Handy Reminder: Emgold Pays for EIR by 9/13/12 or Starts Over

Sierra Voices will display the following widget in its right-hand column on all main pages and subpages until September 13th, by which time Emgold must deliver the funds to the City of Grass Valley for continuing the EIR (environmental impact report) or else its application to re-open the Idaho-Maryland Mine will expire administratively (with no further action by the fully assembled city council needed) and it will be required to start over from the beginning with a new application (should it wish to continue).


Another New York Times Columnist Attack On Social Security And Medicare

Reprinted from Campaign for America’s Future (July 30, 2012)

By Dave Johnson

The New York Times contains another elite-columnist attack on our Social Security and Medicare systems today. This time it’s in the form of an op-ed by Bill Keller. Recently and regularly, New York Times columnists David Brooks and Tom Friedman have also gone after the things We, the People do for each other.

First, The Basics Of The Borrowing

Any discussion of our deficit/debt “crisis” must start with a few quick points about the history of the “crisis”:

1) January 26, 2000, Clinton to Propose Early Debt Payoff,

President Clinton said Tuesday that the budget he will send Congress on Feb. 7 will propose paying off the entire $3.6-trillion national debt by 2013–two years earlier than had been expected even a few months ago.

2) 2001 Alan Greenspan said we needed to pass the Bush tax cuts because we were paying off the debt too quickly.

3) Bush said it was “incredibly positive news” when the budget turned from surplus to deficit because budget deficits meant there would be pressure to cut entitlements. Bush wanted to continue the “strategic deficits” plan to “starve the beast” that was launched in the Reagan years.

Republicans are following a decades-old shock-doctrine plan:

  • Use tax cuts and military spending increases to create terrible deficits that add up to massive debt,
  • Then use the resulting “debt crisis” to scare people (esp elites like Keller, Brooks and Friedman) into cutting democratic government and our ability to control the billionaires and their corporations.

But cutting government doesn’t mean the costs go away, it means that we each have to bear those costs ourselves, on our own, without the help of the rest of us. This is really about cutting democracy so the very rich can be even very-richer.

The Attack

With that out of the way, let us now turn to the latest elite attack on entitlements — those things We, the People are entitled to: the fruits of the prosperity that democracy brings us.

In a NY Times op-ed, The Entitled Generation, Bill Keller writes about the “bloat” of projected entitlement spending, blaming “baby boomers” for future budget shortfalls, because they will need to retire without living in absolute poverty, and get health care.

He writes that because budget cuts have us spending less than we should on infrastructure investment, therefore we should also spend less on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. “In 1962 … [a]bout 32 cents of every federal dollar, excluding interest payments, was spent on investments, only 14 percent on entitlements. In the mid-70s the lines crossed. Today we spend less than 15 cents on investment and 46 cents on entitlements. ”

Keller writes, “So the question is not whether entitlements have to be brought under control, but how. ” (These greedy seniors don’t understand that the situation has changed — we have cut taxes for the very wealthy and increased our military spending to prevent the Soviet Union from invading. Who do they think they are?)

Finally, ignoring the People’s Budget, the Budget For All, the Schakowsky Deficit Reduction Plan and all the other sensible budget plans that have been proposed by progressives, Keller writes, “At least the Republicans have a plan. The Democrats generally recoil from the subject of entitlements.”

Keller praises “bipartisan authors of the Simpson-Bowles report” — even though there was no “Simpson-Bowles report.” The commission couldn’t come to agreement and issued no report. As for the “bipartisan” Simpson and Bowles, he is referring to former Republican Senator Alan Simpson, and member of the Board of Directors of Morgan Stanley Erskine Bowles. (Please click the link.) (“Bipartisan” as used by elites like Keller apparently refers to even and odd numbered addresses on Wall Street — the crowd that gets the money if our Social Security system is dismantled.)

Social Security

Our Social Security system is critical to human beings and our economy, just like hospitals, highways, schools and power plants. It is a core institution, used by everyone, and is absolutely vital in most people’s lives. It is the foundation of our retirement security. It is our most basic protection for our families if we become disabled or die.

Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research explains just how crucial our Social Security system is to the lives of so many of us, in Bill Keller Wants to Take Away Your Social Security and Is Either Too Ignorant or Dishonest to Acknowledge that He Is Not a Typical Baby Boomer,

Does Keller know that the typical near retiree has total wealth of $170,000. This includes everything in their 401(k), all their other financial assets and the equity in their homes. Another way to put this is that the typical near retiree (between the ages of 55-64) could take all their wealth and pay off their mortgage. After that they would be entirely dependent on their Social Security to cover all their living costs.

In other words, half of near-retirees have less than that so they depend on Social Security even more than that.

We built and paid for our Social Security system. Each generation has done its part to maintain the system’s foundations for over 75 years, and it has only become stronger. If the middle class can’t count on Social Security in their retirement years, what can it count on?

Social Security is a far safer bet than any other retirement savings available. It is vastly safer than a 401K, which is available only to a few anyway, and can disappear overnight. Corporate raiders can take your pension plan. You can’t even count on a pension plan if you are a public employee. House prices can go up or down. But Social Security is always there for us. Even the most sophisticated investors can lose everything, but you can’t lose your Social Security. Social Security is the one retirement system that really works.

Social Security is the most successful government program, and that is why so many elites hate it!

Medicare And Medicaid

A government budget cut is really like a huge tax increase on regular people because it increases what each of us pays for the things government does — or forces us to go without. This is because cuts in government spending don’t actually cut the cost of things, they just shift those costs onto each of us on our own.

For example, if you cut the the government’s Medicare or Medicaid budget our health problems don’t disappear, but each of us has to find ways to pay the cost of medical care or a nursing home on our own, with no help, often at a time when we are stressed by illness.

