Sunday, June 20, 2010

RIP Jose Saramago

The great Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago passed away this week. I've only read his book "The Cave," but damn what a good book. Check out the NY Times retrospective on him here. It's a pretty good review of his career, outside of the unsupported exaggeration that Saramago"was known almost as much for his unfaltering Communism as for his fiction." Not an exaggeration of his political views, but that they threatened to overshadow his literary production. She sums up his style, at least from what I read in "The Cave," quite aptly, a combination of "surrealist experimentation with a kind of sardonic peasant pragmatism." I hope to delve into his work more in wake of his death. "Blindness" sounds particularly interesting.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Great On Point w/ Douglas Brinkley and Naomi Klein Plus Good Resources on Spill

On Point w/ Tom Ashbrook on NPR put out an excellent program today on the Gulf oil spill that I highly recommend. Tom talks with Douglas Brinkley, Naomi Klein, and Julia Reed about the spill in wake of the President's Oval Office speech yesterday. So much of the coverage of the politics of the oil spill has focused on perceptions and political consequences, such as whether the President is showing sufficient anger or what the electoral implications of the spill might be. It's incredibly refreshing to hear a program that presents analysis of this administration's actual response, not just his words.

It's also nice to hear an avowed leftist like Naomi Klein on NPR, which normally elects panelists with safe, predictable views from the powerful DC think tanks, like Heritage or AEI on the right and Brookings on the center-left. Ashbrook does seem to have the most unique show widely broadcasted on NPR stations, so maybe I shouldn't be surprised.

Like most of us who think the Democratic party is too tight with monied interests and too militaristic in its foreign policy choices, she has criticized Obama from the beginning for his lack of action on global warming and his rather accommodating treatment of financial capital. As expected, she continued to critique him in this vein. What's really interesting is to see historian Douglas Brinkley, more of a liberal than a leftist and a pretty mainstream guy, agreeing with her and lambasting the President without mincing words.

The consensus from these three is that, while talking tough for the cameras, the President in practice has deferred to BP and even protected the company rather than taking charge of the cleanup. To some degree we are at the mercy of BP and its engineers when it comes to stopping the gusher, but the President could have taken control of the broader cleanup and coastal protection from Day 1. Formerly Secretary of Labor Robert Reich proposed that the President put BP under temporary receivership, something quite within his powers (if you can do it with AIG, you can do it with BP) (see this post on his site here). Yet the President would rather let BP take all the heat and protect his approval numbers, which despite public anger might be better for BP's shareholders than serious action like receivership and putting all our resources to bear on protecting the coastline.

In a side note, Brinkley wrote an interesting article in the Financial Times today (if you register, you can get a daily email update and 8 articles a month, it's worth the minute it takes) calling on the President to allow the Mississippi River to revert to its natural, undiverted state to rebuild the wetlands. The canals and levies on the river, constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers to prevent flooding in the Mississippi Delta, have caused a gigantic amount of wetlands to disappear as the river's sediment settles out deeper in the Gulf, where it cannot accumulate and create wetlands. This is a pretty radical idea that I haven't heard even a lot of environmentalists propose, but the situation demands its implementation. The oil will likely speed up the already rapid rate at which the wetlands are lost. We need our wetlands as a crucial home for wildlife (including fisheries crucial to the area's economy) and component of the broader Gulf ecosystem, which is already suffering from oxygen-poor dead zones due to agricultural pollution running down the Mississippi as well as this massive, massive spill. On top of the ecological benefits, more wetlands would provide the natural protection from storm surge the New Orleans once enjoyed. And, as Brinkley notes, why not make BP pay?

Finally, check out the Center for Biological Diversity's excellent page on the spill. It includes breaking news as well as a constantly updated history of the spill. The Center brought to the media's attention the Salazar/Obama administration's continued granting "categorical exclusions" from doing environmental review since the spill, 27 times in fact. If you peruse my blog, you will see that I have been no fan of oil- and rancher-friendly Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, and we need to keep up the heat on him as well as the President.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Great Jeremy Scahill Destroys Ed Koch

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If you haven't heard of Jeremy Scahill, he's an excellent investigative journalist that works to expose the injustice of American militarism and imperialism. He began his career as a correspondent for Catholic Worker and Democracy Now!. Scahill wrote the excellent expose of private security contractors, Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army. Currently he writes for The Nation magazine (as well as a blog on the magazine's site).

What I enjoy about Scahill's work is that, much like Bill Moyers, he combines a journalist's attention to fact with the aim of working for a more just society. It's rare in these times of talk-format "news" shows and regurgitated talking points to see real journalism, especially when it professes a political goal. Political journalism lately has devolved into blogosphere hysterics on all sides (I'm going to hurl if I hear another reporter say both sides, as if our Democrat-Republican dichotomy encapsulates all possibilities of political opinion).

Not surprisingly he's been all over Israel's violent assault of the Mavi Marmara in international waters. He posted on his blog the video (I posted it above) of his appearance on MSNBC debating Ed Koch about the incident. His rigor for facts partially explains why he destroys the hell out of Koch.

I'll mostly let Scahill's words speak for themselves (he adds to them in this post on his blog). I just want to highlight two things. First, the list of goods banned from Gaza is really ridiculous, both in length and the inclusion of certain individual items (it includes goats and common culinary spices like cumin). It's clear the blockade is intended to do much more than prevent rocket attacks, as Scahill drives home when he asks Koch how goats could be used to launch a rocket.

Secondly, links to the US are crucial here. Israel gets away with human rights violations and violent aggression because the US unconditionally backs it at the UN and provides generous military aid, no matter what party is in power here. Even now the Obama administration is working to thwart an independent international investigation of the massacre. Until we condition our support for Israel upon respect for international law and human rights, these injustices will continue and the matter of Palestinian statehood will remain unresolved.

I hope to have more later on the legal aspect of the assault, so stay tuned.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Errol Morris--Gates of Heaven

A friend of mine tipped me off about filmmaker Errol Morris back in school, and I really loved The Thin Blue Line, his documentary exploring the (wrongful as it turns out) conviction of a man for killing a Texas police officer. I was curious about what other movies he has made, and thus I came across his amazing first movie Gates of Heaven. It investigates the phenomenon of pet cemeteries in California in the late 1970's.

On the surface it can be entertaining to see how obsessed these people are with their pets, one of those damn-those-people-are-strange documentaries, yet this movie is much more than that. It shows how and why pets create meaning in people's lives, and also how the process of production, business management, and consumerism coincides with that creation of meaning.

There's a cool Werner Herzog connection to the movie. He was an acquaintance of Errol Morris, and made a bet that he would cook and eat his shoe if Morris actually completed Gates of Heaven. When he finished it, he followed through on his obligation and ate his shoe.

Check out the movie, it's a great one. Here's a video of some clips from the movie, and a clip from a documentary about Herzog eating his shoe.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Methane Release from East Siberian Arctic Shelf

Global warming creates a number of positive feedback cycles in which warming creates the conditions for accelerated warming. An example would be higher temperatures reducing the extent of Arctic sea ice, which allows the Arctic Ocean to absorb more sunlight and warm faster. There is one feedback in particular we should be scared shitless about: methane feedbacks.

Methane (CH4, same as that natural gas you might use to cook) is a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than CO2. Not only do humans emit methane in a variety of ways, but feedback cycles from warming caused primarily by our CO2 emissions drive further methane release. Higher temperatures in the Arctic and Antarctic (and remember that higher latitudes experience a greater level of warming) cause the frozen tundra soils, or permafrost, to melt. The melting triggers anaerobic decomposition of organic material in the soil, which creates methane as a byproduct. Joe Romm has been raising the visibility of this issue for a long time because the feedback cycle is not incorporated into climate models. That suggests that we need to cut emissions faster and deeper than the models say to stabilize global temperature at the same level.

Via Romm's blog Climate Progress, I came across a study that found a potentially more dangerous source of methane: submerged permafrost in shallow seas off the eastern coast of Siberia. In colder times, the area was tundra above sea level but in this warmer epoch it lies under water. The submerged permafrost contains massive amounts of methane that, if released, could cause the rate of global warming to increase hugely. Check out Romm's summary in its entirety as it condenses the findings quite well and contextualizes them with regard to overall climate and emissions trends.

The study found that already the area is emitting more methane into the atmosphere than the rest of the ocean does. The permafrost/methane formations show signs of instability as warming has created 100 hotspots of methane release. The really scary part is how the release of even a small amount of the methane stored in the East Siberian Arctic Shelf would destabilize the atmosphere:
“The release to the atmosphere of only one percent of the methane assumed to be stored in shallow hydrate deposits might alter the current atmospheric burden of methane up to 3 to 4 times,” Shakhova said. “The climatic consequences of this are hard to predict.”
Yikes. Given that the climate models used to make climate policy don't incorporate major feedbacks, we knew earlier that we had to make greater emissions cuts than the models say to stabilize at the same temperatures and in doing so avoid the worst impacts of global warming. This study suggests that we have to make those cuts not just to avoid a greater increment of warming, but to avoid a drastic jump in greenhouse gas levels from methane release that would greatly multiply the effect of human emissions and push our climate into a dramatically warmer era (we're talking like 10 degrees F warmer with commensurate consequences for people and ecosystems). I leave with you with the climate blogging master Romm himself:
It is increasingly clear that if the world strays significantly above 450 ppm atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide for any length of time, we will find it unimaginably difficult to stop short of 800 to 1000 ppm
In short, the would-be point of atmospheric stabilization, 550 ppm isn’t stable at all — it is past the point of no return. We must stay well below 450 ppm to save the tundra and hence the climate. The new research underscores that conclusion, especially since the planet will keep warming (slowly) for decades even once we slash emissions to near zero.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Krugman's Clear Primer on Greece

Paul Krugman's column from yesterday nicely explains the Greek crisis in a manner comprehensible even for someone who studied environmental policy and geography. The key is that being in the Eurozone, Greece cannot devalue its currency, which would make its products cheaper in other countries and other countries' products more expensive in Greece, thus improving its trade balance.
But that’s a much harder thing to do now than it was when each European nation had its own currency. Back then, costs could be brought in line by adjusting exchange rates — e.g., Greece could cut its wages relative to German wages simply by reducing the value of the drachma in terms of Deutsche marks. Now that Greece and Germany share the same currency, however, the only way to reduce Greek relative costs is through some combination of German inflation and Greek deflation. And since Germany won’t accept inflation, deflation it is.
He also had some interesting things to say about how the crisis hit them. Entering the Eurozone had opened the PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, Spain) to lots of investment because of confidence in the euro, but the financial crisis caused it to "dry up" as he puts it. This is what drove these countries' government into such dire fiscal straits. Spain was even experiencing a budget surplus prior to the crisis. Perhaps for countries who don't have a lot of financial capital themselves it's not the best idea to completely liberalize investment in addition to trade.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Greek Debt Crisis (Part 1): Moral Hazard For Nation-States But Not Banks

I've been trying to follow this Greek debt crisis closely. Not only is it clearly affecting global financial markets, but it says a lot about big issues of political economy and social relations. Who is paying for this recession in terms of class and geography? What is the appropriate fiscal policy response to deep recession to pull us out of it? Is a double-dip recession around the corner? I'm going to leave these big issues aside for now, and juxtapose the EU's response to this crisis and its response to the earlier financial crisis.

