Friday, February 27, 2009

Climate of Change

by Paul Krugman
The New York Times
February 27, 2009

Elections have consequences. President Obama’s new budget represents a huge break, not just with the policies of the past eight years, but with policy trends over the past 30 years. If he can get anything like the plan he announced on Thursday through Congress, he will set America on a fundamentally new course.

The budget will, among other things, come as a huge relief to Democrats who were starting to feel a bit of postpartisan depression. The stimulus bill that Congress passed may have been too weak and too focused on tax cuts. The administration’s refusal to get tough on the banks may be deeply disappointing. But fears that Mr. Obama would sacrifice progressive priorities in his budget plans, and satisfy himself with fiddling around the edges of the tax system, have now been banished.

For this budget allocates $634 billion over the next decade for health reform. That’s not enough to pay for universal coverage, but it’s an impressive start. And Mr. Obama plans to pay for health reform, not just with higher taxes on the affluent, but by putting a halt to the creeping privatization of Medicare, eliminating overpayments to insurance companies.

On another front, it’s also heartening to see that the budget projects $645 billion in revenues from the sale of emission allowances. After years of denial and delay by its predecessor, the Obama administration is signaling that it’s ready to take on climate change.

And these new priorities are laid out in a document whose clarity and plausibility seem almost incredible to those of us who grew accustomed to reading Bush-era budgets, which insulted our intelligence on every page. This is budgeting we can believe in.

Many will ask whether Mr. Obama can actually pull off the deficit reduction he promises. Can he actually reduce the red ink from $1.75 trillion this year to less than a third as much in 2013? Yes, he can.

Right now the deficit is huge thanks to temporary factors (at least we hope they’re temporary): a severe economic slump is depressing revenues and large sums have to be allocated both to fiscal stimulus and to financial rescues.

But if and when the crisis passes, the budget picture should improve dramatically. Bear in mind that from 2005 to 2007, that is, in the three years before the crisis, the federal deficit averaged only $243 billion a year. Now, during those years, revenues were inflated, to some degree, by the housing bubble. But it’s also true that we were spending more than $100 billion a year in Iraq.

So if Mr. Obama gets us out of Iraq (without bogging us down in an equally expensive Afghan quagmire) and manages to engineer a solid economic recovery — two big ifs, to be sure — getting the deficit down to around $500 billion by 2013 shouldn’t be at all difficult.

But won’t the deficit be swollen by interest on the debt run-up over the next few years? Not as much as you might think. Interest rates on long-term government debt are less than 4 percent, so even a trillion dollars of additional debt adds less than $40 billion a year to future deficits. And those interest costs are fully reflected in the budget documents.

So we have good priorities and plausible projections. What’s not to like about this budget? Basically, the long run outlook remains worrying.

According to the Obama administration’s budget projections, the ratio of federal debt to G.D.P., a widely used measure of the government’s financial position, will soar over the next few years, then more or less stabilize. But this stability will be achieved at a debt-to-G.D.P. ratio of around 60 percent. That wouldn’t be an extremely high debt level by international standards, but it would be the deepest in debt America has been since the years immediately following World War II. And it would leave us with considerably reduced room for maneuver if another crisis comes along.

Furthermore, the Obama budget only tells us about the next 10 years. That’s an improvement on Bush-era budgets, which looked only 5 years ahead. But America’s really big fiscal problems lurk over that budget horizon: sooner or later we’re going to have to come to grips with the forces driving up long-run spending — above all, the ever-rising cost of health care.

And even if fundamental health care reform brings costs under control, I at least find it hard to see how the federal government can meet its long-term obligations without some tax increases on the middle class. Whatever politicians may say now, there’s probably a value-added tax in our future.

But I don’t blame Mr. Obama for leaving some big questions unanswered in this budget. There’s only so much long-run thinking the political system can handle in the midst of a severe crisis; he has probably taken on all he can, for now. And this budget looks very, very good.

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

All the President’s Zombies

by Paul Krugman
The New York Times
February 25, 2009

Ben Bernanke’s testimony over the past two days gives us our best clue yet about where the administration and the Fed are going with bank rescue. And the answer seems to be … nowhere.

Simon Johnson and James Kwak read it the same way I do:

This is another sign of the serious brainpower that has been expended on finding ways to avoid or minimise government ownership of banks, and to avoid the slightest possibility of offending shareholders – shareholders whose shares have positive value primarily because of the expectation of a further government bail-out.

And The Economist’s Free Exchange puts it bluntly:

At this stage, I joked, I’d be just as happy with them just saying, “We have a strategy, we will continue to inject capital to prop up zombie banks indefinitely. That’s pretty much the whole plan and we’re counting on it bringing the financial sector back to life someday, somehow”. Is it just me or is that pretty much what Ben Bernanke said yesterday?

No, it’s not just you.

I’d add a political-economy point. Here’s Noam Scheiber, in the new TNR economics blog:

Yesterday afternoon I spoke to a senior Democratic aide in the Senate who repeatedly emphasized that, the way things stand now, it would be almost impossible to get another cent for the banks. Congress has “bailout fatigue,” the aide said.

Indeed. As long as capital injections are seen as a way to bail out the people who got us into this mess (which they are as long as the banks haven’t been put into receivership), the political system won’t, repeat, won’t be willing to come up with enough money to make the system healthy again. At most we’ll get a slow intravenous drip that’s enough to keep the banks shambling along.

More and more, it looks as if we’re headed for the decade of the living dead.

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

The Party of Beavis and Butthead?

by Paul Krugman
The New York Times
February 25, 2009

What is the appropriate role of government?

Traditionally, the division between conservatives and liberals has been over the role and size of the welfare state: liberals think that the government should play a large role in sanding off the market economy’s rough edges, conservatives believe that time and chance happen to us all, and that’s that.

But both sides, I thought, agreed that the government should provide public goods — goods that are nonrival (they benefit everyone) and nonexcludable (there’s no way to restrict the benefits to people who pay.) The classic examples are things like lighthouses and national defense, but there are many others. For example, knowing when a volcano is likely to erupt can save many lives; but there’s no private incentive to spend money on monitoring, since even people who didn’t contribute to maintaining the monitoring system can still benefit from the warning. So that’s the sort of activity that should be undertaken by government.

So what did Bobby Jindal choose to ridicule in this response to Obama last night? Volcano monitoring, of course.

And leaving aside the chutzpah of casting the failure of his own party’s governance as proof that government can’t work, does he really think that the response to natural disasters like Katrina is best undertaken by uncoordinated private action? Hey, why bother having an army? Let’s just rely on self-defense by armed citizens.

The intellectual incoherence is stunning. Basically, the political philosophy of the GOP right now seems to consist of snickering at stuff that they think sounds funny. The party of ideas has become the party of Beavis and Butthead.

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Tutu Cautions Obama Against Squandering Opportunity

by Desmond Tutu
BBC News
February 19, 2009

I make no apology for talking and writing, in the UK, about a foreign leader. But expectations of him are so high and attention worldwide is glued to his every step as he reaches the end of his first month in office. He is the story of the moment.

I am obviously referring to Barack Obama.

Three months ago as I watched the news that could define an era, I rubbed my eyes in disbelief and wonder. It could not be true that Barack Obama, the son of a Kenyan, was to be the next president of the United States.

During the previous administration's term, I'd been asked to suggest one unilateral magnanimous gesture or action that the incoming US president might make to counteract anti-Americanism abroad. I said that while there were clearly pockets of anti-Americanism around the world, this was definitely not a global phenomenon nor was it directed towards the American people.

What I certainly could attest to was substantial resentment and indeed hostile opposition to the policies of a particular US administration.

I contended, as I do now, that the two are quite distinct and separate.

An elucidating example dates back to the years of the anti-apartheid struggle. The Reagan White House was firmly opposed to applying sanctions against the South African apartheid regime, preferring what it described as "constructive engagement". Many of us were incensed by this policy and opposed it with every fibre of our being.

I probably dismayed many people when on one occasion I was told of the latest Reagan rejection of our call for US sanctions against Pretoria. I retorted, out of deep exasperation, "The West can go to hell!" I was then Bishop of Johannesburg, and some thought it was decidedly un-episcopal language.

I was very angry toward the Reagan administration, but that did not make me anti-American. And that is the point, anger and resentment toward the policies of a particular administration do not necessarily translate into anti-American sentiment.

When I was nine or so, I picked up a tattered copy of Ebony magazine. I still don't know where it could have come from in my ghetto township with its poverty and squalor. It described how Jackie Robinson, a black man like us, had broken into major league baseball and was playing scintillatingly for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

I did not know baseball from ping-pong. That was totally irrelevant. What mattered was that a black man had made it against huge odds, and I grew inches and was sold on America from then on.

Remember the extraordinary outpouring of sympathy and concern after 9/11? That surely could not have happened, certainly not on such a vast global scale if people hadn't genuinely cared. Everywhere, virtually.

But what happened that all these positive warm feelings toward the United States were disrupted and turned into the negative ones of hostility and anger?

For those of us who have looked to America for inspiration as we struggled for democracy and human rights, these past seven years have been lean ones.

