27 November 2008
[from the book getting even, by woody allen...]
NOTES FROM THE OVERFED
(After reading Dostoevsky and the "Weight Watchers" magazine on the same trip)
I am fat. I am disgustingly fat. I am the fattest human I know. I have nothing but excess poundage all over my body. My fingers are fat. My wrists are fat. My eyes are at. (Can you imagine fat eyes?) I am hundreds of pounds overweight. Flesh drips from me like hot fudge off a sundae. My girth has been an object of disbelief to everyone who's seen me. There is no question about it, I'm a regular fatty. Now, the reader may ask, are there advantages or disadvantages to being built like a planet? I do not mean to be facetious or speak in paradoxes, but I must answer that fat in itself is above bourgeois mentality. It is simply fat. That fat could have a value of its own, that fat could be, say, evil or pitying, is, of course, a joke. Absurd. For what is fat after all but an accumulation of pounds? And what are pounds? Simply aggregate composite of cells. Can a cell be moral? Is a cell beyond good and evil? Who knows-- they're so small. No, my friend, we must never attempt to distinguish between good fat and bad fat. We must train ourselves to confront the obese without judging, without thinking this man's fat is first- rate and this poor wretch's is grubby fat.
Take the case of K. This fellow was porcine to such a degree that he could not fit through the average door frame without the aid of a crowbar. Indeed, K. would not think to pass from room to room in a conventional dwelling without first stripping completely and then buttering himself. I am no stranger to the insults K. must have borne from the passing gangs of young rowdies. How frequently he must have been stung by cries of "Tubby!" and "Blimp!" How it must have hurt when the governor of the province turned to him on the Eve of Michelmas and said, before many dignitaries, " You hulking pot of kasha!"
Then one day, When K. could stand it no longer, he dieted. Yes, dieted! First sweets went. Then bread, alcohol, starches, sauces. In short, K. gave up the very stuff that makes a man unable to tie his shoelaces without help from the Santini Brothers. Gradually he began to slim down. Rolls of flesh fell from his arms and legs. Where once he looked roly- poly, he suddenly appeared in public with a normal build. Yes, even an attractive build. He seemed the happiest of men. I say "seemed," for eighteen years later, when he was near death and fever raged throughout his slender frame, he was heard to cry out, "My fat! Bring me my fat! Oh, please! I must have my fat! Oh, somebody lay some aoirdupois on me! What a fool I've been. To part with one's fat! I must have been in league with the Devil!" I think that the point of the story is obvious.
Now the reader is probably thinking, Why, then, if you are Lard City, have you not joined a circus? Because-- and I confess this with no small embarrassment-- I cannot leave the house. I cannot go out because I cannot get my pants on. My legs are too thick to dress. They are the living result of more corned beef than there is on Second Avenue-- I would say about twelve thousand sandwiches per leg. And not all lean, even though I specified. One thing is certain: If my fat could speak, it would probably speak of a man's intense loneliness-- with, oh perhaps a few additional pointers on how to make a sailboat out of paper. Every pound on my body wants to be heard from, as do Chins Four through Twelve inclusive. My fat is strange fat. It has seen much. My calves alone have lived a lifetime. Mine is not happy fat, but it is real fat. It is not fake fat. Fake fat is the worst fat you can have, although I don't know if the stores still carry it.
But let me tell you how it was that I became fat. For I was not always fat. It is the Church that has made me thus. At one time I was thin-- quite thin. SO thin, in fact, that to call me fat would have been an error in perception. I remained thin until it was my twentieth birthday-- when I was having tea and cracknels with my uncle at a fine restaurant. Suddenly my uncle put a question to me. "Do you believe in God?" he asked. "And if so, what do you think he weighs? So saying, he took a long and luxurious draw on his cigar and, in that confident, assured manner he has cultivated, lapsed into a coughing fit so violent I thought he would hemorrhage.
"I do not believe in God," I told him. "For if there is a God, then tell me, Uncle, why is there poverty and baldness? Why do some men go through life immune to a thousand mortal enemies of race, while others get a migraine that lasts for weeks? Why are our days numbered and not, say, lettered? Answer me, Uncle. Or have I shocked you?"
I knew I was safe in saying this, because nothing ever shocked the man. Indeed, he had seen his chess tutor's mother raped by Turks and would have found the whole incident amusing had it not taken so much time.
"Good nephew," he said, "there is a God, despite what you think, and He is everywhere. Yes! Everywhere!"
"Everywhere, Uncle? How can you say that when you don't even know for sure if we exist? True, I am touching your wart at this moment, but could that not be an illusion? Could not all life be an illusion? Indeed, are there not certain sects of holy men in the East who are convinced that nothing exists outside their minds except for the Oyster Bar at Grand Central Station? Could it not be simply that we are alone and aimless, doomed to wander in an indifferent universe, with no hope of salvation, nor any prospect except misery, death, and the empty reality of eternal nothing?"
I could see that I made a deep impression on my uncle with this, for he said to me, "You wonder why you're not invited to more parties! Jesus, you're morbid!" He accused me of being nihilistic and then said, in that cryptic way the senile have, "God is not always where one seeks Him, but I assure you, dear nephew, He is everywhere. In these cracknels, for instance." With that, he departed, leaving me his blessing and a check that read like the tab for an aircraft carrier.
I returned home wondering what it was he meant by that one simple statement "He is everywhere. In these cracknels, for instance." Drowsy by then, and out of sorts, I lay down on my bed and took a brief nap. In that time, I had a dream that was to change my life forever. IN the dream, I am strolling in the country, when suddenly I notice I am hungry. Starved, if you will. I come upon a restaurant and I enter. I order the open- hot- roast- beef sandwich and a side of French. he waitress, who resembles my landlady (a thoroughly insipid woman who reminds one instantly of some of the hairier lichens), tries to tempt me into ordering the chicken salad, which doesn't look fresh. As I am conversing with this woman, she turns into a twenty- four- piece starter set of silverware. I become hysterical with laughter, which suddenly turns to tears and then into a serious ear infection. The room is suffused with a radiant glow, and I see a shimmering figure approach on a white steed. It is my podiatrist, and I fall to the ground with guilt.
Such was my dream. I awoke with a tremendous sense of well- being. Suddenly I was optimistic. Everything was clear. My uncle's statement reverberated to the core of my very existence. I went to the kitchen and started to eat. I ate everything in sight. Cakes, breads, cereals, meat, fruits. Succulent chocolates, vegetables in sauce, wines, fish, creams and noodles, eclairs, and wursts totalling in excess of sixty thousand dollars. If God is everywhere, I had concluded, the He is in food. Therefore, the more I ate the godlier I would become. Impelled by this new religious fervor, I glutted myself like a fanatic. In six months, I was the holiest of holies, with a heart entirely devoted to prayers and a stomach that crossed the state line by itself. I last saw my feet one Thursday morning in Vitbsk, although for all I know they are still down there. I ate and ate and grew and grew. To reduce would have been the greatest folly. Even a sin! For when we lose twenty pounds, dear reader (and I am assuming you are not as large as I), we may be losing the twenty best pounds that we have! We may be losing the pounds that contain our genius, our humanity, our love and honesty or, in the case of one inspector general I knew, just some unsightly flab around the hips.
Now, I know what you are saying. You are saying this is in direct contradiction to everything-- yes, everything-- I put forth before. Suddenly I am attributing to neuter flesh, values! Yes, and what of it? Because isn't life that very same kind of contradiction? One's opinion of fat can change in the same manner that the seasons change, that our hair changes, that life itself changes. For life is change and fat is life, and fat is also death. Don't you see? Fat is everything! Unless, of course, you're overweight.
26 November 2008
24 November 2008
Dear Caring American:
A few days from now, families in small towns and big cities all across the nation will gather together for that "most American" of Holidays - the day we emulate our Pilgrim fathers and give thanks for all that we hold dear.
At the same time, halfway around the world, 170,000 brave young men and women will demonstrate their gratitude in another way: by putting their lives at risk to defend everything America stands for.
As we join our loved ones around the table to feast on turkey and all the trimmings, our troops overseas will grab an MRE and head out to patrol crowded streets and back alleys where insurgents continue to lurk.
As we watch the giant balloons of the Macy's parade usher in the Holiday season, they'll spend Thanksgiving morning in harm's way: a "place" where rounding any corner can mean a deadly ambush... where stopping any car or passerby can trigger an explosion and sudden death.
As we cheer on our high school football heroes or watch the pros on TV, they'll face combat of a different nature - ducking live rounds and remaining alert for the sudden rush of an incoming rocket-propelled grenade.
Today, the deepening economic crisis and post-election political developments continue to dominate our front pages: so much so, that some Americans may even have forgotten about the brave and women who are doing their job overseas, but counting the days till it's their turn to share the home-town celebrations with their loved ones and friends.
However, the USO hasn't forgotten; we've already geared up to provide extra services to our troops... not just for the Holiday season, but throughout the weeks and months ahead. With American troops spread all over the globe...
We must recruit more stars to man our Holiday Entertainment Tours to combat zones... not just to entertain, but also to shake hands with our GIs and say face-to-face, "Thanks! We're here for you. You're the real star!"
We need to buy more pre-paid phone cards, so our troops can call home for free whenever they get a chance, even from a pay phone in Baghdad.
We must staff up and supply our overseas Centers and Mobile Canteens; the Holiday season is the loneliest time to be at the Front, so they'll have to stay open extra hours to provide our guys and gals in uniform with a hot cup of coffee, a warm smile, and a chance... even if just for a few moments... to escape from the War and enjoy a taste of home.
Meeting these special challenges, on top of all the everyday services we provide to our troops and their families, will take a huge effort, cost a lot of money, and stretch our resources to the limit. Many people are surprised to learn that the USO is not a government agency; in fact, we rely on individual citizens who want to support the troops, and who always seem to stand behind us at the times we need them most.
Now is one of those times. Please send your tax-deductible donation today, to help the USO make certain that every Soldier, Sailor, Airman, Marine, and Coast Guardsman around the world knows that the folks back home are thinking of them this holiday season, and that we honor their dedication, their heroism, and their sacrifice.
As Americans, we count on them. They count on us. I hope we can count on you.
On behalf of those we serve,
Sloan D. Gibson
USO President & CEO
another great one from greenwald.
Progressive complaints about Obama's appointments
I've been genuinely mystified by the disappointment and surprise being expressed by many liberals over the fact that Obama's most significant appointments thus far are composed of pure Beltway establishment figures drawn from the center-right of the Democratic Party and, probably once he names his Defense Secretary and CIA Director, even from the Bush administration -- but not from the Left. In an email yesterday, Digby explained perfectly why this reaction is so mystifying (re-printed with her consent):
The villagers and the right made it very clear what they required of Obama --- bipartisanship, technocratic competence and center-right orthodoxy. Liberals took cultural signifiers as a sign of solidarity and didn't ask for anything. So, we have the great symbolic victory of the first black president (and that's not nothing, by the way) who is also a bipartisan, centrist technocrat. Surprise.
There are things to applaud about the cabinet picks -- Clinton is a global superstar who, along with Barack himself, signals to the world that the US is no longer being run by incompetent, extremist, political fringe dwellers. Holder seems to be genuinely against torture and hostile to the concept of the imperial presidency. Gaithner is a smart guy who has the trust of the Big Money Boyz, which may end up being useful considering the enormous and risky economic challenges ahead. Emmanuel is someone who is not afraid to wield a knife and if we're lucky he might just wield it from time to time against a Republican or a right wing Democrat. Napolitano seems to have a deft political touch with difficult issues like immigration which is going to be a battleground at DHS. And on and on.
None of them are liberals, but then Obama said repeatedly that he wasn't ideological, that he cared about "what works." I don't know why people didn't believe that. He's a technocrat who wants to "solve problems" and "change politics." The first may actually end up producing the kind of ideological shift liberals desire simply because of the dire set of circumstances greeting the new administration. (Hooray for the new depression!) The second was always an empty fantasy --- politics is just another word for human nature, and that hasn't changed since we were dancing around the fire outside our caves.
If you want to press for a cabinet appointment at this late date who might bring some ideological ballast, I would guess that labor and energy are where the action is. It would be really helpful to have somebody from the left in the room when the wonks start dryly parceling out the compromises on the economy and climate change. But basically, we are going to be dealing with an administration whose raison d'etre is to make government "work." That's essentially a progressive goal and one that nobody can really argue with. But he never said he would make government "work" for a liberal agenda. Liberals just assumed that.
So many progressives were misled about what Obama is and what he believes. But it wasn't Obama who misled them. It was their own desires, their eagerness to see what they wanted to see rather than what reality offered.
Early on in the primary cycle, Markos Moultisas -- in a post I recall vividly though can't find -- wisely urged that progressives refrain from endorsing or supporting any of the Democratic candidates unless they work for that support, make promises and concessions important to the progressive agenda, etc., lest progressives' support end up being taken for granted. But that advice was largely ignored. For whatever reasons, highly influential progressive factions committed themselves early, loyally and enthusiastically to Obama even though he never even courted that support, let alone made commitments to secure it.
That may have been perfectly justified -- by pragmatic calculations regarding electability, by excitement over his personality and charisma, by the belief that he was comparatively superior to the alternatives. Still, the fact remains that progressives, throughout the year, largely lent Obama their loyal support in exchange for very little. He never pretended that he wanted to implement or advance a progressive agenda. And he certainly never did anything to suggest he would oppose or undermine the Democratic establishment that has exerted power in the party over the last two decades.
It's difficult to understand what basis progressives think they have for demanding greater inclusion in his cabinet and other high-level appointments, and it's even more difficult to understand the basis for the disappointment and surprise being expressed over the fact that center-right Democrats and Republicans are welcomed in his inner circle, but -- as The Nation's Chris Hayes put it -- "not a single, solitary, actual dyed-in-the-wool progressive has, as far as I can tell, even been mentioned for a position in the new administration."
It goes without saying that there will be Obama policies, both in the foreign policy and domestic realms, that are vastly superior to what we've seen the last eight years and to what we would have seen had McCain/Palin won. And as the second-tier positions begin to fill out, there will probably be a handful of appointees who progressives consider to be one of their own. And as Digby points out, the magnitude of the financial crisis may compel him to embrace policies that are deemed to be quite progressive (from massive stimulus packages and government intervention in the economy to a diminution of our foreign adventurism).
But Barack Obama is a centrist, establishment politician. That is what he has been since he's been in the Senate, and more importantly, it's what he made clear -- both explicitly and through his actions -- that he intended to be as President. Even in the primary, he paid no price whatsoever for that in terms of progressive support. As is true for the national Democratic Party generally, he has no good reason to believe he needs to accommodate liberal objections to what he is doing. The Joe Lieberman fiasco should have made that as conclusively clear as it gets.
The point isn't that this reality should just be passively accepted and nothing done about it. The point is that for anything to be done about it, the reality needs to be accepted. The campaign we began earlier this year with Accountability Now and are now vigorously developing and pursuing -- to devote all resources and energies to defeating incumbents in primary challenges -- is grounded in the premise that one's political beliefs and principles will be ignored until there is a price to pay for ignoring them. Democrats don't perceive there is a price to pay for ignoring progressives, and so they do. That isn't surprising. What would be surprising is if, under those circumstances, anything else happened.
UPDATE: David Sirota offers one explanation as to why Obama feels more compelled to embrace center-right figures and even Republicans than those perceived to be "on the Left":
[T]he answer to the question, in my opinion, is because Obama effectively ate a huge chunk of the left. And really, Obama didn't eat a huge chunk of the left, celebrity did.
What I mean to say is that we live in a culture that now organizes around celebrity - and Obama knew it, and knew that lots of left organizations aren't really ideological - they are, if anything, organized around the Democratic Party and Bush hatred. So he basically figured out that if he could become a celebrity - and a Democratic Bush-hating one - he could swallow up a huge part of the "progressive infrastructure" and organize it around him (and all the hateful "if you question Obama, you hate Obama" comments that will inevitably be at the bottom of this diary actually 'confirm this!). . . .
So now, because of this, you have a large majority (though not the whole) of his 10 million-person email list overarchingly organized around the celebrity Barack Obama - not really around issues (though certainly people can like Obama and support specific issues). That means he feels no real obligation to appointing "movement progressives" because he has his own movement - one that's about helping, aiding and defending Barack Obama. Again, I say that not derisively or in anger at Barack Obama - I say it just to note an important fact.
It's important not to generalize. It's impossible to quantify, but I think the vast majority of Obama supporters were perfectly clear-eyed about what he is and voted for him for the standard unremarkable reasons -- that they perceived him as better than the alternatives. But there is no question that Obama has inspired among many Democrats a type of deep and intense loyalty that is personal to Obama rather than grounded in policy issues, that many see him as much more than a politician who will make good political decisions. That gives him far more latitude to do what he wants -- far more power -- than the average politician has.
Add to that the fact that the one thing that Republicans, establishment Democrats and Beltway pundits all share more than anything else is a contempt for what they perceive as "the Left" and a belief that it should be scorned -- see here and here -- and none of this should be the least bit surprising. Obama pays no price, and garners many benefits, by embracing the center-right and scorning "the Left." It's this dynamic that needs to change in order for the outcomes to change. [In this post generally, by "Left" I really mean those who are dissatisfied with the bipartisan Beltway establishment and Democratic Party leadership -- prevailing Beltway orthodoxies -- rather than merely opposed to Republicans and supportive of anyone with a "D" after their name].
UPDATE II: Jane Hamsher articulates what I would call a very realistic, and rather Obama-sympathetic, point of view regarding his app0intments and what he intends to do.
UPDATE III: Daniel Larison has some characteristically insightful points to add, particularly concerning all of the paeans we're hearing to the glories of "pragmatism" and the evils of ideology.
22 November 2008
Help Is on the Way
With so much attention understandably focused on the economy and the incoming administration, the struggles being faced by G.I.’s coming home from combat overseas are receding even further from the public’s consciousness.
If you’re in your late teens or early 20s and your energies have been directed for a year or more toward dodging roadside bombs and ambushes, caring for horribly wounded comrades and, in general, killing before being killed, it can be difficult to readjust to a world of shopping malls, speed limits and polite conversation.
Bryan Adams is the face of a sophisticated new advertising campaign that is trying to get troubled veterans to come in from the cold and piercingly lonely environment of post-wartime stress.
Bryan, now 24, was an Army sniper in Iraq from February 2004 to February 2005. At an age when many youngsters go to college or line up that first significant job, he and his squad-mates were prowling Tikrit with high-powered weapons, looking for bad guys.
He was shot in the leg and hand during a firefight, and he saw and did things that he was less than anxious to talk about when he came home.
“I wanted to go to college,” he told me. “I had all these plans, but I couldn’t seem to make them happen. I couldn’t focus. I would get, like, depressive thoughts.”
He said that he would party a lot. “Party” was a euphemism for drinking.
The drinking made him more depressed, and then he would get angry that he was “partying but not having a good time.”
Bryan said he would “flip out,” and friends began to shun him. “I just didn’t care what I did or who I affected with my actions. I would break stuff. I’d break, like appliances. It was bad.”
Returning to civilian life from combat is almost always a hard road to run. Studies have shown that a third or more of G.I.’s returning from the combat zones of Iraq and Afghanistan — more than 300,000 men and women — have endured mental health difficulties.
Many have experienced the agony of deep depression, and alarming numbers have tried or succeeded in committing suicide.
A CBS News study found that veterans aged 20 to 24 were two to four times as likely to commit suicide as non-veterans the same age.
The advertising campaign, initiated by the advocacy group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, was designed to increase the number of veterans seeking treatment for their mental health difficulties. Many are embarrassed to speak about their problems or are unaware that help is available, or even that they need help.
As Bryan Adams told me, “I didn’t know anything about these symptoms. I didn’t know what post-traumatic stress disorder was.”
To get the word out, IAVA hooked up with the advertising giant BBDO and the nonprofit Ad Council, which is famous for such public service slogans as, “Only you can prevent forest fires,” “A mind is a terrible thing to waste” and “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk.”
This campaign is titled, “Alone,” and focuses on the sense of isolation so many veterans feel when they come home. The television and print ads encourage the veterans to visit a Web site, CommunityOfVeterans.org, as a place where they can share their experiences with other vets.
IAVA tells veterans in its promotional material: “Just listen in or share your experiences in a judgment-free environment.”
The site is filled with features and news updates on many topics and information on a wide range of mental health resources.
The ads are powerful.
In one, a somber Bryan Adams is shown, in camouflage fatigues, standing alone in an airport, then riding an otherwise passenger-less subway train, and then walking through empty streets in Manhattan. He is eerily and absolutely alone. There is not another soul in sight, until a marine in civilian clothes walks up to him, extends his hand, and says: “Welcome home, man.”
The ad then flashes the message: “If you’re a veteran of Iraq or Afghanistan, you’re not alone.”
Bryan, who lives in Palmyra, N.J., is a real-life example of what the timely intervention of mental health counseling and treatment can do. At his family’s urging, he enrolled in a treatment program at a V.A. hospital in Boston. It turned his life around, and he is now back in college.
This ad campaign, if disseminated widely enough (it is depending on donated media), will reduce the heartache of G.I.’s and their families, and will save lives.
The need for more attention to this issue is tremendous. Combat does terrible things to people. As Paul Rieckhoff, IAVA’s executive director, put it:“Nobody can cross this river without getting wet.”
21 November 2008
[from the huffington post...]
President-elect Obama's plan to put a million electric vehicles on the road in 10 years is doable and should be surpassed by its own momentum. As people discover the many advantages of electric vehicles (EVs), this momentum will build. Not only are these cars green and responsible, they also enhance National Security. From all we've been told about EVs we know a little. They are cleaner. We've heard about plugging them into our homes to recharge overnight. But most of us don't know much about electric cars yet.
The momentum of the Electric Vehicle Age will stem from enhanced performance, smoothness of acceleration, quietness, and superior control. The way an electric car can be tuned to behave a certain way for a certain driver allows for a whole new feeling in the driving experience. People just don't know how cool these cars are.
Existing designs can be manufactured as electric cars with no change to the tooling of the existing designs. Adapting kits are possible. Build electric versions on these existing tools to keep people working and get people interested in buying again. The technology to make these new electric vehicles exists today right here in this country.
From Wichita, Kansas we get this report: A 1959 Lincoln Continental repowered to be a self charging electric vehicle by a small group of engineers and local services, is now achieving up to 65 mpg in informal tests. Work there continues. The goal of the project is to attain up to and beyond 100mpg for the biggest and heaviest car made in 1959. The car has been driven in California and Kansas and shown to over 15,000 people. In an audience of 12,000, one tenth of the people raised their hands when asked if they would like to have a car like that. That Lincoln represents a future for Detroit. It is the possibility of Big Clean cars that do not promote Global warming. Let's build them now, as well as economical small clean and green electric cars and let's put people to work. We already have the existing tooling and the facilities and manpower.
From Detroit we get this report:
We have devoted significant resources to this project: Over 200 engineers and 50 designers are working on the Volt alone, and another 400 are working on related subsystems and electric components. That's how important we think this is, and that's how much stock we place in the future of extended-range electric vehicles like the Chevy Volt. - Tony Posawatz, Vehicle Line Director - E-Flex Systems and the Chevy Volt, GeneralMotors Corp.
The GM, FORD and Chrysler CEOs then each boarded private personal business jets to be paid for by taxpayers money, and flew to Washington to ask tax-payers to give them a 25 billion dollar infusion to save hard working American's jobs. Have they changed direction but it's just too early for our senators and congress representatives to see it yet? I don't think so. Maybe introducing a new high-performance fossil fueled Shelby Mustang and jumping into a private jet to go to Washington for a bailout was not such a good idea.
Efficient technology can power the existing designs we have today.
We don't need a car that looks different with a new sunroof over the back seat creating an air conditioning challenge as a feature.
We don't need new tooling to start building electric cars now.
We need kits to adapt what we are currently making to today's demands.
We need new thinking from new leaders and we need new perspectives from unions.
Today the news is Hybrids. Everyone is making them. Some of these hybrids offer very poor mileage in the 20-30 mpg range. They may be already on their way out because of the inherent inefficiency of their design. An electric motor and an internal combustion engine both driving the wheels in one car may not be the most efficient approach. Forward thinkers are wondering about that inefficiency and working on ways to solve it. Plug-in kits are now available for Prius and Ford Escape, allowing these vehicles to plug in for a re-charge, increasing their efficiency and reducing their negative impact on the environment. Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) look like the future, but are they the future?
