Nel's New Day

May 31, 2014

Maya Angelou Revered, Trashed

Filed under: Uncategorized — trp2011 @ 7:54 PM
Tags: , ,

Maya Angelou died last week at the age of 86. Both mainstream and alternative news sources were filled with tributes to her. Author, actress, screenwriter, film director, singer, dancer, poet, teacher, and activist, she read extensively and mastered French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and the West African language Fanti. Among her 50 awards are three Grammys, the Presidential Medal of the Arts, the Ford’s Theatre Lincoln Medal, and the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Of her more than 30 books, the most famous may be I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, her 1969 memoir that has never been out of print.

From the Newsweek review:

“Miss Angelou’s book is more than a tour de force of language or the story of childhood suffering: it quietly and gracefully portrays and pays tribute to the courage, dignity and endurance of the small, rural Southern black community in which she spent most of her early years in the 1930s.”

President Obama honored her at her death:

“Over the course of her remarkable life, Maya was many things … But above all, she was a storyteller—and her greatest stories were true. A childhood of suffering and abuse actually drove her to stop speaking—but the voice she found helped generations of Americans find their rainbow amidst the clouds, and inspired the rest of us to be our best selves.  In fact, she inspired my own mother to name my sister Maya.”

Former President Bill Clinton joined President Obama with his own admiration:

“With Maya Angelou’s passing, America has lost a national treasure; and Hillary and I, a beloved friend. The poems and stories she wrote and read to us in her commanding voice were gifts of wisdom and wit, courage and grace.”

Tragically, some of the conservative media, notably writers for the National Review. could not bring them to produce even a modicum of respect for this grand woman.  Jonah Goldberg only referenced her treatment on The Simpsons. Tim Cavanaugh’s article, entitled “R.I.P., Maya Angelou, Proud Gun Owner and User,” described her recitation of her non-rhyming poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” at Bill Clinton’s inauguration as “a slog.” His article describes Angelou’s books as dispensing “sound if unspectacular wisdom of the type that is said to boost children’s self-esteem.” 

Former National Review contributor John Derbyshire posted denigrated Angelou on the White Nationalist site VDARE.  Despite never reading any of Angelou’s works, he lumps her with other blacks, including Attorney General Eric Holder, as “talentless … Affirmative Action mediocrit[ies].”

Even the Houston Fox affiliate showed this distasteful announcement of Angelou’s death:

“MAYA ANGELOU DEAD AT AGE 86

CANCELS HOUSTON APPEARANCE ON FRIDAY”

maya-angelou dead cancels  

Fortunately, not all conservatives are uneducated philistines. Politically conservative blogger at Red States, Erick Erickson, wrote this eulogy for the noted artist:

 “I am pretty sure that Maya Angelou and I would disagree on much politically, but I’d stand still on a hot bed of coals to hear her tell me she disagreed. I loved her mind and I loved her voice.

“I grew up in Dubai…. In college, a very liberal professor of mine encouraged me to read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings to find some understanding of an experience I was largely ignorant of just by virtue of growing up in a different country. It might have been a more controversial book if I were younger, but in college I found it deeply moving and honest. I do not say that to be trite or clichéd. The book is deeply personal and humbling. It has a rhythmic quality to it that Maya Angelou herself had.

“Her writings helped me connect to others, other times, and issues I have had difficulty relating to.

“She was of the left. I am of the right. But her voice could sing a spoken harmony of words that calmed souls, lit fires, and made the mind dance. Her voice had strength in it that those of us who might disagree with her on issues could still connect to.

“Even before I took a job in radio, I paid attention to voices. Being partly deaf … certain voices have always resonated with me. They fix in my mind and draw me to some people in a way the same words from a different voice would not. Paul Harvey was one of the first voices with that effect on me. Maya Angelou’s voice was one of the first female voices that did the same.

“I have learned over the years, particularly during my time at CNN, that one can have friendships with those whose life, issues, politics, or values do not align with my own. I had a friendship with Maya Angelou’s beautiful voice. I could listen to her read a grocery list and it would be an emotional event.

“I never met Maya Angelou. But I admired her from afar. Some people are just worthy of praise, regardless of their positions, convictions, or titles. We should not be so counter-cultural to the present culture and politics that we as conservative are not willing to recognize that caged bird sang a melody worth humming along to even when we didn’t care for the words.”

Maya Angelous

In observing the passing of this great woman, I wish to pass along this quotation that resonates with me: “My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.”

Her critics above have the passion; may they learn to develop the other three parts of success.

May 30, 2014

Search for Blame in VA Debacle

Filed under: Uncategorized — trp2011 @ 7:54 PM

The conservative media has brought a strong message to their listeners that the problems in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) are unique. Yet Omar Bradley chaired a presidential commission almost sixty years ago that lambasted the VA for its “backward-looking” management style and urged “more positive leadership.”  A 1993 Blue Ribbon Panel declared that wait times were “unacceptable” and a backlog “created additional and unacceptable delays” for veterans. Former Sen. Robert Dole (R-KS) and former Secretary of Health and Human Services headed a 2007 panel concluding that the department’s problems ran so deep that “merely patching the system, as has been done in the past” wasn’t enough.

Eric Shinseki, who resigned today as Secretary of the VA, made one serious mistake: he believed that the people in the VA are honorable. Shinseki came up through the ranks in a culture that prized honesty. As Robert H. Scales, a retired Army major general and West Point classmate of Shinseki, said, “If you screw up you have dead soldiers, and you can’t hide them.” That policy has changed.

The VA reported that 93 percent of these veterans got their appointments in a timely fashion, and Shinseki believed the reports. He demanded that all veterans be seen within 14 days of requesting medical aid, but the demand could not be achieved. A shortage of qualified health staff was combined with a new demand for accountability and 20-year-old rewards for the accomplishment of goals.  Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL), chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said whistle-blowers at several veterans hospitals told his staff members that they would be threatened if they failed to alter data to make patient-access numbers look good for their supervisors.

The VA has 1,465 unfilled mental health job openings on its career site. Seventeen of the 22 veterans who kill themselves every day have not tried to get care at the VA. The agency didn’t recognize PTSD as a disorder for eight years after the mental health profession did so in 1980. Veterans weren’t compensated for exposure to the Vietnam herbicide Agent Orange for decades. The VA also fought against acknowledging the Gulf War Syndrome.

In his blog, The Sterling Road, a veteran wrote about Shinseki’s major problem: “Guilty of The Crime of Being VA Secretary In An Election Year”:

“What does matter is what this firing means for veterans.

“Ultimately it means one of the most qualified, dedicated and accomplished men in government – a man who, if he weren’t the current secretary, would probably be the guy everyone else would be screaming to take over – has just gotten shoved out the door.

“Why?

“For the crime of being VA Secretary following two wars and two million returning veterans filling up VA treatment centers that weren’t equipped to handle the influx.

“For the crime of not being a psychic and predicting that various VA clinics would go rogue and keep separate sets of books in order to meet patient care guidelines and receive bonuses.

“But ultimately for the crime of being a mild-mannered and measured administrator at a time when a convergence of angry veterans, VSO’s and the media demanded someone who screams and shouts and conveys a sense of outrage – regardless of whether it would actually improve anything at the VA.

“Because just like in pro sports, if a team has a losing year – it’s easier to fire a single coach than get rid of dozens of players.

“So what does his firing accomplish?

“Three things:

1.  It gives certain politicians running in the 2014 midterms an opportunity to claim a “victory” for calling for his resignation and an easy chance to knock any opponents who didn’t call for his dismissal.

2.  It sets up a certain political circus over the confirmation of the next VA Secretary, with potential presidential candidates and senators up for re-election lining up get their 15 minutes of fame by grilling whatever poor sap is unfortunate enough get tabbed for the job.

3. It makes whoever replaces Shinseki less likely to be able to deal with the scandals. Whoever gets picked to be the new VA Secretary will be spending the first few months just getting used to the job, getting to know those who’ll be working under them and understanding how to navigate the vipers’ pit of bureaucracy that current VA has become. Then when the next secretary finally has all the information and experience they need to deal with the problems – well, a new VA Secretary will be taking over with the next president.

“Because if you think the next VA secretary is going to come into the department blind and fix this mess in the next two years you have no concept of the complexity of the problem.”

The same veteran summarized the 25-year history of VA secretaries:

Eric Derwinski (1989-1992): The George H.W. Bush appointee was replaced a few months before the 1992 election after complaints from veterans groups about Derwinski’s suggestion that VA clinics should be opened to non-veterans.

Jesse Brown (1993-1997): Former executive director of the Disabled American Veterans (DAV), the Clinton appointee expanded the services offered to female and homeless veterans. He also opened services to vets ill from chemical exposure in Vietnam and Iraq.

Togo D. West Jr. (1998-2000): As Army Secretary, Clinton’s second appointee to this position created stricter regulations on sexual harassment. Conservatives alleged that he gave favorable burial plots at Arlington National Cemetery to major Democratic donors.

Anthony Principi (2001-2005): The Senate unanimously confirmed George W. Bush’s nominee. Veterans criticized the VA secretary for suspending health care enrollments for some veterans and shutting down old and underused VA hospitals.

Jim Nicholson (2005-2007): Under the watch of George W. Bush’s second appointee, VA computer files with personal data, including Social Security numbers for over 25 veterans, went missing.

James Peake (2007-2009): The third George W. Bush appointee suffered criticism from the Vietnam Veterans of America because hundreds of veterans’ claim records were shredded and Peake refused to view veterans’ high rate of suicides as having any different reasons from those in the general population. The VVA responded, “Secretary Peake is completely out of touch with what has happened to the men and women who serve our nation. They are looking for help from the very organization that devalues their service.”

During his term as Secretary of the VA, Shinseki expanded treatments for victims of past wars and reduced the number of homeless veterans by one third, despite underfunding for the department. Instead of providing enough money to cover costs, the process allows the budget to be at the whim of Congress. President Obama expanded treatment for post-traumatic stress and diseases stemming from Agent Orange exposure—an action that veterans and their advocates had sought for decades. Agent Orange cases consumed 37 percent of the VA’s claims-processing resources between October 2010 and March 2012. Yet last February 41 GOP senators used the filibuster to kill a bill to expand funding for the VA.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) said, “This bill proposes to spend more than we agreed to spend. This bill creates new veterans’ programs and it’s not paid for — it’s all borrowed money. We’re not going to use some bogus gimmick to justify busting the budget.”

Many VA locations suffer from soaring demands for veterans’ care that outpaces doctor availability and high turnover in medical staff. In the past three years, primary-care appointments have increased by 50 percent while the department’s staff of primary care doctors has grown by only 9 percent. Each primary-care doctor, who should be responsible for 1,200 patients, has to treat over 2,000 veterans. The VA also has lower pay scales for doctors who generally earn from $98,000 to $195,000 compared to a median compensation of $221,000 for private-sector primary care physicians in 2012.

Widespread use of paper lists to hide veterans waiting for appointments were common in 2005, according to a VA inspector general’s report. Two years after the report, another audit found that the VA had not acted on the recommendations. The VA agreed to tackle the issue with a work force, but there is no indication that this occurred. The problem of cooked books continued throughout George W. Bush’s term. In 2010, William Schoenhard, VA deputy undersecretary for health for operations and management, finally gave VA network directors instructions for detecting and stopping gaming strategies. He said they “will not be tolerated.”

“Business as usual cannot continue,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) said in response to Shinseki’s resignation. With the GOP, however, business does continue as usual—lack of VA funding, greater veterans’ health needs by causing more wars, refusal to provide for a safety net of food and housing that includes veterans, and deporting veterans’ family members because of no immigration reform. There is no proof that the wait time at the VA has killed anyone. At the same time, however, GOP-led states, half of those in the nation, kill hundreds of thousands of people through refusing federal aid in health care.

The Republican National Committee and many GOP candidates, including senate candidate Monica Wehby from Oregon, use the VA situation to raise funds. Conservative Ben Carson referred to the VA situation as “a gift from God.” GOP politicians such as Wehby want better VA administration but no help in providing health care for anyone else.  They will use the VA problems with health care as a reason to avoid health care for all, despite the fact that the veterans’ care has failed because underfunding.

I agree with Mr. Boehner that “business as usual cannot continue,” but he will make sure that it does. His only business is to discredit President Obama and the other Democrats through de- or under-funding government programs to prove that they will fail. Boeher’s business as usual will continue as GOP members of Congress continue to point fingers and refuse to solve problems.

May 29, 2014

Girls Blamed for Boy’s ‘Distraction’

When Michele Obama’s arms were exposed at the Oscar ceremony over a year ago, an Iranian news agency changed her photograph by adding sleeves and raising the neckline as shown below.

85th Annual Academy Awards - ShowMichele O. 2 Obama fared better than former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and another woman who were removed from the iconic photographs of leaders watching the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. The Brooklyn-based Hasidic newspaper Der Tzitung said they had taken the women out of the photograph for religious purposes, citing “laws of modesty.”

s-HILLARY-CLINTON-PHOTOSHOPPED-large300OSAMA-BIN-LADEN.2

Now a Utah high school in Heber, about 50 miles outside Salt Lake City, has joined the photoshopping business. Several teenage girls were surprised and upset when they opened their yearbooks and found the same thing that happened to Michele Obama in the Iranian news. The district ordered sleeves added and necklines raised, despite the fact that all the clothing in the original photos met the school’s dress code.

Wasatch High School Sophomore Kimberly Montoya said, “My shirt was a cream color, and the color of the cover-up was completely white. It looked like white-out on my skin.”

Wasatch-High-School-yearbook For some unknown reason, girls who wore similar clothing for their yearbook photos had no alterations to their pictures. As sophomore Rachel Russel said, “There were plenty of girls that were wearing thicker tank tops and half of them got edited and half of them didn’t.” Some girls had sleeves added to their shirts; others’ tank tops were untouched. Two girls wore identical vests, but one photo added a shoulder-covering undershirt while the other showed bare arms.

Some of the editing appeared amateurish: a photo editor removed part of a girl’s hair while altering her shirt and then created a “bushy pouf” at chest level.

Another sophomore, Shelby Baum, said she felt as if the school was “trying to shame you of your body.” Her original photo showed a school-approved tattoo on her collarbone that reads, “I am enough the way I am.” Baum said that the tattoo was to remind her of her journey out of difficult times during her childhood.

“My tattoo was a huge thing in my life,” Baum said, choking back tears. “I’ve come a long ways. My tattoo means a lot. It reminds me I am enough. For them to cover that up? They should inform me first. They never said anything to me.”

Montoya said that the retouched photos reflect a school culture that uses administrative comments about girls’ dress to “humiliate” girls. She said she was accused of wearing an immodest skirt although another girl wore the same skirt without reprimand. Montoya was required to changed into sweatpants with the words, “I support Wasatch High dress code.” She said that classmates stared at her as if she had done something wrong. “Every time I walk into that school, I feel judged.”

The yearbook is a done deal—no changes. The book meant to give memories of high school experiences will always give the girls a sense of shame.

The Utah high school is not unique in shaming girls. At Chicago’s Decatur Classical School end-of-year awards ceremony last year, Principal Susan J. Kukielka asked seven girls to stand and announced “an award of distinction” for seven girls. Then she said, “These are not girls of distinction because their shorts are too short.” She finished by telling them that if this had happened at high school, they might have to wear “sweatpants of shame.” Kukielka apologized after angry parents went so far as to demand her resignation.

Two years ago, students protested a dress code at New York’s Stuyvesant High School with “Slutty Wednesday” when they violated the code that included a ban on bare shoulders. Senior Madeline Rivera said that the dress code enforcement singled out “more curvy” students and those with certain “body shapes.” Lucinda Ventimiglia said that she was told her skirts were “technically acceptable” but still too short. “Once it was suggested that I should follow a separate dress code, wherein my skirts should end at least four inches past my fingertips, and preferably at my knees.” She was also told that “if I was raped nobody would be able to take that away from me.”

As Jessica Valenti wrote, “The thinking behind the code sends a dangerous message to young women–that they are responsible for the way in which society objectifies and sexualizes them…. The real “distraction” [at Stuyvesant] isn’t skirts—it’s is the shaming and shameful way this high school is treating women.

Last year Kenilworth Junior High School (Petaluma, CA) banned pants that were “too tight” because the it distracts the boys.

Even home-schooled girls aren’t safe from the dress code shame. At a prom for homeschooled students in Richmond (VA) 17-year-old Clare was told to leave because her dancing was causing the fathers to have “impure thoughts.” She hadn’t been dancing. Her dress fit the necessary standards: it reached her fingertips which made it long enough. Asked to leave, Clare pinpointed the problem: “I’m not responsible for some perverted 45-year-old dad lusting after me.”

Through these actions, adult send the message that women are responsible for controlling male behavior. Females are to blame for males being distracted. Administrators take this approach instead of making schools a safe environment where students are taught to respect each other regardless of what they wear. They encourage a rape culture where females are blamed for male actions. Thus children learn a rape culture at an early age. Don’t be surprised when males take advantage of a culture in which they believe they are not responsible for their actions.

May 28, 2014

Abramson ‘Difficult,’ Baquet ‘Cooperative’

Jill Abramson is no longer the executive editor of The New York Times. People started out saying that she was fired because she hired a lawyer after she discovered that she received a far lower salary than her predecessor and then moved into the gossip level that she was “difficult.” They didn’t even directly call her the sexist term “bitch.” Now we have that nice Dean Baquet to decide what we get to read in the newspaper that was known in the past as “liberal.”

Last weekend, he buried an important piece by Gretchen Morgenson on types of private equity fee abuses called  “The Deal’s Done. But Not the Fees.” Her piece follows the Wall Street Journal expose of new fee abuses, including pay for services that were never rendered.

Investors in these funds, limited partners, have pushed back against the private equity firms, general partners. The fee abuse is important because the general partners are trying to get more rents from limited partners than they had agreed to pay—a form of Elizabeth Warren’s “tricks and traps.”

Morgenson wrote:

“In some instances, investors’ pockets are being picked,” Andrew J. Bowden, director of the S.E.C.’s office of compliance inspections and examinations, said in a recent interview. “These investors may be sophisticated and they may be capable of protecting themselves, but much of what we’re uncovering is undetectable by even the most sophisticated investor.”

Bowden suggests that the SEC is seeing cases of embezzlement. The public doesn’t realize that private equity general partners collect not only 20 percent of investment profit but also far more fees such as those for transactions and monitoring. To find out more about this, check out Eileen Appelbaum and Rosemary Batt’s Private Equity at Work. In this, they write:

“The conventional understanding is that general partners have earned about two-thirds of their compensation from carried interest [the upside fees] and one-third from fixed components such as fees. At some point that relationship changed. One econometric study of 144 buyout funds from 1993 to 2006 found that almost two-thirds of the revenues of PE firms came from fixed components, but this study did not show how or when the proportion of fixed-to-carry changed over this time period.” (p. 254)

Another fee has come from the private equity firms’ hiring senior advisors for acquired companies and then partially collecting the salaries from limited partners. Private equity firms now make more money because they declare the hired executors as unaffiliated contractors. In that way, they don’t have to reimburse limited partners at all, requiring them to pay substantial costs.

Even worse may be the fees charged for services never performed. After Biomet was sold for $13.4 billion, the private equity firms collected not only its 20-percent share but also another $30 million in “monitoring fees” through 2017 although the deal closes in 2015.

We’ll see if Baquet continues to shelter uncomfortable news.

Statistics about women in journalism show that 52 percent of the people in the United States are poorly represented:

  • Every single editor of The New Republic has been male.
  • Almost every single newspaper chain is headed by a man, except Gannett.
  • A recent New Yorker issue was entirely authored by men.
  • Out of 814 Pulitzer winners, only 113 were female although they were more likely to have graduate degrees and work at a top newspaper.
  • Men had almost twice as many bylines at women at the nation’s 10 most widely circulated newspapers; the NYT had the biggest gap with 69 percent of bylines going to men.
  • Women are more likely to cover health and lifestyle and less likely to cover crime, justice, and world politics.
  • Male opinion-page writers outnumber female writers four to one at three major papers, including the NYT, and four newspaper syndicates.
  • Not one woman has hosted a late night show.
  • Few women have programmer-journalist roles, even on liberal projects, and fail to get media notice.
  • Women have much greater difficulty in getting venture capital for their projects; only 2 percent goes to women.
  • Digital-first newsrooms are now hiring more programmers and techies who are mostly male. Women have only 27 percent of computer science jobs, and that number isn’t growing.

When Abramson was at the NYT, Slate’s Amanda Hess noted that the newspaper published stories about virtual sexual harassment of female gamers and female homeless children, disrupting what she called “the paper’s masculine approach to news coverage.”

But maybe Abramson was just “difficult.” With Baquet, we may be looking ahead to a kinder, gentler style of news reporting from The New York Times.

Baquet has a history of cooperating with the government, for example when he agreed not to publish the location of a secret drone base in Saudi Arabia in February 2013. The location was eventually revealed but buried within a story. In contrast, The Washington Post printed the location in a story’s headline.

Explaining why he didn’t follow up on a September 2013 Guardian story showing how NSA data on U.S. citizens is shared with Israeli intelligence, Baquet said, “I didn’t think it was a significant or surprising story.” He further justified ignoring it. “I think the more energy we put into chasing the small ones, the less time we have to break our own. Not to mention cover the turmoil in Syria.”

Baquet defended the newspaper’s “low-key approach” to marking the tenth anniversary of the Iraq War by saying, “The war itself has been dissected to a tremendous degree. You have to have something new or fresh to say.” Maybe the legacy of torture and cancer in Iraq after the war? Or the false pretences for the war with no one held accountable? The NYT’s promotion of the manufactured case for the unpremeditated attack on a foreign country? An examination of whether the newspaper might do it was also possible?

Last summer, the NYT also beat the drums for a war in Syria. When asked about the possibility of repeating the newspaper’s mistakes in calling on war, Baquet said, “I’ve never said, ‘Let’s remember what happened with Iraq.’ I don’t think it’s necessary. I haven’t had to instruct the staff to ask hard questions. They are doing that….  The press’s coverage of Iraq always lurks in the background. But it was a long, long time ago.”

At the time he said that, U.S. troops had been officially withdrawn only two years earlier. Veterans don’t see it as “a long, long time ago.” Thanks to the United States, Iraqis are under a brutal regime led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Baquet also supported the Pentagon’s unproved claim that one in seven freed detainees from Guantanamo Bay engaged in militant activity after leaving prison. His refused to use Chelsea Manning’s new name after she announced her transition to being a woman demonstrates a transphobic approach to news.

As a Los Angeles Times editor, Baquet agreed with the government to not publish a story on AT&T’s role in the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program as shown by documents available from whistleblower Mark Klein. Again, Baquet claimed that there was no government pressure and thought that they didn’t have a story. Klein went to the NYT with his documents.

At a conference this year, Abramson said, “The responsibility that a news organization has to a source is to really live up to the word that is given by one of our journalists to a source.” She asserted that the public had a right to know the dimensions and scope of all “eavesdropping programs” being used for surveillance as part of the “war on terror.”

Maybe that’s why she was seen as “difficult.”

May 15, 2014

GOP Loses Moral Compass

Filed under: Uncategorized — trp2011 @ 10:53 AM
Tags: ,

Refusing to address immigration reform, starving people and driving them out of their homes, threatening law-abiding citizens and government officials while destroying Native American lands, accusing Hillary Clinton of everything including brain damage and the kidnapping of Nigerian girls, executing innocent people, killing people through refusal of health care and lack of gun controls, denying human-caused climate change, forcing everyone to follow fundamental Christianity, keeping women from legal reproductive rights, allowing campus sexual assault and rape in the military, continuing domestic violence, polluting the country while stopping green energy, endangering people’s lives through a crumbling infrastructure, keeping the poor and minorities from voting, putting the wealthy in control of government, denying equal pay for equal work, privatizing everything at a higher cost, taking people off Social Security and Medicare, refusing unemployment benefits, making life dangerous by eliminating regulations, destroying family life through no paid sick leave and maternal rights,  lying and cheating to win elections, stopping union rights for working hours and safety, decreasing educational level by reducing funding and mandating religious beliefs in school–these are some of the ways that the Republican party has lost its moral compass.

These are the things that they want to take away. The ways in which they want to make people’s lives better?

[The space was blank on purpose. The GOP doesn’t want to help people–just increase the wealth of corporations and the top 1 percent.]

So much to write about, and I’ll be out of the country for a couple of weeks. I’ll let you know then what the Canadians think about some of these issues and what the GOP has done while I’m gone to further eliminate human rights.

May 14, 2014

Texas Execution Postponed

Last night, Texas failed to kill someone. After several appeals, a judge finally stopped the execution just two hours before the scheduled execution at 6:00 pm. Robert James Campbell was convicted of a 1991 rape and murder when he was 18 years old. He has been in prison for 23 years. His execution was scheduled for exactly two weeks after Oklahoma injected drugs into Clayton Lockett that left him writhing in pain before he died of a heart attack.

One appeal concerned the unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment that Campbell might have suffered because Texas planned to use unknown drugs compounded at an unknown facility with no federal oversight. Judges didn’t find that a problem. Texas did lose on the next count, however, because Texas had hidden psychological evaluations showing that Campbell is intellectually disabled.

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals decision will permit Campbell to appeal his execution because the state had failed to turn over his past intelligence tests. Texas has no law against executing mentally disabled people because Gov. Rick Perry vetoed the bill have it passed the legislature. Perry has executed people who committed crimes as juveniles (3), mentally disabled (10), and victims of inadequate counsel (5). Two of Perry’s executed men didn’t commit murders. He even executed a man who was most likely innocent.

A 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision, however, ruled that executing the mentally disabled violates the Constitution. One school test put Campbell’s IQ at 68, well below the average of 100. Officials said he scored 84 after a robbery conviction two years earlier but there were no details about the exam. In April, a psychologist reported his IQ at 69.

While in school, Campbell couldn’t make change, read a gas gauge, or tell time. Prosecutors claimed that he showed higher intelligence because he played sports, sang in a church choir, and mowed yards. His execution would have been the eighth this year in Texas. The next one is scheduled for August.

The Fifth Circuit Court has a reputation of supporting executions. Judge Edith Jones reinstated a death penalty for a man whose lawyer slept through his trial. Last year, she claimed that blacks and Hispanics are predisposed to crime and “prone” to violence. The execution, according to Jones, is a “positive service” because the executed have an opportunity to get right with God just before the state kills them. Her position is that appeals on the basis of mental retardation “abuse the system” because anyone who can plan a crime can’t be mentally retarded. 

So many people have been executed in Texas that the residents of Huntsville, where the killings take place, pay very little attention to the hundreds of people legally killed in their community. Instead of the three-drug “cocktail” used in Oklahoma, Texas uses a single drug, pentobarbital. Prison administrators from other states visit Texas to gain guidance for killing its prisoners. Occasionally, Texas executioners are outsourced to other states to perform their executions. They have a great deal of practice: 515 men and women have been killed in Texas since 1982 with lethal injections. Forty percent of the nation’s legal killings of prisoners occur in Texas. Since 1976, Texas has carried out more executions than the six other busiest killing states combined: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Virginia.

Texas officials think they are efficient even though a prisoner who was being executed last month woke up and said, “It does kind of burn.” David R. Dow, a law professor at the University of Houston who has represented more than 100 death row inmates during their appeals, said, “I think Texas probably does [executions] as well as Iran.”

Last year Woodland Compounding Pharmacy demanded that Texas return drugs to them because the state had obtained them under false premises. The state had ordered the drugs in the name of “Huntsville Unit Hospital,” which hadn’t operated for over 30 years. According to a letter from Woodland’s owner Jason Lovo, however, it was obvious they knew the use for the drugs they were selling:

“I am the owner and pharmacist-in-charge of the Woodlands Compounding Pharmacy, the pharmacy that has provided TDCJ with vials of compounded pentobarbital.

“Based on the phone calls that I had with Erica Minor of TDCJ regarding its request for these drugs, including statements that she made to me, it was my belief that this information would be kept on the “down low” and that it was unlikely that it would be discovered that my pharmacy provided these drugs. Based on Ms Minor’s requests, I took steps to ensure it would be private. However, the State of Texas misrepresented this fact because my name and the name of my pharmacy are posted all over the internet. Now that the information has been made public, I find myself in the middle of a firestorm that I was not advised of and did not bargain for. Had I known that the information would be made public, which the State implied it would not, I never would have agreed to provide the drugs to the TDCJ.”

Huntsville is a lovely town of about 40,000 people with seven state prisons in the vicinity. The Walls prison fortress is about a half mile from City Hall in the heart of town. Jim Willett, Walls warden from 1998 to 2001, said that the “tie-down team” that straps the prisoners on the execution table “can take that man back there and put those straps on perfectly and easily in 30 seconds.” He added, “They take pride in what they do. They’ve done it so often that it’s almost second nature to them.”

Willett’s job now is director of the Texas Prison Museum that had 31,208 visitors last year. Built to resemble a state prison, it has a replica guard tower in one corner. The electric chair for executing people until 1964 is displayed behind a protective glass barrier. The sign states: “Attention: Please do not enter past the rope or attempt to touch ‘Ol’ Sparky.’ An alarm will sound if you do try to enter.”

Texas attorney general Greg Abbott, also a GOP gubernatorial candidate, thinks that Texas is much better at executing people than Oklahoma. The drug to be used came from a compounding pharmacy and is potent and “free of contaminants,” he wrote. There is no information about how the drug is tested.

Austin D. Sarat, an Amherst College professor who has studied the death penalty, rates Texas’s mishaps at 4 percent, higher than that of Oklahoma, when considering difficulty in finding a vein. In 1988, a tube attached to a needle inside Raymond Landry Sr.’s right arms shot drugs across the death chamber toward the witness room. The warden closed the curtain, and 14 minutes later when it was re-opened, Landry’s eyes were half-closed. Three minutes later he was pronounced dead.

In the late 1990s, when George W. Bush was governor of Texas, between 40 and 50 death sentences were handed down in Texas. The number has fallen to below 10 a year since 2010, perhaps because of the 140 high-profile exonerations in the state in recent years, including a dozen death row inmates. Questions also exist about the guilt of already executed prisoners.

People justify executions by saying that those people have killed—a type of vengeance. There’s the belief that if these evil people act outside the law that the government should do the same—kill people. Twenty-two countries executed people last year, including Yemen, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, China, Sudan—and the United States. As we criticize other countries in the world for being less “democratic” or “highly developed,” we need to consider the company we keep.

executions

Strapping down prisoners to kill them, injecting drugs, running a museum with an electric chair–it’s just business as usual to the people who have become desensitized to legally killing people.

 

May 13, 2014

Spread the Word! ACA Works!

Filed under: Uncategorized — trp2011 @ 10:34 PM
Tags: , ,

What do Republicans think of the Affordable Care Act now? My centrist friend said that is was a nice idea but …. There’s been a lot of mellowing in the past year. At the same time, the House has gone quiet about the ACA.

After over 50 votes against ACA, the House has no scheduled votes or hearings about ACA and moved its focus to Benghazi. Only one panel of jurisdiction commented on the ACA to The Hill even after a number of inquiries, and GOP campaign committees refuse to say whether they have plans for any new efforts. The chart shows that the leading conservative network, Fox, joined lawmakers in ignoring the ACA.

benghaziobamacare550

National Republican Senatorial Committee spokeswoman Brook Hougesen didn’t notice that the focus had changed from ACA to Benghazi. In a statement, she wrote, “There is absolutely zero evidence that any Republican is talking about ObamaCare less.”

Reasons that the GOP shies away from the ACA:

  • Insurance companies have had to rebate over $1.5 billion because the new law mandates insurance companies send 80 percent of premiums to pay for treatment and medical costs.
  • Health insurance executives summoned to a House hearing testified that the law had not resulted in a government takeover of the industry and that their stock prices had increased since the law was passed. They also refused to agree with the GOP position that insurance premiums would sharply increase next year.
  • Over 8 million people in the United States have used the federal exchange to sign up for coverage.
  • Most of the people who signed up for the open enrollment period have paid their premiums.
  • Twelve million more nonelderly people will have health insurance in 2014 because of the ACA.
  • The ACA will cost $104 billion less over the next decade than projected according to nonpartisan budget analysists because premiums will require a lower subsidy than previously thought.

As the uninsurance rate drops to record lows, it is declining the fastest among the communities that usually lack health care, non-white and lower-income people. Between the last quarter of 2013 and the first one of 2014, the uninsurance rate fell by 7.1 percent among black adults. The uninsurance rate was down by 5.5 points with both Hispanics and people with an annual household income of under $36,000. The 13.4 percent rate in April is the lowest since Gallup began tracking monthly data six years ago. The decline occurred with the first open enrollment period starting last October.

percentage by uninsured new

Because most the GOP-led states have refused ACA’s optional Medicaid expansion, those states continued to have higher uninsurance rates than those who don’t deny health care for millions of the working poor. A report from the Kaiser Family Foundation rating health using 42 different issues from insurance coverage to cancer deaths shows the serious problems primarily in the South. As an example, a black man living in Mississippi has a shorter life expectancy than the average person living in the United States in 1960. Sixteen states in the bottom half of the rankings have refused to expand Medicaid. In Mississippi, a family of four making more than $6,800 a year is ineligible for Medicaid. Adults without dependent children are completely ineligible despite the level of their income. The cutoffs for Alabama at $3,221 and Texas at $3,737 are worse.

worst states for health care

The Massachusetts healthcare plan, similar to the ACA, shows how the law will save lives. The state passed its law in 2006; in the first four years of the law 320 fewer people in the state died than would have been predicted. That’s one life for every 830 newly insured residents. The state’s death rate dropped 2.9 percent when compared to similar places outside Massachusetts that did not expand health coverage.

White residents are living longer, but the biggest improvement is the 4.6 percent drop for blacks, Asians, and Latinos. The lead author said the most significant decline was in conditions that could be prevented or delayed with medical care including cancer, infections, and heart disease. No statistical differences were in deaths from causes such as car crashes, homicide, and suicide.

