Friday, April 30, 2010

The Million Trees of New York City, The Billion Our Country Needs Now

In New York City call 311 to have trees planted in your neighborhood FREE.  Elsewhere, you can get 10 FREE trees shipped to you from the Arbor Day Foundation by clicking here.

Happy Arbor Day. In 2007, New York City started a modestly ambitious campaign to plant 1 million trees on streets and in parks. So far, about 350,000 have been planted. 

The goal should have been about 2.5 million, which would have represented one tree for every family in the city. Why up the number? 

If every American family planted just one tree, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere would be reduced by one billion pounds annually. This is almost 5% of the amount that human activity pumps into the atmosphere each year.

Trees also reduce the greenhouse effect by shading our homes and office buildings. This cuts down on air conditioning needs up to 30%, thereby reducing the amount of fossil fuels burned to produce electricity. This combination of CO2 removal from the atmosphere, carbon storage in wood, and the cooling effect makes trees a very efficient tool in fighting the greenhouse effect.

A single mature tree can absorb carbon dioxide at a rate of 48 pounds per year and release enough oxygen back into the atmosphere to support 2 human beings.

Each person in the U.S. generates approximately 2.3 tons of CO2 each year. A healthy tree stores about 13 pounds of carbon annually - or 2.6 tons per acre each year. So in a country of 300,000,000 people we need 150,000,000 acres of forest, although getting those acres in the right place is key.

Over a 50-year lifetime, a tree generates $31,250 worth of oxygen, provides $62,000 worth of air pollution control, recycles $37,500 worth of water, and controls $31,250 worth of soil erosion. (USDA pamphlet R1-92-100)

One sugar maple (12" diameter at waist height) along a roadway removes in one growing season 60mg cadmium, 140 mg chromium, 820 mg nickel, and 5200 mg lead from the environment.

Homeowners that properly place trees in their landscape can realize savings up to 58% on daytime air conditioning and as high as 65% for mobile homes. If applied nationwide to buildings not now benefiting from trees, the shade could reduce our nation’s consumption of oil by 500,000 barrels of oil per day. (American Forests Publication, “The Case For Greener Cities” 1999)

The maximum potential annual savings from energy conserving landscapes around a typical residence ranged from 13% in Madison up to 38% in Miami. Projections suggest that 100 million additional mature trees in US cities (3 trees for every unshaded single family home) could save over $2 billion in energy costs per year. (McAliney, Mike. Arguments for Land Conservation: Documentation and Information Sources for Land Resources Protection, Trust for Public Land, Sacramento, CA, December, 1993)
For the sake of discussion, let's say that we can plant 100 million trees for $15 each. That's $1.5 billion in outlay. After 20 years in non-inflated dollars we would have saved about $40 billion in energy costs. We also would have created useful jobs for the underemployed and unskilled, beautified our country, saved the wear and tear on air conditioners, captured run-off water, lowered overall pollution, raised oxygen levels in the atmosphere, cut health care costs and improve our spiritual well-being. 

In 10 years, for a total outlay of $15 billion, we would have one billion more trees and would have saved $400 billion in energy costs. Can you think of a more inexpensive, efficient, non-controversial way to improve the environment?

Our Defense Department budget for 2010? $685.1 billion, which represents a 3% increase over 2009 or $22.5 billion. Just the increase over one year would more than cover the planting of 1 billion life-giving trees. What in God's name is wrong with us? 

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Fire In The Gulf, Wind Off The Cape

Almost at the same time the Coast Guard was setting fire to the oil sludge erupting from the floor of the Gulf of Mexico, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar gave the preliminary go-ahead to the giant 130-turbine, 420-megawatt Cape Wind project in Horseshoe Shoal, Nantucket Sound.

Forces aspiring to stop the wind farm, claiming that it will spoil views, upset some sort of tenuous Wampanoag tribal traditions, disrupt marine life, and kill seabirds are already indulging in some big-money grumbling and will no doubt fight the project in courts, perhaps for another decade. A word the right wing ceaselessly bandies about comes to mind. Elitists.

This NIMBY stance by the rich - liberal or conservative - is despicable. It is indicative of a larger, cancerous problem in the body politic, namely the inability of the elite to lead rather than simply control and manipulate public circumstances to suit private appetites. (Goldman Sachs anyone?)

The red herrings being tossed into the slumgullion of this argument are easily refuted: 

Seabirds will suffer in the beginning surely and then they will adjust and adapt to the whirling blades capturing the wind. Is there any hope whatsoever that the same birds will ever adapt to rising planet temperatures, depleted or disrupted fish population, or the effects of oil spills as in the Gulf? Furthermore, according to a research paper by National University of Singapore professor Dr. Benjamin K. Sovacool, “wind farms killed approximately seven thousand birds in the United States in 2006 but nuclear plants killed about 327,000 and fossil-fueled power plants 14.5 million.” The biggest killers of birds in the United States today? House cats and plate glass windows. Weigh it for yourself.

The disruption of marine life argument should be read clearly as "the disruption of commercial and recreational fishing businesses," rather than being allowed to be draped in the clothing of environmental righteousness. (The Duke’s County/Martha’s Vineyard Fishermen Association plans to file suit against the federal Minerals Management Service for violations under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act.) Navigation will be made somewhat more difficult certainly, but the men who pilot fishing boats in and around Cape Cod and its islands surely are no strangers to navigational difficulties. Rocky shoals, hard currents, storms and other heavy weather abound. Additionally, the Nantucket harbor entrance itself is already flanked by man-made jetties extending almost a mile into the sea, and the regular dredging of boating lanes has a significant, yet accepted, impact on sea life. There is no outcry over these intrusions. 

The hypocrisy of the Wampanoags is also detestable. The tribe, which numbered about 6,000 people at the dawn of European settlement says that their traditional ways are going to be interrupted. In no way denigrating Native American claims of historical hardship, every single 21st century human has to embrace and correct what is happening to the larger ecosystem. The entire population of Wampanoags now numbers about 2,300 individuals of varying degree of purity of lineage. In spite of past deprivations, surely they have no claim on stopping what amounts to a clean-energy technological revolution. Ironically, while resting their standard upon fighting the Nantucket wind farm, the Wampanoags are simultaneously fighting to establish a state-sanctioned gambling casino. Clean, renewable energy vs. fleecing the desperate or mentally ill of their money? The Wampanoags should stop talking tradition trash.

The view is the real crux of the conflict. Are the enormous turbines really eyesores? Some with a grander sensibility might say the wind farms make the landscape more beautiful given the underlying assumption they are providing super-clean energy. The turbines are all over Scandinavia, Great Britain, Germany and Brazil, countries scarcely without tender sensibilities. And just because members of the political elite can't see them, it doesn't mean that large, unsightly generating plants with chimneys belching foul-smelling brown smoke into the sky don't exist.

Agitation against such progressive developments tells us just how self-absorbed and small-minded elites of any stripe can be. The liberal elite should be leading this charge, not hamstringing the efforts at establishing a new energy regimen.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

ABCs of Financial Reform: Getting A Grip On What Derivatives Actually Are

Watching and reading about financial reform and Goldman-Sachs recently I was struck by a recurrent theme: these exotic financial instruments are too danged hard for the layperson to understand. They never struck me as all that hard to understand once you grasp the fundamentals of a Ponzi scheme, for at bottom, all such schemes are the same with some specific flourishes to keep the appeal fresh.