There are huge limitations. The battery is the biggest. An average EV is only good for a short trip before it needs a charge. Maybe 40 miles or so is a good estimate. Some electric cars get a long range like 100 miles before they lose power and have to recharge. The Tesla (a super light sports car) goes over 150 miles on a charge. Two things that all basic EVs have in common is they are small in size and they have to stop and re-charge. If you run out of power you are down. Just like gas.
To re-charge, you need a power source. It may be your home, or it may be your parking garage at work. It might be a charging system that is privately owned and is a business enterprise (Better Place), or it may be a public utility service (PG&E). You may have a cable to plug in that identifies you so your account can be automatically charged. One thing is for sure. You need to re-charge. So you are going to be more conscious of your energy use.
Not every EV has to plug in. For some, it's optional. Cars like the Chevy Volt have an onboard generator to re-charge batteries or power the car. These cars are Self-Charging EVs (SCEVs). That means on long trips you use gasoline. A long trip is over about forty miles in a Volt, on level ground. When the battery starts to die, an onboard generator rescues it and powers the electric motor, while slowly recharging the battery. This sequence cycles on and off while you take a long trip. Mostly the generator is on... using gasoline, a fuel widely seen as a National Security disadvantage. The Volt generator will charge the batteries faster if the car is not moving, by using gasoline. On short trips, you won't even use the generator. You will go the first 40 miles on plug-in power. An average commute in the USA is about 35 miles.
Efficiency in the self-charging electric car is the big decider. If the efficiency of your charging system allows you to make electricity with less financial cost than buying it from the grid, then your car can power your house and turn the meter backwards to reduce or eliminate your electric bill. Potentially, you may even be able to sell electricity to the grid someday. That would be a good reason to buy a SCEV with a highly efficient self-charging system. These cars are mobile power plants.
Big electric cars are left out of the story so far by major manufacturers. They have made some very poor hybrid SUVS. SUVs, big sedans, pick-up trucks are all by the wayside. They have been relegated to dinosaur status. But don't count them out. A big Self-Charging SUV with a super efficient self-charging system would create enough power to support 6 homes. You could be part of a distributed power system by using the grid backwards, selling power back to your Utility Company. In this approach, power enters the grid from plugged-in vehicles, avoiding the loss found in the lines when power comes to you from a central Power Plant located miles away. Imagine a big electric car that earns you income.
But you just wanted a big electric car. You may be surprised to know why size is important. Big SCEVs, while taking big power to run, and requiring large battery banks and big electric motors, will undoubtedly be getting up to 100 mpg or more in the near future. A big developmental car, Lincvolt, seen at Lincvolt.com , is proving this technology. Big SCEVs may well be earning you money while you are charging the grid. They may be recharging with super efficient self-charging systems, and even using Domestic Green bio-diesel fuel, a fuel that does not contribute significantly to Global Warming. Big may be an unexpected Green alternative.
19 November 2008
18 November 2008
In Praise of a Rocky Transition
By Naomi Klein
November 13, 2008
The more details emerge, the clearer it becomes that Washington's handling of the Wall Street bailout is not merely incompetent. It is borderline criminal.In a moment of high panic in late September, the US Treasury unilaterally pushed through a radical change in how bank mergers are taxed--a change long sought by the industry. Despite the fact that this move will deprive the government of as much as $140 billion in tax revenue, lawmakers found out only after the fact. According to the Washington Post, more than a dozen tax attorneys agree that "Treasury had no authority to issue the [tax change] notice."
Of equally dubious legality are the equity deals Treasury has negotiated with many of the country's banks. According to Congressman Barney Frank, one of the architects of the legislation that enables the deals, "Any use of these funds for any purpose other than lending--for bonuses, for severance pay, for dividends, for acquisitions of other institutions, etc.--is a violation of the act." Yet this is exactly how the funds are being used.
Then there is the nearly $2 trillion the Federal Reserve has handed out in emergency loans. Incredibly, the Fed will not reveal which corporations have received these loans or what it has accepted as collateral. Bloomberg News believes that this secrecy violates the law and has filed a federal suit demanding full disclosure.
Despite all of this potential lawlessness, the Democrats are either openly defending the administration or refusing to intervene. "There is only one president at a time," we hear from Barack Obama. That's true. But every sweetheart deal the lame-duck Bush administration makes threatens to hobble Obama's ability to make good on his promise of change. To cite just one example, that $140 billion in missing tax revenue is almost the same sum as Obama's renewable energy program. Obama owes it to the people who elected him to call this what it is: an attempt to undermine the electoral process by stealth.
Yes, there is only one president at a time, but that president needed the support of powerful Democrats, including Obama, to get the bailout passed. Now that it is clear that the Bush administration is violating the terms to which both parties agreed, the Democrats have not just the right but a grave responsibility to intervene forcefully.
I suspect that the real reason the Democrats are so far failing to act has less to do with presidential protocol than with fear: fear that the stock market, which has the temperament of an overindulged 2-year-old, will throw one of its world-shaking tantrums. Disclosing the truth about who is receiving federal loans, we are told, could cause the cranky market to bet against those banks. Question the legality of equity deals and the same thing will happen. Challenge the $140 billion tax giveaway and mergers could fall through. "None of us wants to be blamed for ruining these mergers and creating a new Great Depression," explained one unnamed Congressional aide.
More than that, the Democrats, including Obama, appear to believe that the need to soothe the market should govern all key economic decisions in the transition period. Which is why, just days after a euphoric victory for "change," the mantra abruptly shifted to "smooth transition" and "continuity."
Take Obama's pick for chief of staff. Despite the Republican braying about his partisanship, Rahm Emanuel, the House Democrat who received the most donations from the financial sector, sends an unmistakably reassuring message to Wall Street. When asked on This Week With George Stephanopoulos whether Obama would be moving quickly to increase taxes on the wealthy, as promised, Emanuel pointedly did not answer the question.
This same market-coddling logic should, we are told, guide Obama's selection of treasury secretary. Fox News's Stuart Varney explained that Larry Summers, who held the post under Clinton, and former Fed chair Paul Volcker would both "give great confidence to the market." We learned from MSNBC's Joe Scarborough that Summers is the man "the Street would like the most."
Let's be clear about why. "The Street" would cheer a Summers appointment for exactly the same reason the rest of us should fear it: because traders will assume that Summers, champion of financial deregulation under Clinton, will offer a transition from Henry Paulson so smooth we will barely know it happened. Someone like FDIC chair Sheila Bair, on the other hand, would spark fear on the Street--for all the right reasons.
One thing we know for certain is that the market will react violently to any signal that there is a new sheriff in town who will impose serious regulation, invest in people and cut off the free money for corporations. In short, the markets can be relied on to vote in precisely the opposite way that Americans have just voted. (A recent USA Today/Gallup poll found that 60 percent of Americans strongly favor "stricter regulations on financial institutions," while just 21 percent support aid to financial companies.)
There is no way to reconcile the public's vote for change with the market's foot-stomping for more of the same. Any and all moves to change course will be met with short-term market shocks. The good news is that once it is clear that the new rules will be applied across the board and with fairness, the market will stabilize and adjust. Furthermore, the timing for this turbulence has never been better. Over the past three months, we've been shocked so frequently that market stability would come as more of a surprise. That gives Obama a window to disregard the calls for a seamless transition and do the hard stuff first. Few will be able to blame him for a crisis that clearly predates him, or fault him for honoring the clearly expressed wishes of the electorate. The longer he waits, however, the more memories fade.
When transferring power from a functional, trustworthy regime, everyone favors a smooth transition. When exiting an era marked by criminality and bankrupt ideology, a little rockiness at the start would be a very good sign.~lee.
GOOD-BYE, TED STEVENS! “It’s official, and it’s a national tragedy: Ted Stevens has lost his Senate seat to some Democrat, in Alaska. Today, on his 85th birthday, the convicted felon and old white Republican Ted Stevens has been voted out of the office — voted out of office by Alaskans.”
17 November 2008
the "desire to harm a politically unpopular group cannot constitute a legitimate governmental interest.” -- justice anthony kennedy...
[from the los angeles times...]
A federal bailout for Prop. 8
In 1992, by a 53%-47% split, Coloradans passed an amendment to their state Constitution that repealed laws in Aspen, Boulder and Denver that prohibited discrimination against gays. The amendment barred the state and its political subdivisions from adopting or enforcing any law “whereby homosexual, lesbian or bisexual orientation, conduct, practices or relationships” are the basis of a claim of discrimination. Does this sound familiar?