In Cost of Medicare Equivalent Insurance Skyrockets under Ryan Plan the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) explains what happens to the cost of health care if Medicare is eliminated. Summary: it shifts the costs to us, except each of us ends up paying seven times as much as the same care costs under Medicare. This is because Medicare covers millions, and that economy-of-scale means the government can negotiate bulk discounts, etc. that we cannot get on our own. From the CEPR explanation:

[The Republican] plan to revamp Medicare has been described as shifting costs from the government to beneficiaries. A new report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), however, shows that the [Republican] proposal will increase health care costs for seniors by more than seven dollars for every dollar it saves the government, a point missing from much of the debate over the plan.

… In addition to comparing the costs of Medicare to the government under the current system and under the [Republican] plan, the authors also show the effects of raising the age of Medicare eligibility. The paper also demonstrates that while [the Republican plan] shifts $4.9 trillion in health care costs from the government to Medicare beneficiaries, this number is dwarfed by a $34 trillion increase in overall costs to beneficiaries that is projected …

Our health problems won’t disappear just because government cuts out Medicare and Medicaid. But the costs of treating – or not treating – those health problems will now fall on us, individually, on our own, instead of aggregated through the mechanism of democracy. And that is money that would otherwise be spent elsewhere in the economy.

The Money

So where do we get the money to pay our bills, if not from the things We, the People do for each other? Get the money fromwhere the money went.

Start by ending the Bush tax cuts! The Bush tax cuts not only cut marginal tax rates for the wealthy, they cut taxes on capital gains and dividends — money you get just for having money. And it dramatically cut the tax on income inherited from wealthy parents — more money that one gets just because one already has money! But ending the Bush tax cuts is just a start.

Reagan dramatically increased the military budget: In 1980, before Reagan, the Defense Department budget was $134 billion, by 1989 it was $303 billion. But that was nothing. In 2000, before ‘W’ Bush, it was $294 billion. By 2008 it was $616 billion. But that doesn’t count military-related items outside of the Defense Department. Depending on how interest debt is applied, total military spending is between $1 and $1.4 trillion. (And, by the way, wars are expensive.) (“Nothing is more important in the face of a war than cutting taxes.” –Tom DeLay)

Fix health care. Today Mitt Romney praised the way that Israel’s socialized health care system keeps costs low. WaPo:Romney praises health care in Israel, where ‘strong government influence’ has driven down costs,

He praised Israel for spending just 8 percent of its GDP on health care and still remaining a “pretty healthy nation.”

“Our gap with Israel [on health spending] is 10 points of GDP,” Romney said. “We have to find ways, not just to provide health care to more people, but to find ways to fund and manage our health care costs.”

… Israel created a national health care system in 1995, largely funded through payroll and general tax revenue. The government provides all citizens with health insurance: They get to pick from one of four competing, nonprofit plans. Those insurance plans have to accept all customers—including people with pre-existing conditions—and provide residents with a broad set of government-mandated benefits.

Get the economy moving again. Jeeze, instead of saying because we stopped investing in infrastructure therefore we need to cut other things, how about investing in infrastructure? We have millions of jobs that need doing and millions of people looking for jobs. And we can finance it for free. The payoff will be enormous, all those people no longer needing unemployment and food stamps, all those people and construction companies paying taxes again, and the resulting economic growth cutting the debt-to-GDP ratio.

Don’t Be Fooled By Elites Hating On Entitlements

Don’t be fooled: this is really about shifting from democracy to a system where we are on our own, up against the wealthy and powerful. This is about shifting from a system where we can all be prosperous to a system where a few have all the wealth and power.

Bill Keller Wants to Take Away Your Social Security and Is Either Too Ignorant or Dishonest to Acknowledge that He Is Not a Typical Baby Boomer

Reprinted from the Center for Economic and Policy Research (July 29, 2012)

By Dean Baker

The effort by the rich to take away Social Security keeps building momentum. Today Bill Keller urges his fellow baby boomers:

“FELLOW boomers, we have done more than our share to make this mess. It’s not our fault that there are a lot of us, but we have resisted any move to fix the system. We should make a sensible reform of entitlements our generation’s cause. We should stiffen the spines of our politicians, and push lobby groups like A.A.R.P. to climb out of the bunker and lead.”

“Lead” in this context means supporting cuts to Social Security and Medicare. That is really brave for Mr. Keller to stand up and call for sacrifice from his age cohort. Does Keller know that the typical near retiree has total wealth of $170,000. This includes everything in their 401(k), all their other financial assets and the equity in their homes. Another way to put this is that the typical near retiree (between the ages of 55-64) could take all their wealth and pay off their mortgage. After that they would be entirely dependent on their Social Security to cover all their living costs.

Does this situation describe Mr. Keller’s finances? My guess is that it doesn’t. If that is true, how does Keller claim to speak for people who are in a hugely different financial situation than him? Is he really that ignorant of the issues that the NYT gives him a column to write about or is he dishonest? Readers will have to debate that in the months and years ahead.

This is not the only place in the piece where Keller lets ignorance and/or dishonesty get the better of him. At one point he calls for a change in the indexation formula for Social Security’s cost of living adjustment that would be the equivalent of a 3.0 percent across the board cut in benefits. (We know, got to do something about those high living seniors.)

Keller describes this 3.0 percent cut in Social Security benefits as:

“They also include technical fixes like aligning the automatic cost-of-living formula with reality.”

Is that right? Has Keller studied the cost-of-living for the elderly? Did he evaluate the Bureau of Labor Statistics elderly index, which generally shows that senior citizens experience a higher rate of inflation than the index used for making the annual cost of living adjustment for Social Security.

If he did, he shows zero evidence of this fact in his piece. It sure sounds like he is just repeating pablum that passed for wisdom in Washington elite circles, but rightly gets ridiculed everywhere else.

While Keller appeals to arithmetic it is not on his side. The arithmetic says that we have no problem affording the projected increase in retirees, just as we were able to afford a sharp reduction in the ratio of workers or retirees over the last decade.

