Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Ferguson exposes the code of Omertá on racism

The Heritage Foundation recently posted on Google Plus that Mississippi should cut its corporate income tax. I pointed out in a comment that Mississippi ranks 50th among states in education, 50th in health care, and that its failures in these areas were race-based, since the poor who are affected by lack of education and health care are predominantly African American. I don't think there is any doubt about that statement. But one person, I'll call him Jack, commented that Mississippi may have been racist in the 1960s, but not any more.

Southern whites were embarrassed by the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights bills in the late 1960s. Their response to these exposures of racist government was not to work to end racism, but to conceal it (and in this they are joined by northern Republicans). They have done this through a policy of omertá--a rigid code of silence about racial matters imposed on southern whites. Under the policy of omertá, white southerners pretend that racism is dead, that there is no discrimination against African-Americans, and that what happened in the bad old days just doesn't matter any more.

The 5 conservative justices on the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) recently endorsed this fiction by striking down part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 because, they claimed, it wasn't needed any more. The Court ruled that the law made sense because of past violations of voters' rights, but is no longer valid because today African-Americans can vote without any problems. SCOTUS thus let themselves be convinced by Southern omertá that everything is fine now and the federal government does not need to keep watching the southern states for potential violations.

Naturally, the first thing that Republicans in state legislatures (not all of them in the South) have done is to enact laws to restrict voting rights--Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Arkansas have tried this. One of their favorite techniques is to require state-issued id (generally a driver's license) to be able to vote. This immediately disenfranchised all elderly black voters who no longer drove cars, even if these people could prove they had been on the voting rolls for 50 years--since the voting rights law of 1965 was enacted. Another way African-Americans have been disenfranchised is to gerrymander them all into one district instead of letting them exercise their votes in several districts--Alabama has tried this.

Political commentators, including Fox News host Bill O'Reilly, have bought into the idea that racism is dead. O'Reilly goes so far as to say that those who accuse others of racism are the real problem because they would create a nation of haters.

All of these arguments against racism have been exposed by events in Ferguson. There, in a town that is two-thirds African-American, the white police chief has refused to arrest a police officer on suspicion of homicide after the officer shot times and killed an unarmed youth. The lines between white and black are being clearly drawn by the suppression of demonstrators in Ferguson, a town outside Saint Louis, Missouri. Rather than acceding to the reasonable requests of law-abiding citizens that the officer in question be arrested, the police floated rumors that the boy was high on drugs, or had recently robbed a convenience store, or was attacking the officer when he was shot.

All of the excuses given why the officer should not be arrested and arraigned for murder are irrelevant. They are arguments with which a defense attorney might try to sway a jury, but they are not reasons why a trial should not take place. The rift between black and white in this country is as deep as it ever was, fueled by the toxic flames of racism that have been kept hidden by white southerners for the last 50 years. But no longer. Ferguson has exposed the true state of race relations in this country. Let's all call for something more than silence--omertá--in response.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Rick Perry's Past Catches Up To Him

Rick Perry has been indicted by a grand jury for abusing the power of his office. The indictment came as a shock not only to Republicans, but also to Democrats. All of those who now claim that Perry will not be convicted have one thing in common: they have not seen the evidence against Perry that the grand jury found convincing.

The jury indicted Perry for vetoing funding for the public integrity unit. Although this unit operates within the District Attorney of Travis County's office, it is an independent entity charged with the vital task of investigating corruption in Texas. Just before Perry pulled the plug, a lengthy investigation by the public integrity unit had led to the indictment of Jerald Cobbs, a senior executive of the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

Perry has been using the Institute as his private slush fund for years, having directed millions of dollars in grants to be given to big donors to his various campaigns. The indictment of Cobbs last December was a big red flag in Perry's face. Cobbs was a lower echelon player, indicted for awarding $11 million to a corporation without properly investigating that company as required by Texas law. But lower echelon players are frequently willing to trade their own jail time for testimony against bigger fish, like Perry and Greg Abbott, both of whom were involved with the slush fund.

Abbott, Texas Attorney General and current candidate for governor, had public exposure in the broadening scandal because he sat on the board of directors of the Cancer Institute and was supposed to look out for the public interest. Abbott never bothered to attend board meetings, a fairly obvious indication that he had not been doing his job.

There was a second indictment against Perry, alleging that he had tried to force Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg to resign her office. Perry's motive for targeting Lehmberg was that she had been convicted of drunk driving and sentenced to 45 days in jail. This, he said, proved that she was unfit for her position. There was no legal requirement that she do so, however, and she refused.

Again, Perry's attempt to force Lehmberg from office leads back to possible future indictments that might come from the public integrity unit. One of those who could be indicted is Perry himself; another is Abbott. If Lehmberg resigned, Perry could appoint a friendly politician to be district attorney who could then stifle further investigation into corruption within the Perry administration. It was essential for Perry and his friends that Lehmberg resign voluntarily. If she were impeached, there would be an election to replace her, and Perry would lose his chance to control events.

