Thursday, October 29, 2009

How Refreshing! Center for Biological Diversity and Kieran Suckling Tells It Like It Is!

Apocalypse Soon: Halloween Interview on Overpopulation with Kierán Suckling

Scared of ghosts, goblins, and jack-o-lanterns? None of those are on the Santa Fe Reporter's list of the top five environmental horrors. But human overpopulation is. "Apocalypse Soon: Today's Environmental Horrors Could Lead to a Scary Sci-Fi Future" interviews Center for Biological Diversity director Kierán Suckling. Click below to read the whole article. Here are few excerpts:

"Virtually everything that is destroying wildlife habitat and the environment is driven by overpopulation," Kierán Suckling, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, says.

"Whether it's too many people diverting water out of the Rio Grande or too much wood use leading to the logging of old-growth forests…the bottom line is there are too many people using too many resources to be able to have a healthy environment."

"It's great to focus on reducing our carbon footprint, but...unless we start reducing the footprints to begin with, we and other species are not going to survive on this planet."

"The majority of environmental groups avoid addressing overpopulation like the plague…I think that's largely because they lack the courage of their convictions… they are fearful that in saying that [we are overpopulated] they will be viewed as being anti-human somehow--as if squalor and overpopulation is somehow pro-human."

Read the Santa Fe Reporter interview and learn what the Center's doing to confront theoverpopulation crisis head-on:


The human population doubled from 1 to 2 billion between the years 1800 and 1930 — an unparalleled event in the planet’s history. No large mammal had ever grown to such numbers or commandeered so many resources. The impact on North America’s native species was devastating:

Driven extinct by hunters, the last eastern woodland bison was seen in West Virginia in 1825.

Undulata delissea, a Hawaiian plant, was driven extinct in 1865 by domestic cattle.

The beautiful Falls-of-the-Ohio scurfpea, which existed on a single island, was drowned by U.S. Dam No. 41 in Kentucky in 1881.

The Whiteline topminnow was last seen Alabama in 1899, its spring habitat repeatedly pumped dry by the growing human population.

The Culebra parrot was hunted and collected to extinction in Puerto Rico by 1899.

The Rocky Mountain grasshopper was purposefully driven extinct — a bounty was even placed on its head — by 1903.

Merriam’s elk was hunted to extinction in Arizona in 1906.

The Tennessee riffleshell disappeared in 1930 due to pollution and dams.

The human population doubled again by 1975, this time taking just 45 years. The rate of extinction also increased. Today’s population stands at 6.8 billion and, if it continues on course, will reach 8 billion in 2020 before leveling off at about 9 billion in 2050. If it doesn’t level off, the worldwide population could theoretically reach 15 billion by 2050, but that is unlikely due to the insurmountable economic, political, and ecological crises that would likely ensue.

By any ecological measure, Homo sapiens sapiens has exceeded its sustainable population size. Just a single human waste product — greenhouse gas — has altered the chemistry of the planet’s skies and oceans, causing global warming and ocean acidification.

In the United States, which has the world’s third-highest population after China and India, the fertility rate is rising again after leveling off and declining in previous decades. Our rate of reproduction is now at its highest level since 1971. At 2.1 children per woman, the birthrate is the highest of any developed nation and well above the developed-world average of 1.6. Our current population tops 300 million and is projected to grow by 50 percent by mid-century, eventually approaching 450 million.

Discussion of overpopulation has become somewhat taboo in the environmental movement. To change this dynamic, more than 200 conservationists and scientists, including the Center for Biological Diversity, pledged during the February 2009 Global Population Speak Out to promote awareness of the problem.

The Center’s primary mission is to stop the planetary extinction crisis that’s wiping out rare plants and animals in every nation, ocean, and ecosystem on earth. Explosive, unsustainable human population growth is an essential cause of the extinction crisis.

Through the empowerment of women, education of all people, universal access to birth control, and a societal commitment to ensuring that all species are given a chance to live and thrive, we can reduce our own population to an ecologically sustainable level. This will decrease human poverty and crowding, increase our standard of living, and sustain the lives of plants, animals, and ecosystems everywhere.

Joe Lieberman--the Republican's Democrat--Lover of War & Friend of the FIRE Sector, Hates Medical Options for the Poor

Senator Joe Lieberman (D, CT), rabid Zionist, enabler of Israel's aggression and crimes, champion of the tragic war in Iraq, provocateur for an attack on Iran, has threatened to help prevent up or down vote on Senate's ghost of a "health care" bill. Lieberman was Al Gore's vice-Presidential running mate in '04 but gave a speech supporting John McCain's Presidential candidacy at the 2008 Republican National Convention.

The following article indicates that Lieberman doesn't understand the public option. I believe otherwise. I think he understands it perfectly but chooses to lie about its costs so as to protect insurance and pharmaceutical companies.

See also the following prescient article by Robert Scheer, "Lieberman Twists the Knife."
FIRE sector = Finance (aka Wall Street), Insurance, and Real Estate. FIRE

Lieberman Doesn't Understand the Public Option
Posted: 2009-10-28 13:36:00 UTC

Sen. Joseph Lieberman [I, CT] went on Fox this afternoon to restate what it would take for him to break from a Republican filibuster and allow an up-or-down vote on the Senate’s health care bill. Via The Hill:

“Just take this government-created, government-run health insurance company that will cost the taxpayers, premium payers and the debt a lot of money — take it off the table,” Lieberman said.
This is basically how he talked about the public option yesterday as well. Thing is, he seems to completely misunderstand what the public option actually is and how it would work.

Taking his statement point-by-point, he is correct that it would in fact be a “government-created, government-run health insurance company.” But he’s wrong on the other points. The public option would not cost taxpayers or the debt a cent. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has repeatedly scored public option plans as saving the government money. The bigger and more “robust” the plan, the more it saves. And as for Lieberman’s claim that it would cost premium payers, CBO has estimated that it would save premium payers up to 10% on the cost of their insurance.

As I’ve stated repeatedly on this blog, the public option is entirely funded by taxpayer premiums. It is not an entitlement program, like Lieberman claimed it was yesterday, and it is not run with federal funds. Both the House Tri-Committee bill and the Senate HELP bill that includes a public option provide start up money ($2 bln in the House bill, unspecified in the HELP bill) for the public option but require it to be payed back in full over a 10-year period.

The House bill even contains the following paragraphs in its start-up funding section just to make it extra clear that the federal funds are limited to start-up costs and that no other federal funds can be appropriated to it, even to save it if it’s failing:

C) LIMITATION ON FUNDING- Nothing in this section shall be construed as authorizing any additional appropriations to the Account, other than such amounts as are otherwise provided with respect to other Exchange-participating health benefits plans.

(3) NO BAILOUTS- In no case shall the public health insurance option receive any Federal funds for purposes of insolvency in any manner similar to the manner in which entities receive Federal funding under the Troubled Assets Relief Program of the Secretary of the Treasury.
The final Senate bill that Lieberman will be voting on is not publicly available yet, but you can be sure that it will include similar limitations on federal funding for the public option. As soon as it’s available, I’ll find the bill text relating to funding for the public option and post it to this blog for all to read.

Meanwhile, faced with Lieberman’s opposition to a public option plan that doesn’t even exist, Democratic leaders are reminding the world that they still have an procedural option available that would make Lieberman irrelevant — budget reconciliation — and they’re not afraid to use it.

Lieberman Twists the Knife

By Robert Scheer

October 28, 2009 "Truthdig" -- Is there a more hypocritical figure in American politics than Joe Lieberman? The Connecticut senator declared Tuesday that he would support a filibuster of any health care reform bill that has a public option—even the version with the “trigger” compromise accepted by Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe—because it might cost money.

“I think that a lot of people may think that the public option is free,” said Lieberman, one of the Senate’s big spenders, in a suddenly frugal mood. “It’s not. It’s going to cost the taxpayers and people that have health insurance now, and if it doesn’t, it’s going to add terribly to our national debt.”

This from a senator who, as much as anyone, helped run up the national debt since 9/11 by pushing to raise the military budget to its highest level since World War II. It is a budget inflated by enormous expenditures on high-tech weaponry irrelevant to combating terror, such as the $2-billion-a-piece submarines—produced in his home state of Connecticut—that he claimed were needed to combat al-Qaida, a landlocked enemy holed up in caves. The same week that he and others in Congress passed a $680-billion defense bill larded with pork of the sort he has always supported, Lieberman is worried about the impact of a very limited public option on the debt.

Lieberman, whose state is also home to insurance companies that are opposed to any consumer-friendly medical coverage alternative, boldly stated that his opposition to even the most limited version of a public option should not be surprising: “I think my colleagues know for a long time that I’ve been opposed to a government-created, government-run insurance company.” Perhaps during his filibuster to prevent a vote on the public option Lieberman can square that position with his longtime support of the massive government–run insurance programs Medicare and Social Security.

Maybe he can also take that time to justify his strong support for the government bailout of troubled banking and insurance companies that has tripled the federal deficit this year to $1.4 trillion. Is AIG not now a “government-run insurance company,” and doesn’t the $185 billion of taxpayer money tossed at that sorry enterprise add up to more than twice the yearly cost of the health reform package? And that’s without considering the trillions of tax dollars put into play to shore up Citigroup, Bank of America, GM, Chrysler and those other suddenly socialized sectors of American corporate life.

If a scant public choice in health care is so threatening to our way of life, because health care alone must be kept a pristine captive of the most destructive impulses of an unbridled free market, then why not privatize Medicare as well as the publicly financed health care programs for government workers—including those in Congress like Lieberman, veterans and the active military? And while we’re at it, why not revive that Republican fantasy, popular in their ranks just a few years ago, of privatizing Social Security by turning the most effective government program over to the vagaries of the stock market?

I do continue to begrudgingly respect the consistency, if not the wisdom, of libertarians like Ron Paul who oppose all of this big-government intrusion into the economy. At least their belief in the efficiency of the free market, affirmed in opposition to the banking bailout, is not compromised by a willingness to throw trillions in taxpayer dollars into backing the riskiest of corporate bets. But it is not possible to feel anything but loathing for those like Lieberman who vote for every big government program, no matter how wasteful, in support of big business, but draw the line at a program designed to cut medical costs for the ordinary citizens they have been sworn to serve.

Lieberman’s threat to thwart a vote on sorely needed health care legislation, complete with a public option that a majority of Americans have consistently supported, should spell the end of his connection with the Democratic caucus. It should also cost him the committee chairmanship he was granted in order to guarantee the 60 votes needed to prevent a filibuster. But a filibuster, which would expose Lieberman and the others as irresponsible wreckers of essential reform, is not the worst outcome. The surrender by the Democratic leadership to this blackmail by the party’s disgraced former vice presidential candidate would be a blow from which the party would not deserve to recover.

Copyright © 2009 Truthdig, L.L.C.

Amerika v. 6.0 (The Best We Can Do)

Steve Earle
© 2002 E-Squared LLC, Sheridan Square Entertainment, LLC

Look at ya
Yeah, take a look in the mirror now tell me what you see
Another satisfied customer in the front of the line for the American dream
I remember when we was both out on the boulevard
Talkin' revolution and singin' the blues
Nowadays it's letters to the editor and cheatin' on our taxes
Is the best that we can do
Come on

Look around
There's doctors down on Wall Street
Sharpenin' their scalpels and tryin' to cut a deal
Meanwhile, back at the hospital
We got accountants playin' God and countin' out the pills
Yeah, I know, that sucks – that your HMO
Ain't doin' what you thought it would do
But everybody's gotta die sometime and we can't save everybody
It's the best that we can do

Four score and a hundred and fifty years ago
Our forefathers made us equal as long as we can pay
Yeah, well maybe that wasn't exactly what they was thinkin'
Version six-point-oh of the American way
But hey we can just build a great wall around the country club
To keep the riff-raff out until the slump is through
Yeah, I realize that ain't exactly democratic, but it's either them or us and
And it's the best we can do

Yeah, passionely conservative
It's the best we can do

Conservatively passionate
It's the best we can do

Meanwhile, still thinkin'
Hey, let's wage a war on drugs
It's the best we can do
Well, I don't know about you, but I kinda dig this global warming thing...

Monday, October 26, 2009

Calculating Growth, Doubling Times, and etc.

Calculating Growth: What does Baker City's "Slow Growth Option" really mean?

An article in the Herald (Baker City officials look at slow-growth option; stated that:

"Over the past three months, 14 focus groups comprising 133 community volunteers spent hundreds of hours studying and debating the pros and cons of three planning options for Baker City’s future, including a no-growth do nothing strategy, a slow-growth strategy designed to see Baker City expand over 25 years to a population somewhere between 15,000 to 30,000, and a fast-growth model that helped the Bend-Redmond area soar from a population of around 30,000 to more than 80,000 during the last 25 years."

In a letter to the editor, Councilor Milo Pope, a primary Brocato devotee, stated "Well, “growth” is a bad word and we’re not going to permit Baker City to look like Bend. Their fears are unfounded." (

All this struck me as interesting because if we were to grow to the upper limit 30,000 scenario envisioned in the "slow-growth strategy," we would actually be growing at a rate that exceeded the "fast-growth model" in the Bend-Redmond area over the last 25 years. This is not too difficult to calculate from the figures provided above. If Baker City were to grow from the current approximate of 10,000 people to the 30,000 endpoint, we would triple our population in the 25 year period (30,000/10,000 = 3 times our current population). Contrast this with the expansion of population in the Bend-Redmond area over a 25 year period that was characterized as "fast-growth." They went from 30,000 to 80,000 which is 2.7 times what their population was at the beginning of the 25 year period (80,000/30,000 = 2.7 times). Therefore, if we grow at the upper limit of what was envisioned in the Planning Department's (Don Chance, et. al.) "slow-growth" scenario, we would be growing faster than the Bend-Redmond area's "fast-growth" scenario over the 25 years cited. Will the Baker City Herald or Don Chance please explain what's up with this? People asked for slow-growth, not fast-growth. What actually constitutes slow-growth?" Surely it is not something in the range of 3.5 to 3.6% per year.

As the article below explains, there is a simple way to calculate the doubling time in population: "Because we are discussing a “doubling” time, i.e. the time for a quantity in question to double (or halve), the exponential function has a user-friendly aspect that is very helpful. It turns out that any finite rate of change expressed as a percent (e.g. 5% per year) can be converted, to a good approximation, to a doubling time simply by dividing it into 70. For example, if the rate is 2%, you might expect to have twice the number, i.e. 100% more stuff, in 100/2=50 years, but because of the compounding effect the correct answer is 70/2 = 35 years. The proof of this statement makes a good exercise for a math class at the appropriate grade level. Rates of loss (for instance, depletion of resources) have a halving time that is calculated the same way. For anything diminishing at 2% per year there will only be half as much in 35 years."

So, a growth rate of 3.5% per year means that Baker City would double in population in 20 years (and be 40,000 in 40 years). (Do the Math: 70/3.5 = 20 yrs. and etc.) While Baker County is not growing rapidly, what growth there has been is certainly noticeable, and is having an effect on the quality of life most of us moved here for. Areas approved for development and the 80 or so Measure 39 claims moving through the approval process, coupled with national population growth and other trends, will ensure that County growth continues. Some of the traffic issues we already face in Baker City are coming from visits by the growing number of County residents rather than from City residents. One must envision a rural farm/ranch landscape covered with houses, reminiscent of what happened to the Land of Milk & Honey, Southern California, over the period from 1950 to the 1990's, to understand the possibilities, although many insist it can't happen here. I will make an attempt on some future date to show photos for those of you that may be too young or untraveled to know what I am talking about. All I can say at this point is that I lived through the destruction of Southern California by population growth and human greed. That could be your future if you do not control growth to a sustainable level here. Sustainability should be equated with population stabilization, in Baker County and Baker City. Baker City residents have had something approximating stabilization for years, and the surroundings you enjoy are the result.

You can buy in to the growth scenario, the boom thing, with a relatively short period of economic/monetary/spending nervana (especially for developers, realtors and construction folks), and ultimately kill it all--or you can stay in a population stabilization course, and enjoy what you have for generations to come.

Another thing to consider is the built in upper limit of property taxes in the state if Oregon. Under the current limit of 3%, the County tax collector can double your property tax burden in 23 years if they increase the tax by the allowable amount. My property taxes went up by a little over 2.9% this year.

I have provided below two essays: One on Doubling Time and its calculation, the other on Sustainability. Its not rocket science. It sometimes seems futile to provide such information, but I also realize that there are many inquiring and sometimes brilliant minds, no matter how impoverished, out there, who will take such information and use it to the benefit of their neighbors and humankind. For those of you of the latter description, please run with it and save your world and yourselves. Envision a world with a sustainable human population, getting by on the available resources, at a rate that ensures their availability for generations in the many centuries to come.

Doubling time:  
it works for ANY rate of change
A. R. Palmer, Institute of Cambrian Studies, Boulder, CO

To read all of the articles from the Boulder Area Sustainability Initiative Network about sustainability and stewardship of the global commons, see:

A parable: “When was the pond half full?”

I lived by a large pond with a thriving community of fish, so fishing was good.  One day not too long ago some algae began to grow in the pond.  Their population was doubling every minute.  Yesterday morning I went fishing and everything was fine.  Yesterday noon when I looked out at the pond, it was suddenly filled with green algal scum and the fish were dying from lack of oxygen.  Why didn’t I see the disaster coming and do something?  When was the pond half full [11:59]?  One-quarter full [11:58]?  One eighth full [11:57]?  Suppose, instead of my pond, we were considering an island, or a continent, or Spaceship Earth?

At the heart of the concept of doubling (or halving) is the exponential function familiar to many from mathematics, science and engineering.  Geologists are perhaps most familiar with this in its backward-running version, i.e. the description of the rates of decay of radioactive isotopes.  Most of us, however, learned about exponential growth as compound interest in the context of a personal savings account.  If we put our money in a bank and let the interest accumulate, our annual income grows as the capital increases. Even though the interest rate remains constant - our capital grows at an exponential rate.  Recognition of doubling (or halving) time for ANY rate of change was not always emphasized.

Because we are discussing a “doubling” time, i.e. the time for a quantity in question to double (or halve), the exponential function has a user-friendly aspect that is very helpful.  It turns out that any finite rate of change expressed as a percent (e.g. 5% per year) can be converted, to a good approximation, to a doubling time simply by dividing it into 70.  For example, if the rate is 2%, you might expect to have twice the number, i.e. 100% more stuff, in 100/2=50 years, but because of the compounding effect the correct answer is 70/2 = 35 years.  The proof of this statement makes a good exercise for a math class at the appropriate grade level.  Rates of loss (for instance, depletion of resources) have a halving time that is calculated the same way.  For anything diminishing at 2% per year there will only be half as much in 35 years.
This simple way to calculate doubling time (or halving time) should be an essential part of everyone’s education.  When the mayor is proud because the city has a healthy growth rate of 3% per year, that means the city will double in about 23 years if that rate continues, and double again in another 23 years, and double yet again in another 23 years, thus octupling from its original size in 69 years.  One might ask if a city with 8 times the present population is viable.  Garbage also has a rate of growth, as does traffic, pollution, schools and housing.
A city is not a closed container, thus its limits to growth will be determined by cultural factors, but Earth IS a closed container for all practical purposes (more on this in Part IV ).  Growth in a closed container will ultimately fill it up.  Thus, we should look carefully at anything in our culture with a growth rate, calculate its doubling (quadrupling and octupling) time and make a judgment about whether we think this is healthy for our future.  We should do similar calculations and make similar judgments about those aspects of our culture where, as a result of our consumption habits, a resource is diminishing at a measurable rate.  Thus, calculations of doubling (or halving) time are critical components of the issue of sustainability – by which we mean the indefinite continuation of the entire human enterprise within some steady-state limits imposed by space and resource availability (see Part X in this series).
Global population growth rates may be diminishing, but they are still positive.  Thus population is still growing and it has a doubling time.  Currently the rate is about 1% per year (thus doubling in 70 years).  Consumption of resources (Part IV) increases with population size, even if individual rates of consumption do not increase.
If we could slow the present population growth rate to 0.1% per year, it would still be double its present size of about six billion in 700 years, quadruple in 1,400 years, and octuple in 2,100 years – equivalent only to the time represented by the Christian era.  Forty-eight billion people may make things a bit crowded.  Such a population, with its attendant FOOTPRINTS (the areas of productive land necessary to support each one of us, see the upcoming June essay), may not be sustainable.  It is not even clear that we can handle one more doubling with a reasonable quality of life for all.
Such doubling-time scenarios should make us wonder if there is such a thing as the politically popular “smart growth” – perhaps it’s a euphemism for “predictable and voluntary disaster”.  Every time you see a headline or magazine article mentioning rates of change (either increase or decrease), do the quick mental math to calculate the doubling (or halving) time.  It is a very revealing exercise.

E-an Zen, University of Maryland, College Park, MD
Whenever we ponder the future of the human enterprise, questions about material resources come up.  Will they run out?  Will they replenish themselves?  Will the demand for them diminish, or will alternatives be found?  Without a good estimate of those resources, we will never be able to predict or improve human welfare.  "Malthusians" have a doomsday outlook; "Cornucopians", a more optimistic view (McCabe, 1998).  Yet whichever school of thought seems more persuasive, the fact remains that we live in a materially closed system.  The Earth's resources are finite, so we must choose how best to use them.
A society needs reliable information on the resources available to it and on the consequences of their use.  How it will act on that information will depend on its value system.  For example, a society may place a high priority on fair distribution of wealth.  We in the developed nations have an opportunity to demonstrate a commitment to use resources in a sustainable way.  Do we want to act responsibly toward future generations of our species and toward other life forms as well? 

