May 31, 2010

Our Responsibility to the Troops

  © Pete Marovich 2009    

Memorial Day 2010 marks not only our observance of the sacrifices made by the people who serve this country in uniform, but the terrible milestone of the 1,000th American killed in Afghanistan.  The invasion of that country occurred in 2001, and as the nearly decade-old conflict drags on, we continue feeding the war's insatiable appetite for our bravest young men and women with no end in sight, and every prospect of things getting worse before they get better, if they ever get better at all.

So, on this Memorial Day, let us indeed solemnly remember the courage of all those who gave their lives in defense of the United States, but also recognize that not every soldier, sailor, airman or marine killed has died for his country's safety, and that some have instead been sacrificed to the ill-advised whims of foolish, posturing "leaders."  As citizens, we bear the highest responsibility to call on our military only when the need is clear and all other avenues have been exhausted, not merely to claim that we "support the troops." 

The missions in Iraq and Afghanistan no longer reflect threats to the U.S. - if they ever did - and it is time to bring our servicemen and -women home.  Because while it is easy to wave the flag and feel pride in the deeds of others, at the end of the day, every person we lose is someone's son or daughter, father or mother, brother or sister, husband or wife, and we violate a sacred trust if we do not remember that when we choose to send them into harm's way.

May 26, 2010

Believe It or Not, It Could Be Worse

Click on the cartoon to visit Matt Bors' archive.

In April 20th, an oil well blowout resulted in a catastrophic fire aboard the offshore drilling platform Deepwater Horizon.  Situated some 40 miles off the coast of Louisiana, the platform sank, leaving 11 people missing and 17 injured, as well as a monstrous oil geyser vomiting thousands of barrels of raw crude and natrural gas into the Gulf of Mexico each day.  Because British Petroleum (BP), the holder of the drilling lease, has refused to allow independent examination of this toxic eruption, estimates of the volume of poison pumping into the Gulf vary from BP's own 5,000 barrels per day, to as high as 100,000 barrels every 24 hours. 

In any case, the Deepwater Horizon spill is rapidly developing into one of the worst - if not the worst - environmental disasters in the history of the United States.  The complete lack of substantive progress made in stanching this toxic eruption means that one of North America's busiest fishing and tourism areas is in very real danger of becoming a lifeless spill pond, its beaches, marshes and wetlands tragically, and perhaps fatally, fouled.

Federal and local state officials have roundly condemned BP's failure to stop the flow of oil from the damaged well, but other than promising to keep a collective "boot on their neck," responsibility for cleaning up this catastrophe remains in the hands of those who allowed it to occur, and there has been little visible penalty to British Petroleum.  That may be changing, however, as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has begun weighing drastic sanctions against the company.

Officials at the Environmental Protection Agency are considering whether to bar BP from receiving government contracts, a move that would ultimately cost the company billions in revenue and could end its drilling in federally controlled oil fields.
Federal law allows agencies to suspend or bar from government contracts companies that engage in fraudulent, reckless or criminal conduct. The sanctions can be applied to a single facility or an entire corporation. Government agencies have the power to forbid a company to collect any benefit from the federal government in the forms of contracts, land leases, drilling rights, or loans.

The most serious, sweeping kind of suspension is called "discretionary debarment" and it is applied to an entire company. If this were imposed on BP, it would cancel not only the company's contracts to sell fuel to the military but prohibit BP from leasing or renewing drilling leases on federal land. In the worst cast, it could also lead to the cancellation of BP's existing federal leases, worth billions of dollars.
In the past decade environmental accidents at BP facilities have killed at least 26 workers, led to the largest oil spill on Alaska's North Slope and now sullied some of the country's best coastal habitat, along with fishing and tourism economies along the Gulf.
"In 10 years we've got four convictions," [former debarment attorney Jeanne] Pascal said, referring to BP's three environmental crimes and a 2009 deferred prosecution for manipulating the gas market, which counts as a conviction under debarment law. "At some point if a contractor's behavior is so egregious and so bad, debarment would have to be an option."
It's doubtful that the EPA will make any decisions about BP's future in the United States until the Gulf investigation is completed, a process that could last a year. But as more information emerges about the causes of the accident there - about faulty blowout preventers and hasty orders to skip key steps and tests that could have prevented a blowout - the more the emerging story begins to echo the narrative of BP's other disasters. That, [former EPA debarment official Robert] Meunier said, could leave the EPA with little choice as it considers how "a corporate attitude of non-compliance" should affect the prospect of the company's debarment going forward.
British Petroleum lags the rest of the oil industry in terms of safety, and in light of the firm's repeated failure to mend its ways, something drastic needs to be done.  For a number of reasons, administrative, agency-level action may be the only way to do it. 