Some conservative responsed to the report from Massachusetts by saying that saving people’s lives is all very nice but it’s not the government’s role. These are the same people who are willing to give up their privacy if they think if will make them safer. These are the same people who are willing to spend trillions of dollars to kill people in other countries. I cannot understand why these people think that saving lives from accessible health care is wrong.

Kentucky is a classic case of the healthcare dilemma for the GOP. Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, embraced the law with a state exchange called Kynect. He now has a 55 percent approval rating. The result was enrollment of 413,410 people, 9.6 percent of the state population. About three-fourths of these people had not had any health insurance, and over half of enrollees are under 35. The irony is that the majority of them don’t like “Obamacare” although they are pleased with the Affordable Care Act—a confusion that the GOP has promoted.

One of Kentucky’s senators, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, hates both Obamacare and the ACA. Pushed into a corner about what would happen to the 300,000 previously uninsured people if he succeeded in repealing the law, he resorted to a high-risk pool, but only at the state level. In the past, Kentucky Access helped provide private insurance for people in the state who couldn’t get insurance because of pre-existing conditions. The program started in 2001 and closed because the ACA made it redundant.

Kentucky Access was too expensive for most people, and in 2013 only 3,988 Kentuckians had coverage through this program that was far inferior to the ACA.  The average premium was $680 per month, and the popular plan with a pharmacy rider cost a 64-year-old man a monthly premium of $1,118. These costs may be more than ten times as much as ACA premiums for low-income workers.

A conservative with a 32-percent approval rating is running on the position that he would take almost 300,000 off of insurance and give the remaining few thousand worse coverage for a lot more money. This is the Republican plan.

May 12, 2014

GOP’s Benghazi OCD Shows Ignorance

Filed under: Uncategorized — trp2011 @ 8:18 PM
Tags: , ,

Over a leisurely, late breakfast this morning, I discussed politics with a beloved friend, a Republican who now calls herself a centrist. Two topics that came up were the proposed hearings on Benghazi and the Affordable Care Act. I always take away interesting information from my talks with her, and this morning was no exception.

Almost 20 months ago, four people were tragically killed at a diplomatic outpost in Libya. The GOP is still convinced that President Obama lied about the reasons behind the deaths because the 2012 campaign was heating up. Conservatives also claim that the deaths could have been prevented and that Hillary Clinton was callous about the deaths. The other side still believes in the possibility that an anti-Muhammad video resulting in riots across 30 countries was a contributing factor.

The most recent excuse to have a 14th hearing on the tragedy comes from the appearance of an email about talking points for Susan Rice, then Ambassador to the United Nations and responsible for public information about Benghazi.  The new effort makes eight subpoenas, 50 briefings, hundreds of hours of transcribed interviews, and 25,000 pages of documents.

The ACA, my other topic discussion with my friend, received at least 50 repeal votes since it was passed in December 2010. (It appears that Benghazi has a few more hearings to go.) Although GOP candidates trying to replace members of Congress are campaigning on repealing Obamacare, existing lawmakers realize that the healthcare reform has gained a great deal of popularity since it went into effect in the last few months. That popularity has shifted the GOP circus from one circle to another. Fox network has almost totally withdrawn from any discussion of ACA to focus on Benghazi as the following chart shows:

benghaziobamacare550

Fox also dropped the Cliven Bundy stories when they figured out they would have to blame the conservatives.

foxbenghaziobamacare bundy The new circle at the circus may come back to bite the GOP. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) said that a possible Democrat boycott of the hearings would demand the GOP to meet a high standard, as if a high standard were not customary for House hearings. Boehner also needs to worry about the embarrassment from politicizing the hearings. Although they continue to claim that this is not being done for any political reasons, both the RNC and GOP candidates are using the event for fundraising.  Boehner denies any knowledge about the fundraising although he leads a monthly briefing meeting at RNC headquarters.

Although the House pretends that the Benghazi hearings are for fact-finding reasons, the committee chair, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) is treating it like a trial. In answering a question about whether the panel’s work would continue in the 2016 election cycle, he replied, “If an administration is slow-walking document production, I can’t end a trial simply because the defense won’t cooperate.” He is convinced that the Obama administration is guilty and his responsibility is to prosecute its officials: “I can’t disclose that evidence yet, but I have evidence that there was a systematic intentional decision to withhold certain documents from Congress.”

Gowdy also explained that the hearings are weighted with Republicans because “one side gets more strikes than the other side when you’re constituting a jury.”  Following his policy, the Democrats should have a greater number:  in Gowdy’s trial his side has only six peremptory challenges as compared to the ten that the defendant receives. In a gesture of generosity, Republicans are willing to let Democrats read the documents and know about subpoenas.

Unfortunately for Gowdy, he’s also starting out with other positions of ignorance.  He plans to ask about lacking security, failure of military units to more toward support, and lack of references to “terrorist” and “attacks” in President Obama’s talking points. Answers to these have already been provided. Gowdy says that he doesn’t wish to rehash earlier Congressional investigations, but  these questions have been asked a number of times.

In discussing the recently-surfaced email, Gowdy seems ignorant of any disturbances and dangers in  the Middle East other than at Benghazi. In the email’s reference to bringing countries to justice for harming our citizens, he said, “What other country could they be talking about? I mean what else was being discussed after September 11, 2012 other than Benghazi?” Maybe Egypt, Yemen, and Sudan to begin with?

As a prosecutor, Gowdy would be familiar with the objection “asked and answered.” Counsel can’t repeat a question to a witness after getting an answer. He wants to ask Hillary Clinton why diplomats remained in Benghazi because of danger. Clinton has already answer the question, but the GOP wants to ask it again because they don’t like her other answer.

A question for Gowdy regarding the hearings, however, is why they are concentrating on Benghazi. Just the year of 2012 saw 86 “significant attacks” against diplomatic outposts, according to the State Department. The death toll of these attacks was 24, not four. Since 1970, 521 attacks on U.S. diplomatic targets killed 500 people. These included a truck bomb explosion in Nairobi (Kenya) that killed 213 people, 12 of them from the United States.

In 1983, Ronald Reagan’s time, 241 GIs died in an attack on a Beirut barracks. Less than a year later, a U.S. government outpost in Beirut was bombed for the third time in 18 months. Reagan explained that repairs hadn’t been finished on time: “Anyone who’s ever had their kitchen done over knows that it never gets done as soon as you wish it would.” There were no hearings for hundreds of deaths, a tortured and killed CIA chief, and other bombings despite the urging of the U.S. Secretary of Defense to pull out the people serving in Lebanon.

The House suffers from either Benghazi Fever or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder—or both. Before Boehner set up the special House committee to investigate the attack at Benghazi, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) subpoenaed Secretary of State John Kerry on the same subject, despite the fact that Kerry has voluntarily testified before Issa’s committee and would probably do so again. Yet he was ordered to appear, not asked.

During Issa’s hearings, retired Brig. General Robert Lovell said, “I did not say we did not try [to save the people at Benghazi].” Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-CA) declared, “We have no evidence that Department of State officials delayed the decision to deploy what few resources the Defense Department had available to respond.”

An extensive investigation by The New York Times, including interviews with Libyans who were familiar with the attack, revealed no evidence of Al Qaeda or international terrorist group participation. Fighters who benefited directly from NATO’s extensive air power and logistics support during the uprising against Colonel Qaddafi led the attack. In large part, it was fueled by anger at the Christian video which led to more anger after the false rumor that guards inside the U.S. compound had shot Libyan protesters. A Senate intelligence committee report in January stated:

“Intelligence suggests that the attack was not a highly coordinated plot, but was opportunistic. It remains unclear if any group or person exercised overall command and control of the attacks or whether extremist group leaders directed their members to participate. Some intelligence suggests the attacks were likely put together in short order, following that day’s violent protests in Cairo against an inflammatory video.”

Republicans have already behaved shamefully by revealing the names of Libyans talking the U.S. consulate, thus putting these people into danger. They ignored reports from Libyan security officials about a demonstration at the Benghazi diplomatic outpost because of the anti-Muhammad video. Despite Graham’s claims, Benghazi is not dominated by Al Qaeda. The Benghazi municipal council told then U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens, killed in the attack, that security in the city was improving. About six months before the attack, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) talked about “the enormous progress … made in the past few months.”

No one in the House has investigated the CIA for its participation in the attack because of its compound attached to the diplomatic million. Nor have they created a select committee to investigate the problem instead of a specific situation. Doing so, however, doesn’t raise money and elect Republicans.

The GOP leaders claim that they’re re-investigating Benghazi for the families, but they don’t want it. The budget doesn’t want it. Nothing new will be revealed. Therefore the House GOP members will waste money and cause more pain to get elected in 2014.

None of the committee members has been in Congress for more than seven years, and almost half came in with the Tea Party sweep of 2010. Most are extremely conservative (as compared with quite conservative). Several are lawyers, and the chair is a former federal prosecutor. Four of the seven have already investigated Benghazi.

If the committee succeeds, the GOP will cheer; if it fails, Boehner will have thrown a few Tea Party members under the bus’s wheels. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), watching from the safety of the Senate, said, “The people who are seen as politicizing this are going to get burned.”

Next year, dictionaries may add Benghazi as different parts of speech—the verb “to Benghazi” someone, the adjective “a Benghazi experience,” even an expletive “oh Benghazi!”

The House would be better served by investigating the terrorist militias in Nevada and Utah who are pointing weapons at U.S. citizens, violating U.S. law, and destroying U.S. property.

May 11, 2014

Mother’s Day – A Time for Justice and Life

Filed under: Uncategorized — trp2011 @ 12:32 PM

Mother’s Day—the day of the year that women are served breakfast in bed by giggling children. Or wear large corsages to a restaurant where they look proudly around a table at their offspring. But there’s another commemoration of Mother’s Day, the one in which women visit their dead children at a cemetery because of the nation’s lax gun laws.

cemetery The term “toddler shot” brings up more than 80 million results on Google. Links go to subjects such as toddler thought gun was a toy or loaded gun was in the car’s glove compartment or toddler’s brother found loaded gun in a nightstand. Many of these links might go to vaccinations, but “toddler shoots toddler” brings up 2.5 million hits.

Not all the mothers visiting the cemetery are there because of toddlers killed by guns. People killed because of a parking dispute or mistaken for a groundhog or angering the driver of a car also have mothers. On this Mother’s Day, at least 6,212 people have been shot and wounded in the United States since January 1, 2014, and another 3,665 people have been shot and killed. Eleven mothers made funeral plans for their dead children last week, and 38 mothers feared for their injured children.

Last Wednesday, a mother, Sonja Woods, gathered with other victims of gun violence because her daughter was fatally shot by a man who bought his gun at a hardware store. He couldn’t pass background checks because of mental problems so he got one at a place that didn’t require one.

The statistics above don’t reflect an Oregon mother who is now planning the funeral for her 34-year-old husband, Jesse, and four-year-old daughter, Maribella. When Stephanie Williard came home from her job as an acupuncturist last Thursday, she found that Jesse had shot and killed Maribella and then shot himself in the head. A neighbor said of Jesse, “He was always polite, respectful, playing outside with the kids.” It’s another victory for the NRA and the gun industry: Jesse Willard was able to own a gun.

Five times as many children and teens were killed by guns in 2010 as the number of soldiers killed that year in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. Medical and mental health costs from just one year’s gun incidents in the U.S. cost the country $8.4 billion dollars. The Children’s Defense Fund’s 2013 report shows that states with a common sense approach to protecting children from guns successfully lowered child gun fatalities.

Every person who loves their guns more than they love their children, who refuses to tell their lawmakers that they support sensible gun laws to stop these tragedies, is to blame for mothers’ forced to go to the cemetery on Mother’s Day instead of having breakfast in bed or proudly sitting with her children in a restaurant.

Another tragedy of Mother’s Day is the loss of its original meaning—supporting peace. During the 1850s Ann Reeves Jarvis started work clubs in West Virginia to improve sanitary conditions, fight disease, and curb milk contamination as ways to lower infant mortality. During the Civil War, the groups also tended both Union and Confederate soldiers. After the war, Jarvis organized Mother’s Friendship Day picnics and pacifist events. Julia Ward Howe, composer of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” issued a Mother’s Day Proclamation in 1870 which asked women to take an active political role in promoting peace.

Jarvis’ daughter, Anna Jarvis, continued her mother’s work and then fought the holiday’s commercialization, dying penniless in a sanitarium because of her efforts. After the death of Ann Jarvis in 1905, her daughter organized the first Mother’s Day observances in 1907. Families gathered in Grafton (WV), and the events expanded to other locations. In 1914 President Woodrow Wilson set aside the second Sunday in May for the annual holiday.

Intimate gatherings gave way to massive commercial sales of flowers, candy, and greeting cards, far from the reverent atmosphere of its earlier days. Anna Jarvis threatened lawsuits, organized boycotts, and even accused First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt of using Mother’s Day to raise funds for charities.

The National Retail Federation expects spending of about $170 per person for a total of almost $20 billion just this year. The day is the most popular holiday for dining out, and Hallmark reports that Mother’s Day is the third most popular day for cards, behind Christmas and Valentine’s Day. It’s the second most popular day of the year for gift-giving

People who want to support mothers can stop spending their money and support the increase in the federal minimum wage. Of the 22 million moms are working in the United States today, over one-fifth of all working moms—4.7 million moms and their families–would get a raise by increasing the minimum wage to $10.10.

 Mothers not in the cemetery on this day may be in prison. The population of women in prison grew 832 percent in the three decades between 1977 and 2007, double in the increase of male prisoners. Seventy percent of the women are mothers; the majority of them were primary caretakers between prison separated them from their children. Over one million children have mothers who are in jail, in prison, or on probation. One of these women, released under house arrest just for today, is Marissa Alexander who has teenage twins and a three-year-old daughter.

