Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Dreaming Up Daily Image

"tube clouds" from Transport Cafe.
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This North Coast Place: MAXXed Out

"Aren't you the biggest employer in the county? And you only got one [county] Supervisor?"
--Judge Richard S. Schmidt
U.S. Bankruptcy Court, Texas

This statement, as reported by the Eureka Reporter, may be the most honest moment in this whole sorry affair. It's the so-far successful attempt of the MAXXAM corporation to screw its employees the way it has totally screwed the far northern California forests by declaring bankruptcy for its Pacific Lumber division.

The attempt is being made in Texas because shortly before declaring this bankruptcy, MAXXAM set up Pacific Lumber in a hollow corporation headquartered in Texas, where the courts are vastly more favorable to Texas robber baron and MAXXAM's owner, Charles Hurwitz.

I couldn't explain the ins and outs of this mess even if I wanted to, but to give you a flavor of it, MAXXAM's latest ploy was to propose selling off vast tracts of forest for pricey housing development to pay its debtors, and when the Humboldt County board of Supervisors got wind of it, they quickly voted to deny any permits to do so. The attempt got only one Supervisor's vote, hence the Judge's all-too candid question.

Yes, back in the day, Pacific Lumber may well have owned all the Supervisors. But it's not that big an employer anymore, and public support has waned, especially since these proceedings began.

Shortly after I came here more than a decade ago, I wrote a script for a one hour documentary video about MAXXAM's campaign to cut down as much redwood forest as fast as possible to pay off the debt it incurred when it bought Pacific Lumber, among other companies--acquisitions that Wall Street smiled on, raising the stock price so the bigwigs all got very wealthy. The massive tree slaughter, including on steep hills and along waterways, led to devastation one winter when heavy rains led to flooding and landslides. One small town was literally destroyed.

Just about every charge made in that video (called Voices of Humboldt County: Cumulative Impact), and every prediction of the future--including how MAXXAM was going to leave employees high and dry (they're now even trying to get out of paying pensions)--has proven to be true. I hope my writing helped make the video effective (it turned out to be instrumental in at least one court case) but I can't claim superior insight about the content--I was so new here that working on it with veteran environmentalists (who had a lot of the footage when I started) was a quick and thorough education. I did satisfy myself with my own research that what they claimed was correct.

That all this sad business came true has not especially raised the general reputation of environmentalists --as antiwar activists found, being right doesn't do that-- but it has turned a lot of public opinion against the previously defended corporation. Which may be one reason that the company owns only one Supervisor.

What also occurs to me today, when this quote popped out from an episode in the ongoing story, had to do naturally enough with fire. We get forest fires up here, too, but other parts of the state and the country don't usually hear much about them because there usually aren't any multi-million dollar homes endangered by them. Of course if MAXXAM and its allies get their way, that will change.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

California Firestorm

AP photo.
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Update Wednesday: Winds beginning to die down, many if not most fires contained in LA area and around San Diego, though danger persists in some areas. The figure of those being evacuated reported by AP may have been too high--but at close to half a million, it is still the largest in California history. Now questions are being asked about preparedness on the federal level as well as local fire department resources, and the effects of drought, which in turn are predicted outcomes of global heating.

Update: As of Tuesday evening, an estimated 1 million people or more are being evacuated, making this the largest forced movement of Americans since the Civil War. Fires are being reported now south of San Diego to the Mexican border, and the latest AP report suggests winds have not diminished:"If it's this big and blowing with as much wind as it's got, it'll go all the way to the ocean before it stops," said San Diego Fire Capt. Kirk Humphries. "We can save some stuff but we can't stop it."

The California Lt. Governor (a Democrat) is suggesting that efforts would be helped by the National Guard currently in Iraq instead of in the American West.

Southern California--basically a strip a couple of hundred miles long from around Los Angeles to beyond San Diego--is beset by fire, fueled by the stronger than usual Santa Ana winds, with gusts reaching hurricane velocities. The San Diego area has experienced the largest evacuation ever. At this hour, some half million people along that strip have been displaced.

This is one of the most affluent areas in the U.S., so everything that can be brought to bear is being utilized. (Some of the differences between this disaster and New Orleans making an impact are suggested in this NY Times blog.) And because fires are endemic to this area, people who normally don't interact very much are used to working together and helping each other out in these emergencies.

As of Tuesday afternoon, there are reports that the winds have died down some, but the situation is still dangerous in many places. Forecasts suggest the worst may be over, but no one knows what the effects will be when the winds shift, as is expected in a day or two.

Meanwhile America is getting a graphic education in the power of fire. There are conditions special to southern CA involved in this firestorm, but drought in the west generally, and now in the southeast, makes something like this a danger well beyond southern California, for awhile to come.

Monday, October 22, 2007

The Dreaming Up Daily Image

Other animals also tell stories, and our elaborate
storytelling is essential to who we are as humans,
and to how we see the world. Storyteller figures
are prominent among Pueblo sculptures. This
one is by Leonard Sosie, at Penfield Gallery.
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Soul of the Future: Anticipation

What must we emphasize in ourselves to have a future that is not worse than the present-- that is better? The wonderful thing about my answer is that in every case we must emphasize that which makes us better.

Essentially everything we do is done by some other animals on Earth. We may do it more, or very differently, and certainly bigger. As humans, our continued survival depends on emphasizing some things we do, and finding a less prominent place, a different role, for other things. I am assuming that we want to continue developing the best parts of our civilizations, including that which we believe most honors us as human, and as the human race.

That's the positive approach. The negative is perhaps clearer, since we are built to engage emotions and intellect when we feel threatened. The threats becomes clearer every day. Some of us who believed the great dangers were coming (apart from the ones we grew up with, of war and nuclear apocalypse) didn't think we'd live to see them become so imminent. But that imminence is also, very sadly becoming clearer every day.

It's all there, in news reported today and yesterday. Evidence of global heating and the climate crisis mounts, as does the news of these early effects: just in our own country, the droughts in the West (subject of a long New York Times Sunday Magazine piece, called "The Future is Drying Up") and the southeast, and the ferocity of the California fires, fed by the interaction of normal and abnormal weather patterns with the direct effects of global heating.

News also of jittery world economic markets, so vulnerable and so dependent on "economic growth" that's clearly hitting the limits of our natural resources and the ability of our natural environment to recover from damage on an ever-larger scale, yet still sustain us. And linking these areas of concern, there is this thunderbolt from the Global Energy Watch Group study that concludes that the world supply of oil has peaked, and that it will now inevitably decline an average of 7% a year.

The topic of "peak oil" has been discussed for several years now, and this particular study will no doubt be subjected to criticism. Advocates for renewable energy will square off against oil company funded research, and it may be awhile before we're really any the wiser.

The soul of the future---the qualities of soul that we'll need to emphasize to get to the future--needs imagination, perhaps above anything else, at least to get started. We know that oil is being extracted from the Earth, and that supply, however vast, has to be limited. This report--that the supply of oil has peaked-- is shocking. Why? Because we did not anticipate this. We go on as if nothing fundamental will change--there will always be oil, always be forests, clean water, snow in winter, and so on.

Anticipating the future begins with acts of the imagination. It's done by science, by fantasy, by science fiction, by curiosity. They all ask, what if? What if, in an economically interdependent world, the fuel of that world is no longer so available? What if our often crowded and highly interdependent communities can't count on the resources they take for granted--plentiful fresh water, cheap food? What kind of a world might that be?

And if we imagine it, can't we anticipate it? Can't we plan for that future--that is, make plans that will make it better than what it seems it would be? And if we calculate the possibility of that anticipation happening, can't we take steps now to prevent it?

Anticipation has been part of why people envision the future: what if the future we imagine and calculate and anticipate, were to be our present? How would we feel? What would life be like? And if we don't like the answers, then those answers tell us what in general we must do now, to prevent that future, or (if we imagine a better future resulting from changes we make) to help create it.

What prevents us? Some would say our currently frenzied but actually easy lives, our self-centeredness, our wish to avoid such fearful visions. Part of it certainly is our ruling ideology, which is to react to events when or after they happen, not to anticipate them. . Our economy as well as our politics mostly runs on this principle. We see its weakness when we consider the what if--as we are almost forced to by something like this report on oil:

The report presents a bleak view of the future unless a radically different approach is adopted. It quotes the British energy economist David Fleming as saying: "Anticipated supply shortages could lead easily to disturbing scenes of mass unrest as witnessed in Burma this month. For government, industry and the wider public, just muddling through is not an option any more as this situation could spin out of control and turn into a complete meltdown of society."

We almost have to ask, What if it's true? And then we ask, how did it get to this point, before we did something about it? What if it is now too late? Wouldn't it have been better to anticipate it, and make the necessary changes?

That's contrary to the principles of global capitalism: constant growth using up resources and ignoring natural limits, and taking advantage of opportunities as they present themselves to the smartest and most powerful. So this blindness is willful, although mostly willed by those who gain the greatest advantage, however temporarily.

Yet in the scientific age, beginning at least with H.G. Wells at the start of the 20th century, some people have been pleading with us to see where we're heading and to anticipate the disasters ahead, and take steps to prevent them. In the 1960s and earlier, Buckminster Fuller talked about "anticipatory design science." That was the real point of his metaphor of "Spaceship Earth." On a ship, you can count on only what you left port with. The design of your ship has to anticipate what will happen to it and what might happen to it in its future.

But well before that, Natives of North America formulated a rule that was at the heart of many Indigenous societies: consider the effect of every decision on the seventh generation to come. Even many animals anticipate the future, and design for it. We humans have changed this world so much, to the point where what we've done and are doing threatens all that we've built over many thousands of years, as well as a lot of other life on this planet. If we fail to engage our ability to anticipate, to imagine and to act--if we cannot emphasize the soul of the future--then we face an awful future, and probable failure as a civilization, with all its developments of knowledge, morality and spiritual exploration, and perhaps failure even as a species. And our time to anticipate with sufficient time to act seems to be slipping by fast.

But if we do meet this challenge by engaging all aspects of the soul of the future, we will have taken the next step in fulfilling our best potential.

It Only Looks Like Suicide: The Politics of S-Chip

Update: A similar version Rescued at Daily Kos and frontpaged at E Pluribus Media.

Why would the very unpopular lame duck President lead Republican members of Congress to defeat a bill to expand SCHIP, a successful program favored by 81% of Americans (according to CBS) to save the lives and health of children?

It's counterintuitive, even for Republicans. Next to advocating arsenic for babies, this was the most daringly callous, profane and seemingly brain-dead political stand possible. It seems like political suicide. So, why do it?

I believe the answer is this: the Republicans are gearing up to fight Hillary Clinton, the presumptive nominee (in Bush's eyes), and they are going to do so on the issue of government-run health care, the issue they defeated her on before.

Here's briefly what the debate is about, as summarized by Keith Olbermann:
SCHIP currently covers six million children too poor for insurance but not poor enough for Medicaid. But a growing number of Americans, two out of five, are not covered by employer insurance; 47 million don‘t have any health insurance. That number is also up. The uninsured children increasing by 600,000 last year alone. So Democrats want to expand S-CHIP to cover four million more kids. The cost, seven billion dollars a year.

Last week the White House and Republican congressional leadership fought hard to deny Congress enough votes to override the Bush veto. Moreover, they did it by distorting what the law would actually do, including who it was intended to cover. And by the viciousness cited here in the previous post.

The answer to "why" is partly in the White House statement, and partly in exactly how they distorted the bill. And the most direct part of that answer is this: the Republicans are gearing up to fight Hillary Clinton, the presumptive nominee (in Bush's eyes), and they are going to do so on the issue of government-run health care, the issue that they won against her before.

Bush said his opposition to SCHIP was partly on principle, because the bill goes down the road of "socialized medicine." That's been a regular Republican refrain for at least a half century; they used it to oppose what became Medicare in the Kennedy administration. Now it's being linking directly to Hillary Clinton's health care reform proposal, not only by Republicans in Congress, but by the leading Republican presidential candidates, as reported by Brian Tummulty for Gannett and published in USA Today:

At a forum for Republican presidential candidates Wednesday in Detroit, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani sparred on some issues, but they were united on Clinton's health care plan.

