April 30, 2006

Katrina Report Rips the White House Anew

With hurricane season only a few short months away and the rebuilding of the most devastated areas after Hurricane Katrina not even begun yet, a Senate inquiry into the federal government’s response to Hurricane Katrina has finally concluded and issued its official report to the American public. Not surprisingly, it managed to get to the bottom of the issue and comes out with strong words and questions for the White House to answer, as by and large the executive branch (from the White House down to FEMA) failed to keep itself informed of the situation, on top of what was being done, and at all act appropriately to assist or take on any responsibility for the events taking place in Louisiana as Katrina blazed ashore and New Orleans was swallowed by water.

The senators who issues the report knowingly admitted that few of their suggestions would likely come to pass before another hurricane season was here to be dealt with, especially considering that one of their suggestions was to completely abolish FEMA as an impotent and ineffective organization and to replace it with a stronger authority with the training, personnel, and ability to respond appropriate to national disasters, even when state and local governments drop their own ball in the process. (as admittedly New Orleans and Louisiana did)

The report was bipartisan, and concluded that the Department of Homeland Security, the already incredibly funded and bloated bureaucratic morass, has either failed to understand or refused to follow the National Emergency Response Plan, and that a great number of federal officials in the White House and in FEMA had never even read it, much less have any disaster response experience of their own. Additionally, the report concluded that New Orleans for years had known that a hurricane like this could take place and knew the damage it could cause, but did nothing to appropriate resources and funds to prepare for such a disaster. It wasn’t a matter of if, but when-and the State of Louisiana and New Orleans did nothing to prepare. Even so, the federal government didn’t do anything to assist, and didn’t particularly help fund their disaster preparedness initiatives either.

The report, titled Hurricane Katrina: A Nation Still Unprepared, had these choice words:

“The suffering that continued in the days and weeks after the storm passed did not happen in a vacuum; instead, it continued longer that it should have because of — and was in some cases exacerbated by — the failure of government at all levels to plan, prepare for and respond aggressively to the storm.”

Stories like this make me wonder about the Department of Homeland Security, and exactly what’s going on in there that’s supposed to be keeping us safe. If we can’t take care of ourselves against mother nature when we have days of lead-time as warning and we know how we should react and what should be done before, during, and after the disaster, when hell-we even have a comprehensive emergency response plan for just such emergencies, I worry significantly about this massive, resource rich organization that is supposed to be ready to protect us against the worst unexpected and human-created or disasters as well.

[ Katrina Report Rips the White House Anew ]
Source: The Associated Press

Hernández: Why I Will Boycott on May 1

César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández isn’t the only one who’ll be taking part of a nation-wide boycott on May 1st. In what’s been dubbed something of a “Day without Latinos,” a large segment of the Latin American community, legal and illegal, will remove themselves as much as possible from society, staying home from work, school, and other activities, in order to put on display the importance and relevance that both illegal and legal immigrants have in American society. Businesses will close, shops will shutter their windows, and many companies are reporting that significant segments of their workforce will be away from their jobs on Monday May 1st.

All the better; for a group of people who contribute so much to our society, and many of which pay taxes just as the rest of us do, but take so much blame, prejudice, and hatred even from short sighted people within the progressive community, nationalists and nativists in the conservative community, and are exploited by business interests by being encouraged to circumvent the citizenship process and come here illegally and be essentially guaranteed work, these people on nothing more than the short end of the American stick (a place that they’re most certainly not alone on) come to America in pursuit of a better life, either legally or illegally, only to be labeled criminals, face stiff predjudice from even those people who would claim to support them, and are told that they can’t possibly assimilate fast enough.

Their work, their sacrifices, and their footpower behind the American economy, makes all of our privilege possible; it makes the cheap goods we enjoy available, the roads we drive on smooth, and the buildings we work in clean. And to be perfectly honest, I’m not so stingy and stodgy with my contribution to our civil and compassionate society (read: taxes) that I’m horrifically concerned with their impact on our health care system and educational system. If the conservatives in power would, for a change-heaven forbid, fully fund our health care and educational systems and make them a priority over bombs, guns, and their and their friends’ own deep pockets, then perhaps we wouldn’t have anything to be concerned with.

