2010 - %3, July

Bonus July 4th Cat Blogging

| Sun Jul. 4, 2010 11:32 AM PDT

So what is it exactly that makes this into July 4th catblogging? It's a stretch, I admit. But there was some parade-like activity going on outside our house earlier this morning, and Domino got alarmed enough about the whole thing to retreat to the kitchen and jump up on the refrigerator for safety. So that's the excuse.

But really, you don't need an excuse for bonus catblogging anyway, do you? Enjoy the 4th everyone!

Advertise on MotherJones.com

John Boehner's Rich Fantasy Life

| Sun Jul. 4, 2010 10:44 AM PDT

I really enjoyed Dan Balz's piece on John Boehner in the Washington Post last night. Balz wanted to know what Boehner would do if Republicans won the House in November and Boehner became Speaker. Aside from a ritual call for repeal of healthcare reform, it turns out Boehner was none too eager to say:

First, he said, was a renewed commitment to fiscal discipline — a test his party badly flunked the last time it was in the majority. Second, he said, was to engage in "an adult conversation with the American people" about the need to rein in entitlement spending. And third, he wants to increase bipartisan cooperation in the House.

....Beyond saying Republicans would scrub the budget for wasteful spending, a pledge regularly made and ignored by politicians of both parties, he offered no examples of what programs Republicans would actually cut. Nor did he seem eager to tip his hand on the terms of entitlement reform. In his interview with the Tribune-Review, Boehner volunteered that the Social Security retirement age might need to be raised to 70 for younger workers but he would go no further.

Asked whether partial privatization of Social Security, which Republicans pushed unsuccessfully in 2005, would be part of a GOP agenda, he twice replied, "I have no idea." Later, he called back to clarify, saying that what he meant to say was that, until Republicans complete their process of soliciting ideas from the American people, there will be no answer to that question. "We're not going to prejudge what's going to come out of this listening project."

That hardly sounded like a politician eager to provoke an adult conversion with the American people.

Italics mine. You'd think that, by now, the GOP might have a decent idea of what it wants to accomplish without soliciting further ideas from the American people, but apparently not. They're still trying to figure it out.

In any case, to summarize, Boehner wants to restore fiscal discipline — even though he's never done it before and has no idea how to do it this time around. He wants to have an "adult" conversation with the American people about entitlements — even though the GOP has never done this before and he refuses to give even a hint about what this difficult conversation might entail. And most hilariously, Boehner insists that what he really wants to do if he becomes Speaker is restore a sense of civility and bipartisanship on Capitol Hill — even though he's been the GOP's point man for crude obstructionism from the day Barack Obama was sworn in. "Skeptics will doubt Boehner's sincerity or capability," Balz said dryly, and indeed they might. But points for chutzpah.

Michael Steele Finally Goes Too Far

| Sun Jul. 4, 2010 10:14 AM PDT

Browsing through the news today, I see that RNC chairman Michael Steele is now being attacked from pretty much all corners. No one — not a single person — is defending him anymore. Which is interesting, no? It turns out that a Republican party chairman can survive calling Rush Limbaugh "ugly"; can survive calling abortion an individual choice; can survive an admission that the GOP has followed a racist strategy for the past 40 years; can survive accepting money for political speeches; and can survive a scandal over RNC spending at a lesbian bondage club. Sure, Steele had to apologize each time, but he survived.

But speaking out against a war? That, it turns out, is finally something that every faction of the Republican Party can agree on. For that, they're unanimously demanding Steele's head on a platter. Pretty interesting party, isn't it?

Lack of Growth Due to Lack of Customers

| Sun Jul. 4, 2010 9:43 AM PDT

Don Lee of the LA Times presents yet more pessimistic news about our anemic economic recovery:

In every recession over the last three decades, it has been America's small businesses — those Lilliputian companies with fewer than 100 employees — that stepped forward, began hiring and pulled the country out of the mire.

Not this time....A host of factors — some well-recognized and others seemingly unnoticed in the national debate over economic policy — are converging to restrain small-business owners from hiring. Among them:

  • Near-stagnant demand for goods and services as a result of consumers' reluctance to return to their free-spending ways.
  • A disturbing falloff in the creation of new small businesses.
  • The devastation of the real estate market.
  • Uncertainty about the economic outlook at home and abroad.

....The fact that many small firms are seeing little increase in demand for their services and products is decisive for Scott George, owner of Mid-America Dental & Hearing Center, which employs 55 people in the southwestern Missouri town of Mount Vernon.

"I'm not having any trouble getting money," said George, who recently got a $250,000 loan to renovate one of his buildings. But he's not hiring more workers because of little or no growth in sales.

As it happens, I've read conflicting evidence about whether or not it's really small businesses that are usually the engines of job creation when the economy comes out of a recession. It seems to vary with the recession, and in any case the net difference between job creation in small vs. large businesses appears to be modest. Still, most of what Lee says here applies to large businesses too: lack of expansion right now is due less to credit woes than to simple lack of demand. Until consumers start spending again, economic growth is going to be weak. But what's going to get consumers spending again?

How Maple Sugar (Almost) Saved Civilization

| Sat Jul. 3, 2010 11:41 AM PDT

Cooperstown, New York— Yesterday I alluded to a theory in the late 1700s, among a certain kind of abolitionist, that the discovery of maple sugar could end the slave trade. And then, just like that, I never returned to the subject. Well here goes: Basically the idea, explained in detail in Alan Taylor’s Pulitzer-winning William Cooper's Town, was that, since slavery was at its most entrenched in the sugar plantations of the Caribbean, any sort of shift in the market for sugar—say, by extracting a new kind of sugar from maple trees—would crush the sugar colonies. Fix the market, in other words, and the market will fix the problem. Or something.

The idea that maple sugar could end the slave trade by replacing cane sugar is a bit like saying that whale oil could eliminate demand for offshore drilling by replacing crude. If Cooper—father of Mark Twains least favorite novelist, James Fenimore—really wanted to end slavery, he might have started by freeing his own slaves. Nonetheless, Taylor tells us, Cooper convinced his old-money Quaker friends in Philadelphia to fund the venture, which turned out about as well as you might expect. The comparatively tiny harvest of maple sugar in Cooperstown was mostly ruined on the trip down the river, and those who tried it decided they like cane sugar better anyway. So much for that. There was also the inconvenient but irreversible truth that for Cooper’s more expansive land speculation to succeed, people would have to chop down said maple trees. So maybe that wasn’t such a great idea. Anyways, now you know.
 

Jobs and Workers: A Note From the Field

| Sat Jul. 3, 2010 11:18 AM PDT

In comments to yesterday's post about firms having trouble finding qualified workers even with millions of unemployed to choose from, Bob offers this:

My day job is with a regional Workforce Investment Board and I might be able to offer some additional clarification based on what we are seeing in this job market.

There are indeed some jobs that remain vacant because employers cannot find workers with the right skills. You correctly noted that this problem was MUCH worse mid-decade when the economy (at least here) was doing well. At that time employers were willing to hire people as long as they had very basic employability skills (work ethic, attendance, hygiene, etc). They would train for job specific skills.

Today, I would break "the problem" into several problems.

  • First, there is a significant fraction of the unemployed who are reluctant to re-train. The reasons behind this are: (1) Early on in their unemployment, some feel they cannot afford to take time to go back to school — even if it is government financed like we provide. They need money today and figure looking is their best choice because they've "always been able to find a job." As unemployment lingers they start to broaden their horizons but can afford it even less. As background, one must be unemployed, through no fault of one's own, when applying for training. However, we will continue to pay for training if the client finds a job. In fact, we encourage and assist people in finding employment to pay for basic needs while training. (2) They were poor students and/or hated school the first time around. The idea of going back, sometimes after decades, is extremely intimidating.
  • Employers who once would take any warm body are becoming more choosy and, at the risk of overstating it a bit, feel they can find over qualified workers at bargain basement prices. It seems like this is what is happening with the pharmaceutical company in the NYT article.

    I read the issue a bit differently than you are. The 9th grade reading and math test, which a "significant" proportion failed (is that 25%, 50%, more, less???) is a floor. It is likely the company is looking for much more than that, a point that is alluded to by the disappointment with local training programs. Moreover, per the article, the company is paying 60-67% of the going rate for skilled workers. Workers who were living check to check before the recession will be reluctant to take a 30-40% pay cut. Also, many with professional backgrounds forget that factory work pay scales are pretty rigid. A worker who accepts a position 40% less that what they were making will likely never make up the difference. That is a tough nut to swallow.

    Here is where the right wingers have a partial point. Unemployment insurance (UI) is a cushion that has a tendency to delay that point at which such a worker as described above gets desperate enough to take anything. For my part, I don't think this is bad. When the economy rebounds, underemployment is a drag on growth. Fitting people to the best employment for which they are qualified is the optimal solution. To the extent that UI helps this, it is a good thing.

My region is quite diverse in that we cover urban, suburban and rural areas. Each brings its own challenges. Recently, a large paper mill closed in the rural part of our region putting 1,200 out of a job in the space of 4 months. Over 200 have found jobs, in manufacturing, with a local private shipyard. This company has been willing to take skilled machine operators and put them through an extensive, and expensive apprenticeship program. The vast majority of the workers leaving the paper plant have no more than a high school diploma yet the shipyard willingly took them on as trainees. In this instance, the shipyard is paying a decent apprenticeship wage, with the opportunity of moving into a more lucrative career path AND providing a "blue chip" training experience.

One could argue that this is "government funded" because the shipyard is a 100% Navy contractor and that other employers cannot profitably offer that same deal. However, the workforce investment system is able to provide on the job training funds to employers willing to hire and put workers through a legitimate training experience. Each workforce investment board is able to set its own policies. In our case we will pay up to 50% of a trainee's salary for up to 6 months. The primary requirements are that the newly hired employee does not displace an existing employee; the trainee gains measurable skills over the course of the training period; and the trainee's salary increases after the training period ends (commensurate with the increase in skills).

The system is flexible enough to accommodate the great variety of situations present in individual local job markets. Both employers and prospective employees need to be aware of the services and willing to take advantage of them.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

"You Have to Live in the Country to Feel the Country"

| Fri Jul. 2, 2010 6:26 PM PDT

Fort Ticonderoga, New York—Our road to Ticonderoga, site of Ethan Allen's critical Revolutionary War victory, was complicated by the minor detail that, as of December, said road no longer exists. The only functional bridge over Lake Champlain from Vermont was condemned last year, and, in the fashion befitting cookie-cutter baseball stadiums, subjected to a controlled demolition on local television. The night the bridge closed down, the ferry at Larrabee’s Point stayed open all night to receive the excess passengers. It was, says Nina, the storekeeper at the Orwell, Vt. convenience mart, "a pretty big deal." We take the ferry instead.The Crossing: (Photo: Tim Murphy)The Crossing: (Photo: Tim Murphy)

I'm headed to Ticonderoga both because of Allen (more on him later), and because of my lifelong fascination with #2 pencils. And although I don't end up going into the fort, I do meet Evan Zgonis. Zgonis, 68, of Dracut, Massachusetts, flags me down near the park's entrance. He sees my Red Sox shirt, I guess, which makes us brothers. As we talk, a band of college-age redcoat re-enactors are practicing the flute at a pair of picnic tables.

His grandkids are about to start elementary school, where they'll learn US history for the first time. He wants to give them a head start "I was here for my kids," Zgonis says. "And now it's the turn for my grandkids. Americans, they have to know their own history."

Is the Washington Post Shilling for the Pentagon?

| Fri Jul. 2, 2010 2:46 PM PDT

If you need evidence of media complicity in support of what author Andrew Bacevich calls the "Washington Rules"—aka the national security consensus that justifies our militarism around the globe—look no further than today's Washington Post.

Here you'll find a fawning A-1 article by Laura Blumenfeld—apparently a big fan of 24—about the brave men and women of the Obama administration who stay up nights keeping America safe. Here's her summary:

With two wars, multiple crises abroad and growing terrorism activity at home, these national security officials do not sleep in peace. For them, the night is a public vigil. It is also a time of private reckoning with their own tensions and doubts. They read the highest classification of intelligence. They pursue the details of plots that realize the nation's vague, yet primal, fears.

Now check out this bit on Robert M. Gates—human being—who sacrifices his peace of mind for our safety:

The secretary of defense must be reachable at all hours. He transmits orders from the White House to the Pentagon in an era when troops operate in every time zone. If North Korea tests a nuclear weapon or Iran tests a new missile, Gates needs to know now. "I don't feel like I'm ever really off," he said earlier. "I have security and communications people in the basement of my house. They come up and rap on the basement door."

Next to his bedroom at home, he confers in a sound-proof, vault-lock space. He calls it "The Batcave."

Gates smiles. He radiates control: individual white hairs lie combed into place; a crack in his lips is smoothed repeatedly by ChapStick. But even this confident cabinet secretary—the slightly feared Republican, whose status others covet by day—slips, at night, into the shadows of doubt.

At his compound in Washington, he'll change into jeans and a baseball cap and take a walk after 11 p.m. He'll count the number of surveillance cameras watching him and look out into the dark and reflect on the "persistent threat. You know, and you wonder, what more can you be doing? What have we missed?"

Enviros Call on Obama to Step Up His Game on Energy

| Fri Jul. 2, 2010 2:08 PM PDT

Senate Democrats are expected to introduce an energy package shortly after the July 4 recess, an as-yet undetermined combination of energy, oil-spill, and possibly climate-change measures. The Senate was expected to debate the package the week of July 19, but with no clear picture yet of what that package might look like, that seems less likely.

A number of environmental groups want the president to step in and give the Senate some clear guidance on the package, which they say is crucial at this point. "White House leadership is the only path we see to success, just as your direct leadership was critical in the passage of the recovery plan, health care reform, and other administration successes," wrote the heads of nine environmental groups in a letter to Obama.

President Obama met with a bipartisan group of senators on Tuesday of this week, but the meeting didn't make the picture any more clear. Senators said Obama called for the package to include a price on carbon, but most of the Republican senators (save Olympia Snowe of Maine) outright rejected that idea.

Hill staffers briefed on the meeting say it was more of a listening session for Obama than one in which he outlined what he wants in a bill. Press secretary Robert Gibbs signaled as much at Thursday's press briefing. "The president had a good meeting a couple days ago with senators from both parties that have led on this issue," he said. "We have not made any final determinations about the size and scope of the legislation except to say that the president believes, and continues to believe, that putting a price on carbon has to be part of our comprehensive energy reform."

The heads of the Alliance for Climate Protection, the Blue Green Alliance, the Center for American Progress Action Fund, Environment America, Environmental Defense Fund, League of Conservation Voters, National Wildlife Federation, Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Union of Concerned Scientists signed onto the letter, which called on Obama to give the senate more direction on the issue. Here's the key portion of the letter:

The Senate needs your help to end this paralysis. With the window of opportunity quickly closing, nothing less than your direct personal involvement, and that of senior administration officials, can secure America's clean energy future. We strongly urge you to produce a bill, in conjunction with key Senators, that responds to the catastrophe in the Gulf, cuts oil use, and limits carbon pollution while maintaining current health and other key legal protections. We further urge you to work with the Senate to bring that bill to the floor for passage before the August recess. White House leadership is the only path we see to success, just as your direct leadership was critical in the passage of the recovery plan, health care reform, and other administration successes.

EPA Dispersant Tests "of Very Limited Utility"

| Fri Jul. 2, 2010 12:10 PM PDT

The EPA on Wednesday released the first round of information on the testing the agency has been conducting on chemical dispersants. The agency concluded that, in general, the eight dispersant products it tested have "roughly the same impact on aquatic life" and are less toxic than the oil itself. But as other scientists have pointed out, the first results were on the dispersant products alone, not on their toxicity when mixed with oil.

The EPA tests concluded that Corexit 9500, the dispersant BP has been using most in the Gulf, WAS "practically non-toxic" to fish and "slightly toxic" to shrimp. Yet Richard Denison, a senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, notes that the chemicals were tested alone, rather than in combination with oil. The EPA already had most of this data on short-term toxicity, as companies are required to test that before submitting products for approval. Other studies, however, have found that the oil-dispersant combination is more toxic and thus presents more of a threat to Gulf ecosystems than the dispersant alone.

These tests also only studied how much of a dispersant is needed to kill half of the organisms exposed to it for a relatively short amount of time. Gulf organisms, however, will be exposed for much longer periods. Denison concludes that this first round of testing is "of very limited utility in answering any of the more profound questions surrounding the use of dispersants."

Of course, the EPA cautioned this is just the first round, and there will be more in the coming weeks. But in the meantime, we don't know a whole lot more about the impact of the chemicals BP has been dumping into the Gulf in record volumes.