Monday, October 26, 2015

224.8 - Only the poor face drug tests to receive any public aid or benefit

[Welcome to Jon Swift Memorial Roundup readers. Comments, as always, are welcome. You might be interested in checking out my weekly cable-access show, posted at whoviating's channel at YouTube.]

Only the poor face drug tests to receive any public aid or benefit

Last week I expressed my anger over the demonization of the poor as drug abusers, leading to the assumption that they have to be drug-tested, they have to show they are drug-free, in order to qualify for public assistance. I'm going to go on about that a little more this week.

Because this demonization of the poor has continued despite the fact that experience has repeatedly shown that the poor are less likely to be using drugs than the general population (which makes sense when you think about it: the poor can't afford the drugs).

Despite that history, despite the evidence that the poor are not drug abusers, thirteen states have passed legislation to drug test applicants or recipients of public aid - two of those, Arkansas and Wisconsin, doing so this year.

In addition, 18 states have bills pending to do the same. Because of federal court rulings that comprehensive drug screening is a violation of fourth amendment privacy rights, these bills try various ways to work about that by using questionnaires, the person's history, or the catch-all term "suspicion-based" screening.

Just how blatant is that demonization?

When Florida pursued its unsuccessful attempt before the courts to justify drug testing all applicants for assistance, it actually argued in one of its briefs there is a "concrete danger" that poor people are drug abusers, that is, that you can just assume they are using and abusing drugs. This came after its own program, before it was stopped by the courts, found a rate of drug use among applicants for assistance of just 2.6% in a state where it's estimated that over 8% of the general population are users.

And it's not just so-called "red states." One of the bluest of the the blue, Massachusetts, is now considering a bill that would require a drug test for anyone applying for aid if they have had a drug conviction any time in the last 20 years. The same would apply to anyone else who received aid as a result of that application. Fail, and you are banned from receiving aid for a year unless you complete a drug rehab program at your own expense. Which, of course, you may not be able to do because unless there is a free state-approved one available, if you could afford the cost of the drug rehab you probably wouldn't need the aid in the first place.

Why do I bring this up again? Well, this sort of demonization has primarily been directed at applicants for Temporary Aid for Needy Families, known by the acronym TANF, or similar programs that make up what we used to call welfare - that is, before that word became poisoned by the right-wing out of their hatred of the poor and the liberals out of their condescension toward the poor and their cowardice in the face of right-wing name-calling. But that's not enough for some people.

Sen. Joe Manchin
So Sen. Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, wants to go beyond TANF and have random drug testing for people who live in or apply to live in public housing, housing which he repeatedly referred to as "drug-infested." "We should be," he said, "looking at how do you have drug-free areas."

And that, in a way, sums up the who bigotry of it all. You know full well you can walk through virtually any neighborhood anywhere in this country and know there is drug use around you, know that community is, in Manchin's term, "drug-infested." But we don't demand all those people prove they are drug-free. It's only the poor.

We don't demand that those applying for subsidized student loans such as Stafford loans prove they are drug-free before they get aid. Only the poor.

We don't demand that a middle-class family taking advantage of the Earned Income Tax Credit get tested first. Only the poor.

We don't demand that the rich pee in a cup before they can take mortgage interest tax deductions on their McMansions. Only the poor.

We don't demand that farmers looking for price supports prove their purity before they get aid. Only the poor.

When corporations through their lobbyists get special exemptions for themselves written into the tax code, we don't demand the corporate executives prove they're clean so we can be sure those benefits are not going to supply someone's drug habit. Only the poor.

No public financial benefit of any kind, no grant, no tax deduction, no low-interest loan, no subsidy, none of it comes with a demand to pee in a cup - unless the beneficiaries are poor.

It's only the poor who we expect to suffer the humiliation, the degradation, the soul-killing suspicion that they are somehow morally inferior and must prove their purity before we will deign to condescend to offer them a shiny penny. And we expect that because that's what we really think: We think the poor are inferior - lazy, drug-addled, loafers who need the strict but of course actually loving guidance of their betters, that is, us.

It is hatred for the poor. It is bigotry. It is class bigotry, or as I and others call it, classism. And our society reeks of it.

Sources cited in links:

224.7 - Everything You Need to Know: about money in politics

Everything You Need to Know: about money in politics

Okay, next up we have another of our occasional segments, this one called Everything You Need to Know. It's where you can learn a great deal about something in a very short time. In this case, it's Everything You Need to Know about the reality of money in politics.

However, this one does requires a bit of background by way of a time line.

August 10 - Smirking little prig Martin Shkreli acquires the rights to Daraprim, used to treat toxoplasmosis.

Martin Shkreli
September 17 - Shkreli has jacked the price of Daraprim up by 5500%.

September 21 - Sen. Bernie Sanders, in his role as ranking member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, writes to Shkreli, saying the Committee is investigating drug prices and asking for information.

September 28 - Smirking little prig Martin Shkreli makes the maximum legal individual donation, $2700, to the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders.

October 15 - The Sanders campaign says it will not keep the money.

Sen. Bernie Sanders
Instead, it will donate it to the Whitman-Walker health clinic in Washington, DC, which specializes in HIV/AIDS treatment and care for the LGBT community in the city.

Also on October 15 - Smirking little prig Martin Shkreli admits he "mainly" gave the money to get a private meeting with Sanders.

And so here we are: Smirking little prig Martin Shkreli openly acknowledges that he expected his money would buy him access to a senator and this has become so routine, so everyday, that he didn't even feel the need to shroud it in obfuscating language.

And that is Everything You Need to Know.

Sources cited in links:

224.6 - Clown Award: Alaska Gov. Bill Walker

Clown Award: Alaska Gov. Bill Walker

Now for another of our regular features. It's the Clown Award, given as always for an act of meritorious stupidity.