As the proponents of same-sex marriage rights determine the proper response to Proposition 8, it is illuminating to compare Colorado’s rejection of “gay rights” with California’s repudiation of “gay marriage.”
The day after the Nov. 4 election, a coalition of civil rights groups asked the California Supreme Court to declare that Proposition 8 was unlawfully enacted. The essence of their claim is that a constitutional change that rescinds individual rights must first be passed by a supermajority in the Legislature before being submitted to voters. This process-based claim may well have merit, but there exists a more direct means of challenging Proposition 8 based on the U.S. Constitution.
Following the enactment of Colorado’s Amendment 2, its opponents filed suit claiming that it unlawfully singled out gays and lesbians as a class to deny them rights that other citizens not only possess but take for granted. These rights include access to housing, government services, public accommodations and public and private employment opportunities without regard to an individual’s race, sex, religion, age, ancestry, political belief or other characteristic that defines each of us as a unique human being. Amendment 2, the opponents argued, therefore denied gays and lesbians the equal protection of the laws, which is a guarantee of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
To the surprise of many, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed.
Writing for a 6-3 majority in Romer vs. Evans (1996), Justice Anthony M. Kennedy explained that it “is not within our constitutional tradition to enact laws of this sort. Central both to the idea of the rule of law and to our own Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection is the principle that government and each of its parts remain open on impartial terms to all who seek its assistance.” Laws such as Amendment 2 “raise the inevitable inference that the disadvantage imposed is born of animosity toward the class of persons affected,” Kennedy wrote, adding a reference to another 1973 ruling. “If the constitutional conception of ‘equal protection of the laws’ means anything, it must at the very least mean that a bare … desire to harm a politically unpopular group cannot constitute a legitimate governmental interest.”
Proposition 8 suffers these same constitutional flaws. It provides that gays and lesbians – alone among consenting adult couples – shall not have the opportunity to enjoy the rights, privileges and social approbation conferred by the status of lawful marriage. And despite their insistence that the initiative was “not an attack on the gay lifestyle,” its proponents were remarkably candid about their disapproval of homosexual families. The amendment, they argued in voter guides, “protects our children from being taught in public schools that ‘same-sex marriage’ is the same as traditional marriage.” It protects marriage “as an essential institution of society” because “the best situation for a child is to be raised by a married mother and father.”
But as California’s chief justice, Ronald M. George, explained in his opinion declaring the state’s previous statutory ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional, limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples does nothing to protect the interests of children. “An individual’s capacity to establish a loving and long-term committed relationship with another person and responsibly to care for and raise children does not depend on the individual’s sexual orientation.” Moreover, “the exclusion of same-sex couples from the designation of marriage clearly is not necessary in order to afford full protection to all of the rights and benefits that currently are enjoyed by married opposite-sex couples.”
In other words, the reasons for denying gay and lesbian couples the right to marry that served as the “factual” basis for Proposition 8 are but pretexts for discrimination.
This is not to say, of course, that the federal courts would hold Proposition 8 to be in violation of the U.S. Constitution. There are differences between the marriage ban and Colorado’s prohibition of all sexual orientation anti-discrimination laws. As Kennedy noted in Romer vs. Evans, Amendment 2 “has the peculiar property of imposing a broad and undifferentiated disability on a single named group.” Proposition 8, in contrast, was narrowly focused on one civil right – marriage. Moreover, any court – especially our current U.S. Supreme Court – may be reluctant to rule that Californians do not have the power to amend their own state Constitution as a remedy to a judicial interpretation of that very same document.
Yet the Colorado and California initiatives are alike in their essence. Each is, to quote Kennedy, “a classification of persons undertaken for its own sake, something the equal protection clause does not permit.” Proposition 8 was explicitly designed to relegate hundreds of thousands of Californians to an inferior legal and social status.
Many gay-rights activists are wary of the current Supreme Court, but five of the justices who formed the majority in Romer vs. Evans remain on the bench. As with so many cases, a ruling likely would hinge on the views of Kennedy, and there is no reason to believe that his judicial opinion has changed in any fundamental way. Besides, any constitutional challenge will take years to make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. By that time, the broader political change that swept over the nation Nov. 4 may have reached the Supreme Court as well.
But even if it hasn’t, this 12-year-old precedent from a conservative high court could be the key to reaffirming that fundamental civil rights must be available to all citizens, regardless of race, sexual orientation or other intrinsic human qualities.
Brian E. Gray is a professor at the UC Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco.
16 November 2008
what do you call a fish with no eyes? fsh! but seriously, "the world’s major commercial [fishing] stocks will collapse by 2048..."
A Seafood Snob Ponders the Future of Fish
I suppose you might call me a wild-fish snob. I don’t want to go into a fish market on Cape Cod and find farm-raised salmon from Chile and mussels from Prince Edward Island instead of cod, monkfish or haddock. I don’t want to go to a restaurant in Miami and see farm-raised catfish from Vietnam on the menu but no grouper.
Those have been my recent experiences, and according to many scientists, it may be the way of the future: most of the fish we’ll be eating will be farmed, and by midcentury, it might be easier to catch our favorite wild fish ourselves rather than buy it in the market.
It’s all changed in just a few decades. I’m old enough to remember fishermen unloading boxes of flounder at the funky Fulton Fish Market in New York, charging wholesalers a nickel a pound. I remember when local mussels and oysters were practically free, when fresh tuna was an oxymoron, and when monkfish, squid and now-trendy skate were considered “trash.”
But we overfished these species to the point that it now takes more work, more energy, more equipment, more money to catch the same amount of fish — roughly 85 million tons a year, a yield that has remained mostly stagnant for the last decade after rapid growth and despite increasing demand.
Still, plenty of scientists say a turnaround is possible. Studies have found that even declining species can quickly recover if fisheries are managed well. It would help if the world’s wealthiest fish-eaters (they include us, folks) would broaden their appetites. Mackerel, anyone?
It will be a considerable undertaking nonetheless. Global consumption of fish, both wild and farm raised, has doubled since 1973, and 90 percent of this increase has come in developing countries. (You’ll sometimes hear that Americans are now eating more seafood, but that reflects population growth; per capita consumption has remained stable here for 20 years.)
The result of this demand for wild fish, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization, is that “the maximum wild-capture fisheries potential from the world’s oceans has probably been reached.”
One study, in 2006, concluded that if current fishing practices continue, the world’s major commercial stocks will collapse by 2048.
Already, for instance, the Mediterranean’s bluefin tuna population has been severely depleted, and commercial fishing quotas for the bluefin in the Mediterranean may be sharply curtailed this month. The cod fishery, arguably one of the foundations of North Atlantic civilization, is in serious decline. Most species of shark, Chilean sea bass, and the cod-like orange roughy are threatened.
Scientists have recently become concerned that smaller species of fish, the so-called forage fish like herring, mackerel, anchovies and sardines that are a crucial part of the ocean’s food chain, are also under siege.
These smaller fish are eaten not only by the endangered fish we love best, but also by many poor and not-so-poor people throughout the world. (And even by many American travelers who enjoy grilled sardines in England, fried anchovies in Spain, marinated mackerel in France and pickled or raw herring in Holland — though they mostly avoid them at home.)
But the biggest consumers of these smaller fish are the agriculture and aquaculture industries. Nearly one-third of the world’s wild-caught fish are reduced to fish meal and fed to farmed fish and cattle and pigs. Aquaculture alone consumes an estimated 53 percent of the world’s fish meal and 87 percent of its fish oil. (To make matters worse, as much as a quarter of the total wild catch is thrown back — dead — as “bycatch.”)
“We’ve totally depleted the upper predator ranks; we have fished down the food web,” said Christopher Mann, a senior officer with the Pew Environmental Group.
Using fish meal to feed farm-raised fish is also astonishingly inefficient. Approximately three kilograms of forage fish go to produce one kilogram of farmed salmon; the ratio for cod is five to one; and for tuna — the most beef-like of all — the so-called feed-to-flesh ratio is 20 to 1, said John Volpe, an assistant professor of marine systems conservation at the University of Victoria in British Columbia.
Industrial aquaculture — sometimes called the blue revolution — is following the same pattern as land-based agriculture. Edible food is being used to grow animals rather than nourish people.
This is not to say that all aquaculture is bad. China alone accounts for an estimated 70 percent of the world’s aquaculture — where it is small in scale, focuses on herbivorous fish and is not only sustainable but environmentally sound. “Throughout Asia, there are hundreds of thousands of small farmers making a living by farming fish,” said Barry Costa-Pierce, professor of fisheries at University of Rhode Island.
But industrial fish farming is a different story. The industry spends an estimated $1 billion a year on veterinary products; degrades the land (shrimp farming destroys mangroves, for example, a key protector from typhoons); pollutes local waters (according to a recent report by the Worldwatch Institute, a salmon farm with 200,000 fish releases nutrients and fecal matter roughly equivalent to as many as 600,000 people); and imperils wild populations that come in contact with farmed salmon.
Not to mention that its products generally don’t taste so good, at least compared to the wild stuff. Farm-raised tilapia, with the best feed-to-flesh conversion ratio of any animal, is less desirable to many consumers, myself included, than that nearly perfectly blank canvas called tofu. It seems unlikely that farm-raised striped bass will ever taste remotely like its fierce, graceful progenitor, or that anyone who’s had fresh Alaskan sockeye can take farmed salmon seriously.
If industrial aquaculture continues to grow, said Carl Safina, the president of Blue Ocean Institute, a conservation group, “this wondrously varied component of our diet will go the way of land animals — get simplified, all look the same and generally become quite boring.”
Why bother with farm-raised salmon and its relatives? If the world’s wealthier fish-eaters began to appreciate wild sardines, anchovies, herring and the like, we would be less inclined to feed them to salmon raised in fish farms. And we’d be helping restock the seas with larger species.
Which, surprisingly, is possible. As Mr. Safina noted, “The ocean has an incredible amount of productive capacity, and we could quite easily and simply stay within it by limiting fishing to what it can produce.”
This sounds almost too good to be true, but with monitoring systems that reduce bycatch by as much as 60 percent and regulations providing fishermen with a stake in protecting the wild resource, it is happening. One regulatory scheme, known as “catch shares,” allows fishermen to own shares in a fishery — that is, the right to catch a certain percentage of a scientifically determined sustainable harvest. Fishermen can buy or sell shares, but the number of fish caught in a given year is fixed.
This method has been a success in a number of places including Alaska, the source of more than half of the nation’s seafood. A study published in the journal Science recently estimated that if catch shares had been in place globally in 1970, only about 9 percent of the world’s fisheries would have collapsed by 2003, rather than 27 percent.
“The message is optimism,” said David Festa, who directs the oceans program at the Environmental Defense Fund. “The latest data shows that well-managed fisheries are doing incredibly well. When we get the rules right the fisheries can recover, and if they’re not recovering, it means we have the rules wrong.”
(The world’s fishing countries would need to participate; right now, the best management is in the United States, Australia and New Zealand; even in these countries, there’s a long way to go.)
An optimistic but not unrealistic assessment of the future is that we’ll have a limited (and expensive) but sustainable fishery of large wild fish; a growing but sustainable demand for what will no longer be called “lower-value” smaller wild fish; and a variety of traditional aquaculture where it is allowed. This may not sound ideal, but it’s certainly preferable to sucking all the fish out of the oceans while raising crops of tasteless fish available only to the wealthiest consumers.
Myself, I’d rather eat wild cod once a month and sardines once a week than farm-raised salmon, ever.~lee.
11 November 2008
[from the american prospect...]
Goodbye and Good Riddance
Paul Waldman | November 11, 2008 |
Since last week, I have stopped short and shaken my head in amazement every time I have heard the words "President-elect Obama." But it is equally extraordinary to consider that in just a few weeks, George W. Bush will no longer be our president. Let me repeat that: In just a few weeks, George W. Bush will no longer be our president. So though our long national ordeal isn't quite over, it's never too early to say goodbye.
Goodbye, we can say at last, to the most powerful man in the world being such a ridiculous buffoon, incapable of stringing together two coherent sentences. Goodbye to cringing with dread every time our president steps onto the world stage, sure he'll say or do something to embarrass us all. Goodbye to being represented by a man who embodies everything our enemies want the people of the world to believe about America -- that we are ignorant, cruel, and only care about foreign countries when we decide to stomp on them. Goodbye to his giggle, and his shoulder shake, and his nicknames. Goodbye to a president who talks to us like we're a nation of fourth-graders.
And goodbye, of course, to Dick Cheney. Goodbye to the man whose naked contempt for democracy contorted his face to a permanent sneer, who spent his days in his undisclosed location with his man-sized safe. And while we're at it, goodbye to Cheney's consigliore David Addington, as malevolent a force as has ever left his trail of slime across our federal institutions.
Goodbye, indeed, to the entire band of liars and crooks and thieves who have so sullied the federal government that belongs to us all. We can even say goodbye to those who have already gone, to Rummy and Scooter, to Fredo and Rove, tornados of misery left in their wake.
Goodbye to the rotating cast of butchers manning the White House's legal abattoir, where the Constitution has been sliced and bled and gutted since September 11. Goodbye to the "unitary executive" theory and its claims that the president can do whatever he wants -- even snatch an American citizen off the street and lock him up for life without charge, without legal representation, and without trial. Goodbye to the promiscuous use of "signing statements" (1,100 at last count) to declare that the law is whatever the president says it is, and that he'll enforce only those laws he likes. Goodbye to an executive branch that treats lawfully issued subpoenas like suggestions that can be ignored. Goodbye to thinking of John Ashcroft as the liberal attorney general. Goodbye to the culture of incompetence, where rebuilding a country we destroyed could be turned over to a bunch of clueless 20-somethings with no qualifications save an internship at the Heritage Foundation and an opposition to abortion. Goodbye to the "Brownie, you're doin' a heckuva job" philosophy, where vital agencies are turned over to incompetent boobs to rot and decay. Goodbye to handing out the Medal of Freedom as an award for engineering one of the greatest screw-ups of our time. Goodbye to an administration that welcomed gluttonous war profiteering, that was only too happy to outsource every government function it could to well-connected contractors who would do a worse job for more money.
Goodbye to the Bush Doctrine of preemptive war. Goodbye to the lust for sending off other people's sons and daughters to fight and kill and die just to show your daddy you're a real man. Goodbye to playing dress-up in flight suits, goodbye to strutting and posing and desperate sexual insecurity as a driver of American foreign policy. Goodbye to the neocons, so sinister and deluded they beg us all to become fevered conspiracy theorists. Goodbye to Guantanamo and its kangaroo courts. Goodbye to the use of torture as official U.S. government policy, and goodbye to the immoral ghouls who think you can rename it "enhanced interrogation techniques" and render it any less monstrous.
Goodbye to the accusation that if you disagree with what the president wants to do, you don't "support the troops."
Goodbye to stocking government agencies with people who are opposed to the very missions those agencies are charged with carrying out. Goodbye to putting industry lobbyists in charge of the agencies that are supposed to regulate those very industries. Goodbye to madly giving away public lands to private interests. Goodbye to a Food and Drug Administration that acts like a wholly owned subsidiary of the pharmaceutical industry, except when it acts like a wholly owned subsidiary of the fundamentalist puritans who believe that sex is dirty and birth control will turn girls into sluts. Goodbye to the "global gag rule," which prohibits any entity receiving American funds from even telling women where they can get an abortion if they need it.
Goodbye to vetoing health insurance for poor children but rushing back to Washington to sign a bill to keep alive a woman whose cerebral cortex had liquefied. Goodbye to the ban on federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research.
Goodbye to the philosophy that says that if we give tax cuts to the rich and keep the government from any oversight of the economy, prosperity will eventually trickle down. Goodbye to the thirst for privatizing Social Security and to the belief that the success of a social safety-net program is what makes it a threat and should mark it for destruction. Goodbye to the war on unions and to a National Labor Relations Board devoted to crushing them. Goodbye to the principle of loyalty above all else, that nominates Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court and puts Alberto Gonzales in charge of the Justice Department. And goodbye to that Justice Department, the one where U.S. attorneys keep their jobs only if they are willing to undertake bogus investigations of Democrats timed to hit the papers just before Election Day. Goodbye to a Justice Department where graduates of Pat Robertson's law school roam the halls by the dozens, where "justice" is a joke.
Goodbye to James Dobson and a host of radical clerics picking up the phone and hearing someone in the White House on the other end. Goodbye to the most consequential decisions being made on the basis of one man's "gut," a gut that proved so wrong so often. Goodbye to the contempt for evidence, to the scorn for intellect and book learnin', to the relentless war on science itself as a means of understanding the world.
Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye to it all.
Though President Obama will be spending most of his time cleaning up the mess George Bush made, we probably won't have Dubya to kick around anymore. It's hard to imagine Bush undertaking some grand philanthropic effort on the scale of the Clinton Global Initiative, or hopping around to international trouble spots like Jimmy Carter. Republicans won't be asking him to speak on their behalf, and publishers are reportedly uninterested in the prospect of a Bush memoir. His reign of destruction complete, Bush will return to Texas and fill his days with the mundane activities of a retiree -- puttering around the yard, reading some magazines, maybe enjoying that new Xbox Jenna gave him for Christmas ("I'm the Decider, and I decide to spend this afternoon playing Call of Duty 4").
This presidency is finally over. We can say goodbye to an administration whose misdeeds have piled so high that the size of the mountain no longer shocks us. In our lifetimes, we will see administrations of varying degrees of competence and integrity, some we'll agree with and some we won't. But we will probably never see another quite like the one now finally reaching its end, so mind-boggling a parade of incompetence and malice, dishonesty, and immorality. So at last -- at long, long last -- we can say goodbye.
And good riddance.
10 November 2008
Franklin Delano Obama?
Suddenly, everything old is New Deal again. Reagan is out; F.D.R. is in. Still, how much guidance does the Roosevelt era really offer for today’s world?
The answer is, a lot. But Barack Obama should learn from F.D.R.’s failures as well as from his achievements: the truth is that the New Deal wasn’t as successful in the short run as it was in the long run. And the reason for F.D.R.’s limited short-run success, which almost undid his whole program, was the fact that his economic policies were too cautious.
About the New Deal’s long-run achievements: the institutions F.D.R. built have proved both durable and essential. Indeed, those institutions remain the bedrock of our nation’s economic stability. Imagine how much worse the financial crisis would be if the New Deal hadn’t insured most bank deposits. Imagine how insecure older Americans would feel right now if Republicans had managed to dismantle Social Security.
Can Mr. Obama achieve something comparable? Rahm Emanuel, Mr. Obama’s new chief of staff, has declared that “you don’t ever want a crisis to go to waste.” Progressives hope that the Obama administration, like the New Deal, will respond to the current economic and financial crisis by creating institutions, especially a universal health care system, that will change the shape of American society for generations to come.
But the new administration should try not to emulate a less successful aspect of the New Deal: its inadequate response to the Great Depression itself.
Now, there’s a whole intellectual industry, mainly operating out of right-wing think tanks, devoted to propagating the idea that F.D.R. actually made the Depression worse. So it’s important to know that most of what you hear along those lines is based on deliberate misrepresentation of the facts. The New Deal brought real relief to most Americans.
That said, F.D.R. did not, in fact, manage to engineer a full economic recovery during his first two terms. This failure is often cited as evidence against Keynesian economics, which says that increased public spending can get a stalled economy moving. But the definitive study of fiscal policy in the ’30s, by the M.I.T. economist E. Cary Brown, reached a very different conclusion: fiscal stimulus was unsuccessful “not because it does not work, but because it was not tried.”
This may seem hard to believe. The New Deal famously placed millions of Americans on the public payroll via the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps. To this day we drive on W.P.A.-built roads and send our children to W.P.A.-built schools. Didn’t all these public works amount to a major fiscal stimulus?
Well, it wasn’t as major as you might think. The effects of federal public works spending were largely offset by other factors, notably a large tax increase, enacted by Herbert Hoover, whose full effects weren’t felt until his successor took office. Also, expansionary policy at the federal level was undercut by spending cuts and tax increases at the state and local level.
And F.D.R. wasn’t just reluctant to pursue an all-out fiscal expansion — he was eager to return to conservative budget principles. That eagerness almost destroyed his legacy. After winning a smashing election victory in 1936, the Roosevelt administration cut spending and raised taxes, precipitating an economic relapse that drove the unemployment rate back into double digits and led to a major defeat in the 1938 midterm elections.
What saved the economy, and the New Deal, was the enormous public works project known as World War II, which finally provided a fiscal stimulus adequate to the economy’s needs.
This history offers important lessons for the incoming administration.
The political lesson is that economic missteps can quickly undermine an electoral mandate. Democrats won big last week — but they won even bigger in 1936, only to see their gains evaporate after the recession of 1937-38. Americans don’t expect instant economic results from the incoming administration, but they do expect results, and Democrats’ euphoria will be short-lived if they don’t deliver an economic recovery.
The economic lesson is the importance of doing enough. F.D.R. thought he was being prudent by reining in his spending plans; in reality, he was taking big risks with the economy and with his legacy. My advice to the Obama people is to figure out how much help they think the economy needs, then add 50 percent. It’s much better, in a depressed economy, to err on the side of too much stimulus than on the side of too little.
In short, Mr. Obama’s chances of leading a new New Deal depend largely on whether his short-run economic plans are sufficiently bold. Progressives can only hope that he has the necessary audacity.~lee.
09 November 2008
A Quiet Windfall For U.S. Banks
With Attention on Bailout Debate, Treasury Made Change to Tax Policy
By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 10, 2008; A01
The financial world was fixated on Capitol Hill as Congress battled over the Bush administration's request for a $700 billion bailout of the banking industry. In the midst of this late-September drama, the Treasury Department issued a five-sentence notice that attracted almost no public attention.
But corporate tax lawyers quickly realized the enormous implications of the document: Administration officials had just given American banks a windfall of as much as $140 billion.
The sweeping change to two decades of tax policy escaped the notice of lawmakers for several days, as they remained consumed with the controversial bailout bill. When they found out, some legislators were furious. Some congressional staff members have privately concluded that the notice was illegal. But they have worried that saying so publicly could unravel several recent bank mergers made possible by the change and send the economy into an even deeper tailspin.
"Did the Treasury Department have the authority to do this? I think almost every tax expert would agree that the answer is no," said George K. Yin, the former chief of staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation, the nonpartisan congressional authority on taxes. "They basically repealed a 22-year-old law that Congress passed as a backdoor way of providing aid to banks."
The story of the obscure provision underscores what critics in Congress, academia and the legal profession warn are the dangers of the broad authority being exercised by Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. in addressing the financial crisis. Lawmakers are now looking at whether the new notice was introduced to benefit specific banks, as well as whether it inappropriately accelerated bank takeovers.
The change to Section 382 of the tax code -- a provision that limited a kind of tax shelter arising in corporate mergers -- came after a two-decade effort by conservative economists and Republican administration officials to eliminate or overhaul the law, which is so little-known that even influential tax experts sometimes draw a blank at its mention. Until the financial meltdown, its opponents thought it would be nearly impossible to revamp the section because this would look like a corporate giveaway, according to lobbyists.
Andrew C. DeSouza, a Treasury spokesman, said the administration had the legal authority to issue the notice as part of its power to interpret the tax code and provide legal guidance to companies. He described the Sept. 30 notice, which allows some banks to keep more money by lowering their taxes, as a way to help financial institutions during a time of economic crisis. "This is part of our overall effort to provide relief," he said.
The Treasury itself did not estimate how much the tax change would cost, DeSouza said.A Tax Law 'Shock'
The guidance issued from the IRS caught even some of the closest followers of tax law off guard because it seemed to come out of the blue when Treasury's work seemed focused almost exclusively on the bailout.
"It was a shock to most of the tax law community. It was one of those things where it pops up on your screen and your jaw drops," said Candace A. Ridgway, a partner at Jones Day, a law firm that represents banks that could benefit from the notice. "I've been in tax law for 20 years, and I've never seen anything like this."
More than a dozen tax lawyers interviewed for this story -- including several representing banks that stand to reap billions from the change -- said the Treasury had no authority to issue the notice.
Several other tax lawyers, all of whom represent banks, said the change was legal. Like DeSouza, they said the legal authority came from Section 382 itself, which says the secretary can write regulations to "carry out the purposes of this section."
Section 382 of the tax code was created by Congress in 1986 to end what it considered an abuse of the tax system: companies sheltering their profits from taxation by acquiring shell companies whose only real value was the losses on their books. The firms would then use the acquired company's losses to offset their gains and avoid paying taxes.
Lawmakers decried the tax shelters as a scam and created a formula to strictly limit the use of those purchased losses for tax purposes. [boldface mine. ~lee.]
