March 31, 2007

Jimmy Carter: subprime loan crisis likely to boost Habitat work

The former president, long active with low-income sweat-equity housing builder Habitat for Humanity, expects the agency’s business to pick up with the subprime home mortgage crisis. And the executive director agrees.
Housing analysts predict between 1 million and 3 million U.S. homes will be foreclosed upon in 2007.

“We have more people that are going to need our program, and the need is just going to grow even greater,” said Erin Rank, chief executive of Habitat for Humanity of Greater Los Angeles, where the average cost of a home is now $550,000.

Hmm. Habitat may rise from its current spot as the 18th-largest homebuilder.

Take small college friendliness claims with a grain of salt

Yes, they may be more friendly, on a surface level, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into deep-level outreach to students in emotional/psychological need.

Texas A&M prof Peter Tarnow said here last month that Texas hospitality is, in essence, a mile wide but often just an inch deep. (He’s a native of Chile, so he has a definite outsider’s perspective.)

Well, to the degree he’s right (a fair degree, but not totally), that translates to small college hospitality in some way.

My two cents from journaling about my own college years.

I HUNGER FOR SLEEP

The hunger pangs of sleep desired,
Sleep ungot, sleep denied,
Gnaw at my inwards,
At the strings of my psyche,
At the sinews of my being.
The ravenous Titan of sleep
Would devour me
Like Cronus swallowing his children —
If I could be digested.
But the discontents of my anxiety
Lie ill on the ogre’s stomach;
I am vomited up from sleep.

And so it is.
Too often, too many nights,
I am vomited up from sleep,
In a nocturnal indigestion,
Not to fully find its embrace again.

Yes, embrace.
The hungering maw of sleep
Is also the nurturing womb.
And sleep hungers for me
Just as I hunger for nurturing.

N.M. Senate prez indicted; but will he be convicted, because of BushCo meddling?

Politically-fired U.S. District Attorney David Iglesias DID have a corruption case under investigation. New Mexico State Senate President Pro Tem Manny Aragon (a known sleaze since I worked at a N.M. paper a decade ago, and before that, has been indicted in a $4.2 million public funds skimming scheme.

The problem, as similarly-fired U.S. District Attorney Bud Cummins puts it? The political nature of Iglesias’ firing is a GREAT defense team weapon for Aragon’s lawyers.

Way to go, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Karl Rove, et al.

ONLY the trains run on time in Far South Lancaster, I think …

Well, official government meetings, and a couple other things. But several social events, such as a cultural preservation society’s meetings, have started somewhat to well late.

And, no, not EVERY small town is like this. Jacksboro was even smaller, and to the degree I was at events like this, they seemed more organized. I guess that’s part of being more in the true South down here.

Better than a $3 federal tax check-off for presidential elections

Since the corrosive power of political money will probably have both the Republican and Democratic presidential nominees in 2008 opt out of federal campaign financing,

And, since we are dead last among developed nations in the percentage of gross national product our government devotes to foreign aid,

Why not …

Have a $3 tax check-off box on our federal tax returns for foreign aid?

March 30, 2007

Just how underpaid are Texas teachers? Maybe a lot, but maybe less than a lot

At the risk of a few brickbats

They may still be somewhat underpaid, but are they that underpaid? Right now, according to the Texas Federation of Teachers, they’re 30th in the nation. I’m sure eight of the other 10 states of the rebellious south (not counting Florida and Virginia) rank lower. I’ll include all Midwestern/Plains states west of the Mississipi, except Missouri and Minnesota, for six more. That’s 14 of the 20 states below Texas. I’ll also throw in six Mountain West states east of the Pacific Rim (excluding Colorado and Arizona) and there’s my 20 states.

In most the remaining states, except Missouri, Minnesota and the Great Lakes states, gas prices and some related costs are higher than Texas. In just about all the 29 states above Texas on teacher pay, housing costs are higher to much higher.

(Ask a teacher in much of metropolitan California or New York to swap salaries — AND costs of living — with Texas, and they’ll probably take that bet.)

So, if we compare apples to apples, Texas teachers may be not be THAT underpaid. Throw in a proposed $850 pay raise, and they look a bit better.

NOTE: Nothing in this post is designed to argue the apples-oranges comparison, whether or not teachers as a profession are adequately paid.

Cell phones: The new prison contraband

Hat tip to the excellent blog on Texas criminal justice issues, Grits for Breakfast:

Scott Henson notes that more than 300 cell phones have been confiscated from inmates in recent years. But, if you know anything about prisons, you’ll know many of those weren’t found for some time, and there’s plenty more that never were found.

He links to a National Public Radio story that highlights the problem nationally, including this Texas example:
Last month, a warden in Texas also got a call — from the mother of one of his inmates. She was calling to complain that her son was getting poor cell-phone reception inside the prison.

“She was paying for the service, and she felt that she should get good service out of the prison,” says John Moriarity, the inspector general of the Texas prison system. “That cell-phone company assured her it was within the coverage area, and she wanted to know why they were having some difficulty getting a good cell-phone signal out of the prison.”

That cell phone was one of more than 300 that Texas prison officials have pulled out of inmates’ cells in the past three years. Moriarity says it's not just happening in Texas and Maryland.

“I’ve spoken to some of my fellow [inspectors general] across the country, and I believe everybody’s having a problem with it,” he says.

In several criminal cases, inmates have used cell phones to run gangs operating outside of prison, to put hits out on people, to organize drug-smuggling operations and, in one case, trade gold bullion on international markets.

(NPR also reports that a Maryland state senator got a cell-phone call from an inmate complaining about prison conditions!)

Scott notes that some inmates are just doing this to have their families avoid getting gouged by collect calls, but also spots that I do, namely that drugs or money can be smuggled inside a phone. And, since he observes that a cell phone, being metal, can’t get past a detector, a corrupt guard is allowing each one inside.

Beyond that, inside a unit, a cell phone can be used to:
1. Set up drug deals, either supplies from the outside, with the same corrupt guard taking a cut, or deals inside a unit;
2. Set up prison sex, either between inmates or with guards;
3. Coordinate gang activity inside a unit;
4. Plan an escape.

Answer? The state of Texas needs to improve its phone plans for prisoners, so those who are just trying to beat costs don’t have to worry. And, it needs to raise guards’ wages enough to at least lessen the temptation of corruption. At least within a unit, the state also needs to look at rotating guard assignments more frequently, to cut down on contact with the same inmates.

Scott has more on the phone calling reform ideas here.

Two additional notes:

First, as NPR reports, there is cell-phone snooping detection technology. It isn’t cheap (try several hundred thousand per prison unit), but this problem isn’t going away.

That’s because …

TDCJ is already worried about Blackberries, not just cell phones.

Oh, if you want an unvarnished look inside TDCJ, try The Backgate, a blog by TDCJ staff. It’s so renegade it’s even pro-union!

March 29, 2007

Good enough for births, good enough for mastectomies?

Congress is again being asked to consider the Breast Cancer Patient Protection Act, which would require insurance companies to cover a 48-hour hospital stay for mastectomy patients.

It’s been brought before Congress every year from 1997 on, but with Democrats controlling both House and Senate this year, may have a chance. And, the American Medical Association is officially in favor of the bill.

If you’d like to sign a support petition to your Member of Congress, go here.

(My sister brought this to my attention, and no, it is not an urban legend.)

Did Ricky Childers hypnotize Joe Tillotson and the Lancaster City Council?

Giving him $155,000 a year, well beyond what former City Manager Jim Landon was making, for a guy reportedly being pushed out the door at Longview, is pure crazyness.

Besides, Childers said “he wanted to come back to the Metroplex.” HELLO, City Council, you’re in a buyer’s market at that point. That’s just on the fact of him wanting to move to the Metroplex, let alone if its true that the Longview City Council was pushing him out the door. If you don’t recognize that, that’s not the best sign for your continued management of the city.

Well, if that’s what you really want, Joe, Carol, and others, and you’re dumb enough to pay that much, you got exactly what you deserve. Don’t expect me to write as much about Lancaster; time to distance my ties more.

If Moody’s et al can’t be trusted on rating subprime mortgages, what about things like school district financial ratings?

It reminds me a bit of credit card companies

As I recently blogged, financial rating agencies like Moody’s have apparently “pumped” the subprime mortgage market by rating subprime mortgages, for investment purposes, of being of higher investment grade than they really actually are.

Well, this got me to wondering: what if Moody’s and other folks do something similar for local governments, like cities and school districts?

At both my current newspaper and the previous one, the local school district had its rating upgraded after floating a bond issue. Arguably, that’s a temptation to do a number of things, whether urging voters to float a new issue at lower rates or cheaper bond insurance costs, borrow off maintenance and operation funds in the school district equivalent of certificates of obligation (as the current school district did when hurricanes Katrina and Rita blew its original cost estimates out of the water), or otherwise look at additional debt ideas.

Moody’s doesn’t do its work for nothing or in any way out of the goodness of its corporate heart. I’m no financial guru at all, so I don’t know who pays Moody’s (or anybody else) for rating services, but somebody does. Depending on who, I’m sure there’s some sort of conflict of interest floating around here.

U.S. income gap worst since 1928

And we all know what happened right after that — something called the Great Depression.

Chinese companies are able to take these manufacturing jobs from the U.S. and elsewhere for more reasons than simply having the lower wage costs of a developing country. Here’s how else China does it.
While total reported income in the US increased almost 9 per cent in 2005, the most recent year for which such data is available, average incomes for those in the bottom 90 per cent dipped slightly compared with the year before, dropping 172 dollars, or 0.6 per cent.

According to the report, the gains went largely to the top 1 percent, whose incomes rose to an average of more than 1.1 million dollars each, an increase of more than 139,000 dollars, or about 14 percent.

The top 10 percent, roughly those earning more than 100,000 dollars, also reached a level of income share not seen since 1928, according to the report.

The reasons are largely the same as 1928, also — increasing manipulation of various “financial instruments,” which are even more complicated today, thwarting the efforts of both federal regulators and surely, in some cases, the Internal Revenue Service, in keeping tabs on this.

Problem is, many people in that lower 90 percent are being fobbed off with modern America’s equivalent of “bread and circuses” — cheap made-in-China electronics.

March 28, 2007

Corn NOT the future of biofuels

And, no, that’s not just me saying that. Fortunately, our Deputy Secretary of Energy recognizes the same fact.

I will add my two cents that I don’t think cellulose products are going to fill as much of the need as Clay Sell and others think, though.

The answer? Well, more of the answer needs to come from conservation.

Saudi king: Iraq occupation illegal

Well, actually, due to that filmy UN protective cover, it isn’t, but it’s clear that King Abdullah is playing hardball over Middle Eastern issues. Not only has he already rejected the idea of visiting the White House any time in the near future, and now said this, he also invited part of the BushCo “axis of evil,” Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to come to Saudi capital Riyadh earlier this month.

Will even this get Bush to pay attention that his bullheadedness on Iraq is wrong? Just like in my previous post about a Texas-sized chunk of Antarctic ice thinning, the answer would be: Nahhhh.

Possible new global warming-related problem in Antarctica

When you hear about a Texas-sized piece of ice thinning, that’s officially serious.
[Scientists] said “surprisingly rapid changes” were occurring in Antarctica's Amundsen Sea Embayment, which faces the southern Pacific Ocean, but that more study was needed to know how fast it was melting and how much it could cause the sea level to rise.

Will even this wake up the Bush Administration? Nahhhh. But, at worse case, this could probably raise world ocean levels by a few inches, not millimeters or even a centimeter or two.

Let’s hold the phone a bit on overseas job outsourcing — and logistics parks

It appears that rising wages and global logistics snafus will put a damper in outsourcing jobs in general, and specifically overseas.

And this is true for Japanese and European companies, not just American ones.

Combine that with what I estimate as a 1-in-10 chance of $100/bbl oil by the end of 2010, and you have another reason to wonder whether all these logistics hub business parks, such as the ones slated for my former hometown of Lancaster, Texas, will actually ever get built out to anywhere near capacity.

The ways in which China gets cheap to do its low-cost manufacturing

Chinese companies are able to take these manufacturing jobs from the U.S. and elsewhere for more reasons than simply having the lower wage costs of a developing country. Here’s how else China does it.

First, it has it’s own internal equivalent to illegal aliens — Chinese peasants who come to its largest cities, but without residency permits. They get paid $1 a day — if they get paid.

That, in turn reflects larger income inequalities. We all know the U.S. is worse than the other developed countries, i.e., Canada, Western Europe, Australia, Japan. But, this supposedly “Communist” country is actually four points worse than the U.S. on the 0-100 Gini income inequality scale.

Second, in China’s north, if you count all the costs of environmental degradation, at least some of which have to be priced “on book” in Western countries, the true economic growth rate is at least 3 percentage points less than Beijing reports.

March 27, 2007

FINALLY, Lawrence Small is gone from the Smithsonian

Greed and salary got the Smithsonian Institution’s secretary — it’s executive director, in essence — canned.
Smithsonian Institution Secretary Lawrence M. Small, whose pay and expenses were the subject of two recent investigations, resigned after seven years as head of the world's largest museum and research complex.