The problems result from the fact that we have a broken health care system that causes us to pay more than twice as much per person for our health care as people in other wealthy country. But fixing the health care system would likely mean lower payments to insurers, hospitals, drug companies and doctors.

The other problem is the sharp upward redistribution of income over the last three decades. This has meant less money for middle income families and also less money for programs like Social Security and Medicare.

These problems can be fixed but that would require Mr. Keller to appeal to his fellow one percenters, not his fellow baby boomers. He probably doesn’t have the courage or integrity to do that.


Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He is the author of several books, his latest being The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive. Read more about Dean.

The Imperial Presidency: “Prognosis is Grave”

Here’s a five-minute Economist interview with Yale Law Professor Bruce Ackerman, who is critical of the “imperial presidency,” including that of Barak Obama.

“We need structural restraints on the imperial presidency,” he says. “Instead, both Democrats and Republicans are in love with presidential power. This is a threat to the Republic.”

He concludes, “Think of the excesses that can await us ten or twenty years down the line.”

The West in Flames

Reprinted from TomDispatch.com (July 24, 2012)

By William deBuys

Dire fire conditions, like the inferno of heat, turbulence, and fuel that recently turned 346 homes in Colorado Springs to ash, are now common in the West. A lethal combination of drought, insect plagues, windstorms, and legions of dead, dying, or stressed-out trees constitute what some pundits are calling wildfire’s “perfect storm.”

They are only half right.

This summer’s conditions may indeed be perfect for fire in the Southwest and West, but if you think of it as a “storm,” perfect or otherwise — that is, sudden, violent, and temporary — then you don’t understand what’s happening in this country or on this planet. Look at those 346 burnt homes again, or at the High Park fire that ate 87,284 acres and 259 homes west of Fort Collins, or at the Whitewater Baldy Complex fire in New Mexico that began in mid-May, consumed almost 300,000 acres, and is still smoldering, and what you have is evidence of the new normal in the American West.

For some time, climatologists have been warning us that much of the West is on the verge of downshifting to a new, perilous level of aridity. Droughts like those that shaped the Dust Bowl in the 1930s and the even drier 1950s will soon be “the new climatology” of the region — not passing phenomena but terrifying business-as-usual weather. Western forests already show the effects of this transformation.

If you surf the blogosphere looking for fire information, pretty quickly you’ll notice a dust devil of “facts” blowing back and forth: big fires are four times more common than they used to be; the biggest fires are six-and-a-half times larger than the monster fires of yesteryear; and owing to a warmer climate, fires are erupting earlier in the spring and subsiding later in the fall. Nowadays, the fire season is two and a half months longer than it was 30 years ago.

All of this is hair-raisingly true. Or at least it was, until things got worse. After all, those figures don’t come from this summer’s fire disasters but from a study published in 2006 that compared then-recent fires, including the record-setting blazes of the early 2000s, with what now seem the good old days of 1970 to 1986. The data-gathering in the report, however, only ran through 2003. Since then, the western drought has intensified, and virtually every one of those recent records — for fire size, damage, and cost of suppression — has since been surpassed.

New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains are a case in point. Over the course of two weeks in 2000, the Cerro Grande fire burned 43,000 acres, destroying 400 homes in the nuclear research city of Los Alamos. At the time, to most of us living in New Mexico, Cerro Grande seemed a vision of the Apocalypse. Then, the Las Conchas fire erupted in 2011 on land adjacent to Cerro Grande’s scar and gave a master class in what the oxygen planet can do when it really struts its stuff.

The Las Conchas fire burned 43,000 acres, equaling Cerro Grande’s achievement,in its first fourteen hours. Its smoke plume rose to the stratosphere, and if the light was right, you could see within it rose-red columns of fire — combusting gases — flashing like lightning a mile or more above the land. Eventually the Las Conchas fire spread to 156,593 acres, setting a record as New Mexico’s largest fire in historic times.

It was a stunning event. Its heat was so intense that, in some of the canyons it torched, every living plant died, even to the last sprigs of grass on isolated cliff ledges. In one instance, the needles of the ponderosa pines were not consumed, but bent horizontally as though by a ferocious wind. No one really knows how those trees died, but one explanation holds that they were flash-blazed by a superheated wind, perhaps a collapsing column of fire, and that the wind, having already burned up its supply of oxygen, welded the trees by heat alone into their final posture of death.

It seemed likely that the Las Conchas record would last years, if not decades. It didn’t. This year the Whitewater Baldy fire in the southwest of the state burned an area almost twice as large.

Half Now, Half Later?

In 2007, Tom Swetnam, a fire expert and director of the laboratory of Tree-Ring Research at the University of Arizona, gave an interview to CBS’s 60 Minutes.Asked to peer into his crystal ball, he said he thought the Southwest might lose half its existing forests to fire and insects over the several decades to come. He immediately regretted the statement.  It wasn’t scientific; he couldn’t back it up; it was a shot from the hip, a WAG, a wild-ass guess.

BUY THE BOOK

Swetnam’s subsequent work, however, buttressed that WAG. In 2010, he and several colleagues quantified the loss of southwestern forestland from 1984 to 2008. It was a hefty 18%. They concluded that “only two more recurrences of droughts and die-offs similar or worse than the recent events” might cause total forest loss to exceed 50%. With the colossal fires of 2011 and 2012, including Arizona’s Wallow fire, which consumed more than half-a-million acres, the region is on track to reach that mark by mid-century, or sooner.

But that doesn’t mean we get to keep the other half.

In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change forecast a temperature increase of 4ºC for the Southwest over the present century. Given a faster than expected build-up of greenhouse gases (and no effective mitigation), that number looks optimistic today. Estimates vary, but let’s say our progress into the sweltering future is an increase of slightly less than 1ºC so far. That means we still have an awful long way to go. If the fires we’re seeing now are a taste of what the century will bring, imagine what the heat stress of a 4ºC increase will produce. And these numbers reflect mean temperatures. The ones to worry about are the extremes, the record highs of future heat waves.  In the amped-up climate of the future, it is fair to think that the extremes will increase faster than the means.

