Category Archives: Politics

Name Your Poisoner

There seems to be a newfound fondness for the Russian government on the part of Trump’s followers, both in the government and the population at large. Several officials have been less than forthright about their connections with Russian government officials or moneyed oligarchs. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused from the investigation of Russian interference in our election. Mike Flynn was fired after only three weeks on the job due to his failure to divulge his connections to Russia. Paul Manafort, who was Trump’s campaign manager was fired after it was revealed that he had multi-million dollar contracts with certain Russian oligarchs. Other examples abound.

There seems to be a consensus on both sides of the political aisle that the Russian government or associated criminal elements tried to affect the outcome of our election, and would like to see further destabilization of democracy in America. This is the usual stuff of “cloak and dagger” behavior reminiscent of the cold war. The Russian government also has a much darker side.

Early in the twentieth century, Russia developed a lab to test poisons to be used by various agents and spies. Poisoning is a common method for dealing with both foreigners and Russian dissidents. One of the more famous events occurred during the cold war. Georgi Markov was an anti-communist Bulgarian writer who lived in exile in London. While crossing a bridge to catch a bus in 1978, he was poked in the buttocks with a umbrella. Later in the day he went to a hospital with flu-like symptoms. Three days later he was dead. On autopsy, a small hollow pellet was discovered at the site of the poke. Chemical analysis showed that he had been intentionally poisoned with ricin, an extremely potent toxin made form castor beans.

Victor Yushchenko ran in 2004 for president of Ukraine on a policy of aligning his country with the west rather than Russia. Shortly after his election he met with Ukraine officials who favored an alliance with Russia. Later he came down with what was initially diagnosed as acute pancreatitis. Later still he developed extreme chloracne, a condition only seen in individuals exposed to certain chlorinated hydrocarbons. In Yushchenko’s case it was determined that he was exposed to TCDD, a toxic bi-product of the manufacture of Agent Orange. Although he survive he was ill for months and remains disfigured from the chloracne.

Another dissident, Alexander Litvinenko fled Russia for asylum in the UK. In 2006 he became ill in the evening after having lunch with two Russian officials. He was diagnosed with acute radiation poisoning from Polonium-210. Three weeks later he was dead. It is thought that only a few drops of a Polonium solution in a bowl of soup would produce a lethal effect. This synthetic element can only be had from reprocessing waste from a nuclear reactor.

Surely the luckiest Russian poisoning victim is Vladamir Kara-Murza. Mr. Kara-Murza describes himself as a Russian democracy campaigner. In May 2015 he became ill for unknown causes. Blood works showed elevated levels of heavy metals but no known toxins were found. Although sophisticated chemical analysis can detect the most minute amounts of toxin, it only works if you know what to look for. Last February he became inexplicably ill again. He was in critical condition for weeks but is now recovering. It can’t be said for sure if Kara-Murza was poisoned – twice – but surely he is a target of the Kremlin and Russian leaders have a long-standing monstrous tradition of poisoning political opponents.

Sanctuary Cities

Recently, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has ordered a crack down on sanctuary cities. He has threatened withholding billions of dollars in federal grants that would otherwise go to the cities for projects such as transportation and housing infrastructure.

The title sanctuary city is a rather non-specific appellation but it refers to communities that don’t fully cooperate to capture and hold the undocumented for probable deportation by Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) officials.

The Justice Department argues that sanctuary cities allow violent criminals to roam the streets. AG Sessions mentioned a couple of gruesome examples of undocumented men who had been picked up for minor crimes but released and then went on to commit much more violent crimes. Conversely officials in sanctuary cities argue that it is not their job, nor do they have the resources to act as proxies for ICE.

The question is, should we be detaining for likely deportation those undocumented immigrants who have been picked up for minor crimes? Answers to a few questions would be helpful. Do undocumented immigrants commit violent crimes at higher rates than legal immigrants and/or citizens? Is the level of violent crime higher is sanctuary cities than others? Can this kind of police action actually make cities less safe?

