29 August 2010

A short, and pithy, video on Euro social capitalism vs. USA system (+ a couple of other relevant video links)

Or, here is a short video summary of Steven Hill's book. 
And a longer lecture at the New America Foundation by Steven Hill, here. 

A case study; European social system vs. USA

I've mentioned here before Steven Hill's really excellent book, Europe's Promise. See this link. It is frankly a polemic, without pretense of being anything else. It's designed to convince the reader that the European sociopolitical/economic system he terms social capitalism is inherently superior to our system and that we should move towards adopting most of its features in order to improve not only the quality of our lives, but, even, the competitiveness and functionality of our economy. Still, it is thoroughly documented with facts. Some of these facts are not so well known in the US, where it's fashionable (albeit stupid and ignorant) to think of Europe as uncompetitive, marginal, overbureaucratized, and a socialist mess, not like the land of opportunity, USA. Things like codetermination, flexicurity, works councils, and just how much in services we have to pay for out of pocket that Europeans receive in exchange for their (yes, somewhat higher) taxes.

Here's just one case study involving actual acquaintances of his he uses  (Ibid., 88-89) to show just how differently similar events can impact the lives of people living in Europe (Switzerland, in this case, which doesn't even have all the EU mandated social policies in place), vs. the US:

A Swiss professional, who had been an accountant for 25 years, suddenly found himself unemployed and encountering more than usual difficulty finding a new job. While collecting his ~70% of salary unemployment, he was accidentally injured, requiring extensive (and expensive) knee surgery with complications and an eleven-month recuperation. The medical care including extensive physical therapy: no out of pocket cost. Continued to receive unemployment until after full recovery, whereupon he got a new high paying job and resumed his career, all with no serious disruption of his standard of living. He told Hill: "I would not even try to think about what would happen in the U.S.[...]"

Another friend of Hill's in the US, Doug, did have a similar experience. At 49, he was diagnosed with a common congenital heart defect requiring open heart valve surgery. He did have medical insurance (remember, 47 million, including many many working people, still don't: they become medically bankrupt and ruined financially when this happens). Even with health insurance, Doug had thousands of dollars in unreimbursed medical expenses. Plus there were complications keeping out of work longer than planned. His meager savings were nearly exhausted. The minimal disability check from his employment only lasted part of the time, and was barely enough so he could keep in housing and make his car payment. He lost the job as a result of being out so long. After the disability ran out, his car was repossessed, so that when he finally was ready to go back to work, he had no transportation to look for work and was essentially dead broke.

These two stories aren't identical instances, but they do illustrate important facts. As Hill puts it: "These kinds of gotchas and Catch 22s are all too common in America. Having no job and inadequate health care is not a place you want to end up in the good ol' USA."

So, what, really is going on here? At another point in the book, he cites an overheard exchange between a European and an American executive. The American accuses the European of that horrible dirty word in our country: socialism. The European says, "No, in Europe, we are capitalists. But in America, all you care about is making money, and there is a big difference."

Indeed there is. I wish I could somehow convince my fellow Americans, in the country I love and want to see better itself and be a leader in the World again, that we should not just feel bad about this.

We should not just accept the fact that our country has become inhumane, oligarchic, and just unquestionably less civilized than the old Europe we, just two generations ago, saved from the ruins of the complete collapse of its social order. We've become the land of a few very rich, where the ordinary working people are increasingly marginalized, facing declining living standards, declining educational levels, declining health and retirement security. We should take this as a challenge, roll up our sleeves, gather our mutual strength, and change our country, so that these kinds of negative comparisons no longer apply.

26 August 2010

Rove: Obama will use election losses as excuse to end stimulus... WTF!??

TPM reports: Rove: Obama Will Use November Defeats to End Stimulus

If this evil toad is right about that, then the Obama administration is finished. As I argued here, they should be doing the exact opposite, and right now.

Alan Simpson and the Obama Deficit Commission

OK -- I hafta ask. Just why was right winger Alan Simpson, who, as TPM reports here, has a long history of advocating gutting social security, appointed to the Obama's administration deficit panel  “Fiscal Reform Commission” in the first place?

For that matter, since it's so obviously idiotic to worry about deficits on the brink of a potential deflationary depression, why does this panel even exist?

