April 19, 2008

The military-industrial complex is alive and kicking or lying for Iraq dollars


All those retired general talking heads on network and cable news programs? Most of them have big-time connections with defense weapons makers, otherwise politely called “military contractors.”
Those business relationships are hardly ever disclosed to the viewers, and sometimes not even to the networks themselves. But collectively, the … several dozen military analysts represent more than 150 military contractors either as lobbyists, senior executives, board members or consultants. The companies include defense heavyweights, but also scores of smaller companies, all part of a vast assemblage of contractors scrambling for hundreds of billions in military business generated by the administration’s war on terror. It is a furious competition, one in which inside information and easy access to senior officials are highly prized.

That’s why President Bush has had no problem in the past flying some of them on Air Force 2.
In turn, members of this group have echoed administration talking points, sometimes even when they suspected the information was false or inflated. Some analysts acknowledge they suppressed doubts because they feared jeopardizing their access.

A few expressed regret for participating in what they regarded as an effort to dupe the American public with propaganda dressed as independent military analysis.

“It was them saying, ‘We need to stick our hands up your back and move your mouth for you,’ ” Robert S. Bevelacqua, a retired Green Beret and former Fox News analyst, said.

Kenneth Allard, a former NBC military analyst who has taught information warfare at the National Defense University, said the campaign amounted to a sophisticated information operation. “This was a coherent, active policy,” he said.

As conditions in Iraq deteriorated, Mr. Allard recalled, he saw a yawning gap between what analysts were told in private briefings and what subsequent inquiries and books later revealed.

“Night and day,” Mr. Allard said, “I felt we’d been hosed.”

This is a long, 11-page exposé in the New York Times and well worth a read.

Some of the 75 or so brass hat talking heads are also lobbyists, for example. The whole affair was launched in large part by former Defense Department assistant secretary for PR Torie Clarke. But, the military talkers were given their own, independently-officed handlers.

Others were in charge of contract negotiation or procurement at their firms, a very direct conflict of interest in going on TV and promoting the war.

Some of them had huge anti-media axes to grind going back to Vietnam:
This was a major theme, for example, with Paul E. Vallely, a Fox News analyst from 2001 to 2007. A retired Army general who had specialized in psychological warfare, Mr. Vallely co-authored a paper in 1980 that accused American news organizations of failing to defend the nation from “enemy” propaganda during Vietnam.

“We lost the war — not because we were outfought, but because we were out Psyoped,” he wrote. He urged a radically new approach to psychological operations in future wars — taking aim at not just foreign adversaries but domestic audiences, too. He called his approach “MindWar” — using network TV and radio to “strengthen our national will to victory.”

In a word, bullshit. Former DoD schmoozer and Donald Rumsfeld flunky Larry Di Rita confirms this was the attitude the Whatagon had. Other analysts, anonymously, also explicitly called this “psyops.”

Meanwhile, these talking heads coneheads were perfectly content to be led around by the nose by Paul Bremer et al on the occasions they actually did visit Iraq.

How can you be an “analyst” when you’re not actually out in the field analyzing anything?

But, most of the tin stars didn’t care. It was a way to meet U.S. mercenary companies like KBR, or Iraqi decision-makers, and try to drum up more business.

Showing their importance, one of the first things Gen. David Petraeus did after being named commander in Iraq was to meet with the group of analysts. I assume he does the same as part of his preparation for each round of Congressional testimony, so the talking heads are ready and armed.

And, for all of this bullshitting, most the analysts were being paid, in essence, on commission, by how many times they talked on TV.

And, while some of them admit soon being disillusioned about what lies BushCo was spinning, none of them saw fit to stop talking on TV. Those who were wary said “military loyalty” kept them from speaking out.

More bullshit. Fear of scorn from fellow colonels or generals is what it was, along with fear of losing contracts or lobbying access. As for loyalty to privates and noncoms, the actual military? Hah.

The few who did speak out? Well, this happened:
On Aug. 3, 2005, 14 marines died in Iraq. That day, William V. Cowan, who said he had grown increasingly uncomfortable with the “twisted version of reality” being pushed on analysts in briefings, called the Pentagon to give “a heads-up” that some of his comments on Fox “may not all be friendly,” Pentagon records show. Mr. Rumsfeld’s senior aides quickly arranged a private briefing for him, yet when he told Bill O’Reilly that the United States was “not on a good glide path right now” in Iraq, the repercussions were swift.

Cowan said he was “precipitously fired from the analysts group” for this appearance. The Pentagon, he wrote in an e-mail message, “simply didn’t like the fact that I wasn’t carrying their water.” The next day James T. Conway, then director of operations for the Joint Chiefs, presided over another conference call with analysts. He urged them, a transcript shows, not to let the marines’ deaths further erode support for the war.

As for the cable and network news companies? None of them asked questions about outside business dealings.

Today, of course, most these folks are ghettoized to Fox, but not all of them, and it certainly wasn’t that way in the run-up to the war and the first year afterward.

Of course, there are a few things you won’t find in the story.

One is the number of weapons contractors who give plenty of money to Democrats as well as Republicans. Indeed, one of the retired shills, Gen. John Ralston, eventually went to work for William Cohen’s lobbying group. True, Cohen was a Republican senator, but he became defense secretary in a Democratic administration.

The other is how much money some of these war merchants, war-merchant lobbyists and such, spend on advertising, both with the TV networks and in places like the NYT.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Fakes

Or, Indiana Jones and the Heap of Junk, as The Independent labels his new movie.

Those 12 “Mayan” crystal skulls set to feature prominently in Harrison Ford’s latest (and please, doorknob, LAST) installment in the Indy cycle, titled “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”?

They may be many things, but Mayan definitely ain’t one of them, according to French scholars.

First, here’s the New Ageish and other general nutbar claims about the skulls:
Twelve such skulls, carved from solid crystal or quartz, are known to exist. Three of them are in national museum collections in Britain, the United States and France. Nine are in private hands. They have become the subject of feverish speculation by New Age writers about their purported extra-terrestrial origins. Held at a certain angle, in a certain light, it is suggested, the skulls become crystal balls which reveal the unmistakeable outline of a flying saucer.

According to one version of events, the 12 skulls – and a missing 13th sister skull – must be lined up or piled in a pyramid on or before the last day in the Mayan calendar, 21 December 2012. Otherwise the globe will fly off its axis.

Yeah, and George Bush will actually do something about global warming.

Here’s what the reality-based world already knew about them, before the most recent scientific research:
The British Museum, which owns one example, concluded 11 years ago that its skull had probably been polished by a wheeled machine. The pre-Colombian civilisations on the American continents discovered many things, but not the wheel.

The French researchers not only say they know this didn’t come from ancient Mayans or Aztecs, but that they do know where it did come from, instead:
The “French skull” was probably made in a small village in southern Germany in the second half of the 19th century. The quartz from which it is made is of Alpine, not Central American, origin. The pre-Colombian origin of the “French skull,” and probably several of the others, was almost certainly concocted by the French adventurer and antique merchant, Eugène Boban, who sold it to a wealthy French collector in 1875.

“The grooves and perforations (on the skull) clearly show the use of jewelry drills and other modern tools,” said Yves Le Fur, the deputy head of collections at the Quai Branly. “It is inconceivable that such precision was the work of pre-Colombian artists.”

The Smithsonian and the Louvre’s research department are also chiming in:
“Although nearly all of the crystal skulls have at times been identified as Aztec, Toltec, Mixtec or occasionally Maya, they do not reflect the artistic or stylistic characteristics of any of these cultures,” Smithsonian anthropologist Jane MacLaren Walsh points out. She believes that some of the earlier skulls were faked in Mexico in the 19th century. Others probably came from Europe. The “Skull of Doom” was probably a fake of one of these fakes.

Her findings tally almost exactly with those of the French museums’ research centre, C2RMF. This agency, run by the Louvre, establishes the identity of disputed art works and explores old artistic techniques. It is regarded as the most advanced organisation of its kind in the world.

The centre states “with a reasonable degree of certainty” that the “French” skull at the Quai Branly and the “British” skull in the British Museum came from the village of Idar-Oberstein in southern Germany. The village is known to have specialised in making similar objects as bases for crucifixes in the period 1867 to 1886. This would explain why the “French” skull has identical-sized holes at top and bottom.

Analysis of the quartz used in the skull has identified the material as of Alpine origin.

The story goes on to explain how Boban was in Mexico at about the time “Emperor” Maximilian withdrew, and how he made himself familiar with pre-Columbian art.

No, holding one of these skulls next to a computer won’t crash your hard drive. Holding scientific research next to them, though, does crash yet another New Age myth.

It remains to be seen whether the sight of senior citizen Harrison Ford trying to battle Cate Blanchett and other foes will crash ticket sales.

For a couple of previews of the movie, go here.

Will Texas voters elect this clown AGAIN?

Despite only getting 40 percent of the vote in 2006, Texas Gov. Rick Perry announced Friday he is running for re-election in 2010.

Well, he will just have one primary opponent, in what should be a bruising dust-up.

Yes, you heard me right. One.

And only one.

