Monday, December 15, 2014

Major Provisions of the Cromnibus Budget Act, Including Some Outrageous Stinkers

Here is an excellent summary of the provisions of the budget act, nicknamed "Cromnibus," passed by the Senate over the weekend and sent on to the President. However, it fails to mention the campaign finance provisions discussed below.

There is so much wrong with this budget that it is hard to find much of great significance that is good. I would not have voted for it even if it meant a government shutdown. This was the last chance to stop some of these outrages before the Republicans take control of the Senate.

But there are a few good things:

The Homeland Security budget held steady, which means nothing was done to block President Obama's immigration executive orders.

The President's budget for fighting Ebola in Africa was approved.

NASA gets a slight budget increase, including funding for the new Orion space-launch program.

Various food-aid programs, including food stamps, are funded, as is $40 billion in highway funds for the states.

No funds are provided for administration of the ban on the sale and manufacture of incandescent light bulbs, which I do not view as bad because of the extremely high cost of LED alternatives. There should have been a lower cost alternative in place before this act was passed.

Things that are wrong:

About half of the $1.1 trillion budget goes to the Defense Department, including $92 billion for procurement of new weapons systems, including another 38 F-35 fighters that we probably do not need. We maintain an active military of 1.3 million and 820,000 reserves. We really should be doing a complete re-examination of our military needs in light of the fact that we are unlikely to have a major war with a major enemy in the foreseeable future. We do have continuing conflicts of relatively small scale, and, of course, there is the situation in Syria. But we probably need to focus on a smaller, more versatile military, at considerably lower cost. We spend just about as much on our military as the total of the combined military budgets of all the other countries in the world.

Some bank regulations of the Dodd-Frank Act were lifted, including the one that prevented banks from getting FDIC protection, and thus tax-payer protection, for certain kinds of risky investments - the very kinds that went bad in 2008 and caused the Great Recession. The provision in the budget bill was written by lobbyists for City Group.  Sen. Elizabeth Warren tried to block this provision unsuccessfully because - under enormous White House pressure - a number of Democrats voted for the budget.

The EPA budget of $8.1 billion is cut by $60 million, which means that agency's budget has been cut by 21% since 2010. The assault by the Republicans continues on efforts to protect the environment and to protect American citizens from pollution and harmful chemicals. Another rider forbids the EPA to regulate lead content in ammunition or fishing tackle. Just what we need - more lead in the environment.

The IRS budget is cut by $346 million, despite the fact that it has additional responsibilities under the Affordable Care Act. It also is prevented from targeting tea party and other organizations seeking tax-exempt status for their political activities, which previously were prohibited. This combined with the increase from $65,000 to $1.5 million that individuals can contribute to political parties over a two-year period means we will see even more big money in politics.

Why would anyone want to permit truck drivers to work 82 hours and not have adequate sleep between work weeks?  Well, this budget blocks the Transportation Department from requiring two nights of sleep between work weeks and reducing the maximum work week to 70 hours.

Another stinker - and a real head-scratcher: The budget stalls rules that were to go into effect in 2017 that would have required more whole grains, and less salt, in school foods.

The budget continues to ban the transfer of prisoners from Guantanamo and prohibits construction of facilities to house them in the U.S.

There are two provisions that seem to reflect completely opposed points of view. One rider prevents the District of Columbia from proceeding with the legalization of marijuana that was approved by voters in November. Another rider forbids the Justice Department from raiding medical marijuana dispensaries in states where they have been legalized.

Friday, December 12, 2014

It is time for progressives to take over the Democratic Party.

Elizabeth Warren has set the stage. It is time for progressives to take over the Democratic Party with her in the lead. All Democrats who vote for this budget bill with its CityGroup provision should be opposed in their next primaries by progressive candidates.

President Obama no longer is the leader of the Democratic Party. He has become a Republican

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Thoughts on the 2014 Election.

