31 January 2013

Roger Baker : Can TxDOT Avoid Financial Disaster? / 2

Is a change of direction in order? Image from Cypress Creek Mirror.

Agency in denial:
Can TxDOT avoid financial disaster? / 2

By Roger Baker / The Rag Blog / February 1, 2013
"Denial isn't just a river in Egypt." -- Mark Twain
Second of a two-part series.

A glaring example of the Texas Department of Transportation's (TxDOT) denial of financial reality is that they view their roads in a way that confuses their assets with their financial position. This is made clear from TxDOT's 2012 Annual Financial Report (AFR), p 15, where we see this key statement.
Over time, increases and decreases in net assets measures whether TxDOT’s financial position is improving or deteriorating. Overall, the net assets of governmental activities increased by $710.7 million or 1.1 percent from fiscal 2011, primarily due to TxDOT’s continued efforts to maintain, improve and expand the state’s infrastructure network.
This characterizes TxDOT's financial viewpoint of highways as being financially beneficial assets, rather than as maintenance-demanding liabilities. By using construction costs to evaluate TxDOT's financial condition, the more it costs to build a road, the sounder TxDOT's finances are said to be. As we can see elsewhere in the AFR, TxDOT is claiming that the value of all its roads as assets is now about $64 billion, based on construction costs. They are public assets only so long as the public can afford to keep driving; otherwise they become a growing public maintenance burden.

TxDOT's roads are not marketable goods; few if any of its roads are marketable assets. This means that TxDOT appears to have nothing much to offer as collateral, to backstop its growing debt burden, to shield TxDOT against default on their $14 billion accumulation of road bond debt.

Is it possible to regard TxDOT's most traveled roads as collateral; as assets that TxDOT could plausibly sell to someone or some group willing to take them over and to manage them as private toll roads? We know that this is probably not the case because of TxDOT's inability to find a buyer for its CTTP group of Austin area toll roads, which are big money losers.

It is true that a few years back, TxDOT managed to sell the future tolling rights for the southern extension of their SH 130 toll road to a Spanish toll road operator named CINTRA, but those days are past. Freeways have become "costways."

TxDOT's toll roads are big money losers

Under Gov. Rick Perry's first appointee and close political ally, TxDOT Chairman Ric Williamson, TxDOT's philosophy was to try to attract money to build state roads supplemented with private funding as toll roads whenever possible. Williamson's slogan was that henceforth it was to be "toll roads, slow roads, or no roads."

This reflected an early approach to dealing with TxDOT's financial problems, stemming from the refusal of an anti-tax Texas Legislature to raise gas taxes. A decade ago, it was relatively easy to get private bond investors to supplement TxDOT's limited revenues by tolling and collecting fees; it was then anticipated that state toll roads could be profitable when operated as toll roads partially funded with gas taxes.

TxDOT first got into the toll road business with an initial group of toll roads, called the Central Texas Turnpike Project or CTTP. This was subsidized not only with direct TxDOT contributions, but also with a lot of Austin city money for ROW. The latter was demanded by the road lobby as the price to pay for the failure of Austin's 2000 light rail election.

Later on, after TxDOT became aware that its own toll roads were becoming management headaches, TxDOT and the Texas road lobby started actively promoting the establishment of newly authorized outside agencies termed "regional mobility authorities," such as the Austin area's CTRMA. These governmental bodies are able to wheel and deal and promote "public-private partnerships," partially supplemented with TxDOT contributions, but operating with fewer legal restrictions than TxDOT itself. They offer the additional benefit that TxDOT can't be held responsible whenever a RMA's toll road bonds default.

A July 2011 article by Austin American Statesman transportation reporter Ben Wear, reveals that TxDOT's own CTTP toll roads are big money losers, ones that TxDOT would like to sell if they could find a buyer. TxDOT's rather far-fetched selling point is to maintain that better marketing might somehow turn around their toll roads' current losses. TxDOT's "assets," if converted into toll roads, will probably always be money-losing liabilities.
Tolls and other revenue have fallen more than $100 million short of covering debt and operating costs of the state's three-road Central Texas Turnpike System since the highways opened about four years ago. Texas Department of Transportation subsidies almost 70 percent more than originally predicted have made up the difference. Those subsidies, covered primarily by state gasoline taxes that otherwise would be available for other road spending, should average about $38 million a year over the next decade and total about $750 million by 2042, according to TxDOT documents...

"Any dollar that we support that system with is a dollar that is taken out of the state of Texas to build and support other roads," said [TxDOT] Commissioner Ted Houghton of El Paso, who has served on the commission since 2003 and has long advocated such agreements with toll road companies. "We need to get out of that business. Find someone who knows how to market those roads, to operate them and collect the tolls. We do it as a sort of side business."
More recently, TxDOT's refusal to publicly reveal the revenue data on SH 130 , the most prominent of the CTTP toll roads, indicates that the lack of ridership is probably seen by TxDOT as a source of public embarrassment and an impediment to privatization. TURF, an active San Antonio-based anti-tolling group, has publicly announced a boycott of SH 130.

Total Texas and U.S. driving are both in decline, 
with little prospect for recovery

TxDOT doesn't want to admit it, but another important aspect of their institutional denial is the assumption that driving on Texas roads will someday resume its past growth. The reality is that Texans are driving less than they did just a few years ago. The author has already documented this problem and the link to rising energy costs in considerable detail.

Global oil prices have recently been rising rapidly, with little relief in sight. Despite the recent spate of publicity about increasing U.S.energy independence, the reality is that rising oil prices continue to haunt both the U.S. and global economies.

Nationally, an important factor leading to less driving is that the lower income third of the population is struggling to afford to drive at all because of rising fuel prices. We see this from a recent Brooking Institute study showing a strong correlation between car ownership and income level. Likewise, the U.S. population is aging, and older drivers drive less. Meanwhile, the young have become less interested in owning and driving cars.

When driving declines, so do Texas state and federal fuel tax revenues. Fuel taxes are TxDOT's major stable source of road funds, akin to TxDOT's financial oxygen supply. In his introduction to the 2012 AFR, TxDOT Director Wilson, notes that fuel taxes are up: "Motor fuel taxes, TxDOT's primary state funding source, shows a slight increase in fiscal year 2012 over 2011."

However, even this 2.8% increase in TxDOT's fuel tax revenue looks smaller when compared to TxDOT's total budget.

We know that Texas driving is currently decreasing because the FHWA documents total driving on roads in every state. Here are the final revised travel numbers in millions of vehicle miles on all Texas roads for the past six Septembers (the latest month available in 2012).
  • 2007.....19,422
  • 2008.....18,838
  • 2009.....19,730
  • 2010.....20,023
  • 2011.....19,386
  • 2012.....19,377
It is true that driving in Texas has decreased somewhat less than in the rest of the country recently. This is quite likely due to the hydrofracturing (or fracking) boom to the southeast of San Antonio. While the fracking may increase fuel revenue slightly, it is tearing up Texas state and county roads, and these damages on its state roads are being greatly underfunded by TxDOT.
The truck traffic needed to deliver water to a single fracking well causes as much damage to local roads as nearly 3.5 million car trips. The state of Texas has approved $40 million in funding for road repairs in the Barnett Shale region, while Pennsylvania estimated in 2010 that $265 million would be needed to repair damaged roads in the Marcellus Shale region.
And this from an NPR State Impact statement:
“With all the traffic, it’s destroying our roads. Some are already completely destroyed,” says Frio County Judge Carlos Garcia in South Texas. It’s in the heart of the Eagle Ford Shale formation, where oil production from hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” in nearby Karnes County now leads the state.
Public roads, especially those a few decades old, are by nature money losers which require a rising level of maintenance over time to remain useful. Asphalt and diesel costs for road maintenance have risen sharply during the past decade, along with rising oil prices; the crude oil used for making gasoline and diesel has more than tripled in price over the last decade.

Nationwide, driving decreased by about 1.6% in the last year, according to the FHWA TVT data for September 2012, as compared to September 2011; see lower right of this chart. We see that total U.S. driving peaked in 2007, and has fallen roughly 3% over the last five years. This bumpy downward trend line is largely due to a combination of a poor economy and rising fuel costs. Rising fuel costs contributed to the poor economy.

Over the same last five years, U.S. population has been increasing by about .75 % per year, which means a 3.75% U.S. population increase over this time. If you add both trends, per capita U.S. driving decreased nearly 7% in the last five years. People are driving less, while using transit more, except that U.S. urban transit typically isn't very efficiently matched to existing land uses and work trips.

Whither fuel prices? Globally, total liquid fuel supply has been flat since conventional (the old cheap stuff) oil production peaked worldwide about five years ago, and seems unlikely to rise much above 90 million barrels a day. Looking ahead, this implies a continuing recession and higher driving costs.

