Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Costs of Climate Change

Re: "Snow weighs heavily on municipal budgets," The Portland Press Herald, 02/26/2013.

Photo from the Portland Press Herald.

Maine communities would do well to start allocating more money for snow removal services. This year's record one-two-three punch of snowstorms in the last three weeks alone is no aberration. It is the new normal for winters in Maine and elsewhere.

As counter intuitive as it may seem, global warming is actually causing more snowstorms and blizzards. This is because warm air holds more moisture. While there has been less overall snowfall this year, there have been more--and more frequent--blizzards. These are the findings of a soon-to-be-released study by climate scientists.

Here's the thing about climate change: It's going to end up costing us a lot of money. And the longer we delay meaningful action to curb greenhouse gases, the more money it is going to end up costing us. I believe it is only when the tangible impacts of climate change begin to personally affect their wallets (in the form of higher taxes or greater costs for municipal services) that conservatives and climate change deniers will begin taking the threat seriously. (And by "taking the threat seriously," I mean acknowledging the threat exists.)

The fact that there is no mention of global warming in this article is further indicative of what I term the Great Disconnect that afflicts society. Meanwhile, pompous, ignorant blowhards like this guy, spew their idiocy all over the Internet.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Business Elite Shuffle


It's long past time to raise the minimum wage.

One of the goals President Barack Obama outlined in last week’s State of the Union address was a long overdue raise in the minimum wage. Obama proposed increasing the national minimum wage, which is currently an anemic $7.25 an hour, to $9.00.

While a measly $1.75 increase would hardly be sufficient for most working-class Americans, the renewed attention to the minimum wage the president generated is at least encouraging. The simple fact is American workers in low-skilled jobs are not getting paid what they are worth.

Of course, even if enacted, Obama’s proposed minimum wage hike would not take effect until 2015. And, as already noted, $9 an hour, even for an individual worker, is not nearly enough to make ends meet. According to The New York Times’ editorial staff, economic measures—such as “purchasing power, average wages and productivity gains”—dictate the minimum wage should be at least $10 an hour (“From the Bottom Up,” 02/18/2013).

As it is, candidate Obama campaigned on a minimum wage of $9.50 an hour in 2008. So the new goal of $9 an hour is low even by Obama’s standards.

A quick note regarding terms before moving on: 
A higher minimum wage should not be confused with a “living wage,” which is roughly defined as the hourly rate an individual must earn to support one’s family if that person is the “sole provider and is working full-time.” Unlike the fixed minimum wage, a living wage would vary from state to state, based on overall living costs. For example, a living wage for one adult and one child living in Portland, Maine, according to MIT’s online Living Wage Calculator, would be $22.50 an hour. It would be $26.99/hour for one adult and two children; $21.22 for two adults with two children; and $9.88 for one adult with no children. (The minimum wage in Maine is $7.50.)

Regardless of what kind of a wage we are talking about, the fact remains the United States has the lowest minimum wage of all the industrialized nations in the world. Australia, France and Ontario, Canada all pay their workers a higher minimum wage—and most of them also provide universal health care not tied to an employer to boot.
In fact, according to Nobel Prize-winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz in his recent book, The Price of Inequality (Norton, 2012), decades of diminished worker wages have prevented the minimum wage from keeping up with inflation. As a result, Stiglitz writes, “…the real federal minimum wage in the United States in 2011 is 15 percent lower than it was almost a third of a century ago, in 1980” (p. 242, italics his).

Predictably, penny-pinching business owners have already slammed Obama’s proposed minimum wage hike.
A story in The Portland Press Herald last week (“Maine critics say raising the minimum wage has risks,” 2/15/2013) quotes local “small business” owners who drag out the tired conservative argument that higher wages inevitably lead to higher unemployment.

“Opponents of Obama’s proposal say that raising the federal rate to $9 an hour would prevent employers from hiring more workers,” the story states. Staff writer Jessica Hall then goes on to quote Jake Wolterbeek, owner of Jake’s Seafood restaurant in Wells—a wealthy tourist town hardly representative of all of Maine—who bemoans the prospective of having to give his entire staff a raise if the wage-hike were enacted. Judging by the gridlocked traffic in Route One, Wells every summer, I am more than confident Mr. Wolterbeek can afford it.