I would like to boycott on May 1st, but I’ll be in the office. Why? Because I want to experience first hand where my privilege lies; I want to go without for a day, and I want to miss it. I want to see, right in front of my face, how important these people are to the luxury of American life, and I want to see what that life is without it. In the meantime, I’ll be cheering them on.

César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández has his story:

[ Why I Will Boycott on May 1 ]
Source: Alternet

But as I said, Hernández is by no means alone. Perhaps one of the most uplifting stories I’ve heard in a very very long time is the story of Dov Charney runs American Apparel, the largest single garment factory in the United States, and his mostly immigrant (legal) workforce. He’ll be shuttering his plant and allowing his workers May 1st to participate in the boycott, and he too will stand with them in order to make it known that at least some American businesses realize that these workers, illegal or legal, are the foundation of the American economy, and without them business cannot continue. He chooses also to stand with them, and I’m proud of him and his company for doing so. The story is amazingly inspiring, and gives me faith in the American marketplace.

[ American Apparel, an Immigrant Success Story ]
Source: National Public Radio

April 27, 2006

Redefining the Environmental Debate

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., President of the Waterkeeper Alliance, has some choice words for the business community that decide the best way to make friends with conservatives and press back against environmental, safety, and policy regulation from the government is to pass the costs of compliance back to the consumer:

All our federal environmental laws were intended to promote free market capitalism by forcing actors in the marketplace to pay the true costs of bringing their products to market. The Waterkeepers enforce these laws. We go into the marketplace, and catch cheaters. ‘We are going to force you,’ we tell them, ‘to internalize your costs the same way you are internalizing your profit.’ I don’t even consider myself an environmentalist anymore. I’m a free-marketeer. So long as the polluters are cheating, none of us will get the benefits of the efficiency, prosperity and democracy that the free market promises America.

Well put, and he’s absolutely right. The point here isn’t to raise business costs, as the conservative right would love for you to believe, and the act of passing along the costs of any environmental action or regulation to the consumer is appalling enough, but in my mind out and out criminal. Companies like Exxon Mobil recently reported surging profits, as did other oil companies, and while everyone harps on them as the villain, they’re a perfect example of a company that has surging profits that keep the investors and shareholders very very happy, but at the same time they can manage to keep those profit margins fat because they pass along incredible costs to the consumer. It’s part of the reason why some people (like myself) are hesitant to impose a windfall profits tax on the oil industry-they’ll just push the cost of the tax to the consumer, and we’ll feel it when we fill up the tank.

So what’s the problem here? Well, industries that are forced to comply with environmental regulation, whether they be oil companies, utilities, or even transport and transit companies, generally fight environmental, safety, anti-discrimination, and any other regulations that would make them change the way they do business from the status quo, and then when they lose, they get back at the government by pushing the compliance costs back to the people, when in all reality, these companies should be internalizing their costs as costs of doing business, modifying their business models to either take advantage of or work with regulations and compliance, instead of haphazardly and childishly changing their general processes and jacking up the prices of their goods.

Kennedy focuses on environmental regulation and the seemingly endless desire for large polluting businesses and groups to continue poisoning our water, killing the birds in the air and fish and whales in the sea, and clearcutting forests, national parks, and wildlife refuges, and explains that pollution is not an American value or an American way of life; and that in trying to do something about it, environmentalists aren’t the villains here, even though the companies responsible for keeping clean while they do business would like you to think so. His entire comments are linked below.

[ Redefining the Environmental Debate ]
Source: The Waterkeeper Alliance

Bootstraps Don’t Beat Trust Funds

Yet more data goes to prove the point that progressives have been making for years; “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” doesn’t work. In fact, it doesn’t even exist in today’s America, where those “bootstraps” are pre-cut before you even get a chance to put the boots on. Unfortunately, the facts show, and have always shown, that if you’re poor in America, you’re vastly more likely to stay poor, regardless of what grand ideas or grand designs you might have about becoming wealthy or embracing the American dream. Why? Because the opportunities to make your dreams reality only exist in a world where you can afford to indluge those dreams, either through education, free time, an affluence of funds to pursue your ideas, or a safety net of financial and social programs designed to help people find opportunity and live the American dream-a safety net that’s been constantly and consistently sliced away at over the past decade by conservative elements who oppose any kind of governmental assistance, training, programs, help, or otherwise to anyone, much less those who need it the most.