When war began, first in Afghanistan and not long after in Iraq, we read allegations of prisoner abuse at Bagram air base in Afghanistan and of rendition to countries notorious for practising torture. We saw the horrific images from Abu Ghraib and learned of gruesome acts performed in the name of gathering information. Sometimes the torture itself was couched in the US government's euphemisms - calling waterboarding an "interrogation technique".

To the past administration's record on torture, we must add a string of other policies that have damaged the standing of the United States in the world: its hostility to the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gases; its refusal to assent to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court; its restrictions on the use of US funding to fight Aids; and the arrogant unilateralism it has employed in declaring to be enemies any countries it deemed "against us" because they were not "for us".

I never imagined in my worst dreams that I would live to see the day when the United States would abrogate the rule of law and habeas corpus as has happened in the case of those described as "enemy combatants" incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay. Or that I would hear an American government and its apologists use exactly the same justification for detention without trial, as had been used by the apartheid government of South Africa - a practice that the United States at the time condemned roundly, as was so utterly right to have done.

So, it was a devastating case of deja vu for some of us, thoroughly disillusioning.

The Bush administration managed to rile people everywhere. Its bully-boy attitude sadly polarised our world.

Against all that, the election of Barack Obama has turned America's image on its head.

On US election night last November, I wanted to jump and dance and shout, as I did after voting for the first time in my native South Africa on 27 April 1994.

My wife cried with incredulity and joy as we watched a broadcast of the celebrations in Chicago, after the election results came through. A newspaper here ran a picture of Obama from an earlier trip to one of our townships, where he was mobbed by youngsters. It was tacitly saying that we are proud he once visited us.

Because the Bush years have been disastrous for other parts of the world in many ways, Obama's victory dramatises the self-correcting mechanism that epitomises American democracy. Elsewhere, oppressors, tyrants and their lapdogs can say what they like and, for the most part, they stay put.

But ordinary citizens living in undemocratic societies are not fools; they may not always agree with US foreign policy, but they can see and register the difference between the United States - where people can kick an unpopular political party out - and their own countries.

Obama's election has been an epoch-making event that filled the whole world with hope that change is possible.

People everywhere identified Obama as the bearer of a new hope, someone who could electrify crowds with spellbinding oratory, galvanizing many out of their lethargy.

His election also said more eloquently than anything else that we black people are not God's step-children, despite so much evidence to the contrary. That whatever we attempt, we can do it - yes we can.

In the midst of this celebration, however, a word of caution is appropriate. In the first days after 9/11, the United States had the world's sympathy, an unprecedented wave of it. President Bush squandered it.

Obama too could easily squander the goodwill that his election generated if he disappoints.

It would be wonderful if, on behalf of the nation, Obama apologises to the world, and especially the Iraqis, for an invasion that I believe has turned out to be an unmitigated disaster.

While he's already promised to shut down Guantanamo Bay, he should also move to ratify the Rome Statute on the International Criminal Court.

For many of us, an upright US was a great inspiration in our fight against the iniquity of apartheid. I pray that President Obama will come down hard on African dictators, especially because they cannot credibly charge him with being neo-colonialist.

The US administration needs to reach out to other nations, build bridges, listen.

Obama and his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, have spoken of the importance of smart power and the role of cultural diplomacy in their foreign policy toolbox. The sounds and gestures coming from them are most welcome, but they must now carry through on these.

Keeping the relationships alive between different peoples, and the dialogue going in difficult times is essential. They pave the way for better times. In a world of increasing instability and mistrust and in the face of shared global challenges, we need to build understanding and collaboration between ordinary people, to forge the ties which can last a lifetime whatever is happening on the political stage.

We owe our glorious victory over the awfulness of apartheid in South Africa in large part to the support we received from the international community, including the United States and United Kingdom, and we will always be deeply grateful.

The British Council, where I will speak today to mark their 75th anniversary, worked with us during those years providing educational and cultural activities. These included training in the UK for 200 black South Africans and working with local groups on language teaching and reading in black primary schools. The British Council supported Nelson Mandela's work in reforming the post-apartheid diplomatic service and education system.

And here I must comment on the UK government's role as the US's biggest ally this past eight years, in particular in the war on terror. Your standing in the world has also suffered as a result of this close co-operation, although perhaps to a slightly lesser degree thanks to other more favourable actions in tackling climate change, interest in Africa's problems and campaigning on debt relief.

The problem today is that you don't have the redeeming Obama factor and although you perhaps don't come from such a low point, you don't have his advantage of international goodwill in restoring the UK's perception overseas.

Going forward, as we strive to create a stable, prosperous world for all, we need to work together with other nations for justice, equity and peace. We need to believe that the values of fairness and compassion are not only yours and mine; they are shared by all humanity.

Most of us do want to see peace.

And here I want to end with what seems so utterly obvious about what we learned from our particular situation in South Africa. Peace does not come from the barrel of a gun but is achieved when cultural differences are respected and the fundamental rights of all are recognised and upheld.


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Our Common Future

by Kurt Seitz
February 18, 2009

As General Motors and other automotive companies seek many billions of federal dollars to stave off bankruptcy, it is way past time to envision a different future, one without unlimited supplies of petroleum, one without corporate welfare, one without classes, and one based on sustainable practices --- environmentally, economically, and societally.

We have likely reached the peak output level of the world's oil supplies --- there can be no more expansion of the petroleum industry as the world grows. Meanwhile, environmental calamity is knocking on our door, largely due to our hunger for fossil fuels --- coal and natural gas can not replace oil without catastrophic consequences.

Denis Hayes, who has decades of environmental research and wisdom on his side, says that the United States must immediately move to a non-fossil source of energy in a very big way --- or else. There are many "doomsday" scenarios being developed and not enough solutions. Hayes outlines one possible solution, but our nation seems unwilling to heed the call. I'm reminded of biblical disasters following times of popular disdain for a higher authority --- and Mother Earth is far more powerful than us measly humans.

Ironically, the opportunity for progressive change to solve our crises has arrived in the form of new democratic leadership and the need for massive public expenditures, but Nero metaphorically fiddled as Rome burned. While it is true that the Obama administration is far better than any other in recent memory, American politicians do not seem to be up to the task of doing more than is necessary to get the majority of votes during the next election.

So it comes down to the American people to rise up and save American society from itself. It will require new ways of thinking and acting. It will require old ways of living in harmony with nature instead of apart. It will require local economies, an end to warfare, an end to corporate citizenship, an end to racism, sexism, and many other -isms that seek to divide us instead of bring us together. Most of all, it will require the will to change --- without change, we will not survive as a society.

I think we're on our way, but will we collectively be up to the task before it's too late? Our common future is approaching... ready?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Eco Barons

by Henry Hurt III
The New York Times
February 14, 2009

Scientists and environmentalists have reached a growing consensus that time is running out for Planet Earth. The polar ice caps are melting. Three-quarters of the world’s flowering plant species are at risk of extinction. One in eight bird species is vanishing. Ninety percent of big fish like cod, tuna and swordfish that once swam the oceans have already disappeared. Air, water and ground pollutants from fossil-fuel sources are poisoning major population centers.

But according to Edward Humes, author of “Eco Barons: The Dreamers, Schemers, and Millionaires Who Are Saving Our Planet” (Ecco/HarperCollins, $25.99), there is “a secret plan to save the Earth.” This plan is being carried out by a group of “eco barons” — both men and women — who are the modern-day heroic counterparts to the villainous 19th century robber barons who originally set the nation on the path to environmental destruction.

“In an era in which government has been either broke, indifferent or actively hostile to environmental causes, a band of visionaries — inventors, philanthropists, philosophers, grassroots activists, lawyers and gadflies — are using their wealth, their energy, their celebrity and their knowledge of law and science to persuade, and sometimes force, the United States and the world to take a new direction,” Mr. Humes declares.

A writer for Los Angeles magazine and a frequent contributor to The Huffington Post, Mr. Humes is the author of nine previous nonfiction books. In 1989, he won a Pulitzer Prize for an investigative series about the United States military.

“Eco Barons,” which will be released next month, offers encouraging, often inspirational, profiles of nearly a dozen would-be planet savers. Among the more compelling of these characters are Douglas Tompkins, a surfer, climber and private-plane pilot who founded the North Face and Esprit clothing lines, and his wife Kristine McDivitt, the former chief executive of the Patagonia outdoor wear firm.

Mr. Tompkins sold out of the apparel industry after concluding that he had been merely “manufacturing desires to get people to buy products they don’t really need.”

Over the past 18 years, the couple has acquired more than two million acres for conservation in Chile and Argentina. The crown jewel is Pumalín Park, a vast nature sanctuary which they finally succeeded in giving to the Chilean government after debunking initial public suspicions that they were conspiring in a mysterious plot to undermine national security.

Even more controversial and no less results-oriented are Kierán Suckling and Peter Galvin, co-founders of the Center for Biological Diversity, an activist group whose aggressive use of the 1973 Endangered Species Act has prompted other environmentalists to brand them as radicals.

In the early 1990s, they won both fame and infamy by protecting the endangered Mexican spotted owl against the intrusion of lumbering interests in Arizona and New Mexico. (“We effectively ended the timber industry in the southwest,” Mr. Suckling boasts.)