While BP has pledged to pay all costs associated with the cleanup and economic damages, the reality is that oil spill punitive damages are currently limited to $75 million dollars, an amount equal to less than 2 days of profit for the company. With the daily cost of the disaster climbing to as high as $33 million, its obvious that the existing cap is totally inadequate.  With British Petroleum's first quarter profit for 2010 totaling $5.9 billion, the company has the resources to cover costs, but without the force of law behind it, the promise to address the spill and compensate those whose livelihoods have been damaged is a thin one.  There will be pressure on company leadership from shareholders as the cleanup bill mounts, and without the force of law, the assurance to pay is nothing more than a policy easily reversed by BP's board of directors.

Two attempts have been made in the Senate to retroactively increase the cap on spill liabilty, but they were blocked, respectively, by Republican Senators Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and James Inhofe of Oklahoma.  Both lawmakers argued that increasing the limits of liability would be bad for competition, since smaller companies wouldn't be able to support the financial risks.  Missing from this argument, of course, was any discussion of the fact that this means it's okay for any oil company - large or small - to inflict more than $75 million in damage and simply walk away.  Considering the magnitude of the profits enjoyed by companies like BP, this argument is both a bad joke and confirmation that Mrs. Murkowski and Mr. Inhofe couldn't be more clearly in the pockets of the petroleum industry.

The unfortunatey reality is that there is probably no alternative to pressing BP to clean up its mess.  Unlike disasters involving earthquakes, floods, fires and even military attack, federal and state governments simply are not experienced in the resolution of deep water oil well blow-outs.  The EPA could make a show of "taking over," but would then almost certainly turn around and hire the very same people who are working to stop the deadly billow of pollution into the Gulf of Mexico.

As bad as things are, however, there is still one way they could be even more awful: Rand Paul, newly-nominated, libertarian GOP candidate for one of Kentucky's Senate seats, could be in charge.  According to Mr. Paul, we should be a lot more sympathetic to British Petroleum:
What I don't like from the president's administration is this sort of, 'I'll put my boot heel on the throat of BP' ... I think that sounds really un-American in his criticism of business... I think it's part of this sort of blame-game society in the sense that it's always got to be somebody's fault instead of the fact that maybe sometimes accidents happen.
I'm not sure how that jibes with the libertarian mantra of personal responsibility - or rather, I am certain that it doesn't - but it's a reminder that, while we have every right to be deeply frustrated and angry about BP's damage to the Gulf of Mexico, there are still some people capable of making a horrible situation worse.

May 20, 2010

Cincinnati, OH

No post today - I'm in Cincinnati for business.  Regular posting will resume next week!

May 14, 2010

Checking Out Alternatives to the Lamestream Media

One of half-term governor Sarah Palin's favorite targets is what she so, uh... scathingly... yeah, that's it, scathingly... calls the "lamestream media," which hardcore conservatives take to mean pretty much everything that doesn't toe the line defined by approved rightwing outlets like Fox News Channel.  Reporter Bernard Goldberg - who is an excellent sports journalist when he's not being an idiot on Rupert Murdoch's network -  makes the same assertion, and even wrote a book called A Slobbering Love Affair: The True (And Pathetic) Story of the Torrid Romance Between Barack Obama and the Mainstream Media. So maybe we're missing out, and we ought to be paying more attention to what conservative media has to say.

Let's take a look then, at a couple of articles from Friday.  The first is from National Review Online - the web-based arm of that right wing bastion The National Review - and it's titled Obama vs. the iPad.  In it, author Mike Gonzalez of the conservative Heritage Foundation claims that remarks the president made at Hampton University's commencement reveal not only a disdain for new media, but a predeliction for the totalitarian control of information.  In particular, he focused on this part of President Obama's address:
You’re coming of age in a 24/7 media environment that bombards us with all kinds of content and exposes us to all kinds of arguments, some of which don’t always rank that high on the truth meter. And with iPods and iPads, and XBoxes and PlayStations ... information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than the means of emancipation.
Now personally, I don't find that passage particularly threatening as it stands, but if one reads the rest of it in context, it becomes - amazingly - even less threatening:
This class is graduating at a time of great difficulty for America and for the world. You’re entering a job market, in an era of heightened international competition, with an economy that’s still rebounding from the worst crisis since the Great Depression. You’re accepting your degrees as America still wages two wars –- wars that many in your generation have been fighting.

And meanwhile, you’re coming of age in a 24/7 media environment that bombards us with all kinds of content and exposes us to all kinds of arguments, some of which don’t always rank that high on the truth meter. And with iPods and iPads; and Xboxes and PlayStations -- none of which I know how to work -- (laughter) -- information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than the means of emancipation. So all of this is not only putting pressure on you; it’s putting new pressure on our country and on our democracy.

Class of 2010, this is a period of breathtaking change, like few others in our history. We can’t stop these changes, but we can channel them, we can shape them, we can adapt to them. And education is what can allow us to do so. It can fortify you, as it did earlier generations, to meet the tests of your own time.
According to the Mike Gonzalez, in using these words, Mr. Obama is exhibiting the same attitude as Britain's King Charles II, right before he shut down the newspapers (I kid you not), rather than commenting on the value of education in helping people advance their lives and learn to differentiate useful information from dishonest spin.  But perhaps it's easy to see why Mr. Gonzalez might be threatened by that.

If you thought that was idiotic, though, hold on to your hat, because here's one that truly plums the depths of crass stupidity: Barack Obama Feasts on Hot Wings as Michelle Pushes Child Obesity Efforts.  In it, writer Alex Pappas exposes the savage truth that the President of the United States had some hot wings on a visit to Buffalo, NY, while at roughly the same time in Washington, DC, First Lady Michelle Obama announced a new program to help schools work with local chefs to create and maintain healthier student lunch menus.  This is news because adults can never do anything children shouldn't, and... uh... and... well, frankly, I'm at a loss.  This isn't news, is it?  It's a desperate attempt at a smear that doesn't even rise to the level of pathetic.

But then, this article appeared at The Daily Caller, the pet project of former Crossfire cohost Tucker Carlson, which launched earlier this year to great apathy, despite a stated commitment to "breaking stories of importance."  (Like Wing-Gate.)  Anyone who has followed Mr. Carlson's career knows he is a longtime student of ham-fisted and vacuous talking point opinionation, so although dreck like Mr. Pappas' article should come as no surprise, it is no less worthy of our deepest scorn.

To be clear, neither the NRO or The Daily Caller are in any way fringe sites, and the former in particular is host to such conservative luminaries as race-based internment cheerleader Michelle Malkin, the definitionally and factually challenged Jonah Goldberg, and the shrill and - let's face it, rather ridiculous - Ramesh Ponnuru.  What sites like these truly need isn't additional readership, but a thorough demolition in the style of Jon Stewart's legendary interview on Crossfire, which contributed greatly to getting the show cancelled.  (See below.)  In the meantime, however, I think it's safe to say that, despite the fact that she reads all the newspapers, Sarah Palin's standards for worthwhile information are different from mine.

May 9, 2010

The Pentagon's Skewed Spending Priorities

On Saturday, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced that he was taking aim at excessive military spending, stating that the Pentagon is wasting money it should no longer expect to receive:
The attacks of September 11, 2001, opened a gusher of defense spending that nearly doubled the base budget over the last decade. Military spending on things large and small can and should expect closer, harsher scrutiny. The gusher has been turned off, and will stay off for a good period of time.
Secretary Gates, who also served in the administration of President George W. Bush, has already canceled or cut back a number of weapons programs with the goal of saving $330 billion over the long term.  He is now attempting to shift two to three percent of total defense spending from military and civilian bureaucracies to support and combat functions.  Given that there is widespread concerns about the budget deficit, this seems sensible, but there are already worrying signs that priorities among the top ranks of the military may not be aligned as we might wish:
The Pentagon, not usually known for its frugality, is pleading with Congress to stop spending so much money on the troops

Through nine years of war, service members have seen a healthy rise in pay and benefits, with most of them now better compensated than workers in the private sector with similar experience and education levels.

Congress has been so determined to take care of troops and their families that for several years running it has overruled the Pentagon and mandated more-generous pay raises than requested by the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. It has also rejected attempts by the Pentagon to slow soaring health-care costs -- which Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has said are "eating us alive" -- by raising co-pays or premiums.

