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No more unions?

Here's yet more evidence of liberalism's rousing success rate in the age of the conservative movement. Harold Meyerson writes:

Many union activists viewed the 2009-10 battle for the most recent iteration of labor law reform — the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) — as labor’s last stand. EFCA could never attain the magic 60-vote threshhold required to cut off a filibuster, despite the presence, at one point, of 60 Democratic senators. Given the rate at which private-sector unionization continues to fall (which in turn imperils support for public-sector unions), many of labor’s most thoughtful leaders now consider the Democrats’ inability to enact EFCA a death sentence for the American labor movement.

“It’s over,” one of labor’s leading strategists told me this month. Indeed, since last November’s elections, half a dozen high-ranking labor leaders from a range of unions have told me they believe that private-sector unions may all but disappear within the next 10 years.

They're now trying to form a bloc of voters to pressure congress rather than organizing into a union which just seems so ... well:

The SEIU’s program — like its semi-counterpart in the AFL-CIO’s Working America program, a door-to-door canvass in white working-class neighbo — will surely help Democratic candidates, despite the frustrations that nearly all labor leaders feel toward the party. But, like Working America, it signals a strategic shift by American labor, whose ranks have been so reduced that it now must recruit people to a non-union, essentially non-dues-paying organization to amass the political clout that its own diminished ranks can no longer deliver. Since labor law now effectively precludes workplace representation, unions are turning to representing workers anywhere and in any capacity they can. It’s time, they’ve concluded, for the Hail Mary pass.

I suppose that might work in the shadow of Citizens United but it seems like a long shot.It does explain why the Republicans are going even more nuts than usual to enact vote suppression laws though.

When all is said and done this whole thing may just end up being a fight for basic democracy. Can you have worker's rights without it?



Republicans rediscover the jobs crisis. And recommend tax cuts for a change!

Looks like that bill that would have reneged on the Unemployment extension deal in the lame duck session isn't going to make it out of committee

House Republicans yanked a bill to tweak unemployment insurance after Republican lawmakers raised concerns that the legislation was too confusing and would be dead in the Senate.

The GOP planned to vote after Memorial Day on Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp’s (R-Mich.) JOBS Act, a bill which sought to give states flexibility in spending federal unemployment funds.

Camp came to Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) weekly meeting with freshmen Wednesday to talk about the bill, and later briefed a broader swath of the conference where the concerns were amplified.

Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said there was an “education” issue with the bill. The House Rules Committee postponed setting the bill’s parameters for debate late Wednesday evening.

Yeah sure.

The truth is that the Republicans have belatedly recognized that they made a huge mistake in abandoning their so-called "jobs agenda" in favor of the Ryan Trainwreck Express. Cutting unemployment probably wouldn't be the best way to show that they really, really care about unemployed Americans.

Ezra Klein took a look at the newly released GOP "Jobs Plan" (which was apparently published in comic book form) and found that lo and behold --- it is a plan to enact all the GOP wish list, including drill,baby,drill and yes, more tax cuts. (You just can't have enough of those.) Nothing new at all in fact except a couple of obscure items about visas and patent reform and none of it would affect the current downturn.

That’s okay, because the document doesn’t believe in cyclical downturns. It only believes in deviations from the Republican agenda. The first page sets out the GOP’s narrative of the country’s current unemployment crisis. See if you recognize what’s missing here: “For the past four years, Democrats in Washington have enacted policies that undermine these basic concepts which have historically placed America at the forefront of the global marketplace. As a result, most Americans know someone who has recently lost a job, and small businesses and entrepreneurs lack the confidence needed to invest in our economy. Not since the Great Depression has our nation’s unemployment rate been this high this long.”

Four years ago, of course, George W. Bush was president. And he was, as you might remember, a Republican, not a Democrat. As for Wall Street, well, Wall Street who?

But it’s not just that you could read this jobs plan without knowing the financial crisis ever happened. You could read it without knowing the past decade ever happened. As Mishel says, “if lower taxes and less regulation was such good policy, then George W. Bush’s economy would have been a lot better. But under Bush, Republicans cut taxes on business and on investors and high-income people and they didn’t add many regulations and that business cycle was the first one in the post-war period where the income for a typical working class family was lower at the end than at the beginning.”