The rising long-term price of TxDOT's denial

TxDOT's current planning is in denial by being geared toward handling a most unlikely continuation of the rising car and road travel seen in past decades. Any shift away from road building is guaranteed to upset the Texas road lobby; a constellation of the big road contractors, land developers, and engineering firms. Together these comprise some of the most politically powerful interests in Texas, whereas TxDOT is one of the most politicized state agencies in terms of its policies and priorities.

Low density suburban sprawl growth encouraged and subsidized by publicly funded roads is beginning to be recognized as a type of Ponzi scheme. Whenever the rate of new growth slows down, the fact that this kind of growth doesn't pay for itself is revealed by the sorts of funding shortfalls that TxDOT is experiencing now.
In America, we have a ticking time bomb of unfunded liability for infrastructure maintenance. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) estimates the cost at $5 trillion -- but that's just for major infrastructure, not the minor streets, curbs, walks, and pipes that serve our homes. The reason we have this gap is because the public yield from the suburban development pattern -- the amount of tax revenue obtained per increment of liability assumed -- is ridiculously low.

Over a life cycle, a city frequently receives just a dime or two of revenue for each dollar of liability. The engineering profession will argue, as ASCE does, that we're simply not making the investments necessary to maintain this infrastructure. This is nonsense. We've simply built in a way that is not financially productive.
Arguably, the wisest mode of damage control to remedy its looming fundings shortfalls would be for TxDOT to shift its priorities toward preserving and maintaining at least the most important of its existing roads, including the interstates, non-interstate highways, and toll roads.

TxDOT needs to shift its focus away from planning roads it can no longer afford to maintain, and in the direction of public mobility by increasing the current minimal level of state funding for transit (the feds prefer to fund transit much more than TxDOT does).

Because of budget constraints, people increasingly need to live where TxDOT can still afford to fund and maintain transportation infrastructure and mobility and not a future overwhelmingly based on more cars and roads.

In the future, TxDOT's planning should be geared toward discouraging private vehicle travel. In fact, TxDOT really doesn't have much alternative to moving in that direction, either willingly or unwillingly. To try to continue their current denial of financial and travel demand trends can only make TxDOT's future problems worse.

Bottom line: If you have trouble driving to work, you shouldn't expect much help from TxDOT.

[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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RAG RADIO / Thorne Dreyer : Progressive Economist Robert Pollin, Author of 'Back to Full Employment'

Economist Robert Pollin. Image from Unionocity.

Rag Radio podcast:
Economist Robert Pollin discusss his
new book, 'Back to Full Employment'

By Rag Radio / The Rag Blog / January 31, 2013

Progressive economist, activist, and author Robert Pollin was Thorne Dreyer's guest Friday, January 25, 2013, on Rag Radio, a syndicated radio show produced at the studios of KOOP-FM in Austin, Texas. The Rag Blog's Roger Baker joined us in the interview.

Pollin joined us to discuss issues raised in his provocative new book, Back to Full Employment, published by MIT Press. Robert Kuttner of The American Prospect writes that Pollin's "important new book... deserves a broad hearing. Today’s economy is so anemic that nothing less than a new commitment to full employment will get us out of the ditch dug by a generation of neo-liberalism.”

You can listen to the interview, here:

Robert Pollin is a professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and founding co-director of its Political Economy Research Institute (PERI). Polin has also worked as a consultant for the U.S. Department of Energy, the International Labour Organization, and numerous nongovernmental groups on building high-employment green economies.

He is currently directing a project with the United Nations Industrial Development Organization and has worked with the UN on employment creation and poverty reduction in sub-Saharan Africa.

Rag Radio has aired since September 2009 on KOOP 91.7-FM in Austin. Hosted and produced by Rag Blog editor and long-time alternative journalist Thorne Dreyer, a pioneer of the Sixties underground press movement, Rag Radio is broadcast every Friday from 2-3 p.m. (CST) on KOOP, and is rebroadcast on Sundays at 10 a.m. (EST) on WFTE, 90.3-FM in Mt. Cobb, PA, and 105.7-FM in Scranton, PA.

The show is streamed live on the web by both stations and, after broadcast, all Rag Radio shows are posted as podcasts at the Internet Archive.

Rag Radio is produced in association with The Rag Blog, a progressive internet newsmagazine, and the New Journalism Project, a Texas 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation. Tracey Schulz is the show's engineer and co-producer.

Rag Radio can be contacted at ragradio@koop.org.

Coming up on Rag Radio:
THIS FRIDAY, February 1, 2013:
Writer and Musician Jesse Sublett, author of Gravedigger Blues, a post-apocalyptic detective eBook.

The Rag Blog

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30 January 2013

Harry Targ : Advancing a Progressive Coalition

Obama inauguration: mobilizing the progressive coalition. Photo by Win McNamee / Getty Images

Advancing a progressive coalition
In his second inaugural address, the President clearly articulated a progressive agenda for the next four years that we on the left should organize around.
By Harry Targ / The Rag Blog / January 30, 2013

Workers are marching in New York City, Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco for their rights. Activists for women’s rights, gay rights, and the rights of people of color are on the move. Environmentalists are saying “no” Tar Sands and “yes” to moving nationally and globally against the dangers of climate change.

Everyone is calling on the Obama Administration to reject demands by the right wing to cut Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security while protecting tax breaks for the rich and excessive military spending.

Millions of us worked to defeat the far right wing in the recent election and celebrated the historic reelection of an African American for president. During much of Obama’s first term, the President sought to compromise with the right wing, avoiding radical reforms, for example the one that would have provided Americans with single-payer health care. He was reluctant to defend American public institutions, such as schools and libraries, worker’s rights, and to demand adequate resources for rebuilding our physical infrastructure and saving our environment.

However, in President Obama’s 2013 inaugural address he affirmed his commitment to social and economic justice, peace, and protection of our precious and threatened environment. The President referred metaphorically to Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall to underscore his commitment to women, African-Americans, and gays and lesbians.

While he should have added Flint, Michigan, site of worker sit-downs in 1937 where rights to organize were demanded, Obama clearly promised to work toward empowerment of some of the traditionally voiceless, usually not referred to in inaugural speeches. Obama also raised in a forceful way the problem of climate change. The President, without raising specifics, clearly articulated a progressive agenda for the next four years that we on the left should organize around.

In addition, there are signs that the Obama election organization is being transformed into what could become part of a social movement to support a progressive agenda in the Congress. Organizing for Action (OFA) promises to take the resources, human and financial, that were mobilized during the campaign to build constituencies to work on issues and campaigns in Congressional districts.

Skeptics correctly suggest that OFA may serve more to channel and control growing militancy at the grassroots rather than unleash it. However, those of us at the base can use the OFA format and resources as part of our own organizing.

Organizing at the grassroots in communities and states is particularly critical in the 30 states in which government is dominated by Tea Party and other conservative elected officials. And it is in these states and communities that outside money has poured in to reverse institutions and policies that service human needs. In many of the states, such as Indiana where I live, advocates for reaction have gained an upper hand and threaten public institutions, social programs, and democratic representation.

We, the left/liberal community, stepped back from activism after the 2008 election assuming that the new President would advance a people’s agenda. We were wrong. He adopted a cautious and pragmatic strategy incorrectly assuming he could achieve compromise policies with Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats. In 2010, a new group of Republicans opposed to virtually all public institutions, the so-called Tea Party Republicans, gained many seats in Congress, state legislatures, and governorships.

After the 2012 election the same progressive forces which withdrew from political combat after 2008 and sat out the 2010 elections mobilized to reelect the President in 2012. Since last November they have proclaimed that they will not become passive again.

We must stand for human progress inside the legislative/executive arena and everywhere in the public sphere. We must stand up for the populist agenda candidate Obama proposed in 2008 -- and was hesitant to deliver on -- and that he has articulated in his 2013 inaugural speech.

In short, we in labor, women’s, African-American, Latino, environmental, and civil liberties groups must build a coalition that recognizes that we share common needs and goals. We must realize we are all victims of an economic and political system that rewards the few at the expense of the many.

How do we come together? How should we relate to the electoral arena, in our communities and states? Should we work in the Democratic Party? A progressive segment of it and/or a third party? When and where should we protest? Can we begin to construct alternative institutions? How can we spread our messages through the media -- print, electronic, public performance?

Perhaps most important is the question of our vision of the future. What kind of society would we want to create? How can we achieve economic and political justice for all? These are heady questions but they can only be answered if we act together.

As inspired by the Rebuild the American Dream campaigns and Occupy movements of 2011 we can begin to dialogue anew about building movements in our communities, identifying a range of issues to work on together, and, ultimately advancing our states and society toward economic and social justice.

 [Harry Targ is a professor of political science at Purdue University and is a member of the National Executive Committee of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism. He lives in West Lafayette, Indiana, and blogs at Diary of a Heartland Radical. Read more of Harry Targ's articles on The Rag Blog.]

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29 January 2013

James McEnteer : The Pirates of Ecuador

Image from Nuke the Fridge.

Straight to video:
That movie’s too expensive! Knock it off!

