Saturday, February 13, 2016

Left Side of the Aisle #237

Left Side of the Aisle
for the week of February 11 to 17, 2016

This week:

Good News: some voting rights restored in Maryland

Passing thought: Will the US denounce the government of Japan as "tyrannical" for threatening to close "biased" media outlets, as it did in the case of Venezuela?

Why has the left stopped talking about cutting the military budget?

Bernie Sanders, just like Hillary Clinton, is more hawkish than people think

People in Laos still dying from unexploded bombs from the Indochina war

Not Good News: North Carolina fighting suit against its new moves at voter suppression

Outrage of the Week: study proves corporations deliberately choose poor and nonwhite neighborhood for toxic waste dump sites

Clown Award: Steve Schwarzman, CEO of Blackstone private equity firm

VIP: Paul Kantner and Signe Toly Anderson

Sunday, February 07, 2016

236.4 - A rare (and potentially my only) commentary on the Democratic primaries

A rare (and potentially my only) commentary on the Democratic primaries

In the wake of the Iowa caucuses (and written before the New Hampshire primary), treasure this: It surely will be one of the few, and may well be the only, comments you will hear me make on the primaries. That is, the Democratic primaries; I won't even bother with the GOPper ones.

And a lot of what I have to say will be about the media, not so much about the candidates, although their differences to a good extent drive the differing media coverage.

But I'll start by confessing my biases. Not my political biases, which I expect will come as no surprise and are likely well known to anyone who has watched my show or followed this blog. But this is about purely personal biases.

Okay, first off, I have to admit that I personally don't like Hillary Clinton. I don't dislike her, I just can't take to her. This a pure, unreasoned, visceral reaction. She feels too staged, too constructed, to me. Those moments when in interviews or on the stump when she's being cheerful or chipper or a "good sport," as when in that last Iowa forum she was shown Bernie Sanders' closing ad and called it "great" and "poetry," at times like that it feels posed, it feels like she's playing a role, as if this is a character she wears in the same way Stephen Colbert wore his right-wing character. I feel that she would rather come off like a serious policy wonk like Sanders does but has learned to put on this facade because it's better politically.

If that's not true, if she really is by nature the cheerful extrovert she presents herself as, if she really is, ala Hubert Humphrey, the "happy warrior," then I'm sorry for misreading her.

I will also say that I don't think I misread her and I'm aware that the reason she does it is because there is still more than enough sexism that if she as a woman didn't come off as cheerful and a good sport that she would face a backlash that would have a serious impact on her support. Which means that she does it out of necessity. And even though I understand that, I still find she puts me off. Which is why I called it an "unreasoned, visceral reaction."

That said, I don't particularly like Bernie Sanders, either, not on a personal level. But it's for a very different reason.

I have friends in Vermont who know or at least knew Bernie Sanders. They worked closely on some of his early campaigns in Burlington and for Congress. They told me that the way he comes off in interviews and on the stumps is really him, he really is like that. It's not posed.

Hillary Clinton
Bernie Sanders
They also said he has a good sense of humor but that for him everything comes back to policy, that he really is a real policy wonk and he comes off that way.

Here's the thing: they also told me he loves to argue. In fact, he loves to argue so much that sometimes he would argue a point - just for the sake of arguing a point. He would argue things just to argue things.

I don't like people like that. I find them irritating and it feels like they are forever trying to prove to you that they are cleverer than you are.

I suppose now some people will be saying I'm too particular about who I like. Which is perhaps true, but the point here is that my preference between Clinton and Sanders is based on policy, not personality. I don't particularly want to get to know either of them.

With that out of the way, let's get to the subject. Right at the top, I have to say that it's absurd to say anyone "won" Iowa. Iowa is not an election, it is caucuses to choose delegates to the Democratic national convention. You can say so-and-so got more delegates, but to say they "won" as if it were a winner-take-all election is nonsense.*

What's more, this was about as close to a draw as you could get. Clinton and Sanders were separated by 0.2 percent and the delegate division was, by latest report as I do this, 23 for Clinton to 21 for Sanders. And six of those delegates were chosen by flipping a coin, with Clinton winning all six, which means her margin was the result of random chance.**

The only way anyone "wins" or "loses" Iowa is in the purely political sense of doing much better or much worse than expected. You could claim on that basis that Iowa was a "win" for Sanders because just a few months ago he was over 30 points behind, but for the past couple of weeks the polls had been calling it a tossup so that argument won't fly, either. This was a tie or as close as you could expect to come to one.

But the media kept going on about how Clinton "won" Iowa. Her campaign even called it an "historic" win; I'm not sure of the basis for that but I figure it for standard campaign hyperbole, so leave it be. Sanders' campaign did much the same thing, suggesting it was a "win" for him by emphasizing the size of the gap he closed.

But it was the media that set the tone of "Clinton wins!" It was just another example of the media closing ranks about the preferred candidate of the political and economic establishment, a media that first tried to ignore Sanders, then to dismiss him, then to mock him, and now, as I predicted to my wife it would, to set the bar impossibly high:

Remember first that before Sanders announced his candidacy and even after, Clinton was the "presumptive" nominee, the "of course she's going to win" candidate. Remember next that a poll done of Iowa caucus-goers the last week of October showed Clinton with a 65-24 lead over Sanders: a 41 percentage point lead. And remember third that when the caucuses were held, that advantage had shrunk to, again, one-fifth of a percentage point.

So how did this New York Time's "Upshot" blog analyze the results?
But in the end, a virtual tie in Iowa is an acceptable, if not ideal, result for Mrs. Clinton and an ominous one for Mr. Sanders.
Why? Because "He failed to win a state tailor made to his strengths." Exactly why Iowa is "tailor made" for a New England democratic socialist with a Brooklyn accent went unexplained beyond noting that Iowa is white and rural - Just like Vermont! - which I suppose would make, say, Idaho or Montana also "tailor made" for Bernie Sanders.

The point is, the standard went from "he can't win" to "he must win or else."

Just how bad did the coverage get? Consider this:

A couple of days before the caucuses, Buzzfeed reported that the Clinton campaign was actively training its Iowa volunteers in a maneuver that could take delegates away from Sanders by making Martin O'Malley a "viable" candidate in certain precincts. This was confirmed to Buzzfeed by a Clinton precinct captain.

The rules in the Iowa caucuses are rather complex, but here is a very oversimplified example of how that would work, as I understand it. Suppose there is a precinct with four delegates up for grabs (I'm not even going to try to get into "delegate equivalents," which is how the choices are actually counted). Clinton's people know that Sanders has 60% support, they have 30%, and O'Malley has 10%, and as a result the delegates are going to go three for Sanders and one for Clinton. If you have 15% support, you are a "viable candidate" and have to get at least one delegate. So enough Clinton people caucus with O'Malley supporters to bring him up to 15%. The result is that now the delegates go two for Sanders, one for Clinton, and one for O'Malley - and Sanders has lost a delegate.

It's sneaky - but it's entirely within the rules.

Okay. In response to the Buzzfeed report, a site called put out an article headlined "Sanders supporters advocate using O'Malley as spoiler in Iowa" and subtitled "Bernie Sanders' campaign slammed Hillary Clinton's planned use of a political tactic, but his supporters are advocating the same strategy."

But if you get to the third paragraph, you discover that what Vocativ's "deep web analysts" - and yes that's that the article called them - what its "deep web analysts" had found was someone on a subreddit of Sanders fans suggesting it. Not Sanders, not the campaign, not any official, not anyone actually connected to the campaign, some individual supporters. With no indication that the campaign supported it or even less, trained people in how to do it.

By the time that that got to the splash screen of, the headline had become "Sanders accused of dirty trick against Clinton" with the subhead that it "has emerged that Bernie Sanders' camp may be trying to rob Hillary Clinton of supporters with a sneaky move."

So what began as a confirmed report that the Clinton campaign was training its volunteers in a sneaky but legal tactic had morphed into a claim that Sanders was using a "dirty trick" to "rob" Clinton of delegates.

While that is perhaps an egregious example, it's far from the only one demonstrating a mass media bias that having failed to kill the Sanders campaign with silence would now attempt to kill it by setting impossibly high standards of achievement and political purity.

Let's be clear: I'm not talking about secret media cabals or grand conspiracies here, I'm talking about the natural outgrowth of a shared worldview, a common way of looking at the world, a commonality of perspective that leads to a commonality of conclusion and a commonality of action. I'll say it again: The media is closing ranks about the preferred candidate of the political and economic establishment, the candidate that even though they might not be great fans of all their proposals is still the one which that establishment feels comfortable with, the one that establishment has confidence might rearrange the apples on the cart but will not upset it. And that candidate, clearly, is Hillary Clinton.

Because Hillary Clinton, bluntly, is not nearly as progressive as she has been painting herself recently with her sudden and much too convenient commitment to populism, a commitment that has increased in direct proportion to the shrinkage in the polling gap between her and Sanders.

Not as progressive as claimed
In fact, it's not hard to make a case for why anyone who considers themselves progressive should not vote for Hillary Clinton even beyond that fact that her recent conversion to populism can't be trusted: The last day of the Iowa campaign, she was insistently declaring "I'm a progressive" only to say the very next day during a disturbingly fawning interview with Chris Matthews that "We’ve got to get back to the middle. We’ve got to get back to the big center."

For one thing, she is far more hawkish than people seem to realize. As an example, back in 2011, as Secretary of State, she was one of the most hawkish voices about the bombing of Libya and actually went so far as to tell a Congressional briefing that the Obama administration would simply ignore any attempts by Congress to assert its Constitutional authority in matters of war and peace.

She has also been an enthusiastic supporter of the drone war that has killed thousands of civilians.

In 2014, after leaving the administration, she declared a position on Iran's nuclear program that, had it been adopted, would have undermined the agreement that was reached and bemoaned that the US had not been more involved in Syria, including creating a "credible fighting force" and she has advocated a "no-fly zone" and a "safe zone," the latter of which, despite her flippant denials during a recent debate, would require ground troops.

Just recently, a couple of weeks ago she declared on Meet the Press that her policy on Iran would be "to distrust and verify." Sounding more like a member of Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet than a candidate for president of the US, she proposed new sanctions on Iran over a claim it's violating UN Security Council resolutions about its ballistic missile program. Which at least is consistent: During the 2008 primaries, she called Obama "naive" for saying he would be willing to talk to the Iranians.

In Congress, she supported both the Patriot Act, the one I dubbed the Traitor Act for its impact on civil liberties, and its reauthorization. More recently, she has defended NSA spying and called Edward Snowden an enabler of terrorism while saying she was "puzzled" why he fled the country when "we have all these protections for whistle-blowers" - apparently forgetting (no, of course she didn't actually forget) that the Obama administration has prosecuted more whistle-blowers than all previous presidents combined.

On the economy, suffice it to say that, as I said last time, she has so many ties to Wall Street it looks like some kind of kinky bondage party. Enough, in fact, that they are so comfortable with her that Tom Donohue, president of the US Chamber of Commerce said just recently that the only reason Clinton has come out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership is because Sanders has and that if she's elected, she will switch back to supporting the pact she once called "the gold standard" for trade deals before starting to waffle in the face of its great unpopularity with primary voters.

Until she was challenged by Sanders' campaign, she supported fracking and for months she avoided taking a stand on the Keystone XL pipeline, only to finally come out in opposition on the grounds not that it's a bad idea but that it's a "distraction." She has said some good things on the topic of climate change but favors boosting fossil fuel supplies, which pretty much undercuts the argument.

There's more, but that's enough to make the point that yes, a solid case can be made that Hillary Clinton does not deserve the support of progressives.

Here's the sad part: Even given all that and all the rest I didn't address, she is still light-years ahead of, light-years beyond, anyone running on the GOPper side. So much so that were she to be the nominee and I lived in a toss-up state - which I assuredly do not - I would have to choke back my bile and vote for her.

Doubts about Sanders
I'm hoping I wouldn't have to make that choice. I do have problems with Bernie Sanders. His rather fumbling defenses of his weak record on gun control disturb me and he seems to lack, in the absence of a better term, a good feel for issues around racial and sexual justice, particularly where those issues are not easily connected to a class economic analysis.

This is not to say that he is bad on those issues, in fact his record on them is a solidly good one. But when he talks about the billionaire class running the country, when he talks about economic inequality, when he talks about changing the nature of power in the country, you can tell that he feels this, this is not just analysis, this is passion, this is commitment, this is genuine belief, this is emotional, this is his heart. And he doesn't seem to have that same feel for issues of racial and sexual justice. Lacking that sort of emotional connection, it's too easy for such issues to keep slipping down the list of priorities, forever sitting in the "In" box without ever actually getting moved to the desk.

And that worries me.

On the other hand, it's also true that his encounters with Black Lives Matter protesters indicated that he has the ability to listen and even learn something.

On the economy, as I said last time, he is not the socialist he claims to be and even less the socialist he is often made out to be by the media. A number of his proposals are good but I think they clearly do not go far enough.

But ultimately, bottom line, this is what is comes down to for me:

A little while ago, there was a brief kerfuffle when Sanders was asked about the fact that Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign had endorsed Clinton, which seemed rather odd considering he had a 100% lifetime voting record with each of them. He responded by referring to those groups as part of "the establishment." He quickly backed off that, realizing it was a gaffe. But while a gaffe, not untrue; I think he was referring to the national levels of those organizations, which at that level focus mostly almost exclusively on inside-the-beltway Congressional lobbying. That is, they are part of that establishment which I have been, and I think he was, talking about. Which raises, for me, an important difference between Clinton and Sanders.

First things first: She is a former Senator and a former Secretary of State who gets paid bunches in speaking fees to corporate gatherings. He is a sitting US Senator, a former member of the House, with something like a 33-year history in elective office, 25 of those at the federal level. Which means, if we are to be fair, that both these people are members of "the establishment."

Which brings us to the difference I spoke of between them, and it's a fundamental one, a sort of political "he-said-she-said."

She sees that establishment as what you have to work within and which sets the boundaries of the possible. He sees that establishment as what you have to go beyond to generate pressure (his "political revolution") to make that establishment do what it would not have done otherwise.

All of which brings to mind a slogan from the dreaded '60s: "Be realistic - demand the impossible." Because that is the only way true progress has ever been produced. And I prefer to go with hope.

As Edward McClelland of Salon wrote just prior to the caucuses (paraphrased),
Clinton's campaign is based on fear – the fear that Republicans will return to power and undo any progress made. Sanders is running on hope – hope for what he calls a "political revolution" that will take power out of the hands of billionaires.
If our society were likened to a house with a leaky roof, Bernie Sanders would be the one saying "I know it's hard but we've got to fix the roof!" while Hillary Clinton would be the one to advocate placing flower pots under the drips in order to beautify the rooms.

He is the voice of the hope for real progress and she is, ultimately, the voice of the hope that things won't get worse or at least will get worse more slowly. Which is why I am seriously considering, for just the second time in my life, changing my registration just so I can vote in a Democratic presidential primary. The first time was in 1988 when I switched from "independent" to Democrat to vote for Jesse Jackson. This time it will be a switch from Green to Democrat and the vote will be for Bernie Sanders.

*It is true that a number of primaries are not winner-take-all, so the same argument could be made about them. I would in those cases make an exception (and so accept there is a "winner") for those where getting the most votes makes a significant difference in the number of delegates (i.e., they are not awarded, for example, in numbers equivalent to each candidate's percentage of the vote but disproportionately go to the top vote-getter) and, in political terms, where the final margin is significantly larger or smaller than expected. I suppose it would also be fair to say someone "won" a non-winner-take-all primary if they were double-digits ahead of their nearest rival.

**Later accounts said the difference was closer to 0.3%. Other reports indicted that there were additional examples of coin tosses and Sanders won some of those. That, however, does not change the basic point that given that the number of coin tosses significantly exceeded the final margin, that margin, whoever it wound up favoring, was the result of random chance.

Sources cited in links:

236.3 - Good News: Texas grand jury indicts makers of doctored videos attacking Planned Parenthood

Good News: Texas grand jury indicts makers of doctored videos attacking Planned Parenthood

Okay, you know about the so-called "undercover" videos purporting to show Planned Parenthood illegally profiting in the sale of fetal tissue. You also know that the videos, put together by something called the Center for Medical Progress, which is concerned with neither medicine nor progress, have repeated been shown to be deceitfully edited and deliberately misleading; that is, that they are as bogus and faked as the outfit that produced them.

And you also know that despite the videos being shown to be tricks and lies, they were still used to justify attacks on Planned Parenthood, with several states opening criminal investigations.

In one such case, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick publicly asked the Harris County District Attorney to open a criminal investigation into a Houston Planned Parenthood clinic, one of the targets of the video fraud.

It's unlikely that what he got was what he expected.

After a two-month investigation, the grand jury not only found no cause for charges against Planned Parenthood, just like every other investigation that has been done, it issued indictments against the two anti-choice fraudsters involved in making the video, charging both with tampering with a government record and one with violating the prohibition on the purchase and sale of human organs.

The slogan "Don't mess with Texas" has a different feel today.

Meanwhile, Planned Parenthood itself, apparently deciding - finally - it's tired to just taking it, has sued the Center for Medical Progress and a fake fetal tissue procurement company called "BioMax," accusing them of violating the RICO Act and of fraud, invasion of privacy, illegal secret recording, and trespassing.

Payback. Good news.

Sources cited in links:

236.2 - Good News: SCOTUS rejects corporate attempt to short-circuit class action suits

Good News: SCOTUS rejects corporate attempt to short-circuit class action suits

Consumers got a bit of Good News from an unexpected place: the US Supreme Court.

A company named Campbell-Ewald had been sending out unwanted text messages to cell phone users. Spamming your cell phone is illegal under federal law and someone who receives such a message may recover $500 for each violation.