The winner of the Big Red Nose this week is Alaska Gov. Bill Walker.

In a recent interview with the BBC, Walker said the state is facing "a significant fiscal challenge" due to climate change. There are, he said, about 12 villages at risk of being washed away by rising sea levels and coastal erosion driven by global warming.

Dealing with that, which could involve having to move the villages inland, would be "very expensive," he said, something on the order of $100 million.

Gov. Bill Walker
So what is the answer offered by the governor of a state with neither income taxes nor sales taxes?

It is, he said, "an absolute urgency" for the feds to allow for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge so that Alaska can increase its income from the levies it places on production.

So let's sum up: Global climate change, driven largely by burning of fossil fuels such as oil, threatens 12 Alaskan villages with destruction. And the only solution the governor of Alaska can come up with is to do more of the very thing that caused the crisis in the first place.

Alaska Gov. Bill Walker: really and truly thinking like a clown.

Sources cited in links:

224.5 - Ya Gotta Just Laugh: TX to allow guns on campus - while Texas A+M bans nerf guns

Ya Gotta Just Laugh: TX to allow guns on campus - while Texas A+M bans Nerf guns

As a PS to all that about guns, how about a quick example of an occasional feature around here, which we've called a couple of things, for now it's Ya Gotta Just Laugh, based no matter what it's called on the quote attributed to Pierre Beaumarchais of "I hasten to laugh at everything for fear of being obliged to weep."

The state of Texas has passed a campus carry law, which will allow anyone, including students, with a concealed-carry permit to bring their guns onto college campuses and into campus buildings. The law is slated to go into effect next August.

Meanwhile, Texas A&M says this in their regulations for dormitories:
Propelling devices, such as rockets, catapults, slingshots, Nerf-type guns or any homemade device for the purpose of launching an object, are prohibited.
So come next fall, students coming to school can have concealed handguns and that's just fine - but if they dare brandish a Nerf gun, they're in big trouble.

Sources cited in links:

224.4 - Outrage of the Week: the continuing toll of gun violence

Outrage of the Week: the continuing toll of gun violence

And in that fact, that fact that nothing happens, lies one of our regular features, the Outrage of the Week.

We need to start from the basic fact, one often overlooked but should be central to the whole discussion, that gun ownership is a minority position. Only a minority of US households have a gun. Different surveys have different results, with a range from 34% to 43%, but they all say the same: gun ownership is a minority.

We are the majority. We have been the majority. We continue to be the majority. And still nothing happens.

The facts of guns in this country - the facts of gun violence in this country - simply cannot rationally be denied, although the gun nuts will do their best to do so. But those facts are a hard, cold reality.

There are far, far, more gun homicides per 100,000 population in the US than in other developed nation on the planet. The rate of murder by gun in the US is double, triple, quadruple, five times, ten times, even more than twenty times the rates in other nations.

And that is true despite a 39% drop in gun homicides in the US between 1993 and 2011.

More guns means more gun homicides. Overall in the US, the higher the rate of gun ownership in a state, the higher the rate of gun homicide in that state.

What's more, the relationship between the rate of gun ownership and gun suicide is even stronger than that between guns and homicide.

At the same time, it also works the other way: The states with the strictest gun control laws have the lowest rate of gun-related deaths.

And still nothing happens.

It's been argued that mass shootings are only a very small part of the total mayhem caused by guns, which is true, and that they are exceedingly rare - which is not true if you use a more reasonable definition of mass shooting, which instead of where at least four people are killed, its one where at least four people are shot.

By that definition, there is nearly one mass shooting a day in the US - and in 2015, there has been more than one a day.

And still nothing happens.

Babies are killing people - including other babies - in this country.

Recently a reporter for the Washington Post said he spent "a few hours sifting through news reports" and found 43 cases in the US this year, more than one a week, of a toddler, a child less than four years old, finding a gun and shooting someone.

In 31 of those cases, the toddler shot themselves. Fifteen people were killed in these incidents; in 13 of those, it was the toddler themselves.

As the writer points out, his numbers are probably an undercount. There were probably cases of toddlers shooting someone but causing only minor injuries - and likely many more where the gun is fired but the bullet doesn't hit anyone.

And remember, these are toddlers. He only counted cases where the child who pulled the trigger was no more than three.

What about older children? We don't know. We don't know how often children shoot other people, either accidentally or deliberately.

But the one thing you can be pretty sure of is that every one of those guns was owned by a no-doubt self-described "responsible gun owner" whose God-given right to amass firepower must not be abridged.

And still nothing happens.

And part of the reason nothing happens?

Because in 1996, at the behest of the Nutzoid-Rabbit-brains of America, the NRA - and let's not forget, despite what it claims, the NRA does not represent gun owners, it represents gun manufacturers, who want to sell as many guns and as much gun paraphernalia as they can, not caring how many die as the result of their pursuit of profit - but at the behest of the Nutzoids, Congress stripped money for firearm injury research from the CDC and re-directed it - and included language directing that no CDC injury research funding could go to research that might be used, in whole or in part, to advocate or promote gun control. Since it's hard to imagine any research on gun injuries or gun violence that could not be made to look like it was arguing for gun control - since that is the direction in which the facts all point - this amounted to a ban on federally-funded research on gun violence. This year, as it has year after year, Congress rejected attempts to lift the ban.

This has meant that CDC funding for research has pretty much dried up. The gap has not been filled by private sources and researchers have shied away from the field, not least because those who do try to research gun violence report receiving angry emails and death threats from the gun nuts.

It's a deliberate creation of a state of ignorance which the gun fanatics fill with their lies, their paranoia, and their Wild West gunslinger fantasies.

And nothing happens.

Except, wait, something does happen: We continue to die by gun by the tens of thousands every year. It is an outrage.