By James McEnteer / The Rag Blog / January 29, 2013
“I’d like to thank the members of the Academy. Or at least, one of them…”
QUITO, Ecuador -- You won’t hear that speech at the upcoming Oscar ceremonies. But movie fans in Ecuador, where I live, and in many other so-called “developing” countries, have reason to be grateful to certain members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences: the pirates among them.

Those of us residing off the reservation read about and see clips from the latest Hollywood -- and some international -- features and documentaries on the Internet. But few of these films ever make it to local cinemas here in Quito. As in many U.S. cities, Quito theaters are mostly clustered in malls, where action blockbusters and animated confections tend to crowd out more provocative fare.

There are occasional exceptions. We were able to see Scorsese’s aesthetically splendid Hugo and Spielberg’s breathless Adventures of Tin-Tin here in 3-D last year. The Life of Pi is playing right now with the options of 3-D or cheaper 2-D, subtitled or dubbed. I managed to catch Argo as it sped through town. But I was the only human in the theater.

It’s frustrating to read about interesting films in The New York Times or Salon or The Guardian or other online venues, knowing that most of them will never get to our portion of the planet. Unless of course they are nominated for one or more Academy Awards.

DVDs of nominated films are sent to the several thousand members of the Academy for their voting consideration. One or more of those members apparently markets his or her copies to pirates. And almost overnight, Quito video stores leap quantumly from their usual offerings of old or second-rate stuff to Oscar-level fare.

Several dozen films -- all nominated for best picture, best director, best actor, etc. -- have suddenly appeared in handsome cases with the highest quality cinematic reproduction. The only drawback, negligible really, is that occasionally throughout the course of the movie, a phrase such as “For Your Consideration” appears to remind Academy voters why they got their free copy.

Of course these movies are not free to us. We have to buy them. But the prices seem fair: two dollars each, three for five dollars or seven for10. We’ve been buying fistfuls of films lately to sate our movie lust after many months of cinematic austerity. My son always enjoys the moment when the FBI anti-piracy warning appears on the screen since all our videos are pirated, from pirate stores.

Does this make us criminals? Copyright thieves? Video vampires? The USA makes a fetish of protecting intellectual property rights. Partly because entertainment is among the few products our country manufactures anymore. And partly because our government tends to represent corporate interests over those of individuals. Do they go too far? Ask the parents of Aaron Swartz.

Before Harvey Weinstein importunes some National Security types to come knocking on our door or to close down the pirate video stores of Quito (and many other cities worldwide), let’s talk money. The median income of Ecuadorian citizens is about 10 percent that of USA residents. By law, the minimum wage here is $300 a month.

Should actors and producers be compensated for what they do? Absolutely. But how much? I’ll guess that Mr. Weinstein earns something beyond a decent living doing what he does. I don’t begrudge him a penny of it. I’m grateful for his production and dissemination of movies. But I’m not worried about his financial well-being. He’s living among the stars, not on the edge of an economic abyss.

Would Brad Pitt prefer more fame or more money? That’s the choice. I recently saw and enjoyed his performance in Killing Them Softly. He’s a terrific actor. Of course he did not earn any royalties from the copy I bought in Quito. But many of his films do not play local theaters. (Tree of Life? No way.) And most movie fans here would be unwilling or unable to pay non-pirated rates for a DVD.

Netflix streams to Latin America now. We tried them out for a free sample month. But their online selection to our zone is a fraction of what they offer in the USA. You’d almost think they were afraid someone might pirate their output.

I am willing and able to spend five or six dollars for a theater ticket here to watch a movie. But stimulating films at the mall are few and far between. Were it not for the pirate video stores -- the only Blockbuster there is -- I would not be able to indulge my pleasure in wonderful movies like Moonrise Kingdom or Beasts of the Southern Wild. A real Blockbuster would fail here, as many of their outlets are failing across the United States.

So I would like to thank the member or members of the Academy who are making extra cash by breaking the rules and letting many more millions of film fans around the world enjoy the current Oscar contenders.

May the force, but not the police force, be with you.

[James McEnteer is the author of Shooting the Truth: the Rise of American Political Documentaries (Praeger). He lives in Quito, Ecuador. Read more of James McEnteer's articles on The Rag Blog.]

The Rag Blog

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Ron Jacobs : From Wounded Knee to Idle No More

Image by Andy Everson from Huffington Post.

From Wounded Knee to Idle No More
The movement is slowly spreading to the indigenous nations of the northern United States, which have seen their lands ravaged numerous times over the course of history in the name of resource extraction.
By Ron Jacobs / The Rag Blog / January 29, 2013

The American Indian Movement’s (AIM) best known and most controversial protest began in February 1973 in Wounded Knee, South Dakota, a small town on the Pine Ridge reservation. Wounded Knee Two began as a conflict within the Oglala Lakota (Sioux) tribe between the supporters of the tribal Chairman Richard Wilson and other tribal members who considered him to be a corrupt puppet of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).

Like many other such conflicts, it had simmered for a while. In 1973, the disagreements between the two segments of the Pine Ridge Lakota Sioux created so much anger and division that both sides ended up arming themselves. The forces allied with Wilson, along with Federal law enforcement officials and U.S. military, entered into a 71-day siege of the AIM forces.

The AIM group included local citizens, national AIM members, prominent entertainment figures, and members of national philanthropic, religious, and legal organizations. National news organizations covered the entire 71 days of the siege and its aftermath.

When the siege ended on May 9, 1973, two Native American members of AIM were dead and an unknown number were wounded on both sides. Richard Wilson remained in office and was challenged in the next election. Many AIM members spent the next years in litigation, in exile, and in prison.

Several more armed conflicts erupted in the wake of the siege, in large part due to continuing counterintelligence programs and vigorous prosecutions that targeted AIM members. The most well-known of these cases is that of Leonard Peltier who remains in prison because of an at-best questionable conviction in the death of an FBI agent in 1975.

Although I was living in Germany at the time, the occupation came close to home. A classmate of mine whose family was connected to Pine Ridge left his senior year in early March to participate. His father was supportive, despite his rather contradictory role as part of the U.S. Army’s infantry. Indeed, it is likely that while he was in Vietnam he participated in campaigns named after earlier military actions against his own people.

As anyone who heard about the U.S. Navy’s killing of Osama bin Laden knows, the practice of naming military actions after indigenous Americans continues; that operation was code-named “Geronimo.” Some U.S. Army helicopters are called “Apaches.” Furthermore, some of the most-studied generals at West Point are those who got their start, or even made their name, killing Native Americans.

So, it has been 40 years since the second face-off at Wounded Knee between members of the Lakota nation and the United States government. To be fair, the 1973 engagement was much more of a face-off than the first intrusion. If you are unfamiliar with that incident, let me tell you about it.

Early in the morning of December 29, 1890, U.S. troops went into a camp at Wounded Knee Creek to disarm the Lakota staying there. After a scuffle or two, the 7th Cavalry opened fire and killed men, women, and children, as well as some of their own fellow troopers. Those few Lakota warriors who still had weapons began shooting back at the attacking troopers, who quickly suppressed the Lakota fire.

After the shooting had stopped, at least 150 men, women, and children of the Lakota Sioux had been killed. Some believe the number of dead was closer to 300. Twenty-five troopers also died, and 39 were wounded. Many of the dead troops were the victims of friendly fire. At least 20 troopers were awarded the coveted Medal of Honor.

It’s been a long time since I was in South Dakota. The last time was in 1979. A group of friends and I were driving a VW bus across the country on our way to the San Francisco Bay Area. While traveling across the state, we stopped near the Pine Ridge Reservation to buy gas. While paying for the gas, the driver attempted to purchase a bottle of rubbing alcohol from the clerk in the store connected to the gas tanks. She looked at his long hair, his hairless face (his mother was part Cherokee) and refused to sell it to him.

He told her he needed it to clean the heads on the car’s cassette player. She called him a liar, stating that she wasn’t going to allow him to drink it and poison himself. Not wanting to argue (the area is pretty remote, after all), he paid for the gas and left the store. After he explained what had happened, I went back into the store. The clerk looked at my full beard, made me promise I wouldn’t let any “Indians” drink the alcohol, and sold me the same bottle of rubbing alcohol she had refused my friend.

We spent a good part of the next hundred miles wondering what her motivation could have been. Did she hate “Indians?” Was she doing her Christian duty? Was she just afraid that my friend was going to drink the alcohol and then his family would sue her store?

The situation of America’s indigenous people continues to be tenuous. On both continents in the hemisphere, indigenous people’s homelands and livelihoods are threatened. Gambling casinos and resource extraction operations in northern America siphon away native cultures and resources; making money for some members while furthering impoverishing others.

In southern America, people's lands and lives are threatened on a very real fundamental level, thanks to fossil fuel exploration and farming and ranching operations designed to supply other people near and far.

Recently, a movement of native peoples (known as First Nations in Canada) calling itself Idle No More arose in Canada. The impetus for the movement is the Canadian government’s Omnibus Bill C-45. This bill seems designed to further abrogate treaty rights assigned to First Nations in order to expand resource exploration and extraction.