Nine days after Alexander gave premature birth to her daughter, she confronted her abusive estranged husband who was threatening to kill her. She fired two warning shots and was sentenced to 20 years in a Florida prison. After the conviction was overturned, Angela Corey, the same state attorney general who failed to get a conviction for George Zimmerman for killing Trayvon Martin, is seeing a 60-year sentence for Alexander. Meanwhile, the husband has custody over Alexander’s daughter.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Wilson’s proclamation of Mother’s Day. This anniversary should be a wakeup call to support justice and oppose killing.

May 10, 2014

The Danger of Oil Trains on National Train Day

Filed under: Uncategorized — trp2011 @ 9:49 PM
Tags: , ,

The First Transcontinental Railroad connecting the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads was officially completed 145 years ago when Leland Stanford drove in the “Golden Spike” used for the ceremonial completion. That’s why Amtrak, in its promotion of trains, picked the Saturday closest to May 10 as National Train Day. The company’s goal was to get more people to travel on trains.

When I think of trains, however, I think of the oil trains that endanger people’s lives and cut down on access to food across the country because they hog the rails. Crude oil shipped by rail through the United States has accelerated over 40 times from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to 400,000 last year. A study of 86 crude oils throughout the world shows that the oil from the Bakken area is far more combustible than other oils. The oil freight cars date back to the 1960s when they usually carried payloads like corn syrup. Now the oil is shipped along aging freight infrastructure through cities. Even ethanol rail traffic increased 442 percent between 2005 and 2010.

lynchburg oil train

The most recent oil train disaster was another shipment of explosive Bakken crude oil from North Dakota and western Canada as 15 tank cars jumped the tracks in Lynchburg (VA) on April 30. The town was evacuated, and oil leaked into the source of drinking water for surrounding areas. Last November, a derailed 90-car train carrying crude oil left 11 cars burning after the explosion in western Alabama. The spilled oil is still fouling wetlands there. Last December Residents of Casselton (ND) were evacuated within five miles of the train that derailed and exploded there after a collision with a derailed train carrying grain. A January evacuation near New Brunswick came after a 122-car train derailed and caught fire. Nobody died in these conflagrations compared to the disaster in Lac-Mégantic (Quebec) last summer that killed 47 people after 72 tankers on a runaway train incinerated the downtown.

Rail workers call these 100-tanker trains of Bakken oil “bomb trains.” They travel throughout the country’s cities and towns and along invaluable waterways of Lake Champlain and the Hudson River in the East and the Columbia River through the Gorge in the West. East coast refineries will escalate the amount in upstate New York, making Albany and the Hudson River corridor a major funnel for oil from the western U.S. and Canada.

An Oregon terminal originally allowed to process and ship ethanol has been converted to oil, resulting in millions of gallons of Bakken crude shipped with no consideration of the lives of hundreds of thousands of people as well as salmon runs and other wildlife dependent on the Columbia River.

Railway officials aren’t required to tell the public about the trains’ routes. In fact, they argue that they shouldn’t because terrorists might target these trains. In addition, safety decisions are made very slowly. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has called for new regulations, especially for 1960s-era  DOT-111s, that consultant Fred Millar calls “Pepsi cans on wheels.”  The NTSB’s role is investigating rail accidents, not regulating rail traffic. Deborah Hersman, the person in charge of the NTSB, told a recent Senate hearing that “no community is prepared for a worst-case event.”

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), in charge of regulation estimates that it might be able to make changes in another year. PHMSA has been known to misuse money allotted to manage emergency preparedness for hazardous materials and withholds public records such as safety inspection reports even after requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

The Association of American Railroads estimates that more than 75,000 of the 92,000 DOT-111 tank cars now transporting hazardous chemicals need to be retrofitted or even phased out.

Oil train accidents spilled more than 1.15 million gallons of crude oil last year, an increase of 50 times the average of 22,000 gallons a year from 1975 through 2012.

Insurance companies are worried. The railroad company in the Lac-Mégantic disaster has failed, leaving clean-up costs of over $180 million. The $25 million that Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway carried in liability insurance left Canadian taxpayers paying for the clean-up. The town’s population is under 6,000, one percent of Portland (OR) where oil trains frequently thunder through. James Beardsley with Marsh & McLennan Cos, said, “There is not currently enough available coverage in the commercial insurance market anywhere in the world to cover the worst-case scenario.”

Both the railroad and federal government officials are waking up. Maximum speeds for trains carrying oil have been reduced, and the trains are routed outside major cities if possible. Yet some refineries, such as a major one in Philadelphia, are in large cities. In January, a train hauling crude oil derailed on a narrow Philadelphia over a major expressway near the University of Pennsylvania, leaving a tanker car and boxcar dangling over a highway and river in a 25-mph wind. Five million barrels of Bakken crude go through Philadelphia every month.

PhiladelphiaInsurers are increasingly protecting themselves when it comes to oil. Standard policies don’t cover fracking pollution, and there are no special policies. The McMillan group explained, “If the full net worth of the company (in addition to insurance coverage) is insufficient to cover the costs associated with an event, those costs will be borne by those who have suffered property damage or injuries.” Few insurance companies provide liability insurance to railroads, and any coverage is typically limited to under $50 million per policy. Mayors of cities such as Philadelphia and Chicago are considering fees to cover costs, but shipping a barrel already runs between $2 and $22 without upgrading rail cars, training first responders, and rebuilding rail lines.

Problems surrounding potential oil train disasters in just one state:

  • First responders can always control or even attack oil fires because they don’t have the materials, such as special foam, to do this.
  • Special foam is expensive–$90 for just two minutes—and rural fire stations can’t afford enough to stop fires.
  • People don’t know where oil trains travel or how many there are because railroads don’t have to make this known as tankers and barges do.
  • Railroads have emergency caches of containment booms to keep spills from spreading, but people don’t know where they are and they can be far away from the greatest danger of oil spills.
  • Different states are not coordinating emergency plans with railroads which also have separate response plans.
  • Funding shortages have cut back on oil spill training for employees, and the railroads don’t pay fees for preparedness as ships carrying oil do.

The good news is that the federal Transportation Department has issued an emergency order requiring that railroads notify state officials about shipments of crude oil of at least 35 tank cars. The Department is also urging shippers to reduce speed and not use older model train cars that are easily ruptured. Trains frequently have 100 or more cars that accident investigators describe as “moving pipelines.” Unfortunately, the safety advisory on tank cars, that are usually owned by or leased to oil companies, is voluntary.

It’s a start—albeit a very weak one—not even addressing the issue of the crumbling railroad track infrastructure that goes back to the mid-nineteenth century. More disasters will not increase help for railroads but will instead probably heighten the conservatives’ demand for oil pipelines which also cause disasters. Greater concentration on green energy would begin to help the problem, but states are beginning to tax solar and wind energy, beginning with Oklahoma and Arizona.

The Koch brothers have declared war on any source of energy other than the fossil fuels that add to their already immense wealth. They are joined by anti-tax activist Grover Norquist and some of the nation’s biggest power companies to decrease green energy. Only the slowdown of the oligarchy in the United States can start to solve the country’s serious issues.

Happy National Train Day!

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