Friday, April 30, 2010

Gulf of Mexico

For some crazy reason I wrote "Pacific" instead of "Gulf of Mexico" in referring to the recent terrible and ongoing oil spill. I fixed it (the typo, not the spill). Oooops.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Spill baby, spill

Maybe Sarah Palin has some suggestions about containing the gigantic spill-in-progress from the recently exploded oil drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico?

Which also brings me to the "Cape Wind" project between Cape Cod and Nantucket island, recently approved by Ken Salazar. People who oppose it are throwing every reason -- except, of course, NIMBY -- against it. Some Native Americans claim that they need entirely pristine horizons in order to pay respect to their ancestors, and that the waters cover land that once was sacred burial ground. The evidence for this is very scanty and, in any case, there is no treaty protection for land outside reservations. Since Native Americans once roamed through most parts of America, using this as precedent would probably rule out wind farms anywhere. Certainly coal mines would create more desecration than wind turbines, as would pipelines and drilling platforms.

Opposition from hard-core environmentalists are even more bizarre. Cape Wind finally initiates the kind of clean and renewable energy production that they have been advocating for decades. Now they are worrying about migratory bird patterns and the aesthetics of just-on-the-horizon windmills. It is time for them to do some comparison: Is Cape Wind worse than oil spills, blasted mountain tops with valleys and streams filled with coal debris? What is the fate of birds flying near power plant chimneys or being bathed in oil spills? What about the aesthetics of the 20,000 year half-life of a lot of nuclear waste? Get real, folks.

It is essential to view the energy production problem realistically. What we have now is not sustainable and is damaging the environment. Until (or if) science can find a miracle source of energy -- like the long wished-for but non-existent "cold fusion" say -- tradeoffs will have to be made. If 10,000 birds will die from hitting wind turbine blades, while millions will be offed by any other currently known energy technology, then one must make a choice.

Monday, April 26, 2010

1999 vote to dismantle Glass-Steagall Act

The Glass-Steagall Act, the subject of a previous blog, prevented commercial banks from engaging in speculative investment practices -- the exact kind of practices that led to the recent financial crisis. The banks fought bitterly to have it repealed, and they succeeded in 1999, with then president Clinton -- encouraged by Robert Rubin and Larry Summers -- gladly signing it. The vote to repeal was lopsided and a terrible mistake. Here are the votes (italics and color for emphasis are mine):

REPUBLICANS FOR (52): Abraham, Allard, Ashcroft, Bennett, Brownback, Bond, Bunning, Burns, Campbell, Chafee, Cochran, Collins, Coverdell, Craig, Crapo, DeWine, Domenici, Enzi, Frist, Gorton, Gramm (Tex.), Grams (Minn.), Grassley, Gregg, Hegel, Hatch, Helms, Hutchinson (Ark.), Hutchison (Tex.), Inhofe, Jeffords, Kyl, Lott, Lugar, Mack, McConnell, Murkowski, Nickles, Roberts, Roth, Santorum, Sessions, Smith (N.H.), Smith (Ore.), Snowe, Specter, Stevens, Thomas, Thompson, Thurmond, Voinovich and Warner.

DEMOCRATS FOR (38): Akaka, Baucus, Bayh, {{{{BIDEN}}}}, Bingaman, Breaux, Byrd, Cleland, Conrad, Daschle, Dodd, Durbin, Edwards, Feinstein, Graham (Fla.), Hollings, Inouye, Johnson, Kennedy, Kerrey (Neb.), Kerry (Mass.), Kohl, Landrieu, Lautenberg, Leahy, Levin, Lieberman, Lincoln, Moynihan, Murray, Reed (R.L), Reid (Nev.), Robb, Rockefeller, Sarbanes, Schumer, Torricelli and Wyden.


DEMOCRATS AGAINST(7): Boxer, Bryan, Dorgan, Feingold, Harkin, Mikulski and Wellstone.

NOT VOTING: 2 REPUBLICANS (2): Fitzgerald (voted present) and [fighting maverick John] McCain

Note the lone Republican vote against: by then and current Alabama senator Richard Shelby. Only the most independent Dems had the guts to vote against the repeal. Alas, Paul Wellstone -- we really miss you! (When Wellstone died I knew there was no god.)

There is a nice survey article on Glass-Steagall: HERE; well worth browsing.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Goldman-Sachs I

I have been researching the recent news about the Goldman-Sachs Abacus fund. I hope to digest its complexities enough to blog it in the near future: as soon as I have finished grading my very last class. (I am officially a retired math professor, but I agreed last year to teach one more course.)

The only "nice" thing about the G-S story is that it has put the usually obstructionist Party for The Rich in an untenable position. They had been spreading the Big Lie about the Democrats' financial reform plan: that it would encourage the "too-big-to-fail" syndrome and lead to more bailouts. Of course this is just the opposite of what it would do, but that is the nature of the Big Lie. However, the S.E.C. suit against G-S -- especially the entire plausibility of the charges -- has made the public more anxious than ever for action against the financial industry, and made Republican posturing more evident and dangerous to the PTR. After all, if they are so concerned about protection from a rapacious industry, and concerned about bailouts, how come they did zilch for all the years that Reagan and the Bushes were in power -- including the time under Bush junior when they controlled both houses of Congress?

The looming scandal has also made the Dems pull back their support for G-S, whose execs Obama was just praising. As Frank Rich says in today's Times column: "He was no longer describing Blankfein [chair of G-S], sitting before him, as a “very savvy” businessman — a compliment he had bestowed on him and Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase just 10 weeks earlier." G-S has been a big contributor to the Dems the past few years, though now they are shifting back to the PTR, their natural protector.

The financial industry treats its customers with many levels of deceit, and reserves its loyalties ultimately only to itself and, to some extent, its best ( = largest and wealthiest) customers. You can read details about this in, for example, Michael Lewis's "Liar's Poker." When an institution thinks a stock is about to go up, it will try to get its less favored customers to sell their shares so that its more favored ones can buy them; conversely, it unloads loser shares from the latter onto the former. They can also play timing games with buy and sell orders -- for example, supplying a customer with shares at a higher price than they actually paid for those shares. This can be done with high-speed computerized buy-sell programs, taking advantage of minute-by-minute fluctuations in prices. Much of this is legal. However, what G-S did in the Abacus fund case certainly seems to border on fraud. Actually, more than just border. More next time.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

It's not the income or the education, stupid.

A recent poll shows that the TeaScreamers are somewhat more economically secure and somewhat better educated than the average American. So?

The main fact is that the Screamers are woefully uneducated about the issues. They don't know what socialism is or how it is practiced these days. They don't know the difference between "taxation without representation" and taxes passed by their elected representatives. It's not even clear that they understand our representative democracy: how it works and their responsibilities as citizens. And, they don't know what is or isn't in the recently passed Health Reform Bill (nor do many of us, for that matter). Here's a not untypical TeaScreamer as described by the Boston Globe:

Lindsay Lacombe, who wore an "I [Love] Fox News" T-shirt, drove in from Fitchburg, in part to protest the health care reforms.

"This is something I really wanted to participate in," said Lacombe, 22, a junior at Fitchburg State College. "I don't understand how everyone can get free health care. It's not right."

When it was explained that the new law requires many of the newly insured to make some contribution toward their health insurance, she said: "I'm not a political science major."

Another Screamer, Anna Kaczowka of Hanover, said:

It's just the minorities and the illegals who are getting the benefits. Everybody who works gets nothing.

You don't have to be a logician to get the implication: "minorities and illegals" don't work. Just in, Anna: half the country consists of non-whites. Also, if "illegals" are taking jobs from whites, as many Screamers contend, doesn't that mean that they are working?

Several people I know who attended the Boston TeaScreamer's over-publicized meeting on Boston Common (and other rallies) reported similar nonsense -- and worse.

But, it's not just the Tea Screamers. Our new senator Scott Brown is going around saying that the Democrats' proposed financial regulation bill would kill 25,000 to 35,000 jobs in Massachusetts alone. He claims the estimate comes from the chief executive of MassMutual, a big insurance company located in Springfield. However, MassMutual itself denies giving Brown any such figure; in fact, they admitted that their own figures were probably dramatically inflated. Barney Frank has the best explanation of Brown's number: "It may have just been spewed out by the Icelandic volcano with some of the other debris."

For a more complete analysis of Brown's nonsense figures, see the column Numbers game by business analyst Steven Syre in today's Globe.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Healthcare on Frontline

Tomorrow's Frontline on PBS will have a dissection of the role of the healthcare industry in diluting the provisions of the recently-passed healthcare bill. It should be interesting. Click here for a link to PBS about the show.

For more, look at GoozNews as well.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The WPBC competition

OK, let's make it official: readers of the blog are invited to submit their nominees for the "What Part of Beneath Contempt don't you understand?" competition -- which I'll mercifully abbreviate WPBC. Every now and then, or when I get good entries, I'll present the best of them on the blog, with at at least the initials of the submitter (full name if you specifically allow).

Just a reminder: the whole point of WPBC is that you don't get worked up and submit long diatribes and analyses. That's what "beneath contempt" is all about. I mean, does one have to actually explain why a Catholic Church spokesman equating the investigation of pedophile priests with the persecution and murder of Jews during the Holocaust is beneath contempt? Even italics seems like shooting fish in a barrel...

So keep those letters and calls coming!

Friday, April 9, 2010

Republicans surge back in Beneath Contempt competition

With the announcement that Justice John Paul Stevens of the Supreme Court will retire sometime this summer, conjectures about his replacement are beginning to surface. Senator Orrin Hatch (R. Utah) announced that Obama would face a "whale of a fight" if he nominated an "activist" judge. The usual cast of PTR mouthpieces seconded his opinion e.g. Mitch McConnell.

Who could be more activist than Chief Justice Roberts who decided, out of whole cloth, that corporations are like individuals, and enjoy the benefit of the Bill of Rights. Hardly a position that Madison and Jefferson and Franklin had in mind. In fact, Roberts went out of his way to set up the decision -- 5 - 4, hardly ringing -- by soliciting opinions when there was really no case that couldn't have been decided in a less radical way.

So the Republicans have retaken the lead from the Catholic hierarchy in the "What part of beneath contempt don't you understand" competition.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

New element

The Times reports the discovery of a new element. This would be number 117, so it has been temporarily named "Ununseptium" (Latin for 117).

Clearly the name should eventually be Unobtainium. Write your local congressperson or scientist!

How easy it is to kill

Wikileaks, a website I had never heard of before, released an actual military video of the killing of at least 8 people by a helicopter crew in Iraq in 2007. You can hear the crew members request permission to fire on the individuals they spot walking in the street, some of whom are carrying objects that the crew identifies as Rocket Propelled Grenade launchers, and AK47s. This permission is very quickly granted, even though the individual authorizing the action has nothing but the word of the crew that the people spotted need to be killed. The crew immediately begins firing, eventually killing (it seems) all 8 people. Later, a van drives up and tries to remove some of the bodies in a stretcher. The helicopter gun crew again gets permission to fire, and pretty much blows up the van.

The only problem is, the original individuals were not "militants" but a well-known war photographer and his crew. The RPGs and AK47s were in fact just cameras, and the van that drove up was a passing "good samaritan" with his friends and his two young children. A lot of innocent people died in the encounter.

The point of this, it seems to me, is not that accidents happen during the "fog of war." What is telling is the certainty with which the crew identifies the individuals as combatants and the quickness with which they pronounce the death sentence. All this from hundreds, maybe thousands of feet up in the air. Never a moment's hesitation or questioning or second thoughts. We wonder about jihadists who are so confident that they are right that they are willing to kill many in the name of their cause, and are certain that earthly and heavenly rewards await them. It seems quite clear that the helicopter crew also felt the same assurance that their cause was so just and clear as to preclude any sort of introspection or caution. Is this what military training is all about?

The story gets even worse when the military higher-ups, who must have realized the tragic mistake within hours, first stonewalled, then white-washed the incident. Even after the Reuters news agency sued to get information about the death of its correspondant, the military refused to release the video. Only after the wiki site posted a copy for all to see did the brass and their newsbenders relent and acknowledge the clip as authentic.

Whether one is a pacifist or not -- and I acknowledge that I am pleased when I hear about actual terrorists getting iced -- it's best to remember that the line between humane and inhumane action is much fuzzier than we would hope it to be. And this is not an issue of politics or right versus left...

Friday, April 2, 2010

Winner of this year's Miller Analogies Contest

From today's NY Times:

"Benedict sat looking downward when the Rev. Raniero Cantalamessa, who holds the office of preacher of the papal household, delivered his remarks in the traditional prayer service in St. Peter’s Basilica. Wearing the brown cassock of a Franciscan, Father Cantalamessa took note that Easter and Passover were falling during the same week this year, saying he was led to think of the Jews."

“They know from experience what it means to be victims of collective violence and also because of this they are quick to recognize the recurring symptoms,” he said.

Quoting from a letter he claimed was written by a Jew, he continues: "I am following the violent and concentric attacks against the church, the pope and all the faithful by the whole world ... The use of stereotypes, the passing from personal responsibility and guilt to a collective guilt, remind me of the more shameful aspects of anti-Semitism"

Yeah, the "violent" persecution of the Catholic Church over the widely acknowledged sexual abuse of young children over generations by priests, and the coverup by the Church hierarchy, is really a lot like the persecution of the Jews. The jails where some pedophile priests have been placed are a lot like the Camps. Let's all shed a tear and say Kaddish for Bernard Law and other innocent victims of this terrible stereotyping. It sure does remind you of the holocaust, doesn't it?

I guess this also wins this week's "What part of beneath contempt don't you understand?" award -- usually reserved for the Republicans.

How we made out on CitiCorp bailout

Dean Baker, Co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, has an interesting piece in today's HuffPo on whether the taxpayers made any money on the various parts of the bailout of the nearly moribund CitiCorp -- you know, one of the banks that charges upward of 30% on your credit card debt, yet borrows money from the Fed at next to nothing. They also take this money they borrow almost free from the Fed (us) and make a profit by lending it back to us in the form of Treasury Bonds; i.e., they borrow from the Feds at very favorable rates (next to nothing) and sell the money back to the Feds -- risk free -- at higher rates of return than they paid -- close to 3.7 %. As Baker says, "Nice work if you can get it."

Baker's reasoning is not so much that we didn't recoup the principle on the loans, or that we (the taxpayers) didn't get some interest payments. Rather, he compares what the government (us) would have made by placing this money elsewhere, or demanding a more realistic payback from CitiCorp that reflects the actual worth of the money and guaranties that were given to Citi.