Later On

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

Archive for October 22nd, 2013

A majority in US favor legalizing marijuana

leave a comment »

Amazing change from a decade ago. Philip Bump reports at Atlantic Wire:

For the first time since the pollster began asking, Gallup finds that a clear majority of Americans support the legalization of marijuana — a 10 point increase since last November.

That change, visible in the chart at right which goes back to 1996, has been dramatic. 2013 marks the first time more than half of the country endorses legalization. (In 2010, exactly half did so.)The polling firm credits the shift to independent voters. In 2012, independents were split 50-50 on whether or not marijuana should be legal. Now, 62 percent support it. (The numbers for Democrats and Republicans remained consistent; your stereotypes about how they feel about the drug are correct.) But it’s not only independents. It’s also young people. Two-thirds of people under 30 support legalization, compared with fewer than half of those over 65.

Differences reflected in age groups echoed another controversial topic that’s recently seen a shift in public opinion. When Gallup looked at the legalization of same-sex marriage in July, it found that the four groups most likely to support the policy were Democrats, liberals, atheists, and people under the age of 35.

When you compare the two issues, it’s remarkable how public perception of both have shifted in unison. Below is a graph showing net approval for each policy — the percentage of those who support it minus those who oppose — since 1996. Minus a few hiccups, the change over time has been almost identical. . .

Continue reading. Active graphics at the link.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 October 2013 at 2:33 pm

Posted in Drug laws

Selling tools for making war

leave a comment »

Right after reading this NY Times article on how China’s sales of weaponry to the world are increasing, I saw this TomDispatch article on the US role is selling weaponry to various countries and conflicts:

It’s no news (and in fact rarely makes it off the inside pages of our newspapers) that the U.S. dominates — one might almost say monopolizes — the global arms market.  In 2011, the last year for which figures are available, U.S. weapons makers tripled their sales to$66.3 billion and were expected to remain in that range for 2012 as well.  In other words, they took 78% of the market that year, with Russia coming in a vanishingly distant second at $4.8 billion in sales.

This country has long had a special propensity for exporting things that go boom in the night: the products of both the military-industrial complex and Hollywood, each a near-monopoly in its particular market.  As it happened, on the very eve of a government shutdown, the Pentagon caught the spirit of the times by dumping $5 billion into the coffers of defense contractors for future weaponry and equipment of all sorts.  As TomDispatch regular Bill Astore writes today, the business of America has increasingly become war, so no one should be surprised that, even with the government officially shut down, the Obama administration didn’t turn off the lights in the offices where arms deals are a major focus of attention.  As Cora Currier of ProPublica recently reported, in those shutdown weeks, the administration, in fact, lent an especially helping hand to American arms dealers.  It loosened controls over military exports by moving the licensing process for foreign sales on “whole categories” of military equipment from the State Department (which, at least theoretically, has to consider the human rights records of countries slated to receive arms packages) to the Commerce Department, where, it seems, just about anything goes.  The big weapons firms have been lobbying for this for quite a while.

As Currier writes, “The switch from State to Commerce represents a big win for defense manufacturers, who have long lobbied in favor of relaxing U.S. export rules, which they say put a damper on international trade. Among the companies that recently lobbied on the issue: Lockheed, which manufactures C-130 transport planes, Textron, which makes Kiowa Warrior helicopters, and Honeywell, which outfits military choppers.”

So while the government may have been closed for you, if you were a child in need ofgovernment-funded meals or an abused woman in need of a shelter or a rancher whose cattle just died in a massive snowstorm, the government remained open and hard at work for the major weapons companies.  Oh, and if you were a reporter wanting to know more about the recent arms sales decision, then the shutdown got in your way, too.  As Currier adds, “An interview with Commerce Department officials was canceled due to the government shutdown, and the State Department did not respond to questions.” Let William Astore take it from there. Tom

The Business of America Is War
Disaster Capitalism on the Battlefield and in the Boardroom
By William J. Astore

There is a new normal in America: our government may shut down, but our wars continue.  Congress may not be able to pass a budget, but the U.S. military can still launch commando raids in Libya and Somalia, the Afghan War can still be prosecuted, Italy can be garrisoned by American troops (putting the “empire” back in Rome), Africa can be used as an imperial playground (as in the late nineteenth century “scramble for Africa,” but with the U.S. and China doing the scrambling this time around), and the military-industrial complex can still dominate the world’s arms trade.

In the halls of Congress and the Pentagon, it’s business as usual, if your definition of “business” is the power and profits you get from constantly preparing for and prosecuting wars around the world.  “War is a racket,” General Smedley Butler famously declared in 1935, and even now it’s hard to disagree with a man who had two Congressional Medals of Honor to his credit and was intimately familiar with American imperialism.

War Is Politics, Right?

Once upon a time, as a serving officer in the U.S. Air Force, I was taught that Carl von Clausewitz had defined war as a continuation of politics by other means.  This definition is, in fact, a simplification of his classic and complex book, On War, written after his experiences fighting Napoleon in the early nineteenth century.

The idea of war as a continuation of politics is both moderately interesting and dangerously misleading: interesting because it connects war to political processes and suggests that they should be fought for political goals; misleading because it suggests that war is essentially rational and so controllable.  The fault here is not Clausewitz’s, but the American military’s for misreading and oversimplifying him.

Perhaps another “Carl” might lend a hand when it comes to helping Americans understand what war is really all about.  I’m referring to Karl Marx, who admired Clausewitz, notably for his idea that combat is to war what a cash payment is to commerce.  However seldom combat (or such payments) may happen, they are the culmination and so the ultimate arbiters of the process.

War, in other words, is settled by killing, a bloody transaction that echoes the exploitative exchanges of capitalism.  Marx found this idea to be both suggestive and pregnant with meaning. So should we all.

Following Marx, Americans ought to think about war not just as an extreme exercise of politics, but also as a continuation of exploitative commerce by other means.  Combat as commerce: there’s more in that than simple alliteration.

In the history of war, such commercial transactions took many forms, whether as territory conquered, spoils carted away, raw materials appropriated, or market share gained.  Consider American wars.  The War of 1812 is sometimes portrayed as a minor dust-up with Britain, involving the temporary occupation and burning of our capital, but it really was about crushing Indians on the frontier and grabbing their land.  The Mexican-American War was another land grab, this time for the benefit of slaveholders.  The Spanish-American War was a land grab for those seeking an American empire overseas, while World War I was for making the world “safe for democracy” — and for American business interests globally. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 October 2013 at 11:29 am

What Would an Ideal College Look Like? – Link Fixed

leave a comment »

I like UMBC a lot, but this college also seems to have a lot going for it. Link is to post by John Tierney at the Atlantic.

UPDATE: Apologies. Link now fixed.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 October 2013 at 11:18 am

Posted in Education

Tips on how to parallel park

leave a comment »

Lots of tips here, including some videos—e.g.,

Written by LeisureGuy

22 October 2013 at 11:16 am

Posted in Daily life

Obamacare website woes: another sign of out-of-control private contractors

leave a comment »

A report in The Guardian by Moira Herbst:

Whatever the ultimate benefits of Obamacare, it’s clear that the rollout of its$400m registration system and website has been a disaster. Healthcare.gov was unusable for millions who visited the site on launch day earlier this month, and the glitches reportedly continue. What went wrong?

Of course, the Obama administration is to blame for the botched rollout, but there are other culprits getting less attention – namely, global tech conglomerate CGI, which was responsible for the bulk of the execution, and in general the ability of big corporations to get massive taxpayer-funded contracts without enough accountability.

Government outsourcing to private contractors has exploded in the past few decades. Taxpayers funnel hundreds of billions of dollars a year into the chosen companies’ pockets, about $80bn of which goes to tech companies. We’ve reached a stage of knee-jerk outsourcing of everything from intelligence and military work to burger flipping in federal building cafeterias, and it’s damaging in multiple levels.

For one thing, farming work out often rips off taxpayers. While the stereotype is that government workers are incompetent, time-wasters drooling over their Texas Instruments keyboards as they amass outsized pensions,studies show that keeping government services in house saves money. In fact, contractor billing rates average an astonishing 83% more than what it would cost to do the work in-house. Hiring workers directly also keeps jobs here in the US, while contractors, especially in the IT space, can ship taxpayer-funded work overseas.

Fortunately, then, there are alternatives to outsourcing public functions to big corporations padding their profits at taxpayers’ collective expense, and it is time we used them.

To this end the Healthcare.gov experience should serve as a wake-up call to President Obama, who, after all, said early in his first term he wanted to rein in the contractor-industrial complex, and to the state governments doling out multi-million dollar contracts. The revelation here is that an overdependence on outsourcing isn’t just risky in terms of national security, extortionate at wartime, or harmful because it expands the ranks of low-wage workers; it’s also messing with our ability to carry out basic government functions at a reasonable cost.

Like many contractors, CGI got an open-ended deal from the government, and costs have ballooned even as performance has been abysmal. The company – the largest tech company in Canada with subsidiaries around the world – was initially awarded a $93.7m contract, but now the potential total value for CGI’s work has reportedly tripled, reaching nearly $292m.

Sadly, Healthcare.gov is but one high-profile example of the sweet deals corporations get to do government work—even as they fail to deliver. For other recent examples, one need only look at the botched, taxpayer-funded overhauls of the MassachusettsFlorida and California unemployment systems, courtesy of Deloitte.

In Massachusetts alone, professional services giant Deloitte got $46m to roll out a new electronic system for unemployment claims. The company, whose private-sector whippersnappers were expected to lap the crusty bureaucrats the state employs directly, delivered the project two years late and $6m over budget. On top of that, the system has forced jobless residents to wait weeks to months to collect benefits. One unemployed man who filed a claim for benefits instead received an erroneous bill charging him $45,339. A slap in the face of absurd proportions.

Similarly, the rollouts in Florida and California, which each cost about $63m, can only be described as train wrecks: late, over budget and riddled with glitches that delayed payments to the jobless.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We can save money, create good jobs, and get more for each taxpayer dollar by simply by . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 October 2013 at 11:08 am

The myths behind public-employee pension reform

leave a comment »

The San Francisco Chronicle has an important article by Matt Taibbi and David Sirota:

Since the once-great city of Detroit filed for bankruptcy, Americans everywhere are in a panic. Is my city next? Is my state facing financial disaster? From Wisconsin’s controversial Gov. Scott Walker to New Jersey’s Chris Christie, politicians all over seem to be telling us the answer is yes. The fiscal end is nigh, these leaders say, if America doesn’t act soon to slay one of the last great budgetary dragons held over from the entitlement age: our allegedly outmoded, unsustainably expensive system of state and municipal pensions.

In the new fable, state and municipal workers are presented as the welfare queens of our age, historical anachronisms living fat and happy in the competition-free panacea of public service, and shamelessly living off the tax dollars generated entirely by the innovation of America’s true workforce – its go-getting private-sector employees, who long ago stopped expecting their bosses to give them real health and retirement plans.

To them, the old-fashioned defined-benefit pension plan, the one that guaranteed a unionized state worker extensive health benefits and a sizable monthly retirement check until his (invariably too-distant) death, is the glaring budgetary inefficiency of our age, the first place we must turn to make the fiscal cuts if we don’t want to become the next Detroit.

Pension reform advocates have cited these tales to make their legislative pitches. In state after state, politically active billionaires such as former Enron executive John Arnold, finance-sector think tanks like the Manhattan Institute, and foundations viewed as centrist, such as the Pew Center on the States, have all pushed to cut public workers’ guaranteed retirement income, transform pensions into 401(k)-style individual accounts, and turn over the management of pension money to, well, people like the hedge-fund CEOs on the board of the Manhattan Institute. Such reforms are then portrayed as benevolent and transparent initiatives to protect taxpayers and balance budgets.

To a lot of Americans, these purported pension solutions seem logical because the underlying stories about public pensions are compelling. Most Americans know a retired cop or teacher collecting a pension check. Few know a hedge fund CEO.

But are those stories true? It is a particularly important question for California, as Arnold begins financing a ballot initiative campaign to radically alter the state’s pension system.

When we evaluated the ubiquitous pension narratives (Taibbi for a lengthy feature in Rolling Stone and Sirota for a report for a progressive think tank, the Institute for America‘s Future) we both found the same three problems.

One was that the legend of the lazy, budget-devouring public-sector employee as the cause of America’s fiscal crises has in many cases been carefully manufactured by Wall-Street-funded organizations. Their goal is to pretend that modest retirement benefits are the cause of pension shortfalls. They promote this story even though data show that stock market declines from fraud in the financial services industry were most responsible for those shortfalls. The second problem is that the pension initiatives put forward by these reformers and the conservative politicians they back often propose moving America’s public pension money into labyrinthine and extremely expensive “alternative investment” programs. This is done in the name of saving taxpayer money, even though these “alternative investments” involve fees paid to billionaire money managers that are often nearly as high as the cuts to public worker benefits. In many cases, that means little real savings for taxpayers and less income for retirees – but a huge payout to Wall Street. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 October 2013 at 11:06 am

Feeding antibiotics to cows is bad for humans, but Congress won’t stop it

leave a comment »

A clear example of how businesses in general simply do not care about you health, and how Congress really doesn’t either. Melinda Henneberger reports in the Washington Post:

The farm and pharmaceutical lobbies have blocked all meaningful efforts to reduce the use of antibiotics in raising livestock in American, a practice that poses major public health risks, a study released Tuesday found.The report says Congress has killed every effort to legislate a ban on feeding farm animals antibiotics that are important in human medicine. Not only that, but regulation of livestock feeding practices has grown weaker under the Obama administration, the study says.

“Our worst fears were confirmed,’’ said Bob Martin, executive director of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, which issued the report.The Food and Drug Administration’s own statistics, he said, show that fully 80 percent of the antibiotics sold in this country are fed to food animals.

The study comes five years after a troubling report on the way livestock is produced, written by a Pew Charitable Trusts commission of top scientists and ethicists working through the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. That landmark study warned that industrial farms that are feeding animals antibiotics for breakfast, lunch and dinner are plumping them up at a terrible cost, making antibiotics ever-less effective in treating human disease as microbes grew more resistant.

FDA guidelines in the pipeline now, Martin said, would require the industry to stop using antibiotics specifically to bulk up cows and other food animals, but would continue to allow their use for “disease-control.” What constitutes disease-control is so loosely defined, however, that there would be “no change” in the use of antibiotics as a result, Martin said.

“In a couple of areas the Obama administration started off with good intentions, but when industry pushed back, even weaker rules were issued,” he said. “We saw undue influence everywhere we turned.”

In a response via e-mail Monday evening, an FDA spokeswoman wrote that . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 October 2013 at 10:02 am

Questions for Free-Market Moralists

leave a comment »

Interesting column in the NY Times by Amia Srinivasan:

In 1971 John Rawls published “A Theory of Justice,” the most significant articulation and defense of political liberalism of the 20th century. Rawls proposed that the structure of a just society was the one that a group of rational actors would come up with if they were operating behind a “veil of ignorance” — that is, provided they had no prior knowledge what their gender, age, wealth, talents, ethnicity and education would be in the imagined society. Since no one would know in advance where in society they would end up, rational agents would select a society in which everyone was guaranteed basic rights, including equality of opportunity. Since genuine (rather than “on paper”) equality of opportunity requires substantial access to resources — shelter, medical care, education — Rawls’s rational actors would also make their society a redistributive one, ensuring a decent standard of life for everyone.

In 1974, Robert Nozick countered with “Anarchy, State, and Utopia.” He argued that a just society was simply one that resulted from an unfettered free market — and that the only legitimate function of the state was to ensure the workings of the free market by enforcing contracts and protecting citizens against violence, theft and fraud. (The seemingly redistributive policy of making people pay for such a “night watchman” state, Nozick argued, was in fact non-redistributive, since such a state would arise naturally through free bargaining.) If one person — Nozick uses the example of Wilt Chamberlain, the great basketball player — is able to produce a good or service that is in high demand, and others freely pay him for that good or service, then he deserves to get rich. And, once rich, he doesn’t owe anyone anything, since his wealth was accumulated through voluntary exchange in return for the goods and services he produced. Any attempt to “redistribute” his wealth, so long as it is earned through free market exchange, is, Nozick says, “forced labor.”

Rawls and Nozick represent the two poles of mainstream Western political discourse: welfare liberalism and laissez-faire liberalism, respectively. (It’s hardly a wide ideological spectrum, but that’s the mainstream for you.) On the whole, Western societies are still more Rawlsian than Nozickian: they tend to have social welfare systems and redistribute wealth through taxation. But since the 1970s, they have become steadily more Nozickian. Such creeping changes as the erosion of the welfare state, the privatization of the public sphere and increased protections for corporations go along with a moral worldview according to which the free market is the embodiment of justice. This rise in Nozickian thinking coincides with a dramatic increase in economic inequality in the United States over the past five decades — the top 1 percent of Americans saw their income multiply by 275 percent in the period from 1979 and 2007, while the middle 60 percent of Americans saw only a 40 percent increase. If the operations of the free market are always moral — the concrete realization of the principle that you get no more and no less than what you deserve — then there’s nothing in principle wrong with tremendous inequality.

The current economic crisis is no exception to the trend toward Nozickian market moralizing. In the recent debates in the Senate and House of Representatives about food stamps — received by one out of six Americans, about two-thirds of them children, disabled or elderly — Republicans made their case for slashing food subsidies largely about fairness. As Senator Jeff Sessions, Republican of Alabama, saidin his speech, “This is more than just a financial issue. It is a moral issue as well.”

The Harvard economist N. Gregory Mankiw recently published a draft of a paper titled “Defending the One Percent.” In it he rehearses (but, oddly, does not cite) Nozick’s argument for the right of the wealthy to keep their money, referring to the moral principle of “just deserts” as what makes distribution by the market essentially ethical. And in a recent issue of Forbes, the Ayn Rand apostle Harry Binswanger proposed that those earning over one million dollars should be exempt from paying taxes, and the highest earner each year should be awarded a Medal of Honor — as a reward (and incentive) for producing so much market value. Again, Binswanger explained that “the real issue is not financial, but moral.”

The Nozickian outlook is often represented as moral common sense. But is it? Here I pose four questions for anyone inclined to accept Nozick’s argument that a just society is simply one in which the free market operates unfettered. Each question targets one of the premises or implications of Nozick’s argument. If you’re going to buy Nozick’s argument, you must say yes to all four. But doing so isn’t as easy as it might first appear.

1. Is any exchange between two people in the absence of direct physical compulsion by one party against the other (or the threat thereof) necessarily free? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 October 2013 at 9:53 am

Posted in Business, Daily life

After Kansas Slashed Mental Health Funding, Suicides In The State Jumped 30 Percent

leave a comment »

One thing I consistently see is that states are cutting back on support for education at all levels, from pre-K through universities: slashing departments, cutting out “frills” like libraries, art and music education, foreign languages, and so on. And states cut back on funding for public health: mental health centers and treatments, public hospitals, immunization campaigns. And cutting back on infrastructure maintenance.

I say that there’s more to government than not spending money. The idea is that taxes should never be raised, regardless of population growth, seems strange to me. The US is seriously underfunded in its government, when you compare tax rates in the US and in other advanced nations. We are starving our government, which leads to poor services and support. Why would we want that?

Sy Mukherjee reports in ThinkProgress what happened in Kansas:

The suicide rate in Kansas rose by a staggering 30 percent between 2011 and 2012, according to new government data. Although experts can’t pinpoint a single reason for the spike, many believe that a combination of cuts to mental health funding and the socioeconomic stresses brought on by the global recession are to blame.

There is abundant evidence that economic despair propagates mental health problems — particularly among men. A recent, first-of-its-kind study measuring the impact of the recession on global mental health found that suicide rates increased significantly in countries whose unemployment rates also rose. In fact, a 37 percent higher unemployment rate was linked to a 3.3 percent increase in men’s global suicide rate.

In America, the recession exacerbated a suicide rate that had already been rising for over a decade. Unfortunately, that trend corresponded with massive cuts to mental health care funding as cash-strapped states tried to balance their budgets. States collectively cut $1.8 billion from mental health servicesbetween 2009 and 2011, and by some other estimates, that figure is actually closer to $4.35 billion between 2009 and 2012. Kansas instituted the ninth largest cut to mental health care of any state in the nation between 2009 and 2012.

As The Nation points out, another round of cuts imposed by sequestration has forced the federal government to pull back funding for substance abuse and mental health programs. That hits local communities hard — for instance, one community health center in Kansas lost over half of its funding thanks to a combination of state budget cuts and sequestration.

“Treatment dollars have gone down and more and more people are coming to us, a growing number without any other payment for services,” said Marilyn Cook, executive director of the Sedwick County community health center, in an interview with the Wichita Eagle. “[W]ithout adequate funding, it’s difficult for us to get to everybody who needs care and help.”

Written by LeisureGuy

22 October 2013 at 9:05 am

Perfect BBS, with Vetiver

with 5 comments

SOTD 22 Oct 2013

Cyril R. Salter’s French Vetiver shaving cream is really excellent with a strong vetiver fragrance. After thinking, about it, I don’t think the vanilla+vetiver fragrance combination works for me, though I do like each separately. This vetiver is where it’s at. (Come to think of it, I believe I have a vetiver shaving soap from QED; I’ll have to look for that.)

With the Omega 20102 I got a very fine lather quickly—it is a shaving cream, and shaving creams lather easily—and then three passes with the Eros Slant, which I’m liking more and more. I had no trouble at all getting a perfect BBS result, and it was an enjoyable experience.

A good splash of Saint Charles Shave Very V aftershave, and the day is launched.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 October 2013 at 8:51 am

Posted in Shaving

%d bloggers like this: