Thursday, March 31, 2011

Bob Herbert's Leaving the Times?

Well, that's just a damned shame.

I shudder to think at what sort of wingnut trogg is being lined up to replace him. After all, their last big hire was Douthat, wasn't it? And THAT guy has proven himself as someone who would would be over his head in a local alt-weekly, let alone the Times.

But, hey, it's a brave new world where the entire media revolves around keeping the New Robber Barons happy. And it IS the New York Times, after all. Now that we know that Wall Street will be permitted to continue it's inexorable climb to 100% of (quasi-legitimate) GDP, I imagine they'll soon have little choice.

Edit: Yes, that is completely unfair. And, yes, they may hire a progressive. If they do, great! It's just that I'm not expecting it.

Then again, I think they should hire digby, now that she's no longer pseudonymous and all. So I might be especially biased that way.

Something to Keep in Mind:

The Tea Partiers "won" on the budget, as Ezra put it, because they screamed and yelled and wouldn't compromise and threatened to primary everybody to the left of Genghis Khan. The Republicans cut even more than they had before, and then "compromised" with the Dems back to their original desired position.

The lesson should be obvious for the "reasonable" Democrats that folded like a cheap suit from 2008 to 2010. It should be even more obvious for "reasonable" so-called "progressives" that just went along with the ride for the sake of a party that, like or not, couldn't give a rat's ass about them.

Yet, for all that, I suspect not a soul will figure it out. They haven't yet. Why would they now?

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Supreme Court Blows Off Man Unjustly Imprisoned on Death Row for 14 Years

This is sick. And yet more proof that "keeping your powder dry" was a terrible idea. If Roberts and Alito hadn't been appointed with the Dems' tacit consent, this man would have received justice. Instead, he gets nothing more than a pathetic slap in the face by the Roberts court.

And, now, because of this, prosecutors know that they can act with complete impunity. There will be more miscarriages of justice coming out of this. I guarantee it.

If you're on the wrong side of a public prosecutor, take NOTHING for granted. And if you see that someone's been convicted? I wouldn't necessarily take THAT for granted either. After all, how do you know the evidence is worth a tinker's damn?

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

America's Industrial, War-Winning Might

Interesting piece by Krugman today in relation to the Times' new Civil War blog, about how the North won the Civil War (and, later, how America helped win WWII):

[T]he way modern America won was characteristic. Southerners were better warriors — man for man, they almost always outperformed Union armies, although the gap narrowed over time. But the North excelled at the arts of peace — that is, in industry and ability to get things done. The North couldn’t stop Bedford Forrest from raiding supply lines; but it could repair track incredibly fast. And it was that Northern superiority in logistics, in production, that eventually proved decisive.

America’s other great moral war, World War II, was similar. The war movies I watched when I was a kid always had plucky, individualistic American heroes beating superbly equipped Nazis, but the reality was mostly the other way around. We had many heroes, but the truth is that Americans were never as good at the art of war as the Germans. What we were good at was the art of production, of supply. Honor the heroes who stormed Omaha Beach — but it was the floating harbors, the trans-Channel fuel pipeline, and the air superiority achieved through production miracles that really did it.
Not much to add to that. Except that I still find it amusing that fantasy strategy games like Starcraft and the like are much the same way: the wars between the little robots and aliens and whatnot are usually won through canny production and resource management, not through a player's dextrous handling of their onscreen avatars.

Wars really are won on the homefront.

Election in Canada

It seems somewhat trivial compared to what's going on in the Middle East and Japan, but for those interested, Canada's moving into another election.

It's a bit of an odd one, thanks to Canada's equally odd party system. It has four major parties (the Conservatives, Liberals, New Democrats and Greens), a single member first-past the post electoral system, and a rather notoriously powerful executive branch leading to a sort of "winner take all" situation regarding the Prime Ministership. Unlike, say, the United Kingdom, where MPs generally have more say. Thanks to regionalism, you also have a lot of ridings (electoral districts) where the Conservatives and NDP fight it out, the NDP and Liberals fight it out, the Conservatives and Liberals fight it out, or all three at the same time. Add in a staunch nationalist (and quasi-separatist) party in Quebec called the Bloc Quebecois, and you have a recipe for continuous hung parliaments—which Canada has—and coalition governments.

