Thursday, March 12, 2009

Red-Crested cardinal, taken by Haole in Hawaii. As I commented on his post, I don't know which I envy more--his birds, or his camera. But I was being polite. It's his camera. I do love this bird, though, partly because I miss cardinals up/out here in way northern CA. Not that we don't have plenty of photogenic birds, including a few he captured in the photos on this post. So it's definitely the camera. And probably the patience.

Guru for the Green Deal

Back in December, the Captain alerted you to the point of view of a singular activist on green economy and Climate Crisis issues, named Van Jones. Based in Oakland, CA, Jones has been active and eloquent on the need to involve poor communities in green energy and environmental sustainability efforts. Not only would such efforts inevitably fail if they remain limited to rich whites enviros in certain urban areas, but green energy efforts have a vast potential to bring jobs to poor and blue collar communities, and lift people out of poverty while doing the actual work of accomplishing environmental sustainability.

Well, this week the Obama administration appointed Van Jones as a special adviser for green jobs, enterprise and innovation. It's tremendous news. Jones is not only good on policy, he is a dynamic speaker and organizer. The blue (collar)-green (jobs) alliance is in many ways the keystone of what is emerging as the Obama plan for simultaneously reviving the economy now, building a new and sustainable economy for the future, ending dependence on foreign energy, increasing health and saving the planet.

Van Jones is the author of The Green Collar Economy (linked to Amazon over there in the slide show column). This New Yorker profile tells a lot more about him.

The Other Red Meat

For some people, pork isn't white meat--it's the red meat of politics. List some funny sounding programs, use the fatty metaphors of pork, and you get yourself some political attention.

Look at the omnibus spending bill and all those pork projects. Sure, in a better world they would go through a sensible process of evaluation. But Congress isn't very often about sensible processes. Many of the programs inserted in this bill were for relatively small projects of particular local significance. They are often if not mostly public sector projects, like bike trails, which not only improve health (cutting down healthcare costs) but aid local redevelopment.

Or they are scientific research projects. They may sound funny, like volcano research, honeybee research, termite research--some of those mentioned in the usual list for this bill, for instance in this column. But look at the first comments: there are good reasons for this research, even if it isn't immediately obvious. Sure, some are bad--the ones that give money to already rich businesses. But many perform a public good. And despite what the bloviators say, they employ people. Even if those people are young scientists with huge student loans.

And according to yet another article, here are some of the other awful pork this bill pays for:

Among the many earmarks are $485,000 for a boarding school for at-risk native students in western Alaska and $1.2 million for Helen Keller International so the nonprofit can provide eyeglasses to students with poor vision. There's also dozens of projects awarding state and local governments money for police equipment and to combat methamphetamine."

How terrible! Larding it up with boarding school for at-risk Native kids! Glasses for kids with poor vision! How can we let Congress get away with this?

Some of the hypocrites crying over this pork made sure to insert some of their own. Others don't bat an eye at hundreds of billions for useless weapons systems, or no-bid contracts to the Halliburtons and Blackwaters that amount to grand theft on an immense scale, sustained year after year. The biggest pork barrels on the planet have been called Iraq and Homeland Security. But as long as it involves explosives and not honeybees, then it's vital to the national interest.

Meanwhile, this horrible bill spends money on:

Agriculture _ $20.5 billion, including a 14 percent boost over 2008 for the popular WIC program that feeds infants and poor women.
Education _ $66.5 billion, a 7 percent increase over 2008 levels.
Energy _ $27 billion, including a $765 million, 54 percent hike for advanced energy research.
Health and Human Services _ $66.3 billion, including $30.3 billion for health research.
Housing and Urban Development _ $41.5 billion, including $24.5 billion for low-income and American Indian housing.

Labor _ $15.3 billion, including a 5 percent increase for employment and training programs."

Health research when the cost of healthcare is zooming into the stratosphere? Low income housing when millions are unemployed and losing their homes? Feeding infants and poor women? Oink Oink!

If the Republicans truly believed in cutting spending, they had eight years to prove it--and all they did was turn a Clinton surplus into a massive Bush debt. They have no credibility and no shame. In a time of national economic emergency, they play petty politics. Even Tom Friedman has noticed: "Economically, this is the big one. This is August 1914. This is the morning after Pearl Harbor. This is 9/12. Yet, in too many ways, we seem to be playing politics as usual." And Washington media continues to cooperate with this selfish short-sightedness.

President Obama has provided a sensible program for controlling earmarks. But let's not pretend this is actually about pork. It's about getting people upset enough to write checks to your campaign. It's about red meat. And it's about betraying your country in its time of peril.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Nice Ride

I don't want to become a fetishist about things presidential, but having a President is still something I want to revel in a little longer. Anyway, this is such a cool shot of Air Force One, from the New York Times.

The Big Bank Mystery

Update: NYT:"Wall Street soared on Tuesday in its biggest rally of the year after investors found a glimmer of optimism in the financial sector.
The faint signs of hope came in several forms: a memorandum from
Citigroup saying that the bank had been profitable in the first two months of the year; calls for regulatory reforms from the Federal Reserve chairman, and the possibility that the government would reinstate rules governing short sales of stocks."

Monday is a day worth celebrating for the return of science and sanity, with President Obama's lifting of bans on stem cell research made by Bush some 8 years ago as a sop to the hard right that put him close enough to the White House to steal it. The President did so with yet another strong statement on the commitment to science, even when it tells us "inconvenient" truths. Nice reference (or additional dig.)

But the economy remains the crucial and uneasy topic. Of the steps President Obama has outlined and taken to revive the economy and the economic future, I have high confidence in all but what his administration is doing to deal directly with the financial sector: the banks, Wall Street, AIG, etc. It's also the area I know least about, but judging from the misgivings of more expert people I find credible, it seems I'm not alone.

For instance, Paul Krugman's persistent criticism that the amount of federal stimulus is too small doesn't bother me, because if true, it can be remedied later, plus money can only be spent so fast, plus the political realities, all of which I somewhat understand. But when he notes that in his interview with the NY Times, President Obama didn't seem worried about the success of the current approach with the financial sector--that does worry me.

So why not some bolder, clearer action? Could be that it's the wrong thing. Or there may well be other considerations, like this one--a claim that Citibank, for one, maybe can't be legally taken over--or put in receivership-- by the federal government, because of their multinational ownership.

Some believe the economic team is too "centrist," too tied to the practices that screwed the economy in the first place (and Keith had a devastating narrative about that on Monday, which I will link to as soon as there's a transcript posted.) But Ross Douthat has a different take, which supports my feeling about this--or maybe my wishful thinking:

But there's a third answer as well--which is that the smart center-left, embodied by Larry Summers as much as anyone, has moved steadily leftward over the last ten years, as part of a broader Bush-era rapprochement between the Democratic Party's moderate and liberal factions. On health care, the environment, income inequality and other fronts, figures like Summers are closer to their erstwhile lefty antagonists than they used to be, sharing common ground even when they don't have identical policy preferences. "

Well, I hope so. And I hope it translates into some righteous anger against their Wall Street pals who screwed things up. But as this piece by Michael Scherer indicates, the perception that current efforts aren't clear and working--that Geithner may not be up to the job, etc.--are potentially damaging, whether they're accurate or not, because of the crucial role of confidence. Scherer begins by quoting Mark Zandi: "The difference between a recession, a very severe recession and a depression is a lack of confidence," he said. Scherer concludes: "If Obama has a single task before him, as the most celebrated communicator of his generation tasked with leading the economic recovery, it is to temper this rising contagion. Good speeches will not be enough. He will, over time, have to find a way to calm the markets, address the concerns of his responsible critics, and then use these successes to assure consumers everywhere that better days do, in fact, lie ahead, a claim that virtually every economist would endorse, though many disagree on the timing. Obama may be just the man for the job. (I can't really think of anyone else up to the task.) That is the hope, at least."

Again, I don't think this is a problem with spending initiatives and programs--stimulus, infrastructure, energy, health care. I think the American people are with Obama on these, and know that these will take time to work. But I think a lot of people are uneasy about the financial sector, particularly when there are so many stories about so much theft on such a huge scale.

Voter confidence on this may turn out to be crucial to ensure support for initiatives, particularly health care. That's going to be daunting enough without doubts left over from other matters. Opening up the debate while trying to find a common solution means that a lot of truth is going to be told, and that truth isn't very centrist. A good indication is this Joe Conason piece in Salon which references a new international study:

Documenting the gross "discrepancy" between the enormous amounts that Americans spend on healthcare and the value received for that expenditure, the study found that the United States ranks poorly among OECD countries on measures of life expectancy, infant mortality and reductions in "amenable mortality," meaning deaths "from certain causes that should not occur in the presence of timely and effective healthcare."

But perhaps any discussion of healthcare in the developed world ought to begin with a plain fact noted early in this study: Among the OECD's 30 members -- which include Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, the Slovak Republic, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom -- there are only three lacking universal health coverage. The other two happen to be Mexico and Turkey, which have the excuse of being poorer than the rest (and until the onset of the world economic crisis, Mexico was on the way to providing healthcare to all of its citizens). The third, of course, is us."

The U.S. is way behind in health care and in health. We're falling behind in education. We're behind in confronting the Climate Crisis, and maybe even in new energy technologies. But we still lead the western world in the number of prisoners we hold, and the number we kill. We've always been a country of mixed messages, but we're tipping the wrong way dangerously, and I doubt that our fall in the direction of transferring the national wealth to a few rich people is a coincidence. All this bears on the debate as well, like it or not.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Arcata Sunset Sky

"Certitude is not the test of certainty."--Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.