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Undernews For 31 October 2009

Since 1964, the news while there's still time to do something about it




October 28, 2009

Control + Click on date for permanent link, on Comments to make or read comments, and on the envelope to email story to someone

Some people think of the glass as half full. Some people think of the glass as half empty. I think of the glass as too big. --George Carlin

Sam Smith

After nine months of political extremism - bankrolling huge banks, escalating the Afghan war, treating local public schools like they were just another federal agency and finding new ways to subsidize the health insurance industry - it may finally be time for a little moderation. There's an awful lot of talk about moderation and bipartisanship in Washington, but not much evidence of it. So here is a political program that would be both more moderate and more popular than that of our bipartited president and Congress:


Just stop them. They're not doing us any good. We don't win them, they cost a lot of money, make a lot of people mad at us, and kill people who in no way deserve it. And if you can't stop them, at least stop escalating them. Remember: every new soldier sent to Afghanistan is one more problem you'll have to add to your exit strategy.

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A major reason we have so many wars is because of pressure from former schoolyard bullies now at the Pentagon and from presidential advisers and journalists feeling insecure about their testosterone level. Stop pandering to these types and you not only save a lot of lives, but hundreds of billions of dollars as well.


The Democrats have blown it. So why not drop the whole thing and come up with a moderate health reform bill. One that would do some of the things that everyone would like - like barring denial of insurance for preexisting conditions. Then expand Medicare to those 55 and older and to children 5 and under. Expand Medicaid. You can get your money from TARP and from the Pentagon. There's lots of it floating around these days for bankers and Afghanis. Why not use it for a good purpose instead? Sure the insurance companies will be furious, but who cares? Mike Huckabee has already come within spitting distance of Obama in two polls and sucking up to Blue Cross won't help Obama a bit.


One difference between Washington politicians and real people is that the latter like to see public works; the former settle for infrastructure. Further, the stimulus bill was so full of verbal infrastructure that people didn't notice how little public works there was in it. We don't need a second stimulus package; we need a real first one. For a model, look at Roosevelt's administration which built or repaired 3,700 playgrounds, 40,000 schools, 12 million feet of sewer pipe, 1,000 airports, 2,500 hospitals, 2,500 sports stadiums, 3,900 schools, 8,192 parks, 15,000 playgrounds, 124,031 bridges and 125,110 public buildings, not to mention thousands of miles of roads. And Harry Hopkins got the same number of people working in four weeks as Obama promised he would in two years. In fact, Hopkins got about the same number of people working in four weeks as Obama has lost so far this year.


The Democrats have done hardly anything to put a dent in the foreclosure crisis. One reason is because they like banks too much. The other is that they're afraid that helping those in foreclosure or in danger of it will annoy others who say, "I've paid my mortgage; why haven't they?" Two ways to deal with this: decentralize foreclosure adjustment decisions to local courts and start a shared equity program in which financial aid would be paid for by a percentage of government ownership. Get this going now, and by the time most of these homes are sold, the government will have actually made money.

Some other things that would help:

Reduce credit card interest rates. End rampant usury.

Expand unemployment benefits

Limit rate increases on adjustable rate mortgages

Create state owned banks like the one that has worked well in North Dakota.

Support the creation of more credit unions and co-ops.

Expand our rail system and rail service - with the emphasis not on business class high speed rail but on everyday service for real people. The expansion of transportation has historically been one of America's great economic spurs.


The war on drugs has been the most deadly conflict for Americans since Vietnam. It has greatly increased criminal drug activity and sends people to prison for using something milder than vodka and less dangerous than cigarettes. If we were to decriminalize the possession of marijuana and cancel all existing marijuana possession charges, we would be starting on the path towards sanity.


There are at least five amendments that are in deep trouble.

The First Amendment: This is in trouble because it has fewer and fewer powerful advocates. Police intimidate demonstrators, principals harass student newspapers, and liberals pass hate crime bills. Ordinary folks still like the idea, however, and it's a wonderfully moderate concept.

The Second Amendment: Contrary to liberal mythology, gun laws are pretty ineffective. When DC passed the toughest gun law in the country, its murderers failed to notice and the death rate soared. This is partly because if you're about to kill someone, the threat of ancillary gun charges are of minimal significance. There are, on the other hand, places like Alaska and Maine that have high gun ownership and low crime rates. Further, there are Americans who like to hunt, like to feel safe in their house, and believe in their constitutional right to bear arms. Even if you don't agree with them, you're not doing anyone (including yourself) a favor by hassling them. Support their rights and you've may find yourself with allies on actual important issues.

The Fourth Amendment: There is a varied and broad constituency that has been subjected to illegal searches by the government, from wiretaps to warrantless raids.

The Tenth Amendment: This amendment, which leaves to the states and the people those powers not specified in the Constitution, is routinely abused by the feds. Arne Duncan's unconstitutional interference with local public education is but one example. Washington officials of both parties have increasingly sought to secure more power for themselves at the expense of state and local government. Liberals are repeat offenders, some even giving the impression that they hold lower branches of government with contempt. This doesn't win votes. It annoys people, makes their lives more difficult, and leads them to think of you as arrogant.

