Monday, October 31, 2011

The War on Science

Something scary for Halloween.

This video from the Daily Show is BRILLIANT.  I am sorry, but I cannot seem to embed the video unless it is on YouTube, so you have to click on the link.  It is worth it.  I promise.

Are Republicans anti-reason now?  What in the hell is going on with them?

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Which Bank Is the Worst?

Which Bank Is the Worst?
We’ve outlined the seven deadliest sins of the big banks. Read them here, and then tell us which one you think is the worst.

1. JPMorgan Chase kicks 54 military families out of their homes—despite a law against doing so.

2. Wells Fargo gives bonuses to loan officers to put minority borrowers into high-priced subprime mortgages—internally dubbed “ghetto loans.”

3. Citigroup, Bank of America, and Goldman Sachs all pay huge fines to settle charges they duped their own clients.

4. Goldman Sachs assists in Europe’s economic collapse by helping Greece mask the truth about its finances.

5. JPMorgan turns a blind eye to Bernie Madoff’s deceptions.

6. Bank of America pays $137 million to settle government claims it rigged the municipal-bond market.

7. Despite these and other unpardonable sins, banks showers tens of millions of dollars in bonus money on top executives.

(move your account?)

Friday, October 28, 2011

Scott Olsen

This is the veteran marine who was shot by Oakland police and put in a coma.
 Think the police over-reacted a little?

What she said...

More about where this Occupy movement came from, in easy to consume short video form.

Get it?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Whence and Why Occupy?

The Occupy movement is not based on anything recent.  People are struggling to figure out what this is all about, looking only in terms of the current moment in time.  This has been a long time coming.  I am going to talk about why I think this happened

First there was an economic meltdown.  Well no, lets back up even further, long before the latest crisis, even before the recession at the turn of the millennium.  For many years, the country has been losing decent paying factory jobs, and those people have been required to take lower paying service jobs.  Employers made many employees at this level "part-time," working them enough to meet their needs, but not enough that they needed to give them any benefits.  That means no sick days, no paid days off for any reason, no health insurance, and little security of future employment.  Once unemployment among this segment of the population reaches a certain level, the employer has all the power, hiring and firing on a whim.  Employees work two or more part-time jobs if they can find them, and struggle to take care of their families.  The working class and lower middle class got screwed.

In the late 90‘s, technology companies boomed.  They could not hire enough qualified people quickly enough.  The companies turned to hiring many foreign nationals, many educated in US universities.  Why shouldn’t the country benefit from educating all of these engineers and technology workers?  The problem is that most of these people were allowed to stay here on H-1B visas, but there was a limit on the number of these visas each year, and they would run out.  It happened earlier and earlier each year.  Typically, the business and immigration community would lobby Congress and they would increase the number.  Then the anti-immigration lobby joined forces with some political opportunists, and decided that these workers were taking American jobs or something like that.  The raising of the cap became a more contentious issue each year.  Congress started not raising it enough to meet employers needs and started adding useless extra conditions and fees.  Even unions got involved working against raising the cap, but since H-1B’s are typically given to well-educated professionals, it is not clear what unions stood to gain.  They were just being anti-immigration because immigrants became the latest scapegoat for dwindling jobs.  For years, all H-1B visas were given out at the very beginning of the fiscal year.  At the same time, technology finally reached a point making the high speed transfer of data possible around the world.  Companies opened up or enlarged facilities in India and China and elsewhere.  Suddenly, those people did not need to remain in the United States to have decent careers.  They could get their education and go home to work.
Then the first recession started in 2001, and this was the collapse of the “tech bubble.”  Technology professionals were laid off left and right.  The companies that supported those industries took big hits as well.  Workers took lesser jobs in the industry.  Some were forced to work at the mall or in restaurants.  I am not sure whether the country ever fully recovered from this.  Sure some companies started hiring again, but many had gone away.  Companies could hire more people overseas.  Yes, unemployment went down, but not to 90’s levels.  And unemployment never counts the underemployed, like the software engineer working at the Gap.

Then comes the mortgage fiasco/banking crisis/economic meltdown.  It is largely triggered by incredibly well-paid bankers and financiers made ridiculously risky investments with money supplied by deregulated banks who have bought up so many smaller banks and become so huge that they could not even effectively govern themselves.  They did not seem to even know what all they were getting into.  The worse part is that they were considered "too big to fail."  If they failed, the consequences to the country or even world would have been great.  This is why the country had previously put limits on the growth of banks.  Remember when banks were largely confined to individual states?  Remember when there were limits on what industries they could get into?  Remember the savings and loan crisis?