"If we do HillaryCare or socialized medicine, Canadians will have no place to go to get their health care," Giuliani quipped, referring to the Canada's single-payer national health system.

"HillaryCare is government gets in and tells people what to do from the federal government's standpoint," Romney said.

Ironically, the "socialized medicine" charge was not made so often or so boldly against President Clinton's universal health care plan, which was organized in a very public way by Hillary Clinton. Universal health care was immensely popular, and one of the issues that elected Clinton. (Its potency was first discovered a couple of years before when one ad on the subject virtually propelled Harris Wofford into the U.S. Senate in a Pennsylvania special election.)

Clinton's proposal was defeated, not by Republican political bombast, but by a very well financed campaign against it by the pharmaceutical and health insurance industries. When a series of TV ads began changing the poll numbers, Republicans eagerly pounced on the issue again.

But though the term "socialized medicine" wasn't so prominent, the arguments behind it were. They were prominent in the ads especially: individuals and families would lose their right to choose their doctor, and their doctors would not decide on their treatment--government bureaucrats would. Further, a huge, faceless, powerful but unresponsive federal bureaucracy would waste billions of taxpayer dollars, driving up health care costs.

So the Clinton proposal for universal health insurance was defeated, and the private corporate HMO and health insurance industry grew so fast and so big that few seem to remember when it didn't totally dominate medicine in this country. The reality that everyone knows is that everything the opponents of the Clinton plan said did come true--but it is the huge, faceless, powerful corporate medical insurance system that routinely decides what doctors patients can see (or if they can see any), and what treatments and services doctors and hospitals can provide. They spent a high percentage on "administration," and they have driven health care costs higher and higher, until now they are bankrupting middle class families and small businesses, and threatening the financial viability of large and otherwise successful corporations.

Yet the Republicans are using exactly the same arguments. And they may be successful. And they know it.

Why is that possible--when health care is emerging as the domestic issue that voters care the most about? Because Hillary's health care plan--as well as those of most of the other Democratic candidates--include private insurance companies. They mostly funnel taxpayer dollars to those companies. So it is very hard for them to point out the obvious: corporate run health insurance has been a cruel travesty.

One of the reasons that it never made sense was the demonstrably false argument that corporations could run health care for their own profit, and do it cheaper than the government, which does not seek to make a profit. But for-profit healthcare has amassed not only huge profits, but huge amounts of money these companies use to destroy and buy up their competitors, and--very much to the point--to lavishly lobby government officials and finance their increasingly expensive campaigns. All paid for by that chump, the consumer, otherwise known as the taxpayer.

The amounts of money are huge because of another fallacy in the Republican argument, trotted out for every attempt to "privatize" a formerly public responsibility, but used especially to argue against government financed health insurance. Corporate care is more efficient because corporations compete, and have to be efficient to make a profit. But corporations compete, not by efficiency, but by destroying or absorbing their competitors--then they expand, and keep expanding until there is no competition, unless limited by regulation.
This has happened to private health insurance, which means that the amounts of consumer-dollars they have to spread around to politicians are huge. No presidential candidate can apparently afford to offend them.

So that's the second part of the answer to "why." Republicans are representing the interests of medical insurance and related corporations, such as Big Pharma. It's also likely that Republicans will actually do much the same on health care should their candidates be elected (this same USA Today article points out that Mitt Romney's plan is not very different from Hillary's.) After all, the most successful innovation of the Bush administration was turning the federal government into a funnel, transferring taxpayer dollars to selected corporations, as Naomi Klein has shown so well. Eventually they will pass laws that will further enrich the criminal enterprise known as health insurance corporations. They are already passing such laws in the states, making it against the law not to do business with them.

So while the Republican "death to children" march seems like suicide, and indeed it may turn out to be politically fatal, it had a purpose--to breathe life into their Get Hillary campaign. And it's not going to be pretty.