First off, this Greek crisis has laid bare the gross hypocrisy of neo-liberal elites in Europe (and here) with regard to moral hazard. So many commentators have stated that Greece (and so many of them conflate this with the Greek working class) must be punished with severe budget austerity as a condition of a EU or IMF bailout, or otherwise other countries will not be sufficiently deterred from running into debt trouble themselves. This is a basic principle of capitalism. To achieve market efficiency, people who make bad decisions must pay the price or else they will continue to make bad ones. And to be absolutely clear, the Greek government is responsible for much of this crisis. It used interest rate swaps with the help of the wonderful people at Goldman Sachs to conceal its actual debt levels before the recession, after which greatly reduced tax revenues pushed its budget much, much deeper in the red. (How much is our fault as the collapse of our housing bubble set off a global recession? Ah, but I digress.)

Yet big European and American banks made similar if not worse mistakes. They over-leveraged i.e. ran up too much debt, made poor investments, and hid liabilities through shadow institutions and tricky devices like the Repo 105 method of Lehman Brothers. According to classical capitalist thinking, they should have been allowed to fail, or at the very least punished severely in exchange for being rescued. Instead, the Federal Reserve, European Central Bank (ECB), and the Bank of England offered extremely low interest loans to these banks, bought toxic assets off their books, and guaranteed loans. Governments similarly provided great amounts of cheap capital for these inept banks, except they used taxpayer funds rather than "printing money." Of course, some response was necessary to stave off a worse collapse, but they did practically nothing to punish the banks. So much for moral hazard!

What does it say morally about the structure of the EU's political economy when a nation-state is punished for running into solvency issues while banks are coddled? Sure there are people that work for banks, but saving banks is mostly about preserving the value of money and assets, mostly held by the rich. Last I checked governments are responsible for entire populations. Call me crazy, but I think people are more important than banks.

There's a very interesting link between these two crises, and not just in how they expose the hypocrisy of neo-liberalism. Why are interest rates on Greek bonds going so high? The media refers to the market causing this as some sort of mystical force that dispassionately calculates the risk of Greek default. In the real world, it's bond traders that determine that rate by their interest in purchasing the bonds. Given the immense concentration of huge wealth in transnational financial institutions, this gives them a lot of power to mess around with rates. In other words, speculation and even bullying plays a role in addition to calculated analysis. The great Marshall Auerback of the Roosevelt Institute calls these folks, the very same ones we bailed out I might add, "big dick swinging bond traders." Is it rational to allow these jerks to push our governments and by extension us around? I encourage you to check out an excellent article by him on this subject at the New American Perspectives blog here.

The other important players are the rating agencies that assess the risk of different bonds. The lowered rating of Greece and other smaller European countries by Moody's is what drove their bond rates so high and set off this crisis. Hmm, Moody's, sounds familiar. Oh yeah, they're those incompetent bastards who gave AAA ratings to securities consisting of bundled sub-prime mortgages that would later bring down global financial markets!

So not only is the EU punishing Greece after it propped up the financial sector, but it's letting that very same bailed-out financial sector run its smaller member states into the ground. Remember that the next time you hear an American commentator bemoan Greek "profligacy" and "excess."

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Great Earth Day Edition of The Nation

The posts have been slow lately because I got married recently and figured out where I'm going to law school in the fall (George Washington, so to DC the wife and I and the kitty go), so I've had a lot going on to say the least.

I'm an avid reader of the The Nation magazine. It's a wonderful old institution of the American left. A lot of people of a more leftist than liberal persuasion have been disappointed in the magazine of late for the unwillingness of the editorial leadership to challenge some of the far-from-progressive policies of President Obama, particularly on health reform (adios public option!). Being of that persuasion, I understand their disappointment, but outside of the editors' editorial at the beginning of each issue, the articles continue to present an uncompromised critique, particularly of the escalation in Afghanistan and Obama's bellicose moves in Latin America. The magazine also funds some of the best investigative journalism out there, which we need more than ever as talking point talk shows replace factual investigation.

I always thought The Nation could use some more environmental coverage, but recently they've been really stepping it up on this front. Its coverage of the abysmal Copenhagen climate conference in December, online and in print, was fantastic, especially capturing the voices of climate scientists and climate justice activists locked out. More recently the magazine ran a brilliant cover story by Johann Hari savaging the big, corporate environmental NGO's for close ties to polluters and politicians that undercut their purpose and effect. This trend has culminated in an excellent Earth Day edition devoted entirely to the environment.

As I've written a couple times, our politicians as well as the public don't get how bad the climate crisis is. The notoriously conservative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said in 2007 that developed countries needed to cut their emissions 25-40% below 1990 levels (we're well above that now) by 2020 to avoid a temperature rise of 2 degrees C, the level at which scientists believe the worst impacts will come to fruition. The climate bill passed out of the House last summer would cut emissions by 17% below 2005 levels by 2020, which is only 3% below 1990 levels. Hmm doesn't match up, does it?

As it has done on the matter of Afghanistan, with this issue The Nation presents an excellent environmentalist and left critique of inaction thus far by our Congress and the President as well as critique of the weak actions they are considering. You can read the most of the article in the issue online without a subscription here, and here's a summary of the best:

-Excellent piece by Christian Parenti on what the President could do using the Clean Air Act without any action by Congress. This is a big issue to watch come Monday when the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman bill comes out: will EPA authority to regulate greenhouse gases be stripped?

-Mark Hertsgaard and Johann Hari ridicule this invented Climategate scandal and describe how our news media gives credence to deniers who have no scientific credibility

-A surprisingly good and unmuddled editorial summarizing the worst aspects of disturbingly weak climate bills proposed from a progressive as well as environmental perspective: wasteful corporate giveaways to coal and nuclear, way too low emissions reductions, offsets (allowing companies to purchase dubious emissions reductions in poor countries instead of cutting their own), and pre-emption of states already regulating greenhouse gases i.e. rendering any state-level climate bills moot

-Robert Eshelman reviewing the huge successes of local grassroots activists and the more progressive NGO's (Sierra Club, RAN, Center for Biological Diversity) in defeating proposed new coal plants. As the lead editorial states, this grassroots and independent approach provides a good model to progressive environmentalists for fighting the broader climate justice battle.

So check out these articles, and don't be satisfied with a climate action incommensurate to the scope of the climate problem. Whatever ends up on the President's desk will be a piece of shit, and you can bet the Democrats will praise themselves for saving the planet no matter how weak it is. In working to make the bill less of a piece of shit we lay the groundwork for stronger climate action as this struggle continues over the next decade.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

3 Good Policies on The Environment This Week (That Outweigh But Do Not Diminish This Drilling Foolishness)

It's unfortunate that the President's drilling plan overshadowed some quite excellent and even transformative environmental/energy policies he implemented this week. They demonstrate the rather large impact a President can have on domestic policy through the broad regulatory powers allocated to the executive branch. Of course these decisions do not legitimate offshore drilling in some sort of quid pro quo (it would be more acceptable if drilling won votes for a desperately needed climate bill, but that seems pretty doubtful to me).

It's important to note that all of these 3 good policies came from the EPA headed by Lisa Jackson. In contrast to the Ken Salazar's Interior Department, the EPA has taken a somewhat progressive post-Bush tack. A President's choice for cabinet appointments reflects the President's own pedagogy and beliefs, but those appointments can also in turn shape the President's policy opinions. In this way, Lisa Jackson has been a mildly positive force while Ken Salazar has pushed the President towards a more corporate and developer-friendly approach to our public lands and environment. Salazar's effect is quite analogous to that of Summers and Geithner in economic policy.

1) Clean Water Limits on Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining

If you haven't heard, mountaintop removal coal mining is the most destructive form of fossil fuel extraction humans have devised. This method, performed primarily if not exclusively in the Appalachian mountains from West Virginia down into Tennessee, involves blowing the top off a mountain the get at a coal seam below. The debris is dumped in valleys, which destroys forests, completely fills in miles of streams, and pollutes the remaining streams with heavy metals. Left behind are huge waste pools of toxic coal slurry. Not only is this is so terrible for the natural environment, but it pollutes drinking water supplies and toxic waste pools frequently spill near communities. The Appalachian Voices website has more info on these severe impacts.

As this Grist article recounts, the Jackson EPA has given the green light to some new MTR permits and rejected others, a decidedly mixed record. That was disappointing considering how obvious damaging this practice is, and how little benefit it brings to the local area (WV remains among the poorest states in the nation. Scholars of the "resource curse" persuasion have suggested that this is in part because of coal, not despite it as the coal companies say.)

This new rule restrains MTR projects by placing new limitations on valley fills. In announcing the rule, Jackson said very few mines if any will meet the new standard, meaning that it may become a de facto ban on this abysmal practice because the blown-up mountain tops have to go somewhere.

The excellent mining watchdog group Earthworks reminds us that the rule doesn't go as far it could have i.e. explicitly banning valley fills and/or MTR. Nor does it apply to other regions or the mining of other substances, which also employs valley fills at times. That said, more or less stopping this terrible practice is a major advance for the people and environment of Appalachia. A lot of hard-hit communities there have been fighting MTR for years, and my congratulations go to them. I only wish this happened sooner.

MTR in Appalachia accounts for almost 10% of our coal supply with disproportionately enormous environmental impact, so this decision is a big step forward. Allowing the destruction of Appalachia through MTR has been a subsidy to coal against much less carbon-intensive natural gas, nuclear, and renewables, so this is helpful in moving to curtail greenhouse gas emissions as well.

2) New Auto Fuel Efficiency Standards

In the first time the Clean Air Act has been used to limit carbon dioxide pollution, the EPA issued new rules ramping up the gas mileage new cars must get between 2012 and 2016. Average fuel economy for cars will go from its current 27.5 miles/gallon to 39, and for light trucks from 24 mpg to 30 mpg, basically an increase in efficiency of 5% each year.

This is pretty freakin awesome. Transportation accounts for a big chunk of our carbon emissions, and autos account for a big chunk of that. A carbon price through a cap-and-trade system or carbon tax would make change more slowly in the transportation sector because oil is less carbon-intensive than coal and because the consumer of gas does not have direct control over the technology through which he is burning the gas (unlike say a utility company running a power plant).

Plus this is great for all Americans who need to drive to get around. It will definitely reduce the pain at the pump as oil prices will almost certainly go up over the next decade.

