standingup's blog

Where did the passion of Barack Obama the candidate go?

I have heard enough about the debt ceiling to last a life time. I will probably feel the same way about the S&P downgrade of the U.S. by the end of next week too. But there is an opinion piece in the New York Times worth the time to read. I can't recall reading Drew Westen's work before yet after reading his piece What Happened to Obama?, I look forward to even more.

An excerpt to wet your appetite:

When Barack Obama rose to the lectern on Inauguration Day, the nation was in tatters. Americans were scared and angry. The economy was spinning in reverse. Three-quarters of a million people lost their jobs that month. Many had lost their homes, and with them the only nest eggs they had. Even the usually impervious upper middle class had seen a decade of stagnant or declining investment, with the stock market dropping in value with no end in sight. Hope was as scarce as credit.

In that context, Americans needed their president to tell them a story that made sense of what they had just been through, what caused it, and how it was going to end. They needed to hear that he understood what they were feeling, that he would track down those responsible for their pain and suffering, and that he would restore order and safety. What they were waiting for, in broad strokes, was a story something like this:

“I know you’re scared and angry. Many of you have lost your jobs, your homes, your hope. This was a disaster, but it was not a natural disaster. It was made by Wall Street gamblers who speculated with your lives and futures. It was made by conservative extremists who told us that if we just eliminated regulations and rewarded greed and recklessness, it would all work out. But it didn’t work out. And it didn’t work out 80 years ago, when the same people sold our grandparents the same bill of goods, with the same results. But we learned something from our grandparents about how to fix it, and we will draw on their wisdom. We will restore business confidence the old-fashioned way: by putting money back in the pockets of working Americans by putting them back to work, and by restoring integrity to our financial markets and demanding it of those who want to run them. I can’t promise that we won’t make mistakes along the way. But I can promise you that they will be honest mistakes, and that your government has your back again.” A story isn’t a policy. But that simple narrative — and the policies that would naturally have flowed from it — would have inoculated against much of what was to come in the intervening two and a half years of failed government, idled factories and idled hands. That story would have made clear that the president understood that the American people had given Democrats the presidency and majorities in both houses of Congress to fix the mess the Republicans and Wall Street had made of the country, and that this would not be a power-sharing arrangement. It would have made clear that the problem wasn’t tax-and-spend liberalism or the deficit — a deficit that didn’t exist until George W. Bush gave nearly $2 trillion in tax breaks largely to the wealthiest Americans and squandered $1 trillion in two wars.

Sunday suggested reading and open thread

Hope everyone is enjoying a pleasant and long 4th of July weekend.

A suggested article from the Sunday edition of the New York Times, We Knew They Got Raises. But This?". The Times is updating an earlier study on executive compensation in the U.S. to reflect companies that had not previously disclosed pay packages on April 1, 2011.

The final figures show that the median pay for top executives at 200 big companies last year was $10.8 million. That works out to a 23 percent gain from 2009. The earlier study had put the median pay at a none-too-shabby $9.6 million, up 12 percent.

Total C.E.O. pay hasn’t quite returned to its heady, prerecession levels — but it certainly seems headed there. Despite the soft economy, weak home prices and persistently high unemployment, some top executives are already making more than they were before the economy soured.

Read and weep.

Most ordinary Americans aren’t getting raises anywhere close to those of these chief executives. Many aren’t getting raises at all — or even regular paychecks. Unemployment is still stuck at more than 9 percent.

In some ways, chief executives seem to live in a world apart when it comes to pay. As long as shareholders think that the top brass is doing a good job, executives tend to be well paid, whatever the state of the broader economy. And some corporate boards were probably particularly generous in 2010 after a few relatively lean years for their top executives. In other words, some of this was makeup pay.

No doubt those executives have little to weep about, outside of the off chance they might see a tax loophole closed.


Is shale gas the next Enron?

The New York Times has a big scoop today on shale gas exploration and production. Natural gas from the shale formations in the U.S. has been hawked to be the nation's newest form of cheap energy. Concerns with the environmental impact of hydraulic fracturing to extract natural gas are well known. The Times reveals there are also serious concerns with the economics of shale gas production.

But the gas may not be as easy and cheap to extract from shale formations deep underground as the companies are saying, according to hundreds of industry e-mails and internal documents and an analysis of data from thousands of wells.

Rare Heat Burst in Wichita Kansas

The year 2011 has been filled with unusual weather events across these United States. We have seen a historical blizzard, incredible flooding, record breaking heat and some of the most destructive and deadliest tornadoes ever seen. This past week the city of Wichita, Kansas experienced a very rare weather event known as a "heat burst."

