Category: Uncategorized (Page 1 of 8)

Two Book Reviews: “2312″ and “The Yellow Birds”

My first impression of “2312” by Kim Stanley Robinson is that the author could use a good editor, or needs to take up short-form poetry to sharpen his descriptive skills.  Much of the book is repetitive and does little to propel the narrative or bolster the main themes.

And yet…I haven’t read a book in decades that reminds me of the best long-form science fiction of the Silver Age (’60′s and ’70′s) like this book does.  Robinson looks forward to an era when humans have populated and terraformed Mars, Venus, and the moons of Saturn, when space-flight within our solar system is common, and human lifespans have more than doubled.  And, of course, the main theme of the novel is not just whether humanity can grow up as it grows outward, but what will humanity become–what will being “human” mean–when people can incorporate genes from animal species and alien bacteria into their bodies, and even implant quantum computers into their brains.

In one passage that falls in the center of the book, Robinson riffs on the similarity between a linked group of quantum computers and the human brain.  He asks:  “if you program a purpose into a computer program, does that constitute its will?  Does it have free will, if a programmer programmed its purpose?  Is that programming any different from the way we are programmed by our genes and brains?  Is a programmed will a servile will?  Is human will a servile will?  And is not the servile will the home and source of all feelings of defilement, infection, transgression, and rage?…could a quantum computer program itself?”

The difference, of course, is that humans “programming” themselves with their own brains is how we might define “free will.”  But Robinson nicely illustrates that our free will is limited by physical externalities: our physical bodies, the environment around us, the society in which we live, and the deceptively remote influence of historical forces.

And so this big, sprawling work brings us back around to a question that lies at the heart of most American fiction:  how self-reliant and self-actualized do you really need to be?  In the end, don’t you need other people–a connection to human society–as much or even more than your personal, individual freedom?

For that, the book is worth the time it takes to read all of its 560 pages.  And Robinson does provide many beautiful descriptive passages like this one of Titan, the terraformed moon of Saturn:  “True sunlight and mirrored sunlight crossed to make the landscape shadowless, or faintly double-shadowed–strange to Swan’s eye, unreal-looking, like a stage set in a theater so vast the walls were not visible.  Gibbous Saturn flew through the clouds above, its edge-on rings like a white flaw cracking that part of the sky.”  I just wish the book were as condensed and strking as this lively passage.

On the other hand, even short novels can have  their flaws.  So much praise has been given to “The Yellow Birds” by Kevin Powers that I was puzzled to find it lacking in many ways.  The story is simple:  a young soldier goes to war in Iraq, having made a promise to the mother of one of his platoon mates that he would bring him back home alive–and we learn how impossible that promise is to keep.

It’s a first novel written by a young poet, and it contains many of the elements of good poetry:  archetypes, vivid metaphors, wrenching themes, alternating stanzas that lead us eventually to a final reveal, and a strong central voice.  But it doesn’t quite hold together as a novel.  Archetypes, when used in a longer narrative format, quickly become uninteresting stereotypes—for example Sterling, the hard-bitten sergeant whom everyone agrees is the perfect soldier.  And we never get attached to the younger soldier that the narrator has promised to protect (conveniently named Murph, as if he were a cute, stuffed toy unable to hold his stitching intact in a hostile environment).

So instead the book becomes an exploration of the soul of its narrator, and succeeds on that level.  Its poetry reminds us that the young men we send into war are not machines, not the brutal automatons that the army wants them to be, but young people full of life and the urge to experience beauty and a sense of purpose.  As the narrator says of himself and Murph while they’re getting ready to be deployed: “Being from a place where a few facts are enough to define you, where a few habits can fill a life, causes a unique kind of shame.  We’d had small lives, populated by a longing for something more substantial than dirt roads and small dreams.  So we’d come here, where life needed no elaboration and others would tell us who to be.”

But a novel is not just the poetry of its language and the insights of one narrative voice.  And sometimes the metaphors in this book stretch to the breaking point and beyond, as when the narrator struggles for an image to describe what it’s like to fly home as one of the survivors of a pointless war.  His words are buffeted by so much turbulence that the reader eventually loses the sense of what he’s saying or what the character is thinking.

We also never get a sense of the every day routine of deployment in Iraq.  In the midst of so much lovely metaphor, true description was strangely lacking.  Less poetry and more straightforward narration would have served the story better.  Fortunately, the novel is short in length so that the reader isn’t asked to stay involved with the characters too long.  And the disjointed narration lends truth to its overall message, presented as a sudden insight the narrator has after going AWOL in Germany:  “I realized, as I stood there in the church, that there was a sharp distinction between what was remembered, what was told, and what was true.  And I didn’t think I’d ever figure out which was which.”

I can’t say I liked “The Yellow Birds” as much I expected to.  And I find the high praise that critics and other writers have given it to be more an expression of their guilt over not condemning a war that was obviously unnecessary, than a clear-eyed look at the qualities of the book itself.  Nevertheless, I think everyone should read it in spite of its flaws, and take the opportunity to get inside of a mind that’s been battered and torn by war.

Lessons from Hurricane Sandy

As I write this, it’s been nearly a week since Hurricane Sandy roared ashore on the East Coast of the US, leaving devastation in its wake. On day six after the storm, there are many communities still waiting to get their electricity restored.

If there’s one overarching lesson to be learned from Hurricane Sandy, it’s that the old standard, still publicized by emergency planning agencies all over this country—that people need to prepare for a disaster by stocking up on three days’ worth of emergency supplies—is woefully inadequate.

On day six, many residents of Long Island, the New Jersey shore, and outlying communities still have no electricity, which means they have no heat in November, no clean water flowing from their taps, no hot water to sterilize or clean anything, and no electricity to cook food. Which means they’re still eating food out of cans, nearly a week after the storm, if they have that much canned food left. No electricity means no ability for gas stations to pump gas, which means people can’t get in their cars and drive to buy more supplies. If they followed the advice of their local emergency planning agency, then they ran out of food three days ago.

And now comes the announcement that many of these communities won’t get their power restored until two weeks after the storm, leaving these people stranded and living in pre-civilization conditions for an inhuman amount of time.

The fault may lie with FEMA or with Congress, which has been so focused on the budget deficit and partisan gridlock that the money tap has been nearly cut off for essential federal government services like emergency rescue and management. In spite of Republican anti-government theory, no private business can step in and manage assistance on the same scale over the same wide area as the federal government. Yet Republican theory has shaped federal government policy and forced us into a brave new world of no government help in the face of disaster.

And today’s disasters are like nothing we’ve known in the past. This is lesson number two that we can take away from this disaster. While Hurricane Katrina was terrible and other hurricanes have borne stronger winds and higher waves than Hurricane Sandy, this storm was bigger in area and contained more kinetic force than anything to ever hit the Northeast Coast in our lifetimes, and possibly in recorded history. It was big enough and powerful enough to reshape the entire coastline, creating new bays, inlets, and lakes. Hurricane Sandy literally changed the shape of the eastern seaboard, and mapmakers will spend years catching up.

Of course, people had time to prepare for the storm, but they could only prepare for what they knew. New York City took a direct hit from Hurricane Irene just last year. Most folks assumed that Sandy couldn’t be much worse, even though meteorologists were telling them to expect a 12 to 13-foot wall of water driven by 80 mile-per-hour winds to hit New York City. When the storm surge hit, the actual size was closer to 15-feet, higher even than the worst-case scenarios proposed by the experts.

Yes, Hurricane Sandy was a “perfect storm,” where many variables contributed to the overall size and ferocity of the storm: a high tide, a full moon, the convergence of a northward moving hurricane with a southward moving nor’easter, etc. But one contributing factor makes modern storm predictions particularly difficult:  global warming.

As global temperatures rise, oceans heat and expand. Ocean levels in New York City have been rising one inch each decade, and the pace is accelerating. It’s no coincidence that during the week that Hurricane Sandy hit New York, the residents of Venice, Italy (which sits at sea level) have been wearing waders and dealing with rising floodwaters.