A man named Jose Gomez was one such person and he sued. What's important is that he declared an intention to make this a class action. After all, just consider the cost and effort involved in suing a corporation against a possible return of $500. There is no way you can come out ahead. That's why class action suits, in which a large number of people, each of who had suffered a relatively small loss, band together in a single suit is usually the only way such violations can effectively be punished.

The thing is, whether or not a case is certified as a class action is determined later in the process, which means the defendant - Campbell-Ewald in this case - knows that is a possibility at the same time that only the original plaintiff or few plaintiffs - just Gomez in this case - are actually involved.

So Campbell-Ewald offered Gomez $1500 for each unwanted text message and then declared to the court that whether or not he accepted, his suit had to be dismissed because by offering Gomez as much as he could hope to get through his suit, the company had removed any dispute between the parties.

If that logic was accepted by the courts, it would enable corporations to short-circuit any potential class action by in effect buying off the original plaintiffs.

Happily, in a 6-3 decision, SCOTUS saw through that facile argument, noting that
[a]s every first-year law student learns, the recipient's rejection of an offer "leaves the matter as if no offer had ever been made."
Especially coming from a court that has been overtly hostile to class action suits -  it was in fact an earlier decision allowing corporations to impose bans on class action on those they dealt with that lead to the explosion in forced arbitration provisions that I talked about last time - so especially coming from a court that has been overtly hostile to class action suits, this was surprising good news.

Unfortunately, it's also tempered good news. First because despite what "every first-year law student learns," three of these supposedly great legal minds (and I expect you can guess which ones*) were prepared to side with the corporation, so hostile are they to consumer rights. And second because in its majority opinion the court also and I think rather bizarrely suggested a way corporations could try to get around the decision. Even so, at this point we have to take whatever we can get.

*Roberts, Scalia, and Alito, in case you couldn't.

Sources cited in links:

236.1 - Good News: progress on a cure for Type 1 diabetes

Good News: progress on a cure for Type 1 diabetes

According to a study newly published in the journal Nature, researchers at MIT and Harvard believe they are close to developing a treatment that would effectively cure Type 1 diabetes, sometimes if rather inaccurately called juvenile onset diabetes.

With Type 1 diabetes, the body does not produce the insulin necessary to get the glucose in your bloodstream into the cells where it is used for energy. This is as opposed to Type 2 diabetes, where the body does produce insulin but can't use it properly so there is never enough to prevent a buildup of glucose in the blood.

For some time, researchers have worked on a treatment involving transplanting insulin-producing cells into the patient's body, which seems to control blood sugar better than drugs or injections and in 2014 a method was developed to mass produce these cells. The problem is these cells can be destroyed by the immune system, rendering them useless.

The new study tested what it dubbed an "invisibility cloak" that in effect prevented the immune system from seeing the implanted cells as foreign bodies. The researchers were able to keep the immune systems in mice from attacking the transplanted cells for nearly six months.

Obviously more work needs to be done, but the researchers expressed optimism that a combination of an improved "cloak" plus the existing ability to transplant insulin-producing cells could, they said, effectively cure Type 1 diabetes.

And wouldn't that be good news.

Sources cited in links:

Left Side of the Aisle #236

Left Side of the Aisle
for the week of February 4-10, 2015

This week:

Good News: progress on a cure for Type 1 diabetes

Good News: SCOTUS rejects corporate attempt to short-circuit class action suits

Good News: Texas grand jury indicts makers of doctored videos attacking Planned Parenthood

A rare (and potentially my only) commentary on the Democratic primaries

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

235.8 - Outrage of the Week: forced arbitration

Outrage of the Week: forced arbitration

You want something to look for, to consider when hoping for innocence among politicos? See what they have to say, if anything, about one of the biggest unappreciated and little considered scandals of US economic life. It's called forced arbitration and it is our Outrage of the Week.

I've been meaning to bring this up for some time, so I'll take this opportunity.

As explained by the Alliance for Justice,
[a]rbitration is a process in which a private firm is hired to settle a dispute without going to court. It was designed as a voluntary alternative to litigation among corporate equals. It has been twisted today into a tool by powerful corporations to force consumers and employees to surrender their right to hold corporations accountable for wrongdoing before an impartial court.
Dozens and dozens of major companies in dozens of fields from telecommunications to credit cards, student loans, nursing homes, consumer goods, home builders, financial advisors, and of course software and more contain these noxious provisions, as do many employment "agreements."

To use the service, to buy the product, even to get the job, you must agree to a "contract" in which you sign away your rights and your access to the courts, including - perhaps most especially - your ability to be part of a class action suit.

That is, arbitration has gone from being a voluntary process between equals to a requirement, a demand, put by the more powerful on the less powerful, effectively rendering them powerless. Clauses requiring arbitration of any dispute between the consumer or employee and the corporation and banning any resort to the courts, arbitration to take place at a site specified in the contract by the corporation and done by an arbiter hired by the corporation, are now routinely buried in the fine print of any "agreement" you thoughtlessly make when you click on "accept these terms."

The result is that if a dispute arises, you have to face the corporation alone and on its own turf and its own terms - first assuming that what you could achieve is even worth the time and expense, which is why, as the Alliance for Justice has said, forced arbitration gives corporations "a free pass to break the law" because they know there is little if any chance they would be held accountable even for gross violations of employment and civil rights laws.

And the practice is expanding: The New York Times recently reported on how debt collection agencies are using forced arbitration provisions in the debts they buy to claim that they, too, are covered by those provisions even though the consumer has no contract with the debt collector - and courts are going along with this perverted logic that you can be bound to the terms of a "contract" with some agency you never had any contact with or even knew existed.

There is a bill that has been introduced in Congress. It's called the Arbitration Fairness Act and it would ban forced arbitration of employment, consumer, anti-trust, and civil rights claims and restore at least some of the rights of workers and consumers to seek justice in the courts.

So the next time some politico tries to tell you how concerned they are about the economy and you, ask them if they agree with outlawing forced arbitration. Ask them if they will support outlawing forced arbitration. If they hesitate, if they start to dance, if they say anything other than a direct "yes," tell them to buzz off because they are not on your side but on the side of Big Business.

And it's an outrage.

Sources cited in links:

235.7 - Income inequality is growing, hideous, and immoral

Income inequality is growing, hideous, and immoral

Another topic I haven't talked much about of late is the economy. And here just a few figures show everything that's wrong.

Fifty-six percent of Americans have less than $1,000 combined in their checking and savings accounts; a majority of us are living paycheck-to-paycheck.

Furthermore, almost two-thirds of Americans - 63 percent - do not have enough in their savings for an emergency, defined as an unexpected expense of $500-$1000. A substantial majority of Americans would need to borrow money from a family member, take out a bank loan, or put it on their credit card if faced with such an expense because they lack the resources to do otherwise.

This was all according to a survey cited in Forbes, which had the takeaway not that the economy sucks or that wealth continues to congeal at the top or that people are underpaid or that chronic long-term unemployment remains stubbornly high, but rather that "Americans are terrible savers." Which becomes bitterly funny when it's recalled that in June, Jon Hilsenrath, chief economics correspondent of the Wall Street Journal, was grousing that we are saving too much and not spending enough.

Meanwhile, the richest 0.1 percent of Americans have almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent combined and income inequality is the highest it has been since 1928. As Ben Norton, a politics staff writer at Salon magazine, wrote, "the term 'middle class' is useless" because, as he says, we don't have one anymore. I have for some time been saying that we are becoming a two-class nation of just a tiny number of rich and a great number of poor or at best working poor. And it seems that every day there is new information to confirm that.

Worldwide, the situation is even worse as income and wealth inequality continue to steadily worsen.

According to Oxfam, in 2010 the world's richest 388 people had the same amount of wealth as the bottom 50% of the world's population. By 2014, that number had shrunk to 80. In 2015, it was 62. Just 62 people, together, were as rich as half the population of the world combined. Indeed, since 2010, the wealth of that lower 50% has dropped by about $1 trillion, or 41 percent. The world is hideously and immorally unequal, and that inequality is not only increasing, it is accelerating. And for all their talk about how much they worry about that inequality, our economic and political leaders seem revealingly uninterested in actually doing anything about it except in cases - such as global climate change - where the inequality becomes so severe as to threaten what they value second only to their bottom lines, which is stability.

Those who are now gathering at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland - which I am forever tempted to call Davros - no matter what platitudes they may mouth, they are not on your side. They don't give a damn about you except insofar as you can fatten their bank accounts.

And don't think it's any better here. Don't.

Do you really think those politicos of both parties who blather on about the non-existent middle class really have your interests at heart? I know I don't have to convince you about people like Paul Rantin' or Ted Crazy or Donald TheRump, but do you really believe that, to cite a prominent example, Hillary Clinton, who has so many ties to Wall Street that it looks like some sort of kinky bondage party, is going to challenge the interests of the banks and bankers any more than did Barack Obama,

- who failed to prosecute Wall Street crooks, even going so far as to specifically refuse to follow up on criminal referrals from the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, which was set up to investigate criminality in the 2008 collapse;

- who thus let the bankers get away with, in the words of one source, "theft, wire fraud, bank fraud, loan fraud, securities fraud, and commodities fraud" while millions of Americans lost their life savings and their homes even as his Justice Department made mortgage fraud its lowest-ranked national criminal priority and closed hundreds of cases after little or no investigation;

- who depended for economic advice on the likes of Tim Geithner and has stood silent as the too-big-to-fail banks have gotten even bigger?

Do you really think people like that are on your side, on the side of the 56%, the 63%, the 90%?

Do not believe it.
Not for a second.

Now, I'm not going to claim to you that every leader, every officeholder, every politician, every rich person, is a solely self-interested selfish scumbag. I suppose I would say that, for again a prominent example, Bernie Sanders could be an exception, based largely on the fact that he's been saying pretty much the same things for 40 years or so, even though he's not the socialist he claims to be, even less the one he's painted as. But I do say for him and for all the rest that "guilty until proven innocent" is a good and reliable standard.

Sources cited in links:

235.6 - 2015 was the warmest year on record

2015 was the warmest year on record

Alright, some news on another front to which I have not paid a lot of attention of late: global warming aka climate change.

Some months ago I noted that 2015 was on track to be the warmest year on record. Well, guess what: It wasn't sidetracked. On January 20, NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, announced that worldwide, 2015 was in fact the warmest year since records began in 1880.

The conclusion was seconded by NASA, which does its own, independent analysis. Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, labeled 2015 as "remarkable even in the context of the larger, long-term warming trend," a trend that has seen 15 of the 16 warmest years occurring since 2001.

Which means, in case you didn't catch it, that each year from 2001 on has been warmer than any year from 1880  to 2000 except for one, which was 1998. Another way to put it is to say that the 16 warmest years on record have come in the last 18 years.

So much for the "global warming has stopped" and "no warming for X number of years" bull that the nanny-nanny naysayers spew.

One of the reasons for the record-breaking year - the record it broke, by the way, was set in 2014 - was because of a strong El Niño. That same cycle, according to research published by the British Met Office, will drive 2016 to be even warmer than 2015.

As a sidebar, don't expect the nanny-nanny naysayers to cite El Niño in an attempt to dismiss the record heat: It was a strong El Niño that drove 1998's warmth, that again being the outlier year they cite to claim that global warming has stopped. So citing El Niño is to reject their own argument - not that such contradictions have stopped them before.

What's more, all this could easily get worse: A study published on January 18 in the scientific journal "Nature Climate Change" showed that the amount of human-made heat energy absorbed by the oceans of the world has doubled since 1997. In what the researchers called a rough but reliable estimate, the world's oceans absorbed approximately 150 zettajoules of energy from 1865 to 1997, and then absorbed about another 150 zettajoules in the next 18 years.