Consider the following from Jason Samenow's Washington Post Capital Weather Gang blog:

Since June began, no doubt the 1400-plus new heat records set across the U.S. have impressed. But consider the following: between midnight and 1 a.m. Thursday morning, the temperature in Wichita, Kansas spiked from 81 and 101 degrees. Yes- the temperature ROSE 20 degrees in one hour in the middle of the night, passing the century mark. To the north, across the Great Lakes and Upper Midwest, there were some remarkable - though not nearly as dramatic - temperature declines.

What happened in Wichita is known as a heat burst, a relatively rare phenomenon. At the website, meteorologist Jeff Haby describes what a heat burst is and how it develops. Here’s a short excerpt that captures the essence of it:

A heat burst is a downdraft of hot and dry air that typically occurs in the evening or overnight hours. . . . Heat bursts usually happen in the evening or at night after thunderstorms are ending. Thus, a thunderstorm has a vital role. Two other characteristics are that the air must start its descent from fairly high up and the environmental air aloft needs to be very dry.

U.S. Postal Service on the brink of insolvency

The latest issue of Businessweek brings us the dire situation facing the U.S. Postal Service (USPS). First a glimpse of the scope of the USPS from The U.S. Postal Service Nears Collapse.

The USPS is a wondrous American creation. Six days a week it delivers an average of 563 million pieces of mail—40 percent of the entire world's volume. For the price of a 44¢ stamp, you can mail a letter anywhere within the nation's borders. The service will carry it by pack mule to the Havasupai Indian reservation at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Mailmen on snowmobiles take it to the wilds of Alaska. If your recipient can no longer be found, the USPS will return it at no extra charge. It may be the greatest bargain on earth.

It takes an enormous organization to carry out such a mission. The USPS has 571,566 full-time workers, making it the country's second-largest civilian employer after Wal-Mart Stores (WMT). It has 31,871 post offices, more than the combined domestic retail outlets of Wal-Mart, Starbucks (SBUX), and McDonald's (MCD). Last year its revenues were $67 billion, and its expenses were even greater. Postal service executives proudly note that if it were a private company, it would be No. 29 on the Fortune 500.

How big are these problems?

Thirteen states have passed laws making voting more difficult

For years Republicans have been nothing short of determined to restrict voter access to the polls. The New York Times has picked up the story today, reporting new laws tightening voting rules have been passed in thirteen states where Republicans control the state legislatures. Some of the states passing new laws include Florida, Texas, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Kansas, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

The new laws are alleged to be necessary to prevent voter fraud, in spite of there being very few actual cases of voter fraud to justify such onerous requirements to vote. The outcome is likely to keep more citizens with the legal right to vote from participating in elections than keeping any illegal votes from being cast.

“Remarkably, most of these significant changes are going under the radar,” he added. “A lot of voters are going to be surprised and dismayed when they go to their polling place and find that the rules have changed.”

Most of the measures would require people to show a form of official, valid identification to vote. While driver’s licenses are the most common form, voters can also request free photo IDs from the Department of Motor Vehicles or use a passport or military identification, among other things.


A few state bills and laws also shave the number of early voting days, a move that Democrats say would impact Democratic voters once again. In the 2008 presidential election, a majority of those who cast early votes did so for President Obama. In Florida, the number of days is reduced but the number of hours remains the same.

Could the Ryan Plan leave millions of seniors without nursing home or long term care?

Congressional Quarterly recently covered an important issue omitted from most of the discussion of Paul Ryan's budget plan passed by the U.S. House of Representatives.

Yet with as many as 70 percent of nursing home residents now relying on Medicaid payments, a Republican proposal to transform the third-largest federal entitlement program could alter the day-to-day living and health care arrangements of millions of elderly or disabled Americans.

We have heard how the Ryan plan would impact retired Americans with dramatic changes to Medicare but has anyone heard much about the effect on elderly recipients of Medicaid?

One explanation, health policy analysts say, is that people don’t like to think about being old and unable to care for themselves. Another is that many American voters think of Medicare as a social insurance program for the middle class, but regard Medicaid as a welfare program for the poor. When it comes to long-term care, however, that’s not the case. While Medicare pays for short-term skilled nursing care after a specific illness or surgery, it doesn’t cover longer-term care, like the years in a nursing home a patient with Alzheimer’s might need.

That’s up to its sister program, Medicaid, the federal-state partnership enacted with far less fanfare on the same date in 1965. Medicaid bears the burden for families and individuals who can’t pay annual nursing home bills of $72,000, and for those elderly or disabled who started out paying, but exhaust their assets. Many states also cover some long-term care arrangements that allow people to continue living at home.

United Arab Emirates has a new Prince

The United Arab Emirates has a new Prince with a different twist, this one was hired. This weekend the New York Times reveals the rulers of the United Arab Emirates have hired former Blackwater founder and owner, Erik Prince for the purpose of creating their own private mercenary army.

We knew Prince had left the U.S. and taken up residence in Abu Dhabi. Now we have a better idea of why...

For Mr. Prince, the foreign battalion is a bold attempt at reinvention. He is hoping to build an empire in the desert, far from the trial lawyers, Congressional investigators and Justice Department officials he is convinced worked in league to portray Blackwater as reckless. He sold the company last year, but in April, a federal appeals court reopened the case against four Blackwater guards accused of killing 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad in 2007.

To help fulfill his ambitions, Mr. Prince’s new company, Reflex Responses, obtained another multimillion-dollar contract to protect a string of planned nuclear power plants and to provide cybersecurity. He hopes to earn billions more, the former employees said, by assembling additional battalions of Latin American troops for the Emiratis and opening a giant complex where his company can train troops for other governments.

Knowing that his ventures are magnets for controversy, Mr. Prince has masked his involvement with the mercenary battalion. His name is not included on contracts and most other corporate documents, and company insiders have at times tried to hide his identity by referring to him by the code name “Kingfish.” But three former employees, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of confidentiality agreements, and two people involved in security contracting described Mr. Prince’s central role.

One must read the entire article to grasp the full implications of Prince's latest incarnation. But don't look for the pro-democracy movements in the Middle East to spread to the UAE.



Egypt on the road to democracy

Egypt continues to take important steps toward establishing a new democratic government.

From the New York Times:

The Egyptian military, for the first time publicly laying out the terms of its rule, said Sunday that it had dissolved the country’s parliament, suspended its constitution and called for elections in six months, according to a statement by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces read on state television.

WikiLeaks Uncovers U.S. interference in Spanish torture investigation

More revelations from the Wikileaks cache of documents via the Miami Herald:

It was three months into Barack Obama's presidency, and the administration -- under pressure to do something about alleged abuses in Bush-era interrogation policies -- turned to a Florida senator to deliver a sensitive message to Spain:

Don't indict former President George W. Bush's legal brain trust for alleged torture in the treatment of war on terror detainees, warned Mel Martinez on one of his frequent trips to Madrid. Doing so would chill U.S.-Spanish relations.

Rather than a resolution, though, a senior Spanish diplomat gave the former GOP chairman and housing secretary a lesson in Spain's separation of powers. "The independence of the judiciary and the process must be respected,'' then-acting Foreign Minister Angel Lossada replied on April 15, 2009. Then for emphasis, "Lossada reiterated to Martinez that the executive branch of government could not close any judicial investigation and urged that this case not affect the overall relationship.''

Read the full article for further lessons in hypocrisy.

New laws allow customers to get loaded and carry loaded weapons in bars

More good news for the gun rights advocates via the New York Times. Four states have passed legislation allowing patrons of bars to carry loaded guns inside bars.

Tennessee is one of four states, along with Arizona, Georgia and Virginia, that recently enacted laws explicitly allowing loaded guns in bars. (Eighteen other states allow weapons in restaurants that serve alcohol.) The new measures in Tennessee and the three other states come after two landmark Supreme Court rulings that citizens have an individual right — not just in connection with a well-regulated militia — to keep a loaded handgun for home defense.

IRS complaint filed alleging tax fraud by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce

The U.S. Chamber Watch is taking some bold action to check the power of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The nonprofit, formed in May of this year, just filed a complaint with the IRS alleging:

...before the 2004 election, the AIG-affiliated Starr Foundation and the U.S. Chamber and its affiliates - under the leadership of Hank Greenberg and Tom Donohue, respectively - may have colluded to transfer over $18M from AIG’s affiliated charitable foundation (the Starr Foundation) to the National Chamber Foundation (the U.S. Chamber’s public charity) and ultimately to the U.S. Chamber. The U.S. Chamber then used that money for political purposes, including a campaign to roll back post-Enron corporate accountability laws, and re-elect President Bush. Using charitable dollars for political purposes is expressly illegal.

In response, U.S. Chamber Watch is calling on the IRS to investigate these serious violations and revoke the nonprofit status of the National Chamber Foundation.