Oh yes, let's have some more of that please!

The economy is looking a bit shaky and there is no guarantee that the Morning In America strategy for 2012 is going to work. But unless the Republicans come up with something more than their stale old bromides about tax cuts I don't think they can take advantage of it. You can only cry "tax cuts for everything" for so long before average people begin to notice that it isn't working for them.



Speaking of meltdowns ...

Nothing to see here either:

It's official: All of Fukushima's working reactors saw drops in their water levels sufficient to melt their radioactive cores. (Experts have been telling us this for months, but Japanese power company TEPCO wouldn’t acknowledge it.) The only way the self-immolation of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power complex could get any worse would be a large scale release of radioactive material into the environment, which probably won't happen.

The meltdown means that each reactor has a pool of highly radioactive water in its base, possibly a cracked reactor casing, and worse. One reactor may even have a heap of cooled lava-like radioactive junk in the concrete pool beneath its radioactive core.

Now that authorities at TEPCO have admitted that they more or less dropped the world's largest dirty bomb on their homeland, the cost and difficulty of cleaning it up are probably going to increase. Not only must they continue to cool the reactors, they're also going to have to dispose of even more radioactive water than they anticipated.

The good news is that Americans are far more responsible and incorruptible than the Japanese so we don't have to worry our pretty little heads about such things.



California Fails Even at Releasing Sick Prisoners

Robert wrote about the Supreme Court's decision to force massive reductions in the prison population, yet the prisons aren't even doing what they are required to do to allow medical parole.  David Dayen covered the story of a quadriplegic patient who was denied parole

This is completely insane. Here you have a quadriplegic - maybe a bad dude in his heart, but incapable of acting on it in any way - that we're spending $625,000 to hold in prison for no reason. Under normal circumstances this would be a waste of money - under the circumstances that California, under a Supreme Court ruling, must reduce the prison population, it's unconscionable. This guy is taking up the space of some other criminal. There are people in comas in state prisons. When lawmakers passed this bill, they didn't just want parole hearings, they wanted people who could not threaten society released, as a least-worst option to relieve a prison crisis.

Jeanne Woodford, a former director of the state prison system and current anti-death penalty leader has called out the system as unsustainable, as have columnists like the LA Times' Steve Lopez.  Yet even with a Supreme Court order hanging over their heads, little changes.

Both the Democrats and the Republicans are addicted to the prison system.  They are addicted to the simple solutions that it presents, and afraid to confront the more difficult issues of prevention and treatment.  Perhaps the Supreme Court decision changes that, but don't count on Incarcerex going down without a fight.


15 long rounds, winning on points

I've been hearing a lot lately about how the right hasn't really achieved much and that the whole idea that the Republicans have gained anything long term with this race over the cliff is delusional. Well, they may have destroyed whatever weak chances they ever had of winning big in 2012 with their mind-boggling Ryan debacle, but they've achieved a whole lot in terms of shifting the debate to the right.

Yesterday the Democrats managed to get all but five of the Senate Republicans on the record voting for the Ryan plan. But look what the Republicans have managed to get in return:

[T]he vote on the president’s plan turned into a rout, with neither Republicans nor Democrats voting in favor of taking it up. At one level, the 97-0 vote showed how out-of-date the February requests can seem after so much has changed in the spending debate already this year. But for Democrats, it also proved a convenient way to mask their substantial internal differences over how to proceed,

Obama himself has also substantially altered his February requests as part of a “new framework” announced last month just prior to House-Senate talks with the administration led by Vice President Joe Biden. The immediate goal is to find the votes needed to expand Treasury’s borrowing authority and avert default this summer, but Biden has also spoken of the package as a “down payment” toward a longer range deficit reduction plan akin to what was proposed last December by the president’s debt commission.

I don't think anything pertaining to the deficit has actually changed since February do you? And yet, everyone agrees that the President's budget "didn't cut enough." I'd say that's a substantial victory.