So where does America stand? The rich get richer, the poor stay poor or get poorer, and the bloating middle class, living from paycheck to paycheck without significant savings and spend their whole lives living well but having negative net worth, are essentially stuck where they are too, although they have the greatest opportunity to move upwards into affluence-and similarly the greatest risk of rapidly sliding backwards into poverty. Being in the middle class comes with a hefty responsibility, and is like standing on a mountain peak-a stiff wind one way or the other could blow you into the arms of comfort or have you living out of your car. Sadly the wind more often than not is set to blow one direction, and it’s not a matter of chance.

Over at TomPaine.com today in their “Uncommon Sense” column, Ethan Heitner gives us some insight into a new study out showing that the dream of rags-to-riches in America is still an illusion, why it’s still an illusion, and how the system is quietly rigged to allow us to keep dreaming the noble dream of a better life, but see all of our work get us nowhere. Check out his article, and make sure to follow the links to the studies and articles in the story. As an educated populace, we all, regardless of our political leanings, stand a better chance of making the American dream a reality for ourselves and our children, and breaking the cycle of a persistent underclass that has held the impoverished and middle-class Americans hostage for years.

[ Bootstraps Don’t Beat Trust Funds ]
Source: TomPaine.com

April 26, 2006

Oilman in Chief

I have to agree with Frank O’Donnell, President of Clean Air Watch, on his conclusion that you know that the Preisdent’s approval ratings are in the toilet when he starts bashing his buddies, the oil companies, and claiming that action needs to be taken to protect “our consumers” from illegal and anti-competitive pricing of gasoline.

The trouble is that the FTC never really stops investigating oil companies, and in general it really is market forces that push gas prices up, but the question is whether or not those “market forces,” like simultaneous refinery shutdowns and additive shortages, are the result of pure accidents and unforseen situations, or whether they’re quietly planned in order to articifically raise the price of gasoline when the price of oil goes up. To be honest, I wouldn’t put it past most oil companies to generate problems like this when the price of oil goes up, that way they can get off claiming they’re having problems and those damned arabs are bilking us out of our $70+ per barrel of oil.

So O’Donnell takes the President to task on the supposition that his suggestions in yesterday’s speech will actually help (like telling oil companies they can suspend contributions to the Strategic Oil Reserve over the course of the summer, which will only push a few million barrels of oil onto the market, in fact, less than America consumes in one day) and blasting him on trying to brainwash the American people into thinking that it’s environmental regulation that’s keeping gas prices high. He suggested relaxing clean air laws for a short period to bring the price of oil down, a move that most people agree won’t affect gas prices, but the important thing he forgot about that suggestion is that we tried it already, not more than 6 months ago, after Hurrican Katrina.

The result? Brown and dirty skies and poisonous rain over St. Louis and the neighboring cities, for one. But he wants to press ahead with the anti-environment agenda anyway. I seem to remember this man calling himself a “good steward of the land” during one of his many lost debates during his re-election campaign, but no matter now, is it?

O’Donnell puts it much better than I do, with myths and rebuttals laid out right on the page.

[ Oilman In Chief ]
Source: TomPaine.com

Celebrating Our Eco-Heroes

How about some good news to make up for the lack of posting on Earth Day?

AlterNet [ http://alternet.org/ challenged its readers to come up with a list of real eco-heroes, real environmental activists, that they look up to. These are real people, doing real, nitty-gritty work to improve the condition of the environment for people, animals, and everything living under the sun (and some of those that don’t!) and trying to foster a better, healthier planet to pass on to our children. Here’s the preface:

When Vanity Fair announced its special “green issue,” focusing on the environment and those who fight on its behalf, it seemed a watershed moment, a sign that talk of global warming has officially broken into the mainstream. With ample scientific evidence that clearly shows the negative impact human beings are having on the planet, it’s long past time we started asking how we can stop it, rather than naively pondering whether it’s going on at all. This Earth Day, we can all celebrate this shift in focus — and the people who have fueled it.

But the magazine focused almost exclusively on the rich and powerful figureheads of the enviro movement, leaders like Al Gore, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Julia Roberts. In doing so, Vanity Fair missed the very people who offer the most hope in solving the problems we’re facing: the grassroots activists and leaders that push environmentalism ever forward.