But from the beginning, some conservative economists and Republican administration officials criticized the new law as unwieldy and unnecessary meddling by the government in the business world.
"This has never been a good economic policy," said Kenneth W. Gideon, an assistant Treasury secretary for tax policy under President George H.W. Bush and now a partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, a law firm that represents banks.
The opposition to Section 382 is part of a broader ideological battle over how the tax code deals with a company's losses. Some conservative economists argue that not only should a firm be able to use losses to offset gains, but that in a year when a company only loses money, it should be entitled to a cash refund from the government.
During the current Bush administration, senior officials considered ways to implement some version of the policy. A Treasury paper in December 2007 -- issued under the names of Eric Solomon, the top tax policy official in the department, and his deputy, Robert Carroll -- criticized limits on the use of losses and suggested that they be relaxed. A logical extension of that argument would be an overhaul of 382, according to Carroll, who left his position as deputy assistant secretary in the Treasury's office of tax policy earlier this year.
Yet lobbyists trying to modify the obscure section found that they could get no traction in Congress or with the Treasury.
"It's really been the third rail of tax policy to touch 382," said Kevin A. Hassett, director of economic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.'The Wells Fargo Ruling'
As turmoil swept financial markets, banking officials stepped up their efforts to change the law.
Senior executives from the banking industry told top Treasury officials at the beginning of the year that Section 382 was bad for businesses because it was preventing mergers, according to Scott E. Talbott, senior vice president for the Financial Services Roundtable, which lobbies for some of the country's largest financial institutions. He declined to identify the executives and said the discussions were not a concerted lobbying effort. Lobbyists for the biotechnology industry also raised concerns about the provision at an April meeting with Solomon, the assistant secretary for tax policy, according to talking points prepared for the session.
DeSouza, the Treasury spokesman, said department officials in August began internal discussions about the tax change. "We received absolutely no requests from any bank or financial institution to do this," he said.
Although the department's action was prompted by spreading troubles in the financial markets, Carroll said, it was consistent with what the Treasury had deemed in the December report to be good tax policy.
The notice was released on a momentous day in the banking industry. It not only came 24 hours after the House of Representatives initially defeated the bailout bill, but also one day after Wachovia agreed to be acquired by Citigroup in a government-brokered deal.
The Treasury notice suddenly made it much more attractive to acquire distressed banks, and Wells Fargo, which had been an earlier suitor for Wachovia, made a new and ultimately successful play to take it over.
The Jones Day law firm said the tax change, which some analysts soon dubbed "the Wells Fargo Ruling," could be worth about $25 billion for Wells Fargo. Wells Fargo declined to comment for this article.
The tax world, meanwhile, was rushing to figure out the full impact of the notice and who was responsible for the change.
Jones Day released a widely circulated commentary that concluded that the change could cost taxpayers about $140 billion. Robert L. Willens, a prominent corporate tax expert in New York City, said the price is more likely to be $105 billion to $110 billion.
Over the next month, two more bank mergers took place with the benefit of the new tax guidance. PNC, which took over National City, saved about $5.1 billion from the modification, about the total amount that it spent to acquire the bank, Willens said. Banco Santander, which took over Sovereign Bancorp, netted an extra $2 billion because of the change, he said. A spokesman for PNC said Willens's estimate was too high but declined to provide an alternate one; Santander declined to comment.
Attorneys representing banks celebrated the notice. The week after it was issued, former Treasury officials now in private practice met with Solomon, the department's top tax policy official. They asked him to relax the limitations on banks even further, so that foreign banks could benefit from the tax break, too.Congress Looks for Answers
No one in the Treasury informed the tax-writing committees of Congress about this move, which could reduce revenue by tens of billions of dollars. Legislators learned about the notice only days later.
DeSouza, the Treasury spokesman, said Congress is not normally consulted about administrative guidance.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), ranking member on the Finance Committee, was particularly outraged and had his staff push for an explanation from the Bush administration, according to congressional aides.
In an off-the-record conference call on Oct. 7, nearly a dozen Capitol Hill staffers demanded answers from Solomon for about an hour. Several of the participants left the call even more convinced that the administration had overstepped its authority, according to people familiar with the conversation.
But lawmakers worried about discussing their concerns publicly. The staff of Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairman of the Finance Committee, had asked that the entire conference call be kept secret, according to a person with knowledge of the call.
"We're all nervous about saying that this was illegal because of our fears about the marketplace," said one congressional aide, who like others spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. "To the extent we want to try to publicly stop this, we're going to be gumming up some important deals."
Grassley and Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) have publicly expressed concerns about the notice but have so far avoided saying that it is illegal. "Congress wants to help," Grassley said. "We also have a responsibility to make sure power isn't abused and that the sensibilities of Main Street aren't left in the dust as Treasury works to inject remedies into the financial system."
Carol Guthrie, spokeswoman for the Democrats on the Finance Committee, said it is in frequent contact with the Treasury about the financial rescue efforts, including how it exercises authority over tax policy.
Lawmakers are considering legislation to undo the change. According to tax attorneys, no one would have legal standing to file a lawsuit challenging the Treasury notice, so only Congress or Treasury could reverse it. Such action could undo the notice going forward or make it clear that it was never legal, a move that experts say would be unlikely.
But several aides said they were still torn between their belief that the change is illegal and fear of further destabilizing the economy.
"None of us wants to be blamed for ruining these mergers and creating a new Great Depression," one said.
Some legal experts said these under-the-radar objections mirror the objections to the congressional resolution authorizing the war in Iraq.
"It's just like after September 11. Back then no one wanted to be seen as not patriotic, and now no one wants to be seen as not doing all they can to save the financial system," said Lee A. Sheppard, a tax attorney who is a contributing editor at the trade publication Tax Analysts. "We're left now with congressional Democrats that have spines like overcooked spaghetti. So who is going to stop the Treasury secretary from doing whatever he wants?"~lee.
summers at treasury: what would we tell the children?
Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers' name is consistently placed prominently on the list of candidates to be President Obama's Treasury Secretary. This is rather striking since the policies he promoted as Treasury Secretary and in his subsequent writings led to the economic disaster that we now face.
As Treasury Secretary, Summers embraced the high dollar policy promoted by his predecessor Robert Rubin. While it offered short-term benefits in the form of cheap imports and lower inflation, the high dollar also produced a large and growing trade deficit. Just like tax cuts that cause unsustainable budget deficits, the high dollar policy of the Clinton years was unsustainable over the long-run.
Trade deficits also sap demand. In Summers' Treasury years, this demand gap was made up by a consumption boom, which was in turn driven by the stock market bubble. Like the rest of the Clinton crew, Summers cheered on the stock bubble.
Of course the stock bubble was not sustainable and when it collapsed in 2000-2002, it threw the economy into a recession. While the official recession was short and mild, the economy continued to shed jobs for almost two years after the recession ended. With the over-valued dollar causing the trade deficit to continue to rise, the only way to sustain demand was another consumption boom, this one driven by the housing bubble.
Greenspan kept interest rates at 50-year lows, while the housing bubble expanded to ever more dangerous level. Summers was no longer Treasury secretary at this point, but he did have ample opportunity to weigh in on a wide range of policy issues. While he offered his wisdom on a variety of economic issues during the housing bubble years, he never bothered to take note of an $8 trillion housing bubble or the catastrophe that its collapse would cause.
Silence was not Summers only contribution to the growth of the housing bubble. As Treasury Secretary, he had been a vigorous advocate of the one-sided financial deregulation (the Wall Street big boys all want the government security blanket of "too big to fail"). In particular, Summers had worked alongside Robert Rubin and Alan Greenspan to prevent any regulation of credit default swaps, an instrument that helped provide the financial fuel of the housing bubble.
The collapse of the housing bubble has left one-fifth of homeowners underwater in their mortgages, owing more than the value of their house. Tens of millions of homeowners now find themselves at the edge of retirement with almost nothing other than their Social Security to rely upon. And the economy will quite likely experience the worst recession since World War II as it struggles to overcome the loss of $8 trillion in housing bubble wealth.Given this record of failure, the question is how can Larry Summers still be considered for the top economic position in the Obama administration? This would be like appointing the arsonist who burned down the city as the new fire commissioner. We like to tell our children that success is rewarded and that failure is punished. But if Larry Summers ends up as Treasury secretary, what are we supposed to tell the children?