Material resources are whatever the society at a given moment either uses or recognizes as potentially usable.  Because that list changes with society's needs and technology, what is useless one day may become vital the next.  As recently as a century ago, aluminum, petroleum, and uranium were not significant resources. 
Geologists tend to think of "resources" as the stuff we take from the ground: metal ores, coal, petroleum, groundwater, limestone, phosphate, quartz sand and rock.  The earth's resources, however, also include living things that are subject to human exploitation. 
Trying to inventory resources for the future, thus, is like aiming at a moving target.  Yet some statements will remain valid for three reasons: (1) except for energy input from the sun, which supports and maintains our “ecosystem services”, the earth is a closed system having a fixed quantity of materials.  (2) Both the extraction and processing of materials and preservation of the environment require energy, itself a resource.  (3) Using a material generally changes its state of aggregation, and its adaptability for future use.  Thus, the processing of materials, including recycling or re-aggregating waste material into usable form, causes a thermodynamically inexorable loss of useful energy and/or material.  With regard to Earth’s material resources, there is no free lunch! 
To these factors must be added both an increasing global population (projected to reach about 9 billion people by 2050), and a higher per capita consumption rate reflecting  "improved" standards of living.  Obviously, resource considerations are crucial for the success of the human enterprise.

Traditionally, resources are grouped as "nonrenewable" and "renewable".  Nonrenewable resources (examples: ores, petroleum, coal) replenish at geological rates that are much too slow to benefit human society.  Once consumed, such finite resources are effectively removed from our inventory.  New discoveries or more efficient extraction methods merely postpone their inevitable exhaustion. 
"Renewable" resources (examples: timber, fishstock, groundwater) have rates of natural replenishment commensurate with the time- scales of human society (see DEMONSTRATION 1 below).  However, to consume such resources faster than they can replenish themselves is like withdrawing funds from a bank account faster than we make deposits; sooner or later that account will run out.  We have often been guilty of just such overwithdrawal.  Examples include overfishing, poor husbandry of arable and pasturable land, overpumping of aquifers, destruction of entire ecosystems such as Russia's Aral Sea.  Such "local" losses can have large systemic effects (see DEMONSTRATION 2 below).
More effective use of substitutes, recycling, and conservation can slow down depletion of a renewable resource (i.e., the amount of consumption that exceeds its renewal by all processes, natural or engineered), but they cannot halt the process.  To make a "renewable" resource truly renewable, the rate of consumption must not exceed the gross rate of renewal.  Reaching a "sustainable world" will demand many changes to our priorities regarding resource utilization.

Some vital resources, such as the "environment", are not material objects.  A healthy environment is a composite of many other items (e.g., water chemistry and temperature, nutrients and other chemicals in the soil, good habitats for wildlife).  A natural place of beauty and wonder is an intangible but valuable resource.  A less obvious intangible resource is the future generation's options, i.e., their capability to make real choices.  Options are not fixed commodities, but surely they will be important for future societies.  Like the options available to us today, many future options require the availability of material and energy.  Even if an earth material is not dispersed through use, their very processing automatically reduces future options of their use.

The results of human exploitation of resources cannot be predicted by looking at one commodity or one social force at a time.  Calculation of the effects of use and depletion of materials on the public commons (see Part I) must also include human values and cultural habits.  Justus von Liebig, a 19th century agricultural chemist, recognized the complexities that arise in a situation where humans and natural forces work interactively.  Historian Elliott West put von Liebig's view this way: "an organism's limits are set, not by the maximum profusion of necessary things, but by those things' minimum availability.. Look .. for how much is available when vital supplies are the tightest, lowest, stingiest". 
What is true for an organism is true for ecosystems.  Can we identify the "vital supplies", their mutual relations and their future trends?  Can we recognize the factors of "minimum availability" while there is yet time?  Or will they surprise us and perhaps blindside us?  Surely we need to be thinking about these issues.
To maintain a society's standard of living requires consumption of resources at some level.  In Part XX of this series, we will explore this subject within the "sustainability" context.
The author thanks Christine Turner of the US Geological Survey, Denver, for her contribution to the ideas and her critique of the text.
(1) Ask your students to list the resources that they encounter in one day of their activities, using the following categories:
A. "Nonrenewable" resources are those that may be replenished only at
     rates much exceeding the human time scale: for example, fossil fuel
     (what should be included here?), metals (where do they come from?).
B. "Renewable" resources are those that may be replenished on a human
     time scale, but only if the rate of withdrawal or destruction does not
     exceed the rate of replenishment: for example, timber, fishstock, soil,
     groundwater, environmental quality, mixed forests, ozone layer.
(2) Pick any material object: the gasoline you pump, a metal paper clip, the bricks of the building, the gravel in a driveway, a toothpaste tube, or a molded plastic chair.  For that object, ask the students to identify the resources embodied in it: where did the material come from, and in what original form?  Ask them to discuss what processes were needed to produce the object (e.g., mining, harvesting, refining, waste disposal, ecosystem disturbance, transportation, energy use).  What renewable or nonrenewable resources were used in the processing?  Are there substitutes that would require less energy and material?  How essential is this particular product to the students' comfort or well-being?  Could they make do with less?  What would be the tradeoff in making a more frugal choice?  Who might benefit from that choice, and in what way?
In a recent book, "Waiting for Aphrodite", Sue Hubbell, author-naturalist-apiarist, described recent stresses to communities of the green sea urchin, Strongylocentrotus droebachiensis, which lives off the rocky coast of Maine.  The population density of this sea urchin seems to go through cycles; in the 1980's they thrived.  Sea urchin eggs were a delicacy for the affluent Japanese.  When their local stock was becoming depleted at about this time, the Japanese merchants turned to Maine for a substitute.  Meanwhile, needing an alternative source of income because the coastal cod and haddock fishery had collapsed through overfishing, the fishermen of Maine started to dive for the green sea urchins.  Soon, however, the catch began to fall alarmingly.  Green sea urchin eggs are fertilized by sperm which last only a few minutes in seawater, so large congregations of urchins are essential for the species to survive.  Large congregations attract fishermen as well, but, luckily for the urchins, the Japanese yen weakened, the demand for pricey urchin eggs fell, and a Russian source became available.  Sea urchin "farming" is now being explored as a steady source of supply, so the natural communities of Maine sea urchins might yet recover. 
How might the disappearance of green sea urchins affect the ecology of the coastal waters?  We do not know.  Some years ago scientists thought that the long-spined black sea urchin, Diadema antillarum, of the Caribbean region was a useless species.  Then it was discovered that coral and sponge larvae can attach themselves to reefs only on surfaces kept clean by the sea urchins, which graze on the algae.  So the "useless" sea urchins turn out to be essential to the coral reef ecosystem, after all.
This particular story may be minor in the scale of things, but it provides a good example of the intricacies of an ecosystem.  If we act without adequate knowledge, we can easily throw an ecosystem out of balance, possibly irreversibly.
Hubbell, Sue, 1999, Waiting for Aphrodite: journey into the time before bones. 
Boston, Houghton and Mifflin.  242 p.
McCabe, P.J., 1998, Energy resources - cornucopia or empty barrel?  American
Association of Petroleum Geologists Bulletin, v. 82, p. 2110-2134.
von Liebig, Justus, 1847, Chemistry in its applications to agriculture and physiology:
London, Taylor and Walton.  418 p.
West, Elliott, 1998, The contested plains: Indians, goldseekers, and the rush to Colorado. 
University Press of Kansas.  422 p.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Media, War, and Obama's Broken Promises

The following article helps explain why President Obama, except for the rare bone thrown to his progressive base, has failed to live up to his promises, and why his support has been falling in the polls.

When the Media Is a Big Part of the Problem:
America's real quagmire

The biggest obstacle to reforming the US economy, healthcare or foreign policy isn't Republicans – it's the media

By Mark Weisbrot
Center for Economic and Policy Research, 1611 Connecticut Ave, NW, Suite 400, Washington, DC 20009
Phone: (202) 293-5380, Fax: (202) 588-1356,, Friday 23 October 2009 1

What kind of a public debate can we have on the most vital issues of the day in the United States? A lot depends on the media, which determines how these issues are framed for most people.

Take the war in Afghanistan, which has been subject to major debate here lately, as Barack Obama has to decide whether to take the advice of his commanding officer in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, and send tens of thousands more troops there, or heed public opinion, which actually favours an end to the war.

This month, one of America's most important and most-watched TV news programmes, NBC's Meet the Press, took up the issue. The lineup:

Retired General Barry McCaffrey, former army general and drug tsar (under Bill Clinton) turned defence industry lobbyist. In a news article on McCaffrey titled "One man's military-industrial-media complex", the New York Times reported that McCaffrey had "earned at least $500,000 from his work for Veritas Capital, a private equity firm in New York that has grown into a defence industry powerhouse by buying contractors whose profits soared from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq." McCaffrey has appeared on NBC more than 1000 times since 11 September 2001.

Retired General Richard Myers, former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff under George Bush (2002-2005). He is currently on the board of directors of Northrop Grumman Corporation, one of the largest military contractors in the world, and also of United Technologies Corporation, another large military contractor.

Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican from South Carolina, a pro-war spokesperson that is one of the most regular guests on the Sunday talkshows.

Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, a Democrat, was apparently intended to represent the "other side" of the debate. Here is what he said: "Clearly we should keep the number of forces that we have. No one's talking about removing forces."

"No one" in the above sentence refers to the American people, whom Levin understandably sees as nobody in the eyes of the US media and political leaders. According to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, 32% of those polled wanted US troops out of Afghanistan within one year or right now. That was the largest group. Another 24% wants the troops "removed within one to two years". For comparison, the leadership of the Taliban is willing to grant foreign troops 18 months to get out of their country.

In other words, a majority of 56% of Americans wants US troops out of Afghanistan about as soon as is practically feasible or even sooner. Yet Meet the Press – a mainstream network news talkshow since 1947 – does not see fit to find one person to represent that point of view. The other major TV and radio talkshows that the right also labels "liberal" in the US make similar choices almost every day.[Including NPR's frequent and predictable reports on the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan.]

When asked whether the US should set a timeline for withdrawal, Levin answered "no".

I know, if you have enough time you can still find an anti-war, public-interest viewpoint and the facts to support it – on the internet and even among some of the news stories in major media publications. But most Americans have other full-time jobs.

If the media's influence stopped there, the damage would be limited. After all, Americans can often still overcome the tutelage of the media's opinion leaders, as the above poll demonstrates. But the media also defines the debate for politicians. And that is where the life-and-death consequences really kick in.

If you want to know why Obama has not fought for a public option for healthcare reform, why he has caved to Wall Street on financial reform, why he has been Awol on the most important labour law reform legislation in 75 years [despite his campaign promises], just look at the major media. Think for a moment of how they would treat him if he did what his voters wanted him to do. You can be sure that Obama has thought it through very carefully.

Obama's whole political persona is based on media strategy, and on not taking any risk that the major media would turn against him. That is how he got where he is today and how he hopes to be re-elected. Many analysts confuse this with a strategy based on public opinion polling. But as we can see, these are often two different things.

Seventy-five percent of Americans support a public option for healthcare reform. (A majority would support expanding Medicare to cover everyone, but over the years the media, insurance and pharmaceutical companies made sure that this option didn't make it to the current debate.)

Obama has the bully pulpit. He could say to the rightwing Democrats in the Senate: "Look, you can vote against my proposals, but if you do not allow your president to even have a vote on this reform, you are not a Democrat." In other words, you can't join the Republicans in blocking the vote procedurally.

He could probably force Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, to join him in enforcing this minimal party discipline that would come naturally to Republicans, which would allow the healthcare bill to pass the Senate even if conservative Democrats voted against it.