Sources cited in links:

224.3 - Footnote: gun control being Constitutional means little if the laws can't get passed.

Footnote: gun control being Constitutional means little if the laws can't get passed

As a sort of footnote to that, legal experts quoted by Reuters said that this court victory will have more of a symbolic than a practical effect because in the words of one, "All this says is that if you pass such a law, it will be constitutional." The point being, of course, that you have to get them passed and that is the problem.

Which is not entirely accurate because there is a practical effect: New York and Connecticut still have their gun control laws in place. Still, the intended point is valid: It doesn't matter how Constitutional gun control laws are if you can't get them passed.

Which is frustrating because the public has persistently favored stronger gun control laws.

In Gallup polls over the last 16 years, that is, 2000-1015 inclusive, when people are given the choice of three options - make gun laws stronger, make them weaker, or leave them as they are - support for weaker laws has never exceeded 13% and except for three years when the public was evenly split on stronger versus same-as-now, those supporting stronger laws have always been on top. In fact, in 11 of those 16 years, support for stronger laws was a clear majority - as it is now.

And still nothing happens.

Sources cited in links:

224.2 - Good News: gun control laws in NY and CT upheld by federal appeals court

Good News: gun control laws in NY and CT upheld by federal appeals court

Some other good news, and on an unexpected front. Guns.

On October 19, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that key sections of gun control laws passed by the states of New York and Connecticut in the wake of the Newtown massacre do not violate the Constitution.

The laws in question broadened the definition of what makes for a prohibited weapon to include any semiautomatic firearm containing at least one of several "military-style features," including grenade launchers and flash suppressors. The definition would include the AR-15, the popular model that Adam Lanza used to mow down schoolchildren in Newtown. They also banned large-capacity magazines of the sort that, the court noted, enabled Lanza to fire "154 rounds in less than five minutes."

The gun-fondlers' arguments against the laws of course claimed God in the form of the Holy Second Amendment was on their side as well as claiming the laws were "unconstitutionally vague," meaning it was unclear just what sorts of guns they would criminalize. Which is actually kind of funny, considering the Connecticut law specifically banned 183 types of assault weapons by make and model. Hard to be less vague than that.

example of an AR-15
What's important is that the court would not fall for the Second Amendment argument. While acknowledging that the restrictions are a "real" burden on Second Amendment rights, that is, they do put some limitations on them, the court also found that burden insufficient for a Constitutional claim because the laws don't "effectively disarm individuals or substantially affect their ability to defend themselves."

The ruling did strike down one part of the New York law that outlawed "feeding devices" holding more than seven rounds and Connecticut ban on one particular non-semiautomatic pump-action shotgun. The narrow reach of those actions just point up the broad reach of the overall decision.

The gun-fondlers are of course already planning to appeal to the Supreme Court but there is at least hope that things there will not go as well as they expect. They will doubtless be relying on the Supreme Court's controversial - and I think wholly wrong - decisions in District of Columbia v. Heller and McDonald v. Chicago, which for the first time in US history and despite precedent, which the wingers claim to love so much, found an individual, rather than a collective, right to own a gun for self-defense. But those decisions, in fact, were neither as good as the gun-nuts think nor as bad as the gun control advocates think because they specifically do allow for "reasonable" restrictions on guns.

But that argument is in the future. In the here and now, we can celebrate a victory for common sense. Which is always good news.

Sources cited in links:

224.1 - Good News: Interior Dept. cancels plans to sell leases to drill for oil in the Arctic

Good News: Interior Dept. cancels plans to sell leases to drill for oil in the Arctic

Okay, let's start out with some good news, okay?

I mentioned a few weeks ago what I called the "pretty good news" that Shell had pulled out of drilling for oil in the Arctic "for the foreseeable future," the limiting description "pretty" good news driven by the fact that Shell's withdrawal was only for "the foreseeable future," not permanently.

Well, now we can add some strength to that good news.

Faced with dwindling industry interest as exemplified by Shell and continued complaints from environmentalists who want the area protected, the Obama administration has cancelled two planned sales of leases to drill in the Arctic Ocean. One sale was planned for 2016, the other for 2017.

part of the Arctic Ocean
What's more, the Interior Department has rejected the requests of Shell and Statoil for more time to consider drilling under their current leases, which start expiring in 2017. Which means Shell's "foreseeable future" may well be stretching out further than the company imagined.

The drill-baby-drill caucus was, as expected, quick to denounce the cancellation of the sales. Rep. Rob Bishop, who, frighteningly, chairs the House Committee on Natural Resources, said that Obama "has once again played directly into Russia’s hands" by blocking drilling in the environmentally-sensitive waters.

This isn't the end of the issue, of course, not with Arctic Ocean drilling lease sales still planned for 2020 and 2022. But the cancellation of lease sales over the next two years is still welcome and with any luck and a lot of work on our parts, drilling in the Arctic - or anywhere else, for that matter - may make even less sense in 2020 than it does now.

And wouldn't that be good news.

Sources cited in links:

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Left Side of the Aisle #224

Left Side of the Aisle
for the week of October 22-28, 2015

Good News: Interior Dept. cancels plans to sell leases to drill for oil in the Arctic.

Good News: gun control laws in NY and CT upheld by federal appeals court.

Footnote: gun control being Constitutional means little if the laws can't get passed.

Outrage of the Week: the continuing toll of gun violence.

Ya Gotta Just Laugh: TX to allow guns on campus - while Texas A&M bans nerf guns.

Clown Award: AK Gov. Bill Walker

Everything You Need to Know: about money in politics

Only the poor face drug tests to receive any public aid or benefit

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

223.9 - Something about guns

Something about guns

I had originally intended to devote a significant part of this week's show to the scourge of guns. Obviously, I didn't.

I started thinking about something that Gandhi was supposed to have said in a moment of frustration and despair: "What can I say that I have not said ten thousand times? What can I write that I have not written ten thousand times?"