To the first question, numerous studies over many years have shown that undocumented immigrants are no more violent than those born here. Census data for 1980-2010 shows that US citizens are anywhere from twice to five times as likely to be incarcerated for violent crimes than immigrants. The Migration Policy Institute has concluded that “undocumented immigrants had crime rates somewhat higher than those here legally, but much lower than those of citizens.“

The president has claimed that sanctuary cities are breeding grounds for violent criminals, but again the data don’t support the assumption. Professor Tom Wong, Professor of Political Science, UC San Diego analyzed data from the FBI statistics and found that counties designated as “sanctuary” areas by ICE typically experience significantly lower rates of all types of crime, including lower homicide rates, than comparable non-sanctuary counties.

So what, you say. It’s good to get rid of those illegal aliens, whether they are violent criminals or not. Maybe so, maybe not. In February an undocumented woman went to the El Paso, Texas county court house to obtain a protective order for an abusive domestic partner. While there ICE agents arrived and detained her for probable deportation. Since then undocumented women across the country are apparently dropping domestic abuse cases for fear of deportation. Essentially it is open season for domestic abusers. And it’s not just domestic abusers. In this type of environment any undocumented person is subject to more violence because the violator knows that they are less likely to have their crime reported.

Police everywhere know that finding the bad guys/solving crimes is a whole lot easier if they have the community on their side. When police go to the door to ask an occupant if they have knowledge of a crime in front of their home, is an undocumented person going to cooperate, if they know it may result in their deportation? Or will they just not answer the knock, even if it means a violent criminal remains at large?

International Trade

President Obama recently traveled to the east side of the pacific rim for an official visit to several countries including Vietnam and Japan. Conservatives feel that he has not been strong enough with foreign affairs and have therefore labeled his trip an apology tour, as if he is there to apologize for past wars.

Realistically this trip is not about the past but rather signals a recognition of the future and the importance of trade with some of the emerging economies of the region. In the past the far east has been thought of as the place where American jobs have gone. Cheap labor, and fewer regulations means goods are cheaper to produce. The countries then turn around and sell these cheaper goods back to us.

As these eastern economies expand with production and trade, money is put into the hands of a growing middle class which could mean customers for our labor force.

This brings us to a proposed trade agreement called the Trans Pacific Partnership. It involves 12 pacific rim countries. On the western side are Canada, the United States, Mexico, Peru and Chili; on the east, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, Singapore, and Japan. The foreign ministers of all 12 participant nations signed a draft framework for the trade deal which is meant to reduce tariffs and increase free trade among the partners.

Previous legislation has given President Obama “fast track” authority to negotiate trade deals. The TPP like other trade deals require legislative authorization, but the fast track law means that congress can only vote up or down on a trade deal, rather than endlessly amend or modify a deal.

Considerable controversy surrounds the deal. The left feels that it gives large corporations too much power in trade, at the expense of the environment and worker’s rights. The right, well the right just doesn’t like Obama and is reluctant to give him anything that resembles success. The pressure of an election year only adds to the distrust of the two sides.

Those that do favor the deal suggest that no deal means even less protection for the environment and worker’s rights. The simple fact remains that we live in the time of a global economy. Just because we decide not to participate in trade deals doesn’t mean that the world economy halts. Trade will go on and we will have even less influence.

At the end of World War II, we were the last man standing, the only industrialized economy unscathed by war. Then we could command the global economy. That control has slowly been eroding. Europe, Japan, and now China have expanded their economies and are replacing American goods around the world. Increasingly the pacific rim is becoming a player and if we don’t agree to trade, we will be left further behind.

Balkanization – SCOTUS Style

Within an hour of the announcement of the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell announced that there would be no hearings to replace Scalia until after the elections in the fall. His argument is that we should await the decision of the American people as to the next president before deciding on a replacement Justice.

The constitution is clear that the President of the United States selects nominees for the court with the advice and consent of the Senate. What is not clear is how to select a new justice if the senate refuses to hold hearings on a presidential nominee.

There are a number of “what ifs” built into the constitution and its amendments. If the president dies or becomes incapacitated, we have a vice-president at the ready. Three successive congressional acts have defined a presidential succession that goes well beyond the vice president. If there is no majority of votes cast in the electoral college, the election goes to the House of Representatives. If congress doesn’t like the actions of a president s/he can be removed through the impeachment process. If a tie vote occurs in the Senate, the Vice-President as casts a tie breaking vote.

There is however no mechanism to force a recalcitrant senate to act to confirm a selection to the supreme court. For that matter the senate could refuse to confirm any federal judge appointment, essentially abolishing the federal courts by attrition.

When the court is short one member, the possibility of a tie exists. In the case of a tie there is no decision. The previous appeals court decision stands. The death of Scalia has already changed things. In a recent civil action, Dow Chemical decided to pay an 835 million dollar settlement in an antitrust price-fixing case that it had lost in lower courts and that was on the Supreme Court’s docket. (A 4-to-4 tie at the Supreme Court would have left the lower court’s decision in place, including a judgment in excess of a billion dollars against Dow.

A serious problem exists now because tied decisions mean that the circuit court decision stands, but only for that circuit court, of which there are 12 (Arkansas is in the 8th circuit.) Tied decisions mean no decisions, it is as if there were no supreme court only the 12 regional circuit courts. There can be no consistent federal law throughout the nation as long as tie votes are possible.

With only eight justices on the court, and the possibility of tie decisions, we have a situation which “Balkanizes” federal law (Balkanization is a term which refers to a condition when one political unit fragments into several smaller units, especially when there are political differences among the smaller units. It refers to the Balkan Peninsula in the 19th century when the Ottoman Empire collapsed into a number of smaller often hostile nation states.)

Right now it is not the United States of America, but rather the “Amalgamated 12 Different Regions of America.”

Torture Doesn’t Work

If all it took to stop ISIS was enough bombing or troops on the ground, then we should be in command, but we are are battling an asymmetric war. The enemy is smaller and weaker but fighting in a way that is difficult for superpowers to address. They have a considerable grasp of social media to attract adherents, they are absolutely free of any respect for the “rules of engagement” such as the Geneva Convention, and distribute their form of terrorism world wide.
So what is our next president to do?

It appears that many of the republican candidates are ready to follow the enemy’s lead into an unethical, immoral, even illegal battle plan. Basically many of the republican candidates are ready to become exactly what we are trying to stamp out. Consider the issue of torture.

Donald Trump has commented “Would I approve waterboarding? You bet your ass I would – in a heartbeat, and I would approve more than that.”

Ben Carson has suggested that not employing torture is equivalent to “fighting a politically correct war.”

Marko Rubio said “ I do not support telegraphing to the enemy what interrogation techniques we will or won’t use.” He doesn’t want to deny “future commanders in chief and intelligence officials important tools for protecting the American people and the U.S. homeland.”

Jeb Bush feels that the torture techniques employed by his brother were effective in producing intelligence, even though an Senate Intelligence Committee report said that the techniques previously employed were more brutal than previously described, and ineffective at producing any useful intelligence. He suggested there may be occasions when brutal interrogations are called for to keep the country safe.

The real question is does torture really work? The short answer is most likely no. In spite of a history of many, many years of use the only evidence of efficacy is anecdotal, and frequently that is wrong. The scientific community has never established that coercive interrogation methods are an effective means of obtaining reliable intelligence information. Before we undertake what is obviously unethical and even illegal activity in the name of national defense, the burden of proof ought to be on those who wish to torture.

The only real argument for torture is inevitably the “ticking time bomb” scenario. Suspects are being held that know the whereabouts of a bomb which if exploded will kill lots and lots of people – you pick a number. Torture till they talk and stop the bombing. But there are so many assumption here as to be preposterous. How do you know there is a bomb? How do you know the suspects you torture are actually knowledgeable? How do know that they won’t just say what they think you want to hear to avoid more pain?

What little science which has been applied in considering torture is negative. Human memory is not all that accurate and it gets even worse under stress. Even without stress, people are poor eye witnesses as just one example. People may not have any useful information and no amount of pain can create it.

Lastly there is evidence that lasting harm comes to those who do the torturing. It is not good for the human psyche to purposely inflict pain on others. Torture has not been shown to be effective, it is harmful to both the torturer and the tortured, it sullies our image as a moral leader in the world, and ultimately makes us less safe.

