Saturday, May 31, 2014

Relatively Recently Read

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

This one is going to stay with me a long time. 

As with Kate Grenville's The Secret River, this novel tackles a subject about which I was woefully ignorant, the wars between the Russian state and Chechen rebels in the decades following the break-up of the Soviet Union. Maybe because the horrors related in this book are not something out of the distant past, but took place during my unbelievably unaware adulthood, the effect on me was far more profound. 

Or maybe that effect is due to the memorable characters Marra creates, and the ways they make you think about what you might do faced with unthinkable circumstances; how you would define loyalty and love and family, and the notion of survival itself. Or maybe it's the way he describes small moments and details that stick with you, how he injects humor into the horror because, after all, that is what people do when trying to hold on to their humanity. In that last respect, this novel reminded me of City of Thieves, although Marra's book is by far the more serious of the two. 

This was one of those books that I simultaneously wanted to devour and read very slowly, both because I didn't want it to end, and because I couldn't bear the thought of losing characters to the violence of war. Amazing to think that this haunting novel is Marra's first.

Friday, May 30, 2014

A Little More Hope

Nice to see some allies . . .
In the aftermath of the Isla Vista killings, as the MRA scum of the internet have come out todefend Rodger’s worldview if not his actions and a disturbing number of ostensibly non-sexist men have tried to downplay the role of misogyny in his crimes, #yesallwomen became a robust and cathartic rallying cry. Now, Elizabeth Plank from PolicyMic offers #allmencan as space for men who are also tired of misogyny to show that the #notallmen contingent doesn’t speak for them. 
A couple things I really appreciate about the #allmencan framing: First, while some of the men who submitted images to PolicyMic use the language of “real men,” the hashtag itself doesn’t. I get the desire to claim to “real man” label in order to, as Michael Kimmel explains on his submission, “take back the notion that supporting women’s equality does not in any way diminish our manhood.” But, honestly, I’m done with that. I’m done with any attempts to recruit male allies that appeal to a protector role or reinforce hierarchies of masculinities. Don’t be a “real man” — be a goddamn person. All of you.
I know it's just a hashtag and all, but the more we talk about misogyny and the million little ways patriarchy harms us all, the more we become aware that this isn't just how things are and have to be. It goes without saying that these kinds of conversations can be really hard, especially with good friends and people we love, but they need to be had.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

On a More Positive Note . . .

So here's some potential good news that is really very telling.

First the good news: President Obama is apparently preparing to take major action to address climate change.
President Obama will use his executive authority to cut carbon emissions from the nation’s coal-fired power plants by up to 20 percent, according to people familiar with his plans, which will spur the creation of a state cap-and-trade program forcing industry to pay for the carbon pollution it creates.
Mr. Obama will unveil his plans in a new regulation, written by the Environmental Protection Agency, at the White House on Monday. It would be the strongest action ever taken by an American president to tackle climate change and could become one of the defining elements of Mr. Obama’s legacy.
The article goes on to detail how cap-and-trade began as a Republican alternative to a straight up carbon tax, how existing state-level programs were spearheaded by Republican Governors, and how the Republican candidate for President in 2008 pledged to put a national cap-and-trade law into effect.

Now the telling part:

Immune to all logic, and completely ignorant of history and science, guess who's against these measures?
The regional program has proved fairly effective: Between 2005-12, according to program officials, power-plant pollution in the northeastern states it covered dropped 40 percent, even as the states raised $1.6 billion in new revenue.
But many Republican governors said they do not see the benefits.
Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, whose state was an original member of the Northeastern cap-and-trade program, has since withdrawn from it. In Ohio, a heavily coal-dependent state where the Republican governor, John R. Kasich, has also been mentioned as a possible 2016 presidential candidate, officials are clear that cap and trade will not be welcomed. “We think it’s an unnecessary regulation,” said Craig Butler, head of the Ohio Department of Environment.
These guys are like children, perfectly happy to do something until the scary guy in the Oval Office tells them to. I swear to God, President Obama should just start issuing Executive Orders banning gay marriage, eliminating all corporate and personal income taxes, outlawing all abortion and birth control, and making fossil fuels the only legal source of energy. Then stand back and watch right-wing heads explode. I'll bring the popcorn.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

It's a Man's World

So I have been resisting writing about the misogynist shooting near Santa Barbara because so much has already been written about it, and I was just depressed thinking about this young man who was so steeped in a culture of masculine entitlement he literally felt killing women was an appropriate response to being denied sexual access to women's bodies.

But, given that I live in a house with three male people, I think I need to process some of the stuff being stirred up before I just start hating on men in general. I know, I know, #NotAllMen harass or abuse or spout misogynist bullshit.  But I also know, #YesAllWomen (literally, every single woman I know) have experienced harassment, or abuse, or at the very least have altered our behaviors so as to try to avoid violence from men. And that is fucked up.

Not as fucked up as the lives many women lead in other countries, as this morning's New York Times reminds us, but I really don't think we should be congratulating ourselves simply because our fathers can't sell us off to men 40 years older than we are, who can then set us on fire to induce a miscarriage. With no legal penalty for any of it.

Still, the fact that women in our armed forces are 15 times more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by the enemy; that domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women in the U.S, more than car accidents, muggings and stranger rapes combined; and that women who dare to have a public voice are barraged with sexually violent threats, doesn't exactly make me want to jump up and down shouting "Go USA!"

From the odious Pick-Up Artist movement, to the proliferation of Mens Right's Activists, to the widely-accepted and yet highly reductionist concept of men being relegated to the dreaded "Friend Zone," women are too often cast as the enemy, and damned if we don't have the injuries to prove it.