I feel the same way right now on the subject of guns. I feel defeated, despairing, not knowing what I can say or how I could say it that would make the least damned bit of difference. I know that we have to carry on, that we have to keep going; I know that silence is surrender; but right now I can't find my voice.

All I keep thinking is that until we Americans as a people, as a culture, grow the hell up and throw away our childish fantasies that somehow we are all living on the frontier in the 1880s with nothing between us and who knows what danger except our trusty guns, until we grow the hell up and ditch the infantile vision of ourselves as action movie heroes ready to leap into action to defend the defenseless and save the day, until we grow the hell up and realize the our guns have brought us death and not deliverance, until that time the tens of thousands of people who die by gun every year in this country will continue to die by the tens of thousands.

I know this won't last, I know I will recover my voice; I know I will again embrace and be heartened by the fact that even with all those damn guns, a clear minority of American households actually have one, meaning that not owning a gun is by far the majority position; I know this will come up here again.

But not now. Today I just wonder what I can say or write that I have not already said or written too many times before.

Sources cited in links:

223.8 - Cleveland prosecutor lays grounds to whitewash killing of Tamir Rice

Cleveland prosecutor lays grounds to whitewash killing of Tamir Rice

Now for our other usual feature, the Outrage of the Week. And this week, oh boy.

You remember - at least I certainly hope you remember - the murder last November of Tamir Rice, a black 12-year-old boy who was shot down by a Cleveland cop quite literally less than two seconds after he and another cop zoomed up to him in a patrol car.

It has now been nearly eleven months since Tamir Rice lay on the ground dying as the two cops did nothing to offer or obtain help and the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor's Office claims to still be "investigating" what would appear to be an open-and-shut case of at my gosh absolute minimum negligent homicide.

Why the hell is this taking so long? Well, now we know. It was taking a long time for the prosecutors to find a couple of supposed "experts" who could be counted on to reach conclusions that would achieve the goal of letting the cop walk.

Kimberly Crawford and Lamar Sims
The two are retired FBI agent Kimberly Crawford and Lamar Sims, the chief deputy district attorney in Denver - oh yeah, ex-FBI and a prosecutor, there's a real pair of impartial and disinterested sources.

Both of them declared grandly that oh this was just such an unfortunate tragedy and we really really feel for the family - but what the cop did was just fine. Entirely reasonable. Case closed.

They said it in different ways, but they said the same thing: The only thing that matters is what the cop thought, or at least what he said he thought, since the original police report on the killing proved to be laced with lies when the video - which the cops at first didn't know existed - came out. And if the cop thought - or said he thought - there was a threat, then it was entirely reasonable of him to instantly shoot to kill. His own behavior, they maintain, is entirely irrelevant.

But their own words, as clever as they think they are, condemn them and brand them as apologists for a killer.

Crawford said "the speed with which the confrontation progressed would not give the officer time to focus on the weapon" to, apparently, realize it was a toy.

What confrontation? There was no confrontation except the one created by the cops.

Sims, for his part, said that the cop, whose name is Timothy Loehmann by the way, was in a position of great peril because he was so close to Tamir. "The officers did not create the violent situation," he said.

What the hell is he talking about? He was close to Tamir because he chose to be close. He created the peril. And there was no violent situation until the cops created it. And do not forget that the only violent part of the entire thing was cop Timothy Loehmann shooting Tamir Rice to death.

Tamir Rice
Oh, but that's unimportant. It doesn't matter. Crawford said that considering the cops' role in creating the very supposed risk that justified killing Tamir Rice is "armchair quarterbacking" which has "no place" in the discussion. Because, it seems, we mere mortals are not fit to judge cops. And the badge number of every cop in the country should start with double-0.

The reports were released, the prosecutor's office said, in the interests of "transparency." The only thing that's transparent here is the laying of the groundwork for, preparing the public for, letting another killer cop walk.

I cannot begin to tell you how disgusted I am by this. So I will just say it's an outrage.

Sources cited in links:

223.7 - States continue to demonize poor as drug abusers

States continue to demonize poor as drug abusers

Talking about the economy brings up something we're talked about before here, with a bit of recent news prompting me to bring it up again.

In the summer of 2014, Tennessee instituted a new program of drug testing applicants for public assistance, what we used to call welfare.

The program consisted of three questions about drug use added to the application. Answer "yes" to any one of them and you have to take a urine test or be rejected outright. Take the test and fail, you have one chance to take a second test after completing a drug treatment program. The penalty is losing six months of benefits.

Well, the news is that it's been a year now and the state has reported on the results so far: Only 1.6% of the nearly 30,000 applicants answered "yes" to any of the screening questions and of those, fewer than 12% failed the urine test. Together, that means that less than 0.2% of applicants for public aid, fewer than 1 in 500, were found to be using drugs.

Tennessee thus joins the list of six other states - AZ, KS, MS, MO, OK, UT - that have instituted similar programs only to have similar results: discovering that poor people are considerably less likely to be using drugs than the general population.

Yet these states and others continue to push this idea that we are somehow doing poor people a favor by treating them all as suspected drug users who have to prove the purity of their bodily fluids to their governing overlords, those who hold in their hands the power to decide if the accused gets any help with food or shelter or health care for themselves or their children.

With the repeated failures of that idea, whose only practical outcome has been to deny benefits to people in need, possibly to the very people who need them the most, the question arises as to why it keeps getting pushed.

The answer is contained in the question: The intent is to find ways to deny aid to the poor by demonizing the poor, by claiming the problem is one of personal failures, which drug addiction is presented as despite the medical evidence to the contrary, rather than one of economic injustice that has turned too many of us into economic throwaways as power and wealth become more concentrated.