The Fourteenth Amendment: This amendment, designed after the Civil War to give personhood to former slaves and their descendants, was kidnapped by business interests to include corporations as persons. This is why corporations can get away with buying elections. As Al Gore explained, after an 1886 decision by the Supreme Court, "the 'monopolies in commerce' that Jefferson had wanted to prohibit in the Bill of Rights were full-blown monsters, crushing competition from smaller businesses, bleeding farmers with extortionate shipping costs, and buying politicians at every level of government." Corporations need to lose their personhood.

Five ways to preserve and restore the Constitution. There's nothing more moderate than that.

In fact, all the aforementioned are much closer to the American consensus than much of what is being proposed in Washington, or has been for the past few decades. And there isn't a obfuscating trigger, mandate, option or TARP in the lot.

10/27/2009 | Comments

This is what history looks like. The United Steelworkers are breaking union tradition in moving workers from representation to ownership, and the world's largest cooperative is moving into an economically troubled U.S.

United Steelworkers - The United Steelworkers and Mondragon Internacional havew announced an agreement for collaboration in establishing Mondragon cooperatives in the manufacturing sector within the United States and Canada. The USW and Mondragon will work to establish manufacturing cooperatives that adapt collective bargaining principles to the Mondragon worker ownership model of "one worker, one vote."

"We see today's agreement as a historic first step towards making union co-ops a viable business model that can create good jobs, empower workers, and support communities in the United States and Canada," said USW International President Leo W. Gerard. "Too often we have seen Wall Street hollow out companies by draining their cash and assets and hollowing out communities by shedding jobs and shuttering plants. We need a new business model that invests in workers and invests in communities."

Josu Ugarte, President of Mondragon Internacional added: "What we are announcing today represents a historic first - combining the world's largest industrial worker cooperative with one of the world's most progressive and forward-thinking manufacturing unions to work together."

Highlighting the differences between Employee Stock Ownership Plans and union co-ops, Gerard said, "We have lots of experience with ESOPs, but have found that it doesn't take long for the Wall Street types to push workers aside and take back control. We see Mondragon's cooperative model with 'one worker, one vote' ownership as a means to re-empower workers and make business accountable to Main Street instead of Wall Street."

Mondragon - The Mondragon Corporation mission is to produce and sell goods and provide services and distribution using democratic methods in its organizational structure and distributing the assets generated for the benefit of its members and the community. Mondragoon was started in 1956 in the Basque town of Mondragon by a rural village priest.

Today, it has approximately 100,000 cooperative members in over 260 cooperative enterprises present in more than forty countries; In 2008, Mondragon Corporation reached annual sales of more than sixteen billion euros with its own cooperative university, cooperative bank, and cooperative social security mutual and is ranked as the top Basque business group, the seventh largest in Spain, and the world's largest industrial workers cooperative.

USW - USW is North America's largest industrial union representing 1.2 million active and retired members in a diverse range of industries.

Carl Davidson, Daily Kos - Cooperatives are numerous and widespread in the U.S. and come in many flavors. There are some 30,000 of them, creating some 2 million jobs, with $652 billion in revenues, $3 trillion in assets, and $133 billion in income. Some 90 million Americans are members of credit unions alone. Purchasing coops and public utility coops are especially popular in rural areas. There are housing coops in many large cities, as well as a wide variety of consumer coops, from supermarkets to health food stores. There are coops for machinery repair and other services, and lastly, worker coops for manufacturing. Worker coops are relatively small in number in the U. S, only about 500 of which exist in a larger universe of some 10,000 U.S. worker-owned firms known as ESOPS.

What's the difference between an ESOP and a worker cooperative?

There's a good deal of difference, having to do with the legal structure and control. In an ESOP, a portion of the companies stock, ranging from a large minority bloc to 100 percent of it, is owned by workers but held in a trust. Its value fluctuates with the stock market and workers can get dividends as they are paid, buy more stock, or "cash out" when they retire. If they do "cash out," they are hit with taxes on the closing amount, unless they roll it over into an IRA. By and large, ESOPs are financial instruments and do not automatically lead to worker control over the workplace or a role in shaping the firm's capital strategies. Managers are hired by the firm's board of directors, in turn connected to the trust.

Worker cooperatives, on the other hand, are directly owned and run by the workers, with each worker holding an equal share and one equal vote. But even that's the "pure form." Many worker cooperatives are defined more loosely as firms where a majority of the workers own a majority of the stock. This means there are coops that hire workers as wage labor who aren't owners, as well as worker coops where ownership shares, at least a minority portion of them, can be held by non-workers-and sometimes there's a combination of both.

The Mondragon Coops in the Basque region of Spain. . . started 50 years ago with a small technical school, credit union and a small workshop manufacturing kerosene stoves. MMC was initially organized by a Spanish priest, Father Arizmendi, and is now highly successful and widely studied around the world. With nearly 200 coop firms involving120,000 work-owners, MCC is now the leading edge of the Spanish economy, manufacturing everything from kitchen utensils to motor buses, as well as Eroski, a chain of supermarkets, and a coop-owned bank, university and social agencies.

Some of the first questions that come up about Mondragon, ESOPS and cooperatives in general are from the trade unions. Should unions get involved in ESOPs? Should members of worker cooperatives join unions?

