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Archive for May 23rd, 2010

More on Libertarianism v. The Real World In Which We Live

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John Cole at Balloon Juice:

That piece from Matt Welch the other day is the gift that keeps on giving:

Instead, I’ll close with this: The “worldview” of libertarianism suggested, back in the early 1970s, that if you got the government out of the business of setting all airline ticket prices and composing all in-flight menus, then just maybe Americans who were not rich could soon enjoy air travel.

Frontline, this Tuesday:

Last February, Continental Flight 3407 crashed outside of Buffalo, N.Y., killing 49 people onboard and one on the ground. Although 3407 was painted in the colors of Continental Connection, it was actually operated by Colgan Air, a regional airline that flies routes under contract for US Airways, United and Continental. The crash and subsequent investigation revealed a little-known trend in the airline industry: Major airlines have outsourced more and more of their flights to obscure regional carriers.

Today, with regional airlines accounting for more than half of all scheduled domestic flights in the United States and responsible for the last six fatal commercial airline accidents, FRONTLINE producer Rick Young and correspondent Miles O’Brien investigate the safety issues associated with outsourcing in Flying Cheap.

“No doubt in our mind that when she’s buying this ticket, she’s buying a flight on Continental,” says Scott Maurer, who lost his daughter, Lorin, on 3407. “She believed she had Continental pilots and Continental safety and Continental service, but, you know, we know different today.”

An investigation of the crash by the National Transportation Safety Board was recently completed and identified pilot error as a major factor in the accident. But the investigation has also put the spotlight on operations of regional airlines like Colgan Air, where the first officer on 3407 had made less than $16,000 the previous year and the captain had failed five flight tests and received inadequate training on a critical safety system involved in the crash.

We’ll call it a moral victory for libertarianism.

Written by LeisureGuy

23 May 2010 at 4:41 pm

Wesley likely to fledge tonight

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It will probably be shortly after 8:00 p.m. PDT. People are going to start watching at 8:00, but actual fledge time probably 8:15 or so. Be there or be square.

Written by LeisureGuy

23 May 2010 at 4:29 pm

Posted in Daily life

More on the Social Security death panel

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Jane Hamsher at Firedoglake:

There’s a very important an article in the Neiman Watchdog this morning (Harvard’s journalism review, Deputy Editor Dan Froomkin). It’s written by Nancy Altman and Eric Kingson, entitled “Has Obama created a Social Security ‘death panel’?

Headlines like that are normally the reserve of DFH bloggers, so it’s notable that the academic world is talking about Obama’s Deficit Commission in that way. Even more notable are the article’s authors: Altman and Kingson both served on the Obama Campaign’s Retirement Security Advisory Committee, and then on the Advisory Committee to the Social Security Administration Transition Team.

Altman was on the faculty of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, has taught at the Harvard Law School, and was Alan Greenspan’s assistant when he chaired the commission that developed the 1983 Social Security amendments. She also served as a legislative assistant on Social Security issues to John Danforth, whose Danforth-Kerrey Commission was the predecessor to Obama’s commission. Kingson was also a staffer on the Greenspan Commission, and was Social Security Advisor to the Kerrey-Danforth Commission.

Alex Lawson has been livestreaming the closed door of the Catfood Commission on FDL.  They have refused to conduct their deliberations in public, but the committee is stacked with enough votes to cut benefits.  It takes 14 out of 18 votes to pass any recommendation on the committee, and there appear to be a sufficient number of votes to do so based on the past positions of individual members.  So Altman and Kingson raise important questions, but to my mind, none more important than these:

Q. Why is the Commission apparently working so closely with billionaire Peter G. Peterson, who served in the Nixon administration and who has a clear ideological agenda?

Q. Mr. Peterson has been on a decades-long crusade against Social Security. The day after the first meeting of the commission, which focused heavily on the need to cut Social Security, the co-chairs and two other members of the commission participated in a Peterson event that reinforced the same message. A Peterson-funded foundation is supplying commission staff. And Peterson’s foundation is funding America Speaks to develop a series of high-profile town halls across the country to host “a national discussion to find common ground on tough choices about our federal budget.” (For more background about Mr. Peterson, see William Greider in the Nation on Looting Social Security — Part 2.)

Note the buried lede:  Pete Peterson is supplying commission staff.

One important lesson I learned from the health care fight:  the health care industry had been laying the groundwork for this for years, and that should have been an early focus.   It wasn’t until the Gruber incident that I learned how the medical industrial complex had been working through foundations like Kaiser for over a decade to basically buy the academic underpinnings of their plan (and probably longer if you count the GOP/Heritage response to HillaryCare as its roots).  They ran a  nice back-and-forth between Congress, the White House, the CBO and Gruber to make it look he was supplying independent confirmation of the health care bill, when in fact it was all part of the same carefully orchestrated plan.  It bought them a lot of credibility that they otherwise would not have had in the academic world.

Pete Peterson has been serving the same function on Social Security that Kaiser and others did on health care. From the Concord Commission to the Peterson Foundation, cutting Social Security benefits and diverting as much money as possible into Wall Street’s coffers has been Peterson’s holy grail.  He himself was on the Danforth-Kerrey Commission, and was set to be the key note speaker at Obama’s first fiscal responsibility summit shortly after the inauguration.  After we reported it, the White House canceled him then denied he had been scheduled to speak, but Robert Kuttner subsequently confirmed it in the Washington Post.

The current budget deficit will be used to justify cuts to Social Security benefits, just as the surplus was used to justify cuts during the Clinton era.  As Steven Gillon said the other day when he was here talking about his book on the secret Clinton-Gingrich deal negotiated by Bowles to cut Social Security in the 90s, Bowles is running the same play.

Peterson plays a huge role in the world that shapes the thinking that drives the commission. Bill Clinton simply gushed about him at Peterson’s own recent fiscal summit.  As long as Peterson is allowed to hide in the shadows and pull the strings, the choices that the Commission will make will come from a very small menu.  Defense cuts will not be a factor.  They won’t be talking about the trillion dollars they could save over the next decade simply by expanding Medicare to cover businesses. They’re only going to ask the questions that drive them to the same answer:  cut Social Security.

It’s going to be important to tell the tale of Peterson’s inexorable march and diffuse the notion that the Commission is simply responding to temporal economic factors.  This is class war, pure and simple.  The rich against the poor. Hedge fund billionaires and defense contractors against senior citizens struggling to get by. Altman and Kingson have done us all a tremendous favor by opening up the discourse and asking important questions that need to be answered before the Commission makes its report on December.  That’s just in time to jam it through a lame duck Congress before the Christmas break, something both John Conyers and John Boehner have warned about — a repeat of what Bowles planned to do in the 90s.

Written by LeisureGuy

23 May 2010 at 2:34 pm

Congress’ 30-Day Deadline for Rubber-Stamping Exploration Plans

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Interesting. This explains why the EPA gives exemptions: Congress in effect required them to. Marcy Wheeler:

The other day, when Sheldon Whitehouse asked Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar why BP had gotten an exemption from the full-blown NEPA process from which it presumably should have been categorically excluded, Salazar referenced a 30-day deadline from Congress to approve exploration plans.

Senator, there has been significant environmental review, including Environmental Impact Statements that has been conducted with respect to this activity in the Gulf of Mexico. It is an area where we know a lot about the environment, we know a lot about the infrastructure that is there. The question of the categorical exclusion in part relates to the Congressional 30-day requirement that MMS has to approve or disapprove an exploration plan. [my emphasis]

Mineral Management Service Director Elizabeth Birnbaum elaborated on this 30-day deadline on Wednesday.

Under the National Environmental Policy Act we’re required to examine the environmental impacts of any major federal actions, certainly the oil and gas leasing is a major federal action. We have conducted many Environmental Impact Statements before we get to the point of an individual well drilling decision. We conduct an EIS on the full 5-Year Plan for oil and gas drilling, We have conducted EIS on the lease sales in the Gulf and then separately in Alaska. We also conducted some separate Environmental Impact Reviews on leasing in the particular area–drilling in the particular area in the Mississippi Canyon here in the Gulf. When we get to the point of deciding on an individual exploration plan for a particular permit, we are under a statutory obligation under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to make a decision within 30 days. That very much limits our ability to conduct environmental reviews. Many of our environmental reviews are categorical exclusions. We review that to determine whether there’s a trigger for us to do a full Environmental Assessment, which we did actually on exploration plans for Arctic drilling. But we’re still limited to that 30-day decision, and we have to still make a decision on whether to go forward with an exploration plan within 30 days, which limits the amount of environmental review we can conduct. In the package that the Administration sent up to provide additional appropriations, we also asked to lift that limit in the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to allow 90 days or more to provide more full analysis of exploration plans before drilling.

Here’s a history of the OCSLA. The 30-day requirement itself is described in the plan approval process of the OCSLA.

(1) Except as otherwise provided in this subchapter, prior to commencing exploration pursuant to any oil and gas lease issued or maintained under this subchapter, the holder thereof shall submit an exploration plan to the Secretary for approval. Such plan may apply to more than one lease held by a lessee in any one region of the outer Continental Shelf, or by a group of lessees acting under a unitization, pooling, or drilling agreement, and shall be approved by the Secretary if he finds that such plan is consistent with the provisions of this subchapter, regulations prescribed under this subchapter, including regulations prescribed by the Secretary pursuant to paragraph (8) of section 1334 (a) of this title, and the provisions of such lease. The Secretary shall require such modifications of such plan as are necessary to achieve such consistency. The Secretary shall approve such plan, as submitted or modified, within thirty days of its submission, except that the Secretary shall disapprove such plan if he determines that

(A) any proposed activity under such plan would result in any condition described in section 1334 (a)(2)(A)(i) of this title, and

(B) such proposed activity cannot be modified to avoid such condition. If the Secretary disapproves a plan under the preceding sentence, he may, subject to section 1334 (a)(2)(B) of this title, cancel such lease and the lessee shall be entitled to compensation in accordance with the regulations prescribed under section 1334 (a)(2)(C)(i) or (ii) of this title. [my emphasis]

And that sets the standard for rejecting an application in 1334 (a)(2)(A)(i) this way:

(i) continued activity pursuant to such lease or permit would probably cause serious harm or damage to life (including fish and other aquatic life), to property, to any mineral (in areas leased or not leased), to the national security or defense, or to the marine, coastal, or human environment;

Now, I would have to do a lot more review of legislative history of the OCSLA to see where that 30-day deadline came from, though so many of the deadlines in the OCSLA are set at 30 days, it might just have been arbitrary (or, it might have been what appeared to be a reasonable deadline to make sure the process kept moving forward—you gotta Drill Baby Drill, dontcha know).

But given Salazar’s and Birnbaum’s statements, the effect appears to be clear. That 30-day deadline appears to ensure that the MMS only looks closely at these exploration plans if there’s a blinking red flag in the plan, and not something trivial like drilling in extremely deep waters and/or innovative drilling plans—the things Whitehouse noted that should have prevented this exploration plan from being exempted from an individual assessment, the things that are causing such acute problems now.

And of course, to actually change this 30-day rubber stamp process, the legislation is going to have to get by industry shills like Lisa Murkowski and James Inhofe. Something to look forward to, I guess.

Oh, one more thing. The Congressman who raised concerns about the Arctic drilling? That’s the normally loathsome Heath Shuler. Just an indication of how a giant disaster can turn even the bluest of dogs into hippie environmentalists.

Written by LeisureGuy

23 May 2010 at 2:26 pm

Human Rights Watch enters the Israel argument

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Andrew Sullivan:

Goldblog and Beinart go another round. Peter defends HRW:

I recognize that Human Rights Watch may make mistakes. But it has done reports on Palestinian human rights abuses and lots of them (many more than on Israel) on human rights issues in the Arab world. Groups like AIPAC, which ONLY criticize Israel’s neighbors and never criticize Israel, are in a particularly bad position to charge one-sidedness, it seems to me. And the argument that Human Rights Watch should not investigate Israel because it is a democracy doesn’t make sense. I have no problem with them investigating torture in the United States–I’m glad they did. What’s more, and this is so obvious that it’s often ignored, Israel is NOT a democracy in the West Bank, which is where a lot of the abuses occur.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, while not perfect, are the most reputable human rights organizations in the world precisely because they piss off so many governments of all ideological stripes. They’re in that business. People who try to discredit them in what they believe is Israel’s interest do two very damaging things. First, they undermine the other work they do. If Human Rights Watch gives an exception to Israel, it will be much more likely to fold on say, Kashmir, another territory occupied by a democracy where there are big human rights problems. Second, as I said in the piece, if you convince Human Rights Watch to stop criticizing Israel you dramatically undermine Israeli human rights organizations that often do parallel work, which, of course, is exactly what Netanyahu wants. His vice-prime minister is on record, after all, as calling Peace Now a "virus."

Written by LeisureGuy

23 May 2010 at 2:24 pm

Intellectual consistency can be overrated

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Michael Tomasky in the Guardian:

When we write about libertarianism, most liberals feel compelled to say something like, you know, I disagree with that viewpoint, but I respect that it’s principled and intellectually consistent.

