Friday, July 27, 2012

Democracy in Pennsylvania

No matter who is in power, no matter how much power the rich and the corporate empire have, no matter how feckless and idiotic and remote to reality that the media gets, no matter how your views and your voice go uncomprehended and unheard, in America you have one power, one act, one node of participation that--when joined with others who might be similarly outcast--can be decisive.  You have the vote.

That's why ongoing GOPer voter suppression efforts are such a basic threat.  They are clearly, manifestly and pretty openly attempts to deep six democracy, by preventing people they fear and don't like from voting.  Voter suppression laws passed in states where GOPers are in total power--most of that having happened in 2010--now cover a majority of the American electorate.

Every study shows that those who are most likely to be newly ineligible to vote are the poor, non-whites, urbanites, the young and the old.  Except for the category of the old, those groups tend to vote for Democrats.

I have watched from afar, and with weary dismay, as my home state, the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, rapidly deteriorates under the 2010 extreme version of GOPer rule.  By gutting or ignoring environmental protections, and even preventing municipalities from governing their own zoning, PA is trying very hard to turn itself into West Virginia: an Appalachia of a few rich and a lot of poor run by fossil fuels corporations, in a rapid race to the bottom, while destroying its own natural habitat.  They have bought into all the other extremes as well, including unconstitutional and unconscionable intrusions on women's health and reproductive rights.

But if any of these are worst, it is the Pennsylvania voter suppression law.  Studies indicate that a million citizens may not be permitted to vote, including--incredibly-- 43% of the population of Philadelphia.

The intent is very clear, even if a PA GOPer legislator hadn't admitted it.  As TMP wrote: "The number of Pennsylvania voters who most likely lack a valid form of photo identification now doubles President Barack Obama’s margin of victory in the Keystone state in 2008. A group contracted to educate voters about the new law is stacked with Republicans and is headed by a bundler for Mitt Romney."    

The best hope of overturning this law is the suit by the ACLU and others that went to court last week and is likely to be decided next week.  Though incredibly the official defenders of the law admitted there was no evidence at all of voter fraud--supposedly the reason for the law--they propose the rationale that the legislature was within its rights to regulate voting, an argument that apparently convinced the U.S. Supremes to uphold a voter ID law in Indiana.

However, those attacking the law have strong arguments based on the Pennsylvania constitution, which makes voting a fundamental right.  A procession of witnesses stating their right to vote is being denied began the proceedings.  There are other arguments as well, though I'm not sure they are making them: the arbitrary and capricious nature of the ID being required (a college student in PA--interning at Lawrence O'Donnell's  show--discovered that her student ID is not valid because it doesn't show an expiration date), and in particular the burden of obtaining an ID before the November elections.  This example demonstrates what some observers fear: that a lot of people believe they have the required ID but don't (the ACLU estimates a million), and may not find out until they're denied a ballot on election day.  A lot of people also don't even know they must bring a required ID to the polls or they lose their right to vote.

At issue on a federal level is the nature of the law as equivalent to a poll tax, as Attorney General Eric Holder noted.  That's because getting an ID solely for the purpose of voting (which may well require paying for a birth certificate) is a financial burden for people who have the gall to be poor and/or old and infirm, and still consider themselves citizens with the right to vote.  So the U.S. Justice Department is also looking into the PA law.

As a Pennsylvanian born and bred, I believe the state court will overturn this law, and that the PA Supreme Court will uphold that decision, and declare it invalid for this election.  But even before that decision, there is already resistance: one local election official has announced he will not enforce the law.  The Florida voter suppression efforts by means of culling registration rolls have fallen into disarray, partly and decisively because local election officials refused to cooperate.

Changes in voter eligibility has only gone one way in American history: it has expanded.  To begin taking away rights--and especially this fundamental right--is not just a step backward.  It is a goosestep towards the abyss.

Above photo: AP/ Sacramento Bee.

Thursday, July 26, 2012


Heat, drought and fire.  Apart from the suffering, illnesses and death, the consequences mount up.  Forecasts of higher food prices--even significantly higher prices--by fall have led to speculation (unfortunately in both senses) on the human as well as economic consequences.

The consequences on infrastructure are already been felt, including some that were simply not foreseen.  The New York Times article on this subject begins: "From highways in Texas to nuclear power plants in Illinois, the concrete, steel and sophisticated engineering that undergird the nation’s infrastructure are being taxed to worrisome degrees by heat, drought and vicious storms."

Examples include a passenger airliner getting stuck on a heat-softened runway, heat-stretched subway rails, heat contracting the ground beneath highways causing splits while the highways themselves expand and buckle.  Too-hot water in both intake valves and cooling pools threatens power generated from nuclear plants--and it is the power grid in general that is most in danger from the consequences of heat and storms.

Infrastructure is designed with locally "normal" extremes in mind.  But not for extreme extremes, and certainly not for long.  But now such extremes are becoming normal.  The Times:

 "The frequency of extreme weather is up over the past few years, and people who deal with infrastructure expect that to continue. Leading climate models suggest that weather-sensitive parts of the infrastructure will be seeing many more extreme episodes, along with shifts in weather patterns and rising maximum (and minimum) temperatures. " 

Dealing with all this costs money, and while some of that spending may come from companies that are at least partly "private" (like some power companies), much of it must come from government.  But without leadership acknowledging this new reality, especially on the federal level,  these problems are not likely to be adequately addressed.  This too is already becoming evident where the problems and their consequences occur.  

It's an unsustainable situation. The longer it goes on, the worse the problems become, and the greater the suffering--and the fear.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

This Fast

Strange, sudden and massive, according to the AP story.  It's the announcement by NASA that: " For several days this month, Greenland's surface ice cover melted over a larger area than at any time in more than 30 years of satellite observations. Nearly the entire ice cover of Greenland, from its thin, low-lying coastal edges to its two-mile-thick center, experienced some degree of melting at its surface, according to measurements from three independent satellites analyzed by NASA and university scientists.

On average in the summer, about half of the surface of Greenland's ice sheet naturally melts. At high elevations, most of that melt water quickly refreezes in place. Near the coast, some of the melt water is retained by the ice sheet and the rest is lost to the ocean. But this year the extent of ice melting at or near the surface jumped dramatically. According to satellite data, an estimated 97 percent of the ice sheet surface thawed at some point in mid-July."

That's almost all of the surface ice.  In four days.

Update: New evidence that melting is happening faster in the Antarctic as well.  News reports on the Greenland melt note that NASA suggests that whether the melt there will lead to an immediate rise in sea levels is unknown at this time, but possible.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012


The Rabid Right and its GOP are so regularly hypocritical that they are daily setting new standards for hypocrisy, as well as merely outrageous lying.  In response to the Colorado shooting they warn gun control advocates not to politicize a tragedy, when they are the ones that have turned societal problems into partisan political issues, with the question of what to do about gun violence high on the list. 

And so the argument goes on with lots of heat and little light.  Besides which, it's not the only societal question that has become politically partisan--there's the one I emphasized here, the support of public agencies that deal with these crises.  To stop all such tragedies in this society is just about impossible, though they can be reduced.  But responding to them is a need for every single one, and despite their hollow words of support, GOPers want to cut funding for police, fire, first responders as well as counseling and other support services.  That's the clear implication of their budgets.

It's implied as well in their latest lies: distorting President Obama's words to make their severely hypocritical battle cry of individuals building businesses on their own without help or support.  It supports their ideology, which justifies lower taxes for the wealthiest as somehow generating jobs for the middle class.  But the reality is very different.  Not only in the simple but profound notion that taxpayers support the infrastructure that supports businesses--a point it is necessary to make because GOPers want to cut funds for that infrastructure, as they are doing now.  But behind the valiant individualist businessman that Romney is supposed to symbolize is truly shameless hypocrisy about how Romney and his ilk actually succeed and make tons of money.  They do it largely and sometimes principally by taking government money.

More news emerged about the guy featured in Romney's latest anti-Obama ad who wants everybody to know that he and his family built their business, nobody else helped.  He'd already admitted that indeed government supported a teacher who was important to him, and built the infrastructure that allowed his business to thrive.  On Monday it was further revealed that his business had received direct government assistance and tax breaks--several times, with some pretty big bucks involved. 

But even this is small potatoes for the Romney class.  Romney's Bain made much of its money exploiting tax breaks, tax havens and taking government money.  Other corporations, eager to get on the Romney bandwagon, conveniently forget about the special deals with state and local governments that pave special roads for them, give them a free ride on taxes, turn over millions in taxpayer money to them.  They thrive because of government money they get that small businesses let alone middle class families never get, and probably don't even know about.  They are the richest hypocrites on the planet. 

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Procrasti-nation Continued

I like this photo as a symbol of where we are on the Climate Crisis because it is at once a reality--those encroaching fires were real--and a metaphor for the national attitude towards the oncoming storm: the traffic of the usual while the fires burn the horizon. 

In those cars, people may well be listening to news of other crises.  They may be horrified by the killing of 12 in a movie theatre in Colorado, as are we all.  There are always other crises and shocking events, other problems looming, competing for our attention.  There are also the stories we mostly don't hear, like 37 people killed in a huge rainstorm in the capital city of China, or the scores that die in U.S. heat waves.  Update 7/23: Death toll across China is currently 100 from these rains.

To be fair, a lot of people in those cars are frightened by the climate crisis and worried about the future, and they want it to be addressed, and may well be frustrated by the paralysis and inaction, especially in our political system, and most especially in Washington.  They may even be the majority.  But the power of the fossil fuel industry, so deeply dependent not only on the flow of oil but the future of oil for the money that floats them now, grips our system tight.  And it's looking to grip it even more firmly in this year's elections.

But the climate crisis isn't waiting.   Much of the U.S. is in serious and protracted drought (as much as 80%), and by fall the Midwestern drought in particular will result in rising food prices.  This summer's record-breaking heat is likely to continue into fall. And so the drought is expected to worsen.  The effects continue to spread, already with economic costs.  This alone will become impossible to ignore very soon.

But drought is not the only cost now spreading nationally.  Fires, damage from rain, hail and floods in the U.S. There's simple misery and the effects of heat on the human brain and body.  Strains consequently on the electric power grid for air conditioned protection--a grid, by the way that is decaying rapidly.

In other parts of the world, hotter temperatures have brought mosquito-borne diseases to places where they haven't been before, and where public health is not equipped and people have no immunity.   Before this, the ignorable Native communities in the north have been the principal victims in North America.  But they are no longer alone.  Once again, scientists are looking at possible tipping points for abrupt climate change.

But what we know already is bad enough.  Bill McKibben, who wrote one of the first books on the climate crisis in 1989, said in an email to those on his mailing list that he regards his new article in Rolling Stone as the most important thing he's written since then.  In that article, he reviews this year's stark numbers and some of the more remote, less reported weather events, such as "Saudi authorities reported that it had rained in Mecca despite a temperature of 109 degrees, the hottest downpour in the planet's history."  (I am reminded all too often of the 'sensationalistic' early scenes in the 2004 climate crisis disaster film The Day After Tomorrow, many of which have since happened.)

In the fight to slow down global heating, McKibben writes, "I can say with some confidence that we're losing the fight, badly and quickly – losing it because, most of all, we remain in denial about the peril that human civilization is in."
McKibben reviews the attempts by environmentalists to slow down the death march on both the individual and political levels, and judges them obviously ineffective.  Change through the political system hasn't work so far and is unlikely to in time. He thinks action requires a global movement, centered on the real enemy: the fossil fuel industry.

"But what all these climate numbers make painfully, usefully clear is that the planet does indeed have an enemy – one far more committed to action than governments or individuals. Given this hard math, we need to view the fossil-fuel industry in a new light. It has become a rogue industry, reckless like no other force on Earth. It is Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization. "Lots of companies do rotten things in the course of their business – pay terrible wages, make people work in sweatshops – and we pressure them to change those practices," says veteran anti-corporate leader Naomi Klein, who is at work on a book about the climate crisis. "But these numbers make clear that with the fossil-fuel industry, wrecking the planet is their business model. It's what they do."

For a long time McKibben has been advocating that the climate crisis be approached as a moral issue, akin to the Civil Rights movement.  Now he believes that like Bull Connor and southern segregationists, this movement needs an immoral enemy--but this time it is an enemy that itself must be controlled in order for change to happen. 

What would success look like?  Maybe like a hefty carbon tax, with the proceeds devoted not only to addressing the causes of future global heating (financing green energy and a host of carbon-reducing strategies) but also to dealing with the effects of the climate crisis, now and likely in the future, everything from mobilizing for emergencies to a real public health system, and eventually much more.  There will be likely be huge engineering projects necessary.  In not so many decades, that really will be the choice: deal with the effects as a society while dealing with the causes, or fall into violent anarchy and international war over resources, or simply as the only way we know how to mobilize anymore.

Update 7/23: Add to the warning voices today economist Paul Krugman: "For large-scale damage from climate change is no longer a disaster waiting to happen. It’s happening now."