Throwaways in more ways than one. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, which is Canada's largest mental health and addiction teaching hospital as well as one of the world's leading research facilities on those topics, has long maintained that it does not support mandatory drug testing and treatment not only because they are of "limited utility" in confirming drug use or treatment needs but also because they
further entrench the stigma which erroneously links drug addiction with economic need, and fail to address the complex but more relevant needs of those requiring assistance
- as well as, it could well be added, ignoring the possible needs of the estimated 70% of drug users who are employed and so are not among those applying for public assistance.

That stigma of the poor as being druggies, as being poor because they are druggies, has consequences far beyond the humiliation of having to pee in a cup. As the Centre notes:
Research from the US indicates that denying benefits to those who fail to comply with treatment may result in increased poverty, crime, homelessness and higher health care and social costs.
That stigma, which drives the entire drug-screening idea, is just one more obstacle faced by those who economically struggle every single day, with all that entails for, again, necessities such as food and clothing and shelter and health care and more, who struggle every day to try to escape the trap of poverty but who find that stigma of them as drug abusers that follows them even as they try to find work, that demonization of their condition, that assumption of their moral inferiority, that as I call it classism, our contempt for the poor, is just one more mountain for them to climb.

And one more reason we need that economic overhaul.

Sources cited in links:

Monday, October 19, 2015

223.6 - House repeals ban on export of US crude oil

House repeals ban on export of US crude oil

By a bipartisan vote of 261-159, the House of Representatives has passed a bill to remove all restrictions on the export of crude oil from the US.

The export ban has been in place for 40 years, having been enacted in 1975 as a response to the oil embargo by OPEC.

It now goes to the Senate.

Even if it passes, Obama has threatened to veto it. The vote in the House did not reach the 2/3 majority that would be needed to override that veto and it's extremely rare for an override vote to get more support than the original passage. So if Obama keeps his words and vetoes it (assuming it even gets that far), it will not pass.

So why do I bring up a bill that is unlikely to become law?

Because it so neatly shows the cold heart of our economic reality, our economic system. Many of the voices now pushing the vital necessity of selling US oil overseas are the same voices pushing for the Keystone XL pipeline on the grounds that it would reduce US dependence on imported oil. (Which is odd because the oil - tar sands - would be imported from Canada; maybe they think Canada doesn't count as another country because, like Goldie Hawn's character said in the movie "Protocol," "it's kind of attached.")

The point is, that seeming contradiction isn't a contradiction at all. Rather, it reveals that this new move isn't about jobs, it isn't about national security, it isn't about "diplomatic flexibility, it isn't about any of the rest of that crap pushed by its supporters. It's about corporate profit. That is the common thread between supporting Keystone XL and supporting lifting a ban an export of crude: each would serve to advance corporate profit. Because what would the primary domestic economic effect of lifting the ban on exporting oil? It would be to raise the prices of things like gasoline and heating oil.

Which means, at the end of the day, the real result of this bipartisan bill, the real intent of this bipartisan bill, is to increase corporate profit and the environment and our pocketbooks be damned.

I keep emphasizing the bipartisan nature of this vote because it points up the tight limits on what passes for debate about our economy, where both sides splutter on about jobs and inequality but one side argues we need to tinker a little more with our economy and the other side argues we've already tinkered too much.

It's past time, long past time, to realize that we can't tinker, we have to overhaul. Capitalism can effectively exploit resources, but it cannot create sustainability. Capitalism can efficiently use the environment for its own ends, but it cannot protect that environment for the future. Capitalism as an economic system can produce growth, but it cannot produce justice. Not justice of any kind, not social justice, not environmental justice, not political justice, and especially not economic justice.

So over the next couple of weeks I intend to pull out some old proposals of my own to give you some idea of what I think parts of that economic overhaul are going to have to look like. (Assuming I can find them grrr.)

Sources cited in links:

223.5 - Clown Award: Commissioner Karen Miller of Blount County, Tennessee

Clown Award: Commissioner Karen Miller of Blount County, Tennessee

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

The winner of the Big Red Nose this week is Karen Miller, a member of the board of commissioners of Blount County, Tennessee. She has introduced a resolution asking God not to smite the county because Tennessee is issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Yes, literally.

After a bunch of "whereas"es typical of right-wing blather, including references to "Natural Law," which is right-wing speech for "we want it this way but don't have a good reason why so we just say it's supposed to be this way" along with claims that Amendments 9 and 10 of the Constitution mean that the Supreme Court can't overrule state laws  and followed by a call to all state officials to defend "natural marriage" from "lawless court opinions and the financial schemes of the enemies of righteousness," the resolution ends with this, and I'm quoting:
We adopt this Resolution before God that He pass us by in His Coming Wrath and not destroy our County as he did Sodom and Gomorrah and the neighboring cities. As the Passover Lamb was a means of salvation to the Ancient Children of Israel, so we stand upon the safety of the Lamb of God to save us.

We adopt this Resolution begging His favor in light of the fact that we have been forced to comply and recognize that the State of Tennessee, like so many other God-fearing States, MAY have fallen prey to a lawless judiciary in legalizing what God and the Bible expressly forbids.
Karen Miller
The commission was supposed to take up the resolution at a meeting earlier this month but the meeting was unexpectedly adjourned minutes after it began without even agreeing on an agenda for the next meeting. It would appear that other commissioners, or at least a sufficient number of them, are not as worried about being smote - and yeah, that is the right form - being smote by God as Ms. Miller is.

The Tennessee Equality Project was out in force to protest the resolution and say they will be again if it is on the agenda again.

Which it may well be because Karen Miller says she is not giving up and will introduce the resolution again, again calling on God to "pass by" Blount County while, it would seem by the text of the resolution, the deity remaining free to lay waste to the entire rest of the state of Tennessee.

Karen Miller. Bigot. Religious wacko. Clown.

Sources cited in links:

223.4 - The rise of Indigenous Peoples' Day

The rise of Indigenous Peoples' Day

Another area where we seem to at long last be maturing as a people can be seen in that fact that since August, eight more US municipalities have declared October 12 to be "Indigenous Peoples Day" in honor of the histories, cultures, stories, and accomplishments of the native peoples who populated North America thousands of years before Columbus "discovered America."

Those eight are Olympia, WA, and St. Paul, MN, which did so in August; Anadarko, OK, and Alpena, WI, which followed in September; and Albuquerque, NM, Lawrence, KS, Portland, OR, and Bexar County, TX, which acted this month.

They are not the first to do so: Seattle and Minneapolis made the switch last year; Berkeley, CA did so back in 1992, and South Dakota has had Native American Day since 1990.

But they are part of a growing trend.

There have been observances in the US of Columbus's voyages since the colonial period, but the roots of Columbus Day as a holiday go back to Colorado in 1907, a place and time when Italians were near the bottom of the social and economic ladder. An Italian immigrant laborer named Angelo Noce, apparently wanting to elevate the image of Italians among his contemporaries, worked to have the state legislature declare October 12 Columbus Day, possibly because, according to his daughter, Noce figured that Columbus was the one Italian that "Americans would not throw rocks at." By the time of his death in 1922, 35 states had declared Columbus Day an official holiday; today, 46 states and the federal government do.

The thing is, by now everyone knows that Columbus didn't "discover America" if we equate "America" with the US. His voyages - there were four of them - never touched the mainland of North America but went to the Caribbean. He wasn't even the first European to reach the so-called "New World," not when there were Norse in Newfoundland about 1000CE.

More to the point, we've become more aware of the impact of Columbus's voyages on the natives he encountered and the broader impact on the peoples of North America from the expansion of Europe's vision he helped inspire, an impact driven by dreams of riches that produced for the natives disease, murder, slavery, exploitation, and death on a colossal scale.

Let it be said: Columbus and those who followed in his wake did not inflict this suffering on the natives because they were natives - Europeans were more than willing to murder, enslave, and torture each other and those tortures, in particular, could be let's call it quite creative - they inflicted it because it was to their profit to do so. It was the pursuit of profit that drove it. (Although, it should be added, it appears that old Chris himself was a particularly nasty example of his time.)

Let it be said, too, that the native peoples of North America, including the Caribbean, were not a bunch of tree-hugging pacifists free from evil we're supposed to think inherently European impulses like war, murder, and slavery. But like some Type 1 civilization facing the Borg, "resistance was futile." And the ultimate devastation was the same whether they resisted or not.

So what I find to applaud in the move to drop Columbus Day in favor of Indigenous Peoples Day is not that we can conveniently ascribe virtue here and venality there, all good here and all evil there, but that we non-indigenous people of the US are beginning, beginning, to take account of our own history in all its complexity, for good and for evil.

Sources cited in links:

223.3 - Good News: Signs of acceptance of transgender people

Good News: Signs of acceptance of transgender people

Another bit of good news, not so much for the particular facts as for what it represents, comes to us from Kansas City, actually from Gladstone, Missouri, part of the greater Kansas City area.

On October 1, members of the cult known as the Westboro Baptist Church showed up at Oak Park High School with their usual collection of multi-colored hate placards, spewing their venom there because the student body had elected a transgender student named Landon Patterson to be homecoming queen. A counter-protest by the students who drowned out the haters with cries of "long live the Queen" forced the cult to leave, with the students following them back to their car and cheering as they drove off.

Landon Patterson
Now, while it's always fun to see the WBC run away when they are challenged, as they often do, what struck me here was not only that the students elected a transgender student to be homecoming queen, but they were prepared to defend her against the abuse - which is an even more powerful statement than the election itself that they just don't see what the big deal is about being transgender. They realize that transgender folks face discrimination, but they don't see a legitimate reason why.

Just like support for same-sex marriage, acceptance of transgender individuals increases as the polled group gets younger. We are, with each generation, maturing as a society on questions of gender identity. And that is good news.

Sources cited in links:

223.2 - California adopts Death with Dignity law

California adopts Death with Dignity law

Some other good news which in a way feels strange to call good news. Not because it's actually bad news but because of the circumstances under which the good news will operate.

And if you're confused, this will surely straighten it out:

California has enacted a Death With Dignity law, one that allows terminally-ill patients to obtain lethal doses of medications in order to end their own lives early.

Specifically, the law will permit physicians to provide lethal prescriptions to mentally competent adults who have been diagnosed with a terminal illness and have a prognosis of less than six months to live.

The law will take effect 90 days after the Legislature adjourns its special session on healthcare, which means it will not go into effect until sometime next year.

Governor Jerry Brown said he struggled with the decision about signing the bill and in fact didn't reveal his position on it until he signed it. He said he decided to sign it because, quoting, "The crux of the matter is whether the state of California should continue to make it a crime for a dying person to end his life no matter how great his pain and suffering."

Brown, who has had three brushes with cancer himself, said he didn't know what he would do if he was dying in great pain, but it would be a "comfort" to be able to "consider the option" offered under the bill and he wouldn't want to deny that right to anyone else.

More important than that "comfort" is the sense of control that the "death-wth-dignity" option gives terminally-ill people, who all too often feel as if they had become mere observers of their own lives, that their lives were something happening to them rather than something in which they participate. Which is why in Oregon, which has had a Death with Dignity law in place for 17 years, more than a third of those who got a lethal prescription never filled it: The fact that they could make that decision if things became unbearable, the fact that they had that degree of control, was enough.

There were, of course, opponents, who had both ethical and practical arguments, neither of them persuasive. The ethical arguments seemed to be based mostly on the notion of "preserve life at any cost," which frankly from my perspective sounds reasonable until you add the necessary addendum "no matter the degree of suffering of the patient."