And as for the debt ceiling, the Republican Senators are going the distance. Led by the eminently responsible "grown-up" Jim DeMint, they sent this letter to Timothy Geithner yesterday insisting that the nation doesn't have to default if they don't agree to raise the debt ceiling --- after all, the Treasury will have more than enough money to make its interest payments, it would just have to stop sending checks to people Republicans don't like and everything would be fine.
In your February 3 letter to Sen. Toomey, you compare Sen. Toomey’s proposal to an analogous decision by an average citizen:

“A homeowner could decide to ‘prioritize’ and continue paying monthly mortgage payments, while opting to cease paying other obligations, such as car payments, insurance premiums, student loan and credit card payments, utilities, and so forth. Although the mortgage would be paid, the damage to that homeowner's creditworthiness would be severe.”

But of course, making necessary payments on debts, like a home mortgage, a credit card, a car, or a student loan, is different from other personal spending. The consequences of missing those payments are truly dire – default, bankruptcy, repossession, and eviction. But they are not at all the same thing as belt-tightening and prioritizing when times are tight. In the same way, cutting spending programs, reducing the federal workforce, and prioritizing payments to vendors and contractors is not the same thing as sovereign default.

The Treasury Department suggests that efforts to prioritize debt payments would bring about “catastrophic economic consequences.” Yet, this argument ignores the historical record. As you are well aware, the Treasury had to manage the nation’s finances in the past when the debt ceiling was reached. In 1995-1996, for example, the Department prioritized certain payments – including debt service. During this period, hundreds of thousands of federal employees were furloughed and many programs were temporarily suspended as a result of the two government shutdowns that occurred. And yet, this prioritization did not result in default on our publicly held debt nor did it cause the “catastrophic economic consequences” the administration predicts.

Unfortunately, Washington has shown time and again that it is perfectly content to spend money on whatever suits its whims. That is why the debt limit exists in the first place – to restrict the government’s profligate spending and borrowing impulses and so protect the citizens responsible for paying it all back.

We believe the time has come to employ this particular budget enforcement mechanism to finally force Congress to address the looming fiscal crisis, cut spending, reform entitlements, implement spending caps, and pass a balanced budget constitutional amendment before considering any increase in the federal debt ceiling. These are the contours of the debate before the American people this spring and summer.

In the event of reaching the debt limit in the course of that debate, the decision of whether to use available Treasury funds to honor the United States’ debt obligations – and prevent the catastrophe of default – would ultimately fall to you. Recent comments conflating debt service with other spending notwithstanding, the markets, the courts, and the American people know differently.


Apparently, we are to believe that if the US Government decides to massively lay off federal personnel, stop paying disability benefits, close down its Hurricane tracking centers, furlough half the doctors at the CDC or any number of other things the Republicans would like to do to prove a stupid political point and further degrade the public's trust in government, the rest of the world would think nothing of it because the Treasury would have fulfilled it's obligation to pay the interest on its debt.

They are literally saying "nothing to see here, folks, move along." Why would anyone think there was the slightest problem with the richest most powerful nation on earth conspicuously behaving like lunatics and likely throwing the whole world back into a recession?

I don't doubt for a minute the extreme stupidity of DeMint, Paul and a handful of other extremists in the Senate GOP caucus. But the list of signers is quite comprehensive and while they may not be the smartest people on the planet, they know enough to realize which side their bread is buttered on. This is yet another silly bluff.

Peter Orszag predicted that this will go to the wire and be passed under "TARP-like" circumstances when the markets show "turbulence."
He said a rise in bond yields as the debate in Congress continues likely would force Republicans and Democrats to reach a deal to raise the limit.
Great. We all know how well it goes when the Democrats are under pressure.

Let's put it this way. The Tea Party may not be winning any legislative battles outright and they may even fade into obscurity by the 2016 election. But they will have left a mark on American politics. If the Republicans successfully create a phony hysteria over the debt during a severe economic downturn (in which the wealthy are getting richer and richer), forcing huge cuts in spending without even allowing tax increases to be on the table, it's hard for me to see them as failures.

Update: I'm reminded by email of the fact that the Democrats may very well be planning a sort of suicide pact with the GOP. Tom Coburn left the Gang of 6 because Dick Durbin refused to go beyond the 400 million in Medicare cuts they'd already agreed to.


Who picks the president?