According to Mr. Humes, the center has won about 450 of some 500 lawsuits filed over the past 15 years, resulting in first-time protections for 350 endangered species and the preservation of 70 million acres of critical habitat.

Another eco baron demonstrates what individuals of modest economic means can achieve on the environmental front through vision and persistence. Carole Allen, a widowed single mother who works at the juvenile probation department in Houston, rallied a group of local schoolchildren around the cause of saving the endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle.

In so doing, she provoked the wrath of the 17,000-vessel shrimp trawling fleet in the Gulf of Mexico, whose drag nets routinely scooped up thousands of turtles every season.

But thanks to the unrelenting efforts of Ms. Allen and her youthful cohorts, Texas officials ultimately agreed to enforce laws that require turtle exclusion devices on the shrimpers’ nets and a partial ban on shrimping within five miles of the coast.

Then there is Roxanne Quimby, who started out selling organic honey, candles and lip balm from the back of a Volkswagen minibus, and went on to help create the national cosmetics company Burt’s Bees. Having recently sold her stake in the company, Ms. Quimby has amassed a fortune of over $360 million, which she is using to create a 3.2 million acre public preserve in the Maine woods.

Mr. Humes extols the accomplishments of Andrew Frank of the University of California at Davis, who invented and patented the plug-in hybrid, a vehicle that can run on a combination of gasoline and electrical power. Mr. Frank has since used off-the-shelf parts to turn a Ford Explorer into a vehicle with “the efficiency equivalent of a 100-mile-a-gallon motor scooter.”

Mr. Humes also applauds the efforts of Terry Tamminen, a former Malibu pool cleaner, in formulating California’s Global Warming Solutions Act, one the nation’s most comprehensive environmental laws, and cheers the eco-conscious philanthropy of Ted Turner, who annually supports over 500 environmental organizations and plans to bequeath to conservation most of the 2 million acres of land he owns in the United States.

The inherent flaw in “Eco Barons” is its sprawling scope. Although Mr. Humes is an able reporter and a passionate writer, he tries to cover too many ecological crises and praise too many people. At times, the book reads like a roster of nominees for the environmentalist hall of fame.

But his urgent message is clear: We must all strive to become “eco barons” in our own right if we are to save Planet Earth.

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Eat Right, Live Long

by Mary Pat Van Wyngarden
The Manteca Bulletin
January 25, 2009

Living longer may require a few sacrifices. You may have to give up “Fast Food” Burgers and your three daily large lattes……sorry. You might have to get up at dawn in order to fit in your workout……sorry again. But I know it’s a fact that making those types of sacrifices can add years if not decades to your life. There are indeed certain longevity foods that have been researched and proven to have miraculous long term benefits. Here are just a few:

Cranberries: not just for urinary tract infections anymore! These berries contain several types of antioxidants, which if you didn’t know, are a protective force against cancer. Research has shown that these berries stop both the growth and spread of cancers.

Fish: It’s not a secret that Omega 3 fatty acids are good for your heart. But did you know that they are also important for the function and health of the nervous system? Research has proven that they help to elevate your mood and aid the fight of overcoming depression.

Legumes: vegetable proteins are much healthier for you than animal ( fried fast food burger) proteins, and legumes are also excellent sources of fiber and contain no harmful cholesterol.

Walnuts: are of special interest because they are primarily polyunsaturated (72%) and monounsaturated(18%) fatty acids. Polyunsaturated fats can help reduce the cholesterol levels in your blood and lower your risk of heart disease. They also provide essential fats that your body needs but can’t produce itself – such as omega-6 and omega-3. Your body needs these fats for healthy cell development.

Olive Oil: contains a high content of monounsaturated fatty acids and antioxidants. It has proven preventative effects against heart disease by helping to control cholesterol levels. This miracle oil also fights against colon cancer and lowers the occurrence of gallstones by activating the secretion of bile and pancreatic hormones much more naturally than prescribed drugs.

Whole grains: Yeah! Carbs! Whole grain though, sorry, not cookies. Whole grain foods can lower your risk for developing heart disease. A diet rich in whole grain foods can also help you lose weight. Now some of you may be wondering, what exactly is a whole grain? It simply means that the food contains all three parts of the grain: the bran, the endosperm, and the germ. When foods are refined, it means that they only contain the endosperm and therefore the nutrient content is reduced by 25-90%. Some examples of whole grain foods are: brown rice, popcorn, whole wheat, wild rice, oatmeal. This is an important topic which could take up a whole column………

The truth of the matter is that you really are what you eat, so picking the best foods for your body not only makes you feel younger and healthier, but these foods may add years, or decades to your life.

© Copyright 2008 The Manteca Bulletin

Stressed for Success

by Paul Krugmam
The New York Times
February 14, 2009

Aha — the Times’s dealbook blog supplies exactly the numbers I was looking for. It cites a CreditSights report on the potential losses of major banks — which gives us a guide to the amount of capital the federal government needs to put in to make these banks viable.

Focus just on the big four money center banks: Citi, B of A, Wells Fargo, JPMorgan. According to this estimate, they need around $450 billion. Meanwhile, their combined market cap is only about $200 billion — and part if not all of that market cap surely represents the “Geithner put,” the hope that stockholders will in effect get a handout from the feds.

Given these numbers, it’s extremely hard to rescue these banks without either (a) giving a HUGE handout to current stockholders or (b) effectively taking ownership on the part of we, the people. Of these, (a) would be politically unacceptable as well as bad policy — but the Obama administration isn’t ready to go for (b), because it’s not in our “culture”.

Hence the perplexity of policy. Our best hope right now is that the “stress test” will make (b) inevitable — that Treasury will declare itself shocked, shocked to find that the banks are in such bad financial shape, leaving government receivership unavoidable.

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

It's Going to Take a Civic Jolt

by Ralph Nader
Common Dreams News Center
February 14, 2009

Can Congress "walk and chew gum at the same time?"

This phrase used by President Lyndon Johnson for one of his political opponents comes to mind at a time early in the first 100 days of the Obama Administration when supposedly many long-overdue changes and rollbacks are possible.

It is not just that Congress is completely absorbed with the tax-cut-stimulus package. It is stasis that seems to be enveloping, even within its numerous well-funded and staffed committees in the House and Senate, from even the signaling of serious movement toward rolling back Bush-pushed legislation and starting widely supported forays that take hope to change.

The continuation of this state of stasis is made more likely because the Republican minority is feeling its oats. It put the White House on the defensive during the struggle to enact economic recovery legislation even though previous Republican policies and coddling of Wall Street for eight years build a steep cliff for financial collapse. Add the de-regulatory moves of 1999 and 2000 by the Clinton-Rubin crowd and the financial meltdown accelerates.

There is something else operating. One gets the feel on Capitol Hill among some fairly sharp people of a lack of horizon, a paucity of progressive determination, a sense of being overwhelmed by the corporate forces still bearing down on Congress-easily the most powerful branch of government under our Constitution.

But Congress does not act as if it is the most powerful branch. It routinely abdicates its constitutional responsibilities-the declaration of war authority and the plenary authority to investigate and require access to information in the executive branch.

Even after the Democrats took control of the Congress in January 2007, George W. Bush again and again got his way including a rubber stamp for the huge Iraq and Afghanistan war budgets outside of the normal appropriations processes.

Efforts by Senator Russ Feingold and Cong. John Conyers to move a modest censure resolution of Bush and Cheney for their many constitutional and statutory violations were aggressively rejected by their leaders-Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Harry Reid. In January 2007, Pelosi and Reid two took impeachment off the table allowing the most chronically impeachable presidency in our history to continue undisturbed.

Some staffers in Congress privately assert that the Democrats are not acting like a majority party. It is worse than that. They are not acting-period.

From their majority status in 2007 to 2009 and a Democratic President in the White House, the Congressional Democrats are not moving swiftly to repeal the ban on Uncle Sam negotiating drug prices from volume discounts under the drug benefit law. They are not moving to amend the Patriot Act, regain control of warrantless surveillance, strengthen the corporate criminal laws and enforcement budgets. Congress is not even pushing to require taxing Hedge Fund manager's income as ordinary income not as capital gains.

I cite these policies because they are policies much favored by many Democratic lawmakers. But in practice lawmakers duck and duck and duck from translating their beliefs into contentious action vis-à-vis the lobbyists and their captive legislators.

Senator Chris Dodd and the vast majority of the American people want to do something about credit card company abuses and gouges. But he is surrounded not just by the Republicans on the Senate Banking Committees but high-ranking Democrats beholden to the financial goliaths who, are demanding and receiving hundreds of billions of dollars in taxpayer bailouts.

There is word from the politicians that consideration of health care insurance-apart from a quickly enacted expansion of some coverage for more poor children-will be put off for a year. The trade unions' top priority to enact labor law reforms, supported by Obama during his presidential campaign, are being held back by the Democrats.

There is even doubt whether the District of Columbia will get a voting Representative in the House when push comes to shove in the Senate.

The one-subject-at-a-time attitude is coming from the White House. "Obama doesn't want it now" is a common phrase used by legislators to excuse themselves from exercising the separate but equal Congressional powers. This pretext applies to taking away some of the hugely expensive and unnecessary weapons systems like the F-22 aircraft decried by many military and retired military analysts. The vast, bloated military budget is sacrosanct on Capitol Hill as it is in the White House.

At a time of widely perceived needs for Congressional action, with large corporations busy applying for corporate welfare and on the defensive, the Democrats are not generating any momentum for standing for and with the people. Even in the midst of food contamination, illnesses and fatalities, they cannot turn around forty years of delay on giving the Food and Drug Administration adequate authority and inspectors to protect our food supply.

It is going to take a very focused civic jolt from you all to your Senators and Representatives. A couple of million jolters from our large country can get the train moving on the tracks. It doesn't take much time to holler, yell or bellow with the facts.

© Copyrighted 1997-2009

Friday, February 13, 2009

In Grenada, Leaving the Facts Behind

by Steve Rendall
February 13, 2009

The New York Times' Travel section featured a February 8 piece by Ned Martel headlined, "In Grenada, Leaving the Past Behind," where the reporter refers to the 1983 U.S. invasion of the tiny Caribbean nation. A more accurate headline might have read, "Leaving the Facts Behind." Here's how Martel summed up the invasion story:

In 1983, American satellites peered down on Point Salines, the southwest corner of Grenada, and detected a newly paved lane toward the sea, plus some nearby armaments and fuel tanks. Cubans had arrived on the island, abetting some coup plotters who captured and then executed the prime minister, and the Reagan administration realized they were watching a hostile military base under construction, some 1,500 miles southeast of Miami.

That's a garbled version of the case for the invasion made by Ronald Reagan, who claimed that he was forced to invade because Grenada was building a military airport at Point Salines as a way station for Soviet planes, and because the coup was endangering U.S. citizens there.

The reality? Reagan loathed Grenada’s popular and Cuba-friendly prime minister, Maurice Bishop, and had been planning an invasion of the island for some time. When Bishop was deposed in an internal coup, Reagan used the event, the airport story and the danger to Americans on the island as pretexts for invading (and imposing a "friendly" government).

Of course, Reagan was lying: The airport was Grenada’s new international airport, designed by a Canadian firm, financed by the British government and Grenada's neighbors, and no secret to anyone. As far as the danger posed to Americans, the chancellor of the medical school that many of the Americans on the island attended charged that the greatest danger his students faced was from the the U.S. invasion.

And what of the Cubans Martel said were there to help topple Bishop? They were almost all workers, there at Bishop's invitation, sponsored by Cuba's pro-Bishop government.

Instead of referring to its own archives, where some of Reagan's Grenada deceptions were debunked years ago, the "paper of record" is adding new misinformation to its Grenada file.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Failure to Rise

by Paul Krugman
The New York Times
February 12, 2009

By any normal political standards, this week’s Congressional agreement on an economic stimulus package was a great victory for President Obama. He got more or less what he asked for: almost $800 billion to rescue the economy, with most of the money allocated to spending rather than tax cuts. Break out the Champagne!

Or maybe not. These aren’t normal times, so normal political standards don’t apply: Mr. Obama’s victory feels more than a bit like defeat. The stimulus bill looks helpful but inadequate, especially when combined with a disappointing plan for rescuing the banks. And the politics of the stimulus fight have made nonsense of Mr. Obama’s postpartisan dreams.

Let’s start with the politics.

One might have expected Republicans to act at least slightly chastened in these early days of the Obama administration, given both their drubbing in the last two elections and the economic debacle of the past eight years.

But it’s now clear that the party’s commitment to deep voodoo — enforced, in part, by pressure groups that stand ready to run primary challengers against heretics — is as strong as ever. In both the House and the Senate, the vast majority of Republicans rallied behind the idea that the appropriate response to the abject failure of the Bush administration’s tax cuts is more Bush-style tax cuts.

And the rhetorical response of conservatives to the stimulus plan — which will, it’s worth bearing in mind, cost substantially less than either the Bush administration’s $2 trillion in tax cuts or the $1 trillion and counting spent in Iraq — has bordered on the deranged.

It’s “generational theft,” said Senator John McCain, just a few days after voting for tax cuts that would, over the next decade, have cost about four times as much.

It’s “destroying my daughters’ future. It is like sitting there watching my house ransacked by a gang of thugs,” said Arnold Kling of the Cato Institute.

And the ugliness of the political debate matters because it raises doubts about the Obama administration’s ability to come back for more if, as seems likely, the stimulus bill proves inadequate.

For while Mr. Obama got more or less what he asked for, he almost certainly didn’t ask for enough. We’re probably facing the worst slump since the Great Depression. The Congressional Budget Office, not usually given to hyperbole, predicts that over the next three years there will be a $2.9 trillion gap between what the economy could produce and what it will actually produce. And $800 billion, while it sounds like a lot of money, isn’t nearly enough to bridge that chasm.

Officially, the administration insists that the plan is adequate to the economy’s need. But few economists agree. And it’s widely believed that political considerations led to a plan that was weaker and contains more tax cuts than it should have — that Mr. Obama compromised in advance in the hope of gaining broad bipartisan support. We’ve just seen how well that worked.

Now, the chances that the fiscal stimulus will prove adequate would be higher if it were accompanied by an effective financial rescue, one that would unfreeze the credit markets and get money moving again. But the long-awaited announcement of the Obama administration’s plans on that front, which also came this week, landed with a dull thud.

The plan sketched out by Tim Geithner, the Treasury secretary, wasn’t bad, exactly. What it was, instead, was vague. It left everyone trying to figure out where the administration was really going. Will those public-private partnerships end up being a covert way to bail out bankers at taxpayers’ expense? Or will the required “stress test” act as a back-door route to temporary bank nationalization (the solution favored by a growing number of economists, myself included)? Nobody knows.

Over all, the effect was to kick the can down the road. And that’s not good enough. So far the Obama administration’s response to the economic crisis is all too reminiscent of Japan in the 1990s: a fiscal expansion large enough to avert the worst, but not enough to kick-start recovery; support for the banking system, but a reluctance to force banks to face up to their losses. It’s early days yet, but we’re falling behind the curve.

And I don’t know about you, but I’ve got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach — a feeling that America just isn’t rising to the greatest economic challenge in 70 years. The best may not lack all conviction, but they seem alarmingly willing to settle for half-measures. And the worst are, as ever, full of passionate intensity, oblivious to the grotesque failure of their doctrine in practice.

There’s still time to turn this around. But Mr. Obama has to be stronger looking forward. Otherwise, the verdict on this crisis might be that no, we can’t.

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Calvin Explains Economics

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Green Schooling

by Alexandra Zissu
Green Guide
February 11, 2009

Oh the myriad ways the Obamas have already been, are going to be and can be role models. On the green front, much remains to be seen. But one thing is clear: the Obama girls are enrolled in a school, Sidwell Friends, truly devoted to environmental stewardship on just about every level. (Full disclosure: I also went to an urban Friends school, many moons ago, though the extent of environmental education back in the day involved dragging us out of the city and sticking us, lost, in the woods.)

To begin with, Sidwell Friends' buildings are varying levels of green. The Middle School became Washington D.C.'s first LEED platinum building in March 2007 (the highest level in the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design program). An addition to their Lower School and a gym, completed in September 2007, was awarded LEED gold status in January 2009. They green-o-vated their administration building in the summer of 2004—it has a geothermal heat pump, low-emitting materials and efficient lighting. And they're planning on seeking LEED ratings for their most recent construction projects (a new underground athletics facility and a renovation of an arts facility/Quaker meetinghouse).

These measures are backed up in the school's curriculum: Student projects have explored how the school treats drinking water as well as storm water run-off and trash disposal. AP Environmental Science students compare water quality in the on-campus biology pond to water in a nearby tributary, and study the invertebrate biodiversity in the soil on the green roof.

When these budding environmentalists get hungry, their food service provider tries to use local and organic vendors as much as they can to fill their bellies. Lunch is served on recyclable, renewable, biodegradable and compostable products when possible, including napkins with 100 percent recycled content. Faculty stay awake thanks to Fair Trade Certified coffee, while an Upper School student group composts food waste. The resulting fertilizer is used on campus. Lower Schoolers bring a vegetable from home each week to prepare soup for an organization that feeds homeless people.

Cleaning products and toilet paper are Green Seal Certified—a strict third-party certification applied to products with very minimal environmental and health impacts. Cleaning equipment is energy efficient. Recycling bins abound. There's even a 100 percent solar-powered trash compactor, which holds five times more than a conventional one, reducing collection trips.

It all sounds very utopian, but if your children don't have access to such an educational eco-paradise, there are ways to incorporate some of these features into their schools. Head straight to the administration and start grabbing at low-hanging fruit: green cleaning products (they may already be required by law), healthier snacks and a little eco-focus to the curriculum. Do your research and don't be bashful. There's so much at stake.

Green cleaning resources and state laws:
Institutional green cleaners:
North American Association for Environmental Education:
Sidwell Friends School:

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society

Monday, February 09, 2009

Charting a Bold Course to Become a Sustainable Nation

Blogger's note: Denis Hayes gave an impressive and enlightening speech today on the UAlbany campus as he delved into what he believes is necessary for the United States to become a sustainable nation in which to live by the year 2050. There were too many details to remember or share here, but the article below covers a bit of it. A few pieces of the course that Denis sets are:
  • a radical commitment to energy efficiency, including a reduction in personal energy usage by every American to 25% of today's energy needs
  • a reliance on solar energy for 50% of America's energy needs
  • an immediate and dramatic shift in our nation's solar energy production capacity
  • a shift from interdependency to community self-reliance and self-sustainability, including a shift to local foods and local sources of energy

Climate Solutions: Charting a Bold Course
by Denis Hayes
Yale Environment 360
June 10, 2008

More than 30 years ago, President Jimmy Carter called for a daring transition to a new energy future, an effort he likened to “the moral equivalent of war.” But the hard truth is that the United States is in far worse shape in the energy realm today than it was when Carter left office.

Since 1981, annual greenhouse gas emissions have grown from 4.7 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide to 5.9 billion metric tons. America imported 1.6 billion barrels of oil in 1981; by 2007 imports had ballooned to 3.7 billion barrels. Today, oil prices have surged past $130 per barrel, and the best evidence suggests that total global oil production is at or nearing its peak. Under President Carter, America dominated the world in renewable energy research, development, and commercialization, but in the ensuing decades our federal government has thrown away that lead.

With the economy now staggering from its addiction to oil, and with evidence of global warming having persuaded all but the knuckle-draggers, is America at last getting serious about freeing itself from carbon fuels?

Actually, no. Most environmentally sensitive politicians and even many national green groups are remarkably blithe that the Lieberman-Warner bill — a 500-page cap-and-trade law filled with more holes than a Madonna dance outfit — will take us there.

The tragedy is that we still have a chance to solve the global warming crisis, but we are blowing it by chasing false hopes in the form of an inadequate cap-and-trade bill.

Acting fast enough and on a large enough scale to avoid unthinkable climate consequences will require a more ambitious effort than the New Deal, the Interstate Highway System, and the Manhattan Project, all rolled into one. Serious efforts to stabilize the world’s climate will have dramatic consequences for industry, transportation, architecture, agriculture, leisure, and consumerism, and so, many of these changes will be fought tooth and nail — as was evident last week when Republican Senators attacked and derailed the Lieberman-Warner bill, forcing Democratic leaders to place the initiative on hold until a new president takes office.

The truth is that all our largest current energy sources will need to be replaced by new sources — over the ferocious opposition of the powerful companies that market them.

The story of how we got into this crunch is a tale of political opportunism and shortsightedness. For had America continued on the course we’d embarked upon in the mid-1970s, the task ahead would now be much less expensive, much less painful, and much more certain of success.

In 1979, after the Arab oil embargo, Carter announced that by the year 2000 America was to get at least one-fifth of all its energy from renewable sources — mainly solar energy, wind, and biofuels. The Solar Energy Research Institute, which I then served as director, was at the heart of this effort. Leading a team of scientists and analysts drawn from national labs and major universities, SERI prepared the detailed technical and policy blueprint to meet or surpass the 20 percent goal.

In 1981, halfway through his first year in office, President Ronald Reagan abandoned the 20 percent goal, reduced SERI’s $125 million budget by $100 million, and installed a dentist named Jim Edwards as Secretary of Energy. To demonstrate his contempt for the notion of alternative energy, Reagan ordered the solar water heaters ripped off the White House roof. We’ve never recovered.

The successive administrations of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, bobbing along on a sea of cheap oil, did little to shift America’s economy to renewable energy sources. And for the past seven years, the United States has been led by a president who projects such a breathtaking marriage of arrogance and incompetence that his refusal to even acknowledge the reality of climate change has not generally been considered one of his more glaring flaws.

As climate science has grown increasingly clear, many corporate CEOs have become convinced that global warming has a human signature. The brightest CEOs of Fortune 100 companies realized that once the Democrats took back control of Congress, it would be only a matter of time before climate legislation was enacted. The next president, whoever it is, will demand action. These CEOs all wanted to be at the table — in Washington, if you aren’t at the table, you’re likely to wind up on the menu.

Environmental groups soon found themselves being courted by business leaders who recognized that the climate threat would require a serious national response. They formed the U.S. Climate Action Partnership and other alliances that offered benefits for environmentalists but also entailed subtle costs. The most obvious benefit was that environmental leaders are taken more seriously on Capitol Hill when they arrive linking arms with the CEOs of General Electric, Caterpillar, DuPont, and General Motors.

The cost was the natural downside of consensus building: Policies cannot significantly harm the core interests of any of the participants. When the participants include the world’s largest automobile company, the largest manufacturer of jet engines, the largest maker of mining equipment for coal and bituminous sands, etc., this is not an insignificant cost.

What emerged from this unexpected alliance was a consensus that the centerpiece of climate policy should be a cap on CO2, generally applied as close to the point of emission as realistically possible. Additionally, there was widespread agreement that (a) between 25 percent and 80 percent of all emissions permits should be given away to major emitters for a transitional period; (b) the law should provide ample “offsets” available for purchase by companies failing to meet reduction targets; and (c) “safety valves” should permit relaxed enforcement in case greenhouse gas reductions cause temporary economic hardship.

Unfortunately, these are genuinely terrible ideas. They are not bad because they lack ambition; rather, they are bad because they move boldly in the wrong direction. They don’t merely ignore the way that the global economy responds to real-world policies; they ignore everything we have learned about human nature since Rousseau’s belief in humanity’s innate goodness crashed on the shoals of 18th-century reality.

So what should a serious energy and climate policy look like?
  • Carbon Must be Capped Where It Enters the Economy, Not Where It Leaves It
  • Use Auction Revenues Intelligently
  • Promote Renewable Energy
  • Construct a Resilient Nationwide Smart Grid to Take Power from Anywhere to Anywhere
  • Get Serious about Automobile Mileage
  • Build High-Speed Electrified Railways for Our Busiest Corridors
  • Set Strong Building Energy Performance Standards
  • Train the Labor Force
[Read details here:]

Following decades of political denial of climate science, America now lags far behind Europe and Japan in creating most of the basic building blocks for a carbon-neutral era. In several core renewable energy technologies, we have already been passed by China.

It’s not too late to get back in the game. But the global industry is rapidly expanding and maturing, and it has supportive government policies in Germany, Japan, the Nordic states, the Netherlands, South Korea, and China.

America has unparalleled scientific and engineering excellence, formidable financial muscle, bountiful natural resources, a democratic political system, and an entrepreneurial culture well-suited to helping to lead the world into a prosperous, carbon-neutral era. But we have been dragging our heels, as if this were a problem for our children to fix.

Global warming is our problem, and it’s time to get serious about solving it.

© 2008-2009 Yale University

Rockefeller Laws: An End in Sight

by The New York Times
February 8, 2009

It took 35 years.

The New York Legislature finally seems poised to overturn the infamous Rockefeller drug laws. The impending change comes too late for the tens of thousands of low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who wasted away in prison because of mandatory sentencing policies when they should have been given treatment and leniency. But after years of building support for reform, legislative leaders now have it within their power to make wholesale changes in this profoundly destructive law.

The Rockefeller laws tied the hands of judges by requiring lengthy prison terms even for first-time offenders. Essentially, the law allowed prosecutors to decide who went to jail and for how long. The system, which has been imitated throughout the country, filled the jails to bursting, while doing nothing to curb the drug trade.

The law has been especially disastrous for black and Latino offenders, who represent the overwhelming majority of those held in state prison for drug offenses. The Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver, made just that point last week when he criticized a state commission that had been appointed to study the reform issue. The commission, which appears to have been dominated by prosecutors, called for more rational sentencing guidelines and allowing judges to send more offenders to treatment instead of prison. But it failed to get to the heart of the matter, which is a full restoration of judicial discretion.

Mr. Silver, who has favored reform for many years, described the panel’s report as “a missed opportunity” and signaled his intent to push for legislation that would eliminate mandatory sentencing for low-level, nonviolent drug crimes and expand judicial authority. Real reform “means untying the hands of our judiciary,” he noted, “and placing emphasis on probation, alternatives to incarceration and treatment.”

Republican lawmakers who represent prison districts and the correction officers’ unions normally block reform. But Rockefeller reform seems almost certain now that that Democrats control the Legislature and the governor’s mansion. That’s welcome news in the state that has squandered many young lives and started the national trend toward mandatory sentencing.

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

The Destructive Center

by Paul Krugman
The New York Times
February 8, 2009

What do you call someone who eliminates hundreds of thousands of American jobs, deprives millions of adequate health care and nutrition, undermines schools, but offers a $15,000 bonus to affluent people who flip their houses?

A proud centrist. For that is what the senators who ended up calling the tune on the stimulus bill just accomplished.

Even if the original Obama plan — around $800 billion in stimulus, with a substantial fraction of that total given over to ineffective tax cuts — had been enacted, it wouldn’t have been enough to fill the looming hole in the U.S. economy, which the Congressional Budget Office estimates will amount to $2.9 trillion over the next three years.

Yet the centrists did their best to make the plan weaker and worse.

One of the best features of the original plan was aid to cash-strapped state governments, which would have provided a quick boost to the economy while preserving essential services. But the centrists insisted on a $40 billion cut in that spending.

The original plan also included badly needed spending on school construction; $16 billion of that spending was cut. It included aid to the unemployed, especially help in maintaining health care — cut. Food stamps — cut. All in all, more than $80 billion was cut from the plan, with the great bulk of those cuts falling on precisely the measures that would do the most to reduce the depth and pain of this slump.

On the other hand, the centrists were apparently just fine with one of the worst provisions in the Senate bill, a tax credit for home buyers. Dean Baker of the Center for Economic Policy Research calls this the “flip your house to your brother” provision: it will cost a lot of money while doing nothing to help the economy.

All in all, the centrists’ insistence on comforting the comfortable while afflicting the afflicted will, if reflected in the final bill, lead to substantially lower employment and substantially more suffering.

But how did this happen? I blame President Obama’s belief that he can transcend the partisan divide — a belief that warped his economic strategy.

After all, many people expected Mr. Obama to come out with a really strong stimulus plan, reflecting both the economy’s dire straits and his own electoral mandate.

Instead, however, he offered a plan that was clearly both too small and too heavily reliant on tax cuts. Why? Because he wanted the plan to have broad bipartisan support, and believed that it would. Not long ago administration strategists were talking about getting 80 or more votes in the Senate.

Mr. Obama’s postpartisan yearnings may also explain why he didn’t do something crucially important: speak forcefully about how government spending can help support the economy. Instead, he let conservatives define the debate, waiting until late last week before finally saying what needed to be said — that increasing spending is the whole point of the plan.

And Mr. Obama got nothing in return for his bipartisan outreach. Not one Republican voted for the House version of the stimulus plan, which was, by the way, better focused than the original administration proposal.

In the Senate, Republicans inveighed against “pork” — although the wasteful spending they claimed to have identified (much of it was fully justified) was a trivial share of the bill’s total. And they decried the bill’s cost — even as 36 out of 41 Republican senators voted to replace the Obama plan with $3 trillion, that’s right, $3 trillion in tax cuts over 10 years.

So Mr. Obama was reduced to bargaining for the votes of those centrists. And the centrists, predictably, extracted a pound of flesh — not, as far as anyone can tell, based on any coherent economic argument, but simply to demonstrate their centrist mojo. They probably would have demanded that $100 billion or so be cut from anything Mr. Obama proposed; by coming in with such a low initial bid, the president guaranteed that the final deal would be much too small.

Such are the perils of negotiating with yourself.

Now, House and Senate negotiators have to reconcile their versions of the stimulus, and it’s possible that the final bill will undo the centrists’ worst. And Mr. Obama may be able to come back for a second round. But this was his best chance to get decisive action, and it fell short.

So has Mr. Obama learned from this experience? Early indications aren’t good.

For rather than acknowledge the failure of his political strategy and the damage to his economic strategy, the president tried to put a postpartisan happy face on the whole thing. “Democrats and Republicans came together in the Senate and responded appropriately to the urgency this moment demands,” he declared on Saturday, and “the scale and scope of this plan is right.”

No, they didn’t, and no, it isn’t.

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Why the Muslim World Can’t Hear Obama

by Alaa al Aswany
The New York Times
February 7, 2009

President Obama is clearly trying to reach out to the Muslim world. I watched his Inaugural Address on television, and was most struck by the line: “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers.” He gave his first televised interview from the White House to Al Arabiya, an Arabic-language television channel.

But have these efforts reached the streets of Cairo?

One would have expected them to. Mr. Obama had substantial support among Egyptians — more than any other American presidential candidate that I can remember. I traveled to America several days before the election. The Egyptians I met in the United States told me — without exception — that they backed Mr. Obama. Many Egyptians I know went to his Web site and signed up as campaign supporters.

In Cairo, which is seven hours ahead of Washington, some people I know stayed up practically all night waiting for the election results. When Mr. Obama won, newspapers here described Nubians — southerners whose dark skin stands out in Cairo — dancing in victory.

Our admiration for Mr. Obama is grounded in what he represents: fairness. He is the product of a just, democratic system that respects equal opportunity for education and work. This system allowed a black man, after centuries of racial discrimination, to become president.

This fairness is precisely what we are missing in Egypt.

That is why the image of President-elect Obama meeting with his predecessors in the White House was so touching. Here in Egypt, we don’t have previous or future presidents, only the present head of state who seized power through sham elections and keeps it by force, and who will probably remain in power until the end of his days. Accordingly, Egypt lacks a fair system that bases advancement on qualifications. Young people often get good jobs because they have connections. Ministers are not elected, but appointed by the president. Not surprisingly, this inequitable system often leads young people to frustration or religious extremism. Others flee the country at any cost, hoping to find justice elsewhere.

We saw Mr. Obama as a symbol of this justice. We welcomed him with almost total enthusiasm until he underwent his first real test: Gaza. Even before he officially took office, we expected him to take a stand against Israel’s war on Gaza. We still hope that he will condemn, if only with simple words, this massacre that killed more than 1,300 Palestinians, many of them civilians. (I don’t know what you call it in other languages, but in Egypt we call this a massacre.) We expected him to address the reports that the Israeli military illegally used white phosphorus against the people of Gaza. We also wanted Mr. Obama, who studied law and political science at the greatest American universities, to recognize what we see as a simple, essential truth: the right of people in an occupied territory to resist military occupation.

But Mr. Obama has been silent. So his brilliantly written Inaugural Speech did not leave a big impression on Egyptians. We had already begun to tune out. We were beginning to recognize how far the distance is between the great American values that Mr. Obama embodies, and what can actually be accomplished in a country where support for Israel seems to transcend human rights and international law.

Mr. Obama’s interview with Al Arabiya on Jan. 27 was an event that was widely portrayed in the Western news media as an olive branch to the Muslim world. But while most of my Egyptian friends knew about the interview, by then they were so frustrated by Mr. Obama’s silence that they weren’t particularly interested in watching it. I didn’t see it myself, but I went back and read the transcript. Again, his elegant words did not challenge America’s support of Israel, right or wrong, or its alliances with Arab dictators in the interest of pragmatism.

I then enlisted the help of my two teenage daughters, May and Nada, to guide me through the world of Egyptian blogs, where young Egyptian men and women can express themselves with relative freedom. There I found a combination of glowing enthusiasm for Mr. Obama, a comparison between the democratic system in America and the tyranny in Egypt, the expectation of a fairer American policy in the Middle East, and then severe disappointment after Mr. Obama’s failure to intercede in Gaza. I thus concluded that no matter how many envoys, speeches or interviews Mr. Obama offers to us, he will not win the hearts and minds of Egyptians until he takes up the injustice in the Middle East. I imagine the same holds true for much of the greater Muslim world.

Have Egyptians irreversibly gone off Mr. Obama? No. Egyptians still think that this one-of-a-kind American president can do great things. Young Egyptians’ admiration for America is offset by frustration with American foreign policy. Perhaps the most eloquent expression of this came from one Egyptian blogger: “I love America. It’s the country of dreams ... but I wonder if I will ever be able someday to declare my love.”

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

Saturday, February 07, 2009

On the Pentagon's Soaring Propaganda Budget

by Gabriel Voiles
January 7, 2009

It's disturbing enough to read Chris Tomlinson's account (Huffington Post, 2/5/09) of the fact that "the Pentagon now spends more than $550 million a year--at least double the amount since 2003--on public affairs, and that doesn't including personnel costs" and how "over the past two years, the number of public affairs officers trained by the Defense Information School has grown by 24 percent to almost 3,500" but also consider that "along with putting out its own messages, the public affairs arm tries to regulate what other media put out." Some anecdotes from these efforts:

In mid-2008, Associated Press reporter Bradley Brooks was stepping off a cargo plane in Mosul en route to an embed when he saw pallbearers carry the flag-draped coffins of dead soldiers from Humvee ambulances onto a plane. Brooks talked to soldiers, who mentioned their anger with political leaders, and wrote a story. Within 24 hours the military had expelled him from northern Iraq. He was told he had broken a new rule that embedded reporters could not write while in transit.

In 2008, eight journalists were detained for more than 48 hours, according to cases tracked by the AP, more than in any other year since the war began. Since 2003, the AP alone has had 11 journalists detained in Iraq for more than 24 hours. And a Reuters journalist has been detained by U.S. forces as "a security threat" since Sept. 2. "All of these journalists, with the exception of the one being held now, have been released without charge."

What really "troubles" the Committee to Protect Journalists about that last bit is that it "suggests that they are not able to successfully charge these journalists with anything." Meanwhile, on the other side of the same coin, Tomlinson tells us that "the public affairs department has even arranged to fly friendly bloggers to Iraq and Afghanistan, according to documents made available through the Freedom of Information Act."

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Don't Escalate in Afghanistan

by The Nation
February 4, 2009

President Barack Obama has wisely ordered an internal review of the administration's options in Afghanistan before proceeding with the current plan to send 30,000 more troops, which would nearly double the 32,000 fighting there. For the sake of the country, his presidency and the peace and stability of South Asia, Obama should take US-led military escalation off the table. Instead he should focus on devising a regional strategy to stabilize Afghanistan and strengthen Pakistan. Escalating the occupation of Afghanistan would bleed us of the resources we need for economic recovery, further destabilize Pakistan, open a rift with our European allies and negate the positive effects of withdrawing from Iraq on our image in the Muslim world. Escalation would have all these negative consequences without securing a better future for the Afghan people or increasing US security.

There's no denying that the situation has deteriorated over the past few years; the Taliban now threaten to take over large parts of Afghanistan. But more US forces will not bring stability. We are losing the war not because we have had too few troops but because our presence has turned the Afghan people against us, swelling the ranks of the Taliban.

Any good will the US military once enjoyed has long since been destroyed by airstrikes that have killed civilians. Human Rights Watch reports that at least 321 Afghan civilians died in NATO or US air raids in 2007. According to the UN, many more were killed the following year. Sending more troops will not win back the hearts and minds of their loved ones. The conspicuous corruption of the Karzai government has also taken a toll. The United States is now viewed as propping up an unpopular regime that New York Times reporter Dexter Filkins describes as seeming "to exist for little more than the enrichment of those who run it," and "contributing to the collapse of public confidence...and to the resurgence of the Taliban."

Adding 30,000 troops might be enough to keep the government from falling in the short term, but it will not be nearly enough to wage the kind of counterinsurgency some Obama advisers advocate. For that, some military experts estimate, we may need as many as 600,000. But even a force one-quarter that size would be an immense burden on the US economy, given our debt from the financial crisis. It would almost certainly mean the postponement, if not the end, of Obama's proposals for universal healthcare and a green economy.

It is doubtful that even a major counterinsurgency could succeed. Indeed, it may only engender more resistance and encourage support for the Taliban in Pakistan to stop what would be seen as the advancement of US and Indian interests. If we learned anything from the British and the Soviets, it is that Afghans fiercely resist outside powers and that some in Pakistan are eager to prevent outsiders from controlling its neighbor, especially if those outsiders have good relations with India. Afghanistan is called "the burial ground of empires" for good reason.

In recent Congressional testimony Defense Secretary Robert Gates seemed to rule out the more ambitious goal of stabilizing Afghanistan, suggesting instead the narrower goal of preventing it from being a launching pad for terrorism. But he acknowledged even that would require more troops. Gates did not explain why he would commit more troops to keep Afghanistan from being a terrorist haven when Al Qaeda already operates freely in parts of Pakistan and when the Taliban and Islamist terror groups have sanctuaries in Pakistan's tribal areas. Indeed, the effect of military operations in Afghanistan has been to push Islamists across the border into the tribal areas and Pakistan's North West Frontier Province.

The key to defeating Al Qaeda and its extremist protectors lies with the Pakistani government and its ability to control its remote territories. But there's the rub: major groups within Pakistan's military and intelligence services are reluctant to act against Pakistan's extremists for fear it would help the United States and India gain control over Afghanistan. Thus military escalation would likely counter our efforts to get Pakistan's government to secure its territory against Al Qaeda. Worse, expanding the war may only deepen divisions in Pakistan and further weaken its fragile democratic government. Even if US escalation achieves the limited goal of denying Al Qaeda a presence in Afghanistan, it could lead to the destabilization of Pakistan, with devastating implications for regional and international security. As Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel and professor of history and international relations at Boston University, recently wrote, "To risk the stability of that nuclear-armed state in the vain hope of salvaging Afghanistan would be a terrible mistake."

By any measure, the disintegration of nuclear Pakistan would pose a much greater threat to our national security than would the continued presence of Al Qaeda in remote border areas. In fact, the value of Afghanistan and Pakistan as Al Qaeda safe havens is greatly exaggerated. Pakistan's tribal areas are of limited use in training extremists to blend into US society or learn how to fly airplanes or make explosives (most of the planning for the 9/11 attacks took place in Germany and Florida, not Afghanistan). Nor is this remote, isolated area a good location for directing a terror campaign, recruiting members or threatening global commerce. That is why Al Qaeda is a decentralized network whose leaders in Pakistan can offer little more than moral support and encouragement. American safety thus depends not on eliminating these faraway safe havens but on common-sense counterterrorist and security measures--intelligence cooperation, police work, border control and the occasional surgical use of special forces to disrupt imminent terrorist attacks.

Instead of more troops, we need a regional diplomatic strategy aimed at replacing the US-led NATO occupation with a multinational coalition that would bring about a power-sharing arrangement and new governing structure. This would include more moderate elements of the Taliban who reject Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups and would help enforce a halt to the violence. Such a plan would have a better chance of isolating Al Qaeda in Pakistan and giving that country's government the space it needs to take on extremists.

It won't be easy for an international coalition to stabilize Afghanistan, but it will have a better chance if it has few US fingerprints. Therefore, Obama should make clear that this regional strategy envisions withdrawing troops and reconstituting the mission under UN, not NATO, auspices. We may associate Afghanistan with 9/11, but actually it now poses a regional problem, not a US security threat. It is inextricably tied to the geopolitics of Central and South Asia; its problems must be solved by the region's powers, albeit with our diplomatic and financial contributions to development and reconstruction. Progress in stabilizing Afghanistan depends on progress on Pakistani-Indian relations. It also depends on constructive involvement by Iran, which has an interest in tamping down the narcotics trade and in preventing a return of the Taliban. China and Russia have interests in Afghanistan, too, and can contribute to its reconstruction.

Including these regional powers in a multinational coalition and providing it with diplomatic support will not be easy. But it is a task more worthy of President Obama's pledge to make the United States a respected world leader again than sending more young men and women to die in the mountains and deserts of Afghanistan, which would make this Obama's war. The decision he makes in the coming weeks about Afghanistan will tell us a lot about whether his presidency will succeed in restoring America or will fall victim to a futile war in a distant land.

Copyright © The Nation

All of Them Must Go

by Naomi Klein
The Nation
February 4, 2009

Watching the crowds in Iceland banging pots and pans until their government fell reminded me of a chant popular in anti-capitalist circles in 2002: "You are Enron. We are Argentina."

Its message was simple enough. You--politicians and CEOs huddled at some trade summit--are like the reckless scamming execs at Enron (of course, we didn't know the half of it). We--the rabble outside--are like the people of Argentina, who, in the midst of an economic crisis eerily similar to our own, took to the street banging pots and pans. They shouted, "¡Que se vayan todos!" ("All of them must go!") and forced out a procession of four presidents in less than three weeks. What made Argentina's 2001-02 uprising unique was that it wasn't directed at a particular political party or even at corruption in the abstract. The target was the dominant economic model--this was the first national revolt against contemporary deregulated capitalism.

It's taken a while, but from Iceland to Latvia, South Korea to Greece, the rest of the world is finally having its ¡Que se vayan todos! moment.

The stoic Icelandic matriarchs beating their pots flat even as their kids ransack the fridge for projectiles (eggs, sure, but yogurt?) echo the tactics made famous in Buenos Aires. So does the collective rage at elites who trashed a once thriving country and thought they could get away with it. As Gudrun Jonsdottir, a 36-year-old Icelandic office worker, put it: "I've just had enough of this whole thing. I don't trust the government, I don't trust the banks, I don't trust the political parties and I don't trust the IMF. We had a good country, and they ruined it."

Another echo: in Reykjavik, the protesters clearly won't be bought off by a mere change of face at the top (even if the new PM is a lesbian). They want aid for people, not just banks; criminal investigations into the debacle; and deep electoral reform.

Similar demands can be heard these days in Latvia, whose economy has contracted more sharply than any country in the EU, and where the government is teetering on the brink. For weeks the capital has been rocked by protests, including a full-blown, cobblestone-hurling riot on January 13. As in Iceland, Latvians are appalled by their leaders' refusal to take any responsibility for the mess. Asked by Bloomberg TV what caused the crisis, Latvia's finance minister shrugged: "Nothing special."

But Latvia's troubles are indeed special: the very policies that allowed the "Baltic Tiger" to grow at a rate of 12 percent in 2006 are also causing it to contract violently by a projected 10 percent this year: money, freed of all barriers, flows out as quickly as it flows in, with plenty being diverted to political pockets. (It is no coincidence that many of today's basket cases are yesterday's "miracles": Ireland, Estonia, Iceland, Latvia.)

Something else Argentina-esque is in the air. In 2001 Argentina's leaders responded to the crisis with a brutal International Monetary Fund-prescribed austerity package: $9 billion in spending cuts, much of it hitting health and education. This proved to be a fatal mistake. Unions staged a general strike, teachers moved their classes to the streets and the protests never stopped.

This same bottom-up refusal to bear the brunt of the crisis unites many of today's protests. In Latvia, much of the popular rage has focused on government austerity measures--mass layoffs, reduced social services and slashed public sector salaries--all to qualify for an IMF emergency loan (no, nothing has changed). In Greece, December's riots followed a police shooting of a 15-year-old. But what's kept them going, with farmers taking the lead from students, is widespread rage at the government's crisis response: banks got a $36 billion bailout while workers got their pensions cut and farmers received next to nothing. Despite the inconvenience caused by tractors blocking roads, 78 percent of Greeks say the farmers' demands are reasonable. Similarly, in France the recent general strike--triggered in part by President Sarkozy's plans to reduce the number of teachers dramatically--inspired the support of 70 percent of the population.

Perhaps the sturdiest thread connecting this global backlash is a rejection of the logic of "extraordinary politics"--the phrase coined by Polish politician Leszek Balcerowicz to describe how, in a crisis, politicians can ignore legislative rules and rush through unpopular "reforms." That trick is getting tired, as South Korea's government recently discovered. In December, the ruling party tried to use the crisis to ram through a highly controversial free trade agreement with the United States. Taking closed-door politics to new extremes, legislators locked themselves in the chamber so they could vote in private, barricading the door with desks, chairs and couches.

Opposition politicians were having none of it: with sledgehammers and an electric saw, they broke in and staged a twelve-day sit-in of Parliament. The vote was delayed, allowing for more debate--a victory for a new kind of "extraordinary politics."

Here in Canada, politics is markedly less YouTube-friendly--but it has still been surprisingly eventful. In October the Conservative Party won national elections on an unambitious platform. Six weeks later, our Tory prime minister found his inner ideologue, presenting a budget bill that stripped public sector workers of the right to strike, canceled public funding for political parties and contained no economic stimulus. Opposition parties responded by forming a historic coalition that was only prevented from taking power by an abrupt suspension of Parliament. The Tories have just come back with a revised budget: the pet right-wing policies have disappeared, and it is packed with economic stimulus.

The pattern is clear: governments that respond to a crisis created by free-market ideology with an acceleration of that same discredited agenda will not survive to tell the tale. As Italy's students have taken to shouting in the streets: "We won't pay for your crisis!"

Copyright © The Nation

On the Edge

by Paul Krugman
The New York Times
February 5, 2009

A not-so-funny thing happened on the way to economic recovery. Over the last two weeks, what should have been a deadly serious debate about how to save an economy in desperate straits turned, instead, into hackneyed political theater, with Republicans spouting all the old clichés about wasteful government spending and the wonders of tax cuts.

It’s as if the dismal economic failure of the last eight years never happened — yet Democrats have, incredibly, been on the defensive. Even if a major stimulus bill does pass the Senate, there’s a real risk that important parts of the original plan, especially aid to state and local governments, will have been emasculated.

Somehow, Washington has lost any sense of what’s at stake — of the reality that we may well be falling into an economic abyss, and that if we do, it will be very hard to get out again.

It’s hard to exaggerate how much economic trouble we’re in. The crisis began with housing, but the implosion of the Bush-era housing bubble has set economic dominoes falling not just in the United States, but around the world.

Consumers, their wealth decimated and their optimism shattered by collapsing home prices and a sliding stock market, have cut back their spending and sharply increased their saving — a good thing in the long run, but a huge blow to the economy right now. Developers of commercial real estate, watching rents fall and financing costs soar, are slashing their investment plans. Businesses are canceling plans to expand capacity, since they aren’t selling enough to use the capacity they have. And exports, which were one of the U.S. economy’s few areas of strength over the past couple of years, are now plunging as the financial crisis hits our trading partners.

Meanwhile, our main line of defense against recessions — the Federal Reserve’s usual ability to support the economy by cutting interest rates — has already been overrun. The Fed has cut the rates it controls basically to zero, yet the economy is still in free fall.

It’s no wonder, then, that most economic forecasts warn that in the absence of government action we’re headed for a deep, prolonged slump. Some private analysts predict double-digit unemployment. The Congressional Budget Office is slightly more sanguine, but its director, nonetheless, recently warned that “absent a change in fiscal policy ... the shortfall in the nation’s output relative to potential levels will be the largest — in duration and depth — since the Depression of the 1930s.”

Worst of all is the possibility that the economy will, as it did in the ’30s, end up stuck in a prolonged deflationary trap.

We’re already closer to outright deflation than at any point since the Great Depression. In particular, the private sector is experiencing widespread wage cuts for the first time since the 1930s, and there will be much more of that if the economy continues to weaken.

As the great American economist Irving Fisher pointed out almost 80 years ago, deflation, once started, tends to feed on itself. As dollar incomes fall in the face of a depressed economy, the burden of debt becomes harder to bear, while the expectation of further price declines discourages investment spending. These effects of deflation depress the economy further, which leads to more deflation, and so on.

And deflationary traps can go on for a long time. Japan experienced a “lost decade” of deflation and stagnation in the 1990s — and the only thing that let Japan escape from its trap was a global boom that boosted the nation’s exports. Who will rescue America from a similar trap now that the whole world is slumping at the same time?

Would the Obama economic plan, if enacted, ensure that America won’t have its own lost decade? Not necessarily: a number of economists, myself included, think the plan falls short and should be substantially bigger. But the Obama plan would certainly improve our odds. And that’s why the efforts of Republicans to make the plan smaller and less effective — to turn it into little more than another round of Bush-style tax cuts — are so destructive.

So what should Mr. Obama do? Count me among those who think that the president made a big mistake in his initial approach, that his attempts to transcend partisanship ended up empowering politicians who take their marching orders from Rush Limbaugh. What matters now, however, is what he does next.

It’s time for Mr. Obama to go on the offensive. Above all, he must not shy away from pointing out that those who stand in the way of his plan, in the name of a discredited economic philosophy, are putting the nation’s future at risk. The American economy is on the edge of catastrophe, and much of the Republican Party is trying to push it over that edge.

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

Thursday, February 05, 2009

The Luxury of Living Without a Fridge

Blogger's note: I lived without a refrigerator for a few years when I lived without electricity and I loved every minute of it. My ex and I managed to acquire a state-of-the-art icebox that had been sitting unused in storage since the 1930s. We kept it outside the northside door of the house and only had to stock it with ice through the summer months. In the winter, the icebox served as a freezer and we kept fresh food in a cool cupboard to keep it from freezing. Now that I've been living in homes with electricity for 13 years, the thing I miss most is living without a refrigerator... without the constant background noise, the power drain (and money drain), too much food, and the huge appliance made out of toxic materials. Ah, the good life...


Trashing the Fridge
by Steven Kurutz
The New York Times
February 4, 2009

For the last two years, Rachel Muston, a 32-year-old information-technology worker for the Canadian government in Ottawa, has been taking steps to reduce her carbon footprint — composting, line-drying clothes, installing an efficient furnace in her three-story house downtown.

About a year ago, though, she decided to “go big” in her effort to be more environmentally responsible, she said. After mulling the idea over for several weeks, she and her husband, Scott Young, did something many would find unthinkable: they unplugged their refrigerator. For good.

“It’s been a while, and we’re pretty happy,” Ms. Muston said recently. “We’re surprised at how easy it’s been.”

As drastic as the move might seem, a small segment of the green movement has come to regard the refrigerator as an unacceptable drain on energy, and is choosing to live without it. In spite of its ubiquity — 99.5 percent of American homes have one — these advocates say the refrigerator is unnecessary, as long as one is careful about shopping choices and food storage.

Ms. Muston estimated that her own fridge, which was in the house when they bought it five years ago and most likely dates back much longer, used 1,300 kilowatt-hours per year, or produced roughly 2,000 pounds of carbon dioxide — the same amount from burning 105 gallons of gasoline. And even a newer, more efficient model, which could have cut that figure in half, would have used too much energy in her view.

“It seems wasteful to me to use even an Energy Star-rated fridge,” she said, “because I’m getting along fine without one.”

Ms. Muston now uses a small freezer in the basement in tandem with a cooler upstairs; the cooler is kept cold by two-liter soda bottles full of frozen water, which are rotated to the freezer when they melt. (The fridge, meanwhile, sits empty in the kitchen.)

She acknowledges that living this way isn’t always convenient. For starters, it has altered the couple’s eating habits.

“When we had the fridge, we were eating a lot of prepared food from the grocery store,” she said. But the cooler has limited room, and the freezer is for meat and vegetables. Without the extra storage, Ms. Muston finds herself cooking more — which requires more time and forethought because items from the freezer must be thawed.

Asked whether the couple had to give up any cherished foods, Ms. Muston sighed. “Cold beer,” she said. “Scott can’t come home and grab a cold beer out of the fridge anymore. He has to put it in the cooler and wait an hour.”

For the most part, though, the couple seems to have made a smooth transition to life without a refrigerator, something others have tried but failed to do. Beth Barnes, 29, who works for the Kentucky Bar Association, unplugged the refrigerator in her apartment in Frankfort last May to be “a little radical,” she said. After reading online comments from others without a fridge, she learned she could move condiments to a pantry, and that butter can remain unrefrigerated for a week or more. The main concern was how to store dairy products, a major part of her diet.

Ms. Barnes decided to use a cooler, which she refilled daily during the summer with ice that she brought home from an ice machine at her office. That worked fine until she began to travel out of town for her job this fall, and the system hit a snag.

In the end she compromised and bought a minifridge. “I could drop the refrigerator completely if I had a milkman,” she said. “I might eventually try it again if I ever figure out the milk situation.”

Read more.

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company