Just how the executives responsible for the savings and loan crisis mostly were not held responsible for their criminal actions, the new malefactors were not held responsible.  Those executives got to keep their jobs and even got huge bonuses, while literally millions of hard working Americans lost their jobs. Millions saw the value of their houses (not to mention their retirement plans), plummet and now owe more than their houses are worth.  Many people have lost their homes completely.  They had been sold on this American dream of home ownership.  What could be a more solid investment?  Never mind that home ownership was originally promoted because workers who own homes do not tend to strike.  Well, people who spent years building up equity in their homes disappear in months.
 If that was not bad enough,  the same damn companies who were saved by government bailouts are now suing people, who already lost their homes, for the difference between what the banks could sell the houses for and what the original owners owed on the house. These are people who could not afford to keep their homes. Where in the hell is this extra money supposed to be coming from? It is fucking outrageous! People say that these people bought houses that were bigger than they could afford, but they probably could afford them when they were working. How many of you could afford to keep paying their house payments without a job?  How long?  The typical unemployed person right now is unemployed for more than 40 weeks.  These are numbers not seen since the Great Depression.  Contrary to popular belief, unemployment will not cover most house payments. It its not like these people could just downsize with such a crappy real estate market. Who will buy their old house?  Where will they get a down payment with all of their equity gone?  The same goes for moving to another city for a job. If they could sell their houses at all, they would owe a huge debt for which they have nothing to show! What kind of fucked up version of the American dream is that? 

New home ownership was a big economic engine in many cities, driving economies ever upward. Now the purchasers if those homes are being demonized by people who just happen to have been lucky enough not to have lost their jobs. Well actually those judgmental people are just going along with the demonization perpetrated by right wing media and business people.  Yes, maybe some of these people could not afford the houses they bought even in the best of times, but then why in the hell did companies loan them the money without fully checking out their credit or income?  I know when I was pre-qualified for a home loan for my first house, they offered me WAY more money than it would have been smart for me to borrow.  I was damn glad I resisted all that “free money” when I was later laid off.  I would not have been able to afford it with my reduced salary. 

Most importantly, these same people demonize the troubled homeowners are the ones who loaned out money indiscriminately and developed these risky credit default swaps to bundle them all together in the first place?  Why are they not just accepting the burden that came as a result of their irresponsibility?  Why is that all put on the people without jobs?  And why shouldn’t those people be angry as hell?

Back to our story.  After a couple of years, people started hearing that the economy had recovered.  Stock markets had bounced back and other indicators had stopped their decline, so there was no “recession.”  But for most of us, that did not mean that things got better.  It did not really mean a damn thing.  Maybe for some, things stopped getting worse, but many continued to lose their jobs.  People are still losing jobs today.  Unless your sense of well-being comes from you investments in the stock market, you likely do not feel good about the current economic situation in this country.  To be honest, even the stock market has remained volatile in the past few years, so I don’t think anyone is celebrating the economy (well except for the people who work in mortgage foreclosure, etc.).

Some people still seemed to be getting richer, for sure.  The rest of us just started looking at the corruption of the system and got disgusted.  We were told that the banks were too big to fail, so they were given huge cash infusions to keep them afloat.  This did not seem like such a bad thing  at the time until we started hearing about the bonuses being paid out to people in charge of these banks.  Why couldn’t this money come with a few strings?  The banks would be going out of business if not for our tax money.  In other words, the executives were failing at their jobs, but still getting multimillion dollar bonuses.  We were told that the bonuses were paid out even in those times because the companies needed to keep these people in place that knew what was going on.  Nobody else could even understand what was going on, so they could not resolve the situation.  Even though much of the bailout money was repaid by the banks, it just did not seen right that they should be so handsomely rewarded for fucking up, when so many of the rest of us were struggling.  The government did not take the chance to really rein in Wall Street, and the little that they did do is now being called criminal by Newt Gingrich as he runs for President (or tries to sell his book or up his speakers fees or whatever it is he is doing).  So now we hear that the banks are back to doing the same old stuff.  Those people at the top keep making more and more money while the rest of us make less.

Before they were elected in 2012, the Republicans that swept into power harped and harped about jobs.  “Nothing is being done about jobs by the Democrats,” they said.  They dismissed all that the President had accomplished (though I wish it had been more) as irrelevant because all that mattered was jobs, jobs, jobs.  People said “you are right,” and voted them in.  Once in, they dropped the “jobs” mantra quicker than a “reporter” gets dropped by ESPN after making a racist comment.  It was decided that the economic problems were not caused by a lack of jobs, but by the deficit, which they said Obama was letting get out of control.  Of course they ignored the fact that most of the ballooning was a result of Bush’s wars and policies, and the fact that the economy was slow.  Though conservatives had little data to support this idea, they started Chicken Little-ing about China cashing in and the country becoming bankrupt if we did not cut budget deficits and pay down some of our debt.  It did not matter than most economists said this was not the time to be doing that, even if it was an important long term goal.  They even managed to get many Democrats caught up in this lunacy, thereby taking their eyes off of their balls.  Conservatives attacked all sorts of government programs from the EPA to services to benefit those that are struggling financially.  We can restore America’s greatness by getting rid of these “wasteful” safety nets.  The logic is since that America was great many years ago and it is not so now (though don’t you question America’s greatness or you hate America), if we undo all the progress we have established in the past century, we will be great again.  Don’t go back and read the sentence again, because it will never make sense.  That is the problem.  Further, Republicans ignore the fact that many of these programs were put into place by Republicans and that the country has thrived under them.  They also ignore the fact that those countries that are doing better than us have as many or more of those safe guards than we do.  Even China is working on their environmental problems.  Are we trying to become a second world country?

The right trotted out the classic fairy tales about the welfare cheats and people living lives of luxury on unemployment.  The only way you could do that is to commit fraud and pretend to be several people.  I have heard a Democrat complain that unemployment compensation was over $500 per month, and anybody can live off of that.  So there is no incentive to work.  (he later let slip that he had been on unemployment, so I am not sure why he went back to work if there is no incentive, but we all have our blind spots).  In fact, the $583 is the maximum rate one can receive as a percentage of their former pay in the state.  Most people receive less than that.  Some receive well under $100 per week.  Try living on that outside of your parents’ basement.  Sadly, I know of a guy who quit his low-paying job because someone had told him that he could make more money on unemployment.  This is sad because his decision was based upon people’s erroneous assumptions.  The fact was that his (like everyone’s) unemployment benefits was far less than what he made working.  It was doubly sad because of course if you quit without provocation from the employer, you receive no benefits at all.  He quit for nothing.  But I have digressed.

So, to slay the fire-breathing deficit, Republicans were ready to slash and burn the budget (the part not being the military or any contracts benefiting their “constituent companies”).  Some people finally stood up and said, “wait just a damn minute.”  This is not making any sense.  Cooler heads on the left pointed out that if we just let the Bush tax cuts expire on income of over $250,000 we could make some serious headway on that deficit.  “Class warfare!” the right exclaimed.  They managed to prevent these tax cuts from expiring while arguing for massive cuts in the government (which would eliminate government jobs causing more unemployment).  They also prevented any extensions of unemployment insurance benefits.  Then conservatives went on the offensive, drawing clear lines in the sand which further divided the country into “us” and “them.”      Obscenely wealth people became “job creators.” We probably have Frank Luntz to thank for that one.  We were told that if we lowered on the rich, jobs would sprout like dandelions.  They never explained why this has not happened so far given the low tax rate (compared to the booming 90’s when jobs actually were being created and tax rates were higher).

The right started talking about almost half of Americans who supposedly do not pay taxes.  They don’t pay income taxes, but they do pay other taxes.  These are retirees and students.  They are people who do not make enough money to afford taxes.  It is very sad that in the richest country in the world, so many people are making so little.  Yet, the Republican’s response was “tax the poor more.”  Huh?  It is not fair to tax the “hardworking” rich (even those jobless living off of trust funds), but we should tax those that can barely afford to live. 
John Edwards, for all of his faults, did a good job of pointing out the two Americas today.  He also talked about the impossibility of living off of anything close to minimum wage.  Shouldn’t minimum wage be enough to live on for someone working full-time?  As he used to say, these workers are living up to their end of the bargain by working full-time, but cannot afford to feed their families.  The conservatives recently pointed out, “the poor have televisions and microwave ovens,” ignoring that these things can be had almost free if they are used.  So who again is it that is doing the attacking in this war?

While the right has done a good job of convincing middle class people that the Republicans represent their interests better, they have not done so.  They represent the wealthy who fund them.  Some in the middle believe that they are on their way to being rich, but others just admire without aspiring, and if they have to chose a side, they sure as hell do not want to be lumped with the poor.  They have worked hard not to be.  All Republicans have say is ‘“the other side wants to raise your taxes” and they have them on their side.  One friend said, “we 53% pay taxes so that the 99% can sit around and do nothing.”  What?  Even ignoring the obvious math mistakes, that statement does not make sense.  People sit at home attack the Occupy movement for sitting around and doing nothing, when they are actually the ones out doing something.  It makes no sense.

On the other side of this divide, more and more people have realized the absurdity of protecting 1% of the population to the detriment of the other 99%.  They realized that we are the majority by far, so why does it seem that we have so little power?  Why are we being demonized while they seem to get away with murder?  The “job creators” are stripping our benefits, cutting our pay, making us more hours, or laying us off, while they collect massive bonuses and go on lavish overseas vacations.  They want us to fall on our swords and toughen up while their lives just get cushier and their pets are treated better than some human children.  Yes, my dog is spoiled, but he does not go to daycare and get pedicures.  They don’t even want us to have cake unless we can afford it without any help from them.  They tell us just to go back to school at 55 and learn about some technology that will be obsolete again before we retire.  We cannot all work as greeters at Walmart until they actually have a store in each house, which is I am sure their long term goal.  We can work for them and buy everything from them.  Now that is progress.

Did I digress again?  When the Supreme Court came out with the Citizens United decision, they based it upon the theory that corporations were people, citizens who had free speech rights.  Corporate personhood was developed as a legal construct to allow companies to be sued and taxed independent of the individual’s running them.  It is absurd to think that they should be treated in every way like a citizen.  If so, how many of them registered with the selective service when they reached the age of majority?  But now, companies have free speech rights that must not be hindered by limiting the amount of money they can spend in support of political candidates.  If it seemed like politicians were bought and paid for before, they must each feel like one of the last girls left at a frat party.  If the candidate is willing to put out, she will be VERY popular.

I think you must be getting the point by now.  I do not want to beat a dead horse, because we might need it for food.  People are getting angry and they aren’t going to take it, no, they’re not going to take it anymore.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Occupy This

As a (mostly) sideline follower of the Occupy Wall Street movement and its many offshoots throughout the world, I am amazed and frustrated at people's reaction to this phenomenon.  While I have some friends who are all excited about it, most people just do not seem to get it.  For many people who might be sympathetic or at least open-minded enough to listen, their main comment is that the movement lacks a coherent message.  This is true.  Some of us suspect that we could be aligned with these people if they indeed hold similar positions, but it is tough to tell.  It makes is difficult for people to know if they should get behind a movement if they cannot even tell what it is they are getting behind.  The problem with this problem is that it belied one of the great things about this movement.  It is purely a grassroots movement that sprung up out of people's frustration at the situation in the country today.  There was no one organization or leader who said, "we need to go protest this to accomplish that."  People just started feeling incredibly frustrated and felt like something needed to be done.  They just did not know what to do!

So, some in New York decided to “occupy Wall Street” to bring attention to the source of the economic problems in the country at the moment.  They did not have a meeting, form some committees, write letters, conduct lobbying, hold fundraisers, put out position papers, and work towards some long-term clearly identified goals.  They just went with their guts, their instincts.  They just took to the streets and made some noise and tried to get their voices heard over the din of big business’ influence over government.

But to me, this is all what is so great about this movement.  It was purely grassroots and came out of raw emotions and pure frustration.  It came from people, real people, not some strategists in some antiseptic Washington conference room.  Most people are struggling while a few are profiting more and more.  Large multinational corporations have had record profits and upper level executives see their pay increase almost exponentially.  Despite the right wing saying that the problems with the economy are caused by too much government regulation, it is obvious even to someone who pays a slight bit of attention to what has happened in the past few years that the opposite is the case.  Giant corporations have run wild.  They buy the government, write the laws, and then make their finances so complicated that the government could not even understand it enough to regulate it even if they wanted to.

So, people just poured into the streets and more and more people joined them.  They wanted to express their extreme frustration and then they could figure out what it was about.  If this had been created by one or more organizations, they would be protecting and serving their own interests.  Here we have lots of different interests being represented by lots of individuals.  It is pure democracy in action.  If the individual loses her voice to big money interests, she takes to the streets.  What else is there to do?  Many may not have been articulate because they may not know or understand what exactly is happening or what the solution is.  They just no that things are really messed up and they need to change.  It is the great thing about the movement as well as its biggest weakness, but messages are starting to emerge.  This might be starting to scare those that are responsible.  At first they could easily dismiss them as unfocused and disorganized hippies who did not know what they wanted.  But as their message gets more focused and defined, it could be trouble for some.  I hope so anyway.

I have seen numerous comments that show that people just do not get this movement at all.  They get downright angry at or scared of these people.  This is basic "fear of the unknown."  The public is confused by the lack of coherent message, so people have started to make up their own version of what the message might be.  The most common is that these are a bunch of unemployed people who want the government to give them money.  I could not tell you where this nonsense came from, as I have not seen any evidence of even any element along these lines.  Ridiculous, but like any other lie if it is repeated enough, it may become “true.”  Meanwhile, much of the media shows people playing hacky-sack or wearing strange costumes.  Some of this is street theater, designed just to get media attention, but their message is often lost in translation.  Other odd people just joined in and dressed up because they saw others dressing up.  They were just showing solidarity with others they perceived as outsiders.  But this allows the general public to too easily dismiss the movement as a bunch of loons.  It gives people permission not to take seriously people who are trying to get across some desperately serious messages.  And of course, this is only after the media ignored the whole thing for the first week or two.

Many try to pit the Occupy movement against the tea party folks, like they mortal enemies.  I have even seen many Occupy supporters engage in this, but I do not think it is productive.  These people do seem to have come from different angles and maybe different ends of the political spectrum.  The demographics are different and some of the solutions they offer may be completely different, but both movements come from similar frustrations with a broken system.  I am not saying that I am a big fan of the tea party movement, but I will say that I have more sympathy for them as they were scorned by the mainstream.  While I may not agree with what they want, they are there for the same reasons.  And I wonder if they were not quite as crazy as they were portrayed during their 15 minutes of fame.  I laughed at their signs too, but I would probably look dumb too without my trusty spellcheck.

Of course it is in the interest of those at the top to divide and conquer increasingly enraged and desperate people.  The craziest elements are promoted as representative.  Sure I laughed at the absurd and misspelled signs of the tea party.  I recoiled in horror at some of their wackier demands.  I hate some of the work being done by elected officials in their name.  Many of the solutions put forth were either misdirected or just wrong.  But I wonder how many of those folks had all of this in mind when they started.  I may be naive, but I suspect some of them are not at all happy with where their movement has gone.

You cannot talk about either group as any sort of unified force, though the media attempts this every day.  There are all sorts of agendas within members of the groups, but the majority’s agenda is more basic.  Fix things.  Unfortunately, the loudest people will get heard and begin to “represent” the disparate mass.  Organizations, loose or established, are already moving in trying to co-opt the group for their purposes.  The Republicans and others did that to the tea party.  I have already heard about internal struggles in some cities' Occupy movements between various factions, such as anarchists and old-time liberals.  Movements are being run by consensus, which is an extraordinarily difficult and inefficient (though idealistic) way to work.  Factions, with their own agendas, develop and fight.  Heck in this town, even with the support of much of city government, the movement fights internally about where their camp should be, and some want to make the whole thing about fighting the police.  Some are already being distracted from the important concerns that brought them there.  There will be splinter groups and people that just do whatever they want in the name of the movement.  I saw all the same things happen in the AIDS activist movement in the late 80’s and early 90’s.  It probably happened in other movements before that.  The radicalism of AIDS activism was born out of a similar sense of desperation, but it managed to accomplish a great deal before disintegrating/becoming more mainstream.  I really hope that the same thing can happen here.

Next I will give my take on what led up to all of this.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Risky and Fun

Feel free to try this at home if you have one of these chambers (and a helmet)

Friday, October 7, 2011

Maslow's Peak

My friend Julie Boler has recently started a site called Maslow's Peak.  She is doing some things similar to what I hope to do, but more seriously and on a grander scale.  She has particular interest and expertise in issues of racism.  I wish her luck and plan to spend some time over there.  I cannot wait to see what she does with it.  Check it out.


This is my place for talking about politics and current events and whatever else I feel like that is not related to exploring Seattle. I just found myself writing pieces that did not fit into that subject matter.  Once I started, I cannot seem to stop.  Hopefully this will be interesting.