The practical arguments, on the other hand, were usually of the "scare quote" variety: people will get pushed into dying early because it's cheaper or greedy children will want to get rid of elderly parents quicker. Such arguments seem to fall apart in the face of the fact that in Oregon, which again has the most experience with this, there have been an average of just 69 lethal prescriptions a year - and remember a third of the total were never filled.

So California does - or next year, will - join Oregon, Montana, Vermont, and Washington in giving terminally-ill patients the option - which is what it is, the option - to end their days as they will, in full control of their lives and their faculties.

And yes, while the conditions are sad, that still is good news.

Sources cited in links:

223.1 - Good News: Company introduces (almost) zero pollution electric bike

Good News: Company introduces (almost) zero pollution electric bike

A French company named Pragma Industries has designed a new electric bike. It runs on hydrogen batteries which are built into the frame, takes only five minutes to recharge, and can go for 100km, about 62 miles, on a single charge.

And here's the thing: Because it runs on the hydrogen batteries, the only waste product, the only emission, is plain water. The carbon footprint is almost zero. What's more, the company says the bikes are, quoting the CEO, "made of up ever more recyclable products" and even the recharging stations are solar- or wind-powered to limit carbon emissions even more.

The disadvantage, of course, is that you can never be more than 100km from a charging station. That problem of having to be within reach of a recharging station is one shared by every all-electric vehicle, but here it's a bigger one: Most such vehicles using more let's call them traditional batteries can be plugged into any outlet to be recharged. These bikes have to be recharged with hydrogen, requiring a special charging station.

Even so, they are a real neat new and environmentally-friendly thing. They're rather expensive - the new ones will run about €2300, which is about $2600 - but supposedly that is no more than existing top-bracket electric bikes. And the French Post Office has reportedly expressed an interest in ordering a fleet of the bikes which not only could bring the price down but could involve a network of hydrogen-refueling stations, making them both more affordable and more useful for most people.

Nearly zero pollution electric bikes. Yup, that's a good thing.

Sources cited in links:

Left Side of the Aisle 223

Left Side of the Aisle
for the week of October 15-21, 2015

This week:

Company introduces (almost) zero pollution electric bike

California adopts Death with Dignity law

Signs of acceptance of transgender people

The rise of Indigenous Peoples' Day

Clown Award: Commissioner Karen Miller of Blount County, Tennessee

House repeals ban on export of US crude oil

States continue to demonize poor as drug abusers

Cleveland prosecutor lays grounds to whitewash killing of Tamir Rice

Something about guns

Saturday, October 03, 2015

222.7 - The pursuit of profit is the baseline cause of economic injustices

The pursuit of profit is the baseline cause of economic injustices

And yes, that pursuit of profit distorts our economy and our society. The pursuit of profit is the baseline cause of income inequality, it is the baseline cause of poverty, it is the baseline cause of unemployment, it is the baseline cause of homelessness, it is the baseline cause of hunger.

The pursuit of profit does not allow for the common good, it does not allow for the advancement or the benefit of the community as a whole, it does not allow for "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few - or the one." In fact, the  pursuit of profit declares the opposite: not even the needs, but the desires of the one outweigh the needs of all the rest.

Just consider one example: The Wall Street Journal has reported on "a severe shortage of midtier apartments," meaning apartments with a rental cost range "aimed at the working class." This shortage has driven up rents for lower- and middle-income-earners, with a market segment average of $845 a month - a daunting amount for many of today’s part-timers and even many full-timers.

The reason for this is simple: It costs about as much to develop a luxury apartment complex for the rich and well-off as it does for one for low- or moderate-income people. But the rental income on the luxury apartments is, obviously, much higher, with rents nationwide averaging over $1700 a month - more than double those for people futher down the income scale. As a result, since 2002, the supply of cheaper apartments has shrunk by 1.6% - there are fewer less-expensive apartments than there were in 2002 - while the number of luxury units has gone up by 31%. Put all that together with ordinary population growth and you have more people finding fewer apartments with escalating rents which fewer and fewer can afford, to the point where any sort of housing becomes out of reach for them.

Which in turn leads to the estimate contained in the Department of Housing and Urban Development's Annual Homeless Assessment Report for 2014 that there are close to 580,000 people homeless on any given night in the US and the estimate by the Urban League that around 2.3 million Americans are homeless for some period of time at some point during the year.

At the same time, according to Census Bureau’s homeownership survey, in the first quarter of 2015 some 17.3 million housing units in the US were vacant, a figure that does not include those which are vacant only part of the year. That is about 7.5 empty places to live for every person who is homeless at some point in a year and 30 empty spaces for everyone homeless on a given night.

That state of affairs does not exist because of some force of nature or some ineluctable law of physics. It exists because of the drive for profit being placed above the needs of living, breathing human beings.

It is the drive for profit the generates unemployment, unemployment that is actually far higher than the supposed "official" rate. In fact, if you include those who are working part-time only because they can't find full-time work and an estimate of the number of "discouraged workers," those who dropped out of the labor force because they came to despair of ever finding work and so who are not counted in the unemployment numbers, unemployment is estimated at nearly 23%, Depression-era levels.

This is because corporations and their lackeys see employees as a cost, as something to be minimized. We've heard it so many times we can repeat the mantras from memory: "Businesses create jobs." No, they don't. Businesses incur labor costs in the pursuit of profit. That's why, despite the horrendous predictions of massive unemployment if the minimum wage is raised, such predictions have never come true in the past - because businesses do not make a practice of keeping employees they do not need, especially those lowly people at the bottom of the wage scale who obviously are unimportant because if they were important they would be making more money.

