Monday, August 29, 2011

Nuclear Nightmare Continues in Japan and Around the World

In the wake of Hurricane Irene, it's important to remember that any natural or man-made disaster continues to impact many lives in various ways, long after the clean-up crews and the news vans leave and move on to the next event or the next story.  This is a pretty shocking and compelling piece on what is still going on in Japan after the earthquake/tsunami that hit earlier this year.  Not only is the nuclear plant still leaking, but estimates are that radioactive cesium that has been leaked from the plant into the atmosphere is equal to 168 of the atomic bombs being dropped on 1945 Japan.  That's around one nuclear bomb every day since the initial disaster occurred. 

Something that frustrates me about our media is its attention deficit disorder.  When a big event, such as the Japan earthquake/tsunami or the Deepwater Horizon explosion/oil rupture, first occurs, we see the "breaking news" graphics and around-the-clock coverage.  But in a matter of days, after receiving "assurances" from government and corporate officials that everything is under control,  and also due to its ADD, the media moves on to other stories, typically of the "light" variety.  And the coverage of the event/disaster doesn't merely decrease, it seems to disappear completely, like it never even happened. 

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Hurricane Irene

It is now 20 past 7, the supposed eye of the storm is supposed to hit us soon, but at 1:30 AM, a huge tree in my front yard fell down, and hit part of my house, front of my neighbor's house, it's snagged in phone wires.  Amazingly, no one was hurt. 

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Hurricane Irene: Beware of Scammers

First, just wanted to express the general and predictable, although necessary, message of "stay safe" in the day or two to come.  Do not go out unless you absolutely have to, and try to batten down as best you can.  With that said, here is a good article from MSNBC on how these disasters often bring out the worst in humanity along with the best.  You might not only be hearing stories of exceptionally brave people, but also stories of pranksters and scammers seeking to benefit from the disaster at the expense of those who believe in giving to the less fortunate.  So, just be careful of who you trust. 

Friday, August 26, 2011

When the Realm of Celebrity Invades Our Political System

Bill Hicks talks about the 1995 movie "To Die For", with Nicole Kidman, which I saw a very long time ago, and views it as being a movie ahead of its time.  In the movie, she plays a woman who is determined to become a TV newscaster at any cost.  As the plot summary says, "what she lacks in intelligence, she makes up for in cold determination and diabolical wiles".  I thought it was a good movie when I saw it, but I'd really like to see it again, for, as Bill says, this can easily describe people like Sarah Palin or Michele Bachmann. 

The deeper trend here is that in this day, in this nation, it is no longer possible to get fame and fortune for engaging in hard work or coming up with an invention or an idea that is really creative (if it ever was possible to start with).  The only road to riches left is to become famous, being "talked about" on the news, or better, entertainment programs or blogs.  It doesn't matter if you lack talent or engage in questionable moral practices, you just have to get people to notice you.  A favorite example of mine is the right-wing author and talking head Ann Coulter, who you see all the time on television and in the print media.  She often makes these outrageous, totally out there remarks.  And then people take to the blogosphere and talk about how batshit crazy she is, apparently without realizing that they are playing right into her hands.  I don't believe that she even believes half of the shit she says, but it gets a response and a lot of attention, so she keeps riding that gravy train.  

A lot of our programs and print media are devoted to celebrity worship.  I find it funny how the most popular magazines in this area have titles that strongly imply that celebrities are regular people just like us, hence the titles of magazines like "People" and "Us".  Just once, I'd like to see a regular working American, who people can look up, on the cover of those magazines.  Like a doctor, or even better, a real blue-collar guy like a garbageman.  Unfortunately, it probably wouldn't sell.  A large number of people find hard work depressing.

And now, we are seeing this celebrity worship spill over into the world of politics.  Until reading Hicks' column, I did not know that a group of people suggested that Matt Damon run for president.  I'm guessing they got that idea from watching "The Adjustment Bureau", where Damon plays a politician running for Senate.  In any event, the current crop of people taking front and center on our TV screens, like Palin, Bachmann, and a few others, often say uninformed things on a regular basis (like Bachmann saying that the USSR was a military threat) that should be enough to prove that they are terribly unqualified at running a country.  But because they are easy on the eyes and carry that folksy charm, this carries with it some sense of legitimacy.   

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Social Security Disability on Verge of Bankruptcy

I was of two minds after reading this story.  On the one hand, I do believe in a safety net for those who are in danger of losing it all and totally falling through the cracks.  I am.  What consists of a safety net in this country, let's face it, was never very sturdy and durable to begin with, and it has been weakened significantly, particularly in the past 10-30 years.  But after reading this, it made me think of the cheats that I know of out there, who have made a lifestyle of gaming the system, and as a result, have helped pushed this system to insolvency, and have made it that much more difficult for people who are actually disabled and suffering to get a helping hand. 