One well-known fact about prosecutions like the one now threatening Perry: the prosecutor will be able to investigate the activities of the Cancer Institute and Perry's cronies using subpoena power to read emails and other communications between them. This is the real reason that Perry cut funding for the public integrity unit.

Perry's defenders contend that Perry had every right to cut the state agency's funding. But President Nixon had every right to fire his Attorney General during the Watergate investigation. Nixon hoped thereby to stop the unraveling of his administration. Nixon used the power of the presidency to stop the investigation against him, just as Perry has done in this case. But using a legal procedure to obstruct an investigation is a clear abuse of power.

Perry's defenders also content that he cannot be impeached because Republicans control the Texas State Legislature. But the Democratically controlled legislature of Illinois impeached then-Governor Rod Blagojevich for abusing his office, exactly the same charge that Perry now faces. Although Blagojevich became famous for offering to sell an appointment to the US Senate, he was also convicted on 17 charges of corruption, including pay to play and influence peddling, the same kinds of charges that Perry now faces.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Consistency will destroy the country

In response to a remark by Margaret Leber on Google plus, who said:

There's very good reasons indeed why we have a republic rather than a democracy."

If we have a representative democracy, give me a good reason why 80 percent of the people believe we need immigration reform but our “representatives” refuse to act on it. In fact, our “representatives” refuse to act on anything at all because they dislike the government they are a part of. For a government to be a republic, it has to be working, else it’s not a republic or anything else. 

As for my opinions being inconsistent, I freely admit it. The real world is inconsistent. Some things unions do are good; some things are not so good. But you propose to destroy everything unions do, good and bad, with nothing to replace them. Your opinions are consistent, but harmful to our citizens and also to those who live and work here but to whom we grant no citizenship rights.

Only when the basis for all your ideas is an artificial construct that doesn’t reflect the real world do all your ideas become “consistent”. The real world is irregular. For example, some snakes are beneficial, others are poisonous. We should not adopt a policy to kill all snakes, only those that are harmful. Similarly, we should not adopt a policy to destroy all unions because we don’t like their politics.

So you believe all unions are bad, all taxes are bad, in fact, all government is bad, yet you just said you are glad we have a “republican” form of government. You are not consistent there. If we are to continue to have a republic, we must supply it with enough revenue to accomplish the tasks we set for it. Starving government to make it smaller is like killing all the snakes because some of them are poisonous. That doesn’t make sense, either.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Huge holes appear in Siberia: Climate Change is Accelerating

I do not ascribe every warm day or tornado to the effects of global climate change. I do not look at each heavy rainfall and announce, "That happened because of global climate change." I do not consider myself an expert on climatology. It annoys me when someone says they looked in the rain gauge chart and discovered rainfall was normal, or that they looked at a temperature chart and discovered that there were several low temperatures during a hot spell and therefore the scientists who study global climate change are wrong. This is equivalent to going to a doctor's office and looking at x-rays of cancer and saying, nope, that doctor is wrong, there is no cancer, because I feel fine.

But I do look at each natural event and judge whether it could be influenced by global warming. Many events seem to be influenced by global climate change, while others are indirectly influenced. For example, Hurricane Sandy came very far north for a tropical storm while still maintaining hurricane-force winds. The increased warmth of the Atlantic Ocean may have influenced this northern thrust.

The height of the storm surge was affected by the sea level rising at New York City by 12 inches during the last century and the land there subsiding 3-4 inches during that time. The subsidence is caused by the melting of glaciers after the last Ice Age. The land that used to be covered by ice is now rising slowly, relieved of the massive weight. The land around NYC was not covered by ice, so it is sinking, like the other side of a seesaw from the rising ground to the north.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) states that, while Global Warming may not have caused Hurricane Sandy, it did cause the flooding in Manhattan and nearby coastal areas.

In many places around the world, like Miami, Florida, and Hampton Roads, Virginia, subsidence is a severe problem that makes the incremental increases in ocean level much more damaging to the local infrastructure.

We can't be certain, in many cases, how much an event is affected by global warming. In the case of the recently discovered sinkhole-like holes in Siberia, however, we can be fairly certain they were caused by global warming.

In the first place, the phenomenon of holes in permafrost is unprecedented in the historical record. This phenomenon is something new, just as global climate change is new. In the second place, global climate change theory has predicted the melting of permafrost. We didn't know how it would happen until now. We supposed that the permafrost layer, which consists of undecayed vegetation that has been frozen by perpetual frost, would slowly melt and gradually release its carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Now it appears that another, much more disturbing process may be underway.

The Siberian holes appear to have been caused by eruptions of methane gas bubbles, although an unknown amount of carbon dioxide was also released. Pound for pound, the effect of methane on global warming is 20 times as much as carbon dioxide. It appears that melting permafrost will release large amounts of carbon dioxide and methane. An estimated amount of 300 billion tons of carbon will be released by melting permafrost, about 2/3 of all the carbon released into the atmosphere since the beginning of the industrial revolution.

That sounds dangerous, though it could be spread out over the next 200 years. The effects of methane alone are impossible to predict because we don't know how much methane is trapped in the permafrost layers. What we do know is that huge bubbles of methane--the hole in Siberia is 200 feet in diameter--can burst into the atmosphere. According to this article at realclimate.org, the potential for temperature rise from methane is catastrophically large.

I have been called a global warming alarmist. This latest news is the most alarming yet.

Is This The End of Literacy as We Know it?

People no longer learn to write because they don't need the skill. Yes, lawyers need the skill, but doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals do not. Most of the masculine jobs--building trades, truck drivers, steelworkers--do not. Many of the feminine jobs--waiting tables, administration, retail sales--do not.

When we look at the jobs that are available in this economy, more and more of them do not require writing skills. If they do require such skills, the jobs are done badly and no one seems to care. I remember in my college days watching Chinese students trying to shelve library books. They would look at the spine of the book with a mystified look in their eyes. They had spent ten years of their lives learning to read and write Chinese characters and now were faced with the question of whether "i" comes after "j" in the alphabet.

Ezra Pound remarked--actually preached--that a society that does not value poetry cannot produce great poets. It is the same with writing skills today. Our society values those who can speak, not those who can write. Illiterate people get elected to congress--my congressman in Florida had several new car franchises, but I doubt whether he could pass a freshman English class. Corporate CEOs need to present themselves well in person, but they can hire people to write their autobiographies. The skill of writing will inevitably erode as long as it is not the passport to highly paid positions.

Today, there is no job description called "writer". Even the job of journalist is disappearing--Huffington Post, the most successful online news aggregator, pays most of its writers nothing. Newspapers and magazines are going out of business in a cascade of business failures because an article written for the NY Times today can appear in 500 newspapers tomorrow. Only one journalist got paid!

There is no solution to this problem. The importance of the written word is declining. People who can think rationally will always be in demand, however. We should learn to use our reasoning skills in channels that do not include putting words onto paper.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Health care lies that trap us all in an inferior system of medical care

I recently saw a post on Quora that encapsulated nearly all of the myths, lies, and misconceptions that surround the US medical care system. The Affordable Care Act may put an end to this nonsense. We shall see.

I have analyzed these myths below. In each case my answer follows a brief summary of the original point.

1. Multiculturalism: No one else is close in the ethnic variability of the US. It affects our decisions to work together in ways not even fathomable elsewhere. 

I live in a neighborhood where practically everyone is an immigrant. They're all different ethnicities, from all over the world, but they have one thing in common: They're all poor. So you're saying that our country is great because people come here from all over the world to clean hotel rooms and serve hamburgers.

2. Social mobility: you still can go from outhouse to penthouse. 

The US does not offer its people the best chance of becoming well-off. Many other countries give their poor people a better chance to get rich. ln the US, only 6% of people born into the lowest economic group (bottom one fifth) make it into the top economic group (top one fifth).  see Economic Mobility of Families Across Generations for details. Countries with a better chance for improving your status are Denmark, Norway, Finland, Canada. see Page on brookings.edu for details.

I love the part where you say that immigrants take advantage of educational and entrepreneurial opportunities. The educational system is rigged so that very few people get elite educations, and most of those come from privileged families. The cost of a higher education has become so high that many poor families can only afford to send one child to college. 

The US has some laws that favor entrepreneurs but many others that do the exact opposite. For example, becoming a doctor is a way to get rich, but states control the number of students who enter medical school and the number of doctors who can practice medicine. They have strict laws forbidding non-doctors from practicing medicine. Once again, these laws harm the very poor, who cannot afford a real doctor and instead use faith healers and patent medicines.

Every entrepreneur knows that what you earn depends on how much you have to invest, and poor folk got nada.

3. No cost lawsuits: Other countries haver loser pays for court costs.

It used to be easier to sue a doctor in the United States, but Health Insurance companies and vulnerable corporations--like those that sell tobacco and asbestos--have made it much more difficult to sue anyone. An individual rarely can afford to do so. Many states have passed "tort reform" laws that limit the amount you can receive and also prevent class action suits from being filed. A recent $5 billion class action judgment against big tobacco companies was rejected by an appeals court that said class actions can't be joined by people in other states. So every person injured by tobacco-related diseases must join in a lawsuit with others from their own state. Since these cases last for years, it may not be possible for people in small states to recover their losses at all. 

