Monday, July 27, 2009

Introducing 'Corporations!' Posters


A new adventure in Better Than Machines pro-democracy, anti-corporation satire. Look for future posters in the "Corporations!" series. If you're feeling rowdy, print them off and pin them up at work.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

America Executes Another American Citizen

On Tuesday, July 21st, the state of Ohio executed a 36-year-old man from Dayton named Marvallous Keene by lethal injection. Keene was the 1000th American to be executed by lethal injection since 1977 and the 35th American executed so far in 2009. He was executed despite the fact that he no longer posed a threat to anyone. He had been in prison for 17 years after all, having been convicted along with three accomplices for killing six people in 1992. (The accomplices each got life in prison.)

Georgians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty marked the grim occasion with a rally and march in Atlanta against the death penalty, according to an article by Atlanta Progressive News.

It's encouraging to see a movement to abolish the death penalty rising up in the South, the region where I was born and raised and where the super-majority of American executions happen. Of all the executions in 2009, 16 have occurred in Texas, five in Alabama, two in Georgia, two in South Carolina, one in Tennessee, one in Virginia, and one in Florida, plus three in Oklahoma, three in Ohio, and one in Missouri. Is it just coincidence that 80% of American executions so far this year have happened in the former Confederate States? (For whatever it's worth, Missouri was a slave state, though it didn't secede.) In fact, the Old Confederacy accounts for roughly 80% of all executions this decade. I believe this is an underlooked aspect of the death penalty debate.

It's hard not to see the death penalty as a barbaric institution of backwards cultures. The United States stands alone among modern Western nations in continuing to execute its citizens. The USA annually ranks near the top of the charts for most executions, behind appalling regimes like China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, and ahead of appalling regimes like Syria, Somalia, and Sierra Leone. And we rank among such bad company mostly because of our states where lynching was most common and racism ran the deepest in our not-too-distant past.

It's also hard not to see the connection between partisan politics and the death penalty in America. Is it a coincidence that just as New Mexico became a reliably "blue" state (Obama won it by 15 points and both senators and the governor are Democrats), it abolished the state's death penalty? Virginia, another recently blue state, finally got a governor who opposes the death penalty. Of the 15 states that have abolished the death penalty, only two of them (Alaska and West Virginia) voted for John McCain in 2008 (and most of them have homicide rates below the national average).

But how much longer will Democratic politicians have to tip-toe around the issue? In New Mexico, Governor Richardson says he personally supports the death penalty but thinks it should be abolished in his state. In Virginia, Governor Kaine says he personally opposes the death penalty but will respect Virginia's death penalty laws. Some of the waffling can be tied back to Michael Dukakis' famously and embrrassingly lame answer to a death penalty question in the 1988 presidential debate, which many later pointed to as the beginning of the end of his campaign. More generally, Democratic cautiousness on the issue has to do with wanting to avoid the "soft on crime" attacks that "law and order" Republicans have been using since the late 1960s. Back then, those phrases were code words skillfully used to stoke working-class White fear of urban Blacks, as part of the Nixonian "Southern Strategy" that propelled Republican candidates for a generation. So it's not a surprise that pro-death penalty arguments still have the most sway in the Old Confederacy, where Republican politicians and executions are still plentiful.

But the Southern Strategy is dying, and the law-and-order arguments are dying with it. It won't be long before we see prominent national Democrats unashamedly opposing the death penalty. And it won't be long after that before the United States joins the rest of the civilized world in abolishing the barbaric institution of state-sponsored revenge killings.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Five Facts for the Health Care Debate

1. The United States spends more money per person on health care than any other country in the world, by far.

2. The United States ranks 37th in the world in overall health system quality. (Just ahead of Slovenia and just behind Costa Rica.)

3. The top seven for-profit health insurance companies made combined profits of $12.6 billion in 2007.

4. 46 million Americans have no health insurance.

5. Americans die because they don't have health insurance.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Using the F-22 Raptor to Reimagine Public Works Projects

The Secretary of Defense doesn't want any more of the high-tech fighter jets. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff doesn't want them. The Secretary of the Air Force doesn't want them. And the President of the United States doesn't want them. But Congress is dead set on buying more.

I'm talking about the F-22 Raptor, an advanced stealth fighter that was originally designed to maintain American air superiority over the Soviet Union.

The Department of Defense has already bought 187 F-22s, in a program that has cost about $65 billion to date. (That's about $350 million per aircraft.) The planes have not been used in Iraq or Afghanistan, because they are primarily designed to fight advanced enemy air forces.

