Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Showboat Comes To Vermont

So now we can add Vermont to the long, illustrious list of states that have seceded, or have wanted to secede. Welcome, Showboaters, to the Green Mountain State! (Article from Time Magazine)

Some people in the state, who call their group Second Vermont Republic, hope VT joins not just the former Confederacy but Rick Perry and the Fightin' and Snortin' Texans of today in pulling our country apart. Bravo. More shallow thinking from the fringe, which apparently is an equal opportunity magnet for nuts and bolters from both right and left. 

And apparently, the left far-outs are just as capable of indulging themselves in fuzzy economics, fuzzy history and silly crystal ball gazing. 

You have to appreciate a bunch of guys, however, with flannel shirts, fancy cars, jobs with mega computer companies and a twisted sense of humor. At least I find them funny - I mean funny like a clown.

It's really just more media circus showboating and it's depressing to see it coming from Vermont, of all places, which gave us founding uber-patriots Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys, Abe Lincoln's highest margin of victory in any state, and a 15% mortality rate in the Civil War, a rate higher than any other state.

Maybe they don't remember Abe. You know, that President who said at Gettysburg: The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. Yep, that Abe. The one who separatists assassinated with a bullet from behind.

What's even sadder is that the Vermont-firsters, like one of their leaders Thomas Naylor, are living in some sort of Disneyland of the North. Naylor says, for instance:"Not only would an independent Vermont survive. It would thrive, because it would free up entrepreneurial forces heretofore held in abeyance." 

And where would those mystical forces come from? Nova Scotia? You can be sure it won't be coming from the remaining United States, because the hostility and reluctance to invest for 100 years, if the experience of the Confederates is any indication, will be suffocating.

By the way, showboaters on both ends of the extreme fringe exhibit a reflexive compulsion to use high-fallutin' language to validate wobbly positions, their blah blah blahing obscuring the lack of deep analysis. Contrast Naylor's leaden prose with Lincoln's simple, powerful words. ("Heretofore held in abeyance..." Have they been consulting the Foghorn Leghorn Manual of Style?) 

Some economic facts of life... Vermont ranks a fair-to-middling 34th in per capita income in the United States ($35,493). You could count on that dropping by 20% even before secession became reality, as companies began moving their operations across the borders to NH, NY and MA, or QUE. So you'll be down to about $28,000 per capita before you can say "Freedom and Unity," the state's motto. That will put you down with states like Arkansas.

And making things difficult for "out-of-state" corporations, as another leader of the showboat movement hopes to do, will surely not help that Deep South level of performance. 

Moreover, there would be costs associated with a breakaway - for instance, all those nice federally-funded schools, roads, and so forth. Train tracks? Guess what? Airports - uh-oh. Any power plant, whether traditional or alternative, that took any kind of fed money? We'll be wanting them back, or at least will want you to pay for them. Plus a premium for causing the rest of us annoyance. You sure don't think the rest of us, who appreciate the Union even with all its difficulties and frustrating aspects - are going to actually let you keep infrastructure we all paid for, do you? Showboaters.

Now, I know that Vermont was a "republic" for about 14 years. And the Second Vermont Republic is somehow seeking linkage with that 220 year old "republic."

But, for much of that time there was no other country, as we understand the term, in North America. Indeed, all the colonies were mini-nations - states in waiting. None of them were forced to ratify the Constitution. Anyone of them might have stayed independent. Nevertheless, Rhode Island ratified in May of 1790 and the country was born in its current form. Vermont joined the Union less than a year later in March of 1791. So, you were kinda, sorta, almost unique for about 10 months. 

Get off the high horse. Get off the showboat. Join the real battle.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Speaking of NO - right wing says no to more efficient college loans

The breadth of the effects of the right wing's nay saying is sickening. As millions of aspiring kids and their families struggle to figure out how to finance college tuition, the Senate Republicans are saying NO to a bill passed by the House last year that would save families $80 billion dollars over the next ten years, largely by eliminating bank fees and profits. What's not to like? 

Ask Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee who said, in some sort of Orwellian double-speak, "Relying on budgetary gimmicks to stage another Washington takeover, this time of 15 million student loans, is not good for college students. The Department of Education in Washington will not be able to serve students as well as 3,000 lending institutions."  Mr. Alexander has been the recipient of more than $500,000 in contributions from the securities and banking industry since 2005, by the way.

Now, those institutions range across a broad spectrum of size and kind. But let's take an average. This average bank would, if the legislation fails, earn $26,667,000 over that ten year period, or roughly $2.7 million per year. Alexander claims this is a government "takeover." Senator, this is a federally funded, federally guaranteed program. The banks have been used to administer the funds but, because of their dubious records over the last 10+ years and their excessive profits torn from the skin of the backs of the middle-class, they have lost their privileges. Direct lending of taxpayer money back to taxpayers seems to make eminent good sense. And, as the right wing is so fond of trumpeting, it would cut inefficiencies. 

Who is really for the American people when millions of struggling kids need college financing?

Certainly not the right wing, which wants to wring every last nickel out of the middle class, and has no moral compunction about doing so.  

Cartoon From the Atlanta Journal Constitution Mike Luckovich

Thursday, January 28, 2010

High Speed Trains and One Mule

I am only quasi-pleased that the president is parceling out $8 billion dollars for the development of high speed trains around the country. It is really a paltry amount. It represents .00056 of total U.S. GDP. Let's say you have a two income household that brings in $100,000 per year and you want to replace some important infrastructure element in your house, or improve your transportation choices. Spending a similar percentage would give you a budget of $56.38 out of your hundred grand.

Liberals should be behind an enormous expansion of rail infrastructure - not just passenger, but freight as well, but the latter is another story. According to a number of sources, IF we had a rail system on a par with France's, it would provide 500 million passenger rides per year and require 1,000,000 workers to run, service and maintain the system. Now there's a jobs program for you. By contrast, Amtrak employs about 18,000 people. For a really excellent look at the potential for rail in America, check this out at The Infrastructurist.

Yet the right wing is rabid in its opposition. We can put it down to their usual stale pieties about government spending, waste, jeremiads against "socialism," and their slavish devotion to the oil industry. (As if the Interstate Highway System is not a communal venture!) However, I'd like to go deeper and lay it at the feet of a misguided hyper-individualism that is rooted in the values of the Old South. While the Northeast, Midwest and California were modernizing agriculture in the 1890s, the Old South was still dogging along with small family plots and the remnant of the rotted plantation culture that was dependent on slave labor.

Today's automobile culture is roughly comparable to the one-mule, postage-stamp farm of the post-bellum South. And the people who work on this new automobile version of such a farm, stuck in outrageously uneconomical, environmentally unsound machines, are really simply driving their one mule and hoping it lasts through the spring planting. So, the right wing clings to this outmoded way of thinking. It is deeper than political philosophy. It is a cultural philosophy deeply embedded and fraught with all sorts of common, pre-World War prejudices. Anti-cosmopolitan comes most readily to mind. Fear of the outsider - ewww I might have to sit next to a stranger on a train. Fatalism about the future also pops up when I consider this old, worn out way of thinking.

Listen to Harry Nilsson's "Nobody Cares About The Railroads Anymore"

Broader, almost revolutionary thinking is required if we are to hope that our children and grandchildren have jobs, a clean environment, and quick and easy ways to travel, at least regionally, if not cross continent.

But the future is not looking rosy as we dawdle and dither, held hostage to the old one-mule farm mentality.

The U.S. currently has one high speed corridor, Boston to Washington, of about 500 miles. Even if we were to build ALL the proposed high speed corridors on the national wish list, that would only amount to 4,000 at most. (By the way - in the U.S., "high speed" means an average of 79 mph on a system. In Europe, it's 120 mph.)

China, whose land mass is about the same as the U.S., has embarked on the second largest public works program in all of history, following only the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System in size. China plans to spend more than $1 trillion on expanding its railway network from 48,466 miles today to 68,350 in 2012 and 74,564 in 2020. China’s more pertinent goal is to invest in 8,000 miles of high-speed rail by 2020. They invest $1 trillion, while we argue and backbite over $8 billion.

By the way, the cost of the two wars in south Asia has now reached $955 billion.... hmm... just about what China plans to spend on its rail infrastructure. See this website: The Cost of War. Look for your area.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Incrementalism, Practicality and Health Care

Watching the health care reform fiasco in the last few months, it struck me that the Democrats and Republicans are wrong in equal measure. I don't think they asked the fundamental questions, and certainly haven't given any solid answers to the more tangential questions. Everyone feels this in their gut, regardless of where one stands on the political spectrum.

So, how about this? Learning from the travails of the original SCHIPs program introduced during the Clinton admin, and defeated once - finally passed in 1997, offer something small. And SCHIP is a good place to begin. Expand it. Start covering youths from 18 to 25, and have them pay a nominal premium on a mandatory basis if employed. What is nominal? $40 or $50 per month. Employers could contribute a similar or lesser amount. This could be marketed out to the public as a "Young American Worker Plan," or some such, that would help employees and employers alike.

On the older end, for people over 57, and not eligible for Medicare, something similar should be instituted, especially if those individuals are self-employed after being laid off, or taking early retirement. The cost of this should be about $100 per month.

This would help to take some burden off emergency room care issues, which have reached "critical" levels. The problem with emergency room care is that an ER is not a good substitute for primary care. The ER is just that - a place for emergencies. Emergency treatment is far more costly than simple preventative measures. Additionally, hospitals have no way to provide emergency care for free - it, like all other care, costs money. The cost of ER care for uninsured patients doesn't magically disappear. Uninsured patients often are billed directly for treatment but are unlikely to have the ability to pay. This cost strains hospital budgets and can be indirectly shifted onto families and individuals that do have insurance coverage in a "hidden tax" of higher premiums (Most estimates put the hidden tax somewhere between $1,000 and $1,300) Additionally, any hospital designated a "teaching hospital" and receiving Federal funding, seeks, and usually gets, otherwise un-reimbursed expenses from the Federal government. So, there is another hidden tax in there.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Some facts behind the Coakley Brown Election

Somehow, the press presents Scott Brown's win as a Republican triumph. Without going into denial that he indeed won, it should be noted that Brown only garnered 64,000 more votes than did John McCain in the presidential election of 2008. However, Coakley "lost" 833,000 voters who went for Obama in '08. (Plus, presumably, a good portion of the extra 64K that Brown picked up.) That tells me that while enthusiasm for Brown was modestly stronger, the loss of enthusiasm on the part of Democratic or centrist Indies was the real problem for Coakley.

Scott Brown 1,168,107 Martha Coakley 1,058,682
John McCain 1,104,284 Barack Obama 1,891,083

Brown picked up 64K votes Coakley lost 833K votes

When Whoever's In New England's Through With You - Reba McEntire

Friday, January 22, 2010

Inception and Conception

Like so many people in the country, and around the world, upon Obama's election and the installation of huge majorities in both houses of Congress, I thought : "Ha. Finally, we 're back on top."

(cf Van Morrison's Back On The Top -

But, as the interim elections have shown in NJ, VA and now MA - oh wherefore Bay State? - we have seen that the price of Liberalism is eternal vigilance - with a tip of the hat to abolitionist Wendell Philips's famous quotation concerning Liberty. Just yesterday, we had the ultra-right wing Supreme Court's decision on permitting unrestricted spending on campaigning by corporations.

Sad and intimidating. But, right now the worst thing a conscientious Liberal thinker/actor can do is to fall into despair and inaction.
"The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." So said Edmund Burke. We saw the resulting debacle of the Coakley campaign. The campaign was smug, complacent, and inert. That's all it takes to lose.

So, what the hell am I hoping to do in this blog?

I hope that most of all it would not discuss people, as tempting as it may be. It's all too easy to open the steam valves and scream and shout about W, Cheney, Mitch McConnell,
John Boehner - the Suntan Man, Limbaugh, Palin and the rest of that cynical, injurious gang.

I would rather discuss ideas. I am most particularly interested in the damaging effects of current right wing policy on the American way of life.

The thoughts could be very simple, but they should be clear-headed, well-written, and supported by fact rather than opinion. (Example - underfunding for Amtrak leads to x number of cars taking to the interstates and y number of tons of dangerous pollutants.) A little commentary would be fine; but laying out how the infection of right wing politics and policy is concretely hurting America is more the aim, for the moment.

It would be terrific if, say, you are in law, you would comment on legal issues - thinking the Supreme Cort decision here. If you have a background in energy, talk about energy. Education is also on the radar big time. But that's not to say we should limit ourselves to any set of topics. If your thing is zoos, talk about zoos. Hey, I'm Liberal.

With a little bit of diligence and luck, not too much spurious info will show up here. I'll try to be ruthless in rooting out the false, the insane, or the personal attacks so prevalent everywhere in the public discourse. "
Misinformation followed us like a plague..." 

from Paul Simon's Peace Like A River

I start by sending this to my old friends, my good friends. I count on you to send this to your friends and compatriots. So, please leave some trenchant comments and thoughts. And tell me what you think we all should be writing about.

--- RDL