Tobacco companies and Asbestos companies have learned how to game the system so they pay only pennies on the dollar for actual costs of deaths due to their life-threatening products. Asbestos companies did this by declaring bankruptcy, then allotting a small amount for future damage claims. Afterwards, they can start up business again without worrying about the consequences of their former actions. That outcome results from the lenient bankruptcy laws of the US.

Besides, if everyone has health insurance, the costs of health care are much lower and there is no necessity to sue. The US has the highest health care costs in the world but its high costs do not make their people healthier. 

4. Americans view of the value of life: We put those over 70 on dialysis, ventilators and other extraordinary measures.

The belief that Americans place a higher value on life than elsewhere is a myth. Americans have an average life expectancy of 79.8, while Sweden, Iceland, Norway, Finland, and Italy all have higher life expectancies. These are all socialist countries that have national health systems. If they placed a lower value on life, they would let their people die. But they keep them alive longer than the US does.

5. A fundamental difference in how we are constructed: It is ACCESS TO not the NATURE OF our health care system that drops the US in all the rankings.

I don't understand how you can separate the nature of the health care system from how many people it refuses to care for. You're saying that our health care statistics are worse because we don't provide health care to the poor. You just complained because other countries ration health care by age (which isn't true), but you're saying the US system only looks bad because it rations health care by wealth.

Yes, the US looks bad because poor people can't afford necessary health care. Many lose their lives needlessly because of this system of rationing. This results in a health care that looks bad and is bad, unless you judge a health care system by the way it treats the rich. If those statistics where the US looks bad only considered the health of the rich, the health system would look better. But then you couldn't compare it to the other countries of the world, which do provide health care to the poor.

I suppose you're actually claiming that the US can't afford to give health care to the poor because there are so many poor people here. But the median income in the US is among the highest in the world. See Household income for details. So what you're saying just isn't true. The median family in the US has more money to spend on health care than nearly every other country in the world. The reason we don't provide health care to our citizens isn't because we can't afford it. It's because people like you believe that it is acceptable morally or philosophically to deny health care to people "from the third world country" inside the US.

6. Paying for everyone else's research: Our drugs are DRAMATICALLY more expensive. 

Public Citizen has published an extensive report on the claim that drug companies need higher prices to conduct essential research. The report concludes, "But this R&D scare card is built on myths, falsehoods and misunderstandings, all of which are made possible by the drug industry’s staunch refusal to open its R&D records to congressional investigators or other independent auditors."

Every other country in the world pays less for the same drugs than the US, despite the fact that publicly funded scientists provide much of the research for these drugs. The drug companies have managed to convince our Congress that every other country in the world is wrong to pay less for drugs. They have done this by spending large sums of money on lobbying and public relations. The US is the only country in the world that falls for this stuff. I guess that is a form of "American exceptionalism", but I think it is something we would all be better off without.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Jon Voigt Parrots Israeli Propaganda

Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, and Pedro Almodovar have condemned the Israeli attacks against civilians in Gaza. Their act was a brave one, given Hollywood's unquestioning (but questionable) support of Israel, no matter what atrocity the Israelis perpetrate.

Make no mistake about it, the recent invasion of Gaza is an atrocity.

Jon Voigt, who scores no points for those who question his intelligence, if not his sanity, writes a letter that accounts the history of Israel since 1948. No one is interested in that history. We are looking at what Israel is doing today, a vicious attack with tanks and artillery against a defenseless civilian population of Palestinians in Gaza, where Israel is keeping them penned up like animals. Israel recently warned 100,000 residents of Gaza to leave their homes immediately and not return.

In response to this threat against a civilian population ( itself a War Crime under Article 6 of the Rome Accord), the UN offered shelter at its schools in Gaza. Up to 3,000 Palestinians, who had nowhere else to go, were huddling together in one of these schools when it was targeted by Israelis (either with tanks or artillery--hard to say which, one bombed out building looks much like any other), who scored a direct hit, killing more than 10 and injuring others. This was only one of many authenticated attacks against civilians in Gaza.

Attacking a civilian population is a war crime and a crime against humanity, as defined by the UN's Rome Statute. Forcing a civilian population to leave its homes is a crime of genocide, also as defined by the Rome Statute.

Cruz, Bardem, and Almodovar should be commended for their defense of the Palestinian victims of war crimes in Gaza. Voigt, on the other hand, should do some more research about Israel's recent violations of international law. He should start by reading the Rome Statute. There is no provision there that permits killing of civilians under any circumstances, much less the targeting of shelters where civilians are known to seek refuge.

Belatedly, the Obama administration has condemned Israel for this inexcusable action. White House spokesman Josh Earnest condemned Israeli actions as "totally unacceptable and totally indefensible." Israel's assaults on a defenseless civilian population are likely to continue unless and until the US refuses to support a nation who routinely defies international laws and the good opinion of the family of nations.