30 July 2011

Carl Davidson : 'Business Guy' Romney Feeds us Baloney

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks with Screen Machine Industries owner Doug Cohen, left, July 27, 2011, in Pataskala, Ohio. Photo by Jay LaPrete / AP.

Now let me get this straight:
'Business guy' Mitt Romney

feeds us a bunch of baloney

By Carl Davidson / The Rag Blog / July 30, 2011

Some things just drive you nuts.

Take Mitt Romney.Wednesday the GOP’s presidential wannabe toured Screen Machine, a factory in Pataskala, Ohio, just outside Columbus. The plant makes heavy construction equipment, rock crushers to be exact.

Romney and the owners, Doug and Steve Cohen, held a typical photo op. Mitt took the occasion to blast both Obama and "government" as "bad for business."

Really? What did Mitt have in mind? A wimpy stimulus package? A failure to build more infrastructure? In that case, he might have a point.

But no, the real problems are environmental regulation, labor safety codes, and health care. In other words, with more pollution and more unsafe conditions at work, and less health care to deal with the consequences, business could surge ahead.

There’s not any truth to that claim, but that’s not the worst of it.

First, there’s the irony that Obama’s health care plan is basically a national version of Romney’s Massachusetts Plan. If we could scrap both and replace them with "Medicare for All," yes, it would be better for both workers and business -- save for the health insurance firms.

But the real clincher is the story of Screen Machines, where Mitt, the tough-minded, pragmatic business guy candidate, was delivering his words of economic wisdom. Here’s the Washington Post on the topic:
Yet it’s been the government -- and Obama’s policies in particular -- that has helped propel Screen Machine’s growth at its sprawling new headquarters here, even during the recession. The company, which builds heavy-duty crushing and screening machines used in construction, mining and recycling, received four stimulus awards totaling $218,607. It is also benefiting from a 10-year deal with local and state governments to not pay taxes on its property, equipment or inventory, according to public records."
We need to make a minimum requirement of all elected officials that they at least have the ability to blush when feeding us a lot of nonsense. Of course, that might wipe out most of Congress, and a few in the White House, too. But then we’d have some open slots for politicians who count voters rather than dollars.

[Carl Davidson is a national co-chair of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, a national board member of Solidarity Economy Network, and a local Beaver County, PA member of Steelworkers Associates. In the 1960s, he was a national leader of SDS and a writer and editor for the Guardian newsweekly. He is also the co-author, with Jerry Harris, of CyberRadicalism: A New Left for a Global Age. He serves as webmaster for SolidarityEconomy.net and Beaver County Blue, where this article was first published. Read more articles by Carl Davidson on The Rag Blog.]

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28 July 2011

Roger Baker : The Texas Road Lobby Meets Peak Oil

Photo by Rupert Ganzer / Flickr.

Coming soon:
Peak oil, peak driving, peak cars
Part IV: The Texas road lobby meets peak oil
By Roger Baker / The Rag Blog / July 28, 2011

[This is the fourth and final part of a series by Roger Baker on transportation, centering on the issue of peak oil and its ramifications.]

The 'Pentagon of Texas'

Molly Ivins once called TxDOT (Texas Department of Transportation) the "Pentagon of Texas.” The political clout of TxDOT and the Texas road lobby operating on the state level is still unrivaled.

Inside Texas, TxDOT has held a politically powerful position for many decades, with the help of its traditional political allies like the Texas Good Roads Transportation Association, which was the political base for businesses and civic clubs that might benefit from local application of road money, and the Associated General Contractors, essentially an alliance of private road contracting companies, rather analogous to the defense industry. The contractors gained their institutional power decades ago, when TxDOT stopped building very many roads on its own.

From its earliest days, the Texas Highway Commission, as it was known before it became TxDOT, has been a highly political institution ready to pass out favors to its political allies in the form of road contracts. This snip is taken from an especially scholarly study devoted to the early politics of TxDOT.
It’s more than likely that the conditions of these highways can be seen as a direct legacy of years of county authority and political struggle for control of the department. After all, since its founding in 1917 the Texas Highway Department has, as often as not, been forced to make decisions based on political considerations. Issues such as traffic density and the proportional allocation of funds were often secondary to the job of protecting revenue or just getting roads built.
In Texas, roads gradually became seen as a traditional form of publicly funded entitlement; a kind of welfare to subsidize suburban sprawl development in a heavily urbanized and rapidly growing state.

The way politics works in Texas, there is a traditional alternative to political bribes. Instead, the special interests channel money to Texas politicians through campaign contributions. Quite in line with this approach, the biggest road contractors in Texas contributed over $1 million to Texas Gov. Rick Perry during his first term in office. Later they gave more millions to other Texas politicians.
Since the state solicited its first bids for a leg of the TTC project in 2003, private companies that have landed lucrative TTC contracts have contributed $3.4 million to Texas candidates and political committees -- a significant increase in their political activity. TTC contractors also have spent up to $6.1 million on Texas lobbyists since the state solicited their respective bids. While the TTC contains windfalls for some contractors, lobbyists and elected officials, the benefits to Texas motorists and taxpayers are much less clear.
A few years ago, when the late Ric Williamson chaired the Texas Transportation Commission, it became apparent that fuel tax revenues could not possibly keep up with TxDOT's accustomed pace of road building. Working with Gov. Rick Perry, Williamson ordered TxDOT to try to shift all its new construction to "public-private partnership" toll roads to leverage TxDOT's limited public funds.

In order to sell private investors on toll road bonds, it is obviously helpful to try to maintain that road demand will keep increasing for decades until the bonds are finally paid off (some toll road bonds, like some issued for US 290 E, pay junk bond rates, but are uninsured against default). The policy is to try to use private toll road bond funding and also federal loans to supplement TxDOT's traditional but stagnant gas tax revenue, in order to bridge the revenue gap and keep building roads.
As is the case with Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, Texas governor Rick Perry is a highway booster. "The highways of Texas are built and paved in part by paths of gold leading to the Texas Governor's Mansion," political reporter R.G. Ratcliffe wrote in the Aug. 30, 2002, edition of the Houston Chronicle, in “Highway plans bring money to politicians.”
The political clout of the Texas road lobby still exceeds that of the various competing social needs such as education. TxDOT's long range road planning policy still stubbornly reflects the same outlook, which involves working hard to perpetuate the notion of ever-expanding growth in future road demand.

However, as the federal data clearly shows, Texas travel is currently falling short of TxDOT's vehicle travel growth projections, due to a combination of higher fuel prices, a poor economy, an aging population, congestion fatigue, and changing driving behavior, also seen nationally.

The Texas road lobby today

The latest incarnation of the Texas road lobby is arguably Transportation Advocates of Texas (TAoT). A sort of who's who of current Texas road politics, clearly organized by special interest money. Scroll down to the bottom to see a long list of those interests currently involved in promoting roads -- largely banking, construction, engineering, road contracting, and land development interests.

Those familiar with Austin's federally sanctioned Metropolitan Planning Organization, CAMPO, will see the last two CAMPO directors, Mike Aulick and Joe Cantalupo, listed among members of the road lobby's supporters.

This snip from an internal document of this same group, TAoT, recently circulated to its supporters, clearly shows that their primary political goal is to get more road money, despite the relatively falling gas tax revenue:
The Great Outstanding Issue: Texas has yet to identify a stable source of additional revenue that can meet the transportation needs of a rapidly expanding population. Fuel efficiency and hybrid vehicles reduce gas tax revenue -- and the state fuel tax hasn’t changed in 20 years. Whether it is through taxes, fees, tolls or other sources of revenue, further delays in providing additional financing will inevitably result in more traffic congestion.

