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Archive for January 2011

Jon Stewart’s Disservice

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Relative to: Jon Stewart’s interview with Jonathon Alter on the State of the Union address.

I love Jon Stewart and the Daily Show. That team writes some great political satire, and it almost always has something worth seeing. But there are times when Stewart, maybe in the name of being reasonable, which has of late been a priority of his, has a tendency to downplay very serious issues.

Last night’s show was a great example. While interviewing Jonathon Alter (the link to the video is above), Stewart brought up Obama’s “Sputnik Moment” from the SOTU. The Sputnik Moment that Obama refers to is the need to, essentially, reframe our nation. Invest in clean energy, build a 21st century infrastructure with high-speed rail, high-speed internet, and a better energy grid, invest in clean cars and get people to drive these cars. Serious challenges that will likely define the new American Century.  Challenges that, in reality, probably rival getting an American to be the first on the moon.

But Stewart sees this as a boring challenge. Not interesting, not particularly exciting. Not like a moon landing. Just not that sexy. “It didn’t strike me as a Sputnik Moment,” Stewart quipped, “as much as, say, let’s all change our light bulbs.” Jon Stewart, you can help make this sexy. You influence your audience in a real, practical way. Don’t belittle high-speed internet access in rural areas and electric cars. These are serious problems and solving them will be much more valuable to our future than beating Russia in the space race (at least comparable). So take it seriously, and while we’re at it, take changing the country’s light bulbs seriously too.

**On a side note. There has been quite a bit of teasing of President Obama ‘s pledge to get high-speed internet to %98 percent of Americans. As though somehow this is not an important priority that does not deserve the kind of attention that President Obama gives it.

This is so wrong. Internet means connection to the world, phone service, jobs, services, everything that people like myself take for granted, and think, ‘well I don’t need the internet.’ If you want to see the difference of not having internet, at all, and having it at your fingertips, visit the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, and Reservations around the Northwest who have no internet service–there is no profit in providing supremely rural areas with internet service– and what that can mean to a rural community. It is very important, and folks (like myself and most urban/suburban Americans) who have internet at their homes, on their mobiles, at school and work and everywhere should not take for granted the advantage that provides. You may think you don’t need it, but take it away from everyone, and it’s a very real injustice.


Written by Christopher ZF

January 27, 2011 at 11:14

Following up on the SOTU

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Relative to: President Obama’s State of the Union address last night.

Much more detail on this speech can be found elsewhere. Actually everywhere. But there were a few things that TRC wanted to take a moment and comment on regarding the SOTU. The first is that the praise/complaint about Democrats and Republicans sitting together is boring. It’s mildly interesting that the chamber was a mixed-party affair. But only mildly. That it seemed to cut down on the abundance of applause makes it worth it. If you’re behavior at the SOTU is different while sitting next to Rep. Steve King than it is sitting next to Sen. Franken, well that’s probably behavior best left home.

Second, Energy. This was both a conciliatory speech and one meant to draw clear party distinctions, and in walking that line, I thought the President did fairly well. For example, I wanted to hear about Climate Change legislation. Some kind of plan or acknowledgement from our Democratic President that we absolutely must have taxes on carbon. That did not happen. Rather, Obama spoke at length about investments in clean energy, and the need for competitiveness in this arena, and proposed that our country receive %80 of our electricity from clean energy sources by 2035.  These are related topics, one left out, I presume, as divisive; one seen as a bipartisan opportunity. Mentioning Climate Change would just turn the nose of Speaker Boehner, who mostly remained straight-nosed. I understand that.
–Two last thoughts on the energy section:  1) Why the stern faces on the GOP at the mention of taking back $4 Billion in tax breaks from oil companies? Honestly, who cares about the oil companies? Can we not get past this love and realize that we need clean energy now? 2) President Obama, stop mentioning clean coal. You’ve been talking about clean coal since your days in the Illinois Senate, and it is not real.

Third, Budget, Taxes and Spending Cuts. I’m no budget expert, but I don’t know what’s going on here. President Obama attempted to be bipartisan while drawing a line in the sand. Is there any potential of working together to cut the deficit? No. Because there are fundamental factual disputes that will keep this from happening. Either Healthcare will increase the deficit or repealing Healthcare will increase the deficit. Either spending is largely to blame and budget cuts can largely  solve our deficit problem or it cannot. If we won’t increase taxes on the wealthiest of the wealthy, (literally the uber-rich) but will cut education, well, we’re not going to balance our budget. Or if we do, what cost will it come at?  This may be the biggest party divide on the issue, but the President is right, taxes are not punishment.  “We simply cannot afford a permanent extension of the tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans. Before we take money away from our schools, or scholarships away from our students, we should ask millionaires to give up their tax break. It’s not a matter of punishing their success. It’s about promoting America’s success.”

As for a 5-year discretionary budget freeze, will that help?

Most of the rest of speech was surprisingly conciliatory in tone and content: America is the best country there ever was, is, or will be. Education reform is necessary, rewrite the tax code, medical malpractice reform, allowing recruiters into all colleges and universities, shrink and streamline the federal government (perhaps the most surprising part of the speech–salmon regulation is incredibly convoluted). None of this will be particularly pleasing to the “liberal base” but much of this is why, according to Politics Daily, Obama’s speech was so well liked by Americans.  The notion that Obama and the GOP could come together and agree on much, and solve problems by negotiating is a very positive idea, and one that hopefully can be realized.

That might be a little too hopeful, but for today, one can hope.

Written by Christopher ZF

January 26, 2011 at 11:55

Posted in Congress, Obama, Politics

What Obama should say tomorrow:

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Relative to: five things that TRC would like to hear Obama say during this year’s State of the Union Address.

As Democrats and Republicans sit side by side, being annoyed by each others political world-views and policy plans, Obama will be making his State of the Union Address. While he has previewed his plans to discuss the new Sputnik moment and will most likely be passionate and his speech well-delivered, there are a few items that, in this blog’s opinion, the President should include in his SOTU:

1. Balancing the budget is hard, and will require raising taxes ( yes) and making cuts in services (yes). But we should not pretend that government spending cannot help our country get out of this recession.

2. Something substantial about job creation. Seriously, what are we going to do to actually create jobs. Small businesses are the key to the American economy, and anti-business policies from the government are costing jobs are meaningless platitudes, and probably not terribly accurate. So what are you going to do to get jobs back?

3. “Whatever it takes, I will not let congress wholesale repeal, piecemeal deconstruct, or defund the healthcare bill.”

4. Climate Change, surprise, is still a huge problem and we are still destroying the planet and making no true advances towards solving the problem. EPA has regulatory powers over greenhouse gases, and if congress remains unwilling to take serious action at reducing CO2 emissions, then President Obama must be willing to veto any attempt to repeal EPA’s regulatory authority.

5. Change is important, and bringing change to Washington is important, and we’re still planning to make change you can believe in, but 1-4 are far more important.

Written by Christopher ZF

January 24, 2011 at 15:20

Posted in Obama, Politics

Protecting EPA’s Regulatory Authority

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Relative to: the GOP plan to strip EPA of the power to regulate greenhouse gases.

The Supreme Court of the United States has ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency has the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. This authority went into effect at the beginning of 2011, when EPA began regulating oil refineries, power plants and other major GHG emitters. Not surprisingly, such regulation is unpopular.

Politico today writes about the closed-door, invitation-only meetings being held to undo EPA’s authority.  According to the piece, GOP officials, industry officials, and energy lobbyists are strategizing about how to undo all EPA authority over GHG regulation. Some of the options: delay the EPA’s ability to curb emissions for two years (Sen. Rockefeller); strip the EPA’s authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate emissions (Con. Upton);  and the motherload, restrict all federal agencies ability to regulate GHGs under the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act and NEPA, including removing states’ rights to regulate industry, and removing “public nuisance litigation related to climate change” (Sen. Barrasso-Wyoming).

In the face of these legislative “solutions” to climate change regulation, one must hope that the Obama Administration will veto, veto, veto. There are democrats who will support these measures (Rockefeller, for example), as well as continue to make climate change legislation impossible.  The arguments against EPA cite economics and jobs and the current recession, but leaves unmentioned the sacrosanct nature of protecting the industries which are making the planet unlivable. In essence, the arguments ignore science and reason, and believe only that the status quo should be maintained.

Any argument to the contrary is simply not given an invitation to the meeting. The idea that regulation of GHGs honestly improves the future well-being of literally everyone gets no mention, because it is easy to say that science is wrong and climate change is false. The notion that a new infrastructure–transportation, energy, broadband, etc– for a new century is required, the old one is literally crumbling,  and that such development provides much needed jobs is disregarded  as government expansion and socialism, ignoring the fact that our country is built on these government initiatives in the first place.

The United States is ten years, at least, overdue in passing serious climate change legislation. Now, in 2011, with no prospect of congress being able to take the kind of  action needed, all we have left is the regulatory authority granted the EPA by our courts. There is a “too late” point on this issue. It may have already passed, but if it hasn’t, we need to maintain the only oversight we have for an industry that, even with regulation, largely operates on its own whims. The United States needs to bring climate change back into the conversation, and recognize that our current economic situation is not a reason to avoid necessary change but to embrace it.

Written by Christopher ZF

January 20, 2011 at 11:38

Why can’t the Church own its evil?

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Relative to: the release of a 1997 letter from an Irish Archbishop recommending Priests not speak to authorities regarding sexual abuse allegations.

It has been 19 years since Sinead O’Connor stunned the US and ripped up an image of Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live. As John Paul II moves towards sainthood, the justice of O’Connor’s action continues to become evident. More and more evidence of abuse is piled at the foot of the Roman Catholic Church and it remains a mystery why the RCC cannot admit that everything it did in this scandal was wrong. Everything.

Now, there is the 1997 letter from Ireland, which “shows that the Vatican’s intention is to prevent reporting of abuse to criminal authorities.” It doesn’t seem to get much clearer than that. Still, authorities in the Church maintain little culpability in what transpired, and offer two differing arguments on their behalf. The first is to deny that these things were written/agreed to/known within the Vatican–an extremely difficult argument to believe. The second is to “move on”, as in: “It refers to a situation that we’ve now moved beyond.” Which is an admission of error only in that it is not at all an admission of any error.

Resolving this matters a lot. I love the Catholic Church, though I’m no adherent. I think the social power and the ability to move on behalf of justice and in eradicating poverty are as strong in the Catholic Church as they are anywhere. But there must be a simple, it is simple, decision to own the evil that has been committed. Pope Benedict has been particularly insensitive and deflecting–protecting abusers and blaming victims . I suppose this is no surprise considering his position in the Vatican at the height of the sex abuse scandal.

But this doesn’t matter. Without a full admission of guilt, the Church is simply fooling its self. No right can come from the Vatican until the matter is correctly handled. And Catholics the world round need to call for the Vatican to own what it has done. In this light, Sinead O’Connor still serves as the example. Listen to O’Connor’s interview on NPR from last summer to hear how a passionate Catholic can call for justice.

Written by Christopher ZF

January 19, 2011 at 14:24

One more (and final) comment on the AZ media response

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Relative to: The Insanity Defense, by Dahlia Lithwick, Slate.

In a follow-up conversation (which took place on FB, anathema) to my previous post, Debating Fault in Political Violence, I wrote the following: “I must also say that I think the tendency to proclaim those who act violently as nut jobs, or psychos, or simply as mentally disturbed allows a society that has an infatuation with violence off the hook too easily. Society does impact how citizens behave.” (I don’t think I’ve ever quoted myself).

Today at Slate, I read a piece on a similar topic that seemed exceedingly relevant. Essentially, Lithwick argues that if we are to consider Loughlin a completely insane person, incapable of influence from his culture, will we affirm a plea of insanity, allowing Loughlin to live out his life getting treatment? It’s an interesting question. Here’s Lithwick:

If it comes to pass that [Defense Attorney Judy] Clarke advances an insanity defense for her client, I wonder how many of the same people who are today arguing that Loughner was far too sick to be influenced by a toxic public discourse, will be arguing that he is too sane to plead insanity. The insanity defense has been a political football almost as long as political discourse has been toxic.

In fact, it’s no small irony that the insanity defense has become almost impossible to prove, precisely because people just like Loughner have occasionally managed to prove it. And so I dearly hope that everyone who feels comfortable diagnosing him from afar today will stand by their diagnoses in the weeks to come. If you are going to advance the argument that he is neither culpable nor rational, then it follows that he should not be convicted for his actions.

An interesting take. I have no idea if Loughner is sane or insane. But consistency, however fleeting, should be encouraged. I’m sure insanity defenses are more complicated than I’m allowing, and that by saying he’s insane, one does not necessarily mean he could not have forethought (as it seems he clearly did). But it’s an interesting take nonetheless.

Written by Christopher ZF

January 12, 2011 at 19:28

Posted in Political Violence

Dark Matter and Economic Boom

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Relative to: the search for dark matter and local economic growth.

The scientific community would love for the LUX program to find dark matter. This is one of the messages of Brooke Borel’s Popular Science piece, Almost a Mile Below South Dakota, A Race to Find Dark Matter. Nestled in the small town of Lead, SD is an old gold mine that has been retrofitted into the DUSEL Complex (Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory). The mission of the LUX Project at DUSEL: be the first team to actually observe the presence of dark matter. Dark matter, after all, has only been hypothesized–though many accept that something like dark matter exists and holds the universe together.

But there is something smaller than the successful discovery of dark matter in Lead, SD that may be much bigger, too. Thanks, frankly,  to the investments spent on theoretical physics, a town is being reborn. Economic growth has accompanied the DUSEL development, like that which accompanied the Homestake Mining Co.s gold mine a century earlier. Hopefully a boom-and-bust pattern doesn’t need to ensue. But other impacts are occurring, too. The locals, according to Borel, love the project. They support the scientists objective, attend lectures on the topics of research, meet physicists at the bar for discussions about dark matter. “The town’s visitor center sells T-shirts emblazoned with the lab’s logo and the words “Nerds Searching for WIMPs.”

Theoretical physicists setting up shop in a South Dakota gold mine to search for dark matter, and you know what, everyone wins. There is more going on in the world than economic hard times. Maybe attempting to answer the universe’s mysteries can provide us with practical results as well as understanding.

Written by Christopher ZF

January 12, 2011 at 15:05

Posted in economics, Science