Amato asks a good question:

I meant to write about this sooner after reading the NY Mag article, but time flies. We all know that Roger Ailes fashions himself a GOP kingmaker, but can you imagine the the outcry by the RWNM and all media critics if the head of a cable news network called a Democratic Governor or an active military man and begged him to run for President?

NY Mag:

A few months ago, Ailes called Chris Christie and encouraged him to jump into the race. Last summer, he’d invited Christie to dinner at his upstate compound along with Rush Limbaugh, and like much of the GOP Establishment, he fell hard for Christie, who nevertheless politely turned down Ailes’s calls to run. Ailes had also hoped that David Petraeus would run for president, but Petraeus too has decided to sit this election out, choosing to stay on the counterterrorism front lines as the head of Barack Obama’s CIA.

If the head of any other news network tried to shape a single political party's presidential primaries, they would rightly be decried for the unequivocal bias it revealed -- not to mention the breathtaking absence of ethics.

When the White House did the unthinkable and questioned the integrity of Fox News, the Villagers all circled the wagons and declared such discussion off limits. And so it is. But it doesn't change the fact that Fox is a corrupt adjunct of the Republican Party and nothing proves it more than the fact that the head of the network is recruiting people for the presidential nomination of the GOP, even going so far as to provide most contenders with a handsome sinecure.

He has a little problem at the moment. They are all nuts and he knows it. I think the silver lining in all this is that perhaps the Republican Party may recognize that putting a media genius in charge might not always work out the way you think it will. Fox brewed the television friendly tea and now the Presidential candidates are drowning in it.




China’s Named and Inscribed Places [Aardvarchaeology]


Chinese tourist sites follow a set of conventions that seem to go back hundreds or thousands of years, far into a past when tourism, as we understand it, did not yet exist. Essentially we're dealing with named and inscribed sites. I have visited many in my Chinese travels, but since I can't read the language I have formed my ideas about them from reading English-language signage and asking my wife to translate or explain. So I may have misunderstood the nuances. Here nevertheless are my impressions.

A Chinese tourist site always originates with an educated male member of the elite some time during the past 2000 years. On his travels he sees something poetically inspiring, usually but not always a piece of unusual natural or rural scenery, and he writes a few lines about it. The following causal chain is unclear to me, but what ends up happening is that the place gets named for the guy's poem, something like "Moonlight On Crane Pond" or "Tiger Boulder With Dragon's Tail", the poem is incised on a stele or convenient rock face at the site, and the place enters some kind of central canonical list of poetic places. (I guess the site's success in this regard will depend to some extent both on the man's fame and on the quality of his poetry.) Through the centuries similar men will then continue to visit the site, write poetry about it, and possibly add more inscriptions.

Wednesday we visited a typical example of these places near Hecheng ("Qingtian City"). Shimen, "Stone Door", is a dramatic canyon with an extremely high and beautiful waterfall at the inner end. Under a large rock shelter at the side of the waterfall's lower pool are poetic inscriptions from about 20 famous scholars, and in the vicinity are several other named sites that apparently owe their existence to other elite tourists who came to visit the waterfall site and ended up writing their "Kilroy was here" poetry about something else nearby that caught their fancy. It's the same around the West Lake in Hangzhou, where you'll find a named and inscribed site behind every bush. I imagine that stone carvers could always make a living at places like these by waiting for rich men to come by for a peek, and immortalising their poetic effusions in stone.

The Chinese tourist sites I've visited since 2001 have all been very well kept, to the extent that there is little to be seen there that is older than the 1990s. Paths, signposts, buildings, terracing and flood-control walls: everything's new. The only old stuff visible is mostly cliffside sculptural reliefs, vandalised during one or another of the Chinese's recurring iconoclastic phases such as the Cultural Revolution (or by European colonial powers). And then there are the inscriptions, which I cannot date at all since the script was standardised millennia ago and they're usually well painted in. But under the Shimen rock shelter I was pleased to find a number of badly worn, unpainted inscriptions that the management clearly didn't expect us tourists to want to read. I guess they're from visitors who came long ago and are not much remembered today.

The Chinese concept of a famous site is similar to the Japanese uta-makura, a term I picked up from the 17th century poet Basho's lovely little travelogue "The Narrow Road to the Interior". Literally meaning "poem pillow" (!?), the uta-makura is a kind of poetic allusion. Poet A writes about, say, plum blossom in Yokohama, and the poem becomes widely read. Poets B, C and D can then mention Yokohama as a poetic shorthand for plum blossom: it has become an uta-makura. During their trip to the interior, Basho and his friends move from uta-makura to uta-makura, paying little attention to anything that hasn't been written about in famous poetry. To them, poetry is not about beautiful scenery - it's the scenery that is about poetry.

This seems very similar to the Chinese idea. Classical education was all about studying and memorising famous ancient texts. And nature appreciation is all about visiting named and inscribed sites whose beauty is vouchsafed by famous ancient poets. If I visit a beautiful place that nobody has written poetry about, and do not write poetry about it myself and hire a stone carver, I might as well not go at all.

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Illegitimate son

I've been wondering something for a while. Has anyone ever seen Walter Mondale and Pawlenty in the same room together? I'm sure everyone recalls when Mondale was running for president he promised the entire country that he was going to raise their taxes, right? Just like a tax 'n spend Democrat.

Here's T-Paw presenting himself as a classic slash and burn Republican:

Republican presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty urged big changes to the Social Security retirement program on Wednesday, but said paring U.S. defense spending is not vital to tame the bloated federal budget.

When Obama compared himself to Reagan and the campaign team adopted the "Dear God We Hope It Will Be Morning in America" re-election strategy, I don't think they could have dreamed that they might get an equal charisma gap. This is just frosting on the cake.

Update: Mondale is a good guy and I don't mean to disrespect him. But he wasn't exactly a dynamic politician and his famous statement that he would raise taxes is widely considered to be one of the more inelegant campaign promises in history. I think this one is in the same league.




Serendipity, Picking the Right Strain, and the Foundations of Modern Molecular Biology [Mike the Mad

A seminal discovery of modern biology was Joshua Lederberg's demonstration that bacteria can swap genes through a process known as bacterial recombination. Not only is recombination the mechanism by which antibiotic resistance genes are transferred, but it's also been turned into a useful tool for genetically manipulating E. coli, which has led to so many things, including the industrial synthesis of insulin; it's also a key tool--and at one time--the key tool for molecular genetics.

So while working my way through Population Genetics of Bacteria: A Tribute to Thomas S. Whittam, I came across this fascinating footnote in a chapter by microbiologist and population geneticist Bruce Levin about Lederberg's key discovery (italics mine):

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An On-time budget?

An On-time budget?

With just 3 weeks or so until the budget deadline, it looks like there is a decent shot of getting it done:

Brown, Steinberg, Assembly Speaker John A. P?rez and a handful of Republicans have been meeting multiple times a day to agree on details about pension changes, a spending cap and regulatory reform.

"I don't think there are significant sticking points in negotiations," Steinberg said. "Now, it's a matter of drafting, finishing negotiations and execution."

Steinberg hopes to bring a final budget package to a floor vote as early as June 8. He called the spending cap "a more robust rainy day fund" that would use extra revenues to pay off the state's debt.

On regulatory reform, which likely would include changes to the Environmental Quality Act and other legislation, Steinberg said the group was close to finishing complicated language.

The pension issue, he said, has become easier to deal with because labor unions are concerned about potential ballot measures in Nov. 2012 that would "wipe out" defined-benefit plans. (SacBee)

The three big issues are a rainy day fund/spending cap, regulatory/CEQA reform, and pensions.  Note that these aren't really budget issues, but with the ? issues still outstanding, the Republicans know that this is their only remaining leverage point. Head on over to the SacBee's page for a short interview with Sen. Steinberg.

Meanwhile, Gov. Brown thinks that he can steal away a few Republican votes for taxes from the GOP's jealous lover, Grover Norquist. They even had a little back and forth where Grover called Jerry "provincial" and compared him to the Southern governors in the 50s for saying that some guy from the Potomac can't spook the GOP legislators.

Ahh, good times in Sacramento, huh?  With the June 15 deadline coming up, and Steinberg suggesting a June 8 vote, we won't have to wait too long to see how this all finally plays out.


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