I think many of us know the type:  someone who claims to have a "bad back" to get put on disability, and then he's spotted doing things like picking up large bags or doing roofing.  I happen to have a cousin, who I have not seen or spoken to in a very long time, who made several bad choices when he was younger, got hooked on drugs, had some kind of mental breakdown, and then went on SSI (Supplemental Security Income, which means he didn't have a long job history).  This was many years ago, and he is still on it, to this day.  I know of another person, who I used to work with.  She could only work so many days a week (around 2 or 3), and a friend of hers explained to me one day that this was because she was on some kind of state aid (I'm assuming it was SSI) due to some kind of mental problem.  My question, unasked to her friend of course, is that she is capable of working, and is working.  Why is she being supplemented with a subsidy from the state?

Of course, there are many, many other reasons why Social Security is in big trouble.  Probably key among them is that our legislators have been using it as a piggy bank for years to fund other things, while never putting the money back into the program.  It's said by many that the Social Security trust fund contains nothing but a vast array of IOU's.  But at the same time, there are other systemic problems such as this one.  It's even being considered, according to the article, that they will transfer funds from regular Social Security to the disability program to buy some time, meaning that working retirees will get less. 

I want to close with a story, of someone I used to work with, and of why I am so conflicted on this issue.  He, supposedly, injured his arm one day and tried to go out on worker's comp.  While his claim was working its way through the system, he was still supposed to work.  With his arm in a cast, he was next to useless, but at the same time, I guess the state didn't want to give him a total free ride.  So he goes to work, he was never very popular to begin with, and no one talked to the guy.  Totally shunned him, felt that he was a bullshit artist, a goldbricker, etc.  And they were probably right.  But that got me to thinking.  In this day and age, with good paying jobs with a bright future for people being a thing of the past, and the current slate of jobs in which people are not paid enough to make ends meet, there's next to no chance of advancement (outside of middle or low-level management), no appreciation, everyone's expendable, when I take these things into context, I cannot harbor too much animosity towards the guy.  Maybe he worked 20 or so years (this guy was way into his 40s, at least), at these dead-end jobs, saw a way out, and he decided to take it.  You can "retire" 15 years earlier or so, on full SS disability, and make more in the end than if you worked until your retirement age.  So, on top of that imperative, this powerful motivation that is built into the system for people of questionable character to cash out early and for more money, you also have a meltdown in progress that is slamming working people hard.  On top of that, globalization has shifted well-paying jobs to the far east, and has replaced them with dismal service-industry jobs that are low-paying and have questionable working conditions.  There is already a segment of Social Security Disability that is suspectible to fraud by lazy people and hucksters.  But now, I think you have an additional component of people, who at one time were loyal and hard-working, before their jobs was outsourced or downsized, and who are now well into their 30s, 40s, or 50s, who are saying, "fuck it.  Wall Street got theirs, my bosses got theirs, my neighbor went out on SSI and got his, now it's my turn."

Of course, this is my opinion; I could be wrong.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011


This is a good blog entry from Bill Hicks about the continuing escalating costs of a college education.  He sources an article from an Indiana newspaper that actually isn't that bad in listing some of the causes, from reduced state funding to higher raises for administrators and professors.  It also gives some knockout statistics, specifically that in the past 22 years, while the Consumer Price Index has risen by 81.9 percent, college tuitions in the state of Indiana have spiked by at least 300 percent.  Mr. Hicks then raises an important point that the newspaper excises, and that is the role of the student loan industry.  Since they are protected by the federal government, and students with debt typically can't file for bankruptcy, market forces that would push tuition prices down are disabled.

How people are still buying into the dream of a college education, 3 years after the financial collapse (and even before then, it was starting to look more than a little wobbly), I cannot comprehend.  I guess that dreams of a better life and a good job die hard, and can persist even in the face of significant events to the contrary.  From my own personal experience, a college education has provided diminishing returns over time.  I graduated with my B.A. in 2006, and started applying for jobs.  Even then, my phone wasn't ringing off the hook, but at least I was picking up interviews now and again.  After deciding I needed a more refined vision of what I wanted to do, I went back for a one year program in Paralegal Studies.  I got the certificate in 2009, and have not had one job interview in three years.  So, with a deeper resume and with an additional certification under my belt, I have seen far less action in terms of job offers or interest than I did with just a Bachelor's Degree in 2006/07. 