Statue_of_Liberty

Los Niños

Inscribed on a brass plaque at the base of The Statue of Liberty is “… Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.” Is it time to rip the plaque off and melt it down for scrap?

Apparently some in this country feel this way – to the point that there are armed men and women prepared to turn away the children of Central America. Some fear that this tide of illegal immigration will bring with it a host of problems including epidemics; Tuberculosis, Dengue Fever, even Ebola. What’s the reality? Should we be so fearful?

The actual estimated rates of illegal immigration are down from a high in 2007. This is most likely due to the weakness of the economy to supply jobs, hence making the U.S. less attractive. Also President Obama has overseen a considerable increase in deportations, particularly for those who have committed violent crimes.

The real change that has come about recently is the increase in unaccompanied minors. For the most part they are simply showing up at the border and turning themselves in. The number is on the rise with most of the children are coming from Central America, principally El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. Interviews with the children by the press both here in the US and in their country of origin indicate that they are not so much attracted here as fleeing there. Both abject poverty and in the case of Honduras, the world’s highest murder rate are driving the children to seek refuge in the U.S. and other countries such as Costa Rica and Mexico.

Photo credit New York Times

Photo credit New York Times

Further complicating the matter is a requirement, signed into law by President Bush in 2006, that the children be given due process. The law requires that they be brought before an immigration judge for consideration of refugee status. Because the immigration service is woefully underfunded and hence understaffed, there is a several year backlog for hearings.

The United Nations High Commission on Refuges recently found that the majority of immigrant children they interviewed were adjudged to be “forcibly displaced. This means that to refuse these children would be to breach United Nations Conventions.

Surely in a nation of over 300 million people, in a nation many claim to be a Christian nation, in a nation with close to 10 million millionaires, we can find it in our hearts and especially our pocketbooks to find a way to accommodate these refugee children, who number this year to less than a hundred thousand.

That’s 100 millionaires per child. We can live up to our boast on that brass plaque on the Statue of Liberty. “These are not somebody else’s kids. These are our kids,” Joe Biden

usca

Privatize Collegiate Athletics

In our society we reward those who entertain us with handsome incomes. The average player in the National Basketball Association earns an astounding 5.5 million dollars a year. The annual “income,” that is the value of a college scholarship for a player in this year’s final four is under 30,000 dollars a year. Does that mean that we don’t value collegiate entertainment as much as pro ball? Not in the least. The spoils go however to the schools, not the athletes.

Each team in the final four will earn close to 10 million dollars for their school, with part of that shared with their conference. Serious money for the winners, but even the losers earn close to 2 million dollars. So its a good thing, right? Not really.

Right now very few athletic programs support themselves, requiring considerable subsidies from students and taxpayers in the case of public institutions. Only 1in 8 teams in NCAA division I is a net profit center. When athletic programs are considered in aggregate, only a scant 3 percent reach the break even point. The percentage is even smaller if it exists at all when considering other college athletic associations such as NCAA Division II and III and NAIA.

This situation with athletes may change soon. The National Labor Relations Board recently ruled that the football players at Northwestern University are employees, not student athletes. Their rationale is that the considerable time commitment of the players and the fact that their scholarships are tied directly to their performance on the field makes them employees. NLRB regional director Peter Sung Ohr stated that athletes “fall squarely within the [National Labor Relations] Act’s broad definition of employees when one considers the common law definition of an employee.”

Schools, the NCAA and the public in general disagree, which is expected when you consider that paying the athletes their due would drive up considerably the cost of entertainment.

Injured Athlete

Injured Athlete

So we have a situation where athletes are grossly underpaid as entertainers, and students and taxpayers have to subsidize the costs for the entertainment. In a global economy can we afford to take money away from academic programs that produce an essential product – an educated workforce?

The only reasonable answer is to entirely sever athletic entertainment from academics. Privatize collegiate sports. Let private corporations lease the name and possibly facilities for teams. In a sense the movement has begun already. It is no longer the Orange Bowl, it is the FedEx Orange bowl.