Actually, the only thing “preventing” employers from hiring more workers would be a lack of business--i.e. demand for their product. Basic supply-and-demand economics suggests higher wages would mean workers have extra money to spend on luxuries (like eating out at Jake’s Seafood, for instance). That’s more money that would circulate in the economy, thus leading to greater overall consumer demand and, therefore, more jobs. (After all, consumers, through their purchasing power, are the true job-creators—not the wealthy as is often claimed.)

Furthermore, the argument that higher wages are a “job killer,” has been thoroughly debunked by a range of economic studies. According to the Times Op-Ed a Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago study concluded, “[A] $1 increase in the minimum wage results, on average, in $2,800 in new spending by affected households in the following year...”
Or, as NYT columnist, Paul Krugman writes in the same issue, “…the main effect of a rise in minimum wages is a rise in the incomes of hard-working but low-paid Americans—which is, of course, what we’re trying to accomplish” (“Raise That Wage,” 2/18/13).

Now, if Wolterbeek and the rest of the business elite are simply too cheap to pay their employees a decent wage that reflects their labors’ worth… well, that’s another thing entirely.

Growing up in Kennebunk (pre-Zumba-era), I had no trouble finding summer jobs at local restaurants. I remember making close to $9 an hour washing dishes and preparing desserts at the Arundel Wharf restaurant in Kennebunkport, a popular tourist stop. As a teenager, that was good money for CDs, rock concerts and filling the tank of my red Eagle Summit—my primary financial obligations at the time. Problem is, some 15 years, a college education and a devastating economic recession later, $9-$10 an hour is the starting pay for the few jobs currently offered. Such a wage was fine when I did not have a monthly rent, a college loan, a phone and electricity bill, and the like.

And those are just my individual expenses. I cannot fathom how families with two or three children make ends meet on such meager wages. I really can’t.

Again, even if enacted, Obama’s anemic increase would likely not make a significant difference in working-class Americans’ wages. But the important thing is the issue has been pushed back into the public dialogue. We need to ensure it stays there until lawmakers get the message: Workers are the backbone of our economy. We deserve to be paid what we are worth.
Watch Bill Moyers' excellent conversation with economist Richard Wolff, from the latest episode of Moyers & Company, below.

Monday, February 18, 2013

More Adventures in "Objectivity"

Re: "Obama Faces Risks in Pipeline Decision," The New York Times, 02/18/2013.

Photo from the New York Times.

This story is a prime example of how the corporate media routinely mislead the public by carefully obscuring the truth through the lens of journalistic "objectivity."

Based on the article's "he-said-she-said" structure, wherein every issue must have two unambiguously opposing sides, readers are left with the impression that President Obama opposes the construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. In fact, passages depicting Obama's possible support for the pipeline as a "betrayal" and a "contradiction of [his] promises...to make controlling climate change a top priority for his second term," in the eyes of environmental groups like the Sierra Club, lead one to believe the president actively campaigned against the proposed pipeline.

Unfortunately, neither could be further from the truth.

Quite the reverse, Obama praised the wonders of "clean" coal, natural gas, nuclear power and domestic oil drilling during last fall's presidential "debates."

Earlier, in last year's State of the Union address, Obama described his energy policy as an "all-out, all-of-the-above strategy that develops every available source of American energy." That strikes me as an "everything-on-the-table" position not all that far removed from the Republican soundbite-speak of, "Drill baby, drill!" Likewise, both recently departed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her replacement, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry have been vetted by pipeline corporation, TransCanada in support of the project.

Yes, Obama rather surprisingly delayed the decision on the Keystone pipeline last year. But he has never actively opposed the pipeline as the article implies.

And therein lies the genius of "objective" journalism: It allows the reporter to distort, or outright falsify the facts, without technically "lying" per se. By conveniently ignoring Obama's expressed support for the aforementioned dirty energy sources (coal, nuclear, gas, etc.), and by warning of his potentially "alienating" groups like Sierra Club that "overwhelmingly supported his candidacy," the story's authors (it took three reporters to write it, apparently) imply the president is in the environmentalists' camp and, therefore, firmly opposed to the Keystone project.

Sierra Club executive director, Michael Brune's comment expressing his confidence Obama will, in fact, oppose the TransCanada deal, further adds to the impression that he is against the pipeline.

I wish I shared Mr. Brune's confidence. Unfortunately, his blind faith strikes me as delusional as both it and this story, clash with the verifiable objectivity of reality.

For more on the issues of tar sands, the Keystone XL Pipeline, and Sunday's massive march in Washington D.C., I refer readers to the following links:

The Punk Patriot, "Tar Sands and Accountability."

Guerrilla Press: "The Threat in Our Own Backyard."

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Kill Switch Engaged

It's difficult to know which is more frightening: Obama's penchant for targeted assassinations, his codification of the imperial presidency, or the technocratic media's refusal to report war crimes as such.

Political bumper-stickers are funny things.
Drivers who adorn their vehicles with numerous stickers can sometimes inadvertently convey conflicting messages. For example, I often see vehicles with peace symbol stickers or phrases like, “No War with Iran!” next to “Obama/Bidden ’12.” If only there truly was a correlation between the former and the latter.

As I have noted many times on this blog, President Barack Obama is not the peacenik supporters and the corporate media constantly paint him as. Quite the reverse, Obama has lamentably proven himself more of a warmonger than George W. Bush—who once bragged to the late Tim Russert he is a “war president.” In fact, both overall Pentagon spending and our military’s global presence have increased under Obama. The U.S. allocates more money to military-spending than the rest of the world combined. Yet the president’s use of Dr. Martin Luther King’s bible for his second swearing-in, and bumper stickers like this one have successfully convinced liberals otherwise.

What is that quote again about truth being the first casualty of war…?

The release of the Obama administration’s “white paper” on the use of unmanned predator drones and targeted assassinations last week was not only a sad reminder of the president’s penchant for militarism, but also a frightening look at his continued expansion of unlawful executive powers. As the leaked White House legal memo makes clear, Obama asserts the authority to assassinate any person his administration deems a threat—including American citizens—anywhere in the world, without charge, trial or judicial oversight. This legal reasoning also applies to foreign reporters who are believed to have provided “material support” to terrorists.

And this policy is not merely theoretical. The White House carried it out with the killing of American-born al-Qaeda cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki in 2011, and his 16-year-old son a few months later.

CIA Director nominee and Bush-era torture proponent, John Brennan went to great lengths to defend the administration’s counterterrorism program during his confirmation hearings last week, assuring the Senate Intelligence Committee drones are only used as a “last resort.” Compare Brennan’s claim with a New York Times expose on Obama’s use of targeted killings from last year (5/29/2012) which stated of the administration’s capture-or-kill program, “the capture part is largely theoretical.”

Brennan’s playing-down of the number of innocent civilian bystanders accidentally killed in unmanned predator drone strikes is further challenged by the White House’s official policy of counting such deaths (referred to in the dehumanizing military jargon as “collateral damage”) outlined in the same NYT article. According to the story, the administration considers “all military-age males” in the general area of a strike zone to be enemy combatants—whether or not they actually are. This rationale conveniently lets the U.S. off the hook for any unintended civilian deaths because, according to top counterterrorism officials, anyone within the general proximity of a known al-Qaeda member is “probably up to no good.”
In Pakistan alone, U.S. drone strikes have killed close to 168 children in the last four years, according to the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism.  

(Incidentally, it should be noted the extent to which these confirmation hearings have become vacuous political theater. The only pressing questions on the program’s legality came from Code Pink protesters who frequently disrupted the hearing to call out the names of those killed. Senate Intelligence Chairwoman Diane Feinstein—a Democrat—eventually became fed-up with the protesters and barred them from the room, Max Baucus style. Pertinent legal, ethical and constitutional questions avoided, Brennan is all but assured of being confirmed.)

Barack Obama has, in effect, made himself—and potentially all presidents hereafter--judge, jury and executioner of the globe.

As Alan Maass writes for the current issue of The Socialist Worker (“The Empire’s New Clothes,” Feb. 2013),

We can leave it to the foreign policy establishment to debate whether the “Obama doctrine” is preferable to the “Bush doctrine” in safeguarding U.S. dominance against its rivals and challengers. But we can say for certain that this is Barack Obama’s goal—to prove that he’s a better manager of the U.S. empire than Bush and the neo-cons, not to find ways to make the world more peaceful and just.

If only the corporate media were as candid as Maass in their reporting. Instead, mainstream news coverage of Obama’s drone program has focused exclusively on congressional efforts to create a “legal framework” for the process. This is precisely how the Bush administration avoided legal repercussions for its blatant violation of the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) law with its now-legal warrantless wiretapping initiative. The goal here is the same: Retroactively legalize a criminal act after the law has been broken.

Maine Senator Angus King is one of those calling for a “quasi-judicial” review process for drone strikes. King told the Portland Press Herald this week he supports a “system in which an independent but secretive panel—likely made up of judges—would review White House proposals to use unmanned drone aircraft to kill U.S. citizens working abroad with terrorist groups” (“King: Check on president ‘is healthy’,” 2/11/2013).

“I think some independent check on the executive (branch) is healthy for our system,” King said. Yet, the Constitution already establishes an “independent check on the executive.” It’s called impeachment.

A few days earlier on MSNBC’s Morning Joe (2/08/2013), Sen. King praised the precision targeting capabilities of drones as being more technologically superior to earlier modes of warfare. He said:

To be honest, I believe drones are a lot more civilized than what we’ve used to do. You know, when Sherman shelled Atlanta or the Allies firebombed Dresden in World War II, it was all collateral damage. It was virtually all civilians… I think there’s just something creepy about drones that they can be controlled and people are uneasy about it. But if you put it in the context of a thousand years of war, I think it’s actually a more humane weapon because it can be targeted to a specific enemy.

Hey, don’t blame me. I voted for Dill.

Creating a judicial review process and other congressional policy to accommodate the counterterrorism measures obscures the fact that such targeted assassinations are already illegal, unconstitutional and morally dubious at best. It is further proof—for those who still need any—that the Democratic Party is not interested in upholding the Constitution.

Unless Obama’s drone program is halted entirely, it is all but certain to become cemented into place—another blow to our already crippled democracy.



Saturday, February 2, 2013

Permanent War: The New Opium of the Masses


I greeted last week’s news of the military’s ending its ban on women serving in combat roles—and the hollow, misguided claims of “victory” for gender-equity that followed—with the same mixed sentiments I felt when the equally discriminatory “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was revoked two years ago. “Instead of allowing more people to join the army,” I joked with friends, “I would prefer to see the exclusionary rules expanded to include men and heterosexuals—thus, preventing anyone from joining the military.”

OK, so maybe I was only half joking.

No doubt the military’s prohibition on women soldiers was sexist and outdated. Women who desire a career in the army should certainly be free to pursue one. But is the fact that women can now take part (and potentially die) in our dubious, illicit wars around the globe—not to mention the horrific instances of torture and barbarous acts of cruelty that have become such a pervasive part of our foreign policy—really something to celebrate?

Well-intentioned as they may be, the inclusion of gays and women in our imperial endeavors does not make them any less immoral. Change the face of war all you like—it is still war.

Then again, with President Barack Obama’s second term focus on gun-laws, immigration and the deficit over prospects of scaling back our military entanglements, or cutting the Pentagon’s bloated budget, Americans remain passively indifferent to our culture of permanent war. And there is currently no antiwar movement in sight to force a change of priorities.

Part of this apparent apathy is due to the fact progressives have fallen victim to what has arguably been the greatest propaganda feat of Obama’s administration: The fiction that the Iraq war is over. It’s not. Some 30,000 “non-combat” forces remain in Iraq to “maintain the peace” (a highly precarious, if not contradictory, effort based on that sentence alone). Hence my skepticism of Obama’s proposed troop withdrawal from Afghanistan by 2014, if not sooner.

Additionally, the U.S. is currently engaged in a number of covert conflicts (many of them utilizing unmanned predator drones) in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan. Filmmaker Richard Rowley and Nation reporter, Jeremy Scahill outline these clandestine activities in the newly released documentary film, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield.

Yet, according to the corporate media’s narrative, President Obama has ushered in a post-war-on-terror peace. Indeed, the Afghanistan war and the use of predator drones garnered little discussion during the presidential election. Outside of the lingering remnants of Occupy Wall Street, the antiwar left has virtually shut down under Obama. Little wonder Glen Ford, editor of the online Black Agenda Report describes Obama, not as the “lesser” evil, but the “more effective evil.”

George Orwell, in his dystopian prediction of a nation locked in permanent war, only got it half-right. Rather than a mass-scale World War III used to generate perpetual patriotism and national loyalty, we are instead fighting numerous “cold wars” on various fronts. The ultimate goal of citizen control, however, is largely the same.

“The war is waged by each ruling group against its own subjects,” Orwell wrote in 1984,”and the object of the war is not to make or prevent conquests of territory, but to keep the structure of society intact. The very word ‘war’ therefore, has become misleading. It would probably be accurate to say that, by becoming continuous, war has ceased to exist.”

War has become our new religion. Indeed, as membership in traditional religious faiths decreases, Americans remain intimately connected through the language and rituals of, in the words of Glenn Greenwald, “all things military.”

And I am not merely referring to conservatives. “Antiwar” liberals have increasingly proved themselves to be just as hawkish and militaristic when the president is a Democrat. Case in point was last summer’s Democratic National Convention, during which speaker after speaker praised the assassination of Osama bin Laden, which liberal convention-goers greeted with jubilant cheers and banal chants of “USA! USA!” And here you thought only Republicans spoke in such sports-arena sloganeering.

I don’t care how evil bin Laden was. Joyously celebrating the killing of any human being is just sick. Yet this is what happens to those infected by the childish, us-versus-them mentality of war. The language of war—like the iconography of advertising—replaces rational, complex thought with easy symbolism and irrational emotional appeals. Or, in the moronic words of NRA spokesman, Wayne LaPierre, “The only thing that stops a bad-guy with a gun, is a good-guy with a gun.” Such an infantile, yet chillingly pervasive, worldview is a direct product of a culture steeped in the language of war.

Those who voice even the mildest criticism of U.S. imperial hegemony are promptly subjected to scathing personal attacks—a lesson Secretary of Defense nominee, Chuck Hagel learned from his recent battering during his Senate confirmation hearing on Thursday. Hagel’s blasphemous offenses…? He had the audacity, back in 2007, to question the wisdom of the “surge” in Iraq. (And, incidentally, he was right to do so since it failed.) Hagel was also forced to defend his record accurately claiming the militant Israeli defense lobby AIPAC “intimidates a lot of people here [in Congress].”

Remind me again what Orwell said about truth-telling becoming a “revolutionary act” in a time of “universal deceit.”

Speak out against the military as Hagel has and you become a pariah. Now, in the interest of his own career advancement, Hagel is predictably walking-back his innocuous statements about the surge and Israel.

Changing the face of the U.S. military through well-intentioned--though misguided--efforts to include groups traditionally banned from military service has made war more palatable to liberals and those who would otherwise oppose military force. As long as the narrow press focus is kept exclusively on the army’s perceived diversity—and not, you know…who the soldiers are actually killing—Americans remain passive and ignorant of global U.S. atrocities.  

In the end, it is ultimately the poor, the disadvantaged and those without any other economic opportunities who enlist in the armed forces. No matter how open and inclusionary the army claims to have become, I guarantee you will not see the rich, the privileged, or the college educated flying off to Afghanistan, Pakistan or any of our other 700 or so military bases anytime soon.