It also makes one wonder, besides all the other objections to offshore drilling, why bother when we can cut our oil consumption much more rapidly and deeply by ramping up fuel efficiency, electric cars, and high speed rail? Also from a public relations move, why hype up drilling and not hype something so good for Americans and the environment that is even supported by auto companies? Drilling won't win over Republicans while it discourages progressive voters, especially the young people who had a large part in putting Obama where he is, whereas increasing fuel efficiency standards would be quite popular. Seems like bad politics in addition to the bad policy of drilling.

3) New Water Heater Standards

Not the sexiest issue, but the EPA's more stringent efficiency regulations for new water heaters are another excellent policy. Water heaters comprise a large amount of home energy usage. These new rules will save families money while cutting carbon pollution. It also frees up natural gas to lower prices and make it more competitive with coal in electricity generation.

The huge benefits of these policies are way greater than the negative impacts of offshore drilling, especially more or less ending MTR and putting a dent in new vehicle pollution. We need to keep up the heat on the president to protect Alaska and our coasts, but we also need to publicize these positive steps so as to encourage more.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Team Obama-Salazar Disappoints Again

Just as I wrote a post lambasting Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on endangered species, he and President Obama teamed up to unveil yet another terrible policy regarding the environment. They intend to lift the ban on offshore drilling off the mid-Atlantic coast, in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, and the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas off the Arctic coast of Alaska. The plan threatens important ocean and coastal habitats and will do practically nothing to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

Obama himself admitted in his speech announcing the plan that the US has less than 2% of the world's oil reserves, yet accounts for 20% of oil consumption. Clearly drilling will not erase our oil trade deficit or even put a significant dent in it. Joe Romm found in the President's own Energy Information Administration's 2009 report that drilling in our continental shelf (assuming that rosy estimates of reserves turn out to be true, T. Boone Pickens doubts that) would reduce gas prices 0 cents by 2020 and 3 cents by 2030. Considering that that greenhouse gas reduction goals likely will have impelled our economy towards much more efficient automobiles, electric cars, and better public transportation (such as a high speed rail network) by 2030, 3 cents will mean even less to consumers than it does today.

The President's assertion that drilling will be done in an "environmentally sensitive" way is a load of bullshit. Defenders of Wildlife has an excellent fact sheet outlining the deleterious impacts of oil and gas drilling on the outer continental shelf, including routine smaller spills (oil rigs already spill 880,000 gallons of oil off American coasts annually), air pollution, invasive species, bird kills, and damage to marine mammals from seismic surveying. The mid-Atlantic drilling area would present a major threat to the already imperiled North Atlantic Right Whale. Then there's the risk of a large spill. If a large spill occurred occurred offshore in the Arctic, we have no feasible technology to clean it up. That would be a huge ecological disaster for an area already feeling the worst impacts of climate change. A similar big spill in the Gulf or on the Atlantic coast would be incredibly damaging to tourist economies in those areas as well as an ecological disaster.

In the above DN! clip, Center for Biological Diversity lawyer Brendan Cummings discerns who benefits rather than consumers and our national security: oil companies and right-wing politicians hoping to bully Obama to the right. Some will argue that this plan will push some undecided senators to vote for the climate bill that will be voted on this spring. First of all, much of the concern with the bill comes from coal states, not coastal states. Secondly, the critical Republican response to the announcement that it does not open up enough areas to drilling suggests it will fail to bring recalcitrant Republicans around. This is strikingly reminiscent of the health care battle, in which the Democratic leadership discarded good policy ideas (like the public option or negotiating drug prices with pharmaceutical companies) as much to placate corporate interests as to win votes.

In his speech, Obama stated that it is time to get past the old arguments between left and right and between environmentalists and corporations. Our "pragmatic" President has moved past these arguments by clearly siding with oil companies and their right-wing boosters.

The good news, as Cummings notes, is that smart organizing at the local and national level can stave off drilling, as it has in California and Bristol Bay in Alaska (the exemption for which is the sole bright spot in this shitty plan). Also, several environmental groups defeated Bush's offshore drilling plan in court, so they may be able to do the same for Obama's plan or at least individual leases. But still, this plan will likely allow for at least some additional offshore drilling. It also continues a troubling trend of the President rolling back or failing to enforce very basic environmental protections (like declaring new endangered species) contrary to campaign pledges and basic expectations for a supposedly center-left political leader. Fortunately, I don't think the environmental community outside of the more corporate groups will take this one lying down.

P.S. I posted my piece about the desert nesting bald eagle on Firedoglake as I do occasionally. It received quite a bit of response and was placed on the site's main page. I had a fruitful discussion with one commenter on the EPA's mixed signals in terms of mountaintop removal coal mining. Check it out here. A past post on Afghanistan made it to their main site as well. In the future, I'll insert a link when I post there.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Science Still Suppressed in Obama-Salazar Interior Department

So far the Obama administration has a poor record on endangered species protection, better than that of Bush but not by much. The Obama administration listed
just two new endangered species in its first year, the fewest in the first year of any administration since Reagan. Furthermore, it followed in the footsteps of the Bush administration by removing the Northern Rockies gray wolf from Endangered Species Act protection despite scientists' assertions that its recovery still had a long way to go (see my post on this subject here).

The Fish and Wildlife Service continued this trend on February 25 when it
removed ESA protection for the desert nesting bald eagle. The desert nesting bald eagle is a distinct population of bald eagle, uniquely adapted to its hot and dry environment. Less than 160 survive, and their numbers are declining due to water removal from rivers i.e. dams, agriculture, etc. and habitat loss. According to the Center for Biological Diversity and the Maricopa Audobon, their demise would result in "a significant gap in the overall bald eagle range," meaning that the survival of the sub-species is important to preserving the overall species and demands protection under law.

