arguing that the design was clearly a critique of the government's violations of the Fourth Amendment and therefore was protected First Amendment free speech, free speech that was being violated by the government's demand.

Last month, after a three-year legal battle, the Justice Department issued a settlement agreement and general release. Translated from legalese, it means the federal government just gave up. And that is good news for him and for satire.

Satires and spoofs have considerable protection under the first Amendment, especially when they are criticizing the government - so much so that I wonder why the feds chose to initiate this for any reason other than sheer pique or pursue it for so long for any reason other than institutional ego. I know it's easy to come up with reasons related to suppressing dissent, but I've long been a fan of the notion of not ascribing to villainy that which can be explained by mere stupidity.

The takeaway from the case was offered by Paul Levy, the Public Citizen attorney who took the case: "Stand up for your rights."

And whenever someone stands up for their rights, that is good news.


150.3 - Good News: BP shot down on attempt to weasel out of paying Deepwater Horizon damages

Good News: BP shot down on attempt to weasel out of paying Deepwater Horizon damages

This doesn't start as good news, but there is some good news in it, so hang in there.

Remember the Deepwater Horizon oil blowout? It happened not quite four years ago, on April 22, 2010. Nearly 5 million barrels - over 200 million gallons - of oil spewed out into the Gulf of Mexico.

Four years later, oil from that spill is still washing up on the beaches of the Gulf Coast. The end of last month, a 1,250 pound mat of sand, shells, and oil - oil which proved to be from the spill - was found off Pensacola Beach, Florida. The mat was nine feet long and nine feet wide.

Speaking of nines, this was nearly nine months after BP had shut down its cleanup efforts in the Gulf, claiming only "minute amounts" of oil remained.

It was also well after BP tried to weasel out of paying for the damage it caused. The corporation had agreed to set up a $9.2 billion fund to compensate victims of the spill. But the settlement started to be more expensive than BP anticipated, and so, suffering what some folks sarcastically called buyer's remorse, BP went to court to change the rules so that only those who could prove they were directly affected by the spill could claim damages. Since a significant part of the losses were indirect, such as the near-demolition of the tourist trade, a lot of people would be left out.

Guess what: On March 3, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans rejected BP's argument, saying the company is going to have to live with the terms of the agreement as it was established, in which certain businesses claiming losses were presumed to have suffered harm. The court ruled that the terms of the settlement "are not as protective of BP's present concerns as might have been achievable, but they are the protections that were accepted by the parties and approved by the district court."

So at least in this one case, a corporation has been told in no uncertain terms that it cannot just change the rules after the fact to its own selfish benefit. And that's good news.

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