Warmer oceans also mean more water vapor in the air, which adds more fuel to storms and boosts the size of storms. Larger and more frequent storms have long been an expected outcome of global warming.

And that means storms like we’ve never seen before. The human race is engaging in a vast uncontrolled experiment with our planetary climate, and we’re seeing the effects of that now.

The final lesson we can take from Hurricane Sandy became evident when New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg finally announced on Thursday that he supports Barack Obama for president, because Obama is the only candidate who has done anything to address global warming. Both candidates in the race for the presidency have solicited Bloomberg’s endorsement because he has a lot of influence in national politics: he’s wealthy, he’s smart, he runs the nation’s largest city, and he manages the financial heart of America. People listen to him.

Don’t get me wrong, we should commend Bloomberg for coming out and saying what’s important: the biggest economic risk, the biggest security risk, the biggest risk to the future of Americans is not terrorism. It’s climate change. But why does global warming have to hit this man’s front yard and wreak havoc on half his city before he’s able to wake up and say “yes, this is a problem”?

Bloomberg just proved to those of us who’ve been crying in the wilderness that Americans are not willing to make even minor changes in their daily lives—for example, driving an electric car instead of an SUV—in order to save themselves from the ravages of a super-storm like Hurricane Sandy.

And that’s going to be our undoing. If we can’t admit now, after what’s happened to the East Coast, that global warming is real, that it’s impacts are happening now, that it is the biggest threat we face, not just as a nation but as a planet, then we deserve all the future “perfect storms” that are headed our way.

Who is Edward DeMarco?

He’s the head of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which oversees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the quasi-public agencies that have financed about half of all residential mortgages in the United States.

Why is Edward DeMarco important right now?

The Obama Administration has been trying to persuade DeMarco to allow Fannie and Freddie to do the same thing that private banks are currently doing:  offer debt forgiveness to borrowers who have stopped making payments on their mortgages.

There are several very good reasons for Fannie and Freddie to do this.  It would help people stay in their homes, thereby stabilizing the housing market and preventing a whole generation of middle class homeowners from falling into poverty.  It would boost consumer spending, because a nationwide record level of housing debt is keeping people from spending money on other things.  Consumer spending accounts for more than two-thirds of all economic activity, so offering debt forgiveness to homeowners would help the economy recover.

It would also save taxpayers a lot of money.  When people default on a Fannie or Freddie mortgage, taxpayers will never collect the value of that entire debt.  If defaulters are offered debt relief, most of them would be able to resume making payments on their loans.  According to the Federal Housing Finance Agency’s own calculations, taxpayers would save at least $1 billion if Fannie and Freddie offered debt forgiveness.

And the Obama Administration made it easier for DeMarco to say “yes” by offering Fannie and Freddie additional incentives totaling $2.7 billion to do it.

But last week DeMarco said “no,” and the reason he gave is both spurious and unrealistic.  DeMarco, a conservative Bush appointee, said that, if Fannie and Freddie offered debt forgiveness, borrowers who are currently making payments but are underwater on their loans (the value of their homes is less than the outstanding balances on their mortgages) would stop making payments in the hope of qualifying for debt forgiveness.  This is referred to as “strategic default.”

This is standard right-wing, Republican bullshit.  It stems from the notion that people are inherently greedy, and that poor people in particular will do anything–even if it’s stupidly self-destructive–in order to get a government handout. Actually, the reverse is true: rich conservatives have proved themselves to be greedy beyond belief and have always been obscenely quick to line up for government largess, as the Bush administration proved.  While the rich can take subsidies and government contracts without batting an eye, the poor must be scourged of any hope for government assistance in their time of need.

Private banks have offered debt forgiveness now for several years without seeing a surge of new defaults.  In fact millions of American families have made the choice not to strategically default in the face of a record fall in home values.  Why?  Because defaulting would ruin their credit histories.  It could also affect their ability to get jobs, as more employers now run credit and background checks on their employees (yes, poor people have to work for a living, unlike the rich).  And then there’s pride.  Sociologists report that most people place a high value on their ability to pay their own way and will resist default, even when it would make more financial sense for them to enter bankruptcy.  DeMarco and his ilk have it exactly backwards.

Unless, of course, they’re talking about American corporations.  Strategic defaults or bankruptcies are quite common in the business world.  The upper management of a company can make the decision to take an ailing company through bankruptcy, where they can downsize, layoff employees, and sell off assets to pay a portion of the company’s debts.  Management negotiates with banks, bondholders, vendors and other lenders over who gets paid and how much, and whether the lenders will forgive any of the company’s debt.  Many corporations emerge from bankruptcy intact, having negotiated their debt down to a more manageable level.  But DeMarco and his Republican allies don’t want average Americans to have that same ability.

Barack Obama has been trying to replace DeMarco with his own appointee, but for the last three years Senate Republicans have blocked the vast majority of Obama’s nominations out of partisan squabbling and gamesmanship.  It’s time voters punished the Republicans at the polls for their hypocrisy and contempt.

The New Waterfront: Guess Who’s Paying the Bill?

Last week, the Central Waterfront Committee (CWC) released a funding plan for upcoming changes to the waterfront as part of the mega-project to dismantle the Alaskan Way Viaduct and build a replacement traffic tunnel under downtown.

Through a series of public meetings, the city has already compiled a list of projects to beautify Seattle’s waterfront and “reconnect” it to downtown.  Of course, in keeping with the privileged status of property owners in Seattle, the final wish-list doesn’t include demolishing waterfront condos and hotels in Belltown, which are proving to be a more long-lasting barrier to the waterfront than the Alaskan Way viaduct.

Nor is the funding plan a complete or comprehensive budget for the waterfront improvements.  To quote the CWC’s Strategic Plan:  “Certain promising elements of the long-term vision, identified in the City’s Framework Plan, are not funded in this funding plan.”  Okay, so it’s really a partial funding plan.

Nevertheless, the total cost of this first phase of the developers’ wish-list is a staggering $1.2 billion.  Unfortunately, The Seattle Times, our local Pravda, misreported the figure:  “…$240 million, about half of which would come from a local improvement district funded by downtown property owners, with the rest from city taxpayers and private donors.”

Untrue.  The CWC’s report provides a handy—albeit misleading—pie graph entitled “Funding Sources” which shows the costs as approximately $1.2 billion.  The graph, reproduced on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s website, shows that 60% of the funding is “Secured/Pending.”  No honest person would group “secured” funds with “pending” funds unless they wanted to create the impression that more money has been set aside than has actually been allocated.  When we look at the breakdown of that 60%, we see that nearly half of it is the 30-year Seawall Bond that will be on the ballot in November.  Voters may still reject it; hence that money is not “secured.”

Of the remaining “Secured/Pending” funds ($360 million), only a tiny sliver of that ($70 million) has been officially set aside by the City of Seattle to be spent specifically on the waterfront.  The rest is $290 million budgeted by the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) for the fiscal years 2012 through 2017.  As anyone who follows state politics knows, state transportation funds are regularly reallocated by the State Legislature.  If Republican Rob McKenna beats Democrat Jay Inslee for governor in November, you can bet there’s going to be a huge fight over transportation funding in 2013, and the Seattle waterfront project could lose big-time.

That’s just one scenario.  Another, more certain outcome would be a decrease in gas tax revenue, which is the main funding source for the state transportation budget.  The glacial pace of the economic recovery, along with the increasing price of gas, has already lowered the state’s gas tax revenue, as more people are driving fewer miles every year to save money.  The WSDOT funds can’t be considered “Secured.”

The other 40% of the CWC’s pie graph is labeled “Future Funding” and it consists of a vague range of between $350 million and $570 million.  For simplicity’s sake, let’s use the higher number, since the CWC has admitted that not all projects are funded in this proposal, and because it’s the rare exception for development projects to cost less than their initial estimates.

