Thursday, October 25, 2007


Want to know the direction that American society is headed? Pull out any 7th grade world history textbook and find the chapter on the Middle Ages. More accurately, look at our own history from the late 19th century. Over one hundred years ago there was no such thing as an American 'middle class', per se. Anything resembling the middle class was more of a 'professional' class: doctors, lawyers, small businessmen (aka 'the merchant class'), etc. The vast majority of people inhabited the working class. At the very top were the 'robber barons' of the guilded age. The income tax didn't even exist yet.

During the first half of the 20th century, the pendulum swung slowly but steadily toward more income equality. First the reform movement, then the beginning of the federal income tax, the New Deal, the rise of labor unions and the War on Poverty all contributed to income equality that reached it's high point in the early 1970s. In 1970, the bottom 80% of income earners in the U.S. - basically the entire middle class and the poor - earned 56.8% of aggregate national income and the top 5% earned 16.6%. In 2006, the bottom 80% earned 49.4% and the top 5% earned 22.3% (source: U.S. Census bureau). So, over the last 36 years, the vast majority of Americans have gone from earning a fair majority of aggregate income to earning slightly less than half. This combined with the steady erosion of the social 'safety net' over the last 25 years, the steep rise in costs for healthcare and education all portend a rather grim future for almost all Americans - and their children.

In today, Robert Reich has touched upon this as it relates to changes in tax policy over the last 50 years. He also points out that the supposedly more 'populist' Democratic party probably won't do much about it:

"At the very least, you might think that Democrats would do something about the anomaly in the tax code that treats the earnings of private-equity and hedge-fund managers as capital gains rather than ordinary income, and thereby taxes them at 15 percent -- lower than the tax rate faced by many middle-class Americans. But Senate Democrats recently backed off a proposal to do just that. Why? It turns out that Democrats are getting more campaign contributions these days from hedge-fund and private-equity partners than Republicans are getting. In the run-up to the 2006 election, donations from hedge-fund employees were running better than 2-to-1 Democratic. The party doesn't want to bite the hands that feed." ( 10/25/07)

Obviously, at this point, neither party in this country is on the side of the shrinking middle class, despite what they say.

Maybe this trend will stop and even slowly reverse itself in the years and decades ahead. If history is any guide, as was the case a hundred years ago, the trend won't reverse without a certain measure of violence and bloodshed. Hopefully, the Democrats or some, yet to be, third party will live up to it's populist rhetoric and forestall this need.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Jon Stewart Interviews "Mrs. Vader"

Part 1:

Part 2:

Comcast Internet Traffic Blocking Uncovered

The Associated Press (yes, THAT AP!), proving that 'old media' is still alive and kicking, discovered that Comcast is blocking certain types of Internet traffic. Through good old fashioned investigative journalism, reporter Peter Svensson discovered the traffic blocking scheme.

This piece from 'the Machinist' blog on does a great job of explaining what Comcast is doing, how and why. Long story short, they're blocking peer-to-peer file sharing traffic, whether or not the material is copyrighted.

This only serves to strengthen the argument for the passage of definitive and enforceable Net Neutrality legislation on the federal level.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Insuring Defeat

By vetoing Congress's SCHIP renewal bill 2 weeks ago, Bush seems to be making a real effort to increase or at least solidify his current 70-ish percent 'disapproval' rating with the citizenry. In, Walter Shapiro opined that this 'battle' is only part of the entire healthcare 'war' that is raging in the country and that Bush and especially those Congressional Republicans choosing to stand by him on this issue will be in trouble as the 2008 election rolls around.

Also in, news editor Joan Walsh, cited yet another 'no holds barred' right-wing attack campaign on a family who dared to speak publicly about the SCHIP issue. She states what is increasingly becoming obvious, that the O'Reilly's and Malkins of the world are, like their increasingly irrelevant standard bearer, becoming unimportant. And Ann Coulter? Right now she's probably taken about as seriously as Vince McMahon. Like so many 'Baby Face' Finsters, these folks seem unbeatable or scary until you realize that you can simply pick them up and put them back into their cribs.

To put this in larger context, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, was interviewed on WNYC's Leonard Lopate program on 10/16/07. He spoke about his latest book, The Conscience of a Liberal, that discusses the rise and fall of the New Deal, the War on Poverty and how the socio-political pendulum may be swinging back to the left. Listen to the interview here:

Bush & Co. don't seem to notice this and their actions are actually accelerating the pendulum.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Everything Old is New Again

Look at this picture and think about it for a minute. On the left, of course, is Vladimir Putin, semi-autocratic President of the increasingly un-democratic Russian Federation. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, President of the Islamic Republic of Iran is on the right. These two leaders are in attendance at a summit meeting of Caspian Sea nations this week. Russia and Iran both border the oil-rich Caspian Sea. This is the first time any Soviet/Russian head of state has visited Tehran since Stalin was at the Tehran conference during WWII, by the way. This is the same Putin that George Bush 'looked in the eye' and dubbed to be someone 'I can work with'. OK, whatever...

To a large extent, this picture represents the end result of a half century of mistakes and miscalculations in U.S. foreign policy. Beginning with the CIA backed coup of Mohammed Mosaddeq, the democratically elected Iranian leader, in 1953 and the placement in power of Shah Reza Pahlavi, the "Shah of Iran". This coup was orchestrated by the U.S. to insure an Iranian government that was 'friendly' to western petroleum companies. Mosaddeq actually had the gall to nationalize the Iranian petroleum industry, so that Iran itself might actually profit from the oil under it's own soil instead of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company - later renamed British Petroleum in 1954. How dare he. If these links to Wikipedia articles are bothersome to the anti-Wikipedi-ites out there, here's a link to a CIA produced article on the topic. Rest assured, many more Iranians are aware of this little piece of history than are Americans. No surprise there.

Fast forward past the 1979 Islamic revolution and hostage crisis in Iran, to the Iran-Iraq war. The Iran-Iraq war resulted in over 1 million casualties on each side. During this war in the 1980's, we backed Saddam Hussein against Iran (see famous Rumsfeld-Hussein meeting at left). We even supplied him with the technology to produce chemical weapons, which he was not shy about using against the Iranians and the Kurds alike. I can assure you that not too many Iranians are unaware of this little piece of history either.

Now let's look at Russia. Recently, I was fortunate enough to see ex-Senator Bill Bradley speak at a conference and he took some questions. One of the questioners asked him what world leader he met who was the most impressive. Without hesitation, he said Mikhail Gorbachev. He went on to describe how Gorbachev had the vision to realize that the Soviet Union was being crushed under it's own weight and had to be dismantled. Senator Bradley then described a recent meeting with him, where Gorbachev described a meeting with Jim Baker when he agreed to withdraw all Soviet military forces from the eastern-bloc nations in exchange for one thing: that NATO not be allowed to expand into these nations. Bradley then went on to remind us how we went back on that promise during the 1990's against the protestations of Yeltsin and now, more forcefully, of Putin.

The reason Gorbachev knew this was necesary is because of Russia's centuries old xenophobic nature. They have always been fearful of outsiders invading the 'motherland' and our NATO expansion among other factors, was fertile ground for an ultra-nationalist like Putin to amass power and become uncooperative to our foreign policy goals.

So, Russia and Iran are only two examples of the dozens of countries that we've pushed around, lied to or otherwise screwed over in the past fifty or so years alone. Maybe this picture makes more sense now.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Green and Mean

***I originally posted this in August 2006 and am re-posting it in honor of Blog Action Day, focusing on environmental issues***

I live in New York City and have traveled to Europe and noticed that almost everywhere there, buildings, transportation, almost everything is designed to save energy, water and lessen environmental impacts. In comparison, during the recent heat wave in New York, many retailers were leaving their doors open, spilling air-conditioned air onto the sidewalks. Most often this is mandated by the corporate policy of the retailers' parent companies.
I travel about the city by bicycle about half the time and mass transit the other half. Bicycle transportation is more noticeable in New York than anywhere else in North America, yet is dwarfed by the ubiquity of it in most European cities. In New York City, about 115,000 people a day commute to work by bicycle. I may be biased, but I firmly believe that if more people in the city and suburbs used bicycles to get around at least some of the time it would put a big dent in the nation's oil appetite - and a dent in many bulging stomachs as well.
There was an article in 'The New Yorker' magazine two years ago (abstracted here) called 'Green Manhattan'. The article confirmed something I've always suspected: dense urban areas (like NYC) are much more energy efficient than less dense suburban areas. Some of this is due to apartment buildings being more energy efficient, but the primary reason is the small percentage of residents who commute to work by car and/or alone in their car. Only 46% of New Yorkers even own a car (in Manhattan it's only 25%) and 2 out of every 3 people who commute to work by rail in the United States are in the New York area.
We all know that the automobile has changed the landscape of North America for the last 80 years. Suburban sprawl is now the norm and new homes being built are 2 to 3 times larger than the typical home built 20 years ago. This is without any major improvements in energy efficiency, since insulation use became commonplace 30 to 40 years ago.
The simple fact of the matter is that the way most non-urban communities are designed, it necessitates driving almost every day of the week: to work, to shop, to visit friends, to see a movie, to eat out, etc. While public transportation is available in many suburbs, a very small percentage of people have used it even once and even less use it regularly.
This goes beyond city vs. Suburbs though. In the 'pre-suburb' days of 50 to 100 years ago most rural towns had a relatively densely populated town center where most people in the town lived. It was entirely feasible to walk to the local stores to shop, to walk to work, school, church, parks, playgrounds, etc. Now, these same towns that are slapped with the name 'suburb' or 'bedroom community' are filled with what are called 'developments' (at least that's we called them growing up) which are carved out of farmland or forests and are usually miles from any kind of commercial area. These houses were located and designed around the idea of cheap and plentiful gasoline that in the next 50 years will become more expensive and scarcer.
Nationally, 90% of Americans drive to work. Let's assume 10% carpool. Total (on the books) employment is about 145 million, so 116 million Americans drive to work alone about 200 days out of the year. If the average person lives 5 miles from work and is getting 20 MPG, this means 11.6 billion gallons of gas are burned every year to simply commute to work. This equals about 258 million barrels and produces 278.4 billion pounds of CO2 gas.
Per capita, the United States uses the most energy of any nation on Earth and consequently, produces the most greenhouse gases. A good portion of this energy is simply wasted. As a nation, we can't rely solely on the government or corporations to turn this trend around of their own accord. The ultimate solution has to be demanded by citizens and consumers.

CNBC now in Murdoch's Crosshairs

Small investors, days traders and of course anyone working in a brokerage office or trading floor have long been used to seeing the smiling faces of the team of financial reporters on CNBC. CNBC, owned by General Electric's NBC/Universal media division, has long been a staple of business and market news. While there are a handful of other financial channels, as far as market share, CNBC has been the 'Microsoft' to Bloomberg TV's 'Apple' for over a decade. Until now that is.

Rupert Murdoch, the head of News corp., and founder of the Fox television empire, has taken aim at CNBC. He has spent 2 years and will end up spending literally hundreds of millions of dollars to create Fox Business channel. Initially, Fox Business won't initially have as large a reach as CNBC - 30 million homes vs. 90 million - but that is sure to change.

The strategy for Fox Business seems to be first, to try to peel away viewers who don't work on 'Wall St.' per se, or may not be as wealthy or knowledgeable as the average CNBC viewer:

"A lot of people who don't have a lot of money (will) appreciate the fact that we're not speaking over their heads," Neil Cavuto, the network's managing editor, told Reuters recently. "That's a way of ensuring going beyond the typical Wall Street crowd." (Reuters, 10/15/07)

If they're actually looking for a demographic that doesn't 'have a lot of money', that would seem to hobble their ability to pull in large amounts of ad revenue, but I digress.

Additionally, and maybe even more dubiously, there has been talk that Fox Business will be more 'business friendly' than CNBC. Um... okay.... So CNBC, the channel of Jim Cramer and Larry Kudlow (!!) is supposedly anti-business? I wouldn't call CNBC necessarily 'pro-business', but down the line they are all supply-side, mostly pro-deregulation parrots of generally accepted pro-business policies. More importantly CNBC is, above all else, pro-investor.

Yes, during the 'Internet bubble', they were a mostly unquestioning rah-rah corps for the bull market, with warnings of risk and bear markets given little air-time. Since those days and through the Enrons and Quattrones of the business news world, they have learned their lesson and are definitely more skeptical. Yes, this is a good thing. They are at their best when they interview corporate executives and industry analysts, They will pull no punches and I believe, genuinely strive to get the real story for the benefit of viewers who have or are considering investing their money.

So, Fox Business promises to be more 'small investor' friendly and more 'pro-business' (less skeptical?). If Murdoch follows the model he used with Fox News, that being, "you can fool some of the people all of the time", then Fox Business should prove to be just as successful.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Seen on Columbia & Sackett

Art space comment on over-development along the Brooklyn waterfront.

Sent from Mike Webster's Treo 680

An Inconvenient Award

So, Al Gore and the United Nations climate panel are co-winners of this year's Nobel prize for... (drum roll, please) ... peace? Don't get me wrong, I'm happy for them and I'm happy that the important issue of climate change is getting even more attention. However, it seems that the prize for peace for Gore and the U.N. seems to be kind of a stretch. The stated rationalization is that since climate change will result in scarcity of resources, it will become the underlying cause of future wars, and indeed, already is the cause of some current conflicts. OK.

That said, the nation - nay, the entire world - should prepare themselves for the venomous blood-curdling screams of derision, hate and personal attacks that will no doubt arise from the darker corners of right-wingnut punditry and blogosphere. Will these supposedly patriotic folks even feel some pride in the fact that, hey, at least an American won the prize? Doubtful.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Dear Karen

In today Sidney Blumenthal, writer and former Clinton advisor, published an open letter written to Karen Hughes. Hughes is currently in the State Dept. holding a newly created post of Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. She is also one of the oldest members of Bush's coterie from the Texas days still left in the administration. The letter invites Hughes to a private screening of "Taxi to The Dark Side", a documentary about the administration's torture policies and urges her to use her influence with Bush to alter his current policy on torture. That policy can be boiled down to denying that we torture but approving specific 'interrogation techniques' that any reasonable person would define as torture. In the end of the letter, Blumenthal describes to Hughes what her choices are:

"While you are rethinking how to calm fears and rebuild America's image as a global leader perhaps you ought to begin to think of yourself not as a tool of the Bush administration but as a citizen of the world, not as a propagandist, constantly trying to formulate a hollow ideological phrase or distraction, but as someone who can admit mistakes and correct them."
"If you receive this letter as simply a partisan broadside and can't envision your transformation into a true diplomat at large, an envoy of healing, perhaps you should just resign. Nothing will be served by continuing on your current course. Nothing different will happen. You might as well return to Texas now. To date, your diplomacy has consisted of excuses for leaving the damage to the next president to remedy." ( 10/11/07)

How have we come to this point? The administration, in defiance of international law, U.S. court decisions and public opinion continues to torture. They justify this by defining the word torture so narrowly as to effectively remove it from the vocabulary. Indeed, many professional interrogation experts like Col. Stuart Herrington, say that the current techniques in use are basically useless and mostly counter-productive.

History will definitely view this president's record with regards to civil liberties alongside the shameful examples of The Red scare of the 1920s, the Japanese-American interment in 1942 and McCarthy-ism in the 1950s. Many would argue that it is worse than any of these. I tend to agree.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Quote of The Day

Courtesy of Stephen Colbert:

"Hatemongers like Media Matters take innocent statements like mine, Rush Limbaugh's, John Gibson's, and Bill O'Reilly's and make them offensive by posting them on the Internet, allowing the general public to hear words that were meant for people who already agree with us. Hey, Media Matters, you want to end offensive speech? Then stop recording it for people who would be offended. Because the Constitution gives us broadcasters the right to say anything we want but that doesn't mean that just anyone has the right to listen."
Brilliant. Seriously, the more the general public gets to hear from these hateful, intolerant, holier than thou, social darwinists, the better, as far as I'm concerned.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Jack Goldsmith on The Daily Show

Jon Stewart's interview with Jack Goldsmith, author of "The Terror Presidency", regarding the government's wiretapping program.

So who wants to 'take away our Freedom' again?

'Rotten' Direct

In recent years New York residents have become accustomed to seeing Fresh Direct trucks delivering groceries direct to their door. The idea seems to make sense: order a variety of groceries online and receive delivery within a day or two. No more driving to the grocery store means less fuel consumption, cleaner air, etc.

However, Fresh Direct came under fire almost from the start for what seemed to be a form of racial and economic 'red-lining'. They only offered delivery in more prosperous neighborhoods, even refusing to deliver to some neighborhoods right next to their distribution centers.

Next, some environmental advocates began to question the benefits of the delivery service. The trucks bring more traffic congestion and thereby air and noise pollution to residential neighborhoods and the deliveries use a significantly increased amount of packaging; much of it un-recyclable. I once witnessed a Fresh Direct truck on Union St. in Park Slope pull over recklessly and shear off the rear view mirror of a parked car and scrape its fender. This was after almost running me over on my bicycle. I don't know if they left a note on the damaged car.

Now, Fresh Direct employees are starting to complain about their working conditions and pay levels that are 40% lower than other supermarket and food warehouse workers make in New York. According to the local Teamster Union spokesperson, Fresh Direct has retained the services of a law firm that specializes in anti-union efforts.

I don't have a car so I either walk or ride my bicycle to either my local Met Food or to the Fairway store in Red Hook and avoid using plastic shopping bags.

Typical Skin-deep Analysis of Free Trade from WSJ

"WASHINGTON -- By a nearly two-to-one margin, Republican voters believe free trade is bad for the U.S. economy, a shift in opinion that mirrors Democratic views and suggests trade deals could face high hurdles under a new president." (WSJ - 10/4/07)

Thus begins reporter John Harwood's analysis of the shift in opinion of Republican voters going into next years presidential election. The poll cited clearly shows that Republican voters are now largely in agreement with Democratic voters that free trade agreements are bad for the U.S. Of course, this puts most of the Republican presidential candidates in the uncomfortable situation of either changing or defending their positions - and past congressional votes - in light of of this change in the political landscape. Furthermore they will need to balance this stance with a contrary pro-business stance likely to be demanded by many Republican party 'benefactors'. To be fair, a few of the Democratic candidates have Clinton-era pro free trade agreement histories to defend, but overall Democratic rhetoric has been against these agreements for many years now.

The article goes on to explain that this change could be attributed to reasons of security, the recent spate of recalls of imported products and possibly even the steady loss of good paying manufacturing jobs over the last ten years. Nah, that couldn't be it.

So, typically, the article paints the argument against free trade agreements in a good or bad context, without questioning how the agreements are written. Both NAFTA and CAFTA are written from a business point of view. The only micro-economic sectors that they regulate are producers and consumers, buyers and sellers, importers-exporters. To look at these agreements you'd think that the other micro sectors of labor - human capital, physical capital - plants and the environment in which they operate and government regulation, don't even exist.

The reason these agreements are bad isn't because free trade is bad per se, it's because they aren't comprehensive. They allow U.S. firms to more easily produce in foreign (i.e.: non-EPA, non-OSHA, non-minimum wage) economies. Robert Reich, labor secretary under Clinton, has put forth the idea that these agreements should also specify 'living wage' guarantees. For example, that any nations party to the agreement must maintain a minimum wage equal to 25% of that nation's median income. Yes, labor would still be cheaper there than here, but at least not as cheap and there would be better distribution of income that would help create healthy middle classes everywhere which in turn would become more markets where the producers could sell more of their goods - everyone wins. Furthermore, why not also specify stipulations related to workplace safety, child labor and environmental protections like manufacturers in the U.S. must already obey.

To summarize, what the article fails to point out is that these agreements are crafted by corporations for the benefit of their own bottom lines thereby to boost the price of their stocks, largely by escaping almost all types of regulatory controls. NAFTA and CAFTA weren't written for the benefit of all in the signee nations. Indeed, in a net-net analysis, what they really do is lower overall average wages of the combined labor forces of the signee nations and worsen the distribution of income.

Yes, I know, what do I expect from the Wall Street Journal. The problem is this type of analysis is the norm from most of the main stream media, not just 'pro-business' press such as the WSJ.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Columbus Day

Columbus day. Always a great time to remember the "discovery" of the New World. Also, a nice time to point out that Columbus began and helped to perpetuate the first round of European dominion over the New World - and it's inhabitants. He came across the Atlantic looking for a shortcut to the Far East. Once here, he enslaved native peoples, Taino and Caribe indians, among others, put them to work looking for gold and serving the explorers (the young females often forced into sexual servitude). When these natives resisted this servitude and the destruction of their land, they were slaughtered. The ones that weren't slaughtered, died of disease or starvation.

The earliest census of the native inhabitants of Hispanola by one of Columbus' own crew was about 1 million inhabitants. Within 30 years, there were none left. None. These aren't liberal 'we hate America' opinions, these are agreed on historical facts - hardly ever taught in school, however. The slaughter of 1 million people 500 years ago would equate to a figure of roughly 12 million people, adjusted for total world population, today.

The first few chapters of Howard Zinn's "A Peoples' History of the United States" and Dee Brown's "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: How The West was Lost" are both very illuminating books on this subject.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

"I Forbid", redux

George W. Bush has seen fit to use his veto power ("I forbid" in Latin) only 3 times before, the first in July of 2006, to block a Congressional measure to use Federal money for stem cell research. So, out of all the bad legislation that was passed by Republican controlled Congresses for 6 years, he chose to veto one of the only good bills. Now, Bush has said he will veto the current renewal of the SCHIP (state childrens health insurance program) as it's being debated in Congress. It seems that our President almost seeks to be on the wrong side of any given issue, no matter how experts, not to mention the public, feel.

One thing everyone, even 'the Decider', agree on is that the entire system of healthcare delivery in this country is an unqualified mess. Ever since Kaiser healthcare of California in the early 1970s thought it would be a great idea to become a for-profit venture and Nixon quietly killed any regulations to the contrary, medical costs and quality of care have been going in opposite directions. This has only accelerated in the last 15 years as the markets figured out that there was money to be made by charging individuals and businesses enormous premiums and providing them with free preventative care - the 'M' in HMO stands for maintenence - but then only providing partial or no coverage for actual needed medical procedures. Catastrophic illness? You're basically on your own. Is it any surprise that the cause of the majority of personal bankruptcies of late is large medical bills for serious illness? A lot of these people even had supposed health coverage through work.

Almost all economists (including this holder of a BA in economics) know, that of all the services provided in an economy, healthcare and education work horribly in a for-profit/free market model. The same can also can be said for news media and public utilities. The reasons are simple - these services are a necesity for everyone that provide unmeasurable benefits for the overall society years down the road. The 'consumers need to shop around' argument that Republicans and even some Democrats (Hillary?) like to use is, in a word, ridiculous. This theory may work when consumers are shopping for preventative care, but that service is already provided for free by both governmental and for-profit entitites. If someone is having a heart attack, was just diagnosed with a tumor or whose child needs major corrective surgery, can they honestly be expected to 'shop around' for the 'best deal'?!? We're talking about life and death decisions! If anything, they should be shopping around for the best doctor, not the best bargain!

Another shoddy argument that gets thrown around (I won't even get into the right-wingers who spew the words 'socialized medicine' every 2 minutes) is that, yes our healthcare is expensive and growing fast, but the quality of our care is second to none. Wrong. Perhaps it's second to none if you're financially capable of writing 5 figure checks for premiums every year and then 6 figure checks if a serious illness occurs, but for the other 98% of us it is not. Out of all the industrialized nations, we are last or near last in almost all health measurements: infant mortality, average life span, etc. Why is this if we're spending so much? Because the system is FOR PROFIT. That money that should be providing second to none care for everyone is siphoned off in the form of stock dividends, cash dividends, capital gains and large bonuses for the executives that run the HMOs. Oh, I almost forgot, a lot of the money also goes to politicians via the healthcare lobby to help perpetuate this incredibly broken system.

Bush's threatened veto, petty as it is, is only the latest media sideshow in a major issue that needs to fixed. In the current political environment, it doesn't look to happen anytime soon.