I spoke to a friend of mine who has run and/or owned a mutual fund for decades, one run on the old-fashioned notion that you look at companies, analyze their prospects for profit, take a large position in the best companies and then persuade others to buy your mutual fund based on your analytical acumen and management skills you bring into those companies as a major shareholder. (It's actually the way capitalism ought to work.) 

My friend convinced me that there was not that much to understand - not in retrospect, anyway. Once he walked me through the scheme, it set me to wondering why people actually don't want the derivatives market more-tightly regulated.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll issued Monday showed "that on the complicated topic of derivatives... 43 percent [of respondents] support federal regulation of the vast derivatives market; 41 percent are opposed; and 17 percent, nearly one in five people, expressed no opinion on the topic."

Something tells me that those who are either opposed to regulating derivatives or have no opinion essentially haven't a clue as to what a derivative is and therefore have no idea how fertile the derivative field is when it comes to the opportunity for creating fraud.

And fraud it was that melted down the American and world economy in the last few years. The lynchpin of the meltdown was the issuance of billions of what William K. Black, (a lawyer, professor and the Executive Director of the Institute for Fraud Prevention from 2005-2007), calls "liars loans," taking his lead from the term used by executives who ran "specialty" loan companies - companies that market loans to marginally risk-worthy people.) Yes, internally the executives actually used the term "liars loans." These corrupt executives knew much more than anyone is insisting upon, including members of both major political parties. We know these loans also as ninja loans, sub-prime mortgages, and adjustable rate mortgages (ARMs).

A liars loan is a mortgage (or in some cases auto or commercial loan) whose sole criteria is based on the mortgagee's attesting to his or her creditworthiness without back up information. In an interview, Black said, "Liars loans mean that we don't check. You tell us what your income is. You tell us what your job is. You tell us what your assets are, and we agree to believe you. We won't check on any of those things. And by the way, you get a better deal if you inflate your income and your job history and your assets."

One company alone, IndyMac, generated more bad loans than were generated during the entire Savings and Loan Scandal of the 80s and 90s. Counterintuitively, these loan institutions listed such loans as "assets."

On the strength of those assets, loan institutions took such loans and "bundle" them, and "sell" them to other institutions, more likely than not an investment bank such as Goldman-Sachs. The loan institution is then able to take the new capital they have received from the investment banks for the old (liar) loans and lend more money to the non-creditworthy. You can practically see the pyramid a-building. In return, the investment bank draws off some portion of the interest paid on the mortgages in the bundle plus fat fees for the deal.

In the beginning, the Goldmans of the world knew that the bundles contained some unbelievably risky loans, but also some stable ones. They calculated the risk-reward ratio and ran with it. Why? Because they knew not that the loans would be paid off, but that the default ratio would be very, very high. Crazy, eh? Read on.

As the pool of truly creditworthy borrowers dwindled, opportunities for banks and other loan institutions to lend good money to good risks practically evaporated. (The creditworthy pool moves at its own relatively slow, steady pace; as one might assume, it is large but nevertheless limited.) More poor risk borrowers had to be found. And they were. People with $65,000 incomes were buying houses selling for $450,000 with $420,000 mortgages and $3,000-per-month payments on top of taxes, utilities, etc. (Of course, all this fraudulently issued credit also had the incidental effect of artificially driving up housing costs, costing good-risk home owners billions in equity in homes they purchased at peak price only to find the prices plummeting. This made ALL home prices fall. Many of the good-risk types also, based on this false inflation of prices, took out home equity loans, i.e., second mortgages, and found themselves now the proud owners of a total debt that outweighed the deteriorated value of their homes.)

Next the investment banks who took the bundles began using them as collateral to make other deals with other financial institutions that then used them to make more deals, down the line. Thus, the Ponzi aspect of it. But along the way, because of the sterling reputation of Goldman and its ilk, these junk status bundles, bathed in the reflective glory of grand institutions, rose to AAA ratings. Solid institutions like pension funds, college endowments, and municipalities with investment portfolios snapped them up at sky-high prices. Got it?

On top of all that, Goldman, in particular, engaged AIG to insure the bogus deals underlying the instruments that had been created out of whole cloth of the original liars loans.

Enter William Black again: "This stuff, the exotic stuff that you're talking about was created out of things like liars' loans, that were known to be extraordinarily bad. And now it was getting triple-A ratings. Now a triple-A rating is supposed to mean there is zero credit risk. So you take something that not only has significant, it has crushing risk. That's why it's toxic. And you create this fiction that it has zero risk. That itself, of course, is a fraudulent exercise. And again, there was nobody looking during the Bush years. So finally, only a year ago, we started to have a Congressional investigation of some of these rating agencies, and it's scandalous what came out. What we know now is that the rating agencies never looked at a single loan file. When they finally did look, after the markets had completely collapsed, they found, and I'm quoting Fitch, the smallest of the rating agencies, 'the results were disconcerting, in that there was the appearance of fraud in nearly every file we examined.'"

Meanwhile, back at Goldman, et al, the executives connived at an even more diabolical plot. These bundles - the derivatives - are traded like any other stock or commodity, meaning that their value can move up or down as the market honestly - in normal circumstances - dictates. Just as if he is buying shares in Ford Motors, the basics trader can buy shares in these bundles, hoping, of course, that they move up at which point he sells to make a profit.

In parallel, more sophisticated traders can also buy futures contracts, essentially bets on which way the value of the bundles will move. Goldman bet on their own deals to go down because they knew all along the value of the bundles would sink like a stone. And they made tens of billions when the deals went south.

Now we have junk loans bundled together then sold to investment banks who then repackaged and resold them while goosing the ratings on the bundles, all the while betting the value will go down. Makes your skin hurt, doesn't it? This is why there was guillotining during the French Revolution. Let them eat cake? Hah, let them eat bundles.

From 65 to 80% of the bundles were composed of bad loans. Terrible in a great economic climate, but cataclysmically toxic in even a mild downturn. As the bank/investment bank/insurance company beast grew hungrier and defaults occurred on the original liars loans, the rates on the surviving original mortgages were raised. The mortgagee paying the barely-affordable $3000 discussed above, now had to pay, $3600 per month and simply could not afford to. Thus began the foreclosure domino debacle. Everyone along the chain fell prey to the ravening, from borrower to specialty loan institutions, from building developers to banks that lent money to the loan institutions, from building supplies dealers to governments who had reckoned on tax revenues from the new home owners who now were in default.

All except... Goldman and its fellow fraudsters, all of whom made money every step of the way right down to and after the deep default period because, after all, they had bet on the value of the bundles going down.

The last word of this chapter goes to Mr. Black: "The FBI publicly warned, in September 2004 that there was an epidemic of mortgage fraud, that if it was allowed to continue it would produce a crisis at least as large as the Savings and Loan debacle. And that they were going to make sure that they didn't let that happen. So what goes wrong? After 9/11, the attacks, the Justice Department transfers 500 white-collar specialists in the FBI to national terrorism. Well, we can all understand that. But then, the Bush administration refused to replace the missing 500 agents. So even today, again... this crisis is 1000 times worse, perhaps, certainly 100 times worse, than the Savings and Loan crisis. There are one-fifth as many FBI agents as worked the Savings and Loan crisis."

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Metro New York States' Budget Deficits Compared To Those States' Contribution To The Wars In Southwest Asia

Source: National Priorities Project - Click link at left and go to your state (or city/town), then look up your state's deficit somewhere else - put your state's name and the word deficit into Google - and voila... it will tell you what your state is missing.

As we argue about what schools to close, which teachers to fire, what health programs we trim, which summer recreation activities to curtail, and when one city - Colorado Springs - is turning off its street lights, here's where a good chunk of our collective change is going. 