When we asked readers to nominate their grassroots eco-heroes, we received hundreds of names. It’s a testament to the number of people, often uncelebrated, who continue to fight for our planet. It is one thing to champion a cause, another to live it. And while Julia Roberts and George Clooney look great in green on the Vanity Fair cover, these nine eco-heroes are responsible for making our entire planet look better and greener.

Including people like Rebecca Aldworth, director of Canadian Wildlife Issues for the Humane Society of the United States, Theo Colburn from the environmental group Our Stolen Future, and Neil Turner, President of Citizens Advocating Responsible Development, these nine folks are true eco-heroes, and I can only hope that AlterNet gives us some more names of people we can actually look up to in the coming weeks.

[ Celebrating Our Eco-Heroes ]
Source: AlterNet

Bush’s Imperial Presidency

An excellent story, in my opinion, for the “I’ve got nothing to hide” crowd that’s actually believes that warrantless wiretapping, surveilling of email and electronic communications without a court order, and other forms of domestic spying are perfectly okay.

I remember being in a high school class, and when the topic of privacy was brought up, I couldn’t see a problem with absolute police and governmental power. “If I’m not doing anything wrong,” I reasoned, “Why should I be worried if the government is listening to my phone calls, or watching me through cameras when I walk down the street?” I didn’t understand how important the right to privacy was back then, and I didn’t understand how critical it was to the notion of freedom, liberty, and democracy. I didn’t understand why privacy was important or why it mattered, although I recognized that the founders of our great nation thought personal privacy was a sacred gem in the cap of the free American that should always be protected. If there were serious threats, I thought, why shouldn’t we trade our privacy and civil liberties, if it’ll actually keep us safe?

This brilliant article explains why. I came around when I was thoroughly toungelashed by a young woman in that same class in high school, and I understood where she came from. Her perspective was frightening, her vision of a world where there was no such thing as “off the record,” or “behind closed doors,” or “anonymous source,” where “whistleblowers” weren’t people with protection, they were objects of public scrutiny. I was frightened, and I did my homework, and she was absolutely right.

So pass this one around; if you know people like the article’s author, Jim Hightower, describes in his first paragraph:

A fellow from a town just outside of Austin wrote a four-sentence letter to the editor of our local daily that astonished me: “I want the government to please, please listen in on my phone calls. I have nothing to hide. It is also welcome to check my emails and give me a national identification card, which I will be proud to show when asked by people in authority. What’s with all you people who need so much privacy?”

Then this is the dissertation for you. Read, weep, and fight for a future that will hopefully not include these elements, although if the Bush Administration has a say in the matter, we’re already well on the way. Hightower helps us understand not only how important our rights and freedoms are, but he shows us that those same liberties are under assault by the Bush Administration in ways that are almost unfathomable and would never be considered by any other President. Sure, sure, the Administration likes to use Sept. 11, 2001 as a scapegoat for it’s powergrabbing, but Hightower sees through this allusion and points out the very real things that the President is doing in the name of terror fighting that has little to nothing to do with the topic.

[ Bush’s Imperial Presidency ]
Source: AlterNet

April 25, 2006

In Deregulation of Electric Markets, a Consumer Pinch

According to the fiscal conservatives, deregulation is supposed to be good for the economy, and good for the customer. Deregulation, like tax cuts, mean that the companies are supposed to take the money they’d otherwise be feeding the government and use it to research better ways to bring their products to market, which increases competition, and overall will lower prices because of the higher competition.

We learned that wasn’t true when the airlines were deregulated, but we went ahead in the 1990s and deregulared the power utility markets anyway, believing that the increased competition by electric companies in most regions would lead to an explosion of competition and lower prices for everyone. Except it didn’t happen. Utilities merged, and competed with each other only in name (while they were all owned by the same parent companies that held an effective monopoly over a geographic region) and prices went nowhere. Now, the last dregs of governmental oversight are scheduled to slip from over the shoulders of the electric utliities, and residents around the country can expect massive increases in their rates, just in time for the summer, when air conditioners get turned on and electric bills go through the roof.

And this year, in many places (like in my home state, Maryland, some people can expect rate increases of up to 72%!) residents who had a hard time paying their natural gas and heating bills last winter will get no relief in the summer and will get slammed again with high electric bills. So have we learned our lesson this time around? Only time will tell, but the Christian Science Monitor [ http://www.csmonitor.com/ ] has the scoop on where, and why, deregulation went so horribly horribly wrong.

[ In Deregulation of Electric Markets, a Consumer Pinch ]
Source: Christian Science Monitor

While Washington Slept

While I do regret posting something special for Earth Day [ http://www.earthday.net/ ] which for 2006 was on Saturday April 22nd, I’m glad to be back in action on something that’s of incredible importance to the global community; global warming. Vanity Fair, of all publications, has an amazing piece about how global warming has been labeled a “liberal hoax,” something that only tree-huggers and alarmists believe, only doomsaying scientists, for example.

With energy companies and industry groups trying to play down the very real science and studies that have emerged to show us that global warming and the human effects of greenhouse gas emissions are a very clear, real, and present threat to the health of the planet and every living thing on it, and with industry patsies like author Michael Crichton villainizing ecologists and scientists as “ecoterrorists” in novels like State of Fear, thus pressing the mindset that there’s a bunch of people who don’t know what they’re talking about while the rest of us shove our heads in the sand, recycle the occassional soda can to make ourselves feel good, and go on like there’s no problem, the truth is being ever so clouded like crystal submerged in mud.

The truth is that global warming and climate change are real, they’re happening, and the nations of the world who are most responsible for the pollution in the air, water, and soil need to do something about them. Even some of the most conservative lawmakers like Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lindsey Graham, (R-S.C.) had to balk in the face of real evidence when they visited Alaska to see the real effects of climate change earlier this year. Evangelical religious groups, finally agreeing that pollution and clearcutting isn’t what the Bible meant when it said “dominion” over the Earth, and even the hunting and fishing lobby, tired of the rivers they fish getting too polluted to fish in and the forests they hunt in being cut down, are all pledging to do something to protect the environment that we all, up to this point, have taken for granted.

And yet, global warming remains a laughable threat to people who haven’t seen the studies or recognize the problem. The auto and oil industries are sitting pretty, and occassionally lash out to discredit a study or two, claim they’re cleaner now than they used to be, and even in the current Administration scientists are being pressed to alter their language in studies and research results to remove words like “climate change” and “warming,” change their results to be more favorable to the current poltical regime on Capitol Hill and in the White House, and a talent drain has started from the EPA and NASA of scientists who are tired of having their science bent and twisted to fit a political agenda.

Vanity Fair has the scoop on perhaps the biggest disinformation campaign in history to discredit the human impact on the changing climate, and the very real threat of global warming, and why political leaders are so intent on keeping people like you and I in the dark about it.

[ While Washington Slept ]
Source: Vanity Fair

April 20, 2006

Gas Price Gambit

I’m generally skeptical about a windfall profits tax on the oil industry, even though I recognize that those record profits are generally getting reinvested by the companies that made them and into hefty bonuses and options for the CEOs and board members responsible for them. In reality, any windfall profits tax will wind up getting passed along to the consumer, mostly because those fat profit margins keep stock prices and corporate value nice and high, and Uncle Sam taking a chunk out of that will deflate the value of the company a bit, and stock prices might take a tumble-we can’t have the shareholders unhappy, so they’ll just kick up gas prices enough to cover the difference, blame congress, and there you go.

But regardless, Tyson Slocum, acting director of Public Citizen’s energy program, makes a pretty good case for one, especially with the possibility that those profits might be put to good use searching for, researching, and developing renewable energies and the technologies that could make them scalable, affordable to impliment and to use, and overall reduce our national dependance on fossil fuels like foreign oil and coal. Allow me an excerpt, then you can read for yourself:

Public Citizen proposes an alternative: a windfall profits tax on oil companies, with the proceeds used to finance clean energy alternatives to fossil fuels, increased investment in mass transit, bigger incentives to individuals and small businesses for energy efficiency and enforcing stronger fuel economy standards.

One way to solve our addition to oil is to use less of it: America consumes one out of every four barrels of oil in the world every day, yet we are the third biggest producer of crude—only the Saudis and the Russians produce more than we do. Even if we doubled domestic production—physically impossible, but just assume it for argument’s sake—to match that of Saudi Arabia, we would still be forced to import half of our oil.

And with President Bush overseeing annual budget deficits exceeding $420 billion, the federal government isn’t exactly in the best position to spend the money it will take to break our oil addition. But a windfall profits tax on record oil company earnings is an equitable way to get it done.

[ Gas Price Gambit ]
Source: TomPaine.com