At some point, every pine, fir, and spruce will be imperiled. If, in 2007, Swetnam was out on a limb, these days it’s likely that the limb has burned off and it’s getting ever easier to imagine the destruction of forests on a region-wide scale, however disturbing that may be.

More than scenery is at stake, more even than the stability of soils, ecosystems, and watersheds: the forests of the western United States account for 20% to 40% of total U.S. carbon sequestration. At some point, as western forests succumb to the ills of climate change, they will become a net releaser of atmospheric carbon, rather than one of the planet’s principle means of storing it.

Contrary to the claims of climate deniers, the prevailing models scientists use to predict change are conservative. They fail to capture many of the feedback loops that are likely to intensify the dynamics of change. The release of methane from thawing Arctic permafrost, an especially gloomy prospect, is one of those feedbacks. The release of carbon from burning or decaying forests is another. You used to hear scientists say, “If those things happen, the consequences will be severe.” Now they more often skip that “if” and say “when” instead, but we don’t yet have good estimates of what those consequences will be.

Ways of Going

There have always been droughts, but the droughts of recent years are different from their predecessors in one significant way: they are hotter. And the droughts of the future will be hotter still.

June temperatures produced 2,284 new daily highs nationwide and tied 998 existing records. In most places, the shoe-melting heat translated into drought, and the Department of Agriculture set a record of its own recently by declaring 1,297 dried-out counties in 29 states to be “natural disaster areas.” June also closed out the warmest first half of a year and the warmest 12-month period since U.S. record keeping began in 1895. At present, 56% of the continental U.S. is experiencing drought, a figure briefly exceeded only in the 1950s.

Higher temperatures have a big impact on plants, be they a forest of trees or fields of corn and wheat. More heat means intensified evaporation and so greater water stress. In New Mexico, researchers compared the drought of the early 2000s with that of the 1950s. They found that the 1950s drought was longer and drier, but that the more recent drought caused the death of many more trees, millions of acres of them. The reason for this virulence: it was 1ºC to 1.5ºC hotter.

The researchers avoided the issue of causality by not claiming that climate changecaused the higher temperatures, but in effect stating: “If climate change is occurring, these are the impacts we would expect to see.” With this in mind, they christened the dry spell of the early 2000s a “global-change-type drought” — not a phrase that sings but one that lingers forebodingly in the mind.

No such equivocation attends a Goddard Institute for Space Studies appraisal of the heat wave that assaulted Texas, Oklahoma, and northeastern Mexico last summer. Their report represents a sea change in high-level climate studies in that they boldly assert a causal link between specific weather events and global warming. The Texas heat wave, like a similar one in Russia the previous year, was so hot that its probability of occurring under “normal” conditions (defined as those prevailing from 1951 to 1980) was approximately 0.13%. It wasn’t a 100-year heat wave or even a 500-year one; it was so colossally improbable that only changes in the underlying climate could explain it.

The decline of heat-afflicted forests is not unique to the United States. Global research suggests that in ecosystems around the world, big old trees — the giants of tropical jungles, of temperate rainforests, of systems arid and wet, hot and cold — are dying off.

More generally, when forest ecologists compare notes across continents and biomes, they find accelerating tree mortality from Zimbabwe to Alaska, Australia to Spain. The most common cause appears to be heat stress arising from climate change, along with its sidekick, drought, which often results when evaporation gets a boost.

Fire is only one cause of forest death. Heat alone can also do in a stand of trees. According to the Texas Forest Service, between 2% and 10% of all the trees in Texas, perhaps half-a-billion or so, died in last year’s heat wave, primarily from heat and desiccation. Whether you know it or not, those are staggering figures.

Insects, too, stand ready to play an ever-greater role in this onrushing disaster. Warm temperatures lengthen the growing season, and with extra weeks to reproduce, a population of bark beetles may spawn additional generations over the course of a hot summer, boosting the number of their kin that that make it to winter. Then, if the winter is warm, more larvae survive to spring, releasing ever-larger swarms to reproduce again. For as long as winters remain mild, summers long, and trees vulnerable, the beetles’ numbers will continue to grow, ultimately overwhelming the defenses of even healthy trees.

We now see this throughout the Rockies. A mountain pine beetle epidemic has decimated lodgepole pine stands from Colorado to Canada. About five million acres of Colorado’s best scenery has turned red with dead needles, a blow to tourism as well as the environment. The losses are far greater in British Columbia, where beetles have laid waste to more than 33 million forest acres, killing a volume of trees three times greater than Canada’s annual timber harvest.

Foresters there call the beetle irruption “the largest known insect infestation in North American history,” and they point to even more chilling possibilities. Until recently, the frigid climate of the Canadian Rockies prevented beetles from crossing the Continental Divide to the interior where they were, until recently, unknown. Unfortunately, warming temperatures have enabled the beetles to top the passes of the Peace River country and penetrate northern Alberta. Now a continent of jack pines lies before them, a boreal smorgasbord 3,000 miles long. If the beetles adapt effectively to their new hosts, the path is clear for them to chew their way eastward virtually to the Atlantic and to generate transformative ecological effects on a gigantic scale.

The mainstream media, prodded by recent drought declarations and other news, seem finally to be awakening to the severity of these prospects. Certainly, we should be grateful. Nevertheless, it seems a tad anticlimactic when Sam Champion, ABC News weather editor, says with this-just-in urgency to anchor Diane Sawyer, “If you want my opinion, Diane, now’s the time we start limiting manmade greenhouse gases.”

One might ask, “Why now, Sam?” Why not last year, or a decade ago, or several decades back? The news now overwhelming the West is, in truth, old news. We saw the changes coming. There should be no surprise that they have arrived.