These were the core questions in [a] workshop pulled together by staff and organizers of the United Steelworkers, along with Michael Peck, Mondragon's North American Delegate, headquartered in Washington, DC. Peck was also a representative of GAMESA, a Spanish manufacturer of state-of-the-art wind turbines that recently partnered with the USW in opening two plants in Pennsylvania by converting shutdown steel plants and hiring hundreds of workers to produce the new green energy turbines.

"Our economy has been hijacked by the Wall Street types," stated Steve Newman, a USW researcher introduced by Steffi Domike, a USW associate who chaired the session. He presented a series of graphs showing how investment in manufacturing had declined in favor of "financialization," with the country's resources going into speculation. He ended by noting that public stimulus funds were being spent abroad, rather than more productively at home. All this served to lead the unions to begin to think in broader terms about new allies and projects to fight finance capital-hence the USW openness to things like green jobs programs and the coop movement.

"I'm a union organizer," said Rob Witherell of the USW, kicking off the discussion. "That means I'm mainly about collective bargaining and getting a contract. But with a worker-owned cooperative, who bargains with whom?"

It was a provocative question. The short answer was that the workers bargained with their managers. Even if they elected the managers from among themselves every few years, it didn't mean they didn't have problems with them day-to-day, along with the need to nail down other policies and agreements in a contract. Other reasons given for coop workers to join unions included access to pension and health plans.

MCC's Peck pointed out that in Spain, the coops all had a social committee in each firm that dealt with many day-to-day issues as a trade union might, but the annual workers assemblies set income scales, with the current spread between the average worker and top management being about 4.5 to one. By contrast, in the U.S. the spread is about 400 to one. . .

10/27/2009 | Comments

Unsilent Generation - The latest reincarnation of the public option, endorsed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, in all probability will lay out one more circuitous route back into the insurance industry. The Senate plan apparently will follow the lines of an idea originally suggested by Senator Tom Carper, a Delaware Democrat. Today, nobody-journalists, politicans-know the details of this plan. But earlier in October, Carper talked to reporters and, according to an account in TPM, set forth his ideas in some detail.

I think at the end of the day there will be a national plan probably put together not by the federal government but by a non-profit board with some seed money from the federal government that states would initially participate in because of lack of affordability. . .

How would it work? First, this won't be a government run, government funded enterprise. Two, there should be a level playing field so that this non-profit entity that would be stood up would have to play by same rules basically as for-profit insurance companies - the idea that secretary of Health and Human Services [will be] running or directing the operation of this - no way.

We ought to have a non-profit board - it could be appointed by the President but a non-profit board. They'd have to retain earnings, create a retained earnings pool, so that if they run into financial problems later on the financial needs of the plan could be met by the retained earnings.

Carper's plan begins to sound very much like Blue Cross-Blue Shield, long ago launched as a non-profit cooperative that over time turned into a hellish health insurance conglomerate that includes both for-profit and non-profit franchises. (The huge-and hugely loathed-WellPoint is now the largest member of the network.)

Carper and other designers of weak-assed public options like to say non-profit over and over again, as if this were some cure to all the ills of the private insurance industry. This is far from the case: As I wrote back in June:

"Almost half of Americans with private health insurance are currently covered by non-profit plans. As a whole, they haven't proven themselves much-if any-better or cheaper than the for-profit insurers. . The giant Kaiser Permanente is a non-profit. And while some of them have privatized, many of the Blue Cross-Blue Shields are still non-profits as well-and, in fact, got started as co-ops. Some of these non-profit insurers are well known for paying huge executive salaries and hoarding huge reserves, while charging the same high rates and offering the same rationed care as private plans-and enjoying tax exemption to boot. One report by the Consumers Union found the non-profit 'Blues' stockpiling billions in cash even as they raised premiums and co-pays.

10/28/2009 | Comments

We have previously reported the Afghan president's ties to the CIA. It seems he was not alone.

NY Times - Ahmed Wali Karzai, the brother of the Afghan president and a suspected player in the country's booming illegal opium trade, gets regular payments from the Central Intelligence Agency, and has for much of the past eight years, according to current and former American officials.

The agency pays Mr. Karzai for a variety of services, including helping to recruit an Afghan paramilitary force that operates at the C.I.A.'s direction in and around the southern city of Kandahar, Mr. Karzai's home.

The financial ties and close working relationship between the intelligence agency and Mr. Karzai raise significant questions about America's war strategy, which is currently under review at the White House.

The ties to Mr. Karzai have created deep divisions within the Obama administration. The critics say the ties complicate America's increasingly tense relationship with President Hamid Karzai, who has struggled to build sustained popularity among Afghans and has long been portrayed by the Taliban as an American puppet. The C.I.A.'s practices also suggest that the United States is not doing everything in its power to stamp out the lucrative Afghan drug trade, a major source of revenue for the Taliban.

More broadly, some American officials argue that the reliance on Ahmed Wali Karzai, the most powerful figure in a large area of southern Afghanistan where the Taliban insurgency is strongest, undermines the American push to develop an effective central government that can maintain law and order and eventually allow the United States to withdraw.

10/28/2009 | Comments

New Scientist - As the US government ponders a strategy to deal with threatening asteroids, a dramatic explosion over Indonesia has underscored how blind we still are to hurtling space rocks.