Now, Pentagon officials see fiscal calamity.

In the midst of two long-running wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, defense officials are increasingly worried that the government's generosity is unsustainable and that it will leave them with less money to buy weapons and take care of equipment.
Just for clairty's sake: the United States spends more on its military might than the next fourteen nations combined.  There is certainly room for cuts, but focusing on human resource costs misses the mark.  In 2011, for example, total defense spending is budgeted to be $711 billion dollars, with health care costs making up only 7% of that number.  (See zoom-able, high resolution, interactive map below.  Original here.)  By contrast, overall spending as a percentage of U.S. GDP for health care is about double that. 

After the scandalous, callous treatment American military personnel have experienced since the U.S. invaded both Afghanistan and Iraq (see here, here and here, for instance), the idea that we need to cut back on expenses associated with compensating and caring for men and women who have been through the wringer of our foreign adventures during the last 9 years is pretty hard to either stomach or support.  Fiscal responsibility in the arena of normally untouchable defense spending would be very welcome indeed, but not at the expense of those who put their lives on the line and suffer the physical, mental and emotional consequences of their duty.   

Hover over the image to see the zoom controls. Click on the full-screen button to view at full size.  Click and drag to navigate the image.

May 4, 2010

IOKIYAR: A Case Study

Much has been reported in recent months about the deep distrust rock-ribbed, red-meat conservatives feel  for the government, and there have been no better poster children for the Tea Party movement than the states of Arizona and Oklahoma.  In the Sooner State, in fact, there are efforts underway to create a militia specifically tasked with resisting what is apparently perceived by some residents as tyranny on the part of the federal government in mandating health care coverage. What to make then, of recently passed laws in these two conservative strongholds that focus on, respectively, immigration and abortion?

In John McCain's home state, the most draconian anti-immigration law in modern history was signed into law last month, and anyone merely suspected of being an illegal immigrant must - not can, must - now be stopped and required to show documentation proving that they are in the country legally.  Meanwhile, in Oklahoma, direct intervention by the state into not just birth decisions by pregnant women, but medical testing and the doctor-patient relationship, has been taken to unprecedented heights.  New laws there allow doctors to withhold test results showing foetal defects, require women considering abortion to answer intrusive questions (the answers to which are posted online), mandate a vaginal ultrasound prior to terminating a pregnancy, and dictate that the mother listen to a detailed description of the foetus.

Oklahoma Governor Brad Henry, a moderate Democrat, vetoed two of these bills - the ultrasound and test results provisions - but was immediately overridden by the Oklahoma Legislature on the former.  Only the intervention of Judge Noma Gurich, who signed an agreement stopping the law in order to provide time to hold a hearing on complaints about the new requirements, prevented it from going into effect immediately.

So, here we have two deeply red states, out of which has spouted considerable vitriol about government intrusion into the lives of private citizens, effectively legalizing unreasonable searches and doing everything possible to impose what amount to conservative religious beliefs on women.  How does one reconcile a belief in individual liberty with support for laws that directly assault personal freedom?

As it happens, the non-partisan Pew Research Center for People and the Press released the results of a study on attitudes among Americans toward government.  Compiled using data from decades of surveys, it is very interesting reading, but one point in particular stands out in stark relief:
Trust in government is typically higher among members of the party that controls the White House than among members of the “out” party. However, Republicans’ views of government change more dramatically, depending on which party holds power, than do Democrats’. Republicans are more trusting of government when the GOP holds power than Democrats are when the Democrats are in charge. 
In other words, Democrats have a somewhat more favorable view of government when "their guy" is in the White House; Republicans, meanwhile, who espouse a core belief in limited government and personal liberty, demonstrate a veritable swoon of approval when the President is from the GOP.  To illustrate the disparity further, consider that  Democrats trusted Ronald Reagan every bit as much as they did Bill Clinton, but there isn't a single modern Democratic chief executive whom Republicans accord the trust they shower on their own.

Out in the wilds of the web is a shorthand expression:  IOKIYAR  - "It's OK If You're A Republican."  Previously, this could be dismissed as mere internet snark, but what the new laws in Arizona and Oklahoma demonstrate - and which the Pew Research data supports - is that the GOP only dislikes government as an intrusive institution when someone else is in charge.  When they hold the reins of power, Republicans appear  more than happy to support state intervention into the lives of others.