I say balderdookey. Libertarianism is kookoo. There can be no such thing as a basically stateless society (except for national defense and barest administration of law, I think are the exceptions they typically allow for). It’s just ridiculous. Civil society would collapse without the state.

I’ve written this before, a few months ago. Conservatives, and libertarians, seem to think that we have regulations in this society because we have a bunch of underemployed pencil pushers sitting around dreaming up ways to make small business people’s lives miserable.

It’s ridiculous. We have regulations because throughout history people in various pursuits did really sleazy and unethical things. They swindled investors, they dumped toxins into bodies of water, they made children work long hours for slave wages. Et cetera. And so laws were passed and regulations were written.

And unfortunately such is man’s endless capacity for sleaze and unethicality that this process will never end: as technology presents new ways to be sleazy, we’ll always need to invent new ways to prevent sleaze from happening.

Yes, fine. Some regulations are onerous. Liberals should always be sensitive to legitimate concerns along these lines.

But you need a state. Time and history have proven no one else will perform these tasks.

So there’s nothing in the least intellectually respectable about libertarianism. Intellectually consistent? Great. So was Goebbels. That doesn’t mean much to me.

We all support a few libertarian-ish principles; we all agree that the state should have some limits. For example, I think it’s perfectly fine for the state to make fast-food joints post nutrition information. But I would oppose the state having the right to ban the Quarter Pounder. So we all get that kind of thing.

But big-L Libertarianism is vapid. I hope in the next few months it is properly exposed as such.

Libertarianism has never made any sense at all in human terms, but it can be argued consistently in the kind of shallow arguments typically encountered in dorm-room discussions early in the first semester of college. But anyone who has any experience in the world—and any knowledge of history—knows that Libertarianism is a big vacuum.

Governments do make bad laws (prohibition of alcohol is an example in our own history), but common sense experience and an analysis of the outcomes can correct those mistakes (as we did for alcohol prohibition and, one hopes, will soon do for cannabis prohibition).

But the government’s making mistakes sometimes doesn’t mean we don’t need governments—just as businesses make mistakes, but no one is saying that we don’t need businesses. (We do need to watch them—and our government—like hawks, though: power is addictive, and those who have it will try to get more. That’s why transparency is so important.)

Written by LeisureGuy

23 May 2010 at 2:21 pm

Posted in Daily life, Government

Has Obama created a Social Security ‘death panel’?

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Nancy Altman and Eric Kingson at Nieman Watchdog:

President Obama and the leadership in Congress have delegated enormous, unaccountable authority to 18 unrepresentative, inordinately wealthy individuals. The 18 individuals are meeting regularly, in secret, behind closed doors, until safely beyond this year’s mid-term election. If they reach agreement, their proposal will be voted on in December by a lame duck Congress, without the benefit of open hearings and deliberations in the pertinent committees and without the opportunity for open debate and amendment on the floors of the House and Senate. Despite the speed and lack of accountability, the legislation will affect, in substantial ways, every man, woman, and child in this nation.

Who are these powerful people and what are their views?

They are the members of President Obama’s newly-formed National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. They lack racial and gender diversity, and more importantly, they lack diversity of opinion. Their mantra is that “everything is on the table,” but their one member who has any expertise with respect to defense spending, for instance, is the CEO of a major defense contractor that devotes millions of dollars each year to lobby Congress for more defense spending.

“Everything is on the table,” they say, but the members appointed by the minority leaders in the House and Senate have made clear that they do not believe that the problems in this country stem from under-taxing, rather from overspending. The one area that they seem to be in agreement on — and which they are in fact, focusing on like a laser — involves programs that help the middle class and those Americans who are the most vulnerable. Even liberal Senator Richard Durbin has stated, “the bleeding-heart liberals… have to…make real sacrifices to strengthen our nation.”

The co-chairs, in particular, seem to have a clear agenda. Even before the commission held its first meeting, Erskine Bowles went on record before the North Carolina Bankers’ Association saying that if the Commission doesn’t "mess with Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security … America is going to be a second-rate power" in his lifetime. (And he is already 64!) Alan Simpson, known for giving ugly voice to harsh, ageist stereotypes, described the future of the fiscal commission: "It’ll be a bloodbath. Let me tell you, everything that Bush and Clinton or Obama have suggested with regard to Social Security doesn’t affect anyone over 60, and who are the people howling and bitching the most? The people over 60. This makes no sense. You’ve got to scrub out [of] the equation the AARP, the Committee for the Preservation of Social Security and Medicare, the Gray Panthers, the Pink Panther, the whatever. Those people are lying… [They] don’t care a whit about their grandchildren…not a whit." (For more about Alan Simpson, see Trudy Lieberman in CRJ: More Words of Wisdom from Alan Simpson.)

We write to raise questions and encourage press inquiry now, before the commission reports, at which point its recommendations could be on track and moving fast. Here are a few angles to explore:

Q. Have the members of the Commission made up their minds, at least with respect to the broad outlines, making the whole exercise simply an effort by elected officials to escape political accountability?

Q. Why is the Commission apparently working so closely with billionaire Peter G. Peterson, who served in the Nixon administration and who has a clear ideological agenda?

Q. Mr. Peterson has been on a decades-long crusade against Social Security. The day after the first meeting of the commission, which focused heavily on the need to cut Social Security, the co-chairs and two other members of the commission participated in a Peterson event that reinforced the same message. A Peterson-funded foundation is supplying commission staff. And Peterson’s foundation is funding America Speaks to develop a series of high-profile town halls across the country to host “a national discussion to find common ground on tough choices about our federal budget.” (For more background about Mr. Peterson, see William Greider in the Nation on Looting Social Security — Part 2.)

Q. Why the urgent focus on Social Security? In the past, Social Security has always been considered under the normal legislative process, with the opportunity for full amendments. According to the program’s actuaries, it is able to pay all benefits in full and on time for over a quarter of a century. Even its most diehard critics, who try mightily to convince the rest of us that the program is in crisis, can’t mount an argument that there is a problem for another five years or so. So what is the rush? What is the need for such an unaccountable, fast-tracked process when one has never been needed before? Why, in spite of the evidence that Social Security is working as intended and that there is growing need for the kind of broad and reliable protection provided under the program, is it being singled out by Bowles and Simpson and seemingly by the White House for a major trimming?

Q. The American public has stated in a number of polls that they prefer to increase the program’s revenue, even if it means them paying more, rather than reducing the benefits that are so vital to almost all its beneficiaries. (See, for example, this May 2005 Gallup Poll.) So why does the commission seem so determined to ignore the views of the American people, and insist that there must be benefit cuts?

Q. The members of the commission wrap themselves in the mantle of their children and grandchildren. Alan Simpson routinely says that he is a stalking horse for his grandchildren. This is good, but what about everyone else’s grandchildren? Especially those lacking privileged backgrounds; those more likely to need strong retirement, disability and survivorship protections as they grow and raise their own families and hopefully eventually reach retirement age? If these commissioners’ focus is on all grandchildren, shouldn’t they be more focused on investments today to ensure that their parents have good-paying jobs and that they can receive a first rate education? Why do they seem so intent on cutting the benefits of that future generation? As Simpson himself has made clear, he intends to spare today’s elderly, which means it is the benefits of the next generation which will be cut.

Q. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, are there efforts to buy off the press? Just in time for this commission, Mr. Peterson, not content to buy access, has now used his fortune to establish his own news service, so the story gets reported his way. The Fiscal Times is likely to be active in reporting about the commission. Given that Mr. Peterson’s son, Michael, has the power to hire and fire the two top editors, will its reporting be objective? Its first effort did not inspire confidence. (See Trudy Leiberman’s Dust up at the Washington Post and Richard Perez-Pena’s Sourcing of Article Awkward for Paper.)

At a time when the nation has near double-digit unemployment, when many responsible economists believe we could, without additional federal spending, experience a deeper recession, it is imperative for the press to ask the hard questions. Our elected officials should not be given a pass on an austerity approach that could have serious, long-ranging implications for all Americans, and particularly those most vulnerable. They have no one to protect them but an open, inquiring press.

Nancy Altman is author of The Battle for Social Security and co-director of Social Security Works.
E-mail: njalt@aol.com

Eric Kingson is a professor of social work at Syracuse University and co-director of Social Security Works.
E-mail: erkingso@syr.edu

I would not be surprised at all if Obama attempted to dismantle the Social Security system. And you’ll note that he is maintaining his usual "transparency"—the word means one thing when campaigning, but switched to its antonym once he took office.

Written by LeisureGuy

23 May 2010 at 2:14 pm

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