So again, I gotta say the only way I see of stopping this relentless shit parade women have to walk through every day is to raise more good men and get the existing good men to call their fellow men out every time they do or say something harmful to women. My husband and I are raising two boys, and I am genuinely curious - how hard is it for boys and men to stop making female traits the most horrible insult you can think of to call another boy; or stop whistling and gesturing at girls at they are simply walking down the street; or stop touching their bodies as they walk through a crowd to get a beer at the bar; or actually look a co-worker in the eyes, rather than at her chest; or take your hands off a woman when she says, "We've gone as far as I'm comfortable with?" I mean, isn't all of that just basic human decency?

I know this is a bit (or perhaps more than a bit) of a rant, but it gets exhausting and frustrating and depressing to realize that, despite a lot of real gains, so many of the people we are related to, or that we might meet and try to bring ourselves to love don't even look at us as fully human beings. Really, what IS that?

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Burr-iffic!

Ladies and Gentlemen, the senior senator from North Carolina:
An “open letter” from a senior Republican senator to the nation’s veterans in which he castigates the leadership of veterans’ organizations prompted a brutal war of words over the Memorial Day weekend, including a promise from the Veterans of Foreign Wars that its “hat in hand” approach to Congress will turn more combative.
Why is Richard Burr attacking veterans groups, you might be asking. Basically, because they aren't carrying enough water for the Republicans by attacking the Administration's handling of the V.A:
Mr. Burr, angry that only the American Legion has called for the resignation of the veterans affairs secretary, Eric Shinseki, accused the groups of being “more interested in defending the status quo within V.A., protecting their relationships within the agency, and securing their access to the secretary and his inner circle” than in helping members.
Fortunately, the vets aren't afraid of a fight (duh), and they called out Burr for being the hack that he is:
“For years, the V.F.W. has come to Congress with hat in hand, and for years we’ve heard the same old story,” the heads of the veterans group wrote to Mr. Burr. “You can be assured, Senator, that you’ve done a superb job in showing us the error in our ways. You can also be assured that in the future, we will spend a substantial percentage of our time seeking to inform our members and our constituents of the repeated failure to act by our elected officials.”
To that sentiment, the national president and the executive director of the Paralyzed Veterans of America added, “Perhaps you should have shared with all veterans in your ‘open’ letter that you cared so much about their health care that you were not actually present during the testimony that the V.S.O. representatives provided, and you did not ask a single question.” V.S.O. stands for veterans service organizations.
The Republicans are trying to use problems with delays in treatment at the V.A. as a wedge to begin privatizing veterans' services, a move the veterans organizations themselves are against:
“For the full basket of reforms to take place at the V.A., there has to be some level of competition,” Mr. Burr said Monday in an interview. “The problems seem to be so systemic, and in some cases, so cultural, that unless there’s a model that gives veterans some ability to decide where to go, I don’t think we will have the means to meet the needs of current veterans, let alone future veterans.”
Veterans groups maintain that the department’s services for spinal cord injury, care for the blind, amputee care and other trauma cannot be matched by private facilities. Over the past two to three years, the department has had a net gain of 1.5 million patients, 200,000 of them with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries, according to Mr. Sanders.
Republican wars of choice created an enormous number of veterans who need vital services from the Veterans Administration, and yet guess which party has been blocking funding for the V.A?
Relations between the organizations and Senate Republicans have been strained since February, when Republicans blocked a vote on broad veterans legislation, written by Mr. Sanders, that would have bolstered health and dental care, authorized 27 new clinics and medical facilities, added to veterans education programs, and dealt with veterans who suffered sexual trauma while in the military.
It's the same thing across the board: Republicans create the problems, refuse to fund the solutions, and then blame Democrats for not being able to fix their messes. Fortunately the veterans groups actually pay attention to how lawmakers vote and the effects those votes have.

I hope whoever runs against Burr in 2016 plays the statements of these vets on a continuous loop and makes him own his votes to restrict veterans' benefits. We have a large military presence in N.C., and they generally vote Republican. It would be nice if some of the groups they trust to protect their interests started calling out the GOP on the disastrous effects their policies have in the real world.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Let's All Visit Switzerland!

Or at least, let's all let our money visit Switzerland. I understand it has a really good time there.

When I first heard that the Justice Dept. was going after Credit Suisse for hiding money for American fat cats, thus allowing them to evade taxes, I was skeptical that anything of substance would really be done. I mean, once it became clear that large financial institutions would never have to actually plead guilty to their crimes but could just settle with the government and pay a fine amounting the change in their sofas, I gave up on the concept of justice for the plutocrats.

But then Eric Holder announced the bank would have to plead guilty, and it looked like the people trying to rob the U.S. treasury would be revealed so they could be prosecuted, or at least penalized financially for their thievery.
The Swiss bank’s crime was systematically setting up, well, Swiss bank accounts, allowing Americans to evade taxes. According to the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, the bank had 22,000 private accounts for American customers worth as much as $12 billion as of 2006. In meting out the punishment, the Justice Department, for the first time since the financial crisis, demanded that a major financial firm plead guilty to a criminal count. That is what the headline writers highlighted — and what Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. stressed.
“This case shows that no financial institution, no matter its size or global reach, is above the law,” said Holder at a news conference. 
So far so good, right?
In fact, it shows nothing of the sort. Yes, Credit Suisse agreed to pay $2.6 billion; that’s real money, but nothing a bank its size can’t handle. And yes, three years ago, seven midlevel Credit Suisse executives were indicted. But in the just-announced settlement, no one in top management was forced to resign.
Wait, what?
 The U.S. wanted the names of the Americans with private Credit Suisse bank accounts; Justice settled without getting them.
Hold on. Hold on. I thought that was the point. You know, find out who the people are who have been robbing the citizens of the U.S. by stashing their cash in illegal offshore accounts. That's what all the original press was about - Hell yeah! Finally Uncle Sam would crack open the secret financial system and root out the thieves. Woohoo!
 And, most amazing of all-
No, no, no, no, no, no, no. How can there be a "most amazing of all" after that?
And, most amazing of all, pleading guilty to a felony will have absolutely no business consequences for Credit Suisse. For instance, a Securities and Exchange Commission rule forbids a firm convicted of a felony from serving as an investment adviser; the rule was temporarily waived for Credit Suisse.
Of course it was. Facepalm. Rinse, repeat.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Follow-Up by Planned Parenthood

Here's some more information (and a great GIF) from Planned Parenthood regarding the effects of admitting privilege laws on abortion access in the South. Very sobering stuff.
If the courts do not step in and protect women, we could see an entire region of the nation with little or no access to safe abortion. The Southern states are already the poorest with the greatest need for health services. The women there deserve more access to health care, not less. 
How is it that there could be no abortion access in New Orleans if this law is upheld?

Another Domino Falls

Louisiana joins Texas, Mississippi, and Alabama in further restricting access to abortion:
BATON ROUGE, La. — The Louisiana State Legislature on Wednesday passed a bill that could force three of the state’s five abortion clinics to close, echoing rules passed in Alabama, Mississippi and Texas and raising the possibility of drastically reduced access to abortion across a broad stretch of the South.
The new rules passed by Republican legislatures require that doctors performing abortions must have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, a provision likely to shut down many abortion clinics across the region.
Anti-choice activists make the argument in court that these laws are necessary to protect the health of women seeking abortions - the procedure is so dangerous, that doctors must have admitting privileges at a hospital to admit patients if something goes wrong.

Of course, the actual healthcare experts oppose these laws, understanding that: number one, abortions are very low-risk procedures (much less risky than pregnancy and child birth, in fact); number two, hospitals must legally admit the very rare emergency case resulting from abortion, regardless of a doctor's admitting privileges; and number three, the more you restrict access to abortion, the worse women will fare, as they either try to self-induce abortions or go to black-market abortion mills.

Although they can't make the argument in court and expect to win their case, the activists themselves will admit in public what the real intent of these laws is:
Tanya Britton, a board member for Pro-Life Mississippi, said the laws enacted in her state and others, including the admitting-privilege requirement, were intended not just to make abortion safer but to end them.
“These incremental laws are part of a greater strategy to end abortion in our country,” she said. “It’s part of it, and one day, our country will be abortion free.” 
Like so much conservative ideology, the notion that making abortion illegal will stop women from ending unwanted pregnancies is magical thinking. The same thinking guides their policies on sex education (abstinence only!) and birth control access (no slut pills for you!), and leads to more unwanted pregnancies in the first place. Of course, we know the ultimate point isn't stopping abortions, or anti-choice activists would be doing everything possible to encourage comprehensive sex ed and widespread use of effective birth control. As always, with conservatives of every stripe, the point is controlling women, particularly their sexuality.

At least today women have access to medical abortion in the form of RU-486, but Anti-choice activists have passed laws in Ohio, Texas, Oklahoma, North Dakota and Arizona limiting that option as well (although courts in Oklahoma and North Dakota ruled against those laws).

While the thought depresses and exhausts me, I don't think this battle is ever going to be over. I think those of us who believe women should be able to have autonomy over their bodies, and make their own decisions regarding sex and reproduction, are going to have to remain vigilant. Reactionary conservatives have been unbelievably effective on this issue, taking what were considered extreme positions 20 years ago and pushing them into the mainstream.

Like the gun nuts, a very vocal, very committed minority is driving the conversation and the policy on this issue. Once again, the focus on state-level governance has proved to be the key for advancing their agenda. I'll say again how encouraged I am by the Moral Monday movement here in North Carolina because it is bringing together the smaller groups of issue voters on the progressive side (environmental issues, gay rights, reproductive freedom, workers' issues, minority rights, supporters of public education) to try to counteract the rabid one-issue voters on the conservative side. It is going to take awhile to overcome their momentum (not to mention the structural issues baked into the pie after the last redistricting), but at least there seems to be a growing awareness of the thousand cuts they have been administering to us over the years, and that it is long past time to stop the bleeding and take from them the knife.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

What Is Wrong with These People?

House Republicans released their ag budget this week (you know, the one where last year they kept subsidies for big-ag and cut food stamps) and, once again, it reminds us that we have an entire political party filled with evil idiots.

Idiots, because their preferred policies do real damage to our economy (see: Depression, Great; S&L Crisis; 2008 Financial Collapse), and I just don't know that they are smart enough to understand cause and effect (well beyond the immediate I vote for big business, they give me sweet campaign cash and cushy job once I leave my current gig):
House Republicans proposed a $20.9 billion budget for agriculture and food safety programs Monday, an 82-page bill that challenges the White House on nutrition rules and denies major new funding sought by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission to better regulate the rich derivatives market. 
The CFTC fares better than in the past in that the GOP allows for a modest $3 million increase for information technology investments. But the $218 million budget is still $62 million less than President Barack Obama’s request and continues a pattern that has frustrated the administration’s ability to implement Wall Street reforms called for under the Dodd-Frank law enacted in July 2010.

Goodness knows we wouldn't want to actually know what's going on in the derivatives market. Might step on some Galtian's toes, were we able to enforce regulations that rein in rampant speculation, and we cannot have that.

Evil idiots because, well, just read for yourself:
And in a surprising twist, the bill language specifies that only rural areas are to benefit in the future from funding requested by the administration this year to continue a modest summer demonstration program to help children from low-income households — both urban and rural — during those months when school meals are not available. 
Since 2010, the program has operated from an initial appropriation of $85 million, and the goal has been to test alternative approaches to distribute aid when schools are not in session. The White House asked for an additional $30 million to continue the effort, but the House bill provides $27 million for what’s described as an entirely new pilot program focused on rural areas only. 
Democrats were surprised to see urban children were excluded. And the GOP had some trouble explaining the history itself. But a spokeswoman confirmed that the intent of the bill is a pilot project in “rural areas” only.
Hmmmmmm. I wonder what the children in the "urban areas" being cut from meal programs, and the inner-city men "not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work" that Paul Ryan warned us about have in common (at least in the eyes of the GOP). 

They aren't even trying to hide the racism anymore.  I guess their base demands it these days, but the rest of us should be rightly calling them out on this garbage. It is despicable. It is the Republican Party. And you do not get to think of yourself as a middle-of-the-road centrist if you vote to enable these people. The Eisenhower/Rockefeller/Romney Sr. Republican party of your imagination no longer exists, and pretending otherwise just aids and abets the reactionaries who are truly at the helm. 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Beyond Parody

Republican members of the N.C. General Assembly, I'm looking at you. 

If there was any lingering doubt about the continuing need for the Moral Monday protests, well . . . 
As hydraulic fracturing ramps up around the country, so do concerns about its health impacts. These concerns have led 20 states to require the disclosure of industrial chemicals used in the fracking process.
North Carolina isn't on that list of states yet—and it may be hurtling in the opposite direction.
On Thursday, three Republican state senators introduced a bill that would slap a felony charge on individuals who disclosed confidential information about fracking chemicals. The bill, whose sponsors include a member of Republican party leadership, establishes procedures for fire chiefs and health care providers to obtain chemical information during emergencies. But as the trade publication Energywire noted Friday, individuals who leak information outside of emergency settings could be penalized with fines and several months in prison.
I mean really, how do you parody shit like this? Nobody would believe you if you created a mustache twirling villain based on any Republican in the state legislature.

It is really sad that the awful legacy of the 2010 election and subsequent gerrymandering continue to have such dire consequences.

Meet the New Boss

It is almost overwhelming, the asymmetrical warfare being practiced against American workers. The really sad part is that it isn't just large corporations that are prosecuting this war; it's one of the two major political parties in our country. We saw a clear example of this in the fight against unionizing workers in the VW plant in Tennessee. But it goes much deeper than that.

On Sunday, I read this really sobering account by Corey Robbins of Republican attacks on workers' rights:
In 2010, the Republicans won control of the executive and legislative branches in 11 states (there are now more than 20 such states). Inspired by business groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, they proceeded to rewrite the rules of work, passing legislation designed to enhance the position of employers at the expense of employees.
The University of Oregon political scientist Gordon Lafer, who wrote an eye-opening report on this topic last October for the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank in Washington, looked at dozens of bills affecting workers. The legislation involved unemployment insurance, the minimum wage, child labor, collective bargaining, sick days, even meal breaks. Despite frequent Republican claims to be defending local customs and individual liberty, Mr. Lafer found a “cookie-cutter” pattern to their legislation. Not only did it consistently favor employers over workers, it also tilted toward big government over local government. And it often abridged the economic rights of individuals.
The G.O.P., particularly at the level of state governance, has come close to undoing a century of hard-fought labor protections. Forget all their talk about individual freedoms, small business owners, and the American Dream; Republicans are rigging the game even further in favor of corporate power with one clear end in mind:
The overall thrust of this state legislation is to create workers who are docile and employers who are empowered. That may be why Republican legislators in Idaho, Wisconsin, Michigan, Maine, Ohio, Minnesota, Utah and Missouri have been so eager to ease restrictions on when and how much children can work. High schoolers should learn workplace virtues, says the conservative commentator Ben Stein, like “not talking back.” Early exposure to employment will teach 12-year-olds, as the spokesman of an Idaho school district put it, that “you have to do what you’re asked, what your supervisor is telling you.”
And if workers don’t learn that lesson in junior high, recent Republican changes to state unemployment codes will ensure that they learn it as adults. In 2011, Florida stipulated that any employee fired for “deliberate violation or disregard of the reasonable standards of behavior which the employer expects” would be ineligible for unemployment benefits. Arkansas passed a similar amendment (“violation of any behavioral policies of the employer”). The following year so did South Carolina (“deliberate violations or disregard of standards of behavior which the employer has the right to expect”) and Tennessee. The upshot of these changes is that any employee breaking the rules of her employer — be they posting comments about work on Facebook, dating a co-worker or an employee from a rival firm, going to the bathroom without permission — can be fired and denied unemployment. Faced with that double penalty, any worker might think twice about crossing her boss.
The whole piece is devastating in its accurate description of Republican efforts to recreate serfdom in the 21st century. And a really strong reminder of the importance of voting in midterm elections.
 

Monday, May 19, 2014

Sorry

Just too wiped from allergies today to post. Hopefully bouncing back tomorrow.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Native Plants I Love

Wisteria frutescens (common name: American wisteria)

Do not confuse this lovely native wisteria with the vine that is eating the southeast. Chinese wisteria, while admittedly beautiful, is highly invasive and should never be planted by the home gardener. Wisteria frutescens is a deciduous woody vine that can grow to 30' or more. It features drooping clusters of fragrant, purple flowers in April and May, with occasional rebloom during the summer, particularly if the vine is lightly pruned after initial flowering.

"Amethyst Falls" wisteria vine on our back deck this morning

American wisteria likes full sun and does not like to be transplanted, so plant it and let it be. Like most vines, it will benefit from regular pruning to remove dead wood and to control the size and shape of the plant. We have planted the named variety "Amethyst Falls" in containers at the base of a pergola covering our back deck. In a few years, the vines should grow up the posts, meet overhead, and create a lovely shaded room during the summer, while letting the sun shine through after dropping leaves in fall. 

Poor Poor Pitiful Me

Our illustrious Governor does not come out looking good in this piece in today's New Your Times.
RALEIGH, N.C. — As legislators returned to town last week, 10 months after a tumultuous 2013 session when Republicans passed one deeply conservative bill after another, one Republican seemed a bit like the odd man out.
That would be Gov. Pat McCrory, who ran for office in 2012 as a moderate bridge builder and then found himself the face of a party whose restrictions on abortion, voting access, and benefits for the poor and unemployed played out in the most polarizing legislative session in memory in what had been a relatively moderate Southern state.
. . .
Stopping at a paint store in the North Hills section of the capital, Charles Snyder, 72, who owns a construction company, called himself “a lifelong registered Republican” but said he was unhappy with the state’s conservative direction.
He lamented that the governor did not have more control over lawmakers. “If he agrees with them, he’s fine,” he said. “If he disagrees, he’s emasculated.” 
The only quibble I have with the article is that they give McCrory too much credit for being a moderate who's just getting steamrolled by a nutball conservative General Assembly he has no control over. I'm sorry, but anyone who appoints Art Pope to be their Deputy Budget Director (in charge of writing the budget), doesn't get to be called a moderate.

I don't care what's in McCrory's heart. I care about the policies his administration enacts. Art Pope funded both McCrory's campaign and the GOP's campaign to take over the NC Legislature. It's all of a piece. And if McCrory suffers for blowing in the wind with whoever funds him, too bad so sad. Good riddance to bad rubbish.


Saturday, May 17, 2014

It's All Related

I liked this piece by David Atkins over at Digby's blog discussing the financial pressure large corporations are putting on politicians to "vote the right way" on Net Neutrality issues, because he ties that behavior to a larger problem in our economy: the privileging of the rentier class at the expense of everyone else.
ISPs attempting to rid themselves of pesky net neutrality in order to charge a toll for higher speeds online is a classic example of rent seeking. Comcast didn't do anything to earn the right to charge those prices. The taxpayers funded most of the infrastructure of the Internet. Comcast is simply one of the companies that made it to the top of the heap when we foolishly privatized the profits of the internet investment We the People made. Now they want to strip net neutrality regulations in order to charge a toll for no good reason at all.

Rent seeking is at the heart of much of the economic malaise we suffer from. Exorbitant and pervasive rent-seeking is a byproduct of the misguided move to worship asset ownership instead of working wages.

Using our utterly corrupt money-is-speech election donation system to buy rules to allow greater rent seeking is the epitome of economic evil in politics. And Comcast and John Boehner are right in the middle of it.
Economist Paul Krugman has long been writing about this dynamic and how it affects every-day policy decisions (such as higher tax rates on earned income vs. lower tax rates on investment income) as well as government responses to economic crises:
Ask for a coherent theory behind the abandonment of the unemployed and you won’t get an answer. Instead, members of the Pain Caucus seem to be making it up as they go along, inventing ever-changing rationales for their never-changing policy prescriptions.
While the ostensible reasons for inflicting pain keep changing, however, the policy prescriptions of the Pain Caucus all have one thing in common: They protect the interests of creditors, no matter the cost. Deficit spending could put the unemployed to work — but it might hurt the interests of existing bondholders. More aggressive action by the Fed could help boost us out of this slump — in fact, even Republican economists have argued that a bit of inflation might be exactly what the doctor ordered — but deflation, not inflation, serves the interests of creditors. And, of course, there’s fierce opposition to anything smacking of debt relief.
Who are these creditors I’m talking about? Not hard-working, thrifty small business owners and workers, although it serves the interests of the big players to pretend that it’s all about protecting little guys who play by the rules. The reality is that both small businesses and workers are hurt far more by the weak economy than they would be by, say, modest inflation that helps promote recovery.
No, the only real beneficiaries of Pain Caucus policies (aside from the Chinese government) are the rentiers: bankers and wealthy individuals with lots of bonds in their portfolios.
Krugman then goes on to discuss the reasons why policy is made on behalf of the rentiers:
And that explains why creditor interests bulk so large in policy; not only is this the class that makes big campaign contributions, it’s the class that has personal access to policy makers — many of whom go to work for these people when they exit government through the revolving door. The process of influence doesn’t have to involve raw corruption (although that happens, too). All it requires is the tendency to assume that what’s good for the people you hang out with, the people who seem so impressive in meetings — hey, they’re rich, they’re smart, and they have great tailors — must be good for the economy as a whole.
I am not sure what we as regular non-billionaire citizens can do anymore to combat this nexus of money and power. To circle back to the Net Neutrality question, I was just reading an article by David Deyen in the New Republic that took a hopeful view of the situation, arguing that people-powered activism is making a difference in the fight to keep the internet an even playing field:
When Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler initially proposed rules to allow telecoms to charge Internet companies for access to a “fast lane” to speed content to their users, plenty of people sounded the death rattle for the principle of net neutrality. A few weeks later, despite today’s passage of a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on a party-line vote similar to Wheeler’s original plan, the tenor of the debate has shifted. Under massive public pressure, the FCC has shown itself more responsive than Congress, opening up a legitimate debate over the rules. Tech firms have linked arms with the public against the Wheeler proposal. And what activists consider the only path to true net neutralityreclassifying broadband Internet under Title II of the Communications Act as a common carrier service, allowing the FCC to regulate it like phone lineshas moved from an impossible dream to a more viable alternative.
People power did thisthat allegedly outdated work of targeted mass organizing that isn’t supposed to make a difference in our increasingly oligarchical society. Over 3.4 million Internet users took action in some form against the FCC’s proposed ruled in the past three weeks, according to Free Press President and CEO Craig Aaron. Dozens of protesters “occupied” the FCC, camping out for a week in tents, joined by hundreds in a mass rally today outside the meeting room.
Call me cynical, but I can't help but think the forces mentioned in Deyen's next paragraph had just a little bit more to do with the FCC's (maybe) change-of-heart than a bunch of "techno-hippies" writing letters and waving signs:
The grassroots pressure got tech firms off the sidelines. Over 100 of them, including Google, Facebook and Amazon, publicly opposed Chairman Wheeler’s rules, arguing that the rules should not allow “individualized bargaining and discrimination.” 
Without the vocal (and, presumably, financial) opposition of mega-corps like Amazon, Google, Facebook, and others for whom the internet is their lifeblood, I think the end of Net-Neutrality would already be a done deal.

Don't get me wrong, I still participate in the Moral Monday protests here on a local level, and I call my elected representatives to let them know we little people still exist, but in this post Citizens United world, I think it is going to take massive citizen organization over a long period of time to get the pendulum swinging back the other way.

It is going to be a long hard slog, a la the labor movement in the late-19th and early 20th centuries, and the Civil Rights movement. But I guess I should take hope that progress did come out of those efforts. I just hate to think how bad things are going to have to get before enough of us are out there demanding change this time.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Well This Is Really Disappointing . . .

One of the nation’s leaders of the privatization movement, Ted Mitchell, has been confirmed by the. U.S. Senate as Undersecretary of Education, the second most powerful job in the U.S. Department of Education.
Mitchell most recently was CEO of the NewSchools Venture Fund, which collects millions from philanthropies and venture funds and invests the money in creating charter chains and for-profit ventures.
What in the world is the Obama Administration thinking putting all of these for-profit education foxes in charge of the public school henhouse? For people who are supposed to be data-driven, they sure seem to be ignoring the data on charters in favor of a heaping helping of faith-based (literal and figurative) free-market learning goodness.

Anyone who has spent time in school buildings as an adult knows that the best way to improve our "failing"schools would to combat the poverty that plagues the worst-performing schools. Shoveling public funds to for-profit education companies, online education companies, educational software companies, and standardized testing companies isn't going to better educate anyone.

Let's try plowing that money into revamping old school buildings, supporting teacher training, increasing teacher pay, and hiring more teachers and other specialists to reduce class size. Then let's compare the results. For the life of me I do not understand why we seemingly have unlimited funds to spend on an ungodly number of standardized assessments, but we can't pay the people who actually do the work of educating our kids a decent salary.

Very, very disappointed in Obama for his continuing embrace of educational "reform."

More on Ted Mitchell.


Relatively Recently Read


I would say I found this book to be pretty good, but not like the spate of really good reads I've been immersed in lately. The Secret River follows the life of William Thornhill, a Thames bargeman, who is caught stealing and, rather than being hanged, is sent to the penal colony in New South Wales. Knowing next to nothing about the English settlement of Australia, but knowing a fair amount about the European conquest of the Americas, I was interested in Kate Grenville's take on the brutality of colonialism, life on the frontier, and the fluidity of social and economic status in a "new world".

I think Grenville does a good job vividly depicting the horrific conditions of the penal colony and the shocking violence of the colonizers against the aboriginal inhabitants of the land and the land itself. Where I think the book doesn't reach great heights is in the characterizations of Thornhill and his wife.  Their relationship is too-good-to-be-true in the first half of the book and hollows out as Thornhill's quest for power and domination turn him from an honorable man into a tyrant.

While the story was enlightening (and disturbing), the writing itself didn't elevate this novel from good to great. Overall, I'm glad to have read it, but it wasn't a favorite.

Grandma to the Rescue!

There has been a lot of discussion about different groups of voters and their effects on elections. One of the general assumptions in all of these discussions is that older voters skew conservative, which is one of the reasons Republican candidates tend to do better in low-turnout, midterm elections, since seniors make up a higher portion of the electorate in off-years.  In a recent piece in The Atlantic, David Frum has some interesting analysis of the changing electoral impact of senior citizens:
Republicans are expected to score gains in 2014 because of their advantage among older voters, the voters most likely to turn out in midterm elections. That advantage has appeared surprisingly recently—and there is reason to think it won’t last long.
Frum argues that we tend to think of older voters as a monolithic group. The reality, however, is that there are some striking differences within that cohort that could have significant impacts as the large group of Baby-Boomers grows older. The first of these factors is sheer age, and the fact that the longer people live, the more they appreciate (and rely on) government assistance. And you'd better believe these voters know which party is trying to gut Medicare and Social Security and which party is trying to strengthen them.
The older you get, the more you appreciate Social Security and Medicare …
... and the more you mistrust proposals for reform that might affect current recipients. In 2009, 43 percent of people in their twenties were open to reforms in entitlements that might touch those now receiving Social Security and Medicare; only 27 percent of people in the strongly conservative groups older than 65 would consider it. 
As yet, few published surveys break out the differences between people in their sixties and eighties. Working politicians notice it, though. As one very successful political operative told me, “The No. 1 concern of every voter over 80 is, ‘Will my check arrive on time?'”
The other difference among older voters is a difference we see in all age-groups: namely, a majority of women voters prefer Democratic policies.
Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics has detailed in surveys women’s rejection of the politics of economic individualism. 
Do government programs for the poor help put people on their feet—or lead to dependency for life? Men condemn such programs for inducing dependency 49-44. Women applaud them for setting people on their feet, 60-36. 
What do you think is the bigger problem: unfairness in the economy favoring the wealthy, or overregulation that interferes with the free market? Men worry more about overregulation, 49-42. Women worry more about unfairness, 54-35. 
When it comes to balancing the budget, 57 percent of men wish to rely principally on cutting programs. Only 50 percent of women agree. Only 22 percent of men wish to rely principally on tax increases, versus 29 percent of women. 
This gap in values produces a large gap in voting—a gap that manifests itself at every age.
The difference is that women and men are equally represented in most age-groups, but not among the oldest of the old. More women live very long lives, and as the baby-boomers age, that is a whole lot more older women voting more liberally.
The elderly population is poised to grow hugely quickly; the oldest of the old to grow faster still. Between 2000 and 2010, the total population grew 9.7 percent; the population older than 65, by 15.1 percent; the population older than 80, by 23 percent. That last group now numbers more than 11.2 million—and demographers expect it to grow even faster over the decades ahead. 
Here’s at least one obvious way this change will affect older voters. Among all voters 65-plus, women outnumber men only slightly: In 2010, for every 100 women older than 65, the Census counted 95.5 men. The political result? The mild preference in favor of President Obama among older women voters was swamped by the intense hostility of older men. 
As we advance from age cohort to age cohort, however, the men dwindle away. At 75, the Census counts 80.2 men for every 100 women; at 85, 58.3 men for every 100 women. The good news for men: Our survival prospects are rising! In 1990, the Census counted only 45.6 men for every 100 women older than 85. The bad news for the Republicans: The disparity in sex-survival rates has huge political effects on the way the old vote. 
In 2010, the old as a group voted Republican because the lopsided hostility toward Obama among older men could overwhelm the mild preference for the president among older women. As the population ages, however, the ratio of men to women within the over-65 population should drop. The share of over-80s in the population is rising faster than men’s likelihood of surviving to 80. The changing sex ratio will sway the political outlook of the whole group.
As the Baby-Boomers age, the "You (black) kids get off my lawn!" voters will make up a smaller portion of those mid-term stalwarts the Republican Party has relied on, replaced by the Wise Old Women who (once again, always) will save our bacon.

Go Grandma!

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Judges, Redux

Back in March, I had a post about the ridiculous stagnation in confirming judicial nominees, not because the judges were unqualified; not because the Republicans were filibustering everything in sight; not because the nominees lost a vote; but because the Democratic Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Patrick Leahy, was being too scrupulous by half in honoring the Senate tradition of "blue slips." The post recounted the use of the blue slip by N.C. Senator Richard Burr to block confirmation of an Obama nominee that Burr himself had earlier recommended.

Well, it seems like things have been going from bad to worse:
Even without the filibuster, the Republican minority still has tools to obstruct nominees. Vermont Senator Pat Leahy, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has reinstated the "blue slip" convention, which required the approval of at least one home-state senator for an appointment to proceed.
Both of these factors are relevant to the Boggs nomination. The deal to nominate Boggs came about because Senate Republicans had refused to permit nominees to Georgia district courts and the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals to advance. The blue slip practice then gave Georgia's two Republican senators substantial leverage of the appointments. The result was a deal that was ridiculously lopsided given Democratic control of the White House and Senate: 4 Republican picks in exchange for advancing two Democratic ones.
It wasn't bad enough that the Republican minority was using blue slips to block Obama's chosen nominees; now the Republicans are actively selecting nominees by holding other picks hostage until they get their guys on the bench. And all because Senator Leahy is a stickler for the "gentleman's agreement" of the blue slip, an agreement that doesn't seem to hold up so well when the Republicans are in the majority:
It's worth noting at this point that the blue slip is not any kind of formal rule; it's just a courtesy.  Abolishing the filibuster required a majority vote, but Leahy can stop adhering to the blue slip convention anytime he wants.  And it's clear that he should.  We could argue about whether the blue slip should be maintained if it was a genuine bipartsian norm whose maintenance would give Democrats leverage over judicial appointments the next time there's Republican Senate and White House. But it's overwhelmingly clear that this isn't the case. The last time Republicans controlled those two branches Orrin Hatch began to ignore the blue-slip convention, getting several Bush nominees confirmed without the approval of either home-state senator.
It seems like some Democrats may finally be getting sick of the lack of movement on judges, and the way the nominating process itself is being hijacked by the minority party, simply because of a courtesy that only Democrats seem to abide by. Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, has now said that he will vote against Obama nominee Michael Boggs, one of the judges nominated as a result of the Republican hostage-taking.
"Unless I have a better explanation. I can't vote for him. This is a lifetime appointment. He's said some things and made some decisions I think are not very good," Reid told BuzzFeed. "Boggs is not somebody I’m going to vote for unless I have some explanations on why he did that deal with the rebel flag and things he's said about abortion."
Now maybe this is all posturing on Reid's point, making all the right noises to placate the progressive wing of the party while still allowing Boggs to be confirmed. But there is simply no reason at all for President Obama to continue to nominate, and Democratic Senators to vote to confirm the Republicans' judges for them. If the GOP wants to continue to stack the judiciary with ultra-conservatives, they can learn to adopt positions that will win them elections. Otherwise, it is time for the past two elections to have consequences, and for Senator Leahy to let the fucking majority rule.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

"Hope" is the thing with feathers -

This story in The New York Times cheered me up a bit. It's about researchers who are trying to figure out the best ways to alter glass panes to make birds less likely to fly into them. I had no idea that so many birds (hundreds of millions!) die annually in the U.S. from smashing into windows.

After all of the stories lately about our blind, stupid, seemingly inexorable march toward catastrophic climate change and extreme economic inequality, this story about a concrete action that is doing concrete good lifted my spirits.
William Haffey, an ecology graduate student at Fordham University, cradled the nervous clump of gray and yellow feathers in his hands and carefully released it into a long, dark tunnel. At the far end were the adjacent glass panels, illuminated by a daylight simulator.
One panel was familiar transparent glass, which contributes to the demise of hundreds of millions of birds who fly into it each year in the United States. The other was bird-friendly glass, featuring white vertical stripes that are supposed to serve as a kind of avian stop sign.
“I’m hoping it flies,” Mr. Haffey said. (The previous test subject, a white-throated sparrow, had simply hopped around inside the tunnel, looking confused.)
But the yellow-rumped warbler, affectionately called a “butter butt” by birders, flew straight through the tunnel and decisively avoided the bird-safe glass, the desired result. Mr. Haffey raised his hand in a high-five.
The article goes on to detail collaborations between researchers, architects, glass manufacturers, lawmakers, and nonprofit groups that can have a real impact on migratory bird populations. It's a hopeful model where all of these groups work together to move forward on an environmental problem.

Sometimes the larger, structural problems that plague us seem so overwhelming, it is easy to feel despair. Sometimes I need to remind myself that individuals can make a difference at the small-bore level. Maybe that's the best we can all hope to do. Not to sound too Pollyanna-ish, but maybe that's the best way forward - if we all figure out what concrete actions we can do to make our own little corner of the universe a better place, does that all add up to big change? I don't mean that we have to cede the political field to the likes of the Koch brothers, but given the hold their kind has over the political order, pushing back in small ways along many fronts seems at least possible.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Moral Monday

Protests start up again this Monday at 5:00 at the N.C. General Assembly building in Raleigh. Pat McCrory and Thom Tillis may be trying to keep a low profile in advance of the 2014 elections, but the damage has been done, and we are not going to forget.

The American Prospect has a nice piece up about Moral Monday Round II:
A striking trait of the North Carolina movement, and a key to its potential success, is its deliberate ideological and geographic breadth. The NAACP has tightened its alliances with environmental, women’s, LGBT, labor, immigrant, and religious organizations, some of which have historically been at odds over social issues. Barber himself has modeled this line-crossing approach.
He took a strong stand in 2012 against North Carolina’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriages and civil unions, and more recently showed up at Duke Energy’s May 1 shareholder meeting to protest a devastating coal-ash spill into the Dan River. Likewise, the NAACP has pushed into traditionally conservative regions of North Carolina—including Mitchell County in the Appalachian Mountains, where an overwhelmingly white crowd packed an Episcopal church last fall to listen to Barber’s message and interrupt with the occasional “amen.”
“It is unbelievable,” Gatewood says of these allies in places like Mitchell County. “They’re exemplifying enthusiasm that’s moving faster than some of our traditional NAACP leaders. When you’re coming against teachers, [people in conservative strongholds] have got relatives who are teachers. When you’re coming against people who are unemployed, some of them lost jobs at no fault of their own.”
The reactionary policies enacted by the General Assembly last session have affected us all, and most people here do not agree with what they have done. Whether or not we can get voters out in sufficient numbers is a big question (as it always is in off-year elections), but the Democratic party has been gearing up a good ground game strategy, and, more importantly, outside pressure groups - from the NAACP to the NC Association of Educators, to WomenAdvance NC, to environmental coalitions are ALL working hard and wiring together to educate voters get people registered, and keep them engaged in issues that matter to them.

For the first time in a long time, I am hopeful that we might turn this thing around.

Earth to Mark Rubio

Calling Mark Rubio . . .
The collapse of large parts of the ice sheet in West Antarctica appears to have begun and is almost certainly unstoppable, with global warming accelerating the pace of the disintegration, two groups of scientists reported Monday.
The finding, which had been feared by some scientists for decades, means that a rise in global sea level of at least 10 feet may now be inevitable. The rise may continue to be relatively slow for at least the next century or so, the scientists said, but sometime after that it will probably speed up so sharply as to become a crisis.
“This is really happening,” said Thomas P. Wagner, who runs NASA’s programs on polar ice and helped oversee some of the research. “There’s nothing to stop it now. But you are still limited by the physics of how fast the ice can flow.”
Good thing Floridians won't be affected by rising sea levels.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Two Great Tastes That Taste Great Together

So here's a combination of two of my favorite things: Senator Elizabeth Warren, and calling attention to the ridiculousness of the GOP's obsession with all things BENGHAZI!!!!!!!!
What happened in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012 was a tragedy. Four Americans died putting themselves in harm's way in service to peace, diplomacy, and their country. I look at what happened in Benghazi with sadness, with seriousness, and as yet another call to honor the men and women who keep us safe.
So let me be blunt: that kind of seriousness is sorely missing from the no holds-barred political theater of the House Republicans.
I know a little bit about the way Trey Gowdy pursues oversight. I was on the other end of it when I was setting up the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and I was called to testify before the House. As the Huffington Post reported at the time, Gowdy's interrogation of me "seemed to lack the basic facts" about the agency he was attempting to oversee. 
. . . 
As a Senator, I take oversight seriously because it is powerfully important. But Trey Gowdy gives oversight a bad name. The House GOP is on a waste-of-time-and-resources witch hunt and fundraising sideshow, shamefully grasping for any straw to make President Obama, former Secretary Clinton, or Secretary Kerry look bad. This stunt does a disservice to those who serve our country abroad, and it distracts us from issues we should be taking up on behalf of the American people.
With millions of people still out of work and millions more working full time yet still living below the poverty line, with students drowning in debt, with roads and bridges crumbling, is this really what the House Republicans are choosing to spend their time on? Even for guys who have so few solutions to offer that they have voted 54 times to repeal Obamacare, this is a new low.   
Cue dreamy sigh . . . .