Now a defense bill is moving through Congress that will include at least $2 billion to buy more F-22s. The military does not want these planes, but Congress insists they take them. President Obama has threatened to veto the defense bill if it includes spending on F-22s, but Congress may have the votes to override a veto. Progressive Democrats like Senator Ted Kennedy as well as conservative Republicans like Senator Saxby Chambliss support billions more for F-22s.

What is this strange force compelling members of Congress to spend huge sums of money on useless hardware? Is it corporate lobbying? That's certainly a part of it. Lockheed Martin, the primary contractor for the F-22, spent $6.35 million lobbying Congress just between January and March of this year. But that's really nothing new.

The strange force hypnotizing Congress members is the desire to maintain jobs, specifically high-paying manufacturing jobs, in their home districts. Lockheed Martin was smart enough to spread out the F-22's production so that it's in as many congressmen's backyards as possible. All the various parts of the F-22 are made by about 1,000 suppliers in 44 states. Lockheed Martin and Congress have been arguing that continued spending on F-22s will maintain 100,000 jobs across the country.

That sounds great, but the military doesn't even want the planes. When it's all said and done, the F-22 program is a widely-supported federal jobs program producing an unneeded product. The F-22 proponents in Congress tout the jobs that it will create rather than argue for the aircraft's military utility. (It's hard to argue for its military utility when the military doesn't want any more.)

So here's my proposal: Build something useful instead. It's cool--and a little unusual--to see even conservative Republicans support federal spending for job creation. So let's run with this strange political consensus. But instead of building super fighter jets for an outdated mission, let's build something beneficial for the public at large. How about lots of wind turbines to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels?

How about solar panel fields? High-speed rail? How about retrofitting buildings to make them more energy efficient? There are lots of things we could build that would provide good jobs and benefit all of us.

We wouldn't have to limit it to manufacturing and construction either. For the $2 billion it would take to buy a few more F-22s, you could pay the starting salary for more than 44,000 teachers. Eliminate a couple of other useless defense projects, and you could make the teachers permanent.

The bottom line is that defense projects like the F-22 are basically federal jobs programs with tremendous support. Strangely, even "free market" conservatives support them. Progressives should use this opening to take the debate in a new direction. We should be saying:
"It's true that these projects provide a lot of good jobs. So imagine if our tax dollars bought not only those jobs but also beneficial products. Even better, imagine if we structured these public works programs so that every dollar of spending went to the jobs we want to create and the work we want to do, instead of being siphoned off for corporate profits, advertising, lobbying, and political donations. Then we'd be on to something."

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Poems and Explosions

Back in November 2008, I was considering starting a political blog. I already had in mind lots of things I wanted to say and do with it. But I kept getting snagged on one question: Do I know enough to write a political blog? Sure, I have opinions and ideas, but what qualifies me to write on politics/economy/society?

Then I came across this quote from Woody Guthrie:
"You may call the workers' phrases vulgar and untrained, but to me their forms of speech are much more clear, more powerful, with more courage and poetry than all your schools in which our leaders smile to see us learn empty grammar. A man's most basic character, most basic wants, hopes and needs come out of him in words that are poems and explosions."
I instantly wanted to name my blog Poems and Explosions (...until my sister pointed out that people would think it's a blog of poems that I think are explosive). Woody's right. Sometimes speaking up is more important and more beautiful than speaking well. That is certainly the case with politics.

The notion that politics and economics are chiefly sciences disempowers people and strangles democracy. This is one of the ways the right is able to keep corporate capitalism from being dismantled by democracy. They hint that we're not studied enough to have an opinion. They say we should keep our mouths shut and listen to "experts." We think there ought to be a job available for everyone who wants to work and medical coverage for everybody, but they tell us we don't understand economics and such things are actually bad. The only way this game works is if we believe them and keep quiet, hoping the experts will sort things out. The only way it will change is if we speak up and act out about our "basic wants, hopes and needs."

And that's where Poems and Explosions come in. I'm going to start including more quotes, lyrics, poems and such from fellow non-experts on this blog. Sometimes, as in Woody's case, the people will be famous. Sometimes, as in the case of the striking worker from whom this blog takes its name (see top right corner of page), they won't. Either way, the words won't be formal dissertations, but just people speaking up.

Look for future posts tagged "Poems and Explosions."

Monday, July 13, 2009

Torture And The Political Cost of Justice

For months, we've been calling for Attorney General Eric Holder to rise above partisan political calculations and enforce our laws against torture. According to a story that broke in Newsweek this weekend, he may be preparing to finally do that. The article cites "four knowledgeable sources" who say that Holder is "leaning toward appointing a prosecutor to investigate the Bush administration's brutal interrogation practices."

Newsweek's article and all the subsequent reporting on the issue makes it clear that the White House is resistant to the idea. In a bit of doom and gloom, the article predicts:
"Such a decision would roil the country, would likely plunge Washington into a new round of partisan warfare, and could even imperil Obama's domestic priorities, including health care and energy reform."
Holder is portrayed as caught between his loyalty to Obama on one side and the simple demands of justice on the other--but leaning towards justice.

If the White House political gunners, like Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, manage to squash a torture investigation to help further their own political maneuverings, it will the biggest sellout yet of the Obama presidency. Certainly, big things are on the administration's agenda--healthcare reform, cap and trade environmental regulation, the Employee Free Choice Act, 2010 and 2012 races--but for them to claim the moral authority to just sweep torture under the rug would be the height of hubris.

But wait! There's already a sellout in what the Justice Department has in mind. According to WaPo's reporting,
"The sources said an inquiry would apply only to activities by interrogators, working in bad faith, that fell outside the 'four corners' of the legal memos."
"The actions of higher-level Bush policymakers are not under consideration for possible investigation."
The Justice Department broadcasting this message is like charging into battle already waving a white flag. It's like saying, "Don't worry, you who created the torture policies and knew exactly what you were doing! Your safe. We're just coming for the little people who made mistakes following your orders!'"

So if all they're going to do is look at some interrogators who went too far, why is the White House so scared its entire political agenda will be derailed? And who says it could be derailed anyway? Democrats have a filibuster proof majority in the Senate, a big margin in the house, a popular president, and a public that supports all their big legislative goals. Maybe they haven't noticed yet that they're in charge. Maybe they're afraid Republicans might yell at them.

Dear White House,
Grow a backbone. Our country can enforce laws AND pass new laws at the same time.
Better Than Machines

To end on a more redeeming note, here's a round of applause for Eric Holder for beginning, ever so slightly, to swim against the current. Hopefully he will let an investigation lead where it leads, as high up the chain as that may be.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

"Fair Labor Standards? HA HA!" Laughs My Boss

Here's a quick thought.

I've been working a lot of overtime lately. It's not by choice, and it's not much fun. But during the evenings I spent in my cubicle, I took some comfort in knowing that my paycheck would be significantly bigger, with time-and-a-half pay for every hour worked over the normal 40-hour week.

Well, after three or four weeks of this, I actually took a look at my pay stub (something I ought to do more often) and noticed that, in fact, I was not getting time-and-a-half--actually not even close. So, the next day I waltzed into my boss' office to correct the simple mistake. Everybody knows that time-and-a-half for overtime hours is law, just like the minimum wage.

I showed her the numbers. "See, that's not even close to time-and-a-half," I said. "Who do we need to talk to to get this fixed?"

"Actually, we don't do time-and-a-half," she answered.

"We 'don't do' it?" I pondered.

But my boss confidently cited the specific office policy on the matter. So I went back to my desk to look it up.

She was right, at least according to office policy. Time-and-a-half for overtime and the minimum wage (and other good things) are guaranteed under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. The catch is that every single employee in my office is "exempt" from the Fair Labor Standards Act. How convenient!

My coworkers and I supposedly fall into one of the categories set up to exempt most white collar employees from the law. I guess my employer thinks we fall under the "administrative employee exemption" or the "learned professional employee exemption." But according to the explanation of the exemption categories on this site, I think my employer is wrong.

And this is where a union would help. I'm just one guy, sitting at my desk, Googling about my rights, and telling my boss I think she is mistaken about the law. Even if every other worker in the office is doing the same thing, it's not going to add up to anything. The response from the boss is always going to be some variation on, "Nope, you're wrong. Here's our policy statement. Go sit down."

But if the workers were organized, we would at least be heard. A union would have the capacity to take questions like this to court if necessary, where win or lose, at least there would be due process. A union would have some actual power to maintain our rights against the sometimes arbitrary fiats of the bosses. The next time management declares that we are "exempt" from labor law, a union could say, "We think not." And someone would listen.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Plugging Back In

I've been off the grid for the last several days in the Smoky Mountains, beyond the reach of the tubes and TV. It's always interesting to plug back in and see what I've missed. This time I learn that Sarah Palin has resigned as Governor of Alaska!

My first question is how long before conservatives start portraying her as a martyr, cut down by the liberal media? Is it already happening?

What else have I missed?