It’s never too late to take action, but now, even if all greenhouse gas emissions were halted immediately, Earth’s climate would continue warming for at least another generation. Even if we surprise ourselves and do all the right things, the forest fires, the insect outbreaks, the heat-driven die-offs, and other sweeping transformations of the American West and the planet will continue.

One upshot will be the emergence of whole new ecologies. The landscape changes brought on by climate change are affecting areas so vast that many previous tenants of the land — ponderosa pines, for instance — cannot be expected to recolonize their former territory. Their seeds don’t normally spread far from the parent tree, and their seedlings require conditions that big, hot, open spaces don’t provide.

What will develop in their absence? What will the mountains and mesa tops of the New West look like? Already it is plain to see that scrub oak, locust, and other plants that reproduce by root suckers are prospering in places where the big pines used to stand. These plants can be burned to the ground and yet resprout vigorously a season later. One ecologist friend offers this advice, “If you have to be reincarnated as a plant in the West, try not to come back as a tree. Choose a clonal shrub, instead. The future looks good for them.”

In the meantime, forget about any sylvan dreams you might have had: this is no time to build your house in the trees.


William deBuys, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of seven books, most recently A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest (Oxford, 2011). He has long been involved in environmental affairs in the Southwest, including service as founding chairman of the Valles Caldera Trust, which administers the 87,000-acre Valles Caldera National Preserve in New Mexico. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which deBuys discusses where heat, fire, and climate change are taking us, click here or download it to your iPod here.

Copyright 2012 William deBuys

State Parks Scandal Likely Part of Larger California Govt Scandal

Michael Krasny, in the July 23rd edition of his excellent Bay Area radio program Forum, interviewed Matt Weiser (the Sac Bee journalist who broke the State Parks story) as well as Bob Berman (vice president of the Benicia State Parks Association) and Elizabeth Goldstein (president of the California State Parks Foundation).

Weiser, who regularly covers State Park issues for the Bee, said he had been hearing rumors for some months about a hidden fund. Finally, after he made an official records request several weeks ago, State Parks admitted to its existence. Apparently Weiser not only broke the story, he seems to have broken it open.

Weiser’s article included this detail:

The money accumulated over 12 years in two special funds the department uses to collect revenue and pay for operations: $20.4 million in the Parks and Recreation Fund, and $33.5 million in the Off Highway Vehicle Trust Fund.

The most interesting aspect of the Forum discussion — which also included email, online comments and phoned-in comments from listeners — was how quickly it evolved into a discussion of larger questions: Can taxpayers trust that any state agency is handling its financial accounting responsibly? Did the California Finance Department or the Controller’s Department do regular audits? Will the discovery of this hidden $54 million fund allow all state parks to stay open?

Elizabeth Goldstein mentioned  several times that there are deep structural problems in the State Parks Agency budget that will not be “in any long-term way mitigated” even if the legislature decides to return the $20.4 million balance in the Parks and Recreation Fund to State Parks, the most notable problem being the existence of a “deferred maintenance” balance of some $1.3 billion.

Listeners expressed outrage about widespread State Park fee increases over the last few years. Others mentioned all the volunteer and fund-raising efforts to keep parks open.

Some listeners said they wouldn’t be willing to vote for increased taxes for state government until they are satisfied that it can be a responsible financial steward, which is now seriously in doubt.

Goldstein and Berman agreed that these newly discovered funds will not substantially mitigate the long-term structural problems in State Parks funding, nor will they necessarily mean that all state parks will now remain open.

Another unknown, as Krasny mentioned, is what impact this scandal will have on the fate of tax measures currently before the legislature.

This story is only just beginning.

Listen to Krasny’s program in its entirety (52 minutes) by clicking the play button below:

Sierra Voices Open Dialog

House rules: Use your real name and keep it civil.  Contribute your thoughts to the comment section below. The subject matter is up to you.

I set up this open dialog thread after noticing some very heartfelt comments following an article I posted concerning global climate change. The comments there soon evolved into a very valuable dialog, far beyond the immediate issue of climate change.

I have copied some of those comments here … to “seed” the ongoing discussion for those who might want to continue the dialog unrelated to climate change here.

A Long Dark Night: Gun Violence Romanticized and the New Batman Movie

Reprinted from Alternet (July 20, 2012)

By Nicholas Powers

Boys and men in America inherit a popular culture of indiscriminate vigilante rage.

Early morning July 20, we cheered the new Batman movie as a thousand miles away a crowd watching the same film screamed as a gunman, barged in, flung a smoke bomb and began shooting. In San Francisco, we left the cinema laughing at the stupid politics of The Dark Knight Rises. In Aurora, Colorado, 12 were killed and 59 wounded as the shock spread to the nation in the morning news. Already one truth stands out; the shooting is not isolated but like a mirror reflects the dark logic of the film, itself a reflection of America’s romance with violence.

One thing we know about gunman James Holmes is that he wanted a stage. Like the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre gunman Seiung-Hui Cho, who mailed videos of himself; or the 1999 Columbine gunmen, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who meticulously recorded themselves prepping for the massacre; the Dark Knight gunman wanted to be seen. In killing others, he tried to secure for himself the image of a strong powerful man who could wreck havoc on the world. And this is exactly the role that Bane (acted by Tom Hardy), the anarchist villain in The Dark Knight Rises, plays as he bombs Gotham City and unleashes enraged prisoners on the rich. He and Wayne Enterprise executive Miranda Tate (played by Marion Cotillard) avenge those trapped in The Pit and forgotten by society. Already the Herald Sun reports that the Dark Knight gunman was dressed in armor and gas mask, like Bane.

What are we to make of this? Only someone whose self-identity is collapsing is driven to recreate themselves as a new character. It is the dark logic of the Batman films, whose title character begins as a boy who helplessly watches his parents murdered and transforms himself into a terrifying hero who punishes criminals. Is this not the archetypal plot in nearly every American superhero film and tragically, perversely the self-narrative of many gun-wielding mass murderers?