A Joule is a unit of electrical, mechanical, or heat energy. A zettajoule is a billion trillion Joules. To give you an idea of how much energy we are talking about, if you exploded one Hiroshima-sized atomic bomb every second for a year, the total energy released would be two zettajoules. So in the past 18 years, Earth's oceans have absorbed human-made heat energy equivalent to a Hiroshima-style bomb being exploded every second for 75 straight years.

These are staggeringly big numbers and they show just how much heat energy is going into the oceans - which also means sparing us from its direct effects on surface temperatures. In fact, 90% of of the heat energy we generate goes into the oceans, and every year deeper and deeper ocean waters are warming. The thing is, at some point and no one knows just what that is, the oceans will reach a saturation point and be unable to soak up the heat we generate - and global warming, that is, surface temperatures, will skyrocket because there will be nowhere else for the heat to go.

All of which may be part of the reason that the latest survey of world business and economic leaders by the World Economic Forum ranks climate change as their No. 1 concern. It didn't say anything about what they propose to do about it, but it does indicate that the economic elites are beginning to realize that climate change is not something off in the distant future or that only affect little nations and unimportant people but, especially by virtue of the extreme weather events it generates, it is threatening their wallets. And that will get them moving.

Which would be more encouraging were it not for recent psychological research that shows that the denialists have "disproportionate influence" on people who are already skeptical. Put another way, it found that the naysayers were not to any degree swayed by facts. Which we already suspected, but still its disheartening to see an actual study showing it.

We are so screwed.

Sources cited in links:

235.5 - Prosecutor in Tamir Rice case may have lied to the Grand Jury

Prosecutor in Tamir Rice case may have lied to the Grand Jury

Two weeks ago, I declared the murder of Tamir Rice to be my Outrage of the Year for 2015. Now I have to add a Footnote to that.

As I expect know, the Grand Jury did not indict Timothy Loehmann, the Cleveland cop who shot Tamir Rice to death, a decision that Cuyahoga County Prosecuting Attorney Timothy McGinty admits he lead the panel to make.

In defending himself and the Grand Jury, McGinty presented what amounted to a defense attorney's summation of the case. The point here is that in the course of that, he said that "the actions of the officers during the events leading up to the deadly force encounter" are not legally relevant to evaluating "the split-second judgments made immediately before the deadly force incident."

That is flat out false. Period. As two experts cited by the Rice family note, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes Ohio, had found in 2008 that
Where a police officer unreasonably places himself in harm's way, his use of deadly force may be deemed excessive.
Tamir Rice
That is, the cops' behavior of racing up to within a few feet of Tamir, with Loehmann jumping out of the car with gun already drawn and safety off, creating the very supposed risk to which Loehmann was supposedly responding when he killed Tamir Rice less than two seconds later was relevant to whether or not the shooting was "reasonable."

If in fact McGinty told the Grand Jury that the cops' behavior was "not legally relevant," then he flat out lied to the panel. Either that or he and his office are so ignorant of the relevant law that he is incompetent to hold his office.

But here then is the question: What are the consequences for prosecutors who lie to a grand jury? Not in some hypothetical perfect legally-correct world, but in reality. Is it in fact illegal? And even if it is, who is going to prosecute them? Who is going to prosecute the prosecutor?

This whole thing stinks worse than ever.

Sources cited in links:

235.4 - Clown Award: SC Gov. Nikki Haley

Clown Award: SC Gov. Nikki Haley

Now for one our regular features, it's the Clown Award, given as always for an act of meritorious stupidity.

I almost gave the Big Red Nose this week to a nitwit named Mark Cole, a member of the Virginia House of Delegates who is so creepily obsessed with the idea of transgender students using the "wrong" restroom that he has introduced a bill saying that, and I'm quoting:
Local school boards shall develop and implement policies that require every school restroom, locker room, or shower room that is designated for use by a specific gender to solely be used by individuals whose anatomical sex matches such gender designation,
with "anatomical sex" defined in the bill as "the physical condition of being male or female, which is determined by a person's anatomy."

What should be immediately apparent is that there is no way schools could effectively enforce this requirement except by examining each child's genitals before they are allowed to use the restroom. Which I expect pretty much everywhere would be regarded as sexual assault.

That is some powerful stupid. Really didn't think that one through, didja Marky?

Gov. Nikki Haley
So yeah, I thought we was a shoo-in. Until the next day. So this week the Big Red Nose goes to South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.

Governor Vacant Eyes gave the GOPper response to the Amazing Mr. O's State of the Union address and got some pushback because she said something about not following "the angriest voices." In defending herself afterwards, she said this:
[W]e've never in the history of this country passed any laws or done anything based on race or religion. Let's not start that now.
I really don't think I need to go on with any explanations.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, this week's and already in the running for the year's biggest, clown.

Sources cited in links:

235.3 - RIP: Glenn Frey

RIP: Glenn Frey

With our other rip, another bit of my earlier years drops away.

Glenn Frey, Eagles guitarist and co-founder of the group and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, died January 18. He was 67. According to a statement by the band, he "fought a courageous battle for the past several weeks but succumbed to complications from rheumatoid arthritis, acute ulcerative colitis, and pneumonia."

Frey co-wrote or sang some of the Eagles' most successful songs, including among others "Tequila Sunrise," "Peaceful Easy Feeling," "Take It Easy," and "Lyin' Eyes."

Glenn Frey
In my opinion, one of the best comments about his death came from a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, who said of the Eagles "few bands were better at distilling the vibe of Los Angeles in the 1970s." The thing is, from the late '60s to the late '70s, the cultural image of southern California was one of a mellow, laid-back embrace of sun and surf and the Eagles certainly reflected that. That columnist called Frey LA's "mellow ambassador."

That same embrace of that culture, however, still earns the group scorn from those who claim their music was just pap, apparently because it was not hard-edged and hostile. One even said that hating the Eagles was the mark of being interested in the music as opposed to being a bandwagon-jumper.

So I'll say this on behalf of Eagles fans and Glenn Frey's career: I have neither patience with nor time for those who equate popularity with inferiority and obscurity with significance and spend their energy desperately trying to prove how hip they are by sneering how much they hate music other people like.

With that, I say RIP, Glenn Frey - and encourage all of you to find and listen to the acoustic version of "Hotel California."