By one estimate we under-fund roads by $8 billion a year. The problem will only get worse. Congestion will get worse. Economic losses will get worse. Rural connectivity will get worse. Road conditions and road safety will get worse. And the cost associated with doing nothing means one day the price tag will be worse.
Only roads are mentioned; TxDOT and the road lobby don't do much transit, except by TxDOT passing federal transit funds down to the local level. Even while admitting that the road funding situation is getting worse with no relief in sight, the focus remains strongly on building roads, as spelled out in this editorial by two top TAoT road lobbyists.
But we are not without solutions. The gas tax hasn't been increased in 20 years -- and its buying power has significantly diminished due to inflation. Vehicle registration fees could be raised and dedicated to high-priority projects. Allowing local officials to access a portion of the gas tax or other sources of revenue would also provide relief. And we can support ending the diversion of highway dollars to spending on other priorities.

The Texas road lobby selects data that
always predicts increasing road travel demand

The Texas road lobby seeks to keep building roads which benefit not only the road contractors, but also the powerful Texas suburban land developers who thrive by planning ever-expanding rings of suburban sprawl around the major metropolitan areas of Texas, a pattern typical of other sunbelt states.

By 2005, about 86% of the Texas population was living in its urbanized areas with only 14% living in the rural areas. Suburban sprawl development has long been made profitable by buying and developing land in the suburban fringe areas. These areas often escape city taxes, but require the help of publicly funded highways to help stimulate development.

This road-assisted urban development formula worked for decades, but it is based on unsustainable trends. Anyone can now see from the federal data that the total travel demand on Texas roads has been flat since about 2007. Here are the yearly VMT numbers for total travel in Texas in millions of miles on state's roads as measured by the Federal Highway Administration. See for example the 2007 link.

2004 -- 231,008
2005 -- 235,170
2006 -- 238,256
2007 -- 243,443
2008 -- 235,382
2009 -- 230,411

Unfortunately, this useful yearly data series for Texas road travel stopped in 2009. However, using this series we can compare the five most recent Februarys of Texas driving; here again, we can see that the Texas VMT road travel data have continued to stagnate or decrease, on through the most recently reported data:

Feb. 2007 -- 17,893
Feb. 2008 -- 18,831
Feb. 2009 -- 18,953
Feb. 2010 -- 18,490
Feb. 2011 -- 17,635

Given the nature of road politics in Texas, it comes as no surprise that TxDOT's long range plan released in May 2010 anticipates a travel demand growth of about 2.44% a year, for decades into the future, as a basis for TxDOT planning. As TxDOT says, "The new Statewide Long-Range Transportation Plan 2035 (SLRTP) will serve as the state's 24-year "blueprint" for the planning process.

TxDOT's "Statewide Long-Range Transportation Plan 2035," released in mid-2010, tries to ignore the current flatness in travel demand as something exceptional and abnormal. It assumes that vehicle miles traveled will somehow recover and then continue to rise steadily as a straight line for decades to come, much as it did before 2005.

The TxDOT long range planners are unable to explain the sharp falloff in traffic volume seen to begin about 2005 -- with Texas road travel peaking in 2007 -- and now continuing through the most recent data in 2011, or about six years now.

Since the Texas travel data is collected and published by the Federal Highway Administration, the continuing stagnation or decline in vehicle miles traveled on Texas roads is hard for TxDOT to deny. This well-documented reality has caused TxDOT to insert the strange flattened VMT section in the middle of their otherwise ever-ascending long range travel demand chart.

The reality is also that car registrations in Texas peaked in 2005 and then flattened and decreased slightly until 2009, where the most recent FHWA data ends. This data is given in thousands of car (light vehicle) registrations in Texas, 2004-2009, here seen peaking in 2005:

2004 -- 8,620
2005 -- 8,793
2006 -- 8,689
2007 -- 8,680
2008 -- 8,711
2009 -- 8,711

The Texas Road Lobby's think tank,
the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI)

The Texas road lobby has its own nationally prominent think tank, the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) based at Texas A&M. TTI functions more or less as an academic wing of the road lobby, implicitly denying peak oil, while focusing primarily on expanding road capacity as the best way to preserve mobility and serve future transportation needs. The TTI outlook on urban traffic congestion and congestion relief -- through building more roads for ever more vehicles -- is widely disseminated through the media as their main approach to transportation planning policy.
Over the past year, TTI experts answered tough questions on a variety of state and national transportation issues. Over 2,500 newspaper articles, broadcast television spots and professional journals -- with a potential reach of over 725 million readers and viewers nationwide -- mentioned the Institute or its experts.
For the Texas road lobby to contemplate that the total amount of driving inside the USA may never again exceed the peak reached in 2007, either in Texas or nationally, is considered a heresy.

As the charts show, the TTI and TxDOT claim to be able to predict the future numbers of drivers, and the future road demand, thus implying the need to keep expanding road capacity for decades into the future. (Note: car ownership peaked worldwide in 2004.)

The TTI works hard to help us ignore the fact that people are actually driving less, in large part because of higher fuel costs combined with a decreasing family budget. Other factors include an increasing level of rush hour congestion seen in most large U.S. cities as a normal consequence of their growing population.

At the same time, TTI concludes that Texans will always be willing and able to keep driving more, as they have in the past, by means of a transition to more fuel efficient or electric vehicles. This would of course justify the continued building of ever more new roads by the private road contractors.

Since fuel tax revenue has been stagnant compared to the rate of inflation, TxDOT's gas tax revenue has effectively been decreasing. From the standpoint of road lobby politics, the political path of least resistance is for the road lobby to try to claim that demand for new road capacity will always keep growing as fast as it has in the past.

The road lobby also has an interest in trying to maintain that the increasing fuel efficiency of vehicles is more important than changing driving behavior, thus causing fuel taxes to continue falling short of the funding needed to meet the projected increase in road demand.

In May 2010 Dr David Ellis of TTI appeared before a joint meeting of two top transportation-related committees of the Texas Senate to explain why Texas travel volume will always keep rising, much as it did before 2005. And to argue that future road demand will continue to increase rapidly for decades to come, which implies the need for ever more roads.

Note the similarity between Dr. Ellis's chart and TxDOT's VMT charts released about the same time, except in the case of Dr. Ellis's chart, driving demand is projected to increase even more steadily over time.

Dr. Ellis's argument is that while Texas may have seen slight decreases in driving before, that these are exceptional and momentary blips, after which the old historic, and presumably normal, increases in vehicles on the road will resume, blind to the rising price of fuel.

The steady increase in driving seen during the decades of cheap oil before 2005 should thus be accepted as the normal situation, and as a proper guide to future spending on roads in Texas (see Exhibit 2 of his report).

Part of Dr. Ellis's conclusion is based on the theory that vehicle fuel efficiency is increasing much faster than probably is the case. While it is true that the U.S. has been using a lot less petroleum since 2007, this is probably in large part due to the fact that the public driving is less.

The reality is that while average vehicle fuel efficiency is really increasing, it is only happening very slowly. It takes about 10 years for fuel efficiency to increase by 5%, or .5% per year, largely held back by a slow vehicle replacement rate, as Stuart Staniford shows in this chart.

In sharp contrast to this probable rate of vehicle efficiency increase, Dr. Ellis estimates in his chart that vehicle fuel efficiency in Texas has somehow increased from 17.2 MPG in 2005 to 20.5 MPG in 2009 (see Exhibit 4 of his report). This would be a whopping 19% vehicle fuel efficiency increase in just over four years. This is nearly 5% a year, or almost 10 times the much more plausible rate of .5% a year seen above.

Exaggerating the probable increase in fuel efficiency helps the road lobby ignore the current and ongoing stagnation in vehicle miles of travel since the 2007 peak, both in Texas and the USA. The theory seems to be that any time now we will dump our old cars and go out and buy new electric cars, which the road lobby will tax per mile with road user fees. Meanwhile, we are expected to keep driving more and more, just as we did in past decades of cheap oil.

Texas roads are already deteriorating on a large scale

With the Texas road lobby in effective political control of state funding, most of the available road money has been going into building new roads. As they say, there are no ribbon-cutting ceremonies for maintaining existing roads, which in Texas have been deteriorating. As this piece points out, Texas road upkeep is getting lot more expensive, so repairs are falling behind to the point that most Texas roads are in now less than good condition.
Texas’ road conditions

As of 2008, a full 65% of Texas’ state-owned major roads had fallen out of good condition, meaning they will now be increasingly expensive to repair and maintain. Only 34% of Texas’ roads were in good condition, the state in which repairs are least expensive. The condition of 1% of Texas’ state roads was not reported.

Texas’ highway spending priorities

Between 2004 and 2008, Texas spent 62% of its highway capital expenditures on road expansion – $4.1 billion each year on average -- but only 11% on repair and maintenance of existing roads -- $692 million. That 62% of spending on expansion added 2,962 lane-miles to the Texas road network.

Texas would need to spend $4.5 billion annually for the next 20 years to get the current backlog of poor-condition major roads into a state of good repair and maintain all state-owned roads in good condition. Shifting more funds toward repair would go a long way toward addressing the state’s maintenance needs.
Cartoon from Korea Times.

The Texas road lobby's funding solution:
the Mileage-Based User Fee (MBUF)

Given the TTI's faith in the need to build more roads to accommodate an ever-increasing level of road demand, combined with an increasing inability of the fuel tax to meet the funding gap, it is easy to conclude that a lot more road funding revenue will be needed.

Anything to avoid seriously dealing with the basic need to shift transportation policy toward more energy-efficient compact urban development sometimes called smart growth, together with a new focus on public transportation.

The road lobby's basic conclusion is that Texas now needs to move toward some kind of vehicle mileage tax or fee, and raise a lot more money per vehicle mile driven. However any kind of new tax or fee that extracts more total money from already financially stressed drivers is going to be widely unpopular. Since the word "tax" is already quite unpopular in Texas, other terms are being used such -- as a "Mileage-Based User Fee." Alternative terms being used are "road user charges" or "network tolls."

A new tax or fee on miles driven is seen as one of the few possible ways to raise enough new money to keep the road-building game going. However this method of funding expanded road capacity ignores the effect that rising fuel prices are having by already reducing total per capita driving. It is becoming a matter of what the driver market will bear, given that driving is now in decline both nationally and in Texas due to the rising cost of fuel on top of a stagnant economy. But TTI sees little alternative.
TTI Leads Mileage-Based User Fee Conference, June 20, 2011

Some 115 federal, state and local government representatives, transportation system users, private-sector representatives, and transportation researchers attended the Symposium on Mileage-Based User Fees (MBUF) in Colorado, June 13-14. That represents a 60 percent increase over last year’s attendance.

MBUFs, also known as vehicle miles traveled (VMT) fees, would raise funds based on how many miles a motorist drives. Revenue generated would replace or supplement the inadequate fuel tax, which comes from each gallon of gas sold at the fuel pump.

“Although the idea of a road-user fee to replace or supplement the fuel tax has been discussed and researched at varying degrees for about a decade now, interest is really growing at the state and national levels,” says symposium co-chair Ginger Goodin, of the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI). Goodin is currently serving as principal investigator for a USDOT study on road-user fee collection technologies and is TTI’s resident expert on the topic.
The Texas Transportation Commission (TTC), at its Dec. 15, 2010 meeting, took a look at a variety of road user fees in a presentation given by TTI.

The Texas Transportation Institute reviewed its draft report, "Is Texas Ready For Mileage Fees?" which asserted that fuel consumption will continue to decrease and make a gas tax an unsustainable revenue generation method in the upcoming decade.
This fact -- combined with increasingly fuel-efficient and alternative-fuel vehicles and the $315 billion in funding needs for Texas transportation identified by the Texas 2030 Committee -- demonstrates the inadequacy of the fuel tax as a viable long-term funding mechanism for maintaining and expanding highways in the Lone Star State,
the report read.

The Legislature required Transportation Commissioners to take a look at the viability of a Vehicle Miles-Traveled (VMT) tax, which would rely on either on-board devices or remote-tracking systems to measure the number of miles each registered vehicle travels, and then tax vehicle owners accordingly. No formal action was taken.

As a part of their background preparation for the TTC, TTI had set up a number of focus groups with average citizens to try to anticipate public reaction to road user fees. As the reader may easily imagine, new road user fees proved to be quite unpopular -- "negative reaction to mileage fees heard raised were pretty consistent across the focus groups"

Even though different focus groups in different areas all had these concerns (privacy, cost, and enforcement), in some groups privacy was more prevalent and in other groups it was cost.

Where is the Texas road funding deficit headed from here?

Given the current political climate and budget constraints, the chances of the Texas road lobby actually implementing the proposed mileage taxes or fees seems highly unlikely. This is simply because the amount of new revenue thought to be necessary would require the imposition of much higher user or driver fees than are now being collected through the current Texas gas tax. This totals about 40 cents a gallon, -- about half state and half federal.

However, the federal portion of this funding is in trouble since the feds have long been spending beyond their means. It appears that federal road funding must now shrink dramatically.
The Highway Trust Fund, based as it is on gas tax revenues, is the main revenue source for state and local transportation funding, special programs, and MPO planning funds. The gas taxes bring in about $35 billion annually, explained Beaudry, but the feds have been spending about $27 billion more than that, drawing upon revenues from other sources.

The crux of the Congressional debate swirls around “House Rule 21,” which says they can’t spend more than they bring in (in gas taxes), which means cutting more than a third of the transportation bill. There is disagreement over three options -- raise the gas tax, dramatically cut spending or find new revenue sources.
In essence, a new and less costly approach to maintaining urban mobility than road-building-as-usual is needed pretty soon. The economics of driving is likely to play out this way: we will probably see much higher oil prices by next year, with $4.50 a gallon gasoline now anticipated.
Goldman-Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and Barron’s issued reports last week forecasting that oil prices will be much higher next year because of a stagnant supply situation. Goldman is saying the Saudis do not have nearly as much reserve capacity as Riyadh and the IEA claim and forecast oil at $140 a barrel next year. Barron’s is talking about oil reaching $150 next spring with spikes to $160 and $170 a barrel. Gasoline will be in the vicinity of $4.50 a gallon.
Just try to imagine the political challenge of the road lobby trying to impose miles driven fees on top of these fuel prices! But even this situation will probably not be enough to break through the current public denial relating to the unsustainability of driving as we have in the past.

To really break through our denial it may take $10 a gallon gasoline, as prominent peak oil policy analyst Tom Whipple has recently speculated:
Even weeks of 100 degree temperatures or even $4, $5, or $6 gasoline is unlikely to shift many prejudices in the short term. It is going to take a more severe shock -- say food shortages or $10 plus gasoline -- to shake the notion that a return to life as we knew it is still possible.
[Roger Baker is a long time transportation-oriented environmental activist, an amateur energy-oriented economist, an amateur scientist and science writer, and a founding member of and an advisor to the Association for the Study of Peak Oil-USA. He is active in the Green Party and the ACLU, and is a director of the Save Our Springs Association and the Save Barton Creek Association in Austin. Mostly he enjoys being an irreverent policy wonk and writing irreverent wonkish articles for The Rag Blog. Read more articles by Roger Baker on The Rag Blog.]

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Ed Felien : Breivik's Norwegian 'Putsch' Has Historical Echoes

Political cartoon by Paolo Lombardi / toonpool.

The parallels are ominous:
Terror in Norway
There are organizations that support the ideas of McVeigh and Breivik, and there is a culture that supports murder and violence as legitimate means to realize those ends.
By Ed Felien / The Rag Blog / July 28, 2011

On Friday, July 25, Anders Breivik, a right-wing Christian fundamentalist who hated Muslims, set off a bomb in downtown Oslo destroying a building that contained the office of Jens Stoltenberg, the Labor Party prime minister, killing eight people.

He then took a 20 minute ferry to an island where the Labor Party held a summer camp for young people. Wearing a police sweater, he told some of the young people that he wanted to talk to them about the bombing and then opened fire and shot them at point blank range. He killed 68 before the police arrived and he surrendered.

Until recently, Breivik was an active member of the Progress Party. With 41 seats it is the second largest party in Parliament after the Labor Party. The party tripled its support in 1987 when the leader at that time, Carl Hagen, told his supporters, “The asylum seekers are on their way to take over our fatherland,” and read from a letter supposedly from a Muslim, which said, “This country will be Muslim! We give birth to more children than you, and several true-believing Muslims arrive in Norway every year, men in productive age. One day the infidel cross in the flag shall also go away!”

The so-called Mustafa letter was proven in court to be a fraud, but it had its desired effect in galvanizing anti-immigrant sentiment.

The 2009 national election was quite dramatic. It looked for a while that the Labor Party would lose after ruling Norway for over 60 years, but the Progress Party got into arguments with its coalition partners and looked confused, and voters lost confidence in its capacity to govern. In the end the Labor Party was able to put together a coalition of socialists and progressives that formed a government.

This defeat was a heavy blow to Breivik, and in his manifesto he denounced members of this party as "politically correct career politicians" who were not prepared to "take risks and work for idealistic goals.”

The model for Breivik must have been Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch in 1923. With a gang of about 600 thugs in SA uniforms, Hitler was able to take over a right-wing meeting of about 2,000 people in a beer hall in Munich. Using the threat of violence to hold his audience (he had a machine gun trained on the door) Hitler won over the audience with his extemporaneous speech about how Germany had been betrayed by the liberal Weimar government, by the Treaty of Versailles and by the international Jewish conspiracy.

They marched on the Bavarian Defense Ministry and were stopped by about a hundred state police officers. A gunfight began and four police officers and 16 Nazis were killed.

Hitler was arrested, tried, and sentenced to five years and given a small fine. He served eight months in a comfortable cell where he received visitors and wrote Mein Kampf. Breivik took no chances and wrote his Mein Kampf, the 1516 page manifesto “2083: A European Declaration of Independence,” before he acted.

The putsch and trial gave Hitler what he needed -- a platform from which to address the German nation. On Jan. 30, 1933, President Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler chancellor of Germany. Less than a month later the Reichstag was set on fire.

Most scholars now agree that Hitler’s group talked a Dutch communist into setting the fire so Hitler and Goring could use that as an excuse to murder communists and socialists. Almost the first three-quarters of Mein Kampf is about how the communists and socialists had betrayed Germany and how they must be punished severely. Only the last quarter of the book talks about Jews.

From 1933 to 1938 the Nazis rounded up leftists and either murdered them outright or sent them to concentration camps. Only after Kristallnacht on Nov. 9, 1938, did the Nazis begin to round up the Jews.

Breivik writes about the Islamification of Europe, but he targets first the left. He deliberately set out to murder the next generation of leaders of the Labor Party, and what took truckloads of Nazi stormtroopers months to accomplish, Breivik did in 90 minutes.

Can it happen here?

It already did, and it was much worse.

Timothy McVeigh blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, and killed 168 people. He claimed the bombing was in retaliation for the federal government raid on the Waco religious commune that ended in the deaths of 55 adults and 21 children. McVeigh went to gun shows and was certain the government wanted to take away his right to bear arms. His conservative views on morality and taxes would strongly resonate with Breivik and the Norwegian Progress Party.

He wrote a letter to a local newspaper in 1992:
Taxes are a joke. Regardless of what a political candidate "promises," they will increase. More taxes are always the answer to government mismanagement. They mess up. We suffer. Taxes are reaching cataclysmic levels, with no slowdown in sight. [...] Is a Civil War Imminent? Do we have to shed blood to reform the current system? I hope it doesn't come to that. But it might.
The book he considered his bible was The Turner Diaries by William Luther Pierce, the former leader of the white nationalist organization National Alliance. The book calls for a violent revolution by the far right that eventually leads to the extermination of all Jews and non-whites.

Are McVeigh and Breivik madmen acting alone, or are they part of a movement?

Do their basic ideas have currency in mass organizations?

Consider what Alan Keyes says at his Declaration Alliance group:
Realization must come that we are locked in a clash of momentous import, between America's future course being set as socialist big government on the one hand, or restrained smaller government on the other.
Consider the racial hatred embedded in the mass e-mailing from MinutemanHQ.com:
Enough is enough! The line has to be drawn! The invasion of America has to end! Justice has to be done for all the good, honest, Americans who have been killed, raped, kidnapped, stolen from, and abused by criminal illegal immigrants! American sovereign territory must be DEFENDED and HELD SECURE!! THE HOUR IS LATE, MAKE THEM HEAR US -- it is the right thing to do!
Consider a MoveOn picnic disrupted by Tea Party thugs. One woman reported:
So, about 20 little old ladies, like me, gathered in a public park in Oregon to have a picnic and a meeting.

They were then run off by a group of Tea Party activists, led by the local head of Americans for Prosperity. They retreated to a private dwelling, but the teabaggers followed them there, and had to be stopped from trespassing on private property. The police conveniently contacted the group two hours later to find out if the cops were still needed.

And these stupid tea baggers, instead of understanding that you cannot "free America" and "stop socialism" by denying people the right to gather in a public park, proudly posted the video on YouTube like they'd done a great thing.
There are organizations that support the ideas of McVeigh and Breivik, and there is a culture that supports murder and violence as legitimate means to realize those ends. The violence in movies, on television, and in popular song is pervasive and addictive. The adrenalin thrill of video games is simulation training for actual combat.

Breivik wrote in his journal in February 2010 that he "just bought Modern Warfare 2, the game." He says it’s "probably the best military simulator out there. You can more or less completely simulate actual operations."

But more than anything else, the wars against Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia fuel the violence and the xenophobia. We are at war with the Muslim world, no matter how much our government denies it. And this war allows us to hate and fear Muslims and Arabs, and this makes it easier to hate and fear Mexicans because they may want to steal our jobs. We want the government to do something about it, and when they don’t solve the problem right away, they’re weak at best and traitors at worst.

These are the conditions that went before the Beer Hall Putsch, before Mussolini’s March on Rome, before Franco’s march on Madrid. Our wars abroad can easily lead to wars at home:
It seems ironic and hypocritical that an act viciously condemned in Oklahoma City is now a ‘"justified" response to a problem in a foreign land. Then again, the history of United States policy over the last century, when examined fully, tends to exemplify hypocrisy.

When considering the use of weapons of mass destruction against Iraq as a means to an end, it would be wise to reflect on the words of the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. His words are as true in the context of Olmstead as they are when they stand alone: "Our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or for ill, it teaches the whole people by its example."

-- Timothy McVeigh
[Ed Felien is publisher and editor of Southside Pride, a South Minneapolis monthly.]

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27 July 2011

Sarito Carol Neiman : Shredding the Envelope

Difficult beginnings! Image from 28DaysLater.

Shredding the envelope:
Difficult beginnings
Ruminations on news, taboos, and space beyond time.
By Sarito Carol Neiman / The Rag Blog / July 28, 2011
Author, editor, and actress Sarito Carol Neiman -- founding "Funnella" of underground newspaper The Rag in 1966 Austin -- will discuss "Politics and Spirituality" with Thorne Dreyer on Rag Radio, Friday, July 29, 2011, 2-3 p.m. (CDT) on Austin's community radio station, KOOP-91.7 FM, and streamed live on the internet.
Five years ago, almost to the day, I decided to create a blog. I called it “Shredding the Envelope,” for reasons partly explained below. Then all kinds of life intervened, and I got too busy trying to keep the boat from being swamped by the waves to have anything to say, never mind the spaciousness required to say it.

Now the boat seems to have washed up on this rather nice beach, with big blue skies full of puffy white clouds... and a gracious acceptance by The Rag Blog of my offer to re-start Shredding the Envelope as a regular column in its pages. Full disclosure: I have repurposed a piece from the original as a way of starting here. (For reasons that will also become clear below!) The original was subtitled “Ruminations on news, taboos, and space beyond time.” That still works for me.

I kept thinking, Gosh, how do I start this. Because the nature of my particular paralysis -- not just around starting a column, but around any other thing I haven’t already done at least once -- is the Desire to Get It Right the First Time.

Which of course arises out of all sorts of internalized judgments, educational mishaps, inherent character flaws, ego disguised as humbleness, and an unhealthy obsession with unearthing the most elusive nuances of my own motivations (not to mention the motivations of others, but for some reason those always seem much easier to see than my own).

Combined with astrological accidents and the fact my kindergarten teacher told me “nice girls don’t shout.” You get the drift.

Now, psychobabble aside, there are two kinds of writers, I’ve noticed -- and by writers I mean people who actually write for public consumption rather than in diaries, or gossipy emails to family and friends: (1) those who have trouble starting, and (2) those who have trouble wrapping it up.

I’m the first type, obviously.

Those who have trouble with the middle, by the way, aren’t really writers. To be a real writer, you have to give up control at some point. Having trouble with the middle is a symptom of being a control freak, and it’s nearly impossible to be a writer unless you can push the pause button on your inner control freak. Then, of course, you can always press “play” again when it’s time to tidy things up.

Whew! Now I’ve got that out of the way, I can start.

Why “Shredding the Envelope”?

Because you can push for a lifetime, but you’ll still be trapped inside the confines of an envelope. And that very envelope is what’s got us all trapped -- individually and collectively -- in the messes we’re in. The envelope is made of our most cherished ideas and assumptions, the inherited truths of our upbringing. It’s the place where culture and counterculture clash, and words are used more to define opposites than to acknowledge complementaries.

Envelopes are designed as a background for labels, expected to have destinations, categories, a limited specificity of content. The only mystery that exists in an envelope is from the outside of it, before it gets opened. And these days, most of that mystery has disappeared. When's the last time you got an envelope in the mail that didn't tell you quite plainly, even when it was trying to be tricky about it, exactly what was inside?

If you’re into bodybuilding, you can keep pushing the envelope. If you want to fly free of labels and categories and inherited content, you gotta shred it.

Besides, I’ve always had an affection for the shredder from the first time I used one. What better way to dispose of a bunch of boring and mostly burdensome paper than to transform it into stuff that suggests a tickertape parade or a piñata, and can even be used to protect delicate and fragile things from breaking... like Christmas ornaments. You can have whatever feelings and opinions you like about Christmas, from Scrooge-ish to Fundamentalish, but don’t tell me your favorite bit isn’t the ornaments and lights.

I started to wonder who invented the first paper shredder, and found this:
1908 • An American, A.A. Low, is credited with inventing the first paper shredder -- his 'Waste Paper Receptacle' -- which was issued a patent in 1908. Utilizing a feeder and a roller with blades, paper could be reduced by use of either a hand crank or an electric motor. This, however, is neither the beginning nor end of the story of the shredder. It is also thought that an earlier version of the paper shredder was invented by an Austrian military officer in 1898, who used a foot-powered machine to destroy ballistics designs. A.A. Low never went as far as bringing his 1908 patent to manufacture, and so the first commercially produced paper shredder was produced in 1936 by a German, Adolf Ehinger, whose inspiration came from a kitchen pasta maker.

By the way, this history of the paper shredder comes from a charming and informative Time Line of Waste -- created by the English. All the American entries on the subject that appeared in the first couple pages of Google results were essentially “infomercials” for paper-shredder vendors.

A couple of entries below the invention of the paper shredder is a link to “Wartime efficiency drives,” which features a very cool gallery of American WWII posters. They will perhaps remind you to wonder if “keep on shopping” was really the most creative push of the wartime patriotism envelope that the Bushniks could have come up with. And they might even help you understand why the “greatest generation” can be so curmudgeonly about the state of affairs we’ve come to over the past six decades or so.

[Sarito Carol Neiman (then just “Carol”) was a founding editor of The Rag (along with now-Rag Blog editor Thorne Dreyer) in 1966 Austin, and later edited New Left Notes, the national newspaper of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). With then-husband Greg Calvert, Neiman co-authored one of the seminal books of the New Left era, A Disrupted History: The New Left and the New Capitalism and later compiled and edited the contemporary Buddhist mystic Osho’s posthumous Authobiography of a Spiritually Incorrect Mystic. Neiman also studied acting at HB (Hagen-Berghof) Studio in New York City where she appeared in several stage productions and in the movie Moonshine which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2006. Neiman currently lives in Junction, Texas. Read more articles by Sarito Carol Neiman on The Rag Blog]

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Robert Jensen : Will Potter and 'Green is the New Red'

Image from TreeHugger.

Green is the New Red:
An interview with Will Potter

By Robert Jensen / The Rag Blog / July 27, 2011

For centuries, the arbitrary use of power by the state against dissidents has been a key threat to freedom. More recently, the concentrated wealth of corporations has emerged as a major impediment to democracy. When those two centers of power decide to come after people, not only do the individuals suffer, but freedom and democracy take a beating.

In his debut book, Green Is the New Red: An Insider’s Account of a Social Movement Under Siege, independent journalist Will Potter details one such assault on freedom and democracy, the targeting of environmental and animal-rights activists.

In recent decades, corporations whose profits depend on degrading the ecosphere started to worry that those activists posed a real threat to their operations. Politicians and law-enforcement agencies responded with laws and tactics targeting not only the illegal actions of some of those groups but also the constitutionally protected speech and association of a wider range of groups. The fear-and-smear campaigns take their toll on the activists.

In a book that alternates between reporting and reflection, Potter not only details the strategy and tactics of corporations and the state, but also gives readers a feel for the human costs for the activists. In an interview, I asked Potter to explain the threat posed by these campaigns.

(Full disclosure: Potter was a student in two of my classes at the University of Texas at Austin. Since his graduation, I have followed his work and now think of him as a colleague rather than a former student.)

Robert Jensen: Let’s start with what you don’t mean by the title, Green is the New Red. You say in the book that you aren’t suggesting the environmental/animal-rights movements are directly analogous to the left/radical/socialist/communist movements that were targeted in the Red Scares of the 20th century in the United States. If the scope of those Red movements was wider and the repression faced much more severe, what is the title intended to communicate?

Will Potter: Although I make clear that what’s going on now is not the same or worse than the Red Scare (nor is it the same or worse than what Arab and Muslim people have experienced since September 11), these current events need to be understood in a historical context. Coordinated campaigns to target and repress dissident voices have taken place throughout U.S. history, and foremost among them is the Red Scare.

For most Americans, of all political stripes, that term is synonymous with using fear to push a political agenda -- it is a dark era of U.S. history where lives were ruined, and freedoms chilled, in the name of national security. Beyond those big-picture similarities, though, there are eerie parallels between the Red Scare and this Green Scare, in terms of the specific tactics used by corporations and politicians to instill fear and silence dissent.

Whatever the size or current influence of these radical environmental movements, you write that they are challenging core notions of what it means to be a human being. Based on your experience as an activist and your reporting, how do you assess these movements?

These movements, like all social justice movements, have diverse components. Although it has become fashionable to “go green,” the true nature of the environmental and animal rights movements goes much deeper than promoting hybrid cars and energy-saving light bulbs. They are about more than promoting a quick-fix or advocating environmentalism through consumerism.

These movements are challenging deeply held religious and cultural beliefs that the interests of human beings are always paramount, and that we have the right to use the earth and other species in whatever ways we see fit, costs be damned. These movements recognize that behaving as if human beings are the only species on the planet is destructive, but their critique is more than an appeal to self-interest. It is about critically examining our relationship with the natural world, and all other species on the planet, and questioning what it means to be a human being.

Do you think that is the reason those movements are being targeted, because people in power in government and corporations understand how fundamental that challenge is, and want to suppress it?

Absolutely. In fact, that's how the threat is often described by these individuals themselves in Congressional hearings, internal corporate documents, FBI memos, Homeland Security reports, and in the media. At first I dismissed much of this as political theater -- exaggerating the threat in order to justify the crackdown. For instance, it was hard not to laugh when the CEO of Yum Foods (KFC’s parent company) testified before Congress that PETA represents the threat of a “vegetarian world.” He called them “corporate terrorists.”

But this culture war rhetoric stops being funny when you see how it plays out in real life. PETA, along with other mainstream groups like the Humane Society of the United States, have been attacked as “terrorists” by corporations and politicians, and investigated by the FBI. The only way we can explain that groups like the Humane Society are being investigated as terrorists alongside the Animal Liberation Front is that all of it -- the aboveground and the underground, the mainstream and the radical -- represents a cultural threat.

Environmental street art by Peter Gibson. Image from Inhabitat.

Let’s go back to your reference to the specific tactics used, by both government and corporations, in this campaign. What are some of the most common tactics, and what is the strategy behind them?

The comparison of today’s political climate to the Red Scare was particularly useful in identifying and classifying the tactics used in this campaign. The tactics, then and now, can be grouped into three main areas: legal, legislative, and a third I would call extra-legal, or scare-mongering.

The courts have been used to push the limits of what constitutes “terrorism,” and to hit activists with disproportionate penalties and prison sentences. In this realm the word terrorist is used early, and used often, to skew public opinion against defendants before they ever set foot in a courtroom. At some point these legal tactics have limitations, though, and so corporations and politicians have lobbied for new laws that go even further.

Federal laws like the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, coupled with state-level legislation, are being used to single out activists based on their political beliefs. The intention with these legislative efforts is not only to enact new laws, but to use Congressional hearings and political theater to shift cultural perceptions of these movements.

The final element is perhaps the most dangerous of them all. During the Red Scare, court cases and legislation sent people to prison, but scare-mongering tactics (PR campaigns, press conferences, ads, reckless use of language to demonize people) leveraged the weight of fear and incarcerated many more.

The strategy behind these tactics is fragmentation. In discussing this, I think it’s helpful to visualize social movements as having a “horizontal” and “vertical” component. The intention is to separate these movements horizontally, and create rifts between them and the broader left. Animal rights activists and environmentalists are therefore depicted as ideological extremists who, if they have their way, will stop you from eating meat and driving cars and having pets.

There are of course already tensions between these movements and the more traditional left, but campaigns by corporations and politicians intend to exacerbate them. If these movements are not seen as part of a broader social justice struggle, it is easier for other leftist and progressive groups to turn their backs on their repression.

Similarly, there is a campaign to fragment these movements vertically. Aboveground lawful groups are told that they must condemn underground groups, and if they do not they will also be treated as terrorists. This two-prong strategy -- breaking these movements away from other social movements, and breaking the aboveground away from the underground -- isolates those who are being targeted and intensifies the repression.

Whatever one thinks of the specific analyses or tactics of groups such as the Earth Liberation Front, the accelerating pace of ecological collapse suggests their call to consciousness about the larger living world is more important than ever. After your investigation into the Green Scare, what is your assessment of the likelihood the culture will listen?

As the scale of the ecological crisis we are facing becomes more apparent, and as the backlash against social movements that are challenging our self-destructive culture intensifies, it is difficult to not feel dark, to feel helpless. I certainly feel that way quite often -- not just because of the content of my own work, but from the near-blackout in the mainstream press.

Unfortunately, I do not see any of this changing anytime soon. As the ecological crisis accelerates, the accompanying crackdown by corporations and people in power will intensify as well. The people who have the most to lose will cling desperately to that culture as it is threatened, and this includes not just CEOs but much of the overwhelmingly privileged United States and so-called First World.

After all of that, this will probably sound quite odd, but in the face of this I would argue that there are reasons to be inspired. Through my work, and in particular through book and media tours, I have been fortunate to meet people all over the country from diverse backgrounds. What has been striking to me is that, even if people are unfamiliar with the Green Scare or the targeting of political activists, they are rarely surprised.

People may not know the specifics, but they know that corporations have more power than people. They know the scope of ecological destruction is increasing. They know we have no choice but to change but that people in power will not change willingly. I’m not convinced that the question at hand is whether or not the culture will listen, because I think that so many people already feel this. I think the question is: Will we find the courage to be heard?

[Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, where he teaches courses in media law, ethics, and politics -- and a board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin. His books include All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, and Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity. His writing is published extensively in mainstream and alternative media. Robert Jensen can be reached at rjensen@uts.cc.utexas.edu. Read more articles by Robert Jensen on The Rag Blog.]
Listen to Thorne Dreyer's July 8, 2011 interview with Robert Jensen on Rag Radio, and watch Jeff Zavala's video of the interview.
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Bash and Blowout : Please Join Us Friday in Austin!

Poster by James Retherford / Hot Digital Dog Design / The Rag Blog.

For those of you in Austin:
Please join us this Friday!

Thorne Dreyer Birthday* Bash and Rag Blog Blowout
Friday, July 29, 6-9 p.m.
Maria's Taco Xpress
2529 S. Lamar, Austin, Texas
Everyone welcome!
[Please check out our Facebook event page...]

If you’re in Austin on July 29th, please join us at Maria’s for Rag Blog editor and Rag Radio host Thorne Dreyer’s (66th) Birthday Bash and Rag Blog Blowout.

It’s guaranteed to be a fun party and an opportunity for our friends, fans, and followers to get to know each other.

The party, open to all, is at Maria’s Taco Xpress, 2529 S. Lamar Blvd., in Austin, Texas, Friday, July 29, 2011, from 6-9 p.m. Maria’s full bar and menu will be available and Flounders Without Eyes will play on the patio at 7.

(Dreyer's real birthday is August 1st -- but who's paying attention?)

There is no admission -- and please don’t bring presents (Dreyer would just break them) -- but a small tax-deductible donation to The Rag Blog would be greatly appreciated. We depend upon the support of our readers and friends -- and if you can’t be at the party, please click here, or on the "DONATE" button on the sidebar -- and send us a donation through PayPal or by check.

The Rag Blog is a progressive internet newsmagazine produced by activist journalists committed to social change. We are published by the New Journalism Project, a Texas 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation. Our mailing address is PO Box 16442, Austin, TX 78761-6442.

Rag Radio, broadcast from 2-3 p.m. every Friday on KOOP 91-7 FM in Austin -- and streamed live to the world -- is produced at the KOOP studios in association with the New Journalism Project and The Rag Blog. Hosted by Thorne Dreyer, it features hour-long in-depth interviews and discussion about issues of progressive politics, culture, and history. To listen to podcasts of earlier shows on Rag Radio, please go to the Internet Archives.

(And, now Rag Radio also airs every Sunday at 10 a.m. on WFTE, 90.3-FM in Mt. Cobb, PA and 105.7-FM in Scranton, PA.)

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Dr. Stephen R. Keister : Sick of Being Spoon-Fed the News

Cartoon by Don Addis / Quick Take.

Spoon-feeding the news:

Where's our independent press?

By Dr. Stephen R. Keister / The Rag Blog / July 27, 2011

In his novel Sidetracked, Henning Mankkel quotes a retired journalist:
There are two kinds of reporters. The first kind digs in the ground for the truth. He stands down in the hole shoveling out dirt. But up on top there's another man, shoveling the dirt back in. There's always a duel going on between these two. The fourth estate's eternal test of strength for dominance. Some journalists want to expose and reveal things, others run errands for those in power and help conceal what's really happening.
We here make note of the prior dismissal of Keith Olbermann and the recent firing of Cenk Uygur from our only "liberal" television outlet, MSNBC.

When I consider the lack of valid, intelligent information currently available to the American public it would seem that the dirt is being replaced in the hole much more rapidly than the honest, dedicated journalist can dig it out.

I thank my lucky stars for The Nation, The Progressive, and our own Rag Blog and similar credible online news sources.

I am reminded of the remarks made by John Swinton one night in 1880. Swinton, the former chief of staff of The New York Times, continued to write an occasional column but had abandoned full-time editorial work to become active in the labor movement. At a press banquet someone who understood neither the press nor Swinton offered a toast to the independent press. As quoted in Labor's Untold Story by Richard O. Morais, Swinton, outraged, replied:
There is no such thing, at this date of the world's history, in America, as an independent press. You know it and I know it.

There is not one of you who dares to write your honest opinions, and if you did, you know beforehand that it would never appear in print. I am paid weekly for keeping my honest opinion out of the papers that I am connected with. Others of you are paid similar salaries for similar things, and any of you who would be so foolish as to write honest opinions would be out on the streets looking for another job. If I allowed my honest opinions to appear in one issue of my paper, before 24 hours my occupation would be gone.

The business of the journalist is to destroy the truth, to lie outright, to pervert, to vilify, to fawn at the feet of mammon, and to sell his country and his race for his daily bread. You know it and I know it, and what folly is this toasting an independent press?

We are the tools and the vassals of rich men behind the scenes. We are the jumping jacks, they pull the strings and we dance. Our talents, our possibilities and our lives are all the property of other men. We are intellectual prostitutes.
Some of us have fought a dedicated fight for serious health care reform in the United States, but I note in various polls that this issue has been relegated to approximately fifth place in the public's interest. Of prime concern, some 80% of the public is interested in the lack of employment and, in my opinion, rightfully so. However, our chief executive and the dolts in Congress (save for a few compassionate thinking souls) are involved in theatrics that accomplish nothing for our citizens or for the welfare of the country at large.

The press, meanwhile, is consumed with the dubious presidential commission on debt reduction, the suggestions of the "Gang of Six" (three conservative Republicans, two blue-dog Democrats and Sen. Durbin), as well as numerous interviews with totally out of touch "Tea Bag" freshman congressmen -- and various Wall Street characters who are presented to the public as "economists."

The mainstream media largely ignores the efforts in several states to fix elections through such means as requiring photo identification cards and widespread redistricting (read: gerrymandering). Little note is made of the growing layoffs of municipal employees, and the fact that many of the 20% unemployed are losing their unemployment insurance and health care benefits.

There has been minimal attention paid to the punitive anti-abortion legislation being passed in many states, returning us, unhappily -- and irrevocably, I'm afraid -- to the era of "back-alley" abortion which I witnessed in my days as a resident physician -- when I watched young women die a horrible death of gas gangrene sepsis.

We hear that "entitlement” programs are the cause of the national deficit, a claim that ignores the entire history of Social Security and Medicare as traditional off-budget items, to be paid for out of a specific "lockbox" fund, paid for by every worker's employment tax which he/she paid for with a lifetime of labor.

No mention is made of the fact that successive presidents have raided that fund, set aside for entitlement programs, to pay for ongoing, unending wars, and for creating a large surplus of needless military hardware, and who have replaced the “lockbox” funds with government bonds, hence making the social programs part of the general budget.

And we find in the mainstream news media little or no detailed analysis of the cause of our military adventurism and its cost to the average American. We are conned with cries of "terrorism" and made to feel unpatriotic (and thus not to be counted among the “exceptional” American people) if we question the Washington establishment.

I would wager that nine out of 10 Americans are unaware that we have over 700 foreign military bases, many with 18-hole golf courses. Do we know who acquired the oil resources of Iraq after the large scale fighting ceased, and are we aware of the rich mineral and gem resources being exploited in Afghanistan, as has recently been reported in great detail in Fortune Magazine ("J.P. Morgan's hunt for Afghan gold")?

Has the mainstream media reported on the implications of the defunding of Medicaid as is being pursued by the Republican House of Representatives? Not only do we diminish the health care of our poor, underemployed, and unemployed, but we will also lose the prime support for nursing home care. If we follow the dictates of these imbeciles in Washington, Cleveland and Detroit will, in the not too distant future, look like Calcutta in the 1920s.

There is hope in other lands (read Ezra Klein's article in The American Prospect, entitled "The Health of Nations"). Unhappily our elected representatives have other interests and their self-survival to consider. To hell with the American people; they bend their knees to the great corporations.

Life has it's stresses as I -- with my malignancy -- approach the age of 90; however, never in my lifetime have I seen our nation run by such a group of inept, uneducated, grasping, cruel legislators -- excepting Bernie Sanders, Sherrod Brown, Al Franken, Barbara Boxer, and many of the members of the Progressive Caucus of The House of Representatives. And never have I seen the public-at-large so lacking in notable leaders.

Where are the likes of John L. Lewis, Norman Thomas, Phillip Murray, Henry Wallace, and men and women of courage who will lead the sheep away from the precipice.

I cannot help but visualize the passive German masses of 1932 as I look about our nation today. I see multitudes who will respond in automatic obedience to an authority figure, not as individuals in search of liberty and justice. I fear Hannah Arendt had it correct when she coined the phrase the "banality of evil.”

Finally, on a more cheerful note, happy birthday to Rag Blog editor Thorne Dreyer, who turns 66 on August 1st. You still embody that great generation which spawned SDS, the underground press, the thinkers and concerned citizens of your era.

[Dr. Stephen R. Keister lives in Erie, Pennsylvania. He is a retired physician who is active in health care reform and is a regular contributor to The Rag Blog. Read more articles by Dr. Stephen R. Keister on The Rag Blog]

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26 July 2011

Steve Max : The Snare and Deception of 'Family Economics'

Political cartoon from Progressive America Rising.

Obama hits the trap running:
The snare and deception
of ‘family economics’
The trap that Obama and many Congressional Democrats constantly fall into is to act and talk as if Republicans are normal and that this is a rational situation.
By Steve Max / Progressive America Rising / July 26, 2011

Would anyone not have thought President Truman insane had he gone before the nation in 1945 and said, “I have had experience running a small business, and based on what I learned selling neckties I have decided to drop the atomic bomb on Japan.”(1)

Yet, when House Majority Leader John Boehner proposes to drop the bomb on the American economy based on his experience selling plastics with the Nucite Sales corporation of Cincinnati, no one thinks it at all odd, least of all President Obama.

In last night’s response to Obama’s televised address to the nation, Boehner referred at least twice to his own small business experience as the source of his knowledge that government, like small business, must live within its means.

The trap that Obama and many Congressional Democrats constantly fall into is to act and talk as if Republicans are normal and that this is a rational situation. Obama consistently tells the public what a fine fellow Boehner is, how they share the same goals of deficit reduction, how they agree that the nation must live within its means, and how the only differences are over the way to achieve their common goals. The sad thing is that for Obama this likely goes beyond being nice, he probably believes it.

Democrats need to start speaking the truth. The economy of nation states is nothing like a small business (or any size business) and the federal budget is not remotely like your family budget, another oft-spoken Republican falsehood. People who ignorantly think such things, the President should say, are not fit to be the nation’s decision-makers because it is too dangerous.

In addition, it is an outright lie that cutting government spending will create jobs. It is a lie that taxing the rich is bad for business. It is a lie that raising the debt ceiling discourages investment. Republicans never believed any of this when they were in power. They are lying now and they know it.

The idea that the federal budget is not like your family budget is particularly difficult to grasp because it is counterintuitive. Back when cars were first invented, many people turned their stables into garages. This contributed to the popular notion that if your car wasn’t working properly, a few days of rest in the garage would help it. People couldn’t quite grasp that while the car and the horse served similar functions and might even occupy the same building, they operated on totally different principles.

The federal government is not a family or a business, it is the administrative committee of the entire nation. While it must indeed live within its means, as the Republicans say and the President concurs, the potential means is the entire social surplus. That is the value of everything produced in America minus the portion that people live on, the portion spent on business expenses, the portion needed to maintain the infrastructure, and the portion needed for future investment.

What is left over is the social surplus. How the social surplus is divided between private profits, public services, and governmental administrative costs is entirely a political matter. Actually, the amount of the social surplus isn’t calculated by anyone, perhaps because that would raise too many questions about who owns it, but it exists, it is huge and it is the means within which we must live. And, as noted, whether it goes to Medicare or to the richest 400 families is a political problem, not an economic one.

When Boehner and the Republicans insist that government must live within its means like any family or business, what they are really saying is not that we have reached the objective limit of the social surplus (2), but rather that they will decide what the means are, and the rest of us will live within them.

Measures such as the money supply, the federal budget, and the debt ceiling are arbitrary political constructs that are not based on actual economic limits. In 2010 when the Federal Reserve thought it necessary to stimulate the economy, it basically printed $600 billion. The money wasn’t in the budget and it wasn’t borrowed, it was just created, showing how flexible the situation really is. (3)

The federal budget is a good example of this. There is certainly a deficit, but the amount is a function of how the bookkeeping is done. Surely, having run a small business, Rep. Boehner knows that businesses and almost all state governments have capital budgets for buying structures and equipment. When a business buys a computer, a machine or a warehouse, it is not considered to have lost money. Rather it has exchanged one asset (cash) for another of equal value (a truck.) After the transaction, its net worth on the books is the same as before.

Not so with the federal budget, which treats buying a computer as if it were the same as giving a corn subsidy to agribusiness. Never mind that the corn subsidy is just money gone, but the government now owns the computer which should be considered an asset. If federal bookkeeping methods were the same as in Boehner’s business, the deficit would be far, far less.

The point is that many of the financial measures that we tend to consider as reflections of objective laws of nature (you must live within your means) are really our own inventions as a society, and we have great, though not unlimited, latitude in which to change them. What they are actually reflections of is the balance of class forces within the political structure and they are designed to set the framework in which the owners of wealth can become even richer.

The fact is that, if the Republican goals in the debt ceiling debate were actually based on true economic principles and that debt really causes unemployment, then we would all be on their side and telling them not to compromise with Obama. Instead of saying that he shares their goals, the President needs to explain how they are simply wrong. Otherwise he will continue to muddle in the consensus trap.

(1) The actual reasons were equally as dubious, but that is another story for another time. Meanwhile see The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb by Gar Alperovitz. http://www.amazon.com/Decision-Use-Atomic-Bomb/dp/067976285X
(2) For example, that we are eating more radishes than can be grown.
(3) http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2010-11-03/federal-reserve-to-buy-additional-600-billion-of-securities-to-aid-growth.html

[Steve Max, who was a major figure in early SDS, is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America and Three Parks Independent Democrats. He works as an organizing trainer at the Midwest Academy in Chicago. This article was published and distributed by Progressive America Rising.]

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BOOKS / Thomas McKelvey Cleaver : Goodbye to the Joys of Browsing

Browsing: A dying art? Image from Herald Sun.

The dying art of browsing?
Saying goodbye to Borders

By Thomas McKelvey Cleaver / The Rag Blog / July 26, 2011

SAN FERNANDO VALLEY, California -- It was too bad to find out that Borders bookstores are closing. Granted, in the past year the Borders here has been a shadow of its former self, and it never was all that good if you compared it to the old Barnes and Noble stores that departed a few years back. But it was a bookstore that was local, and you could browse.

There is now no bookstore that even resembles that store here in the San Fernando Valley. There's a mystery bookstore all the way across the valley in Burbank, but when I called them they didn't have any Alan Furst novels and didn't even know who he was (a really cool Graham Greene sort of novelist who does fantastic World War II spy novels that are so historically accurate and so dramatically good they're a time machine to take you back to then).

But no more general interest stores, where you can go where your interest of the moment takes you.

I think bookstore and library browsing -- going looking for one thing, pulling out another book at random, and being interested enough to get it -- has probably been one of the most important things in my life, especially in terms of life-changing events.

I remember being age 10, at the Eugene Field Library in Denver, and being tired of what passed for "young adult" books, so I stepped around the corner and discovered Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov in the science fiction section. I read everything that was there.

Then I would go downtown to the main branch and browse there (what absolute fun: take the bus at 9 a.m. and spend the day in the stacks -- except when I'd go across the street to the Jewish delicatessen where I discovered the joys of corned beef sandwiches and pickles -- then come back home with my arms full of books).

I never knew what I was going to get until I found it there on the shelves. And thus began my self-education -- in spite of the public miseducation system.

Discovering Ray Bradbury? Image from Almightydad.

Thirty five years after that life-changing event, I met Asimov and Bradbury as an equal (well, an equal member of the Science Fiction Writers Association [SFWA]; I'd never categorize myself as their equal as a writer). I even told them how I first met them. Asimov gave me his fourth Foundation novel and inscribed it, "To Tom, our minds met long ago."

Just the other month, in our local Borders, I was looking through the military history section, and ran across a book with an interesting title, a book I hadn't even known would be there and wasn't looking for. I pulled it out, paged through it, read the introduction, thought it was interesting, and bought it.

Two weeks later I was friends with the author, who introduced me to his agent and publisher, and now my writing career has taken another big turn and I am writing a book I have thought of writing for maybe 20 years -- to be published later this year.

Nowadays, assuming a kid can even find a public library that's open, the librarians won't let 10-year-olds into "age inappropriate sections."

I'm sorry, but what passes for "progress" these days mostly isn't.

[Thomas McKelvey Cleaver is an accidental native Texan, a journalist, and a produced screenwriter. He has written successful horror movies and articles about Second World War aviation, was a major fundraiser for Obama in 2008, and has been an activist on anti-war, political reform, and environmental issues for almost 50 years. Read more articles by Thomas Cleaver on The Rag Blog.]

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