Nel's New Day

May 16, 2015

Eight-second Bits for Your Weekend

gallery-thumbnailsTwitter has reduced information to 144 characters, and texting has decreased communication to far shorter bits. With the industrialized world concentrating on the brevity of technology, people now lose concentration after eight seconds, down from 12 seconds in 2000. To put this bit of information into perspective, the average attention span for a goldfish is nine seconds. The following information has been chopped up into eight-second—or less—sections.

The media has been abuzz with Jeb Bush’s whirling this past week that went much farther than flip-flopping. Asked whether he would have attacked Iraq if he knew then what the world knows now, he produced a series of answers: yes, I misheard, I misinterpreted, I can’t answer because it’s a hypothetical, I can’t answer because it does a “disservice” to people in the service, and finally—or most recently—“I would not invade.”

A non-scientific poll of over 2,000 Republican voters has put Jeb at .85 percent, somewhere below Sarah Palin write-ins. In the same poll, 60 percent of the respondents said that they wouldn’t vote for a president in 2016 if he were the candidate. And that was before the problems in the past week. We can look forward to the next “scientific” survey to see if that opinion holds.

bush graphHouse Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) likes Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), saying that “he showed he was fairly deft in his ability to smoothly answer those same questions.” Chaffetz might be questioned about his opinion after Rubio’s speech last weekend at South Carolina’s “Freedom Summit” when Rubio told the audience that his approach to terrorism comes from the film Taken: “We will look for you, we will find you and we will kill you.” Rubio might want to polish his policy a little.

Who’s the “greatest living president”? CNN’s Chris Moody asked this question of several possible and real GOP presidential candidates at the “Freedom Summit” event. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), and Donald Trump came up with Ronald Reagan. (For those who haven’t kept up with recent events, he died almost 11 years ago, and the question didn’t ask “alive in our hearts.”)

Republicans can’t say Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, or Barack Obama which leaves them with a Bush—both of whom invaded the Middle East. Reagan is about all the GOP has, however, because Bush II caused the Middle East problems, Bush I raised taxes, Nixon had to resign, and Hoover started the Great Recession. That leaves Eisenhower who developed a great deal of the country’s infrastructure, and the GOP hates infrastructure.

A Public Policy Poll determined that only 40 percent of Republicans think that the U.S. doesn’t plan to invade Texas—forgetting that Texas is part of the U.S. Almost one-third of GOP voters think the government wants “to take over Texas,” and another 28 percent aren’t sure. The strongest believers are supporters of Cruz and former Texas Gov. Rick. Among Tea Partiers, half said yes to the idea of a conspiracy, and 25 percent aren’t sure. That leaves only one-fourth of Tea Partiers who don’t believe in the myth. (For those leaning toward belief in the takeover, Jade Helm 15 is a military exercise to train people for the Middle East.)

“Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely,” according to both Lord Acton and later George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Several state legislators have suffered from this problem in the past year. New York’s criminal indictment against the Democrat state Assembly Speaker, Sheldon Silver, in January was preceded by indictments against Republican House Speakers Bobby Harrell (SC) and Mike Hubbard (AL)–all for misuse of money. The most recent criminal indictment against a state House Speaker, however, was against Missouri’s John Diehl for sexual texting with a teenage intern. The texts were discovered in April, but Diehl denied them until this past week when he confessed. The anti-birth control, anti-choice, anti-LGBT, anti-safety net, anti-health care, anti-union, pro-family values House Speaker then waited a few days to resign, probably hoping that his problems would blow over. The 49-year-old ex-House Speaker is married with three children. Missouri Family Policy Council, the state affiliate of the Family Research Council, had earlier praised the speaker “for demonstrating moral leadership and true integrity”; Diehl’s website features “personal responsibility.”

In Vermont, state Sen. Norm McAllister, one of nine Republicans n the 30-member chamber, refuses to resign while facing felony sexual-assault charges. Charges include sexual assault and prohibited acts for demanding sex from tenants to offset rent payments, raping an employee, and attempting to have a woman provide sex to farm workers. The dairy and goat farmer lost a possible $20,000 agricultural grant for his farm after his arrest, and conviction could mean a life sentence. He can keep legislative his seat until then.

What’s more pathetic than a man going blind because he refused to get “Obamacare”? Maybe blaming his lack of health insurance on President Obama. South Carolina self-employed Luis Lang, 49, lives in a house worth $300,000 and used to take pride in not having health insurance. After a series of mini-strokes, bleeding in his eye, and a partially-detached retina tied to diabetes cost him almost $10,000 in health care, he changed his mind. The Affordable Care Act would have let him get a subsidy for health insurance because his income/assets were too high for Medicaid and he couldn’t be turned down for pre-existing conditions. Lang decided to get insurance a few weeks after the 2015 enrollment deadline, and Medicaid isn’t a possibility because South Carolina refuses to expand the program, free to the state with federal dollars.

Lang and his wife blame President Obama and congressional Democrats. Mary Lang said, “[My husband] should be at the front of the line because he doesn’t work and because he has medical issues. We call it the Not Fair Health Care Act.” Where was she when he could have enrolled 30 months ago? According to his (semi-illiterate) GoFundMe page, he knew about his serious health problems 18 months ago. The Langs learned absolutely nothing about the disaster they have made of their lives because they hate the president and the Democrats.

Crooksandliars.com suggested a way to solve Lang’s dilemma: the new Apple Watch. During a stop in Tempe (AZ), Jeb Bush suggested that people won’t need health care insurance in the future because of the Watch’s health apps. Jeb’s using his Watch to lose weight with the Paleo diet, the latest trendy diet, which is high in saturated fats by trying to replicate what people assume a diet from two million years ago. Some people swear by it; other studies show that it may cause brain change such as a “know-it-all” attitude, dementia, and memory loss. Maybe that was Jeb’s problem with answer the question about attacking Iraq again.

North Carolina has suffered from accusations of unconstitutional voter practices, but officials may not escape the most recent one. Federal law requires states to encourage voter registration in every state office, including public assistance and motor vehicle, but an analysis shows that the inauguration of Republican Gov. Pat McCrory in 2013 caused the program to collapse. Up to 40,000 poverty-level citizens in the state may have been disenfranchised because 75 percent of visitors to state public assistance offices were never asked if they wanted to vote. Many offices don’t even stock voter registration application forms. Although the state Department of Health and Human Services expressed surprise at the finding, the State Board of Elections said they had been trying to get the DHHS to address to the issue and proved it with over 60 emails and calendar entries for meetings.

Ohio plans a more direct approach to eliminate low-income voters: 24 GOP members of the state House have co-sponsored a bill to charge Ohio citizens for the ID card required for voting, in essence a poll tax forbidden by the U.S. Constitution. Legislators claim that this will stop voter fraud, a problem found in 0.002397 percent of votes cast in the 2012 election. The bill exempts individuals with an annual income of $11,770 in 2015, but it’s still unconstitutional.

All news is not bad. The Vatican is preparing to sign a treaty which will recognize Palestine as a country. Israel, which refuses to grant legitimacy to their neighboring country, and the U.S. right-wing will have another reason to hate Pope Francis.

 

In an oddity from Capitol Hill, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said that President Obama’s sociability—or lack thereof—has “no effect on policy.” He said that the two of them didn’t do much together because “we don’t agree on much.” Conservative columnist David Brooks has argued that the president and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) could understand each other better if the legislator were invited to the White House for lunch. Brooks thinks that schmoozing makes all the difference. Lots of other people have agreed with Brooks. McConnell has blown up the urban myth.

 

gallery-thumbnailsNow you can check your goldfish to see how long it pays attention to you.

May 15, 2015

House Gives DOD $612 with No Audit

When sequestration spending caps were passed in 2011 to avoid the debt ceiling crisis, over 200 congressional Republicans voted in favor of the law. Since then, the GOP has not changed the law, but today the House defied it by passing a $612 billion defense bill with all except eight Republicans  in favor of the budget. Ceilings on everything else–infrastructure, safety net, etc.–are just fine, according to these Republicans, but the war industry needs more money.

Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) moaned about Democrats ignoring all “the sacrifices [the troops] make,” calling the Dems opposition “indefensible.”  The word “indefensible” is appropriate for the GOP’s refusal to protect military personnel and their families from predatory lending. After Defense Department officials created new safeguards last fall to implement new protections in this area, House GOP members tried to add a provision to the defense bill that would delay the new rules for at least a year. When that failed, Rep. Steve Stivers (R-OH) introduced legislation to again block the DOD from putting its rules into effect. Payday loan companies gave almost $70,000 to Stivers’ campaign.