I think this culture of higher education has had many unintended consequences.  A real tragedy is that due to the gutting of our manufacturing industry, most high school graduates have little choice but to go to college, even if they are not cut out for it.  I would say that, based on my experiences in school, three-fourths of the students I went to school with should have been nowhere near the place.  And I'm not saying that to denigrate them or to question their intelligence.  Not everyone is cut out for taking tests and reading long, tedious textbooks.  But that's the hole many have been crammed into since good-paying factory jobs are no longer available. 

Student loan debt is now higher than credit card debt in this country; assuming that the general economy does not collapse first (and judging from the action on Wall Street and the grim news in the business pages, that is a mighty big "if"), I strongly believe that higher education will be the next bubble to burst.  I find it to be in a similar vein to real estate.  As a result of the gutting of our manufacturing industry, more & more people applied to colleges, and the budgets of these schools soared to accommodate them all.  With no market forces to impede them (thanks to loan programs backed by the protection of the federal government), prices soared out of control, and with no basis in economic reality, far outpacing inflation in other areas. 

Monday, August 22, 2011

Postal Service to be Insolvent

In a matter of weeks, the USPS will have to default on a health benefits payment, after reaching its borrowing limit of $15 billion and after losing over $3 billion in the past quarter.  The postal service has asked Congress to make several major changes to the postal system, including eliminating Saturday service. 

The USPS has been having problems for years now, and many people are quick to point to the rise of e-mail and the Internet, as well as the growth of UPS and FedEx as primary causes for this.  I agree, but I believe there are a couple of other reasons that are at least, just as important.  One is rising fuel prices.  As peak oil starts to hit us harder, many governmental services (as well as private companies) will be more and more unsustainable, since they were built and organized under the assumption that cheap, accessible fuel would never be an issue.  Say what you will about rising stamp prices, but 44 cents to deliver a first-class letter from one end of the country to the other is still a bargain, especially in the age of $4 gallon gasoline.

Another reason brings me to something that, until around a week ago, I never knew.  The USPS is a federal service in name only.  Their revenue consists of the sales from postage and other products.  They receive no federal funds.  The Postal Reorganization Act, which turned the USPS from a cabinet department into a quasi-independent agency, was signed in 1970.  So, this is an example of free market worship run amok, and you can't blame the usual culprits for this (Reagan), since this goes back even earlier.

I think that postal service is an essential service of the government, right up there with providing defense.  It was even written in Article One of the Constitution.  But, as we all should know by now, the "free market" surpasses everything, even the Constitution.   

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Good Video from Jon Stewart on "class warfare"

I see that from this video, the spokesmen of the elite are doing their "woe is me, being crazy rich" routine in the media, especially Fox News.  This is partly due to a statement from Warren Buffet that the top 5 percent should have to pay more in taxes.  Stewart calls them out on their ridculous name-calling (of course, anyone who suggests that they give their fair share is a "socialist" and waging "class warfare"), and shows an eye-opening chart on how far down we rank in terms of income equality (we barely pass by Uganda, and finish behind many other countries, including Iran and Cameroon). 

What really got me was the end.  He shows a segment of spokesmen and talk show hosts, each spouting off about how higher tax rates on the wealthy will not get us out of this fiscal hole that we are in.  This is likely true.  However, what if higher tax rates on the wealthy get us 10 % out of the hole?  Or 20%?  That's something, isn't it?  Combined with other reforms, like closing corporate tax loopholes, among many, many other things, significant progress might be possible.  But many rich do not love their country, the only thing they love is making more money.

Bill Maher had a great closing monologue on his show a couple of months ago.  He showed a recent front page photo in The Wall Street Journal that was titled "The Ultimate Sacrifice".  It was of a soldier who got gravely injured in combat, with an artificial arm, and he was being presented with a medal (whether it was a Medal of Honor, Purple Heart, etc., I don't know) by Mr. Obama.  The irony was that such a photo, and its captain of an "ultimate sacrifice", is so vastly at odds with the people who publish the Wall Street Journal and many who read it.  The ultra-wealthy will not budge on tax cuts or anything else.  Their way of life is non-negotiable.  When the wheels fall off the global economy, and governments begin to unravel, they will continue to eat while we starve.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Someone's Ideas on Managing Our Fiscal Crisis

I came home from work this morning, opened the paper and saw that the government's credit rating was downgraded by S & P from AAA to AA+.  AA+ is still the 2nd best credit rating, and I've been reading more than a few people say that, if anything, S & P did not go far enough.  It's clear that our credit rating is more along the lines of an "F", as in total garbage.  But this is a major story, and to me, the biggest indicator so far that, to quote Dubya, that "this sucker is going down". 

Anyway, I post contributions from people on message boards that I read from time to time, and this is a good entry by someone with the screenname of Nergol from Dan Carlin's website, on how to manage our fiscal crisis.

The "Big Three" of budget items are Social Security, Medicare, and defense. Someone of a libertarian bent might classify all three as "welfare" programs of some kind or another, but the first two fit by virtually any reasonable definition. The problem with them is that they're simultaneously huge such that any talk of serious deficit/debt reduction is utterly moot without serious adjustments to one or all of them, and that all three have been regarded for decades as essentially untouchable for political reasons. We are now at a point where something has to give, and give in some very serious ways. We will now make deep cuts to one or more of these items, or they will bankrupt us, one way or the other.

My preferred approach would start with the following: I would turn the de facto Empire Department back into something that could honestly be called the Defense Department. I would close all military bases not on US soil, scrap the carriers, and send perhaps 2/3 of the active duty military home with honorable discharges and VA benefits. I would raise the Social Security eligibility age to 70, and enact strict means tests so that only the truly needy will receive benefits. I would restrict Medicare to US citizens only - legal aliens will have to be gainfully employed to the extent that they can receive coverage from their employers, and illegal aliens get nothing. Similarly, I would deny any government-funded benefits of any kind to illegals - sorry, we can't even afford to take care of our own. The only exception would be for emergency medical care - meaning roughly that we won't let you bleed to death in the street if you get hit by a bus, but if you get pancreatic cancer that will require half a million dollars worth of treatment, you'd better head back where you came from to get it. Is that harsh? Yes - but again, we can't even afford to take care of our own now, much less taking care of anyone who can power their way across the Rio Grande.

Beyond that are the relative small potatoes - I would, for example, kill agricultural subsidies, foreign aid, public broadcasting, the NEA, and the Departments of Education (which runs no schools and teaches no students) and Housing and Human Services entirely. Grifter "social organizations" like La Raza and Planned Parenthood - who prove without a doubt the validity of what Eric Hoffer said about what big causes degenerate into - would get zip. And no more corporate bailouts - of anyone, ever.

On the revenue side, I'd withdraw from NAFTA, GATT, and most other free-trade agreements, and enact sky-high tariffs against Chinese-made goods. What are they going to do - stop buying legitimate copies of Microsoft Windows? Fuck 'em. And fuck American CEOs who want to save money with labor arbitrage, too - let them open an iPad factory in Ohio instead of Shenzhen. And while I'm on the subject of labor arbitrage - I'd enact a fine of $25,000 per day, per offense, on any business that hired illegals, with half the money going to whoever reported it, and I'd allow unemployed Americans to sue companies that employed illegals in civil court for using illegal means to deny them employment. That should put some more Americans back to work. As for corporate taxes, the problem in America is not the rate (which is relatively high, by world standards), but the loopholes. Big corporations pay slick accountants to find ways to pay zero taxes. What Reagan did for income taxes in the 80s, I'd do for corporate taxes - lower the rates, but close the loopholes so they actually pay what they should. I'd enact an 95% tax on any income (not profit - gross income) made by any credit institution on loans (including credit cards) made at an interest rate over 10%. I'd legalize and tax drugs. I'd enact a modest national sales tax, and make up for it by eliminating capital gains taxes entirely.

Anyhow, that went longer than I intended, but you get the idea.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

1 Million New Robots to Enter Global Workforce

Foxconn has announced a plan to replace a portion of its human workforce with up to 1 million robots.  Foxconn is the Chinese company where there has been a spate of employee suicides amidst slave-like conditions; it's also where many iPhones and other electronic devices are manufactured.  This is what globalization and "trickle-down" economics consist of.  A large portion of Americans used to be employed in manufacturing.  When they got too expensive and uppity, they were replaced by Mexican labor, then the cheap Mexican workers were replaced by the even cheaper Chinese, and now, the Chinese are beginning to be replaced by robots.  Robots don't need housing or health care or food, and will never complain about rights or take breaks (although it'd make a neat plot for some sci-fi film).  I sometimes think that a population shortage is in the offing not just because of resource scarcity, but also because of the marginalization of low-level jobs to the automation. 

I will end this with a personal story that will hopefully highlight the potential absurdity of automation.  I was with my brother at Lowe's last week; Lowe's is a chain big-box hardware store, like the Home Depot.  Lowe's has several "self check-out" counters, which I see is a growing trend in many stores.  My brother got a few gloves, and upon seeing the lines at the human check-out lanes, goes to the self-check out counter.  He scans and pays for the stuff, and all the while, there is an employee feet away from us, just looking at us to ensure that we aren't stealing.  The point of automation is to cut down on labor costs, yet I'm assuming that for every self-check out lane at Lowe's, there is an employee who is detailed to observe the people who are using it.  So what's the point of self-check out?  Why not just use that employee as an extra hand to check people out?