The movement is slowly spreading to the indigenous nations of the northern United States, which have seen their lands ravaged numerous times over the course of history in the name of resource extraction. Most recently, this has meant opening these lands to fracking and the construction of pipelines across the continent.

Despite the ongoing attempts to destroy the culture and well-being of America’s First Nations, they continue to battle despite the odds. Their struggle remains an important part of the struggle for humanity’s survival.

[Rag Blog contributor Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way The Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground. He recently released a collection of essays and musings titled Tripping Through the American Night. His latest novel, The Co-Conspirator's Tale, is published by Fomite. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. Ron Jacobs can be reached at ronj1955@gmail.com. Find more articles by Ron Jacobs on The Rag Blog.]

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28 January 2013

Kate Braun : Welcome the Light on Candlemas

Image from The Mystical Kingdom.

Candlemas 2013:
A season of renewal

By Kate Braun / The Rag Blog / January 29, 2013
“Keep on the sunny side, always on the sunny side,
Keep on the sunny side of life...”
Saturday, February 2, 2013, is Candlemas, aka Imbolc, Feast of Lights, Brigid’s Day. Lady Moon is in her 3rd quarter in Scorpio.

Waning moons are times to release and let go of unwanted or unnecessary things. Candlemas is a season of renewal. It is good to use this time to release winter’s gloom and welcome the light. One of the easiest ways to do this is by using light.

Candles, lanterns, flashlights, mirrors, all will serve the purpose: polish all shiny surfaces, window panes, mirrors, tile floors and countertops. Place candles on or in front of mirrors; this will increase the available light. Symbolically, we are encouraging Lord Sun’s continuing growth; symbolically we are assisting in our planet’s rebirth.

If you hang a silk scarf in an open window and let the breeze blow through it, this charges it with positive energy. Then wear the scarf for part of your attire. If it is white, yellow, pink, light green, or light blue, or has any of those colors in its print, it will bring more appropriate energy into your festivities. Use these colors in your decorations as well.

Serve your guests spicy dishes such as curries and chilis, foods which invoke warmth. Brigid is the patron saint of Candlemas. She is the patroness of poets and artists, blacksmiths and midwives. Shepherds and cattle herders honor her. She is a fire/sun goddess. Imbolc, another name for this festival, refers to new-born lambs suckling their dams. This is why milk dishes such as yogurt, quiche, and custards should also be featured in your menu.

At sundown, process through the house in a sunwise (clockwise) manner, sending light into all drawers, closets, corners, cabinets, under furniture, etc. You may invite your guests to join you in this activity. You may also bless seeds that will be planted but do not cut or pick plants today. All your activities should be pro-growth.

If you have a fireplace, be sure to put out and re-light your hearth fire. This represents the reemergence of Lord Sun from his wintry hibernation, symbolizes the rebirth of light and warmth, and stimulates generative energies within your home.

A rhyme associated with this date is:
If Candlemas Day be fair and bright,
Winter will have another flight;
If on Candlemas Day be shower and rain,
Winter is gone and will not come again.
If the rhyme has a sense of familiarity, remember that Candlemas and Groundhog Day are the same date.

[Kate Braun's website is www.tarotbykatebraun.com. She can be reached at kate_braun2000@yahoo.com. Read more of Kate Braun's writing on The Rag Blog.]

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Alan Waldman : 'Ballykissangel' is a Charming Irish Small-Town Drama Rich in Characters

Waldman's film and TV
treasures you may have missed:
Drama, comedy and a wealth of Irish characters make 'Ballykissangel' fun.
By Alan Waldman / The Rag Blog / January 28, 2013

[In his weekly column, Alan Waldman reviews some of his favorite films and TV series that readers may have missed, including TV dramas, mysteries, and comedies from Canada, England, Ireland, and Scotland. Most are available on DVD and/or Netflix, and some episodes are on YouTube.]

Ballykissangel was a quirky, small-town Irish drama that ran for 94 episodes in six seasons between 1996 and 2001 -- making it the BBC’s longest-running drama series. More than 90.9% of viewers polled at imdb.com gave it thumbs-up, and 30.7% rated it a perfect 10. It was nominated for 18 awards in Ireland, Britain, and San Francisco, winning six (including Best Drama Series and Best Television Drama).

Four members of the cast won or were nominated for acting awards: Stephen Tomkinson as the earnest English Catholic priest sent to minister to this collection of rural oddballs, the late Tony Doyle as the greedy richest man in town, Tina Kellegher as his daughter, and Dirvla Kerwin and the cynical pub owner. Frankie McCafferty and Joe Savino were very funny as a couple of local boobs who try to help the rich man carry out his various schemes.

Other characters include a strict head priest, a dull straight-arrow cop, a nosy shopkeeper, a gruff lady veterinarian, a cheerful mechanic, a comical schoolteacher, an ancient farmer, a former monk, a female horse trainer, some mischievous kids and an Australian clergyman. With a cast this large, there is lots of plot -- some dramatic, some comical, some romantic, and all of it pretty enjoyable.

The writing and performances were excellent, and the picturesque Irish countryside and cute little town were a treat. If you have any Irish relatives or ancestors, you will probably find this very hearty fare.

All episodes are on Netflix and many, such as this one, can be seen on YouTube.

[Oregon writer and Houston native Alan Waldman holds a B.A. in theater arts from Brandeis University and has worked as an editor at The Hollywood Reporter and Honolulu magazine. Read more of Alan Waldman's articles on The Rag Blog.]

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Bob Feldman : The Rise of the Texas 'Big Rich,' 1930-1940

Charles Marsh, owner of the Austin American and Austin Statesman (later merged as the Austin American-Statesman), also made big money in the oil business. Image from the Public Welfare Foundation.

The hidden history of Texas
Part 11: 1930-1940/2 -- The rise of the Texas 'Big Rich'
By Bob Feldman / The Rag Blog / January 28, 2013

[This is the second section of Part 11 of Bob Feldman's Rag Blog series on the hidden history of Texas.]

In his 2009 book, The Big Rich: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes, Vanity Fair magazine correspondent Bryan Burrough indicated how ultra-rich Texas folks like Clint Murchison, H.L. Hunt, Sid Richardson, and former Austin American and Austin Statesman (they merged into the American-Statesman) owner Charles Marsh were, despite the Great Depression, apparently still able to make big money from Texas’s oil industry between 1930 and 1940:
Though he knew nothing about pipelines, Murchison decided to try to build one... Murchison was amazed how simple the business was; once a pipeline was built, all he did was sit back and collect checks... The pipe alone cost 3 million dollars, all of which Murchison got on credit... He coaxed every last dollar he could out of the Dallas banks, then pushed back repayment... By 1932 his debt had grown to more than $4 million dollars, far more than his net worth...

[H.L.] Hunt used most of his inheritance to buy a 960-acre farm... Negroes worked his land, allowing Hunt to spend much of his time playing cards... By that...summer of 1930 he still hadn’t found a drop of oil in Texas. Then, on Sept. 5 [1930], Hunt took a call... Despite Hunt’s later denials, court documents would show he cut a secret deal with the Deep Rock driller to supply his men with inside information in return for $20,000 in cash...

Charles E. Marsh, co-owner of several Texas newspapers, including the politically influential Austin-American...was using his spare cash to bankroll several Texas wildcatters... It is a measure of how totally Sid Richardson cloaked his business in secrecy that the name of Charles Marsh, the man whose backing made Richardson’s fortune possible, remained unknown to Richardson’s family...

Marsh...had begun negotiating a complicated deal involving First National Bank of Dallas... It appears that Marsh agreed to guarantee Richardson’s debt to the bank. In return, the bank agreed to loan Richardson an additional $210,000, followed by another $150,000... By the summer of 1935 Richardson had used most of Charles Marsh’s investment to buy land all around Gulf’s drill sites...

In 1938, Marsh encountered a sudden...financial reversal... From a single mention in a letter to Richardson -- contained in Marsh’s papers at the Johnson Presidential Library -- it appears that the Internal Revenue Service served Marsh with a request for $1.2 million in overdue taxes... Marsh was forced to repay much of the money. To raise it, he ended up selling all his Texas newspapers.”
Coincidentally, like Sid Richardson, former U.S. President Lyndon Johnson also apparently was backed by former Austin-American and Austin-Statesman newspaper owner Charles Marsh during the 1930s, when LBJ (also using $10,000 that was given to him by the father of First Lady Claudia “Ladybird” Johnson) decided in 1937 that he wanted to get himself elected as Austin’s representative in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1938. As Ronnie Dugger observed in his 1982 book The Politician: The Life and Times of Lyndon Johnson:
Johnson had a special advantage: the partisanship of the Austin newspapers. Charles Marsh... was owner and publisher of the Austin American-Statesman as well as the dailies in 4 or 5 other Texas cities, and he was for Lyndon from the first. Marsh...had been in oil deals...since as early as 1934... Marsh was also... a director and president of Richardson Oils, Inc., which gave Johnson a direct connection to oilman Sid Richardson...