The logical way would be for the professional teams to adopt collegiate athletics as farm teams. The NFL, NBA, MLB, etc. could finance sports just like professional baseball farm team programs.

Alternately it could be done ad hoc. Big entertainment teams would require big sponsors so how about the Haliburton Sooners and what else but the Walmart Razorbacks? Smaller venues could go much more cheaply so we could have the Whatta-burger Wonderboys of Arkansas Tech.

The Cargill Cornhuskers (Nebraska)? The Volkswagon Volunteers (Tennessee)? Lots of possibilities.

waterfall

What Price Clean Water?

The Cuyahoga River last caught on fire in 1969, but had burned uncontrolled on numerous occasions dating back to the latter half of the the nineteenth century. The river flows north through northern Ohio and Cleveland into Lake Erie. Numerous industries discharged wastes into the river to the extent that at times the river was coated with several inches of highly flammable sludge.

Cuyahoga on Fire

Cuyahoga on Fire

The 1969 fire along with a growing environmental movement resulted in the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972. The waters of the nation have benefited from the laws, but problems still exist, especially when it comes to our demand for cheap energy in the form of fossil fuels and even cheaper food.

In one of the ironies of our time, a chemical used to clean coal means that the drinking water of Charleston, West Virginia is not so clean. In January 2014 several thousand gallons of an industrial chemical leaked from a Freedom Industries storage tank on the banks of the Elk river, just upstream of the drinking water intake for several hundred thousand people. To this day, some residents of the area refuse to drink the water as it still smells faintly of licorice.

In North Carolina, the Dan River has recently been contaminated by a pipe failure from a coal ash containment pond owned by Duke Energy. The river and even groundwater are now polluted with sludge that is highly contaminated with Arsenic, a heavy metal that is both toxic and carcinogenic. There are fears that the massive 40,000 ton spill is not over as another pipe may be leaking.

What these Clean Water Act violations have in common is that both were easily preventable. Had the responsible corporations taken care of business, the spills would never have happened. And had the responsible regulatory agencies done their job the problems that caused these spills would have been prevented. But no, businesses don’t want to spend extra money and taxpayers don’t want to properly fund the agencies that provide oversight.

A similar disaster is brewing in Arkansas. In our case it is not the result of industrial use of fossil fuels but the industrial wastes from a confined animal feeding operation (CAFO.) The hog farm, the first of its type in the watershed of the crown jewel of Arkansas, the Buffalo National River, was permitted by a deeply flawed process. The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality granted a general permit for the operation. It did not consider the sensitive location in the Buffalo watershed, nor consider the uniquely porous limestone geology of the Ozarks.

CAFO

CAFO

Thousands upon thousands of gallons of liquid wastes, urine and feces, are contained in two ponds. The permitted design required only enough free board to contain a 25 year rain event. When the dirt bank ponds are breached, they will likely fail catastrophically, releasing the wastes into Big Creek and a few miles downstream, the Buffalo River National Park. Even during times when the banks hold, the clay lined ponds are allowed to leak wastes through the soil. Because of the Karst topography, the wastes can make their way rapidly to pollute the nation’s fist national river. Its not a matter of if but when.

Why do we continue to set ourselves up for these kinds of disasters? Because of short sightedness. Because we just can’t seem to learn that proper regulation of industry takes careful oversight, and the funding to provide for it.

Affordable Care Act

Disincentivizing Work

The Republicans have a bright and shiny new word they’re using to bash the Democratic Party in general and Obamacare in particular — Disincentivize. As in Obamacare disincentivizes Americans to work.

This characteristically disingenuous attack on The Affordable Care Act (ACA) comes from a purposeful misinterpretation of a recent Congressional Budget Office report titled “The budget and Economic Outlook: 2014 and 2024.” About 30 pages out of 175 addressed the ACA.

The point the Republicans tried to exploit was a couple of lines that said “The ACA will reduce the total number of hours worked, on net, by about 1.5 percent to 2.0 percent during the period from 2017 to 2024, almost entirely because workers will choose to supply less labor — given the new taxes and other incentives they will face and the financial benefits some will receive.”

