Sunday, May 21, 2017

22.7 - Outrage of the Week: militarism as national policy

Outrage of the Week: militarism as national policy

One area which I have felt for a few years that the Congressional Progressive Caucus has downplayed in its budget is war spen - excuse me, military spen - excuse me, "defense" spending. They used to be clearer and harder on the need not just to contain expansion of our various wars but to turn them back and indeed to slash the size of the military budget, which takes up half of all discretionary spending in the federal budget.

The proposed military budget - not, I note just the Department of Defense budget, but the entire military budget, including the parts stashed in the Departments of State and Energy - the proposed military budget for Fiscal 2018 is $824.1 billion, including $76 billion for our various wars.

I said about a month ago that what we are seeing with TheRump's administration, more than with previous ones, is a free hand being given to the military; what we are seeing is, I said, "militarism unleashed as national policy." I declared it the Outrage of the Week.

The weeks since have given me no reason to change that judgement and so it is again the Outrage of the Week.

We have deepening involvement in fighting in Syria, with maybe 1000 more ground troops to help with the fight to take ISIS's self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa, along with a new agreement to provide arms to the Kurdish forces taking the lead in the fighting.

Note well: The idea of arming the Kurds was something the outgoing Obama administration wanted the incoming TheRump administration team to sign off on. Reports are that Michael Flynn, TheRump's former national security adviser, rejected the idea and some say it's because Turkey is opposed to arming the Kurds and Flynn is a registered foreign agent for Turkey. But whether or not that is true, the point here is that arming the Kurds is not a TheRump policy, it's a Pentagon policy.

And then there is the fact that
President Trump's most senior military and foreign policy advisers have proposed a major shift in strategy in Afghanistan that would put the United States back on a war footing with the Taliban.
It would add 3000 troops to the 8400 already there, authorize the Pentagon, not the White House, to set troop levels in Afghanistan, and give the military far broader authority to use airstrikes at times and on targets of it's choosing.

In other words, it is again, as it is in Syria, as it is in drone strikes, as it is in North Korea, as it is in Iraq, it is let the military, whether it's the Pentagon, the CIA, or whoever, it is let the military do what it wants.

I say it again: It is militarism unleashed as national policy.

It's time the progressive left stopped ignoring military spending, stopping ignoring weapons spending, stopped ignoring the constant background drumbeat of death. Because that drumbeat and even more ignoring it is an outrage.

22.6 - Why you are not getting a raise

Why you are not getting a raise

An article in the May 9 Washington Post had a headline that made me laugh: "You're Not Getting a Raise and Nobody Knows Why." Why did that make me laugh? I'll tell you.

The article said that the economy "today has almost everything experts look for as a sign of health," including some job growth, lower unemployment, and higher business and consumer confidence,
but one thing that really matters for workers has been stubbornly absent: strong wage growth.
No one knows precisely why wage growth has lagged behind, but economists have a few explanations.
And they went on about how the labor participation rate is still low, productivity is not increasing as fast as it had been and blah blah and mumble mumble amid a lot of head-scratching.

So why was it funny? More precisely, bitterly funny? Because they brushed up against but kept dancing away from the simple and obvious answer: Why aren't you getting a raise? Because the bosses can get away with not giving you one.

Because we are still worried about the future, still fearful that next paycheck could be last, still holding on to what we have.

Because what do we see when we look at the physical signs of the economy around us? We see more than 3500 retail stores closing in the first months of 2017.

Oh, we'll be told, that's okay because the online economy is booming. Well, yeah, we've seen a boom and bust cycle so we'll reserve judgement on this one and besides, most of us do not work in the online economy, which in any event, considering tales of how companies like treat their workers, does not sound like a reasonable alternative.

Meanwhile, the official poverty rate, which undercounts the real level, is still at 13.5%, higher than before the 2008 crash.

Poverty is 21.4% among Hispanics, 24.1% among African-Americans, and 28.3% among single-race Native American and Alaskan Natives.

Those of who are working are working more hours, but despite that, real median household income, even after some gains over the last two years, is below where is was in 2007 - which is below where it was in 1999: We have gone through more than 15 years of work to wind up behind where we started.

It's to the point where the classic American dream is for many of us dead or dying.

The baseline of that dream, as I've said for over 40 years and I was far from the first to do so, is that your kids will be better off than you. That your kids will have a better life than you did. That whatever struggles you have, the end will be that you kids will have it easier.

But the blunt fact is that according to recent research, for a lot of us that just isn't true any more: Among children born in the 1940s, about 90% grew up to earn more than their parents. For children born in the 1980s, the figure is 50%. Half of us are growing up to be no better off, even worse off, than our parents were.

It all leads to this: A great many of us feel trapped, are trapped, our only escape from a job where we are overworked and underpaid is to move to a different job where we will be overworked and underpaid in a different way.

The result is the bosses have all the power, with profits to gain and nothing to lose by saying "I won't give you a raise and if you don't like it, tough."

And yet these economists, the number-crunchers, the gods of prognostication, are dumbstruck at the fact that wages are not rising strongly, dumbstruck because they insist on treating our economy, our economic system, like it was some machine with dials to be tweaked with predictable results instead of what it is, a system rampant with, based on, greed and power-hunger.

If we want to change what will be, we have to change what is and that means attacking the power of the bosses. The "Fight for 15," the campaign for a $15 per hour minimum wage, is a good start. We should look to be going a lot further.

As a sort of footnote to this, something not directly connected but related because it will (or, more correctly, would) affect the economy is that every year, the Congressional Progressive Caucus puts out an alternative federal budget. Not a page of bullet points in a press release, but an actual budget proposal, an actual progressive or at least reasonably progressive alternate federal budget.

Every year the media takes quick note of the proposal, praises its practicality, and immediately thereafter ignores it entirely until the next year.

This year, the budget is called The People's Budget: A Roadmap for the Resistance FY 2018. Maybe this can be the year it can get more than a quick glance

22.5 - Clown Award: Hillary Clinton

Clown Award: Hillary Clinton

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

As I have said before, there are several varieties of stupid, from the evil to the jaw-droppingly dumb. This one is a case of sheer ridiculousness.

So this week, the Big Red Nose goes to Hillary Clinton.

On May 15, Clinton grandly declared that she is part of "the resistance," the spontaneous opposition to the cruelty, bigotry, and sheer venality that is the administration of Donald TheRump.

Apparently under the illusion that we have all been waiting breathlessly for her re-emergence into political life, she used the occasion to announce the formation of a new group, called Onward Together, with a name and logo that point back to her campaign slogan of "Stronger Together."

In case that didn't make it clear enough that the actual goal is to re-direct the explosion of grassroots energy we've seen of late into support for the institutional Democratic Party and its approved candidates, she wrote to supporters saying the new group is "dedicated to advancing the progressive vision that earned nearly 66 million votes in the last election," in other words, to the "vision" that supported her and the party.

Hillary Clinton
And in case even that didn't make it clear enough, she also hinted that Howard Dean would be involved somehow, as if she expected us to get all a-flutter at the very mention of the idea.

Make no mistake: This is not about supporting the resistance, this is about leading the resistance. This is not about being part of the resistance, this is about being the resistance.

This is, that is, about defining the resistance. This is about turning "the resistance" into simply an arm of the institutional Democratic Party.

That is an idea whose time, if it has not passed, damn well should have. And to the extent that Hillary Clinton imagines herself being a leader of, a spokeswoman for, the resistance, the same is true of her.

And that makes her a clown.

22.4 - Donald TheRump is incompetent

Donald TheRump is incompetent

Donald TheRump
You know about TheRump's meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak where he went off-script and in the course of bragging about his "great intel" blabbed some highly classified intelligence about ISIS that had come from Israel and was so highly classified it had not been shared even with US allies.

But it was not that revelation itself but some that arose out of it that I found most revealing.

For one, the National Security Council prepares multi-page briefings for Trump for talks with foreign leaders, but he insists those be boiled down to a single page of bullet points - and he often ignores those.

Then there's the fact that some White House officials are saying that TheRump can't hurt US security because he is such a "hasty and indifferent reader of printed briefing materials" that he simply doesn't know enough to be able to reveal any specific sources or methods that would be harmful to the US or its allies.

What's more, some of his advisers and staff are afraid to leave him alone in meetings with foreign leaders because they're worried he'll say something untoward or insulting.

Now, Donald TheRump is not stupid. For all the jokes we make, we know that he is not a genuinely stupid man. He is intellectually lazy, yes, but he is also one of all-time great self-promoters: For one thing, he self-promoted himself right into the White House. Last spring, I said that you could know everything you needed to know about him if you just keep in mind he is a real-estate salesman and I wondered if he wanted to be president or just wanted to see if he could become president, to see if he could make the greatest pitch of all. So no, he is not stupid.

But what recent events have made clear is that as president, he is not just lazy - he is simply incompetent. This has nothing to do with policies or practices or the internal politics of the White House. He is just flat-out incompetent.

22.3 - Returning to the bad old days of the drug wars

Returning to the bad old days of the drug wars

Too racist to be a judge
In a memo to federal prosecutors made public on May 12, Attorney General Jeff "too racist to be a judge" Sessions ordered federal prosecutors to seek the maximum punishment for drug offenses, directing them to file "the most serious, readily provable" charges that carry the most substantial punishment, including mandatory minimum sentences.

This was after he spouted that hoary bit of doggerel, "Just say no," as if addiction were something you could just stop doing or as if dealing with the emotional pressures and stresses that lead to drug abuse and addiction is the same as deciding not to have that second doughnut.

It is a reversion to the worst of the bad old says of the utter failure that was the war on drugs.

How bad is it?

former recipient of the Clown Award
Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget and former recipient of the Clown Award, is proposing cutting the budget of the Office of National Drug Control Policy by 95%, essentially eliminating it.

Now, a good part of what the agency does involves law enforcement: coordinating with police and so on. But another good part of what it does is public-education campaigns and even more importantly sharing and disseminating information and resources on drug treatment.

We're losing more people to opioid overdose right now than we lost to AIDS at the height of the epidemic - but all these dimwitted buffoons can think of is "lock 'em up."

One light note in all this: The compromise bill to fund the government through September includes an extension of a provision that bars the Department of Justice from going after marijuana growers, sellers, and users in places that have legalized medical marijuana. Which I bet has Jeffey-boy steaming.

22.2 - From atheist Virginians to xenophobe GOPpers

From atheist Virginians to xenophobe GOPpers

Tom Hicks is a guy who lives in Chesterfield, Virginia. And he has a pickup truck. And on the gate of that truck he has painted a verse drawn from 1 Corinthians: "Women shall be silent and submissive."

To that, he added three crosses, the fish symbol, and the expression "Read The Bible." He, as you might expect, has gotten a fair amount of flack for his sexism and his retrograde attitudes toward women.

Here's the kicker, though: Tom Hicks is an atheist who put the phrase there to try to provoke Christians to think about what it is that their holy book actually teaches. It does remind at least me of how many times we get told, in effect, that the Bible means exactly what it says - except when it doesn't.

It also raises an interesting question apart from the one Hicks is trying to raise: Just how many atheists are there among us?

Pew Research and Gallup, two of the most reputable polling firms in in the country, both suggest that about 10 percent of Americans do not believe in God. But recent research indicates the number may be considerably higher.

University of Kentucky psychologists Will Gervais and Maxine Najle noted that there is a social stigma attached to saying "I am an atheist" and that might make people reluctant to admit to it in a survey. So they tried to design an experiment in which a person could say that without the stigma.

As a very oversimplified explanation of the method, they created a questionnaire and distributed it to 2000 people. The survey included a number of simple statements such as "I am a vegetarian," "I own a dog," and, "I have a dishwasher in my kitchen." Respondents were asked how many of the statements are true of them. Not which ones, just how many.

A second version of the questionnaire went to another 2000 people. It was identical to the first except that it had one additional statement: "I do not believe in God." Again, respondents were asked how many, not which, statements were true of them.

The idea is that overall, there will be about the same number of vegetarians, dog owners, and so on in each of the two groups, so any statistically significant increase in the number reported in the second case arises from people finding that the statement "I do not believe in God" does describe them.

Based on the result, their best estimate was that 26 percent of Americans do not believe in God, more than double the number regular polling reports. Because the methodology is not the tightest, the error bar was rather wide: 11 percent to 35 percent. However, they reported 99% certainty that the proportion is greater than 11 percent and 80% probability that it is greater than 20 percent.

Which in its turn raised another, related, concern: In his commencement speech at Liberty University, which is likely one of the few places he can go these days without protests, TheRump declared that, quoting, "In America, we don't worship government; we worship God."

Which means, in essence, in his mind you can't be American if you're an atheist. Or an agnostic. Or an animist. Or a Jainist. Or a Buddhist. Or any of several varieties of Hindu. Or a Taoist or a deist or a follower of any number of other nontheistic beliefs.

In fact, to be an American you have to be Judeo-Christian and I'm not sure if all of them would include the "Judeo" part.

Oh, and Muslim, because as Muslims will tell you, Islam says that Allah and the Judeo-Christian God are the same being, it's just a different name. But wait, no, they don't count as Americans anyway because they are, well, you know, Muslims.

Which, again and in its turn, raises something else about TheRump and those around him, and the real reason I brought all of this up.

It's something that unites the Muslim ban with the wall with Mexico;

connects with the horror stories about Immigration and Customs Enforcement - ICE, which is an amazingly appropriate acronym - grabbing people in court, trying to get into schools to investigate children, deporting people who have green cards, targeting for deportation undocumented immigrants who have no criminal record;

connects with the White House slowness to condemn the wave of antisemitic and racist incidents that came in the wake of the election;

connects with the push to undo federal consent agreements with various violent and racist police departments and let them go back to being violent and racist;

connects on the state level with the state of Texas enacting a law to punish local police authorities with removal from office, fines, and up to a year in prison if they do not submit to demands for cooperation from federal immigration agents*, passed it despite the fact that every major police chief in the state opposed the bill;

something unites all of those strands and more:

It's that these people are not merely racists, who hate based on race; they are not merely religious bigots, who hate based on religion; no, they are truly, in the truest and worst sense of the term, xenophobes, they hate and fear everybody who is not them, who is "other," who is not, in their minds, "one of us."

And their xenophobia, the bigotry and fear they have expressed and acted on, has made it acceptable, more acceptable than it has been in decades, for people to be openly bigoted and even to feel pride in their bigotry.

And if right now, today, this instant, this bigoted boxcar of bozos were to turn on a dime and denounce all their former words and actions, that impact, that freeing up of hatred, will persist because it will take time to pound it back into the dank, fetid cave from which it arose.

And for that, whatever else happens, I will never forgive them. Never.

*Sidebar: A news article about the law said officials who face punishment are those "who do not abide by requests to cooperate" with the feds. Hey, idiots, if you can't say "no" without being fired, fined, and jailed, that ain't no request! Jeez, our corporate media stinks.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

22.1 - Good News: Chelsea Manning is out of prison

Good News: Chelsea Manning is out of prison

Starting the week with some Good News, Chelsea Manning is out of prison.

For those of you with unfortunately short memories, she is the former Army intelligence analyst who, hoping to inspire "worldwide discussion, debates and reforms," was the source for one of the largest leaks of classified information in US history, including, perhaps most famously, the viral video called "Collateral Murder."

She was freed Wednesday morning at 3 am Eastern time.

From the very start, from the moment of her* arrest by military authorities after being betrayed by a supposed friend, she was treated terribly and wrongfully.

She was charged, in effect, with treason, with "aiding the enemy," on the convoluted basis that by leaking the information and it then having been published, she had made it possible for al-Qaeda to see it and thereby, hypothetically, benefit from some part of it, making it somehow no different from if she had been spying directly on their behalf. She was not convicted of that but she was convicted of a variety of violations of the Espionage Act.

She was sentenced to 35 years in prison. She was in prison for 7 years, which is more than twice as long as any other whistleblower or leaker has been.

While in prison before her court-martial, she was held in solitary under extreme "prevention-of-injury" conditions, even after a prison psychologist said it was no longer necessary. There is only one possible explanation for this beyond simple cruelty: They were attempting to break her so she would throw Julian Assange, who was their real target, under the bus.

Chelsea Manning
The treatment she received was not only cruel, often it was petty: Even after agreeing to provide the medical treatment she was entitled to and needed - after two suicide attempts and a hunger strike - treatment including approval of gender reassignment surgery, which is an open admission that she is transgender, the military still kept her in an all-male prison and enforced male grooming standards on her until the moment of her release. (In the photo, she is wearing a wig.)

Now she is out. But she is not free: Until the appeals of her conviction are complete, the military considers her to be on unpaid active-duty and so still under rule of military law. And as the saying goes, military justice is to justice as military music is to music.

The one advantage of being on this sort of "active duty" is that she can maintain her access to military medical benefits, including for gender dysphoria and gender reassignment surgery - but she says says she has no interest in using them because after the treatment she endured in prison, she wants to walk away from all of that and provide for herself.

Now, it's highly unlikely that she will be called to serve, but hypothetically, yes, they could call her back, could give orders that she report to some fort or whatever somewhere. More important, however, is that because of this status, any new offense, even if minor - if she got into a fight or even a pushing match with someone - she would be under military jurisdiction, subject to military punishment. She could even get into trouble with the military for speaking and writing anything critical, for saying something some general somewhere doesn't like.

Still, she said "For the first time, I can see a future for myself as Chelsea." One of the first things she is looking to do is grow her hair out.

In the meantime, family and friends are keeping her pretty much under wraps to ease her transition. Or as I should say, transitions: from prison to the outside and to a new life as herself.

Amnesty International, which had campaigned for Manning's release, celebrated her freedom but still called for an investigation into the treatment she received and for measures to ensure whistleblowers are never again subjected to, as they called it, "such appalling treatment."

*It would, I suppose, be acceptable to say "he" at this point because she did not come out as transgender until after her conviction, but that seems overly pedantic and I'm just going to say "she" throughout because that's who she is.

What's Left #22

What's Left
for the week of May 18-24, 2017

This week:

Good News: Chelsea Manning is out of prison

From atheist Virginians to xenophobe GOPpers

Returning to the bad old days of the drug wars

Donald TheRump is incompetent

Clown Award: Hillary Clinton

Why you are not getting a raise

Outrage of the Week: militarism as national policy

Saturday, May 13, 2017

21.4 - For the Record

For the Record

Finally for this week, it's For the Record, where we cover a few things very quickly just to make sure they get mentioned.

So, For the Record: On May 10, the Vermont legislature approved a bill to legalize recreational use of marijuana. The governor hasn't said if he will sign it, although he has indicated he is generally in favor of it. If enacted, Vermont would become the ninth state to legalize recreational marijuana and the first to do so by legislation rather than ballot initiative.

For the Record: Six states - Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas - mark a public holiday called Confederate Memorial Day, or in Texas, Confederate Heroes Day, to memorialize the soldiers who died in open rebellion against the United States in support of slavery. Georgia still has the holiday but they stopped calling it that, just calling it a "State Holiday."

For the Record: In a demonstration of the fact that the American public is not as dumb at it is sometimes portrayed, or as hopeless as I sometimes fear, when the latest Quinnipiac University National Poll asked voters "What is the first word that comes to mind when you think of Donald Trump?" the top three answers, in increasing order, were number three, "liar," number two "incompetent," and the number one answer was "idiot."

Finally, For the Record: Some good news coming up the end of our week, which I expect I will comment on when it happens: Wednesday, May 17, Chelsea Manning is being released from prison.

21.3 - Bad news and some hope about global climate change

Bad news and some hope about global climate change

Last week I celebrated the large turnout for the Peoples Climate Marches, and I use the plural because there were hundreds of events, both in the US and around the world, with something around or even over 250,000 taking part in the US, so I wanted to follow up on that with some related news.

You have by now, I'm sure, heard about how the White House is hiding away information about climate change, including taking down several EPA websites containing detailed climate data and scientific information.

Agency mouthpiece J.P. Freire justified the moves, saying "we can't have information which contradicts the actions we have taken in the last two months," which amounts to an admission that what they have done contradicts the science, but they have far too little self-awareness to notice.

Freire also said the removal of the scientific data was to "make room" to "reflect the views of the leadership of the agency." Funny, I didn't realize the Internet was running out of space.

What makes the news particularly disturbing is that it comes against a background of an ever-higher mountain of evidence.

For one thing, a new scientific study from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that global temperatures could exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius above their pre-industrial levels within the next 8 years.

The study focuses on a natural planetary system known as the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation, or IPO (sometimes referred to as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation). It's an alternating pattern of ocean temperatures that shifts periodically between warm and cool phases, helping to drive temperature and weather patterns all over the world.

It's similar to the more familiar El Niño/La Niña cycle, but the phases of the IPO tend to last much longer - sometimes a decade or more.

For most of the 2000s, the IPO has been in a negative, that is, a cooling phase, and scientists think its effect has helped to offset the effect of climate change. In other words, it has kept the climate cooler than it otherwise would have been.

Many scientists believe that the IPO is now transitioning back into a positive, or warming, phase, which would amplify, rather than offset, human-caused climate warming. And that could mean the Earth could hit the 1.5-degree threshold as early as 2025, five years sooner than current projections. Five years might not seem like a long time but it does mean having five years less to act.

The figure of 1.5 degrees is not important in an of itself as a number, no more inherently significant than 1.4 degrees or 1.6 degrees, but it is a marker, a milepost, which takes its significance from the fact that the Paris Climate accords are geared around striving to keep global temperature from rising any more than that if only to provide a buffer against the standard "beyond here it gets really bad" level of a two degree increase.

That buffer may be hard to maintain, however, considering that a long-feared natural feedback loop for warming appears to be developing.

A new paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is reporting an increasing volume of carbon dioxide entering the air from thawing permafrost in the Alaskan tundra.

Because Alaska is warming, the permafrost is thawing earlier and deeper in the spring and summer and refreezing later in the fall and winter, allowing more time for decomposing plant material to release CO2. Since 1975, there has been a 73 percent increase in the amount of carbon lost from the Alaskan tundra in the months of October through December. More CO2 means more warming which means more thawing which means more carbon release which means more warming and around and around you go.

There had been a hope that the "greening" of Alaska - because the warming also means a longer growing season - would allow the area to be a carbon sink, as growing plants suck up the CO2, but this latest study says that the loss from the thawing permafrost is outweighing that gain.

Still, still, still there is hope. Because it is possible - not possible in the sense of hypothetical but possible in the sense of yes it can be done - to move the United States to an economy powered entirely by renewable energy by 2050 and yes that includes heating and transportation. In 2014, an organization called The Solutions Project developed state-by-state proposals for a shift in the US to all renewables, varying by what mix would be most efficient in each case.

And it's not even just the US: It is technologically feasible to accomplish this for the entire world. A 2015 Greenpeace study done in conjunction with the German Aerospace Centre found that, in the words of the study:
There are no major economic or technical barriers to moving towards 100% renewable energy by 2050.
It also found that the world could be producing 85 percent of its energy needs with renewables in just 15 years.

The investment involved in this would be substantial, on the order of $1 trillion a year, but that may not be as much as it sounds when you consider that in 2015 the US GDP was over $18 trillion and the world product was over $74 trillion.

Even better, the study estimates that the costs would be covered by the slightly over $1 trillion a year in savings on fuel costs alone. What's more, such a project would create 20 million jobs over the next 15 years and would provide energy access to the one-third of the people of the world who currently lack it.

So yes, it is possible and according to a group called "Go 100%," 12 Countries, 70 Cities, 62 Regions or States - including major countries such as Denmark and Germany - have pledged to go 100% renewable by 2050.

And even as TheRump considers dropping out of the Paris agreement - which technically he can't do until November 2019 but he can just refuse to take any steps to implement it - the United States is already about halfway to meeting its commitment under that accord to cut its greenhouse gas emissions to 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.

All of which means that the only thing lacking for such a transition to an all-renewable economy is the political will.

Some in the Congress are trying to find that will. On April 27, two days before the Peoples Climate Marches, Senators Jeff Merkley, Bernie Sanders, Ed Markey, and Cory Booker introduced the "100 by '50 Act," laying out a plan to move the US to all renewables by 2050.

It involves phasing out fossil-fuel generated electricity supply in favor of renewables, electrifying transportation and heating systems by means including a requirement for zero-emission vehicles, ending new fossil fuel investments such as the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, ending subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, placing tariffs on imported carbon-intensive products, and creating and auctioning Climate Bonds to raise extra funds for projects - while at the same time making sure that poor and disadvantaged communities share in the benefits and workers affected by the changes are protected.

Yes, yes, yes, it's true, this bill will go nowhere in the current Congress - but nonetheless it is important that, again, the ground has been staked out; this can serve as a rallying cry, an organizing tool; this is not "gee, can we maybe cut back a little, please, if it's not too much trouble," this is calling for what should be done, can be done, not calling for what you maybe think might possibly get passed this session. And that is to the good.

All in all, things still seem dark to me with regard to climate change. I still have no faith that people - that Americans in particular, who often seem more inclined to fight than switch to renewables - can be roused from their corporate- and media-induced slumber in time to make a difference.

But at a time when at least a few Senators are waking up, when Bloomberg has opened a new website devoted to the idea that climate change is an economic issue, when sixteen Fortune 100 companies have signed a letter to the White House calling on the US to stay in the Paris Agreement, and when even Tiffany & Company, for pity's sake, can take out a full-page ad in the New York Times calling for the same thing, even an old cynic like me can't help but feel a little hope.

21.2 - The USPS is under attack again

The USPS is under attack again

Oh lord, they are at it again. And while you may not think this is worth the time I'm going to spend on it, it's important because it's about continuing a basic government service and revealing about the right-wing approach to government and governing.

The GAO, the Government Accountability Office, just reported to Congress that there are major programs receiving scant attention that are draining the Treasury and that could pose long-term challenges to the nation's fiscal stability.

One of three they highlighted was the US Postal Service, the USPS, still popularly called the post office.

And so we have face another chorus of how the Postal Service is on the brink of financial collapse, of fiscal disaster, of crushing bankruptcy; it's on the edge, the precipice, of utter failure and ruin, a chorus that has continued almost unbroken for a decade or more.

I've said all this a few times before, but apparently is needs repeating particularly because you need to realize that despite the claims to the contrary, all of this is not about preserving the Postal Service, it's about destroying the Postal Service.

What is bizarre about this right at the top is that while the USPS is a quasi-governmental agency and yes has been running significant deficits for the last decade, it is not "draining the Treasury" and poses no challenge "the nation's fiscal stability" because the USPS does not get a single penny from the federal government. Not one. It's operations are entirely, entirely, self-funded through the sale of postage and other services. The last time the Postal Service received any subsidy from the government was in 1982.

Which is part of the problem because starting in 1971 with the establishment of the USPS, the agency was essentially cast adrift, left to sink or swim - even as Congress continued and continues to have significant authority over the operations of the agency.

And what has Congress done with that authority? Well, for one thing, it banned the Postal Service from raising the cost of postage beyond the inflation rate.

Why is that a problem? Because in basic capitalist economics, a business has two ways to increase revenue: increase the amount of business you do or raise the price of each unit of that total business. The idea is that a business will keep tweaking those two - price per unit versus number of units - to find the combination that maximizes income.

But the Postal Service, by law, cannot use one of those options. Which means the only way it can increase its real revenue (and actually improve and expand service) is to increase its volume of business - and do it even as a continuing chorus of voices from right-wingers in Congress call for what they say are "cost-cutting measures," such as an end to Saturday deliveries and closing regional mail-processing plants (which will slow transit times), measures that would very likely decrease that volume and so make matters worse. Which maybe is the point.

What else has Congress done with that authority? Here's a big one: In 2006, Congress mandated that the Postal Service fully fund retiree health benefits for future retirees out to 75 years in the future and had to do it within 10 years at a cost of over $5.5 billion per year. Put another way, Congress in essence was requiring of the USPS that within 10 years it be able to fully fund health care benefits for future retirees who hadn't even been born yet.

Opponents of the Postal Service claim that the provision really only requires such funding for current employees, not future ones, but considering that by this requirement, the very day that the USPS hires someone they are supposed to ensure that their retirement health benefits are already fully funded, no pay-as-you-go, no building up an account over time, that is truly a distinction without a difference.

That demand is a requirement for a level of guarantee, a task taken on by, no other agency, corporation, or organization in or out of government in the US. And it remains a major reason for the agency's financial struggles: That GAO report said that
In fiscal year 2016, when USPS was required to make $13 billion in retiree health and pension payments, it made $7 billion in payments - mainly due to not making a required retiree health payment of $5.8 billion.
That is, the agency could have made the required payments - except for that inane retiree health plan requirement.

To top it all off and to show just how transparent the actual goal is - that goal being to destroy the USPS because it is proof that a government agency can do its job well, in this case deliver the mail, over the long haul and do it while having a workforce with a strong union - a few years ago it was discovered that due to a massive accounting screw-up, the USPS had overpaid into worker pension funds to the tune of $50-75 billion. A proposal was made in Congress to allow the USPS to shift the excess funds - not, as some have falsely claimed, to "borrow against that account" but to shift the excess - into the fund for future retiree's health benefits to cover the shortfall. Note first that the Postal Service needs Congressional approval simply to shift funds from one account to another. Note next that the proposal was rejected with the inane claim that it constituted a "bailout."

Face it: Mail is a bargain. You can mail a one-ounce letter, about three sheets - that's six pages of text - anywhere is the US, you could send one from Key West to Point Barrow, from Bangor to Honolulu, for 49¢ - an amount that otherwise might get you half a candy bar.

And when I say anywhere, I do mean anywhere. The USPS is legally required to provide universal service and it makes deliveries to 150 million individual addresses nationwide every week. It has to make mail service available to everywhere - you may have to travel a bit to get to a post box or to where a whole group of mailboxes stand at the end of some rural byway, but mail must be available to everyone. Even if you are way out in the country, even if you are in some neighborhood deemed "too dangerous" for services like taxis, the mail still must be available. That is a requirement which does not exist for the Postal Service's private competitors like UPS and FedEx. They don’t have to do that: They think your address is too inconvenient or otherwise not profitable, they just don't do it. In fact, both those corporations sometimes pay the USPS to deliver packages for them.

Which means, in turn, that there are millions and millions of people who need, who rely on, the USPS's services, including poorer people, folks in rural areas outside the usual delivery areas, people who use post offices boxes, and many more, including some small-scale entrepreneurs who often find that the USPS is the cheapest way to ship goods. (Speaking of which, if you're the type to sneer "I don't need the Postal Service, I use email," then tell you what, next time you go online and order a t-shirt, see if they can email it to you.)

Which means in its own turn that the people who do not depend on the USPS tend to be the rich, the powerful, the connected: people who for their own selfish reasons often are more concerned - despite their smiling, lying assurances to the contrary - with bringing the system down than with preserving it.

Finally, as for the entire issue of "deficits," think of it this way: Some years ago, someone noted that the very concept that a basic modern-world governmental service like a postal system could be "running a deficit" is absurd: By that definition, they said, the Pentagon is running a yearly "deficit" of over $580 billion.

21.1 - The goal is universal health care

The goal is universal health care

I'm not going to spend any time telling you just how bad is the so-called American Health Care Act, the ACHA, recently passed by the misobiosers - which is a word I think I just made up - the haters of life in the House of Representatives.

That's because if you are the kind of person who is interested in watching this show, who has seen this show, you have heard plenty about how bad it is, how it would increase the number of people without health insurance, undermine Medicaid, "protect" people with pre-existing conditions by allowing the insurance companies to price them out of the market, and, well, a whole lot more.

And you have heard about how the leadership in the Senate is figuring they will pretty much just ignore what the House has done take up their own bill with the promise that it will only stink, not reek, which is supposed to make us happy somehow.

So I'm not going to spend any time on that. Nor am I going to spend my time going "Save the Affordable Care Act!" Remember, the GOPpers' plan, it was said, would result in 24 million more uninsured. What is rarely noted is that the actual number of uninsured would be 52 million because those 24 million were in addition to, on top of, the 28 million projected to be uninsured under Obamacare, a figure that hardly seems worth cheering about or spending all our energy trying to preserve.

What I'm going to do instead is to say that this is an opportunity, there is a political opening, to raise the banner of what should be the goal: a national health care system. And note well that I say national health care, not national health insurance, not even single-payer insurance. Bernie Sanders' repeated call for "Medicare for All" is good as far as it goes in that it's easy to understand and is light-years better than what we have - and you should know that there is a Medicare for All bill in the House, introduced by John Conyers, and Sanders intends to introduce a companion bill in the Senate.

But at the same time that ease of understanding is it's biggest flaw and failing: "Medicare for All," exactly like Medicare itself, only goes so far and sometimes, that's not nearly far enough, as anyone who has dealt with Medicare, especially in cases involving long-term care or lengthy illness, can tell you. In short, it's good, it's certainly better than what we have - but it's not good enough.

The goal is universal health care. Health insurance is supposed to be a means to health care. But what we have done is made insurance the goal, not the means, and that is a failure. Any program built around insurance, even universal insurance, is not good enough and will inevitably fall short of the goal of everyone, regardless of means or condition, having access to adequate, affordable, health care. And I'm not going to play the GOPpers' verbal game about "sure you have access to health care (footnote in small type: if you can afford it)." The fact is, I do not have access to a door if it is locked and I do not have access to health care (or anything else) if I can't afford the cost.

But in fact, the heck with it. The heck with all the talk about "affordable." I don't want "affordable" health care, which only leads to plunging into the dark labyrinth of what constitutes "affordable" and does any level of expense short of what would produce penury or bankruptcy make it "affordable." I wanted taxpayer-financed, government-funded health care. I want people to be able to go into a clinic, into an emergency room, into a hospital, into a skilled care facility, and not have to worry about the size of the bill because there won't be one. I want people to be able to get the care they need without having to think about the cost because there won't be any. I want no more hospitals designed and laid out so that you have to go past the cashier's window in order to leave the building.

What I want, that is, is a national health care system, a layered system running from neighborhood-level clinics through community hospitals and regional health centers up to a small number of national district hospitals for special, rare, or unusually complex treatments. The workers in all those facilities are federal employees. Ethical and financial oversight is exercised by committees of the public and health care workers at each level. The system is primarily financed through taxes and if - if - there is any payment for elective services it is on a sliding scale based strictly on ability to pay.

And know that, as radical as that sounds, we would not be the first nation to have a system similar to that.

If alongside that public system a private system persists for those who can afford and want to pay for some extra luxury or who will indulge in various nips and tucks and facelifts and the rest of the vanities, fine. In fact, good, because those people will still be paying their full share of taxes to support the system - no tax deductions for private insurance - while reducing the demands on it.

My wife is a retired registered nurse who often lamented the fact that the health care industry is becoming ever-more "industry" and ever-less "health care." She continues to cling to the ideal that the needs of the patient, not the needs of accountants or investors or executives of health insurance corporations, should be the focus of health care workers.

Ultimately, a not-for-profit national health care system is the only way to get there. And we as progressives should take this opening to call for it. And don't give me any of that "It's all  fantasy, it'll never pass this Congress." Of course it will not pass this year; don't take me for a fool. But it never will pass unless at some point you stake out the ground and say this is where we want to be, this where we should be, this is where we have to go.

So let's do it.

Friday, May 12, 2017

What's Left #21

What's Left
for the week of May 11-17, 2017

This week:

The goal is universal health care

The USPS is under attack again

Bad news and some hope about global climate change

For the Record: Vermont legislature approves recreational pot

For the Record: Six states celebrate fighting for slavery

For the Record: The most common description of TheRump in a national poll is "idiot"

For the Record: Chelsea Manning is being freed next week

Saturday, May 06, 2017

20.10 - Foreign policy and North Korea

Foreign policy and North Korea

The big foreign policy issue these days, at least if you judge by the headlines, is North Korea, so I wanted to offer some of my thoughts. A lot of this of course is speculation and interpretation, but I have learned over the years to trust my instincts on matters such as this and so that's what I'm going to do here.

So let me say at the beginning that I don't think this will result in war. I have no faith in the reasonableness or emotional stability of either Donald TheRump or Kim Jong-un, but in each case they have people around them who are at least somewhat grounded in military and political realities.

One such reality from our perspective is that North Korea is incapable of inflicting significant damage on the US. In the event of a conflict, it could sink a ship or two, which certainly would mean the deaths of soldiers and sailors, but in terms of the United States, it simply does not have the power or the means. However, with an army estimated to number 1.2 million, even with its obsolete weaponry it could inflict significant damage on South Korea, which we clearly would not want.

Meanwhile, the North Korean military knows, must know, if it doesn't know the Chinese would surely tell them, that going to war with the US amounts to national suicide. And China, which surely does not want to get into a war with the US, especially not over North Korea, still could feel obligated to come to the defense of its ally in the event of open fighting. So everyone has cause, good reason, to avoid a war.

So I think there will not be a war unless someone gets stupid. Skip the jokes, you thought of them, I thought of them, let them pass. By stupid, I am here talking about getting wrapped up in thinking about what you want, what your action can be, such that you don't think about what the reaction might be and so wind up facing unintended consequences.

With that in mind, there are a few recent events I think significant.

The first is that in a big break from tradition, Japan's largest warship, the Izumo, is escorting a US supply ship heading toward the Korean Peninsula as it passes through Japanese waters.

By its Constitution, Japan can only act militarily in self-defense, but a new law allows its ships to come to the defense of an ally that's protecting Japan, regarding that as self-defense. Which means that Japan is saying by accompanying the US ship that it regards the US fleet gathering off the Korean Peninsula as "protecting Japan" and therefore any attack on any of those ships potentially could be construed as an attack on Japan. Considering the history between Japan and Korea, that is likely to cause consternation in North Korea and raise there the specter of a reassertion of Japanese militarism. It can't help but make the North Korean military more on edge.

Then in what may be the most significant bit of news to come out of the region of late, on Wednesday, May 3, North Korea's state media publicly criticized China.

Chinese state media commentaries have been calling for Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program to be shut down and had been suggesting tougher sanctions against North Korea toward that end. A commentary carried by the official Korean Central News Agency called that "an undisguised threat" against the country.

The Korean commentary accused China's "People's Daily" and "Global Times" newspapers, regarded as reflecting official government stands, of "a string of absurd and reckless remarks" that "render the present bad situation tenser" and added that "China had better ponder" the "grave consequences" of "its reckless act of chopping down the pillar" of relations between the two countries.

What is interesting about this is that the US has been pressing China, which is North Korea's only major ally, to restrain Kim Jong-un's regime and this appears to be clear evidence that not only is China doing so but that North Korea is feeling the heat.

China had cut off all imports of coal from North Korea in mid-February, saying the ban would extend throughout 2017. While North Korean economists tried to shrug off the decision, saying other exports are more important, coal is the country's biggest export and China its biggest customer and the recent hostility toward China could be a sign that the ban is starting to pinch.

Which can seem like good news if your goal is to put the screws to North Korea and force it to do what we want, but this is actually right where you need to tread carefully.

The fact is, historically, when nations feel cornered, when they feel the choice has come down to war or humiliation, they have shown a depressingly consistent preference for the former. Similarly, when nations feel squeezed economically, when they face or at least believe they face the prospect of slow but certain strangulation, the risks of war, great though they may be, can look to be the better choice.

The bottom line is that if you do not want war, if you are not trying to provoke war, then when you have the upper hand, especially when you have the upper hand, you have to give the other side a way to back out without appearing to back down.

Which is why I'm concerned over what appears to be an unseemly rush to ratchet up the sanctions on North Korea just as existing sanctions appear to be having an effect. The House just passed by 419-1 a bill that would, if enacted, not only increase US sanctions on North Korea but would also sanction any nation that has certain dealings with the government. That bill is supposedly related to North Korea's use of slave labor, not its nuclear weapons program, but I doubt the leaders in Pyongyang will note that distinction or care about it if they do. Pushing too hard too fast is exactly the sort of stupidity I mentioned earlier that we need to avoid.

So it is still a touchy, tense, time but again, I believe that the leadership of everyone involved - even allowing for the fact that one leader is a sociopathic egomaniac and the other is a spoiled brat with delusions of grandeur and it really doesn't matter which is which - but the full scope of leadership of each party has good reasons to avoid war.

All we have to do is find a way to allow both Kim and TheRump to come out of this with their egos intact. Not easy, true, but certainly not impossible considering that both of them have in the past declared their failures to be great victories.

20.9 - Clown Award: Mick Mulvaney

Clown Award: Mick Mulvaney

[Note: Due to time constraints, only Mark Green and Mick Mulvaney were included in the program as broadcast.]

This was a tough week. I felt overloaded with clowns. I kept having more and more clowns and there were simply not enough red noses for all of them. But a choice had to be made, so I did. So first, our runners-up.

