Sunday, January 24, 2016

Revenge or restoration

Daniel Holtzclaw is a despicable man. He is white and was a police officer in Oklahoma City. He was found guilty of 18 charges of sexually assaulting 13 black women. The jury recommended he spend 263 years in prison. The judge agreed.

This doesn't sit well with Melissa McEwen of Shakesville. She is both an anti-rape advocate and a prison abolitionist.

Yes, it is good that Holtzclaw will be held accountable for his crimes. Yes, it is good the justice system believed the black women over the white man.

But 263 years? That is only punishment and revenge. And that has led to a corrupt, violent, and dehumanizing prison system. More violence is not the solution to violence.

Will such punishment make any difference in our nations rape culture, a culture that consistently defends the perpetrator and subjects the victim to even more abuse? Will this revenge lead to the eradication of rape? No, and no.

But in America we don't have alternatives.

What would justice for these women without revenge look like? I don't know. But we aren't using our imagination to look for it.

It looks like Norway does have that imagination. Their rate of incarceration is one-tenth of what it is in America. Their rate of recidivism is 20% compared to 77% here. Violent crime is mostly confined to drug trafficking and gangs. They're doing something right.

So let's take a look at Halden Prison. A loss of freedom is the punishment. It doesn't include being treated like an animal. The prison maintains as much "normalcy" as possible, including friendships with guards and extensive vocational programs.

This normalcy allows the inmates to work on restorative justice and on making sure when they are released they are ready to be a fully contributing member of the community.

In Norway a judge is restricted to a maximum sentence of 21 years, though if an inmate isn't rehabilitated in that time successive five year terms can be added. This applies also to Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people in a mass shooting. Americans were outraged at such a lenient sentence. Norwegians, including the victim's parents, weren't.

Americans want revenge. Norwegians want restoration.

After all that I think it is time to look at a link that's been sitting in my browser tabs for almost 10 months now (alas, that row of browser tabs only seems to grow). The article is by Mychal Denzel Smith, a black man, and is published in The Nation. It explores an important question: What are police for?

Police are there to stand between upstanding citizens and the violence of the deranged. Right? But from the black perspective they can only provide the illusion of safety to a select few. Most of a cop's job has nothing to do with violence prevention. Only about 10% is devoted to any kind of criminal matters. Most of 90% is dealing with infractions of various codes and regulations. The police are essentially bureaucrats with weapons, inserting the potential for violence were there is cause for none. And for the most common acts of violence, such as domestic violence and sexual assault, police are ineffectual.
The police are not performing the function we say they are, and there are real ways to achieve a world with less violence that don’t include the police. We simply haven’t tried. Until we invest in full employment, universal healthcare that includes mental health services, free education at every level, comprehensive sex education that teaches about consent and bodily autonomy, the decriminalization of drugs and erasure of the stigma around drug use, affordable and adequate housing, eliminating homophobia and transphobia—things that actually reduce the amount of violence we witness—I don’t want to hear about how necessary the police are. They are only necessary because we are all too willing to hide behind our cowardice and not actually put forth the effort to create a better world. It’s too extreme.
What do you do with an institution whose core function is the control and elimination of black people specifically, and people of color and the poor more broadly?

You abolish it.
But replace them with what?
What people mean is “who is going to protect us?” Who protects us now? If you’re white and well-off, perhaps the police protect you. The rest of us, not so much. What use do I have for an institution that routinely kills people who look like me, and make it so I’m afraid to walk out of my home?

My honest answer is that I don’t know what a world without police looks like. I only know there will be less dead black people. I know that a world without police is a world with one less institution dedicated to the maintenance of white supremacy and inequality. It’s a world worth imagining.

Are you scoffing at Mychal Denzel Smith? Larken Rose, in Alternet, lists seven ways in which cops routinely break the law.

1. "Do you know why I stopped you?" You might think you are explaining. They will treat that as a confession. It is a trick to get you to testify against yourself, which the Fifth Amendment says you can't be forced to do.

2. "Do you have something to hide?" This flips the burden of proof with the implication that failure to cooperate with this harassment is evidence of guilt.

3. "Cooperating will make things easier on you." Implying you will be punished for exercising your rights.

4. "We'll just get a warrant." Implying that if you inconvenience the police you will receive worse treatment.

5. "We have someone who will testify against you." Probably obtained through bullying and likely false.

6. "We can hold you for 72 hours without charging you." At this point your concern is release, so this bullying tactic will likely produce a confession of a minor offense the police know will be false.

7. "I'm going to search you for my own safety." By asserting you might have a weapon police can disregard the Fourth Amendment prohibition on unreasonable searches.

Saturday, January 23, 2016


I had recently written about my internal debate between Bernie and Hillary. I'm not the only one pondering that. Melissa McEwen of Shakesville described what she considers when studying candidates (and apparently does a much more thorough job than I do). She reminds us that these are her criteria and don't need to be anyone else's. Even so, they fit my thinking pretty well.
For example: I look at campaign staff, its diversity and its structure and its efficacy and its decency. I look at how candidates respond to crisis and criticism. I look at voter outreach efforts, especially to marginalized populations, where voters are disproportionately likely to be disenfranchised. I look at the precise language used to discuss issues of concern to me. I look at candidates' debating style, and how diplomatic they tend to be during debates and interviews. I look at their negotiating skills. I look at their preparedness and flexibility and versatility. I look at how capable they seem of being able to pivot, when they are proven wrong. I look at their willingness to be accountable for mistakes and fuck-ups and endorsements of shitty policy. I look at the quality of their apologies, and whether they are willing to apologize at all. I look at how much they value transparency.

This is not a complete list, but you get the picture. In addition to policy, I am keen to assess the attributes that I want to see in a president. I want a president who is competent, effective, unflappable, adaptable, accountable. Who knows when to stand their ground and when to compromise. Who understands that diplomacy and negotiation are huge parts of the president's job, and who is a solid diplomat and negotiator.

And I look for examples, on the campaign trail, of how a candidate might respond to something if they were president. ...
McEwen then provided an example. Over the last week and in connection with the Flint, Mich. water crisis the Dem candidates showed what they are made of.

Bernie called on Mich. Governor Rick Snyder to resign. Snyder has apologized and remains in office.

Hillary sent a few staffers to Flint with the message: What can I do to help?

McEwen wrote:
[I]t means something to me that Sanders responds like someone running for president while Clinton responds like someone who is president.
It means something to me too.

Drip, drip, drip...

The contaminated water in Flint, Michigan is now making national news. There are lots of news sources to fill in the details of that nightmare and lots of opinion about how it wouldn't have happened in a rich white city.

Though as for that last bit...

Oliver Milman, writing for The Guardian, reports:
Water authorities across the US are systematically distorting water tests to downplay the amount of lead in samples, risking a dangerous spread of the toxic water crisis that has gripped Flint, documents seen by the Guardian show.

Documents seen by the Guardian show that water boards in cities including Detroit and Philadelphia, as well as the state of Rhode Island, have distorted tests by using methods deemed misleading by the Environment Protection Agency.
That bit about Detroit definitely caught my attention. The Detroit water system, now the Great Lakes Water Authority supplies water to all of the Detroit Metro Area – and now including Flint again. Does that bit about Detroit mean the city, or the entire Detroit area water system?

Is my water also contaminated?

My water has always been a bit off. It can turn the bowl of a toilet orange (not too bad when I had a yellow toilet) and has a slightly musty taste. About 20 years ago the city partnered with a company to test the water of individual homes. I put out a sample of water to be tested, then found out they wouldn't give me the results unless they could also give me a sales pitch for their filtering products. I decided their results must be unreliable and said no.

Perhaps 3 years ago I had enough of the musty taste and bought a pitcher with a water filter. I still get water straight from the tap when I brush teeth (the pitcher is in the kitchen), though it looks like that needs to change. But does the filter trap lead or enough other harmful stuff? My nutritionist sells a super-duper model (with matching price) but it is big and I don't have space in my kitchen. She has also suggested I buy a filter for the shower. It might be time to do that.

The Guardian saw data gathered by Dr. Yanna Lambrinidou of Virginia Tech. The article also included this:
Lambrinidou warned that the issue of misleading test results was widespread. “There is no way that Flint is a one-off,” she said.“There are many ways to game the system. In Flint, they went to test neighbourhoods where they knew didn’t have a problem. You can also flush the water to get rid of the lead. If you flush it before sampling, the problem will go away.

“The EPA has completely turned its gaze away from this. There is no robust oversight here, the only oversight is from the people getting hurt. Families who get hurt, such as in Flint, are the overseers. It’s an horrendous situation. The system is absolutely failing.”
Do we thank years of the GOP trying to squeeze the gov't by not budgeting enough money? Is the EPA scared because of GOP rants on excessive regulations and has long been targeting the agency? Is this what Libertarians mean when they promote small gov't so it doesn't intrude on our freedom? Are we all supposed to have our own water purification system, responsible for the safety of our own water?

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Full throated support

As part of the recent Democratic Presidential Debate Bernie Sanders said that we should replace Obamacare with a single-payer healthcare system, essentially Medicare for all. That would greatly simplify the current system and reduce costs with a big chunk of those reductions from eliminating paying profits to health insurance companies.

Hillary Clinton dismissed Bernie's suggestion, saying that is isn't practical. There's no way a GOP controlled House would pass such a bill.

I wrote recently about a lot of progressives hungering for someone to challenge the way gov't works for the rich and not for the majority of voters, which Bernie is championing. I've written many times about Medicare for all, including in the first month of this blog and also here and here and here and here and here and here and here.

Hillary is probably right that a GOP controlled House wouldn't touch Medicare for all. But Bernie said it. In that Michigan Dem primary in March perhaps I should vote for Bernie.

Then there is this. Sigh.

Bernie was asked about his low support among African Americans and Latinos. Bernie's answer was essentially once they get to know me they'll love me. Melissa McEwen of Shakesville notes that Bernie has been around long enough and has a large enough record that is possible – and likely – that minorities do know Bernie and don't like what they see. Leaders of minority groups don't endorse on a whim, they do actual research. If Bernie has to go all the way back to marching with MLK to demonstrate his street cred, something is missing. Such a patronizing tone from Bernie is not a way to build a progressive coalition.