At a deeper, historical level, the superhero narratives are part of our national ideology in which self-creation through violence has always been celebrated. When immigrant Europeans chased the American dream, they did so with guns in their hands. Seizing the Frontier from Natives, they became citizens of a new nation built on stolen land by shooting enemies. Long after the Frontier was paved over, we kept the mythology. Whether it’s the nomadic gunslinger of the Hollywood Western, the renegade cops going rogue or pretty much every action hero, Americans have been raised on the archetypal plot of men recreating themselves through violence.

And this celebrated mythology, replayed every day in every cinema, every TV, in books and music is seductive and dangerous to what German professor Ines Geipel called the “Wounded Outsiders.” In her book The Amok Complex, she analyzed five mass shootings in Europe and distilled from the gunmen a common character. They live in pricey towns, come from well-heeled families but are labeled outsiders due to their failure to achieve in the high pressure of class paranoia. In an interview on the German news site DW, she said that after being isolated they retreat into a fictional world. “Most of them have a strong affinity to theater and film,” Geipel said. “It is the desperate search for their own skin, for their own role in life.”

In the British paper the Independent, Dr. Keith Ashcroft wrote how the path from low self-esteem is layered with resentment which becomes paranoia. The retreat from others into a shrinking world of rage and self-pity creates the conditions for more social isolation. A fast and powerful downward spiral begins that pulls the young men into fantasies of revenge. And finally there is some triggering event, loss of a lover or a job or a home that snaps him. “Their paranoia heightens the sense that the whole world is against them, which increases their anger,” he wrote “It is very immature to want a gun in order to have a sense of power and fulfillment. But it is a way of regaining control.”

Add to this social isolation the possibility of chemical neural imbalance, a history of abuse or trauma and it is a toxic slush mixing in the mind of enraged young men. Finally, they stagger inside a blacklit life and see other wounded men on the movie screen, wearing masks and striking at the world. Virginia Tech gunman, Cho aptly detailed the arc of a disintegrating self image and its resurrection through violence. In his videos he declared, “You forced me into a corner and gave me only one option. You just loved to crucify me. You loved inducing cancer in my head, terror in my heart and ripping my soul all this time.”

Anyone who watched the recent Batman movies will hear an echo of his lament in the villains. Ra’s al Ghul of the League of Shadows wants to cure civilization of rot by burning it down. The Joker’s nihilism drives his war on Gotham City. And now Bane and Miranda Tate again want to destroy a world that already destroyed them.

In repeating this mythology of regenerative masculine violence, we are creating stages where troubled lonely men take their stand and act out our fantasy. It’s not that we have sick young men among us. It’s that we have inherited and actively recreate a culture that gives them a vocabulary of indiscriminate vigilante rage. And then we allow guns to flow freely in the name of the Second Amendment. No wonder when they speak they speak in bullets.


Nicholas Powers is an assistant professor of literature at SUNY Old Westbury. His book of poetry, “Theater of War” was published by Upset Press in 2004. He has written for the Village Voice and the Indypendent.


Fighting Voter ID Laws Intelligently

Reprinted with permission from LEZGETReal (July 9, 2012)

By Linda Carbonell

The Signing of the United States Constitution, when only property-owning white males could vote

Sometimes, I really despair over liberal legal minds. In most of the states that have passed new voter ID laws, Democrats, liberals and civil rights activists are taking the states to court over the disenfranchisement of voters. They are arguing the constitutionality of the laws and claiming that the laws discriminate against minorities and the poor. It’s the wrong track.

These laws weren’t written by idiot state legislatures. They were written by the conservative legal geniuses in ALEC. They made damned sure that these laws would pass a constitutional challenge on the matter of racial, ethnic or income discrimination. However, they did not consider the poll tax argument.

Poll taxes were ruled unconstitutional. We cannot impose a cost on voting, because such a cost is an impediment to the free exercise of our constitutional rights. To get around that, the states that imposed these laws grandly announced that they would waive the cost of a non-drivers license photo ID. How sweet. Wouldn’t it be nice if that were the only cost. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley even said she would personally drive people to get their voter ID. Hasn’t done it, but at least she offered.

If someone doesn’t have a drivers license, it’s a fair bet they don’t have a car and don’t drive, right? That means they would have to arrange transportation to the nearest DMV office to get that photo ID. Some people, obviously, could get a ride from a friend or relative. Others, however, would need to use public transportation or pay someone (a taxi?) for a ride. What if, as in Texas, the majority of people without drivers licenses live over 10 miles from the nearest DMV office, and half of those live over 20 miles? What are the chances that there are local busses that travel in the right direction. So, taking a bus from town to town means taking Greyhound, right? That’s a cost being imposed to vote.

In many of these photo ID states, one now needs proof of citizenship in order to register. In Florida, even those who have voted for decades are being required to provide proof of citizenship. No state has waived the cost of a certified birth certificate. And no state has offered free services to help people find out where to acquire their birth certificates. No state has offered an alternative birth certificate based on, say, school records or census records for those whose births were not recorded back in the days when there was no legal requirement to record a birth. States might accept a Catholic baptismal certificate the way they do in Catholic countries, or the documentation of a bris for a Jewish boy, but most Protestants don’t get baptized immediately after birth. What can they use as an alternative to a birth certificate. Few Americans were born in hospitals before World War II, so this is an issue that can effect the majority of our senior citizens.

What about the housebound or those living in nursing homes or care facilities? What accommodations are these states making for those who cannot leave their homes to acquire the necessary documents that they are supposed to submit with their absentee ballots? Will the disabled be denied the right to vote? Pennsylvania’s law says that persons submitting an absentee ballot must “affirm” their citizenship. Guess what? That means swearing out an affidavit in the presence of a notary. Notaries charge for their services and charge more for house calls. Another cost being imposed to vote.

Then, there’s the case of Pennsylvania and the student ID. A student ID is accepted only if it has an expiration date, and the law’s defenders say that all the colleges have to do is put a sticker on the student IDs. Who is paying for all those stickers, tens of thousands of them. Just the University of Pennsylvania has 21,000 students.

To acquire a photo ID, people might have to take time off from work, causing them to lose a day’s pay. DMVs, especially in Wisconsin, have notoriously limited operating hours. This is another cost to vote.

The opponents of these laws can just sue over the costs, or they can get creative. They can sue to force the states to create cost-free access to the means of acquiring a photo ID. Start by demanding mobile ID units, similar to bookmobiles. These should contain at least two photo ID machines like the ones used in modernized DMV offices, the ones that make your license while you wait. Wonder how much those puppies cost? Then, the state would have to analyze the population, identify places where there is no public transportation (fees for busses and subways would need to be waived until after the election) and/or no public transportation that goes within, say, 500 yards of a DMV office. Then sue for reimbursement of lost wages or the costs of a babysitter, unless you want your DMV offices overrun with bored, hungry, screaming kids. Sue to have all states waive the fee for birth certificates and mail out to every household in America a guide to the proper addresses to send for those birth certificates. Sue to have notary fees paid by the state for those “affirmations” of citizenship. Sue to have all states provide alternatives to birth certificates for those who were born at home.

Sue to have military service records accepted as proof of citizenship. My uncles were born in the Caribbean, one in Puerto Rico, the other in the Dominican Republic. No one asked for their proof of citizenship when they enlisted. They were brought here as children before 1921, when the law stated you could apply for naturalization after five years residency. But the Army and Navy didn’t give a rat’s behind where anyone was born back then. So, for all those World War II and Korean War veterans, just take their military records as proof instead of telling them they can’t vote after having voted for over sixty years.

Even though we know that these laws are aimed at the poor and minorities, aimed at college students, aimed at traditionally Democratic voting bases, that cannot be proven in court. Even though Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Mike Turzai told a Republican State Committee meeting “Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, DONE,” we cannot prove that is the intent of these laws. Even though these laws were drafted by ALEC and sent to state legislators, we cannot prove they target specific voting blocs. But, we can prove they impose costs that are equivalent to poll taxes, and those are illegal.

Democrats and minority activists need to stop whining and figure out that this is not a fight that will be won in a traditional manner. The enemy is too well funded and has bought itself too many really good lawyers to be stopped with accusations of discrimination. They must be stopped creatively, with attacks on the unconstitutional burden of costs to vote.

There is one funny side to this. The same conservatives who are demanding photo ID on a state by state basis are the ones who oppose a national ID card.

Spinning Ourselves Into a Deficit Panic

Reprinted from TomDispatch.com (July 17, 2012)

By Tom Engelhardt (Introducing Mattea Kramer’s article below)

You couldn’t make this stuff up: thanks to Harold Rogers, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, and the power of “earmarks,” the Army has bought $6.5 million worth of “leakproof” drip pans “to catch transmission fluid on Black Hawk helicopters,” reports the New York Times. Those pans were purchased from a company called Phoenix Products, whose owners, coincidentally, are contributors to the congressman’s political committee (and other Republican causes).  Oh, and according to the Times, “the company has paid at least $600,000 since 2005 to a Washington lobbying firm, Martin Fisher Thompson & Associates, to represent its interests on federal contracting issues.” Anyway, do the math and you end up with a $17,000 Army drip pan — and there’s one tiny catch: another company sells a comparable drip pan for about $2,500.

Is anybody shocked?  This, after all, is the world of the U.S. military, which has been right up there with the 1% this last decade when it comes to garnering and squandering riches. It’s been ever more flush, while the taxpayers whose dollars it’s been raking in have done ever less well.  And symbolic as those drip pans may be, they aren’t even a drip in the bucket of Pentagon expenses when you start looking at the big-ticket items.

Take the already notorious F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.  Once billed as a low-cost solution to maintaining control of the global skies, it’s now in competition for first place in any most-expensive-jet-fighter-in-history contest.  (The present title-holder is the F-22, a $400 million plane whose pilots fear an oxygen malfunction every time they take off, and which “sat out” all Washington’s recent wars.)

The F-35’s price tag went up yet again recently, though only by a piddling $289 million, even as its production schedule continues to fall ever further behind.  As of now, the total cost for 2,457 of the aircraft is officially pegged at $395.7 billion, a jump of 75% over the original 2001 estimated price tag of $226.5 billion (for 2,866 planes).  That’s one heck of a lot of drip-pan equivalents — and no one believes that’s the final price, either.  Of the total cost of the plane to produce and operate, expert Winslow Wheeler writes, “The current appraisal for operations and support is $1.1 trillion — making for a grand total of $1.5 trillion, or more than the annual GDP of Spain. And that estimate is wildly optimistic.”

This is the sort of boondoggle that can’t be cut in Washington lest our safety be endangered, even as the country’s infrastructure decays, the jobs of police and teachers are cut, and the urge to savage the funds that go to the poor rises precipitously.  Consider that just a little background for the world of spending misinformation that TomDispatch regular Mattea Kramer, senior research analyst at the National Priorities Project and lead author of the new book, A People’s Guide to the Federal Budget, reminds us has wall-papered our world these last years. Tom Engelhardt

Four Spending Myths That Could Wreck Our World
How Not to Solve an American Crisis

By Mattea Kramer

We’re at the edge of the cliff of deficit disaster!  National security spending is being, or will soon be, slashed to the bone!  Obamacare will sink the ship of state!

Each of these claims has grabbed national attention in a big way, sucking up years’ worth of precious airtime. That’s a serious bummer, since each of them is a spending myth of the first order. Let’s pop them, one by one, and move on to the truly urgent business of a nation that is indeed on the edge.

Spending Myth 1: Today’s deficits have taken us to a historically unprecedented, economically catastrophic place.

This myth has had the effect of binding the hands of elected officials and policymakers at every level of government.  It has also emboldened those who claim that we must cut government spending as quickly, as radically, as deeply as possible.