A full employment economy is possible; there certainly is enough work to do. Every four years, the American Society of Civil Engineers puts out a report card on the US's infrastructure, something I will say on my own behalf I was talking about before most politicians even knew what the term meant. The Society considered 16 areas of concern, such as dams, bridges, and public parks, under four categories: water and environment, transportation, public facilities, and energy.  Eleven of those 16 areas rated a grade of D, with only one getting as high a B-.

So yes, there is a great deal of work to do, but it's not getting done because there is no profit in it for private corporations and the rich are not willing to pay the taxes needed for the government to be able to afford to do it. The pursuit of profit not only keeps us unemployed and underemployed, it threatens our infrastructure and therefore our health and safety by its indifference.

And it keeps us poor.

Poverty in two states - North Dakota and Colorado - is at or below the level it was at in 2007, before the great recession. In every other state, poverty is above the level it was at in 2007. Between 2007 and 2014, median household income for non-elderly families dropped over 9%. Over essentially that same period, specifically from June 30, 2007 to June 30, 2015, corporate profits after taxes went up 37.5%.

Indeed, the pursuit of profit keeps us so poor that some 1.5 million American families subsist on as little as $2 per person per day, a 70% increase since the 1990s, people who are so far on the fringes, whose lives are so unstable, exposed to so many risks, going from one crisis to the next, that researchers said the stories of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse seemed like the norm rather the exception.

Those 1.5 million families include 3 million children, because as the pursuit of profit keeps us poor, it particularly keeps our children poor.

According to a study by the Urban Institute, 22% of US children, more than 16 million of them, live in households with income below the federal poverty line, a figure which itself is absurdly low: The federal poverty line for a family of four is $24,250, and research shows that, on average, families need an income of about twice that to cover basic expenses. What's more, nearly 40% of American children live in poverty for at least one year of their life before they reach the age of 18. And, it shouldn't be necessary to point out but I will, the figures were far worse for black children than for white children. All those children experience unmet needs, low-quality schools, and unstable circumstances that can damage their chances for success as adults.

That, too, is the result of the pursuit of profit. And what really tops this off is that in all too many cases, it's not even that some enterprise, some project that could provide employment and stability to a struggling family, is not profitable, it's because it's not profitable enough. It's not that the corporations can't make money, it's that they can't make as much as they want. Because the drive for profit, the thirst for profit, even overrules profit.

If we are ever to build a just society, or at least an economically just society, a minimally just society,
- a society in which there are jobs, decent jobs at decent pay for everyone who wants one,
- in which yes, there may still be rich but no one will be poor,
- in which yes, there may still be McMansions but no one will be without a decent place to live,
- in which yes, there may still be those who will indulge in various nips and tucks and facelifts and the rest of the vanities but no one will lack for adequate health care,
- in which yes, there may still be those who can pop off to Paris for the weekend but no one will lack for the means of travel and the opportunity for recreation and the arts,
- in which opportunities for life-long education will be freely available to all,
then we will have to accept that our economy, even our society, is built on a false premise, a premise that says profit is a goal rather than the very most it properly can be allowed to be, which is a means.

Sources cited in links:

222.6 - Martin Shkreli is a poster child for what's wrong with capitalism

Martin Shkreli is a poster child for what's wrong with capitalism

But the case of VW really serves as an illustration of just how much - and more importantly, why - our economy is so distorted, twisted, screwed-up, and unserviceable for the vast majority of us: the baseline concept that profit, the search for profit, the drive for profit, the thirst for profit, not only rules everything, it overrules everything and is actually justification for overruling everything from law to regulation to ethics to decency to our collective future.

Consider some big news of late, the case of Martin Shkreli, a smirking little prig of a man who made himself notorious by buying the rights to a medication called Pyrimethamine, sold under the trade name of Daraprim.

Daraprim is used to treat Toxoplasmosis, a parasitic disease. The parasite is extremely common, with even an estimated 23% of the US population over the age of 12 harboring the parasite. In most people, it causes at worst some flu-like symptoms and many people never show any symptoms at all.

But infants, the elderly, and those with weakened immune systems, such as those with HIV or cancer patients, can suffer very serious complications. As a result of that, plus the fact that up to 95% of the population in some areas of the world harboring it, Daraprim on the World Health Organization's List of Essential Medicines, the ones it regard as most important medications needed for a basic health care system.

Well, Shkreli bought the rights and then immediately raised the price from the already-absurd $13.50 a pill, absurd because Daraprim has been on the market since 1953 and costs about $1 per pill to make, raised the cost from an absurd $13.50 a pill to an unconscionable $750 a pill, a 5500% increase, in a single day. On a medication needed by some among the most vulnerable.

He was roundly, soundly, and justifiably denounced for this across social media, but the point right now is how he defended himself.

He told CBS News that "There’s no doubt - I’m a capitalist, I’m trying to create a big drug company, a successful drug company, a profitable drug company."

He bizarrely claimed the move was "altruistic" and would actually benefit patients, which sounded as wacko in the original as it does here, but he had already given the game away: He's a capitalist. It's all about the money. It's all about the profit. It's all about the greed. It's all about the pure unadulterated selfishness and the "me first." And the "me second." And the "me third." And - and so on.

Which in its own perverted way makes sense, as Shkreli initially made his money as a hedge fund manager, that supercilious tribe of economic mutants that make fortunes by shifting around other people's money while creating absolutely nothing of value and accelerating the increasing concentration of wealth and power.

Which, again, is the point: It is perverted. Because Shkreli really expected that saying "I'm a capitalist" freed him from all requirements of ethics or decency and what's more that his interviewer would accept it the same way. That "profit" makes it all good.

That is the way they think. That is what the corporate elite, the 1%, the economic powers of our nation, the Masters of the Universe, however you refer to them, this is how they really think. They hold that profit is not only its own reward, it is its own justification, and that everything else, including ethics and the law, must fall before it.

Sources cited in links:
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