But to do that would risk losing some of Obama's post-partisan, non-ideological aura that guarantees his media support. Of course, the media is not the only influence that hobbles healthcare reform. The insurance, pharmaceutical and other business lobbies obviously have more representation in Congress than does the majority of the electorate. But Obama does not feel this direct corporate pressure nearly as much. After all, he was the first president in recent decades to get 48% of his campaign contributions from donations of less than $200 – a very significant change in American politics, made possible though internet organising.

There are other powerful elite groupings, such as the foreign policy establishment – which is more ideologically driven, like the medieval church, than a collection of lobbying interests – that thwart reform on issues of war and peace. But the major media remain one of the biggest challenges to progressive reform in the 21st century. © Guardian News and Media Limited 2009

[Please see original article at the Guardian (link above) for Weisbrot's embedded links.]

See also:

One Man’s Military-Industrial-Media Complex

Why I disrupted Olmert
Ali Abunimah, The Electronic Intifada, 23 October 2009

If former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had merely been a diplomat or an academic offering a controversial viewpoint, then interrupting his 15 October speech at University of Chicago's Mandel Hall would certainly have been an attempt to stifle debate (Noah Moskowitz, Meredyth Richards and Lee Solomon, "The importance of open dialogue," Chicago Maroon, 19 October 2009). Indeed, I experienced exactly such attempts when my own appearance at Mandel Hall last January, with Professor John Mearsheimer and Norman Finkelstein, was constantly interrupted by hecklers.

But confronting a political leader suspected of war crimes and crimes against humanity cannot be viewed the same way.

The report of the UN Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict last winter, headed by Judge Richard Goldstone, found that Israel engaged in willful, widespread and wanton destruction of civilian property and infrastructure, causing deliberate suffering to the civilian population. It found "that the incidents and patterns of events considered in the report are the result of deliberate planning and policy decisions" and that many may amount to "war crimes" and "crimes against humanity." If that proves true, then the individual with primary responsibility is Ehud Olmert, who, as prime minister and the top civilian commander of Israel's armed forces, was involved in virtually every aspect of planning and execution.

The killings of more than 3,000 Palestinians and Lebanese during Olmert's three years in office are not mere differences of opinion to be challenged with a polite question written on a pre-screened note card. They are crimes for which Olmert is accountable before international law and public opinion.

Israel, unlike Hamas (also accused of war crimes by Goldstone), completely refused to cooperate with the Goldstone Mission. Instead of accountability, Olmert is, obscenely, traveling around the United States offering justifications for these appalling crimes, collecting large speaking fees, and being feted as a "courageous" statesman.

In their 20 October email to the University of Chicago community, President Robert Zimmer and Provost Thomas Rosenbaum condemned the "disruptions" during Olmert's speech. "Any stifling of debate," they wrote, "runs counter to the primary values of the University of Chicago and to our long-standing position as an exemplar of academic freedom."

Was it in order to promote debate that the University insisted on pre-screening questions and imposed a recording ban for students and media? In the name of promoting debate, will the University now invite Hamas leader Khaled Meshal -- perhaps by video link -- to lecture on leadership to its students, and offer him a large honorarium? Can we soon expect Sudan's President Omar Bashir to make an appearance at Mandel Hall?

When I and others verbally confronted Olmert, we stood for academic freedom, human rights, and justice, especially for hundreds of thousands of students deprived of those same rights by Olmert's actions.

During Israel's attack on Gaza last winter, schools and universities were among the primary targets. According to the Goldstone report, Israeli military attacks destroyed or damaged at least 280 schools and kindergartens. In total, 164 pupils and 12 teachers were killed, and 454 pupils and five teachers injured.

After the bombing, Olmert and Israel continued their attack on academic freedom, blocking educational supplies from reaching Gaza. Textbooks, notebooks, stationery and computers are among the forbidden items. In September, Chris Gunness, spokesman for UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees, publicly appealed to Israel to lift its ban on books and other supplies from reaching Gaza's traumatized students.

Israel destroyed buildings at the Islamic University and other universities. According to the Goldstone report, these "were civilian, educational buildings and the Mission did not find any information about their use as a military facility or their contribution to a military effort that might have made them a legitimate target in the eyes of the Israeli armed forces."

Gaza's university students -- 60 percent of them women -- study all the things that students do at the University of Chicago. Their motivations, aspirations, and abilities are just as high, but their lives are suffocated by unimaginable violence, trauma, and Israel's blockade, itself a war crime. Olmert is the person who ordered these acts and must be held accountable.

Crimes against humanity are defined as "crimes that shock the conscience." When the institutions with the moral and legal responsibility to punish and prevent the crimes choose complicit silence -- or, worse, harbor a suspected war criminal, already on trial for corruption in Israel, and present him to students as a paragon of "leadership" -- then disobedience, if that is what it takes to break the silence, is an ethical duty. Instead of condemning them, the University should be proud that its students were among those who had the courage to stand up.

For the first time in recorded history, an Israeli prime minister was publicly confronted with the names of his victims. It was a symbolic crack in the wall of impunity and a foretaste of the public justice victims have a right to receive when Olmert is tried in a court of law.

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada, Ali Abunimah is author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. This article was originally published in the University of Chicago's Chicago Maroon newspaper and is republished without permission.

See Also:
Citizens arrest and mass disruption of Olmert in San Francisco

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Thoughts to Consider

In this edition:

- Obama's Choice: Failed War President or the Prince of Peace?
- How Did America Fall So Fast?
- Simon Johnson at Baseline Scenario--Big Banks Fail
- Bob Dylan--"High Water"


Obama's Choice: Failed War President or the Prince of Peace?
Thursday 22 October 2009
by: Nick Turse |

". . . .
More than 100 years after their early counterinsurgency efforts on two tiny islands in the Philippines, U.S. troops are still dying there at the hands of Muslim guerillas. More than 50 years later, the U.S. still garrisons the southern part of the Korean peninsula as a result of a stalemate war and a peace as yet unmade. More recently, the American experience has included outright defeat in Vietnam, failures in Laos and Cambodia; debacles in Lebanon and Somalia; a never-ending four-president-long war in Iraq; and almost a decade of wheel-spinning in Afghanistan without any sign of success, no less victory. What could make the limits of American power any clearer?

The record should be as sobering as it is dismal, while the costs to the peoples in those countries are as appalling as they are unfathomable to Americans. The blood and futility of this American past ought to be apparent to Nobel Peace Prize-winner Obama, even if his predecessors have been incredibly resistant to clear-eyed assessments of American power or the real consequences of U.S. wars.

Two paths stretch out before this first-year president. Two destinations beckon: peace or failure

For entire article, see:

Nick Turse is the associate editor of and the winner of a 2009 Ridenhour Prize for Reportorial Distinction as well as a James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, In These Times, and regularly at TomDispatch. A paperback edition of his book The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives (Metropolitan Books), an exploration of the new military-corporate complex in America, has recently been published. His website is

How Did America Fall So Fast?
By Washington Blog

"And as for Wall Street, the best possible time to pillage is when your victim is at the peak of wealth. With America in a huge bubble phase of wealth and power, the Wall Street looters sucked out vast sums through fraudulent subprime loans, derivatives and securitization schemes, Ponzi schemes and high frequency trading and dark pools and all of the rest."

October 21, 2009 "Washington Blog" -- In 2000, America was described as the sole remaining superpower - or even the world's "hyperpower". Now we're in real trouble (at the very least, you have to admit that we're losing power and wealth in comparison with China).
How did it happen so fast?

As everyone knows, the war in Iraq - which will end up costing $3-5 trillion dollars - was launched based upon false justifications. Indeed, the government apparently planned both the Afghanistan war (see this and this) and the Iraq war before 9/11.

And the financial system collapsed last year due to looting and fraud.

How Empires Fall

But Paul Farrel provides a bigger-picture analysis, quoting Jared Diamond and Marc Faber.

Diamond's book 's, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, studies the collapse of civilizations throughout history, and finds:

Civilizations share a sharp curve of decline. Indeed, a society's demise may begin only a decade or two after it reaches its peak population, wealth and power...

One of the choices has depended on the courage to practice long-term thinking, and to make bold, courageous, anticipatory decisions at a time when problems have become perceptible but before they reach crisis proportions

And PhD economist Faber states:

How [am I] so sure about this final collapse?

Of all the questions I have about the future, this is the easiest one to answer. Once a society becomes successful it becomes arrogant, righteous, overconfident, corrupt, and decadent ... overspends ... costly wars ... wealth inequity and social tensions increase; and society enters a secular decline.

[Quoting 18th century Scottish historian Alexander Fraser Tytler:] The average life span of the world's greatest civilizations has been 200 years progressing from "bondage to spiritual faith ... to great courage ... to liberty ... to abundance ... to selfishness ... to complacency ... to apathy ... to dependence and ... back into bondage"

[Where is America in the cycle?] It is most unlikely that Western societies, and especially the U.S., will be an exception to this typical "society cycle." ... The U.S. is somewhere between the phase where it moves "from complacency to apathy" and "from apathy to dependence."

In other words, America's rapid fall is not really that novel after all.

How Consumers, Politicians and Wall Street All Contributed to the Fall

On the individual level, people became "fat and happy", the abundance led to selfishness ("greed is good"), and then complacency, and then apathy.

Indeed, if you think back about tv and radio ads over the last couple of decades, you can trace the tone of voice of the characters from Gordon Gecko-like, to complacent, to apathetic and know-nothing.

On the political level, there was no courage in the White House or Congress "to practice long-term thinking, and to make bold, courageous, anticipatory decisions". Of course, the bucket loads of donations from Wall Street didn't hurt, but there was also a religion of deregulation promoted by Greenspan, Rubin, Gensler and others which preached that the economy was self-stabilizing and self-sustaining. This type of false ideology only can spread during times of abundance and complacency, when an empire is at its peak and people can fool themselves into thinking "the empire has always been prosperous, we've solved all of the problems, and we will always prosper" (incidentally, this type of false thinking was also common in the 1920's, when government and financial leaders said that the "modern banking system" - overseen by the Federal Reserve - had destroyed instability once and for all).

And as for Wall Street, the best possible time to pillage is when your victim is at the peak of wealth. With America in a huge bubble phase of wealth and power, the Wall Street looters sucked out vast sums through fraudulent subprime loans, derivatives and securitization schemes, Ponzi schemes and high frequency trading and dark pools and all of the rest.

Like the mugger who waits until his victim has made a withdrawal from the ATM, the white collar criminals pounced when America's economy was booming (at least on paper).

Given that the people were in a contented stupor of consumption, and the politicians were flush with cash and feel-good platitudes, the job of the criminals became easier.

A study of the crash of the Roman - or almost any other - empire would show something very similar.

Simon Johnson at Baseline Scenario

Big Banks Fail

Posted: 22 Oct 2009 04:35 AM PDT

"The key insight at the heart of breaking up Standard Oil in 1911 was that it was too big to regulate. That breakup may have been good for competition; it was certainly good for democracy.

As Nicolas Trist – secretary to President Andrew Jackson – said about the incredibly powerful privately owned Second Bank of the United States, “Independently of its misdeeds, the mere power, — the bare existence of such a power, — is a thing irreconcilable with the nature and spirit of our institutions.” (Schlesinger, The Age of Jackson, p.102

[To follow all of Simon Johnson's documentation in this article, you will have to go to the link above, but if you want to truly understand what he is saying, that will help you.]

In the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday morning, Charles Calomiris, a leading banking expert, published an op ed entitled “In the World of Banks, Bigger can be Better.” It begins,

“Legitimate concern about the risks to taxpayers and the economy posed by banks that are “too-big-to-fail” has prompted some observers, among them Simon Johnson, former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, to favor draconian limits on financial institution size. This is misguided. There are sizable gains from retaining large, complex, global financial institutions—and other ways to credibly protect taxpayers from the cost of government bailouts.”

And the article goes on to make the detailed case for keeping intact our largest banks – in contrast to the recently expressed views of two former Federal Reserve chairs (Paul Volcker, Alan Greenspan) and – late Tuesday – the current governor of the Bank of England (Mervyn King), who are calling for these banks to be broken up in some fashion.

Professor Calomiris, to his credit, emphasizes (in his second paragraph) that we cannot currently deal with the failure of large cross-border financial institutions and this huge hole in our regulatory structures has helped and will help large banks to press for bailouts. But he also insists “the challenge of coordinating the efforts [when a bank fails] among different countries’ regulators can be met through prearranged, loss-sharing arrangements that assign assets to particular subsidiaries based on clear rules. This would make it possible to transfer control over the assets and operations of a large international financial institution in an orderly fashion, in case of its failure.”

Theoretically, he may be right. But how far are we from being able to implement such a process?

The G20 should have taken this on as an essential priority at Pittsburgh, but it did not. The IMF has for years pushed the European Union or at least the eurozone to adopt the kind of framework that Calomiris advocates, but to little avail.

Perhaps this is due to bureaucratic inertia. More likely it is, once again, the blocking power of big banks.

In any case, once this hurdle is overcome, we can talk in more detail about the Calomiris arguments that big firms need big banks (odd, because big firms can go directly to securities markets), that the latest banking mergers created great value (possible, just not generally what most research finds), and that the rise of banking-as-derivatives-trading over the past 30 years has had big positive effects on the rest of the economy (strange, as there is no supporting evidence in the literature).

Competition between banks is good – on this Calomiris and I agree. We differ with regard to whether allowing large quasi-monopoly banks to dominate the landscape (e.g., Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase today) is helpful to competition in any sense.

We should also throw into the mix three additional considerations.

First, the expected costs of allowing “too big to fail” banks to continue to operate are huge. The Calomiris benefits might be positive, you need to weigh these against what we have just seen: a huge recession (and the risk of worse), a big increase in government debt (perhaps 40% of GDP, when all is said and done), and almost 6 million jobs lost. Calomiris wants to assume these away, with an “immaculate regulation”, but this is simply implausible.

Second, the big banks definitely create some private benefits – mostly for the insiders, in the form of upside (e.g., bonuses) when times are good. The costs are born by society and not just by people who lose their homes – it’s businesses all across America that have lost income, fired people, and are now struggling to stay afloat. This is not only unfair, it is inefficient. Excessive risk taking by big banks generates massive negative externalities. You can either price this appropriately (and good luck with imposing that tax) or break up the banks – down to a size where we know the FDIC can handle bank failures (see the latest failed bank list).

Third, our big banks have demonstrated an unmatched ability to take over regulators and to convince politicians that a dangerous financial structure is good for America. These same people will almost certainly render ineffective whatever new regulations you put in place. More broadly, how can you run a well-functioning political system when a few large banks are so powerful?

The key insight at the heart of breaking up Standard Oil in 1911 was that it was too big to regulate. That breakup may have been good for competition; it was certainly good for democracy.

As Nicolas Trist – secretary to President Andrew Jackson – said about the incredibly powerful privately owned Second Bank of the United States, “Independently of its misdeeds, the mere power, — the bare existence of such a power, — is a thing irreconcilable with the nature and spirit of our institutions.” (Schlesinger, The Age of Jackson, p.102)

By Simon Johnson

High Water (for Charlie Patton)
Bob Dylan

High water risin' - risin' night and day
All the gold and silver are being stolen away
Big Joe Turner lookin' East and West
From the dark room of his mind
He made it to Kansas City
Twelfth Street and Vine
Nothing standing there
High water everywhere

High water risin', the shacks are slidin' down
Folks lose their possessions - folks are leaving town
Bertha Mason shook it - broke it
Then she hung it on a wall
Says, "You're dancin' with whom they tell you to
Or you don't dance at all."
It's tough out there
High water everywhere

I got a cravin' love for blazing speed
Got a hopped up Mustang Ford
Jump into the wagon, love, throw your panties overboard
I can write you poems, make a strong man lose his mind
I'm no pig without a wig
I hope you treat me kind
Things are breakin' up out there
High water everywhere

High water risin', six inches 'bove my head
Coffins droppin' in the street
Like balloons made out of lead
Water pourin' into Vicksburg, don't know what I'm going to do
"Don't reach out for me," she said
"Can't you see I'm drownin' too?"
It's rough out there
High water everywhere

Well, George Lewis told the Englishman, the Italian and the Jew
"You can't open your mind, boys
To every conceivable point of view."
They got Charles Darwin trapped out there on Highway Five
Judge says to the High Sheriff,
"I want him dead or alive
Either one, I don't care."
High Water everywhere

The Cuckoo is a pretty bird, she warbles as she flies
I'm preachin' the Word of God
I'm puttin' out your eyes
I asked Fat Nancy for something to eat, she said, "Take it off the shelf -
As great as you are a man,
You'll never be greater than yourself."
I told her I didn't really care
High water everywhere

I'm getting' up in the morning - I believe I'll dust my broom
Keeping away from the women
I'm givin' 'em lots of room
Thunder rolling over Clarksdale, everything is looking blue
I just can't be happy, love
Unless you're happy too
It's bad out there
High water everywhere

Copyright © 2001 Special Rider Music

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Priorities: Health Care vs Military Spending

What is it about a country that prefers rampaging around the world like a murderous psychopathic bully, to providing health care and other services to its own people? Annual military spending already costs us almost 10 times what Congress is willing to turn over to insurance companies on a weak effort at health care reform. The following two articles discuss the costs of each:

"The United States, of course, long ago captured first prize in the global arms race. It now spends as much as the next 14 countries combined, even as the spending of our rogue enemies and former enemies -- Cuba, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria -- much in the headlines for their prospective armaments, makes up a mere 1% of the world military budget. Still, when you're a military superpower focused on big-picture thinking, there's no time to dawdle on the details." - Jo Comerford
“Cashing in the War Dividend”: As Healthcare Reform Limited by Deficit Concerns, Military Spending Continues to Grow
Democracy Now!, 10/21/09

As lawmakers hash out the final details of legislation to reform the nation’s healthcare system, one of the key questions is: How much will it all cost and how will it affect the federal deficit? While $900 billion over 10 years may sound like a hefty price tag, it is a mere fraction of this country’s spending on the military, which is expected to grow by at least $133.1 billion over the next decade.

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers are hashing out the final details of legislation to reform the nation’s healthcare system. And one of the key questions is: How much will it all cost and how will it affect the federal deficit?

In the Senate, legislation giving doctors $247 billion dollars in increased Medicare fees over the next decade nearly collapsed on Tuesday amid bipartisan concern over growing federal deficits. Meanwhile in the House, Democratic leaders have cut the cost of their healthcare bill from more than $1 trillion dollars to $871 billion over the next decade, according to the Washington Post. The new estimate falls well under the 10-year, $900 billion dollar limit set by President Obama for the total cost of reform.

While $900 billion dollars over 10 years may sound like a hefty price tag, it is a mere fraction of this country’s spending on the military. Consider that the Pentagon’s budget for 2010 alone is $704 billion dollars. A new article published at helps to put the numbers in perspective. It says: “According to Defense Department projections, the baseline military budget—just the bare bones, not those billions in war-fighting extras—is projected to increase by 2.5% each year for the next 10 years. In other words, in the next decade the basic Pentagon budget will grow by at least $133.1 billion dollars.”

The article is called “Cashing in the War Dividend: The Joys of Perpetual War.” It’s written by Jo Comerford, executive director of the National Priorities Project. [see next article]


Jo Comerford, executive director of the National Priorities Project.

ANJALI KAMAT: On Capitol Hill, lawmakers are hashing out the final details of legislation to reform the nation’s healthcare system. And one of the key questions is: How much will it all cost, and how will it affect the federal deficit?
In the Senate, legislation giving doctors $247 billion in increased Medicare fees over the next decade nearly collapsed on Tuesday amid bipartisan concern over growing federal deficits. Meanwhile, in the House Democratic leaders have cut the cost of their healthcare bill from more than $1 trillion to $871 billion over the next decade. That’s according to the Washington Post. The new estimate falls well under the ten-year $900 billion limit set by President Obama for the total cost of reform.

AMY GOODMAN: While $900 billion over ten years may sound like a hefty price tag, it’s a mere fraction of this country’s spending on the military. Consider that the Pentagon’s budget for 2010 alone is $704 billion.

A new article published at helps to put the numbers in perspective. It says, “According to [Department of Defense] projections, the baseline military budget—just the bare bones, not those billions in war-fighting extras—is projected to increase by 2.5% each year for the next 10 years. In other words, in the next decade the basic Pentagon budget will grow by at least $133.1 billion.”

The article is called "Cashing in the War Dividend: The Joys of Perpetual War.” It’s written by Jo Comerford, who is the executive director of the National Priorities Project. She’s joining us now from Chicopee, Massachusetts.
Jo, welcome to Democracy Now!

JO COMERFORD: Thank you so much.

AMY GOODMAN: Lay out exactly what your findings are, as the big discussion is, can we afford healthcare in this country? The question of what the war costs.

JO COMERFORD: Absolutely. Good morning, everyone.
So, what you’re saying is true, Amy, and at the top of the show you mentioned healthcare and the cost of college. Well, our nation doesn’t take the same kind of care—it seems our federal budget doesn’t take the same kind of due diligence care with military spending. To date, Americans have paid $915 billion for the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s as of September 30th of this year. In the fiscal year 2010 budget, as you mentioned, we will pay $704 billion in military expenditures; $130 billion of that is for the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

AMY GOODMAN: Where do you come by your numbers? And why is so little known about these real costs?

JO COMERFORD: Well, you know, the National Priorities Project, we’ve spent two decades—twenty-five years, actually, this year—looking into the federal government’s budget. And we look right at the primary source documents coming out from the government itself. So our researchers looked at President Obama’s 2010 budget, and we looked at the numbers and added them all up. It’s a job that folks have to do, because these numbers should be known by everyone, as you say.

ANJALI KAMAT: And Jo, can you talk about the states that are in debt, their budgets are in deficit? Can you talk about the numbers? How much would it take for federal spending to give to these states?

JO COMERFORD: Well, actually, one of the figures that we’re looking at now is that the combined total budgets of states, of the forty-eight states projected to be in deficit for 2010, is $689 billion. And when you compare that to our nation’s military budget for 2010—it’s $704 billion—it’s striking that the total state budgets, forty-eight states, is less than our nation’s military expenditures. So, for example, for Massachusetts, we are at a $27 billion budget, $5 billion of which will be in deficit, which will mean huge cuts. For the states, it’s about $160 billion for all forty-eight states to bring them to level funding for 2010.

ANJALI KAMAT: You talk about the fact that every gallon of gas used in Afghanistan by the US costs $400. Can you explain this number?

JO COMERFORD: Well, actually, it’s out of a recent report on the Hill, and it looks at the—actually what they call a fully burdened cost of a gallon of gasoline in Afghanistan. And that number is at least $400 per gallon. And one of the other figures this article noted was that the Marines on average use about 800,000 gallons of gasoline every day. So this is actually an area that we’re going to look more into, because this is enormous expenditure in terms of war making in Afghanistan.

AMY GOODMAN: Take the example of the state you’re in right now, Jo Comerford. Talk about Massachusetts.

JO COMERFORD: Well, Massachusetts is really struggling, as is New York state. So our governor, Governor Patrick, is having to look at not only cuts for next year, but cuts, more cuts, for this year. So next year we’re projected at $5 billion in deficit. And so, Governor Patrick now and the state legislature is having to make some very hard decisions—healthcare for folks, elderly home care services, Head Start programs, programs for gifted and talented students in schools. And so, these things are true at the same time we are projected to get 17.3 percent less from the federal government next year in Massachusetts. So it’s really a collision.

And one of the things that NPP is looking at is the fact that often when we talk about state fiscal budget deficits, we really talk about declining tax bases, but we don’t make the connection to federal spending in the local communities. One of the fact sheets we have out now is—looks at the growth of the federal budget. So our federal budget grew over the last seven years or so, between 2001 and 2008. It grew about 28 percent. And so, we would expect funding for states and local communities to grow at that same rate. But in truth, they only grew 14 percent, while military expenditures grew 41 percent, or over budget. So, really, as our federal budget pie grows, states and local communities are getting smaller, smaller slices of pie, while the military is getting a much larger slice.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about the number, 14 million children in poverty; even if the Baucus plan or some version of it were to pass, the millions of citizens who remain without health insurance; the 7.6 million people who’ve lost their jobs since 2007. Put this all in perspective for us.

JO COMERFORD: Well, you know, if we want to—say, for example, in honor of Democracy Now, look at New York City. Since 2001, New York City has spent $30.6 billion—these are taxpayer dollars coming from New York City—to fund the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. If we want to think about healthcare, that’s 5.6 million people in New York with healthcare for one year. Or if we want to think about our students, that’s more than one million four-year fully funded Pell Grants for our students. So these are enormous numbers. These are opportunity costs of our government’s decision to have a huge military budget, the largest in the world, and to continue prosecuting these wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

ANJALI KAMAT: Jo, I want to turn to the issue of military recruitment. For the first time in more than thirty-five years, the military has announced it’s met or surpassed its recruitment goals. And the National Priorities Project is one of the few organizations that tracks these numbers. Can you talk about how much the military spends per recruit?

JO COMERFORD: Actually, I don’t have that figure. We will have the figure once we look at this next year’s recruit numbers, and that will come in December or January this year. But it is, as you know, a very large number, in terms of recruitment bonuses and recruiter salaries and all of the expenses to attract young people into service.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about cashing in the war dividend. For people who are very young right now, they might not even know what you’re playing on, the idea of a peace dividend, and what that meant and where that has gone today.

JO COMERFORD: Thank you. You’re right, Amy. I date myself.

What we’re talking about in this is that at the end of the Cold War there was a great deal of hope, right? The late ’80s, early ’90s, there was a great deal of hope that some of the money that the United States had spent on Cold War weapons or fighting the Cold War, as it were, would be reduced, you know, some of that money would come out of the military budget and would be available then for use by Congress and the president for work in the states and local communities. So we thought that there would be a return, something that could talk about our nation, now at peace, getting money back for where it really is needed: in our schools, in our healthcare systems, in transportation, infrastructure, water, the like.

But, as you know, that didn’t happen. We didn’t get the kind of return to local communities that we wanted. And so, you know, it’s important for us to hold a mirror up, really, to our federal government, to our elected officials, and say, “Look, $704 billion in 2010, nearly a fifth of our federal budget, half—55 percent of all discretionary funding, will go to military. And we need more in our local communities.”

AMY GOODMAN: How do people influence federal spending priorities? I mean, your organization is called the National Priorities Project.

JO COMERFORD: Well, you know, they do it in a lot of different ways, and I think people are creative all over the country. And we’ve seen so many years of really great response to the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

People can enter in in the legislative process all throughout the calendar year. As we know, the 2010 budget is coming, is actually in now, right as of October 1st, and will go through. But President Obama has to put out the 2011 budget in February of next year. And also February of next year will be the time where we really move toward $1 trillion in war spending, right? We project $1 trillion in war spending sometime in 2010. And those numbers will be more concrete as we have more information.
So people in local communities can start right now talking to their elected officials about what they want to see in the fiscal year 2011 budget and be prepared, when President Obama puts it out, to have a lot to say about it in terms of analysis. We’ll have a piece out then to help folks understand it. There’s a piece out now on the fiscal year 2010 budget on the site that people can look at. As we care about, you know, our funding in local communities, people should see the relatively small amount of money going to, for example, education or the environment or science.

There’s another thing that people can do. They can make a lot of noise and have a lot to say about where their tax dollars are spent. And we have a fact sheet on that, with regard to energy, the environment and science. People might be surprised to know that only 2.8 cents of every one of their federal tax dollars is dedicated to that trio, energy, environment and science, where 37.4 cents of every one of their tax dollars goes toward the military.

ANJALI KAMAT: And finally, Jo Comerford, can you comment on by what margin the US is the largest spender on the military? Put the US against the rest of the world.

JO COMERFORD: Well, 45 percent. We’re 45 percent of world spending. We spend more than the next fourteen countries combined. So we’re the vast giant in this area. And if you want to put that in perspective, the rogue nations—and that’s, of course, a term used to describe nations with which our government believes we have conflict—they spend one percent of the total global military spending. So, 45 percent to one percent.

AMY GOODMAN: Jo Comerford, I want to thank you very much for being with us, executive director of the National Priorities Project. Her latest article at, “Cashing in the War Dividend: The Joys of Perpetual War.”

Cashing in the War Dividend
The Joys of Perpetual War
By Jo Comerford

So you thought the Pentagon was already big enough? Well, what do you know, especially with the price of the American military slated to grow by at least 25% over the next decade?

Forget about the butter. It's bad for you anyway. And sheer military power, as well as the money behind it, assures the country of a thick waistline without the cholesterol. So, let's sing the praises of perpetual war. We better, since right now every forecast in sight tells us that it's our future.

The tired peace dividend tug boat left the harbor two decades ago, dragging with it laughable hopes for universal health care and decent public education. Now, the mighty USS War Dividend is preparing to set sail. The economic weather reports may be lousy and the seas choppy, but one thing is guaranteed: that won't stop it.

The United States, of course, long ago captured first prize in the global arms race. It now spends as much as the next 14 countries combined, even as the spending of our rogue enemies and former enemies -- Cuba, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria -- much in the headlines for their prospective armaments, makes up a mere 1% of the world military budget. Still, when you're a military superpower focused on big-picture thinking, there's no time to dawdle on the details.

And be reasonable, who could expect the U.S. to fight two wars and maintain more than 700 bases around the world for less than the $704 billion we'll shell out to the Pentagon in 2010? But here's what few Americans grasp and you aren't going to read about in your local paper either: according to Department of Defense projections, the baseline military budget -- just the bare bones, not those billions in war-fighting extras -- is projected to increase by 2.5% each year for the next 10 years. In other words, in the next decade the basic Pentagon budget will grow by at least $133.1 billion, or 25%.

When it comes to the health of the war dividend in economically bad times, if that's not good news, what is? As anyone at the Pentagon will be quick to tell you, it's a real bargain, a steal, at least compared to the two-term presidency of George W. Bush. Then, that same baseline defense budget grew by an astonishing 38%.

If the message isn't already clear enough, let me summarize: it's time for the Departments of Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Health and Human Services, Labor, Education, and Veterans Affairs to suck it up. After all, Americans, however unemployed, foreclosed, or unmedicated, will only be truly secure if the Pentagon is exceedingly well fed. According to the Office of Management and Budget, what that actually means is this: 55% of next year's discretionary spending -- that is, the spending negotiated by the President and Congress -- will go to the military just to keep it chugging along.

The 14 million American children in poverty, the millions of citizens who will remain without health insurance (even if some version of the Baucus plan is passed), the 7.6 million people who have lost jobs since 2007, all of them will have to take a number. The same is true of the kinds of projects needed to improve the country's disintegrating infrastructure, including the 25% of U.S. drinking water that was given a barely passing "D" by the American Society of Civil Engineers in a 2009 study.

And don't imagine that this is a terrible thing either! There's no shame in paying $400 for every gallon of gas used in Afghanistan, especially when the Marines alone are reported to consume 800,000 gallons of it each day. After all, the evidence is in: a few whiners aside, Americans want our tax dollars used this way. Otherwise we'd complain, and no one makes much of a fuss about war or the ever-rising numbers of dollars going to it anymore.

$915.1 billion in total Iraq and Afghanistan war spending to date has been a no-brainer, even if it could, theoretically, have been traded in for the annual salaries of 15 million teachers or 20 million police officers or for 171 million Pell Grants of approximately $5,350 each for use by American college and university students.

Next March, we will collectively reach a landmark in this new version of the American way of life. We will hit the $1 trillion mark in total Iraq and Afghanistan war spending with untold years of war-making to go. No problem. It's only the proposed nearly $900 billion for a decade of health care that we fear will do us in.

Nor is it the Pentagon's fault that U.S. states have laws prohibiting them from deficit spending. The 48 governors and state legislatures now struggling with budget deficits should stop complaining and simply be grateful for their ever smaller slices of the federal pie. Between 2001 and 2008, federal grant funding for state and local governments lagged behind the 28% growth of the federal budget by 14%, while military spending outpaced federal budget growth with a 41% increase. There is every reason to believe that this is a trend, not an anomaly, which means that Title 1, Head Start, Community Development Block Grants, and the Children's Health Insurance Program will just have to make do with less. In fact, if you want a true measure of what's important to our nation, think of it this way: if you add together the total 2010 budgets of all those 48 states in deficit, they won't even equal projected U.S. military spending for the same year.

Take the situation of Massachusetts, for example. Yankee spirit or not, that state will see a 17.3% decrease in federal grants in 2010 no matter how hard Governor Deval Patrick wrings his hands. True to the American way, Patrick's projected $5 billion fiscal year 2010 deficit will be his problem and his alone, as is his state's recently-announced $600 million budget shortfall for 2009. Blame it on declining tax revenue and the economic crisis, on things that are beyond his control. No matter, Patrick will have to make deep cuts to elderly mental health services and disabled home-care programs, and lose large chunks of funding for universal pre-kindergarten, teacher training, gifted and talented programs in the schools, and so much more.