On 8 October an asteroid detonated high in the atmosphere above South Sulawesi, Indonesia, releasing about as much energy as 50,000 tons of TNT, according to a NASA estimate. That's about three times more powerful than the atomic bomb that leveled Hiroshima, making it one of the largest asteroid explosions ever observed.

However, the blast caused no damage on the ground because of the high altitude, 15 to 20 kilometers above Earth's surface, says astronomer Peter Brown of the University of Western Ontario, Canada. . .

The amount of energy released suggests the object was about 10 meters across, the researchers say. Such objects are thought to hit Earth about once per decade.

10/28/2009 | Comments

Washington Times - During his first nine months in office, President Obama has quietly rewarded scores of top Democratic donors with VIP access to the White House, private briefings with administration advisers and invitations to important speeches and town-hall meetings.

High-dollar fundraisers have been promised access to senior White House officials in exchange for pledges to donate $30,400 personally or to bundle $300,000 in contributions ahead of the 2010 midterm elections, according to internal Democratic National Committee documents obtained by The Washington Times.

One top donor described in an interview with The Times being given a birthday visit to the Oval Office. Another was allowed use of a White House-complex bowling alley for his family. Bundlers closest to the president were invited to watch a movie in the red-walled theater in the basement of the presidential mansion.

Mr. Obama invited his top New York bundler, UBS Americas CEO Robert Wolf, to golf with him during the president's Martha's Vineyard vacation in August. At least 39 donors and fundraisers also were treated to a lavish White House reception on St. Patrick's Day, where the fountains on the North and South Lawns were dyed green, photos and video reviewed by The Times and CBS News also show. . .

Veteran Washington observers say the Obama-era perks carry shades of the so-called "donor maintenance" programs of past administrations, when Bill Clinton rewarded fundraisers with White House coffees and overnight stays in the Lincoln Bedroom and George W. Bush invited "Pioneers" to Camp David or his Texas ranch. . .

Over the summer, one of Mr. Obama's deputy chiefs of staff, Jim Messina, flew to Los Angeles and San Francisco to provide in-person briefings to a small collection of top donors to explain the administration's plan for tackling health care legislation and counter the rising tide of opposition at town-hall meetings. In another, a group was briefed by one of Mr. Obama's top economic advisers, Austan Goolsbee.

And festive events at the White House, such as parties thrown to celebrate Cinco de Mayo and July Fourth, were underwritten in part or in full by the DNC. Guests lists for those functions have not been made public.

10/28/2009 | Comments

Kim Zetter, Wired - When patients visit a physician or hospital, they know that anyone involved in providing their health care can lawfully access their medical records. But unknown to patients, an increasing number of outside vendors that manage electronic health records also have access to that data, and are reselling the information as a commodity. The revelation comes in a recent New York Times article about how so-called "scrubbed" patient data isn't as anonymous as people think. The piece focuses primarily on how anonymized data can be easily de-anonymized when cross-bred with other publicly available databases, such as voting records. But buried near the end of the article is the news that medical data is collected, anonymized and sold, not by insurance agencies and health-care providers, but by third party vendors who provide medical record storage in the cloud.

Electronic health record services have been a growing industry in the last few years, according to Sue Reber, marketing director of the Certification Commission for Health Information Technology. Reber says that previously most vendors simply sold software packages; once the product was sold, the vendor had no connection to the data stored in it. But an increasing number of companies have begun to offer web-based software management applications that include database storage controlled and managed by the vendor.

Reber told Threat Level that such products generally come with security and privacy provisions that prevent the software provider from having access to the data, even though they're managing it. But others say this isn't always the case.

As part of their contracts with the vendors, doctors are agreeing to let some vendors access and collect the patient data, scrub it of personally identifying information, and sell it in bulk to pharmaceutical companies and other buyers, the Times reports.

George Hill, an analyst at Leerink Swann, a health care investment bank, told the Times that the market for health record systems is $8 billion to $10 billion annually. About 5 percent of this income comes not from the sale of information systems but from the sale of data and analysis. As more physicians and hospitals - spurred by federal incentives - switch to electronic record keeping, revenue from the sale of health records could grow to $5 billion, Hill said. . .

Giving vendors access to such data would apparently violate the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which prohibits doctors from providing medical records to anyone not involved in providing health care or payment for health care or involved in health-care research. Although the law does provide a loophole for "business associates" hired by health-care providers, privacy rights lawyer Robert Gellman told ModernHealthCare that this likely wouldn't protect health-care providers in these cases.


10/28/2009 | Comments

Al Kamen, Washington Post - Remember the uproar a few months back after AIG and other federal bailout recipients were holding conferences and meetings at luxury resorts? The national outrage caused many TARP recipients to cut such travel, or at least opt for less-opulent venues.

Fortunately, the Federal Reserve never took a dime of TARP money. So when Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, who's been worried about the federal deficit, went to speak Oct. 19 at the San Francisco Fed conference on Asia and the global financial mess, he was obliged to travel to the spectacular Bacara Resort and Spa near Santa Barbara, where suites in high season can run up to $2,000 a night. (We're told the resort discounted the rooms -- it's off-season -- to a mere $300 a night, though it's unclear whether that included the primo suites.)

