Friday, December 24, 2010


Well, first is today's column by Paul Krugman, in which he points out some of the humbug (false statements peddled as the truth): The Humbug Express.

Next, and last: Happy Holidays and New Year to all the readers of this blog (and most everyone else, for that matter).

Thursday, December 23, 2010

More "blowback" in the works?

According to the website TPM:

"This Wednesday, a group of prominent Bush-era Republicans, including former NYC Mayor Rudy Guiliani [sic], former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, former White House adviser Frances Townsend and former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, flew to Paris to speak in support of an Iranian exile group there -- one that's been designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. "

(Here is the article.)

This group, Mujaheddin-e Khalq or MEK, is an Islamic, militant, quasi-Marxist and strongly anti-Ahmadinejad organization, which has been on the U.S. terrorist list for a number of years. It is certainly ironic that Giuliani, Ridge and Mukasey, long identified with the regime of George Bush, would advocate for this group, and ask that it be removed from the terrorist list. However, the history of the U.S. in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan etc. is one of supporting nearly any and all groups that oppose regimes it doesn't like. This has resulted in support for the Shah against the democratically elected Mohammed Mosaddegh in Iran, support for the Taliban and (indirectly) Al-Qaeda when they opposed the U.S.S.R. in Afghanistan, and alternating support for Ayatollah Khomeini and Sadam Hussein when Iran and Iraq fought each other. (This in addition to the monsters America backed in Central and South America, solely on the basis of their "anti-communism".)

Who knows where this will lead? The law of unintended consequences has not been kind to this sort of foreign policy, and we may yet reap more unanticipated blowback. (See the late Chalmers Johnson's excellent trilogy on this subject, whose first volume is entitled Blowback. If you don't have time to read the whole trilogy, I recommend the last volume, Nemesis, which pretty much encapsulates his arguments and examples.)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Manning's prison conditions

Robert Mackay, writing in the NY Times Blog "The Lede", reports on the conditions facing Bradley Manning, the Army private in solitary confinement who is suspected of downloading the "secret" documents released by WikiLeaks. Here is the link.

The conditions are not good; so bad, in fact, that Manning is being given anti-depressants to prevent him from going nuts. It seems to me that he is being softened up so that he will testify -- truthfully or falsely, who knows? -- against Julian Assange. This sounds more and more like the Bush Justice Department redux.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Manning being "nudged"

Yesterday I suggested that Bradley Manning, the army private who may have been the source of the WikiLeaks documents, is possibly being put under pressure to testify that Julian Assange was involved in the "theft" of the documents.

There is now some corroboration for this. Glenn Greenwald reported yesterdayin Salon (click HERE) that Manning is being held in very inhumane conditions -- solitary, no pillows or blankets, no exercise -- even though he has yet to be charged with a crime, much less convicted. This sounds like an attempt to "soften him up" so that he will play ball with prosecutors trying to get Assange on conspiracy charges.

This is beginning to smell like a real scandal -- if the mainstream press will pick it up. It's a good time to write to local newspapers about this very nasty behavior occurring on St. Obama's watch. I've already written to the Boston Globe.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Mischief in progress regarding Assange

Apparently the US Justice Dept is looking into the possibility that Julian Assange was part of a "conspiracy" to steal the documents that Wikilinks went on to publish. While Army private Bradley Manning is widely believed to be the actual thief, conspiracy indictments simply require some evidence that others either took part in the theft, or encouraged Manning to steal the documents.

It is common for prosecutors to offer a defendent in a criminal case a reduced sentence (or even no prosecution) in exchange for incriminating others -- especially others that the prosecutors are more interested in prosecuting. In this case, I wouldn't be surprised if the Justice Department offered Manning such a deal in exchange for testimony involving Assange. At this point, Assange and WikiLinks are far bigger thorns in the side of the US establishment than is Bradley. It would be very easy for Manning to "bend" the truth a little, since he is young and faces serious prison time.

Thus we see the Obama administration trying to take down its perceived enemies using the so-called "Justice" Department. Once again, our Democratic president is acting in a way strangely reminiscent of his Republican predecessor.

Of course, the irony is that, while Obama is acting more and more like an establishment figure, WikiLinks is looking more and more like the original Tea Party.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Jon Kyl: senatorial material

Senator Jon Kyl (R, AZ) claims that Harry Reid is showing disrespect for Christians by scheduling Senate business during the week between Christmas and New Years Day.