Who that “one” is, and how that race might turn out, coming right up.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst will indeed challenge Perry, and I believe win. And, not as a Republican, which I most certainly am not, nor as a Democrat, which I am not, either, I would pay primo money to watch that fight. As for why I think he’ll win, read below, where I list the reasons why he would be a tougher opponent for Democrats than Perry.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson will again play Hamlet, then play chicken liver, just as in 2006, and opt not to run, then make up some bullshit excuse for why.

Trust me on this one, she doesn’t have it in her. She knows she won’t come close with collecting Religious Right votes and if Dewhurst announces before her, he’ll line up more of the financial conservative vote in suburban Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth.

So, scratch Kay. If McCain loses in 2008, she might accept a Republican VP slot in 2012. If not, she’ll likely retire from the Senate.

As for Democrats, they probably would like to run against Perry, and certainly would do better against him than Dewhurst. Dewhurst is less hard-line conservative, especially on Religious Right issues, than Perry. He also is simply smoother as a person. Plus, he has a metro power base in Houston. As for Gov. Helmethair vs. Dewhurst on other issues, the Trans-Texas Corridor is a biggie. Now, secretly, Dewhurst may like some of its provisions. But, so far, he’s not come off as sounding any way in favor of it.

That said, the 2006 election showed Democrats that, with state demographics, they have a better chance of beating any Republican who goes too far right. And, without Grandma Strayhorn around this time, Dem deep pockets will line up early behind a candidate.

But whom? Chris Bell might deserve another shot, but I don’t know if he’ll take it.

I’m going to throw out State Sen. Royce West. He’s denied the itch before, but by 2010 he will have spent enough time in the Texas Senate to want to move on. That’s unless he reaches some non-attack quid pro quo with Dewhurst and runs for lieutenant governor instead. He’s got enough connections through his law practice, I believe is acceptable to more progressive Democrats, has a solid legislative record, and through the recognition of being Senate President Pro Tem, has party leaders he can line up.

We’ll see how this turns out, starting about 18 months from now.

So much for China supporting African rights and democracy

Chinese troops have been seen on the streets of Mutare, Zimbabwe’s third-largest city. Zimbabwe’s democratically-ousted, but refusing-to-leave-office President Robert Mugabe signed trade pacts with China earlier this decade after Western ostracism. However, I don’t believe military forces are usually “traded” items.

Unfortunately, arms and munitions all too often are, and China has been caught trying to send a boatload of them to Zimbabwe:
China's support for President Mugabe’s regime has been highlighted by the arrival in South Africa of a ship carrying a large cache of weapons destined for Zimbabwe's armed forces. Dock workers in Durban refused to unload it.

The 300,000-strong South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (Satawu) said it would be “grossly irresponsible” to touch the cargo of ammunition, grenades and mortar rounds on board the Chinese ship An Yue Jiang anchored outside the port.

Three million rounds of AK-47 ammunition, 1,500 rocket-propelled grenades and more than 3,000 mortar rounds and mortar tubes are among the cargo on the Chinese ship, according to copies of the inventory published by a South African newspaper

According to Beeld, the documentation for the shipment was completed on 1 April, three days after the presidential vote.

That’s enough to start a war — or a civil war.

Robert Mugabe is not going to leave peacefully.

And he’s sure as hell not going to leave peacefully with blank-check support from his southern neighbor:
A South African government spokesman, Themba Maseko, said it would be difficult to stop the shipment.

Well, of course it will be difficult to stop as long as South African President Thabo Mbeki treats Mugabe with kid gloves. Which he has given no signs of stopping. What if his government reaches a deal with Beijing to take a “cut” while remaining a conduit to landlocked Zimbabwe?

So much for the Anbar Awakening

All that has awakened, among Sunni Muslims in Anbar and elsewhere in Iraq, in the longer term is a new round of intra-Sunni violence, which will surely only intensify now that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s “assault” against Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mehdi Army in Basra has flopped, plus subsequent Iraqi Army desertions as U.S. forces tried to cordon off Shi’a areas of Baghdad.
A vicious civil war is now being fought within Iraq’s Sunni Arab community between al-Qa’ida in Iraq and al-Sahwa (the Awakening Council) while other groups continue to attack American forces. In Baghdad on a single day the head of al-Sahwa in the southern district of Dora was killed in his car by gunmen and seven others died by bombs and bullets in al-Adhamiya district.

U.S. spokesmen speak of a “spike” in violence in recent weeks but in reality security in Sunni and Shia parts of Iraq has been deteriorating since January. The official daily death toll of civilians reached a low of 20 killed a day in that month and has since more than doubled to 41 a day in March. The US and the Iraqi government are now facing a war on two fronts.

Not “spike,” but “surge” in violence, Mr. Gen. David Petraeus. This is something we cannot “win.” Be honest. Your puppetmaster/idol is leaving office in nine months from tomorrow anyway.

Bush CHIP-ed off more than he can legally chew

The Government Accountability Office says the Bush Administration overreached last year when it put limits on how much states could do to extend the State Children's Health Insurance Program, often known as S-CHIP or CHIP, to moderate-income children

Result? With BushCo facing state lawsuits over the issue not very good:
The Government Accountability Office advised Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., that the administration's policy changes amounted to a rule that should have been submitted to Congress and the comptroller general before going into effect. Instead, the administration sent a letter to state health officials informing them of the changes they were making to the program, which it described as a clarification of existing law.

I am just shocked this administration would circumvent Congress. I’m also shocked that it would say the rule it promulgated will stay in effect while sorting this out.

Hurricane expert backs off on global warming link

MIT scientist Kerry Emanuel said in a 2005 paper that there seemed to be a statistical link between hurricane intensity and global warming. Well, the paper was controversial indeed at the time, what with Katrina and other major hurricanes of that year.

Well, now, in something sure to be played up by global warming deniers, Emanuel is backing off that earlier claim:
Emanuel stresses that the new work does not disprove a connection between hurricanes and global warming — it just means that the relationship is complicated.

“The idea that there is no connection between hurricanes and global warming, that’s not supported,” he says.

Rather than this being fodder for global warming denialists, instead, it illustrates something they reject — the proper process of how science works.

April 18, 2008

BPA is really bad if it’s too bad for Wal-Mart

As I noted earlier this week, Canada is set to declare bisphenol-A a toxin.

Now, that alone won’t stop plastics makers from using the hormone mimic and quite possible puberty advancer and carcinogen in baby bottles, water bottles and other areas where it can easily leach from the plastic it is supposed to soften. (Wiki explainer on its use here and list of health effects here.)

But THIS will – WallyWorld selling less of your BPA-based plastics, American Chemistry Council:
Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, announced on Thursday it plans to offer more BPA-free products and intends to stop selling baby bottles made with BPA early next year.

Oh, and contrary to you, American Chemistry Council, and spokesman Steven Hentges playing down lab animal studies, a company with scientific background is concerned enough about BPA to stop using it:
Rochester, New York-based bottle maker Nalgene said on Friday it will phase out production of bottles made with BPA. Nalgene is owned by Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc.

In the world of PR, though, the first announcement is the biggie.

If something is bad enough for Wal-Mart, it’s really bad.

FAA trying to avoid American grounding repeat

That said, Transportation Secretary Mary Peters defends last week’s grounding of American Airlines’ MD-80 fleet.
“No one at all was well served by what happened last week, and we want to prevent that to the extent possible,” Ms. Peters said. “But … based on what we knew and the data we saw, it was not an overreaction.”

That said, Peters is either more guileful than any other member of the Bush cabinet, or else she’s not really part of the team, because it sounds like she doesn’t believe “deregulation is always better.” She wants to fix some things. Specifically, in the press conference, she announced several steps to improve Federal Aviation Administration oversight:
• A program to track safety inspections and alert officials when they are overdue.

• A national team of safety inspectors to focus on the biggest safety risks.

• The appointment of five outside experts to evaluate the FAA’s safety oversight program, which has come under heavy criticism from Rep. James Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

If she is serious about that, and the five aren’t simply a bunch of hacks, or this isn’t just a stalling process, I’m all for it. I don’t want to junk the current incentive for airlines to voluntarily report problems to the FAA, but I want to get rid of some of incestuous relationships, such as what FAA managers had with Southwest.

Maybe we need to stipulate you can’t go from the FAA to the airline you last inspected, if you want to work in the private sector.

Dallas housing market slouches toward somewhere

And it sure ain’t Bethlehem. Boosterish Dallas hand-wavers and hangers on (including one editor linked within this post), who for more than a year now have claimed now real problems were going to hit the Dallas-Fort Worth housing market, may need to start eating their words. DFW first-quarter foreclosures are up nearly 40 percent from a year ago. And, since foreclosures for all of 2007 were up 10 percent from 2006, the early 2008 news is definitely not good.

Yes, the idea that low housing costs here may lessen foreclosures sounds tempting, doesn’t it? But, wages in many sectors are low here, too. And, the problem goes beyond the original subprime fallout.

Rising gas prices, especially in a sprawl like the Metroplex, are also contributing toward the problem, as are other inflationary pressures linked to oil prices.

Of course, the DFW housing slump isn’t just hitting poor folks. Even in the ritzy Park Cities, where first-quarter pre-existing home sales slumped 25 percent, the problem is increasing.
“The price point between $1.5 million and $2 million is where a lot of the inventory is,” Bill Nichols said

In fact, sales of $1 million-plus homes dropped 19 percent.