As was the case with the gray wolf, this decision followed on the heels of
attempts by the Bush administration to remove protections for the desert nesting bald eagle. Those Bush-era attempts were rebuffed in court, and hopefully these terrible decisions will be as will. Still, it's remarkable how little change there has been in the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of Interior at large.

If it sounds to you like this decision was not based on science, you're right. CBD and the Maricopa Audobon unearthed FWS memos demonstrating that top Service officials suppressed science in their drive to remove protection for the population. The FWS's own scientists found that the population is "discrete and significant" i.e. should be protected under the ESA, but FWS Assistant Director Gary Frazer told them to change their findings.
Newly obtained documents reveal that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service bald eagle experts have again been overruled by their political superiors in order to remove Endangered Species Act protection for Arizona's desert nesting bald eagles. An August 24, 2009,memo from Regional Fish and Wildlife Director Benjamin Tuggle to Assistant Fish and Wildlife Director Gary Frazer states that the Arizona population "is discrete and significant" to the bald eagle population as a whole "based on its persistence in an unusual or unique [desert] ecological setting." Tuggle's memo summarizes more than 30 years of biological studies and the consensus of every recognized bald eagle expert.
In a response dated December 4, 2009, Frazer dismisses the experts' opinion, advising that his "…staff will work with you on development of the revised version of the finding. Obviously, the finding should not simply cite my conclusion…"
Like under the Bush administration, top officials shaped the science to fit pre-determined policy, which is the opposite of how a regulatory agency should function.

Adding imperiled species to the ESA list and providing them with sufficient "critical habitat" protection to survive should be a no-brainer for any administration that considers itself remotely in favor of environmental protection, such as the Obama administration and Democratic leadership. Preserving biodiversity is important for its own sake as we are in the midst of the planet's sixth mass extinction, but protecting one species's habitat can protect an entire threatened eco-system, which is so crucial as global warming progresses and species need space to adapt. Unlike say significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions, this doesn't involve new legislation, just enforcing existing law. Is that too much to ask for from a supposedly pro-environment administration?

The environmental BiNGO's need to exit the veal pen and start raising hell about the bad decisions of Secretary Ken Salazar's Interior Department. As I wrote in my post on the de-listing of the gray wolf, it's clear that Salazar, a rancher who while in the Senate voted frequently for oil drilling and ranching on public lands and for weakened wildlife protections, was a disappointing choice for Interior. This is especially true considering how much environmental groups contributed to the President's ground game in the campaign in terms of dollars and volunteers. He has certainly implemented more environmental protections than Bush-era predecessors, but has also presided over the de-listing of the gray wolf, allowing oil drilling off the Arctic coast of Alaska, and done nothing about egregiously destructive mountaintop removal coal mining.

Organized labor has been criticized by many as weak for continuing to support the Democrats as they fail to pass its primary legislative goal, the Employee Free Choice Act. But at least the unions got Hilda Solis as Secretary of Labor, who is ramping up regulatory action against rule-breaking corporations (see this article in the current edition of The Nation). Lisa Jackson was a good pick for the EPA in my opinion, but Secretary of Interior is just as important in terms of environmental policy, and the environmental groups should have leveraged their crucial campaign work to get a favorable pick at Interior. Instead, most of them went out of their way to praise the weak choice of Salazar. The only dissenting voice that questioned the pick was, not surprisingly, the Center for Biological Diversity.

Johann Hari had a great piece in The Nation on the failure of the environmental BiNGO's to push for significant climate action, thanks to shamefully close ties to polluting corporations as well as politicians. I think Hari under-emphasized the problem of domestic groups who don't take much corporate money, if any, like the Sierra Club (outside of their stupid Clorox program they don't take any), that cultivate a close relationship with the Democratic party. During the Bush era too many environmentalists became convinced that kicking the Republicans out of power was the end-game of environmental politics. Now it is clear that their support for Democrats doesn't necessarily translate into progressive environmental policy.

The Center is a wonderful and highly effective organization, especially in the courtroom, but it can only do so much on its own. Unless more environmental groups, especially more visible ones like the Sierra Club or NRDC, assert their independence and directly call out Salazar and, by extension, Obama for these decisions, we will be stuck with 3-7 years of slightly less corporate- and developer-friendly policy at Interior than that of the Bush administration. Considering how bad the Bush-era Interior Department was, that is not acceptable.

EPMD--It's My Thing

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Must-Read Firedoglake Fact Sheet on Health Care Bill

The blog has been one of the best outlets for following the ins and outs of the health care debate. Their writers and the site's founder Jane Hamsher almost single-handedly raised a shitstorm over the Democrats' dropping a public option and drug price negotiation, which were key elements of President Obama's campaign platform on health care. Their combination of journalism and activism has been one of the few galvanizing forces for progressives disappointed at the watered-down, corporate friendly policies that the Democratic leadership tries to pass for progressivism. Please read their incisive fact sheet on the final health care bill here that exposes how this bill is a piece of junk.

There are good things in there. Expanding Medicaid to cover 12-14 million more people is a positive development. Medicaid is a public program with low administrative costs (no exorbitant shareholder profits and executive salaries) that will keep costs down and guarantee coverage for those people. Moreover, thanks to the work of independent socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the bill also increases funding for primary care health centers that serve under-resourced areas. These two provisions amount to a real expansion of the social safety net in our country. Contrary to the sanctimonious proclamations of the Democratic leadership, the rest of the bill does not.

The FDL analysis outlines the major structural problem with the bill: it requires individuals that don't qualify for Medicaid to purchase health insurance from private insurance companies or pay a penalty. The very same private companies that have been exposed for so callously putting profit above health. The very same companies that skim off the top so many of your premium dollars to pay for marketing, underwriting, lobbying, executive salaries, and huge profits for Wall Street. Yes, the very same companies the Democratic leadership has been railing against.

The mandate does come with subsidies for lower middle class families and some regulations, but they are inadequate, as the FDL analysis explains. A public option or a Medicare buy-in (a better public option in my opinion) would have protected some of those people from the profit-seeking chicanery of the insurance companies and held them partly in check through competition (I wrote on this here). Yet that public option was watered down and then finally flushed down the toilet to satisfy corporate Democrats. Indeed, the meek protest of the Obama administration, despite a strong public option being a part of his campaign platform, suggest that he was satisfied with the loss of the PO.

The result, in addition to forcing working families to pay too much for insurance, is that the bill doesn't get us even close to universal coverage. According to Congress's own budget office, the CBO, the legislation will only cover 56% of the uninsured by 2019. Remember that the next time someone compares this bill to the passage of Social Security and Medicare.

Until our leaders understand that expanding public health insurance programs is the way to go, Americans will continue to go bankrupt and even die from uninsurance and underinsurance and already exorbitant health care costs will continue to rise. As William Hsiao, architect of Taiwan's extremely successful health care reform, puts it:
You can have universal coverage and good quality health care while still managing to control costs. But you have to have a single-payer system to do it.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The "Jobs Bill": Democrats Continue to Fail the Unemployed

President Obama signed a bi-partisan "jobs bill" this week, the centerpiece of which is a tax credit to businesses who hire unemployed workers. The $13 billion credit will allow businesses to avoid the 6.2% payroll tax that goes to the Social Security trust fund as long as they retain the worker for at least one year. The Democrats are patting themselves on the back for turning their attention to jobs and the economy. They are claiming this as a policy victory and a political victory. It is neither.

Businesses hire workers all the time. The net gain or loss of jobs each month doesn't reflect the much higher numbers of gross hires and gross fires. Many companies will hire workers regardless of the tax credit, yet they will receive the tax credit all the same. The idea behind tax credit is that it makes the cost of hiring workers temporarily lower (by 6.2%), inducing businesses to hire more workers than they would otherwise. According to its proponents, this should make up for the cost of paying the tax credit to employers who would have hired workers anyways, such as for seasonal positions. Theoretically this makes sense. However, the problem is, as my favorite economist Dean Baker aptly notes, that in the real world businesses' employment practices don't always change in response to the cost of labor as theory anticipates.

Baker cites several studies, ironically by several economists now in the Obama administration, showing that raising the minimum wage does not reduce the number of workers hired as classical economic theory predicts. He connects those studies to the effect of reducing the cost of labor as opposed to raising it:
If raising the minimum wage by 15-20 percent doesn't cause employers to hire fewer workers, then there is no reason to believe that cutting the cost of labor by 6.2 percent will lead them to hire more workers. There may be some substitution with longer term unemployed being hired instead of new entrants as a result of this tax credit, since it would only apply to people who have been out of work for at least six months, but it is just silly to imagine that it can have any noticeable impact on employment.
Furthermore, the hiring tax credit does not require a company to increase its payroll on the whole. So a company could drop one worker and hire a new one at a lower cost. Likewise companies can game the credit by hiring as employees people that were formerly contractors, which doesn't add to aggregate employment at all.

If it increased employment as advertised, this tax credit could be viewed as Keynesian public investment to stimulate still-lackluster aggregate demand and create growth. However, Baker's criticisms suggest that it might be more of a supply-side tax cut for capital. Without strong consumer demand, simply bolstering companies' balance-sheets with taxpayer money won't create the investment we need for sustained growth, and diverts public funds from potential projects that are much more effective such as infrastructure building and repair and direct job creation like in the New Deal.

The Democrats' next proposal for jobs demonstrates that they might be fine with that. The NYT article on the "jobs bill" says that up next is a proposal to extend corporate tax breaks. Wait, what party is in power again? It can't be the party of FDR, can it? I can't wait to hear them try to spin corporate tax breaks as a "jobs bill."

I suspect the public will remain skeptical that their government is doing its upmost to improve the employment and overall economic picture. If the hiring tax credit fails, it will come off as just another government intervention to benefit capital i.e. the wealthy, e.g. bank bailouts.

A better alternative would be major public investments. The "jobs bill" does transfer $20 billion to highway projects, but the NYT article suggests that those funds have just been transferred from elsewhere, meaning there will be reductions in spending elsewhere. We need NEW job-creating investments, and as long as we can fund our deficit at such low interest rates we might as well borrow to do so. Also there are much better alternatives than road building, such as investments in a modern high speed rail network, home retrofits, and wind and solar energy capacity. Not only would smart public investment be better for the economy than business tax breaks, but it would create real, tangible jobs plus public benefits that the Democrats could point to as evidence of good policymaking.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

INI--Fakin' Jax (produced by Pete Rock)

INI is a group produced by the incomparable Pete Rock, who is known for being part of the Pete Rock & CL Smooth duo. Their album wasn't released when except for this single when it was made in 1995, but it was finally released on a Pete Rock compilation in 2003. This some classic early to mid-90's New York funky jazz-influenced hip-hop, enjoy!