Except there IS no coalition. That's the strange part. The Conservatives have ruled the country without a coalition for over five years now, simply by threatening the Liberals with another election every time a confidence vote—which would bring down the government—came up for a Parliamentary vote. The Conservatives have enough money to fight an election whenever they please, while the Liberals are a bit skint these days, so the Liberals tended to knuckle under. (Though, when pressed, the New Democrats have propped up the Conservatives as well.)

But what if a defeated government just led to a new government with the same Parliament? Certainly that CAN happen. It happens pretty much everywhere else with three-party-plus electoral systems. The UK, New Zealand, Australia, and of course Israel, Germany, Japan and the rest. Both the UK and Israel are run by parties that didn't win the plurality of seats. So why not Canada?

Remember that big pot of money the Conservatives have? That's why. After an attempt was made at changing governing parties back in 2008, they successfully used their huge war chest to demonize the very concept of a coalition in the minds of the Canadian public. Part of that was due to the presence of the aforementioned nationalist party, which is unpopular in the rest of Canada due to separatist leanings, but a lot of it is due to attacks on the very concepts itself.

So, now, the prevailing opinion in Canada (at least among the commentariat) is that the party with the plurality is the only one that should be allowed to try to form a government. Other arrangements aren't acceptable, and the leader of the Liberals, Michael Ignatieff, has ruled it out. Yet there's almost no hope that he'll get a majority of the seats, so he'll have to do something to coordinate with the other parties should he get a plurality. Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, for his part, is claiming that the choice is between giving him a majority and a Liberal minority government; but even he can't necessarily hope for that. His numbers are strong now, but these are early days, and Ignatieff has successfully jettisoned a lot of the foreign policy adventurism and American apologism that made him such a problematic candidate in the past.

(I was no fan of "Iggy", and still have doubts, but he's certainly a better choice than the paranoid, autocratic, near-dictatorial Harper.)

This multi-party, first-past-the-post system also means that the lion's share of votes will be utterly wasted. Although some candidates win with a majority of votes, many win with a plurality; in either case opposition votes (in classic FPTP style) do absolutely nothing except sit there. So any plurality of seats may not even really be a plurality at all; Harper may be Prime Minister again with a "mandate" of a minority of seats held by people that each received a minority of votes.

It makes strategy difficult, too. Since each party is contending with all other parties in a variety of winner-take-all plurality battles in a country riven by regionalism, no single strategy will do. A strategy which would work in the Prairies for the Conservatives against the New Democrats may fall flat in Ontario against the Liberals. A Liberal strategy or policy that would be killer in inner Toronto against the NDP would be suicidal in battles against the Tories in ridings only about twenty miles away. The "also-rans" are always there bleeding off support and creating the possibility of candidates coming up the middle.

And in Quebec? Five parties contend there, the issues are totally different, the ideology is muddled at best, the separatist question looms over everything, and since the dominant language is different, communications are a whole different bag, too.

So, yeah, strange election. And likely to get stranger.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Libya Attacks

I'm very, very skeptical that the airstrikes on Libya will do more harm than good. I'm also very skeptical that this won't end up turning into a broader conflict.

But I do think that, unlike in Iraq, this is not a simple case of thinly-justified American aggression against a target of convenience. Libya has already descended into civil war, and the Libyan government has demonstrated that it neither has the confidence of its people nor even the most basic decency and respect for human rights.  I would have preferred that it went away peacefully, but that was apparently not to be.

So the question of the hour is what happens next. Can the rebels really accomplish much? Will the cause of Democracy in Libya fizzle? And, most importantly, will the Arab Uprising get bogged down in yet another argument about the intentions of the west that obscures the dangers of their own leadership?

And, worst of all, what happens if it turns out that Seumas Milne's charge that US Special Forces are helping to repress, arrest, and kill dissidents in places like Bahrain and Yemen turns out to be true?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

TEPCO and Transparency

The lesson of Fukushima isn't what you think it is.

It's not about nuclear power, or at least not really. Fukushima is almost certainly not going to be like Chernobyl, because it's not designed like Chernobyl. It doesn't use graphite as a moderator, and it was the explosive graphite that turned Chernobyl into a de facto dirty bomb. There is some danger from melting of the cores, but two of the cores are cooling normally and the other appears to be settling down after some issues with the hydrogen buildup.

Even a "meltdown" would only mean that the core would melt into the thick concrete beneath it. That would still protect the environment from the core until it could be cleaned up. Modern reactors aren't even be prey to that much danger. A pebble reactor in this situation would, I believe, simply cool down and stop normally.  The frothing panic over this is completely unwarranted.

It's not about the media, either. Not that they haven't acted execrably during this crisis. They seem to have completely ignored the massive toll of lives and property that was inflicted in Japan to focus on the sexy possibility of another Chernobyl. In doing so, they have failed two peoples: the Japanese people, whose real needs and real tragedies are being ignored; and the American people, who are being whipped up into such a panic that they are now in fear of mortal peril if they can't buy potassium iodide. The job of the media should be to tell them that they need not worry, that the Pacific is a big place and that they will be fine. But they aren't.  They're acting like savages and beneath contempt. But I still don't think it's really about them.

No,I think the real story here is about Tokyo Electric Power Company. Their press conferences are just about the only source of real information we have, and they have been TERRIBLE. They've been evasive and vague, and it's been like pulling teeth finding out what's really going on. 

That's fueling the destructive speculation, because this vagueness is serving as fertile ground for people to assume the worst. Whenever somebody who actually knows about this sort of thing tries to mollify the public, we find out something ELSE that TEPCO hasn't told us. The water level issues in reactor #2, the spent fuel storage issue in reactor #4, all of those things have been fueling destructive speculation about what they may not be telling people.  If people feel like TEPCO can't be trusted, they'll turn to other "experts", who will only fuel the rampant speculation with guesswork of their own. TEPCO needs to step up and be clear about what's going on, what they're doing, what is happening, and what ISN'T happening. Leave no room for speculation, and be transparent enough so that people will believe you.

This sort of vagueness and evasiveness fits the classical Japanese stereotype, of course. But I do wonder if it will remain so. Already, a lot of younger Japanese seem to have little time for it, especially with the old certainties having faded away over the last few years. After the way that this disaster has been compounded by the Old Way Of Thinking, is there any doubt that there will be an appetite for something new? We may see a serious cultural shift in the wake of this incident.

And while it's part-and-parcel with Japan's business culture, I can't imagine that "acting like TEPCO" is going to endear Japanese businesses to anybody either within or outside of Japan any time soon. This may, finally, be impetus for the real reform of business-government relationships that Japan so desperately needed.

Of course, all of this pales in importance compared to the quake and tsunami themselves. I honestly and urgently hope that the Fukushima issues can be speedily and safely resolved, so that the Japanese people can return to the business of taking stock of the damage, helping their countrymen, and rebuilding their shattered country. I also still urge you to donate to the Red Cross.

I definitely urge you to take everything you read about this with a huge grain of salt, and stop panicking about a singular, one-in-a-million disaster that pales in comparison to the devastation wreaked by hydrocarbons to the environment and human health each and every day.

Stay calm, stay skeptical, stop freaking out about potassium iodide, and be ready to support the Japanese as they rebuild their country and, perhaps, rethink their assumptions. And maybe, just maybe, you should do the same.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Japan Earthquake and Fukushima Explosion

You know what happened yesterday. I won't belabor it. Two points.

First: If you want to donate, do it to the Red Cross.

Second: It looks like the Fukushima power plant—the one whose cooling was affected by the earthquake—suffered an explosion. According to CBS, it was not a meltdown, and unlikely to become a meltdown. There IS radiation and people are being evacuated. Thankfully, though, it's no Chernobyl or Three Mile Island.

But it's still bad. VERY bad. Not only because the Japanese are just about the last people on earth who should endure a nuclear disaster, but because this could send the entire energy industry spinning off into crisis. Nuclear power had been barely rehabilitated in the public's eye, and this is going to make people distrustful of it all over again. Americans, certainly, ain't going to want no new nukes near them anytime soon.

Perhaps they're justified. This should NOT have happened, considering the Japanese's knowledge of nuclear power, attention to safety, and earthquake-consciousness. I know that I'm going to be a bit less receptive to the nuclear industry's claims.

But the one thing that nuclear power isn't is carbon-intensive. A wholesale switch from nuclear to oil, natural gas, or coal could exchange the possible environmental effects of a nuclear accident for the certain environmental devastation of climate change.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not one of those people who pooh-poohs conservation and renewable energy in the name of putting nukes everywhere. Those people are short-sighted idiots. But I do think that nuclear power has its place, and in a world where the bought-and-paid-for "denialists" are getting more and more coverage and sympathy from the bought-and-paid-for "newsmedia", anything that could be used to justify tossing more carbon into our atmosphere is a bad thing on principle.

(Even if it we weren't talking about an explosion at a nuclear generator.)

I hope the optimists are right. I hope that the current situation is the end of it. And I hope that nuclear plant engineers and designers learn from the mistakes that have been revealed over the last few days. Our planet needs it, in more ways than one.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

David Broder Passed Away on Wednesday

Sure, I disagreed with much of what he wrote. I will still freely grant his basic civility, his skill as a writer, and the generosity of someone who appeared to think that all of his countrymen could someday come together and reach a consensus on the issues of the day.

He'll be missed.

Digby in The Hill

Huh, I'm a bit behind the times. Didn't realize that Digby was doing real-name pieces now. But she is, at The Hill, and it's a great piece about how the talking heads in the media just ain't gonna sympathize with the American people, because they aren't really part of the American people to begin with. They make too much money for that, and (as digby puts it) "[i]t’s very easy to prescribe “shared sacrifice” when you will not personally sacrifice anything at all."

(Yes, it's under her real name. You want it, it's there. She was, is, and will always remain "digby" to me, so that's the name I'll use.)

Sunday, March 06, 2011

DC is Booming. America is Not.

That's the core problem facing America, according to The Nation's Christopher Hayes. We all know that DC doesn't give a rat's ass about America's dubious jobs situation, where so many people are out of work and so many MORE people are under-employed. But Hayes has come up with one good reason why:

I think there are two numbers that go a long way toward explaining it.

The first is 4.2. That’s the percentage of Americans with a four-year college degree who are unemployed. It’s less than half the official unemployment rate of 9 percent for the labor force as a whole and one-fourth the underemployment rate (which counts those who have given up looking for work or are working part time but want full-time work) of 16.1 percent. So while the overall economy continues to suffer through the worst labor market since the Great Depression, the elite centers of power have recovered. For those of us fortunate enough to have graduated from college—and to have escaped foreclosure or an underwater mortgage—normalcy has returned.

The other number is 5.7 percent. That’s the unemployment rate for the Washington/Arlington/Alexandria metro area and just so happens to be lowest among large metropolitan areas in the entire country. In 2010 the DC metro area added 57,000 jobs, more than any in the nation, and now boasts the hottest market for commercial office space. In other words: DC is booming. You can see it in the restaurants opening all over North West, the high prices that condos fetch in the real estate market and the general placid sense of bourgeois comfort that suffuses the affluent upper- and upper-middle-class pockets of the region.
Hayes goes on to point out that for those living in the midst of that sort of boom, it's very difficult to see that the rest of America is hurting. Sure, you understand it on an intellectual level. But it just doesn't feel real when you aren't personally exposed to it.

We know what they can do when there's a personal connection. It's been (quite literally) scientifically proven that DC Politicians only really pay attention to the concerns of the wealthiest 10% of Americans, as Hayes reminds us. With that in mind, is it any wonder that they responded to the market crash quickly and decisively, and yet are dragging their feet while less-connected Americans continue their slow slide to unemployability?

That brings Hayes, and us, right back to Wisconsin.

There is only so much social distance a society can take. The social science literature shows that as social distance increases, trust declines and aberrant and predatory behavior increases. The basic mechanisms of representation erode, and the social fabric tears. “An imbalance between rich and poor,” Plutarch warned, “is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.”

It’s against this backdrop of creeping dissolution that the word “union” takes on a renewed power. That’s why the struggles of the protesters in Wisconsin have resonated so profoundly. In banding together to oppose Republican Governor Scott Walker’s power grab, the students, teachers, cops, firefighters and neighbors have willed themselves to shrink the social distance those in power are cynically using to pit constituencies against one another. Walker exempted cops and firefighters from his bill’s radical limits on collective bargaining, but they joined the protests anyway. “An assault on one is an assault on all,” proclaimed Wisconsin Professional Firefighters Association president Mahlon Mitchell.

It’s in Wisconsin and across the Midwest that union members like Mitchell and his allies are showing us the antidote to the social distance that threatens the core of American democracy.
The Republicans know this quite well. That's the reason Walker's trying to bring down the Wisconsin public unions, and why the Republicans' various mouthpieces are bashing unions everywhere and every time they can. They know that this disconnect could easily convince the "other America" that they need to band with each other, instead of looking to their "betters" to solve things for them.

The American people are also starting to understand the situation. That's why the polls are showing that—despite all the anti-Union agitation of the Republicans' mouthpieces, the Kochs' various hirelings, and every corporation in the country—the American people support Wisconsin's public workers instead of Walker and his lot.

So the only group that doesn't understand this, as usual, are the DC Democrats. They're the ones who are so busy gobbling up corporate cash that they've forgotten that, as the old song goes, "the Union makes them strong". They're the ones who are disconnected with the "other 90%" when they shouldn't be. And they're the ones who need to reconnect, if they're ever going to be able to do more than pass Republican policies under a Democratic name.

(Edit: Added missing link.)

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Odd Traffic Spike About Bahrain

I had an odd traffic spike a little while ago—specifically a spike in direct hits to this piece on Bahrain. I'm wondering if it has to do with the anonymous comment I got in response. Content is reproduced here:

for all word PLS see what happen in bahrain

see this video, they kill the bahraini

other video
The two videos are very disturbing, so I'll just leave them as links instead of embeds.

Herbert and Krugman on Taxes and Wisconsin

Paul Krugman and Bob Herbert have, together, done a pair of excellent pieces on the forces that have led up to the crisis in Winsconsin.

Of course, Krugman already discussed Wisconsin more directly a little while ago, by turning to (surprisingly) Naomi Klein and her "shock doctrine" theory. But this latest piece, primarily about how low-tax, low-spending environments really hurt marginal children, also contains a key money quote:

By the way, given the current efforts to blame public-sector unions for state fiscal problems, it’s worth noting that the mess in Texas was achieved with an overwhelmingly nonunion work force.
Very MUCH worth noting. There's been a lot of blather about how bad public sector unions are, including from good ol' NYT Token Con David Brooks. But Texas is living proof that unions don't necessarily have anything to do with it: you can ruin your state just fine with nary a union in sight, simply by presuming that government programs spring forth from faerie dust and that ogres eat your tax dollars.

(All things considered, it's surprising that conservatives aren't more into high fantasy.)

Herbert really brings it home, though, by focusing on how important organization really is:

When you talk to the workers who are hurting most in this epic downturn, they are overwhelmingly out there on their own. No one has their back. The corporate community and the politicians who do their bidding know better than anyone else that workers who are not organized are most often helpless. They have no leverage. They cannot demand raises or health and retirement benefits or paid vacations or sick leave. They cannot negotiate shorter hours or better working conditions. It’s the boss’s way or the highway.

It’s not just pocketbook issues but the dignity of American workers that is at stake in the confrontations in Wisconsin, Ohio and elsewhere. These confrontations are about so much more than the right of public employees to bargain collectively, as important as that is. This most recent assault on labor is part of an anti-worker movement that has been on the march for decades. Jobs have been shipped overseas. Workers have been denied their rightful share of productivity gains. Wages have been depressed and benefits in many, many instances have disappeared.

It’s true that states are facing serious fiscal problems, crises in some cases, but a much bigger threat to America as we’ve known it is the increasing inability of hard-working men and women to earn enough to maintain a middle class standard of living, even as the corporate sector is thriving. The economic lives of the poor and an ever-widening portion of the middle class have become maddeningly insecure as the wealth of the society has been funneled, increasingly and unconscionably, to those at the top.
This is the most important economic issue of our time. No other even comes close. We are watching the middle class bleed out at the same time as the wealthiest 0.1% become near-omnipotent Robber Barons, and the closest thing we thought we had to an FDR turned out to be more of an admirer of Reagan than Roosevelt. It isn't a white collar thing or a blue collar thing; both good office jobs and good blue-collar jobs are disappearing at the same clip. I wonder whether there will be a middle class worthy of the name in a decade or so.

And while it could be said that it's enriching workers in other countries, the basic facts of international trade dictate that somebody on the North American side must be benefiting as well. America wouldn't trade if nobody benefited from it. Middle class blue- and white-collar workers aren't benefiting: any benefit to consumption they might get is overwhelmed by their devastated income. That much is absolutely, abundantly, and trivially clear at this point.

No, it's the ultra-wealthy that are benefiting, and they are reshaping America—and the western world—to suit their needs. Deluging voters during campaign season with nonsensical attack ads, overwhelming the popular discourse with plutocracy-friendly "scholarship", ripping apart public sector unions (the only unions really left in the country)...they're busily tearing down both government and any vestige of the fair markets that liberals advocate and are replacing them both with a convenient plutonomy.

All that despite the damning fact that it was that lot that plunged us into a near-depression two years ago.

It's enough to drive you to drink, except that the American people aren't buying it. From CNN:

Forty-two percent of the public sides with the public employee unions and 31 percent backs Gov. Scott Walker, according to a Pew Research Center survey released Tuesday. Nearly one in ten say they don't support either side, with 18 percent unsure.

The poll's release comes as protesters rally for the third-straight week outside the Wisconsin state capitol, upset with Walker's plan to limit collective bargaining rights for public-sector employees. The Republican governor, who was elected last November, says his plan is necessary to reduce his state's budget deficit, but pro-union groups say the governor is trying to curb long-held labor rights under a guise of fiscal responsibility.

A new CBS News/New York Times survey indicates that six in ten oppose the elimination of collective bargaining rights for the public sector union workers, with 56 percent opposed to the cutting of pay or benefits to reduce state budget deficits. The poll indicates a partisan divide, with Democrats and independents opposed to both moves while Republicans in favor of Walker's proposals.

A USA Today/Gallup survey released last Wednesday also indicated that 61 percent of the public would oppose a move in their state to pass a bill that would take away some of the collective bargaining rights of union government workers, with one in three saying they'd support such a move.

According to the Pew poll, two-thirds of Democrats side with the government employee unions, with Republicans favoring the governor by a 53-17 percent margin. Independents questioned in the survey are more divided, with 39 percent siding more with the unions and 34 supporting the governor.

The survey also indicates an income gap, with lower income people siding with the unions and more affluent people divided.
This is heartening news, at least. Sure, affluent Republicans are going to be anti-union. But it's nice to see that everybody else appears to be at least open to the idea that unions can look out for their interests against the Powers That Be.

I just hope that the inevitable crush of anti-union bullshit that's inevitably coming won't distract them from remembering that.