Sources cited in links:

235.2 - RIP: Alan Rickman

RIP: Alan Rickman

We have two RIPs this week, the first of which, in its own way, is a bit creepy.

Two weeks ago, I told you about the death of Native American activist and poet John Trudell, who died of cancer at the age of 69. Last week, it was David Bowie, who died of cancer at the age of 69.

This week, I note the death of a fine and often under-appreciated actor who could dominate a scene with just his voice:

Alan Rickman
The great Alan Rickman has died yes of cancer yes at the age of 69.

Alan Rickman, I expect, is known to most as Professor Severus Snape in the Harry Potter movies and perhaps as Alexander Dane in the great "Star Trek" spoof "Galaxy Quest," although his breakout roles were as bad guy Hans Gruber in "Die Hard" and as Jamie in "Truly, Madly, Deeply." But he was known and respected even before that for his stage work.

The odd thing about Alan Rickman for me is that when I saw him in a Harry Potter movie, I knew who he was. I'm not much of a movie-goer and I had never seen either "Die Hard" or "Truly, Madly, Deeply" and didn't see "Galaxy Quest" until later on DVD. But I knew who he was. And I have no idea from where.

Which I suppose only shows how memorable his performances could be.

RIP, Alan Rickman.

Sources cited in links:

235.1 - Notes on progress on LGBTQ rights

Notes on progress on LGBTQ rights

Let's start off with a few updates on things related to same-sex marriage and overall LGBTQ rights, something I haven't talked about in a little while.

One sign of the slow but grinding process of change is that Kraig Powell, a member of the Utah legislature, has proposed legislation that would eliminate terms like "husband" and "wife" from state laws in favor of the gender-neutral "spouse." He also said he is drafting a proposed constitutional amendment that would repeal the provision in Utah's state constitution that bans same-sex marriage. He indicated this was just a matter of accepting legal reality.

Now, I don't expect to see this pass, but the fact that it was even introduced by a Utah Republican shows something is happening.

Then there is the execrable Roy Moore, chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, who on January 6 ordered the state's county probate judges to ignore the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage and refuse to issue licenses for such marriages, arguing that "nothing in the United States Constitution alters or overrides" their "ministerial duty" to in essence place Alabama law above federal law.

Unhappily for the unrepentant bigot Moore, most Alabama counties ignored his order and continued issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples and one of the handful that followed his order reversed itself the next day.

But that doesn't mean the bigots have given up, either in Alabama or elsewhere. An anti-same-sex marriage bill filed in South Carolina in December declared Obergefell v. Hodges, the SCOTUS decision that struck down bans on same-sex marriage, "unauthoritative, void, and of no effect," again declaring that state law overrides federal law and decisions of the Supreme Court. A similar bill was introduced in Tennessee in September.

You know, this nation fought its bloodiest war over slavery, but the legal issues involved were nullification and interposition, essentially the supposed right of states to nullify or block federal authority within their borders. Apparently, there are those willing to repeat that experience to promote and maintain their own bigoted sickness. Which in a twisted way I can understand: It must be galling for these folks to be so incredibly far on the wrong side of history.

Meanwhile, two things internationally were interesting.

First was that last month, a bill allowing for same-sex civil unions passed the Greek Parliament by a wide margin. One Greek campaigner for equal rights said the bill
does not provide equality before the law, especially in regard to adoption and custody of children, but it comes close.
Latvia is now the only country in the European Union which does not recognize some form of same-sex partnership, either civil union or marriage.

The action was not without opposition in notoriously homophobic Greece, a fact which makes the bill's passage all the more notable. For example, the Greek Orthodox bishop Ambrosios of Kalavryta called on the church faithful to "spit on [LGBT people]. Condemn them. Blacken them. They are not human! They are freaks of nature!"

On the other hand, in another one of those perhaps-grudging "recognize reality" statements, another Greek prelate, Chrysostomos, the Metropolitan of Messinia, said
[h]omosexuals, like all humans, are a creation of God and they deserve the same respect and honor, and not violence and rejection.
Admittedly, that's several steps short of accepting LGBTQ rights, but in the context of what surrounds him, a noteworthy statement.

Finally, the development I personally find the most interesting.

A man named Sun Wenlin - that's a pseudonym, not his real name - has filed a lawsuit after he was denied a marriage application for himself and his same-sex partner.

What makes the case particularly interesting is that this is happening in China. It is the first such suit ever in that country.

Sun is basing his claim on what could be considered a technicality: The original text of the Marriage Law does not say one man and one woman, but a husband and a wife, which are not necessarily gendered descriptions.

Meanwhile, hormone and electroshock treatments to "cure the gay" are still practiced in China. Technically, they are illegal, but the police don't seem to do much about it.

A decision on Sun's suit is expected within six months.

Sources cited in links:

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Left Side of the Aisle #235

Left Side of the Aisle
for the weeks of January 21 - February 3, 2016

This week:

Notes on progress on LGBTQ rights

RIP: Alan Rickman

RIP: Glenn Frey

Clown Award: SC Gov. Nikki Haley

Prosecutor in Tamir Rice case may have lied to the Grand Jury

2015 was the warmest year on record

Income inequality is growing, hideous, and immoral

Outrage of the Week: forced arbitration

NOTE: As I indicated in last week's show, starting with January we will be taking the last week of each month off. So the next LSOTA will be in two weeks, for the period of February 4 to 10.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

234.8 - Lyrics: good and bad

Lyrics: good and bad

Okay, let's end with something lighter.

I like to collect good and bad lyrics. The key thing is that these lyrics are single lines - or sometimes two lines - in a song. The whole song is not the point. A bad song can have one killer lyric in it and a good song can have a clunker of a line somewhere inside. It's the one line that matters.

In one of my early shows, I invited people to submit what they thought was a particularly good or bad line in a song. I didn't get much response, but with my fame having obviously spread worldwide in the ensuing years, I thought I'd try again.

So what I'm going to do is to give you three examples of what I think are really bad lines in a song and four that I think are really good and invite you to submit you own, either in comments here or by email.