In fact, we’ve been here before.  In 2009, the federal budget deficit was a whopping 10.1% of the American economy and back in 1943, in the midst of World War II, it was three times that — 30.3%. This fiscal year the deficit will total around 7.6%. Yes, that is big. But in the Congressional Budget Office’s grimmest projections, that figure will fall to 6.3% next year, and 5.8% in fiscal 2014. In 1983, under President Reagan, the deficit hit 6% of the economy, and by 1998, that had turned into a surplus. So, while projected deficits remain large, they’re neither historically unprecedented, nor insurmountable.

More important still, the size of the deficit is no sign that lawmakers should make immediate deep cuts in spending. In fact, history tells us that such reductions are guaranteed to harm, if not cripple, an economy still teetering at the edge of recession.

A number of leading economists are now busy explaining why the deficit this year actually ought to be a lot larger, not smaller; why there should be more government spending, including aid to state and local governments, which would create new jobs and prevent layoffs in areas like education and law enforcement. Such efforts, working in tandem with slow but positive job growth in the private sector, might indeed mean genuine recovery. Government budget cuts, on the other hand, offset private-sector gains with the huge and depressing effect of public-sector layoffs, and have damaging ripple effects on the rest of the economy as well.

BUY THE BOOK

When the economy is healthier, a host of promising options are at hand for lawmakers who want to narrow the gap between spending and tax revenue. For example, loopholes and deductions in the tax code that hand enormous subsidies to wealthy Americans and corporations will cost the Treasury around $1.3 trillion in lost revenue this year alone — more, that is, than the entire budget deficit. Closing some of them would make great strides toward significant deficit reductions.

Alarmingly, the deficit-reduction fever that’s resulted from this first spending myth has led many Americans to throw their support behind de-investment in domestic priorities like educationresearch, and infrastructure — cuts that threaten to undo generations of progress. This is in part the result of myth number two.

Spending Myth 2: Military and other national security spending have already taken their lumps and future budget-cutting efforts will have to take aim at domestic programs instead.

The very idea that military spending has already been deeply cut in service to deficit reduction is not only false, but in the realm of fantasy.  The real story: despite headlines about “slashed” Pentagon spending and “doomsday” plans for more, no actual cuts to the defense budget have yet taken place. In fact, since 2001, to quote former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, defense spending has grown like a “gusher.”  The Department of Defense base budget nearly doubled in the space of a decade. Now, the Pentagon is likely to face an exceedingly modest 2.5% budget cut in fiscal 2013, “paring” its budget down to a mere $525 billion — with possible additional cuts shaving off another $55 billion next year if Congress allows the Budget Control Act, a.k.a. “sequestration,” to take effect.

But don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.  It’s likely that lawmakers will, at the last moment, come to an agreement to cancel those extra cuts.  In other words, the notion that our military, which has been experiencing financial boom times even in tough times, has felt significant deficit-slashing pain — or has even been cut at all — is the Pentagon equivalent of a unicorn.

What this does mean, however, is that lawmakers heading down the budget-cutting path can find plenty of savings in the enormous defense and national security budgets. Moreover, cuts there would be less harmful to the economy than reductions in domestic spending.

A group of military budget experts, for example, found that cutting many costly and obsolete weapons programs could save billions of dollars each year, and investing that money in domestic priorities like education and health care would spur the economy. That’s because those sectors create more jobs per dollar than military programs do.  And that leads us to myth three.

Spending Myth 3: Government health-insurance programs are more costly than private insurance.

False claims about the higher cost of government health programs have led many people to demand that health-care solutions come from the private sector. Advocates of this have been much aided by the complexity of sorting out health costs, which has provided the necessary smoke and mirrors to camouflage this whopping lie.

Health spending is indeed growing faster than any other part of the federal budget. It’s gone from a measly 7% in 1976 to nearly a quarter today — and that’s truly a cause for concern. But health care costs, public and private, have been on the rise across the developed world for decades. And cost growth in government programs like Medicare has actually been slower than in private health insurance. That’s because the federal government has important advantages over private insurance companies when it comes to health care. For example, as a huge player in the health-care market, the federal government has been successful at negotiating lower prices than small private insurers can. And that helps us de-bunk myth number four.

Spending Myth 4: The Affordable Care Act — Obamacare — will bankrupt the federal government while levying the biggest tax in U.S. history.

Wrong again. According to the Congressional Budget Office, this health-reform legislation will reduce budget deficits by $119 billion between now and 2019.  And only around 1% of American households will end up paying a penalty for lacking health insurance.

While the Affordable Care Act is hardly a panacea for the many problems in U.S. health care, it does at least start to address the pressing issue of rising costs — and it incorporates some of the best wisdom on how to do so. Health-policy experts have explored phasing out the fee-for-service payment system — in which doctors are paid for each test and procedure they perform — in favor of something akin to pay-for-performance. This transition would reward medical professionals for delivering more effective, coordinated, and efficient care — and save a lot of money by reducing waste.

The Affordable Care Act begins implementing such changes in the Medicare program, and it explores other important cost-containment measures. In other words, it lays the groundwork for potentially far deeper budgetary savings down the road.

Having cleared the landscape of four stubborn spending myths, it should be easier to see straight to the stuff that really matters. Financial hardship facing millions of Americans ought to be our top concern. Between 2007 and 2010, the median family lost nearly 40% of its net worth. Neither steep deficits, nor disagreement over military spending and health reform should eclipse this as our most pressing challenge.

If lawmakers skipped the myth-making and began putting America’s resources into a series of domestic investments that would spur the economy now, their acts would yield dividends for years to come. That means pushing education and job training, plus a host of job-creation measures, to the top of the priority list, and setting aside initiatives based on fear and fantasy.


Mattea Kramer, a TomDispatch regular, is senior research analyst at the National Priorities Project and lead author of the new book A People’s Guide to the Federal Budget.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook, and check out the latest TD book, Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.

Copyright 2012 Mattea Kramer

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