In part, as this sidebar to the top story notes, tightening lending on jumbo loans, and the interest rate increase with that, is part of what’s affecting upper-end home sales. A 150-basis-point increase on a $500K-principal jumbo, from 6. to 7.5 percent, would cost an additional $180K over the life of a 30-year loan.

Don’t expect things to get better until they get worse, for at least the rest of this year.

Friday scatblogging – this power plant is not chicken shit

It is just going to burn this widespread power source, pictured at left. Considering that North Carolina has plenty of CAFO-size chicken “farms,” it seems like a good place to build a chickenshit power plant.

Of course, besides skeptical residents raising a stink over the plant, the main question is, how much of a stink the plant itself will raise. And there’s a difference of opinion on that.
Fibrowatt announced plans Wednesday for a 300-acre site, bolstered by $2.5 million in financial incentives, in the heart of Eastern North Carolina's poultry processing region, in Sampson County, where chicken farms will provide the fuel source. …

Fibrowatt announced plans Wednesday for the 300-acre site, bolstered by $2.5 million in financial incentives, in the heart of Eastern North Carolina's poultry processing region, where chicken farms will provide the fuel source.

500,000 tons? That’s almost 1,400 tons a day. How securely, so to speak, will that much “fuel” be stored? I mean, residents in the area already have to breath in the fumes from CAFO-size chicken farms; it’s a rightful worry they don’t get inundated with a second round of chickenshit smell. Or, a third round of chickenshit smoke, which odor, thankfully, I am clueless about. And, I’m not joking:
Fibrowatt’s next step is to apply for a state air-quality permit. Several environmental groups have decried poultry-waste burning as nothing more than waste incineration that emits two major pollutants: sulfur oxides and nitrogen oxides. Some emission levels from poultry-waste power plants are comparable to those of a modern coal-burning power plant, Fibrowatt officials acknowledge.

But they say worries are overblown and will, yes… go up in smoke.
According to the company, the poultry droppings are delivered in covered trucks to a fuel storage building, which typically holds five to 10 days of fuel. The building is designed to prevent odors from escaping.

John Swope, executive director for the Sampson County Economic Development Commission, is one of two dozen officials who visited similar plants that Fibrowatt built in Minnesota and the United Kingdom.

“Everything Fibrowatt told us was true,” Swope said. “It was very clean. No odor.”

But, some critics aren’t convinced:
”The air pollution permits for these plants are going to be a horror story,” said Louis Zeller, clean-air campaign coordinator for the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League in Glendale Springs. “We’re going to find out how much pollution these things are actually going to be able to put into the atmosphere.”

Well, whoever’s right, this is only a starting point. Fibrowatt wants to build three more plants, that would burn either chicken or turkey droppings, in the same area.

No shit.

And, there’s enough turkey and chickshit in the area to produce 5,500 tons or more of scat a day? Maybe it is time to eat less meat.

Credit woes continue

Citigroup expects to lose $5bil and will cut an additional 9,000 jobs.

But, because this loss was “expected” and half the loss of the previous quarter, the Street treated this as a big positive. More proof of the separation of Wall Street from Main Street.

Meanwhile, some investment bankers and even an outspoken Fed governor think the Federal Reserve needs to do more to get banks to rein in exuberance.

Note to Clemens – that HGH didn’t help

It’s likely any steroids that the Rocket, Roger Clemens, took, did a lot of good to bolster and extend his baseball career. The HGH? Not so likely.

In brief, HGH did increase lean body mass. But, it did NOT increase body strength.

And, it had two ADVERSE effects. First, it increased basal metabolism rates. Second, in at least some cases, it increased exercise-based heart rates.

So, if you see Roger Clemens keel over from a massive coronary while jogging, you know why. In fact, if you see any pro athlete die from a heart attack, you should probably be skeptical.

And, as for that 67-year-old guy in the HGH ads? He’s an exercise fanatic who used the HGH to drop fat, probably takes steroids in the side, and isn’t helping his cardio system one bit.

Iceland facing serious credit crunch fallout

You think the U.S. is in trouble? Be glad you don’t live in Reykjavik:
Last week, Iceland’s central bank raised interest rates to a record 15.5 percent to curb inflation and shore up the currency. The krona has lost 22 percent of its value against the euro since Jan. 1. On Thursday, Standard & Poor’s cut its credit rating on Iceland, citing the vulnerability of the banks.

Here’s why, in part:
A huge investment boom and the privatization of the banks eight years ago left the country with a yawning current-account deficit - $2.7 billion, or 16 percent of its total economic output in 2007.

By comparison, the much-criticized current-account deficit of the United States is 5.3 percent of total output.

Iceland’s banks have grown out of all proportion to its little economy. The total assets of the banks are nearly 10 times the size of the country’s gross domestic product. The three largest banks — Glitnir, Kaupthing, and Landsbanki — have expanded into Scandinavia and Britain, have bought European banks, and have even opened branches in China and Canada.

One analyst said Iceland is in a situation similar to that of South Korea before the Asian monetary crisis of the late 1990s.

One difference. South Korea has more than 20 times the population of Iceland and a much more robust manufacturing center.

Sounds like it’s time to batten down the hatches in Iceland.

TxDOT – get rid of carpool lane on 67 in south Dallas

With traffic on the road getting heavier all the time, you need to ditch the carpool lane, or at least, change it to a “congestion pricing lane,” ASAP. My preference would be the former.

I-35, after all, doesn’t have a carpool lane at all one you get south of the south Dallas split.

At the same time, part of the fault is due to drivers. Dallas in general has a number of “left lane lopers,” but they are a HUGE problem on 67. Pass or get out of the way.

April 17, 2008

Employment note to American Heart Association

No, I’m not going to apply for a job with you if you’re going to ask me, on a website application, how much I made at my previous job, and other questions designed to make me “sell myself short.”

I thought only for-profit companies tried this type of crap.

Bush the climate Neanderthal

Other countries have already seen through Bush’s latest round of actionless bullshit on global warming.

And, the more lies Bush tells about “actions” on global warming that aren’t, the madder they get. That anger comes from the developed world:
In a statement entitled “Bush’s Neanderthal speech,” German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel said: “His speech showed not leadership but losership. We are glad that there are also other voices in the United States.”

And the developing world:
”There is no way whatsoever that we can agree to what the US is proposing,” South African Environment and Tourism Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk said, describing the Bush administration as “isolated.”

“In effect, the US wants developing countries that already face huge poverty and development challenges to pay for what the US and other highly industrialized countries have caused over the past 150 years,” he said.

Meanwhile, Europeans have a new reason to be angry.

The Mediterranean area is going to have more and more forest fires, due to climate change.

Just don’t sign anything for nine more months, Germany and South Africa, because it won’t be worth the dead, carbon-releasing trees it’s written on.

Food can pass on supermicrobes

Score another one for mass agriculture. Food can pass on (and yes, you can take that as some sort of pun) antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
The main foods carrying antimicrobial resistant bacteria were poultry meat, eggs, pork or beef as well as fresh salads, which can be contaminated during preparation, handling and processing, it said.

The panel found bacteria could be passed directly to people from contaminated food of animal origin carrying resistant bacteria which could colonize or infect people after ingestion.

Bacteria could also be passed to humans by the consumption of fresh produce from land irrigated with water contaminated by slurry or sewage. Food of animal and non-animal origin could also be contaminated during handling and preparation.

What this means is that bacteria are going to increase their resistance even more. Picture drug-resistant strains of E. coli or other bacteria coming to the U.S. from Argentinean beef or Chilean grapes and swapping genes with U.S. based strains of E. coli. Now do you see the problem?

Pander alert and the Politics of Timidity™ from Obama

In addition to indicating his support for a unified Jerusalem and one presumably in Israeli hands, Barack Obama also showed just how much he favors The Politics of Chamge™ in the Middle East when he rebuked former President Jimmy Carter for meeting with Hamas.

I think I’m beginning to get more tired of Obama by the day as the Democratic campaign wears on. Hillary Clinton as GOP-lite is a known, and not unexpected, commodity. After all, we had the better part of eight years of her husband’s DLC-ish “triangulation,” with her willing, experienced cooperation, and that’s just counting the presidential years. After all, you shine a light on his Arkansas time, and he wasn’t a real progressive in Little Rock, either.

But, Obama came in, presenting himself as a fresh face capable of The Politics of Chamge™, and now he’s not.
“We must not negotiate with a terrorist group intent on Israel’s destruction,” Obama said. “We should only sit down with Hamas if they renounce terrorism, recognize Israel’s right to exist, and abide by past agreements.”

As for the Middle East, what’s the difference between Hamas and Iran, especially given Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Sen. Obama? Not much, is the answer, and you know it, even as you have talked about negotiating with Iran without preconditions. Has Iran renounced terrorism? No.

And, that’s not all. Hamas has said it supports recognition of Israel, provided that’s Israel of its 1967 borders. And you, Sen. Obama, want an enlarged Israel, and are now on record for that. Hence, you’re an obstructionist. As well as a panderer.

The Obamiacs who believe in his Messianic nature, rather than the fact that he is Just. Another. Politician. Have obviously drunk too much Chicago Kool-Aid.

States and communities try to tackle foreclosure fallout

For example Pennsylvania has two special funds to help with mortgage problems, both created last November.
One fund offers refinancing for troubled borrowers who have adjustable-rate loans if they meet certain criteria, including a cap on household income and limits on debt relative to income. These borrowers are offered cheaper, more predictable, 30-year fixed-rate mortgages.