Although the Austin dailies did not formally endorse anyone, Marsh turned them into Lyndon’s harmonicas. "These papers went all-out for him" said Edmonds Travis, one of their earliest editors... From the time the Johnsons arrived in Washington they frequented "Longlea," the plantation home of their friend, publisher Charles Marsh, in Culpeper, Virginia...The publisher also flew Johnson about in his private plane.
And, according to The Big Rich, LBJ also “used Texas Oil’s cash to start his march to... power.”

Besides helping to put Lyndon Johnson into Congress between 1930 and 1940 (and into the U.S. Senate and the White House, eventually, after 1940), Texas “oil money helped bankroll the birth of the religious right;” and “in a very real sense, the influence of Texas conservatives in America today -- in fact, the entire `Texanization’ of right-wing politics that brought George W. Bush and Tom DeLay to national prominence -- can be traced to forces set into motion by restive Texas oilmen during the 1930s,” according to The Big Rich. As the same book also noted:
By 1935...the Kirby Building in downtown Houston was home to...shadowy, interconnected ultra-conservative groups... The Kirby groups were little more than the Ku Klux Klan in pinstripes, a kind of corporate Klan... One of [former National Association of Manufacturers President John Henry] Kirby’s most active allies was Maco Stewart of Galveston, an attorney who...had seen his wealth mushroom when Humble found oil on land he owned south of Houston... The most extreme of Kirby’s circle was George W. Armstrong, a Fort Worth oilman who owned Texas Steel, which made oil field supplies as well as concrete supports for Texas highways...

In his definitive study of Texas conservatives, The Establishment in Texas Politics, George Norris Green pinpoints 1938 as the year oil-backed ultra-conservatives took control of the state’s political structure... Pappy O’Daniel’s victory [in 1938] initiated two decades of ultra-conservative rule in Texas. As governor, O’Daniel became Texas Oil’s reliable partner, freezing wellhead taxes and backing oil industry lobbyists’ takeover of the Railroad Commission. His administration was dominated by ultra-conservatives, many of them oilmen, including his key financial backer, Maco Stewart...

Another ultra-conservative initiative was led by...Texas congressman...Martin Dies, who in 1937 co-sponsored formation of the House Un-American Activities Committee [HUAC]... John Henry Kirby and Maco Stewart were friends and longtime financial supporters of Dies, who was widely viewed as a tool of business and oil interests in the Beaumont area... Dies’s papers indicate he corresponded regularly with Kirby and Stewart.
[Bob Feldman is an East Coast-based writer-activist and a former member of the Columbia SDS Steering Committee of the late 1960s. Read more articles by Bob Feldman on The Rag Blog.]

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Lamar W. Hankins : Gun Control and the Ethics of Self-Defense

Political cartoon by J.D. Crow / AL.com.

The ethics of self-defense:
Reconsidering gun control
Much of this will seem counterintuitive, especially to those who are brought up with a macho mentality, whose inclination will be to fight, get revenge, teach the hoodlum a lesson...
By Lamar W. Hankins /The Rag Blog / January 28, 2013

Since I last wrote about gun control in the middle of December, I have continued to read and gather as many facts as I could find that might contribute to real solutions to the gun violence that is so prevalent in the United States. What I have read and what I understand leads me to conclude that there may be a few ways to reduce gun violence and the number of deaths from guns, but that is far from certain.

A poem by Carl Sandburg that was just discovered in the archives of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign suggests a view of guns from an ethical perspective:

The Revolver

Here is a revolver.
It has an amazing language all its own.
It delivers unmistakable ultimatums.
It is the last word.
A simple, little human forefinger can tell a terrible story with it.
Hunger, fear, revenge, robbery hide behind it.
It is the claw of the jungle made quick and powerful.
It is the club of the savage turned to magnificent precision.
It is more rapid than any judge or court of law.
It is less subtle and treacherous than any one lawyer or ten.
When it has spoken, the case can not be appealed to the supreme court,
nor any mandamus nor any injunction nor any stay of execution in and
interfere with the original purpose.
And nothing in human philosophy persists more strangely than the old belief
that God is always on the side of those who have the most revolvers.
Sam Harris, who is an author, philosopher, public intellectual, and neuroscientist, also proposes an ethical framework from which to consider self-defense and guns. Most people I know who want a gun or guns for protection (self-defense) don’t consider that the decision has ethical dimensions, but it does. How those ethical dimensions fit into a discussion about gun control is what interested me in Harris’s thoughts on the subject.

To begin his discussion of the ethics of self-defense, Harris cites the data: “In 2010, there were 403.6 violent crimes per 100,000 persons in the United States... Thus, the average American has a 1 in 250 chance of being robbed, assaulted, raped, or murdered each year. Actually, the chance is probably greater than this, because we know that certain crimes, such as assault and rape, are underreported.”

Harris begins with the premise that “dialing 911 when an intruder has broken into your home is not a strategy for self-defense.” He suggests three principles relevant to self-defense:
Principle #1: Avoid dangerous people and dangerous places.
The primary goal of self-defense is to avoid becoming the victim of violence. The best way to do this is to not be where violence is likely to occur. Of course, that’s not always possible -- but without question, it is your first and best line of defense. If you visit dangerous neighborhoods at night, or hike alone and unarmed on trails near a big city, or frequent places where drunken young men gather, you are running some obvious risks.

Principle #2: Do not defend your property.
Whatever your training, you should view any invitation to violence as an opportunity to die -- or to be sent to prison for killing another human being. Violence must truly be the last resort... Unless you or another person is being physically harmed, or an attack seems imminent, avoiding violence should be your only concern.

Principle #3: Respond immediately and escape.
If you have principles 1 and 2 firmly installed in your brain, any violence that finds you is, by definition, unavoidable. There is a tremendous power in knowing this: When you find yourself without other options, you are free to respond with full commitment.
Harris offers what he considers the core principle of self-defense:
Do whatever you can to avoid a physical confrontation, but the moment avoidance fails, attack explosively for the purposes of escape -- not to mete out justice, or to teach a bully a lesson, or to apprehend a criminal. Your goal is to get away with minimum trauma (to you), while harming your attacker in any way that seems necessary to ensure your escape.⁠
One very practical thought that Harris offers is to remember that “anyone who attempts to control you -- by moving you to another room, putting you in a car, tying you up -- probably intends to kill you (or worse).

Much of this will seem counterintuitive, especially to many men (and some women) who are brought up with a macho mentality, whose inclination will be to fight, get revenge, teach the hoodlum a lesson, or assure that he is prosecuted for his criminal behavior.

For those with special martial arts training, there may be a tendency to think that this is what the training was for. But for every person with a black belt in Jui-Jitsu or another martial art, there is a story that did not end well for the trained victim. After all, no one is really as good as Jack Reacher.

But Harris appreciates martial arts training because it may help a person respond more quickly to the threat, provide a person with more confidence, provide psychological and social benefits, and give a person the mental preparation necessary to focus on what is most important -- escape from the danger.

All of Harris’s arguments about self-defense and guns can be read at the following links:
Even in a home invasion, where many gun owners think that they can repel the attacker or attackers with a weapon, reality does not support such a proposition. Harris reminds us that the police, who are trained to remove an invader from a house, will approach their task with perhaps five officers, heavily armed and in protective gear. The average homeowner cannot come close to matching their level of skill and equipment, and, unless everyone in the family has managed to escape, they will all be in great danger.

Harris’s views on self-defense help inform a discussion about dealing effectively with violence, especially gun violence (though Harris also discusses knife violence). Over 300 million guns are in circulation in the U.S. There is little likelihood that their number will diminish. In fact, in December, there were 2.2 million new background checks for gun purchases. Not only will lots of the good guys have guns, but probably most of the bad guys will have guns, also.

As a good guy, according to Harris, I have to make a practical and ethical decision about whether to own a gun or guns, “given my specific security concerns and the level of violent crime in the society in which I live.” For Harris, who lives in the Los Angeles area, “[t]he choice to own a gun comes down to this: If I hear a window break in the middle of the night, I want to be armed with more than my idealism.”

Harris’s ethical concerns about self-defense lead me to think about ethical concerns about gun ownership. From his ideas, I draw several propositions, none of which Harris should be blamed for.
  1. Every gun purchaser should be carefully vetted by way of a background check for mental illness, violence, law-breaking behavior, abuse of drugs and alcohol, and gang involvement. By gun purchaser, I mean everyone to whom a gun is transferred, either by gift, devise, or for remuneration.

  2. Every gun purchaser should be psychologically screened at least as thoroughly as a candidate for police officer is screened. Even with the level of screening that police officers go through, some of them prove to be unstable and a danger to the public. Without comparable screening for civilian gun owners, we significantly increase the possibility of increasing the danger to the public.

  3. I can see no reason why all gun owners should not have to be as well-trained initially about guns and their use, and receive continuing training, as are police officers. Such training is even more important for those who have a carry permit.