Democrats must commit to restoring jobs to the economy, and to maintaining the middle class safety net. Republicans and Republican ideas should have no place at the table.

President Obama, please listen!

Earth to President Obama! Come in Please!

Look, Mr. President, let me be clear right off the bat. I'm on YOUR side. I WANT you to succeed, and succeed brilliantly. But it doesn't take much political acumen to see that things are not going well and that it is well past time to make some major adjustments. I think it's important first of all to be very clear on several points, that I believe at this point are beyond dispute based on the evidence from the real economy and what Americans are actually experiencing. Many inside the beltway, unfortunately including quite a few people in your own administration, are just not getting this, but here goes anyway:

1.  You have lost the mandate from the American people to invest in the economy to generate a recovery, and as a result the recovery is faltering. The current housing cliff is clear evidence that we are likely heading for a double dip recession, which MUST BE AVERTED and would be completely disastrous to your administration, possibly even fatal to any chance of reelection.

2.  The recession you inherited was more serious than first thought. The focus on Health Care Reform, which unfortunately didn't work too well, and on a weak financial reform package, took away focus on jobs, which should be the main job, the second job, and the third job, of your administration until the economic recovery is self-sustaining. All else is secondary. There will be time to fix the failure of health reform to include meaningful provider cost controls and insurance rate limits, which are absolutely necessary if the mandate for coverage will be acceptable to the American people, later. Right now, it's the economy, stupid.

3. The focus on deficits is completely misplaced right now. The stimulus worked, but it had too many tax cuts in it, and it just wasn't big enough. What's needed is an infrastructure, education, and services investment that will focus not on just putting a little money into the economy at random, but be highly targeted at job creation. This must be SOLD to the American people. YOU, as president, must do this. There are only nine weeks left before the midterms, so this must be a top priority.

3.  Bipartisanship is a complete waste of time. The Republicans are your enemy. All of them. They want you to fail. You must appeal directly to the people. Explain how now is not the time to retreat, now is not the time to extend tax cuts for the rich, which is the only plan the Republicans have. Now is the time to get busy, like America has always done in times of crisis (bring in a WWII reference), roll up our sleeves, and get Americans working again. We can work on restructuring government finances later. This is a CRISIS. And you have to convince the people of this, which of course means you have to believe it.

4. There can be NO QUESTION of cutting social security benefits or medicare benefits (as opposed to other savings in medicare). The Deficit and Inflation are not the problem. Read Paul Krugman. We are facing looming deflation. You must promise that if the people return Democrats to Congress, we will create jobs, get the economy moving again, and there will be no cuts to social security or medicare benefits and no further raising of the retirement age. These are Republican ploys to increase further the power and wealth of their base, which is the very rich. They use lies and propaganda to attract votes, but your base is the middle and working class, so you need to tell them the truth, and mean it: you will work for their interests.

5.  You need to promise that there will be a big change in the way government works, going forward. We will do a comprehensive review designed to evaluate and eliminate unnecessary spending, including military and national security apparatus that are gobbling up huge sums without creating many jobs, and focus the attention of government on rebuilding our education system, investing in renewable energy and other infrastructure, and creating jobs for middle class and working people. It's a new world, and most of the threat to America today is economic. In due course, this needs to lead to a drawing down of America's involvement in military misadventures, including in Afghanistan, and greatly reducing the size of the "national security state." This needs to be finessed, but if portrayed as eliminating what's just not needed in order to make government leaner and more effective, it can be done.

6.  Point out to people that we can be competitive. We can have good jobs, with great benefits, secure health care for all, secure retirement for all, just like they do in Europe, because we can do anything we put our minds to. Appeal to the patriotism of your base, and come right out and say that it's not patriotic to foster policies that weaken our economy. Clearly imply that Boehner, McConnell, et al., are unpatriotic when they propose policies that will help the rich but hurt the Main Street Economy.

PLEASE, Mr. President, wake up! It's past time to completely rethink your agenda, and to start promising the people what Democrats will do differently from what Republicans have done, and start really focusing on job creation and economic recovery. The phony Republican financed Tea Party movement has all but stolen the populist force which got you elected. It can be won back, but only if you stop listening to old school Clintonites like Ruben and Summers, declare war on the Republicans once and for all (start by kicking their propaganda outlet, Fox, out of the White House), get out of Washington yourself and start telling the people exactly what you propose to do to economy and bring a productive economy roaring back in America. You can do this, but it means a major change of approach, and the hour is late. 

Thank you.
David Studhalter

24 August 2010

Disincentivizing Greed

This op-ed by Neal Gabler in this past Sunday's L A Times is 100% correct, in my view. It expresses an opinion which has been gestating in me and others whom I confer with regularly: i.e., that the only way to address the fundamental cause of financial activities that destroy production and extract wealth from ordinary people, to the overall detriment of the US economy, is to disincentivize greed, through massive increases in top marginal tax rates.

I'd go further, and say, forget the Bush tax cuts. Let them expire, of course, but that's not even a real starting point. We need to completely reform taxation. We need to restore the estate tax fully on estates over $1 million, restore tax rates similar to those of the 1950s (at least 80% top rate, and highly progressive), tax financial (as opposed to personal) capital gains, progressively, with those in highest brackets paying the same taxes on capital gains as any other income, and imposing a carefully calibrated, (i.e., small but nonetheless meaningful), short term financial transaction tax to discourage casino like trading and encourage longer term investments (could be waived if securities held longer than one year).

Our real  (i.e. "Main Street") economy has been sliding at least since the regressive "Tax Reforms" of 1986; all the deregulation of the financial services industry just made matters worse. We need both re-regulation, and major progressive tax reform. These reforms would indeed reduce the rewards to our richest citizens, and begin to reverse the historic widening of the income gap since the 1970s. But rich people would still be plenty rich, and people don't "lose their will" to get rich because of high taxes. That's just a myth. It would begin to reduce the size of the financial sector of our economy, but that's a plus, not a minus: the fact that our economy has largely converted from production-based to extraction-based is the main reason real standards of living for the majority of Americans have been flat and then falling for nearly four decades now. What it would also do is begin to provide an adequate revenue base for a gradual switch to European style social capitalism, which would have entirely positive effects on the economy:

  1. Increased competitiveness (Volkswagen and Daimler out-compete GM and Ford, in high-tax Germany): it's a myth that laissez faire policies increase competitiveness. Economic stability comes from having a reliable, incentivized, productive workforce, and a government that encourages innovation and industrial research and development
  2. Keep Jobs in America (see Germany and France, again); public policy can disincentivize outsourcing and provide for adequate education and job training to ensure a well educated and productive work force
  3. Reduce deficit and fund necessary social programs
  4. Incentivize production and disincentivize casino capitalism

20 August 2010

Mindf**k Media (a rant)

I consider the recent Mindf**k Media hype not only about
  • the nonmosque not at Ground Zero, but also
  • Lunatic Franklin Graham being given airtime on CNN to mouth outrageous and obviously racially motivated implicit slanders of President Obama about his faith (which is, after all, a private matter in this country)
  • reports of a poll showing 56% of Americans "oppose health reform," with zero discussion of how the question was asked or just what it is that people are concerned about (such as that the current form of the law fails to adequately control insurance rates, or reimbursement rates to providers, while mandating private coverage).
... all as examples of the ways in which the American political process is grossly manipulated by corporate media interests to create utterly false impressions and distractions from the real issues facing America (i.e., jobs, Wall Street's theft* of a trillion dollars with no real reform to show for it, and the failure of the government to do anything about the looming environmental crises and need to develop a renewable energy production economy..... you know, stuff that matters).

* I use theft as shorthand for 'transfer of private debt into public debt, resulting from the socialization of risk and privatization of profit after the crash caused by radical deregulation of financial services,' (aka the gutting of the New Deal, which happened largely, I'm sad to say, under Pres. Clinton).

18 August 2010

My Letter to AARP, help us defeat any effort to cut Social Security or Medicare Benefits

Reierating this post, I wrote this today to AARP:

I am a member and I am writing to urge AARP to become involved immediately to forestall a looming threat to social security and medicare. 

It's well known that Republicans in Congress by and large want to privatize and cut both Medicare and Social Security. These people are the enemy of ordinary retired Americans, and of anyone who ever hopes to become an ordinary retired American. However, it's the Democrats, who are apparently planing to hide behind the Republican-thinking Deficit Commission and its expected "package" of recommendations for "addressing" the deficit (forthcoming, watch for it), who are of concern. 