The other fund is more aggressive, purchasing loans outright from lenders and then setting up affordable repayment plans with homeowners. In those cases, the agency works with lenders to reduce the mortgage’s principal, instead of just rescheduling payments or temporarily reducing the interest rate.

Pennsylvania has refinanced 40 loans and negotiated principal reductions for an additional 38 under the two programs since they were adopted in November, said Brian Hudson, executive director of the state's Housing Finance Agency. In most cases, lenders have agreed to cut the principal by 15 to 30 percent.

But, what if a state is already bleeding money? Take California, for example. Gov. Ahhnold got voters to agree to float a statewide bond issue two years ago, to push back dealing with debt the Leaden State was already accumulating at that time. I don’t see any way it could do something like the Pennsylvania model right now.

The story also notes that in a state like California or Florida, where many people under the foreclosure gun are hugely upside down on their mortgages, the Pennsylvania programs really aren’t applicable anyway.

I have another critique. Pennsylvania’s first fund sounds fine, and like it targets people who were the targets of predatory lending. BUT … the second fund sounds like it could also bail out people who bought houses as investments, or bought more house than they needed to keep up with the Joneses, etc. Sorry, but you shouldn’t be getting bailed out.

And, proposals for the federal government to back new state- and community-based bonding programs suffer from the same problem.

RIP Edward Lorenz and Douglas Fraser

First, Edward Lorenz, the father of the “butterfly effect” and founder of chaos theory, is dead at 90.

Second, in something virtually unreported in the mainstream media, former United Autoworkers President Douglas Fraser is dead at 81. Fraser guided the UAW through a tough time in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Lee Iacocca publicly credited him as being part of how Chrysler was able to re-emerge as a car company with the 1979 bailout.

Fraser also worked hard to get Southern auto plants unionized, and was instrumental and tireless in his efforts to get Japanese carmakers to open plants here.

Dear CareerBuilder – If I wanted to join the Navy …

I have three or four different CareerBuilder alerts. On two of them, about half the jobs it spits out at me are in the Navy or Navy Reserve.

No other military branches, just the Navy.

Is the Navy that much more creative? That much more aggressive? Or what?

In any case, CareerBuilder, if I wanted to join the Navy, I’d be at a recruiting station.

Knock it off, please.

‘Expelled’ producers set new low in cluelessness

Did Mark Mathis, the associate producer of creationist (I’m sorry, Intelligent Design) Goebbels-level agitprop flick “Expelled,” really expect a positive review from Scientific American? I’ve already blogged in the past about the lies and other immorality of people associated with “Expelled”; apparently lack of brains accompanies lack of ethics.

But, apparently, Mathis et al, did expect huzzahs and hallelujahs from SciAm, enough so that they offered the magazine a private screening.
Associate producer Mark Mathis showed up at our offices with a preview of “Expelled” in hand. That's right, the unexpected screening happened. The unexpected positive reviews did not.

Of course, ideally, SciAm would have said, “Sure, we’ll give it a private screening. And, by the way, P.Z. Myers will be in the audience.”

The magazine does offer a bonus of Six Things Ben Stein Doesn’t Want You to Know.

That includes an editing/production lie implying Stein spoke at a packed campus of college students, beyond the more obvious lying that’s been blogged and reported elsewhere.

April 16, 2008

We can relax about asteroid doomsday

Earlier today, I (and I’m sure thousands of others) blogged about a German teen who appeared to have shown that, rather than Earth facing a 1-in-45,000 collision chance from the Apophis asteroid, the odds instead were 1-in-450. But, that’s wrong, NASA now says. It stands by its initial calculations; also, the European Space Agency now says it never checked and signed off on Nico Marquardt’s calculations, either, contrary to German tabloid press reports.

I don’t get one thing about Democratic debates

Why let ABC, or whomever, dictate who the moderator(s) will be? Charlie Gibson is apparently godawful, as this brief of question subjects shows, or Josh Marshall’s full rundown of inane questions, followed up by answers that are genuinely befuddled to the most inane of them (like trying to get both Clinton and Obama to take the Mario Cuomo “pledge” of agreeing to nominate the other one as his/her running mate), or politically spinning to others of them.

I mean, this is the day of not just the Internet, but of many people having broadband connections.
Josh suggests using the League of Women Voters.

Why not go one better? Have Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean pick a moderator and produce the whole thing in house? If a TV network wants to run it, fine; if not, stream it live on the Internet.

I mean, there’s no need to put up with a Charlie Gibson, or a Tim Russert, in these days.

According to Media Matters, tonight’s debate is not the first example of Gibson’s debate-moderating inanity.

Great Frontline on healthcare – Obama should take notes

We have a lot to learn from other advanced democracies. Yes, anybody who doesn’t have an R after his or her name, and even a few of them, know that. But, it’s not just Britain. Or Germany. Or even the non-visited Canada. Frontline’s T.R. Reid visited five capitalist democracies to see what we can learn.

Beyond Britain, and Germany (which I think holds a lot of insight for the U.S.), he also went to Switzerland, Japan and even Taiwan.

Why should Barack Obama take notes?

All five of these countries, even though Britain and Taiwan are the only “socialist” single-payer systems, require everybody to be signed up for health insurance. In other words, people like Paul Krugman who criticize Obama’s healthcare plans are probably right.

Second, all have some sort of cost controls, with Japan’s being the most rigorous. In Japan, the government negotiates the price of every heath procedure and cost with doctors every two years. In Germany, insurers do it, every year.

Third, insurance companies in the three private-payer examples are non-profits, by law. That said, there’s still an incentive to sign up new customers, as management, within nonprofit structures, can still make more the more people they get enrolled with their particular insurance company.

So, mandated health care, price controls and nonprofit insurance, if you don't have a single-payer system, which I still favor (a private-payer system, that is). Those are the three sine qua nons we need to address.

Finally, although I missed the details on Britain’s NHS, none of the other four countries had longer wait times than the U.S. for either a GP or a specialist! In fact, in most of the countries, the wait time was less, especially for a specialist.

In Taiwan, for example, you can go directly to a specialist without an initial visit to a GP “gatekeeper.”

For insurers and drug companies, obviously, it’s not what they want to see.

And, doctors in all these countries are paid less than in the U.S.

But, the flip side there is lower to much lower administrative costs. Between that and lower costs for med school (a huge issue here, as well), the typical German doctor, for example, is in the same ballpark as a typical U.S. doctor.

And, “tort reform” aside, docs in these countries pay a LOT less on malpractice premiums. In Germany, for example, which has more than a century of centralized healthcare, premiums are about one-tenth of the cost here.

Oh, not from the Frontline story, but a dirty little side note from history:

Some 50-60 years ago, unions were among the main opponents of national health care. They figured they had negotiated their own high-quality health insurance plans through Churchillian blood, sweat, toil and tears, and, in essence, to hell with everybody else. Not the first nor the last time in history that American unions have been short-sighted and self-centered.

Kevin Drum’s weakest post of the week

Anytime you’re a major-league blogger, non-conservative division, and you turn off comments for a post of yours when you first post it, you know you’re in chicken-hawk, or chickenshit, land, take your pick. (The reason I specified the non-conservative division is that a lot of fairly big conservative blogs don’t allow comments, which says something right there.)

But, since Kevin doesn’t want to hear comments about Megan McArdle, I’ll give him one here:

Aren’t she and Amy Sullivan twins separated at birth? Not by how they look, of course, but their twitty, insufferably-earnest blogging?

And, can’t we do an equivalent of the ancient Roman punishment for treason and tie the two together in a bag with a cock, a viper, and a monkey, and then throw the bag in a river?

Bush lies, climate dies

Or, hypocrisy through rose-colored glasses in the Rose Garden

As I blogged about earlier this week, President Bush is indeed doing a bait-and-switch with his proposal to reduce ever-so-slightly control the increase in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

The setting was different, but the dance and tune were just the same with Bush’s speech today in the Rose Garden.

The perceptive Dan Froomkin calls it Bush’s third fake-out,
“President Bush will endorse an ‘intermediate goal’ today for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but he will not put forward any specific legislation or proposal on how the goal should be met, White House officials said.”

INTERmediate, of course, isn’t immediate. And even intermediate ain’t happening without that missing specific legislation or proposal.

That “intermediate goal” translates as: do nothing until 2025, As Andrew Revkin reports, critics immediately said:
(Bush is) simply recasting existing economic and technological trends as change, that he was trying to derail congressional initiatives (promoted mainly by Democrats and a small cluster of moderate Republicans), and that he was continuing an eight-year pattern of delay in attacking the creeping, but momentous, climate problem.

It’s clear, by his continued use of the deliberately obscurantist and nonscientific phrase “greenhouse gas intensity,” that Bush doesn’t intend to do any more about this issue than he does about Iraq. And, at the same high cost.

More problems with the speech.
• Bush continues to promote the biofuels requirements of the new energy bill, despite it becoming clearer by the day the massive impact this will have on food prices and environmental quality.

• He continues to tout the 35mpg legislation for cars, even though it doesn’t have mandatory intermediate targets and so will have no bearing on car emissions until 2020.