Apparently he thinks that the week in question is a paid holiday for Christians. I imagine that this is news to US Christians whose bosses have scheduled work during this period.

Do Jews realize that they have a paid holiday from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur? Do Moslems know that they have the same perk during Ramadan?

The poor Christians haven't been so oppressed in their own country since the Romans fed them to the lions.

The local record for stupidity was being held by the idiots who think that Australian Julian Assange should be tried for treason in the US; now Jon Kyl shows that his head is even more screwed on backwards.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Ethanol: Facts and Fictions

I recently read that the Obama tax "compromise" includes another giveaway: the extension of tax incentives and tariff protections for the ethanol industry. My first reaction was to "recall" that ethanol, which is simply pure alcohol obtained by fermentation, uses more energy to produce than it yields as a fuel. Since I am suspicious of most things that I haven't verified recently (or think I remember), I figured I'd do a little research on ethanol production. I was not anxious to read obvious hype from either the ethanol industry or its logical opponents (e.g. the American Petroleum Industry or "knee jerk" opponents of anything corporate or industrial). So I started with a short Business Week article: Ethanol: Myths and Realities (May 2006). I also read the report by the Union of Concerned Scientists: The Truth About Ethanol. Finally, I read two other pieces, one giving a view from an organic farming perspective: JourneyToForever, and the other a fairly long libertarian/conservative analysis from the Cato Institute: The Ethanol Boondoggle.

Here is what I learned. First of all, by most recent accounts, production of ethanol has become much more efficient in the last 20-30 years. The original article (1998) attacking ethanol for consuming more energy to produce than it yields were from Cornell Professor David Pimentel, and apparently was based on data about production dating from the '70s and '80s. Subsequently, his analysis was challenged by M. Wang and D. Santini of Argonne National Labs, who wrote:

"Prof. David Pimentel's 1998 assessment of corn ethanol concluded that corn ethanol achieved a negative energy balance (which is usually defined as the energy in a product minus energy used to produce the product). Unfortunately, his assessment lacked timeliness in that it relied on data appropriate to conditions of the 1970s and early 1980s, but clearly not the 1990s... With up-to-date information on corn farming and ethanol production and treating ethanol co-products fairly, we have concluded that corn-based ethanol now has a positive energy balance of about 20,000 Btu per gallon."

This, in fact, seems to be the concensus of analysts now, although the process of making this kind of assessment is very tricky, since a lot of factors must be taken into account to cost out both ethanol expense as well as the true costs of the oil-based energy needed to produce it. For example, because it easily picks up harmful impurities, ethanol can not be mixed with gasoline in pipelines, but must be shipped separately by tankers (car, rail, ship).

There are other issues as well, the foremost being land use. In the U.S., ethanol is fermented from corn (mostly the kernels and cobs). Corn is not only a big consumer of fertile land and nitrogen fertilizers, but is also itself consumed by people: directly as corn meal and as a vegetable, but mostly as animal feed and sweetener (the much-maligned "high fructose corn syrup" used in highly processed junk foods). It has been demonstrated that the ethanol fuel program has increased the price of foods dependent on corn. It will never be possible to grow enough corn in the U.S. to allow ethanol to replace petroleum-based fuels -- there simply is not enough arable land. Furthermore, taking land out of forest and grass in order to grow corn will increase the net amount of greenhouse gasses emitted into the air.

On the other hand, ethanol is a relatively "clean" fuel: it's main combustion byproducts are water and a small amount of carbon dioxide; it does release some other chemicals as well (mostly due to organic impurities), but not as much as gasoline or diesel fuel. By volume or weight it is less efficient energy-wise than gasoline, but it can -- and does -- replace some gasoline in powering vehicles, and thus reduces total harmful emissions. Currently, ethanol is required by (federal) law to make up 15% of the fuel sold at "gas" stations. Engines have accordingly been modified to allow ethanol to be burned at this concentration. Some vehicles and other machines have even been modified to burn pure ethanol.

Ethanol needn't be fermented from corn. Brazil has a very large ethanol industry -- heavily government subsidized (see below) -- which is derived from sugar cane. It is also possible to distill ethanol from a "mash" of cellulose instead of corn or cane; in fact, various "trash" plants can be used, including crop wastes, weeds, brush etc. For a technical article on this kind of ethanol, see this article from the AAAS. This kind of production requires more raw materials, but avoids some of the problems of planting, cultivating and harvesting corn. The ethanol from any source can also be obtained by using enzymes instead of traditional fermentation. This is discussed in the AAAS article just cited.

So, it's a mixed bag. The organic farmers point out that locally-grown ethanol can be used more efficiently if grown locally with natural fertilizers. This reduces the transportation costs and makes it a good source of energy for modified farm equipment. It can also be produced, as I just mentioned, from various farm wastes instead of corn . They also note that the subsidies that the government now pays go mostly to the big producers of ethanol, such as Archer-Daniels-Midland and Monsanto, instead of "family" farms.

I found the article from the Cato Institute ( to be quite interesting. They point out that the government can promote a product in several ways: by providing direct subsidies -- in the form of tax credits, for example -- or by requiring its use, or by protecting it with tariffs. In the case of ethanol -- uniquely -- the federal government is doing all three. The Cato report argues that none of these supports is justified by the practical benefits of ethanol use. Incidentally, the tariff support is designed to hinder the importation of Brazilian ethanol, which is, as I said previously, heavily subsidized by that country's government. (One might also suspect that Cuba, which also has a large sugar cane crop, might also be in the sights of the tariff makers.) Cato points out that the amount of ethanol that we can produce will hardly make much of a dent in the global warming problem. Cato also wonders why the big agribusiness companies that make most of the ethanol need subsidies when the government requires the use of ethanol -- originally justified to make it a substitute for the gas additive MBTE, which turned out to be a serious groundwater polutant.

The Union of Concerned Scientists piece contains the following critique of the tax credits:

"Today’s biofuels tax credits are expensive and ineffective. They cost taxpayers more than $5 billion per year, yet they have no effect on biofuels production. In fact, the tax credits do not even benefit biofuel producers or farmers, but instead the money goes to oil companies to simply comply with the Renewable Fuel Standard.
The Billion Gallon Challenge shows how a different type of tax credit – a Biofuels Performance Tax Credit – would be more effective in jumpstarting the advanced biofuels industry. A performance-based tax credit would:
  • Reward biofuel producers for performance improvements. The amount of the tax credit would be based on the emissions improvement over today’s conventional biofuels. The greater the emissions improvement, the higher the tax credit.

  • Clean up all types of biofuels. Since both conventional and advanced biofuels are eligible for the tax credit, both would have an incentive to reduce emissions.

  • Save billions of taxpayer dollars and spur investments in biofuels-production technology."

I highly recommend the papers cited here, especially the UCC and Cato reports. Their conclusions suggest that adding ethanol incentives and tariff renewal into the Obama tax-cuts-for-the-rich deal is simply throwing good money after bad. It is clear that the move is simply a way of attracting farm-belt votes to the president's odious "compromise".

Friday, December 10, 2010

Obama's Rich Man's Express

Since I've actually had to argue this point with some Democrats, I'd like to explain why I find Obama's "deal" with the Party for The Rich (PTR, formerly the GOP) so contemptible.

I was an Obama supporter for a long time. I stated many times in this blog (here, e.g.) that one should support his health care plan even though it had a lot of deficiencies. Like the original version of Social Security, it was far from perfect, but was such a large step in the right direction, and had such potential for becoming widely (and even wildly) popular as it was improved, that it should be enacted while it was still possible to do so. The same was true for the financial protection bill drafted by my congressman Barney Frank.

This latest deal with the PTR, however, is another beast altogether, since it is positively harmful and bows to extremely bad ideas and precedents. Let me be specific.

1. Extension of tax cuts for the very wealthy is unneeded and costly and hypocritical; it also violates one of Obama's campaign promises. First of all, people in the highest tax brackets should never have gotten such a sizable tax cut in the first place. Since everyone else -- those in lower brackets -- had gotten a cut in their taxes, the high income folks already benefited by having their taxes cut on the part of their income falling in these lower brackets.

It goes roughly like this (I'm working from the most recent tax tables for married filing jointly, and comparing them with the tables from before the Bush cuts; I've also rounded the figures a bit).

Bracket (in thousands of $$)
0-17 17-68 68-137 137-208 208-372 372-on up
Before Bush:
15% 15% 28% 31% 36% 39.6%

Bush Rates:
10% 15% 25% 28% 33% 35%

You may wonder where Obama's original $250,000 cut-off came from. That's about what the income would be before the allowance for dependents and other exemptions are taken out, in order to land a taxable income of around $208,000. If the Bush cuts are allowed to expire, those earning below this level would keep their rates (last line of the table) while those earning above would see their rate revert to pre-Bush cuts (i.e. 36% or 39.6% as per the middle line of the table).

NOTE that people earning above $250,000 (or $208,000 after exemptions) would STILL GET the cuts on that part of their income below that amount. This would come to:

5% of (17000) + 3% of (137000 - 68000) + 3% of (208000 - 137000)

= $5050.

In dollars this is more than people in the lower brackets would be saving. Of course, as you can see from the table, the higher income people were making out far better under the Bush plan (that's why they love it). These same people, less than 2% of the population, have enjoyed these cuts on their high incomes for nearly a decade, and are also far less likely to experience financial difficulties now (their unemployment rate is less than 1/4 of the national average). Furthermore, these high income people have a much greater disposable income -- i.e. money above food and shelter and medical expenses, available for spending on "fun" things and luxuries.

Of course, the Republicans claim that these wealthy people "create jobs" with their extra money. As far as I can see, there is not one iota of evidence to suggest that their extra money has any correlation with employment or economic expansion. We had plenty of economic expansion in the more than half-century before Bush II, when the upper-bracket people paid much higher tax rates (even under St. Reagan); inversely, we are very much worse off now, with much higher unemployment and a shrinking economy, after 8 years of Bush tax cuts. Tax cuts for the rich do not help the economy. All the facts and our experience tell us that the Republican claims are sheer nonsense.

Everyone agrees that extending the Bush tax cuts to those making over a quarter million dollars a year will be very costly to the Treasury. Since the effect on jobs and the economy in general will be minuscule if even measurable, it would, in fact, be totally counterproductive to proceed with them as Obama has agreed to do.

2. Cutting the Social Security Tax (FICA) by 2%, while definitely helping middle-class wage earners, is a very bad idea for other reasons. The main argument used by those who want to kill the Social Security program -- or at least severely reduce its benefits -- is that it will run out of money soon anyway. The Social Security Trust fund is owed billions of dollars which the government has "borrowed" from it in order to pay for unfunded (by Congress) wars and other undertakings which were not accompanied by honest and direct appropriations. Cutting FICA will simply make it easier to push this argument. The fact is, the problems of the Social Security system are easily solved simply by raising the income limit on which FICA is applied. The same wealthy people who have benefited most from the Bush tax cuts also pay no Social Security tax on the money they earn over about $106,000 dollars. I have discussed this in previous blogs (here, for example), so I won't repeat the argument again. Since neither Obama nor his commission to solve the "budget crises" (you remember, Erskine Bowles, BS from Morgan-Stanley, and Alan Simpson, ex-senator from Marlboro Country) pushed for this cap removal, Obama's proposed cut in SS tax can only damage the program. It is a stalking horse of those who would destroy one of the most popular and helpful programs ever undertaken by this country.

3. The radical changes in the inheritance tax is yet another sop to the very rich. This is a tax on hereditary wealth that comes directly from the ideals of the Founding Fathers of this country. Those who must pay it on part of their multi-million dollar estates is a tiny tiny percentage of the population -- and its most affluent. If you have merely a couple of million dollars the Inheritance Tax simply doesn't apply to you. Billionaires Warren Buffet and Bill Gates think that the tax is reasonable and oppose lowering it. Obama, though, has agreed to reducing it far beyond the wildest dreams of most Republicans. Even the otherwise wimpish Democratic caucus was appalled. This will cost the Treasury big bucks; yet, the supposed deficit hawks don't seem to be perturbed at all. That's because deficit hawks are not really guardians of the public weal, but rather the front guard of the class war on the middle class.

4. Extension of unemployment benefits is the excuse that Obama gives for throwing more money at the rich. This is an example of an issue that should have been taken to the people and should never have been on the "negotiating" table at all. Those people who lost their jobs in the still-continuing recession did so because very wealthy speculators and banks oversold subprime mortgages and mortgage-backed securities and greedy but ignorant traders misplayed their bets on derivatives based on these securities. A lot of these folks were bailed out by the government in the TARP program, conceived and designed by Wall Streeters, mostly during the Bush years. While the government has recovered most of its TARP money, it didn't recover all, and, in principle, the idea of socialism for wealthy gamblers is not what we generally consider the American Dream. What happened to bailing out those who don't own luxury condos and luxury cars, yet suffered the consequences of the bursting speculative bubble? Obama never should have even considered trading help for them for handouts to those who made out should I put it ...bandits. Whatever happened to that wonderful "soaring rhetoric" of Obama the campaigner. Why the backroom deal with McConnell and Boehner, when he should have gone on national media and demanded help for the unemployed? This was a strong hand that the president folded before a single bet was made.

Obama started out seeking bipartisanship -- a foolish and naive position. The Republicans mostly ate his lunch, even declaring right out in the open that their one and only priority was to make him a one-term president. This outrageous statement went largely unchallenged, though it indicated a degree of cynicism and disregard for the good of the country that is truly radical and unprecedented in its brazenness. Even after all this, Obama is still taking about bipartisanship. Meanwhile, the PTR is eating his lunch on tax equity. When you don't learn from people repeatedly punching you in the face, you are either arrogant or a fool.

Scott Brown: Beneath Contempt (of course)

Just when you think a Republican might rise from Beneath Contempt to merely contemptible, Scott Brown displays his true colors. After saying he supported the termination of Don't Ask Don't Tell, he voted to retain it by agreeing to a filibuster of the Military Appropriations Bill.

His reason: He supports his party's position that they will allow no legislation to pass until millionaires are granted their tax breaks.

Why aren't the (merely contemptible) Dems publicizing this with TV spots NOW? Why will they wait to engage the PTR until the eve of the next election? 'Cause they're wimps and patsies. Just as I predicted, fighting John Kerry has already hopped on board Obama's Rich Man's Express. But, of course, Kerry is a (very) rich man. I wonder what Teresa Heinz's position is on tax breaks for people like her and her husband? I've always considered her to the left of Kerry.

(Actually, the Republicans' love affair for the wealthy has become embarrassing even for some of the million/billion-aires.)

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

WikiLeaks and Obama sell-out.

I've decided to send some money to WikiLeaks, but haven't determined what method to use. You might consider doing the same.

Here is an interesting article on the subject from the NY Times "Opinionator".

I also have written to my Rep (Barney Frank) and Senators (Kerry, Brown) asking them to vote against the extension of the Bush Tax Cuts to rich people. Since I wrote, Frank announced his opposition. Kerry, of course, is on all sides of the issue. I imagine he'll go along with Obama's sellout. The Republican Brown will not oppose his party on this -- though, to his credit, he has come out for the elimination of DADT.

More about this later.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

From the horse's (Forbes') mouth

Forbes magazine, a Capitalist Tool (their motto) if there ever was one, has a post about the power of Internet transparency: Check it out.

WikiLeaks: let no good deed go unpunished

Of course it had to end this way. No big bully country could allow anyone to publish its dirty secrets. So the US is putting the screws on WikiLeaks in every way it can. PayPal just announced that is will not enable contributions to WikiLeaks. Amazon had previously announced that it had pulled WikiLeaks off its servers -- possibly at the request of our good friend Joe Lieberman (you remember him: the former VP candidate who supported John McCain for president last election).

Although I know no particular facts about the sex charges against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, I am predisposed to believe that the U.S. government and the U.S. corporate world couldn't be happier that Sweden has decided to go to InterPol to track him down. (Readers of the Swedish "Millenium Trilogy" shouldn't be surprised that Sweden is playing the heavy in this case.) Under the circumstances, we should consider Assange innocent until proven guilty. I have heard that no formal charges have even been made against him; this seems incredible, but so are lots of things that turn out to be true. In any case, I am inclined to root for anyone that Bank of America, the Republicans, and Joe Lieberman don't like.

Also, of course, it is not clear what real harm to the U.S. has resulted from the various installments of WikiLeaks. The U.S. needs some serious ventilation of its secrecy. This is the same secrecy that shrouded the war in Vietnam (and Laos and Cambodia), the support for murderous dictators in South and Central America, and the phony war in Iraq.

Anyway, there will be more serious blogging when the sequence of holidays (Thanksgiving, Channukah, Christmas and New Years) is over.

Enjoy, and root that WikiLeaks will continue its good deeds.