Of this “Future Funding,” only $300 million (or 23% of the overall financing package) will come from the local improvement district—property owners in a still-to-be-defined area who will pay higher taxes to support the new waterfront.  This is far lower than the 50% cited by Pravda.  And since this will not be up for a vote, ever, it’s unclear why this wasn’t grouped in the “Pending” category, along with the Seawall Bond, or the “Secured” category, along with the WSDOT funds.  Maybe because the boundaries of the local improvement district have yet to be defined.  Residents of Belltown, Lower Queen Anne, South Lake Union, First Hill, and the International District should be trembling in their shoes, especially if they belong to the vanishing breed of renters clinging to older apartments in these neighborhoods.  Landlords will make them pay the tax.

Of the remaining “Future Funding,” about $120 million will come from “Philanthropy” (private donations).  Let’s ask the Seattle Aquarium, Seattle Public Library, the Woodland Park Zoo, and thousands of other nonprofits in Seattle who’ve been scrambling desperately for money over the past four years how they feel about the entry of another big nonprofit into the scrum.  Most of these organizations have had to cut staff, services, and programming just to survive.  This chunk is the single biggest question mark in the entire waterfront funding plan, and why it’s not marked “Fantasy Funding,” is anyone’s guess.

The remaining two chunks are miscellaneous funds that will come out city taxpayers’ pockets in sneaky, roundabout ways.  About $65 million is designated “9-year LID Lift or other City source” and this will either come from increased taxes on the local improvement district (another increase in rent) or, more likely, from a second city-wide ballot initiative in 2014, 2015, or 2016 (essentially a second rental or property tax increase for the entire city).

The other chunk is $85 million designated as “General Fund/Debt.”  This is money that will come entirely out of the City of Seattle’s General Fund or its borrowing capacity (city bonds).  Either way, it’s money that won’t be spent on any other city services or development projects.  And it’s on top of the $70 million the city has already set aside for the project.  So the total hit to the city’s General Fund is really $155 million, not $70 million.

And since the City Council and the Mayor have no willpower when developers ask them for money, these funds could easily have been grouped into the “Secured Funding” category.

So a more realistic pie chart would have shown $155 million in city funds grouped with $300 million in funds from a local improvement district as “Secured Funding,” which is about 37% of the total.  “Pending Funding” would be $580 million (the Seawall Bond vote and the WSDOT funds), or about 48% of the total.

Okay, so far we’ve accounted for 85% of the total. The remainder would be split between 5% “Future Funding” (the $65 million tax increase that will probably go up for a vote sometime in 2014-2016) and a sizable 10% chunk of “Fantasy Funding” (the “Philanthropy” piece).

So, overall, only 37% of the funding can be counted on, and all of that involves money out of city taxpayers’ pockets to finance a project that will overwhelmingly benefit local developers and downtown businesses.  No transit money—indeed, no transit projects, as far as I can see (the transportation projects are all road improvements)—are part of this deal, which means that the park-like aspects of the project will be enjoyed mostly by cruise-ship patrons, tourists, and rich people who can afford to live downtown.

And the 48% of pending funds from the Seawall Bond and WSDOT are also taxpayer money.  Only the fantasy funding, the 10% from Philanthropy, can really be considered private funds.  In spite of the propaganda from Pravda, politicians, and the TV news paparazzi, the money from the local improvement district can’t be termed “private” funding.  To call it “private” is to assume naively that local landlords will bear the cost of the tax increase and not pass it on to their tenants.  They won’t, and we all know it.

And this is just phase one, folks.  And it’s a prime example of developers raiding your pockets for their benefit.

What the Hell Happened to The Fourth Estate?

Is it the lack of a second daily newspaper in Seattle or our modern-day reliance on Internet blogs that has made Seattleites largely ignorant of local political issues? Or is it the dismal quality of our single, surviving newspaper and local TV stations?

Let’s take, for example, the impact of liquor privatization in Washington State.

People who voted to privatize liquor in Washington truly believed that prices would fall and the variety of hard alcohol available for purchase would increase. They believed the advertising paid for by Costco, the main backer of the privatization initiative, and they ignored the common sense arguments made by opponents. They even refused to think logically about the issue: could a local supermarket devote as much shelf space to hard alcohol as an entire state-owned store devoted only to the sale of alcohol? Of course not. (Hence, selection would be more limited under privatization.) Could adding another layer of middle-men who need to make their own profit lead to lower prices? Absolutely not. (Hence prices have risen.) Wow, that was not particularly hard to reason out. Yet people believed the advertising, right-wing bloggers, and the conservative editorial board of The Seattle Times—largely because alternative views were unavailable or hard to find.

Let’s look at an even more disturbing example, one with higher stakes. The current negotiations between the Department of Justice and the city over reforms at the Seattle Police Department have fallen into a media black hole. The general impression is that the Department of Justice has issued a report slamming the SPD over charges of using excessive force. But few people know about the status of negotiations between the DOJ and the city. Yes, those negotiations have been “confidential,” but in reporters could have asked a few very important questions: are we near a deal yet, is the DOJ taking a hard line, is the city winning any concessions, what role is the SPD chief or the police union taking in the negations, etc.

Instead, we get nothing, and a sense of frustration has settled over the city. The SPD has been confronted by hostile and uncooperative crowds at crime scenes and a recent gay pride celebration on Capitol Hill devolved into a pepper-spraying fracas between police and street-partiers. The very bland articles published by The Seattle Times website on these incidents are followed by hundreds of police-bashing comments from online readers.

So, in an effort to shed light on the negotiations, the DOJ and the city agreed to release several confidential documents this week. Unfortunately, those documents were accompanied by an absolute lack of analysis or decent reportage by the local news outlets that made them available to the public. The Seattle Times website ran an article entitled “Records show deep split between federal, city officials on SPD fixes” that once again refused to ask any substantive questions about the actual status of the negotiations or provide any analysis of the released documents.

Just providing a link to those documents is not enough. The average Seattleite would have to spend several hours reading through the documents to get an understanding of how the negotiations are proceeding. In the meantime, The Seattle Times, our local paper of record, will be damned before they’ll assign one reporter on their staff to read and accurately summarize the contents of the DOJ’s proposed changes and the city’s response.

Even a quick read of the letters and memos exchanged between the city attorney’s office and the lead DOJ negotiator, Jonathan Smith, reveals some disturbing problems not just with the negotiations themselves but also with the lack of journalistic oversight of local politics. For example, it appears that Mayor McGinn has not been sitting down at the negotiating table with the DOJ. The DOJ’s letter of May 23, 2012, complains that the city has not been sending representatives who are empowered to negotiate on the city’s behalf. The response to this letter is a May 31, 2012, letter from Mayor McGinn’s personal attorney, Carl Marquardt, that basically says Mayor McGinn is not willing to meet with the DOJ attorneys; instead, he will only meet with US Attorney General Eric Holder (who runs the entire federal department in DC) or his second-in-command, Thomas Perez—an act of childish petulance that reveals Mayor McGinn’s unwillingness to take on the responsibility of his job as mayor of a major US city.

The same letter suggests that representatives of the police department be present at the negotiations: “We do believe it would be helpful if both sides, including DOJ, had access to policing experts during negotiations…” and it concludes with the following sentence: “Finally, if we reach the point where negotiations are truly stalled, we would be willing to engage a mediator to facilitate a resolution.”

The Seattle Times reported in passing that the city and the DOJ brought in a mediator last week; it was a non-event for most of the local media. But, in truth, it was a last-gasp attempt to salvage a bargaining process that has failed largely because the mayor has refused to do his job. And, yes, the city council should also be part of the negotiations, but the mayor and his counsel have refused to cooperate with them. And Seattleites don’t know any of this, because our local media has refused to do its job.

It’s very easy to blame Mayor McGinn, but the true responsibility for the breakdown of negotiations lies with The Seattle Times and the local TV news outlets. If the citizens of Seattle realized that their mayor wasn’t doing his job, they would put pressure on the city to take the negotiations seriously. Instead, Seattleites are left in the dark, unsure of what’s going on and unwilling to trust the SPD in the meantime.

Real police reform can’t happen only within the SPD. Communities, citizens, and businesses have to take responsibility for oversight, feedback, and managing their expectations. But without a functioning information system, the citizen reform side can’t even begin.

Local media should be ashamed of itself. Local activists should be egalitarian when assigning blame for the lack of SPD reform: it’s not just the police department that’s at fault. And it’s not just the mayor. We should be flooding the media with our letters, emails, and comments. If our news outlets aren’t asking enough questions, then we should be asking them why not.

Three Strikes and You’re Out

Three incidents last week confirm the city’s inability to address problems at the Seattle Police Department. In spite of a Department of Justice report that Seattle has a problem with excessive force and biased policing, the city is in deep denial and is doing its best to cover up the problems.

The first incident last week was the arrest of SPD Lt. Donnie Lowe on domestic violence charges. Lowe, whom the Seattle Times described as having “a checkered history with the department,” was given a leadership role in the city’s 20/20 Plan (the city’s response to the DOJ finding, which has been described by the DOJ as a joke). The 20/20 Plan is mostly a PR exercise, but with Lowe’s arrest, even the PR value of the plan is now in question.

Lowe himself has an ongoing problem with alcohol, and possibly anger issues. He was arrested last week at a party in his home. He’d been drinking with friends, got into an argument with his wife, then pushed her against a wall and smacked her. This is not his first alcohol related arrest: in 2008 Lowe was brought in on a DUI charge and his blood alcohol level registered at 0.113%, above the legal intoxication limit of 0.08%. Lowe, however, was allowed to plead guilty to an “amended” charge of reckless driving. His sentence was deferred, then the charge dismissed after he finished an alcohol information class and some community service. It’s hard to believe that if Lowe was not a Seattle police offer, he would have received such lenient treatment.

This week’s arrest is also not the first time Lowe has been in trouble for assaulting a family member. In June 2006, he punched and pushed his 13-year-old son against a wall in an SPD jail cell. The city chose not to bring legal charges against him, and then-Chief Gil Kerlikowski reduced his disciplinary finding from “misuse of authority and violation of rules, regulations, and laws” to “conduct unbecoming an officer”—one of many such disciplinary reductions that Kerlikowski was criticized for during his tenure.

This leniency has produced the current culture of invulnerability and exceptionalism at the SPD. By definition, an SPD officer can’t be guilty of excessive force or biased policing, since SPD officers can do no wrong.

This is the city’s official legal stance, as we can see with its filing of court documents last week challenging the veracity of the DOJ report. City attorneys filed the documents in the lawsuit against SPD officer Shandy Cobane. Cobane is the officer who was caught on video uttering a racial slur (“I’m going to beat the Mexican piss out of you, Homey; you feel me?”) to a suspect, then allegedly kicking the suspect in the face and stomping on him as he lay prone on the ground. Immediately after the video came to light, both Officer Cobane and SPD Chief Diaz apologized to the public. Diaz demoted Cobane and promised that any officer caught doing the same thing risked being fired.

Now city attorneys are trying to argue that the DOJ report should not be introduced into evidence in Cobane’s case, and they’re asking the judge to dismiss the lawsuit. This, in spite of both Cobane’s and Chief Diaz’s public admissions that Cobane had erred. Cobane recently testified in a deposition that, two years after the event, he still doesn’t know what the SPD policy is regarding unbiased policing.

Cobane’s case is not the only one wending its way through the courts. John Kita won a ruling last week in his case against the SPD. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Kita can pursue a civil rights lawsuit against the SPD, after he was roughed up during his arrest in February 2008. A dashboard camera captured SPD Officer Kevin Oshikawa-Clay hitting the back of Kita’s head and slamming his face into the hood of a patrol car. He then dragged Kita to the ground where he kneeled on Kita’s back, hit him twice more, and cranked his arm into a pain-compliance hold. While the hood of the car blocked the view of Kita on the ground, the angle of the blows suggest Oshikawa-Clay hit Kita twice more in the back of the head.

At the time of Kita’s arrest, SPD commanders and a lieutenant in the SPD training division viewed the dash-cam video and concluded that Oshikawa-Clay had correctly followed department policy. They concluded that the suspect, Kita, was violent and a safety risk to Oshikawa-Clay, even though Kita was never charged with resisting arrest or assaulting an officer. Kita was eventually acquitted of the assault charge for which he was arrested.

After viewing the dash-cam video, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court disagreed with the SPD commanders. They ruled that Kita was not a safety risk to Officer Oshikawa-Clay, and that the officer’s actions were “objectively unreasonable and therefore constitutionally excessive.” This is twice now that an outside agency—first the DOJ and now a circuit court—has ruled that SPD departmental policy, procedures, and training are flawed.

The city needs to step up and take responsibility for the problems at the SPD. As the DOJ and the local US Attorney have said, the 20/20 Plan doesn’t begin to address the deeper cultural problems and lack of accountability within the Seattle Police Department. Unfortunately, it may take another court decision—this time in a lawsuit filed by the DOJ—to force changes within the city and the police department.

Mayor McGrowth

Many people who voted for Mike McGinn to be mayor of Seattle thought they were voting for a green candidate. But his reputation as an environmentalist was based mostly on his campaign stance against building a tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way viaduct; hence, voters mistakenly assumed he was anti-development.

To polish his green credentials, McGinn played up his past as a former state chair of the Sierra Club, a mainstream environmental group known more for its compromises than its activism. He also heavily promoted his chairmanship of the 2008 parks levy campaign and his work to defeat Proposition 1, a state initiative that would have spent millions building new roads in King County while directing only a small portion of its funds to transit.

Often overlooked was McGinn’s past as head of the Greenwood Community Council, where he worked in cooperation with developers, including Triad Development, Harbor Properties, and Vulcan Inc., on neighborhood development priorities.

So it should come as no surprise that McGinn is at it again. Last week, Mayor McGinn presented his jobs proposal to the city council, and it was a wish-list for developers and the building industry.

At the top of the list was a request for the city to allow more businesses in certain neighborhoods zoned for single-family residences. The city council rejected this piece of the proposal, after hearing testimony from neighborhood activists who complained that the neighborhoods listed already contained many small businesses, were already great “walkable” places (a stated goal of the mayor’s proposal), and the mayor had not solicited input from neighborhood groups before proposing these changes.

The mayor’s advisory group that put together the jobs proposal consists of 28 people, 20 of whom are from the building trades (developers, architects, urban planners, etc.) and the other eight are in agreement with Mayor McGinn’s pro-density position. In other words, they are also pro-developer, and some are dismissive or downright hostile to any neighborhood input for urban planning changes.

This attitude is reflected throughout the jobs proposal. It would allow the city to eliminate a layer of environmental review for new buildings of up to 75,000 square feet or with fewer than 200 apartments. It would also remove the requirement to provide parking spaces for housing built near bus lines or other types of transit.

Now, 75,000 square feet is not a small building. For an apartment building with units that average 500 square feet (these are small units in today’s housing market), that would be a building with about 150 apartments. If it had 15 units per floor, that would make it a 10-story building. Likewise, a condominium building with 200 units averaging 600 square feet per unit (again, small units in today’s market) would be 120,000 square feet. These are developments that are high-rise and often take up an entire city block. Removing a layer of environmental review–and, hence, the ability for the public to weigh in on the project–is outrageous.

Pro-density supporters often criticize environmental reviews as a forum for people who own single-family homes to complain about condo projects and big box stores. But environmental reviews address other important issues, including: building heights, light levels, and views; maintaining the historical value of nearby buildings or the character of a neighborhood; providing adequate green space, parks, and sustaining the city’s tree canopy; issues of traffic density and flow; and even the potential for nearby schools and fire departments to handle a sudden increase in area population. All of these issues, many of them environmental ones, would be thrown by the wayside without an environmental review process and neighborhood input.

Mayor McGinn’s pro-density position does have its attractions. Seattle, like most U.S. cities, needs to avoid more sprawl and do something about the serious traffic problems that we already have. But Seattle also needs to consider carefully which parts of the urban area best qualify for taller buildings and more density.

Simultaneously, the city must address inadequate transit funding and availability. King County, which provides bus service in Seattle, has been cutting bus service for budgetary reasons at a time when bus ridership, particularly inside the urban core, has increased dramatically because of the economic downturn and high gas prices. Seattle’s response has been to build an expensive street car line that primarily serves tourists and day-trippers.

The goal of the mayor’s jobs proposal is, of course, to create jobs for the moribund construction industry. However, the mayor presented it to the city council as a way to create more walkable neighborhoods in Seattle similar to Chicago’s neighborhoods.

But let’s think about what makes a great walkable neighborhood. When I recently visited Chicago, I was impressed by its neighborhoods of apartment buildings–most of them were no taller than 6 stories and almost none of them took up an entire city block–near thoroughfares with low-rise, small businesses. In short, these neighborhoods looked a lot like the Broadway neighborhood on Capitol Hill, the Pike/Pine corridor, or the Uptown neighborhood on Queen Anne.

So building more human scale apartment buildings of 5 or 6 stories with small-scale retail at ground level would be reasonable, if the goal truly is to make our neighborhoods more like Chicago’s. But the mayor’s job proposal doesn’t do that. Instead, it gives developers a free ticket to build high-rises.

This is the kind of out-sized growth that everyone should oppose. Developers complain that they can’t make a profit unless they build big and tall, but this is simply not true in a hot rental market (as we have now in Seattle) where the city also gives incentives for building smaller to medium size buildings.

Instead of allowing uncontrolled growth, Seattle needs to reaffirm its commitment to managed growth. The city council must reject the mayor’s jobs proposal, and use this opportunity to come up with a better plan.

Voters Across Europe Oust Conservatives

Four years ago, European governments had to make a choice: do we deal with the economic crisis through more government spending (“stimulus”) or through government budget cuts (“austerity”).

Conservative governments were in power in Britain, France, and Germany. In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron pushed through a tough package of austerity measures that matched his conservative party’s ideology that the less government interference in the economy, the better. In France, Nicolas Sarkozy did the same, followed by Angela Merkel in Germany. Although none of these countries had the deep public debts of Greece, Ireland, or Iceland, the problems in those “southern” European countries gave the conservative politicians in the larger European nations an excuse to impose cuts in social welfare programs and pass anti-union legislation.

Last week brought a major pushback from the voters in those countries. In France, Nicolas Sarkozy lost the presidency to Socialist Francoise Hollande who remarked, “Austerity need not be Europe’s fate.” Hollande promised to renegotiate the budget discipline treaty signed by 25 European leaders in March, a treaty that was meant to enshrine the policies that have plunged Europe even deeper into economic recession.

In Britain, local elections on May 3rd brought tremendous gains for the Labour Party, which had it’s best showing since 1997. Labour won 800 seats, while David Cameron’s Conservative Party lost 400 seats, sending his constituency into a uproar. British voters deserted the two main parties (Conservative and Liberal Democrat) and voted overwhelmingly for Labour and a host of third parties.

The same was true of the May 13th local elections in Germany’s most populous state, Northern Rhine-Westphalia, where Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats took only 26% of the vote, the party’s worst showing since World War II. The center-left Social Democrats took nearly 39% of the vote and will form an alliance with the Green Party, which took a little more than 12%. Other recent local elections in Germany have brought similar results, an ominous sign for Angela Merkel, who’ll be up for re-election in 18 months.

It’s impossible to view these elections as anything other than a public referendum on austerity measures. It erases the excuses the conservatives have been using for the past four years that economic stimulus programs are politically unpopular. The voters have voted according to their pocketbooks, and the conservatives have lost.

History has given us many examples of how politically unpopular austerity measures are. Leaving aside the historical fact that austerity measures imposed during an economic downturn only lead to a worse downturn, as the United States discovered during the Great Depression of the 1930’s, we need only look at the failure of neo-liberal economic policies on developing nations.

The 1960’s and 1970’s were a boom time for banks lending money to developing nations, many of which had just broken free from colonial governments. New, independent governments—some of them democratic, some of them not—were able to tap a flood of development money. It was the Cold War, and the U.S. and Western Europe wanted to buy allies wherever they could, and banks saw an opportunity to make a profit issuing sovereign debt at high interest rates. But the money also came with political and economic strings attached.

Developing nations had to agree to “liberalize” their economies. They had to remove trade barriers and labor protections, do away with limits on foreign investments in their countries, and use the money to build infrastructure that benefited multi-national corporations, like roads, port facilities, railroads, pipelines, and even factory shells. But all of this investment didn’t bring the economic gains these nations hoped for. Profits were taken home by U.S. and European corporations, and the wages paid to local workers remained too low.

Eventually, the loans came due. In the 1980’s and 1990’s a wave of developing countries were forced to restructure their debts. The International Monetary Fund imposed round after round of austerity measures on many countries, only to see those nations sink deeper into economic recessions. A wave of nations began to default on their debts, including Egypt, South Africa, Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina. In fact, the Latin American Debt Crisis of those years led to what is commonly called the lost decade: a time when real wages across the region dropped 20-40% and Latin American economies showed negative growth of 9%.

So the results of last week’s elections in Greece came as no surprise. The two main parties that had negotiated Greece’s debt restructuring and austerity measures failed to take enough votes to form a coalition government. Greek voters deserted in droves to third parties, especially the far-left party Syriza, which campaigned on the platform of revoking the austerity measures and imposing a moratorium on Greece’s debt payments for three years—a technical default on their sovereign debt.

None of Greece’s parties won a majority, and no two parties won enough votes to form a coalition government, so unless a miracle occurs, new national elections will be called in June. When Greece finally forms a new government, the pressure to default on its loans and withdraw from the European Union will be impossible to resist.

Default was obviously the only choice for Greece from the beginning, but conservative politicians chose to ignore historical fact and impose the pain of austerity measures instead. And now they’re earning their just desserts at the polls.

USDA: Let Them Eat Garbage

Every month brings another horror story about recycled food.

Last month, a Snokist processing plant in eastern Washington State was reported to have packaged moldy, “re-treated” applesauce for sale in the US. The USDA was slammed for not stopping the process whereby Snokist skimmed mold off the top of vats of applesauce, heated it in an unscientific attempt to kill the mold, and packaged it for sale in supermarkets and for use in the nation’s school lunch program. Fortunately, a low-level USDA inspector contacted the FDA and Snokist was forced to stop recycling food waste.

But now comes another USDA horror story: the purchase of seven million pounds of pink slime for use in the school lunch program.

What is pink slime? First, let’s talk about what it’s not.

When you eat a hamburger, you’re expecting to get ground muscle tissue-—the trimmings from the most nutritious part of the animal. You will also get some fat, because the leanest meat from the animal is cut into steaks, and the less lean meat is usually ground into hamburger. For health reasons, consumers like their hamburger to have less fat and more lean. Food processors have always looked for inexpensive ways to boost the lean content of hamburger.

Now there’s a way for other lean parts-—not just muscle tissue-—to make it into your hamburger. The marketing names for pink slime include “Lean Beef Trimmings” and “Lean Finely Textured Beef.” What those names mask is that pink slime is composed of connective tissue, including tendons, ligaments, and intestines, combined with stuff that’s fallen onto the slaughterhouse floor.

Ask anyone who’s worked in a slaughterhouse if they would eat the stuff that falls onto a slaughterhouse floor, and you’ll hear a horrified “Never!” followed by a gagging sound. Ten years ago, scraps from filthy slaughterhouse floors were sent to rendering plants or used in dog food or chicken feed. Not anymore. Now the USDA has deemed it fit for human consumption.

How can this be? Well, food companies now treat the gunk on slaughterhouse floors with ammonium hydroxide, a pink chemical that’s supposed to kill pathogens like E. coli and salmonella. But tests done since 2005 on pink slime have found E. coli in at least three separate batches of pink slime, and salmonella 48 separate times.

An estimated 76 million people contract food-borne illnesses every year in the United States, according to the CDC. That means nearly one-quarter of all Americans will get sick from eating contaminated food in 2012. Hamburger is always high on the list of suspect foods.

But there’s a bigger health crisis here, one that’s not being discussed. Pink slime is not as nutritious as traditional ground beef, according to Gerald Zirnstein, a microbiologist who used to work in the USDA Food Safety Inspection Service. He and his colleague, Carl Custer, who also worked for 35 years in the Food Safety Inspection Service, have deemed it a “high risk product” that’s not nutritionally equivalent to ground beef. Said Custer: “My main objection was that it was not meat.”

When the human body eats non-nutritious food, the body craves more food to make up for the lack of vitamins and nutrients. Dietitians widely recognize non-nutritious food as a major contributor to the obesity epidemic in the US. It’s not much of a stretch to say that pink slime plays a key role. This non-meat waste product can be found in 70% of ground beef sold in the US, and the burgers-and-fries diet is widely reviled by dietitians, not just for its high fat content, but also for its lack of nutrients.

When McDonald’s, Burger King, and Taco Bell have banned pink slime from their food, you know it’s pretty bad stuff.

But food-borne health issues go beyond recycled waste products like pink slime. The pink chemical ammonium hydroxide has been used to wash most ground beef since the 1990’s-—long before pink slime came along. Traces of ammonium hydroxide often remain in ground beef for sale in the supermarket, whether it contains pink slime or not.

Any chemical that’s strong enough to kill E. coli can also do damage to the beneficial bacteria in the human stomach and intestines. Loss of beneficial bacteria is suspected to be a contributing factor in the rising rates of obesity, but also in an increase in other digestive tract disorders. And digestive tract diseases of all types afflict up to one-third of the US population, according to 2004 statistics from the National Digestive Disease Information Clearinghouse.

Most victims of digestive tract diseases are elderly, but many of us have heard about anecdotal cases of young people, including teens or children, who’ve been diagnosed with digestive tract disorders with unknown causes. Some of these cases are severe, requiring surgery or long-term medication and highly restrictive diets, and the outcome is not always a positive one.

We should be taking a much closer look at our food supply, and we should listen to whistleblowers from the USDA, like Zirnstein and Cutler, who criticize the department for being too friendly to food processors. If the USDA is supposed to be a guardian of public safety, they’re doing a terrible job of it.

An online petition calling for the USDA to drop pink slime from the nation’s school lunch program can be found at

The State of the Obama Presidency

The annual State of the Union address is the president’s laundry list for Congress: what he wants to see them do in the next year. Except, of course, in a campaign year, when the State of the Union address is the president’s kick-off speech for his campaign. Given that this is an election year, and given that Congress was paralyzed by partisan squabbling last year, Obama’s State of the Union speech was unusually larded with admonitions for Congress to pass bills for the president to sign. This has been the modus operandi of the Obama administration: Congress is in charge, they’re responsible for this mess, it’s out of my hands.

Take, for instance, the lead issue in the State of the Union speech: jobs. After admonishing US corporations to bring jobs back to the US, Obama offers up a host of tax credit sweeteners, as if the federal government is wallowing in money right now. Commentators pointed out immediately that taxes are not the main reason for offshoring. Cheap labor, lack of labor laws and safety regulations, and closer proximity to commodities and parts are the main reasons corporations send jobs overseas. Obama didn’t say, “We’re ready to repeal labor laws; Congress, send me a bill and I will sign it!” Although that’s what it would take to move these jobs back here.

In fact, the Obama administration doesn’t need to do this on a federal level, because similar actions are occurring at the state level. Last week, Indiana became the 23rd state in the union to pass a “right-to-work” law that undermines labor unions, and a number of other states are considering doing the same. The Obama administration has chosen to remain silent on the “right-to-work” movement, which amounts to a strategic decision to passively support corporations’ efforts to create a Third-World underclass here in the US.

Likewise, his job training initiatives will help employers at the expense of students. A proposal to create a public-private partnership between corporations and community colleges begs the question: while students are learning how to measure, calculate, cut, solder, clean, and assemble, will they be learning civics, reading comprehension, history, or critical thinking? These latter skills are essential for an informed populace in a democratic society, as many Middle Eastern nations are learning today. Will we lose an important edge in our capacity for freedom and democracy in order to gain a competitive edge in the international job markets?

Many listeners celebrated Obama’s call to free K-12 students from standardized testing, expand work-study opportunities for college students, allocate more pay for teachers, extend the tuition tax credit, and lower college tuition rates. He didn’t say, however, where the money would come from for all of these expensive proposals.

No, instead he changed the subject to immigration reform, sending a deeply contradictory message: yes, we should pass laws allowing immigrant students to become naturalized citizens. But then he beat his chest about how he’s closed the borders by putting more “boots on the ground” than any previous president. These two statements don’t constitute an effective immigration reform policy, and certainly don’t fulfill the promise he made in his campaign three years ago to reform our broken immigration system. Under his presidency, that system has become more militarized—an overzealous arm of the anti-terrorism campaign—and has torn many families and communities apart.

Much has been written since the State of Union speech about Obama’s new taskforce to crack down on banks and mortgage lenders who engaged in shady lending practices in the past decade. It’s three years too late and millions of dollars short. The SEC and the Department of Justice have already covered this ground, suing big banks and their former CEO’s and extracting insufficient settlement payments—most of which were paid by shareholders of those companies, not the executives responsible for the misdeeds. The banks will argue strenuously and with great success that this is double jeopardy: they can’t be sued twice for the same crimes. Proponents’ arguments that the taskforce will uncover new crimes are not persuasive, given that that the taskforce will be staffed with many of the same lawyers from the SEC and the DOJ who pursued the earlier cases.

The clearest example of the Obama administration’s approach to governance can be seen in its energy and environmental policies. In his speech Obama said, “Tonight I’m directing my administration to open more than 75% of our potential offshore oil and gas resources.” So much for cracking down on oil company polluters in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf. He went on to say that hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) is okay, as long as companies tell us which chemicals they’re pouring into the ground. No mention was made of how those chemicals often migrate into groundwater and drinking water supplies, harming human, plant, and animal life. No mention was made of recent studies of earthquake activity near the deep-well disposal sites for contaminated fluids used in fracking.

Boasting that we have 100 years of natural gas reserves in the US, Obama ignored recent estimates by his own Energy Information Administration that show those reserves to be much lower—more than 40% lower, in fact, than earlier estimates. In addition, the US is set to become a net exporter of liquefied natural gas by 2016, belying Obama’s assumption that that our natural gas supply is for domestic use only.

The president then tossed a bone to environmentalists by calling for the opening of public lands to clean energy projects. Unfortunately, this shows the Democratic Party’s vast ignorance of the debate raging in environmental circles about such projects. Many enviros condemn the effort to place, for example, solar panels in a pristine and fragile semi-desert environment, when there are many private lands that could be used for clean energy development. The difference: energy companies would have to pay private landowners, when they could get access to public lands much more cheaply. Again, financial incentives to corporations trump environmental policy.

Most important are the elements missing from an Obama administration energy and environmental policy, primarily energy conservation plans and any effort to require power plants to clean up their carbon emissions. Corporations and the Republican Party have called these “job-killing” initiatives, and the Democratic Party has swallowed it hook, line, and sinker.

Aside from the tax credits for businesses to bring jobs home, the expensive educational initiatives, and the call to fund clean energy projects, the centerpiece of Obama’s State of the Union address, the words that everyone was waiting to hear were: “Here’s how we’re going to pay for all this.”

Again, Obama disappointed us. He made two, brief statements about funding for his proposals. First, he claimed that the federal government will get a peace dividend from ending the war in Iraq, which Congress should spend to pay down the deficit and fund infrastructure projects.

The peace dividend is a mirage. The US is still pouring billions of dollars into the War on Terror. Sure, not as much of it is going to Iraq, although we still have the largest US embassy in the world in Baghdad, and we’re still funding Iraqi infrastructure and security forces training there. But we’re pouring increasing amounts of money into secret and undeclared wars all across the Middle East and Africa, from Pakistan to Yemen, to Somalia. And let’s not forget Afghanistan, where the US military estimates we’ll be involved for at least the next decade or longer.

Secondly, Obama embraced Warren Buffet’s proposal to raise taxes on people who make more than a million dollars per year. This does not constitute a comprehensive, detailed tax plan. He didn’t say a single word about letting the Bush tax cuts expire, he didn’t mention raising taxes on carried interest (wages earned by hedge fund managers that are taxed at only 15%), or raising capital gains tax rates. He didn’t mention revising the alternative minimum tax to capture more wealthy taxpayers instead of middle-class taxpayers. He didn’t mention a special tax on investment transactions, nor did he make a case for the estate tax or closing loopholes that allow the wealthy to transfer their assets tax-free to their children and grandchildren. He didn’t discuss how many businesses in the US paid little or no tax on their profits last year. In short, he presented no plan to deal with the federal government’s fiscal woes. And that’s a massive failure of governance.

Congress bears some responsibility for not passing a comprehensive budget, but that doesn’t let the president off the hook for proposing a solution to the most important problem in the national political arena. Obama failed to do that, and in doing so, proved himself as much removed from reality and divorced from the concerns of average Americans as George W. Bush ever was.

Obama’s State of the Union speech can be viewed as a campaign speech, but it should also be viewed as a gauge for the state of his presidency. In spite of rhetoric meant to appeal to middle class Americans, his administration has done everything it can to help the wealthy maintain their privileges, and to help corporations erode democracy, workers’ rights, and the environment in pursuit of more profits for their shareholders. None of the Republican candidates for president would be better, but they also wouldn’t be much worse, and that makes me shudder for the future of democracy in America.

Mitt Romney’s Wealth and What It Means

The mainstream media has been full of news reporting on Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s finances. First, let’s thank the Occupy Wall Street movement, because without them, this would never have become a campaign issue. And even as Mitt Romney tries desperately to keep his finances a secret, bits of information keep leaking to the press.

First, there’s Romney’s own, casual admission that he paid “about 15%” in income taxes last year, but of course he won’t know for sure until his accountant finishes his tax return (sometime in April, after most of the early primaries are over). He could release his 2010 tax return, however, as other candidates have, but he won’t, which says lot about the amount of government secrecy we can expect from a Romney administration.

About that 15%: it’s less than half of what his wealthy father paid in taxes during his time as an American millionaire, which was 37%. Ah, those good old days. And I’m not even talking about a time that was in the distant past. Ten years ago, Mitt Romney would have paid about 25% in taxes, and 15 years ago, in the mid-1990’s, he would have paid 29%. That was during the booming years of Bill Clinton’s first term, when the economy gained around 11.5 million jobs (which puts the entire Bush Jr. presidency to shame) and the federal government ran a surplus, not a deficit.

So whenever you hear right-wing pundits complain that raising taxes on the rich will hurt the economy, you should know better. The rich have paid much higher tax rates during some of the best years of the U.S. economy.

Let’s remember that the federal deficit wasn’t a side effect of the George W. Bush years; it was the whole point. Bush was heavily supported by Wall Street, the oil industry, and defense contractors because he was willing to spend taxpayer money (and borrow even more) on two wasteful wars in the Middle East, which turned out to be very profitable for them. And of course Bush pushed through two major tax cuts for the wealthy that were very dear to the hearts of his wealthy constituents.

Now comes Romney, who is the very embodiment of everything that is Wall Street. His fortune, estimated to be around $250 million, puts him in the upper ranks of the 1%. His tax rate of 15% means that he earns no wages or salary; he makes all of his money through his investments. His work history, as former CEO of Bain Capital, means he has yet to learn what an honest day’s work in the real economy—the one that manufactures real goods and provides services to average Americans—really means.

Bain Capital is a private equity firm. Private equity firms engage in leveraged buyouts. They collect a big pool of cash from wealthy investors and use that pool of cash to buy a distressed company. They “turn that company around” by cutting what they determine to be excess: they sell off some of the assets and lay off a lot of people. Once they’ve turned the company into a money making enterprise, they use that company as collateral for big loans, which are then used to buy more distressed companies, and so on. And the amount of profit that private equity firms demand from the companies they buy is very high, because they have a whole bunch of wealthy investors who want a big, exciting rate of return.

Romney is no longer CEO of Bain Capital, but a large portion of his fortune is invested in Bain Capital’s various investment funds. And at least $25 million of his fortune is invested in offshore funds that Bain set up in the Cayman Islands.

Romney and his financial advisors have all denied that he invested in those funds to avoid paying U.S. taxes. They all say something like: “he chose those funds because of the assets they invested in, not for tax reasons.” That’s disingenuous, to say the least. Every investor looks at the total rate of return of the investment he’s considering. The “total rate of return” is what the fund pays the investor less any costs to the investor, including fees paid to the fund managers and income taxes. There would be no other reason for Bain to set up a fund in the Cayman Islands except to help the investors avoid paying U.S. income taxes. Bain has a total of 138 offshore investment funds in the Cayman Islands.

Now, many politicians—both Republicans and Democrats—have railed against companies and individuals who use offshore banks and other foreign institutions to avoid paying U.S. taxes. The U.S. Treasury has been cracking down on taxpayers who don’t declare their foreign earnings, because the Treasury has a vested interest in knowing the extent of the problem, and for good reason. Offshore investments suck an estimated $100 billion dollars in tax revenue out of the U.S. Treasury.

But the problem could be worse than that. Funds that are organized in a foreign country but purchase and trade mostly U.S. assets allow foreigners to invest in the U.S. without having to pay U.S. taxes on that income, as they would otherwise be required to do if they bought and sold those assets directly. And U.S. assets, particularly real estate, are looking like a very good deal to foreign investors these days. The U.S. Treasury needs that tax revenue now more than ever, but can’t collect it from funds organized as offshore tax havens. Don’t expect Mitt Romney to change that law.

Nor can we expect Mitt Romney to advocate for a repeal of the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy, as Barack Obama has done. Those tax cuts have rewarded Romney, and his Wall Street cohorts, beyond their wildest dreams.

The Most Under-Reported Economic Stories of 2011

In the past year the press was full of stories speculating over whether the economic recovery was well under way or beginning to falter. But most stories were economic happy talk, glowing reports of record corporate earnings without any mention of how the companies were using their windfalls of cash. The disconnect between what ordinary Americans see inside their own checkbooks and what they read or watch in the news reports is getting bigger every day. So here is our list of the most important and neglected economic stories of the year.

1. The European Debt Crisis was manufactured by big, institutional investors to punish the European Union for not fully bailing out Greece the way the US government bailed out big banks in 2008 and 2009.

Let’s admit the truth here. Sure, Greece was in serious trouble. But Spain? Italy? And now France and Germany? No way. The equation is simple, but the financial press never laid it out for anyone. Instead of bailing out Greece, the EU worked out a deal that forced private investors to take a loss on their Greek bonds, which made big institutional investors (banks and hedge funds) angry; so they dumped any and all European debt in their portfolios. A few weeks later, no European government could get a favorable rate on their short-term debt. And no government in the world can currently get a long-term loan because investors are worried that, once interest rates rise, their money will be locked into long-term bonds whose value will have fallen and whose interest rates will be super low. The European Debt Crisis didn’t ease up until December when the European Central Bank finally announced that it would do what the US Federal Reserve did in 2009: extend no-interest loans to any and all banks that want them. Mission accomplished.

2. Hidden problems in the bond market.

Here’s another simple equation for you: add together panicked investors looking for a safe investment plus a huge number of retiring baby boomers. This leads to a record amount of money poured into the bond markets, because bonds are a safe investment, right? Well, not exactly. With few medium and small businesses able to borrow money, and government debt in disfavor, we should be asking ourselves where all that bond market money is going.

Here’s a way to find out: by looking at the largest bond market index mutual funds, which buy investments to match the composition of the entire US bond market. Here’s what one such fund holds: 70% in US government agency debt, 20.7% in corporate bonds, and the last 9% is made up of municipal bonds, other sovereign debt, cash, and a few risky derivatives (to boost the fund’s rate of return).

Sounds pretty safe, right? But here’s the kicker: of that 70% of US government agency debt, only a little more than half is invested in the safest US Treasuries (US federal government debt, i.e., the much maligned “deficit”). The rest, a full 34.4% of the entire fund, is made up of bonds issued by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; in other words, it’s tied up in the still-sinking housing market. Many of these bonds may be worthless, because Fannie and Freddie have been doing the same things that other big US mortgage lenders have been doing: delaying the inevitable write-off for as long as possible.

In addition, of the 20.7% of the fund invested in corporate bonds, more than a third of that (36%) is invested in bonds issued by banks, brokerages, insurance companies, and real estate investments trusts, and other financial industry companies. So the total amount in the fund that’s invested in the housing market and the finance industry is 42%, which shows us exactly how big the housing market bubble still is, and how risky investing in bonds can be.

3. Nearly half of all Americans are poor or low-income.

Last year, as in past years, the US Census Bureau calculated the number of people whose incomes are below the poverty level, defined as $22,314 for a family of four. That number totaled about 49.1 million Americans. But, for the first time, the bureau also calculated the number of people whose incomes were just above the poverty level, but below the “low-income” level, defined as $44,405 for a family of four (about 200% of the poverty level). That total came to 97.3 million additional Americans, which means nearly half of all people in the United States are poor or low-income.

In addition, 1 in 4 Americans needed emergency food assistance in the past year, 57% of all children in this country are in poor or low-income families, and 62% of low income families spent more than one-third of their income on housing. Child care costs take up another 20%, which doesn’t leave much for food, transportation, clothing, school supplies, etc.

With half of our population barely able to afford basic necessities, consumer spending (which accounts for more than 70% of economic activity) will never be able to rescue the US from its economic downturn.

4. The average tax rate paid by large US corporations is really 18.5%.

Whenever anyone mentions raising taxes, a wail goes up in corporate boardrooms all across America: “We pay too much tax!” The aspirational tax rate for US corporations is 35%. Wouldn’t it be nice if the US Treasury actually collected that much? According to a study done by Citizens for Tax Justice, only one-quarter of large US corporations pay more than 30% of their income in tax. Another one-quarter pay less than 10%. Approximately 30 companies in the study paid no tax, despite earning large profits. The most notorious offenders included Boeing, which received enormous tax breaks from the US government because it’s a major defense contractor, and companies like Microsoft who, because they’ve built call centers in other countries, can list most of their profits as foreign earnings not subject to US taxes.

5. Income disparity is at record levels in the US.

The Congressional Budget Office issued a report on income disparity in the US: the richest 1% of Americans saw their income increase by 275% over the past three years, during the worst economic downturn since the 1930’s. The upper 20% of Americans took home 53% of all after-tax income (more than the other 80% of Americans combined). Most shocking was the fact that the poorest 20% of Americans took home only 5% of all after-tax income.

6. Economically, we don’t live in a post-racist America.

More figures from the Census Bureau show us the racial composition of poverty in the US. The poverty rate is the highest for African Americans at 27%. For Hispanics it’s 26%. And for white Americans it’s 9.9%. Clearly, we don’t live in a post-racist America.

The statistics on race and poverty also held one startling fact: the median annual income for a male, full-time worker (of any race) in 2010 was $47,715. In 1973, the median income for the same worker was $49,065. This erosion of earnings has benefited corporate America immensely, while creating a lost generation for American workers.

7. Mortgage fraud is still going strong.

In August, the FBI released their annual report on mortgage fraud, showing that it’s still a widespread problem in the US. An estimated $10 billion in fraudulent loans were issued in 2010. The most common problems include falsifying documents so people could qualify for loans they couldn’t afford, inflating appraisals of houses so people had to take out larger mortgage loans, and pushing people to buy investment or rental properties that they couldn’t afford—all the same practices that led to the subprime mortgage collapse.

In addition, the Associated Press reported that mortgage-style robo-signing has become a common practice on the sale documents for properties. In 2010, banks were caught rubber-stamping mortgage loan documents and, after paying a nominal fine, they agreed to clean up their act. But now the AP has discovered that the actual sale documents for houses are being processed in the same way, potentially calling into question the ownership of millions of properties that have changed hands in the past decade.

8. Take-home pay in 2010.

Who took home the biggest slice of the pie in 2010? Was it corporations, small business, workers, or investors? Of national income in 2010, 14% was claimed by corporations, the highest rate in history. Small businesses, which are often lauded as the driving engine of employment in our economy, took home only 8.3%, the lowest rate ever. Workers took home 49.9%, the first time ever that employees took home less than 50% of total national income. And the remaining slice of the pie, a full 28.4%, went to investors, most of whom don’t work for a living, and who pay only a 15% tax rate on their income.

9. Failure of the Chrysler bailout.

A couple of years ago, when the US government stepped in to bail out Chrysler, we were told that taxpayers had to pony up to save a US automaker, which would also save US jobs. In addition, this was supposed to be an investment for US taxpayers, who could earn a healthy profit on the deal.

Well, those were lies. The US Treasury sold the last of its Chrysler stock in July, and the total loss shouldered by US taxpayers was $1.3 billion. And Chrysler is no longer a US automaker; Fiat (an Italian company) stepped in to buy up most of its stock, announcing that it would lay off a large chunk of Chrysler’s workforce in the coming merger.

We must point out that, without the bailout, Chrysler would have been bought out by Fiat or another foreign automaker anyway, because of its valuable factories and equipment strategically located in one of the most important car-buying markets in the world. The main difference is that, without the bailout, Chrysler shareholders and bondholders would have taken that $1.3 billion loss, instead of US taxpayers. That’s what a bailout is: nationalization of corporate losses so shareholders and bondholders (often big banks and hedge funds) can be rescued from their stupid investment decisions. (This is what economists mean when they talk about “moral hazard”: the more we rescue investors, the stupider and riskier their investment decisions become.)

10. Where did the cash go?

With this year’s economic happy talk centering on record corporate earnings, we might well ask where all that cash is going. It’s not creating jobs, that’s for sure. In June, the New York Times printed an article entitled “Employers Spend On Equipment Rather Than Hiring.” Apparently, equipment and software costs are so cheap (most of it is manufactured abroad, where labor costs are lower) that corporations have been on a shopping spree. Buying newer equipment and software often means more efficient automation, which leads to more layoffs. In addition, while equipment and software costs have increased only 2.4% in the past couple of years, labor costs have increased 6.7%, mostly because of skyrocketing medical insurance premiums. As a consequence, hiring is up only 2% in the past two years, while equipment and software purchases are up 26%.

So that’s where all the money has been going: to buy goods made by other US companies, but not made in the US, where labor costs are still too high, in spite of the erosion of wages for US workers over the past 40 years.

The trend is obvious, if you gather the right information: more of the available resources and money is being seized by big corporations and investors, while less money is available for the rest of us–those of us who do the real work. It’s too bad that the mainstream US media can’t seem to get the message, much less spread the message.

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