Huffington Hysteria

HuffPo has so much to offer us, but an article run in today's business section can only be described as hysterical. View it here.  It describes the dire consequences of the decline of the industrial side of the U.S. economy.

In reality, there is no such decline except in relative terms. With less than 5% of the world's population, the U.S. accounts for almost 25% of the world's industrial output. China, with 24% of the world's population accounts for about 18% of the world's industrial output.

Additionally, U.S. industrial output has grown every year since 1990 (at least) even through the current recession.


Industry is not going away. What will go away are the number of jobs provided in the manufacturing sector. As advanced economies automate and robotize their industrial plants, fewer and fewer people will be needed to work in them. This is roughly analogous to the 19th and 20th century decline in the number of farm workers or number of deck hands needed to move a given amount of freight tonnage on a ship across an ocean. (Think labor intensive sailing ships versus the mega cargo ships of today that can be operated with a handful of crew members.)

And consider this from MSNBC: "Whereas a Chinese industrial worker produces $12,642 worth of output... in the United States, a manufacturing employee produced an unprecedented $104,606 of value in 2005."

China's growth has been meteoric, no doubt. But, with 1.6 billion people, it's output is relatively puny on a population basis, and by default much of what China produces is consumed at home. (Japan and Germany lead both America and China when it comes to this population-to-manufacturing ratio. Although it should be noted that the manufacturing fraction of the U.S. economy is much smaller than either China, Japan or Germany, which means our economy is much more diverse.)

The United States must stop looking at China's new-found, if narrowly distributed, prosperity not strictly in Yin terms, but in Yang terms as well. It is a new, vast market to conquer and we have many, many goods (and services) China wants and needs.

Obviously, our government needs to be more vigilant about China's unfair trade practices - the renminbi needs to float, for starters - and we must be vigilant about the constant influx of shabby products the Chinese send here.

Reciprocity is the key word and Washington has to step up on the trade issues, even in the midst of all the other wailing and gnashing of teeth rising above the Capitol.

While we certainly have room for expanding our manufacturing capabilities, now is not the time to be acting as if we're on an industrial-strength bad acid trip. Better to ask ourselves what new industries and markets lend opportunity for expansion. Green Tech? Transportation?

The latter is an interesting case and shows why we feel as if we're stumbling. The U.S. dominates aircraft manufacturing. But we are dead last in manufacturing of heavy and light rail components. Why? We have a thriving airline industry at home, but have little in the way of passenger rail service. That's the main reason we have so little in the way of a rail manufacturing sector. Other countries have put increasing importance on rail, creating new manufacturing opportunities in their home countries but abroad as well.

Lack of progressivism hurts us in business as well as social achievement.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Racial History of Arizona, Part One: The 19th and Early 20th Century

The Arizona Rangers

The "Driving While Mexican" law enacted last week in Arizona is not some isolated incident, a case of good people gone bad over a frustrating circumstance.

Indeed, it is part of Arizona's long, complex racial history, dating back to shortly after the Civil war when copper and silver mines were opening in the Gila Mountains, among other places. At the time, the thinly populated region could have been aptly named Mex-Arizona, the border being legalized on paper, but for all intents and purposes fluid and porous.

The first white reaction came in the 1870s when, fresh off the completeion of the Transcontinental Railroad project, and after building a primary railroad network across the then-territory, Chinese laborers drifted into metals mining work. The Chinese men fell into competition with Mexican workers for whom the Arizona-Mexico border was imaginary at best.

As long as the Chinese remained in competition with Mexican workers only, their presence provoked little concern among news editors and representatives of vocal white groups. But it was not long before the Chinese began to drift from the railroads into mining work. Henry Lesinsky (pioneer of Arizona, a Prussian of Jewish descent) touched upon this matter publicly, announcing that if his Longfellow Copper Mines employed any Chinese at all, “it would be at work which neither white men nor Mexicans would accept.”

Lesinsky did not want to be responsible for starting a “Mongolian invasion of that territory.” Instead, the Chinese would be put to work in the hills burning and transporting charcoal for the furnaces over such rough country that “even Mexicans cannot be got to carry anything over it.” Not more than seventy would be hired, and these would work separately from the “225 to 275 white men and Mexicans, who got on very well together.” A week later the Silver City Herald reported that “some fifty Chinamen have arrived at Clifton, Arizona, and will be put to work in the mines and furnaces.”

"Vagabondage and crime" were said to be the direct result of this immigration, local politicians were challenged to define their positions on the issue publicly, and the Immigration Act of July 1, 1879, then being formulated, was cited as evidence of federal recognition of the seriousness of the Chinese question. “The Chinese must go!” became the symbolic cry that greeted Southern Pacific foremen when they arrived with their crews at Maricopa Station in January, 1880, after a six-months interruption of the work. The Chinese soon went, some 3/4ths of them into the copper camps.

By the early 1900s,  Mexican laborers predominated in the mines, most of them brought by enganchadores, or "hookers," recruiters who preferred men from the interior of Mexico rather than border-men.

According to the editor of the Bisbee Daily Review, thousands of Mexicans were brought into Arizona during 1901 to work on the railroads and in the mines. The inflow was so great at this time that he questioned the accuracy of the 1900 census in setting Arizona’s total population at 122,212. “There is little doubt, despite these official figures,” he said, “that the territory has a bona fide [permanent] population of about 140,000.” No immigration statistics were kept at this time, but contemporary estimates claimed that between 60,000 and 100,000 Mexicans crossed the border annually.

This was the beginning of the trans-national labor issue we see now exploding in Arizona's profiling law today. (Of course, ranch and farming workers crossed easily in early days, but numbers were insignificant.)

Eventually, Mexican laborers ran smack up against unionized whites in the mines, the whites believing that low-wage Mexican workers dragged down the wages of their members, high-skill workers. In actuality, the price of copper had tumbled in the first decade of the 20th century.

On March 21, 1901, during Governor Nathan O. Murphy’s last year in office, the legislature passed a bill enabling the creation of a special body called the Arizona Rangers. Their personnel, whose identification was to be kept as secret as possible “for strategic purposes,” were authorized to command the services of cattlemen and law officers when necessary. Formed originally to patrol the border and prevent cattle rustling, they were often used by mine owners to suppress strikes. Having formed the body as one of his last official acts, Murphy, himself a mine owner, resigned to attend to business affairs, forcing his successor, Governor Alexander O. Brodie, to take office prematurely in July 1, 1902. The next year the union won a round. When the twenty-second legislature met on January 19, 1903, says historian James McClintock, they passed an act “directed against the companies employing Mexican and contract labor… prohibiting more than eight hours of labor on underground work in the mines.” While the eight-hour law constituted a major victory for [white] union men in their efforts toward better working conditions, their principal satisfaction came in seeing an effective blow delivered to mine operators who sought to employ alien Mexicans whenever possible because Mexicans would submit to working ten to twelve hours a day at a wage that undercut the union scale by almost fifty percent.

A strike, called the Clifton Strike, ensued and toward its latter stages, only Mexican laborers were left, and they insisted on organizing for better wages and shorter hours. The strike, which may have ended in bloodshed, (both sides were heavily armed), was instead ended by a catastrophic rainstorm that literally washed away the Mexican workers shantytowns.

The Clifton strike was the opening shot of a long series of skirmishes between labor and management with Mexican workers as a major issue. Because of increased cooperative efforts, the wages of Mexican workers began to rise as the years went on. By the end of the Territorial period, the momentum of economic necessity showed Anglo and Mexican workmen that cooperation was the better course. There was also a significant decline in anti-Mexicanism. The alien labor issue, however, continued to be a problem. In fact, really serious troubles were just beginning. Contract systems for alien Mexican labor were established during both World Wars and the government ultimately resigned itself to legalizing what it could not prohibit.

This sat well with white Arizonans as long as Mexican workers were the only ones willing or available to work mine, road and railroad-building, and other menial jobs. Mexican women were employed as household help, or as menials in laundries, food establishments and so forth.

As the white population of Arizona grew, however, from 1900 through the 1950s and the economy diversified, whites saw their right to seek employment as substantially more crucialt than the old, cross-border model.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Financial Fire Next Time

Limit leverage. Mandate transparency. Criminalize behavior and seize assets.

Everyone knows some version of the military maxim, "Don't prepare to fight the last war, prepare to fight the next war."

Congress is preparing us to fight the last financial war, the one based on the bundling, manipulating and trading of derivatives. But the next financial war will be about something very different.

What might it be? Look to the hottest and/or emerging sectors of the economy.

The Internet is still an under-ripe crop; the green economy is a nascent opportunity for the pirates; cap and trade scenarios are the perfect imaginary commodities; and don't forget our old "frenemy," oil. Maybe even water futures. How about bonds, the stodgy investment? I'd also keep an eye on Baby Boomer pensions and annuities; the biggest pot of gold in the private world is the $27 trillion dollars in assets held by American Boomers.

No one knows exactly what the next market bubble or grand maneuver will be. But we can be sure one will come as soon as regular companies, recovering now at a fevered pace, slow down and the big money looks for yields that can be conjured out of thin-air. (E.g., Ford stock has gone from roughly $1.50 to around $14 in the last 2 years. Chances are it's not going to $28 soon. Where can the hungry investor double his money now?)

And the crisis will absolutely, positively entail over-leveraging in some new, nefarious way.The mechanism is being assembled like a top secret rocket as you read.

Leverage was what the 1929 Crash was all about. In fact the entire Roaring 20's roared and vamped on cheap, unbridled credit. Big investors bid up the stocks of regular companies then colluded with banks to lend money so smaller and smaller investors could jump on the band wagon until corporate stock prices were in stratospheric ranges. At one point, AT&T was selling for $304 per share. That's about $6000 per share in 2010 money. And guess who bought at $290 or thereabouts per share? The johnny-come-latelys. Small time suckers, farmers, credit unions, and weak-economy foreign governments looking to cash in. Only a few weeks later, AT&T sold for $197, then eventually fell to the $60 range.

In the 20s, too, there was something called the Florida Land Boom. Again, some worthwhile but mostly worthless land in the Miami area was sold to investors up north with banks exhibiting nary a care about the buyers' financial positions. Parcels that went for $3000 in 1922 were selling for $60,000 in 1926. All on borrowed money, both buyers and their banks becoming overleveraged in the process. So when the music stopped... all fall down.

We've seen this before too many times. The Savings and Loan crisis, the Hunt Brothers' attempt to corner the silver market in the 80s, the Internet Bubble. Thousands of people saw it in the eyes of Bernie Madoff. Going back further, there were the South Sea Bubble in the early 1700s and Tulipmania in 1637. Everyone wants in on the big casino. And everyone gets their freak on when the casino slams them.

So, what can the government actually do? What laws can be passed?

1) Highly-leveraged paper has to be limited to some rational share of a financial company's investment portfolio. We know now that margin buying in the 20s was part of a larger delirium. But buying a purely speculative instrument for 10% down (margin buying) was utter madness.

Imagine a friend saying to you, "Lend me $5,000 so I can go to Vegas," when in fact she only had $500 to her name. You'd call an asylum. But in our public market speculations we lend that $5,000 all the time, the theory being that if I lend enough bundles of 5 grand, one of my friends will come home a millionaire and I cover my bad investments plus make a big belly profit. But when none of the friends come home, I'm in big trouble.

Our housing bubble was more complex, but it operated on the same principle. People with poor credit went to banks to borrow money to buy houses for which the banks didn't have money to underwrite mortgages so the banks went to "investment banks" or insurance companies which handed over money and then re-sold the bundled (worthless) paper. As the number of institutions upon which those bundles could be fobbed off on dwindled, the interest rates on the original mortgages had to climb so the banks could cover expenses. All well and good when the economy rode high, but once these marginal house buyers began losing their jobs their variable rates went up, and up and...

2) Absolute transparency has to be maintained, not just on the consumer level, but the institutional level. J.P. Morgan-Chase has to know that it shouldn't be underwriting some other institution that is leveraged to the max. If there is absolute transparency, no individual or institution can make the childish argument, "I wouldn't have done it if I could have helped it."

3) Criminalize certain behaviors in the world of finance. While what a charlatan like Madoff did clearly merits hard time in the slammer, how different is what he did from what the likes of Goldman's Blankfein, Citi's Charlie Prince, Stanley O’Neal of Merril-Lynch, et al?

The threat of 20 to 40 years behind bars and loss of all but subsistence assets for their families should scare almost anyone into honesty.

We don't get the three guarantees, we don't get protection.

Even now, time bombs are ticking that have been planted by the financial sector terrorists.

Which one will go off next time? Anyone have any ideas?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Happy Earth Day - Measuring 40 Years

The swirl of history was in an uproar 40 years ago this month.

Earth Day was born out of a populist movement that articulated the burgeoning unease with the severe damage being done to the planet. The damage wouldn't stop merely because an enormous conglomeration of idealistic, mostly young people decided enough was enough. There is a lot of work to be done yet. But much positive change grew out of those first demonstrations of love for what, to this point, is the only home we have.

On April 22nd of 1970, something else was going on in the land. Republican President Richard Nixon's administration had been conducting a secret war in Cambodia that was finally coming to light. Twelve days later, 4 students - innocent bystanders it should be remembered - were murdered by members of the Ohio National Guard on the Kent State University campus.

Lost in this toxic brew of anti-Vietnam War politics and enmity between young and old, were not just the warm and fuzzy emotions that the first Earth Day engendered but the tangible effects of the early environmental movement on legislative change:

The Clean Air Act of 1970, which, among other things allowed for citizen suits against polluters. (In 1970, cars emitted 20 x more pollutants than they do today!)

The 1973 Endangered Species Act which provides for the conservation of ecosystems upon which threatened and endangered species of fish, wildlife, and plants depend;

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976 which gives the EPA authority to control the generation, transportation, treatment, storage and disposal of hazardous waste.

The 1984 Federal Hazardous and Solid Waste Amendments to the above which focused on waste minimization and phased out land disposal of hazardous waste. Some of the other mandates of this law included increased enforcement authority for EPA, more stringent hazardous waste management standards, and a comprehensive underground storage tank program.

The 1986 amendments which enable the EPA to address environmental problems that could result from underground tanks storing petroleum and other hazardous substances.

The Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, which mandate the elimination of lead from all U.S. motor fuel by 1996. This represented the final step in a gradual reduction of lead in gasoline that had started in the early 1970s.

Along with environmentally friendly legislation, recycling went from an occasional fund-raising event to municipally-provided pick-up.

The same people who struggled against the inhumanity of the Vietnam War, the mass psychopathy of segregation, and the oppression of women, also began the battle for planet earth. This is what they looked like on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art on the first Earth Day:

How did the kids get there? One can argue that it began with Rachel Carson's seminal work on the DDT poisoning of nature, Silent Spring, but you can also look back farther at the legendary efforts of Teddy Roosevelt to preserve the beauty of the American West; the 6 million acre amalgamation of land in New York State's Adirondack Park in the second half of the 19th century through the 20th; and you can also look even deeper into the 18th and early 19th century American Romantic notions of our continent as a sort of new Eden as typified in the Hudson River School of Painting.

Closer to the time of the first Earth Day there were eccentrics (and I use the word in its most complimentary sense) like Stewart Brand, impresario of The Whole Earth Catalog. (An electronic version its first edition can be viewed by clicking here.) The catalog is hard to describe, being part tools and alternative household living catalog, part work of art, and part philosophy anthology. One of its famous mottoes about the Earth was "We can't put it together... it is together," a semiotics-driven declaration that intimated that while we can't put the Earth together, we can certainly tear it apart.

Brand was emblematic of his time. In the mid 1960s, he was associated with author Ken Kesey and the "The Merry Pranksters" and in San Francisco with his partner Zach Stewart, Brand produced the Trips Festival, an early effort involving rock music and light shows, and one of the first venues in which the Grateful Dead performed. Tom Wolfe describes Brand in the beginning of his book, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test as "a thin blond guy with a blazing disk on his forehead too, and a whole necktie made of Indian beads. No shirt, however, just an Indian bead necktie on bare skin and a white butcher's coat with medals from the King of Sweden on it."

"Time it was and what a time it was, a time of innocence, a time of confidences..." 
- Paul Simon

Many of the founders of Earth Day wring their hands today at the corporatism that has crept into the celebrations. Pepsi, Google, all the usual suspects have their fork in the pie. “This ridiculous perverted marketing has cheapened the concept of what is really green,” said Hayes, who was national coordinator of the first Earth Day and is returning to organize this year’s activities in Washington. “It is tragic.”

I'm not so sure. When it comes to the most crucial decisions we have to make to save the Earth, we want everyone on board. Humans will always consume products. The big question remains, "How can we do so in a planet-friendly way?" Individuals, companies and goverment have to come to a solid understanding about what's best for all of us. Although there are many things an individual can do inependently.

Use less, use natural and organic products, re-use what you already have, recycle that which you can't re-use. Turn the lights out. Get out of the car and walk, ride, or use public transportation. Control your thermostat, insulate your house, buy local, start a garden if you can.

To return briefly to what this blog is all about: don't think for a moment that the right wing will embrace environmentalism in any way, shape or form. Theirs is to consume and leave the mess for subsequent times.

Coming up consistently with good, practicable solutions is the answer to their hysterically pro-business, pro-consumer posture. Someone who carries an automatic rifle to a political rally is not going gently into that good night.

Locally, I want to draw attention to New York City's Million Trees initiative. I was skeptical at first, but I decided to try it. The site tells you that if you want trees planted on your street or any street, all you have to do is call 311. It works!

Last year, I spied out about 80 empty tree pits in my Hamilton Heights neighborhood and called 311. They said it would take till this spring. Inside I was saying "Sure, sure."

Lo and behold, late in March the excavators were re-opening the holes and by early April the new trees - about 15 feet tall some of them - were in place. Now they are in full leaf.

The call took all of 5 minutes. Try it. 311.

Happy Earth Day, everyone.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Sent By Dispatch from Oklahoma

From my friend and partner, David Levy, on the road in Oklahoma, the heartland without a heart.

Immigration: Dear Arizona, Here's The New York Model

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand 
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame 
Is the imprisoned lightning, 
And her name Mother of Exiles.
- Emma Lazarus
Inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty

Imagine for a moment not the fevered Arizona, ramparts up and bristling, on the border with Mexico preventing itself from being "overrun" by brown-skinned immigrants to the south, but an Arizona with Scandinavia, Germany, Holland and Belgium as its neighbors. Tens of thousands of fair-haired, ruddy-cheeked young men and women enter Arizona's sacred space. 

Would the Arizona legislature pass a law permitting all fair-haired, ruddy-cheeked people to be stopped anytime, anyplace, anywhere in the state to have their "papers" checked? 

Have a Nordic/Germanic accent? Turn around and put your hands behind you! Bad boy, bad boy, what you gonna do when they come for you?

Don't make me laugh, Arizona. Anyone with a brain the size of a chipmunk knows what racism looks like. And it's ugly.

There is another way, the New York Model, that has been forged through blood and tears over almost four centuries. New York, the Mother of Exiles.

Wave upon wave of ethnic groups dating to the 1630s have disembarked on the shores of the New York metropolitan region of roughly 20 million, beginning with the Dutch, English, Scots-Irish and Africans who displaced the native population. The Indians were pushed aside by the first northern Europeans. (There are about 120,000 people who claim Native American ancestry in New York City's 5 boroughs.)

Next, Germans nuzzled their way into the in-crowd, followed by the Irish who were met with such hue and cry - due to their Catholicism primarily, but also their poverty-stricken state created by the potato famine and British oppression - one would have thought the Know Nothings/Nativists were beset by a clone army of typhoid carriers. 

But New York was just warming up. Next came the garlic-breathed Italians and Greeks, and the ultimate outsiders, the Jews. The exotic Chinese initially came in small numbers, though by World War I were jostling Jews and Italians for their own piece of real estate on the Lower East Side.

The next "problem" groups were Great Migration blacks from the South and Puerto Ricans, although the establishment could not do much about them except to discriminate once they barged into New York, since they were as American as the next folks by dint of citizenship law.

Voila the long, well-known story abbreviated: the Puerto Ricans begat the Dominicans, the Dominicans begat the Haitians, the Haitians begat the Jamaicans, the Jamaicans begat the Bahamians, the Mexicans, the Central Americans, South Americans, Koreans, more Chinese, Vietnamese, Indians, Pakistanis, North Africans, on and on.

Fully 60% of New York City's population is composed of either foreign born individuals or the children of foreign born people. (Make note to inform Arizonans: we all work, study, shop, ride, etc., together without having the sky fall upon our heads on a daily basis.)

To say that the waves of immigration did not and do not place heavy burdens on the region's social services would be disingenuous. But, immigrants to New York are almost ridiculously quick to adapt, get to work, and assimilate.

According to a report by the Manhattan Institute in 2009, 52% of foreign-born residents of the New York metro area are naturalized citizens. In the rest of the country, the figure is just 40%. Ninety-four per cent are legal residents or visitors in New York. In the rest of the country, the number is less than 75%.

Immigrants learn English more quickly in New York. Among adult immigrants who have arrived in the past five years, 40% speak English very well versus 32% in the rest of the country. Among recently arrived foreign-born kids, the difference is even stronger: 47% versus 36%. (Click here for a touching story about immigrants learning to read, check this out by Clyde Haberman in the NY Times the other day.)

What makes New York City so facile at absorbing immigrants? Our national caricature paints us as rough n' ready, brusque, cold and self-absorbed. Yet... 

The big city has many things going for it.

New York is not racially or ethnically binary like so many other places. The city’s immigrants come from every corner of the globe, and no single group makes up more than 12% of the foreign-born population. That makes it almost impossible for any single immigrant group to form a large isolated ghetto. 

Sure, the city has ethnic neighborhoods and always has, but it is easy for anyone to head elsewhere to work or shop. New York doesn't have "No-Fly Zones." The day the immigrant lands in the city of dreams mom and dad can parade the kiddies and grandparents down 5th Avenue, Park Ave., anyplace in the city they like.

Even in well-etched ethnic enclaves, the immigrant encounters native-born Americans and representatives of cultures other than his or her own. The city is a public place where residents have no choice but to share quotidian experiences. As immigrants and natives share experiences, they become more alike. Immigrants don't come here to displace us, they come here to be just like us as they add a little more seasoning to the broth.

In my day-to-day life in this past week alone, I interacted with West African cab drivers, Indian newsstand owners, the Greek diner staff, a Bosnian building super, a Yemeni deli guy, many Dominicans, a small number of Mexicans, a British-born baseball coach (yes!), a few native Irish floor re-finishers, and a sprinkling of native Italians. None of them were born here. (This is to say nothing of the countless Americans from other regions I encounter on a daily basis. When my young neighbor smiles and says "I'm from Des Moines," she might as well say "Hallo. I am from La Cote d'Ivoire.")

The immigrants, aside from generally appearing exhausted from work or worry, seem earnest, eager, fascinated with America and New York, and extremely interested in my own family's immigrant journey. What happened to my family in the 1870s and 80s is possibly more important to them than it is to my own social and ethnic peers. The biggest assimilation machine is The Golden Dream itself, past, present, and future.

Importantly, we in New York have a history of dealing with immigrants - not always pretty, but very concrete and incredibly well-documented. We've made our mistakes and have moved into a new era. New York has a helpful network of legal advocates and local assimilation institutions born of our contentious past ready to help immigrants navigate contemporary rapids.

Most New Yorkers don't live in gated communities, or play golf on private courses, travel in private cars isolated from each other, or swim at residents-only beaches. Our kids thrive in a huge, roiling mash-up in schools, sports, theater classes, dance, music, and on public transportation, cabs, shops, libraries, medical facilities, and the thronged streets. We also mix with 55 million visitors per year from all corners of the Earth.

There is barely time to ponder one's role in this large millennial swirl of humanity. But one conclusion you reach pretty quickly is that human beings are pretty much alike no matter where they hail from.

I am sure New York officials would be happy to take a few minutes to speak with those old, scared and cranky folks down in AZ. Give us a call, ya hear? We'll tell you how it all went down.

You know us in the crazy city. We LOVE to talk. You could learn a lot, Arizona. But the first things you have learn is some humility and you do that by finding your humanity. People crossing the border only want what your grandparents or great grandparents wanted, that which the United States delivered so well.

When the census form arrived a few weeks ago, I deliberated whether I should check my race as white or not. It seemed absurd to check "other" and write in "Italian-Irish." These days, in this place, it would have felt affected.

Eventually, I did actually check "other," then scrawled in "New Yorker" in a prominent place.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Preservation Of Nature, Preservation of Our City

Day after tomorrow the 40th Earth Day will be observed. I would like nothing better than to say "celebrated," but I don't see much to actually celebrate except for the spirit of a (fairlyly) large, indefatigable minority keeping alive the dream of a cleaner environment. A sobering anniversary in most ways. More on this in the next few days.

Another, parallel, anniversary has just passed, one of surpassing interest to citizens and friends of New York City. On April 19, 1965 the City Council passed the Landmarks Preservation Law.

This was in direct response to the demolition of the old Penn Station (1963) along with a giant handful of other noteworthy architectural gems that seemed to come falling down all at once in New York. The Savoy Plaza, (demolished 1964), which stood where the sterile effrontery, the GM Building now squats heavily overlooking Grand Army of the Republic Plaza at 59th Street; the Brokaw Mansions at 5th Avenue and 79th (torn down 1964-65); the Breevort Hotel on 5th Ave. at 8th and 9th Streets, the destruction of which began a radical altering of Greenwich Village (1954); the vandalism that destroyed the Old World charm of Park Row's eastern facade throughout the mid-20th century.

Unfortunately, the law and the commission it created were too late to save the Astor Hotel in Times Square, the Singer Building at Liberty and Broadway, and the old Metropolitan Opera House at 39th and B'way, all thoughtlessly ripped down in the late 1960s.

New York City, encoded in its veriest urban DNA, is restless, sleepless, excessive. This doesn't mean we have any right to be unconscious and irresponsible with our urban environment. No rational preservationist says "no building ever," but rather must ask the dual questions "What will be lost, what will be gained?" The answers cannot be exclusively the matter of a real estate developer's P & L. 

Nor can answers be based on a kind of drunken nostalgia. (I'm reminded of the old Catskills bit where a matron tells a workman to be careful with a rickety table he's shoving around. "Be careful, that's an antique," she says. "What - that old thing?" he replies without missing a beat.)

Many people have written books on the subject that can explicate the necessary balance between those competing impulses far better than I ever could. But here are a handful of images of lost buildings and what replaced them. One of the books is called, "Lead Us Not Into Penn Station."

Monday, April 19, 2010

In Watermelon Sugar (Again): A Letter From A Friend Looking Back At The Summer of 1972 And The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee

Anyone alive today who is roughly 60 or older remembers in sadness and pride, the sit-ins in the 1960s that began in Greensboro, North Carolina, in early 1960. They were a feature of our childhood when television still had the capacity, through its pictures, to speak truth to power.

For those younger, you have to imagine a world where there were segregated swimming pools, lunch counters, libraries, transport facilities, museums, art galleries, parks and beaches, rest rooms, lodgings, and even water fountains. Looking backwards, it is horrifying to remember that such things as fundamental as viewing works of art and drinking public water were forbidden to a large potion of our fellow citizens.

The SNCC grew out of the early sit-ins, first called the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and later the Student National Coordinating Committee. Activists such as Stokely Carmichael, Julian Bond, and future - now current - Congressman John Lewis were founders and proponents. It originally was formed by youth, for youth, for the future. The full history of SNCC movement is available through a simple Google search.

By the early 1970s SNCC had broadened its appeal to embrace white college and post-grad students with consciences.

Chip Hughes, my good friend and old comrade in arms - or more accurately comrade against arms - at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, heartily involved himself in the movement and on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the birth of SNCC, wrote this poignant letter about his experiences to his friends, old and new.

The professor who Chip references is Hilda Hein, the first tenured woman professor at Holy Cross, an institution that had been almost exclusively male from its founding in 1844 through the late 1960s and 70s. A note on Professor Hein appears at the end of this entry. Chip's letter:

Little did I realize that when my philosophy professor suggested in the summer of ’72 that we go pick watermelons in southwest Georgia that it would turn out to be a good career option. This weekend, the SNCC (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee) 50th Anniversary in Raleigh has been a great opportunity for renewal and reflection on how far we have come and how far we still need to go.

At dinner last night, to our own little family of SNCC veterans with the Institute for Southern Studies (ISS), I wanted to say thank you for helping to create the space for me to make my own life change. It isn’t always easy or evident for us to understand history in the moment as we live it. It also isn’t that easy to take what we know and believe in our hearts and pass it on to the next generation. In both of these instances, I was blessed by either serendipity or a grand design to become part of a caring and loving family where the personal could become the political and vice versa.

When I bent down in the fields of Albany, Georgia to hoist a watermelon in the hot sun in 1972, I never realized that I was a small part of a much larger dream for societal transformation. Rev. Charles Sherrod helped found Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He was jailed in Rock Hill, South Carolina in February of 1961 after a sit-in and spearheaded SNCC's efforts in southwest Georgia. He started New Communities as an agricultural cooperative, which at the time, was the largest piece of black-owned land in the nation.

The watermelon fields of Georgia opened up whole new vistas for me to understand that complicated dynamics of societal transformation, as vexingly slow and plodding as that inexorable process may seem to the young and impatient. It is small caring communities like ours that can be the engines of larger societal transformation. History is for all of us to live, and to make.

I want to give a shout-out to my ISS family (Sue Thrasher, Leah Wise, Bob Hall, Julian Bond, Jackie Hall, Howard Romaine and Joe Pfister) for passing on the life truths that they learned to me, a young, impetuous student of life.

I now know that we can make a difference in the world; that we can hold on to our dreams; and that we don’t have to be satisfied with the status quo.

These are the lessons that I learned picking watermelons. These are the lessons that need to be passed on to the next generation.

Hilde Hein was born in 1932 in Cologne, Germany, and was the first tenured female faculty member at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA, serving as professor of philosophy from 1970 until 1999. She was also part owner of Annapurna, an Indian restaurant in Worcester. Hein’s academic focus is the philosophy of museums and the philosophy of women, and one of her main achievements at Holy Cross was to teach a groundbreaking course on the philosophy of women. She currently does research work and some teaching at Brandeis University at the Women’s Studies Research Center. Hein was raised in Berkeley, CA, part of a Jewish immigrant family closely related to Robert Oppenheimer, one of the developers of the atomic bomb.

9th Circuit's Prospective Justice Goodwin Liu - Smoke From A Distant Fire

Heard of Goodwin Liu yet?

He is in Senate confirmation hearings for a seat on the liberal bastion 9th Federal Circuit Court in San Francisco. The hearings (or delays of the hearings) are the current edition of the "Phony War" conducted during the early phases of World War II after the Nazi invasion of Poland.

Tactics will be tested, media weapons deployed, the enemy's weaknesses will be probed, buzz and spin words will be thrusted and be parried. All in anticipation of the real war, the one that will be waged over the vacancy created by the retirement of Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens.

Is Liu the proverbial coal mine canary? Maybe. Maybe not. He may be something else altogether.

One source in Senator Charles Shumer's New York office we spoke with said that Liu, in fact, might be the ultimate red herring, a liberal who is so dedicated to the cause that he is willing to fall on his sword and return to teaching if it results in a true liberal reaching the Supreme Court. Politics and poker. But you read it here first in case it's an accurate prediction.

Regardless, here are Liu's credentials without prejudice:

A graduate of Stanford, Rhodes Scholar to Oxford, and Yale Law School graduate who clerked for a U.S. Supreme Court Justice. I know if I were Liu, I'd be polishing up my badge big time.

Here come the flash points:

That Justice? Ruth Bader Ginsburg (first red cape waved in front of the right wing bull).

He is an Associate Dean as well as a professor at the UC Berkeley School of Law (second red cape waved in front of the right wing bull).

Liu is only 39 (third red cape waved in front of the old, grumpy right wing bull).

He is intensely anti-capital punishment, mildly on the side of affirmative action, pro-choice, and against unrestrained capitalism. Red capes are now flapping everywhere like laundry snapping on a clothesline in a stiff breeze. The Republican extremists are snorting and pawing the ground.

Speaking of the nomination of Chief Justice John Roberts, Mr. Liu said words Roberts often uses such as "'free enterprise,' under-regulated 'private ownership of property,' and 'limited government'" are "code words for an ideological agenda hostile to environmental, workplace, and consumer protections."

He also criticized Justice Samuel Alito in full-throated prose: "Judge Alito's record envisions an America where police may shoot and kill an unarmed boy to stop him from running away with a stolen purse; where federal agents may point guns at ordinary citizens during a raid, even after no sign of resistance . . . where a black man may be sentenced to death by an all-white jury for killing a white man . . . and where police may search what a warrant permits, and then some."

The hypocrites from the right have already speciously attacked Professor Liu, playing the "experience card" as a tool for twice postponing open, honest hearings by the Judicial Committee.

The Wall Street Journal this past Saturday wrung its greed-grimed hands and said: "Mr. Liu has never served as a lower court judge and has limited experience arguing cases before the federal courts."

It just so happens that each of the current Supreme Court Justices – with the exception of liberal Justice Sotomayor – lacked state or federal judicial experience prior to his or her appointment to a federal appellate court.

So? Where was the radical right when its favorite court Dobermans were being nominated and confirmed? (Probably the same place they were when George W. Bush was ruining the American economy.)

In strange counterpoint, Liu has gained the endorsement of the fallen Ken Starr, and Richard Painter, the "ethics adviser to the Bush Administration" (an oxymoron beyond satire, parody and laws of the known universe).

Goodwin Liu has been on the boards of directors of the ACLU of Northern California, the National Women's Law Center, the Public Welfare Foundation, and Chinese for Affirmative Action. He's also a long-time member of the American Constitution Society, which is devoted to helping to place liberal lawyers in positions of power in government and in the judiciary.

So, we know the hostility is not about Liu's competence or his experience, which is all that should matter. But the radicals - the Republican Party as a whole - have a different agenda.

Stop anything Obama wants. Demonize the left as if it were actually totalitarian. And, finally and most nefariously, take aim at whomever might be nominated to the Supreme Court vacancy.

Friday, April 16, 2010

A Weak Brew On Tax Day

 The Tea Party should be viewed largely as a construct of the right wing media. Except where the only bona fide star of "the movement," quitting governor Sarah Palin, shows her winking face, crowds are scant, at best.

When the outback diva spoke at the Boston Commons on April 14th, 6,000 people attended. That number represents about 1/10 of 1% of Boston's metropolitan area. Of course, if they had given out free bags of M & M's about the same number of people would have shown up and they could have saved Sister Sarah's speaking fee.

For those of us who have witnessed real movements or know them from historical retrospectives - the million-persons-strong peace rallies of the 1960s, 40 consecutive Earth Days, Women's Rights Parades, Gay Rights demonstrations, and, of course, the enormous Civil Rights gatherings of the 1960s - Tea Party affairs qualify as little more than, well, tea parties minus the crumpets and fine china.

There are a host of reasons why the media across the entire spectrum cover the Tea Parties so avidly.

As interesting and at times as electrifying as President Obama is, the day to day running of the government is pretty boring. (Spending half an hour with C-Span observing Senate or House business is like watching paint drying and grass growing at the same time.)

Clearly Fox News wants to goose its thrill-addicted audience daily. It makes good dollar sense. In our binary political world, the center and center-left media then feel compelled to stick their thumbs in the dam to counter the Fox over-coverage of the Tea Party. Thus the out-of-control spiral prolongs itself...

What is the average citizen to make of this so-called movement? How big is it? Is it actually important?

Following is a random selection of attendance figures from around the country where Tea Party rallies were held on April 15th. (For anti-government ideologues, Tax Day is like Christmas, Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July all wrapped up in one day.) 

Even if there were one million Tea Partiers on April 15th, they would represent 3/10ths of 1% of America's population.

Note the highlighted editorializing language in some of the excerpts below.

Columbus (OH) Dispatch: In contrast to last year's Tax Day Tea Party at the Statehouse, yesterday's event didn't draw a parade of Republican office seekers. (About 2,000 people showed in Ohio's largest city and its capitol.)

Seattle Times: In Olympia, an estimated 3,000 crowded onto the Capitol steps to advocate less government and lower taxes.

NY Post: An estimated 2,000 people swarmed around the Midtown site carrying signs and waving American flags. (Manhattan)

Chicago Tribune: a crowd of 1,500 in Chicago's Daley Plaza.

Huffington Post: Just under 400 people rallied on the steps of the state Capitol in Springfield, IL.

Des Moines Register: Thursday's tax day rally might not have come as big as advertised - more than 1,000 tea party supporters showed up on the west lawn of the Iowa Capitol - but organizers called it an impressive display of the political force the movement has gained.

Medford (OR) Mail Tribune: Though an exact count of participants wasn't available, several people interviewed said they thought the crowd numbered 700 at the height of the rally.

Salem, OR from the Seattle Post Intelligencer: Hundreds of protesters waving American flags and homemade signs made their way to the steps of the state Capitol to ask for less - taxes and government.

NY Times (Washington Bureau) Before a crowd of a few thousand gathered on Freedom Plaza under bright sun... (in Washington, DC)

Philadelphia Inquirer: At least 1,000 paraded in Boise, Idaho; 500 rallied in Oklahoma City; in Lansing, Mich., 1,000 cheered calls for tax cuts and states rights; about 2,000 rallied Denver and another 2,000 in Colorado Springs. More than a hundred Tea Partiers spent Tax Day 2010 protesting in center city Philadelphia.

Miami Herald: As Tea Partiers across the country held similar rallies, more than 1,000 gathered outside the federal courthouse in Fort Lauderdale...

Austin Statesman: Tea party activists gathered by the hundreds rather than the thousands at Austin-area rallies to protest big federal government Thursday, the day income tax returns were due.

Fort Collins, Colorado: a protest of about 1,000 residents...

Tampa Fl (Fox News) it became a day of protest with hundreds taking part in a demonstration downtown...

Bloomington Indiana: Hundreds of local residents crowded Showers Plaza.

Charlotte (NC) Observer: around 1,000 people who flocked uptown for a tax day protest like many across North Carolina and the country...

Houston (Fox News): In downtown Houston at Discovery Green, hundreds of people showed up to voice their displeasure with big government...

And in California's Orange County: Irvine, 400; Santa Ana, 250; Yorba Linda, 700.

Randomly, for comparison's sake, ponder the daily number of commuters and visitors to one spot in New York City, Grand Central Terminal: 625,000.

Seems the winds of change are more like a light southerly breeze on a warm spring day.


Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Educated Tea Bag

OK. We already know there are lies, damn lies and statistics. But this week's NY Times/CBS Poll of people who consider themselves part of the Tea Bag movement has generated some particularly bizarre contradictions.

The report summary says: "Fourteen percent of Tea Party supporters have a post-graduate education, compared with 10% for the general public. Twenty-three percent of Tea Party supporters have a college degree, compared with 15% for the general public, according to the poll."

However, the summary also notes, "Although the Constitution requires American presidents to be natural born citizens, as many as 30% of Tea Partiers say they think President Obama was born in another country and another 29% aren't sure." That's a total of 59% in the doubter column.

What colleges and grad schools did these people attend? Has a Tea Bag University been set up without our knowing it?

I can't think of even one post graduate degree holder I know who doesn't believe, or doesn't know if, the President is a natural born citizen. I did know one undergraduate degree holder who had doubts, but a few beers together and the threat of taking a belt sander to his face disabused him of the notion.

62% of Tea Party Activists believe the economy is getting worse in spite of the fact that the stock market has recovered almost 4,500 points since Obama has been in office. And employment figures, while unsteady, are on a definite up trend.

77% have a favorable view of Glen Beck, while 75% have a favorable view of Sarah Palin.

32% believe that violent action against the government is justified. (Maybe we should check THEIR birth certificates. Sound like enemy aliens to me.)

77% get their TV political news from Fox.

What person with a college or graduate degree could possibly name Fox as his or her primary news source? It's like naming Homer Simpson your favorite philosopher, except even Homer is right occasionally.

Of course, a vast majority of the Tea Baggers are "older" Americans, so one must take into account the possibility that their education ceased 50 years ago, or their brains have actually been eroded from all that tube time with Fox.

In Animal House, Flounder is admonished that "Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life."

To the Tea Baggers: "Misinformed, angry and scared is no way to spend your twilight years."

Fed Up With The Founders

 I'm fed up with the freakin' Founding Fathers. Jefferson, Madison... the whole bunch of them. (Well, maybe not Franklin, a refreshingly urbane, diplomatic fellow with a wicked sense of humor, an honest eye for the ladies, and a hat-full of inventions to his credit.)

More precisely, I'm fed up with listening to the right wing call upon the Founders to support every single one of their poorly-conceived opinions and policies, bar none. Why all this kissing of the Founding asses?

Taxes? Whoa-ho-ho - the Founders wouldn't want any kind of taxes. (Oops, forgot about Section 8, Clause 1: The Congress shall have Power to lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises...)

Deficits? Shiver me Founders... they loved a balanced budget, although they started the country off in severely debilitating debt. (Back in 1789, James Jackson, Revolutionary War hero and Senator of Georgia, said something about the debt with a familiar ring to us today: "It will establish a precedent in America that may, and in all probability will, be pursued by the Sovereign authority, until it brings upon us that ruin which it has never failed to bring.")

States rights? Oh boy oh boy, the Founders wanted the states to be little countries practically! Scarcely.

Women? Founders liked theirs in the kitchen or out back of the slave quarters. Oh, and that little suffrage problem...

Spare the Founder, spoil the child!

The most predictable thing about the radical right is that they are always gassed off about something. 

Then, failing to formulate any useful solutions to pressing 21st century problems, the right wing buses in the Fabulous Founders, powdered wigs, waist coats and all, as if they were some sort of Oldies pop act.

But the right allows the Founders to bring onstage only small snippets of their original compositions - Founding sound bites, one might say - without ever letting the whole song play through.

The right clamors for what they consider the Fabulous Founders' greatest hit, "Let Me Tell You 'Bout the 2nd Amendment, Bro."  Only problem is... they want the Founders to start singing the lyrics half way through, skipping over the "Well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State..." part of the song.

The right also tends to forget the "Free Bird" of the Fabulous Founders: We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

All that intent stuff is sooo confusing, I'm feeling woozy myself. Plus there's that creepy word the secessionists, interpositionists, and nullifiers all hate: "Union." Directly up front in the Rockin' Preamble lyrics. 

The Fabulous Founders didn't write "a bunch o' loosely-connected, small-time political entities enabled to reject majority wishes at whim." Hard to find a melody that goes with that, anyway.

And what's all this about Posterity? Seems clear the Founders meant forever and ever - one nation kept together for all generations that follow. General Welfare? A wild guess here, but that means everybody's welfare. Hey, these aren't the lyrics to Louie, Louie. The Fabulous Founders didn't slur their words.

Finally, at the right wing revival concerts, they shout out for an encore: Play the "Powers of States," you Federalist devils!

That would be the radical right's touchstone tune - the 10th Amendment. It reads: The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people. 

Hard to sing along with, let alone dance to, but it gets the fundamentalist right wing toes tapping. What can it mean? What's that strange syncopated beat? The right would have us believe that it means that anything that is not specifically spelled out in the Constitution is forbidden, an absurdist reduction if there ever was one. 

This issue was firmly settled by the refusal of both Houses of Congress to insert the word ''expressly'' before the word ''delegated,'' and was re-affirmed in United States v. Darby, 1941, which says in the majority opinion,''The amendment states but a truism that all is retained which has not been surrendered."

But popular song lyrics - even of classics - have long been misheard, and certainly consistently misinterpreted: 

The Beatles: "Michelle ma belle, some say monkeys play piano well, play piano well.."

There are other Oldies groups waiting to perform. The Flaming Whigs, Rocky and The Robber Barons, The New Frontiersmen, The Half-Dead Reaganites.

Nevertheless, the Fabulous Founders linger at the bash... Love your act, guys. Now get out of here. It's 2010.