Then Bernie threw a snit when the Human Rights Campaign endorsed Hillary.

I'm not a fan of the HRC and stopped donating years ago. And neither Bernie nor Hillary are long-time champions of our causes (though lately Hillary is definitely now on board). But in an attempt to show he has our backs, Bernie was a bully. That isn't acceptable.

One more factor. A week ago Hillary gave a full throated cry to end the Hyde Amendment. Back in 1976 Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois put a clause in the federal budget saying Medicaid (and I think the federal gov't in general) is prevented from spending money on abortions. That phrase has been renewed in every budget since then. And signed by both GOP and Dem presidents.

That clause isn't a law that needs to be repealed. It simply needs to be left out of future budgets. Which Hillary could refuse to sign if that phrase is still there. Government shutdown? Perhaps. But better in defense of the right to an abortion than over some Tea Party dream of limited (read: oppressive to the poor) government.

Katie Klabusich, writing for The Establishment (in a worthwhile post), goes on to explain what overturning Hyde would do and how much of a big deal this is. She also discusses how the current climate of constantly chopping away at Roe has been accepted by Dems as simply the way things are.

So Hillary is coming out as a champion of the right to an abortion (which, she says, isn't a right if you can't get one) and rights of women (and, no doubt, of others).

Hillary is saying nice words here. But will she follow through once elected? Or is she saying them only to get elected? Klabusich believes Hillary's statements are for real. There is no financial advantage to these statements. She already has the endorsement of the big pro-choice organizations. In addition, these words will be a fundraising bonanza for the GOP. So, yeah, Hillary means it.

Hillary may (correctly) determine that Medicare for all isn't possible yet. She may not be calling for significant government reforms. But she's not a bully and a full throated support for several other progressive causes sounds pretty good right now, especially after all of that trashing of anyone not a white straight male by the GOP.

Hillary is looking pretty good!

If Bernie does become the Dem nominee, he will get my vote because he is way better than any of the GOP candidates. Though if it is the cantankerous Bernie and bullying Donald I may turn off my radio and stop reading newspapers in September.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Collective effort of human genius

Last evening I attended a performance of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. On the program was a Dvorak wind serenade, an Elgar string serenade, a Mozart symphony, and a world premier.

The DSO commissioned this piece for an Arab-American composer to write a piece to feature an Israeli cellist. The result is Concerto for Cello and Orchestra "Desert Sorrows" by Mohammed Fairouz with Maya Beiser playing the cello. The three movement work depicts three angels common to Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions. They are Archangel Michael, the angel of thunder and mercy. This first movement depicts the apocalypse and final judgment. The second movement feature Azrael, angel of death. Azrael leads the listener from on funeral procession to another. In the Muslim tradition graves are not a final resting place, but a place we temporarily visit while waiting for the resurrection. The third movement is of Gabriel leading these souls to Heaven. The music is a joyous dance.

I enjoyed the music very much and plan to listen to it again when the DSO makes it available on replay through their website. Alas, this may only be available to subscribers. The audience gave it a standing ovation.

Before the concert the Assistant Director Michelle Merrill held a conversation with Fairouz. He's a young guy, only 30, and has already written a great deal of music. Much of it is a reflection of the conflict between nations. Merrill asked him, "Which composers influence you?" After naming several modern composers he said, "I have a very complicated relationship with Schubert, which I've been discussing with my therapist for years."

I attended the concert in Orchestra Hall, though the DSO has been going out to suburban venues and the first of these three concerts was at Congregation Shaarey Zedek. Yes, the piece by the Arab-American composer was premiered in a Jewish synagogue. He told Merrill, "I now have fifty Jewish grandmothers who will make sure I never go hungry again."

During the conversation with Merrill, someone in the audience asked Fairouz why the title of the piece is "Desert Sorrows"? He said both Arabs and Israelis are desert people with a long tradition of telling tribal stories around the fire as a means of passing on identity. As for that second word, "We both have a PhD in sorrows."

I just now listened to the discussion WRCJ host Chris Felcyn had with Fairouz and Beiser on Wednesday, which was before the first concert. During that time Fairouz said that he and Beiser had met and soon started talking about him writing a concerto for her. She then took that idea to the DSO for funding and performance.

During the discussion with Merrill, Fairouz talked about his mentor, Prince Saud Al-Faisal. The last movement is dedicated to the memory of the Prince. The program notes describe him as a man who "lived his life in the pursuit of peace and reconciliation to the best of his abilities." Fairouz discussed a quote from Prince Saud: "I believe there can never be a clash of civilizations...It is a contradiction of terms. Civilizations are not competing products in the marketplace but rather the collective effort of human genius built on cumulative contributions from many cultures." Fairouz expanded on that contradiction – if civilizations clashed they would not be civilized. He added, "It is possible to have a clash between civilization and barbarians."

A commitment to reform government

I'm getting around to reading the June-August 2015 issue of Washington Monthly that my father left behind. I haven't gotten into it very far, but of the three major articles I've read, two are worth talking about.

Stanley Greenberg wrote "The Average Joe's Proviso." Strangely (my term), the two groups of white working-class voters and white unmarried women are not reliable voters of Democrats. I really want to see what charms the GOP holds for these people, since over the last 30 years the GOP has been working against these groups (see: stagnant wage growth). But Greenberg doesn't get into that.

What he does get into is how the fortunes of the Dems will change if they actively court these groups and – what I want to share – what the Dems need to say to these groups. There are two parts of this message.

The first part is promotion of policies that build up the middle class:
[The initiatives] include policies to protect Medicare and Social Security, investments in infrastructure to modernize the country, a cluster of policies to help working families with child care and paid leave, and new efforts to ensure equal pay and family leave for women. Voters embraced these initiatives, and they tested more strongly than a Republican alternative.
You can see some statistics about the fragile position of the middle class here.

But spouting a middle class agenda isn't enough.
What really strengthens and empowers the progressive economic narrative, however, is a commitment to reform politics and government. That may seem ironic or contradictory, since the narrative calls for a period of government activism. But, of course, it does make sense: Why would you expect government to act on behalf of the ordinary citizen when it is clearly dominated by special interests? Why would you expect people who are financially on the edge, earning flat or falling wages and paying a fair amount of taxes and fees, not to be upset about tax money being wasted or channeled to individuals and corporations vastly more wealthy and powerful than themselves?
When gov't reform is coupled with policies for the middle class the candidates who push that combination are rewarded with much higher poll numbers.

That's why Bernie Sanders is essentially tied with Hillary. Bernie wasn't mentioned in this article (a photo of Hillary is at the top of the story), perhaps by the time he was growing in the polls this issue had already gone to print.

The second article is "Scott Walker's Real Legacy" by Donald Kettl. Walker is the governor of Wisconsin who busted the teachers union back in 2011 and whose bid for prez. ended shortly after this article was published. Kettl takes a look at Walker's actions as governor and what that would mean for a Walker presidency. Kettl is quite rational and thorough in his takedown.

Why did Walker bust the union? One reason he gave is based on fairness:
We can no longer live in a society where the public employees are the haves and taxpayers who foot the bills are the have-nots.
I think he found this definition of fairness in a GOP dictionary. Teachers are among the haves? Ask the teachers in Detroit who are staging sickouts over low pay and deplorable working conditions (thanks to 7 years of state appointed Emergency Managers). Ask teachers of most suburban schools how much they pay out of their own pocket for their materials. Even in rich communities the teachers are on the lower rungs of the income ladder. Corporate leaders are among the have-nots? These are citizens who could foot the bills and are not.

This sounds like the usual GOP trick of convincing one poor group that their cake crumbs have been taken by this other poor group while obscuring that the rich have already swiped the whole cake.

Kettl also goes through and refutes Walker's other reasons for busting the union. There is no correlation between union strength and student achievement. Or union strength and state budget deficits. Unions don't drive up salaries – government employees are actually paid less than private sector employees and that gap increases with the amount of education (and teachers are well educated). Other states closed big deficits through negotiation, not union busting. Though the state saved $3 billion, teachers took that much less spending power into their communities. While unions may protect poor performing teachers, after busting the union Walker has done little to get rid of bad teachers.

Kettl says Walker could have achieved all his stated goals through negotiation instead of union busting.

So what is the real reason for busting the union? Back in 1998 the control of the Wisconsin Senate appeared to come down to one district. The Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC), the state's chamber of commerce pumped a lot of money into the GOP candidate. The Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC), the major public employee union, ran its own issue ads, to the point the Dem candidate felt like a "bit player" in his own campaign. But he won – or more accurately, the WEAC won. It and the WMC fought proxy battles in the state's big issues. That is until Walker busted the WEAC.

If Walker had gotten further in the nominating process he could have included this in his speeches (summarized by Kett1):
The problem with government, he can say, is not just that it is too big, holds back private-sector growth, and robs us of our freedoms—the standard Republican view, which he tirelessly proclaims—but that it has been captured by its own employees, who run it for their own benefit, not the public’s.
But the government doesn't have too many workers, it actually has too few. Back in 1960 about 1.8 million federal workers managed a budget of about $0.6 trillion (2009 dollars). Since then the size of the population has more than doubled, the size of the budget has more than quadrupled, and the size of the federal workforce has been essentially flat. Today about 2 million workers manage a budget of about $3.4 trillion.

In 55 years did federal employees improve efficiency tha much? No, the management of all that money has been outsourced. That has lead to conflicts of interest and program breakdowns (remember the disastrous launch of It also means a profit for the management company has to be included in the cost of running gov't services.

Want to reduce the gov't deficits? Bring all that budget management back in house.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Audacity substitution

Before Christmas I wrote about the Michigan House and its last-minute passage of a bill that skewed the election laws of the state in favor of the GOP. Brian Dickerson's editorial in the Detroit Free Press supplied the details. Last Sunday he was back with the rest of the story.

Senate Bill 571 was approved by the state Senate and was now before the House. It was a 12 page bill that did some minor tweaking of the state's campaign finance laws. At 10 pm on the last session day before the Christmas/New Year break, Rep. Lisa Posthumus Lyons asked for the bill to be taken up – and she proposed the original bill be gutted and a completely new chunk of legislation be put in its place. Doing it this way meant there was no need for committee hearings, or even much floor debate. The new bill contained 53 pages of goodies for the GOP and its backers.

The method of introduction and the lateness of the hour meant Democrats didn't get a chance to read it, much less amend it, though they were uselessly united against it. It also meant most GOP members didn't have time to read it either and had no real idea what they were approving. Only later did a few regret their vote.

Tim Greimel, House Minority Leader, marveled at the audacity of Lyons' coup and said:
The bill does a lot of things, but mostly it's about increasing the volume of political contributions and making it harder for voters to learn who's contributing. I've talked to thousands of voters about the political process in Michigan, and I've never heard a singe one say we needed more money and less disclosure.
Dickerson, newspaper man that he is, tried to find out who enticed Lyons to pull off her maneuver. Current disclosure laws meant he didn't get very far.

The bill was sent back to the Senate, which quickly passed it. Since they had already passed SB 571 the rules probably limited debate and chances to amend (not that the Dems had any time to offer amendments).

It went to (GOP) Gov. Snyder's desk. He had plenty of time to review the bill. He wasn't under an end of session deadline. And he did take the time. He said there were several aspects of the bill he did not like (though those weren't named in news reports) and he wanted legislators to fix it. Then he signed the nasty thing – throwing away any leverage he might have had in making those changes happen. That was highly irresponsible.

Friday, January 15, 2016

The hits (63 of them) just keep on coming

I was going to discuss the movie about Frank Schaefer (preview mentioned here), but this evening's showing at a downtown church was canceled. I didn't find out about that until I got down there.

So, let's see if there are any brief items hiding in my browser tabs I can mention.

Protect Thy Neighbor is an organization that tracks "bills across the country that would allow individuals, businesses, and government employees to harm others in the name of religion." Most of these allow discrimination against LGBT people, many deny access to reproductive health care. Their tally of bills in progress at the start of the 2016 legislative session:

There are 18 bills to expand Religious Freedom Restoration Acts, which are now frequently used to allow religion to discriminate. Three of these bills are in Georgia, four in Kentucky, and four in Oklahoma. There is one pending in Michigan (though the Senate committee got it a year ago).

There are 11 bills to allow gov't employees to withhold marriage licenses. Four of these bills are in Kentucky.

There are 3 bills for First Amendment Defense Acts. These are similar to RFRAs but without the religious overtones. Some go beyond same-sex couples into unmarried couples, remarried couples, single mothers, etc.

There are 8 bills that allow private businesses to refuse to provide wedding services.

There are 4 bills that penalize (including termination) gov't officials who recognize same-sex marriages. Three of these are in Oklahoma.

There are 13 bills for Pastor Protection Acts, to prohibit the state from requiring clergy to perform weddings that conflict with their beliefs (unnecessary because of the First Amendment). There are two each in Florida, Michigan, Missouri, and South Carolina.

Two bills, in South Carolina and Tennessee, would defy the Supremes and declare marriage to only be one man and one woman.

Four bills would eliminate or reduce a state's role in licensing marriages. Two of them are in Michigan.

That's 63 active bills.

Also in Michigan there is a proposal to put a ban on discrimination against sexual orientation and gender identity into the state constitution. That proposal has cleared the Michigan Board of State Canvassers, which approved the language that will appear on petitions. Now the Fair Michigan organization can begin collecting signatures. They need 315,000 by July 11.

Unless I see something change between now and whenever a petition is put in front of me, I won't sign. Some election advisors don't think it will pass and we won't have enough time or money to assure passage. However, if it does get on the ballot I'm pretty sure I'll be doing my part for a win.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Gilded bubble bath and champagne

This afternoon I saw the movie The Big Short. About 2004 Michael Burry, a hedge fund manager. took a close look at the subprime mortgages driving the housing boom and the various financial thingies they were packed into. He realized the whole market was built on smoke and mirrors and as soon as all these adjustable rate mortgages started adjusting the whole mess would fall apart. So he went around to the various banks and asked for a deal that essentially made more than a billion dollar bet against the booming housing market. They all thought he was crazy so gladly accepted his money. A "short" is a bet that the price of something will fall. A trader at another bank got wind of this idea, realized he was onto something, and worked behind his boss's back to draw in other investors to bet against his own company. This includes a team at another company that decided to research the idea by actually visiting a new housing complex in Miami. They also placed bets. Two whiz-bang kids stumbled across the idea and also bet against the housing market.

Spoiler alert (though we've already lived through it): The rest of the movie is about how these four groups are ridiculed, then proven right as in 2007 the financial industry collapsed around them. The two kids made a daring bet, that the entire mortgage market would collapse, not just the subprime market. These kids did a happy dance over their own audacity and their mentor (played by Brad Pitt!) told them to cut it out – if their bet is successful it means the whole economy will collapse and that means millions of people would be out of work. That deflated their sails.

Along the way some of these arcane financial terms are explained in novel ways. One term is explained by a woman in a gilded bubble bath sipping champagne. Another is explained by a chef not throwing out the three day old fish, but making fish soup. Yet another is explained by a woman at a gambling table about to make a bet while two people behind her make a bet whether she will succeed at her bet and two more people make a bet on which of the first two will will their bet.

Throughout the characters talked about the fraud they were uncovering. The big banks were protected from the consequences of their fraud by the gov't bailout. Their fraud ruined the lives of lots of Americans. Only one low-level guy went to jail. Most of those who were responsible for the fraud are still in charge of the super banks and have so much money they can easily distort the political process to give themselves even bigger tax breaks.

I spotted in the credits the usual disclaimer, "The persons and events in this motion picture are fictitious. Any similarity to actual persons or events is unintentional." It didn't seem accurate. The IMDB goofs page for this movie didn't like it either. Michael Burry is a real person using that name, and a few scenes in the movie recreate events that actually happened. And even if individual scenes are fictionalized, the overall story is true and we're still feeling its effects today.

I've wondered what America would be like now if we hadn't bailed out the big banks in 2008. Yeah, the short term would likely have been a lot rougher. But in the long term I suspect the rebound would have been a lot faster and included more people. Wall Street wouldn't have continued to vacuum up money and distort the political process. It worked for Iceland.

More about our financial overlords (though this happened before the events in the movie):

Bryce Covert, writing for Think Progress, reports on research done by Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and Gabriel Zucman. They looked into tax data and a few other things to figure out why after 1980 the income of the rich grew faster and the income of the poor grew slower than before when both grew at about the same speed. This research shows two sources for that difference in growth. First, the income of the wealthy shifted from wages to capital income – money made from investments, such as stocks. Second,, the tax rate on such income, the capital gains tax, was reduced. Yup, a reduction in a tax that only the rich pay.

Friday, January 8, 2016

We're talking gigatons

Yesterday The Diane Rhem Show on NPR spent an hour discussing carbon in the atmosphere. Her panel was Thomas Armstrong of the Madison River Group, a science policy consulting firm, Jane Long, former associate director of energy and environment at Livermore National Laboratory, and Noah Diech of the Center for Carbon Renewal. For part of the time they were joined by David Keith, professor of applied physics at Harvard and president of Carbon Engineering, devoted to developing industrial-scale technologies for direct air capture of CO2.

First, a bit of praise for the recent Paris conference. It didn't say the world should keep temperature change below 2C as has long been stated as a goal, but to claim the goal of 1.5C. But, according to recent projections by the IPCC, to do that we can't just stop all carbon emissions, we must actively intervene and take carbon, specifically carbon dioxide, out of the atmosphere.

We can't simply cut emissions to zero (which isn't happening all that quickly anyway) because CO2 stays in the atmosphere a really long time. The CO2 already in the atmosphere will have an effect on warming, even if no more is added. Most of the rest of the hour was spent discussing how we might actively take carbon out.

First, the scale of the problem. We're talking gigatons of CO2. That's billions of tons. And if we're aiming for all the CO2 emitted since the start of the Industrial Revolution we're talking 2,000 gigatons, or 2 trillion tons (though we probably don't have to deal with all of it). So a big component of the solution must be what to do with that amount of stuff. In addition, much careful research must be done to make sure putting that amount of stuff somewhere doesn't cause other problems.

On to possible solutions...

Geologic carbon capture. We've been doing a lot of fracking lately to extract oil and gas from cracks in the rock. Perhaps we can reverse the process to store CO2. Or put CO2 in oil reservoirs, which are now underpressurized. But we already know about earthquakes caused by fracking. How will we avoid earthquakes with carbon capture? This takes careful study of possible sites.

Carbon capture directly at the power plant. At the moment it is frightfully expensive (but so was solar power when it began) and there is still the issue of what to do with the stuff once it isn't going up the smokestack.

Trees absorb CO2, so planting more trees helps (at a time when we're cutting down trees faster than we can plant them). But a tree tends to live only 40-60 years and when it decays it releases the carbon again.

There is known technology to capture CO2 from the air. Keith's company is working to combine that CO2 with hydrogen generated from solar power to create a fuel with a much smaller environmental impact than biofuels or fossil fuels. All of his research is attempting to use known technologies so that the process is inexpensive. It is a carbon fuel, but it is recycled carbon.

It is possible to turn CO2 into cements, plastics, and composite materials for use in building. Good idea, but it won't deal with billions of tons.

CO2 can be dissolved in sea water, and our globe has huge oceans. But higher CO2 in water makes it more acidic, another environmental problem. Even so, CO2 could be put into the deep ocean. Alas, the process would require as much limestone as we currently pull out of the ground for all other purposes.

Some good ideas out there, some can be used. But none of them will be the "silver bullet" able to handle the problem. A lot of ideas must be developed, tested, and tried and a lot of ideas will be a part of the solution.

Convert a shield into a sword

Let's start with this comic. Go ahead and click on it and then come on back.

Adam Sonfield of The Guttmacher Policy Review wrote the article Learning from Experience: Where Religious Liberty Meets Reproductive Rights. As I've mentioned once or twice before Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRA) were created to make sure the government does not unduly prevent people from practicing their religion. But many Fundies now are trying to use that law to subvert the rights of others.
These demands reflect an increasingly stark formulation of how and when people and institutions should be granted religious exemptions from their legal obligations—a formulation in which the concept of balancing competing rights, responsibilities and needs seems to have given way to religious liberty trumping all other concerns. Social conservatives are in effect using laws like RFRA to erode rights, programs and services that they wish to eliminate entirely but have been unable to do so directly through other means.
A set of 7 cases around employers not wanting to associate with their insurance companies providing contraceptives is before the Supremes. RFRA laws have also been used to battle funding abortion and LGBT rights.
Conservatives assert that any burden on religious liberty is inherently unacceptable, regardless of the tradeoffs, the harm to others and how attenuated that burden might be. That absolutist stance has allowed them to convert religious liberty from a shield against government intrusion into a sword that can be used in the political process.
What to do? RFRAs point up a balance between the rights of a religious person and the rights of others, such as women and LGBT people. What is an undue burden on religion and what is an appropriate burden? The balance should be addressed in the RFRA itself and we should push for that balance.

When Indiana enacted its RFRA last year there was a huge blowback. The state legislature was forced to amend the law to explicitly state that the RFRA could not be used to deny services based on a wide range of personal characteristics. Alas, I'm not sure we were included.

Yeah, this work won't advance the rights of those targeted by an RFRA. But it could prevent the erosion of rights.

Aphra Behn of Shakesville explains how the erosion of access to abortion has affected her life. She didn't find a person with whom she wanted to have children until age 35. But she had to think long and hard about whether to go through with becoming a mother. Due to age and family history the chance of fetal abnormalities was high and many of these problems would not appear until late in the pregnancy. Such pregnancies have a higher risk of harming her, not just the fetus. She didn't want to be in the situation that some hospital or insurance administrator (perhaps associated with the Catholic Church) would decide an acute situation wasn't sufficiently life-threatening for them to do an abortion. So the lack of availability of an abortion was what prompted her to decide to not get pregnant. Abortion is health care.

I talked with my niece yesterday. Her 17th birthday was the day before. She won't be old enough to vote in the November election (being just 2 months shy of 18). But that didn't stop her from sharing her opinion on a couple of the campaign's issues. According to her, not having full rights for LGBT people is stupid. Of course, she has said her favorite relatives are the gay ones. As for abortions, if she ever needed one only seven people will be allowed to share an opinion – herself, her partner, her parent (but only to the point of answering the question are you or I able to raise this child?), a trusted friend, maybe her pastor, the doctor, and the nurse. That's it. Smart girl. She liked the phrase I've heard elsewhere: My body is not a democracy – you don't get a vote.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Coming from the grassroots

Sarah van Gelder, writing for Yes! Magazine, lists six trends of 2015 that she suggests could be at a turning point in America and in the world.

* Leadership in the health of the climate is coming from the grassroots – activists resisting dirty infrastructure projects, such as mines and pipelines, and state and local ordinances for carbon taxes and against fossil fuel infrastructure. It helps that the drop in oil prices means it isn't such a good investment and that there has been a boom in renewables.

* Black Lives Matter is changing hearts.

* Bernie Sanders has forced the power of Wall Street and inequality into the national debate.

* The politics of vilifying and scapegoating people is running out of people to vilify. Gay people? Mormons march in the Utah Pride. Black folks? South Carolina took down the Confederate flag. Immigrants? Political advisors warn both parties that the Latino vote is critical. Muslims? Beyond the GOP extreme Americans are standing with their Muslim neighbors. Who does that leave? Women. Sigh.

* Yeah, American actions made a mess of the Middle East, but Americans now see it as a quagmire. That prompts a much bigger conversation. What is the global role of the US military? What happens when we reduce our use of fossil fuels and no longer rely in Saudi Arabia? It is a discussion worth having.

* America is turning away from the prison state. Both Dems and GOP are looking for ways to reduce and avoid incarceration.

Not on the table

Yes, Obama used executive orders to do something about the level of gun violence in America. And we should give him credit for that because doing anything means kicking the hornet's nest. But Melissa McEwen of Shakesville is not impressed. Her reasons:

* Obama's budget for next year will include funding for 200 more Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms agents. McEwen's objection: Obama's remarks had nothing about people killed by hair trigger officers.

* Keep guns out of the wrong hands?
The problem with restrictions designed to keep guns out of the "wrong" hands is that most of the people who decide to use a gun to harm someone else are, per these definitions, the "right" hands until they're not anymore.
And we're going to make domestic violence a disqualifying crime for gun ownership, which is a good idea in the abstract, except that it necessitates reporting, which victims of domestic abusers may not do if they know their abusers' guns will be taken away, thus enraging them and putting their victims at further risk for harm.

* As for making sure the mentally ill don't get guns McEwen has this sarcastic summary of what Obama said:
We have to reduce stigma around mental illness, but we definitely need to reflexively see every shooter as mentally ill and also track mentally ill people.

Her summary:
The only meaningful thing that is going to curb gun violence is fewer guns.

But that isn't on the table.

Obama, in his speech, talked about the Declaration of Independence and the unalienable rights that include life. Then there is the modern interpretation of the Second Amendment that is taking away the right to life.

And we're not surprised at all... Stocks in gun companies jumped up – Smith & Wesson by 12% – as investors flocked to them in anticipation of a spike in gun sales because people will want to buy before this modest tightening of background checks goes into effect.