Although Small resigned two days ago, the Washington-based Smithsonian didn't announce the move until today.

Small's taxable income rose to $915,768 this year from $356,700 when he started the job, Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas said in a phone interview. A report by the museum's inspector general found that Small took an unauthorized charter flight to San Antonio that cost $14,509, seven times the amount of a regular first-class flight.

But he had more reason to get canned than that:

First, as I blogged before, there’s his uncritical support of intelligent design being displayed inside the Smithsonian.

There’s also his attempt to stifle the audit that led to him getting canned.


Finally, there’s his criminal conviction being displayed inside the Smithsonian.
Small was convicted in a misdemeanor plea agreement after federal investigators found that his 1,000-piece personal collection of Amazonian tribal artifacts held at least 219 items containing feathers protected under the Endangered Species Act, the Convention on Intentional Trade in Endangered Species or the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

It’s only been 3 and one half years since he was convicted, and he still hung on like old mold. Good-bye, as I called for at that time.

March 26, 2007

House Democrats’ “antiwar” bill is tissue paper

Here’s why.

Basically, it’s got more loopholes than Swiss cheese that has been fired for nonpolitical reasons by Karl Rove and Alberto Gonzales.

In other words, the House passed a resolution disguised as an actual bill.

Here are some of the details:
Claim: Troop Readiness Requirements: no funds can be appropriated to deploy any unit of the Armed Forces to Iraq unless the unit is fully trained, equipped and "mission capable"
Reality: The bill includes a provision that allows the President to waive troop readiness requirements

Claim: No Extended Deployments: no funds can be appropriated for extending the deployment of the Army, National Guard or Reserves beyond a 365-day deployment, or a Marine unit beyond a 210-day deployment
Reality: The bill includes a provision that allows the President to waive the prohibition on extended deployments

Claim: Rest Period Between Deployments: no funds can be appropriated for deploying any Army unit that has been deployed within the previous 365 consecutive days, or an Marine unit that has been deployed within the previous 210 consecutive days
Reality: The bill includes a provision that allows the President to waive the specified rest periods between deployments

Claim: Requirements for Iraqi Government Progress: if the Iraqi government isn't making substantial progress by October 1, 2007 and again by March 1,2008 in making the country secure, democratic and reducing sectarian violence, the Secretary of Defense shall commence the redeployment of the Armed Forces from Iraq within 180 days.
Reality: The bill allows the President to unilaterally certify "Iraqi Government Progress"

Claim: Date Certain for U.S. Withdrawal from Iraq: combat troops out of Iraq by August, 2008 at the latest
Reality: With three U.S troops dying each day the war continues, August, 2008 is not an acceptable deadline for withdrawal of US troops. It is not bringing our troops home now. Furthermore, the bill allows U.S. troops to remain in Iraq after the August, 2008 withdrawal date if they are "engaging in targeted special actions limited in duration and scope to killing or capturing members of al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations with global reach" [note: the
terms "limited in duration and scope" are undefined in the bill]; and/or if they are "training members of the Iraqi Security Forces". This provision could be used to keep tens of thousands of U.S. troops in Iraq for years to come.

If this is the best that we can do, why try?

Really. Why even try? True progressive voters will see this as a sham and demand more. And Pelosi’s heavy-handedness in leaning on some California progressive Democrats to vote yes or risk lose money for their districts will certainly backfire.

March 25, 2007

Didn’t the NCAA actually used to call traveling?

This hop step/gather step-stop, then a regular two-footed jump after it WAS traveling, once upon a time.

Ahh, I guess I’m just a fuddy-duddy.

Anyway, in part because Kansas made it past the first round of this year’s Dance of 64, I watch more college hoops than I have for a while.

No thanks. I think it’s getting more physical than the NBA at times, as well as letting at least as much traveling go uncalled.

Hell, that hop step will be down in high schools in five years.

Five years left for the orangutan?

Yes, tragically, if we keep gutting its rain forest habitat.

You can help. How? Stop buying foods with palm oil in them.
The only orang-utans now left in the world live in Borneo and Sumatra, where the lowland peat forests that sustain them are being rapidly destroyed in a race between Malaysia and Indonesia to become the world's biggest supplier of palm oil.

It doesn’t take that much time to read the label of ingredients on a food.

I regularly buy Smart Balance margarine, which touts its heart-healthy combination of various plant oils. But, one of them is palm oil, so it will have to go off my food list.