Still, that Commonwealth's politicians are clearly out of step with the country. On October 9, 2009, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino joined with Congressman Barney Frank in calling on President Obama to find extra money for such programs by reducing military spending 25%. President Obama, cover your ears! Menino, who actually believes that a jump in military spending contributed to "significantly raising the federal deficit and lowering our economic security," asked the federal government to be a better partner to Boston by reinvesting in its schools, public housing, transportation, and job-training programs, especially for young people. Of course, this is delusional, as any Pentagon budgeteer could tell you. This isn't some Head Start playground, after all, it's the battlefield of American life. Tough it out, Menino.

One principle has, by now, come to dominate our American world, even if nobody seems to notice: do whatever it takes to keep federal dollars flowing for weapons systems (and the wars that go with them). And don't count on the Pentagon to lend a hand by having a bake sale any time soon; don't expect it to voluntarily cut back on major weapons systems without finding others to take their place. If, as a result, our children are less likely to earn high school and college diplomas than we were, that's what prisons and the Marines are for.

So let's break a bottle of champagne -- or, if the money comes out of a state budget, Coke -- on the bow of the USS War Dividend! And send it off on its next voyage without an iceberg in sight. Let the corks pop. Let the bubbly drown out that Harvard University report indicating that 45,000 deaths last year were due to a lack of health insurance.

Hip hip...

Jo Comerford is the executive director of the National Priorities Project. Previously, she served as director of programs at the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts and directed the American Friends Service Committee's justice and peace-related community organizing efforts in western Massachusetts.

[Note on sources: For more information and many of the figures on defense spending in this piece, see the National Priorities Project's Security Spending Primer: Getting Smart About The Pentagon Budget, which can be found at the top of the project's website. The Primer answers the most frequently asked questions about, and supplies the most commonly requested information on, the Pentagon budget and U.S. military spending. Note also that Jo Comerford can be seen in Robert Greenwald's striking new film Rethink Afghanistan.]

Copyright 2009 Jo Comerford

Poll: 57% of Americans Support Public Option

"In healthcare news, the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll has found 57 percent of all Americans now favor a public insurance option. This marks an increase since mid-August, when 52 percent of the nation favored it."

Unfortunately, the poll isn't quite as clear cut and pleasant as progressives would have hoped for.

You can find the whole poll here:

The question DN! referred to yesterday (and OPB/NPR referred to this morning) is question #8.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Getting screwed?--Paying attention?

I don't watch much corporate television news anymore, or any television for that matter. I have "issues" about their ability to tell the truth. Take for example Fox News: Did they transmit the information about the following subject while you watched over the last weekend?

How about OPB? OPB doesn't give you Democracy Now! either (although it comes "first year free"), but the internet does. Perhaps if you subscribe to OPB/PBS, you should ask them to show Democracy Now!. You know--they are the ones that claim to keep you informed--PUBLIC radio and television and all that. I, and another person I know in another part of Baker City, can't even receive the PBS signal over the PUBLIC airwaves with the little gray digital converter box the government forced us to get if we can't afford cable or satellite anymore. We received their signal for a while, but not anymore. Can you get it over the airwaves?

The local papers don't tell the whole story about foreclosures, and a lot of other things, either, and I leave it to you to reach your own conclusions as to why they don't.

Just below are articles on the real story about Wall Street and Banks cooking the books on foreclosures, and the bonuses made possible with your tax dollars, as well as the divide between rich and poor.

Democracy Now! (October 15, 2009)
Amy Goodman & Juan Gonzalez, with William Black

As Foreclosures Hit All-Time High, Wall Street on Pace to Hand Out Record $140 Billion in Employee Bonuses

The Dow Jones Industrial Average has topped 10,000 for the first time in a year, as JPMorgan Chase reported massive profits in the third quarter. Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal is reporting that major US banks and securities firms are on pace to pay their employees about $140 billion this year—a record high. But on Main Street, foreclosures are also at record levels, and the official unemployment rate is expected to top ten percent. We speak to former bank regulator William Black, author of The Best Way to Rob a Bank Is to Own One. [includes rush transcript]


William Black, Former bank regulator at the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation. In the 1980s he helped expose the savings and loan scandal. He now teaches at the University of Missouri–Kansas City and is the author of the book The Best Way to Rob a Bank Is to Own One: How Corporate Executives and Politicians Looted the S&L Industry.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The Dow Jones Industrial Average topped 10,000 Wednesday for the first time in a year, as JPMorgan Chase reported massive profits in the third quarter. The nation’s second-largest bank took in $3.6 billion during the last three months. JPMorgan is not the only bank making billions. Earlier this morning, Goldman Sachs announced it made about $3.2 billion in the third quarter.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal is reporting that major US banks and securities firms are on pace to pay their employees about $140 billion this year—a record high. Goldman Sachs alone is set to pay out at least $20 billion in bonuses. That’s an average of $700,000 per employee.

The record bonuses come less than a year after taxpayers bailed out many of those same financial institutions.
While Wall Street is on the path of recovery, the real economy remains in a state of crisis. It was just announced that US foreclosure filings climbed to a record high in the third quarter. Nearly 940,000 homes received a default notice or were repossessed by banks—that’s a 23 percent increase from a year earlier. Meanwhile, economists project the national unemployment rate will soon top ten percent.

AMY GOODMAN: On Capitol Hill, lawmakers have been slow to implement any meaningful reform to help protect consumers and to curb what’s been described as Wall Street’s casino.

On Wednesday, the House Financial Services Committee began marking up a bill that would create a Consumer Financial Protection Agency and introduce the first regulation of the exotic financial instruments known as derivatives. The finance and business communities have been lobbying against both reform measures.

To talk more about this, we’re joined by former bank regulator William Black. You might recognize him from Michael Moore’s film Capitalism: A Love Story. During the 1980s, Black helped expose the savings & loan scandal. He now teaches at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and is the author of the book The Best Way to Rob a Bank Is to Own One: How Corporate Executives and Politicians Looted the S&L Industry.

Bill Black, welcome to Democracy Now! Your comment on just the latest figures? Dow Jones tops 10,000, Wall Street reports massive profits, executives receive record bonuses, and what? Foreclosures also at a record high.

WILLIAM BLACK: It’s one of the proofs that the real economy and the finance world have been completely unhinged. Finance is supposed to exist for only one purpose: to make the real economy work better. But now finance simply works for finance, and in particular for the elites within finance. And they harm the real economy on a regular basis, and periodically, they come close to destroying the real economy.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And William Black, where is the outrage? It seems to me, at this stage, with the—as the foreclosures continue to escalate in numbers, and yet we’re seeing these enormous profits less than a year after the financial crisis. There doesn’t seem to be the kind of outrage, even in Congress, that there was six months or eight months ago.

WILLIAM BLACK: There’s no palpable outrage, certainly not in Congress. The reform efforts on derivatives, for example, are a scandal. They exempt virtually all of the problem derivatives, and they’re designed to exempt it. And that’s the bill that’s introduced, and of course it’s likely to get worse with additional lobbying from the special interests.

Link the things that you’ve just been talking about. You talked about foreclosures reaching record highs. But in fact, foreclosures, relative to delinquencies, are quite low compared to historical ratios. In other words, banks have tons of folks who are not paying their mortgages on time, and they’re not foreclosing. And the reason they’re not foreclosing is, once you foreclose, you have to recognize losses under the accounting rules. And the banks gimmicked the accounting rules. They put pressure on Congress, and Congress put pressure on the accounting profession to gimmick the accounting rules now about a year ago. Now, these bonuses, of course, are paid compared to alleged profits. What happens if you understate your losses dramatically? You report much higher profits and much higher bonuses. So this is a web of fraud, in which they are getting as much as they can before the place goes to hell in a handbasket again.

AMY GOODMAN: William Black, talk about Timothy Geithner. Talk about Lawrence Summers. Talk about Obama’s inner circle and what they have to gain from this.

WILLIAM BLACK: Well, I mean, Summers, for example—you talked about Geithner’s aides and how much money they had made, and, of course, it’s absurdly large, and they’re making it typically for not doing much of anything. But they’re taking their cue from Summers, who got $5 million, roughly, for working one day a week in areas he had no expertise. So, you know, once you leave the federal service, then these interests that you were very helpful to find a way to make you spectacularly rich, and they know that that’s what’s coming in their future. That’s part of the problem.

But the bigger part of the problem, in many ways, is that they have such an ideology about the market and its ability to deal with all problems that has no basis in reality, has been exposed in this crisis as completely fictional, and yet they can’t give it up. I mean, think of yourself as one of these professors who’s been trained in the Milton Friedmanish views, and you’re in your fifties, and you’ve been saying—you know, everything you’ve said in your career is wrong. Everything you’ve learned in your career is wrong. All of your areas of expertise are wrong. Are you going to admit that? “Hi, I’ve been misleading you, and I’m sorry I caused this disaster. And by the way, I have no meaningful skills or experience.”

AMY GOODMAN: Would Alan Greenspan—
WILLIAM BLACK: It’s not going to happen.
AMY GOODMAN: —fit into that picture?

WILLIAM BLACK: Well, Alan Greenspan, of course, is doing this when he’s in his eighties and isn’t going to teach and isn’t going to do anything else. And even then, he didn’t volunteer it. He was asked pointed questions in front of Congress.
And that comes back to your point: where’s the congressional outrage there? There is some. We work with some of the progressives. You may have seen, your listeners may well have seen Representative Grayson asking very difficult questions. Representative Kaptur has certainly been on people. But that’s a tiny minority of folks within Congress. And it comes back, of course, to campaign contributions. And the Supreme Court is about to make that much worse. It’s almost certainly going to strike down the portions of McCain-Feingold that restricted corporate contributions, and it’s “Katy, bar the door.”

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask you to go back to this issue of the foreclosures and delinquencies, which you make the point that the delinquencies are much higher. For instance, I think the delinquency rate for prime loans, not for the subprime or even the Alt-A or the more questionable loans, but for prime loans, rose to 6.41 percent in the second quarter from six percent, so that you’re getting supposedly the best loans in the home mortgage market are now at these very, very high rates of delinquency. What does this say about the future for these banks that are holding these loans?

WILLIAM BLACK: Well, it means that many of these banks are deeply insolvent and actually losing money, but they have the gimmicked accounting, so they’re able to report that they have lots of profits.

And, by the way, the other thing they’re doing is speculating like crazy and other trading activities that add absolutely nothing to economic value. So, if they’re winning, somebody’s losing. Right? They’re doing bond trading, and they’re producing allegedly billions of dollars in profits in bond trading. Well, somebody’s the counterparty and losing money. And so, there’s going to be other bad news outside the financial sector.

And again, remember, financial sector exists supposedly for one purpose—to help the real economy—and it’s taking billions out of the real economy in trading profits. So the combination of these things, both in the financial sector and in the real economy, means very bad things down the road, in terms of increased business failures, increased banking failures.
But, of course, we’re not allowing the large banks to fail. In a part of his speech that was almost completely ignored, and it’s incredibly radical, but in the right word—you know, right drift range, Geithner said twice that for the largest banks we now have a program of capital insurance—not deposit insurance, capital insurance. In other words, we’re going to stand in there and bail out the shareholders, no matter how badly management screws up the place, even if management screws it up through fraud. And that’s just an appalling change in America.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to William Black, former bank regulator at the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation. In the ’80s, he helped expose the savings and loan scandal. Now he’s a professor at University of Missouri-Kansas City and author of the book The Best Way to Rob a Bank Is to Own One. We’ll be back with him, and then we’ll be joined by the Slovenian public intellectual Slavoj ÎiÏek at the end of the broadcast. Stay with us.

AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is William Black, former bank regulator at the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation, now a professor at University of Missouri-Kansas City, wrote The Best Way to Rob a Bank Is to Own One: How Corporate Executives and Politicians Looted the S&L Industry.

So, let’s go back more than what, about a quarter-century now, William Black, to your specialty, to exposing the savings and loan scandal. What happened then, and how does it relate to today?

WILLIAM BLACK: What happened then was an epidemic of what we call in criminology “control fraud.” And that means what happens when the fraud is led by the person who controls a seemingly legitimate corporation or government agency. In this case, they were savings and loans. And these frauds were growing at an annual rate of over 50 percent.

Their weapon of choice is accounting fraud. So it’s real easy. It’s a three-part optimization. First thing you do is grow like crazy, Ponzi-like scheme. Second thing you do is deliberately make really bad loans, because they have a higher interest and higher expenses associated with them, so you report more profits. And the third thing you do is have extraordinary leverage. Leverage is simply lots of debt compared to your equity. And the point of this is, if you do those three things, you are mathematically guaranteed to report not just profits, but record profits.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But William Black, wouldn’t—
WILLIAM BLACK: At that kind of—
JUAN GONZALEZ: I’m sorry, go ahead.

WILLIAM BLACK: At that kind of growth rate, with people concentrating on whatever the optimal area is for the fraud, you produce financial bubbles. In the case of the savings and loan crisis, we re-regulated the industry in the face of opposition from the Reagan administration, the House of Representatives and the Senate. And we looked for the Achilles’ heel for this kind of scheme, which is growth. And so, we restricted growth. And this kind of fraud also creates a distinctive pattern of operations, and we used that to triage and to go after these institutions while they were still reporting they were the most profitable savings and loans in America. People thought we were crazy, contemporaneously, who were conservative economists. But it turned out we were right about every single one of these institutions.

What does it mean for today? The same thing. We have another epidemic of accounting fraud. In this case, it’s not commercial real estate, which it was in the savings and loan crisis. It started out with, in the United States’ context, with home mortgages.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But William Black, it’s been amply documented the level—the extensive level of the fraud that occurred in this current crisis. I remember seeing the emails that Attorney General of New York, Andrew Cuomo, secured, where it showed that, for instance, Countrywide, whenever it started getting appraisals of properties that it did not like, it fired the appraisers, it got rid of them, told them they wanted higher appraisals. All along the line in these no-doc loans, there was constant fraud occurring—the lawyers that were involved in the cases, the real estate appraisers, the people who were packaging the loans—and yet, except for the occasional Madoff or a couple of individuals, there’s been no sort of criminal prosecution of these folks.

WILLIAM BLACK: Well, when you say it’s been amply demonstrated, you’re right, but only where people have looked. And people, to pick up your latter point, have generally not looked.

So, what happened? The FBI transferred 500 of its white-collar crime specialists out of white-collar crime into national security, in response to the 9/11 attacks. And, you know, you can understand why they did that. But you can’t understand why the Bush administration refused the FBI request to allow them to replace the lost agents. And so, white-collar prosecutions were down more than 25 percent under the Bush administration during the greatest wave of white-collar crime in the history of the world. The FBI has also testified that 80 percent of the mortgage fraud losses occur when lender personnel are involved.
To add to your point about appraisers, the only reason you inflate an appraisal is for fraud. There’s no other purpose in the world. And we have survey information that’s quite good on appraisers. In 2003, 70 percent reported that they had been the subject of an attempt to intimidate them to inflate appraisal values in that year alone. When we did the same survey in 2007, that percentage was up to 90 percent. So we have horrific, endemic fraud, and it’s coming out of the lenders, not the poor people who can’t pay the mortgages. And that is what brought this crisis.

AMY GOODMAN: William Black, the New York Times recently reported that Citigroup has hired Richard Hohlt, who was a top lobbyist for the savings and loan industry in the 1980s.

WILLIAM BLACK: Yes. He is the most notorious lobbyist out of the savings and loan crisis. Even within a notorious group, the US League of Savings Institutions, which back then was the political scientist types, often said it was the third most powerful lobbying group in America. That group had, in essence, a black ops subgroup, and Richard Hohlt led it and is responsible for causing immense damage in the savings and loan crisis.

Beyond that, of course, he then comes back in the slime campaign on—when Wilson went public with some of his protests against the lying about the intelligence that got us into the war, the invasion of Iraq, Richard Hohlt reappears. And now he’s back being hired by—in essence, by taxpayer money to help loot the taxpayers again. My phrase for it in the New York Times was that it was “singularly obscene.”

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission that opened on September 17th. What do you expect to get out of it? I was looking at a piece in The Nation by William Greider. He says Chairman Phil Angelides, the former California state treasurer, says his purpose is “[to uncover] the facts and providing an unbiased historical accounting of what brought our financial system and our economy to its knees."
Greider goes on to say, “In the New Deal years, the Congressional investigation led by Ferdinand Pecora helped build the case for landmark regulatory reforms—legislation establishing the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Glass-Steagall Act, which separated commercial banks from risk-taking investment banks. Like Pecora, Angelides does not intend to propose policy solutions but simply to discover what really happened.”
Your thoughts on it?

WILLIAM BLACK: Well, it’s true that the Pecora Commission was critical to successful reforms and that those reforms worked for a good forty to fifty years, until we decided we were much brighter and got rid of a lot of them. To link the two things you just had me talk about, when you deregulate an industry or de-supervise, the rules stay in place, but the people enforcing them no longer enforce the rules; de facto you decriminalize it, because the regulators have to make the criminal cases as a practical matter.

And so, Pecora did—not only found the problems, he did something else that was critical. He exposed to the American people just how bad the elites were. For example, they discovered a list of prominent Americans that were able to buy stock at half price. The investment banks would let them buy stock at half of the market price. And that list included a former president of the United States of America. So that kind of exposure of corruption, exposure of the fact that the top bankers hadn’t paid any taxes in three years, all of this created the political space under which real reform could occur, as well.

Unfortunately, the Pecora Commission, the modern one, is not set up in that manner. It’s set up as a separate commission, whereas the real Pecora worked through the Senate Banking and had subpoena authority. The current commission can only subpoena if you can pick up a super majority; in other words, you have to pick up, in this context, Republican-appointed members’ votes to be able to do it. So the first big gut check is going to be, are they going to issue a vigorous set of subpoenas, and are they going to have unanimity, or near unanimity, in support for a serious investigation? Because, of course, it has the possibility of embarrassing greatly not just financial elites, but also political elites.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And William Black, what is your sense of the prospects now for stronger financial regulation, given the fact that—my understanding is now that the financial and securities firms have invested about $200 million in lobbying—in their lobbying efforts in Congress, and the halls of Congress are filled with the lobbyists now who are trying to influence the members of Congress on the new regulation of the financial system?

WILLIAM BLACK: Well, the earliest effort is—should be a real wake-up call, because it’s horrible. Barney Frank has proposed legislation on financial derivatives that essentially exempts what are called over-the-counter derivatives from most regulation, and it is over-the-counter derivatives that have been a major cause of this crisis. So that’s utterly insane. There’s no conceivable justification for it. And he stacked the hearing. There were nine witnesses; eight of them were from the industry and, of course, testified that they were vital to the world. The ninth witness was the only person who was in the least bit skeptical, and he was promptly gaveled down, unlike the others, by the chair. So it’s not only a farce; they’re willing to have us see that it’s a farce. They are so little afraid of public opinion and outrage that they’re not even taking steps to cover up the cover-up.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill Black, how much does the 2010 elections coming up have to do with what’s happening now—I mean, from preserving the health insurance industry to preserving the financial elite in this country and the money that goes into the—back into politicians’ pockets, into their coffers?

WILLIAM BLACK: Well, it has a lot to do, in particular, with the Blue Dogs. The Blue Dogs are the more conservative Democrats, and they are racking up unprecedented political contributions, because, of course, they’re such a powerful voting bloc. Even though they’re not all that large in number, they can be decisive in whether anything gets through the Senate, in particular, but they can also be real obstructionists in the House. And by being obstructionist, they make themselves very attractive to the lobbyists. And a number of the Blue Dogs are in jurisdictions where, you know, they have to worry about reelection, and so they think maximizing political contributions is the best possible thing they can do. And the result is very perverse, in terms of our ability to get any reforms.

AMY GOODMAN: William Black, I want to thank you very much for being with us, former bank regulator at the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation. His book is called The Best Way to Rob a Bank Is to Own One: How Corporate Executives and Politicians Looted the S&L Industry.

Quotes from Information Clearing House:

"Propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state."
Noam Chomsky - American Linguist and Activist. b.1928

"Political language. . . is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."
George Orwell
The Two Americas

By Andre Damon and Joe Kishore

October 19, 2009 "WSWS" -- Two reports last week, just over one year since the onset of the financial crisis, shed light on the nature of American and world capitalism.

According to an article in the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday (“Wall Street on Track to Award Record Pay”), the top 23 Wall Street banks and financial firms are expected to hand out a record $140 billion in compensation this year—$10 billion more than the previous record year, 2007.

The rapid recovery in bank pay has been “boosted by a stronger stock market, thawing credit market, a resurgence in deal making and the continuing effects of various government aid programs,” the Journal noted.

The Journal article came as the largest banks posted their third-quarter earnings. Banks most heavily involved in trading and other forms of speculative activity fared the best, with Goldman Sachs reporting $3.2 billion and JPMorgan Chase $3.6 billion in profits.

On Friday, USA Today published a front-page article (“Wages Head to 20-Year Tumble”) reporting that average weekly wages for non-management workers in the US have fallen by 1.4 percent so far this year. If wages continue to fall at this rate, it will be the sharpest decline since 1991.

"Wages are usually the last thing to deteriorate in a recession," economist Heidi Shierholz of the Economic Policy Institute told USA Today. "But it's happening now, and wages are probably going to be held down for a long time."

This report only hints at the social crisis facing millions of people. Official unemployment is close to 10 percent, and real unemployment is much higher. Employers are seizing on the weak labor market to cut benefits and reduce hours across the board. Initiating a trend that could well catch on, Colorado last week became the first state to lower its minimum wage since the federal law was introduced in 1938.

The coming together of record Wall Street profits and the soaring stock market, on the one hand, and increasing unemployment, falling wages and growing social misery, on the other, has prompted some liberal supporters of the Obama administration to express concern about the social and political implications of these trends.

Several commentators have warned that unless Wall Street develops a social conscience and Obama shows more “backbone,” the divergence in the “two Americas” could have explosive results. Such appeals ignore the real character of the American and world capitalist economy and the role of the Obama administration as the representative of the US financial aristocracy.

The economy of the entire planet is subordinated to the interests of a tiny layer of the population. The interests of this parasitical financial elite can be guaranteed only at the expense of the productive sections of society, principally the working class. . . . ."

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