These investors have reason. Whenever Obama does more than lament that Congress isn't doing anything gun sales spike. There were 1.6 million guns sold in December. The previous spike was January of 2012 at 2 million guns sold. That was just after Obama was reelected and the Sandy Hook shooting – and Obama talked about restrictions. A third big spike was November of 2008 when Obama was elected. That spike was 1.1 million guns sold. And that spike is now pretty much the monthly average. Annual gun sales have doubled since Obama took office, mostly because the GOP says Obama will take away their guns. That line was missing from Obama's speech.

It is interesting to scan through the comments of the last link to see the cartoons that were posted. Such as this one:
So let me get this straight, requiring an ID at the voting booth is protecting our freedoms, but requiring and ID at a gun show is violating our freedoms?

One commenter addresses the claim that if we restrict ownership of guns then only criminals will have guns. Yes, that is true – and also a big improvement over what we have now. For instance, we'll have a lot fewer guns accidents and a lot fewer incidents of guns in domestic disputes.


I went to the Detroit Institute of Arts to see the special exhibit 30 Americans that ends in about 2 weeks. The interesting aspect of this exhibit is that those 30 Americans are black and the show is about the art they produce. The museum encouraged taking photos of the artwork to share on the show's Instagram page. I'll describe a few of the images and provide links to them. Of course, seeing the images in person is better.

* Painter Kehinde Wiley pulled out an assortment of European art that, of course, featured white guys. He asked young black men to choose one of the artworks. Wiley then recreated the artwork with the black man posing to replace the white guy. The original of this one was of a Spanish (I think) duke or count wearing armor and on a rearing horse. The young black man sitting in for the duke is wearing the typical hoodie with big insignia across the back.

* A riff on the long-running MasterCard ad campaign produced the strongest message of the show. Alas, I don't remember the name of the artist. The text across the image: 3 piece suit: $250, new socks $2, gold chain $400, 9mm pistol $80, bullet ¢60, Picking the perfect casket for your son: Priceless.

* A riff on a children's game resulted in a piece titled "duck, duck, noose." There are nine child size stools in a circle, each with a child size Klan hood. Hanging in the center of the circle is a noose.

* Not all of the art was grim and aiming for a pointed message. Another of Wiley's works was a huge canvas of a sleeping almost nude black man. The level of exactness is amazing. Yes, this is a recreation of a painting showing a similarly nude white man sleeping.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Look elsewhere for secret sauce

So it gets problematic when one is invited to join the conversation as a stakeholder, especially when determining the price point of the secret sauce in hopes of breaking the internet. But that's better than having to walk it back during a presser. Though it is giving me life with great physicality.

Yeah, the Unicorn Hunters of Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan have published their annual list of words that should be banished for mis-use, over-use, and general uselessness. This year's list:

So, when used to start an answer to a question.

Conversation, which one is expected to join, replacing such useful words as discuss, debate, chat, argue, lecture, and talk.

Problematic, a corporate weasel word.

Stakeholder, which used to mean someone who actually had a stake in an issue but now means just about everyone.

Price point, a fancy and meaningless extension of "price."

Secret sauce, a corporate expression for something to boost business success, even outside the fast food industry.

Break the internet, an overused phrase implying lots of internet traffic.

Walk it back, a favorite phrase of pundits when a politician retracts a statement.

Presser, an annoying shorthand for press release or press conference.

Manspreading, a man (who else?) taking up too much space in public transportation.

Vape, a word to correspond to smoking when the subject is e-cigarettes, which emit a vapor.

Giving me life, which means a person finds something exciting.

Physicality, a word overused by sports writers.

One of the first

I start this evening with some blog stats...

My post about being a skeptic of both sides of the global warming debate was viewed directly 83 times (and likely many more times from people reading the home page of the blog). The follow-up post, in which I responded to my friend and debate partner, was viewed 18 times.

I had the fewest number of posts to this blog in 2015 with only 285. I had other priorities this year. The next fewest was 329 in 2011. The most number of posts was 459 in 2009. The average over the last eight years (including this year) is 378 posts a year.

This afternoon I saw the movie The Danish Girl the story of Einar Wegener who transitions from male to female in the 1920s, becoming one of the first to have transitioning surgery. She becomes Lili Elbe. The other half of the story is the response of wife Gerda. Over the course of the movie we see Einar realize she is a woman in a man's body. This was not understood in 1920s Denmark or Paris where Lili and Gerda spend some time.

Eddie Redmayne does a great job as Einar/Lili. There has been talk of him receiving the Oscar for Best Actor two years in a row (he won last year for portraying Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything). Alicia Vikander as Gerda could be nominated for Best Actress.

There was a real Lili ad Gerda. Lili kept a diary, which, along with letters and dictated material, was the source material for the book "Man into Woman" by Niels Hoyer (pseudonym for Ernst Jacobson). But the movie isn't based on that, it is based on the novel "The Danish Girl" which is much more fiction than fact. More annoying, the movie strayed quite a ways from the novel. The book portrays Gerda as bisexual or lesbian, preferring Lili to Einar, and straying far from the marriage. The movie portrays Gerda as straight and faithful.

I also wondered about the ending. I don't want to spoil it (this is a good introduction to what it means to be transgender and I recommend it), so there won't be any detail here. But I wonder how far the movie ending strayed from the novel and from the real life Lili.