Okay, first the bad lines. Remember, this is not about if the song is good or bad, just the individual lyric.

In fact, the first case illustrates the point. There is a great old song, a classic, known best in the version done by the Platters: "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes." It's a good song, but in the third verse there is the line
Now, laughing friends deride/Tears I cannot hide
and whenever I heard that line, the only thing I could think was "Get new friends!"

Another example, a more recent  one, is the song "Hey, Soul Sister" by Train. The opening line is
Your lipstick stains on the front lobe of my left-side brains
to which I could only think "yuuuch!"

The third example is "Angel" from Shaggy, which I like even though the melody of the refrain is ripped off from the chorus of "Angel of the Morning" by Merrilee Rush. Unfortunately, this particular lyric is in the refrain, so it's repeated several times:
Closer than my peeps you are to me
as syntax cries and begs for mercy.

Now for four examples of good lines. The first, appropriately enough for today, comes from David Bowie and the song "Changes" and it is
And these children that you spit on/As they try to change their worlds/Are immune to your consultations/They're quite aware of what they're going through.
Next comes a line from Jim Croce's song "Operator," which goes
She's living in LA with my best old ex-friend Ray
which I always liked because it told the entire story of what happened to the relationship in one line.

Third, I think the line from Lady Antebellum's "Need You Now" that goes
I'd rather hurt than feel nothing at all
is exquisitely sad.

Finally, we have what well could be my all-time favorite single lyric. It's from "Like a Prayer" by Madonna:
You call my name and it feels like home.
Which I think is wonderfully poetic and evocative.

So that's it. Submit your own choices and if I get enough, I'll do them on-air. Just be sure to include the title and artist and the particular line.

234.7 - Outrage of the Week: protecting cops in the Eric Garner killing

Outrage of the Week: protecting cops in the Eric Garner killing

In July 2014, an unarmed black man named Eric Garner was killed by New York City police who swarmed him, escalating a minor confrontation over a claim he was illegally selling loose cigarettes into a multi-person assault with cop Daniel Pantaleo grabbing Garner in a chokehold - something specifically banned by NYPD policy. The cops ignored Garner's pleas that he couldn't breathe as, in effect, Pantaleo choked him to death.

This was all in front of numerous witnesses and was all caught on video. Unlike the case of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, there was no ambiguity here, no conflicting testimony. It made no difference. When no charges were issued against Pantaleo, even people like Bill O'Reilley and Charles Krauthammer were shocked. The city settled a wrongful death suit filed by Farner's family for $5.9 million.

But now, 18 months later, the NYPD has found someone to blame. Her name is Kizzy Adonis, she is - or perhaps soon was - a sergeant in the NYPD, and was one of two supervising officers at the scene of Garner's killing. Now, she has been stripped of her gun and badge and is facing four departmental charges of "failure to supervise."

Sgt. Adonis wasn't even assigned on patrol at the time. She heard the call on her radio and responded to the scene. One witness says he heard her say to the other cops, "Let up, you got him already." She then went to a nearby ambulance to make a call for additional assistance. So apparently she is facing charges for not trying hard enough to stop the other cops or for calling for medical assistance or both, it's not clear.

Kizzy Adonis
What is clear is that the other supervising sergeant on the scene, the one actually assigned to the unit, has not been charged, nor have any of the cops who attacked Garner been charged. The deadline for filing such departmental charges expires on January 17 so lacking some last-minute developments, she will be the only one charged.

Oh, by the way, did I mention that Kizzy Adonis is black?

It's eighteen months after Eric Garner was killed by cops using a chokehold banned specifically because of the risk of killing someone in a case that stunned even the right wing, and the only person the NYPD has found at fault is a black woman who didn't even have to be there.

The question of police brutality and racism and the departmental corruption that promotes it and protects it is no longer recognizing the brutality and racism and corruption themselves because they have become undeniable to anyone not completely blinded by their ideology. The question is what are we going to do about it.

Because the little - the nothing - we have done is an outrage.

Sources cited in links:

234.6 - EPA board challenges EPA report on fracking

EPA board challenges EPA report on fracking

Next up, we have some news regarding fracking.

Fracking is - well, the polite term is controversial; the less-polite term is another industry scam to maximize profit without giving a damn about the effect on people's health.

Fracking, in case you're not familiar with it, is a means of increasing production from oil and natural gas wells by pumping a mix of water, sludge, and one of several different cocktails of toxic chemicals - we don't know exactly what ones because the mixtures are considered a "trade secret" which the companies do not have to reveal - pumping that mixture into a well under such pressure that it literally fractures the surrounding rock, allowing more fossil fuel to be extracted from the fissures created. The practice has been connected to contaminated water supplies and earthquakes, particularly in the past few years.

Congress charged the EPA with studying the impacts of fracking on drinking water. This past June, the agency released its report, including an executive summary that declared that fracking has not led to "widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the US," a conclusion that at the time I described as chock full of weasel words, especially since fracking itself is not "widespread."

Now, it develops, the EPA's own Science Advisory Board, which reviews the agency’s major studies, agrees with me. The 31-member panel determined that
[m]ajor findings are ambiguous or are inconsistent with the observations/data presented in the body of the report.
The point lies in the misuse of the terms "widespread" and "systemic." Yes, most US water supplies have not been affected by fracking - because fracking is not done in most places in the US, only where drilling for oil and natural gas are going on.

In those places where fracking is being done, yes, there has clearly been an impact on local water supplies, the result, in part, of an average of 15 fracking-related chemical spills per day in the US.

But what did the media glom onto? The fracking-friendly "no widespread, systemic, impacts." Another example of how we are uninformed, malinformed, and misinformed by major mainstream media.

As a footnote, 2015 was also the year that the US Geological Survey found that fracking in eight states in the eastern and central US had lead to "sharply increased" earthquake activity and the state of OK, after dragging its feet for years, finally admitted that the majority of the recent astonishing increase in earthquakes in the state were due to fracking.

Fracking should be stopped.

Sources cited in links:
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