The first nominee is former US Rep. Joe Walsh - that's the bad Joe Walsh, not the good Joe Walsh. After Jimmy Kimmel's monologue about his newborn baby needing open heart surgery, which concluded with an appeal for affordable healthcare for all Americans, Walsh took to twitter to say:
"Sorry Jimmy Kimmel: your sad story doesn't obligate me or anybody else to pay for somebody else's health care."
Which is bad and cruel enough and was roundly condemned on Twitter, but Walsh's nomination is based on the fact that a few years ago he was the nation's most notorious deadbeat dad, owing, his wife charged, $117,000 in child support payments. He himself admitted that at one point he didn't pay child support for over two and a-half years.

They reached a settlement in 2012, the details of which are secret, but at the time, his Congressional pay was being garnished for child support to the tune of $2,136 every month.

Care about other people's kids? Why should he when he didn't care about his own?

Our next nominee is Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.

Mark Green
Speaking at the Milken Institute Global Conference on Monday before an audience that had each paid a minimum of $12,500 to be there, Ross described how TheRump told visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping about the cruise missile attack on Syria on April 6 while the two were have dessert.

The news of the attack, the news of a military assault with all the destruction, death, and risk that involves was, Ross said, "in lieu of after-dinner entertainment."

Okay, I don't need to go on with that one.

Let's not forget Tennessee state Sen. Mark Green, TheRump's nominee for Secretary of the Army.

Green maintains that the purpose of the Second Amendment, despite what it says about being to intended to maintain a militia, is actually about the citizens being able to overthrow the federal government. He's not the only to operating under that particular delusion, but give him credit, he at least is willing to go the whole way, insisting that, quoting:
The citizenry should be allowed to maintain whatever weapon the federal government has. If they can have an aircraft carrier, I ought to be able to have an aircraft carrier.
So that backyard nuke you wanted to build? Totally cool according to Mark Green.

Mick Mulvaney
Oh, by the way, he withdrew due to opposition but not over this - over the fact that he is not only an extreme gun nut, he's also a raging lunatic on LGBTQ issues, including opposing transgender restroom rights because he has a mission to "crush evil."

Much offensiveness and inanity there, but for outright dumb, they all got beat. So this week the winner of the Big Red Nose is Budget Director Mick Mulvaney.

On May 2, he gave a press briefing on the current state of federal budget negotiations, where he spent most of his time talking about the border wall with Mexico even though that amounts to - literally - 0.035% of the budget, during which time he showed a picture of wall construction and then immediately admitted he didn't know where the picture was taken.

But what sold his nomination for me was his statement that, referring to the TheRump administration, "We are competent and we know what we're doing." Which is much like saying "I am not a crook" in that if you feel it necessary to say it, it's really, really, really not a good sign.

Except, that is, a sign that Mick Mulvaney is a clown.

20.8 - For the Record: Desiree Fairooz convicted of laughing

For the Record: Desiree Fairooz convicted of laughing

[Note: Due to time constraints, of the following, only the one about Desiree Fairooz appeared on the show as broadcast.]

Next, it's For the Record, where we cover a few items very quickly just to make sure they get mentioned.

So, For the Record: You surely recall the flap over the size of the crowd for TheRump's inauguration, a crowd he claimed was just like you know the absolute bigliest ever - only to almost immediately have someone in the National Park Service send out on the agency's Twitter account a side-by-side comparison of TheRump 2017 versus Barack Obama 2009.

Through an FOIA request, CBS News was able to report on May 2 that TheRump was directly and personally involved in agency efforts to find out who did it, efforts which included tracing the IP addresses to an certain ISP and checking all National Park Service social media points of contact in that area. They never did find the person.

For the Record: That's not the only such example, either. Another, even worse case because it didn't even involve an agency account, involved the attempts by the US Customs and Border Protection, part of the Department for the Protection of The Fatherland, to unmask the owner of a private Twitter account run by someone claiming to be an employee of the agency who was critical of TheRump's harsh immigration policies. Customs and Border Protection actually served Twitter with a summons demanding to know the name of the account holder.

Twitter, to its credit, responded by suing the CBP and the Department, forcing them to back off.

And it now develops that the agency's conduct was so bad that the Department's Office of the Inspector General has launched an internal investigation into the attempt, citing the possibilities of improper actions and abuse of authority. Inspector General John Roth added that his office is "also reviewing potential broader misuse of summons authority" by the Department.

Desiree Fairooz being arrested
For the Record: Back in January, Desiree Fairooz, an activist with Code Pink, was in the rear of the audience for the confirmation hearing on Jeff Sessions for attorney general. When Sen. Richard Shelby claimed that Sessions has an "extensive record of treating all Americans equally under the law," Fairooz laughed. Which, considering how nonsensical that claim is, is a natural reaction.

She was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct intended to "impede, disrupt, and disturb" congressional proceedings and with "parading" in the Capitol, evidently because she held up a sign while she was being dragged out.

The laugh was a one-off and indeed is barely audible on the C-SPAN video of the hearing; there are coughs that are louder. Shelby didn't even pause in his statement.

Despite that, on May 3 she was convicted by a jury on both charges and now faces a year in prison and a $2000 fine. For laughing. For spontaneously laughing at an absurdity. For failing to pretend that Jeff Sessions, who in 1986 was thought too racist to be a federal judge, has an "extensive record of treating all Americans equally under the law." For failing to be able to let the lie pass unnoticed. For laughing at the lies.

Finally, For the Record: Speaking of Code Pink, the group says that since April 17, over 1,500 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails have been on a hunger strike to demand basic human rights and dignity, including proper medical care, family visits, an end to the use of solitary confinement, and an end to administrative detention, where Palestinian prisoners are held without charge or trial.

Since the strike began, others have joined, bringing the total number of hunger strikers to 1,700.

The Israeli response has not been to has not been to accede to this call for a level of treatment prisoners should expect in any civilized nation but to try to break the strike, putting the leaders in isolation, further restricting family visits, and threatening ongoing punishments.

There are calls for the US Embassy in Tel Aviv to urge the Israelis to give a positive response to the hunger strikers goals.
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