 Why did the American people put the Republicans back in control of the House of Representatives in 2010 and in control of the Senate in 2014? Democrats did not turn out to vote in 2010, or 2014, like they did in 2008 and 2012, but did they really want the Republicans able to block Obama's programs? There is an absurdity in United States with a near majority of the people supporting a political party that operates almost entirely against their interests because it is completely devoted to helping the rich get richer, and has no interest in restoring the viability of the middle class to which most of its supporters belong, or want to belong.
In a short column in the New York Times in March on Thomas Piketty's book,Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Paul Krugman wrote, “one thing that strikes me is the remarkable extent to which American conservatism in 2014 seems to be about defending and promoting patrimonial capitalism even though we aren't there yet.” And he added, “In short, the GOP is more and more a party that consistently, indeed, reflexively, supports the interests of capital over those of labor.”1
Not counting the racism that has shown itself in some of the virulent opposition to President Obama, why are there still millions of other middle class and lower middle class people who vote Republican even through they are hurt by the party's policies?
It may well be habit and tradition in some areas. But it also may be that the people really have not been given a true alternative and have not been shown how that alternative actually will work for them. Perhaps the Democrats and Republicans are not different enough from one another. Perhaps many people are disillusioned because they voted for a Presidential candidate who promised “change we can believe in” but who has not changed anything truly significant. Some polls have shown Americans growing more cynical of government and its ability to solve problems, and it is not hard to understand that.
The loss of the Senate in 2014 may eventually be good for the Democrats because nearly all of the “Blue Dog”Democratic senators are gone, and good riddance. As long as there were conservative Democrats in danger of losing their seats, neither the Senate, nor the President, would move ahead with progressive actions. President Obama purposely delayed his executive orders on immigration until after the election at the request of the conservative Democrats. Had he taken action before the election it might have helped to save one or two of the Senate seats in states, like Colorado, where there is a large Hispanic vote, but which did not turn out strongly for the Democrats.
How absurd it was for Kentucky Democratic Senatorial candidate Alison Grimes to refuse to say for whom she voted in the Presidential election. She might as well have said that Mitch McConnell was right all along to oppose everything the President wanted to do. And if that was the case, then why should anyone vote for her? Her loss in that election was guaranteed when she did that because Democrats had no reason to vote for her. She might have earned respect, and maybe even more votes, had she stood by the President and defended his record.
And then there is the ridiculous case of Louisiana Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu trying to show her support of the oil industry by orchestrating a Senate vote on the Keystone Pipeline, a project posing horrendous dangers to the environment in a number of different ways, but providing no substantial economic benefit to the United States except that the Koch Brothers may make a billion dollars from it.
By keeping the Democratic Party and the President from becoming more progressive, these conservative Democrats help the Republicans maintain the gridlock. The Party is better off without them.
By the time Barack Obama finishes his second term, Democrats will have held the Presidency for 16 of the 28 years since Ronald Reagan left office, yet most of his conservative program that wrecked the middle class still is in place. Not all of that can be blamed on Democrats not always controlling Congress. The budget developed by the Progressive Caucus of the House of Representatives, praised by many economists, including Paul Krugman and Dean Baker, as better for the country than the budgets of either the White House, or the Republicans, did not received even a majority of the votes of House Democrats and no support from the Democrat in the White House. This has to change. The Democratic Party needs new leadership and new ideas.
The problems the nation face today cannot and will not be solved by private enterprise. It is going to take massive government action and large amounts of money. It is going to take new leadership dedicated to problem-solving.
It may be that there has not been either the right kind of dynamic leadership to bring about the changes the nation needs, or a large enough, and well organized enough movement for change that could be led. The ending of legal segregation and racial discrimination in the 1960s did not come about simply through one or two elections, or one set of protests, or through one or two leaders. It occurred because there was an enormously well organized movement over many years that had clear goals, determination to succeed, incredible courage, and developed both widespread support and outstanding leadership.
American history shows what has brought change in the past, and it can do it again. America needs a new progressive movement. That's how real change can occur.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

From The Long War Journal: We are not slowing down ISIS.

Islamic State assassinates Anbar province police chief

The Islamic State has killed the top police commander for Anbar province, in an IED attack today in a village that is home to the anti-jihadist Awakening in Ramadi. The assassination is the latest blow to Iraq's beleaguered security forces in the western province.
General Ahmad Sadak al Dulaymi, Anbar's police chief, was patrolling the village of Albu Risha when the Islamic State targeted his convoy with two IEDs, or improvised explosive devices, earlier today. The police general and three bodyguards were killed in the attack, according to The New York Times.

Read more:

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Rising Tide Against Oil Trains and Oil Terminals

Railroads are transporting highly volatile oil from the North Dakota oil shale fields across the country to refineries. Most, if not all, of the tanker cars holding the oil are not safe. There have been a number of huge explosions, some with fatalities.  There is an effort in the Pacific Northwest, organized by, to try to stop these trains. Not only do they pose a huge danger to people, oil spills could cause unrepairable damage to the Columbia River and its treasure of salmon breeding grounds.

And, of course, there is the overriding issue of the expansion of the use of fossil fuels and the huge role they play in rising Earth temperatures and climate change. See my review of This Changes Everything. And the oil is extracted through fracking, which has its own issues with the environment and water supplies.

The economic arguments for the oil refineries on the West Coast and the transport of oil in tens of thousands of unsafe oil tank cars do not begin to justify the risks involved to people and the environment.

For more information on the Rising Tide organization's efforts to stop the oil trains and the oil refineries go to this link.

They are sponsoring a showing the Vice documentary, "Bomb Trains," tonight (Tuesday, Oct. 7) in Portland. There is information on the Rising Tide website.  If you cannot go to this event, the documentary can be seen on YouTube here.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Naomi Klein provides accelerant to the re-ignited Climate Change Movement - a book review.

Naomi Klein. This Changes Everything. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014. 566 p. $30.00.

A book review by Dan Riker

According to Thomas Piketty in Capital in the Twenty-First Century the rich are going to get much richer and more powerful, and there is not much we can do about it. However, if we don't stop the Earth from heating up in the next ten years, there may not be a world that even the rich can enjoy, writes Naomi Klein in her powerful new book, This Changes Everything.
Until now, Piketty's book probably was the most influential and controversial book of the year - maybe in quite a few years. However, Klein arguably has trumped Piketty, by describing in terms that anyone can understand the almost immediate crisis the world faces with climate change and what needs to be done about it. And by so doing she provides accelerant to a climate change movement re-ignited by the recent massive march in New York City.
Klein, a Canadian journalist, has had two previous bestsellers, The Shock Doctrine and No Logo, and This Changes Everything already has made the bestseller lists.
While not highly technical, this is a well-documented book, with 100 pages of notes. She doesn't dwell on the climate science, but the data she cites is all that is needed. The amount of carbon in the Earth's atmosphere is increasing, mostly because of the burning of fossil fuels, oil, gasoline, natural gas and coal. The use of those fuels is increasing, rather than decreasing, and the carbon emissions, trapped in the atmosphere, are causing the temperature of the Earth to rise. Klein quotes a 2012 report by the World Bank discussing the projection for ten years from now:

"(A)s global warming approaches and exceeds 2-degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), there is a risk of triggering nonlinear tipping elements. Examples include the disintegration of the West Antarctic ice sheet leading to more rapid sea-level rise, or large-scale Amazon dieback drastically affecting ecosystems, rivers, agriculture, energy production, and livelihoods. This would further add to 21st Century global warming and impact entire continents."

Klein adds, "In other words, once we allow temperatures to climb past a certain point, where the mercury stops is not in our control." The World Bank went on to write, "we're on track for a 4 degree C warmer world (by century's end) marked by extreme heat waves, declining global food stocks, loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, and life-threatening sea level rise."
And she points out that recent data indicates the track now is actually for a 6 degree C rise, which would cause uncontrollable catastrophes that are likely to make the Earth uninhabitable. This is something that could happen in the lifetimes of people now alive. Temperature rises have to be stropped before they exceed 2 degrees Celsius in the next ten years.
There is no valid scientific data to refute these projections. Those who have made denying climate change a profitable profession, due to financial support from the fossil fuel industry, have been roundly defeated in public discourse, and by hard evidence. But the fossil fuel industry - and its minions in the Republican Party - promote denial, and try to convince the unwary, and uninformed, of its validity. And they have been successful in preventing American government action against climate change.
While the national government may not be doing anything, Klein writes, the industry's frenetic efforts to extract as much fossil fuel as possible, as fast as possible, are generating increasing citizen opposition. Fracking is a good example.
Fracking has become such a massive user - and destroyer - of fresh water that it is endangering water supplies in many parched and drought-stricken areas in the United States and in other countries. In one year the amount of water used in fracking in the U.S. could cover Washington, DC to a depth of 22 feet. In addition to creating massive amounts of wastewater, fracking also causes earthquakes, pollutes fresh water sources and releases large amounts of methane into the atmosphere, immediately contributing to global warming.
The battle to save water is a battle people all over the world, according to Klein, are willing to fight, even to die for.
"We can't drink oil," is a refrain she writes is often heard.
As a result, opposition to fracking is growing. France, Bulgaria, the Netherlands and the Czech Republican have moratoria on fracking in place. In North America so do Vermont, New York, Quebec, Labrador and Newfoundland.
Klein writes about a very frightening topic, but she does it with a style that is personal, warm and gentle, not strident or preachy. She communicates to the reader almost as she would to a close friend, or relative. And she demonstrated that same style in her talk to an overflow, standing room only crowd Wednesday night at a Powell's bookstore in the Portland, Oregon, suburb of Beaverton. She talked as if all the people in the room were friends, or family - reinforcing the message of inclusion in her book - that in trying to save the world, we are all together.
But while her style is gentle and friendly, her message is not muted, or ambiguous.
"All non-radical changes are off the table," she said to the crowd. "We have to change a system that already has failed...this is the best chance to demand and build a better world."
And the principal part of her message is that the climate change movement can galvanize other reform movements into one major effort to bring about true economic equality and opportunity, and greater freedom. And as a centerpiece of a united movement she proposes that the government guarantee a minimum income to all citizens, something that Switzerland recent has done.
And in This Changes Everything, she leaves no doubt as to the urgency of such a movement.
"(O)nly a mass social movement can save us now. Because we know where the current system, left unchecked, is headed," she writes, adding later,

"(C)limate change does not need some shiny new movement that will magically succeed where others failed. Rather, as the furthest-reaching crisis created by the extractivist worldview, and one that puts humanity on a firm and unyielding deadline, climate change can be the force - the grand push - that will bring together all of these still living movements. A rushing river fed by countless streams, gathering collective force to finally reach the sea....
Climate change is our chance to right those festering wrongs at last - the unfinished business of liberation."

She departs from much of the environmental movement. There is no time left for incremental changes or for compromise. There simply is only one answer to the fossil fuel industry: No. No more mines. No more drilling licenses. No more pipelines. No more coal or oil terminals. No more fracking. Its growth must stop, and eventually, not too long from now, its business must end, or be dramatically curtailed.
And that is an enormous task. According to a study she quotes in the book, the existing holdings of oil, gas and coal, of the fossil fuel industry would emit five times more carbon than the earth's atmosphere can safely absorb, and are worth in present value somewhere in the range of $27 trillion. And they are looking for more sources. To save the world, they are going to have to be forced to give up 80% of that $27 trillion and severely limit, or shut down, their businesses. This is not something they will do very willingly.
She portrays the struggle as one between capitalism and the climate, but it really is a struggle with that key element of capitalism, which always has been its greatest problem - the drive for greater and greater growth and profits. Unfettered capitalism always has been its own worst enemy, but now it is the world's worst enemy. Unless it is stopped, the fossil fuel industry will destroy the world.
Progressive governments in the past reined in capitalism's worst aspects, and, ultimately, it will take government action to rein in the extraction industry and stop climate change. But we do not have a progressive government today - far from it. For that to happen, there must be a huge mobilization among the people, and it is something that has happened in the past. Can it happen again?
She begins the book by describing the problem, and she got me hooked in the Introduction, when she wrote about reading Have You Ever Seen a Moose? to her young son, and remembering a recent article in Scientific American, "Rapid Changes Turn North Woods into Moose Graveyard." It seems the moose in Alberta and nearby areas are dying off and it is believed to be because of the toxic chemicals released from the massive tar sands extraction project.
She wrote: "Will he ever see a moose?"
Her personal style once again is demonstrated later in the book when she describes her difficulties trying to get pregnant and then discovering that she was pregnant while in New Orleans and in the oily and toxic water caused by the BP disaster. It turned out to be an ectopic pregnancy (when the embryo implants outside the uterus), but before that she worried that she had damaged her baby by being in the toxic water. And she provides plenty of evidence from many places in the world where babies have been severely damaged because of the pollution of the fossil fuel industry.
In the first part of the book she criticizes international trade agreements and many environmental groups for supporting them, as well as most governments, including that headed by President Barack Obama because of his support for every method of fossil fuel extraction. As an example of the negative effects these treaties have on efforts to curb climate change, she describes how Quebec was stopped from providing support to a local solar power company because such an effort would discriminate against companies in other countries.
She contrasts North American policies with those of Germany, where many cities operate their own public utilities and where more than half of the nation's electricity now comes from solar and wind power. She quotes a number of studies showing that, if we chose to make the necessary changes in our power generating systems and businesses, existing types of renewable sources of energy could provide a majority of America's power in just the next 15 years. One, by a Stanford group, says that all of New York City's electricity could be so provided. But there are huge obstacles to such progress.
She writes:

"(T)he three policy pillars of the neoliberal age - privatization of the public sphere, deregulation of the corporate sector, and the lowering of income and corporate taxes, paid for with cuts to public spending - are each incompatible with many of the actions we must take to bring our emissions to safe levels. And together these pillars form an ideological wall that has blocked a serious response to climate change for decades."

In Part Two, titled "Magical Thinking," she criticizes most major environmental groups for failing to move the ball at all on climate change. In addition to supporting trade agreements, many environmental groups have co-opted themselves by becoming too close to the industry, or in the case of The Nature Conservancy, becoming the industry. Mobil Oil donated some Texas land known as a breeding ground for the endangered prairie chicken to the Nature Conservancy. The Conservancy later put oil wells on the property. The oil wells still are there, but the prairie chickens are gone.
The Royal Academy convened a meeting of what she called "mad scientists" to discuss means by which the sun's heat could be diverted, including schemes such as squirting chemicals into the atmosphere to block the sun's rays. She wrote that Bill Gates actually invested in one outfit attempting to develop such technology, proof that having billions of dollars does not necessarily mean having common sense.
The meat of the book is Part Three, where she describes the efforts by groups of people all over the world to combat fossil fuel extraction that threatens their towns, homes and families, calling their actions, "Blockadia." Even though most governments are doing little to combat climate change, that does not mean that citizen action is not being taken, and some of it is starting to be successful.
The Cherokee have stalled the Keystone XL Pipeline because it violates their treaty-covered lands. Similarly, native people in Canada are challenging the destruction of lands in Alberta that, under treaty, they have a right to use, and are fighting a proposed pipeline and oil terminal in British Columbia on land the government does not have a right to use.
As an example of how citizen action can succeed, she points out that China is beginning to reduce its use of coal, and will have lower future demand. Activist challenges to new coal facilities that delay their implementation may eliminate their business viability.

With This Changes Everything, Noami Klein very effectively describes the problem we face, the difficulty of solving it, but ways in which it can be effectively attacked. It should help to inspire the movement that will be necessary to force the major changes we, the people of Earth, need for our very survival.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Rolling Stone exposes the Koch Brothers and how they became so rich.

Tim Dickinson has written for Rolling Stone the most devastating portrait of the Koch Brothers I think has yet been published. Titled "Inside the Koch Brothers' Toxic Empire," and published September 24, 2014, the article traces the history of the Koch family business from the grandfather to the present. Its entire history is replete with shenanigans, illegal activities, government investigations, settlements, convictions and millions of dollars in fines. Yet that all is chicken feed to a company that  has revenues in excess of $125 billion.

Employees are quoted as saying they calculated that the cost of being caught and fined for operating something unsafely was much less than the profits that could be earned from such behavior.

This company now virtually owns the Republican Party and it is trying to buy the federal government. How is it going to be stopped?

Read the article. It is a tremendous work of journalism