The conference included about 100 academics, central bankers from various countries, and a number of folks from Asia, including China, the biggest foreign holder of U.S. debt and a country that seems to have trouble working out a realistic currency valuation. About a third of the participants were Fed employees.

Where better for conferees to worry about saving more than at the uber-swanky Bacara?. . .

"Like an intimate Mediterranean village," says the resort's Web site, "Bacara sprawls over 78 beachfront acres, nestled between the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Ynez mountains." What's more, "every one of our 311 rooms and 49 specialty suites is like the rest of the resort: luxurious, understated, intimate and relaxed. Every room features a private patio or balcony.".

The beautiful pool area might even have a topless section -- at least judging from the photo on the site of a woman lounging on a beach chair with a martini.

But was Bernanke satisfied with jawboning the Chicoms about their trade surpluses and their need to increase consumption? Not at all. There were other issues of import to discuss.

So on Friday he was off to speak to 100 more academics, policymakers and bank folks at the Boston Fed's annual economic conference. It wasn't exactly in Boston, which may not have had facilities to handle such an enormous crowd, but rather at the stunning Wequassett Inn on Cape Cod, only 90 miles from Logan Airport, where the best suite, in-season, lists for just $2,800. (This time of year it's only $1,860, while the really cheap rooms run $320 and nicer ones up to about a grand. Get the one with the fireplace on the deck.) We trust the Fed got a real deal here, too.

The resort's Web site begins with a "virtual tour" that modestly announces: "You have arrived." Pause. Pause. "We could tell you we are quite simply the finest resort on Cape Cod, but we wouldn't want to be guilty of understatement." It sits on 22 acres overlooking a splendid bay and marshes and calls itself a "secluded paradise for the discerning traveler."

What better place for Bernanke to hold forth against corporate "compensation plans that encourage, even inadvertently, excessive risk-taking can pose a threat to safety and soundness." The restaurant -- the menu, of course, doesn't list prices -- features "hand-blown glass chandeliers, nautical etchings, Limoges china and Riedel stemware" to provide an "atmosphere of eclectic style and quiet luxury."

There probably are lower-priced accommodations to be had in the Boston area, and we're not talking a Motel 6 or Days Inn. Even if you must go to a waterfront resort to focus on corporate compensation plans, the perfectly lovely, newly redone Hyatt in Newport, R.I., lists a government rate of $166, and surely the folks there would work with you in these difficult times.

Of Bernanke's two speeches, we like the one at the Bacara better, in which he said Americans need to save more and the country must "substantially reduce federal deficits."

Hey, Ben, we're trying, but we could use a little help here.

10/28/2009 | Comments

Cooperative Business Journal - The Western Maine Labor Council passed a resolution committing future collaboration with the cooperative movement. Secondly, the Maine State AFL-CIO decided to study the issue and resolves made in the resolution and to act on it in the future. This resolution was based on one passed by and AFSME local in Oregon and will be considered before the Oregon and Massachusetts state AFL-CIO conventions as well.

10/28/2009 | Comments

Josh Eboch, Tenth Amendment Center - The Tenth Amendment, states' rights, and state sovereignty were invoked post-ratification as early as 1798 in response to the Alien and Sedition Acts, which were a direct affront to the constitutional freedoms of speech and association.

Thomas Jefferson himself made clear the relationship the framers envisioned between the federal and state governments when he penned the Kentucky Resolutions, one of the most liberating texts since the Declaration of Independence against those vile Acts:

"Resolved, That the several states composing the United States of America are not united on the principle of unlimited submission to their general government. . . Whensoever the general government assumes undelegated powers, its acts are unauthoritative, void, and of no force. . This government, created by this compact, was not made the exclusive or final judge of the extent of the powers delegated to itself, since that would have made its discretion, and not the Constitution, the measure of its powers; but. . . each party has an equal right to judge for itself, as well of infractions as of the mode and measure of redress.". . .

Between 1798 and the start of the Civil War, there were a number of other instances in which states forcefully reasserted their constitutional rights under the Tenth Amendment, often using Jefferson's own words. Many of those states were located in the North, where sovereignty was even cited as legal grounds to undermine slavery, through opposition to the (Lincoln-endorsed) federal Fugitive Slave Act.

But even without a history book, [one] need look no further than California and the 12 other states that have passed medical marijuana laws in direct conflict with the federal Controlled Substances Act. Thanks to that defiance, hundreds of thousands of desperately sick Americans get access to relief that the federal government has denied them.

Or consider the Real ID Act passed by Congress in 2005. It has since been rendered null and void because more than 20 states exercised their sovereign rights in refusing to implement its patently unconstitutional provisions.

Clearly, America has enjoyed the benefits of dual sovereignty and states' rights, not just historically but in the last decade, without dissolving into paroxysms of racial animosity. . .

10/28/2009 | Comments


A picture of a fountain and rocks at the FDR memorial in Washington DC
at evening. By Cafzal

NY Times - Lawrence Halprin, the tribal elder of American landscape architecture, who used the word choreography to describe his melding of modernism, nature and movement in hundreds of projects, including the memorial to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in Washington, died on Sunday at his home in Kentfield, Calif. He was 93. . . .

Places he shaped include Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco; Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis; a sequence of urban spaces with dazzling fountains in Portland, Ore.; a park atop a freeway in Seattle; and large plazas in Los Angeles.

"He almost single-handedly reclaimed the city as the purview of the landscape architect," said Charles Birnbaum, founder and president of the Cultural Landscape Foundation. . .

The Roosevelt memorial was Mr. Halprin's favorite project, his wife said. Partly because he had loving memories of Roosevelt, and partly because of the sheer difficulty of the task. The memorial commission accepted Mr. Halprin's concept of four outdoor rooms and gardens animated by water, stone and sculpture in 1974. The project, somewhat reduced in size, was completed in 1997.

Mr. Halprin used that span of time meticulously. He went to a quarry and personally picked some of the 4,000 stones in the walls. He made a drawing of each of the 4,000 so he could put each one exactly where he wanted it. . .

Sam Smith, Progressive Review, 2006 - My introduction to the impact of urban planning came in the late 1950s as a radio reporter. I was sent to interview a woman who was refusing to move out of her house in DC's Southwest urban renewal area. Hundreds of acres had been leveled around her and still she clung on like a survivor of the Dresden carpet bombing. The project, the largest in the nation, had begun in April 1954 and five years later some 550 acres had been cleared. Only 300 families remained to be relocated. More than 20,000 people and 800 businesses had been kicked out to make way for the plan. Some 80% of the latter never went back into operation.

The design was hailed by planners and liberals; a 1955 report for the District was titled No Slums in Ten Years. Just as today, many liberals saw nothing wrong with eminent domain as long as it produced a more purified community. Not everyone was so sanguine, however. One of the leaders in the fight against SW urban renewal was Rev. Walter Fauntroy, later active in the civil rights movement. And in a 1959 report of the National Conference of Catholic Charities, the Rt. Rev. Msg. John O'Grady said, "It is sad. It is not urban renewal; it is a means of making a few people rich. Instead of improving housing conditions, it is shifting people around from one slum to another."

The Supreme Court disagreed. In 1954 it had upheld the underlying law and in a decision written by none other than William O. Douglas, declared:

"It is within the power of the legislature to determine that the community should be beautiful as well as healthy, spacious as well as clean, well-balanced as well as carefully patrolled . . . The experts concluded that if the community were to be healthy, if it were not to revert again to a blighted or slum area, as though possessed by a congenital disease, the area must be planned as a whole."

Years later, a woman who had lived in Southwest recalled that when her mentally ill mother had a spell, there were always neighbors or relatives to take her in and shield her from what was happening. It wasn't until they were forced out of the community of Southwest and had to live alone that she learned how sick her mother was.

Today, the new Southwest is rarely cited as a model of urban living. It reflects the planning biases of the 50s - cold, boxy construction and a lack of convenient shops, thanks in part to the deal struck at the time with the now struggling commercial mall. Many people seem to prefer less planned communities, places whose character developed from those who live and work there rather than being imposed from without.

In the years to come, I would become involved in endless planning battles both as a journalist and as an activist. Many were successful such as the effort to end the freeways that threatened to turn DC into an east coast Los Angeles and the campaign to save the historic buildings along Pennsylvania Avenue that the planners wanted to trash. Some were not, such as the effort by small business people to stay in downtown DC. In my own neighborhood we fought off developers three times on one site until a builder came up with a decent plan. The group leading the fight disbanded with $3,000 left in its bank account which was given to another group fighting yet another soon successful battle. We stopped a ten story office building, saving instead one of the earliest park and shops in the country. And we even defeated the local bishop of the Episcopal Diocese, leaving the community with a place to run its dogs for the next thirty years.

During this whole period, I only once came across an urban plan actually designed for the people who lived in the place being planned, and that one had a non-governmental patron. Lady Bird Johnson had gotten landscape architect Lawrence Halprin - the man who thought it was all right for children to play in his fountains - to propose improvements to the then ethnically and economically mixed neighborhood of Capitol Hill where I lived in 60s. Colorful Mexican playground equipment began appearing at local public schools and children in vest pocket parks found turtle sculptures on which to climb. In a relatively short time, Capitol Hill became not only more attractive but more fun. It was an exception, but an instructive one: how it feels when a planner works for the citizens and not the government. In nearly every other instance it was either explicitly or implicitly assumed that the plan would attract a better class of people and business to the place being planned. The people presently there were at best an afterthought.

An article by J. William Thompson in Land Online speaks of Halprin's "democratic identification with the people who built his landscapes and those who use them. For this, to my knowledge, no award is ever given - yet it's a quality I consider crucial to the building of great landscapes. . . I discovered a very different side of Halprin when he led me on a tour of the FDR Memorial in Washington, D.C., at its opening in 1997. What struck me first was Halprin's absolute joy at seeing the public take possession of the memorial. 'Boy, look at all those people!' he exclaimed as we turned the corner into the first memorial room and saw the crowds; he was even more delighted that, as he pointed out, the crowds were flowing through the memorial's rooms in the patterns that he had 'choreographed.' Looking back, I realize that the memorial is successful because Halprin had cared deeply about how users would move through it. . . 'Equally inspiring were Halprin's interactions with the construction crew, with whom he seemed to have bonded in an almost paternal way. . . Somehow, Halprin had created a community of intense purpose. He was the master builder, but every single person involved in the effort understood that he or she was creating something of great public value that would endure for centuries. In short, Halprin had the power to rally the foot soldiers in the service of a vision of democratic urban space that he himself glimpsed long before."