March 4th Solidarity with Students!

Today across the country and the world, students and members of the public higher education community walked out of class to protest the privatization of our state universities and colleges that is occurring . This writer for one stands with them and I hope the protests were successful in getting a lot of media attention.

The economic recession has hit public colleges hard. States faced with declining tax revenues have made massive spending cuts over the last two years to balance their budgets. Unlike the federal government, states for the most part have to balance their budgets each year, and thus face difficult decisions when a recession occurs. Given the choice of spending cuts or tax increases, most legislatures and governors opt for spending cuts, not surprising considering the unfortunate dominance of neo-liberal economic ideology in our country.

States often target public higher education first in spending cuts. These cuts attack higher ed in terms of accessibility and quality. Direct budget cuts forces schools to lay off professors, which leads to higher class sizes and less classes. It also forces schools to raise tuition and student fees, putting the expense of college out of reach for many working class students the schools were created to service. Most states have financial aid grant programs in addition to federal Pell grants that could help students deal with higher tuition, but typically these programs are cut as well, as the Cal Grant program has in California.

These protests are exciting because they are challenging the broader notion of privatization, not just the current cuts, as UC Berkeley student organizer Ricardo Gomez elaborates in today's DN! interview above. They remind us that public colleges were created to make quality higher education accessible to the broader public. Many are demanding not only the end to cuts but a move towards making higher education a free service to all. Quality higher education should indeed be a right, and hopefully these protests will coalesce into statewide and national movements to make higher education a right. Gomez and Professor Ananya Roy also criticize the privatization of dining services and student housing and union-busting oriented towards college support staff. Not only should college be a public service, but it should lead the way towards a more just society by treating its workers fairly and refusing to allow private corporations unfettered access to public coffers.

This broader social democratic vision allows us to make the connection between cuts to education and the recession. These students and university employees are paying for the recklessness of financial capital and terrible policy-making at the Federal Reserve, which allowed the housing bubble to go on unabated. This isn't just a battle over public higher education--it's a battle over the unjust structure of our economy. The students must connect with community groups and labor unions who are fighting neo-liberalism in other sectors.

As UMASS economist James Heintz notes here, state governments face a cumulative budget shortfall of $260 billion for 2011 and 2012. So far they have been propped up by funds from the federal stimulus package, but those funds expire at the end of this year. The cuts are only going to get worse, so this fight will certainly go on. Heintz also points out that the resulting job losses and reduction in aggregate demand may suppress our already slow recovery, or even cause a double-dip recession.

If we're to avoid these cuts that are devastating to working families in terms of unemployment and loss of public services, we must find the revenues to fill the gaps. Another UMASS economist Rick Wolff has called for states to follow the example of Oregon. In January Oregon voters passed two referendums to increase taxes on corporations and the wealthy to ensure continued funding for education, health care, and public safety. Not only does this protect working class and poor families who rely on public services disproportionately, but it generates growth by keeping public employees working and thus spending on goods and services. (Wolff is a Marxian economist, so he has a lot of interesting ideas for dealing with the crisis that you wouldn't normally hear, check his article out).

The federal government can help out as well. In addition to having broader power to raise money through taxes, the government has the flexibility to borrow money on the bond market. It should continue sharing these revenues with states as their budget crises continue, eithed through deficit spending or by taxes on the wealthy (a financial transactions tax would be an excellent idea, more on that later).

There's something else the federal government can do, although I highly doubt it will. During the financial crisis, the Fed propped up the financial sector by buying their junk securities, making loan guarantees, and providing loans at ridiculously low interest rates. How did it do this? By creating money out of thin air, also known as quantitative easing, which central banks do to pump money into an economy when it has dropped interest rates down to zero effectively. Marshall Auerback, brilliant economist at the Roosevelt Institute (their New Deal 2.0 blog is awesome by the way, best outpost for Keynesian capitalist ideas to deal with this crisis), suggested that the European Central Bank do the same for Greece and other EU countries, just as it did for the banks. Of course increasing the money supply in that way could cause inflation (ie. rising prices) eventually, especially because way less of the money would be hoarded as the banks currently hoard it. Still inflation is the last thing we need to worry about now, as Mike Whitney writes in Counterpunch.

Okay I went from discussing exciting movements to more wonky ideas to fix the state budget and broader economic crises. The point is that this movement for accessible and quality public higher education can lead to a broader vision that backs the creative ideas we need to a) get out of this crisis and b) move towards a fairer economy simultaneously. Keep organizing and agitating my student brothers and sisters!

Something related: Richard Estes's American Leftist blog has been discussing the tactics of California students driving this movement. Apparently liberal, center-left professors have sought to quell the more leftist students who are open to aggressive tactics like 60's-style building occupations in addition to advocacy and public protest. The occupations at Berkeley raised a lot of visibility for the student cause, so I think they were highly successful. There's nothing immoral about a non-violent occupation (illegal does not inherently equal immoral), and it's stupid not to do it when it can be successful. Definitely reminiscent of monied centrist Democratic Party loyalists trying to suppress sectors of the progressive movement moving towards opposing not only conservatives but the neo-liberal, free market-fetishizing ideology that both parties embrace (and that got us in this crisis).

I highly recommend the American Leftist blog. Estes is a more libertarian socialist/anarchist type. As someone who leans more towards the tradition of social democracy and democratic socialism, I don't always agree with him, but he digs up some great stuff on the economy and our foreign policy.