The stealth plan is to rip off American taxpayers who have paid through social security taxes to make social security 100% solvent till 2037. Those taxes were supposed to be for social security, not other purposes. It is a highly regressive tax, because it's supposed to pay for retirement security, not general budget items. If it's been ripped off, it needs to be paid back. I SAY, HELL NO. Congress must not cut social security or medicare benefits, or raise the retirement age further. No more regression. We elected a Democrat to the White House to get Democratic policies, not to get Republican policies. If they do this, they will have declared war on ordinary Americans, and I intend to do everything I can to defeat them; meaning anyone, Democratic or Republican, who votes to cut a program that we paid for and are continuing to pay for. This is non-negotiable.

I am asking AARP to get involved in this fight on behalf of its members. AARP should run advertising warning the public that both parties are apparently planning to steal from the trust fund by cutting benefits.

I am not opposed to further health reform to cut Medicare's
reimbursement costs, but that's entirely different from cutting benefits. AARP should prove to the American people that its own insurance programs do not create a conflict of interest by supporting further health reform to ensure that we move towards a French or German style system, where private insurers are required to be non-profit and to accept defined Medicare benefits, where reimbursement rates are set by public commissions, and where care is optimized to the best quality of life, not necessarily the most expensive end stage treatments. But the bottom line is the retirement security of social security and medicare is sacrosanct, and Congress had better not plan on cutting it or raising the retirement age further, because the American people are TIRED of being scapegoated for all the bloated expenditures this government has undertaken at their expense, and in part from stealing the social security and medicare taxes to do it.

I'm writing to all the Senators, my Congressman, and some other key Congress members.

This issue is the battle line as far as I'm concerned. DO NOT CROSS. I will not support any politician who votes the wrong way, or the President if he supports any bill to do this. At some point, you just gotta say, NO FURTHER. I am asking AARP to get behind ordinary Americans in this oncoming political fight. The future is at stake. 

Thank you.

Cutting social security and medicare is off the table, but here are some ways to ease the deficit

To Congress Members:

Cutting spending during a recession is dumb, but if you're so all-fired determined to to "do something about the deficit," here's what you do (this isn't that hard to figure out, and you're not that dumb, so don't pretend you aren't beholden to oligarchic influences; you aren't fooling us anymore):
  • Deep cuts to military spending ... close some of the 700 foreign military bases, quit building more and more cold war weapons systems, shut down the middle east war machine that's doing our country no good
  • Not only allow the Bush tax cuts to the top 2% to expire, but reform taxes to impose much higher marginal rates on those earning over $400,000 --just like we had in the halcyon days of the 1950s (and even later, for the most part)... and impose taxes on earnings regardless of where the richies live or earn their money; if they operate in America, they pay taxes in America 
  • End prohibition of marijuana and the "War on Drugs," at home and abroad--which costs a fortune and is counterproductive
  • Invest in public transportation transportation, renewable energy, power grid, technology research (including automotive and energy research), and general infrastructure... these investments pay for themselves in economic development and improved trade balance (less foreign oil)• Yes, geniuses, you do sometimes have to spend money to save it later.
  • Change tax and trade policy to keep jobs in America; give tax credits for retaining jobs; penalties for outsourcing
  • Change tax policy to keep corporate money in America: you wanna do business here, you pay taxes here, no matter where your offices or factories are located
  • Foster and encourage American industry through public relations: Buy American... what brings in revenue is a thriving real production economy
  • Strengthen and finish the job of Wall Street Reform, to ensure no future bailouts; this can include new sources of revenue, including full taxes on hedge fund and derivative trading income and a reasonable financial transaction tax to not only raise some revenue, but to discourage short term trading in securities, which is destructive to the real economy (European countries do this)
  • Strengthen and finish the job of health care reform: completely eliminate for-profit insurance system; all private insurers non-profit as they are in France & Germany; use public commissions to set medical (including pharmaceutical) reimbursement rates; provide for a robust public insurance option... this would do far more to cut growth in Federal health care spending than cutting medicare benefits directly
These would do more than any cuts to social security. Just eliminating the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and repaying the social security trust fund with the savings would do that. And that's a fact. And the same applies to Medicare: cut the costs, and the profits, not the benefits; and the growth in health care spending will take care of itself.  

Would these things be easy, either technically or politically, to accomplish? Of course not. But that's what we're paying you to do, so get busy!  

Hell no, YOU WILL NOT cut social security or medicare, not and keep my vote!

Forget Republicans who want to privatize and cut both Medicare and Social Security. It's the Democrats, who plan to hide behind this Republican-thinking Deficit Commission and its "package" of recommendations (forthcoming, watch for it). The stealth plan is to rip off American taxpayers who have paid through social security taxes to make social security 100% solvent till 2037. Those taxes were supposed to be for social security, not other purposes. It is a highly regressive tax, because its supposed to pay for retirement security, not general budget items. If it's been ripped off, it needs to be paid back. I SAY HELL NO. You will not cut social security or medicare, or raise the retirement age further. No more regression. We elected a Democrat to the White House to get Democratic policies, not to get Republican policies. If you do this, you have declared war on ordinary Americans, and I intend to do everything I can to defeat you; meaning anyone, Democratic or Republican, who votes to cut a program that we paid for and are continuing to pay for. This is non-negotiable.

I'm writing to all the Senators, my Congressman, and some other key Congress members.
This issue is the battle line as far as I'm concerned. DO NOT CROSS. I will not support any Democrat who votes the wrong way, or the President if he supports any bill to do this. At some point, you just gotta say, NO FURTHER. 

17 August 2010

MFM and Europe's Promise

In response to my previous rant about the non-story of the nonmosque not at Ground Zero, and the whole media shitstorm thereabout, my not-so-farflung correspondent Pablo in L.A.. remarked: 
We need a new term for media! There is informative media like PBS, still lacking in many ways. There is BBC, world reporting. Then there is the media which keeps our population dumb!
To which I replied:
You're right about that. PBS and NPR are only slightly better, because they (usually) still take their cue from Fox and other corporate media to define what the news is, which it usually isn't; this is a perfect example. BBC and Deutsche Welle are good solid (and stolid) reporting sources, but let's face it, their main focus is Europe and the rest of the world, and they treat America as a kind of Crazy World, reporting mostly on what goes on in Crazy World Media. Even Ed Schultz, Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann talk their entire shows about these non-stories (even if it's to debunk them; it still gives them presence and a sort of authenticity by attention, even negative attention). I rely on the saner segments of Pacifica like Amy Goodman and Ian Masters to actually talk about things that matter.

Instead of Mainstream, how about Mindf**k Media? I dunno, but you're right we need a better word for it. George Lakoff, the brilliant Berkeley psycholinguist and author of the Majority Rule initiative on the November ballot (which, thanks to Mindf**k Media and corporate money will probably go down), always stresses the importance of framing and controlling the message. The superrich, who pay to get their message framed and drilled into the minds of the millions, have hired and control a whole army of real experts at this; we progressives are keystone kops in komparison.

By the way, I recommend Were you born on the Wrong Continent? by Thomas Geoghegan [pronounced "Gann," that's Gaelic for ya], and, hewing a similar line, Europe's Promise, by Steven Hill. (The latter a more comprehensive and thoroughly researched presentation). The premise of both books is that our adoption of what Hill refers to as social capitalism, the regulated humanistic free market systems of Europe, is our only hope. Frail hope, I'm afraid, because the oligarchy that has total control in this country will not let the changes
necessary to get us there occur. 

The irony is painful: 65 years ago, in the wreckage of the old system that destroyed Europe, the US fostered and encouraged them to develop the social and economic system that will end up beating the pants off of us, with our hidebound and increasingly unworkable casino capital corporatist system...meanwhile leaving their people with a much better average standard of living than we can hope to achieve. This has already happened, really, but it just hasn't dawned on most Americans yet that history has already passed them by. 

And I add: 

... or that they are being lied to, and they will never share in the American Dream they see on TV, because that's now the realm reserved for the rich, and the divide between THEM and the rest of us is greater than ever, growing, and already unbridgeable forever.

16 August 2010

"Ground Zero Mosque": Come off of it, already!

I find it just amazing that the corporate media is pushing and pushing this ridiculous story about the "Ground Zero Mosque," just because some asshole Republicans keep harping on it.

Earth to CBS, NBC, CNN, ABC, (Forget Fox): just because opportunistic assholes want to push a non-story doesn't make it news. Why not ask these fools how, if they claim to be patriotic Americans who believe in the Constitution, they could think the President was anything but absolutely right to note that Muslims have a perfect right to open an Islamic Community Center, or Mosque, or whatever you want to call it, in Lower Manhattan, several blocks from the former site of the World Trade Center, in a goddamn former Burlington Coat Factory, for God's sake! Hallowed ground, my ass. Come off of it. This is pure political opportunism and media manipulation, so typical of the party of no, and no ideas, which is also the party of no integrity.

Relenting on Target Boycott, and why

August 17, 2010

Target Guest Relations
Attn: Crystal
P. O. Box 9350
Minneapolis, MN 55440-9350

Re: Target Political Contributions

Dear “Crystal:”

I recently wrote to protest Target's political contributions, in particular with regard to the contribution to MN Forward, which ended up supporting a far-right bigot running for Minnesota's governor.

While I still believe strongly that corporations are not people, but rather public trusts, and should not presume to make personal political choices which frequently do not coincide with the wishes either of their shareholders or their customers, I appreciate the respectful reply and the fact that Target has apologized for this particular contribution and attempted to do outreach to the community to ensure that its activities are concordant with its reputation for corporate “good citizenship,” such as this principle is in this country.

Anyway, the purpose of this letter is to let you know that I am relenting on my stated intention to boycott Target, and am advising my friends and acquaintances that I believe Target's response to the public outrage over this issue was a reasonable attempt to listen to the voices of those who were offended, and to try to be responsive to their legitimate complaints, including even modifying the company's political conduct going forward. Target has not announced the policy I would like to see all American companies adopt: to voluntarily not make political contributions with corporate funds at all; but it has taken what I see as reasonable steps towards conciliation, which I believe deserve to be recognized.

Thank you.

Very truly yours,

David Studhalter

published on The Gyromantic Informicon http://studhalter.blogspot.com

15 August 2010

Social Security "Fix"

It's just not true that social security is bankrupt. This is a Republican myth. I won't even waste words proving this; it's been discussed at length elsewhere.

But if the administration is now so concerned about the federal budget, and the inability to steal enough from the social security tax in the future to pay for other things, the solution is really simple.

  • Increase the cap on income for FICA and Medicare taxes to ... no cap. (All income taxed, including unearned income). 

  • Make the tax progressive, with higher rates for those earning over some amount that represents the borderland between the "working middle class" and the upper middle class... say for now around $125,000 for individuals; $200,000 for couples.
Working people are getting really, really tired of having to shoulder every cost and provide for all the production in this country, with so little of the profit. 

E-mail to the White House: Don't even think about adopting Republican positions on Social Security

Now hear this. I have supported the President consistently despite quite a number of disappointments; public option, weak financial reform, weak jobs bill, the useless war in Afghanistan.

But if Krugman is right and an administration commission is going to call for benefit cuts and raising the retirement age for social security... buying into Republican myths and Republican thinking... and if the President goes along with this claptrap...that will be it. I will oppose the president as just a Republican light; and strive my damndest to get a real progressive elected next time. We are your base, Mr. President, and, unlike the Republicans, we want you to succeed. But if you adopt their policies, you will lose our support.

...A non-professional left progressive supporter of the President... so far.

Rein in the General

The New York Times is reporting that Gen. David Petraeus "began a campaign on Sunday to convince an increasingly skeptical public that the American-led coalition can still succeed here despite months of setbacks, saying he had not come to  Afghanistan to preside over a 'graceful exit.'" Now, this may be the administration's policy, for all I know (as someone who sees no real national interest in prosecuting this absurdly expensive and ineffective war, I hope not). But why, I ask myself, does the media not even question why a general is making policy comments? It is not, never has been, and never should be, the role of the military to set policy. This is not a question of military strategy. It is a question of American foreign policy.

Increasingly, these military leaders seem to think they are wiser than their bosses, and that they are free to state their views and try to "campaign" for policies that may, or may not, be the policies of their civilian commanders.

This must stop. Petraeus should be fired if he is not speaking with the explicit authorization of the President; and if he is, then Obama should say so, and should have said it first. This makes America look divided against itself, and ultimately undermines the very ability to project power that is the purpose of the military.

I favor an end to the war in Afghanistan, as quickly as is feasible; but even more importantly I think the civilian government must tell the generals to keep their traps shut unless called upon.

Get Low

Just saw Get Low, a production clearly guided into existence by its star, Robert Duvall; also starring Sissy Spacek and Bill Murray.

Hats off, an instant classic. Please don't miss this movie if you care anything about current cinema in America. 

We must demand Fair Access for All to the Internet ("Net Neutrality")

President Obama made so-called "net neutrality," better called "fair access to the internet," one of the touchstones of his campaign. But, as with many other things, the follow-through has been weak. Please write to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski and the White House and tell them Don't leave "net neutrality" to Google and Verizon, that's like the Fox in charge of the Hen House. Please reverse Bush Administration policies, as the President has promised, to effectively regulate the internet to ensure equal access for all.

Chairman Genachowski's Contact Information
Room: 8-B201  •  Phone: 202.418.1000  •  E-mail
Skip FCC Footer and Contact InfoFederal Communications Commission
445 12th Street SW
Washington, DC 20554

Contact with Alien Civilizations

I just read a long and serious, but unfortunately rather tedious and repetitive book by Michael A. G. Michaud: Contact with Alien Civilizations: Our Hopes and Fears about Encountering Extraterrestrials.

Many people, otherwise very intelligent and with broad philosophical perspectives on the world, life, and nature, are unreasonably, even irrationally, dismissive of this entire subject. This book, unfortunately, however, although it purports to go beyond the usual discussion of SETI (the search aspect), to discuss the likely implications of either communication or direct contact with intelligent aliens, really adds nothing new to the conversation.

The fact is that in all the evidence of the long history of life on Earth there's no proof  (at least that we've found so far) that anything was left behind that credibly indicates visitation by technological intelligent aliens to our planet at any time in the past. Also, despite some looking, we haven't found any evidence of alien technologies "out there" (either in the form of signals or indirect evidence, such as unusual radiation signatures from astronomical objects indicating technological origin). The search for any of these types of evidence (or for artifacts in the solar system other than on Earth), has been far from exhaustive. I think the case for spending at least some modest resources on all of these is pretty solid, but until there is unequivocal proof that humans are not effectively alone in this part of the universe (because if intelligent aliens are too far away, they effectively don't exist, for us), this subject just runs out of steam. It remains an endeavor of knowledge that lacks proof of the existence of its subject matter.

Current Buzz about prospect of Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities

Both the original article by neocon Jeff Goldberg in The Atlantic (on the likelihood that Bibi Netanyahu will order a strike on Iran by next Spring), and Steve Clemons's commentary on it in The Washington Note (contains internal link to The Atlantic article), are "must reads."  
I think there is another side to this; I rather doubt that the national security apparatus in Israel is quite as unanimous as all this. There are huge downsides for Israel if it were to do this, and the fact is that both Tzipi Livni (opposition candidate for Israeli PM in last election) and current Defense Minister Ehud Barak have denied the proposition that Iran as currently constituted is an "existential threat" to Israel. Goldberg's article seems premised on the supposition that this is a nearly unanimous view in Israel.

I also am deeply suspicious of Goldberg's motivations. There is a strong intellectual current, left over from the heady days of neocon primacy in the Bush II First Term, that seeks to create a climate in American policy thinking that is unexaminedly pro-Israel, and that unthinkingly buys into the paradigm that Iran must be countered and defeated. To his credit, Goldberg does analyze the very significant potential negative consequences of what he's saying is a very real prospect. But the whole analysis makes assumptions about continued American military hegemony in the area that no longer make sense. I believe, instead, our interests are best served by exploring every avenue to find enough common ground to create a new way forward for our relations with Iran, in conjunction with our relations with Russia and China, which so far, along with Iran itself, have only had to sit back and watch our policy in the region implode, to their benefit. We have effectively lost sight of the crucial test for foreign policy for any nation: it must act not in the interests of factions or other nations, but in the interests of its own people. Rushing headlong into support of an Israeli war against Iran is clearly not in our nation's interests.

With that in mind, although in America it is hard for a president to say this and mean it (and especially, to be able to back it up), I think the President needs to make crystal clear to Netanyahu: you unilaterally attack Iran and you will destroy the relationship between Israel and the United States, including continued military or financial assistance. We simply will not support you in this, period, and you will end our alliance with you if you do it. 

See also Fred Kaplan in Slate commenting on Goldberg's article.

And a serious critique of Goldberg and his whole anlaysis and his credibility, by Glenn Greenwald.  

Amateur pianists: Janáček: V Mlhách

Check out this youtube of Mikhail Rudy playing the first two movements of V Mlhách ("In the Mist") by Leoš Janáček. 

Theses pieces are a good bit harder than I realized when I heard a bit of one of them on Pandora, but I think they're really marvelous, and I love the way this poster puts up the music.

This is an example of something I've found really valuable and wondeful on Youtube. I am an amateur pianist of very modest accomplishments, and if I'm thinking of dabbling in a particular piece of music, it's very helpful to hear (and even see) someone else playing it. I've found that even some rather obscure intermediate and early advanced piano repertoire is easily located in multiple instances on youtube. The same is true for people trying to learn other instruments or for vocal music, both classical and other styles. This is a really great resource, and yet another example of how the internet has transformed our lives in both minor and major ways.

08 August 2010

My letter to Target's CEO

Mr. Gregg W. Steinhafel, CEO
Target Corporation
1000 Nicollet Mall
Minneapolis, MN 55403     •     Fax:        612-696-5400

Dear Mr. Steinhafel:

I am writing to you with regret, and even some sadness. I have been a customer of Target for nearly thirty years, and have come to rely on my local store as a source of good value on many products that my household needs. My family and I have consistently spent several hundred dollars each year there for many years. I realize that the amount of money my family has spent and would continue to spend at Target is a tiny, almost insignificant blip on your balance sheets, but I would ask you to recognize that there are millions of people like me. People who believe in America, who believe in the idea of America, that each individual person has the same voice as every other, and that our system of laws should be so restrained as to preserve these principles.

I, like millions of Americans, was and am deeply dismayed by the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case earlier this year, which allows corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence political campaigns, including candidates for elective office and ballot propositions, and, still worse, to freely and anonymously funnel corporate funds through front groups, such as “MN FORWARD” and various chambers of commerce, political action committees, etc. We believe that this is literally inimical to our democracy; it dilutes the voice of individuals. It is, to be blunt, unpatriotic and un-American. Corporations are not people; when they, with their asymmetrically huge resources, are permitted to dominate politics, representative democracy is in peril. The very survival of our nation as a republic is in peril.

Having recently learned that Target Corporation has seen fit to contribute corporate funds to an organization that in turn supports a far-right wing candidate in Minnesota, I am outraged. Not merely because the candidate, a certain Mr. Tom Emmer, is a hate-filled bigot who has stated publicly that he favors the execution of gay citizens, although that is, of course, very deeply troubling in its own right. But also, on general principle. I have read just today that you, as Target CEO, apologized for this particular contribution, for which I applaud you. However, it is not enough. There must be a commitment not to engage in political contributions of corporate funds. Corporations, which are by nature public trusts, should not presume to make what amount to personal political choices. Yes, for the moment, you have the legal right to do this. But I, as a customer, have the right to say, No! If you do this, you will forego my custom. I will not do business with you.

I am appealing to you. Target should set an example. It is not too late to undo the damage, and regain the goodwill of your customers who oppose this kind of activity. Corporations, until such time as the law is changed to a more rational basis, should voluntarily forego contributing corporate funds to political movements, whether in support of candidates, legislative agendas, or ballot propositions. Regardless of ideology or party. And so I ask you to commit to permanently and completely refraining from this activity, as an organization, for the good of our Republic. And to say so forcefully, and publicly.

And so, as I said, with regret, I am letting you know that unless, or, more hopefully, until, Target Corporation commits to not contributing corporate funds to organizations or individuals to support individual political candidates, political agendas, or ballot propositions, I will not shop at Target or its affiliates, and I will let everyone I know know why I am not doing so, and ask them to join me in this boycott of Target.

The favor of a response will be much appreciated.

                                                                                          David Studhalter

In truth, something like this e-mail, apart from the specifics that triggered this particular response, could and probably should be sent to most large US corporations. I really believe that the principle that corporations, as public trusts, should not be making personal-type political choices with their corporate funds, needs to be adopted, if not enshrined in law, then voluntarily; and if it takes public pressure to get them to do it, I'm ready to do my bit to apply that pressure.