Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for April 5th, 2012

Thanks to the GOP Congress, the nation continues its decline: We can’t even repair roads anymore.

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The US was once a great “can-do” nation. Those days are past, thanks specifically to the GOP and its “strategy” of simply opposing ALL action except tax cuts for the wealthy and program cuts for the poor. The highway issue is completely GOP created. David Lightman reports in McClatchy:

Providing money for highways and infrastructure historically has been one of Congress’ easiest tasks. After all, it gives every lawmaker a chance to go home, stand in front of a bumpy highway and explain how he or she is making life better.

Not anymore.

When Congress returns to Washington in mid-April after a spring recess, it plans to resume one of the fiercest and most consequential battles of this year: funding highways and infrastructure.

The Senate and House of Representatives are engaged in the kind of ugly impasse that’s grown common in recent years. They’re engaged in what Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., called “infrastructure chicken.”

Historically, Congress authorized road and infrastructure programs for several years at a time. Transportation planners could look ahead, set priorities and line up contractors. The last such comprehensive measure passed with strong bipartisan support in 2005. It expired four years later.

Since then, as bitter partisanship has become the legislative norm, Congress has been unable to craft a long-term plan. Short-term extensions have become routine. The latest expired March 31.

The Senate approved a two-year, $109 billion plan in mid-March with a strong bipartisan vote, but in the House, conservatives balked. As a result, Congress approved a last-minute 90-day extension, setting up a fresh fight that’s likely to rage until the next deadline, June 30.

Back home, state transportation officials — already whipsawed by years of this gamesmanship — are watching nervously.

Transportation for America, a coalition of state and local agencies and interest groups, finds that the short-term extensions — and the unpredictability of the legislative process — is having an effect on projects. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

5 April 2012 at 5:11 pm

Good Australian ideas that the US cannot duplicate

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The US has lost much of its “can-do” attitude and now we accept that there are excellent ideas that cannot be implemented in the US simply because of inertia and resistance to ideas. James Fallows lists quite a few excellent ideas he saw in Australia that the US is incapable of implementing.

Written by LeisureGuy

5 April 2012 at 4:26 pm

Posted in Daily life

The law may not be an ass, but Justice Scalia certainly is.

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Andrea Louise Campbell writes in the NY Times:

ON the second day of oral arguments over the Affordable Care Act, Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr., trying to explain what sets health care apart, told the Supreme Court, “This is a market in which you may be healthy one day and you may be a very unhealthy participant in that market the next day.” Justice Antonin Scalia subsequently expressed skepticism about forcing the young to buy insurance: “When they think they have a substantial risk of incurring high medical bills, they’ll buy insurance, like the rest of us.”

May the justices please meet my sister-in-law. On Feb. 8, she was a healthy 32-year-old, who was seven and a half months pregnant with her first baby. On Feb. 9, she was a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the chest down by a car accident that damaged her spine. Miraculously, the baby, born by emergency C-section, is healthy.

Were the Obama health care reforms already in place, my brother and sister-in-law’s situation — insurance-wise and financially — would be far less dire. My brother’s small employer — he is the manager of a metal-fabrication shop — does not offer health insurance, which was too expensive for them to buy on their own. Fortunately, my sister-in-law had enrolled in the Access for Infants and Mothers program, California’s insurance plan for middle-income pregnant women. AIM coverage extends 60 days postpartum and paid for her stay in intensive care and early rehabilitation.

But when the 60 days is up next week, the family will fall through the welfare medicine rabbit hole. As a scholar of social policy at M.I.T., I teach students how the system works. Now I am learning, in real time.

For health coverage, the baby fares best. He is insured through . . .

Continue reading. The conclusion is heartbreaking:

. . . Their best hope is the survival of the Obama reform. Perhaps my brother can get a job that offers health insurance for the family, but without the reform’s protections, like the prohibition on denying coverage for pre-existing conditions, removal of annual and lifetime insurance caps, and reinsurance for large claims, there is no guarantee that they could obtain insurance. More likely, they would buy insurance on a health exchange. Here in Massachusetts, where such an exchange is in place, they could have purchased a plan with an affordable premium (at their income level, the monthly premiums range from $39 to $91 per adult). And these money and insurance issues would not have added to the other stresses in their profoundly changed lives.

Instead, their financial future is shattered. Family and friends are raising money to buy a wheelchair van and to renovate their home for accessibility. The generosity of the local community is stunning. One incident in particular struck me to the core. A woman from a small community nearby had something for us. A cancer survivor, she had decided to “give back” by placing donation cans in stores around town. She had finished her drive and consolidated the money. The small coffee can she handed over to me and my sister-in-law had a slit in the lid and was decorated with pink felt and ribbons, now a little smudged from handling. Inside were several hundred dollars in small bills. We burst into tears. This is social policy in the richest nation in the history of the world.

Written by LeisureGuy

5 April 2012 at 10:06 am

Thinking of starting a garden? Try these apps.

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Good way to start gardening—and it’s the season!

Written by LeisureGuy

5 April 2012 at 10:04 am

Posted in Daily life, Technology

How to handle governments that oppose their citizens

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The US is rapidly developing a government that fights against its citizens—the posts just blogged on the Obama/Holder betrayal of reassurances and promises to allow medical marijuana in accordance with state laws is an example, as is the government’s careful protection of the finance industry’s rape of the American public (including throwing people out of their own homes). Take a look at Chile, whose government is having to deal with a populace that’s fed up with the kind of government the US seems to be developing, in which the wealthy own the government and use it for their own purposes. The report is by Francisco Goldman in the NY Times:

The hotel had a musty, Pinochet-era atmosphere — dark bar, heavy furniture, bartenders in white shirts and black ties — and drew mostly businessmen. But when the bartenders found out that my friends and I were going to the student march, they cut lemons for us and put them into plastic bags with salt. In case of tear gas, you were supposed to bite into the lemons to lessen the effect. With guarded smiles, they let us know they supported the Chilean student movement and especially its most prominent leader, Camila Vallejo. A bartender said, “La Camila es valiente”; he laughed and added, “Está bien buena la mina” — “She’s hot.”

Camila Vallejo, the 23-year-old president of the University of Chile student federation (FECH), a Botticelli beauty who wears a silver nose ring and studies geography, was the most prominent leader of a student protest movement that had paralyzed the country and shattered Chile’s image as Latin America’s greatest political and economic success story. The march that Thursday afternoon in November would be the 42nd since June.

In what became known as the Chilean Winter, students at university campuses and high schools across the country organized strikes, boycotted classes and occupied buildings. The protests were the largest since the last days of the 17-year dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who in a 1973 military coup overthrew Latin America’s first democratically elected Marxist president, Salvador Allende. The students’ grievances echoed, somewhat, those of their counterparts across the Mideast or in Zuccotti Park. Chile might have the highest per capita income in the region, but in terms of distribution of wealth, it ranks as one of the most unequal countries in the world. A university education in Chile is proportionally the world’s most expensive: $3,400 a year in a country where the average annual salary is about $8,500.

Sebastián Piñera’s right-wing government was plunged into perpetual crisis. The Harvard-educated Piñera, founder of Chile’s major credit card, Bancard, and Chile’s first president since Pinochet to come from the right, promised to govern Chile and its economy in a new way — as a businessman whose billions didn’t come from mining or manufacturing but from investments. The student movement exposed the Piñera Way as business as usual — if public education was virtually abolished under Pinochet in the ’80s, his successors had done nothing to bring it back.

Just 40 percent of Chilean children receive a free secondary-school education, in underfinanced public schools; the rest attend partly subsidized charter or private schools. To finance their university educations, most students take out bank loans, which saddle them and their families with years of debt. Piñera defended Chile’s educational system by calling education “a consumer good.” Vallejo countered, saying that education was a fundamental right and that “for more than 30 years,” entrepreneurs had “speculated and grown wealthy off the dreams and expectations of thousands of young people and Chilean families.” By September, Piñera’s popularity ratings, so robust after the rescue of the Chilean miners in October 2010, had sunk to 22 percent, the lowest of any Chilean president in modern history, while the student movement’s national approval rating stood at 72 percent.

I had heard a lot about the joyful, carnival madness of the marches: hundreds of thousands of people roiling the streets of Santiago, with bands and costumes and colorful signs and floats and shouts. When a freezing rain fell on the day of a scheduled demonstration, protesters filled the streets in what became known as the March of the Umbrellas. Whimsical “happenings” and flash-mob actions drew international attention. There was the Kiss-In, when students made out for 1,800 seconds (30 minutes) in front of La Moneda, the presidential palace, to publicize the $1.8 billion it would supposedly cost to finance public education — and the 1,800 laps students jogged around the building, in round-the-clock relays; the protest where people dressed as zombies and danced to “Thriller”; the cacerolazos, tweet-ignited outbreaks of people banging on pots and pans, raising a swarming metallic-insect racket.

This march began at 6:30 p.m. in the Plaza Italia and proceeded through Bustamante Park. It was relatively small (official estimates were 7,000 people; unofficial 15,000) but still formidable. Horseback-mounted carabineros in olive green uniforms stood stiffly in a line at the edge of the plaza. Armored water cannons and troop carriers with wire-mesh windows were parked nearby. The protesters hoisted banners imprinted with the names of their schools; small marching bands and floats carried guitar players and drummers. Most marchers were students, but I saw people of all generations. I hoped to catch a glimpse of Vallejo, but she was nowhere in sight. Street dogs always ran in front of the big marches, my friend the writer-journalist Rafael Gumucio told me, and, right behind, came the student leaders, Vallejo protected by a barrier of young bodyguards, as rowdy secondary-school marchers shouted, “Have my baby!” and “Friend me on Facebook!”

The atmosphere was relaxed and cheerful, as if we were headed to a picnic on a beautiful summer evening. Shirtless adolescents leaned out of the windows of an occupied high school, shouting and pumping their arms. As another group unplugged the cable of a TV camera crew, my friend Patricio Fernández, known as Pato, the founder of an alternative weekly called The Clinic, shouted for calm. But even a march as seemingly peaceful as this one, I’d been told, would very likely turn violent. Hoping to erode popular support for the students, government spokesmen and conservative media portrayed the protesters as lawless radicals. Most notorious among them were the encapuchados, who wore scarves around their faces and hurled rocks and Molotov cocktails at the police. Students insisted that most encapuchados were from outside the movement and that at least some were infiltrators, planted to incite police counterattacks.

At the end of the march, about a dozen encapuchados appeared as if on cue, dancing into the streets with adolescent grace, hurling rocks and bottles at the row of armoredcarabineros with riot shields who stood waiting at the end of a long street. People began getting out their lemons. A pretty girl in a dress sat on the curb, red scarf held over her mouth and nose. Nobody seemed too worried. (The marches frequently end with arrests and students hospitalized, but so far there has been only one fatality, a 16-year-old boy killed by a policeman’s bullet.) An armored truck spraying water from mounted cannons — called a guanaco, for the llamalike Andean animal that spits — rolled toward theencapuchados. Pato and I pulled back into the park, where thousands of marchers milled peacefully amid the trees. The jeeps, called zorrillos, skunks, began wafting tear gas into the park. The crowd surged in the opposite direction, where another guanacocame rolling toward us, and I looked up into the impassive face of a helmeted policeman as he doused us with his cannon. People panicked, trying to huddle under trees, slipping in the muddy turf. Pato and I charged south into another guanaco. We were, thousands of us, trapped, in a guanaco pincer movement. I was drenched, my body and eyes burned, and I couldn’t catch my breath. I sprinted and slipped, tried to get up, fell again. I had a bloody gash on my forearm. I got up and ran to the right. Armored carabineros charged into the crowd, swinging their clubs. I heard screams behind me as I ran. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

5 April 2012 at 9:41 am

North America becomes Saudi Arabia?

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Interesting column at TomDispatch by Michael Klare:

The “curse” of oil wealth is a well-known phenomenon in Third World petro-states where millions of lives are wasted in poverty and the environment is ravaged, while tiny elites rake in the energy dollars and corruption rules the land.  Recently, North America has been repeatedly hailed as the planet’s twenty-first-century “new Saudi Arabia” for “tough energy” — deep-sea oil, Canadian tar sands, and fracked oil and natural gas.  But here’s a question no one considers: Will the oil curse become as familiar on this continent in the wake of a new American energy rush as it is in Africa and elsewhere?  Will North America, that is, become not just the next boom continent for energy bonanzas, but a new energy Third World?

Once upon a time, the giant U.S. oil companies — Chevron, Exxon, Mobil, and Texaco — got their start in North America, launching an oil boom that lasted a century and made the U.S. the planet’s dominant energy producer.  But most of those companies have long since turned elsewhere for new sources of oil.

Eager to escape ever-stronger environmental restrictions and dying oil fields at home, the energy giants were naturally drawn to the economically and environmentally wide-open producing areas of the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America — the Third World — where oil deposits were plentiful, governments compliant, and environmental regulations few or nonexistent.

Here, then, is the energy surprise of the twenty-first century: with operating conditions growing increasingly difficult in the global South, the major firms are now flocking back to North America. To exploit previously neglected reserves on this continent, however, Big Oil will have to overcome a host of regulatory and environmental obstacles.  It will, in other words, have to use its version of deep-pocket persuasion to convert the United States into the functional equivalent of a Third World petro-state.

Knowledgeable observers are already noting the first telltale signs of the oil industry’s “Third-Worldification” of the United States.  Wilderness areas from which the oil companies were once barred are being opened to energy exploitation and other restraints on invasive drilling operations are being dismantled.  Expectations are that, in the wake of the 2012 election season, environmental regulations will be rolled back even further and other protected areas made available for development.  In the process, as has so often been the case with Third World petro-states, the rights and wellbeing of local citizens will be trampled underfoot.

Welcome to the Third World of Energy

Up until 1950, the United States was the world’s leading oil producer, the Saudi Arabia of its day. In that year, the U.S. produced approximately 270 million metric tons of oil, or about 55% of the world’s entire output. But with a postwar recovery then in full swing, the world needed a lot more energy while America’s most accessible oil fields — though still capable of growth — were approaching their maximum sustainable production levels.  Net U.S. crude oil output reached a peak of about 9.2 million barrels per day in 1970 and then went into decline (until very recently).

This prompted the giant oil firms, which had already developed significant footholds in Indonesia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela, to scour the global South in search of new reserves to exploit — a saga told with great gusto in Daniel Yergin’s epic history of the oil industry, The Prize. Particular attention was devoted to the Persian Gulf region, where in 1948 a consortium of American companies — Chevron, Exxon, Mobil, and Texaco — discovered the world’s largest oil field, Ghawar, in Saudi Arabia.  By 1975, Third World countries were producing 58% of the world’s oil supply, while the U.S. share had dropped to 18%.

Environmental concerns also drove this search for new reserves in the global South. On January 28, 1969, a blowout at Platform A of a Union Oil Company offshore field in California’s Santa Barbara Channel produced a massive oil leak that covered much of the area and laid waste to local wildlife. Coming at a time of growing environmental consciousness, the spill provoked an outpouring of public outrage, helping to inspire the establishment of Earth Day, first observed one year later. Equally important, it helped spur passage of various legislative restraints on drilling activities, including the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970, the Clean Water Act of 1972, and the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974. In addition, Congress banned new drilling in waters off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and in the eastern Gulf of Mexico near Florida.

During these years, Washington also expanded areas designated as wilderness or wildlife preserves, protecting them from resource extraction. In 1960, for example, President Eisenhower established the Arctic National Wildlife Rangeand, in 1980, this remote area of northeastern Alaska was redesignated by Congress as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Ever since the discovery of oil in the adjacent Prudhoe Bay area, energy firms have been clamoring for the right to drill in ANWR, only to be blocked by one or another president or house of Congress.

For the most part, production in Third World countries posed no such complications. The Nigerian government, for example, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

5 April 2012 at 8:59 am

Why the GOP distrusts science

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Interesting column by Chris Mooney:

For a long time, those of us who monitor the troubled relationship between science and the American public had at least one thing we could feel good about. And that was knowing that while we might argue endlessly over global warming or the teaching of evolution, at the end of the day Americans in general still expressed strong confidence — strong trust — in the institution of science and its leaders. Spats over a handful of divisive issues didn’t seem to have soured them on science across the board.

The evidence for this came in the form of polling data from the General Social Survey, which for decades has asked people to rate their level of confidence in the leaders of a variety of institutions. Even at a time of declining trust in institutions in general, science always seemed to fare pretty well by this metric. “In 2008, more Americans expressed a ‘great deal’ of confidence in scientific leaders than in the leaders of any other institution except the military,” noted the National Science Foundation’s 2010 “Science and Engineering Indicators” report, which serves as a clearinghouse for these sorts of public opinion findings.

Last week, however, such claims seemed to all but fall apart.

In a new study published in the American Sociological Review, Gordon Gauchat of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill analyzed responses to this “confidence in institutions” question — which  has been asked since 1974 — based on the political ideology of the respondents. And in doing so, he found that confidence in the scientific community had declined quite dramatically among self-described U.S. political conservatives. This downward trend in the data, says Gauchat, had previously been hidden by “not breaking out the political part of it” — by treating all Americans as a uniform group.

And not only did Gauchat find that, from 1974 to 2010, conservatives marched away from the scientific community. He also found, quite disturbingly, that this had a surprising and paradoxical relationship with their levels of education. It turns out that it was the educated conservatives who became the most distrusting of science over time — a phenomenon that I have called the “smart idiot” effect, and that likely reflects their higher level of political knowledge and engagement. Liberals, in contrast, remained relatively uniform in their trust in science over the period.

In one sense, I suppose I should be gratified by these results: Gauchat explicitly set out to test the thesis of my 2005 book The Republican War on Science, and writes that his results provide “strong evidence” in my favor. (Not that this is the sort of thing that you want to be right about.) But how do we explain this occurrence — this big move, by conservatives, away from science?

Just as I did in “Republican War,” Gauchat points the finger at the rise of the “New Right” as a political movement in the 1960s and 1970s. He underscores how upstart conservatives generated their own alternative sources of expertise — in other words, created their own version of reality, scientific and otherwise — at think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and Cato Institute. The goal was to hit back against liberal academia, as well as the intellectuals and scientists who worked there.

At the same time, conservatives also forged an alternative media universe — centered on Fox News and Rush Limbaugh’s radio show — where scientists often fell under attack on a key set of politicized issues like global warming, evolution, embryonic stem cell research, and many others.

The idea, then, is that conservatives came to define the worlds of science and academia as a liberal domain that was biased against them — one they had to actively combat by generating their own sources of “counter-expertise.” And naturally, this led to decreased trust in scientists and their institutions, especially among the most politically attuned conservatives, who were most familiar with the nature of these battles, and tracked them most closely.

Sounds plausible enough — but is that the full story?

There’s no doubt it’s partly true; but in recent years, I’ve come to question whether it is a complete account. In particular, in my new book, The Republican Brain, I emphasize that beyond such surface-level political and sociological explanations, we also have to examine the powerful sub-surface psychological determinants of political behavior. Really, you need both types of explanations, combined, before you can understand many political phenomena.

In a psychological sense, there are many reasons to think that self-described political conservatives today are just different people than they were in 1974 — more rigid, more closed-minded. Consider, for instance, the work of political scientists Marc Hetherington of Vanderbilt and Jonathan Weiler, also of the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. In their 2009 book Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics, Hetherington and Weiler show that the U.S. became not only more politically divided, but also more psychologically divided, during the time period in question.

The chief catalyst for this development was . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

5 April 2012 at 8:53 am

Posted in Education, GOP, Science

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