  4. Bans on ammunition magazines that can hold over seven bullets (the New York standard) would mitigate against the number of deaths that occur during mass killings. Such bans will not assure that fewer innocents will be killed during such events, but there is a likelihood that a ban on oversize magazines will diminish the number of deaths. Such a ban, to be effective and constitutional, will necessitate a buy-back program for oversize magazines and will require stiff penalties for possessing them as a deterrent.

  5. Putting well-trained police officers in every school may seem too costly, and it is certainly unsettling to think that the possibility of violence in our schools requires making them fortresses, but that may be the reality of America in the 21st century. I have been unable to answer satisfactorily why this is such a violent culture, but there is no doubt that it is, even if it has improved (see The Better Angels Of Our Nature by Steven Pinker). Either we decide to live with this reality or we respond to it with reasonable precautions. That’s a decision every community will need to make for itself.

  6. We should eliminate all restraints on the ATF with respect to inspections of gun dealers and allow ATF to enforce all laws and regulations regarding guns, gun sales, and gun ownership without limitation, and eliminate the requirement that the director of the ATF be confirmed by the Senate. The NRA, with the collusion of some politicians, has succeeded in preventing the ATF from doing an effective job. Let’s see what happens if the ATF is given the resources and actually allowed to enforce the 20,000 gun laws (according to the NRA) we now have.
I have no quarrel with the gun-control recommendations of the Obama administration, with the exception made above regarding the size of ammunition magazines. Neither Obama’s proposals nor mine will make this a perfect and safe society, but it is better to have public policy set for the protection of the vast majority of Americans than to please the NRA and the gun manufacturers for which it shills.

[Lamar W. Hankins, a former San Marcos, Texas, city attorney, is also a columnist for the San Marcos Mercury. This article © Freethought San Marcos, Lamar W. Hankins. Read more articles by Lamar W. Hankins on The Rag Blog.]

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24 January 2013

Robert Jensen : Torture is Trivial

Zero Dark Thirty reinforces the story of American innocence.

Torture is trivial
Zero Dark Thirty tells the story most Americans want to hear, not the story that needs to be told.
By Robert Jensen / The Rag Blog / January 24, 2013

The great American torture debate has been rekindled by the nationwide release of Zero Dark Thirty, the hot new movie about the CIA’s hunt for Osama bin Laden.

But all the fussing over whether or not the movie condones, glorifies, and/or misrepresents torture is trivial, because the United States’ use of torture after 9/11 is trivial in the context of larger U.S. crimes.

Let me be clear: I don’t support torture. I think torture is immoral. I think government officials who ordered or condoned torture should be held accountable. Torture crosses a line that should not be crossed.

But when I look at the decade since 9/11, torture is hardly the greatest crime of the U.S. war machine. Since 9/11, the United States has helped destroy two countries with, at best, sketchy moral and legal justification. The invasion of Afghanistan was connected to the crimes of 9/11, at least at first, but quickly devolved into a nonsensical occupation. The invasion of Iraq, which was clearly illegal, was a scandal of unprecedented scale, even by the standards of past U.S. invasions and covert operations.

While the Iraq war is over (sort of) and the Afghanistan war is coming to an end (sort of) the United States is also at war in Pakistan and Iran. The U.S. routinely unleashes murderous drone strikes in Pakistani territory, and we can assume that covert operations against Iran, such as the cyber-attack with a powerful computer virus, continue even though Iran poses no serious threat to the United States.

All of this was, or is, clearly illegal or of dubious legal status. None of it makes us more secure in the long run. And if one considers human beings who aren’t U.S. citizens to be fully human, there is no moral justification for any of it.

The problem with Zero Dark Thirty is that it ignores all of that, as do most of the movies, television shows, and journalism about the past decade. It tells the story that Americans want to hear: We are an innocent nation that has earned its extraordinary wealth fair and square. Now we want nothing more than to protect the fruits of our honest labor while, when possible, extending our superior system to others.

Despite our moral virtue and benevolence, there are irrational ideologues around the world who want to kill Americans. This forces our warriors into unpleasant situations dealing with unpleasant people, regrettable but necessary to restore the rightful order.

A less self-indulgent look at the reality of the post-World War II era suggests a different story. Whether in Latin America, southern Africa, the Middle East, or Southeast Asia, the central goal of U.S. foreign policy has been consistent: to make sure that an independent course of development did not succeed anywhere, out of a fear that it might spread to the rest of the developing world and threaten U.S. economic domination. In the Middle East, the specific task has been to make sure that the flow of oil and oil profits continues in a fashion conducive to U.S. interests.

This is not a defense of terrorism but rather a consistent critique of terrorism, whether committed by nation-states or non-state actors. The solution to the problem is not more terrorism by one side to counter the terrorism of the other. The solution is not torture. At this point, there are no easy and obvious “solutions” available, given the hole into which we’ve dug ourselves.

But there are things we can do that would help create the conditions under which solutions may emerge, ways to support real democracy around the world and a just distribution of resources. The first step is for those with more wealth and power to tell the truth about how that wealth was accumulated and how that power has been used.

The real problem with Zero Dark Thirty is not that it takes artistic license with some of the facts about torture. The film’s more profound failure is that by reinforcing the same old story about American innocence, it helps obscure the larger truths we don’t want to face about ourselves.

[Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin. He is the author of Arguing for Our Lives: Critical Thinking in Crisis Times (City Lights, coming in April 2013). His writing is published extensively in mainstream and alternative media. Robert Jensen can be reached at rjensen@austin.utexas.edu. Read more articles by Robert Jensen on The Rag Blog.]

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Roger Baker : Can TxDOT Avoid Financial Disaster?

Maybe TxDOT should heed its own sign.

Warning sign:
Can TxDOT avoid financial disaster?

By Roger Baker / The Rag Blog / January 24, 2013
"Things can become complicated when you actually try to understand them." -- Richard Vodra
This is the first of a two-part series.

AUSTIN -- The funding shortfall at the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) is about 50% of its entire budget. How did it ever come to this? TxDOT's roads are now at war with our schools, nursing homes, and health clinics in the Texas legislature, all fighting for survival level funding.

There is great pressure to use an official increase in state revenue to restore the big cuts made to education, health, and human services in the last Texas budget. Every sort of social and governmentally funded need is competing for a piece of the budget increase since Texas Comptroller Susan Combs recently declared a substantial increase in available state revenues compared to the last budget two years ago.

This coming budget battle leads us to an important policy question concerning TxDOT and its roads. How could anyone even hope to manage a state agency that, according to it own management, falls 50% short of its needs? Yet this is the situation described by TxDOT Director Phil Wilson as the Texas Legislature prepares to meet, wheel and deal, and eventually to hammer out TxDOT's two year budget allotment.

One way to lobby for road money, although they can't call it that, is by inflating future hypothetical travel and road construction needs. TxDOT director Phil Wilson describes the situation this way:
TxDOT needs an additional $1 billion-a-year alone to shore up its maintenance budget, he said. And going forward, the agency will likely need another $3 billion-a-year infusion to its current $10 billion annual budget to “address congestion long-term with a sustainable method.”
The reality is that TxDOT's proclaimed road construction needs of $3 billion a year are utterly unfundable pipe dreams appealing to road builders and land developers. By contrast, the estimate of $1 billion a year in maintenance shortfalls is probably way short, but maintenance lacks political sex appeal. In fact, Texas road maintenance has been underfunded to such a degree that "Texas received a 'D' in roads, ranking Texas from 17th in 2008 to now 43rd for highway spending per capita."

Lets take TxDOT Director Phil Wilson's claim at face value. If TxDOT's current budget is $10 billion and needs an added $1 billion in maintenance, and another $3 billion to deal with congestion, that means that TxDOT is already about 40% short. This picture of a dire need for money for new roads does not even consider the fact that TxDOT already spent a billion dollars more than it took in last year.

Once you add the $1 billion net deficit for this year, the claimed gap between the available cash and current spending plus claimed needs rises to about 50%! Further complicating this situation is the fact that TxDOT is now about $14.6 billion in debt, and the debt service alone required nearly a billion dollars in 2012. (See pages 13 and 28 of TxDOT's Annual Financial Report.)

Meanwhile, for accounting purposes, TxDOT is claiming its state roads as assets, all together worth about $64 billion. The reality is that TxDOT's roads should be seen as constantly growing maintenance liabilities. In the context of high oil prices, a stagnant economy, and reduced driving, TxDOT's roads are like an oil-addicted, tax money-starved monkey solidly chained to the back of Texas taxpayers for the foreseeable future.

Texas Road Politics 101

TxDOT offers an important window on Texas politics, both because of the large size of the budget and because of the opportunity for political interests to affect the budget, which can change a lot from year to year, depending largely on legislative whim.

How could things be otherwise? Texas has been ruled since its early days primarily by its landed gentry, first those tied to agriculture, then to the oil interests. A strong focus on "property rights" has been basic to Texas politics ever since the Texas constitution was written, soon after the Civil War, after the Yankee "carpetbaggers" were expelled.

Celebrated Texas journalist Molly Ivins used to call TxDOT "the Pentagon of Texas" for good reason. TxDOT roads have been a political pork barrel for many decades, with all that this implies. In the 1920s, soon after the formation of the  Texas Highway Department, as it was then called, Texas Gov. James E. (Pa) Ferguson got caught up in a Texas road contracting scandal, which forced him to resign and have his wife Miriam A. (Ma) Ferguson become a replacement governor. After this, the Highway Department kept its nose clean for a few decades, particularly under director Dewiltt Greer.

In recent decades, Texas road contractors have regained their old clout as key political players, nowadays in alliance with suburban sprawl land developers. The latter have benefited greatly from publicly funded roads that serve new development ringing the urban areas where most Texans now live. During Gov. Rick Perry's first term, the big road contractors gave him more than $1 million in campaign contributions. Texas is the kind of state where it is always possible to bribe a politician, as long as you call it a campaign contribution.

Gov. Rick Perry appointed a fellow Texas Legislature warhorse and friend, Ric Williamson, to chair the Texas Transportation Commission, TxDOT's governing body, when Perry first got elected. TxDOT Chair Williamson pulled out all the stops to promote Perry's hugely unpopular $185 billion Trans-Texas Corridor -- a deluxe road building solution in search of a future problem to solve.

Williamson died in 2007, and Perry appointed another close associate, Deirdre Delisi to chair the Commission. A little over a year ago, in September 2011, Perry appointed Phil Wilson, one of his top advisors, to be director of TxDOT and its budget. He was appointed to solve TxDOT's problems at a time when that agency had become distinctly unpopular with the legislature. With Wilson installed to manage TxDOT policy from the inside, there was no longer the need to control the Commission from the outside. Delisi resigned soon thereafter.

Before Wilson's appointment, TxDOT directors had all been engineers promoted from within TxDOT's own ranks. This had the effect of limiting TxDOT's top management to those good at building roads, but not necessarily those good at politics or balancing budgets. By most accounts, what Wilson brings to the table is smarts and skillful politics. Wilson's approach seems geared to working harder to raise money to build roads or toll roads as usual. This rather than facing the political reality that the traditionally entrenched transportation solutions and trends are so unsustainable that they demand a basic shift in transportation policy away from roads.

TxDOT has embraced a mountain of new road debt, despite deteriorating finances

It was clear that TxDOT was an agency in deep denial even several years ago when Paul Burka quoted a newly released legislative report on TxDOT in this 2010 blog post:
At present, State Highway Fund revenues are not as stable as in previous years, nor are they continuing to increase at the same pace as in the past. In addition, from 2005 through 2007, TxDOT used a combination of State Highway Fund revenues and bond funding for operations and capital investments. During this period their expenditures for these areas outpaced revenues, resulting in TxDOT using approximately $700 million of reserves to pay for operating and project expenses during this period...

First, when TxDOT bumped up spending through the use of bond funding, baseline expectations for TxDOT spending levels in any given year were raised both inside and outside the organization, even though that approach was not sustainable and represented a marked deviation from historical spending levels. Second, TxDOT incurred a significant debt service burden associated with the bonds it issued -- and that servicing reduces the availability of General Revenue and Fund 6 dollars for TxDOT to use for operations and new projects. [In other words, the bondholders had to be paid from the funds -- general revenue and Fund 6 -- that were being used to pay for the projects.]

The end effect is that TxDOT’s available budget (for maintenance, new projects, etc.) is effectively lower than it would have been before the bond funding was issued. At the same time, maintenance requirements are increasing as a result of having increased the size of the highway system (every new road brought into the system must be maintained).
To which Burka responded:
In other words, the Legislature acted in a fiscally irresponsible manner when it issued several billion dollars in bonds to pay for road projects. By going into debt to build roads, TxDOT ended up with less money for new roads than if it had just used gasoline tax money. This is what happens when lawmakers spurn the pay-as-you-go principle. This is not fiscal conservatism. This is spending beyond your means. You can’t blame TxDOT. The blame belongs with the Legislature and in particular the leadership at the time, Dewhurst and Craddick. And with the voters, who approved the bonds...
Since this was written, not a lot has changed. TxDOT still likes the idea of toll roads, just so long as someone else is responsible for managing them. There has been no discernible shift in policy away from trying to build as many roads as fast as possible. Roads are considered urgently necessary to meet TxDOT's hypothetical, but always increasing, future travel demand estimates.

A growing number of TxDOT roads are now being built with the help of a sort of road bidding competition. This demands that local government contribute matching funds to help TxDOT pay for construction. With the "pass-through tolling" being encouraged by TxDOT, TxDOT helps by building a road while a county (like Williamson and Hays near Austin) helps front the money. The county gets reimbursed by TxDOT, but ONLY if the projected traffic shows up in TxDOT's subsequent traffic counts.

As an agency currently in obvious financial trouble, TxDOT is doing whatever it can to shift its debt burden toward private lenders, toward local level government, and toward making roads a general obligation of Texas government.

In Part 2 of this series we will take a closer look at why TxDOT's denial of current trends is leading to financial disaster.

[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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23 January 2013

INTERVIEW / Jonah Raskin : Superstar Cinematographer Tom Hurwitz

Cinematographer Tom Hurwitz embedded with troops in Afghanistan during filming for the movie Kansas to Kandahar. Photo courtesy Tom Hurwitz.

An interview with Tom Hurwitz:
Superstar of contemporary 
American cinematography

By Jonah Raskin / The Rag Blog / January 23, 2013
“I love going to the movies. Movies are one of the great anachronisms, where collective craft, design, and technology merge with individual talent, as in the building of a medieval cathedral.” -- Tom Hurwitz
I love talking shop, especially with those who work in shops, whether they’re real old-fashioned and gritty or the most up-to-date and sophisticated. Tom Hurwitz, whom I first met in 1968 on the rough-and-tumble campus of Columbia University, is my idea of the ideal filmmaker to talk with about the big glittering shop that makes images and that we all call Hollywood.

Hurwitz is a straight shooter in more ways than one, and a real craftsman -- a versatile cinematographer -- who knows the film industry from the inside out. What other living moviemaker can you name who talks about capitalism and about art in the same breath and who can practically recite all the scenes in Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane?

Hell, he’s also the son of the legendary documentary filmmaker, Leo Hurwitz (1909-1991), who was, for a time, blacklisted, and who continued to make films, despite it. His stepmother, Peggy Lawson, was a filmmaker and film editor and stars in Dialogue with a Woman Departed (1981) that Leo Hurwitz wrote and directed and that’s a tribute to her and her work.

Tom Hurwitz made his first picture -- Last Summer Won’t Happen (1968) -- with Peter Gessner when he was 20, and, while he’s taken a few detours in life, he’s followed the script that seems to have been written for him by the gods of cinema. He’s worked on -- to name just a few pictures - Creep Show 2 (1987), Wild Man Blues (1997), Ghosts of Abu Ghraib (2007), and Queen of Versailles (2012) that wasn’t nominated for an Oscar -- damn it! -- but that did win awards at Sundance and from the Directors Guild of America.

Born in 1947 and reared in New York, he’s filmed TV programs such as Down and Out in America (1986), and Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero (2002) both for PBS, as well as movies for the big screen, and has won dozens of awards including two Emmys, along with Sundance and Jerusalem Film Festival awards for best cinematography. Then, too, he’s on the faculty of New York’s School of Visual Arts and a founding member of its MFA program in the social documentary.

For years, I had close friends in Hollywood: Mark Rosenberg at Warner Brothers who produced, with his wife Paul Weinstein, The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989) and Flesh and Bone (1993); and Bert Schneider who produced Easy Rider (1969) and Five Easy Pieces (1970), as well as the award-winning documentary about Vietnam, Winning Hearts and Minds (1974). Rosenberg died in 1992 at the age of 44; Schneider died in 2012 at the age of 78.

Tom Hurwitz is one of the few individuals I know who’s still working in film, still very much alive, and still kicking up a storm of ideas and images for the screen. With the 2012 Academy Awards on the horizon, I fired off a round of questions about movies and moviemakers. Hurwitz was about to leave for India to make yet another movies, but he fired back his answers.

Tom Hurwitz, center in shades, during demonstration at Columbia University, 1968. At front right is Stew Albert, one of the founders of Yippie! Photo courtesy Tom Hurwitz.

Jonah Raskin: Too bad your film Queen of Versailles wasn’t nominated for an Oscar.

Tom Hurwitz: I shot the film and I’m very proud to have been part of it. As I see it, Queen tells a Shakespearian story about the decline of values, the dispersion of families, and the bursting of bubbles in this wretched stage of capitalism we inhabit. It tells the story by following the lives of a household that begins in unimaginable wealth.

Was it a fairly straightforward picture to make?

Making it was difficult. You wouldn't think that filming the family of a failing billionaire would be taxing. But when you see the movie, you can appreciate that maintaining the proper documentary relationship over a long time was hard. What was wonderful about shooting Queen was working with the director, Lauren Greenfield. She’s a great still photographer who also has a great sense of story. We speak the same language, and I loved the challenge of working up to her standards, making my motion pictures work with the style of her stills.

What are, from your perspective, the best five feature films of 2012?

Anna Karenina uses the device of the theatrical stage to turn a book into a movie -- always a challenge -- and to surmount the limitations of budget. It takes on a dream-like character with a miraculous effect.

Then there’s Zero Dark Thirty, a film that asks big questions. It felt more real and immediate than any other film this year, with acting, design, direction, photography, and sound all serving a unified end. When the first explosion happened in the film, I was on the floor before I knew it -- and I was in Afghanistan. It says something that the filmmaker, Kathryn Bigelow, cares enough about reality to make the explosions sound more real than in any other film that I’ve seen.

Moonrise Kingdom is an almost perfect product of Wes Anderson's imagination. It’s a fantasy that resides in the twilight land of childhood, in the lives of its marvelously understated characters, in their island world, and in the brilliant design and execution of the film. I kept thinking about it, savoring it like a wonderful meal, or perhaps like a dream.

What about documentaries?

Five Broken Cameras, made by a Palestinian Arab and an Israeli Jew, is seen through the eyes of a villager inside the occupied territories of the West Bank. The film is shot with camera after camera over a 10-year period beginning with the birth of a boy, and as the State of Israel tries to cut off the village off from its fields, and as settlers try to take the land itself.

The residents fight back nonviolently. The toll of the occupation on the lives of the Arabs and on the souls of the Israelis is made painfully clear. The film is told like an historical novel with character development, revelation, and tragedy. It’s the best combination of micro and macro documentary that I’ve ever seen.

Do you watch the Academy Awards?

I only watch them all the way through when a film I’ve photographed is up for an award. I went a couple of times and then I had to sit through them. I usually watch the beginning, get bored, and check the results in the paper or on line.

Are the Oscars mostly a publicity event for the movie industry?

I don't take the awards themselves lightly. For members of the Academy, November and December are crazy because we try to watch all the films in contention, nominate, and vote. I don't agree with many of the choices, but I care that the industry goes through the ritual of holding up its best, as cheesy as the event often is.

The chance to walk down the red carpet -- even though folks like me are shunted down the non-celebrity lane -- is worth the ticket, the limo, and the suit. For five minutes, you walk slowly through a world where shadows are banished, wrinkles and imperfections don't show, and every watching face holds a camera.

Do you actually go to a movie theater and watch a new film?

I love going to the movies. Movies are one of the great anachronisms, where collective craft, design, and technology merge with individual talent, as in the building of a medieval cathedral. Films ought to be appreciated in a social context. Watching a film alone on the screen in my living room, as I often do, isn’t the same thing.

You were part of the anti-war movement and a protester at Columbia in the 1960’s. Are there others with similar political backgrounds in the movie industry today?

I think any sensible person in the industry who is old enough to have been in the 1960's political movements is retired. I usually work with people from 10 years younger to less than half my age. Haskell Wexler, a mentor, was an activist in the 1960’s. He’s more of a die-hard than I am and 20 years older. In my age group -- Connie Field, Barbara Kopple, Deborah Schaeffer, Mark Weiss, and Deborah Dickson -- all spent time in the movement.

Does anyone in Hollywood make what might be called a “radical movie,” and if so how does that happen?

Most of what’s produced in Hollywood now is television. The movie industry, even though some great films were produced this year, is in a huge fog about where it’s going. I don't think narrative film knows how to be radical. It’s not alone. Neither does television -- as good as some of it may be, or the theater.

It's not only that radical art doesn't get distributed, it's that the radical voice is often confused and muted. That may be one of the reasons for the present flowering of documentary films. We may be in a time where reality speaks clearest of all.

What impact does Sundance have on moviemaking today?

Sundance Festival is a great place to see people I know who I would never otherwise get to spend time with. Also, I get to view tons of good, near-good, and occasional great films-- so many that my brain becomes mush. Filmmakers who go there leave inspired by the attention, companionship, and good work. Producers sell their films to distributors there, though I’d hate to have to be part of that sales race.

I have friends who say the last really good Hollywood movies were made in the 1930s. Is that perversity or blindness?

There were great films made in Hollywood in the 1930’s, but to say that they were the last great films is obtuse. Thirties films are mannered, even the best of them, with a set of conventions: visual, directorial, and acting. That the best of them succeed in spite of their rarefied air is a particular kind of grandeur. One might note that the social documentary film was invented in the 1930's in New York, as a way to blow open the closed world of 1930's Hollywood.

Tom Hurwitz shooting in India for Paul Taylor: Dancemaker. Photo courtesy Tom Hurwitz.

What films do you turn to again and again?

I watch a lot of films over and over because I teach graduate students every year and analyze the images. It's another way of appreciating films other than just being inspired by them. I have a list of what I consider perfectly photographed films.

If a director and I haven't already worked together I always try to screen The Conformist (1970), which Vittorio Storaro shot for Bernardo Bertolucci. I talk about the way the image is at once hugely expressive, yet always works at the service of the story and never just calls attention to itself arbitrarily. That is the highest calling of cinematography in narrative and in documentary. I call it the articulate image. Even if we don't want the film to look anything like The Conformist, watching it together starts the best of conversations. Sometimes I see it to make myself feel good about the possibilities of the image.

What movie made in the last, say, 10 years would you like to be able to say, “That’s my movie.”

I’d pick a documentary called War/Dance (2007) made by Sean and Andrea Fine. It’s about children in a refugee camp in Uganda and their struggle to mount a successful team for a national dance competition. The children become characters in their own amazing drama. The cinematography lifts the heart with its beauty and perfectly compliments the story and the subject.

What filmmakers have you learned from?

First and most important my father, Leo Hurwitz, who directed some of the first American political documentaries in the 1930's and one of the greatest ever made, Native Land. It was photographed by Paul Strand, the great American photographer, and narrated by Paul Robeson. I love Native Land because it’s brilliantly shot and structured. It influenced me, of course, and a generation of American documentarians here in New York who moved into television in the 1950's.

Next, there are a group of influential filmmakers who I call my "aunts and uncles": Sydney Meyers, Manny Kirchheimer, Peggy Lawson, Bill Jersey, Al and David Maysles, Ricky Leacock, Haskell Wexler, Owen Roisman, Charlotte Zwerin, Dede Allen, and Bob Young.

And then, more at a distance: Orson Welles, Nicholas Roeg, James Wong Howe, Gordy Willis, Phillip Roussalot, Peter Suschitzky, Peter Biziou, Nestor Almendros, Sven Nyquist, Terrence Malik, Bernardo Bertolucci, Chris Marker, Jean Rouche, Alain Resnais, Wong Kar Wai, Akiro Kurasawa, and I’m leaving out dozens.

You made movies as a 20-year-old. At 20 and 21 did you look into the future and see a career in the movies?

In 1968, when I looked into the future, I was scared shitless, though I had a film, Last Summer Won’t Happen, in the New York Film Festival. I had no more idea of how to make the next film than I did how to write a novel. I hadn't lived, let alone learned my craft.

I went off and organized marines, and then a union local, and then took part in the successful defense of a political prisoner for five years. I took stills, sold some, and began to feel like I could go back and begin a career, which I did at 26, with a full apprenticeship behind me. I moved on from there to become a journeyman.

If you had unlimited funds is there a movie you’d love to make now?

I'd love to make a film about the last free tigers on earth that live in a giant mangrove swamp in South Asia that’s the size of Rhode Island. I want to make it through the eyes of Alan Rabinowitz, a Jewish kid from Brooklyn, who grew up to be one of the great protectors of wildlife in the world, and a master of the martial arts. The film about the tigers needs another million dollars in addition to what the producers have already raised, but shooting starts soon in India and Bangladesh.

When someone hands you a script and wants you to read it, what do you look for?

For 15 years I received dozens of scripts to read. They would be disappointing nine-tenths of the time. Sometimes I would have to take one because I really needed the work, and so Creep Show 2 was born. Now, luckily, directors call or email and ask, “Do you want to shoot a documentary about a company of reservists who fly helicopters and are deployed to Afghanistan for a year?" That became Kansas to Kandahar (2006). Or “What about filming a crazy, fascinating, rich family in Orlando, Florida?" That turned into Queen of Versailles. Or, “Would you consider work on the first avowedly gay bishop in Christendom?” That evolved into Love Free or Die (2012). Now, I get to say, which I didn’t at the beginning, "When do we start?"

[Jonah Raskin, a frequent contributor to The Rag Blog, is the author of Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating, and Drinking Wine in California, and Marijuanaland: Dispatches from an American War. He is a professor emeritus at Sonoma State University. Read more articles by Jonah Raskin on The Rag Blog.]

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