(Sidebar note: Interesting he mentions gas mileage in terms of greenhouse gases, with the state of California’s suit over the Environmental Protection Agency’s denial of Calfornia’s CO2 waiver request in court as we speak.) And, speaking of that, Bush attacks those damned environmentally activist judges, including, it would seem, that liberal Supreme Court that says EPA has the power to regulate CO2 as a pollutant:
As we approach this challenge, we face a growing problem here at home. Some courts are taking laws written more than 30 years ago — to primarily address local and regional environmental effects — and applying them to global climate change. The Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act were never meant to regulate global climate. For example, under a Supreme Court decision last year, the Clean Air Act could be applied to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles. This would automatically trigger regulation under the Clean Air Act of greenhouse gases all across our economy — leading to what Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell last week called, “a glorious mess.”

No, it will trigger a glorious call to action.

• He’s sticking by his plan to only regulate power plants, as noted by continuing the quote just above:
If these laws are stretched beyond their original intent, they could override the programs Congress just adopted, and force the government to regulate more than just power plant emissions.

Exactly what’s needed, Mr. Preznit.

• “Clean” coal gets plenty of mention.

• Conservation doesn’t.

• Gas tax increases and other “sticks” get ruled out, despite that fact that, when he was Texas governor, Bush was perfectly fine with financial “sticks” of electricity deregulation, and had no problem with his Enron buddies gaming California’s system.

As for conservatives still complaining about the high cost of global warming, and Bush agreeing with them, this is another lie, on the par with lies about the true cost of oil, vs. the “nominal” $110/bbl cost that doesn’t include U.S. military expenditures, pollution, etc.

The cost of NOT addressing global warming include increased flooding, increased drought and likely decreases in food production in the U.S., just for starters.

American looking for spot at table of airline merger mania

But, if a Northwest-Delta deal is in the works, and a Continental-United one is moving that way, who partners with American? The biggest remaining airline is US Airways , which has just gotten over completing all the work in its acquisition of America West, and has little international presence to offer. But, what about THIS idea?
Calyon Securities airline analyst Ray Neidl had a suggestion Tuesday: American could start a bidding war to woo away Northwest and its valuable Asian routes. …

Another industry analyst, Robert McAdoo of Avondale Partners, also seemed to like the idea of an American run on Northwest.

"It seems to me that adding Northwest and its Asia routes probably does more strategically than any other acquisition that's available," he said.

Northwest has a huge Pacific presence, which is American’s weakest international link.

My question is, what would merger bidding wars due to the bottom line of airlines already losing money? And, if the merger prices get high enough, does the Street start driving airline stock prices into the gutter?

And, a point, not a question. If a Northwest-Delta merger is dicey enough, precisely because of American’s Atlantic and Latin American strengths, I simply can’t see an American-Northwest merger getting regulatory approval.

And, back to the original idea. US Airways is strong in the East Coast, which could help American, especially as far as giving it more feeders into its European routes.

Obama ‘weakness’ with Jewish voters leads to pandering

This is one of several actual or allegedly weaknesses Politico claims nonaligned Democrats as well as Hillary Clinton supporters are raising against Barack Obama. While the story may well be wrong about working-class whites or Hispanics, the amount Obama trails Clinton in Florida does indicate problems with Jewish voters.

That said, large chunks of the Politico story by John F. Harris and Jim VandeHei are, to put it bluntly, full of it. To claim that Obama’s Chicago is radically more liberal than John Kerry’s Boston is laughable. More than laughable, for experienced political reporters like these two to put that statement on paper sounds like they’re pushing an agenda. Also, the fact that the Jewish polling numbers they cite come from before Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s contretemps seems irrelevant, as none of Wright’s allegedly controversial statements were anti-Semitic, and, to the degree any were anti-Zionist, they were lightly so.

That said, Obama is worried enough about the Jewish vote gap to engage in a new round of pandering.

Obama told Philadelphia-area Jewish leaders “it is not an acceptable option” for the city to be partitioned as it was prior to 1967. Really? So, you’re proposing to make East Jerusalem part of Israel? Or, are you proposing to nationalize all of Jerusalem under U.N. control?

I strongly doubt you mean the second, which leaves an all-Israel Jerusalem as the only option to the 1967 status quo.

No American president, or mainline presidential candidate, has ever directly come out for that.

Udall brothers looking good in Senate campaigns

Congressmen Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.) are both looking to add to the family legacy by moving up from the House to the Senate. In New Mexico, Tom, who is unopposed in the June 4 primarily election, has raised more money than both GOP candidates combined. The state’s two GOP Members of Congress, Albuquerque’s Heather Wilson and Steve Pearce, have about $2 million combined cash on hand, to Udall’s $2.6 million.

Wilson narrowly won re-election to her House seat in 2006 and likely would have lost this time around. This should be a Democratic pickup, as should the Senate seat, killing two GOP birds with one stone.

In Colorado, Mark has raised$1.46 million this year to GOP opponent Bob Schaffer’s $1 mil. Overall, Udall has a $4.2-$2.2 mil edge on cash on Schaffer. And, with Schaffer already entering gaffe-land and having connections to Smilin’ Jack Abramoff, this should be a Democratic win, too.

More financial ‘fun’ for American Airlines

American Airlines parent AMR dropped $328 million in the first quarter, primarily due to rising fuel costs.

Well, fuel costs continue to go up, and CEO Gerald Arpey has said the airline could easily lose $100 million over the MD-80 groundings last week. Plus, American plans a slight cut in capacity, with a larger cut at American Eagle, this summer.

And, that’s not American’s only woe, though this one affects all airlines. The compensation airlines have to pay to bumped passengers has just been doubled, to $400 for an eventual delay of less than two hours and $800 for more than that. If AA is dropping capacity going into the start of summer vacation season, I can’t see how it’s going to avoid more payouts.

So, a $500 mil second-quarter loss for the AA coming up? Analysts say it will “only” lose $120 million in the second quarter, traditionally its most profitable, not counting the grounding losses, whatever they turn out to be.

But, I think that’s on the low side. We could still have an employees’ strike or slowdown if the AMR board passes out a bunch of executive bonuses. I would dump this stock.

Yet another reason to quit Sierra – poor governance practices

Do Sierra Club bylaws not require a quorum of a majority of board of directors members to approve major issues, such as the Clorox greenwash “branding” agreement? Apparently not.

Per Karen Orr, former political chairwoman of the Florida chapter of the Sierra Club, only four members of a 15-member Sierra Club board of directors had recorded votes on the Clorox deal. And, since one of the four votes was an abstention, along with three yes votes, I’ll assume that no more than four board members were present.

This is ludicrous and a mockery of any and every good government practice. And, this was NOT an in-person board meeting. It was by conference call.

And, obviously, it’s an easy way for Executive Director Carl Pope to practice his take on George W. Bush’s “unitary executive” theories. Schedule board meetings at times most convenient for your favorite directors is one thing that comes to mind.

I mean, if one-quarter of a board is sufficient to convene, it’s hellaciously easy to control the actions and directions of a board.

That said, I’m going to quote a few of Karen’s Haloscan comments from other posts I’ve had about Sierra actions:
The Confronting Corporate Power Task Force opposes the “partnership”
between the Sierra Club and Clorox Corporation.

We not only oppose the substantive decision itself, but condemn the undemocratic and autocratic nature of the decision. The process used to make this decision demonstrates a flagrant disregard for the basic democratic values, history and tradition of the Sierra Club. …

Sierra Club staff knows that no matter how disgusted and embarrassed the volunteer activists are by the corporate “partnerships,” there is far more money to be harvested in greenwashing for corporate polluters than there is to be made from membership dues. …

While only three members of the board voted to promote major polluter Clorox in exchange for money, voting history suggests that even if the full board had participated, the decision would likely be the same.

I can think of only three board members who would likely have voted against the appalling deal. …

Yea: Chin, Mann, Ranchod; Abstain: Bosh.

There you have it, from a state-level insider. (Note, the Florida chapter was the chapter that Sierra HQ recently disenfranchised for its protests over the Clorox deal and Project Renewal, so Orr has firsthand experience with Pope’s heavy-handed tactics.)

NASA off by factor of 100 in asteroid worry

From the same folks who had measurements that sunk a failed Mars rover in inches instead of metric units, we now have a German schoolboy correcting our space agency’s miscalculation of the chances of Earth’s collision with a particular asteroid.

NASA had said the chances were 1 in 45,000.

Nico Marquardt says they’re a much more scary 1 in 450.

Oops.
Marquardt used telescopic findings from the Institute of Astrophysics in Potsdam (AIP) to calculate that there was a 1 in 450 chance that the Apophis asteroid will collide with Earth, the Potsdamer Neuerster Nachrichten reported.

He’s not even the equivalent of an American high-schooler yet; Marquardt is 13.
The schoolboy took into consideration the risk of Apophis running into one or more of the 40,000 satellites orbiting Earth during its path close to the planet on April 13 2029. …

Those satellites travel at 3.07 kilometers a second (1.9 miles), at up to 35,880 kilometers above earth — and the Apophis asteroid will pass by earth at a distance of 32,500 kilometers.

If the asteroid strikes a satellite in 2029, that will change its trajectory making it hit earth on its next orbit in 2036.

Both NASA and the young genius note that this would produce a mass of iron and iridium about 1,000 feet wide. It would crash into the Atlantic Ocean and cause a major tsunami. It would also cause short-term global cooling from a thick dust cloud.

Rall: Is this recession the “big one”?

Considering that the long-term unemployment rate is at 13 percent and the collapse of the housing bubble means consumers have not much more borrowed money to spend, Rall isn’t out on much of a plank when he says yes.

He is right about some bigger issues.

First, both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are “nibblers” on this issue. That is, neither one will be an FDR and propose transformational change. Neither one is likely to stand up to DLCers in their own party (hell, Clinton IS one, or the Slickster was) to roll back the deregulation of the 1990s, much of it passed by hugely bipartisan majorities.

Second, this isn’t going to be fixed overnight. Not even here in Texas, where the effects of the imploding housing bubble have been fairly mild.

Hardy Browder, the finance director for the city of Cedar Hill, expects property tax revenue growth for the next two years to be below the average of the past several years.

Third, Rall says the dreaded “stagflation” of the late 1970s actually wasn’t as bad as this will be. He says unemployment was relatively low during the Carter years and that wages outpaced inflation.

Off the top of my head, I’m fairly sure he’s wrong on wages for the last two years of the Carter administration, which is the part that matters, but I’ll give Rall half a pass. Only half, though.

The biggest problem, though, beyond the tapped-out borrowing, is that median family income has actually DROPPED over the past seven years. It’s gone down a tick, from $61,000 to $60,500.

Pharygula needs our help

And so does the National Center for Science Education. The king of evolutionary biologist bloggers, the creationist-defamed P.Z. Myers, wants to make sure the NCSE site for the parody of a science movie formerly known as “Crossroads,” gets more exposure for it’s (lengthy) critique of what’s wrong with the movie.

As regular readers note, I blogged about Pharyngula getting booted booted from an advance screening of the movie formerly known as “Crossroads.” I had a follow-up post about additional lies of the movie formerly known as “Crossroads,” too.

Oh, and the makers of the movie formerly known as “Crossroads” have moral problems with theft, namely intellectual property theft, as well as their initial issue with lies.

Who am I to disobey P.Z, with such a draconian order?

So, here goes, for Auld Pharyngula and NCSE: Expelled.

April 15, 2008

Science briefs – next big one for Cali, sick plastic, poached cod

Next big quake for Southland?
I blogged earlier this week that earthquakes off the coast of Oregon, at a famous triple fault junction, might be a sign of things to come on the San Andreas.

And indeed, the likelihood of an earthquake, especially on the Southern California section of the fault, is quite high. In fact, 99.7 percent for the fault overall, and 97 percent SoCal will get a magnitude 6.7 or above within 30 years. For background, the 1994 Northridge earthquake was a 6.7. The section that runs from east of Paso Robles to the Salton Sea is expected to be the most earthquake vulnerable.
Bisphenol-A to get Canadian diss?
Bisphenol A, a near-ubiquitous component of many drink bottle plastics, is known as an estrogen mimic, and some researchers believe it may be tied to some cancers, as well as a puberty stimulator as an estrogen mimic. Well, the Canadian Ministry of Health may soon declare it a dangerous substance; it would be the first country in the world to do so.
Arctic cod being poached
WWF says cod poaching in the Arctic could put stocks of this fish at serious risk; ditto for pollock. And, it’s an international deal:
The group said illegally caught pollock was typically carried to China for processing by a Russian vessel, the deal was usually handled by middlemen in South Korea, and the processed fish re-exported as fillets to the United States.

Just one more example of overfishing.

Doorknob spare me Sen. Chris Matthews

But, “Tweety” is apparently serious about challenging Arlen Specter in two years.
When Hardball's Chris Matthews appeared recently on The Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert asked him, “There's a lot of talk that you might be running for Arlen Specter’s seat in Pennsylvania. Any truth to that?”

Matthews seemed bemused at first, asking, “A six year term? Representing all the people of Pennsylvania?” However, he was soon admitting to Colbert, “Well, you know when you grow up, some kids want to be a fireman? I wanted to be a senator.”

“That’s an announcement,” Colbert declared to cheers from the audience.

According to a recent posting at the website of longtime Republican operative Roger Stone, “MSNBC TV star Chris Matthews has been quietly sounding out Democrats across Pennsylvania about seeking the Democratic nomination to oppose Senator Arlen Specter. ... Matthews has been meeting with former Philadelphia City Comptroller Tommy Leonard and has approached Governor Ed Rendell to inquire about recruiting campaign personnel.”

First, surely Keystone State Democrats can find a better candidate this side of Ed Rendell.

Second, could you imagine Sen. Matthews being interviewed by Tim Russert? We’d have to declare a nationwide smog alert.

Church-state watch – Nimrod Congressman and Pledge

Freshman Republican Paul Broun apparently believes he has plenty of less important things to do in the House of Representatives than attempting to indoctrinate fellow Members of Congres on how to properly recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

According to Broun, there should be no comma between “one nation” and “under God,” the phrase added to the pledge in 1954 to magically inoculate us against the “Red menace” of “godless Communism.” (Ignoring, of course, that there were good Christian Communists in the second chapter of Acts.)

According to history professor Matthew Dennis, the real reasoning behind Broun’s didactics is to imply that the nation is subordinate to God.

OK, instead of skipping “under God,” I’ll skip “one nation under God” if that’s the way Rep. Broun wants to play Christian Ayatollah.

Knock knock – retail bankruptcy here

Eight retail chains, including Levitz and Sharper Image, have declared bankruptcy. And, they’re not all.

Rumor says Linens ‘n Things is next, possibly later this week. (Disclosure for local readers; there’s a Linens store here in Cedar Hill, suburban Dallas.) But that’s not all.

Over the next year, Foot Locker said it would close 140 stores, Ann Taylor will start to shutter 117, and the jeweler Zales will close 100, the Times story says.

Part of the problem is the credit crunch. Banks are getting tighter on their lending to retailers, not just would-be homeowners.

Here’s why the credit crunch is a problem for many of these retailers:
The bankruptcies are putting a spotlight on a little-discussed facet of retailing: heavy debt.

Stores may appear to mint money by paying $2 for a T-shirt and charging $10 for it. But because shopping is based on weather patterns and fashion trends, retailers must pay for merchandise that may sit, unsold, on shelves for long periods.

So chains regularly borrow large sums to cover routine expenses, like wages and electricity bills. When sales are strong, as they typically are during the holiday season, the debts are repaid.

But, of course, this year’s holiday sales were relatively light.

And, the news for many of these companies isn’t good for either today or tomorrow:
Most of the ailing companies have filed for reorganization, not liquidation, under the bankruptcy laws, including the furniture chain Wickes, the housewares seller Fortunoff, Harvey Electronics and the catalog retailer Lillian Vernon. But, in a contrast with previous recessions, many are unlikely to emerge from bankruptcy, lawyers and industry experts said.

And, while bigger, older retailers aren’t in danger of bankruptcy, many, like J.C. Penney, are scaling back on expansion plans.

Hillary as standard-bearer for women fighting uphill against Obama

Amanda Fortini has an excellent article on Clinton and her role in leading a feminist resurgence in this month’s New Yorker.

First, Fortini does an excellent job of detailing how much sexism is still tolerated.

Take the “Iron my shirts” crack shouted at Clinton on the campaign trail. Fortini notes that USA Today talked about the “seemingly sexist” nature of the incident. If something similar of a racial nature had happened at an Obama rally, would it have been called “seemingly racist”? I doubt it.

And, speaking of that, we haven’t had any such incident at an Obama rally. Nobody has said “Fetch me some watermelon” at an Obama rally.

Whether racism or sexism is more pervasive, sexism is clearly still more publicly pervasive.

Later, Fortini wonders aloud whether or not Clinton should give a “gender address” similar to Obama’s “race address.”

Fortini notes that’s not Clinton’s style and it would probably backfire anyway.

I’ll add that it’s probably way too late, anyway. First, from a narrowly political view, it would have looked copycat following too closely on Obama’s. She needed to do it before that. Second, attitudes have hardened enough it just wouldn’t be that effective.

Finally, beyond the hollow victory of Clinton revitalizing feminism, you have the irony and more of her appearing to have gotten where she is on the coattails of her husband. Second, she is polarizing, and not just because she’s a woman, or because she’s Bill Clinton’s wife.

That said, it’s a double dose of hypocrisy in all the conservative attacks on her when no Republican woman has ever made a bid for the presidency.

Ten trillion here we come!

Yes, our national debt is about to hit the $10 trillion mark. Much of that, of course, is courtesy of two two-term Republican presidents, in large part due to the fact that neither Ronald Reagan nor George W. Bush met a military-industrial complex they didn’t like.

Jim Jubak explains what that, and other debt, mean for you.
That $9.4 trillion is just part of what we as a nation owe collectively. There's also the $700 billion trade deficit we ran up in 2007 as a result of importing more than we exported.

And then there's what we owe individually. Like the $950 billion in credit card debt we owed as of the end of March. And the $1.6 trillion in auto loans and other nonrevolving debt.

Face it: We live in a debt-addicted culture.

One day, the bill for all that debt will come due. That's a dead certainty. As sure as it is that the interest due on the federal debt will show up in the income tax you pay next year. And the year after.

We'll pay some of that bill directly, as formal taxes. And we'll pay some of it indirectly — maybe even so gradually we won't notice — as what I'd call informal taxes, such as lower living standards and a sinking U.S. dollar. But pay it we will.

Jubak then delivers on his promise to spend the rest of his column depressing the hell out of his readers.

First, credit card debt is up 20 percent in ground zero of the subprime crisis, Nevada, followed closely by 15 percent jumps in California and Florida. But, that probably won’t go far enough, especially with stagnant wages.

Second, when the “good times” come back, they won’t be as good as in the past, due to inflation, Jubak says.

Third, Congress simply can’t afford to index the Alternative Minimum Tax for inflation, let alone raise its bottom line.

Fourth, the government may look to new tax sources. Jubak says, hold on to your 401(k). And he’s not joking. There’s $4 trillion in IRAs, he says, a tempting target for changes in tax code.

Jubak promises a solution of sorts in his next column. He says it’s called “infrastructure.” Sounds good to me.

Meanwhile, the Street knows we haven’t turned the corner yet.

If you thought the subprime crisis was bad, get ready for prime time

Get ready for the prime crisis in California. That 10-year doldrums for the housing market could indeed happen, at least in the “Golden” State. Here’s what Mark Gimein says:
The crisis in California is going to get much worse, and there is no bailout that will solve it. Why? Because if the first stage of the foreclosure crisis was about people who could not afford their mortgages, the next stage will be about people who have every reason not even to try to pay their mortgages.

Gimein thinks that prime-mortgaged houses are going to tank so badly many people will start viewing them as walkaways. And, despite preachiness, they’re doing the right thing:
Over the next several months, we're going to be subjected to a chorus of hand-wringing about the moral turpitude of people who walk away from their mortgages and pronouncements like last month's warning from Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson that people should honor their mortgage obligations. The problem with finger-wagging on what you "should" or "ought" to do is that, when it comes to money, you're usually given the lecture only when it's in your interest to do the opposite.

And, yes, it’s that bad in La-La Land. Here’s asking prices on some foreclosures Gimein found:
• In San Bernardino, a house bought for $310,000 in 2005 is now being offered by the bank for $199,900.
• A 2,000-square-foot ranch house in Rancho Santa Margarita is down from $775,000 to $565,000.
• A starter home in Sacramento, sold for $215,000 in 2004, is now down to $129,900.

Now, what does this have to do with prime mortgages?

Gimein notes that many prime borrowers got the prime equivalent of a 2/28 and will also be facing resets. These loans, such as option ARMs, he says, normally hit reset points at about four and a half years. In other words, a lot of prime loans from 2003-04 will be resetting in the next year. And, with the housing drop in California, a lot of prime, as well as subprime, borrowers will be underwater. The average post-reset payment will be almost double the pre-reset amount, Gimein says.

And, California is ground zero for this.
Just two banks, Washington Mutual and Countrywide, wrote more than $300 billion worth of option ARMs in the three years from 2005 to 2007, concentrated in California. Others — IndyMac, Golden West (the creator of the option ARM, and now a part of Wachovia) — wrote many billions more. The really amazing thing is that the meltdown in California is already happening and virtually none of these loans have yet reset.

Gimein says that, looking at the current version of the subprime bailout plan wending its way through Congress, that if California prime housing prices drop 40-60 percent, there will be no way to craft a prime-option mortgage bailout plan that is even close to “fair” for both lenders and borrowers.

Gimein notes that, especially if you’re on an original mortgage and not a refi, you could be lucky:
The luckiest of those are the ones who used option ARMs to buy a house. For them, walking away is easy: Their loans are "nonrecourse," and the lenders can't go after them for more than the value of the house. The choice is harder for those who used the loans to refinance. The quirks of real-estate law regarding refi loans make it possible (though not necessarily easy) for lenders to try to get back more money even after taking the house.

Of course, a bunch of walkaways will depress the market even further, and incite more anger among people stuck with refis.

And that, my friends, is why Henry Paulson is wagging his finger at the bidding of his old financial sector buddies.

As for “killing” your credit rating by walking away? Gimein says we used to have the same fears over credit cards, and look at today. In other words, if somebody wants to sell you a house, they will.

So, walk away. And let the moral squabbling begin.

Peak Oil news – Russian production declines with an irony alert

Russian oil production declined, for the first quarter of this year, for the first time in a year. The WSJ quotes various sources, blaming various causes:
Industry watchers and Russian officials generally blame the country's production slowdown on a combination of weather and tight electricity supplies in some parts of the country. …

In an interview, Leonid Fedun, vice president of OAO Lukoil, one of Russia's biggest oil companies, said a mild winter and higher temperatures mean Siberia's icy ground is less stable, making it harder to move drilling rigs between oil wells.

How ironic that Big Oil would get hoist by the petard of global warming, especially since “former” Russian President Vladimir Putin once welcomed global warning. And, this should give MUCH more pause to the idea of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, certain to soon have similar conditions.

And, speaking of Peak Oil, take a look at the graph at the left. Russian output has been plateauing for more than a year. And, Russian oil industry watchers know it.
In a longer-term worry, they also point to aging Siberian fields that once fueled its production growth.

There’s the rub. Russian oil producers, obviously learning too much from the U.S., think more tax breaks are the answer. And, Moscow is obliging.
In an effort to kick-start investment, Russia's government recently unveiled a $4.2 billion tax cut for the sector. It was broadly welcomed in the industry. “It’s a very important point that the Russian government has realized that with cost growth and inflation, there needs to be additional relief for companies to develop fields,” said Bob Dudley, chief executive of TNK-BP, BP PLC’s Russian joint venture.

But, is it enough? Maybe not. Probably not.
Lukoil’s Fedun says Russia's oil industry needs $1 trillion of investment during the next 20 years just to maintain production of 10 million barrels a day. Analysts worry the tax cut is inadequate to achieve that. "We still do not see it generating enough free cash flow to the industry...to support higher investment levels," Citigroup said in its report.

If it’s true that production costs in Alberta’s oil sands are now up to $65/bbl, Russia probably needs massive infusions to get its fields up to snuff.

Remember, its original oilfields, some now in Azerbaijan, are more than 100 years old. That’s part of why I couldn’t believe all the hype about them in recent years.

Oh, and all of you, rein in your Petrobras enthusiasm. The Brazilian national oil company just denied a state oil regulatory agency’s “massive oilfield” claims. Interesting I found this news on the website for Xinhua, China’s national media company.

And, even there is major oil there, it’s beneath 23,000 feet or more of ocean water, sand and rock, and a massive salt dome. The second exploratory well in the area hasn’t even gotten to the salt dome yet, which has an estimated thickness of 6,500 feet.


Among other new board members? Donna J. Barrett, president and chief executive officer of Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. CHNI is the “Chainsaw Al” of small-town daily newspaper operations. They buy a newspaper, or small group thereof, and immediately attempt to recoup their money ASAP.

Oh, and all of you, rein in your Petrobras enthusiasm. The Brazilian national oil company just retracted its “massive oilfield” claims.

Just how overpaid is that overpaid CEO?

Now you can find out. The AFL-CIO’s Executive Paywatch website will probably get bookmarked by a lot of people.

Out of curiosity, the first company I clicked was Jack in the Box. CEO Linda Lang hauled more than $6 mil last year per AFL-CIO accounting methods. That’s a lot of Jumbo Jacks. For making baking soda, for doorknob’s sake, Church & Dwight (Arm & Hammer folks) CEO James Craigie scooped up nearly $4 mil. And, it would appear that Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope probably won’t wring enough out of his branding deal with Clorox. Its CEO, Donald Knauss, raked in more than $12 mil by AFL-CIO accounting.

Plus, the website has this fun little “shopping cart” button beneath each CEO’s pay. For example, for Knauss, on his salary, he could buy:
• Health insurance for 2,867 uninsured workers.
• Day care for one year for 1,861 working mothers.

Enough said, eh? Of course, I tried looking up some folks, like Dean Singleton at MediaNews, then remembered they run privately held companies.

Oh, well, at least for publicly traded companies, this is a great tool.

Bush tries bait-and-switch with carbon dioxide cap

The sliver of good news? Reportedly, for the first time, the Bush Administration is not reflexively nixing carbon dioxide emissions caps. Of course, there’s always a catch.

The first one, in this case, is that BushCo would limit carbon caps to electric power plants only.

The second catch is this was a political trial balloon floated in a meeting with the most anti-cap Republican conservatives in Congress.

The third cap, as admitted by Dana Perino, is this is an attempt to avoid Environmental Protection regulation of CO2, per a Supreme Court ruling last year that says it has the power to do so:
“We are dealing with what we call a regulatory train wreck.”

So, here’s what the White House is going to propose to avoid the “regulatory train wreck.”
It will soften up the conservatives enough to get them on board for something.

It will then propose a cap-and-trade bill limited to power plants only.

It will throw in a rider that specifically says CO2 is not a human health issue and therefore not under EPA purview.

It will make the cap looser, with a longer implementation time, than legislation already in the Senate.

When the smoke and mirrors are apparent, and resisted, Bush will blame “obstructionist Democrats.”

There, that wasn’t so hard, was it?

April 14, 2008

There goes the newspaper neighborhood

A lot of liberal bloggers may be wringing their hands about Rupert Murdoch being elected to the Associated Press board of directors, but as an ink-stained wretch/member of the Fourth Estate myself, I can tell them their concerns, while not necessarily overblown, are too narrow.

Among other new board members? Donna J. Barrett, president and chief executive officer of Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. CHNI is the “Chainsaw Al” of small-town daily newspaper operations. They buy a newspaper, or small group thereof, and immediately attempt to recoup their money ASAP.

Of course, Dean Singleton, already on the board, and his MediaNews, aren’t exactly a gem of newspaper ownership either. After all, it was Deano who asked Barack Obama if he planned to do more to fight Obama bin Laden. It may have been an accident, but I wouldn’t be so sure.

If you want to know more about Deano (disclosure – I worked at one of his papers in the late 1990s), all you need is the quote below from this NYT story:
“Mr. Singleton, 54, a bantam figure with flinty blue eyes, is indeed thought of as something of a magician in the newspaper world — having transformed himself from the son of a ranch hand in a tiny town in Texas to a media baron who now controls a newspaper empire that sprawls from coast to coast,” the Times adds. “He has, in a manner of speaking, sawed many of his competitors in half, only to have them hop off the table and become his partners.”

But, don’t underestimate him, says John McManus from San Jose State’s j-school:
“He aspires to be a mogul in the ranks of Pulitzer and the Hearst of old, and I think he's going to achieve it.”

Trust me, Rupert Murdoch isn’t really an “outlier” here.

Delta-Northwest merger – overall bad for consumers from where I sit

Between the Federal Aviation Administration crackdown on safety, airlines in general packing planes even tighter due to fuel costs, and the likelihood of a Continental-United Merger to follow on its heels, I’m pretty skeptical about the consumer value of the Delta-Northwest merger.

For example, in this deal, Delta claims it won’t close any hubs of either airline, but that’s doubtful. I have to think the Cincinnati hub will be downgraded to a semi-hub, if not written off. Ditto for Salt Lake City. Northwest has hubs in Minneapolis, Detroit Metro and Memphis.

Sorry, Delta-Plus, but ain’t no effing way you’re keeping hubs in both Memphis and Cincy. Just ain’t happening. One’s being eliminated entirely and the other’s being downgraded. My money is on Memphis getting the ax and Cincy being downgraded.

Detroit will also be downgraded, I think. Given that Toyota now makes more cars in the U.S. than Ford or Chrysler, and may catch GM within a decade, not to mention Nissan and Honda’s U.S. operations, the combined airlines have fewer reasons to have a hub in the former Motor City, not to mention it continuing to lose population like a sieve. BFD if the airport itself built a new terminal wing just a few years ago; that was stupid.

Atlanta is obviously safe. So, too, is JFK. If Detroit Metro is downgraded, than Minneapolis-St. Paul is safe. A western presence will keep Salt Lake City safe, too.

Of course, this may not get past government antitrust regulators, especially in the aforementioned safety environment. And, given already-expressed disgruntlement, you may see a Northwest pilots’ strike if there is a merger.
The Northwest pilots union said in a statement: “This agreement clearly disadvantages NWA pilots both with respect to economic issues and seniority list integration.

“The NWA MEC will use all resources available to aggressively oppose the merger.”

Beyond that, this page points out Delta’s lousy past history of developing hubs. Surrendering LAX to United? Surrendering D/FW (where I live, and I know the history), to American? Not smart.

Assume that a United-Continental merger also closes a hub or two. Why an unmerged United has hubs in both Los Angeles and San Francisco, especially with a third western hub in Denver, is nonsensical. David Grossman of USA Today recommends it look at scaling back at LAX and Denver, as well as Washington Dulles.

As for Continental, Houston would stay as a hub, given the airline’s strong Mexico, and Latin American, routes. Newark isn’t ideal, but I don’t think a combined United-Continental would give that up, especially if Dulles were killed as a hub.

Cleveland? For the same reasons as Detroit, it doesn’t make sense as a hub. Especially in a merged airline with a hub at O’Hare, it would get killed.

So, if the government approves both mergers, you’re going to have a lot fewer options flying out the Rust Belt or Mid-South, in all likelihood.

Israel gives Carter cold shoulder but no security

In what is being described as unprecendented, Israel’s Shin Bet is refusing to cooperate with former U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s Secret Service detail. Why?

Because he’s visiting Hamas leaders. The cold shoulder has gone so far as for Israel to lie and claim Carter never asked for any help from Shin Bet.

As for Hamas being committed to the destruction of Israel, well … not exactly, as M.J. Rosenberg notes:
Even Khaled Mashal, the Syria-based political chief of Hamas, said this week that “Palestinians have adopted a joint position regarding the establishment of a Palestinian state within the borders of 1967.” The Arab Initiative (the Saudi-sponsored plan endorsed by every Arab country) not only recognizes Israel’s right to the 78 percent of Palestine that is Israel but pledges full recognition and normalization of relations if Palestinians are permitted to establish a state in the other 22 percent.

I don’t think it gets much clearer than that. In case it doesn’t, Rosenberg explains that West Bank settlements by Israelis, with the concomitant checkpoints, etc., fragment what’s left of that “22 percent” into microparcels.

Obama and Clinton, like McCain, though, will continue to cut blank checks to Tel Aviv.

Buckle your seatbelt for a decade of fun

That’s the word from JPMorgan analysts, who say the current U.S. financial-sector problems will take a decade to shake out.
“We had the NASDAQ, we had LTCM, we had the various forms of emerging-market crises in the ’90s, we had the real estate crisis of 20 years ago: In most of these the direct impact on the behavior of the parties involved lasted more than 10 years,” Jan Loeys told Reuter. “It looks like it takes a generation for the memory to fade and for the same mistakes to be made again.”

Loeys expects financial sector regulation to increase. Obviously, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson disagrees with that need.

The question is, will the next president change that mindset, and how much? Also, assuming the European Union implements some real reform, will we find out in the next decade who’s the dog and who’s the tail on the world economy?

Meanwhile, Wachovica dropped $400 mil in the first quarter and the head of major reinsurer Gen Re, Joseph Brandon, resigned, reportedly under federal pressure.

This baby is not close to being over yet.

The American beatdown could hit $100 million

Earlier this week, American Airlines CEO Gerald Arpey said the cost of last week’s shutdown of its MD-80 fleet could run in the “tens of millions.”

Well, it looks like he was on the low side by a whole order of magnitude.
Mike Boyd, an airline consultant in Evergreen, Colo., predicts that direct costs to American will top $100 million, including lost ticket revenue, hotel rooms and food vouchers for stranded passengers, overtime pay for employees, and the additional cost of getting crew members to the right places.

Here are some of those costs:
American also was giving $500 travel vouchers to an unspecified number of inconvenienced passengers and putting some travelers up in hotels. There also could be transportation costs to and from hotels (and) extra overtime for employees.

Late last week, the stock for American parent AMR dipped below $10 a share. If Boyd is right, it’s not going anywhere north soon.

And, that’s not all. From the first link:
Boyd figures the airline stands to lose another $150 million in future bookings by travelers so angry that they either refuse to fly or choose other carriers.

Meanwhile, The Dallas Morning News is hypocritical enough to jump on the FAA’s back.

Chalmers Johnson agrees Repugs and Dems alike

Because of that, a new column he has in Good magazine is titled, “It’s Time to Flee the Country.” You Clintonistas talking about experience and Obamiacs touting The Politics of Change™, get over it. Chalmers, the author of “Blowback” and “Nemesis,” among other books, is blunt:
I see very little hope for America regardless of who is elected in November. All the candidates remaining in the race have said they will not “cut and run” in Iraq and Afghanistan. One may speculate that once in office, one or another candidate may be more flexible, but this is actually unlikely. The Republicans have swallowed both wars hook, line, and sinker, and the Democrats know that if they propose any sort of pullout they will be labeled “defeatists” and blamed for the miserable outcome.

He notes that in addition to the quasi-bipartisan moral bankruptcy on Iraq, there’s also our fiscal bankruptcy. That, too, he says, has a fair share of bipartisanship:
The Bush government talks about the burst housing bubble but says nothing about the obscene military budgets that are driving our entire economy deeper into debt. It will probably take a major financial crisis on par with the Great Depression to reorient our economy in a more productive direction. Unfortunately, I don’t hear any viable candidate talking like FDR.

Yes, Obama and Clinton, he’s talking about you, too, not McCain.

In another essay, he notes that, with the war in Iraq ongoing, we spend more than $1 trillion a year on alleged “defense spending.” And, yes, too many Democrats, even if they oppose, or quasi-oppose, the war in Iraq, will still support too much of that spending.

Now, that said, Johnson’s not saying that “unviable” candidates don’t have real ideas. But, Americans in general are too easy to get themselves suckered by vacuous promises, so “unviable” candidates don’t have a shot at becoming viable.

He then gets back to the title in his conclusion:
In short, I think our ship of state is heading for a mammoth iceberg. Just as many people in 1930s Germany were, I’m too old to leave and will probably go down with the ship. But if I were younger, I would be thinking of bailing out. Vote, if you must, in November, but don’t expect that things will change much, let alone get better.

I don’t “must,” except, possibly, for the Green candidate. I hear you, Chalmers.

And, I’ve applied for jobs in Canada. No luck so far.