On the first day of the 114th Congress, Republicans made a rules change to cut 20 percent in Social Security disability benefits, hurting disabled veterans. The proposed GOP change in food stamps will deny 60,000 veterans this life-saving benefit. This year’s GOP funding bill is $1 billion short on providing care and services to veterans.

Last year the GOP failed to support bills that would help veterans have job security, retraining, counseling, and scholarships. Another failed bill because of the GOP would increase VA funding for home structural improvements for those veterans more than 50 percent disabled—for example, those who need a wheelchair ramp in order to live at home.

One of the 135 amendments that passed was a provision by Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK) to stop the re-listing of the lesser prairie chicken on the endangered species list until 2021, unless the Interior Department determines that a conservation plan is not working. It passed 229-190. Someone might want to ask him how the lesser prairie chicken is related to defense.

A proposed amendment to consider undocumented immigrants with work permits through the DREAMERS program to serve in the military was voted down. Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) said the rejection was a jobs issue because the military is downsizing.

Also voted down was an amendment “in the form of a limited and narrow authorization against ISIS” because “the defense bill was not the place to debate the war,” according  Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA).  As he added, “If not here, where?” President Obama’s airstrikes against ISIL began nine months ago, and he sent a proposal about this authorization three months ago. The GOP has avoided any discussion of this issue in Congress that has cost $2.1 billion with 3,700 airstrikes and about 3,000 military personal sent to Iraq. While the House GOP members are suing the president for his other actions, they oppose reining in his war authority. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) claims that the GOP can’t find 218 votes for any action.

As the GOP pushes the defense funding increase through the House, the Republicans ignore the history of DOD waste. The $400 billion Pentagon’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter can’t pass even the most basic requirements necessary for flying in combat. At this time, it’s $170 billion over budget, and the only thing soaring about it is the cost. Auditors question whether it can serve its purpose as the Pentagon continues to throw more money at it. The jet is vulnerable to engine fires because of its design and the “precision-guided Small Diameter Bomb II doesn’t even fit on the Marine’s version of the jet,” according to Military.com. Software necessary to operate the bomb won’t be operational for another seven years–2022.

Recently appointed Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter, oversaw the development of the F-35 fighter jet, which will cost the United States an unprecedented $1.5 trillion. He also oversaw production of $50 billion worth of MRAP armored vehicles with thousands of them scrapped almost immediately at a loss of over $2 billion. The 27,000 MRAPs sent to Iraq and Afghanistan resulted in an over-supply and were then decommissioned to militarize U.S. police departments in places as small as Dundee (MI), population 3,900. To Carter, “nuclear weapons don’t actually cost that much.” This is the program that will cost up to $1 trillion in the next three decades.

Federal auditors found a loss of $43 billion in Afghanistan reconstruction. The Pentagon has no answer for the missing funds other than it may have gone to more direct war needs. John F. Sopko, special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, said, “It’s like you gave your credit card to your teenage daughter or son and then you just never looked at the bills.” Tracking the $100 billion allocated for relief and reconstruction has been almost impossible. “We don’t even have a list from (the Defense Department) of where they spent the money. We have no centralized list of where the taxpayer money went in Afghanistan,” Sopko said.

A never-used $600 million C-27 aircraft sits on runways in Kabul and Germany, and a massive $34 million command center in Helmand has never been used and will probably be leveled. The empty 64,000-square-foot command center with an expensive air-conditioning system can hold over 1,000 people. Its incinerators cost $11.5 million, but no one was hired to run the machines. The military burned its trash in an open-air pit.

The Pentagon spent $7.6 billion fighting a war on opium in Afghanistan where the poppy crop is bigger than ever. The U.S. Air Force bought half a billion dollars worth of transport planes and scrapped them for six cents a pound. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built thousands of buildings for the Afghan military where contractors used low-quality insulation that’s so flammable that international codes prohibit its use. When contractors promised to stop its use and replace the faulty insulation, Maj. Gen. Michael Eyre stopped them. He wrote in a 2014 memo:

 “The typical occupant populations for these facilities are young, fit Afghan soldiers and recruits who have the physical ability to make a hasty retreat during a developing situation.”

The DOD wastes billions of dollars in just spare parts. For example, Boeing overcharges up to 177,000 percent; Hamilton Sundstrand is more reasonable at only 900 percent. A redacted version of a July 2014 report showed that the Pentagon overpaid Bell Helicopter 395 percent-$9 million–just on 33 of 35 sole-source commercial parts.

GOP legislators and presidential candidates are being lobbied by arms dealers to raise the defense budget and go to war. Former Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI), ex-chair of the House Intelligence Committee, heads up the group called Americans for Peace, Prosperity and Security to front for the military-industrial complex. Known for claiming that Edward Snowden was a Russian double agent, Rogers pushed for unlimited surveillance through the CISPA bill and support of NSA.

Rogers’ wife, Kristi Rogers, serves as President and CEO of Aegis LLC, a defense contractor with a $10 billion contract to provide security and intelligence-gathering services to the State Department. The board of his lobbying group is a virtual who’s who of the defense industry and a prominent partner of the New Hampshire GOP.  The situation is reminiscent of former Vice President Dick Cheney’s $34 million pay-off oilfield services provider Halliburton before he instigated the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

The Pentagon doesn’t even want some of the things that Congress is pushing on them. For example, this $8.76 billion:

  • $4.7 billion: refueling the USS George Washington.
  • $1.46 billion:  15 EA-18G Growler electronic warfare planes.
  • $1 billion: starting on an additional San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock ship.
  • $479 million: four F-35 fighter jets raising the total to 38).
  • $341 million: modernizing 12 Apache helicopters and nine Black Hawk helicopters.
  • $200 million:  another Joint High Speed Vessel ship.
  • $155 million: 12 more MQ-9 Reaper drones.
  • $154 million: another P-8A Poseidon Navy surveillance aircraft.
  • $120 million: M1 Abrams tank upgrades.
  • $150 million: medium and heavy tactical vehicles.

In the past 46 years, food stamps have cost taxpayers $1.035 trillion. That’s less than three times the annual defense budget that the House passed today. Wisconsin is trying to keep people on food stamps from buying shredded cheese while the $43 billion lost in Afghanistan is negligible. At the same time that Congress adds to the defense budget, it cuts security for embassies.

The following chart shows how the U.S. defense budget compares to those in the countries nearest the U.S. in expenditures:

military 2015

The House plans to throw at least $612 billion at the Pentagon without knowing where the taxpayer monies go. In 1990, Congress passed a law requiring all government agencies to achieve audit-readiness. Only the Pentagon has not achieved this within the ensuing two and a half decades. Since the first audit was due in 1997, Congress has extended the deadline several times, most recently until 2017. Boehner and the other House members who voted for the bloated defense budget must instinctively know that the Pentagon needs $612 billion. If Amtrak can survive on an 18-percent reduction, so can the Department of Defense.

May 14, 2015

GOP Concerned Only about Carrying Fetuses Full Term

After eight people died from Tuesday’s Amtrak train crash, Rep. Paul Ryan voted to reduce Amtrak funding and then “misrepresented” congressional funding that could have prevented the crash. On Fox, he claimed that Congress funded the Positive Train Control (PTC) for the cash-strapped Amtrak earlier this year. Not only was the allocation far less than the Amtrak request, but the complex PTC takes more than two months to put into place. The last Amtrak bill was seven years ago. At this time, PTC is in service in only 50 miles of the 226-mile route between Washington and New York.

Ryan also said that Congress cannot rush to response to what he believes was “human error, but the PTC overcomes human error. He commented that he wouldn’t support tax increases for infrastructure improvement because “we can do better by saving more money [and] being more efficient.”

While talking about efficiency, Ryan voted in favor of yesterday’s anti-abortion bill that passed by 242-184, almost entirely on partisan lines. The so-called “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act” follows the conservatives’ belief that fetuses at this age can feel pain. Rep. Lois Frankel (D-FL) answered the men who expounded on the pain that a fetus feels: “You want to talk about pain? Let’s talk about the agony of a woman who’s raped and again violated by unnecessary government intrusion.”

The bill bans the one percent of abortions that occur after the 20th week of pregnancies, ones that often involve “rare, severe fetal abnormalities and real threats to a woman’s health,” according to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Sexual assault victims cannot get rape-caused abortions after the 20th week until they have “obtained counseling” or “medical treatment for the rape or an injury related to the rape” at least 48 hours prior to the abortion procedure unless the victims originally reported the rape to law enforcement. Counseling must be from a facility that doesn’t perform abortions, requiring consultation with two separate doctors.

Incest victims must also have reported the rapes to a law enforcement agency or government agency that acts on reports of child abuse, thus re-traumatizing the victims. The bill also prevents the abortions for victims 18 and older.

Non-viable fetuses or those that might be born with severe defects are typically not identified until after the limit set by this bill, but these issues are not addressed in the bill. The bill allows an abortion to prevent the death of the pregnant woman but says nothing about pregnancies that seriously jeopardize women’s health.

The bill also mandates medical procedures for doctors. If a doctor thinks that the aborted fetus could survive outside the womb, a second doctor must be present to care for it and provide hospitalization. Women are also required to sign consent forms that include the fetus’ age and steps to save its life. Doctors performing banned abortions would face imprisonment of up to five years plus fines, and people could also bring civil actions against doctors who violate the measure’s requirements.

After a similar bill failed in January, House leadership spent months negotiating its current success, time that certainly could have been more profitably spend with legislation that would boost in the economy. The conservatives’ goal is to ban all abortions although the 1973 Supreme Court Roe v. Wade decision established a constitutional right to abortion, allowing states to bar the procedure after viability when the fetus could survive if born.

Once the fetus has emerged into the daylight, however, mother and child are pretty much on their own. Only two laws help new parents: the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 providing 12 weeks of leave to new or expectant parents and an expansion of the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act to protect mothers who want to continue breastfeeding after returning to work. There is leave, but no paid leave. Parents have to save enough money for one of them to go without wages for the 12 weeks following a child’s birth. The United States is “exceptional” in this situation because 181 countries guarantee paid leave from work for new mothers and 81 guarantee it for new fathers. Employers also aren’t required in the United States to accommodate new mothers; they don’t even have to add break time for women who want to pump breast milk.

A law is supposed to protect pregnant woman at work, but in many cases it doesn’t. Many employers deny requests such as the ability to sit down while at work, an extra bathroom break, and drinking water while working. Pregnant women are expected to complete the same manual labor as men and non-pregnant women because it would be considered special treatment. Pregnant women may be forced to leave their jobs, leaving them reliant on the U.S. safety net.

According to conservatives, who get their marching orders from Fox network, these women carrying the beloved fetuses and avoiding abortions are “losers,” “moochers,” “takers,” and more. Conservatives accuse women of being pregnant just to get more federal money or, worse, of having “anchor babies” so that they can stay in the United States. Unmarried women who are pregnant or already have children are also told to get married so that they won’t be a drain on the country. (This idea is a myth.)

Author and activist Barbara Ehrenreich writes that poverty is a lack of money, not a lack of character, but conservatives disagree, preferring to shame poor mothers. Like preventing abortions, allowing children and their mothers to live in poverty is a policy choice.

Opposition to providing birth control is another conservative policy decision, frequently religious. Conservatives fight the provision of the Affordable Care Act to provide free birth control, women have to renew their birth control medication every month, and women’s clinics that provide birth control are shut down in massive numbers throughout the conservative states. Catholic health systems, controlling almost 20 percent of patients in the United States, may prevent participating doctors from prescribing birth control pills. They can also refuse tubal ligations and vasectomies—even deny the termination of an ectopic pregnancy in which the fetus grows outside the uterus.

While conservatives virtuously pretend to protect fetuses, more women die in childbirth and from pregnancy-related causes in the United States now than at almost any point in the last 25 years. Throughout the world, the United States is one of only seven countries to experience an increase in Maternal Mortality Rates (MMR) over the past decade. MMR rise in tandem with poverty rates as conservative legislators refuse to pass fair gender salary laws and increase the minimum wage.

The U.S. MMR is 14 times greater than in Israel, which has liberal abortion laws with government-subsidized abortion services. The states in this country with the greatest abortion restrictions have the highest maternal deaths, infant and child death rates, and teen drug and alcohol abuse. Georgia, with 11 restrictive abortion laws, has the highest MMR.

Legislation is moving forward in North Carolina to send detailed information about an abortion past the first trimester to the state’s Department of Health and Human Services, including “an ultrasound image of the unborn child that depicts the measurements.” Already required in Oklahoma and Louisiana, this mandate violates privacy between a woman and her doctor and serves no medical purpose. Doctors are not required to send any other type of medical image to the state. Oklahoma ranks 48th in Maternal Mortality Rates; Louisiana is 44th.

abortion

No matter how horrifying yesterday’s anti-abortion bill passed in the House may be, conservatives can make life worse for pregnant women. Texas state representative Matt Schaefer has introduced an amendment forcing women to carry a fetus to full term even if it might be nonviable. Beyond causing severe health issues and perhaps death for the woman, the act would inflict great pain on the family. Schaefer’s justification is that suffering is “part of the human condition, since sin entered the world.”

Thanks to conservative legislation, United States in 2015 can be compared to the country in 1929 with the huge gulf between the wealthy and the rest of the people in the nation. At this time, the ratio of pay between CEOs and workers is 373-1—and greater for women because they are below the average wage. One guarantee: GOP members of Congress will continue to focus on fetuses and the wealthy; everyone else will be left out. It’s what adds to their campaign war chests.

May 13, 2015

GOP Chips Away at Infrastructure

At least seven people were killed and over 200 people were injured last night when Amtrak Regional 188 derailed in Philadelphia on its way to New York City. Today the GOP members of the House Appropriations Committee voted to reduce the Amtrak budget to $252 million, a 15-percent reduction from last year, despite the increase in Amtrak riders. Democrats on the panel lost the battle to boost Amtrak funding by $1 billion, to $2.4 billion.

ridershipWhile Congress demands that Amtrak make a profit, highways and airports receive 45 times the subsidies for Amtrak. The GOP consistently reduces Amtrak subsidies to achieve privatization of the Northeast Corridor, which guts the company’s primary revenue and kills Amtrak. Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D) pointed out that every other country in the world subsidizes its trains:

“It just points out again how terrible our nation’s infrastructure is…. If you went to Asia, Europe, and saw the high-speed trains, they’re all on a dedicated line. They’re all straight as an arrow. It’s just embarrassing what we do with our infrastructure.”

Former Obama administration Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, an Illinois Republican, said, “America is in a crisis when it comes to infrastructure.”

The wreck has shut down Amtrak’s route between Boston and Washington, its busiest and most profitable, for an indefinite time. Every year for a decade, the route has broken ridership records. The workforce on these trains contribute $50 billion each year to the U.S. GDP. Yet, starved of funds to keep up with the increased demand, the Northeast Corridor has a backlog of repairs requiring $4.3 billion in 2019 while it expects $872 million because of dwindling federal funding. In this area Amtrak suffers with unrepaired bridges and tunnels dating over a century, “functionally obsolete” rail interlockings, and trains relying on 1930s-era components.

NE ridership

The last time Congress managed to pass an Amtrak bill was in 2008 when a derailed commuter train killed 25 people and the GOP helped to fast-track the bill to George W. Bush. The GOP in this Congress argued that there was no reason to take the accident into consideration. Much has been said about the speed of the train and how money could not have stopped this possible reason for the wreck. Little has been said about how an advanced safety technology can prevent high-speed derailments. The “positive train control” (PTC) automatically slows or even halts trains that are moving too fast or heading into a danger zone. Under current law, the rail industry must adopt the technology by the end of this year. With the PTC, Amtrak 188 could not have reached the speed of 106 mph while approached the curve with a 50 mph speed limit. The current deadline for PTC installation is the end of 2015, but lawmakers are calling for long extensions. Last March, the Senate Commerce voted to extend the deadline to 2020.

Passenger trains are not the only ones that are causing property destruction and the loss of human lives. Across the country, trains hauling oil, nicknamed “bomb trains,” derail, blow up into huge fires, and pollute the environment. Just weeks ago, the Department of Transportation released new rules designed to protect the country from exploding trains. Guidelines include sturdier new tank cars and retrofitted older cars that carry crude oil and ethanol, a better braking standard, and improved protocols on routing, speed, and information for local government agencies.

A radical shift in the new standards is that they actually rescind a requirement that the DOT issued last year in which railroads were to notify states about bomb trains’ volume and frequency. The new rules require only providing states with contact information for officials with access to this information. Oregon Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden stated, “Instead of providing first responders more details about oil shipments, railroads will simply be required to give our firefighters a phone number.” Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) commented that the new rule is the equivalent of saying “let the oil trains roll.”

Although the new bomb train rules might be well intentioned, a train using the new, so-called safer, tank cars exploded in North Dakota the week after the announcement of the guidelines. That explosion followed four others in the first three months of 2015 that spilled crude oil into drinking water supplies and blasted fireballs in the sky. Companies can also continue to use the older tank cars forever if trains have fewer than 35 or fewer than 20 in a row. The new mandated electronically controlled pneumatic brakes are good news, but trains don’t have to use them until 2021.

The new speed guidelines would also not have prevented these train explosions. Mile-long bomb trains carrying three million gallons of explosive crude can continue to travel at more than twice the rated “puncture velocity” of even the new tank cars–50 mph except for “high threat” urban areas when they should drop their speed to 40 mph. Three of the first four explosive accidents in 2015 occurred at speeds below 35 mph, and the fourth was at 43 mph, only three miles over the new speed limit.

While oil companies are responsible for the trains themselves, other companies are responsible for the railroads. Before 2009, fewer than 10,000 tank cars of oil were transported by rail each year in the United States. In 2012, that number increased to 230,000 cars and escalated to 430,000in 2013.  CSX is a major company that owns 21,000 of railway in eastern U.S. Because fines are cheaper than maintenance, CSX fails to repair tracks and bridges. The 2014 derailment of 20 oil tankers, three of them going into the James River, cost CSX under $400,000.

train missileWhile bomb trains killing people, burning towns, and polluting the environment is horrible, the country has bigger problems. Of the 7,500+ nuclear weapons stored in the United States, many of them are located in North Dakota. A 15-minute segment on The Rachel Maddow Show describes the deadly connection between missiles and the bomb trains. This website provides a map for bomb trains in the United States and shows the huge number of miles in North Dakota.

One-third of the 150 loaded, primed and ready to fire missiles are in the Bakken oil field, that ships out millions of gallons of highly volatile crude oil on bomb trains. One of these missile bases is the site of a 2007 incident when six nuclear-tipped AGM-29 Advanced Cruise missiles were accidentally loaded on a B-52 headed for Barksdale AFB, the main staging base for B-52s flown to the Middle East. They were missing for 36 hours.

This is Infrastructure Week, and the GOP ignores the problems of not moving forward on the country’s infrastructure. Beyond the train disasters, the lack of funding for infrastructure is horrific. From the Harvard Business Review:

“Goods are delayed at clogged ports. Delayed or cancelled flights cost the U.S. economy an estimated $30-40 billion per year – not to mention ill will of disgruntled passengers. The average American wastes 38 hours a year stuck in traffic. This amounts to 5.5 billion hours in lost U.S. productivity annually, 2.9 gallons of wasted fuel, and a public health cost of pollution of about $15 billion per year, according to Harvard School of Public Health researchers. The average family of four spends as much as 19% of its household budget on transportation. But inequality also kicks in: the poor can’t afford cars, yet are concentrated in places without access to public transportation. To top it all, federal funding for highways, with a portion for mass transit, is about to run out.”

infrastructure costs

Happy Infrastructure Week!

May 12, 2015

Jeb Ends Polarization for 24 Hours

Polarization has been one of the most serious problems in the country for several years and is only growing worse. One man, however, brought the country together in an interview with Megyn Kelly to be aired tonight on the Fox network. In a clip released last week, Kelly asked Jeb Bush about the U.S. attack on Iraq in 2003

“On the subject of Iraq, very controversial, knowing what we know now, would you have authorized the invasion?”

Jeb replied, “I would have.”

On her radio show, conservative host Laura Ingraham almost screamed:

“You can’t still think that going into Iraq, now, as a sane human being, was the right thing to do. If you do, there has to be something wrong with you.”

The conservative Washington Examiner’s Byron York described Jeb Bush’s answer as “disastrous.”

Jeb Bush’s position is at odds with the majority of people in the United States.

graphic how thinks war was worth it

As if to excuse his statement, Jeb not only said he would make the same mistake as his brother but also added “so would have Hillary Clinton, just to remind everybody.” He doesn’t know that Clinton would do now. She voted to support the war because her only information was the false “intelligence” that George W. Bush spread across the country and throughout Congress, but in her 2014 book Hard Choices, Clinton apologized for her that vote.

After Jeb’s answer went viral, Ana Navarro, a former Bush aide and guest on CNN, asked him, “Did you mishear the question?” Jeb answered, “Yes, I misheard the question.”

Fellow guest and Democratic strategist Paul Begala commented, “I didn’t know he had a hearing impairment, and we pray for his swift recovery.”

Jeb’s next dance around the question was telling radio host Sean Hannity that he misinterpreted it and didn’t know if he would have acted as his brother George W. Bush did. Jeb added, “Clearly there were mistakes made as they related to faulty intelligence.”

Even if Jeb gets a pass by saying that he “misheard” and that the intelligence was “faulty,” he skips the fact that his brother called the intelligence “wrong.” So was the process in obtaining it, according to Paul Pillar, the CIA official who oversaw Middle East intelligence at that time, who wrote the following in 2006:

“In the wake of the Iraq war, it has become clear that official intelligence analysis was not relied on in making even the most significant national security decisions, that intelligence was misused publicly to justify decisions already made… and that the intelligence community’s own work was politicized. As the national intelligence officer responsible for the Middle East from 2000 to 2005, I witnessed all of these disturbing developments.”

Pillar concluded that “official intelligence on Iraqi weapons programs was flawed, but even with its flaws, it was not what led to the war.”

A report of the Senate Intelligence Committee concluded that the George W. Bush administration “repeatedly presented intelligence as fact when in reality it was unsubstantiated, contradicted, or even non-existent.” It documented numerous statements made by the Bush administration to justify the war that were not supported by intelligence. Mike McConnell, Director of National Intelligence under George W. Bush from 2007 to 2009, found the administration “set up a whole new interpretation because they didn’t like the answers” the intelligence community was giving them. Inside the Pentagon, Undersecretary of Defense Doug Feith led the effort to “reinterpret information” provided to them by intelligence, and his group produced and promoted “false links between Iraq and al Qaeda.”

Ezra Klein wrote that Jeb’s evasion, claiming that he had answered a different question, is even worse than the original answer:

“Bush’s answer to the question he thought he was being asked—would you have invaded Iraq if you only knew what was known then—is more telling, and confirms the worst fears some had about his candidacy. What he said, in effect, was that the Iraq War was a good idea that was undermined by bad intelligence. He said, in other words, that he thinks the basic concept of the Iraq War was right even if the specific case turned out to be wrong.”

Any threat from Hussein, even with WMDs, was so horrible and immediate that the U.S. should carry out a full-scale invasion. Earlier Iraqi efforts of WMD were pointed at Iran, who the U.S. hates. War leaders claimed that the invasion would be cheap and fast: Mitch Daniels, budget director, estimated a cost of $50 billion to $60 billion. Lawrence Lindsey, top economic advisor, raised the guess to $100 billion to $200 billion and was fired. After 12 years, the war has cost several trillions of dollars.

When General Eric Shinseki said that the estimate of 100,000 troops for Bush’s war was far fewer than needed, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld accused him of being “far off the mark,” and Shinseki was left in the shadows. The most famous bragging point, however, was Vice President Dick Cheney’s quote from Meet the Press that “we will be greeted as liberators.” Everyone knows how that worked out.

Congress would have had a much different response to the Iraqi invasion if members had know both fiscal and human costs, the length of the debacle, the chaos that the U.S. actions would bring to the Middle East, and the destruction of the middle class in the United States.

In talking about the “faulty” intelligence surrounding the Iraq War, Jeb said that “mistakes were made,” a common statement by those who refuse to place responsibility on the perpetrators. He also has the same foreign policy thinking of his brother George W. An example is his co-founding the Project for a New American Century (PNAC) in the 1990s. The neocon think tank called for the overthrow of any government leader that the U.S. doesn’t like, including Saddam Hussein. The massive regime change, “Pax Americana,” would put the U.S. in control of the world, its natural resources, and its economy.

Twelve years ago, Jonathan Freedland described PNAC as concentrating on “‘full spectrum dominance,’ meaning American invincibility in every field of warfare–land, sea, air and space–and a world in which no two nations’ relationship with each other will be more important than their relationship with the U.S.”

The names of other founding members such as Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and Zalmay Khalilzad (George W. Bush’s “special envoy and ambassador-at-large for free Iraqis”) are familiar because they planned the Iraq war for Jeb’s brother. These are the same men who would play an instrumental part in the presidency if Jeb Bush is elected because he has selected them as advisors.

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Pope Francis said Monday that “many powerful people don’t want peace because they live off war.” Like several other presidential candidates, Jeb Bush is one of those powerful people.

The conservatives are circling the wagons to protect Jeb. Bad hearing, bad interpretation—actually bad answer. But 24 hours after the Fox promo with Jeb’s first answer aired, the dialog is back, and the polarization is building. Jeb is down in the polls but up in gathering money. By the time that he declares his candidacy, his war chest may be enough to wipe out the competition.

May 11, 2015

GOP: Disregard Infrastructure, Sell off Public Lands

America is the most exceptional country in the world! And the richest! That’s the bragging point from the far right. That’s true if you consider that our “exceptional” infrastructure is 16th in the world. “Crumbling” is the term most often used to describe the bridges and highways over a half century old, an out-moded transit system, etc. For years, the American Society of Civil Engineers has given the nation’s infrastructure a D+ or worse. Every time the issue comes up, the GOP claim that they can’t afford to pay for necessary repairs—sort of like a cheapskate home-owner who won’t replace a leaky roof or disintegrating foundation.

With only 20 days before the Highway Trust Fund is set to expire, no congressional vote has been set up to extend the law and let the DOT distribute what little funds it has left to states. Congress is used to short-term fixes: it has passed 32 extensions within the past six years. That’s an average of over five each year which eliminates planning for any big projects. The sensible approach to raising the requisite $478 billion over ten years would be an increase in the gas tax that has stayed the same for 23 years, but the majority of legislators have signed the “no tax” pledge from Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform.

When Republicans were more pragmatic, they liked infrastructure spending because the economy loved jobs for fixing dams, bridges, and roads. These were jobs that couldn’t be outsourced to another country and brought millions of federal funds to create good-paying jobs with visible results. Now, however, the GOP wants to shrink the economy because a good economy would make President Obama look good. For over six years, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has led the charge to make the president look bad, no matter how his efforts damage the United States.

This week is “Infrastructure Week,” according to a coalition of labor, business and transportation advocacy organizations. Last week, the GOP in both congressional chambers agreed to a budget resolution intended to cut transportation funding by 20 percent. After the GOP voted down a budget of $820 billion over ten years, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) introduced a $1-trillion plan that would create 13 million jobs. Even that sum doesn’t take care of the problem: the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated that $1.6 trillion more than what the country currently spends is need to repair the nation’s infrastructure by 2020. Instead of taking the plan out of committee, Sanders offered the $478-billion plan which was voted down by a unanimous veto of Republicans. President Obama is so desperate to six the infrastructure that he supports a plan to let corporations escape paying some taxes by bringing their $2 trillion stashed overseas backed at a highly reduced tax rate.

Comparing the United States to other countries shows how the nation ignores its infrastructure. While the U.S. spends less than 2 percent of its GDP in this area, other countries provide far more—for example Europe, 5 percent; China, 9 percent, and Canada, 10 percent.

There are a variety of reasons that the wealthy—which includes most of congressional legislators—are unwilling to invest in U.S. infrastructure and its job creation.

Narcissism: Paul Piff and his colleagues have several studies showing that the wealthy believe they are entitled to have a position of status over everyone else, a belief that has grown during the past 30 years as “upper-class” people tend to behave more unethically than average citizens. The greater the concentration of wealth, the less a society invests in infrastructure. Between 1968 and 2011, the U.S. investment in infrastructure dropped by 60 percent.

Rejection of Poor: As the wealthy fail to see how their actions affect people, they build up a resentment of the poor and imagine  abuses that these so-called “lazy” people inflict on the rich. Legislators also destroy job development, for example, the $447-billion jobs bill in 2011 that would have added about two million jobs. Congress filibustered Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) “Prevention of Outsourcing Act,” at the same time that one million jobs were being sent offshore, and they temporarily blocked the “Small Business Jobs Act.” While campaigning last fall, McConnell was asked how he would bring jobs to Kentucky. He said, “That is not my job. It is the primary responsibility of the state Commerce Cabinet.” The safety net for the poor costs $370 billion; the tax avoidance of the wealthy costs $2.2 trillion. These are the people who are getting government handouts without working for them.

The Wait for the Free Market: Conservative analyst Michael Barone said, “Markets work. But sometimes they take time.” Thirty-five years later, people are still waiting. Starting in 1984, the Treasury Department decided that most tax cuts lose revenue; more recent studies find no connection between tax rates and economic growth. Evidence shows that cutting taxes on the rich fails to stimulate job creation; the wealthy just stash their money out of the country. Raising taxes on the rich does increase jobs as shown by Kansas and Minnesota. Tax cuts in Kansas destroy the state whereas tax increases on the wealthy in Minnesota have led to higher wages, low unemployment, and rapid business growth.

Instead of increasing taxes on the wealthy or stopping outsourcing and tax havens offshore, GOP members of Congress hope to make money by selling off the country’s resources. During the recent debate about the 2016 federal budget, legislators voted on a number of symbolic (fortunately non-binding) amendments. Amendment 838, introduced by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), would “establish a spending-neutral reserve fund relating to the disposal of certain Federal land.” This translates into funding state efforts to take over, sell, and transfer federal land to private interests. Murkowski said the plan would “improve our conservation systems.”  It passed by 51 to 49 votes with three GOP senators–Lamar Alexander (TN), Kelly Ayotte (NH), and Corey Gardner (CO)—defecting to the Democrat side.

Both conservatives and progressives oppose the plan as conservative groups such as the Montana-based Backcountry Hunters and Anglers joined environmentalists in criticizing the vote.  Although the measure does not apply to “any land that is located within a national park, within a national preserve or a national monument,” the resolution allows the sale of national forests, national memorials, wildlife refuges, and wilderness areas. The nonprofit League of Conservation Voters (LCV) explained:

“It would allow states to take control of some of our most cherished places and sell them off to private interests for oil and gas drilling, logging, mining, and other development. Industrial-scale oil and gas development could destroy the pristine nature of the Arctic Refuge’s coastal plain forever, damaging natural habitats and harming the wildlife that calls the area home. An oil spill in this region would not only directly harm polar bears, but would also contaminate their habitat. Even without an oil spill, some level of pollution and habitat fragmentation from oil and gas activities is inevitable with expanded development.”

Last February, Murkowski, with her co-GOP senator, also introduced the Authorizing Alaska Production Act (S. 494) to open up the refuge’s coastal plain to oil and gas development. Four among her top five 2013-14 campaign contributors are in the oil and gas industry: ConocoPhillips; PG&E Corp.; Edison Chouest Offshore, a marine transport firm supporting U.S. Gulf’s deepwater oil and gas industry; and Van Ness Feldman, a leading energy law firm whose clients include American Electric Power, Puget Sound Energy, and Houston natural gas energy company Kinder Morgan. Her 2014 LCV national environmental scorecard is a perfect zero.

The resolution may violate the Property Clause, Article IV, § 3, cl. 2 of the Constitution: “The Congress shall have power to dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or other property belonging to the United States.” States can’t sell federal lands no matter what Congress rules.

Ronald Reagan’s executive order, issued a year after he became president, tried the same move as Murkowski when it established the Property Review Board to review federally managed public lands for potential disposal. Six years later, Reagan said:

“The preservation of parks, wilderness, and wildlife has also aided liberty by keeping alive the 19th century sense of adventure and awe with which our forefathers greeted the American West. Many laws protecting environmental quality have promoted liberty by securing property against the destructive trespass of pollution. In our own time, the nearly universal appreciation of these preserved landscapes, restored waters, and cleaner air through outdoor recreation is a modern expression of our freedom and leisure to enjoy the wonderful life that generations past have built for us.”

rooseveltOver a century ago, Republican president, Theodore Roosevelt, set aside more federal land, national parks, and nature preserves than all of his predecessors combined. He established the U.S. Forest Service and placed 230,000,000 acres under public protection. In 2008, he said:

“The time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have been still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields, and obstructing navigation…. It is time for us now as a nation to exercise the same reasonable foresight in dealing with our great natural resources that would be shown by any prudent man in conserving and widely using the property which contains the assurance of well-being for himself and his children.”

Teddy would be disappointed in the GOP of today.

May 10, 2015

Face It: The U.S. Constitution Protects the Minority

Evangelical leaders cannot be this ignorant, but passing lies to their followers is how they keep their control. On James Dobson’s radio, Rick Scarborough again claimed that banning “ex-gay” conversion therapy for minors will outlaw Christianity and cause pastors to be arrested and imprisoned. He lied about how the 2009 Hate Crimes law was written to make any pastor preaching against homosexualty guilty of an accessory to a hate crime if a listener hearing the sermon attacks someone. Later in the program, Dobson opposed pastors “who are compassionate toward those who have attractions to same-sex individuals.” He said:

“I would like them to think, just for a moment, about ‘LGBT,’ The ‘B’ stand for bisexual! That’s orgies!  Are you really going to support this?”

In reference to the misguided far-right premise that Christians suffer discrimination, Alvin McEwen wrote:

“For decades, anti-gay organizations and their supporters have portrayed the LGBT community as child molesting, diseased, sexually aggressive miscreants whose sole desire is to cause chaos before being sent to the lower pits of hell after we die for our supposed sins. Through lies, distortions, and bad science, anti-gay groups made it difficult for laws to be passed to protect our interests, health, and families. They created and repeated ad nauseam the false mantra that we are a “public health hazard” and our lives are fraught with pain, sadness, loneliness, and early death.

“Suddenly … they want the world to forget all of the ignorance they exploited, the lies they told, and the tactics they undertook to dehumanize the LGBT community. They want us to forget the times when folks like Anita Bryant accused LGBTs of ‘recruiting’children to ‘refreshen’ our ranks. They want us to forget the officials in the Reagan Administration who kept the president from adequately addressing the AIDS crisis in its early days. They want us to forget the names and faces of people whose lives were destroyed via homophobic violence or suicide most likely spurred on by the nods of societal homophobia….

“And most of all, they want us to forget that all of this was done either directly by them or through their tacit approval.

“Sorry guys, you are not victims. You never were. You can’t pretend that any of these things I just talked about didn’t happen. You can’t pretend that somehow where we are now when it comes to LGBT equality just happened in vacuum.”

The philosophy of fundamentalist Christian churches may, however, be shifting. Andy Stanley, evangelical pastor of Atlanta (GA) megachurch North Point Ministries, disagrees with his pastor father Charles Stanley, the anti-gay leader of First Baptist Church Atlanta. The younger Stanley said that church should be considered the “safest place on the planet” for young LGBT people and wants religion to stop chasing them away. He added:

“If all the Christians for just one year, would quit looking at porn, would quit smoking weed, would quit having premarital sex, would quit committing adultery, would pay their taxes, and every church just foster one kid—in one year our nation would feel different.”

A recent poll shows how the religious right is losing the opposition to LGBT people. In a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey, 61 percent of the respondents said they’d be either enthusiastic or comfortable with a gay presidential candidate. Only 52 percent said the same thing about an evangelical candidate, and the percentage went down to 33 percent for a Tea Partier. The same poll shows that 58 percent want the Supreme Court to rule in favor of marriage equality while only 37 percent opposed this ruling. Only 20 percent thought society had gone too far in accepting LGBT people.

Courts may also be moving away from the far right as they rule for separation of church and state. Almost exactly one year after the Supreme Court ruled in Town of Greece v. Galloway that chaplains could open town meetings with prayers, a federal court decision struck down sectarian invocations before Rowan County (NC) Board of Commissioners. Because 97 percent of these prayers between 2007 and 2013 were Christian, the court concluded the prayers coerced people into participating in religious practices. U.S. District Court Judge James A. Beaty concluded that the prayers coerced people into participating in religious practices because 97 percent of the prayers between 2007 and 2013 were Christian. Five years ago, he had made the same ruling for Forsyth County, a decision that was overturned by Greece.

MITCHEMAfter the decision came down for separation of church and state in Rowan County, a county commissioner in neighboring Lincoln County railed against “changing rules on the way the United States was founded, Constitution was founded.” Carrol Mitchem declared, “I don’t need no Arab or Muslim or whoever telling me what to do or us here in the county what to do about praying. If they don’t like it, stay the hell away.” He’s pretty sure than all the houses of worship in his county are Christian: “I just don’t know that there’s any Jewish pastors or anything like that in Lincoln County.” Mitchem doesn’t even know that Muslims believe in the same god as Christians and Jews. He might take comfort in knowing that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas believes that states are exempt from the constitutional separation of church and state.

In Nebraska, U.S. District Court Judge John M. Gerrard dismissed the lawsuit Driskell v. Homosexuals, in which Sylvia Driskell, 66, wanted the court to decide that homosexuality is a sin. Gerrard ruled that the matter is not within the court’s jurisdiction and found the lawsuit without merit. He wrote:

“The United States Federal Courts were created to resolve actual cases and controversies arising under the Constitution and the laws of the United States. A federal court is not a forum for debate or discourse on theological matters.”

Not all jurisdictions are as enlightened. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) told lawmakers that “we must improve early education,” but hand-picked aides to the further-right (if possible) Lt.Gov. Dan Patrick oppose putting children in the “Godless environment” of preschools. “We are experimenting at great cost to taxpayers with a program that removes our young children from homes and half-day religious preschools and mothers’ day out programs to a Godless environment with only evidence showing absolutely NO LONG-TERM BENEFITS beyond the 1st grade,” a letter stated. It compared preschools to programs “historically promoted in socialistic countries, not free societies which respect parental rights.”

ChristianFlag2-800x430Cochran (GA) decided it will take down the Christian flag flying over City Hall for the planned Bible Reading Marathon annually conducted on the city hall steps since 2008. The city’s attorney couldn’t discourage them from selecting only this one religion, but letters from Americans United for Separation of Church and State increased pressure on the town to follow the U.S. Constitution. A letter from the City Council citing “a second legal opinion from a constitutional lawyer” promised to remove the flag on May 8—after the Bible Reading Marathon was finished. There was no word about the flags flying at the Bleckley County Courthouse and other public places. Of course, the flag didn’t come down until the town had finished its Christian business on the steps of the city hall.

The most classic refusal of service this past week isn’t because of religion, but it shows that people working at businesses have the opinion that they have the choice not to provide services. A male clerk in Iowa refused to sell British singer/songwriter and podcaster Mary Epworth tampons because he thinks that menstruating is “gross.” When Epworth put the box of cotton plugs on the counter, the clerk said, “I can’t sell these.” He called on a female clerk, who looked as if this wasn’t the first time he had done this. This denigration toward women’s needs is the same as a House hearing on female contraception that had no women witnesses.

Conservatives fight regulations, but these may be important so that women can get something as simple as a box of tampons. Or so that people can attend a meeting or send their kids to preschool without religion forced on them. Or LGBT people can get jobs—or just wedding cakes. Carrol Mitchem thinks that the U.S. Constitution protects only the majority of people. At this time, white men are a growing minority, and Mitchem may need his nation’s constitution to protect his minority rights.

May 9, 2015

Can the U.S. Find Dumber People Than These?

Filed under: Uncategorized — trp2011 @ 7:33 PM

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), whose net worth of at least $350 million puts him at the top of Congress, said that the United States has made “our poor somewhat the envy of the world.” I know who pays for Issa, but I’d like to know who consistently votes for him.

Undeclared presidential candidate Jeb Bush, who declaimed “I am my own man” when confronted by influence from his former president brother, has named the same brother, George W. Bush, as his most influential counselor. That was after he picked a foreign policy team who almost uniformly worked for Jeb’s father, brother, or both. If Jeb is trying to point out that he’s the same strong supporter of Israel as his brother, he missed Bush II’s work in favor of a Palestinian state, his refusal to bomb Syria in 2007 which forced Israel to attack the country by itself, and his lack of support for the 2008 Israeli airstrike on Iran.

Rep. Louis Gohmert (R-TX), one of 38 people representing the state of Stupid in the U.S. Congress, is claiming that President Obama is at fault for the sweeping conspiracy theory surrounding the military training operation called Jade Helm 15. People wouldn’t believe that the U.S. military is invading Texas if the president didn’t sue a “saintly nun” for helping the helpless, according to Gohmert. He continues by complaining that “the United States president is not doing enough to explain why they consider part of the United States hostile.” Blogger Sarah wrote, “I swear, Republicans would vote in a sack of potatoes if someone printed ‘Freedom’ on the side of the bag.”

bratRep. David Brat (R-VA), who replaced House Majority Whip Eric Cantor last year, goes farther than Gohmert. He believes a report that the terrorist group ISIL has a base south of El Paso (TX) to impose martial law and take away people’s guns. Brat also warned of “2,000 un-vetted people coming across the border from Syria, the home of ISIS” in response to the U.S. plan to vet refugees for resettlement in the U.S.  His delusions shouldn’t come as a surprise because he has previously said that he believes that God controls the economy and free market capitalism is His Will. Brat has managed to go farther off the edge that the conspiracy theorists who claim that President Obama is attacking Texas. [AP photo by Kevin Morely]

Florida Gov. Rick Scott told a TV audience in 2013 that his mother’s death had led him to stop opposition to expanding health care coverage to almost one million people in his state through the Affordable Care Act. Now he says that he lied in a calculated move to get the Obama administration to give control of Medicaid to private insurance companies. He again opposes Medicaid expansion and is suing the federal government for forcing him to take it. Then he asked the federal government $1 billion for hospitals treating low-income and Medicaid people who can’t afford insurance because Scott won’t accept ACA. Rick Scott’s “Obamacare alternative,”costing his taxpayers over one million dollars, has signed up only 49 people. Happy Mother’s Day, Gov. Scott.

Texas Republican Rick Miller has filed an anti-LGBT bill that repeals local ordinances protecting LGBT individuals in several Texas cities, including Houston. Miller also has a 40-year-old HIV-positive openly gay son, Beau, who has had a serious relationship with another man for the past four years. Last Christmas, Miller invited the two men to spend Christmas at his home which made Beau think his father was become more accepting of him. You can contact Rick Miller here.

Santae Tribble, 17, was sentenced of robbing and murdering a cab driver in 1978. After 28 years, the FBI discovered the hair used by expert hair analysts to prove he was at the crime scene was actually dog hair. Recently, the FBI admitted that “nearly every examiner in an elite FBI forensic unit gave flawed testimony in almost all trials in which they offered evidence against criminal defendants over more than a two-decade period before 2000.” Tribble was exonerated of the crime after being released from prison, but the FBI still has another 1200 cases to investigate. Of 268 trials thus far analyzed, 257—over 95 percent—contained flawed testimony. These included 32 defendants sentenced to death, 14 of whom either died in prison or were executed. Despite the horror of these facts, a few stories made a blip on the news surface and have since disappeared.

Lee County (FL) Deputy Sheriff Yvan Fernandez was eating a pizza when he acknowledged a 911 call from a Gwendolyn Minnis, 48, who reported having a heart attack. He wasn’t on an official meal break and said that he was on his way, but he finished the pizza before responding. Another deputy found Minnis lying dead in a neighbor’s yard almost an hour later. Fernandez, who reached the site later after traveling the 15-minute journey from his pizza, has been fired, but he is appealing.

Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) told an audience of his constituents his plan to destroy President Obama’s legacy: pass a lot of bad bills that the president will then veto, forcing him to become the president who “vetoed the most bills.” Thus far President Obama has vetoed four bills, 631 bills short of Franklin D. Roosevelt. George H.W. Bush vetoed 44 bills in his one term, and Ronald Reagan nixed 78 bills. Gosar ignored the bad bills that the last three Congresses have passed. The representative’s plan doesn’t sound very innovative: Congress has been passing bad bills for the past three Congresses.

Two government actions vie for the worst of the past month. In the first one, 225 House Republicans voted to overturn a local D.C. law last night that would make using employer-based health insurance for in vitro fertilization or birth control pills a fireable offense in Washington, D.C. The chamber debate was so controlled that an observer who attended to write a story was prevented from any electronic devices and stopped from taking notes by hand. The bill moves on to the Senate. With a population larger than either Vermont of Wyoming, the city has limited presidential voting rights, no vote in Congress, and the inability to raise local revenues or pass local laws without Congressional permission.

Colorado has refused to re-fund a program that helped reduce the state’s teen birth rate by 40 percent over the past five years. Since 2009, Colorado has provided thousands of IUDs and implants to low-income teenage girls, but Republicans claim that they are subsidizing teenagers’ sex lives and causing abortions—which these forms of birth control don’t do. According to the highly respected WebMD:

“There are two types of IUDs available in the United States. One type releases the hormone progestin, which causes the cervical mucus to become thicker so the sperm cannot reach the egg. The hormone also changes the lining of the uterus, so implantation of a fertilized egg cannot occur…The other type doesn’t use hormones. It contains copper, which is slowly released into the uterine cavity. The copper stops the sperm from making it through the vagina and uterus to reach the egg, thus preventing fertilization.”

One GOP lawmaker, Rep. Don Coram, who failed to explain to his party that funding the Colorado Family Planning Initiative is fiscally responsible, even wore an IUD pin on his lapel. He cited a state study that Colorado’s Medicaid program saves $5.85 for every $1.00 put into the program. Coram explained that a teenage unintended pregnancy “sets them up in a cycle of poverty. Eighty percent of them will be on welfare within a year. Many will drop out of school.” The rest of his party ignored him and continues its war on women.

Thus the U.S. proceeds on its race to the bottom.

May 8, 2015

Nike Proof of Trans-Pacific Partnership Dangers

President Obama visited Oregon’s Nike offices today to talk about how much he loves the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and how deluded the opponents on both the left and right are. I’m one of those strong opponents, disagreeing with my usually progressive senator Ron Wyden. People can argue that I haven’t read it and therefore know nothing about it. True, but I’m not allowed to read it. Neither is almost everyone else in the United States.

The supreme secrecy of the TPP is excessive, even in a government that prizes secrecy. Edward-Isaac Dovere wrote:

“If you want to hear the details of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal the Obama administration is hoping to pass, you’ve got to be a member of Congress, and you’ve got to go to classified briefings and leave your staff and cellphone at the door.

“If you’re a member who wants to read the text, you’ve got to go to a room in the basement of the Capitol Visitor Center and be handed it one section at a time, watched over as you read, and forced to hand over any notes you make before leaving.

“And no matter what, you can’t discuss the details of what you’ve read.”

Rep.Rosa DeLauro (D-CN) said, “It’s like being in kindergarten. You give back the toys at the end.” Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-TX) claimed, “My chief of staff who has a top secret security clearance can learn more about ISIS or Yemen than about this trade agreement.” Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) commented, “[The president is] incredibly condescending. It’s like, ‘You’d be all for this if only you hadn’t gotten an F in economics.’” He opposes what he’s seen because it lacks labor standards and measures to address currency manipulation. “We know when we’re being suckered,” said Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL), who he believes that the agreement quotes percentages instead of absolute values on trade statistics that give an overly positive impression. “It’s not only condescending, it’s misleading.”

Members of Congress are also upset because Michael Froman, the man behind the agreement presented false information in a Senate Finance Committee hearing about the “fast-track” process:

  • Fast Track doesn’t put “Congress in the driver’s seat” because it gives the executive branch all the power before “an up-or-down vote with no amendments or changes.”
  • There is no trade surplus with the TPP partners: the U.S. has a $180 billion trade deficit with the 11 countries and a $51 billion manufacturing trade deficit with all FTA partners.
  • Negotiations are not working for “access to affordable life-saving medicines” but instead giving greater monopoly protections for drug companies.
  • Froman’s “diversity of voices” are actually 90 percent representatives for industry interests.
  • His claims about the growth of exports are also false.

More details from Jonathan Tasini are available here.

Labeled a “free trade” agreement, the TPP covers many other subjects. Only five chapters deal with traditional trade issues. The others give foreign corporations to equal status with sovereign nations by allowing them to enforce corporate rights and privileges while limiting government policies for health, safe food and water, and wages. Nations in the agreement, including the United States, cannot make laws that might endanger any corporate profits.

This look at Nike, where President Obama tried to show how beneficial his trade agreement is to people in the U.S., describes the company’s decimation of jobs in the United States.  Phil Knight, head and co-founder of Nike, is worth $23 billion because of outsourcing jobs to overseas sweatshops, avoiding U.S. taxes through P.O.-box subsidiaries in tax havens, and threatening to extort tax breaks from its “home” state. Enrolled at Stanford Business School, Knight came up with the idea of using cheap labor at overseas factories in 1964. His 1962 thesis was on the profitability of offshore low-wage production of goods to be sold in the U.S.  At that time, 4 percent of U.S. footwear was imported; now 98 percent of this product is made overseas. By offshoring its labor, Nike has participated in driving down U.S. wages and benefits.

When horrible working conditions at the Nike overseas factories became an issue, Knight and other company officials claimed that they weren’t responsible for safety problems or labor conditions because they didn’t own the factories. A 1996 Life magazine article called “Six Cents an Hour,” picturing a boy sewing Nike soccer balls, brought the issue to a head. The exploitation of Nike’s offshore cheap labor created “brand erosion,” which could cost the company several million dollars. Two years later, Knight promised to get rid of child labor.

Nike earned $27.8 billion in revenue in 2014 and “employs”—through contractors—over 1 million workers. Fewer than one percent of these employees are in the United States. That’s 10,000 out of 1,000,000 workers. At this time, Nike pays Vietnamese workers $.56 an hour to make shoes, at a cost of $10, that sell for $320. The company had moved to Vietnam after wages rose in China. In today’s speech, President Obama said that Nike had promised to bring back “thousands of jobs” if the TPP is confirmed. The 10,000 new employees that Nike promises adds one percent to the total number of Nike manufacturing jobs in the United States.

All Nike shoes are produced outside of the U.S. In 2013, none of the 68 factories with Nike made shoes. Nike cut one-third of its U.S. production contracts and dropped the employees by one-third, from 13,922 to 8,400 U.S. workers. By contrast Massachusetts-based New Balance makes shoes in five U.S. factories. The TPP would force these factories to close because of the agreement’s lower tariffs on shoes made in such places as Vietnam, benefitting Nike.

An Obama administration argument for TPP is special “progressive” labor rights provisions for Vietnam, in recognition of its bad labor conditions. When that happened in Colombia, more than 100 union organizers were assassinated, and another 1,000 were threatened with violence.

Tax havens have saved Nike $2.2 billion in federal taxes. Nike had twelve shell companies in just Bermuda alone, ten of them named after Nike’s shoes: Air Max Limited, Nike Cortez, Nike Flight, Nike Force, Nike Huarache, Nike Jump Ltd., Nike Lavadome, Nike Pegasus, Nike Tailwind and Nike Waffle. Although the company appeared to have scaled down its tax shelters outside the United States, the company must disclose only “significant” subsidiaries. On the most recent financial report, issued last Friday, half the Bermuda subsidiaries from the previous year have disappeared.

The UK discovered that Nike is dodging taxes there as well by funneling millions of pounds from its sales through its Dutch division. The company that sponsors the England football team and tennis stars such as Maria Sharapova siphoned £8.3m from Britain to a sister company in Hilversum, Holland, because the Nike “subsidiary” in the Netherlands “owns” the rights to “license” something to Nike in other countries.

While Nike pays 90 percent less than its fair share in taxes, Knight managed to get huge tax breaks by threatening to leave the state. The legislature passed a bill agreeing to tax Nike only a portion of its sales for the next 30 years. Nike gets $2 billion for investing $150 million in a project with 500 jobs–$4 million per job. Nike has few employees here, shelters most of its revenue offshore, and had no intention of leaving Oregon, but its threats paid off big.

At this time, only one representative and one senator from blue Oregon oppose the TPP. The newest one to go with the president’s arguments, Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, said she’s backing the bill because it would help boost exports. Sadly, she there’s no proof. Bonamici does have concerns that it “include strong labor standards that will, among other things, guard against child labor and human trafficking” and to contain “unprecedented environmental standards to protect our land, air, and water and conserve our precious natural resources.” Even if the agreement that she approves—although she may not have seen it—has these provisions, it is a “living agreement,” which means that it can be changed after she votes to approve it. At this time, the TPP includes 12 countries, but it is open for every nation to join and open to changes in the provisions.

The president needs at least 30 House Democrats to make up for the missing 60 or more missing GOP votes. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) got six of the 11 other Democrats on the Finance Committee to back the legislation last month, but Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) has promised to filibuster the TPP.

flush the tppAs Robert Reich wrote, “Nike isn’t the solution to the problem of stagnant wages in America. Nike is the problem.”

What Nike does isn’t illegal. The company can legally use sweatshop labor and shelter its revenue from taxes. Part of the legality comes from trade agreements. The president is now promising Nike and other huge corporations that he will push through another agreement that will be far more beneficial to them and far less beneficial to U.S. workers. I understand why Knight wants the TPP. I don’t understand why President Obama wants the agreement.

 

[Protesters greeted President Obama at the entrance to the Nike offices.]

May 7, 2015

Really Big Deals! Alberta, NSA Surveillance, Arizona

U.S. conservatives have waged war for years against the president to allow the Keystone XL Pipeline across the country, moving oil from Alberta to Texas where it would be shipped out of the country to benefit wealthy people like the Koch brothers. After winning the Congress in last fall’s election, the GOP passed approval for the pipeline in both chambers; the president has still not taken any action.

Just a few months after this grand success, Albert overwhelmingly voted in the party that plans to force the gas and oil industries to pay their fair share of taxes and royalty payments and phase out coal power. It also plans to cut back pipeline projects. For almost one-half century, Big Oil and the Tories (oxymoronically called the Progressive Conservative Party) had been in charge. The election took the number of New Democratic Party (NDP) seats in Alberta’s legislature from four to 53 of the 87-seat legislature while the Conservatives (blue in the following chart) fell from 70 seats to third place with 10 seats, following the rightest Wildrose Party that took 21 seats.

chart-alberta-2015-election-resultsDave Weigel of Bloomberg, explained the tremendous change in the Canadian province known as “the Texas of Canada.”

“Imagine if Democrats took not only Texas Governor, but supermajority control of [the] Legislature and all state offices. That’s what [Alberta’s election] is like in Canada.”

As for the pipeline, premier-elect Rachel Notley pledged to stop lobbying Congress for its construction because poorly-regulated production of tar sands oil has made Alberta the biggest producer of climate-changing gases in Canada. Most of the oil coming from Alberta, 78 percent of Canada’s oil, comes from the extraction of dirty tar sands oil, which releases much larger amounts of greenhouse emissions than the regular production of oil. Unlike regular oil, the thick mixture of sand, water, clay and bitumen is extracted from the ground by “non-conventional” methods that are more carbon-intensive. Companies get the oil by digging up the tar sand and heating it with water or injecting steam underground. Making the steam requires a great deal of extra energy. Alberta’s extraction of tar sands produces more greenhouse gasses than transportation throughout Canada because of extremely weak regulations.

Alberta’s current premier, Jim Prentice, is immediately resigning and quitting his legislative seat. In this position for less than eight months, he called a snap election to get a mandate in a tax-raising budget after the drastic drop in oil prices caused a $7-billion hole in government finances. Prentice’s budget raised taxes and fees for everyone except corporations and ran a $5-billion deficit. When his female opponent challenged him for not raising corporate taxes, Prentice responded, “Math is difficult.” The election was a year earlier than necessary, but Prentice hoped to get a four-year term with what he perceived as weakened opposition.

The Conservative Party’s loss in Alberta may damage the re-election of Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a Conservative member in that position for the past nine years. Harper came out of the oil industry and lives in Alberta.

Investors, who had ignored the polls warning them of the shift in the political weather, are stunned, and Canada’s main stock index fell sharply on the day after the election because of large losses among energy companies.

The new controlling party may increase oil royalties, at this time between 25 and 40 percent of the companies’ profits. Texas charges 25 percent, one-fourth more than any other state in the U.S. while Norway charges about 80 percent of profits. The NDP plans at the least to make the royalty process more transparent and also raise the corporate tax rate from 10 percent to 12 percent. Between 2011 and 2014, Alberta’s oil-sands production increased from 1.5 million barrels per day to 2 million barrels per day. It could double to 4.3 million barrels per day by 2023 although the recent oil price crash may change that prediction. An increase in royalties would only affect future projects because operation is far less than upfront investment in oil sands projects.

Referring to the election, one commentator said, “Pigs do fly.”

Pigs flew as well in the United States today. For the first time ever, a court has ruled against the NSA massive surveillance. A three-judge panel of the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in New York unanimously rejected the National Security Agency’s program on collecting and storing bulk information on telephone calls by overturning an earlier ruling that the surveillance could not be subject to judicial review. According to Josh Gerstein, the panel ruled that “allowing the government to gather data in a blanket fashion was not consistent with the statute used to carry out the program: Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act.”

Currently, NSA is gathering and storing all data to search later if it sees a need, an act that the panel found to be illegal. The judges used the clause that “the tangible things sought are relevant to an authorized investigation” to make its ruling against the NSA because there was no discussion of relevance in the collected data. They explained that Congress did have the opportunity to authorize “such a far-reaching and unprecedented program … unambiguously.” This may not happen because the House wants to replace the bulk record collection with “a new program that would preserve the ability to analyze links between callers to hunt for terrorists but keep the bulk records in the hands of phone companies.” Last year, the House passed a bill to disallow the bulk collection, but the Senate refused to take it up. GOP Senators continue to prefer the status quo.

Today’s decision didn’t strike down the NSA program; instead it sent the problem back to a lower court. The ruling also didn’t end the collection while Congress debates the issue. The provision under discussion expires on June 1. With no decision by then, NSA has no justification after that for its actions. Without a law from Congress, the legal dispute about the constitutionality of NSA’s collection/storage will continue.

The ruling also covertly warned Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) who wants to allow the massive database collection by merely re-authorizing an unmodified Section 215:

“There will be time then to address appellants’ constitutional issues…. We hold that the text of section 215 cannot bear the weight the government asks us to assign to it, and that it does not authorize the telephone metadata program.”

Without Edward Snowden’s leaks about the NSA database, the U.S. public would have no knowledge about NSA’s surveillance. In 2013, Snowden leaked a court order to Verizon to produce “all call detail records or ‘telephony metadata’’ relating to Verizon communications within the United States or between the United States and abroad.” The federal government has not opposed the claim that “all significant service providers in the United States are subject to similar orders.” The Circuit Court used the phrase that “the tangible things sought are relevant to an authorized investigation” to make its ruling against the NSA because there was no discussion of relevance in the collected data.

One final piece of good news—an Arizona judge has ruled that Dreamers, the Latino youth in the United States because of DACA, are in this country lawfully because federal law, not state law, determines the legality. A 2012 executive order created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program for young people who had been brought to the United States illegally as children. According to the court decision, DACA residents in Arizona are to pay in-state tuition for the Maricopa County Community Colleges instead of out-of-state tuition which can be almost four times as much as the in-state costs. Arizona community colleges lost 15,000 enrollees when DACA students couldn’t afford to pay $355 per credit. The current attorney general, Mark Brnovich, is considering whether to appeal, and the decision affects only Maricopa County, covering much of Phoenix, but the Maricopa County Judge started a movement that may have great repercussions.

 

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