See, ensuring access to healthcare takes away jobs! No, not really. What the report said is some people who previously had to keep a full-time job just to be insured may not need to. The ACA ensures that affordable insurance is available to individuals regardless of pre-existing conditions or income.

People who can now get insurance on the open market can decide to work less, or retire a little earlier than they would have. If a person retires early, this opens up a job for another worker — a far cry from taking away jobs.

Once it was clear that jobs weren’t being taken away, the Republicans switched to the disincentivise mantra. This is their argument: If a person doesn’t have to work to maintain access to expensive health insurance, then they won’t work. Access to affordable healthcare makes us lazy. Really, that’s what they think.

Republicans have traditionally resisted just about everything which contributes to the quality of life. People are lazy because they would like to be able to spend more time with their family? People are lazy because after working long and hard, and saving their money, would then like to retire a little earlier? People are lazy because they would rather not work two jobs if they didn’t have to? Really?

Americans already work the longest hours among workers in the industrialized world. That means we have less time to be with our families, less time to enjoy time with friends, less time to volunteer for our church or club. What is wrong with this picture?

You know what else disincentivizes people to work? Those things that contribute to the enjoyment of the American dream — the 40-hour work week, overtime pay, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and now the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Should we get rid of the mortgage deduction for home ownership and the dependent allowances on our income tax? Saving money disincentivizes work? Meanwhile, the Republican controlled House of Representatives will be taking the next two weeks off, on our dime. What’s that about disincentives to work?

wind turbine

Windy Arguments

The internet can be a veritable fount of information, but also a source of of disinformation. It is easy for an industry to hire bloggers to write confusing, disingenuous, and even deceptive posts about other industries to gain a competitive advantage in the marketplace. No where is this more obvious than the struggle between the fossil fuel industries and sustainable energy supplies such as wind and solar.

Wind generated power has taken a lot of derision, mostly undeserved, from the flacks for the fossil fuel industry, so let’s talk about wind energy.

Wind is expensive due to the production tax credit? Although the current production tax credit (2.3 cents per kWh) has expired, it may be reinstated. So, yes taxpayers are subsidizing wind power, to the tune of about six billion dollars a year. How does that compare to the subsidization of the fossil fuel industry? Just the health care costs due to burning fossil fuels is estimated to be the equivalent of 8 to 30 cents per kWh, or several hundred billion dollars a year.

Wind Turbines kill birds? Estimates are the wind turbines kill about 25 thousand birds a year, about 90 per cent songbirds, and the remainder raptors such as hawks and vultures. But is this rate of bird deaths important compared to other human caused bird mortalities? Total human caused bird mortalities are a billion birds a year. Collisions with buildings cause close to half a billion deaths. Cats, both pets and feral, kill about a 100 million. Cars, trains and planes cause another 100 million. When one considers total bird deaths, wind turbines would hardly rate a foot note.

What about human deaths? One can compare just how deadly wind turbines are by comparing the death rate per unit of electrical energy used. Wind deaths are 0.15 deaths per TeraWatt-hours per year. Competing technologies such as electrical energy from burning coal are 15 deaths per TWh/year and for Oil 36 deaths per TWh/year. Burning fossil fuels produces hundreds of times as many deaths.

And Jobs? Here we compare jobs created per million dollars spent on energy. Oil and gas, one job; coal, two jobs; wind five jobs. Interestingly building retrofits to save the same amount of money on energy is the winner with eleven jobs.

Wind turbines are noisy?

wind noise

wind noise

But just how noisy? Modern turbines have incorporated features that reduce noise from the swooshing blades and squeaking generators. The noise level at a distance of only three turbine blade lengths is rated as acceptable. The noise from a turbine a few suburban lots distant would be no louder than standing near a humming refrigerator, about 45 decibels.

But they’re ugly?

Nantucket site

Nantucket site

A large off shore wind project in Nantucket Sound will supply much of the electrical energy of Cape Cod, MA. It has been resisted by some local residents as unsightly. Not surprisingly Bill Koch, a coal and oil magnate, has provided 1.5 million dollars to lobbyists and a group called the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound.