Monday, November 30, 2015

Ultimately, the demographics do not bode well for The Southern Strategy

I had the good fortune of experiencing some enlightenment by one of my friends on Google+. He had posted about something I had never heard of before, The Southern Strategy (very well documented at Salon.com).

The Southern Strategy has been hotly pursued by the Republican Party since at least 1968 as a way to solidify their backing from a white voter majority in the US. Since then, it has been largely successful at dividing the country between whites and minorities and subjugating minorities as a second class. Rather than providing a basis for national unity, The Southern Strategy (TSS) has been used to divide the country between whites and everyone else.

In years past, this division was subtle and fairly well obscured by mainstream media. Now the effort is overt and in full bloom as exhibited by the front runner of the GOP in this presidential election cycle, Donald Trump. One example that comes to mind is Donald Trump's idea of a national requirement for Muslim registration. You know, like the Nazis required of the Jews in Germany. That's very overt racism for the leader of either major party in a presidential election.

I have some friends and family that are aligned with the GOP. I know them not to be racist so I have to wonder how they could be comfortable with the prospect of a Trump presidency. I believe that I can extrapolate that discomfort to many supporters of the GOP in principle, to the exclusion of the overt racism now on parade. They may like the GOP, but find the overt racism unsettling at best. I believe that this discomfort is particularly true in the Blue States like New York and California, two of the biggest states that are the hardest to win by the GOP.

This idea of maintaining power by division, "divide and conquer" as it were, is a fool's errand at best and doomed at worst. The evidence for this is easy to find. First, from a moral perspective, TSS is an exercise in deception on a massive scale. The GOP cannot reasonably be considered sincere if their electoral efforts require deception.

Second, from a demographic perspective, the cause is lost, easily within 2 generations, likely within 1. The US Census has projected that by 2044, more than half of all Americans will be of a minority status, that is, non-white. With whites in the minority relative to all others, TSS may still find success, but maintaining dominance in legislatures will become harder with time. I believe that once a white minority is established in American politics and popular culture, backlash is likely.

Third, there is another demographic: with education comes birth control. I know, it seems counterintuitive, but trends in population show a significant decrease in the rate of population growth, and even decreases in population among countries with greater education opportunities for girls and women. As girls grow up into educated women, they delay child rearing to established a career and to ensure that they are not subject to the whims of the men they marry.

Here's the irony: wealthy white minorities have worked hard for decades to keep the best education opportunities to the exclusion of the poor and to some extent, the middle class. As the poor and middle class find good educational opportunities elusive, they tend to have larger families, but shorter lifespans. They grow more populous, at the expense of the better educated white minority over time. As whites grow more educated, they have fewer children. This trend is inevitable as the data bear this out. The effort to exclude minorities from the best education opportunities has been so successful, that many poor and middle class whites have been ensnared.

The goal then, is to convince the white majority that as poor and middle class whites, they too, are a target of TSS. Who wouldn't be unhappy to learn that they are really just pawns for maintenance of a wealthy minority? To get an idea of how bad inequality is in America, check out this video. That is the status quo that most of us are being asked to support, and exactly what TSS is all about.

We don't have to wait one or two generations for change. The best candidate at hand to reach the poor and middle class whites with this realization is Bernie Sanders. He's not fabulously wealthy like the Clintons or the Bushes. He doesn't have a SuperPAC, and relies upon funding from the poor and middle class of all colors in small donations. He is just one candidate who can convince poor and middle class whites that they've been screwed by the elite. He is willing to call out the elite for their elaborate deception where others, particularly in the GOP clown car, are not.

Education is the key to voting. As people become more educated, they tend to vote more often as they are more aware of what is at stake. Bernie Sanders is the only presidential candidate calling for free public education for anyone who wants it. Keeping most people ignorant is part of the plan with TSS. Through education, we can bring about the change this country so desperately needs.

The end game of The Southern Strategy is to use ignorant poor and middle class whites as a majority bulwark against all other minorities. If poor and middle class whites notice the ruse, they may find an ally in the minorities that have been declared as their "enemy" by the GOP. Perhaps then, we can be united as a nation.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

A guaranteed home in the context of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

I live in Salt Lake City and have taken note of the homeless since I moved here. I see them mostly in the parks downtown, usually sleeping somewhere in the sun, or covered up on a bench on cold mornings. I've lived here long enough now to notice that this year, something is missing. The homeless. Oh, there are still some who linger, but since the State of Utah instituted their Housing First program in 2005, they have been on track to end chronic homelessness in 2015. Here is a report that documents their findings.

Utah has found that not only do they reduce chronic homelessness, but they save thousands of dollars on each person by giving people a home. I know, it seems counterintuitive. Where they were spending $20,000 a year before on each person, now they spend about $12,000. By giving the homeless a home, they cut the burden on the shelters, the hospitals and the jails. Saving money is something that conservatives love to do in government and they are right to celebrate this success. Everyone wins here.

Now Utah is well known as a conservative state. I see it in the numbers in the legislature, the people who are elected to Congress and the way they run their budget. Utah is a Red State by any measure. But Utah has made an interesting deviation from the usual homeless plan which is to punish the homeless. The articles and reports I've seen so far suggest that Utah has made what might appear to be a radical observation: if people could do better, they would.

Utah is also a Mormon State. The Mormons came to Utah in the 19th century to evade the ostracism they experienced in places like New York, where the Mormon ideology was born. The idea of giving the homeless a home is totally consistent with the radical communitarian origins of Mormon ideology. Indeed, Joseph Smith, one of the founders of the Mormon culture, "... called for Zion to be a classless commune in which Mormons would “hold all things in common." (link to quote paywalled)

We know communitarianism as socialism or communism today, but Mormons tend to downplay this aspect of their ideology, preferring instead to emphasize individual morality. The Wilson Quarterly has some interesting analysis that is summed up well in the following paragraph:
Mormons today tend to “downplay the radically countercultural aspects” of Zion, such as the elimination of poverty, inequality, and war. The Mormon church instead focuses on individual morality and the importance of family.
See, not only did the state give homeless homes, they gave them counseling to help them with their demons and put their life back on track. The Washington Post has an interesting account of the story here. A few searches on Google confirm the findings with consistency between articles on the reporting. The facts of the success of Utah's homeless program are clear: Giving homeless people homes to end homelessness works.

Wikipedia has an interesting entry on the topic called, Housing First. This article has identified a successful method of dealing with the chronic homeless. The article documents how numerous jurisdictions that have tried Housing First have found success for one simple reason. Housing is a basic human need. Solve that problem, and the homeless person now has a foundation to solve all other problems.

Housing First, also confirms the findings of Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. See the chart below for a visual representation of this concept:


The human need for a home is right above the base, physiological needs like air, water and food. Having a home satisfies the basic need for safety. Once that need is satisfied, the foundation is set for meeting other needs.

I am reminded of how women, once married, seek a home rather than an apartment if they can get a home. My wife was like that. She was not content with an apartment - she wanted a home to call our own. Now we live in a home, have a family and recognize the need for a home as a foundation for kids to grow, for adults to work from and to retire in.

Utah has a model program that other cities and states can follow. Instead of punishing the homeless, this program assumes that if people could do better, they would. To help homeless people do better, they give them a home. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs correctly predicts that when basic needs are met, higher order tasks can be accomplished. You know, like getting a job, paying the bills and joining society again.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The tip of the iceberg in election fraud is probably floating in Ohio

There is an interesting story brewing in Ohio. A measure to legalize pot has been defeated. But expert observers say that the election in Ohio was stolen to defeat pot legalization. There is ample evidence of partisanship for and against the measure, and this time the opposition was in a position of power.

There are now accusations of election fraud and there is evidence to support those accusations. How that would hold up in court, I'm not sure. This election could just be the tip of the iceberg in election fraud if the evidence presented so far proves to be right. If the Ohio election was stolen because opponents felt so brazen as to flip the votes, then we have the right to question every election going forward, and perhaps going back to the time we started using computers to count votes.

In the end, the problem of corruption in elections, the actual collection, tabulation and results, will need to be addressed. This is distinct from the problem of voter fraud where voters make fraudulent votes. Voter fraud is such a tiny problem that there is scant if any evidence that voter fraud could tilt an election. Yet, the public debate on election integrity has been consistently steered at the voter, not the people who actually collect and count the votes and the machines they use to do it.

I will offer a solution to the problem of election integrity, but first, let's review what happened in Ohio. Alternet has been covering the story very closely and their first post shortly after the election has documented inconsistencies in the live returns during the election. Alternet shows that in the span of 11 minutes the vote was flipped from a decisive victory in favor of pot legalization to a resounding defeat.

Statistical analysis of the results after the election compared polling with election results and analyzed them with standard measures of deviation. Analysis shows that the chances that polling before the election would correspond to the results shown in the election are statistically remote. Here's the second post covering the analysis after the count was finalized by the secretary of state of Ohio.

Votescam is a small family organization dedicated to cleaning up our votings system. Their documentation of election fraud suggests that at the least, there is evidence of election fraud going back to the 1988 presidential election. According to them, election fraud is non-partisan, so it would seem that both dominant parties have participated.

Votescam has investigated the voting machines and followed researchers in their quest to test the security and integrity of these voting machines. In reading their evidence, I was struck by how one company, Diebold, runs their voting machines on Windows. If I had wanted a secure machine for collecting the votes of the people, I sure as hell would not choose Windows. I'd be using Linux to run the operating system and build my vote collection system on top of it. I believe that the choice of Windows is deliberate for the lack of security and integrity.

Votescam has also noted that voting machine manufacturers have seized upon the use of trade secret protection to avoid disclosure of how their machines work. Why anyone would use trade secrets to shield their voting machines from scrutiny is beyond me. If companies like Diebold truly believed that they were doing a good service for our country, they would welcome such scrutiny and offer their machines for testing just to gain the confidence and trust of the people they serve.

We could solve the election fraud problem by making all of our voting machines open source, from top to bottom, with source code and specifications made public to all. With an open specification, anyone can build a voting machine, but more to the point, anyone with the knowhow can verify the integrity of those machines before and after the election.

We also need to look at the machines that collect and tabulate the votes that are collected into a database. All votes can be collected by machines that run open source operating systems like Linux using open source databases like MySQL or PostgresQL.

Integrity of the voting machines and tabulation machines can be tested by using encryption algorithms against the system images and programs before and after the election to ensure that no tampering has occurred. We can use a process called sha256sum to test each machine, from top to bottom to ensure that what was loaded on each machine is the same after the election. All of the results can be made public so that we can be sure that the machines are working as designed. This is how we can ensure our machines count the votes fair and square.

An open source solution to election integrity can be ours. All that is required is the political will to do the job right. If we can't trust our elections, then we can't really say that we have a democracy. But with enough eyeballs on the problem, and people willing to press our government for a solution that works, we can take our elections back.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Dynasty Politics

The Clinton family, through it's foundation and various other fundraising efforts have raised $3 billion in 41 years. That is an astonishing figure and represents an enormous consolidation of power and cooperation among a single family and the very wealthy. It also represents something else to me: a dynasty.

When I see Hilary running for office these days, I think of the dynasty to come if she were elected to the highest office in the land. While it is true that our economy ran well for a time under Bill Clinton, it was all on a credit card eventually paid for by the middle class as their wages stagnated. It was the best we could do from within the bubble economy we all inherited from Donald Regan, I mean...Ronald Reagan.

Before I go on, I want to make it clear that I would take Hilary over anyone in the GOP clown car. The reason is simple. The GOP has this fantasy that they're going to make government run so horribly that they can sell off everything except the military to their buddies as private monopolies and then call it, "privatization". Whatever the GOP stands for now, I'm against it, so if Hilary wins the Democrat nomination, I will still vote for her. I would be mindful of NAFTA, Larry Summers and Waco, but I'd still vote for her over the GOP.

It would be more unfortunate still because she would be a continuation of what can best be described as dynasty politics in America. A few very rich families are going to run the country, right? We saw how well that worked out with two Bushes, well, one didn't really qualify as a bush. More like a shrub. Still, the results were awful to behold. Now we are witnessing a third Bush who goes by the name of Jeb!, making an attempt to win the GOP nomination. The only thing holding him back is a loose cannon that is financing his own campaign, Donald Trump.

The stagnating wages, the rising inequality, and the tilted playing field, have all given rise to this dynasty politics. Dynasty politics is what I want to avoid. That's just one reason why I'm voting for Bernie Sanders at the next primary.

Bernie is not part of a dynasty, or a family with a member that has already been president. He doesn't have a superPAC and has been vocal about distancing himself from any superPAC. Bernie uses inclusive language in his rhetoric and is seeking to foment a peaceful political revolution where Hilary tends to go with the polls and makes no mention of political revolution. If she has, she hasn't been very consistent or I would have noticed. Where Hilary runs for president, Sanders is spearheading a social movement.

While I take some comfort in the suffering of Jeb! at the hands of Trump, I know that politics can take twists and turns which few outsiders can predict. I am prepared for Trump to pull a Perot and drop from the race, even when he is doing well. I doubt his sincerity since he is to me, more celebrity than candidate. If that were to happen, Jeb! would almost certainly rise up to the nomination with a superPAC warchest swelling beyond $100 million.

There is something else I like about Sanders campaign. It's about a social movement for social and economic justice that is intended to last well beyond this election. I don't see that in Hilary's campaign and I most certainly don't see that in any GOP campaign.

It will take a social movement, a really big one, to finally root out the forces at work that have given us one dynasty, and probably two if we stay at home next for the next primary. We can do better. We must do better. For if we fail, we are looking at choosing between two dynasties next November.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

How the debate with climate change deniers misses the forest for the trees

I had an interesting debate with a climate change denier over the last few weeks. He was strident about the holes he could find in the theory on climate change. He found contradictions with the consensus on climate change. Where 97% of scientists agree that climate change is caused by humans, he found "97 articles" that challenge the consensus. But those articles were written by shills for the various carbon-based energy industries.

Maybe climate change is caused by humans, maybe it's not. There are some who still believe that there is room for debate on the issue. One thing that is not in debate: the climate is changing, and it's getting warmer. We have satellites checking air and water temps and we know that the earth is getting warmer. We know that water levels are rising. We know enough to know that we could be having an impact on the earth.

Long ago, a friend of mine once said that it is grandiosity for humans to think that their actions could have an impact on the earth's climate. We're simply too small a force to have any impact at all. I think he might have had a point 40 or 100 years ago when the there were only a billion or two of us. Now there are 7 billion. All of us are either directly or indirectly generating energy. Most of that work uses carbon as a fuel source. Wood, coal, gas and oil.

Generating energy with carbon is a dirty business. It's messy, smelly and I know I wouldn't want to work at the source myself. I've seen men covered in oil at the wells. I've seen black lung disease from coal mining and seen the miners covered in coal dust. I've seen the mess from fracking for gas. Ok, I like a fireplace in the winter, but honestly, that is one of the most inefficient ways to heat the home.

So, for the sake of argument, lets assume that the climate deniers are right. Humans just can't produce enough CO2 to warm the planet. It's true that a few volcanoes in the last 200 hundred years have burped up more CO2 than all of human history.

It's also quite possible that a super volcano in Wyoming could hurl more than 260 cubic miles of earth into the sky and cover our nation with ash. Probably within our lifetimes, such an event could put enough particulate matter into the air, reflective particulate matter, to cool the earth. And there would be much more CO2 from such an event.

So, yes, there are forces at work or potential forces that await us, that are far more powerful than us that could stop global warming or simply accelerate it. Really, we're powerless over that. But we do have power over what we choose to do.

Even if the deniers are right, I notice that they still do not talk about the dirty business of carbon. There are accidents galore with carbon energy production. Even in normal production, carbon extraction is a very dirty business. All of them foul our air, water and land.

Somehow, they can justify the CO2, but won't touch the desolate land left by fracking, mining and drilling. I've seen the pictures of an area where fracking has depleted everything and there is no life left, at least not what we think of as life. Go to any mining, fracking or drilling site and ask yourself the question: would you live there? Have you noticed that when they're done destroying the land, they all leave? Is there no remediation? Who is going to pay for it?

We do. We all do. But they keep the profits and we pay the taxes that pay for the litigation, the cleanup and the fences that keep people out.

This is the argument that deniers are propping up: we're right about the climate, but silent on the pollution.

That argument is insanity.

Even if they're right, I'd rather use solar, wind, geothermal and nuclear energy. They're all far cleaner than carbon, by a mile. Yes, they all involve mining, but compared to carbon energy production, they're not even close to the ecological devastation inflicted by carbon extraction.

Then there is the pollution from burning carbon. We see it from the refineries when they burn oil at the top of their stacks. We see the soot from the diesel trucks. No matter how hard they try, there is always something black coming out of the exhaust there. The natural gas engines are probably the cleanest on the road, as I see almost nothing from them, but they still produce pollution.

Then there is coal. It's not well known, but coal actually contains traces of radioactive elements like uranium. When we burn coal, we're releasing carbon and radioactivity into the air. There are huge piles of coal ash that we have no idea what to do with.

We're breathing that stuff when we burn carbon. All of it.

This is the argument missing from the debate. While we're focused on warming, we're missing the forest for the trees. When we're engaged in debate, we're not talking about the pollution from the carbon industry. Try talking to the deniers about it. They won't touch it. They'll gloss over it like it doesn't really matter, it's not really relevant. They will ask you to stay on topic.

But if we're going to use carbon for energy, we need to talk about all of it. Not just the global warming, we need to talk about the pollution, because the cost of that pollution is something we all pay for. We pay for it in taxes, our declining health and the beauty of the earth we inherited as a gift to us all.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The hole in the evening news that is financed by drug patents

A few months ago, we bought an HD antenna for our TV. We didn't want cable but wanted to watch a few local channels to stay on top of the weather, some local news and to let our kids watch Sesame Street. Honestly, I hated that cable subscription when we had it. We only watched a few hours of TV a week and I didn't like feeling like I had to watch TV to justify the expense.

So my wife did some research and found a great antenna that works very well indoors. Maybe later we'll spring for a rooftop antenna, too.

Since we got the antenna, we sort of fell into the habit of watching the news again, mostly for the weather. But last night was a real eye-opener. We were watching the national news on CBS with Scott Pelley while we ate dinner. How I miss Walter Cronkite, but it is what it is.

As we watched the news, we saw the commercials. Every other commercial was for some sort of drug. I take interest in the commercials not for any desire to buy what is advertised. I watch them to see what demographic is getting the pitch.

For the evening news, it's baby boomers and beyond. These are the people who sat at the dinner table with their parents to eat dinner in the 50s, 60s and 70s. They watched the evening news with their parents to see stories about segregation, the Vietnam War, Watergate and the Civil Rights marches. They're just one generation behind me.

But they're getting older and they need help as their bodies age. Pick your ailment and there is a drug for you. From heart disease to erectile dysfunction, it's all there.

As I reflected upon my observations later last night, I recalled what I saw in the news during the debates on Obamacare, before it became law. Most of the debate was about how it would socialize medicine and how it would be a government takeover of healthcare.

This thing with drug advertising on TV has been going on for decades. It's really kind of sickening to see so much of it on the evening news. But the thing I notice is what is missing from the news, not just what is said. Now that we have the internet to do research and select our news sources, I don't have to take the news at face value. I can look for holes in the news.

One of them is this: I never saw a newscaster talk about how drug patents cost us at least $300 billion a year. Patents socialize medicine alright, but the money goes up, not down.

Noted economist Dean Baker has done extensive research on the costs of drugs and found that patents provide a markup of up to several thousand percent over the nominal cost of production. One example he cites often is Sovaldi:
"Sovaldi sells in the United States for $84,000 per treatment. A generic version is available in Bangladesh for less than $1,000."
Sovaldi is a Hepatitis C drug that can actually cure one form of Hepatitis. As you can see above, patents have a huge bearing on how much we pay for drugs here. Baker has also pointed out that the motivation for drug research can have a bearing on the efficiency of the research.

In this article, he notes that difference by comparing private drug company research and Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative (DNDI). Here, we can clearly see that private drug companies are motivated by the money more than the desire to help people. DNDI, a part of Doctors Without Borders, takes another view. They work out of a genuine concern to help people. The results are startling, and offer a clear contrast in efficiencies (from the article):
"As the figure shows, DNDI was able to develop ASAQ, a combination drug for treating Malaria, for $17 million. More than 250 million dosages have been distributed since 2007. It developed Fexinidazole, a new drug candidate and new chemical entity, intended to treat sleeping sickness, at a cost of $38 million. DNDI developed SSG&PM, a combination therapy for visceral leishmaniasis at a cost of $17 million. DNDI's entire budget for its first 10 years of existence was $242 million, less than one-tenth of what DiMasi estimates it costs the pharmaceutical industry to develop a single new drug."
Of course, there are differences that have a bearing on total costs, and Baker notes them further on. But what we are looking at is cutting the cost of drug research by roughly 90%. Baker has also noted that we are on track to spend $400 billion a year on drugs this year alone. Hmm. 90% of $400 billion is about $360 billion. That is a lot of money, honey.

Oddly, we don't see any conservatives jumping on this story to adopt DNDI methods nationwide for drug research. If another means were found to cut Medicare spending by $360 billion a year, people like Paul Ryan would be on Meet the Press to crow about it. But I don't see any conservatives on this one. Why not?

DNDI isn't after patents and patents are pretended to be part of the free market, so their story doesn't fit the conservative narrative. Patents are government intervention in the free market, not a part of it. I suspect that fact to be irksome to some conservatives in Congress. Not only is DNDI using a free market approach, they are a non-profit supported by donations and some government funding. Yet they are far more efficient than rent-seekers working in the drug industry.

I suspect that fact would be in the news somewhere, but it's not unless you read "Beat the Press". I had to dig around for this one as most anyone else would. And God forbid that an anchorman on nationally televised news should ever cover something like this. We're not going to see it on a nationally televised show like 60 Minutes, either. But you can rest assured that other countries, with governments that are cognizant of this issue, will have citizens that pay less for drugs than we do.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The bees make a comeback in Europe

I note with interest some news about the bee collapse of late. It appears that in Europe 3 neonicotinoid insecticides (neonics) were banned a few years ago. Now the bees appear to be recovering. This didn't just happen once. This has been observed twice.

A ban of these insecticides started in Italy in 2010, following in the footsteps of France and Germany. Following that ban, Italy saw their bee populations resurge. Then in 2013, a Europe-wide ban was instituted, prohibiting the use of clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam. Since then, farmers in Europe have seen a resurgence of their bee populations.

Here's something really interesting. "The Genetic Literacy Project" is here to tell us that the ban has done nothing for the bees. They claim that those neonics are safe after all. So I did a little research and found that their domain name is owned by ESG Mediametrics. That company is an environmental consultancy. Here's the dirt on those guys: Monsanto.

So let's connect the dots. All of these insecticides have patents behind them. Patents create nice private monopolies and that means money. This money is then used to lobby for looser regulations and lax enforcement. The same money is also used to sway the media with advertising dollars, discouraging major media from exposing the problems with neonics.

Interestingly, there is much confusion on the subject of neonics here in America. There is no consensus among national government leaders regarding whether or not we should ban neonics. That's probably because Monsanto has managed to find a few well placed seats in the FDA. This is how big money works in politics.

Take the big money out of politics and you tend to get better results. Here's an article at the American Prospect that did a nice survey of campaign finance around the world. The takeaway from the article is this: In America, we have taken the position that free speech is the only thing that matters, regardless of the integrity of the speech or the source. In other words, if you have the money, you have the right to say it to promote your campaign.

To put it differently, when a company finds a way to make money, that just happens to harm the environment, the money tends to cloud judgment. We've seen this with oil, coal and gas, particularly so with fracking. It's no different with pesticides and GMOs. But if you have the money, you can use it to stay in business with help from the government, despite any harm to the environment.

The reason neonics aren't getting clobbered with the banhammer here as they are in Europe is because of the way we finance campaigns. Science has little to do with how the issue is handled in the US. This is what we can expect from a Congress that elects someone like Ted Cruz to oversee NASA. It's all about the money, honey.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

A natural experiment in anti-municipal broadband laws

As some of you have probably guessed, I'm a big believer in a free and open internet. I agreed with the FCC when they classified last mile internet service providers like Comcast and Verizon as common carriers. I also agreed with the FCC when they passed an order to preempt certain state laws that prohibit municipal broadband. I was cheering them on to do that. I've written many articles on what is so wrong with our internet service provider market. I have also written a few articles extolling the wonders of municipal broadband.

What exactly is municipal broadband? In a nutshell, it's where residents of a city or small town can't get reliable service, better speeds or customer service from their legacy incumbent service provider. Names like Comcast, Centurylink, ATT and Time-Warner come to mind. I have found many stories about how the largest ISPs simply didn't care enough about their customers, potential customers and captive audiences in small towns. This lack of service is what gives rise to municipal broadband. The people in a small town or city give up, have a lot of meetings, and sell bonds to build their own ISP and make it available to everyone in town.

The ISPs saw this coming and starting working the statehouses to ensure that their scarcity-only business model is not interrupted or disrupted. They simply didn't want to lose their de facto monopoly power to use as a personal ATM. They used the American Legislative Exchange and other proxies to fight their war against their customers, and in more than 20 states, they've won. For now.

More than 450 cities and towns across America have rolled their own ISP and have benefited handsomely from it. They got relief from intransigent commercial ISPs. They got much higher speeds, with greater reliability and far better customer service. All from a local service provider that keeps the money local.

Here in Utah, The Utah Taxpayers Association will tell you that building your own network is a risk that should never be imposed upon taxpayers. Let the private ISPs do that work and take that risk. But what they won't tell you is why that risk is greater now than it used to be.

Municipal Broadband Networks has found a natural experiment in municipal broadband. In 2001, Utah made law a requirement that municipal broadband service providers may not sell directly to customers. Instead, they must sell wholesale through retailers. But a few municipal ISPs that were already selling direct before that requirement became law provide a stunning contrast to ISPs created after the requirement was implemented.

Chris Mitchell at Municipal Broadband Networks gives us a study in contrasts. Where Spanish Fork was able to build their own network and sell direct, Provo had to go wholesale and rely upon independent resellers to promote the network. What happened?
The results from Spanish Fork, where the taxpayers were not "protected" by the laws drafted by cable and telephone lobbyists, the city has paid off all of its debt, regularly reinvested net income into local budgets, and is on its way to gigabit fiber. More details on Spanish Fork here.
Provo, saddled with the state restrictions that forced a riskier business model on it, was not financially sustainable. The network generated some benefits but the costs were too great and it eventually became Google Fiber. Many envy the network they now have but the intervening years certainly were part of the plan to improving Internet access.
Provo sold their network to Google for a dollar (really, just one dollar) and is still paying off the debts from their buildout to this day. This is what the incumbents want to do to all of us to ensure that we never, ever bother them again. This is how big money works in politics. Take the money out of politics and suddenly, people start talking about ideas with merit rather than veiled ulterior motives.

If your state has similar restrictions on municipal broadband, check to see if any have been grandfathered in before the restrictions became law and see how they're doing now. You might find that protection that the ISPs seek has nothing to do with taxpayers. You might even want to write to your representatives in the state legislature to set things right. I know my representatives in the statehouse will be getting a few tweets from me on the subject at the very least.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Clean water in the context of American politics

While perusing Netflix one day, I found an amazing documentary to cut my indecision short, "Slingshot". The film takes us on a tour of inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen's efforts to give people in the poorest countries access to clean water. As some of you may be aware, about 900 million people worldwide do not have ready access to clean, potable water.

Kamen estimates that if we provided everyone in the world with clean water to drink, we could cut the worldwide hospital population by about 50%. This is an astounding figure and it cuts to the importance of just having clean water to drink.

Kamen realized the enormity of the problem and dedicated his mind, his time and his effort to solving the problem once he realized he had a partial solution to the problem. What I really like about the film is that it shines on a spotlight on the good work that a business can do when presented with an opportunity to do it.

Most Americans are completely unaware of the water problem we're facing worldwide. Many Americans are unsatisfied with tap water so they don't trust the tap water. Instead, many of us get water from bottles, from filters, and use the tap as a last resort.

Kamen has created a solution that no government has managed to solve and that few if any other businesses were really interested in solving. He started out wanting to solve the problem of making dialysis portable so that people with poorly or non-functioning livers could get their dialysis at home rather than at the hospital. But first he needed to create a source of medical grade water, water that could be safely injected into the body. Once he figured out how to do that, he realized that his solution could scale and that he could help to solve the worldwide water problem.

Kamen, with his business, has created a machine that can purify 1,000 liters of water a day, enough for 100 people, from any source. He estimates that his machine can purify 100 million liters of water in 3 years of service without overhaul. In partnership with the Coca-Cola Company, Kamen plans to distribute the Slingshot to thousands of villages worldwide at a cost of $1-2,000 each.

The movie is a very interesting exploration of the limits of government, non-governmental organizations and business, yet shows how they can all work together for the common good. As I watched the movie, I was started by the following statistic: 3.5 million people die annually because of diseases resulting from the consumption of unsanitary water.

I also began to think about the water problems we're creating here, in America. We have an enormous fracking industry that is conducting a rapacious campaign to force oil and gas out of the ground. The companies that engage in this activity are dumping their waste water back into the environment, poisoning the well for many of us. In this context, we may find ourselves the next big customer for Kamen.

Businesses that engage in fracking are not paying for the clean up, but everyone is for it through government remediation efforts. We are also paying for it with water filters, water softeners, bottled water and visits to the doctor. One only need look to Erin Brockovich and her relentless efforts to document and expose water contamination worldwide.

In the political context, it should be noted that conservatives in Congress are pulling hard for the KXL pipeline. They are working hard to emaciate federal agencies that regulate the companies that send their effluent into the water systems we depend upon for life. They are solidly opposed to a single payer health care system.

In this context, this is why a single payer health care system makes sense. With a private insurance system, is it easier for a company to externalize the costs of health care as a result of the pollution created by their business. With a single payer health system, supported by taxes that are paid by the business, there is no escape. Here we may finally find a deterrent to polluters at large. If they hurt us, they hurt themselves.

The current and coming struggles over clean, potable water will only serve to highlight this tension. The more that business proponents resist a single payer system, the more we can be sure that they wish to externalize the costs of their business. It is this struggle that came to mind when I watched the story of Dean Kamen's efforts to bring clean water to the world in Slingshot.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

The objectification of humans is a requirement for war

When I was a young man I was told not to hate people. Get to know people for who they are, not for how they look or for what other people say about them. Don't objectify them. I understand that to be the truth today, but when I look to the mainstream media, that is not what they're telling us to do. At least not with regard to a group of people known collectively as "Muslims".

I bring this issue up today in response to the ISIS attacks in Paris and to raise an interesting point about war, because, if you listen to mainstream press, they're egging us on into another war. President Hollande of France says that the attacks were an act of war. Jeb Bush, just chomping at the bit for another war, says that "this is the war of our time".

Whoever owns the mainstream press has an interest in war that most of us don't share. You know, members of the class of people known as "the 1%". Why they want to get us into another war, really, is beyond me. I've had enough of war and would like some peace and quiet. That's why I'm writing this article.

I want to draw your attention now to another article, "Propaganda and Islam: What you’re not Being Told". It's an interesting account of the generalizations that have been made by people in social media about muslims. In every case, these generalizations do not tell the truth about Muslims and objectify Muslims as being less then human. In every case, a stereotype is being cast upon the Muslim people as if all of them are this way or that.

My favorite example from that article is this one: "All or most Muslims are terrorists." The author then proceeds to do the math to compare the number of people estimated to be in the ISIS forces to say, the fores fighting them in Iraq and then to the worldwide population of more than a billion Muslims. The number of Muslims engaged in terrorism are not even close to 1% of the total population of Muslims. But if we listen to mainstream media, we are being asked to equate Islam with terrorism.

That is how objectification works. We equate an object with a group of humans to make them less than human. Then it's far easier to justify war. "Hey, look. We can control those things and we can destroy them so that we won't be bothered with them again."

But when we look at Muslims and see their eyes, their families, their friends, worldwide, we see that most of them want the same things we want. They want to get married, raise kids, have a good job, live in a nice place and do all of that in peace. I've known a few Muslims myself and have never had any sense of unease about them. I can appreciate their desire to live here in the US, in peace and to practice their religion here, in peace.

I used to participate in a form of social dancing called "Sufi Dancing". I did a little research to learn that the Sufi's were among the most peaceful Muslims in the world long before 9/11. Indeed, the dance rituals were relaxing and calming. The Sufis are still widely regarded as an order of the Muslim religion that is tolerant, humanistic and non-violent, even ascetic.

I am reminded of an article I wrote long ago, well, not terribly long ago. I wrote it back in March of 2014, so that makes it more than a year old. But I think it speaks to the point of this topic well. It's called, "Humans can hate objects, but not other humans". It is a set of observations I've made about hatred and the conclusion is that we can only hate another person if we reduce them to an object.

What I see happening in the press and social media is a struggle to put a label on all Muslims when in fact, only a tiny fraction of Muslims are terrorists. In fact, some are saying that ISIS isn't even Muslim at all. ThinkProgress has noted the following observation made by President Obama:
But the full context of Obama’s remark points to an important distinction between Islam and the extremist ideology that’s sweeping parts of Iraq and Syria. “No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim,” Obama said. “ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple. And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.”
I also see moral outrage on the right, with heavy criticism of Obama for even letting this happen. The recent attacks were in Paris and Kenya (mostly forgotten in the press), beyond the direct authority and jurisdiction of the president. But there is something else I noticed.

Some Christians are particularly defensive about Christians that commit acts of terrorism. A notable example is that of Bill O'Reilly's response to the senseless murder of 77 people by Anders Breivik, in Norway. The rules, to say the least are not clear and are not applied consistently in the press, but they lean away from Christian and Jewish faith and towards Muslims when it comes to calling out terrorism.

In sum, the tension between some of the major traditions of faith on the planet are palpable. I see this tension, mostly between two players, with the Muslims on one side and the Jewish and Christian faith on the other side. What I find most interesting about this tension is that all of them are Abrahamic faiths, going back to the same spiritual leader, Abraham. Given their lineage, the tension makes about as much sense as a dispute between Presbyterians and Protestants.

In order for the Jewish and the Christians to call terrorists acts Muslim, they must have clean hands and they do not. Every major faith tradition on the planet has had followers that have engaged in terrorist acts, including Buddhists. In order to for a terrorist to commit an act of terrorism, he must reduce the victims to "the enemy" to find the justification needed, and then to proceed.

After the act of terrorism is complete, some in the peanut gallery will try to reduce the terrorist to something other than human rather than to try to understand the motivation for the act. Then they claim guilt by association for all members of the relevant faith. This name calling goes on ignoring the fact that all acts of terrorism are political, all objectification of the terrorists, including conflating the terrorist with his faith, is political as well.

Once the objectification of the enemy is complete in the mind of those who would have us go to war, they find a way to make everyone else accept war as a plausible, reasonable response to acts of terrorism. That war is usually prosecuted with our sons and daughters, fathers and mothers.

Before it is too late, we need to find common ground and isolate the terrorists from their purported faiths. Then we can ask ourselves "Is this trip really necessary?" I leave you with a relevant quote from Winston Churchill:
“Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.”

Friday, November 13, 2015

Triskaidekaphobia

Today is Friday the 13th. Many people fear this day, thinking that the number 13 brings bad luck. The fear of the number 13 is so pervasive that I've seen some elevators that do not have a button for the 13th floor. That fear has a name: Triskaidekaphobia.

Triskaidekaphobia is a well known phobia, an unreasonable fear of the number 13. We've seen it in popular culture in the movies, on TV and even in the press. But the number 13 is no different than any other number except for its meaning and how people perceive it's meaning.

While some people fear this day, I tend to think of it as a lucky day, or just another day. There are some people who will not get out of bed when the day of the week is Friday and the date of the month is 13. People will change their behavior in significant ways when those two conditions are present. They even make plans well in advance for days like today. If you'd like a forecast, here is a list of months and years with Friday the 13th, going into the future to about 2020. You can even extend the list out to 2050 so you can schedule your days off if you want to.

One thing I like about that list is that there is a recurring pattern in the occurrences of Friday the 13th. On that page, we have notice that between 2010 and 2020, Friday lands on the 13th day of the month 20 times. I also find it interesting that a week has 7 days, 2 weeks 14 days, so the probability that Friday will land on the 13th is not exactly remote. Couldn't we pick a better number to be afraid of?

What about the people with birthdays that are on the 13th of the month? "Sorry, I won't be able to attend your birthday this year. I just won't be getting out of bed that day." What do we say to the hapless souls with a birthday on the 13th and a fear of the number 13? "Hey, it's just another day."

Here is a list of 157 historical events that happened on November 13th, calendar errors permitting. The list shows how history goes on blithely without a care for the number 13. Here is a sample:

1553 - English Lady Jane Grey and Archbishop Thomas Cranmer accused of high treason (bad day)
1789 - Ben Franklin writes "Nothing . . . certain but death & taxes" (ok, maybe still a bad day)
1843 - Mt Rainier in Washington State erupts (if you're a geologist this is pretty cool)
1849 - Peter Burnett elected first governor of California (good day for at least one man)
1921 - "Sheik", a silent film starring Rudolph Valentino, is released (movie fans rejoice)

Wait. What about those calendar errors? Wikipedia has some interesting history on the evolution of the calendar. Most notably we see the Julian calendar being replaced by the Gregorian calendar. According to that same page, "The Julian calendar gains against the mean tropical year at the rate of one day in 128 years. For the Gregorian the figure is one day in 3,226 years." That led to some significant efforts to compensate for the length of the year to ensure that the months match the tropical year. The tropical year is based on the relative position of the tilt of the rotational axis of the earth with respect to the sun as the earth orbits the sun.

See how much things change? We try to make things the same with the calendar and our clocks, but the earth, the sun and the moon keep changing on us. Did I mention that time dilates with respect to the influence of gravity? If you think that time only dilates in staff meetings, you might want to sit down for the next paragraph.

Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity predicted that time goes slower when we get closer to a source of gravitational attraction. You know, like the earth. I remember this from watching the television series, Nova, in the 1970s. They demonstrated this with two atomic clocks. On on the ground and one taken into the air long enough to show a difference. The phenomenon is known as gravitational time dilation. Just how we will keep our clocks straight when we colonize another planet?

So much for the human effort to make their conception of time fit to reality. Even with the way the Universe squirms around us, I doubt that I will ever convince anyone to let go of their fear of Friday the 13th. Have a fine day. :)

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Where are the GOP priorities with banking? Probably not with most of us.

I was so disappointed with the last GOP debate, that I really didn't bother with the second debate. But the news accounts of the most recent GOP debate were hard to miss. I found this little gem yesterday: On the topic of the financial sector meltdown of 2008, Cruz says he would let the banks fail. Kasich says he would not.

For once I actually agree with Cruz. I doubt that he's presidential material, but I agree that the big banks should have been allowed to fail. The simple reason is that in capitalism, when businesses fail, investors and entrepreneurs will come in to pick up the pieces and rebuild that business capacity or sell it off in pieces.

For example, if Bank of America had been allowed to fail, they would have to had to sell off all of their bad loans, let go of all the homes that they're keeping off the market and home prices would fall naturally. With low home prices, the people who saved their money would buy the homes and money would move in the economy. That's what drives growth.

Instead, we allowed the banks to get gigantic loans from the Fed at below market interest rates, to the tune of about $2 trillion, with zero drug testing. That left our country economically constipated, stopping the normal cycle of capitalism as described above. Sure, letting the big banks fail would have been painful, but we would have recovered much faster. Anyone following the story in Iceland can see the difference.

In Iceland, they prosecuted the bankers responsible for the bad loans, sold off the bank assets, and wrote a check for the people of the country to distribute their shares. Our economy would be humming along nicely had we done something like that.

Note also that there is a subtext to the debate. No one seems to want to talk about the fact that the meltdown was precipitated by stagnating wages for the last 40 years, and the wonderful bubble economy brought to us by the Reagan Revolution.

On the other hand, there is Governor Kasich, saying that the responsible thing to do was to save the banks, for we wouldn't want so many people to lose their life savings. Oh, really? What about the FDIC insurance on ordinary savings accounts? It was good for $250,000 in 2008.

Seriously, who has more than $250k in the bank? In 2004 a Federal Reserve survey found that of the top 10% of Americans in terms of wealth, the median amount held in accounts that could be FDIC insured was $58,000. So even in 2008, only a fraction of the top 10% had more than $58k.

How much of the population has more than $250k in savings, the FDIC limit? Today, that number is closer to 1%. Is it just the 1% that Kasich had in mind during the debate? Probably. I really don't think that either of them care much about the middle class. They're both in high levels of government and as we've seen, government tends to listen to the money rather than the people.

There is really only one candidate running for president that I can think of that is actually listening to the people. He's not Republican, he doesn't have a SuperPAC and his last name isn't Clinton. I'm looking forward to the day when he can debate anyone from the GOP on this issue. For now, I think we can rest assured that, like the rest of the GOP candidates running for president, neither Cruz nor Kasich have any empathy for the middle class.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The politics of externalizing the cost of health care in Kentucky and the US

The Maddow Blog has an interesting entry today regarding Kentucky governor elect, Matt Bevin. It seems that many people voted for Bevin because he's not a career politician. But, as has been noted many times before in social media, Republicans have a tendency to vote against their economic interests. In this case, a Kentucky man has voted for Matt Bevin, knowing full well that Bevin ran on a campaign promise to dismantle the Medicaid expansion made possible by Obamacare.

The story about a former coal miner with numerous health problems after a life dedicated to mining coal is sad. The lunacy of that man voting for another man totally dedicated to depriving hundreds of thousands of people of the health care they need is apparent. But the subtext missing from the story is this: where the hell is the coal mining company? Where is the coal mining company that employed this man and why isn't it stepping up to help him and the thousands they employed?

This is the argument missing from single payer plan debate. People sacrifice their health to work for a living. This is particularly true of manual labor industries like construction, mining and manufacturing. All of these industries expose their workers to toxins, so while they're employed, they may or may not get health benefits, but those benefits are not guaranteed.

Sure, we could say that a coal miner knew the dangers going in. Kentucky is known for families that engage in coal mining for generations. The father brings the son along for a career where he'll hardly ever see the sun, but it pays the bills. Like moths to a flame, they keep going back and get burned.

There are many reasons that a single payer health care system is desirable and most have been very well documented. The primary reason, one that seems to be missing from the debate, is to make sure that the employer doesn't escape responsibility.

In most industrialized countries, health care is a right. It's supported by a system of taxation that pays the expenses and tracks the outcomes in one entity, paying millions of service providers. We know that it works in this country by looking at Medicare. As an insurance provider, Medicare has the lowest overhead of any entity engaged in providing health insurance in the United States. It is a model of efficiency unmatched by private industry.

This is probably because the organization is more concerned about the work than meeting demands from the shareholders and executives (also shareholders) that might be present in a private insurance provider. Yet there is signification faction in Congress dead set on the destruction of Medicare, just as we have seen in Kentucky.

So let's connect the dots. It's well established that for at least the last 20 years, Congress hasn't listened to anyone but the top 1% of income earners. I think it's fair to extrapolate that trend to Kentucky and their state legislators. We can fairly say that the Kentucky legislature has only been listening to the top 1% for a long time.

As the Maddow blog points out, the Medicaid expansion in the state was a model for all other states to use, and that was created by a Democrat in the Governor's Mansion. They had a system that worked, and worked well. It proved popular among the people of Kentucky. But given Matt Bevin's election to office, many Kentucky residents now have something to fear in Mr. Bevin. His election is just another example of people not bothering to get out and vote.

If Mr. Bevin's goal is so obviously opposed by the majority of the population, then it must be supported by a small minority, the 1%. In this debate, it is clear that the top 1% wish to escape their responsibility to the people they employed. It would follow that they wish only to extend and entrench the advantages they now enjoy, so that they are not held to account for the health of the workers they employed.

Making health care a right is the first step in the right direction. Providing access to health care with a single payer system will eliminate a massive source of overhead, the confusing practice of medical coding and billing among many insurers. That by itself will save billions. Eliminate the bloated salaries of C-Class executives in the insurance industry that contribute almost nothing positive to the debate will save a few billion more. Imposing a tax to replace the premiums we already pay for health insurance means that an entire industry is replaced by one government provider, managed democratically for the benefit of all, with no visible means of escape for the top 1%.

Our current health care system costs the country about 18% GDP, almost as much as the entire federal government alone. A single payer system is the best way to ensure that everyone gets the care they need and ensures that most of the money paid goes to the people who provide the care. It's been proven to work in numerous countries around the world, including the United States. There is no reason it can't be expanded here, universally, except maybe a fair number of conservative politicians in safe seats supported by gerrymandered districts in Congress.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

RSS and the forgotten art of getting the news without social media

The old-timers of the internet might recall the RSS protocol. RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication, a protocol that makes it easy to aggregate summaries from the websites we frequent the most. The summary consists of the headline and a part of or all of the first paragraph of the article.

RSS is useful for blogs, news sites and other sites with frequent updates. This was promoted quite a bit in years past, but since has been on the wane. Many websites still provide RSS and they can be found by looking for the following symbol:


The RSS information provided by a website is called an RSS feed. To read an RSS feed, you need a program like FeedDemon, Feedreader and RSSOwl. I found a list of available RSS readers here. Most of them are free to download and to use. Outlook, Evolution, Thunderbird and other email clients, also include RSS feed readers. There are also feed readers for your iPhone or Android phone.

I happen to like Feedly. It's a free web-based app for Android and iOS (that's Apple). I was a Google Reader user until I got wind that Google was going to eliminate their reader altogether. Feedly came along and made it easy for me to replace Google Reader by importing all of my feeds at once. Now Feedly is where I go to look for my news.

Here's a screenshot of my RSS feeds from Feedly:


Here you see a list of articles from the websites I like to read for news. To add a website, I get the RSS feed for that site. For example, I'm a fan of Ars Technica, a great website for tech news. Here is the RSS feed address for their entire site:

http://feeds.arstechnica.com/arstechnica/index

You can enter that address in any news reader and then see summaries of all their articles. Ars even offers feeds for sections and even topics. Just about all the big websites offer this. By the way, you can do the same for this blog, The Digital Firehose. Here is the RSS feed address:

http://thedigitalfirehose.blogspot.com/feeds/posts/default

RSS was conceived in 1995 and put into programming practice in 1999. The concept evolved over the years to what we have now, a really simple way to read the news. Nowadays, most people are not aware of all of this behind the scenes action on their favorite websites. The reason for this is that without anyone really noticing, social media has become the news reader of choice.

What is social media? It's any website or web-based platform that allows people to share information freely as a collection of posts to their account. Posts can include text, video and images. You can control how he information is shared by selecting the groups you want to see your posts. From the world down to a select group of friends, you decide who sees it.

I am on Facebook, Google Plus and Twitter. I use all three frequently. There are more like Tumblr, Pinterest and Foursquare, most of which are more recent than the others and maybe even more trendy. But I'm "old school" and there are only so many hours in a day, so I don't have time for it all. Too much of this leads to "information overload", anyway. Suffice it to say that there is a social media network for your tastes, you only need to do some digging to find it.

How did social media replace the news reader? Nearly all the major news sites have a Facebook page, a Google Plus page and a twitter account. A search of your social media site of choice will reveal if, for example, Ars Technica has a Facebook page (they do). Then you can like their page and their posts will show up in your Facebook Timeline.  Gather enough of these pages on Facebook and you have a news feed with posts from your friends, family and acquaintances mixed in.

Twitter is a bit more informal, but if you follow the Twitter accounts of the news sites you read, you'll see links to their articles. Same is true of Google Plus and whatever other social media you like to use. A news site can post across multiple social media platforms to alert their readers of new stories and to make it easier to share stories across social media platforms.

I use social media myself when I post a new blog to promote my blog and keep it relevant. When I post on Blogger, it's instantly shared on Google Plus. Then I copy the article address and post it on Facebook with a comment and then I post it on Twitter. I could probably do more, I know, but that means, creating yet another account and so on.

Despite all of this social media activity for me to peruse, I still like to fall back on Feedly for the news. It's a nice, simple summary of the news from all of my favorite sites without me having to go to each site to read them. RSS may be ancient, but still is an amazing example of how simple it is to share something on the web.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

A brief review of the American Anti-Corruption Act

There is a quiet revolution rolling slowly across the country. It is starting small, with small cities and states that I like to think of as the low hanging fruit of reform.

This revolution concerns the implementation of at least 3 simple concepts:


I've been reviewing the Act, and it is breathtakingly thorough. It reads like a laundry list of everything that is wrong with American politics and provides a provision to fix it. I started to laugh when I got to the part about enforcement. Not because it was unrealistic, but because I just can't imagine how the current Congress would ever pass such a bill.

But anti-corruption acts are catching a few sparks. Maine, San Francisco and Seattle have all passed bills along these lines. That's how it starts. In a few years, this will be "common sense" politics. Ok, less than a generation, but still, it's happening. People are getting tired of living around an unresponsive government.

I love how this act is constructed with very specific amendments to the law. The act makes the term "lobbyist" much bigger and harder to escape. It closes the revolving door and cuts off coordination between SuperPACs and the candidates that benefit from them. It creates a tax rebate that can be used to make contributions to qualified candidates and organizations. It applies the same contribution limits on PACs to SuperPACs. It requires members of Congress to report how they spend their time when they entertain lobbyists and prohibits them from lobbying while Congress is in session. Wait. Congress gets a nanny? I'm in!

The best part? It has bigger teeth. With a wider reach, the restrictions will be harder to escape and the fear of jail provides additional incentive to comply. Members of Congress may find themselves more inclined to listen to everyone else besides their beloved donors.

Now it is time to put this bill before Congress. Let's see who would be willing to vote for this bill just before the primary season is about to begin. Anyone who cannot support this bill must be made to justify their position with specific objections. 

Tweet this link, https://s3.amazonaws.com/s3.unitedrepublic.org/docs/AACA_Full_Provisions.pdf, to your representatives in Congress and ask them directly if they would support this act. Then retweet their response if you get one. That's what I'm going to do. BTW, you can find your representatives in Congress here.

All we're asking for in this Act is accountability and an ear for the rest of us. That isn't too much to ask.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Free the Law from the secret world of arbitration

A few days ago, I read this fantastic article about an apparent sea change in business in America. It's been over and done for decades, but this change doesn't get much discussion in political discourse. It's the arbitration clause. I know, it seems arcane. But almost all of us have signed a contract with an arbitration clause built in. The article I'm referring to appeared in the New York Times and it's a long, long read, but it's well worth the time. You can find it here, but when you find it, sit down and plan to give up about 30 minutes of time.

The New York Times has done a great piece of investigative work with this article. We see the inception, the history and the nails in the coffin for our rights with most if not all corporations that we sign contracts with. It is a fascinating expose of how business, really big business, has successfully managed to insulate themselves from their customers and their employees.

Reading that article and writing this one, has reminded me of another article, "Why Business is Brain-Dead--and How to Wake Up", on the opensource.com website. That, too is also a fascinating read. Be sure to sit down before you start reading. This one takes awhile, too. It is a discussion of how businesses abuse everyone in small, nickel and dime ways, without really considering the long term consequences of their actions.

Both articles explain a lot about American business culture and provide an interesting diagnosis. But they don't necessarily provide the cure. Beyond getting big money out of elections, I don't know what the cure might also include. I had wondered how American business got so bad, but when I read the NYTimes article, it all became so clear.

If we listen to the business leaders of today, we see men and women who talk a lot about the free market and how wonderful it is. But if we read their contracts, we see that a free market is not really their desire. The arbitration clause is a perfect example of that. Not only do they not want a free market. They want insulation from that market. That's what the arbitration clause is all about.

Let's start from the basis that the Constitution guarantees certain, inalienable rights. The arbitration clause seems to allow large corporations to use their monopoly power to force people to surrender one very basic right: access to the courts to settle claims against them. In other words, in order to do business with a large corporation, the corporation has decided that you must surrender your right to join a class action lawsuit against them and submit to private binding arbitration.

Without that clause, we have the right to join with a large group of other people to sue a corporation for damages due to a small infraction against many people, like cramming. Cramming is adding charges to a bill or invoice without the customer noticing, or without prior notice. They put it all in the fine print when you sign, so how could you know, right?

With that clause, you're forbidden from forming "a union" of people seeking to litigate for damages so that the costs of litigation do not far outweigh the damages you're seeking. Class action lawsuits can be a very efficient way to resolve the claim, but hey, that's just a bit too efficient for the typical large corporation.

When the business community lobbied for the use of the arbitration clause in their contracts, they were "getting killed" by class action suits especially with a sympathetic jury. When they introduced the clauses in their contracts, lawyers like John G. Roberts (now chief justice of the Supreme Court), told judges that once people see the benefits of arbitration, they will use it. Statistics show otherwise (from the NYTimes article):
"Verizon, which has more than 125 million subscribers, faced 65 consumer arbitrations in those five years, the data shows. Time Warner Cable, which has 15 million customers, faced seven."
If I was a CEO looking to insulate my company from lawsuits, I'd be ecstatic about those numbers. If I was a customer in America looking for good customer service from a monopoly protected from class action lawsuits, I'd be sorely disappointed. Many of us are.

All of this comes at a cost. As businesses become more insulated from their customers and employees, transaction costs increase. Everyone pays except for the top 1%. They're making the money and when you have money, honey, anything is possible. The top 1% can pay for access to the courts denied to everyone else. Since they write the rules, they know the rules and can play the rules in their favor.

American business is brain dead in large part due to the arbitration clause. Removing customer access to the courts is not a free market, either. A free market assumes accountability. There is no accountability with the arbitration clause since the vast majority of arbitration cases are decided in favor of the corporation.

Here is one of the most troubling aspects of the arbitration (from the NYTimes article):
"Thousands of cases brought by single plaintiffs over fraud, wrongful death and rape are now being decided behind closed doors. And the rules of arbitration largely favor companies, which can even steer cases to friendly arbitrators, interviews and records show." (my emphasis)
It's nearly a perfect system if you want to run an unaccountable corporation. Not only do few people use arbitration, arbitration rules favor business and the cases can be steered to a friendly arbitrator just to ensure a favorable outcome against the consumer. The best part? The proceedings are kept secret so no one else knows what the hell is happening. Peers can't compare outcomes to decide if it is even worth the fight.

This is creating a huge pile of private law that Americans must overcome in order to exercise their rights. This is the best evidence yet that corporations are not people. With the arbitration clause, corporations are not accountable, but they can hold people accountable. If one party to a contract is not accountable, then you don't really have a contract. You just have a set of rules that are mandatory for the consumer, not the business.

So, not only are corporations making themselves unaccountable, they have the right of succession, meaning they can go on doing the same thing for generations. They are accumulating power and passing it on to the next generation of lucky kids who get to assume that power. You know, like a dynasty.

Friday, November 06, 2015

Small towns are the low hanging fruit of reform

There's a minor revolution going on in Colorado. Small towns are taking back their right to run their own broadband networks. Community Broadband Networks has the story right here. It an amazing story of a complete and total reversal for the dummies at Comcast and Centurylink.

The short summary is this: legacy incumbent ISPs, namely, Comcast and Centurylink, didn't invest in infrastructure in many small towns and counties in Colorado. Residents there pleaded with them to provide better connectivity. Instead of spending money to improve service, the incumbents lobbied to get SB 152 passed, restricting communities from running their own networks. SB 152 gave those communities an opt-out provision so that if there was enough support, they could escape the restrictions of SB 152.

44 communities did just that on Tuesday, a big jump from the other 9 that did the same thing a year before. In other words, 53 Colorado communities were so tired of the subpar service they were getting from Centurylink and Comcast, that they voted for local control and choice of their broadband service. Many communities passed this referenda by more than 80%, some higher than 90%, and all of them passed with sound and convincing majorities. Now they are free to run their own community broadband networks, or partner with local providers to build a network that works for them.

This, is a frightening prospect for the ISPs. Worse, word is going to get around the country about what happened and then they're going to have fight the same fight in other states. Odds are, they're going to lobby before they will build. Why? Executives at Comcast and Centurlink seem bent on demonstrating how they can make money, lots of money, and inflict pain on customers at the same time at the country club.

The communities that voted for this freedom were small, too small to be worth the trouble for incumbent ISPs. But they demonstrated an important part of American politics. They were also too small to invest in politically. A large corporation has no interest in sending money to small town politicians in order to maintain the private monopoly. Small towns and communities are, in a sense, the low hanging fruit of substantive change and reform.

Broadband is just part of the story. The story about broadband is a story about corruption in our elected offices. But that is starting to change.

In Maine, they've had publicly funded campaigns for 19 years, but the Citizens United ruling made life more difficult there. So they passed a new law that requires more transparency in campaign financing and works around the problems created by the Supreme Court. The state of Maine has a population of just over a million people. That's a rather small state and it's low hanging fruit.

There is also Seattle. They are instituting publicly funded campaigns to help get the big money out. Public financing can help to create campaigns focused on ideas rather than money. They help to create access for ordinary citizens with problems that affect everyone, not just the few that have been lucky enough to achieve the American Dream. Population? 660k. Small enough that ordinary people can effect change.

Even the state of Ohio has passed an anti-gerrymandering law for their state level districts. Governor Kasich admits that with this new law, Republicans could give up some power, but with that exchange, the gerrymandering cycle could be broken. Even conservatives are starting to admit there is a problem.

To see real reform in America, we may have to run bottom up instead of top down. As politicians are elected based on public financing, anti-corruption laws and anti-gerrymandering laws at the state and local levels, we could see reforms filtering up to the national level.

Reform may not come from a moonshot in a year. It might come instead over a generation from the small towns to the presidency. A gradual reform might actually be longer lasting as well, avoiding a direct confrontation with the moneyed interests while slowly removing their access to power.

Perhaps then, the people will have a louder voice than corporations that prefer to remain unaccountable.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Sorry, Hilary is not the presumptive winner of the Democratic nomination

The Hill is running an article to say, at the very least, if Hilary could just win the Iowa caucus, then she could "seal up the nomination". At least that's what her campaign managers say. Sounds presumptive, eh? Here is the opening of that article:
"Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is keeping her boot on Bernie Sanders’s neck.
"The former secretary of State on Tuesday released a new ad in Iowa and New Hampshire on gun control, the one issue where she can credibly claim to be to the left of the Vermont Independent senator."
Ok, let's stop right there at the metaphor in the first line, you know, where a tremendous assumption is being made. Really? Hilary is enjoying such an enormous advantage right about now, that all she needs to do is hold that boot in place?

The second paragraph says it all. Gun control is the only issue where Hilary has any credibility to the left of Sanders. Love it. So gun control trumps all other issues? Even economics?

How about those shimmering bags of money from Wall Street behind Hilary? Check out her contribution sources here at opensecrets.org. Nothing but law firms and Wall Street, you know, to make sure she doesn't regulate them. She could always change her mind on the TPP later, after she's in office. I'll never forget NAFTA. Or Larry Summers.

Here's where it gets interesting from a technical perspective. I have a plugin from opensecrets.org that works in my browser. It highlights names in text that are elected officials and gives me their top donors by industry. Works on Bernie but not on Hilary. I wonder why. Maybe it's just a bug.

Now have a look at Bernie's contributors. 97% of his contributions come from individuals. The rest? A few unions.

Anyway, that article from The Hill goes on and on about how Hilary's campaign committee decided to go negative early on to avoid make the same mistakes they made with Obama. In 2008, Hilary was the presumptive winner then, too. But somehow, that didn't work out as planned. Hilary's campaign says they were too late to go negative. So, you know, they just want to get a jump on Bernie with the one issue that they think he's weak on.

Sounds interesting, Hilary, except for a few things. First, Bernie has won 14 elections without running a negative ad and in his most recent election, he got 25% of the Republican vote in Vermont. Without a PAC or a SuperPAC. But then, some would say that Bernie is unelectable now, wouldn't they?

I was so incensed by that article on The Hill's website that I did a little more digging. They're right. Hilary is swimming in good polling news. Take a look at the Real Clear Politics site and you'll find that they have a very nice summary page with all the latest polls. I looked at the most recent polls and sure enough, Hilary is doing very well in all the major polls.

She did that in 2008, too. For example, The Washington Post ran an article about her great polling. It's dated July 1st, 2014, and goes into great detail on her polling back then. Then they take notice of how Obama played the race and won. Hilary won every major poll during that election season and still lost.

After the drubbing I gave the WaPo yesterday, I feel it only fair to offer another source. How about the DailyKos? They're a bit more liberal than the WaPo, so we get a different point of view. In this list, we see pundit after pundit talk about how Obama is going to lose, big time. But, they were all wrong, too.

This isn't to say I wouldn't want Hilary for president compared to anyone in the GOP clown car. This is to say I prefer Bernie over Hilary for so many reasons like those mentioned above.

So if you want Bernie for president like I want him in the oval office, and I hope you do, get mobilized. Write about him, talk about him with your friends and family. Share links about him on social media openly and often.

You don't have to change their minds, just get the message out and let them think for themselves. His message resonates with a majority of Americans and it hasn't been co-opted from someone else. He's had the same message for more than 30 years and I see no sign that he will change it just to be president.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

The Washington Post just might be wrong to disagree with Bernie Sanders about Denmark

It seems that the mainstream press is finally starting to take notice of Bernie Sanders. I guess his announcement of having more than 750,000 distinct donors got their attention. But something else got their attention: Denmark.

As some of you may know, Bernie is a big fan of Denmark and rightly so. They have created a more equal society and provide generous benefits for the people who live there. So it would seem fair that the Washington Post has found someone they deem qualified to break that positive spin that Bernie Sanders has given to Denmark in Michael Booth.

WaPo interviewed Mr. Booth and have published their piece here. It is especially critical of their cultural problems even though we all have cultural problems. It is also very critical of Denmark's economics, particularly their trade in oil. The point of the WaPo hit piece then, is that Denmark is not so happy now that oil prices are falling as there are fewer oil profits to distribute to the people of that fair land. Apparently their debt is rising and that worries more than a few people.

Booth talks about Denmark's appetite for anti-depressants as if that is an indicator of happiness, or the lack thereof. Well call the kettle black, America! CBS News found a study that shows that 70% of Americans use prescription drugs. The New York Times says that 1 in 10 Americans use anti-depressants. So what percentage of Danes are taking anti-depressants? The best tally I've found is about 8%. Seems a bit lower than in America, but still high.

In the end, the WaPo article lands the punchline, "The sad take-away from that is, money does, in fact, make you happy," according to Michael Booth. Sorry, Michael. I disagree. No matter how much money you have or make, you still have to make a choice to be happy. Your following comment belies that point, "[The Danes] are good at appreciating the small things in life and making the most of what they have..."

Its an interesting piece that makes a point of focusing on the negatives rather than to keep Denmark in balance. Fortunately, we have the internet and we can do some fact checking. The first place I go for fact-checking on economics is The Center for Economic Policy Research. I'm a big fan of Beat The Press (cue up image of dog after making mess in living room with rolled up newspaper in hand in foreground view).

Economist Dean Baker sheds some light on the so-called economic problems that Denmark is experiencing now. Suffice it to say that on nearly every point, Booth proves he's not an economist, nor is he up on stats. As Baker notes, we get it that Booth doesn't like Denmark.

Denmark doesn't have a debt problem like the US has. Denmark's net debt to GDP ratio is about 6.3% which, for a socialist country, compares very favorably to the United States with 94% in 2012. Our debt to GDP ratio is probably better now that Obama has laid down the law to those frisky Tea Party guys in Congress who don't give a fart about defense spending, but howl in protest about food stamps.

As some may say, consider the source. The Washington Post might still be a liberal paper in some respects, but it's owned by Jeff Bezos, the owner of Amazon.com. Isn't Amazon.com the same company that's been fighting tooth and nail to avoid paying sales taxes like every other brick and mortar company just for competitive advantage? Isn't Amazon fighting a class action wage theft lawsuit against them by not paying for the time employees spent being searched every day after work?

Yeah, I'd consider the source in the WaPo hit piece.