10/28/2009 | Comments

Kennebec Journal,ME - Trinity College's American Religious Identification Survey released this year showed New England overtaking the Pacific Northwest as the least religious region in the country. Twenty-two percent of respondents here said they have no religious faith of any kind, highest in the country.

In a Gallup poll this year, all six New England states were in the Top 10 least religious in the country, with Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and Massachusetts claiming the top four spots. . .

Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut do host the nation's heaviest concentration of Catholics, but those numbers have dropped substantially. In 1990, 50 percent of New England residents identified themselves as Catholic; by 2008, it dropped to 36 percent following the clergy sex abuse scandal in Boston, according to American Religious Identification Survey 2008.

10/28/2009 | Comments

BBC- A French court has convicted the Church of Scientology of fraud, but stopped short of banning the group from operating in France. Two branches of the group's operations and several of its leaders in France have been fined.

The case came after complaints from two women, one of whom said she was manipulated into paying more than 20,000 euros in the 1990s.

A Scientology spokesman told the BBC the verdict was "all bark and no bite".

France regards Scientology as a sect, not a religion.

Prosecutors had asked for the group's French operations to be dissolved and more heavily fined, but a legal loophole prevented any ban.

Instead, a Paris judge ordered the Church's Celebrity Centre and a bookshop to pay a 600,000-euro fine.

Alain Rosenberg, the group's head in France, was handed a two-year suspended jail sentence and fined 30,000 euros.

Three other leading members of the group were also fined.

Unlike the US, France has always refused to recognize Scientology as a religion, arguing that it is a purely commercial operation designed to make as much money as it can at the expense of often vulnerable victims, the BBC's Emma Jane Kirby reports from Paris.

Over the past 10 years, France has taken several individual members of the group to court on charges of fraud and misleading publicity, but this is the first time the organization itself has been charged, she says.

10/27/2009 | Comments

Eric Margolis, Toronto Sun - Henry Kissinger once observed that being America's ally can be more dangerous than being its enemy.

Take poor Hamid Karzai, the amiable former business consultant and CIA "asset" installed by Washington as Afghanistan's president. As the U.S. increasingly gets its backside kicked in Afghanistan, it has blamed the powerless Karzai for its woes and bumbling.

You can almost hear Washington rebuking, "Bad puppet! Bad puppet!"

The U.S. Congressional Research Service just revealed it costs a staggering $1.3 million per annum to keep an American soldier in Afghanistan. Costs for Canadian troops are likely similar. This huge expense can't go on forever.

The U.S. government has wanted to dump Karzai, but could not find an equally obedient but more effective replacement. There was talk of imposing an American "chief executive officer" on him. Or, in the lexicon of the old British Raj, an Imperial Viceroy. Washington finally decided to try to shore up Karzai's regime and give it some legitimacy by staging national elections in August. The UN, which has increasingly become an arm of U.S. foreign policy, was brought in to make the vote kosher. Canada eagerly joined this charade.

No political parties were allowed to run. Only individuals supporting the West's occupation of Afghanistan were allowed on the ballot.

The vote was conducted under the guns of a foreign occupation army -- a clear violation of international law. The U.S. funded the election commission and guarded polling places from a discreet distance. The Soviets were much more subtle when they rigged Afghan elections.

As I wrote before the election, it was all a great big fraud within a larger fraud designed to fool American, Canadian and European voters into believing democracy had flowered in Afghanistan. Cynical Afghans knew the vote would be rigged. Most Pashtun, the nation's ethnic majority, didn't vote. The "election" was an embarrassing fiasco.

To no surprise, Washington's man in Kabul, Hamid Karzai, won. But his supporters went overboard in stuffing ballot boxes to avoid a possible runoff with rival Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, another American ally. The Karzai and Abdullah camps were bitterly feuding over division of U.S. aid and drug money that has totally corrupted Afghanistan.

10/27/2009 | Comments

Boombaard, Slashdot - News is spreading quickly here that scientists writing in a (Dutch) popular science periodical have debunked the 2012 date featuring so prominently in doomsday predictions/speculation across the web. On 2012-12-21, the sun will appear where you would normally be able to see the 'galactic equator' of the Milky Way; an occurrence deemed special because it happens 'only' once every 25.800 years, on the winter solstice. However, even if you ignore the fact that there is no actual galactic equator, just an observed one, and that the visual effect is pretty much the same for an entire decade surrounding that date, there are major problems with the way the Maya Calendar is being read by doomsday prophets.

Because written records were almost all destroyed by 16th-century Spaniards, quite a lot of guesswork surrounds the translation of their calendar to ours, and it appears something went very wrong with the calculations. The Mayas used 4 different calendars, all of different lengths, with the longest of which counting out ages of roughly 5200 years. Figuring out how these relate to our calendars is a big problem, which scientists had thought they had figured out about a century ago. (That's where 2012, which now turns out to be almost 2 centuries out of date, comes from.) However, a German geologist showed in 2005 that the proposed correlation to GMT didn't fit with a lot of Mayan-observed events that we know about, and calculated that a roughly 208 year correction was needed, meaning the soonest the Mayan Calendar can end is in 2220.

The final blow was arguably the thesis [of] nature scientist Andreas Fuls three years ago at the Technical University Berlin. Fuls pointed out that the GMT-correlation [was] not consistent with a preserved Mayan table on which the positions of Venus are listed. There is more, such as inscriptions and objects [that] in time of Goodman, Martinez and Thompson were not detected or [were] outdated. . . . The end of the long count by the correlation is only about two centuries, at 21, 22 or December 23, 2220. "It is the only option," says Fuls if you ask him about it. Until then, it would appear we are quite safe, except from Hollywood.

10/27/2009 | Comments

Timothy Lutts, Cabot Market Letter - The plain truth is that the War on Drugs (a term first used by President Richard Nixon in 1969) has been a failure. In fact, the term is no longer used by the Obama administration, which prefers treatment to incarceration.

Yet the U.S. (federal and states) will spend about $47 billion this year on drug enforcement, clogging our court systems and overcrowding our prisons, in many cases dooming young men to a life in the underclass.

In fact, the United States has a higher proportion of its population incarcerated than any other country in the world . . . and roughly 25% of our inmates are in there for drug offenses, usually possession.

So who benefits from this War on Drugs?

Organized crime, certainly. According to the United Nations, drug trafficking is a $400 billion per year industry, equaling 8% of the world's trade.

Also benefiting are arms manufacturers, the law enforcement industry, the prison industry and the legal industry.

And I don't think we're getting a good value for our $47 billion. In fact, I think our efforts may be counterproductive, and that we should explore a more sensible route, the same one we use for alcohol and tobacco.

In short, legalize it, regulate it and tax it.

Legalization would quickly shrink that $47 billion annual cost of law enforcement to a small fraction of its present level. In its place, we'd have federal quality control inspectors to keep tabs on the legal producers (thus reducing poisonings and overdoses). Entrepreneurs would spring up out of the woodwork to become producers, and with the increased supply prices would fall to more reasonable levels. Profits would drop. And organized crime would soon be out of the business.

We'd have a more efficient legal system, and a more efficient prison system. And we'd have a ready supply of legal marijuana for medicinal purposes (two-thirds of Americans are in favor of medical marijuana now).

And then we'd be able to tax it. Every state in the country now taxes alcohol and cigarettes, and I think marijuana should be no different.

A 2008 study by Harvard economist Jeffrey A. Miron estimated that legalizing drugs would inject $76.8 billion a year into the U.S. economy--$44.1 billion from law enforcement savings, and at least $32.7 billion in tax revenue ($6.7 billion from marijuana, $22.5 billion from cocaine and heroin, the remainder from other drugs). I'm not ready to argue for legalizing those harder drugs, but I do think a country as deep in debt as ours should stop giving money away on unproductive projects and start looking for positive cash flows.

Leading the way already is our country's lifestyle pioneer, California. This past July, 80% of Oakland, California voters chose to impose a tax of 1.8% on medical marijuana sales, which could bring the cash-strapped city nearly $300,000 next year.

And California Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, a Democrat from San Francisco, introduced legislation that if approved by the California Legislature, would put pot on the same legal footing as alcohol--legalizing its sale and having the state tax it. Ammiano called it "simply nonsensical" to keep marijuana, the state's top cash crop, unregulated and untaxed in light of the state's massive financial problems.

The value of California's marijuana crop is estimated at $14 billion annually. That's almost twice the combined value of vegetables and grapes, the state's second and third most-valuable crops. Ammiano estimated passage of his pot legalization proposal could generate more than $1.3 billion for state coffers.

Finally, turning to our neighbor Canada, I found this:

"In a recent study for the Fraser Institute, Economist Stephen T. Easton attempted to calculate how much tax revenue the Canadian government could gain by legalizing marijuana.

"The study estimates that the average price of 0.5 grams (a unit) of marijuana was $8.60 on the street, while its cost of production was only $1.70. In a free market, a $6.90 profit for a unit of marijuana would not last for long. Entrepreneurs noticing the great profits to be made in the marijuana market would start their own growing operations, increasing the supply of marijuana on the street, which would cause the street price of the drug to fall to a level much closer to the cost of production. Of course, this doesn't happen because the product is illegal; the prospect of jail time deters many entrepreneurs and the occasional drug bust ensures that the supply stays relatively low. We can consider much of this $6.90 per unit of marijuana profit a risk premium for participating in the underground economy. Unfortunately, this risk premium is making a lot of criminals, many of them with ties to organized crime, very wealthy.

"Stephen T. Easton argues that if marijuana were legalized, we could transfer these excess profits caused by the risk premium from these growing operations to the government:

"If we substitute a tax on marijuana cigarettes equal to the difference between the local production cost and the street price people currently pay--that is, transfer the revenue from the current producers and marketers (many of whom work with organized crime) to the government, leaving all other marketing and transportation issues aside we would have revenue of (say) $7 per [unit]. If you could collect on every cigarette and ignore the transportation, marketing, and advertising costs, this comes to over $2 billion on Canadian sales and substantially more from an export tax, and you forego the costs of enforcement and deploy your policing assets elsewhere."





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